His Balls

A man consumed with an addictive hobby, a concerned wife, and a thief on the prowl: A short story that clearly displays the true cost of obsession…

by: Carol Murphy

A medium statured, gruff, and burly man, Ed was known on the local public golf links as “someone you didn’t want to mess with.” He would routinely tell his family stories about the incidents in which he got in men’s faces when they tried to play through or did not follow the rules. His daughter would laugh hysterically, his son would smile, while his wife would just sigh. Ed loved the rules of golf, even as many odd ones as there were, and considered those who did not precisely follow them as cheaters.  He never trusted those people again.  

Ed was also not particularly adept at organizing his office, leaving personal papers, golf magazines, and financial publications heaped on his desk or strewn on the floor. In fact, he never did try to organize anything, except of course, his golf balls. He was meticulous with his golf ball collection, although there were strays that always seemed to roll around in various drawers in the house. When she found one, Barbara, Ed’s wife, would simply hand it to him to take out to the garage.

The garage held large, round, plastic cans filled with balls assorted by quality, logo, and origin. “Range” balls sat in a corner beside Ed’s car and two buckets of balls were always in his trunk. He searched for lost balls in fairway gullies every time he played or officiated golf tournaments, took some for “souvenirs” and could, if only slightly prompted, give detailed descriptions of exactly where each ball was found, who was present, what game had been played, and even the probable origin of the ball. Over the years Ed had accumulated so many golf balls that their storage had spilled over into the barn and two sheds.  

Things started deteriorating, however, after Ed took a crate of golf balls home from his parent’s house after his father died. The crate was so heavy, he had to recruit two men and borrow a neighbor’s truck to move it.

Ed’s father’s golf balls, although only a small lot compared to Ed’s huge collection, were fascinating because they were much older than any Ed had. His first task was to sort them by manufacturer. That was easy. He already had many of his own balls sorted in that manner, but then about a third of the way through the crate, an odd variety of balls he had never seen in his many years of collecting formed a solid layer. Many were vintage, and Ed realized that his father, who had lived on the edge of a course constructed in the 1920s, must also have been a collector. Funny, thought Ed, he never said a word about it.

Ed’s father’s balls had never been cleaned and most had dirt or grass smudges on them. This was par for the course for Ed’s father who might wear the same spotted and soiled shirt for days. Some of the golf balls had personal names that belonged to men or a few to women. One even had the logo for St. Andrews Golf Course in Scotland. A small number had brand names that were unknown to Ed. He set about to discover how old the balls really were, the history of the companies, and what the balls were made of. Golf balls had evolved over the years. Even such details as the dimples on them had changed shape, number, and size. Several of the balls had strange looking indentations. It was all very intriguing to Ed.

The mystery added an overwhelming fascination for Ed, consequently golf balls began to occupy most of his time. He stayed in the garage some nights till midnight until Barbara became concerned. In the past, Ed’s daily routine was to rise before dawn to watch the financial news, later play a round of golf, then tinker around in the garage, clean a few newly found balls, have dinner, and go to bed at about eight to read mystery novels. Now he was still getting up early, but because he was staying up so late, he was becoming worn out and irritable as the days went by. Instead of reading the morning paper with his coffee, and watching the financial news on television, Ed went directly to the garage, and there he would stay, coming into the house only for lunch, dinner, or to go to the bathroom. A few of his golf buddies called and Barbara heard Ed telling them he had some chores to do, but then he’d be out playing again. Soon, the calls faded away.  

Sifting through his father’s collection, Ed reasoned that his father must have found such specimens when he played at various private courses, courses that the average middle-class muni player could not afford. So, he started scouring the private clubs in the adjoining communities. He would pick out a course, map the terrain, then contentedly hunt balls in the brush, trees, around houses and in nearby creeks for weeks. Many times, he came home after dark. He told his wife nothing and she thankfully believed he was finally out playing golf again.

It was about this time, too, that a series of burglaries in the more prestigious neighborhoods that typically surrounded private country clubs was being tracked by the authorities. Law enforcement speculated that the robber observed the homeowners for days, and then broke into the houses when the occupants were on vacation, doing errands, or out on the course. They knew they were dealing with a cunning criminal who understood golfers, someone who might even be found just sitting in his car waiting for the owners to leave their house for a short round.

For years Barbara had tried, mostly with success, to ignore all the golf balls. She reasoned that it was a harmless hobby especially when opposed to the other option, a husband inclined to chase women, gamble, or drink. Then, of course, when they eventually had children and Ed taught them how to play golf, he did need all those balls and it was cheaper than buying new ones. Barbara noticed that when their daughter visited, he gave her balls with college logos on them, and when he played golf with their son, Ed gave him balls with the emblems of prestigious golf courses. Barbara thought this was endearing. After forty-two years, however, there were so many balls that the space they took up in the garage left little room for anything else.  

When Ed and Barbara’s daughter became engaged, and Barbara knew that relatives would arrive from out of town for the wedding, she did not want them to see the thousands of balls. In Barbara’s mind, containers of golf balls had to be eliminated from the garage, or at least moved, to make room for storing larger items that would then free up space inside the house for guests’ beds. 

Barbara approached Ed quietly. She knew that the mere mention of getting rid of any of the balls was going to start trouble, but she did not know how much.

“Honey, why don’t you see if you can sell some of these old balls? I bet many of them are worth even more than when they were new,” she suggested, waving her hand across a wide expanse in the garage. Money was always a motivating factor for Ed. But not this time.

“Why would I do that?” he countered, sauntering over to one bucketful and picking up a ball to scrutinize the printing.

Barbara sighed. “The wedding is coming up and we really need to make some extra room in the house for guests. We also need storage space in the garage.”

Ed looked directly at his wife and narrowed his eyes. “I will move them into the barn. They won’t bother you again,” he countered, sounding incensed. 

Barbara was shocked. Ed had never spoken to her in that kind of tone. In fact, over the years he had been mostly apologetic about the balls, always vowing to sell or give them away in due time. It must be the lack of sleep she reasoned, and left him alone the rest of the day.

But as time wore on, Ed became even more occupied with the balls. He did move them to the barn, a feat that took a week and required the barn to be completely cleaned out. Barbara began to believe that things had gotten out of hand, even creepy. Her husband was sixty-five and perhaps he was experiencing a sort of mental breakdown, or worse, potentially dementia was developing. Certainly, the ongoing lack of sleep was partially the culprit. She called Ed’s doctor, but he was on vacation and she really did not want to tell another doctor about the situation. Ed’s doctor played golf with Ed on occasion. He would be the first person to speak with.

In the meantime, Ed spent every day ball hunting and every night in the barn. 

Out in the barn, Ed had lost track of time. He had installed carpeting in the old feed room, moved in an old desk, chair, long table, and his computer. That way he could go through his father’s golf balls and research each one up on the internet simultaneously. He even brought in a portable heater, a bevy of snacks, and bought a new coffee maker. He got water from the outside hose. There was really no reason to leave the barn except to use the restroom.  

Ed was consumed.

On one late Friday night Barbara was woken up by the sound of what she thought was gun fire. She looked over to Ed’s side of the bed and saw he was not there. Quickly, she put on her glasses and looked at the clock. It was 2 am. Frightened, Barbara jumped out of bed, grabbed her bathrobe and ran into the living room. Peering through the huge front windows, she could see the barn lit up like a Christmas tree. She ran outside and in the barn Ed was scrutinizing the pieces from a golf ball that had just exploded. In his thinning silver hair were shreds of grey rubber.  

“I guess this one had liquid rubber in it,” Ed commented without looking up.

“Look,” said Barbara, “This is getting dangerous, not to mention ruining your sleep and your health. Ed, please give this golf ball thing a rest for a couple of days.”

Ed turned to look her squarely in the face. His eyes were glassy, his face was red, the hair on his forehead was covered with rubbery bits, and his shirt was the same one he had worn since Sunday. “Leave me alone,” was all he said. Then he turned back to fumble through several golf balls sitting on the desk.

Barbara was now seriously worried. Ed could have put his eye out and he seemed to have lost track of time. His golf ball obsession had now become a 24/7 endeavor. She realized that Ed’s mental state was precarious and vowed that on Monday she would call Ed’s doctor who was due back from vacation.

During the day, Ed had increased his hunting time and distance to the more prestigious golf courses. It was also around this time that burglaries in houses surrounding affluent courses had increased dramatically. Law enforcement decided that the robber was someone local who observed the property owners and probably even watched, likely from a car, until the right moment. The sheriff’s department increased patrols and used unmarked cars with officers dressed in plain clothes.

Ed, of course, did not know any of this even though it had been in the local papers and on the news. He had too many balls to find and research to keep up with the news anymore. 

On one elite course there was a deep drainage ditch that Ed had been waiting to dry up so he could plunge into. The problem was recently there was more water than normal because of unusually high rainfall. The culvert drained into a small stream that ran into the bay, but it had gotten plugged up with debris from the runoff.  Sticks, leaves, old shoes, and even a couple of broken chairs were now holding in water that should have washed away weeks prior. It was frustrating for Ed who only wanted to get at the golf balls he knew were sitting in the bottom of it. Even though the golf property was owned by a company that built courses worldwide, its jurisdiction ended above the gully on the edge of the 10th hole. The county was just like any other, short on maintenance money, and since the county’s focus was on repairing roads, the water-filled ditch was left to sit. Both the company and Ed grumbled about the county’s maintenance situation.

Ed became very frustrated, even calling the county to come out to remove the debris by saying that he was a resident and was afraid that mosquitoes would start laying eggs in the stagnant water.  The county replied that it would get to that area when it could, but they were swamped. It was then Ed decided that he would have to take matters into his own hands.

At home Ed gathered a shovel, work gloves, a tarp, pruning shears, and a lantern. His intention was to sit in his car and wait until the homeowner had left to play golf in the morning before he started removing the lodged waste. He did not want anyone asking any questions. 

Ed piled everything into his old black Suburban and drove out to the course. He did notice the blue car sitting right across the street with the plainclothes detective who was just taking a morning coffee break and had bought himself a maple bar. His wife was trying to make him lose weight since his last doctor’s visit confirmed the beginning of diabetes. In between bites of the donut, he spotted Ed.

For a time, the detective thought Ed might be a genuine repair man as he was dressed in grey overalls, carried a great deal of tools, and he obviously did not care if anyone was watching because he laid all the gear on the street beside his car on a tarp. However, he then picked up his load and ventured behind the house. This stirred the detective’s suspicious nature. Reluctantly he put down his coffee, ate the last of his donut, slipped on his jacket ,and followed Ed.

The culvert had a steep embankment and Ed’s tools could have easily rolled away, so he had placed all of them on the deck of the owner’s house, his first mistake. The detective following saw the tools and yelled at Ed to stop. Ed only saw a man in a scruffy outfit and immediately thought he was being confronted by another ball hawker. He already knew the property owner had left, just as he did every morning at 8 am to play a round.  

Ed yelled back, “Make me.” That was mistake number two.

The detective immediately took out his gun and badge. Ed realized too late he was in big trouble.

On the way to the police station, Ed asked if he could call his wife.  

“When we get there, you can call anyone you like,” was the answer. All Ed thought while driving through the gates of the country club was how different it all looked from the back of a police car, even if it wasn’t marked.

Ed’s wife was shocked. At the station she tried to explain that Ed had collected golf balls for years, and, if no one would believe her, she could show them his vast collection in the barn. Ed’s bail was set so high that in order to pay it Barbara would have to take out a loan on the house which until that time had been fully paid for. She was disgusted.

The patrol cars arrived at Ed and Barbara’s later that day, lights blinking, much to Barbara’s horror. Neighbors came out to see what all the fuss was about while the police rifled through the house, never turning off their blinking lights of their patrol cars. When they got to the barn and opened the door, all four of them stood side by side and just stared. Golf balls were everywhere. Even though they were men who had probably seen many surprising things, this was an astounding sight.  

“Look at this,” a balding one said. “There must be thousands of dollars of golf balls in here.”

Immediately they took out the yellow crime scene tape and began winding it around the barn, the house, and the garage.

“You can’t do this,” Barbara said as she started to cry. “I have guests coming. My daughter is getting married in a month.”

A cop who had just gotten married and was slightly sympathetic said, “I am sorry, mam, but this is now a crime scene. You will have to stay somewhere else until we sift through everything. Your husband has been charged with burglary and there may be evidence somewhere in all this.” He took off his hat in a gesture of respect, put it back on, and walked into the barn.

Reporters came and interviewed neighbors, pictures were taken, and news articles appeared in the local paper for days. 

Ed’s jail cell was cold, and his bunkmate was a local drunk who regularly stayed overnight. The smell was getting to Ed, especially since he hadn’t changed his clothes much either since he started looking for balls. But his time in confinement did give him time to evaluate his situation.  

The lawyer his wife called was a criminal defense attorney who told Ed there was a lot of evidence against him, and then laid out what he charged per hour. Ed thought only celebrity attorneys charged that much and was humiliated that his house had to be put up for bail.  

Then he remembered the cost for his daughter’s upcoming wedding and the guests coming. He pictured all the golf balls he had never been able to let go of. None of this was good.

The sheriff hired a trucking company to go to Ed’s house to start removing the golf balls. All of Ed’s meticulously sorted balls were thrown into the trucks haphazardly while uniformed men went through every inch of the house, garage, and barn. 

Except for the golf balls, no one ever found any evidence that Ed was a burglar and there was a report released that the golf balls were not that valuable. Soon enough, the house break-ins and robberies started again. Ed was finally released from jail with a huge attorney’s bill, a mortgage on his house, and bills for an upcoming wedding for a daughter who wasn’t even speaking to him. The house, garage, and barn did not have one golf ball left, although later Barbara did find one in the back of her sweater drawer. Where they all went the sheriff would not say, although his men did start to play a few rounds outside of town. 

Ed bought some cheap balls and started playing golf again. His daughter got married. The attorney and bail bondsman wiped away their bills realizing they had gotten enough publicity to stop marketing for a while. After careful consideration, Ed’s children finally called him, and Barbara was beginning to use all that empty space created when the police took the golf balls. The only thing left was the mortgage. At least Barbara was still working.

On a bright clear day that summer, Ed hit a hook that went right into the creek bordering his home course. As he descended the bank, he saw dozens of golf balls sitting in water. The old urge overcame him, and he gingerly picked one up, then another. As he climbed up the short hill, he looked at the blue sky. This was trouble, he thought to himself. But he put them in the trunk of his car and drove home. His daughter was visiting, sitting at the kitchen counter while Barbara made Ed’s favorite, lasagna.  He looked at them and thought of the drama he had caused with his balls.     

“Are you playing golf with anyone?” he asked his daughter.

“Not since we last played,” she answered, putting her hand on his shoulder. “Want to go hit some balls?”

“Yeh, let’s go.  I think I have some range balls in my trunk.”

 

Carol Murphy has written stories about the nature of language and the many ways it can influence lives.  She believes narratives can help us better understand ourselves and others.

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