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Nothing Out There Except Ourselves

by Robert Earle

These events began in the mountains west of town, most of them national park, but a few spots still held privately. A golf course had been built on one of those spots, its fairways separated by patches of apple trees because it used to be an orchard.

Two guys in their early twenties decided to go up there one afternoon and play a round. One was named Patrick. The other was named Ned. They were graduate students in English three weeks into their first semester and already wondering if they’d made a huge mistake. Golf was a pretext for getting away from that.

When they reached the golf course, they looked east toward the Rockfish Valley, gentle brush strokes of orange and red tingeing the green leaves, very beautiful and somewhat distracting. Then they headed out onto the course.

Ned was the more serious golfer but Patrick the more powerful athlete so their performance on the golf course was much like their new friendship, somewhat competitive and yet complementary.

Patrick didn’t want to be at the University of Virginia. He wanted to be in a city, but he hadn’t been accepted at Columbia or Harvard, so this is where he had ended up. Not that he thought it mattered much. He already was convinced, and quite noisy about it, that graduate school in English anywhere was a big mistake: there were no jobs out there, the amount of reading they had to do was insane.

For his part Ned mostly listened to Patrick rant. All day he had had a kind of sixth sense that they’d made bets on futures that wouldn’t pan out, which is why he agreed to take the afternoon off in the first place.

Now they were playing behind a twosome about their age, and Ned watched their wandering progress around the course with a sense of loneliness and impending doom.

Sometimes, given the terrain, the guys ahead of Ned and Patrick would drop out of sight. At other times they loomed larger than life against the empty backdrop of the sky.

Ned had never played on a stranger golf course, so skeletal and exposed. “You could stage Waiting for Godot up here. Those guys ahead of us would be perfect for Vladimir and Estragon.”

Patrick liked the analogy. “But hey, check the weather.”

Smoky clouds were beginning to appear to the south and west; gradually they assembled into a broad front of rumpled turbulence pushed by winds that riffled through the rough along the fairways and lifted the flags on the greens.

Ned said, “Going to be bad. We’d better get off the course.”

“What about those guys?’ Patrick asked.

The players ahead of them were leaving the fourth green and walking over a hill to the fifth tee, ignoring the storm. Just then a gust of cold rain hit the ridge. What could they do about the other guys? They were out of shouting range, walking into the teeth of the wind. Patrick and Ned began to run.

There was no lightning until Patrick and Ned were seated by the window in the clubhouse snack bar where they looked out at gray sheets of rain occasionally bleached white by crackling fingers of light that seemed to grasp and shake the storm, throwing it sideways, slapping and slamming it up over the golf course and then back down toward the valleys on one side or the other, Rockfish to the east, Shenandoah to the west.

“So we come to the question,” Patrick said, apropos of the tumult, “whether Wordsworth was right that the mind of man is a thousand times more beautiful than the earth itself.”

“If I’m not mistaken, Wordsworth was referring to Coleridge’s mind,” Ned said, “and in that case he was probably right. Otherwise I’d say not.”

“But when you think about it, there’s nothing out there except ourselves,” Patrick insisted, pointing toward the storm. “Nature doesn’t make a storm, we do. We make the world by giving it names of our choosing.”

“Our double?” Ned asked.

“I wish it were,” Patrick said. “I’d definitely rather be a storm than a graduate student.”

“I’m not so sure,” Ned said, touched once again by that foreboding sensation of loneliness and doom.

Then suddenly, even as the storm departed the ridge and crashed down into Rockfish Valley, Patrick and Ned heard something out on the golf course.

Someone was calling for help. They looked across the lunchroom at the man behind the counter who had just brought them coffee. He had the well-stropped look of golf course workers everywhere and turned the issue back on them, implying the responsibility was theirs, not his: “Did you leave anyone out there?”

“There were two guys ahead of us,” Patrick answered.

“Didn’t come in?”

“I guess we assumed they were heading for a shelter.”

“Isn’t any shelter,” the counterman said.

Ned peered across the parking lot toward the course. A young man was stumbling in by himself. “My friend was hit! Lightning hit my friend!”

Quickly Ned and Patrick got on a golf cart and lurched out onto the course. They saw him lying beneath an apple tree, a golf club near his hand, his face and arms dark purple.

Neither Patrick nor Ned were trained in CPR, but while Ned blew air into the golfer’s mouth, Patrick pressed his chest. Eventually Ned couldn’t keep blowing anymore.

“Now you,” he said.

“Oh, no, you haven’t been looking at him,” Patrick said.

“Come on, you’ve got to,” Ned said.

They were on their knees above the purple body, which had swollen with the air Ned had breathed into it.

“What’s the use, Ned? Can’t you see he’s dead?”

“Pat, come on, try!”

So Patrick put his mouth on the same lifeless lips through which Ned had breathed. Like Ned he stared directly into the awful mask of a man who had been electrocuted. His skin was purple as a plum.

Some EMTs came rumbling down the fourth fairway in a rescue wagon, red lights whirling. Ned and Patrick backed away from the body and after a minute saw the EMTs wouldn’t succeed either. Nothing could bring the dead man back to life.

They started walking to the parking lot where they saw the other fellow — “Yon Estragon,” Patrick called him — wrapped in a gray blanket and being loaded into a second emergency vehicle.

“Let’s get out of here,” Patrick said.

“Agreed,” Ned said.

They got into Patrick’s car and drove down the mountain into the belly of the storm, which was making its way toward Charlottesville.

Ned lived off campus in a basement apartment with his girlfriend Sarah, so Patrick drove there, and they told her what had happened. Ned remained unnerved — hadn’t he had a premonition of something terrible about to occur? — but Sarah seemed particularly concerned about Patrick, who was upset to the point of tears. In fact she suggested he spend the night with them and sleep on the couch. “It’ll help you get these awful thoughts out of your mind.”

Patrick said no thanks; he didn’t need to. “It’s just that the poor guy was cooked. He was so purple he was almost black, and there we were, kissing him. That’s the sensation I can’t get off my lips.”

As soon as she heard this, Sarah didn’t hesitate. It was as though the storm had slipped in under the doorsill and plunged into her, not like lightning, more like spiraling, hurtling wind. “See if this helps,” she said and kissed Patrick on the lips until she got him to respond and then they kissed each other furiously and desperately for a long time.

As he watched his girlfriend bring Patrick back to life, Ned asked himself if next she’d do the same with him. But when Sarah finished with Patrick and turned to Ned, it was clear she was spent, the storm was gone.

Copyright © 2013 by Robert Earle

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