Drive Like a Champion: Part II

A few miles after his conversation with Randy, Dan saw a billboard advertising Captain Steve’s Driving Range, and he got off the interstate. His clubs were in the trunk, packed just in case he had the urge. Captain Steve’s was a run-down joint, for which Dan was thankful, not wanting to drag a collared shirt out of his bag just to hit a few balls. He pulled into a gravel parking lot and hauled his clubs inside, where he bought a large bucket for ten dollars.
            Once on the range, he picked the spot with the least number of divots and dumped out his bucket. He started with his 9-iron, taking easy swings to warm himself up, pitching shots towards the 100-yard flag. No one else was there, and he enjoyed the solitude.
            After ten minutes, he wiped the sweat from his forehead with his golf towel and switched to his 7-iron, taking aim at the 150 flag. Some of his shots were nice, sailing effortlessly towards his target, but just as many were not. For someone who played golf as often as he did, Dan wasn’t that good. And he knew it, having been stuck at a 28-handicap for years.
            He also knew the reason he wasn’t good. It was his work habits. The majority of his practice time was spent putting, which he enjoyed because he excelled at it. This was the odd paradox of Dan’s golf game, that a hulking, 300-pound ex-defensive lineman was most comfortable with the delicate art of putting. He might flounder in sand traps and spray drives around the course with all the subtlety of a fire hose, but once he was on the green, a two-putt was a pretty sure bet. But that was his problem. Since putting came naturally, it’s all he wanted to do. Fixing the rest of his game would require serious toil, hours at the driving range, hitting the same shot over and over and over until it was burned into his muscle memory.
            Something Dan had begun to notice about himself recently, and not just on the golf course, was that the only skills he had were those he was born with. He had been a good football player because he was big – 6’1” and 220 pounds by the ninth grade. He didn’t have to lift weights to be stronger than the other kids; it was written in his DNA. In fact, his high school coach used to have fits trying to get Dan to work harder in the weight room, which Dan thought was foolish, assuming that lifting was for those who weren’t naturally strong.
            He saw the same trend in himself professionally. The biggest strength he had as a car salesman was his charisma, which wasn’t something he’d ever had to cultivate. When it came time to drill down and get serious about business matters, he’d always been content to delegate responsibility, falling back on the same excuse: that the brass tacks stuff wasn’t his skill-set, that he was more of an ideas guy and a people person.
            But as things had fallen apart in recent years, forcing him into introspection, Dan began to have the uncomfortable realization that maybe he wasn’t a Steve Jobs-esque big-picture guy; maybe he was just lazy. Because schmoozing with customers and planning epic renovations were a lot more enjoyable than unsexy tasks like sitting down with a spreadsheet to analyze sales metrics. But he knew that if he’d done more of the latter, he might still own the dealership.
            It was like the time he’d tried to teach Alex to use a pitching wedge. It seemed like a logical step – the boy spent hours on Dan’s putting green; now it was time to move on to the other clubs in the bag. But Alex gave up after ten minutes of divot-making futility, saying he would rather just putt. Dan found this annoying, but he also understood that he wasn’t one to judge.
            He tried to be different at Captain Steve’s, though. When his 7-iron was erratic, he stuck with it, resisting the urge to switch to another club or wander over to the putting green. He had about thirty balls left, and decided that he’d hit them all with the 7 to see if he could make improvements on his swing.
            He took his time, careful to keep his feet square and his wrists straight. He’d hit about ten shots in this manner when another golfer joined him on the range, a woman. She had a bag of Nike clubs with a fuzzy pink cover on the driver. She set up two spaces in front of Dan and began hitting. In between his own shots, Dan observed her with interest. She had a nice figure, and looked maybe ten years younger than him. Her brown hair was pulled into a ponytail and her golf skirt ended mid-thigh, revealing toned legs. Dan continued to hit his own shots, holding his follow-through a little longer after good ones, hoping she noticed. When he ran out of range balls, he didn’t want to leave, so he went back into the pro shop for another bucket.
            As the two silently swung away, Dan thought of how he might strike up a conversation. He ran through various pick-up lines, and decided he’d open by asking about her Nike clubs, saying that he planned to buy a set of his own, which was true. Not until she was finished, though. She seemed serious about her game, so it was best not to interrupt. He would speak to her casually as she left, between his own swings, as though it was an afterthought for him. If things went well, he hoped she might stick around and hit a few shots with him, maybe go out for lunch somewhere. But as he didn’t plan on staying in Jersey for more than a day, he was not looking to cultivate a relationship. His ultimate goal was to get her into a hotel room.
            The notion of bedding a woman within twenty-four hours of meeting her was not new to Dan. He’d done so on numerous occasions, starting at Clemson, where his status as an athlete made such connections easy. He hadn’t had to endure the elaborate wooing required of most men, didn’t have to impress ladies with his wit or suavity. He just had to be Dan the Football Player, and women – not all of them, but certain ones – were duly impressed. He’d later had similar results as Dan the Ex-Football Player and Dan the Wealthy & Ubiquitous Car Dealer. He knew it would be a bit more challenging this time since he wasn’t a known quantity to this woman, but he was willing to try, having a confidence born of his previous successes.
            Dan continued to hit his shots, pausing frequently to watch her. She had a good swing and he wondered if she’d played in college. He was admiring the way her hips rotated during her drives when she caught him looking. There was no denying it on his part. He was leaning on his 7-iron, staring right at her. He didn’t look away, and thought this might be his chance to start up a conversation. He was about to ask, “How you like those Nikes?” when her expression hardened. She looked on the verge of saying something, but didn’t. Instead, she picked up her bucket and bag and marched right by Dan, moving to a spot behind him, out of his range of vision.
            He bit his lip and his stomach churned with embarrassment. He wanted to turn around and tell her who he was, to explain that he wasn’t some random creep at a driving range. He recognized this urge as ridiculous, however, and suppressed it.
            He instead returned his attention to his bucket, nearly empty. There were four balls left, which he guided onto the mat with his club. He sliced every one. Not wanting to leave on a bad note, he walked out onto the range. There were a few extra balls lying close by, and he picked up a handful.
            It took him a few hacks – some low line drives and a worm burner – before finally finding what he was looking for, a missile of a 7-iron, the ball’s backspin projecting it into a bell-curve arc, dropping well past the 150 marker. He picked up his bag and left, not looking at the woman, who was still swinging away.
A few exits after the driving range, Dan stopped for lunch at a chain restaurant that served breakfast all day. He sat in a booth with a plate of eggs and hash browns, reading the sports section of USA Today as the room buzzed around him. A construction crew ate next to him, having a lively discussion in Spanish, laughing frequently. At another nearby table, a mother struggled to control two young boys, frequently reminding them to use “inside voices.” Dan skimmed a few articles in the paper, but didn’t absorb anything. His thoughts were elsewhere, replaying the scene at the driving range, the way that woman had glared at him. He’d seen the same look from Cynthia, too, at the end.
            And oddly enough, mixed in with these unpleasant thoughts was a memory of a sermon he’d heard years earlier, one of the few things he ever heard in church that had stuck with him. He was never good with Old Testament names, but he remembered this one – Esau. The guy came in starving from a long day of hunting and his brother was making soup. Esau requested sustenance and his brother, who was younger, demanded Esau’s birthright in return. And Esau gave it up, right there on the spot, in exchange for dinner. So of course the preacher’s focus was on Esau’s foolishness, how he was sold out by short-sighted enslavement to his appetite, how any man who could so easily cast aside his birthright didn’t deserve it in the first place.
            Dan had never forgotten that sermon, and he couldn’t stop thinking about it now. He tied it to a theme he’d been mulling over, the notion that his early successes ruined him for normal life, in a way. The heady rush of playing in front of 100,000 people as a teenager had ill-prepared him for the decades that were to follow. From a young age, football had conditioned him, priming his brain to need stimulation, to be intolerant of monotony. But it was that very thing – monotony – that was in his best long-term interest. If he’d been content with one woman, he’d still be married to Cynthia and have Abby’s respect. If he’d been content with an unexceptional building, he’d still own the dealership.
            He wondered if perhaps every person was granted a finite amount of excitement in life; the smart ones rationed theirs, enjoying small bits at a time, whereas he’d been foolish enough to waste all his by the age of 22. Then he spent his adulthood looking for more, to disastrous effect.
Vegas Hotel Room
When he arrived in Jersey City, it was early afternoon. He checked into another cheap motel and showered off the sweat from the driving range. Then he got directions to the PATH station from the desk clerk and was soon on a train into Manhattan. Abby lived at 349 East 12th Street, several blocks to the east of Greenwich Village. Cynthia, who was in regular contact with their daughter, had provided Dan with her current phone number and confirmed that she lived at the same address they’d moved her into four years earlier.
            Dan rode the train all the way until its last stop – Penn Station. He could have gotten off closer to his destination, but felt like walking. He bought lunch from a street vendor, another hot dog and Coke. It was sweltering outside, almost as bad as North Carolina, but in place of humidity was the accumulated exhaust from hundreds of thousands of mostly-idling cars. Sharply dressed businessmen loosened their ties. Dogs on leashes shuffled by, tongues lolling out.
            As he got closer to Abby’s place, details from the weekend he helped her move in came back to him: the Strand Bookstore at the corner of 12th and Broadway where he had coffee one morning; a hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant down off the sidewalk where they ate the first day they arrived; the careless, bohemian vibe of the young people he passed. When he got to 349, he didn’t even need to look at the number. On the bottom floor, just like last time, was the Thai Terminal. Abby lived up above, at the top of five flights of narrow stairs.
            The door into her building was locked; visitors had to be buzzed in. The brass doorknob was still loose, which he’d pointed out several times as a safety hazard during the moving process, though Abby and Cynthia hadn’t seemed too concerned. The door itself was still covered with a mishmash of stickers, the most conspicuous being a large one with “Scarlet Harlot” written in bold letters. Dan assumed this was a band. He called Abby’s cell phone, but it went straight to voicemail and he didn’t leave a message. He found a shady spot under the Thai Terminal sign and waited.
            As he waited, Dan’s thoughts again wandered back to the move, the last time he had seen his daughter face-to-face. Even though he drove all the way up to help her move, he wasn’t entirely supportive of her decision to pursue a career in theater after he’d spent tens of thousands of dollars on her sociology degree. Dan kept hinting that Abby should find a “day job” and act at night, which led to several sharp exchanges between the two.
            She had always been different than her parents. Dan and Cynthia were very much in the All-American mold – he was a football star and she a college volleyball player – but Abby had eschewed team sports, preferring drama troupes, dark clothes, and scrawny, long-haired boyfriends for much of her adolescence. Her grades were always good though, so these diversions didn’t bother her parents, who admired her individuality. However, Dan had a harder time dealing with his daughter’s post-college career path than had Cynthia, who felt that their daughter should “follow her heart,” a phrase she used frequently and that Dan was sure she lifted from one of the terrible Lifetime movies she so enjoyed.
            Eventually, a young man carrying groceries opened the door. Dan tailgated in and climbed the stairs, then knocked on 329. A woman opened the door. She wore pajamas and tattoos covered both arms, and Dan recognized her as one of Abby’s theater friends. They’d been roommates in college and had moved up here together. She eyed him warily.
            “Hey, Megan. Abby around?”
            “Oh.” She recognized Dan and her suspicion dropped, though she was still a bit cold. “Hi Mr. Stewart. Not right now. She’s at rehearsal. There’s a show tonight.”
            “Where at?”
            “The Met,” she said, and laughed to herself.
            Dan was glad she laughed, because he would have believed her otherwise. He laughed too. “Really, where is it?”
            “It’s where all her shows are – Louie’s on 4th.”
            “On 4th Street?”
            “No, that’s just the name – Louie’s on 4th. It used to be on 4th Street, I guess. It’s up on 22nd near the VA.”
            Megan told Dan that the play started at eight and gave him directions. Dan thanked her and said goodbye. He also told her not to let Abby know he was in town, that he wanted his visit to be a surprise, to which she responded by smiling inscrutably. He couldn’t tell if the expression was genuine or condescending.
It wasn’t yet four o’clock, and he didn’t want to show up early, deciding to wait until the play was over to surprise her. In the time between, he wanted to see the Empire State Building, which required a subway trip back the way he came.
            After standing in line for an hour, he spent another hour at the top. Each of the four sides gave a different view and he spent a long time at each, studying the city and its infinite moving parts, breathing in gusts of air fresher than the stuff down at ground level. He picked moving objects and tried to follow them in the crowds – cars as they snaked between buildings, people as they inched along the sidewalk. Born and raised in the South, Dan felt like Manhattan was another planet. The hustle and noise frightened him, as if the whole place were constantly on the verge of chaos. He couldn’t understand what held it all held together, what unseen force kept that island from imploding under the stress of millions of people, each hell-bent on his own agenda. It was a far sight from his upbringing, the slow pace of North Carolina where everyone knew everyone’s business, where an article in the newspaper about Dan as a promising middle-school football player had marked him as a big shot.
            Dan had always preferred life down there. In his commercials, he exaggerated his Cabarrus County drawl, not only because it made him more relatable but also because it was a badge of honor. One of his managers at the dealership had been from New Jersey, and Dan gave him no small amount of grief over being a Yankee, never missing an opportunity to inform him of the manifold benefits of being a Southerner.
            But oddly enough, for the first time in years, Dan felt himself able to relax in, of all places, New York City. He was aware of an enormous sense of life here, a raw vitality that dwarfed all the charisma he’d spent his life trying to project. The city’s pandemonium humbled him as much as it intimidated him. New York was a thing unto itself, huge and immutable. It didn’t register his presence, and neither did the people he passed on the street. The pressure of making a good impression – present everywhere back home – was gone. He remembered having this sense the last time he’d visited, though he didn’t remember liking it so much.
Eventually, he took the elevator down and got on the subway back to the East Village, where he had dinner at a café, sitting on the patio as the day cooled off. His cell phone buzzed in his pocket. It was Randy again, but Dan let it go to voicemail, not wanting to be forced into conversation about the job. It seemed like the perfect transition, an opportunity for him to continue in his area of expertise, but he felt conflicted.
            Dan knew that, for all his other failings, he was a great salesman. Randy wasn’t the first person to acknowledge this. Dan had fielded many calls over the years from other dealers soliciting advice, and he even used to lead an advertising seminar at Toyota conventions. Inventory, payroll, taxes, and all the other minutia of the job held little interest for him, but he loved to sell. Even as he filed for bankruptcy, he was outselling other dealerships in the area. It was just that damned loan that killed him, one bad decision he could not sell his way out of.
            In his gut, though, the job felt wrong. He knew what Randy wanted – a second-rate celebrity hawking cars for him. And there was a time in the past when such a position would have appealed to Dan. When he first started making commercials, the experience was a rush. He loved the blinking red light of the camera and the thought that what he said would soon be scrambled into a signal and broadcast for hundreds of thousands – maybe even millions – to see. The make-up women powdered his face and the boom mike hung over his head and he soaked it up. Making commercials became his passion, and he paid attention to the smallest details. He would invite himself into the cutting room as the ad team edited and give his opinion, becoming a self-taught expert in the art of commercial cinematography. Once he had an entire spot re-shot – after a harried editor had spent all day working on it – because Dan didn’t like the way the clouds looked behind him; he thought they were both asymmetrical and too dark.
            For him, the apex of the experience was the first time he ran across a commercial by accident. Not when the ad guys showed it to him in his office, but when he was watching on his own couch and it took him by surprise. He bought ads in certain time slots, but never knew exactly when his spot would show up, which heightened the anticipation. When Abby was a kid, they used to sit on the couch and wait to see Dad magically appear on TV. Will it be this commercial break or the next?
            But recently, watching the ads just made him embarrassed and self-conscious. The loud-mouthed confidence he expressed in front of the camera no longer matched the way he felt. He had failed, in a very public and spectacular way. People had lost their jobs because of a foolish decision Dan had made, one he could have avoided by taking the advice of the numerous people, including his ex-wife, who told him he didn’t need to renovate, that he was taking on too much. Naysayers who, at the time, had provided Dan with all the more incentive to build and build, just to show them he could.
At seven thirty he paid for his dinner and walked up to 22nd Street, where he located the theater, which occupied an old warehouse. Louie’s on 4th was painted above the door in elegant script and there was a marquee outside, backlit by yellow light. The night’s feature was called The Saga of Apples and, according to the sign, it showed at eighty on Wednesday through Saturday and five on Sunday. Dan didn’t stick his head inside to look around, but from the street it looked like a nice place. Surely a low-budget operation and probably not on par with the Met (whatever that was), but it seemed well-maintained. A crowd of people milled about in the lobby and a middle-aged, bearded hippie with a metal cash box sold tickets from a folding table. Dan bought one for ten dollars.
            “Haven’t seen you before,” the hippie said. “How’d you hear about us?”
            “Just walking by. Looked interesting.”
            “Excellent! I knew that marquee was a good investment. You’re going to love it. This one’s gotten some good press.”
            Dan took a program from the table and went in to find a seat. It was a small theater, stadium seating with concrete tiers leading up to the top; he estimated it could hold about two hundred people. Walking up to find a place near the back, he saw that the seats in each row were different: one was full of metal bleachers, another had cushioned movie theater seats, another had fold-down ballpark- style seats. He sat at the top row on a cushioned bench taken from the back of a minivan.
            He was twenty minutes early and watched a stagehand make adjustments to the set, hammering a windowsill into place. Inevitably, his thoughts drifted back to Randy and the job. “Consultant” certainly had a nice ring, but he recoiled at the thought of putting himself out there anymore, trading on his appeal as a washed-up jock to invade peoples’ homes and perpetuate his status as a local celebrity. He felt like his whole life had been a sales pitch, cars just being the most recent manifestation. Before that, it was football. He used football to sell himself in return for all sorts of things: women, recognition, a college education, a career. But at the moment, having wrung all he could out of his former glory, he wondered what the end result was. Things had come easy for so long – so much had been handed to him because of who he was – he now felt that he didn’t have any reserves of character underneath, no ballast with which he could steady himself as he reeled in the wake of his broken relationships and colossal failure as a business manager.
            Wanting a distraction, he thumbed through his program. The name Abby Stewart was all over it. Not only had his daughter co-written the play, she also played a main role and was listed as one of the theater’s managers. On the back was a message addressed to “Supporters of Louie’s.” Abby’s name was signed at the bottom, along with several others. The last paragraph caught Dan’s attention:
We are looking at the very real possibility of having to close our doors. Independent theater has never been a hugely profitable enterprise, but until now we’ve been able to make ends meet. However, we have currently fallen behind on our lease payments and are in danger of being evicted. Simply put, we need to raise $10,000 by the end of the summer. This will both satisfy our creditors and enable us to continue producing quality plays. If you enjoy & value the work we do, please consider making a donation to help us meet this goal. Louie’s has been in business for nearly 20 years, but we have never been in this kind of financial situation before.
            He read this several times.
            Shortly after eight o’clock, the lights went down and the play began. It was a mob tale, the story of Apples and his rise through the criminal underworld, all in three acts. Dan learned from the bill that Abby was playing Apples’ love interest, and throughout act one he waited in vain for her. It wasn’t until the middle of act two that she entered from stage left, arm-in-arm with the main character.
            When she walked onstage, Dan’s eyes teared up and he unconsciously twisted his program in his hand. He had forgotten just how small she was, a little over five feet. On the drive up, as he imagined conversing with her, it was with a grown woman, but this seemed to be the same girl he dropped off in the city four years earlier. Her hair was longer than it used to be, now halfway down her back, which only increased her aura of youthfulness. He felt transported back to all the high school plays he had attended, his pipsqueak daughter comporting herself with perfect ease and confidence, inhabiting the stage as naturally as he once inhabited the football field.
            She wore red lipstick and a black dress, looking confident in the role of a swinging woman from the Prohibition Era. She was passionate and furious, which was only appropriate since her love interest spent most of the play getting into all kinds of trouble. She was brilliant, performing her heart out in front of a half-empty theater in a remote corner of the city. Dan could hear Abby in much of the dialogue, both hers and that of the other characters. It was obvious that she’d written this; her fingerprints were all over it. And the production values didn’t seem amateur, either; the acting was good and the story compelling. Dan felt the play would have kept his attention even if he didn’t have a personal stake in it.
            When it was over, the whole theater, perhaps 60 people total, gave a standing ovation while the cast joined hands and bowed at the front of the stage. Dan waited in the lobby outside, hoping to surprise his daughter. It seemed like he ought to stick out here, a hulking, middle-aged man in a crowd of young artistic types – and in North Carolina he might have – but no one seemed to take notice of him. After waiting half an hour, he still hadn’t seen Abby and the lobby was empty except for himself and a girl sweeping the floor. He asked her if she knew where Abby Stewart was. She eyed him in much the same way Megan had, and he explained that he was Abby’s father.
            “She left a little while ago. Her and most everyone else. I think they went to a club. Or back to someone’s apartment.”
            He would wait until tomorrow to call her. There was no hurry. He headed west on 22nd to catch the train back to his hotel.
Evan Howell is a North Carolina-based writer who has published fiction in Muscle & Blood, Swill, Relief, and Write This.
Photography by Charla Allyn Hughes, William Joseph Stribling, and Oove Orozco.