Number Seven: The Sphinx
The chopped-off pyramid is a classic of the mini-golf landscape. Set an inverted crater in the top and you present your players with an imposing challenge: unless you roll your ball just over the rim, or clank it directly into the hole, it will continue past the opposite rim and down the far side of the pyramid. The genius stroke is a genuine Sphinx – four feet tall, its famous broken nose restored – to watch as you struggle.
David is exhausted, panting, bruised in several places – wrapped up in Abbey Sparling.
“My God! For a one-armed woman, you can do some amazing things.”
The flattery spreads over Abbey’s face in the form of a deep smile.
“That’s why I took up the weights, honey. I knew someday that I would be the one to undo the sexual repression of David Falter.”
“You knew, huh?”
“Yep. Remember that time in the weight room?”
“I knew it wouldn’t happen for us just then, but still, I liked what I was feeling.”
“Me too. I always had a thing for you.”
Abbey gives a bemused expression.
“Let’s rephrase that. I liked the feeling of the thing that I was holding.”
“Ooh! You a nasty woman.”
“Something else, Mr. Falter. It’s so much easier dealing with someone who knew me before the accident. I’ve seen the looks I get; people are so fucking fascinated by the thing that’s missing. I always wondered how that would play out in the world of dating, and I’m kind of glad I didn’t have to find out.”
David smiles a little crazily. Getting away with murder is just too good for words.
“I really hate to say this, but is it okay if I shower up and leave you?”
“Sure. I’ve got a few hundred papers of my own. It’s kind of like taking in toxins, isn’t it? Sometimes I have to read some Raymond Carver or Jane Hirshfield to inoculate myself.”
“Ah. But every once in a while, a diamond in the manure pile. An actual insight.”
“A poem with solid meter.”
“An apt citation.”
“A story by Derek Falter.”
“Uh-oh,” says David. “Humpback whales? Monarch butterflies?”
“No.” She reaches into the nightstand and pulls out a stapled set of papers. “I took the liberty of making you a copy.”
Abbey smiles wickedly. “We’re a little bit past unethical, don’t you think? Adultery? Fraternization?”
“Let’s hope the slippery slope levels out before we get to genocide.”
She slaps his bare behind and laughs. “Into the shower with you!”
The Quinault Casino offers a cozy little lounge next to the registration desk, furnished with fireside easy chairs and solid wooden tables for adherents of the nearby espresso bar. The espresso stops at nine, but David knows the secret: a self-serve beverage area next to the slots.
He brings his free coffee to a table far from the other guests and pulls a cool hundred midterm essays from his satchel. The paper on top is Derek’s, but he decides to use it as incentive. An hour later, having graded twenty papers, he goes to the beverage area for a refill and a turn at the Lobstermania slot machine, then returns to the lounge and Derek’s paper.
The Redemption of Rusty Littleman
On the westmost shore of the great wet kingdom, a thumb of land extended downward. On the tip of the thumb stood Sands-by-the-Ocean, which seemed a silly thing to call a village, but then this is a silly story.
Standing at the center of Sands-by-the-Ocean was a tremendous statue of a frontiersman, a man called Meriwether. The statue stood twice the size of a man, and in his upstretched hand he held a brilliant white crystal. The villagers attributed their general prosperity and happiness to this crystal, and believed that any damage to the enchanted rock would bring great misfortune.
A young man named Rusty became obsessed with the magic crystal, and came to believe that if only he could touch its surface, he would become a very important peson. Walking through the square one night, Rusty saw that no one was around, and decided to give his theory a try. No sooner had he gained a foothold at the top of Meriwether’s boot than the statue began to teeter forward. Rusty tried to pull it back but succeeded only in losing his grip and falling to the ground. He watched in horror as Meriwether tilted forward and struck the cobblestones with a loud clang. The crystal flew into the air and fell to the ground with a sickening smash.
Rusty scrambled to his feet and was just about to run away when the square was filled with a blinding light. The entire town came running, and when they saw what Rusty had done they began to hurl insults and angry threats.
His mother had once told him that names would not hurt him, but Rusty found that this was not true at all. In fact, each angry word seemed to strike him like a stone and press him toward the ground, until he realized that he actually was shrinking! When he found himself at eye-level with the statue’s pedestal – a marble slab only six inches high – he knew he had better start running before he disappeared entirely. He managed to reach the corner of Chance of the Sea and, realizing the crowd was right on his very small heels, slipped through a hole in a chain-link fence. As his eyes adjusted, he realized he was standing before a set of mysterious mounds that the locals called the Razorwire Mountains. He waited there as, one by one, the angry citizens of Sands-by-the-Ocean gave up their quest and grumbled home.
Rusty felt sorely alone, standing by the fence, his only comfort the croaking of frogs in the nearby canals. Then a sound began to creep in on the edges of his hearing, and he realized it was a song. He spied a dull circle of light at the base of a low mound and walked over to inspect. What he found was a cave whose sides were fashioned of smooth metal. The cave angled sharply upward, and the going was arduous, but he found that he could keep himself from slipping by pressing his hands to the ceiling.
When he emerged at the top, he came upon a truly remarkable sight: a row of gray battlements and towers, banked in dunes of sand. At the base of the temple sat a white rat, singing a merry song before a fire.
“Oh my true love wears a gingham dress, a gingham dress, a gingham dress. My true love wears a gingham dress, but her ma don’t care for me.”
“A rat with a fire?” said Rusty. “That’s just crazy.”
The rat let out a squeal of laughter. “Look who’s talking: a six-inch human.”
“Wait a minute. Rats can’t talk.”
“We talk all the time. Problem is, in order to understand a rat, you have to be the same size as a rat.”
Rusty sat down against the temple wall, dejected. “That’s me – the size of a rat.”
“Feeling a little beaten-down?”
“What’s your name?”
Entreé threw another stick on the fire.
“A little girl named me that. Her name was Starling. Her brother was feeding me to his pet snake, and she couldn’t stand it. But when she reached in to save me, the snake thought she was dinner and wrapped himself around her arm. By the time they got him off, he had done too much damage, and they had to amputate. Except for the part about me not being snakefood, it’s a very sad story. Starling, however, is a remarkable child; despite her loss, she’s the one who thought up my rather humorous name. Her mother was not so forgiving. At the first opportunity she stuffed me into a paper sack and threw me over the Razorwire fence.”
“That’s a pity,” said Rusty.
The rat and the tiny man became fast friends, and they fashioned a saddle so that Rusty could ride Entreé from mountain to mountain. They explored great bridges and buildings, a volcano, one half of a dome, a statue of a cat, all of them banked in sand and sheltered by high brown ceilings.
One day they were picnicking on stale Cheetos beneath an enormous archway when a giant hunk of metal burst through the ceiling and just as suddenly disappeared, letting in a shaft of sunlight. Entreé scooped Rusty into his saddle and rushed them off to the great rock tower.
The two spent the next several days atop the tower, watching through a slit in the brown covering as a crew of workmen tore down the mountains, one by one, and carted away the sand. After that, a crew of workers dressed all in white painted the monuments and rolled out strips of lawn in all the colors of the rainbow. When the two refugees realized that the rock tower was next, they had to evacuate, traveling the metal caves in order to keep away from the workers.
They eventually worked their way back to the row of towers, which were now painted in golds and light browns. They took up a watch at the base of the hill, in the opening of the leftward cave. Rusty spotted the lettering along the side and announced that they were hiding out beneath “Ma-chew Pee-chew.”
“That’s a pretty silly name,” said Entreé. “Although I do like the ‘chew’ parts.”
Once the white crew departed, Rusty and Entreé began to think that the park had been cleaned up specifically for their use. This idea did not last long. Another group arrived, this one dressed in matching blue T-shirts; they decorated the park in streamers and balloons and a banner that said Grand Opening! The following morning, the entire village lined up at the front counter. Rusty was standing at the opening of the cave when he heard a metallic rumbling; the next thing he knew, he was lying on the ground under a pile of rat.
“Hey!” he complained. But then a white boulder tumbled from the cave and bounded across the blue lawn. Rusty and Entreé dashed behind a flowerpot and watched as family after family sent balls down the tunnels, down the face of Ma-chew Pee-chew, then used their long sticks to roll them into a hole at the center of the lawn.
“I think I’ve seen this before,” said Rusty. “They call it gorf. Awfully funny name.”
“Awfully dangerous sport,” said Entreé, nibbling on his paws. “Ohmigosh! It’s Starling.”
“Starling! My little girl.”
Rusty looked across the lawn, where a strawberry blonde in a yellow gingham dress was lining up a putt using her single arm. Entreé started for the lawn, but Rusty held on to his reins.
“Are you crazy? You’re a rat!”
“Hey, I don’t make the rules.”
“But how do I get Starling’s attention?”
The longing in Entreé’s eyes made Rusty forget his curse, and it filled him with anger and power. This was enough; enough of hiding and cowering.
“Be careful,” said Entreé.
Rusty crawled along the bottom of a hedge until he reached an arborway covered in wysteria. He climbed the latticework and scrambled along a central beam until he reached the edge. The wysteria was in full bloom, its purple blossoms creating a double distraction of heady fragrance and carpenter bees, but he managed to unwind a long, sturdy vine and swing himself down onto the front counter. He dashed to the microphone next to the cash register and pressed the red button.
“Attention, gorfers! Would a little girl named Starling please report to the front counter? We’ve got your pet rat. That’s Starling. Pet rat. That is all.”
Rusty underestimated the effect that a six-inch man might have on the general populace. It took no time at all for a crowd to gather at the front counter. Rusty feared that they would start hurling insults again, and keep it up until he disappeared entirely.
But this time the crowd seemed different – quiet, almost embarrassed. A couple of them even smiled at him. Because the crystal that they thought had been magic wasn’t magic at all. In fact, since its destruction, life in Sands-by-the-Ocean had been better than ever, and then the local pizza baker discovered this wonderful golf course. They began to feel terrible about what they had done to Rusty, and wondered where he had gone to.
Rusty stood on the counter, with no idea what these people wanted from him. Then he felt something welling up inside of him. He pressed the red button and spoke.
The microphone that had been pointed at his mouth was now pointed at his chin.
“I’m very, very sorry.”
The top button of his shirt.
“I am awfully, terribly sorry.”
His belly button. He kept apologizing until he was tall enough to jump off the counter. A gruff-looking man in a cream-colored windbreaker offered his hand.
Rusty grew another inch.
A blonde lady in a fuschia-colored hat put a hand on his head.
A young man in a blue baseball cap. A beautiful black woman in an orange dress. A brown-skinned man with a white cowboy hat. By the time he worked his way through the crowd, Rusty had regained his previous height and grown a few inches beside. Then he came upon the one-armed girl in the gingham dress.
“Starling! You’d better not say anything. Soon I’ll be as tall as the town piano player.”
Starling smiled. “Okay then. Where’s my rat?”
“Oh! Yes. Right this way. He talks, you know.”
“Well. You’ll have to trust me on this. I certainly hope you’ve gotten rid of that snake.”
“Oh yes. Got rid of my brother, too.”
Starling laughed. “Well, no. But one can always hope.”
“Dude! You are way too involved in this history thing.”
The town piano player works his long legs around a chair. David is wiping his eyes with a napkin.
“I fear that I am madly in love with my son.”
“Just don’t let ‘em use that against you. Which son?”
“Both.” Then he notices that his friend is wearing a tuxedo. “What’s with the monkey suit?”
“New gig! I’m hooked up here for some private parties. Nice little wedding reception.”
“Awesome. Hey, let me buy you a drink.”
“Better yet. Let me give you one of my free drinks.”
“Damn! They need a bass player?”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
Photo by MJV