By STEVIE KILGORE, September 21, 2021
It always felt damp in the putt-putt lobby. Not in a chilling or quietly ominous sense, but a welcoming summer suffocation, the kind of passionlessness that comes packaged in a buy-one-get-one-free lethargic commercial deal left wantonly on one’s front doorstep, a corner of the box completely dented and the contents having been obliterated during the transfer. 19-year-old Chris Liu had spent every summer here since his junior year of high school, mopping the eternally-dirty floors and polishing eternally-dirty golf balls for customers. What color would you like? I’m sorry, we only have dark green and egg yolk yellow left. No, you can’t use your own. Yes, I’ll fish it out of the pond for you.
Initially, Chris had applied and was accepted for the job because he was a miniature golf enthusiast, but his fixation soon faded after only half a year of work. Now, he reasoned, he stayed for the tradition; there was something oddly amusing about seeing a customer’s smile fade when he explained that they haven't served pretzels in ten years, and the pretzel warmer was just there because everybody was too lazy to throw it out.
Presently, Chris was sitting uncomfortably on a metal stool, his bony butt weighing down on the rim and his stained company-issued khaki shorts—which were far too big for him—rumpling up at the waist. It’d been three hours since the last group had come and gone. His dim brown eyes, set deep into his skull, scanned the room for entertainment and found some: a wispy spider, maybe a daddy longlegs, setting up shop in an especially dusty corner of the room. He eyed the broom and dustpan behind him against the wall, but decided to grant the pest a rarely-commissioned slice of mercy pie, and began tugging at the strings of his khakis instead.
After twenty more minutes, as the sun was transforming into a searing orange hubcap balanced on the horizon, the staccatoed beep of a car horn echoed behind the lobby walls. Oh, yes. Fresh bait. The tumultuous giggles of young women came closer, closer still, like the wave of a Christ-sent tsunami. Maybe a birthday party? Or a small choir?
In burst a tightly-knit group of well-dressed women, clad in glitzy dresses, high heels, hairspray, and the unmistakable smell of excitement. One woman, taller than the rest, stood in the center of the group with a pearly smile painted on the lower half of her face.
“I’d like to go golfing with my Girrrrlz, please,” she said, waving a hand in the air. “Jenna, shut up. I’m trying to talk to this young man over here.”
“It’s Chris,” Chris said, and displayed his laminated name tag, glad that someone was finally gracing the lobby. “Are you here for the 18-hole course, or the 32-hole?”
“18. They won’t be able to handle any more than that,” a bachelorette said, and Chris made eye contact. The whites of her eyes were perfectly clear, and her face was clean and mostly free of makeup, although the bags under her eyes seemed to darken and bruise at even the slightest suggestion of perfection. Her hair was pulled back tightly into a conservative bun, so tight every hair was flat against her pale scalp, and strangely, she was wearing a fully-buttoned, long black dress that came together in a round white collar at the neck. She was surprisingly sober, both in mind and in spirit, the latter more similar to the humble mustiness of the lobby than the rest of her excited friends. “They won’t be able to handle any more than that,” she repeated.
“Hey, Jo-Jo!” another one of the girls said. “I can handle it. You can’t speak for all of us.” “It’s Joanne,” the serious one said, and frowned. “And Chris, was it? That counter is a peculiarity, methinks. Reminds me of a raised mortuary table, praise the Lord.” Her friends, shocked at Joanne’s insinuations, begged her to be quiet.
Then the group of women hurriedly picked their golf ball colors, Joanne choosing a dim salmon, and they made their way out of the lobby with clubs in hand. Chris sighed at the loss of patrons and fidgeted with his hands on the cold steel counter. Joanne was right, although she's a bit weird. This countertop has always been surgically clean, and the summer haze always delivers me here, and what’s even more weird is that I like it. I'm an impatient package handled by a delivery service, or a willing victim that’s been transferred to the morgue. Somehow, that grotesque description made sense to him, and he chuckled. The dusty corners and the empty pretzel warmer and the flickering fluorescent lights were his place, more than the artificial color palettes of the courses, and the weird moss growing at the edges of the hazard ponds, and the chiggers that were somehow on every single bench outside, and the open-mouthed dragon serving as the 32-hole finale at the center. The in-between-place, the lobby, was his and only his. And someday he would mark his being here with an exacto knife under the counter, carve his history into its soft wooden belly, and then he would be picked up and packaged and stamped and intercepted on somebody else’s porch. But, for now, he reasoned, he was content with waiting for a few more customers.