the champ | illustrations by ana carolina maciel

When I was little, I got dressed with my Mom in the ladies’ locker room at the country club. I liked it in there, with the pink, furry carpet and all the women walking around in white towels, wrapped tightly under their armpits. I showered with my mother in a private stall with white tiles and a glazed, glass door.

            At seven, little boys were banished to the boys’ locker room. It was a dark, makeshift space under the pool. Chlorinated water whooshed through the pipes over our heads. There was always the threat of the pool cracking open, and thousands of gallons of water crashing down upon us, like The Poseidon Adventure. Instead of pink carpet, the slimy concrete was cold against your bare feet. There were no glazed, glass doors, just a group shower with puddles that reeked of mildew. We hung our dinner clothes in warped, metal lockers that harked back to the first days of the country club. And there weren’t any ladies in white towels, just the boys from Pittsburgh.

It was a Jewish country club. Most of the families were from Pittsburgh, the big city twenty miles west of the club. We were one of the few families from Greensburg, a small, town twenty miles east. In Greensburg, I was the only Jewish boy in my class at school. The Pittsburgh boys were different from the gentile boys I went to school with. These big city, Jewish boys were quick and handsome and sarcastic. I never knew what to say to The Milchin brothers or the Rosenstein twins or Danny Cohen. My throat tightened up and I went mute. They were like sleek, dangerous animals. They could see that I was a fake. I wasn’t a real boy like they were. I knew it was wrong that I wanted to stay with my sisters and their friends, back in the girls’ locker room, watching them play jacks. The girls’ locker room was down the corridor from the ladies’ locker room, and then up a few stairs, into the attic of the country club. It was under the eaves, with exposed wooden beams on the diagonal, and bare light bulbs hanging from cords. That’s where Rose, the little old lady with the kind, quiet whisper, and the gnarled, black hands, braided the girls’ wet hair before they went down to dinner. The girls chattered nonstop, all day at the pool, but they were hushed in front of this sacred, evening ritual, waiting their turns to sit in Rose’s chair.

I swam alone, underwater, all day, like a sea turtle. I only came up for air to gobble down a cheeseburger, or red devil’s food cake and a coke, in the Jalousie Room. That’s what they called the café next to the pool, because of the jalousie windows, with their glass louvres that let in the shouts and splashing sounds. During lunch, the scent of chlorine and Bain de Soleil from the pool patio was replaced by the smell of crackling grease from the grill in the café. After I ate, I scribbled our account number in the rectangle at the bottom of the check, and slipped back under the water for the rest of the afternoon.

Sometimes, Dad stopped by after his golf game. He looked worn out, moseying over to the pool in his polo shirt and shorts. I held on to the pool gutter and looked up at him. He’d take off his sunglasses and rub his tired eyes.

“Harry my boy! Are you having fun?”

I’d smile up at him, squinting from the sun and the chlorine.

“Yes, I’m having fun!” I lied.  “Dad will you come swimming with me?”

“That sure would be nice on a hot day like this.”

And then he’d put his sunglasses back on, and walk off to the men’s locker room, his golf cleats clicking smartly over the cement patio.

Once or twice during the summer, he’d emerge from the locker room late in the day, in his plaid bathing suit. He’d dive into the deep end, and slowly swim the length of the pool. In the shallow end, he’d crouch with his back to me. That was my signal to climb aboard. His arms fanned out in a breast stroke underwater, and I’d hold my breath, riding the sea monster into the deep end. Then he’d stand, chest deep, just on the shallow side of the rope that separated the deep from the shallow. I’d lay flat out in his arms, stiff like a corpse, and he’d lower me down in a slow-motion baptism. Nothing could hurt me in my father’s forklift arms. Not the boys from the locker room. Not the water gushing through the cracks in the bottom of the pool. Not the deep end. Nothing. I kept my eyes open, looking up at his blurred face, half obscured by the bubbles streaming out of my nose.

But usually, he went down to the men’s locker room, took off his clothes and played gin rummy in his nylon boxer shorts.

In the evenings, I dressed for dinner early, so I didn’t have to face all those Pittsburgh boys in the locker room. Then I’d go upstairs, and wander around the empty lounge areas. The wood paneled walls in the trophy room were covered with plaques commemorating the winners of golf and tennis and pinochle tournaments from years past. I’d zero in on the plaque titled, “Club Champions of Golf.”  Underneath the title were rows of rectangular, metal tabs, with a name and a year engraved on each tab. My eyes darted from my Dad, Bernard Redlich, to his brother, Leonard Redlich, to my mother’s brother, Stuart Holtzman. The family names echoed off the walls of that silent old room, where nobody ever went, except to add new tabs to the plaques.

And then I’d hear all the people going into the big dining room, so I went in too.

The main dining room was a cacophony of round, white tablecloths, terrazzo floors and plate glass windows on three sides. Through the windows on one side was the patio where my mother played Mah Jong and Canasta during the day. The ladies sat four at a round table, under a large umbrella, wearing sunglasses and bathing suits. Their flat palms pressed the cream-colored  Mah Jong tiles against the tabletop, swirling them around and around, to mix them up between games. The tiles made a clicking sound when they banged into each other, not unlike the clicking of my father’s golf cleats against the cement. Through the windows on the next wall was the practice putting green, and beyond that, the weeping willow tree next to the small pond. And through the windows of the third wall was the verandah that looked out over the 18th hole, where, the story goes, my parents first met.   My mother was having a drink after a golf lesson, waiting for a ride home from her Uncle Eddie. Dad was finishing up a round with the best young woman golfer at the club—they always referred to this enigmatic, bit-part player as “the girl with acne.” Did the acne girl look up from her putt, and find my father staring at Aleen Holtzman, with her clear complexion and jet-black hair? My mother had just finished her freshman year of college. The summer before, she’d had her nose done. When I asked her about the operation, she said, “It was a whole new world. I felt beautiful, for the first time in my life.”

Sometimes, in the afternoons, I’d make the trek over the hot cement, from the pool to the verandah, always stopping to run the soles of my feet over the stiff brush that the golfers used to clean the bottoms of their cleats. The brush was stuck to a concrete block that sat on the ground, near one of the entrances to the club. You were supposed to run your cleats over the bristles to remove the dirt and grass before you went inside. I loved the way the thick, plastic bristles tickled my bare feet.

On the verandah, I’d sit on one of the folding chairs. My damp bathing suit soon started to itch my tushy. I tried to discern if my father was one of the tiny figures coming down the ski slope of a fairway, toward the sacred 18th, where my parents fell in love at first sight, and where my father and uncles were declared Club Champions, so that their names could live on forever in the trophy room.

Except, most of them are dead now, and the country club was demolished over twenty-five years ago, to make room for a housing development that consumed the golf course. Maybe they saved the weeping willow tree. I doubt it.

In the big dining room, I sat at the dinner table, waiting with my mother and my two sisters. I wanted to touch my sisters’ braids, and see if I could squeeze a drop of water out of them. They smelled like soap and suntan lotion and summer. My mother smoked her Kent cigarettes, stone-faced until someone passed by on the way to the buffet, and said hello. She’d toss them a slight smile, and then go back to her stone face, watching them trail off to the buffet. We couldn’t load up our plates like the other people. We had to wait for my father.

Many years later, I learned that when my mother was a young girl, she also had to wait for her father to finish playing gin rummy and come up for dinner. A cousin told me that Grandma Belle would go downstairs, stand at the entrance to the men’s locker room, and call out, “Barney Holtzman! Come upstairs to eat dinner with your family! Come upstairs Barney Holtzman!” Grandma Belle had a loud, shrieking voice, and the card room was only a few feet from the locker room entrance, so I’m sure my grandfather heard her. I imagine those men must have giggled through their clenched cigars, sitting there frozen in their boxer shorts, clutching their cards. Did my grandfather chuckle too? Or did he call out to her, “Belle! Calm down! I’ll be up after this hand!” Probably not. He would have started a shouting match he couldn’t have won.

My mother never stood at the entrance to the men’s locker room screaming for my father. She stewed silently at the table, hardly aware of us. She looked angrier and angrier as she sat there smoking. Finally, she’d turn to me.

“Harry, go down and get your father.”

The men’s locker room smelled like chlorine, talcum powder, and leather. I could smell the smoke by the time I reached the big pile of golf shoes on the counter, that were waiting to be cleaned for the next day. And then a few more steps to the card room. They called it “the gin room,” short for gin rummy, their card game of choice. Inside the windowless, carpeted room hairy, Jewish men, most of them in boxer shorts, sat on opposite sides of a long table, playing gin rummy in teams. The kibitzers stood behind the players, looking over their shoulders, watching them pick and throw cards. The smoke from cigarettes and cigars curled up toward the fluorescent lights. Ice cubes tinkled in tumbler glasses. Cheeseburgers and club sandwiches arrived from the kitchen upstairs, even though most of the players would eventually join their families at the buffet. The men yelled and screamed and called each other “asshole” and “cocksucker” and “goniff,” which meant “thief” in Yiddish. They played for a penny or two a point, which added up to hundreds of dollars at the end of the night.  After each game, one guy wrote down the points on a scrap of paper, with one of those miniature pencils made for filling in the scorecard on the golf course.

Their fathers and grandfathers came to the US from little towns in Russia and Poland, in the early 1900’s. My grandfather drove a horse-drawn milk cart. My great-grandfather collected scrap metal. Now, their sons and grandsons were doctors and lawyers and business tycoons. They were obsessed with playing games for money. They bet on every aspect of their golf games—total score, longest drive, shortest putt, closest chip—whatever. When Uncle Stuart played for the Club Championship, Grandpa Barney followed him around the course with an adding machine in his arms. Those metal contraptions must have weighed twenty pounds back then. Grandpa Barney had way too much money riding on that game to leave the scorekeeping to some shmuck with one of those little pencils and a scorecard.

They made book on golf and football and baseball and horses and they would have bet on Tiddlywinks if they’d had half a chance. They bet their money with a fervor that must have eclipsed any enthusiasm they had for earning it.

Finally, someone would notice me, and say, “Hey Bernie, your kid’s here.”

My Dad looked up from his cards and gave me a grin.

“Harry my boy! Say hello to the gentlemen!”

the champ | illustrations by ana carolina maciel

            I stared at the half-naked men, with their hairy chests, and hairy backs, and hair sprouting out of ears and noses and armpits. Most of them went straight from the golf course to the gin room. After eighteen holes and several hours of gin rummy, the pungent bouquet of smoke and body odor and booze and food clouded my head, and I froze, trying to put names to the faces staring at me. Finally, I just blurted out, “Mom wants you to come upstairs for dinner.”

The men chuckled. Dad did too, as if I had just told him that he was going to win every hand, which he probably was. My father’s nickname was “The Champ.” Not because he won the Club Championship of Golf, but because once, long ago, he won a big gin rummy tournament at The Webster Hall Hotel in Pittsburgh. His best friends called him “The Champ,” or just plain “Champ,” as in “Hey Champ, let’s grab a steak after we play eighteen holes at The Diplomat.”  They played golf and gin and went out to dinner afterwards at fancy joints with their wives. Once or twice a year they went on junkets to Vegas or Miami, without the wives. You never hear the word “junket” anymore. There were stories about showgirls in the suites at the hotels. Those guys knew how to live. They were men’s men, in the mold of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and the Rat Pack from the 1960’s. My Dad was the deluxe, provincial version, walking to his law office on Main Street in his Brooks Brothers suit and wing tip shoes, like Atticus Finch.

But in the gin room, The Champ sat there shirtless, surrounded by men who respected him not only for his game-playing prowess, but because he made it look like fun. And for him, it was. I was afraid of forgetting their names, but I wasn’t afraid of them, like I was afraid of their sons, the boys in the locker room. These men were grownups, and grownups weren’t scary. They treated me like I was special, because I was The Champ’s son.

“Tell your mother I’ll be up after the next hand,” Dad said.

The men snickered. We knew he wouldn’t be up after the next hand. And probably not the one after that. And then he would take even more time to shower and shave and dress.  My mother was going to have a fit! Dad threw a card and watched for the reaction on his opponent’s face. My audience was apparently over, so, I turned and made my way back upstairs to give my mother the bad news. And she would have a fit, which for her meant screwing up her face even tighter, and taking a deeper drag on her Kent.

Eventually, Dad would appear, in his sport coat and slacks, exuding the comforting scent of Old Spice aftershave, and nursing a very dry, Beefeater Gibson on the rocks. A tiny plastic sword peeked out of the top of his cocktail. Impaled on the blade, submerged in gin and ice, were three, gray cocktail onions (wash off the brine). The bartenders didn’t mind washing off the brine for The Champ. He was a generous tipper and a genuinely nice guy. He sat down and everything was OK, and even my mother would defrost soon enough. But it didn’t matter, because I could finally get up and follow my sisters to the buffet. Their dark, shiny braids dangled over their shoulders, almost dry.