Douglas Walker
The Fifth Green


       The river scum squished between his toes as he waded through the ankle-deep stream in his black canvas sneakers.  Traversing the stream today for the first time since his talk with his dad, Elliott’s heart wasn’t in the hunt.  Very little success.  About to give up, he spotted a white orb hiding in the weeds along the bank.  He sloshed over to find a Titleist 3 smiling up at him.  Although the smile would cost him 15 cents Elliott plucked the golf ball out of the muddy bank and dropped it in his plastic bucket.
       Elliott often traveled the stream that meandered throughout the 18 holes of the university’s golf course searching for golf balls that strayed from the fairway.  After filling his bucket he sold the retrieved balls in the parking lot back to the same duffers who lost them in the first place.  The good ones for 25 cents each or 10 balls for $2.  The balls with smiles chopped into them from an errant iron shot, 10 cents each.  He didn’t get rich, but it was enough to bike over to the drug store and buy the latest issue of Mad Magazine and a couple candy bars.  The goal was never the money anyway.  Iowa was boring as hell, and anything to break up the monotony of summer vacation was welcome.
       As Elliott approached the fifth hole, the tree branches formed a twenty-foot high ceiling.  The thick foliage allowed only splashes of sunlight to dance on the water as the leaves rustled in the wind.  The fifth hole was a short par three with its green across the tree-lined stream and forty feet above the tee box.  The result was a pin that was hidden from the view of the golfers until they crossed the bridge and climbed the steps.
       Sometimes Elliott scaled the embankment and waited at the edge of the fairway.  Eventually a ball would land on or near the green.  Quickly scanning the area to make sure he was unobserved he sprinted onto the green, snatched the ball off the grass, and slid back down the embankment to the stream.  In the time it took to wait for the right moment to retrieve that one ball, Elliott could have found 3 or 4 golf balls in the stream or weeds.  But the adrenaline rush of escaping unnoticed was worth it.  More than once he caught glances from suspicious golfers that couldn’t find their tee shots.
       “I could have sworn it was headed right for the green.”
       “Maybe it took a bad bounce.”
       “I suppose.”
       Today, Elliott scaled the embankment up to the fifth green where he sat with his back against a tree and waited for a tee shot.
       “Life is like a continuous-time Markov chain.  Do you know what a Markov chain is?”
       “No.  I don’t think we’ve gotten that far yet in Math.”
       “I suppose not.  You’re only 13 after all.  How can I put this?  Life is like a water bug darting about the surface of a pond.  Wait.  No.  Where we’re going, our future, doesn’t depend on the path we’ve taken to get to where we are today, but only on our current position.  We can determine the parameters of our future path to a large degree, but we need to realize that we never have total control.  There are moments when our lives can take unexpected turns with positive probability.  And when, or if, these events occur is out of our control.  White noise.  This is one of those moments.”
       This was how Elliott’s dad, a math professor at the university, explained to his only child he was moving out.  Not that Elliott was shocked.  Ever since Elliott’s mom went back to work, the loud whisper fights about priorities, egos, disrespect, and disloyalty became more frequent.  It was surprising that two college-educated adults were unaware that the acoustics would allow these discussions to carry into Elliott’s bedroom as he lay awake in bed at night.  It was last Saturday morning after one of these arguments when his dad came into his room and sat at the foot of his bed.  An unusual event.  His dad’s gentle grasp of Elliott’s knee was the most affection he’d shown his son in a decade.  The faint odor of pipe smoke followed the man into the bedroom.  The pipe, along with the cardigan sweaters and well-trimmed beard, was part of his professorial façade.  The professor offered his awkward explanation of why the future was largely out of our control.
       “Son, life is like a continuous-time Markov chain.”
       Finally a golf ball fell from the heavens, landed on the apron of the fifth green and spun back toward the pin.  If not for friction it would’ve rolled into the cup, but it stopped two feet short.  Quickly, Elliott ran onto the green and grabbed the ball, intent on taking off for the woods with his prize.  Instead he paused in the middle of the green with the golf ball, the world between his thumb and forefinger.
       “I’m out of bounds, but I think you might be on the green.”
       The voice came from the bridge.  Elliott needed to act fast.  His dad was probably right.  During our lifetime countless events beyond our control alter our future.  But life is still made up of choices, and these choices, no matter how small, determine our nature and affect who we are.
       Elliott sprinted for the woods, tumbled down the embankment, and landed on his ass in the middle of the stream.  As he wandered back upstream empty-handed with a scraped knee and soggy shorts he heard a distant voice from the fifth green.
       “Here it is.  It’s in the cup, you bastard.  A hole-in-one.”