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Before Len Was Struck by Lightning by Paul Riker

Before Len was struck by lightning he swept up around the pro shop and made sure all of the chairs were under the outcropping of the clubhouse’s front porch and gathered all the trash so he could take it to the Dumpsters out by Hole 10, near groundskeeping’s warehouse.  Len was twenty years old and had been working as a member of the “Outdoor Staff” of Forest Bridge Golf Course and Restaurant (the second-best public golf course in the Dexter-Whitmore Lake, MI area) since the beginning of the golfing season (so late March).  He was given the job about a month after his mother, a woman in her mid-50s with short spikey hair and a scowling face, was herself hired by the owner of the Course and Restaurant as its General Manager; his mother had proceeded to staff Len out of charity, Len knew.  Len had previously worked at an Ace Hardware from January to the end of February, but was fired when his boss found him in inventory stuffing spare lightbulbs ($1 ea. resale) and duct tape ($2.50 ea. resale) into his coat pockets.  Len was ambivalent about losing the job, and was ambivalent towards his job at Forest Bridge, and was ambivalent towards his mother.

Len performed these end-of-the-day tasks, closing up the course for the night.  It was raining – an hour ago it had been a quiet trickle, but it was now a downpour, a downpour that was soaking him to his skin.  It was the middle of July at around 9:50 in the evening, and the Midwestern summer sky, as Len looked across the golf course in the near distance, was shades of grey and green, accented by lightning strikes that shone brighter as time stomped forward.  He passed gas and felt a sting in his stomach – a sign of his Irritable Bowel Syndrome acting up again, which had been especially aggravating for this seven-hour work day.  He always had to make sure a bathroom was nearby, in case he was hit by the need to defecate unexpectedly (which happened often, especially on the driving range when he was manning the ball-picker; this meant that he often had to stop what he was doing and run inside, which left his co-workers to believe that he was lazy and unmotivated).  

    Before Len was struck by lightning he rode the maintenance cart (approx. $5,000 resale), making stops at every single trash can around the club house, taking the trash, tying the bags, and throwing them into the flatbed of the cart.  He did not replace the bags.  The rain was torrential; as he wended around the clubhouse he found it difficult to see more than twenty yards ahead of him.  By the driving range, near the putting greens, he took out his cigarettes and tried to light one, failing.  He looked at the clubhouse, now about a football field away.  The lights inside were on, but he knew that, this late in the evening, no patrons were inside, save an exhausted drunk waiting for his sad wife to claim him and take him home.  He also knew that Henry, the thirty-something man who ran the pro shop, was still there, vacuuming and (probably) humming a Van Halen song.  Henry did not like Len because he perceived Len’s thrifty disposition and frequent bathroom breaks as a lack of work ethic; Len did not like Henry because Henry was an asshole.

    Len did not golf, although this did not mean Len was necessarily against golfing.  He was indifferent towards it.  Len’s mother, on the day of his hiring, descended her staircase into her basement (Len’s quote temporary unquote quarters) to tell Len the news.  Len had replied with an absent-minded “Cool.”  His mother said Aren’t you happy you have a job.  Len said Sort of.  His mother said You know you can’t just sit in my basement all day in your own filth selling my old things on Amazon.  You need to be doing something if you’re going to be so insistent on not going to the community college.  Len said Fine.  The next day the reality that Len now had to work, now had to devote his time to something other than tending his virtual wares, struck him, frustrating him.  Why a golf course, Len thought?  He had no particular ties to golf that he could immediately recall, besides a few times in his childhood, when he was maybe five or six, before his dad vanished, when he and his dad and his mom would hang out at a Putt-Putt Mini-Golf course a few miles from their old house, over in Saline.  He remembered at the end of one particular outing, his mom had purchased him a novelty golf ball, embossed with the words “_____ _____ Birdie!” (Len could not remember the entire, pithy phrase).  It was orange with red lettering.  Len exhibited it in his room, on his bedroom’s dresser, aligned between a Lego Tie Fighter and a plastic, fool’s gold treasure chest.  It looked nice.

Before Len was struck by lightning he drove across the expanse of the driving range at top speed, screaming, hollering a wild cry against (or in tandem with) the rain.  The cart ditched tire marks into the flooded grass; it sputtered and slipped on its tractionless wheels, difficult for Len to control; a few times, while he bounded from the inclines on the range, the cart, tires sloshing beneath him, nearly spun off of its spokes and capsized.  Lightning and thunder crashed in the approaching horizon; the greygreen shade that was once far away was now directly overhead, bolding the course’s sky.  Len could sense that Henry was watching him from the clubhouse; Len didn’t care.  In fact, as he let out a fart and felt a sharp pain in his abdomen, he realized the true and total meaninglessness of his job, which was complicated, because if he ever wanted to quit, his bossily-disposed mother would not allow him to.  He was stuck.  This thought preempted another pain in his abdomen, which was accompanied by a need of the restroom.  He let out another yell and continued to drive.

Working at Forest Bridge had not made Len appreciate golf in the slightest, but he had learned to depreciate golfers, whom he discovered were a horrible breed of sportsman – fat, red, sweaty, and uncaring to the nuances of his job; they left him mud-caked carts to soap and clean, half-chewed granola bars for him to fish out of the carts’ glove compartments; they shoved their cigarette butts into the bottoms of the carts’ cupholders, which Len could only remove by picking them out with his bare hands.  The patrons also never tipped, as Forest Bridge specifically requested that its guests not grant gratuity to the Outdoor Staff, meaning all Len earned from his job was his minimum-wage salary.  This left Len no choice, in the moments he could find, which were plentiful save for the IBS, but to mine the course for lost golf balls to sell on Amazon.  The prices he offered were generally pretty static: three for $5, five for $7, and so forth.  Some of Len’s co-workers disapproved of his shrewd and improvisational entrepreneurial abilities; specifically, the co-workers who approached the tasks of an Outdoor Staff member with comical resolve, which Len saw not as largesse, but as brownnosing.  For instance, one of his fellow Outdoor Staff members, a sixty-eight-year-old retiree named Herman “Herm” Kowalczek, had the work ethic of an immigrant and an unbridled enthusiasm for Forest Bridge that was unmatched by even the course’s most loyal patrons.  Herm, a balding, gimp, and lumpy-faced man with spindly legs and liver spots on his face and forearms, undertook the job of Outdoor Staff, a job that he worked only because he had nothing else to occupy his lonely, retired life (Len was pretty sure Herm’s wife had died some years before) with pedantic vigor and enigmatic (to Len, at least) tenacity.  He washed the carts as if they were Maseratis.  He picked the balls from the driving range with pinpoint detail, steering the picker like a loaded armored car.  He jovially socialized with any golfer who passed the Outdoor Staff workers’ dingy, petrifying shed: Hey there, ______, how’d the 3-iron do today?  Hey, ______, you know you’re supposed to avoid the bunkers, right?  Hey, ______, did you know I’m a potbellied old fuck who needs to go back to the retirement home and start playing backgammon like all the other old fucks?  Len never understood Herm’s passion, and dreaded the days when he was scheduled to work with Herm (because of Herm’s age, Len’s mother did not trust Herm to work alone, even though, in Len’s view, the man was perfectly capable, both mentally and physically, of doing so); it meant that Len would have to appear somewhat self-motivated, lest he be chided by the fossil: Leonard, make sure you get the hose under the wheels, that’s where all the dirt is; Leonard, did you wash the balls with the ball washer after you picked the range?  You have to wash the balls; Leonard, if you have a moment, take this broom and sweep all the candy wrappers and junk away from the clubhouse entrance, and while you’re at it get on your knees at kiss my ass, too.  To make matters worse, Herm was a cultural staple at the course, a sort of mascot for Forest Bridge; he golfed regularly and maintained a tight personal relationship with the course’s owner, the groundskeeping crew, and Len’s mother.  And worst yet, Herm, who had worked with Len on this particular evening, had decided, only hours ago, to clock out early, claiming that it was “too dangerous” to be doing any tasks to close the course (Len found this funny, as it was maybe the first time he had seen Herm’s limitless alacrity stunted), as well as declaring a few other opinions concerning Len.  As Herm limped toward the clubhouse, his stomach’s flesh spilling over his waistline, Len grabbed his crotch and thrust towards him, victorious.

    Before Len was struck by lightning he drove off of the driving range, towards the path that lead to Hole 10.  He looked behind the cart to observe the patties of mud, the tire tracks traced on the field.  He laughed, to no one.  He followed the asphalt path until it forked; and instead of veering left, to the tee, he veered right, which would take him to the groundskeeping area and the trash receptacles that sat in front of its entrance.  The rain, heavy and regular at this point, had soaked his Asics ($15 resale) to his socks ($0.25 resale per sock).  Len opened his mouth and drank.  The sky flashed, perpetually; there was a lightning storm around him, an unrelenting one.

    Len planned, after returning home this evening, to manage his status as a retailer on Amazon, which he liked doing.  A lot.  Selling his findings on Amazon full-time was his destined career, he knew.  He sold anything and everything that he was able to scavenge or scrounge or swipe, both from the golf course and from the world around him – stuff in his mother’s attic, old clothing, old Sports Illustrateds he had collected in his teenage years; discarded pitching wedges, soiled golfing gloves that were too big for his undersized hands, scores and scores of golf balls, bleach white, dimpled, and globular, imprinted with a revolving door of yuppie-sounding brand names: Callaway, Pinnacle, Bridgestone.  In what little time he had, he researched the golfing goods market, concluding for himself which brands were valued highly (Ex: BridgeStone Tour B330), and which were valued poorly (Ex: Titleist DT SoLo); he priced his findings accordingly, attempting to meet quotidian demand – he set his shop significantly under market “new” rate, of course, but priced only pennies, nickels under the average used amount; this was a marginal difference that Len considered paramount to enticing buyers (if he failed to meet his personal quota on any given day, which happened often, his mother was willing to subsidize him , for some reason.  Len did not even have to ask.  It made him feel odd, warm).  His research kept him awake until the early morning, wired him with a voracity that smokes, coffee, booze, or friendship could not provide (most of Len’s high school friends, his buddies on the football team, the guys he hung out with when he skipped Period 5 to go loiter around the gas station across the street, had gone away to college, and seemed to forget Len existed.  Len knew all along they were pretentious assholes).  In about five months of sales, he had managed to make $21, not subtracting his cost of shipping and handling (also subsidized by his mother).  Len knew the figure was tiny, but this was with him working forty-five, fifty hours a week, and not coming home until about 10:30 – tired, covered in dirt specks, smelling of grass and gasoline.  Once November arrived, when snow would fall and the course would be forced to close its doors for the winter, he would be able to, with all of his will, become a Vendor of Goods, and he would be pulling hundreds of dollars a week, and he could move out of his mother’s basement if he wanted, and he could lease a dope-ass bachelor pad, and he could – if he decided it was actually worth his time – take some college classes at the local community college, like his mother often suggested he do, and that deep down he thought was maybe a good idea and maybe a good way to learn more about business or (and) meet some new friends.  Maybe.  The thought, as he drove with the tempest around him, hurt his stomach.  He bent over the steering wheel as a slashing pain knifed through his lower abdomen.  He took a deep breath and tried to release the gas.  He could not.  The bloated knot stuck and lingered.  

    Before Len was struck by lightning he reached the groundskeeping area in debilitating, unquenchable pain, pain that he did not understand and that, as he had found over the years, no amount of immobility could wean away.  The sky sparked even brighter than it had in the past few minutes – electric white, a façade of mid-day.  Thunder followed behind it only seconds later; Len knew this meant the lightning was mere miles away, although he also knew that one mile is, relatively, a pretty far distance.  Upon reaching the Dumpsters he parked the maintenance cart in front of it and dragged himself out of the driver’s seat, his upper body hunched over his belly.  He looked back on the path, tire marks doubly trenching it.  A lone bag of garbage had tumbled from the cart, about twenty yards back.  He contemplated turning the cart around and retrieving it, but he didn’t.  He opened a Dumpster and took his time depositing the seven total bags of trash, the motion of throwing each one into the tall basin sending a spasm through his gut.  When he finished he slouched to the maintenance cart and sat in the driver’s seat.  It was wetter than before.

    He reversed the cart and, upon reaching the fork, turned to Hole 10.  He drove across the tee boxes and down the mid-length fairway – 10 was a Par 4, which Len knew was the size of an average hole.  He knew this because Herm had been, episodically, explaining golf to him during their shifts together, which Len guessed Herm thought was some kind of courtesy, or encouragement for Len to socialize with the course’s staff.  Today, at around eight, as Herm lectured Len on the proper way to pitch a ball from a sand trap, Len looked up from his work, looked over Herm’s livery face, up to the sky.  The storm was far away from them, but it was there – festering in a deeply purple, foreboding sky.  Len felt a bowel movement coming, so he left Herm as Herm rambled and dashed to the clubhouse to use the facilities.  When he returned, Herm scolded him.  He said to Len You have no respect for people speaking to you; you have to be respectful of your fellow employees; You have to stay here and do your job instead of wandering off inside or onto some god-knows-where hole on the course all the time.  Len said Why don’t you shut up for once, you old jizzsock.  Herm said Excuse me.  Len said You heard what I said.  I just want to get through today and not deal with any of you bastards.  Herm said You are unbelievable.  You and your mother have no sense of respect for anyone here.  This is a great place.  Len said If you wanna bitch at me, fine, but leave my mother out of this dickhead, and he turned away and started walking towards the range, with no goal in mind.  He heard Herm call behind him that Your mother is going to hear about this even if she is never going to fire her child.  And we know there’s no chance of your dad disciplining you.  Len said Mention my mom one more time you polack bastard and see what happens.  I fucking dare you.  Herm said nothing in response.  Len stopped and turned around and saw Herm walking back to the clubhouse.  He heard Herm say something about a storm, then That burnout doesn’t deserve this job.  He doesn’t deserve anything.  Len grabbed his crotch, and was somehow, against odds, transported back to his room, to waking up on a Saturday morning, the middle of June, bright, humid, his orange golf ball calmly looking at his from beside his bed, years before it departed from him, garbed in some nostalgia he could not wrestle to submission.

    Before Len was struck by lightning he decided now was as good of a time as ever to search for golf balls, for his wares.  Really good ones.  Ones that would make him a lot of money.  Impressive finds.  Finds to be proud of.  And Len knew that to do this he needed to go to Hole 14, the most secluded hole on the course, a Par 3, nestled at the heart of Forest Bridge, barricaded by massive oaks and pines.  To get there he drove through 10, to 11, cut across the median to 16, then proceeded backwards to 15 until finally coming to 14, taking his cart along the course’s path through an opening in the arboreal grotto.  He parked on the hole’s green and exited the cart and looked to the tee box.  A small brook cut across the fairway; it was overflowing with rain water, mucking the crewcut grass around it.  To Len it looked ruinous, ugly, but fitting.

    Len pressed through the machine-gun rain into the tall grass, the deep rough and bramble a few yards away from the green.  He turned around, prompted by a particularly loud clap of thunder, and saw that the wind had uprooted the hole’s tee, slamming it to the ground, leaving the hole itself exposed.  Len crossed back to the tee and examined it.  The lightning illuminated its shaft, and the rain grounded the flag, soaking it, fossilizing it in the muddy grass that the green had become.  Len felt his stomach sting and spasm; he clutched his waist, grimacing.  He eyed the hole.  In one fluid motion, with a whisper of “fuck it,” he unzipped his pants and squatted over the hole and pushed.  Only a few rabbit-pellets left him, and Len felt disappointed when he observed his duties.  His stomach again stung, but less so than before.  He then realized Herm was not a groundskeeper and would therefore never see his handiwork; he turned and entered the deep rough for a second time, rain still flogging his body.

    Before Len was struck by lightning he was on his hands and knees, reaching forward into the downed tree branches with no sight, looking for the glint of spherical white within the underbrush.  And aided by the lightning, he found a shimmer of something globular, something dimpled, something bleach white.  He grasped it in his hand and pulled it from the untrodden soil.  He let it rest in his palm and let the rain around him wash away its grime.  Once clean, he could examine it better, and see that it was not white at all.  It was orange.  An orange golf ball, he said to himself, said to no one.  Once in a blue moon, he said.  He brought it close to his face, rolled it in his fingers.  The ball was not pure orange, not a block color of ostentation, but it was lettered – lettered with something, Len could tell, but he could not make out what it was.  He brought it closer to his face.  As the storm drummed around him, the lightning was his lamp and revealed the message to him: 


Momma’s Little What, Len said to himself.  What the fuck is that last word.  It was familiar.  It was hauntingly, gruesomely familiar; not something he had held before, sure, but something that embraced him, warped him; something he knew he knew, but maybe, like a mental safeguard, his memory prevented him from wholly accessing.  For his own good, maybe.  For in that ball he saw himself, slim-faced and juvenile, romping around Putt-Putt as his mother and father tailed behind him, whispering to each other, looking sullen, cross and disappointed.  Every outing he hoped they would buy him another ball, maybe a red one, or a blue one, or even a green one.  They never did.  The Putt-Putt trips stopped, and the orange ball rested on his dresser, lonely, ageless, while he advanced towards adolescence, outings with his friends after school, stealing candy bars from the gas station, camping out in the park, breaking into Saline’s mini golf course, abandoned, out-of-business, destroying props and cartoon obstacles, looking for glistening orange in the woodchips around the course.  The last one, the listless searching, was only Len.  This ball now, this novelty washed by the rain, was a sign, Len perceived, somehow.  It was a positive start to what was going to be a good streak for him.  His gut hurt but he didn’t care.  The rain was no less heavy but Len felt nothing but fresh air, tranquil air in a limpid sky.  He stuck the ball in his pocket, its value undefined, and stood up and torqued his body, his midsection, looking back at the maintenance cart, which had rolled from the green and into a sand trap, driven by the storm.  

Before Len was struck by lightning the world turned piercingly bright, stunting his vision, leaving him – for only a moment – unaware of where he was, what he had been doing, what he had found. 

Paul Riker's writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Crack the Spine and National Ave. He has also served as the Editor-in-Chief of Sherman Ave, a satirical news website at Northwestern University. Paul was born and raised in Ann Arbor, MI, and currently lives in Chicago.