Notes for a Story About a Time

Nick Karpinski

The Melodramatic Morning

The proceeding moments after puking are submissive, manipulative, and make the puker meek. These moments make an atheist see Jesus, Buddha, Brahman, the McDonald’s golden arches, or whatever icon the atheist previously brushed away as false. For just a few moments—‘all hail the dollar menu, I should never have doubted you.’

For Clark, on a summer morning at 6 a.m., this meekness was pure potential. He leaned over his bathroom sink with a weight at the bottom of his stomach. The weight was heavy and waiting, plotting, scheming—that bastard. No matter how much he gagged, nothing came out. A dam held the bile back from erupting out of his adolescent mouth.

Shaking his head, Clark ascended from his desecrate stance, looked into the mirror, and quickly looked away. He shuddered at the image. That’s what he saw: an image. Clark couldn’t accept it was him in the mirror, he wouldn’t.

But he had to accept it because, well, the image was in fact him. Clark’s face was covered in red blemishes with a grotesquely dense population of them around his lips and on his chin. He somehow expected them to magically disappear overnight.

Clark avoided most mirrors, so for all he knew, those pimples were just figments of his imagination. Even when he touched his face, which was something doctors stressed not to do, and felt the imperfections, Clark denied their existence. He lived in his trained mind, which pointed away from the grotesque. Clark orchestrated every day strategically to forget about his face and all its monstrosities. He lived as an actor, confidently strutting around every space he encountered. That’s probably why he was never bullied. He matched the energy of every stereotypical high school clique. Everyone liked the personable liar.

It’s difficult to act, though. Clark dreaded every single inevitable interaction he would have that day. Every one, even the one directly downstairs, especially that one. Clark wetted a towel and dabbed his face. Maybe the clean water and the flawlessly white towel would wipe away the defects that littered his chin.

He closed his eyes and calmly continued to carefully pat. Clark imagined that when he removed the towel from his face that his skin would become a blank canvas. He pictured before and after photos from skin care advertisements. He zoomed in on the after photos. He yearned for that perfection. He thought that if he could experience that type of radiance for a single day, he would be content with himself. He could rid all his jealousy and insecurities and finally begin living.

Clark opened his eyes. They optimistically glowed for what was less than a second. Then, they dropped to the floor.

The towel fell from Clark’s hand as he walked out the bathroom door with a diminished stride and a thoughtless energy.

The Interaction

Downstairs, the kitchen chandelier shone with a harsh whiteness that Clark always despised. It was repulsing to him, the utter intensity of the light. He’d dimmed it on mornings in the past, which was not appreciated by his Father, who said he was “old, couldn’t see shit, and needed a light source that would put all others to shame.”

The intrusive glow cast a spotlight on what was already at the forefront of Clark’s mind: his skin. Clark had a weird thing about light. It’s actually not weird, it completely made sense. His skin looked like shit and he wanted to hide that fact, simple as that. So, he attempted to control the light and his desired dimness for that light in every room he entered. It had to be faint and soft. That way, maybe, just maybe, people wouldn’t completely notice just how appalling his whole facial situation truly was.

The terms “faint” and “soft” were nowhere to be found in that kitchen. They had been removed long ago and, in their place, there was a light fixture equivalent to one of those obnoxious Christmas light displays scattered throughout a suburban yard.

Clark sat down at the kitchen table and was met with, “Are you ready to play some great golf today? How do you feel?” from his Father, who had eggs and bacon at the ready like a model parent. “Like a model parent” isn’t to say he wasn’t a model parent because he was. James did everything for Clark.

James made breakfast for Clark every morning.

– James woke up at 4 a.m. every morning to work out so he had time to make breakfast.

James drove Clark to school when he didn’t have a license. He considered it valuable time to spend with Clark that the bus would have taken away.

James sent Clark to what he thought was the best school for him in the area. And he paid a lot for it. It was a private school. James wanted to protect Clark and that was one of the ways he knew how.

– James put together homemade meals every night. And it wasn’t just anything, it was really good. Like, steak-and-fresh-fish kind of good, every week.

– James wasn’t athletic in the traditional sports sense where he could throw a football or shoot a basketball with impeccable form. But, when Clark was younger, James tried. He thought that’s what Dads did.

– James worked a lot. He provided and didn’t do it to accumulate masses of money. He did it to set a good example and didn’t get an ego trip out of any of it. He just thought it was the right thing to do.

– James would drop work if Clark needed him. He wasn’t consumed by his work.

– James didn’t push any politics or religious beliefs onto Clark. He wanted Clark to think for himself.

– James didn’t scrutinize Clark’s every decision. He didn’t attempt to control Clark.

– James wasn’t at all judgmental or cruel, as fathers can be.

– James was a good dad.

Biting his lip and scratching his palm in the kitchen, Clark knew all that, every bit of it. But there’s been slight tension in their relationship ever since he could remember. James knew it; Clark knew it, and neither of them brought it up. They didn’t know the cause of it. They couldn’t pin it. Maybe they didn’t want to pin it. Even if they could or if they wanted to, they wouldn’t know how. Doing so required an emotional language that neither of them had even heard of.

When James and Clark’s Mom divorced, seven years back, James would make subtle remarks. They would be low-blows, or slight jabs, to try to get Clark to pick sides. James was obviously biased to his side.

“Your Mom’s not coming back, but I’ll always be here,” he would say.

“I can’t believe she did that, I can’t believe she’s putting us through this,” was another common one in James’ repertoire.

He didn’t even mean to come off as he did. He would just say shit. He was sad, frustrated, and probably depressed. He just said what was on his mind.

Clark was only eight years old at the time. He didn’t know that his Dad was sad or frustrated. He didn’t know what depression was. What a time to be alive.

So, Clark took his Dad’s statements to heart. To Clark, James thought through what he said. And not just thought through, but comprehensively articulated nothing other than facts. He couldn’t comprehend that his Dad, or any other adult for that matter, would ever lie. Adults couldn’t lie. They couldn’t be anything but perfection, unless of course the adult in question, Clark’s Mom, was being put down by the all-knowing, supreme adult, Clark’s Father. Then, an adult could be imperfect, because Clark’s Dad said so, without even processing the meaning behind his words.

As such, in the kitchen, Clark closed his eyes and tried to orchestrate peace.

“I feel fine,” Clark said while looking down at his food.

James’ eyes latched on to the light fixture, searching for something clever to say. Clark clamped his fist because he knew what was coming—a quote from the movie, The Italian Job, which would have been funny four years ago when the two happily watched it together. Not now, though. That was nostalgia that Clark had no interest confronting.

“Fucked up, insecure, neurotic and emot…”

“Come on Dad, Jesus,” Clark interrupted with a whisper. “You know how these mornings are.”

“Ah, bud it’s not a big deal, it’s just golf,” James casually replied with a hint of condescension.

“Just golf”: It wasn’t an unusual statement. It was one Clark heard repeatedly from his Dad. The words have been tattooed into Clark’s consciousness.

Meant as a thoughtful and comforting phrase, the words simply exacerbated a never-ending tunnel of nauseating stress. A kind sentiment turned into a ‘fuck you’ with remarkable efficiency.

“Just golf,” Clark thought to himself.

The words repeated in his head like a self-destructive mantra.

Clark’s sheltered world couldn’t fathom such a thought: “just golf.” And his sheltered friends would never echo a “just golf” attitude.

Clark spent the past two weeks intensely working on his game to prepare for the day’s tournament. He had a self-created regiment: putting and short game in the morning, then lunch, range in the early afternoon, and 18 holes to close out the day. Sometimes, no, all the time, he would go back to the range after the round to tweak and scrutinize various unnerving shortcomings.

Regardless of what he physically did after those 18 holes, golf never disappeared from Clark’s mind. He mentally ran through every aspect of his round and practice sessions. Swing plane, swing speed, angle of attack, why the hell couldn’t he get his drive to fade on the seventh hole, even with an over-exaggerated cut stance. All of this fluttered through his mind while watching T.V., eating dinner, taking a shower, and feeling sorry for himself while trying to fall asleep or blankly scroll through his phone.

Clark considered those two weeks to be intense and different from what he’d been doing prior to them. But the fact of the matter was he did the same shit regardless of if he was preparing for a tournament or not. He may not have otherwise woken up as early or he may have only played nine holes in the afternoon, but it was all the same.

So, “just golf” wasn’t in Clark’s vocabulary, and besides, the idea of “just golf” would have been too painful to accept because his world was in fact “just golf.”

“You’re right, Dad,” Clark said while picking away at his food.

“And the event’s at your home course!” James said over-enthusiastically. “You know the ins and outs.”

Knowing those ins and outs came with the added pressure of fucking up in front of people who Clark knew and interacted with every day. They were people who perceived Clark as incredibly talented, even though he was regionally decent, at best. He couldn’t let himself be seen as an imposter. He couldn’t let the facade, where Clark stored all his personal worth, be infiltrated.

“Yep, that’s a good point,” Clark said with a forged sigh of relief. “Let me go get dressed. I gotta get up there soon to warm up.”

Clark dumped his plate of barely-touched food into the trash, avoided looking into the glowing mirror by the sink, and headed back upstairs where he quickly got dressed.

The Day

“I’ll see you, Dad,” Clark said while walking out the door.

“I’ll see you at the first tee,” James replied. “That’s all I’ll be able to watch, but I’ll see you there.”

James nodded with vaguely agitated approval and began to shut the door.

“You’re sure you don’t want a ride up there?” James quickly asked.

“I’m fine walking. I like the walk,” Clark said.

He shut the door just loud enough to constitute an accidental slam. Just loud enough to display surface level contempt.

Clark didn’t particularly like the walk. He actually didn’t like it at all. And let it be known, there were many aversions.

The potholes and cracks on the road, the model-looking homes, the smell of firewood that burned the previous night—it reminded him of when he was eight years old lying wide awake on his bed at 10:30 p.m., late for a kid that age. He couldn’t fall asleep. He was uncomfortable being alone in his room. He feared isolation and loneliness. And whenever that feeling set in, he did the only thing that made sense: he went to where there was comfort.

Clark tip-toed through the hall, skimming his shoulder on the white wall, and went into what was then his parents’ room.

James laid alone on the left-hand side of the king-sized bed. He was deep in sleep. Clark was still getting used to not seeing his Mom next to his Dad.

He tapped James on the shoulder. It was routine at this point.

“Hop in on the other side,” James tiredly whispered.

As he’d done many nights before since the split, Clark wordlessly followed his Dad’s instructions and snuggled into bed where Mom should’ve been. And, now at ease, Clark dozed off within minutes.

Clark loved coming into his parents’ room. It made him feel okay. It made him feel protected. It stripped away all loneliness and discomfort.

Clark historically slept through the whole night in the alleviation of this room, up until his parents’ morning alarm.

On this summer night, however, Clark woke up to a premature and different type of alarm. He looked to the right and his Dad wasn’t there, which was odd. His Dad was always there.

The noise wasn’t different in the sense that it was unfamiliar. It was familiar. Clark heard it—his parents’ pervasive fights—a lot the past few months. The time of the fight, though, along with its intensity, was different. It had never been so disruptive. It had never been so scary.

The loud voices echoed throughout the house. Restrained yelling and” SHHHH’s” transitioned into all out screaming. Clark couldn’t make out any of it. He didn’t want to.
He didn’t care what was said because he couldn’t imagine either of his parents being wrong. To want to hear an argument is to want to determine who is right and who is wrong. Clark had no interest. Neither of them could be wrong, which made everything that much more confusing. There was no logic to it. None of it ever made sense. How could they clash like this? They love each other.

They loved each other.

Clark ducked beneath the covers.

Feet stomped down below. Fists pounded on the countertops. His Mom’s voice ascended to volumes louder than ever before.

Clark clenched the covers with white knuckles.

Then, everything fell silent, just stillness. The house had never been so still.

After a minute of imagining the downstairs, fists still clenched, Clark suddenly heard something he never heard before.

James walked up the steps at an abnormally monotonous pace. At a pace that didn’t intend to reach the top.

But that’s not what caught Clark’s attention. It was something much more concerning. And the abnormality of the situation didn’t fully consume Clark until his Dad walked back into the room.

James was crying. He wasn’t sobbing. He was crying. It was as if a stranger walked into the room.

Uncontrolled whimpers exuded from James’ mouth. His red eyes dripped into the shared space.

Clark remained underneath the covers as James sat on the edge of the bed. Clark’s eyes were wide open. They were dry. His Dad couldn’t know he was awake.

Clark’s Mom walked up the stairs with a novel and sorrowful rhythm that the house had never felt. She steadily sauntered through the hall and laid down beside Clark, who always felt safe around his Mom, even now. Even with her indiscernible spirit.

She gently removed the covers from over his head. Clark’s eyes remained wide open. He looked at his Mom. He looked into her devastatingly damp eyes. He glanced over at his Dad and quickly looked back. Clark’s mouth was dry. He didn’t know what to do. Clark’s Mom always knew how to comfort him when he was in distress.

Clark closed his eyes. He felt his Mom embrace him. It was an embrace he’d never felt before. It was as if to say goodbye. It was as if to signal the end of a moment in time. It was as if to say it’s time to move on.

And, when Clark felt that signal, in a room that always felt secure, it was the first time he felt insignificant in the world. It made him feel submissive — at the mercy of an unpredictable future that had always been so foreseeable. He fell asleep with that feeling and woke up the same way.

Clark’s parents weren’t in the bed anymore, and never would be. They weren’t in the house.

“Probably at work,” Clark thought.

Clark just assumed they’d both gone to work. They could go to work, continuing with life as if one of the most emotionally complex and raw moments of his childhood life didn’t just occur the night before…

Now, years later, that knot of congealed emotions tried to dislodge itself from the bottom of Clark’s stomach as he walked down the street—the walk he liked so much.

He made it down the road and stepped onto the bent grass driving range. His footsteps made imprints on the dew-covered ground. He loved to look back and see his path. There was something sacred in it.

Clark took out two clubs, a seven and an eight iron, and gripped them tightly,
swinging them just above the ground. One after the other. He needed to warm up. He
needed to get prepared. He needed to rehearse.

Clark peered at his competition. Everyone’s flush ball-strikes put more pressure on his ever-sensitive stomach, which was rallying back to troublesome nausea. Their talent was sickening. It repelled any hopeful thought that the day could have a potentially positive outcome.

Qualifying rounds typically confirmed for Clark that he didn’t belong. They symbolized his Dad’s sentiment that it’s “just golf.” But “just golf” was only applicable to Clark in that driving range filled with future success stories. It shone a bright light of mediocrity on Clark as he commenced his first strike of the day.

He could hold his own with these players. He wasn’t an objective embarrassment in the context of regional junior golf. No one looked at him and scoffed, but there’s a fine line between one who has a future in the game and one who does not. Clark clung to that line, desperately hanging on through inevitably senseless training sessions.

Yet there he was, clinging swing by swing. And his swings that morning encapsulated the inconsistent performance that Clark displayed all summer. Every stroke accumulated frustration and mounting disbelief that he couldn’t hit the ball like he did yesterday. He always played better yesterday.

Draw stances produced hooks and fade stances yielded double-crosses. Every third shot flirted with perfection.

Clark glared over to the left at the first tee, about twenty yards away. A scrawny-looking player with a white hat and white shoes trotted up to his teed-up ball and leveled it with a repeatable perfection that couldn’t be practiced. A perfection that couldn’t be hammered into place with summers of overspent time.

Clark knew that when he walked up to that same crisply cut, bewitchingly green tee box, there’d be a 33% chance of replicating such skill. And as every miss-hit accumulated in the midst of his professionally executed divot pattern, Clark felt his guts rise to his throat.

Clark pulled out his driver, reached into his pocket and rummaged around for a tee. He took one out and examined it with uncertain speculation.

“Should I use this one on the range or save it for the first tee?” he thought.

He had over fifty tees in his bag but at first glance, this one had aura. It had a higher purpose. Of the ten or so tees in his pocket, Clark pulled out this one.

“Are you gonna lead me astray on that box?” Clark mused. “Fuck it.”

Clark gently kicked a range ball, which sat innocently by his bag, toward his practice area. He casually observed his competition with a suspicious glare that no one noticed. No one cared about anything other than the consistency of their ball-strikes, the pace of the greens, and the placement of the day’s pins — among a million other strategic and technical facets of their respective superiorly-tuned games.

Clark bent over to tee up his range ball. As he reached toward the ground, his eyes doubled in size.

“Mmmbffff-fuck,” he blurted out with softly muffled incoherence.

Only one blonde-haired lefty looked over with slight confusion.

The pressure Clark put on his stomach from bending over almost soiled the picturesque divot pattern that sat amidst the faultless bent grass.

The words “fuck” and “shit” bounced around his mind with drowning persistence that submerged all rational thoughts other than “where the hell can I puke that not a goddamn soul will notice or even fucking infer the possibility.”

“Fifteen-minute walk to the clubhouse, seven minute jog, tee time’s in 20 minutes, need to be there 10 minutes before… mother fuck.”

Clark’s legs began to quiver. He felt the weight of his entire body.

He picked up his water bottle and eyed the water cooler 30 yards back, overlooking the 18th fairway. No one would be coming up 18 this early. He walked, almost breaking into a light jog, trying not to draw any attention to himself.

Clark took off his glasses. He unbuttoned one button on this light blue collared shirt. His forehead oozed hot sweat.

No one was within 20 yards. Everyone was still swinging away. The sound of the ball spinning off their clubs with flush eloquence filled the background.

Clark stumbled over himself. He tried to hold it in for a few more steps but just couldn’t. In an uncontrolled bodily reaction, steady chunks of puke spilled down his already-blemished chin. He dropped his water bottle, hit his shoulder on the side of the Maplewood brown water cooler, and fell to the ground, violently expelling everything. It was an immediate transfer of yellow bile from Clark’s mouth to his clothes and finally onto the beautifully kept ground.

He continued to gag knowing full well the fight was not over.

Again, after minutes of incessant gagging, yellow bile erupted from his mouth and poured onto the rough, drifting past the white out-of-bounds marker just feet away.

Clark’s brain rattled and tears dripped down his face. He looked down at his shirt, devastatingly covered in chunky vomit.

He scratched his eyes and slowly rose. He untucked his shirt and drenched it in the cold water from the cooler. On the wood-covered surface, it read “Fresh Water.” It always seemed so fresh. It tasted so good on hot days. Now, it was just water. It was a tool and a means to avoid embarrassment.

Clark solemnly walked over to his bag. He put his driver away and tucked in his shirt while examining his competition one last time. He one-strapped his bag and walked. He gargled water and spat it out continuously while making his way to the first tee.

When he got there, all the niceties that typically occur were an absolute blur. Whether it was greeting the rules official, shaking fellow players’ hands or commenting on how it’s too early for anything, let alone golf, Clark just went through the motions. He didn’t notice the rules official scowl at the odor emanating from him . He didn’t even notice his Dad standing on the cart path, waiting to see him tee off on his beloved home track.

Reality did set in, though. Clark’s whole body began to feel light. He shook his arms to regain some semblance of control. He looked over at his Dad and nodded with a halfsmile.



“I’m actually here,” he thought.

On the Tee, Clark Richardson,” the rules official exclaimed.

Clark’s hands shook, gripping onto the driver he never got to warm up with. His empty stomach growled. And as he stood over the ball, his mind went blank, completely white with thought.

He took the club back and swung with detached aggression. The ball struck left-of-center on the club face and cut ten yards with piercing force. The ball landed in the fairway and settled in the first cut of the rough.

James clapped, along with the seven other semi-familiar people in attendance.

“Nice shot, bud!” James yelled. “That’s a good leave.”

Clark nodded and internally applauded his efforts.

“Airborne, a professionally hit shitty shot,” Clark thought.

With that shot, he presented himself in the way that people saw him: a talent. His mis-hit was one that only a gifted player with experienced course management skills could pull off under the pressures of the first tee. It was one that weekend warriors would be thrilled with. In fact, it was one that the everyday players would be incapable of pulling off. Only hours of practice could yield such unintentional mediocrity.

Clark exhaled and looked to the pristine sky with a tip of the hat and a full smile filled with temporary appreciation. With shaky hands, Clark delivered a decent outcome. That’s all he ever hoped for.