“Come check out my swing,” my brother would say, hauling me off the couch and shuttling me into the garage, where he would stand for hours in front of a mirror to practice his golf stroke. “I need you to tell me if the club is straight when I bring it back.”
“You haven’t even seen it yet!”
“I saw it yesterday damn it, and the day before, and the day before that! It’s straight!”
At about this point in our daily conversation, Jeff would physically lift me off the couch and carry me to the garage.
“OK, ready?” he would ask, shifting his weight and waggling the club.
“Oh yes. Please, please show me.”
Under penalty of a severe beating, I would stand barefoot on the cold concrete-floored garage and watch as Jeff brought the golf club back, twisted his body and brought it back down again with a whoosh and a grunt I can recall to this day. He had a mighty swing. His body was fluid. His muscles relaxed. He let momentum and precision do the work for him. I was never one for golf, although at that young age I had already taken a few lessons and decided it was a boring game — especially for those too young to either drink or drive a golf cart — but I always had a sense that if there was a ball sitting on the floor of that garage, it would soon be sent through the house, over the fence and across the neighborhood. It was his favorite sport, and I only saw him play it once.
“Was the club straight?”
“It dipped. Just below your left shoulder.”
“One more time,” he pleaded.
“Oh come on!”
“Just one more, I promise. OK, ready?”
It was a curious thing to beat him. But that’s exactly what I was doing. But good. Every summer when I was a kid, our family would travel back to Ypsilanti, Mich., to see grandparents and old friends, and because the joy of listening to the elderly was entertaining for only so long, our parents learned to drop off us kids at the Putt Putt mini-golf on Washtenaw Avenue. It was your standard mini-golf place, minus the windmills and waterfalls — just swatches of plastic grass and orange metal obstacles positioned to make you swear and throw your club in frustration.
“It’s tournament day, you know?” Jeff told me on the way. “You win and they give you a trophy and I think a Coke.”
We signed up like everybody else and soon found ourselves armed with faded blue golf balls and broken putters — except Jeff’s, I remember. He brought his own. It was titanium. We also soon found ourselves facing an acne-pocked legion of bored teenagers and fat, homely adults who, in later years, would probably have abandoned such establishments for Internet porn. But this was the ’80s. So they were our competition.
I forget the tournament rules exactly, but the goal was like any golf game: to hit the ball in the hole as quickly as you could, something Jeff and I found ourselves doing quite well. If we faced a particularly difficult hole or stiff competition, Jeff would shove me out of the way and say, “I’ll take this one. You get the next.”
And so it went for half the day until, soon enough, it was down to Jeff, me, a teenager and some old guy who probably should have been in the office in the middle of the day but was instead on a mini-golf course, heckling us.
“Don’t miss!” he’d shout before almost every shot. If Jeff’s club wasn’t titanium and purchased through hours of yard work, I guessed he would have clubbed the fat bastard with it. Instead, he simply said, “I won’t.” And then didn’t.
On one particular hole, Jeff and the fat guy had already nailed their putts, so it was just me and the teenager.
“Listen,” Jeff whispered, “Just keep doing what you’re doing, because you’re doing great. Don’t worry about anything else, OK? Just you and me in the garage.”
It was an odd sentiment for a motivational speech, given that every time it was just “him and me” in the garage, one of us was there under duress, but it was comforting nonetheless. I drained the putt. The teenager didn’t. So by then, it was just me, Jeff and the annoying fat man, who called me a “baby,” though how he could have guessed I’ll never know.
“Don’t miss,” he told Jeff before the final hole. I remember distinctly Jeff caught himself for a moment. And then he smiled at me, winked and missed.
“What are you doing?” I shouted, “You’re out! You’re going to let him win!”
“Listen,” he said, “You can beat this mother … guy. Just keep doing what you’re doing.”
The fat man missed his putt, and so all I had to do was sink mine.
“Don’t miss,” the man chuckled, “Baby.”
I looked to my brother, but he just smiled again and nodded.
The Putt Putt people gave me the miniature trophy with a miniature plastic man swinging wildly at a miniature plastic ball. Naturally, I rubbed it in Jeff’s face the whole way home. He was the supposed golfer in the family, and I beat him. I beat him good.
“So where’s your trophy?” I asked on the car ride home, holding aloft my prize.
“You did great,” was all he said. “I just knew you could do it.”
By the time I got to the coffin, it was adorned with more than just my older brother. There were some pictures inside, some poems and notes and knick knacks.
In the hollows of the empty church, someone had slipped a brass bracelet around his wrist. “Forever Young,” it said. Jeff was 17. I was 12. And I had nothing to give him.
He taught me how to ride a bike. He taught me how to catch crawdads. I made him cry once by calling him a “snot nose.” He responded by showing me how to write code on an old Texas Instruments computer we plugged into the television and later he showed me how to build a home in our backyard for trapped box turtles.
The day of his funeral, I slipped the miniature golf trophy into his casket and apologized for beating him at his favorite game.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered, “I didn’t mean to. I didn’t know.”
Almost every day on the way from our favorite park to our favorite taco stand, Emmeline and I pass a trophy store on Broadway near Polk. Soccer seems to be a big deal nowadays, because the store is littered with little golden people kicking little golden soccer balls. There are also baseball trophies and golf trophies and even trophies made out of beer bottles, and although I’ve yet to figure out for which sport this particular prize is bestowed, I’m pretty sure I’d sign up for it.
“Ball ball!” Emme shouts when we pass, pointing out a soccer trophy.
“That’s right” I answer.
“Bayz ball,” she says, pointing out another. And we swing a bat together on the street.
Emme clings to the window occasionally, gesturing at miniature plastic Oscar statuettes and miniature plastic basketball players or diminutive discus tossers, and sometimes I see an older version of her in front of me — a more athletic version, a competitive, eager wisp holding high some small, gaudy totem of triumph and achievement.
“One day, you’ll have one of these,” I tell her, “One day you might have them all. But come on, let’s get a taco, and how about some juice?”
The truth is, I don’t like to linger. We pass this store almost every day, and part of me aches a little each time. Standing there, watching the little golden, shining people for too long, I begin to think about the only trophy I’ve ever won and where it is now and where it has been for almost two decades. I begin to imagine what life would be like for Emme if she had another uncle around, and I imagine all the sports and activities I just know he’d quietly let her crush him in. A part of me always wants to hold my trophy one more time, to remember just a little longer and live one day one day again if only to recognize it for what it was, but I’m always struck by the cruel reality that sometimes you can’t repay your idols. You can only learn from them.
And so I do my best to point out the baubles in the window and remember that although I may think they’re silly in passing, they might one day mean the world to someone I love.
“Call me crazy, kid,” I want to whisper in her ear, “But I have a feeing there’ll come a day you kick my butt and rub my nose in it and I just know that moment will be the greatest trophy we’ll ever have.”
Instead I smile at her and wink. “Just keep doing what you’re doing,” I tell her.