A Halloween Tale
In this piece of fiction, an old golfer crosses paths with a young caddie and gets the wake-up call he needs
By Michael Bamberger
Halloween fell on a Monday night, and my wife would need me home for that, to cue up the screechy sound track with the high-pitched cackle each time the doorbell rang, Emily’s signal to put on her pointy witch’s hat and grab a handful of peanut butter cups, the dark chocolate ones from Trader Joe’s, each individually wrapped, of course. Safety first.
Halloween had been a high holy day in the Steinbach home when our kids were growing up, and it remained one now that we had three grandchildren in their trick-or-treating prime. The eldest of this trio had been planning for weeks to go as Mildred “Babe” Zaharias, after doing a fifth-grade book report about the Babe, polymath Olympian and sportswoman. Tiny Sallie would be wearing a Babe Zaharias wig and a cinched wool skirt while carrying a little canvas golf bag with a tennis racket and baseball bat in it, plus a wood-shafted driver, track shoes dangling from its neck. She had been planning this get-up for weeks, and then Halloween finally came. It was a cold, still day in our coastal Connecticut town, and the kids would need to bundle up. I was sent to the attic to get out the box of ski hats, and Emily picked out a loose one, one Sallie could wear over her Babe wig.
For the following day, my sporting nemesis Richard and I—my best friend in our shared childhoods and, now in late middle age, my closest university colleague—had our annual All-Day Sports Day competition on the books. It was right there on my iPhone calendar for Nov. 1: Richard ADSD. We always conducted this two-man event on a quiet weekday in November, golf, then tennis, followed by bowling and closing with eight-ball pool at a Main Street tavern that served willfully burnt steaks and twice-baked potatoes. It was our Superstars competition. Winner bought dinner, not the loser. That was one of our little twists. It was all quite civilized, but only on the surface. We knew better.
In the early afternoon on Halloween, I slipped out of the house and went to the club to play a quick nine alone, a tuneup for my match with Richard. I needed to win at golf and tennis (not at all a given) because Richard was a far better bowler than I and he was slightly better at billiards. If we were tied after the four events, we shot pool until a winner emerged.
Popquahock Club, at the height of summer, was a hoity-toity golf-and-tennis hangout that also offered a kiddie dinghy sailing program. Richard and I had been “Academic Members” for decades and could use the club, situated on a small peninsula that jutted into Long Island Sound, all year long. The place was more thrifty New England for most of the year, la-di-dah only when the July and August people rolled in for their summertime stays. They (the summer peeps) envied our (the year-’rounders) do-it-yourself clambakes and dishabille footwear, duct tape on Topsiders and that sort of thing. Richard and I were both experts on the subject of the genteel poverty of academia, and we would sometimes compare our 401k investment strategies. (Buy and hold, buy and hold, buy and hold.) We never felt the need to talk about our envy for their boats and plane tickets and winter escapes. It was so obvious.
There were just a few cars in the club parking lot on the Monday of Halloween, their hoods and trunks bathed in our peculiar and distinct mid-autumn light, a pale-yellow hue that bordered on harsh. My plan was to start on the 10th and play the back nine, which meanders along the Sound for four holes before U-turning back to the house. The course was empty and the turf was firm and my line-drive opening tee shot went 180 in the air and another 50 yards on the ground. I followed that with a running iron shot that reached the green, a putt from 20 feet that came up 30 inches short, a miss from there for an opening bogey. Richard and I had a rule: We conceded true gimmes only. Anybody can miss from two and a half feet. It was meant to be a tuneup, this solo Halloween nine. In the game in my head, Richard and I went to the 11th tee with the match even. In my head, anyway, he had opened with a bogey, too.
Golf has always been a chance for me to escape my everyday life, with its monotonous chores and get-the-grades-in pressures and forced cocktail-party chit-chat. The only golf I enjoyed more than losing a well-played match to Richard was beating him any time we both showed sustained competence. The 11th, 12th and 13th holes at Popquahock were long par-4s (by 1919 standards) with the Sound and its beach on the right and other back-nine holes on the left. I played the 11th in six shots, the 12th in five and my tee shot on 13 went wildly left, into the elevated fairway of the adjoining 14th hole.
I found my ball readily, hit a 3-wood to get back in play and caught it well. I thought it might reach the front of the green, or come close to it, though I couldn’t see where it finished. I’ll putt from anywhere, and our tight fairways are happy to oblige. If I could make a par, I could get back to even in my match with Richard. That is, my imaginary match.
As I returned to the 13th fairway, a lone figure on the right side of the hole, in the rough and almost on the beach, called out to me. He was an unusually lean and muscular young man, 30 years old if that, playing in a short-sleeved shirt and without a hat on this chilly afternoon, his out-of-date golf bag looking like a pencil holder on his angular left shoulder. His left arm had been dipped in tattoo ink while his right arm didn’t have a mark on it.
“Can I go here?” he shouted out to me.
I wasn’t sure what he wanted. Did he want to play through? Did he want to play together? I wondered who he was. Not a member. That I knew.
“I could join you or whatever,” the man said. His shoulders had a forward lean and his bony fingers were almost pink. I felt colder just looking at him.
My private reverie was broken.
“Sure,” I said vaguely.
I watched my playing partner smash a mid-iron from light, fluffy dormant rough. His ball was still rising as it sailed over the green. The shot was almost unhinged, really. It most likely finished on a beach beyond the green, out-of-bounds by 30 or more yards. He was walking so fast toward the green I almost had to jog to keep up with him.
“Bozo,” he said. At least, that’s what I heard.
“BON-zo. From my last name. Bonzovitz. But nobody can say that.”
“Bart Steinbach,” I said.
“Yeah. I know. I caddie for you.”
His use of the present tense–it was odd. I didn’t have a regular caddie. I play most of my golf when you’re not required to take a caddie, and not just to save money. The caddies slow me down and steal my independence, not that they intend to. Anyway, there aren’t many caddies at Popquahock. A dozen or so in July and August, in a decidedly casual operation.
“Oh. Sorry. When were we out together?”
“Why should I remember?” he said.
“Excuse me?” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, as if that settled it.
We walked toward the green in an awkward and confused silence. I could now see my ball. My second shot had come to rest about 25 yards short of the green. I would have to play my third shot over a sand trap. I could feel my heart racing, and it wasn’t only because of the challenge of the shot, though that didn’t help.
“Nine years ago,” Bonzo said after a half-minute of silence. He seemed to be picking up where we had left off. “In a match. It was warm. A storm was coming in. You were worried about finishing before the storm. You were playing two lefties.”
Nothing was coming to mind, but the weather part sounded like me. As a kid, I knew a man who was killed in a lightning storm while working on a golf course. Ever since, I have paid attention to incoming storms.
I skulled my third shot over the trap and the green. My cheeks went hot. It took me a long minute to find my ball in the rough. I hacked it out and took three rushed putts for a triple-bogey 7. When I picked my ball out of the hole, Bonzo was nowhere in sight.
The 14th tee at Popquahock is about 20 yards left and 50 yards behind the 13th green, the longest green-to-tee walk on the course. As I headed toward the tee, Bonzo was already standing over his shot, his yellow ball resting, oddly, right on the turf. He was aggressively waggling his driver, a club that looked like a child’s toy in his immense hands. As I walked to the tee I thought he might drill a shot right at me. Never before, in 50 or more years around the game, had I felt scared on a golf course, or frightened by a playing partner.
“You want to play ahead? You play so fast.” I said when I got to the tee.
“No, we can play.”
“I’m sorry I don’t remember that day, the lefties and the storm and all that,” I said.
“Yeah,” Bonzo said. “Why would you?”
He smashed his drive so hard the ball could have cracked.
We played the five remaining holes at an unnaturally fast pace and in uncomfortable silence. Since the end of the pandemic, the post-round handshake had become less of a thing, but I still felt it would be smart to offer one. I did, clumsily, and all I got was Bonzo’s fingers. I wished I could try again. I had lost all track of my imaginary match with Richard.
My car was surprisingly warm when I got back in it, and I drove home slowly. In our neighborhood, the youngest kids were already making their straight-from-school rounds, plastic pumpkins with plastic handles looped around their wrists. Sallie, trailed by her watchful mom, our daughter, would be going out soon enough. They had been living with us, ever since what’s-his-name left. Emily had a pumpkin pie in the oven. It was a store-bought pie, but it still smelled good and the kitchen had a cozy warmth. Domestic bliss, all things considered. Sallie, with her yard-sale canvas golf bag on her shoulder, scooted off, alongside her mother.
At 5:58 p.m., there was a faint knock on our front door. I noted the time because 5:58 was the exact time for sunset on this Halloween evening.
“We have customers,” Emily sang from the kitchen.
From my living room chair, I tapped a button on my iPad, which activated a speaker on the milk box/mailbox outside our front door. I could hear the sounds of Halloween as I opened the door.
Hoo-hoo, ha-ha, he-he; I’ll get you, my pretty. Then Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London.”
A tiny little girl was standing at the front door dressed, simply and adorably, as a ghost. She might have been 5, if that.
“I’ll bet you’re a friendly ghost,” Emily said, depositing some of the Trader Joe’s treats in the girl’s orange basket.
I looked over the little girl’s head and down our walkway. There, in the dark, halfway between the street and our front door, was her chaperone. It was Bonzo. He was now wearing a dark windbreaker, but I knew it was him by his jutting chin and forward lean, and I could see his bony shoulders through the nylon shell of his thin coat. I got a tingling sensation in my cheeks. I nodded in his direction, but he seemed to be looking through my forehead and into our front hallway. The little girl at our door offered a sing-song thank you, turned around, and skipped her way back to her chaperone.
Was Bonzo her father? Her uncle? Her mother’s boyfriend? Did Bonzo point the girl to our house? Was it a weird coincidence? Or was I wrong about the whole thing–maybe the man on the walkway wasn’t the guy from the golf course at all?
I asked Emily if she knew the girl. She didn’t. I asked her if she knew the man on our walkway. She hadn’t noticed him.
“Why are you asking?” she said.
“I think I know him,” I said.
“Maybe you had him in one of your classes,” she said.
That seemed unlikely.
“Yeah,” I said. “That could be it.”
I barely slept and when I got out of bed, the morning after Halloween, I never felt less prepared for All-Day Sports Day. I drove to Richard’s house to pick him up. He was in his customary good cheer. He beat me in golf, 4 and 3, and I wondered if we should even play the final three holes. (We did.) He beat me in tennis in straight sets, 6-4, 6-1. At lunch he asked me if I was feeling OK, and at bowling his three games were 178, 204 and 167 for 549. I rolled three games in the 150s. We shot pool with nothing at stake and Richard asked if one of us had ever swept an All-Day Sports Day.
“Yes, early on,” I said. “When we still had swimming. I won the first three, golf, tennis and swimming.”
We swam in the Sound in November. It was a little nutty and very cold.
“I don’t remember that,” Richard said.
“You don’t remember the swimming?”
“Of course I remember the swimming,” Richard said. “I don’t remember a three-and-out.”
We ordered our beers, our soups, our steaks. (We were creatures of habit.) The soup came and I told Richard about my Halloween golf, playing with this odd young man, then seeing him on my walkway that night. I mentioned how lean and strong he was, how underdressed he was, both during the day and at night, and the sleeve of tattoos on his left arm.
“I know who you’re talking about, with the tats,” Richard said. “He was a townie, growing up. He’s worked at the club for like a decade, since high school. He’s been in the kitchen, on the grounds crew. He paints. He caddies. He caddied in our group when we lost in the Cup finals. He comes and goes.”
The Popquahock Cup was the club’s main season-long, knock-out better-ball-of-partners golf event.
“Which time?” We had lost twice in the finals.
“The first time. Like 10 years ago. It was you and me against Johnnie Cole and his partner. Two hockey guys, two lefties. The caddie was always putting the bags down on the wrong side of the ball.”
Johnnie Cole was a Canadian hockey player who came to the U.S. to play for Boston College in the Sixties and never went home. Dozens of his former college players later played professional hockey somewhere in the world. Johnnie Cole was a hockey legend, deep inside the game.
“Yeah, that’s what this Bonzo said, that there were two lefties.”
“I didn’t know his name, but I remember him caddying that day.”
“How could you remember any of this from 10 years ago?”
“It was this one thing that Johnnie did. The kid was raking a trap but he was half-assing it and Johnnie said, ‘Now, son, I know you’re new to this and golf’s got all these rules, but when you rake a trap, you want it to be in better shape when you leave it than when you arrived.’ And it was just so fucking kind, the way Johnnie said it. And the kid looked at Johnnie like nobody had ever called him son before. Or even talked to him like that. And the next trap he raked was perfect. And after that day, I never looked at Johnnie the same, and I never looked at that kid the same. The kid with the tats up and down his left arm. I never knew his name.”
A waitress came to take away our soup bowls. Her name was Maggie. We had known her for years. She was wearing a plastic white name tag with six green letters on it. Not that we needed it.
“Bonzo,” I said, almost to myself. “His last name is Bonzovitz. But he says nobody ever gets it right.”
Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at [email protected]. If you’d like him to send you another piece of fiction in a similar vein, just send him a note.
Michael Bamberger was briefly a caddie on the PGA and European Tours, invented a golf club (the E-Club) that Lee Trevino used in his final British Open, spent 22 years as a writer at Sports Illustrated and joined the Firepit Collective in May 2022.
email: [email protected]