Perry Voight woke to find himself lying atop a small grassy hill from where he had a view over a very large golf course. Hole after hole, the golf course stretched away in all directions, reaching to the far horizon. According to his watch, the time was 6.17, and the dewy cool of the clean and scentless air suggested it was 6.17 in the morning. The sun was just rising.
"Uh huh," said Perry.
He had a very clear memory of having been put to death by lethal injection for the murder of his wife. In fact, Perry had not killed his beloved Daphne, nor did he know who had. But he was fairly sure that he himself was dead.
"So this is ...?"
Where? Heaven, possibly. Emerald greens stretching away forever. Little lakes of limpidly clear water. Here and there, occasional buildings looking clean and bright in the sunlight.
But his conscience was not clear enough for heaven. He had done some pretty ugly things in his time. Hell, then? Hell no, he couldn't really see it. For a start, he had been genuinely repentant for his major sins. And, besides, as a fairly traditional, conservative guy, he couldn't square this endless golf course with any possible vision of hell.
"Limbo, then," he decided.
Limbo was for for what? Was for the indifferent. Those too limply indecisive to be either good or bad. Those who had sleepwalked through life. But that didn't fit his own case, surely. Purgatory, then. The place where you atoned through suffering before going on to heaven. But suffering required well, racks and whips and burning coals, that kind of stuff.
"It's the opening credits," said Perry, deciding. "The movie will start shortly, right?"
That made as much sense as anything. So he started downhill toward the nearest building, a silvery pavilion which sat beside a little lake. Thousands of orange birds were floating on the lake. And, when Perry got down to the water, he found the birds were plastic ducks. Pretty cute ducks, if you liked that kind of thing.
"Limbo," said Perry, deciding.
Heaven would have had real ducks, and shotguns to allow a guy the chance to shoot them dead. And there wouldn't have been anything cute in hell.
Inside the pavilion, there were dozens of cast iron tables, painted white, with precisely four lime-green plastic chairs at each table. The place was utterly deserted. A row of vending machines hummed faintly. They sold soft drinks, icecream, candy bars with familiar brand names, and newspapers. Unfortunately, Perry had no money. Frustrated, he punched one of the machines. A can of drink fell out.
"You could have just asked," said the machine.
"Okay," said Perry. "Give me. Please."
"Give you what?"
"Another can of the same. Thank you! Yeah, and you, some of that stuff. Yeah, and I'll have the newspaper. Thanks. And while we're at it what place is this? I mean, you know, where does it fit in the, uh, heaven-hell spectrum?"
"Are you talking to me?" said one of the machines.
"Yes," said Perry.
"You must be nuts, then," said the machine. "I'm not a theologian, I'm a vending machine."
Well, that kind of confirms it, doesn't it? If you end up in a place where the vending machines talk about theology, you must be dead. Right? I guess.
While eating, Perry became aware that his bad tooth was still bad. Death, apparently, was no substitute for dentistry. This was not going to be much fun if he was going to have to eat on one side of his mouth for the rest of eternity. Definitely not heaven, then. In heaven, you got a full suite of medical benefits. Yeah, and a harp, and your own cloud, and all that good stuff.
Over his sugary, less than entirely satisfactory breakfast, Perry read through his newspaper, which was The Golf Course Times. Apparently the date was the fourth of July in the year Seven Tango Pineapple Blue. The news was rather like the breakfast: less than entirely satisfactory. "Tangerine Eclipse Percolated by Tea Leaf Bicycle." "Three Dead in Chicago Fire." "Small Earthquake In Peru Not Many Dead."
Perry was reading a piece about the recent completion of the Great Pyramid of Cheops when a coughing clanking grumbling cacophony announced the approach of someone big and heavy. Turning, Perry saw a big guy coming toward him. The guy had the height of a basketball star and the bulk of a Japanese sumo wrestler. The guy, whoever he was, was green as a frog, and naked but for a gold watch and a bright orange penis sheath. His green skin was that of a crocodile and his teeth were that of a shark. There was a thin thread of blood leaking from one of his swollen nostrils. Slung over his shoulder was a huge leather bag filled with a clattering collection of golf clubs.
"God," muttered Perry.
"Midrog Shablash, sir," said the green entity, halting in front of him. "Midrog Shablash, at your service."
"Well. You want to start?"
"Uh, well," said Perry.
It's a trick. You answer in the affirmative and he hauls out one of those clubs and starts breaking your teeth. Right?
"Well?" said Midrog.
"Tell the truth," said Perry, "to tell the truth, what I'd really like is to see a dentist."
"A dentist?" said Midrog. "What's a dentist?"
"A tooth doctor," said Perry.
"Someone who repairs teeth."
"Oh, we don't have anyone like that," said Midrog. "Not here in Golf Course."
"And where's that?" said Perry. "I mean, is it, uh, you know, like, uh, something like hell? Or more like limbo?"
"Golf Course is Golf Course," said Midrog impatiently. "And I'm your caddy. You want to play golf or not?"
"What's the alternative?"
"The alternative to playing golf is not playing golf."
"Am I making a permanent choice here?" said Perry cautiously.
"Look, mac," said Midrog. "I'm a caddy. Got that? A caddy, pure and simple. You want to play golf, you play. You don't, you do whatever. It's all one to me."
"So what exactly is there to do?" said Perry. "Besides play golf, I mean."
"That's over to you, isn't it?" said Midrog. "This is Golf Course, not Disneyland. We don't have a big range of attractions."
"So ... do you have any suggestions?"
"Sure. You could pull your rod, or dig up the greens, or go bury your head in a sand trap, or spend the day breaking windows, or make a bow and arrow and go shoot some plastic ducks. It's a free country, mac."
"Okay," said Perry. "I'll play golf."
His golf had been indifferent in his former life, and it was equally as indifferent in Golf Course. His bad tooth occasionally niggled and griped, much as it had during the final weeks of his jailhouse existence. Occasionally, he was troubled by the faintest twinge of arthritic protest from his right hip, just as in real life. But his stamina had improved. In fact, he played all day without the slightest sense of strain or physical fatigue. And without eating, or needing to visit the bathroom.
It was only toward evening that Perry truly began to get tired.
"I want to stop," he said.
"Fine," said Midrog. "Whatever you say. There's a hotel over there."
And so there was. A white marble hotel adorned with a sign which said "Splendid's White Marble Golf Course Hotel."
"I don't have any money."
"Your credit's good."
"You mean I get a bill?"
"I was using one of those atom-splitting radioactive billfolds," said Midrog.
"One of those what?"
"Metaphors," said Midrog, correcting himself. "A metaphor. You can have what you want. The presidential suite, hot and cold running call girls, cable TV with 76 different porno channels, you name it."
And he was right. Not that it was perfect. In the hotel, the beds were too soft, the restaurant served nothing but plain rice and fried chicken, the liquor was too watery to get drunk on, the call girls were all in their late 40s, and the stuff on the porno channels was blurred and out of focus. But, compared to prison, it wasn't too bad. And, for a guy who was dead, Perry Voight didn't think he was doing too badly.
That evening, when Perry was relaxing in the lobby with a martini, Daphne entered the hotel.
"Daphne!" said Perry, so surprised that he spilt his drink as he stood. "Daphne," he said, staring at his wife. "What are you doing here?"
"I'm doing a survey," said Daphne.
"What happened?" said Perry. "Who killed you?"
"Which do you prefer," said Daphne. "Cigarettes or cigarillos?"
"You know I don't smoke," said Perry, who was so innocent of the smoking habit that he didn't even know what a cigarillo might be, or even if it was a real thing.
"Of course you don't smoke," said Daphne. "You were always too busy playing golf, weren't you?"
"Is that meant as a criticism?" said Perry.
"Finish the survey, and I might have time to tell you," said Daphne. "Next question. How many cigars do you smoke a day?"
"Do you want to do this survey or not?" said Daphne. "It's entirely voluntary, you know."
"Then let's skip it," said Perry.
"Fine," said Daphne, and promptly turned into a cloud of malarial mosquitos, one of which flew into Perry's ear as the rest scattered and vanished.
It took Perry most of the rest of the evening to get rid of the mosquito in his ear. (He finally had to drown it by filling his ear with warm olive oil.) By the time he finally got to bed, he was totally exhausted. And, at first, he slept with the dreamless intensity of a piece of fossilized bone.
Then he was woken at three a.m. by screaming from across the room across the hall. Perry got out of bed, pulled on his shorts and stumbled to the phone. He picked up the phone and tried to call the front desk, only to find the phone was dead. The screaming was getting worse and worse an incoherent onslaught of uncontainable agony.
"The hell," said Perry, deciding.
He threw open his door and stepped out into the hall. As he did so, the screaming abruptly stopped. There was no sound in the corridor but for the hush of the air conditioning and a faint hum from the ice machine down the hall. Perry tried the door of the room opposite his own. The door opened.
Inside, a suite like his own. Nailed upside down to the wall, a man. A dead man. His throat had been cut. There was blood all over the suite. The man's swollen stomach was knotting and unknotting. Then a green snake bulged out of the gashed wound in the corpse's throat and, in one prolonged disgorging heave, flowed forth. Slick with blood, it slithered down to the floor, then vanished into the indecipherable shadows of the bathroom. The dead man's stomach was now flaccid, empty.
"Help!" yelled Perry. "Help! Call the police! Help help help!"
But there was no response. And, running through the hotel in his shorts, Perry found the whole place deserted. But for the caddy, Midrog Shablash, who was asleep on a couch in the foyer.
"The hell?" said Midrog, woken from sleep. "Look, mac, it's three in the morning. You want to play golf, fine. But I don't get going till the sun comes up. Union rules."
"I'm trying to tell you," said Perry. "There's this dead man."
"Yeah, yeah, I heard you the first time," said Midrog. "Hey. Shit happens. Go back to sleep."
"Sleep? After what happens?"
"Hey. Morning, I'll get you partnered up with Al Treeve. He's been here a while. You can play a few rounds, he can tell you a few things."
But sleep was impossible. Instead, Perry took two bottles of watery gin from one of the bars, and went outside, where he spent the rest of the night sitting on a sand trap trying unsuccessfully to get drunk.
"No substance abuse possible," explained Al Treeve, the next day. "Believe me, I've tried."
"So how long have you been here?" said Perry, as he teed up.
"About that long," said Al, accepting a golf ball from his caddy. "Long enough to earn old timer privileges."
"Special golf balls, for one. Like this here Sinner Special."
"This," said Al, with a big grin.
A curious thing. A sphere, golf-ball dimpled but clear. Inside, a naked man and a naked woman. And a porcupine.
"They look in pretty good shape," said Perry, for want of anything intelligent to say.
"Sure. Regeneration. Smack! Whack! Trauma ward special. Then they get fixed up."
Inside the golf ball, the man and the woman sat slumped, listless. The porcupine was not moving. Experimentally, Perry shook the golf ball. Throwing the scene into screaming spasm.
"Jesus!" said Perry, shocked at his callous error.
"That's nothing," said Al with a chuckle. "Why, once I hit this sucker so hard both their heads came off."
"That's possible?" said Perry.
"Here? Sure. Anything's possible here."
"Doesn't this ... worry you? At all?"
"You some kinda atheist communist or something?" said Al, turning surly. "These are sinners."
Atheist communist. A tad old-fashioned.
"How long have you been here?" said Perry.
"Oh, since ... 1958, I guess. Yeah. That was it. 1958."
"This is sick," said Perry, peering into the bloodstained interior of the Sinner Special golf ball, where the man, the woman and the porcupine lay in a groaning heap.
"You were right," said Al, to Midrog. "He doesn't fit in." Then, to Perry: "You know your problem? You expect things to make sense."
"But they don't," said Al. "So get used to it."
"I don't think I can," said Perry.
"Well, then," said Al, and clubbed him, knocking him down.
"What did you do that for?" said Perry, looking up from the ground, too shocked to really feel pain.
"It's my little hobby," said Al. "Nice knowing you, Perry."
Then Al Treeve whacked Perry Voight in the head, killing him outright.
When Perry came to, he was lying in a concrete car park. A big one. It went on for miles. But there were no cars in sight. Off to his right was a golf course. Not a very nice one it was a hot and shadeless glaring place with withered grass and stunted trees. Even so, some golfers were playing on it.
"So where's this?" said Perry, to himself.
"Thermostat," said one of the parking meters, answering him.
"You speak English?" said Perry.
"Sure I do," said the parking meter.
"Then where is this?"
"I just told you."
"No you didn't."
"Yes I did. It's Thermostat."
"That's a place?"
"Yeah, sure. Basic theology. There's Cold Spaghetti, Alarm Clocks, Twisted Rodents and Thermostat. Oh, and Frozen Chocolate, too, let's not forget about Frozen Chocolate."
"And Golf Course?" said Perry.
"Yeah, you're right, there's Golf Course. I was forgetting Golf Course. But this is Thermostat."
"And they have golf here ...?"
"Oh, they have golf everywhere. Even in Japan."
Even in Japan. Same pattern. Grown men, little white balls. The men chase the balls. They hit them. The balls run away. The balls don't run far enough. The men see where the balls have fallen. They follow their quarry, meaning to hit again.
Off in the distance, Perry saw a woman talking to a couple of golfers. Maybe it was Daphne. Doing a survey? Maybe. Well. Maybe if you finally listened to her for once ...
"The American spirit of optimism will not be quenched even by death," said the parking meter, as if reading his mind.
"Hell, no," said Perry. "It won't. And why should it?"
And, without waiting for an answer, he set off, his mind set for once on winning the woman rather than on teeing off.