by John Henry Fleming
WE’D SEE HIM out on the course at odd hours. Dawn and dusk. Before and after the golfers. Before and after the late-night high school vandals. He was rumored to live in the only house on Troon, a tiny connector street. His family was just as mysterious. The father, tall and bony with curly graying hair, was only seen in a short-sleeved button-down and dress slacks lurching in and out of a little Porsche 914 outside of regular commute times. There was a woman, possibly two, too young to be the boy’s mother, too old to be his sister. Even the house was odd, the front door set back in an overgrown courtyard that scared away cookie and magazine saleskids. There appeared to be two other tiny courtyards, false entrances, one open and partially paved with mismatched pavers, the other with a broken gate opening onto tall, flowering weeds and insect swarms. The house itself was glass and beams, the windows shaded or tinted or thickly curtained, confusing to look at, unwelcoming. With each rainstorm, the gravel driveway spilled its tangerine pebbles into the street, a hazard to skateboarders and bicyclists. From time to time, a neighbor would sweep the pebbles back into place.
Sometimes the boy just walked through the narrow cathedral of slash pines between the golf course and the houses on the North Course. A lanky, late-teen lope. A stranger in the woods. He wore long pants in hot weather. Sometimes no shirt. His wavy brown hair tied up or flapping. His head turned to the vulnerable backs of our houses, peering in through screened patios and sliding glass doors like a casual voyeur. Sometimes, particularly at dusk, he’d run the fairways in jeans and bare feet, leaping with scissored legs like a ballet star, except he was awkward and stumbled more often than not. He’d break into a sprint and jump and then just as quickly return to a slouch. He gave the impression of instability. His bony face and wide eyes didn’t help. We couldn’t decide whether to pity or fear him. If he had a good voice or musical talent, he might have pursued a career in a band. If he’d set up an easel and displayed any kind of painting talent, we might have tolerated him as our resident eccentric artist.
Instead, he showed no sign of talent, unless it’s considered a talent to make people uncomfortable. His dancing was strange, his flashes of exuberance inartfully expressed. What was his purpose? How could he ever get by in this world? Who would hire him to work a job? What kind of work could he perform? Even stocking boxes in a gloomy warehouse seemed out of the question. Yet he didn’t seem disturbed enough to qualify for institutional care. He’d probably end up on the street unless he was permitted to live indefinitely in his childhood bedroom as an eternal teen, his teen interests hardening over time into narrow, unhealthy obsessions. His severe-looking father did not seem the type to allow it. The boy would soon be out of the house with nowhere to go and neither the skills nor the temperament to support himself. In a way, his performances in the woods were likely to be the peak of his life, the final spirited expression of his untethered childhood. Those who observed him from their houses along the North Course would later reassure themselves that some life trajectories are short by design, and maybe that’s for the best. Others recognized a sobering truth. The boy had fallen into a crack that the rest of us, thanks to some blessing of money, looks, common sense, or parenting, had had the good fortune to avoid. But the crack was always there. A crack the perfect size and shape for this kid to fall into. And there were cracks out there the size and shape of each of us.
This kind of unease couldn’t be tolerated for long. The kid was a constant reminder of some defect at the center of things. Homeowners began hearing screams and howls in the middle of the night, and the golf course, despite its constant grooming and its paved cartways, resembled more and more a wild, haunted landscape. Usage dropped, particularly in early mornings and late afternoons. Residents called security at the first sign of him. He was usually gone before the security vehicle made its way to the fairway rough. Sometimes the boy ran when the car approached, dashing between houses, crossing streets and yards, ducking behind bushes till security gave up. Sometimes he quit dancing and waited for the officer as he would a friend. As far as anyone could tell he had no friends. When they took him home, no one ever answered the door. The boy pulled a spare key from the mouth of a ceramic frog and let himself in.
On one occasion, a security officer went too far. The kid showed up on a late Saturday afternoon in spring, not too hot. Golfers still on the course. Those of us who live on the fairways get used to the halting march of carts and the advances and retreats of golfers. Like fish in an aquarium, they remain part of the scenery until some erratic new motion turns our heads. In this case, an extra figure in frayed jeans shorts running sprints. A blue Taurus security vehicle drove up along the rough, and the officer—short, thin, prematurely gray—stepped out and approached in a cautious police strut. He was new. He may have been told about the kid’s behavior.
The kid ignored him until the officer brought out the cuffs. Then he ran. Unable to keep up, the officer gave chase in the Taurus. Eventually, the kid slowed, seeming to forget he was being pursued. He performed a series of awkward ballet leaps while the vehicle crept closer, the officer finally nudging him with the front bumper, sending the kid sprawling across the pine straw like a shot flamingo.
He got away anyway. The officer was fired.
That was the last time we could remember seeing him.
He may have been named Warren. The newspaper report said so. But a later article referred to him as Aaron. Warren may have been the name of his older half-brother in Illinois. No one knew the exact date the boy disappeared because his habits were so erratic. He’d appear every morning for two weeks and then sometimes at dusk and sometimes not at all. It took a while to notice his absence. His father finally called it in. Sherriff’s cars crawled through the golf course rough, trailed by Lost Point Security in their Tauruses and golf carts. Homeowners stepped outside their screened patios and watched. They converged at property lines and proposed theories. The kid ran away. He overdosed on something. The father shipped him off or killed him. He ran into the path of a tee shot and stumbled off to hemorrhage somewhere and get eaten by gators. Though he could have disappeared from home or school, most believed something had happened to him on the course. He’d seemed vulnerable out there, alone, half-naked, trespassing, technically. It was hard to know what got him, but it wasn’t hard to believe it was something. His existence had always felt so provisional. It would not have taken much for him just to vanish.
The course lakes were dragged while golfers paused to watch. The search became the talk of the clubhouse for a while. Members gathered after a round and rehashed their theories, tested overheard rumors, and held forth on the likelihood of one outcome or another. Everyone expected evidence to turn up. A body, a clue, a confession.
Nothing did. The lingering uncertainty left the entire development uneasy. Security hired two additional temporary employees. Patrols were stepped up. Children warned not to walk alone at night. Solo golfers were rare for a time. Handguns were dug from bottom drawers and backs of closets, placed in nightstands, loaded. A curfew was discussed but never implemented. A neighborhood watch program held a meeting and assigned citizen patrol duties, but only a few residents followed through.
Reporters wanted to talk to the father and were blocked at the Lost Point gatehouse. In any case, the father was not seen outside the house, his 914 either in the garage or driven away in the night. He was as gone as his son.
What followed was a slow fade. Over time, the conversations at the clubhouse dwindled. The temporary security officers were let go. Kids played at dusk and into the night. Vandals returned to the golf course to spray stolen fire extinguishers at night. One morning MURDER was painted in white powder on the 11th fairway. The sprinklers erased it. That was the last word until a few years later when a bouquet of flowers was discovered in the wooded rough of the seventh fairway, near where the kid was known to stop his loping walk and break into dance.
A man in an adjacent lot said he’d seen a middle-aged woman emerge from the course and walk in the direction of the boy’s house. He’d never seen the woman before. Could she have been his mother? His father’s girlfriend? Did she know something?
A couple of days later, the same man drove his golf cart over to the boy’s house and knocked on the door within the overgrown courtyard. No one answered. When he went to check on the bouquet in the seventh rough, that was gone, too.
The boy’s house fell into disrepair. The Porsche was never seen again. Neither was the woman who left the bouquet. After multiple citations for code violations, the HOA sued the homeowner, a man by the name of Reginald Auer, current address Lake Forest, Illinois. When Reginald Auer refused to fix the house or pay the citations, the city took his property, declared it a health hazard, and bulldozed it down to the foundation.
In its place rose a two-story tudor with faux stone walls and an arched entryway. A pediatrician and his florist wife had it built. They were older, their two kids grown and living in different states. When the grandchildren visit, they take them for walks on the course in the evenings. Sometimes, beside the 7th fairway, the kids run and skip and roll in the grass and pine straw. Their grandparents encourage it. They watch and laugh. And when it’s time to return home, they hold out their hands and the grandchildren grab on tight, not knowing the story but sensing it anyway.
John Henry Fleming’s stories have appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, The Rupture, The North American Review, Mississippi Review, Fourteen Hills, New World Writing, and Carve, among others. He’s also the author of Songs for the Deaf, a story collection; The Legend of the Barefoot Mailman, a novel; Fearsome Creatures of Florida, a literary bestiary; and The Book I Will Write, a novel-in-emails originally published serially. He teaches in the MFA program at the University of South Florida and is the founder and advisory editor of Saw Palm: Florida Literature and Art.
His website is www.johnhenryfleming.com.