‘P’ is for Paybacks
The head greenskeeper found the body sprawled across the 9th hole, marring the trim oval of finely cut grass under the opening of a balmy, seventy-three-degree dawn. John Gallagher — forever clad in Bermuda shorts, a pair of centuries-old leather boat shoes, and black polo — was both popular and despised at the Rowling Country Club (feelings sewn to his tally of gin and tonics), but whose bold presence and bark-like laugh were nevertheless as familiar a fixture of the place as were the white pillars, airy breezeways, and dark brown brick.
Here he was, expired on the 9th hole of the most popular course in Burnside, and on a Wednesday no less.
The sprinklers had already shot across the greens and across the body, and at 7:33, according to Gene’s Timex Weekender, the greenskeeper had to hustle to stop a group of earlybird enthusiasts dressed in loud neons from unwittingly teeing towards John bloating silently below. The man’s clubs were with him; each iron deliberately set preceding in number next to him on the ground, and this gave the greenskeeper an even worse feeling than discovering the body, an event which he’d already realized he could spellbind friends, relatives, and barkeeps with for the foreseeable future.
Once the greenskeeper had the trio safely puttering their way to number ten – say “sinkhole,” and say no more — he rushed back to the scene. Yes, there was John, famous low-ball tipper and fan of the house steak, lying dispatched next to his couple thousand dollar Moda’s, with the sun glinting guiltily off each head. As much as he wanted to be the one to tell Marv, his counterpart on holes ten through eighteen, Gene couldn’t leave and risk someone else — golfer, dog-walker, or straight vanilla member of the public — recognizing John and sounding the scandal bell. He felt for the radio on his hip.
Once Gene was notified the police were on their way, and once he’d dispatched his inept assistant to tape-off the tee to number nine, the greenskeeper marveled at the way his thoughts adjusted so easily to the murder, as that’s what it most certainly was called, while he picked and ate blackberries from the overripe bush keeping him company. The wife was a strong suspect, he supposed. Everyone always suspected the spouse. But so, too, were about five billion wronged business partners, double-crossed lady-friends, eager heirs, and people dining in the general vicinity of John at the club. Gene shivered. Murder at the golf course? Who would have done this — and why?
A penetrating sadness overcame Gene. John was dead, nothing left of him but the meat of his body. His eyes were gone, his voice gone, his laugh and his every thought were gone. It was such a profound event yet nothing around them had stopped. Not the golfers or the traffic he could hear out on the nearby highway, not the gulls drafting overhead or the waves crashing against the rocks at the base of the ridge. At this very moment, people were eating cereal and watching TV and checking their social media and putting on pants and scolding their children for not getting out of bed quick enough and how they were going to miss the school bus.
Deserved or not, death had humiliated John. Death humiliates all of us eventually. No one is safe. No one is spared.
Gene remembered a camping trip he’d taken with friends when he was just out of high school and working as a caddie and scrambling for some kind of footing while his friend’s parents paid for them to go to college to deliver them into their proper stable lives. They’d driven inland by an hour, camped beside a muddy lake in a state park. They’d been playing wiffle ball in the shallows when a police truck emerged from an old sheep path and an officer informed them all he had reason to believe someone had drowned in the lake. Divers showed up and soon carried out a young man, probably around their same age, shirtless and shoeless, his skin the same blue as his dripping jeans.
Gene recalled that once they’d taken away the drowned boy they all just sat on the beach, staring out at the still brown water, and he’d wondered how long until they could return to their game of wiffle-ball.
Poor John. Greedy John. Asshole John. Gene crouched over the body, but couldn’t discern any noticeable marks. No broken bones, no bruises to his face or neck. John seemed quite peaceful. The only thing askew was a rounded bulge on his chest under the fabric of the black polo shirt.
Gene looked back up the hill. No sign of the police. He looked all around. No golfers, no one else but him. He slid on a work glove and with the tip of his index finger ever so lightly tapped the bugle in the shirt.
It was hard. Gene jerked away his hand.
How odd. What could it be? Gene didn’t want to disturb the body for he knew this was a crime scene, but he also knew if he didn’t look he might never know. He found a discarded tee and knelt at John’s head and used the tee to gently lift the shirt’s collar and peek beneath.
Gene recoiled against what he saw — no blood at all, but a hole had been cleaved into the skin and muscle of John’s chest and in the place above his heart now sat, half in the hole and half out, what looked to be a green piece of fruit, maybe a pear.
Gene sprang to his feet, his pulse thumping in his neck. A strange feeling overtook him. Guilt. Was it guilt he was feeling? Why was he feeling guilty? I just want to work my job and go home and have a beer and do some woodworking, Gene thought. He was building a bookcase for his sister. He thought he might finish tonight. He could put in an extra hour and have it all done.
A commotion broke up the hill — the club pro and two police officers in uniform and a paramedic and another man in a plain gray suit. Gene watched them descend and something in that sacred place of truth behind his eyes urged him to flee.
He didn’t run. He didn’t make notice. He walked to the edge of the green and paused to squint down into the glare of morning light reflecting out on the ocean. He sidestepped down the grassy slope and into the steep jumble of rocks. No one called for him so he didn’t stop and Gene clambered quickly down toward the thin stretch of beach and the glittering sea of gold.
The pear shortage had hit the country many years earlier, and since then no one had seen, smelled, or eaten a single pear; it was something to do with a combination of drought followed by extensive rains that had led to the rise of a certain millipede that ate the blossoms before they could grow into fruit. Only over oceans, where climates were more temperate (or had become more temperate) where pears were still part of fruit bowls and to import them was too expensive, and often risky in terms of the fruit fly. A pear meant something very different now than it had a decade earlier. Almost as a joke, earlier in the year, a Cézanne exhibit had passed through the nearby art museum, and when town members attended, it was like, for a second, glimpsing an earlier world, like seeing visitors discussing a shoe in a cobbler shop, or standing before a landscape of horse-drawn carriages.
The police officer, Janet, who had solved many a murder in the big city, was not shocked or particularly interested in the case until she too lifted up the shirt and saw the hole, and then the fruit. The shape of it so familiar, so womanly — many women, over time, supposedly resembled apples or pears, she had read, and pears were supposed to be the healthier shape; apple women had to be careful of heart disease. Wasn’t that a strange study, in retrospect? And, what did it all mean? What was the message? Instead of a heart, a pear?
“Do you see this?” she asked her partner, Jacoby, who had never been on a murder case before and was biting his nails.
He knelt down. His eyes shone with purpose. He was a morning person, and when the call came in from the greenskeeper, he had actually whooped.
“What is that?” he breathed.
“Look closer, Jacoby,” she said, “Come on. This murderer knows something we don’t.”
The paramedic was talking to the man in the gray suit about golf, and their favorite courses: the paramedic liked Pebble Beach, the man in the gray suit longed to go to Scotland. So, for a moment, the secret was held between the two officers.
Harriet was a golf cart and she had complaints. Many of them. She had driven around the Rowling Golf Course for years, and she remembered everyone who had golfed here. She forgot nothing and held grudges, something one would not expect of a golf cart, but there she was. She remembered the way John Gallagher had driven too fast toward the 10th hole, which made her fear that her right mirror might fall off, and the way that Alfred Knudson had slapped her steering wheel a little too hard when he laughed, she remembered the way that Brian Smith would slam on the brakes by the 14th hole, which always made her left front door ache. She knew things about people. A golf course was, in her opinion, a place for much rudeness and misbehavior, even though it was quiet and the lawns were always green and mowed. She was not surprised to see the body on the 9th hole.
Harriett held grudges, but, in truth, she was the most idealistic of the golf carts. She had seen golfers leave trash on the back seat, or careen over potholes, etc., but she also had seen them change. Brian Smith had, over time, learned to use brakes correctly, for example. She had a quiet belief in human evolution, she had hope. Certainly she had a stronger belief in human nature than Jennifer, who had given up on all humans when the owner of the golf course refused to change her tires, which were now worn out, forcing her to rumble along the gravel roads of the course at a slow and frustrating pace. One night, she had seen Jennifer slowly drive by the owner’s Rolls Royce, which was parked by the entrance of the course, very slowly, and give it a little tap, not enough to do any damage, but enough to make Jennifer feel better. Jennifer wanted new tires. She really wanted them. Jennifer zoomed back to the golf cart area quickly, and squeezed into her normal place, where no one would suspect anything. Jennifer was good at looking innocent. The night was dark and quiet. Jennifer would never admit to what she had done in daylight, but Harriet had seen it, and she knew.
Harriett watched the group of people around John’s body. They were deep in discussion, and she could see, with her sharp golf cart eyes, which caught, everything, something interesting. There was a pear. She felt something click on in her engine. She had no personal interest in pears, obviously, but she remembered that someone had left a gnawed pear on her front seat last week. She had driven around with a damp and mushy pear core there for several hours before the head groundskeeper had taken it off and thrown it away. The groundskeeper had been astonished by the pear. Harriet had been thinking, just throw it out, for God’s sake, as she was a fastidious golf cart, among other things. The groundskeeper held the pear very gently, as though it were a jewel. He wrapped it in a napkin and put it in a paper bag. His hands were trembling. All she could think about was the fact that he needed to wipe up the pear mush off the seat. What was wrong with people?
“You can get sepsis from that, you know,” said Janet. “I read about a guy.”
Jacoby looked up at her mirrored aviators and all he could see was himself, in duplicate, the newbie he was, squatting over the dead golfer like he’d never seen a cadaver before, which, yeah, he hadn’t, but still, it wasn’t a good look. And chewing on a fingernail, what an idiot. He pulled his index finger out from between his two sharpest, best nail-biting teeth, and inspected it. It didn’t even look like a finger anymore, or a nail — more like a bloodied cauliflower floret that’d been left in the crisping drawer way past being edible.
“Sepsis, huh?” he said, and tucked the finger into his fist. Why hadn’t he put a Band-Aid on it, like he’d thought about when he’d first gotten the call? Even if no one had heard the whoop, he felt like he was wearing it, like a boombox on his shoulder. Look at me, hey, rookie cop, first murder, oh, happy day! Even with Janet’s eyes masked, he could feel the disdain. The way she looked at his finger and crinkled her nose like an accusation. Not even Wednesday of his first week on homicide, and he was already blowing it. With Janet, the one woman in the world he wanted to impress.
He didn’t know what it was about her. Not with any precision. She was pretty in an off-handed, can’t-quite-be-bothered-to-get-an-outfit-together kind of way. Steel grey eyes and hair the color of sandy rocks, pulled back in a ponytail at the base of her perfectly shaped skull, like a question mark. No jewelry to speak of, just a small tattoo on the inside of her wrist. On the days she wore a short-sleeved blouse, or scrunched her jacket up to the elbows, he thrilled at the sight of it, that tiny pear, soft, ripe green. The pear of her body, curved in all the right places.
Janet was looking at him, waiting. Like she was testing him. Look closer, she’d said, and he’d tried, he had, to take it all in, to see every detail — wanted to see something she didn’t. But all he could think about, even leaning over the dead golfer, was the great mystery of Janet.
“We could turn him over, I guess,” said Jacoby, just for the sake of saying something.
“I like it,” said Janet. “No blood. So maybe the pear’s not the cause of death, right?”
“Right,” said Jacoby, like he’d meant it, instead of accidentally stumbling onto a clue. Truth was, he wanted to turn Janet over, see what she was on the other side, or turn her inside out, and gaze upon her wonders. See behind the mirrored glasses, at least that.
He turned back to the dead guy. Leaned down and nudged the already stiff body over, propping it up with two hands. Janet stepped close to him and leaned in, too. She lifted her glasses onto her head. Jacoby felt her shoulder brush his, thought he could smell her sweet jasmine breath. They looked together, their eyes one thing, one thought, one clue: tire tracks up the length of his body.
“Will you look at that,” Jacoby said, his breath catching, his chest full of tight wonder. He reached for the grey smudge of the tread that ran up John Gallagher’s legs, across his back and over each shoulder.
“Don’t,” Janet said, taking his hand in hers, pulling it to her chest. “The evidence, Jacoby.”
“Of course,” he said. “Of course, I’m an idiot. Sorry.”
“It’s okay, Jacoby,” she kept his hand in hers as they stood, cocked their heads looking down at the body, the shell of what once was of John Gallagher — the boat shoes, the Bermuda shorts, the tan and furred skin of his calves, forearms, hands, all so mundane, so cliche, so human. “Jacoby, do you think you could ever … take a life?”
“I think I could,” he said. “Yes.”
“Can I tell you something?” Janet let Jacoby’s hand fall back to his side, toeing John Gallagher’s boat shoe. “I’ve done it.”
“I thought so,” he said, stepping closer to her, once again smelling the jasmine seeping from Janet all mixed up with the tight-cut grass and John Gallagher’s cologne. “It’s what I love best about you.”
“It was just this kid, up at the lake one summer,” Janet said. “Nobody liked him much. He was kind of scrawny, kind of mean. He spit on my little sister once.”
“I’ll bet it felt good,” Jacoby said, reaching for Janet’s neck, soft between his palms, his fingers. He gently squeezed. “Like this?”
“That’s how it started,” she said, standing still. “Then I held him under. He kicked a bunch, scratched. Then it was over. He was gone from this world, and I was still in it. It was a thrill, of a sort, but more than that, it made me feel human, more a part of the life force.”
“You glad you did it?” Jacoby squeezed a little tighter, and Janet smiled, stared across at him.
“I am,” she whispered, as Jacoby let go. “I still feel the joy of it some days, mostly working a case like this.”
“Do you think whoever did this got the same kind of thrill?”
“I hope so,” Janet said. “I definitely hope so, Jacoby. Makes me smile a little just thinking about it.”
At that, they went to work gathering evidence, turning John Gallagher’s arms and legs side to side, taking samples of skin and dirt and that tread. The trees near the green rustled in the rising breeze.
“Do you think you’ll do it again?” Jacoby said as they turned John Gallagher back over.
“I might,” Janet said. “Who can ever say what they’ll do in this life, Jacoby.”
“Do you suppose this guy, Gallagher, ever did?”
“I’d say no,” Janet said. “I can tell these things. It’s what makes me good at all this. I can tell the difference between people like me, people like us, Jacoby, and people like Gallagher.”
Pears had been important in this coastal village, for decades. Their disappearance had meant losses for cultivators, for orchardists, and farmers markets. They’d mattered to the local economy; they’d mattered for this very golf course. Many people had forgotten this, but the golf course had been built by the pear industry, back in the days when the founding father farmers, Bartlett James and Anjou McCoy, had bought up several hundred acres of coastal rangeland and planted. Bartlett and Anjou had a dream. You could stand at the east bench and look out toward the sea, and a beautiful sight would greet you. Undulating row after row of beautiful pear trees, leaves and fruit like spangles against the orchard grasses, against the deep blue of the ocean beyond. Burnside Brilliants, a variety they’d bred and nurtured, could only be produced in this valley.
Burnside Brilliants were shipped to restaurants and foodie shops up and down the West Coast. They were featured in Cooks magazine; they were part of the California Cordon Bleu franchise.
What had happened, to ruin the vision of orchard bliss, of coastal beauty and wholesome production?
John Gallagher is what had happened. John Gallagher, who hated anything that grew, anything that spoke of nature, or rugged beauty. He hated soil and shovels, dirt and work. He hated bees and pollination. The queen was part of what he hated, waited on wing and foot, and everybody in the hive working on her behalf. He hated the sticky leaves, the sticky floors of the farmers’ fruit stands, the fans blowing flypaper, the smudge pots when the nights got cold. He looked at the gentle, rolling orchard hills and saw, where pears flourished and leaves sparkled, opportunity.
He took a chance. Mortgaged his property to the hilt, fleeced a couple of stooges at a poker game, and bought a sweet little hillside flanking the Bartlett and Anjou orchards. He built a sweet little driving range on that hillside. And he waited. The coastal weather was changeable enough, he’d get his chance.
All it took was a dry season or two. The pear harvest was down, and what fruit there was seemed shriveled. Bartlett’s wife Masha was a ceramics artist, and she startled him one evening by producing a perfect, rounded pear, redolent and luscious, an utterly feminine display of all the orchard was beginning to lose. It was a beautiful, cool green with some pinkish rose shading the curve, and a whisper of gold flicking up to the stem.
“We need the money,” Masha said. “I’m taking this to the Burnside Gallery.”
When she got there, a window washer in the nearby shop nodded curtly. Jacoby, the red script on his shirt pocket said. Inside the shop, they hemmed and hawed. But they loved it, she could see.
John Gallagher watched from a silver Mercedes, parked just around the corner. He finished his hamburger. He licked ketchup from his greasy fingers and wiped them on a napkin spread across his lap. Touched the napkin to his fleshy lips and made himself breathe slowly. He patted the roll of bills in his shirt pocket. Masha was a pretty woman, he thought. Pear-shaped, he noted. It was too bad. She had a pink nose and gold hair. She had no idea what was waiting for her.
Gene walked along the beach for so long he’d almost forgotten what he was walking away from. A beach like this, any beach actually, has a quality that makes you believe you could be anywhere. It makes you believe nothing bad could ever happen. The constant lap of small waves, the glitter of sun, the little hand-sized birds digging crabs from the sand with razor-like beaks. Gene thought, I could be in Bermuda, I could be in California, I could be anywhere.
The farther Gene walked the more he could breathe again. The entire morning on the golf course felt like a preview for a film he never went to see. It was a slice, a glimpse into a different narrative entirely. But, he did not know how it began and he certainly did not know how it had ended for poor, fat John. And still, swimming somewhere in him was a sense that he was somehow responsible, a little voice that said, hush, don’t tell anyone.
Gene was barefoot and the hot afternoon sun had begun to burn the top of his forehead and he was sweating a small ring around his neck and through his shirt, a line like a river down his back. He decided not to think about where he was going, but rather to try and remember where he had been. Because right next to the little voice that said hush, was a giant gaping black space where his memory of the night before should have been, but wasn’t.
Gene had once read in a self-help book that he found in the bathroom of his mother’s house that meditation can often retrieve memories that we bury deep within us. He also heard once in a movie where the main character was in a yoga class, that if you cannot do yoga, you should try swimming instead. “There is something therapeutic about water,” Gene repeated to himself out loud, a line from the movie.
He slowly undressed himself. He paid no regard to the families nearby or the young couple sunning and drinking wine coolers some five feet away. He took off his sweat-soaked shirt. He took off his watch. He took off his shorts and stood in his boxers. He stared out into the sea. He wondered how far he could swim before he could swim no longer. He walked toward the water and had the strangest sensation come over him. It was the same feeling he used to get when going home to his mother’s house. He said, “I’m going home.”
The water was cold, but not what he expected. He’d wanted it to take the air from his lungs, but rather it wrapped itself around him. It invited him in more. He walked on in, ankles, shins, knees, thighs, stomach, chest, arms, shoulders, chin. And then he was in. He swam forward as his body floated in the salt water. He could no longer feel the sand. He swam out past the small wave break to where the water was calm again, to where it felt once more like a lake, like the lake from his camping trip. He did the backstroke and lost his orientation to the shore. He imagined John’s body. He imagined the young boy’s body being pulled from the water. He imagined his own body filled with salt water and washed up on a beach nearby.
As Gene swam, and focused on his breathing, his meditating, small threads of memory from the night before. He sensed the taste of pears dripping down his chin, the smell of Janet’s apartment, the instructions coming in over a fax machine in the corner from the leader of their organization: Fruit Is Life. Fruit Is Life, a liberation coalition designed to reclaim the land ruined by the drought and stolen by John Gallagher, was something Janet believed in, and Gene believed in Janet. They sat drinking Miller High Life on the couch in her apartment when the instructions came in. They read simply: kidnap John Gallagher from the sauna at the club at 11:33 PM. Place him in a golf cart on the green with a pear strapped to his chest. Leave a note that reads: FRUIT IS LIFE, LIBERATE THE PEARS. The goal was to get it in the local newspapers.
Gene nearly choked on the salt water, his limbs were growing heavy. He remembered everything: his love of that wily police officer Janet, the smell of the box of pears she had smuggled in, the heft of John as they drugged him and dragged him from the sauna and dressed him, the note he had left. And finally he remembered the vial of memory eraser he had drank, which had clearly not entirely worked, when he got home that night. He thought, meditation is a hell of a thing to bring all this back. The water lapped up around him, he suddenly felt sand beneath his butt. Gene had accidentally drifted all the way back to the shore. He couldn’t even properly kidnap someone, or set himself to drift at sea. He felt like a bloated floating failure. As he crawled out of the water and laid his sunburnt face in the hot sand he wondered. If I only kidnapped him, then what happened next?
Eating pears. In the barn. That’s what Lizzie Borden had famously said she was busy doing while her mother was getting forty whacks, and her father twice as many for good measure. Jennifer had read the story a dozen times, in another life. Nobody thought a golf cart to be well-read, and she wasn’t, really, in a conventional way. But occasionally, over the years, someone had left a paperback or Reader’s Digest or a newspaper in her console — usually something that made her want to spew gasoline, like The Best Golf Advice I Ever Received. But every once in a while, she got something good, something ripe and juicy that she could devour. It was true: she’d long been fascinated by tales of beguile, lust, and — yes — murder.
All day long, Jennifer watched the scene on the green with tortured pleasure. She watched dutiful Gene come upon the body as it rotted in the early sun. The officer and her hapless panting pup had nearly crashed into her in their haste to investigate. Nearly everything had worked out according to her plan, down to the dent on John Gallagher’s Royce.
That fool, Harriett, thought Jennifer was irritated because of the state of her tires. Jennifer let Harriett go on imagining that she’d been scooting into his whip out of some kind of petty maintenance issue. Just like she let Harriett go on imagining that she was the one who knew how to hold a grudge.
It was true, though, that she’d been neglected since her arrival at Rowling Golf course. This was to say nothing of the foul, sweaty bottoms that shifted heavily against her seats each day, or the sticky wine coolers spilled on her beautiful white interior, only to turn to a hardened syrup in the unrelenting sun.
But what she missed more than anything, more than the fresh rubbery smell of new tires, and even more than reading Wuthering Heights, was the shade of a pear tree. Even better, the shade of a hundred. She’d known that sweet, soft shade once. She’d snoozed beneath the waxy heart-shaped leaves many an August afternoon. She could almost hear it now, calling out from years gone by: the melodic voice of her beloved true owner, waking her. Masha, dear Masha, urging her tenderly down another orchard row, filling buckets with luscious green pears and giving her bounty for Jennifer to carry. Oh, what precious cargo she’d held in those Bartlett orchard heydays.
No one knew what had been taken from her. No one knew the life she’d traded for this wretched Rowlings hell-hole. No one except Harriett.
Sure, Jennifer had made other friends. Or, at least they thought they were her friends. She’d listened to more than her fair share of golf course gossip between hole one and eighteen, and she’d heard about what John had done to other women. He’d broken their hearts somehow, though how he’d had the power to do it was beyond Jennifer. But Jennifer didn’t mind hearing these stories. For one, she related to the feeling that this man had stolen something from her — from all of them. Yes, he’d taken their joy. There was hardly any difference between their circumstances, really. But more important, she’d been listening. Day after day, she gathered information. She even cruised by the Rolls Royce as often as she could, peering into the back seat, craning to hear any secrets the car might whisper to her through his exhaust.
Once she had developed a plan, she needed these friends to help execute it. There were things she simply couldn’t do. For instance, she had never used a fax machine. Oh, but there were things she could offer a caddie. She was an incredible designated driver, and in a place where they were in short supply. But it had been important to her, who it was to help her with the final touches. In all her reading, she had learned there was nothing sweeter in life than a cold, fruity dish of revenge — nothing except love.
Many men had noticed Janet, but Jennifer knew Gene had it bad, worse than anyone else. He’d do anything to impress her. And once he’d drank the special lemonade she left in her driver’s cup holder, he performed like a character reading a script.
After she’d done it — the old tires left such messy, muddled tracks on John’s clothing that she was almost embarrassed — she drove away from the scene. He wouldn’t remember being here, not right away, but something would bring him back in the morning. He would find the body himself, and it would feel like a surprise at first. More than anything, he would puzzle over the pear where a heart should be.
It was a symbol of a better time for Jennifer, for everyone in Burnside; and a casualty in the wake of Gallagher’s greed. But it also signified a new era. Nobody knew that Jennifer had a hundred perfect pear seeds in the bottom of her rear compartment, dried with the juices of the Bartlett pears from seasons gone by, waiting to be planted again when the time was right. Nobody except Harriett.