In three short paragraphs, the first letter from the Dune Lake Country Club membership committee wiped out my father’s “great guy” image, leaving a seething, raging Bill Torkelson in its wake and announcing to the world what my twin brother and I had suspected all along: that our father was, simply, a grade-A asshole.
September 14, 1966
Dear Mr. Torkelson, the letter began.
It has come to our attention that you have violated multiple rules of comportment, which we expect to be upheld by the members of DLCC and to which you are contractually bound as per your signed membership agreement dated June 10, 1951.
These are not your first infractions. However, the magnitude of the violations requires decisive action. Specifically, you breached the rules concerning public use of profanity, desecration of Club property, and physical and verbal threats to Club staff.
Therefore, your membership will be suspended for six months, commencing today. You, Mrs. Torkelson, and your sons, Kevin and Thomas, are prohibited from using Club facilities and participating in club-sponsored activities during this time. Violation of this suspension will result in permanent revocation of your membership.
Dune Lake Membership Committee
Two-time men’s golf champ, reigning poker king, and a fellow who, people said, never met a stranger, our father was renowned for his outgoing personality. Most folks didn’t realize that this persona —Boisterous Bill, they called him — existed merely as a cloak worn for public display, a cloak he hung on a peg by the door upon arriving home each night. My twin brother, Tommy, and I bore the brunt of what lay beneath that cloak. In private, we called him Bastard Bill, and we had the scars to prove it. I’m not talking about the ones on our arms or backsides —some of his damage cut to the quick, leaving wounds invisible to anyone but us boys.
For Tommy and me, it was a relief when the rest of the world caught onto our father’s true nature. The membership committee’s action was a defining moment for us. Looking back, we never referred to this period as our senior year of high school: it was the year of the letter.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here. I’ll spare you the details of our history with Bastard Bill. No one needs to hear about getting the belt for minor transgressions, or being slammed against the wall for a smart mouth, or having to smoke Camel after Camel until they threw up (a punishment that was, in my opinion, excessive for a kid who merely puffed a cigarette left in the ashtray by our neighbor). But in the 1960s, this heavy-handedness was commonplace in the houses up and down our block. If questioned, our father would toss off his disciplinary style, saying he was a passionate guy (even if those passions bordered on the violent). In the end, Tommy and I survived our childhood, so how bad was it?
Whenever our father would mention his true passion, he didn’t mean Mom. No, he meant golf. He loved golf more than he loved any of us, no question. For half the year, he loved golf more than the Almighty. A devout Baptist, he faced a Hobson’s choice every Sunday morning during golf season when the tug of the lush greens edged out stiff church pews for his attention. “God made me a golfer, not a preacher. It’s obvious where He wants me to be,” he’d say to Mom. Then he’d pat the hood of her car goodbye as she backed out of the driveway, taking Tommy and me to church while he whistled on his way to the club.
Golf was his religion. His parables of the game had well-structured themes: the holy pursuit of the white, dimpled ball; the sanctuary he found among the links and berms of God’s country; and the games resurrected from the dead via birdies and eagles coming out of nowhere, as if preordained. And he prayed. Lord, he prayed. From the depths of Dune Lake’s sand traps, he beseeched God while calling upon his personal savior —a sixty-degree knockdown wedge— to deliver him from the bunkers and grant mercy on his scorecard.
On many occasions, golf took precedence over his business, Tork’s Appliances. He was known to ditch work at a moment’s notice for an important game. On that June day in question, our father got a call from some Army buddies visiting nearby, and he invited them to play a round. Leaving Sandra, the bookkeeper in charge at the store, he sped off to meet the guys at the clubhouse, only to learn the course was closed. Another member was hosting an outing. This member also happened to be our father’s direct and more successful business competitor — his nemesis.
No club championships, no winning poker hands, nor Army medals could compensate for the egg on our father’s face in front of his pals. He proceeded to lose his shit. The stream of invective spewing from his dervish-like tantrum proved too much for the young girl working at the pro shop. Her high-pitched reaction brought the manager out of his office. He, in turn, called over the caddy master. It took all three to calm our father down. Well, not the girl. She was in tears behind the counter. But the other two, they wrestled Bill from the vortex of his meltdown while his Army buddies looked the other way.
The next day, the first letter arrived. The membership committee convened an emergency session and voted unanimously for a six-month suspension. “Fuck that, and all of yous, too,” he retorted, unaware that his lack of humility and additional violation of rule number two were the nails in the coffin of his days at Dune Lake. A second letter followed swiftly thereafter: our family was banned from the club in perpetuity.
He was opening that second letter when Tommy and I walked into the house from school. The letter trembled in one hand while he pounded the countertop with the other fist. “Goddamn it to hell!” he shouted.
Mom called out from her sewing room in a weary voice, “What’s the matter now, Bill?”
We didn’t know what was happening, but we sure didn’t wait to find out. Yet, despite our momentary head start, we couldn’t escape the alien violence that cracked our father’s veneer, like the Hulk bursting through its human form. For a man past his prime, one who indulged in a few nightly pops until he fell into a snorting slumber in his easy chair, our father had surprising speed and moves. It was as if he grew an extra-long tentacle in pursuit of one or both of us boys. Unexpectedly, regularly, we would find ourselves flat out on the ground. Pushed? Tripped? Whacked from behind? We never knew. It was his sole magic trick, although not so magical for us. That afternoon, we were tossed like twigs in a storm as he raged through the house. Life as we knew it was over.
There would be no more golf, and this was problematic. Our father would be home ‘round the clock for every weekend and holiday spooling out into the future. Without golf to distract —and exhaust— him, we knew his attention would zero in on us, or worse, on Mom. The other issue was that my parents purchased their house precisely because of its magnificent view overlooking the 7th fairway and the natural lake surrounding it. This premier location, once the envy of the neighbors, became a source of shame for our father.
To his credit, he made an effort to contact other members, asking them to stand up for him and overturn the ruling. But there was no going back. No one would side with Bill for fear the committee would come after them next. He was helpless, hobby-less, and now, friendless.
He spent the next day drinking his anger away at the Irish bar next door to Tork’s, returning home late that night to us, his wary brood, expecting welcome and warmth where there was none. In a show of remorse, he tried to joke. “Honey, I’m home… for good,” he said to Mom, his words coated in a gruff bark that stood in for a laugh. His attempt to be nice worried us almost as much as his temper. At the very least, we needed to protect Mom with a distraction.
Sensing danger looming but not caring a whit, Tommy blurted out, “Well, if it isn’t the prodigal a-hole, come home to roost.” Tommy wasn’t crazy enough to say the word ‘asshole’ to our father’s face. He knew better than that, but he didn’t know better than to stop there. He kept going, “Makes you kinda wish you’d treated us better when you had the chance, now that we’re your only friends, huh?”
I felt sorry for Tommy at the ER that night, although we both secretly agreed it was his best line ever. We left the hospital convinced that change was in the air. “He doesn’t have power over us anymore, does he?” I asked Tommy.
“Not in my book. It’s you and me, brother,” he said with a wincing grin, a fat lip, and his wrist in a cast.
The committee’s ruling confirmed to us that justice existed in the world. We were astounded they could hold sway over our father. Despite regular church attendance, we had never believed in a higher power, one that could enforce rules and dole out consequences. One that could triumph over evil. But we had witnessed that very thing with our own eyes, and we became believers.
A few nights later, I had a dream so vivid it lodged itself permanently among the memories of the letter incident. I dreamed our father died, and we were granted permission to bury him under the 12th green — his favorite hole at Dune Lake, a dogleg-left par-five surrounded by a soaring stand of cedars. Mom, Tommy, and I were there with the minister. We had written messages on golf balls, which we read like a blessing. I stuttered to read mine as if he might appear out of nowhere and exact retribution; “D-d-dear Dad, Turns out k-karma is not just for fairytales.”
The Reverend pulled the flagstick, and I dropped the ball in the hole where it would reach Bill somewhere in the great-golf-beyond
As the ball left my hand in the dream, I sat up in bed, wide awake, tears streaming down my face. Was I sad to have dreamed our father was dead? No, certainly not. Perhaps I believed he had already been buried by the Dune Lake committee, stripped of everything meaningful to him. Completely diminished, our father was forever after a shell of a man.
Tommy and I grew up quickly that year; we had to in order to step up and help Mom. We quit the football team to work at Tork’s after school and compensate for our father’s lack of interest. Mom surprised us, and herself, with her aptitude for the business. Together the three of us managed to keep it going, flourishing even. Without Bill behind the counter, the underlying thrum of tension in the shop dissipated. A friendly atmosphere and updated products brought back old customers and enticed new ones. We were a team, a family unit enjoying the success of our hard work.
Back at the house, Bill planted himself in the yard like Tantalus, metaphorically bound, watching the bent grass grow, the sand traps raked, the greens manicured, and seeing folks he’d known for years take part in the garden of delights that was his former home course —all without him. Eventually, his outrage dissipated, but he never forgave or forgot. As each day turned to night, he paced along the fence line, whiskey in hand and the tip of his Camel glowing in the dark, cussing into the wind.
Lori Crispo’s 38-year career as a sports insurance executive has encompassed such roles as a blogger on sports safety, monthly columnist for Lacrosse Magazine, and guest author for insurance and sports publications. A 2022 short story was published in Short Fiction Break. She is currently working on a women’s fiction novel.