The Hidden Mr. Rolfe
Dr. Leland Stowe privately considered the threesome consisting of himself and his two neighbors to be one of the queerest ever to invade a golf links.
Warren Eliot, a complex quirky man, did look like a golfer. For a start, he wore the 'plus four' outfit that the old Scottish professionals had brought to America, along with golf itself and such words as 'mashie', 'niblick', 'cleek', 'fore', etc. The costume consisted of heavy wool stockings for wading through hazards, twill knickerbocker trousers, a necktie (preferably old school or club), a stiff jacket that was supposed to exercise discipline on the swing, and a quaint little cap. Since Eliot wore a tailor-made tweed suit whenever he left his house, it must have seemed natural to him to wear the golfing version of the suit. However, it had become uncommon in recent years and made him more conspicuous than he would have liked had he realized it.
It really took a different sort of man, one with an expansive personality and a quip for everyone, to bring off the wearing of plus fours. Eliot was a little too remote and serious for what had become a rather odd costume. Some people might have laughed.
More important, Eliot had a nice smooth swing. About half the time, he hit quite good shots. However, even if the ball went on to the green, he was likely to reject the shot angrily, saying that it hadn't felt right, or that there hadn't been the right 'click' when clubhead met ball. The other half of the time, his shots were abysmal, amazingly bad considering the swing that produced them. Mr. Eliot took a perverse satisfaction in these, saying that they were only what he deserved.
Mr. Rolfe didn't have spiritual problems of that sort. The professional, on seeing him, had gone into a back room and re-appeared with a little bag full of little clubs. Dr. Stowe was sure that they were children's clubs, but Mr. Rolfe only made his usual happy noises.
In deference to his companions, Dr. Stowe played the course in the usual direction. The first tee was on a knoll surrounded by flat ground, and was reached by a path from the pro shop and a flight of rough-hewn steps. Onlookers thus had a chance to inspect the golfers passing in front of them, and to speculate on what might happen when they drove from the tee. These onlookers usually consisted of some forty caddies waiting for assignment, and the pro, Mr. Hal Hinterburger. There would also be other club members, waiting to play or thinking about playing.
Driving from the first tee thus involved mounting a stage and performing on it. It was partly to avoid such a performance that Dr. Stowe often played the course backwards, avoiding the first tee altogether. But there was no help for it on this occasion.
The audience was soon augmented by three ladies who, passing along the drive, stopped to watch. It was implicit in their postures and expressions that they were prepared to applaud, and certainly not ridicule, the golfers.
Mr. Rolfe was given the honor of driving first, and, seemingly quite comfortable with all the attention, he swung easily and hit the ball squarely. It popped up the middle of the fairway some hundred yards, not a bad shot for such a little old man. The ladies smiled and clapped politely.
Mr. Eliot was always nervy in front of an audience, and, under his wide and floppy white cap with a little vestigial visor, the expression on his long narrow face was that of one comtemplating suicide. He had once told Dr. Stowe that the men who mowed the fairways followed him in order to laugh at him, and it was easy to guess the manner in which he viewed the present assemblage.
There was, unfortunately, an unusual jerk in Eliot's swing. As a result, he topped the ball so badly that it bounced up off the ground to hit his club a second time. It then squirted off to the left, bouncing gently over the rough ground, and rolled up almost at the feet of the ladies. Any applause at this point could only have been derisive. The ladies instead smiled bravely, as if to encourage a golfer who, with stiff upper lip, might, in the end, prevail.
Dr. Stowe, swinging from the heels, made much better contact, albeit with only the toe of his driver. The result was a line drive just over the head of one of the ladies. A person with military training might have hit the dirt, but she simply stood agape as the ball hit a tree behind her and bounced back to the edge of the fairway. Dr. Stowe rushed over to tell her how glad he was that the ball hadn't hit her, and she responded with some confusion. It clearly wasn't an occasion for applause. Indeed, the unspoken consensus of the ladies seemed to be that Dr. Stowe was a dangerous man who shouldn't be encouraged. They then backed away as he played his next shot. Mr. Eliot, skulking behind him, waited until the ladies had gone to play his shot, another disaster.
Mr. Rolfe, playing his miniature shots, had gone ahead with his caddy, and had almost reached the green. It didn't surprise Dr. Stowe that Mr. Rolfe marched to his own tom-tom, evidenced by the little rhythmic clicking sounds that he often made. It was Eliot who asked,
"Doesn't Rolfe have any idea of golf etiquette?"
"He seems to have played before, but I wonder if he'll just putt and go on to the next hole."
"We could cut over a few holes, play backward, and meet him."
Dr. Stowe was glad that his friend's sense of humor had survived his difficult beginning.
In the event, Mr. Rolfe waited for them behind the green, his head back and his arms crossed over his chest. To Dr. Stowe, he looked like an aged drummer-boy who has marched untouched to the enemy lines, and is there waiting for his army to catch up.
After the first few holes, things settled down. The caddies moved out in front as skirmishers, and the heavy artillery, in the shape of Mr. Eliot and Dr. Stowe, followed. Mr. Rolfe mopped up with a surprising ability to chip and putt, sinking a couple of long ones. In that fashion, they reached an isolated part of the course with fairways curving through the woods. Surprisingly, they managed to stay out of trouble.
It was when they began to walk to the thirteenth tee that Mr. Rolfe looked back at the last green and piped up,
"My caddy's pissing in the cup!"
It was, in its way, a skirmish in an ongoing conflict between social classes. It was the golfer, not the caddy, who picked his ball out of the cup, and the next one along would get a surprise. Mr. Rolfe, quite excited, was actually babbling. Dr. Stowe and Mr. Eliot looked at one another. The caddy, still pissing, was about forty, somewhat degenerate, and looked rough. He also gave them an unpleasant grin. Dr. Stowe, suspecting that no such thing would have happened with any other threesome, turned away and said,
"We'll report him when we get in. Come, Rolfe."
People, particularly his wife, were always saying, 'come,' to Mr. Rolfe. He sometimes came and he sometimes didn't. On this occasion, he continued what would have been jumping up and down in a younger man, but he didn't actually leave the ground. The pisser and his fellow caddies were clearly amused, but, when Mr. Rolfe trotted after his companions, the caddies moved to take up their station a hundred yards down the fairway. Dr. Stowe noted that Rolfe had used the word, 'piss,' not part of his own active vocabulary nor that of Eliot.
Oddly, this incident seemed to open Mr. Rolfe's verbal floodgates. He spoke, for the first time in Dr. Stowe's hearing, of the plumbing supply business that had made him prosperous. Such talk might have been boring, but it somehow wasn't. There was an immediacy to the story of deals and mergers that made Dr. Stowe wonder if he had missed something by becoming a dentist.
Meanwhile, Eliot was walking along, saying little, but obviously attending. Some twenty five years younger than Rolfe, he had hardly worked at all, living on his inherited income. Dr. Stowe could tell at a glance that he was wistful, perhaps even envious of the old man. Then again, how could anyone be jealous of Mr. Rolfe? He might be chirping along with the child's driver in his hand even though, in all probability, Mrs. Rolfe was waiting to ambush him at home. But Eliot would be thinking of Rolfe's past, one in which a woman other than the present Mrs. Rolfe might have figured largely.
As if to answer their unspoken questions, Mr. Rolfe volunteered, rather dreamily,
"You know, the best thing I ever did was to marry Gertrude."
Dr. Stowe, in his dental practice, had learned to be impassive in the face of incredible statements. He was sure that he himself was much better off with no wife than he would be with Gertrude Rolfe. He nodded only slightly, and Mr. Rolfe continued,
"She manages everything. I don't have to do anything."
That, of course, was true. Dr. Stowe caught Mr. Eliot's eye very briefly as they contemplated the evident fact that some people didn't care how things were managed as long as they were managed.
They next came to a long difficult hole with woods on the right and a wide shallow stream bordering the fairway on the left. It turned gradually left and narrowed around the two hundred yard mark with the ground sloping toward the steep river bank. There was so little room to land a drive safely that even the best players often used an iron off the tee. Mr. Rolfe did his usual thing, and had no problem. It puzzled Dr. Stowe only that an old man who hadn't played for years could continue to bounce along with so much energy. He himself almost always sliced the ball out into the river, but, this time, the ball hit a rock sticking out of the water, and bounced back on to the fairway. He was congratulated as if he had done it on purpose, and basked briefly in his good fortune.
Eliot, using a driver despite the odds, hit his best shot of the day. It was a long high drive with a very slight hook. Unfortunately, when it reached the narrowest part of the fairway, it was deflected to the left and rolled down into the water. Eliot cared not in the slightest and gave way to the kind of elation which was rare with him. The shot had felt right, and there had been the right clicking noise at impact.
Three happy golfers proceeded down the fairway. One was happy all the time, the second was happy with his luck, and the third was happy with his shot. In this mood, Rolfe spoke of the sexual aspects of the plumbing business.
"In any kind of business, it's not enough just to have the best product at the best price. If you were selling directly to the boss, that might be enough, but you're generally dealing with a buyer. He wants to please the boss, but, when things are nearly equal, he'll please himself. The cheapest way to please him is with romance."
Dr. Stowe had attended many dental conventions, and knew exactly what he meant. Even when buying expensive equipment for his own office, he hadn't been entirely immune to certain collateral services which, he now realized, couldn't have been entirely free. But, still, his drills had drilled, and his patients had been too occupied with the pain he was causing them to worry about the comfort of the chair in which they sat.
Mr. Eliot, on the other hand, was entirely nonplussed. He obviously couldn't imagine what romance had to do with pipes and faucets. He was in the act of dropping a new ball as close as possible to the spot at which the old one had gone in when Rolfe explained in more direct language than Dr. Stowe would have used,
"Ya know, ya fix the guy up with a whore, a nice one of course, and then he'll buy your product nine times out of ten."
Mr. Eliot dropped his ball so close to the tilted ground next to the bank that it rolled briskly off the edge to join the old one in the murky water below. Dr. Stowe knew that the price of the ball was inconsequential to Eliot. But he couldn't bear looking foolish. Moreover, he must know that the incident would be reported at large, if not by Mr. Rolfe, by Dr. Stowe himself. Eliot's irritation and gentlemanly cussing was so intense that it was impossible to guage the effect of Mr. Rolfe's message on him.
Dr. Stowe was himself impressed more by Rolfe's tone than by the content of what he said. It was second nature for Rolfe to reach for a prostitute to solve a problem, and it seemed almost certain that he had patronized them himself. Was that also why he was willing to be married to his present wife? Was it possible that he still made up for her obvious deficiency in the matter of allure in that way?
Having dropped yet another ball in a safer place, Eliot hit another horrid shot and remarked,
"That proves that the good drive was a fluke. It's good to be back to normal."
Passing up the chance to congratulate him on his return to normality, Dr. Stowe confided his suspicions about Rolfe, who was now some distance away. Mr. Eliot laughed and replied,
"He's a better golfer than I am. Perhaps I should learn from him in other ways."
It was, of course, a joke.