Today is World AIDS Day. As some of you may know, I have been working on a second book called “108 Jobs and Counting.” It’s a series of stories about every job I have had over the course of my entire life. While this story has nothing to do with the restaurant industry, it does have something to do with AIDS and the love I have for my Uncle who dies in 1991. I hope you will read it. -BW
Job #13: Manager at a Putt-Putt Golf
Stepping back on the greens this summer, there is a sense of confidence that wasn’t there last season. Having the title of manager bestowed upon me and maintaining my ability to soar through either of the two courses with an average score of ten under par makes me feel like Denver’s own Chi-Chi Rodriguez. Papo ‘dosa would be proud. On top of that, the 49% pay raise has ballooned my salary up to $5.00 an hour. Surveying my kingdom of 36 holes of prime miniature golfing opportunities, there is an increased sense of pride in the way the course looks today. The water traps have a fresh coat of light blue paint, the petunias have been plucked of dead blooms, the bathrooms have been scrubbed, and the green felt carpets have all been swept clean of leaves and debris. Sometimes, I like to imagine that this Putt-Putt golf course is my own personal Disneyland and I want it to be as special as it can be for the guests, but today, my Uncle Rene and his friend Kent will be showing up during my shift, on a trip from Houston to visit the Mile High City and see his nephew.
It took me years to realize that Kent wasn’t just Rene’s friend. Even going to their perfectly-decorated townhouse at Christmastime once as kid and seeing all the beautiful handblown glass decorations on their white flocked Christmas tree and watching them dote on their two miniature schnauzers wasn’t enough to clue me in that they were a couple. Kent had never been introduced to me as anyone other than Rene’s friend, so I took that at face value. I’m eager to see them both this weekend and not just because they’ll take me out to dinner, offering me a brief respite from tuna sandwiches or spaghetti with a can of tomato sauce that was on sale at King Soopers, four for a dollar. I’ve always wanted to grow up and be just like Rene. He has a convertible, lives in a beautiful apartment, travels to exotic locales like Key West and San Francisco and in his spare time he edits home movies that he shoots with his video recorder. As excited as I am to see him I’m also worried that he’s going to have some bad news to share. For several months, he has been fighting an illness that no one in my family is talking about. In the same way that no one has ever said out loud that Rene is gay, no one is saying out loud that he has AIDS.
It’s a hot July Saturday and my focus is to move the water sprinkler every thirty minutes to a different spot in the course so that the actual grass can stay as close to the same color of the green felt on all the holes. I don’t know what time Rene and Kent will show up, so the shift goes on just like every other one, giving away coupons for holes in one and praising the accomplishment on the loudspeaker. As I am dragging the water sprinkler from hole #13 to hole #5, desperately trying to keep the spray of water from dousing myself or any customers, my feet get entwined in the hose and I lose my balance, almost stepping into the water trap of hole #7. Recovering with very little grace, I look up to see Uncle Rene, his video camera pointing directly at me.
“Oh my god, how long have you been filming me?”
“Long enough and it was perfect.”
Immediately I know that a clip of me tangled up in a water hose will turn up in one of his highly edited home movie compilations of their vacations, probably accompanied with the theme song to Looney Tunes. After giving them the grand tour of all 36 holes, Rene and Kent tell me they will go check into their hotel and then meet me at my apartment later to take me to dinner.
The next day, I am a tourist in my own city, visiting the state capitol, the Denver Mint and the infamous Molly Brown House. I only know who she is because of the movie musical “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” so the house is a bit disappointing to me when I see absolutely nothing about Debbie Reynolds who starred in the film or Tammy Grimes who originated the role on Broadway. Rene and Kent are over the moon about the moldings on the ceilings and all the antique furniture and china, but I’m just looking forward to our lunch at a bar-b-q place called Oink’s. When we say our goodbyes, I hug both of them front of my apartment and as they drive off I wonder why he never told me what illness he has. If it’s AIDS, why wouldn’t he tell me? Does he think it would make me stop loving him? Nothing would ever make that happen.
As the summer winds down and the owner of the Putt-Putt continuously refuses to give me the necessary time off to audition for musicals that surely will catapult me to my rightful place in the spotlight, the job becomes less and less important. On Sunday morning when we are scheduled to open at noon, I arrive at the course at 11:58 ready to put in my two-minutes notice. After unlocking the padlock on the clubhouse, I slip inside to make sure everything is in place, neatly stacking the coupons and straightening the clubs. I put the key to the lock inside the cash register drawer and then retrieve a quarter from my pocket to make one final call from the pay phone. My fingers are trembling as I dial the number to the owner’s house. His wife picks up on the other end.
“Dorothy?” I ask. My shaky voice is betraying me and eroding he confidence I want to have.
“Yes, who’s calling?”
“It’s Darron from the golf course. I quit.”
And with that, I hang up the phone, close the drawer to the cash register with the keys inside, slip back out of the clubhouse, lock the padlock and get in my car to drive away. When I get back to my apartment, my answering machine is flashing its red light and I know who it is.
“Darron, this is Dallas and that’s the god damndest thing I’ve ever heard of. I’m gonna find out who your new employer is and call them to tell them what kind of person you you are.”
The joke’s on him though, because I don’t have a new employer, only auditions.
Two years have passed by and now I’m living in Houston, Texas. Uncle Rene is in hospice and his boyfriend Kent died just two weeks earlier. I’ve been putting off going to visit Rene because I’m too scared of what to say or how to act, so maybe Rene was right to never tell me what he was sick with. It’s only been the last few weeks that anyone in my family actually said out loud it’s AIDS. When I finally go to see him, I am shocked at his appearance. Gone is the joy in his face and the light in his eyes. He’s so thin and his wrist looks like a twig on the branch of a sad, tiny tree. He isn’t able to say hello to me; all he can do is look. The whites of his eyes are anything but white and they look scared and alone. “Does he even know that Kent died?” I wonder.
“Hi!” I tell him. The crack in my throat belies the forced cheerfulness, not unlike the shakiness of my voice when I quit my job at Putt-Putt two years ago. “You look great,” I lie. “I’m sorry I haven’t had a chance to visit, I’ve just been so busy,” I lie again.
He reaches out to me with his withered hand and I hold it, instantly feeling guilty for not being there more often. The twin bed and all the decor in this room is like nothing he would normally be around. There are no antiques or stylish artwork on the walls. It’s a place where people go to die and that’s exactly what it looks like. Small talk continues between me and my Dad while Uncle Rene lays in bed watching us and eventually I tell him, “I’ll come back and see you tomorrow.”
My fear of seeing him again and not being able to pretend that I’m not one step away from completely losing it means that the last thing I ever say to my uncle is a lie. I never go back to see him and he dies two days after I tell him I’ll come back to see him. Later on at his apartment, as my Dad and I start to pack away his things there are two things I know I want to find: one is his generous stash of weed and the other is the VHS tape of his trip to Denver. After some digging, both of them go into my bag, along with a pink glass ashtray. When I get back to my apartment, I smoke a joint using his marijuana and his ashtray and I pop the VHS tape into my VCR and there it is: video of me at Putt-Putt, all tangled up in a water hose and almost falling over into a water pit. And over that is a track of cartoon music, just as I expected there would be. Now, more than ever, I want to grow to be just like him someday.
Job #13: April 16, 1989 to September 3, 1989