The black dog died of blunt force trauma. It happened at dusk on the first hole, the shortest of the three-hole golf course that Mike Brown built in the desert, about five miles from the Nevada border. Wearing a hat, heavy socks, and a down jacket against the cold, Mike jammed a blue tee in the ground, finding a crack in the hard earth, and used the scuffed four-iron. Sailing over scrub brush, the shot landed near the orange cone, one of three liberated from vehicular mishaps and road repairs that he used as flags. Carrying a putter and two irons, he walked across the gently sloping terrain. The sky was a hard November shellac of purple clouds, and the cold chilled his boots.
Nearing sight of his second shot, planning a pitch across a low gully, Mike saw the black, old, and mangy poodle, named Howie, come running out from the desert brush. Twilight’s shadows distorted its already ungainly shape. Resembling a work of clumsily carved topiary, the dog ran like a tin can kicked down a street. Yet the arthritic hound moved quick as he grabbed the ball, ruining a good lie. Mike gave chase with one club in his hand. Howie ran to a small sandbar and stopped. Mike advanced, the pitching wedge lifted. The cur watched him, its black mouth curled in a silent snarl.
The ball fell from its mouth and rolled forward, slimy and dirt-speckled and full of tooth marks. Mike advanced, lowering the golf club, and when he reached for the ball, Howie darted forward and bit his hand. Mike straightened up, felt the pain sharpen, and swung the wedge down on the old dog’s head. It did a little jig and dropped dead.
Mike looked around for witnesses. Howie was Ian’s dog. Ian was Mike’s employer and landlord, having given Mike a job and a place to live ever since Mike came to Noah six months ago. Howie was a mutt that had to vanish unseen.
Mike glanced to the west and toward Noah, the California desert town on the northeast edge of San Bernardino County, a dozen miles north of the I-15. A few shapes moved in the gathering dark. He turned to look to the east, saw no one, not even a car on the road that crossed the Nevada border, about five miles away, on the slopes of the cloud-covered New York Mountains. He pocketed the ball, marked the spot, gathered his irons, all four of them; wedge, putter, four- and –six-iron, and headed home. He walked down the highway into town. This route obliged him to pass the skid marks where, months ago, Mike had found a dead man that wasn’t dead, as it turned out. The dime that he’d used to mark the spot was still there. It glistened faintly in the day’s last light.
In fifteen minutes, he reached Noah’s border. His trailer was on the northern edge, a ramshackle wide body with two metal steps whose surface had been prematurely oxidized by Howie, who more than once had lifted his leg in canine commentary on Mike’s presence. Inside, the first thing he did was wash his hands, wiping away the small spot of blood. Next, he poured Coors over the wound, letting the alcohol sting and clean the wound before he drank. Planning a dog’s disappearance, he stepped outside and smiled when he thought of the droppings that Howie had left at his doorstep.
“How’d the golf go?” asked Marie Hammond from across the way. She was a hefty, middle-aged, and Bible-quoting woman who slept with Ian Cash, the town’s owner.
“Beat my handicap,” Mike said. “I really had those clubs working today.”
Growing up, he’d played amateur golf and won a few tournaments. Turning pro didn’t work out, nor did marriage, and the various professions he had attempted in the Southern California area had ended in failure.
Marie turned her face up to the sky. “Going to be cold tonight.”
“Been cold as hell the last couple of nights.”
She pointed at a trailer that was set beside the railroad tracks. It belonged to a reclusive kid from Los Angeles. “Jim’s still not back yet. Gone two days now.”
“He probably went to see his mother.”
His mother was named Ann, and she lived in nearby Searchlight, twenty miles down and over the Nevada border. She would come and deliver food to Jim, who had disclosed once to Mike that he’d had “some problems” in LA and was lying low. “I guess he went stir crazy.”
“It happens without Jesus.”
Mike waved and walked away. He didn’t want to get analyzed by Marie, who conversed like a dentist probing for cavities. Her perspective was religious, and she believed that Mike needed God. Of course, the subject of religion had been an issue with Mike ever since he’d come to Noah three months ago. It was a place of mystery and miracle to him, for on the first night he’d found a dead body—Jim’s body, in fact—beside the road, a body which disappeared and returned.
It happened like this. Mike had been living in Laughlin, Nevada, some sixty miles away as the crow flies. He’d lost his job as a casino painter after he got drunk and got into a fight, bloodying the nose of a fellow employee. “We don’t need violent people,” said the corporate rat who’d fired him. Leaving town, he’d headed north up 395 to Searchlight. He'd stopped at a casino restaurant and––over a beer and burger––contemplated his fifty-eight years, his three marriages, and three divorces. It was the theme of his discussion with the crew-cut bartender.
“Can't live with them,” the bartender had said, his face lined and heavy, “Can't live without them.”
“Bag it,” Mike said, his all-purpose term for agreement.
Passing the California state line, he saw off to his right the casino lights at the Nevada border. Going downslope, he neared the town of Noah. That’s when it happened. At first, he couldn’t believe that he was looking at a body in the road. Incredulity and inebriation slowed his reaction. His brakes, when applied, left skid marks as he stopped a few feet from the man. Mike left his engine running as he got outside. It was a young man, early twenties, lying on his back.
Alone with a dead body at four in the morning, Mike stood where the headlights extended his shadow. Mike leaned down. The man was cold to the touch. The bullet wound bled, but the near-freezing cold seemed to have sealed the wound. Withdrawing his hand, Mike felt the stillness of the moment, the crèche-like lighting of his headlights. The sight was surreal, though not as much as what happened next.
The body left the ground. It ascended stiff as a plank through his headlights and past Mike’s head where it picked up speed, lifting into the sky. It disappeared.
At this most brazen manifestation of the supernatural, falling back on golfing metaphors helped. Mike, taking a step back, thought of the way his father used to set a dime down on a green to mark a golf ball while someone else putted. That’s how it felt, as if the man had been lifted right off the earth, plucked into the sky, pocketed for a later placement. Perhaps God wanted to think this next putt over, a crimp in the green that He wasn’t sure about.
Good golf and poor theology had been Mike’s inheritance from his father. Mike could still hear him talking: God as the supreme, though hardly perfect, golfer, the Eisenhower of the skies. His father, now deceased, drank, golfed, whored, and repented. Life was eighteen holes, a lingering nineteenth, and sometimes a visit to the chapel on the erratic way home. God, according to Ebenezer Brown, made us in His imperfect image, flawed, good with the clubs, and faltering in the nuances of the game, hitting for show but not putting for dough, as the old saying went. God had intimacy issues. Hang-ups. “God has his yips like anyone else,” Mr. Ebenezer Brown had said. “He needs his mulligans and gimmes from us.” As if to indulge this flawed God, Mike took a dime from his pocket and put it on the soft roadside dirt, beside where the body had vanished. Letting God play through, as it were.
Back in his car, Mike coasted into town. He parked in the dirt lot beside the general store and waited for the shaking to stop. The adrenaline drained slowly. When it had, Mike prayed to God, which he’d never done except as a benevolent force who might help him sink a putt or flip a third deuce when he’d been holding two.
Finally, he slept, and when he woke dawn lit the desert floor. He walked through soft light out to the skid marks. That’s when he met Howie, the town’s first inhabitant to greet him. It was not a warm welcome. Howie growled, barked, bared fangs. Mike kicked it, landing a glancing blow off the dog’s hindquarters. The dog, silenced, departed as if the kick, though only partially successful, had established boundaries. Round one to the human.
Mike went back to his car and dozed. When he woke, hungry, the town’s general store had just opened. Ian Cash was there. Mike bought Twinkies for breakfast and over coffee they chatted of resurrection, whether it was a two-way street, a renewable resource, or a transferable asset. All of it was possible, Ian Cash said, because this was God’s country, in the purest edge of San Bernardino County. He spoke with authority. His baritone voice, bright eyes, and abundant grey hair had the electrified look of successful televangelists.
“God's country?” Mike had asked.
“I know it for a fact. I turned off the freeway and came this way, and in a couple of miles I saw a friendly cloud and then the town, and I knew what I was looking for.”
“If that’s so,” Mike said. “Maybe I’ll stay.”
He did, rented a trailer and looking for a face among the miners, casino workers, retirees, and desert rats who formed the town’s shifting, double-digit population. He took a job working at the general store. He lived paycheck to paycheck. Ian found handyman work for him, in exchange for a reduced rent. Checks from his father’s estate helped. He waited for some revelation to descend. It came three months later when Jim entered the store. Mike recognized him immediately, dead man walking, and while Mike felt the frenzy of his own glance, the other seemed not to have any memory of their previous acquaintance.
“What's the name of this town?”
“Noah,” Mike said.
“Nice little town,” the young man said, “out of the way.”
“Yes.” Mike cleared his throat. “First time here?”
The young man nodded. He had a bland face, sparse of eye and mouth, though Mike sensed a faint nimbus of anxiety that crinkled his low forehead. It was cruel to think it, but he looked better dead. Regardless, Mike had never spoken to a corpse-in-waiting. His thoughts inclined to the metaphysical.
“I've been thinking about resurrection,” he said. “It’s a vertical thing. Ever think about that? Runs up and down, if you know what I mean. We rise and we sink. It’s like when you’re on the green and you’re closer to the flag and you place a dime as a marker and lift your ball so that your opponent has a clear putt, and when he’s finished you replace that ball. Maybe we’re little colored golf balls being carried in God’s trousers, waiting to be placed on the green, only to be knocked to the bottom of a tin cup and raised to heaven, or to someone’s front pocket.”
The young man made no reaction, except to take a step back toward the door when Ian Cash, roaring, came out of his office.
“Hello, stranger! Welcome to God’s country!” He approached in his machine-tooled boots and stood on the store’s wooden floorboards. “Don’t pay any attention to Mike. He thinks religion is one big game of golf, and who’s his favorite President? Eisenhower, of course.”
True, not only because Eisenhower golfed, but because those were the best days of Mike's life when he was young, his parents were still together, halcyon days faintly remembered, before the sixties came and his father’s erratic hours and booze and the phone calls from women or creditors. Soon enough, he heard the arguments and saw the clubs packed for good. Mike was a teenager by then.
“About the first thing Mike did in town was to design the world’s most unplayable golf course,” Ian continued, “three holes of sand traps, greens of raked dirt, and flags that are cones, property of Caltrans.”
Jim rented an empty trailer. Mike never mentioned his corpse, neither pronate nor ascending.
Pushing aside thoughts of Jim, Mike contemplated Howie’s vanishing. That evening, as he passed the general store, Ian Cash stepped from the shadows.
“What's with the Ziploc bag?”
“Got some chicken bones to toss, going to take them out to the desert floor. I’m going to bury them in the desert.”
“Pretty big bag for chicken bones.”
“Only bag I could find.”
“Why not put them in the trash?”
“Something you said last Sunday, about resurrection in the desert, about breathing new life into old bones.”
“I was speaking about my old bones,” Ian said, “if you want to know the truth.”
“I took it as a metaphor of resurrection. I want them old chicken bones to claw their way out of the desert sand and come to life. I want that chicken to live.” So saying, Mike did a little dance, a chicken dance, slapping his elbows against his ribs and shuffling his feet and broke into improvised song, as he sometimes did. Once he’d failed as a golfer, he’d tried crooning, among other things.
“The chicken walks, the chicken dances, the chicken is re-sur-rected!”
Mike turned a full circle and stopped. Ian regarded him like a favorite son, now fallen into disgrace.
“I had thought you would be the one to appreciate the spiritual nature of this place,” Ian said. “It was a look about you, that very first morning I saw you, someone who knew they were in God’s country.”
“It was a bad night,” Mike said.
“You’re not drinking much now. You look better. Maybe your purpose in coming here has been fulfilled.”
Mike knew that others who worked at the store wanted longer hours, cutting into his. “Does that mean I’m fired?”
“Sometimes, we all need a little push, you know?”
“I think I've been pushed enough in this life.”
The two men exchanged a look. Ian turned away and turned back. “By the way,” he said, “you haven’t seen Howie, have you?”
“No,” Mike said, stuffing the Ziploc in his pocket. “He’s missing?”
“Haven’t seen him since this afternoon.”
“You're close to that dog, aren’t you?”
Ian nodded. “You wouldn’t believe how much the desert has done for his spirit. It’s like he’s been reborn.”
“That’s some rebirth,” Mike said. “The way he’s been limping around.”
“Oh, I know he’s in physical pain, but I believe that in his way Howie is filled with the spirit of the Lord. And God knows he’ll join the Lord soon enough.”
“You mean he’ll be resurrected?”
“In a way yes, I believe his spirit will overcome death.”
“Now you're being trivial.”
“If you see him, let me know.”
“Bag it,” Mike said.
“Oh, and one other thing, my Camry is looking a little dirty lately,