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The Nine Lessons
A Novel of Love, Fatherhood, and Second Chances
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- Hardcover $26.00 $33.00 CAD
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around May 6, 2009. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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In spite of how he hates the game, when August confronts his father, he finds himself agreeing to meet each month of the pregnancy for a round of golf. In exchange, London will give him the only thing that could make August agree to pick up a club again — memories of his mother, which he has written on golf scorecards since the day he met her. But August quickly realizes that his father’s motive is not to teach him about golf, but to teach him about life — and he may discover that the old man just might know something about it worth sharing.
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Copyright © 2009 by Kevin Alan Milne
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
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First eBook Edition: May 2009
Also by Kevin Alan Milne:
The Paper Bag Christmas
If you call on God to improve the results of a shot while it is still in motion, you are using "an outside agency" and subject to appropriate penalties under the rules of golf.
Some people cringe openly when I tell them that my wife and I were engaged by our third date and tied the matrimonial knot just one month later. I can tell exactly what those people are thinking during that semiconcealed flash of a moment when their eyebrows jut up in dismay: Idiots! That's not nearly enough time to get to know the person you intend to spend forever with! I'd like to say that those people are all wrong—that they wouldn't recognize true love if it bit them in the rear—but the truth is that although my wife and I were deeply in love, and remain so to this day, there is at least one teeny tiny topic that never came up during our abbreviated courtship (assuming a handful of dinners and three frames of bowling qualifies as such), and that might have had some bearing on her willingness to marry me at all. Children.
Before you jump to any conclusions about my character or personality, let me assure you that I've never had an issue with children in general. It was just the thought of passing along my own inadequacies, combined with the reality of being wholly responsible for the development and well-being of another human being, that I found frightening. Having grown up without a mother, and with a father who was anything but nurturing, how could I possibly be expected to be a successful parent myself? It seemed self-evident to me that I was not, nor would I ever be, good parent material.
After we were pronounced husband and wife, the subject of starting a family took about as long to surface as an earthworm on a bent-grass tee box after a warm summer rain. Somewhere between the wedding reception in Burlington, Vermont, and our honeymoon hotel on the slopes of Sugarbush ski resort about thirty miles away, my blushing bride leaned in and kissed me gently on the cheek, then asked, "So do you want to start trying right away, or do you want to wait a while?"
I thought I knew exactly what she was referring to, but rather than risk saying something inappropriate I just turned it around and put the matter back in her hands. "Well, I don't want to rush you, so whenever you want to start is fine with me, Schatzi." (For the record, Schatzi is not my wife's name. Her name is Erin, but on our second date I uttered the last vestiges of my high school German vocabulary during the tender moments immediately following our first kiss, calling her mein Schatz, meaning "my treasure." Just like that an endearment term was born. It soon morphed into the cutesier, lovey-dovey form of the word, Schatzi.)
She was glowing, and I knew instantly that I'd answered wisely. "I love you SOOO much!" she said dreamily. "I'm so glad I married you." Erin leaned in and kissed me again. "You're such a wonderful man, and I know you're going to be a terrific father. I want to start trying to get pregnant right away!"
Erin was giddy with delight, and I knew instantly that I'd answered unwisely.
"Pregnant!" My foot slammed on the brakes impulsively, locking all four wheels and sending the car sliding right into an icy snowbank. I didn't bother to get out of the car to check for damage, but instead began immediately debriefing her on the many virtues of having cute and cuddly pets as permanent replacements for progeny. Twenty minutes later, when another vehicle stopped to see if we were all right, I was still spelling out exactly why I never wanted to have kids, how I'd be a terrible father, and, most important, how I could not risk becoming just like London Witte—a man obsessed with forcing his own unachievable dreams upon his posterity. No, I would not "start trying." Not then, not in a few months, not ever.
Erin was sobbing uncontrollably when our slightly dented vehicle pulled into the hotel's snowy parking lot. Much of the remainder of that first night was spent debating our conflicting positions on children, mixed here and there with awkward silent moments that gave us both time to contemplate whether the vows we'd made just hours before would even last until dawn.
When morning arrived, our marriage was still intact, but only because Erin is an extraordinarily patient woman. She broke a three-hour silence over breakfast by announcing that she loved me enough to postpone having children until I was ready, thinking perhaps that I'd change my mind sooner or later. Little did she know how long she would have to wait.
Months and months passed, then years. She never stopped reminding me that she wanted children, but neither did she force my hand or make me feel guilty for not sharing her desire. Instead, she just kept hoping that something would happen to convince me to give in and let her be a mother, which was the one thing in life she wanted more than anything else.
After nearly seven years of wedlock, with no visible signs that my opinion on being a father had changed, Erin stopped simply hoping, and escalated the matter to a higher authority. She did this through regular, audible prayer, as loudly and fervently as she could, peeking occasionally during her pleadings with the Almighty to make sure I was listening.
"Dear God," she would say, "please soften the heart of my stubborn husband. I want to have children so bad, and I'm growing tired of waiting for him. But, if his heart cannot be softened, well… then I give thee thanks for the imperfections of birth control."
In response, I also started praying aloud, notwithstanding the fact that I hadn't uttered so much as a single "amen" since I was a small boy. "Dear Lord, I'm sure you're as tired of my wife's prayers as I am, so please help her to give it a rest already!"
God, it seems, found greater merit in Erin's prayerful utterances (or was penalizing me for mine), because a couple of months later the unthinkable happened. On the third Friday of April, when I arrived home from the veterinary hospital where I worked, my wife was lying on the bathroom floor, laughing and crying hysterically, holding a pregnancy test in one hand and wiping away tears with the other. For her, they were tears of joy and thanksgiving that her maternal drought was finally over.
I nearly vomited when I figured out what was going on. Instinctively, I grabbed the pregnancy test from her grip, and then stood there dumbfounded, gazing upon the pee-stained results. "What the—!" I blurted out as I came back to my senses. "How did this happen?"
She snorted a little giggle. "Do I really need to explain it? It's called the birds and the bees, dear. As a veterinarian you should understand these things better than most."
"That's not what I mean. I mean HOW? We were precautious to a fault! An eighty-year-old nun should have had better odds of getting pregnant than you!"
Erin stood up. "Nothing is fool proof, dear." She patted me lightly on the chest. Then she smiled shrewdly and clasped her hands together as if to pray. "I guess God works in mysterious ways."
"You did this!" I shouted. "I don't know how, but I know you did!"
She winked. "Not just me. You helped, too."
I was almost too flabbergasted to put together a coherent sentence. "But… I… I mean… what? Well…?" As shocked as I was at that moment, I should have just stopped talking altogether and walked away until I could sort out my thoughts. But I didn't stop talking and I didn't walk away. I just opened up my mouth and let it run its course. "Well you… er… we… I mean, you know how I feel about this, right? So what are our options? Do you think we can find someone to adopt it? I hear it's a seller's market for that sort of thing."
Even though I was partially joking, it was just about the worst thing I could have said, given my wife's abundant zeal to have kids. I knew I had crossed a line, and there would be repercussions. Erin had never previously struck me, nor I her, but on this one occasion her open hand was swift and sure. I saw it coming all the way, heading right for my face, backed by seven years of pent-up frustration and at least three weeks of pregnancy hormones. Had I wanted to, I could have ducked to avoid it, but I knew I deserved what was coming, so I just stood there and closed my eyes.
SMACK! The sound of her hand on my cheek echoed throughout the bathroom.
Erin huffed defiantly, fuming as I'd never seen before, like a bomb waiting to explode. "Watch your mouth, Augusta Nicklaus Witte! I'm not putting this baby up for adoption! What you should be worried about is whether or not I'm going to keep you! I'm as surprised by this as you are, but thrilled beyond belief, and I won't let you spoil it! So it's about time you get over yourself and get ready for fatherhood, because like it or not, it's coming!" She shoved me aside, stomped out of the bathroom, veered down the hallway to the bedroom, then slammed the door shut and locked it behind her.
I believe it was the great eighteenth-century writer Alexander Pope who said, "To err is human, to forgive divine." Erin has her own little adaptation of Pope's famous saying, which she recites under her breath from time to time: "To err is husband, to really screw things up is my husband, and to forgive takes time." I had really screwed things up, and I knew it would be a while before my wife would even consider forgiving me, so I went out to the living room to think on the couch.
After a few hours spent mulling over the statistical likelihood of a false positive pregnancy test, I knocked on the bedroom door to see how she was doing, but there was no response.
Two hours later all I got was, "Go away, August! I'm not speaking to you!" By then it was nearing midnight, and I was beginning to worry that I might have caused irreparable damage to our otherwise happy marriage. So I did what any sensible, well-adjusted twenty-seven-year-old man would do in the middle of the night with his wife locked away, his worst nightmare coming true, and his world reeling as if it might fall apart at any moment.
I drove to my dad's house and blamed him.
If there is any larceny in a man, golf will bring it out.
In Vermont, the month of April marks the onset of what Vermonters lovingly refer to as Mud Season, a brief two-month period sandwiched between an unbearably cold winter and a ridiculously humid summer, during which time heavy spring rains and melting winter snow change the ground from terra firma to a terra quagmire-a. It is also the peak month for "sugaring," the act of tapping sugar maple trees and boiling down the sap to brew the world's priciest maple syrup. Needless to say, muddy roadsides and maple buckets affixed to trees are about as ordinary a sight as one can see while frantically driving a car to your father's house in the middle of an April night.
What is not so ordinary is to witness a large moose standing knee-high in a muddy culvert drinking fresh sap from a maple bucket like a pig in a trough. Truth be told, I'd never have guessed that a moose would find the sweet maple nectar palatable if I hadn't seen it for myself.
The moose was as surprised to see me speeding around the bend as I was to see his huge snout buried in a container of sap. When my car lights flashed across the road he jerked his head up wildly, tearing the pail right off its spigot. The massive beast then darted up out of the culvert directly into my path. As a veterinarian, I couldn't stomach the thought of harming the gentle giant, and as a penny-pincher I shuddered at the thought of how much damage it would do to my car (which, for the record, still showed signs of the dents from my honeymoon), so I swerved hard to the right, flying off the road into the mud pit that the moose had just vacated. The car stopped just inches from a large sugar maple.
"Stupid moose!" I shouted, but I don't think he understood me. He just snorted loudly in reply, sending a plume of warm breath into the cold night air, and then trotted off into the woods on the other side of the road. "Next time I won't miss!" I put the car into reverse, but it was useless; the tires simply spun in place, throwing liquid dirt everywhere. Without a winch or a tow truck my car was staying right where it was.
I stepped out of the vehicle into the cool mud, made my way back up to the road, and walked the last mile to my father's home. He lived back in the woods, in the same rustic house that I grew up in, just a stone's throw from his favorite golf course. Since leaving home I had visited the place as seldom as possible. Erin had wrangled me into a couple of obligatory visits in recent years near the anniversary of my mother's death, but other than that I kept a safe distance. Seeing the home brought back a flood of emotions and unlocked bitter memories of the past.
Even from a distance I could make out several glaring reminders of my childhood shining in the moonlight. An old sled, now rusted through, leaned against the side of the garage, still waiting to be used. It was a Christmas present from my grandparents when I was seven, but I'd never been allowed to play with it. "You can go sledding," my father would say adamantly, "just as soon as we've cured your slice, and not a moment sooner." There was no cure for my slice, so the once-beautiful red sled remained fixed against the garage year in and year out. When I was nine I tried sneaking out of the house late at night during a February snowstorm to take the sled on its maiden voyage down a snowy slope farther back in the woods, but London showed up before I made it halfway up the hill. He dragged me by my ear back to the house, yelling about discipline and disobedience, then found a wooden spoon and reinforced his convictions on my backside. "Your-mum-wanted-you-to-learn-to-golf!" he yelled, whacking me once on the rear after each word. He didn't hit me hard—my pride was stung more than my rear, since I was too old, in my opinion, for a spanking. "No-sledding-until-you-can-hit-the-ball-straight!"
My gaze moved from the sled to a tall wood shed twenty paces from the driveway near the south corner of the property. I had personally chopped and stacked enough wood to fill that shed several times over. Starting at age ten my father would send me to chop wood for an hour or two every time I said something negative about golf, and if I so much as blinked when he told me to grab an axe and get to work, the punishment was doubled. I can't even begin to imagine how many hours of my youth were spent with an axe in my hands. "Better an axe than a golf club," I would tell myself when the blisters on my palms began to bleed. I would gently wipe the blood onto my jeans, and then pick up the axe and take another swing. "I hate that man," I whispered frequently between blows. "I hate golf, and I hate that man."
I paused when I reached the edge of the cobblestone path leading from the driveway to the front porch. My thoughts turned to the exchange I'd had with London from that very spot on the night I packed up my things and left home. It was high school graduation night, and he was in a particularly foul mood. I wasn't sure what had upset him more—that I had earned a full ride to college and was starting immediately during the summer term just so I could get out of the house, or that I hadn't invited him to the graduation ceremony to hear my speech as class valedictorian. Either way, he was plenty mad. "You're ungrateful, that's what you are!" he shouted from the porch. "After all I've done for you. After all I've sacrificed, now you're just walking out the door? Ungrateful little—"
"Sacrificed?" I laughed derisively. "What have you ever given up for me? Certainly not your time! You'd put a round of golf ahead of me in a heartbeat, so don't get all bent out of shape. You haven't done as much for me as you think you have."
London turned bright red. "I gave up every dream I ever had for you, and it was all for naught," he hissed, and then retreated to the house. I finished packing up my car and drove away. I remember looking in my rearview mirror at the end of the driveway and seeing him lift the blinds in the front window to watch me go.
My mind raced back to the present as I approached the stone steps of the front porch. I strode purposefully to the door and pounded hard until I knew I had his attention. Moments later the porch light flipped on and the door flung open, revealing my father, London Witte, standing in a white undershirt and red boxers, armed with a three-iron in one hand and a bottle of Scotch in the other. London never drank, but for as long as I could remember he kept a bottle of liquor at the ready, just in case he needed to drown his sorrows once and for all. As a kid I'd seen him on several occasions in the middle of the night, clutching that same bottle of Scotch while mumbling to pictures of my mother in the parlor.
His face dropped when he saw me. "Augusta? It's the middle of the night, lad. What on earth are you doing here?" He looked me up and down. "You're covered in mud."
"You did this to me," I groaned. "The mud, the moose, the car, the pee stick—everything. It's all your fault."
He looked puzzled and miffed all at once. "I've no idea what you're talking about, but I'm sure if you come in from the cold we can sort it out."
Sort it out? I thought. That would be a first.
Dad went to find some spare clothes while I stripped down to the bare essentials. "Good morning, Mom," I said, waving to an eight-by-ten framed head shot of her propped up at one end of the fireplace mantel in the adjacent room. The other end of the mantel held a photo of London and her staring into each other's eyes on their wedding day. "It's been a while since you've seen me dressed like this, huh?" Between the two pictures were lined my father's most prized possessions: a row of glass-encased golf balls. All but one of the tee-mounted spheres was signed by a famous golfer, and he loved telling visitors every inconsequential detail of where and when he'd obtained them. The only one of the bunch that wasn't autographed by a golf legend was centered on the shelf between the others. To my knowledge, my father had never spoken to anyone else about its origins, and he never let anybody touch it.
When London returned, I dressed quickly and then we each took a seat in the parlor, with mother's framed mug shot looming overhead.
"Now then," he said, yawning. "What's it been? Eleven, twelve months? I don't see you or hear from you for nearly a year, and now you show up in the middle of the night fuming about something I've done?" As a native of the United Kingdom, my father spoke with an obvious accent, but it always became more pronounced when he was tired. He yawned once more and glanced at the clock on the wall. "It's bloody late—this better be good, or I've half a mind to use this mashie on your backside. Maybe knock some sense into you, lad." He twirled the three-iron in his hands and glared.
"You're the matter," I said, getting right to the point. "You and golf. Why couldn't I have just had a normal childhood, with a father who wasn't completely consumed with hitting little white balls around day after day? Would it have been too much to ask?"
London rested his chin on the butt of the club. "How's that now? What do I have to do with you showing up here dressed in mud?"
It was probably childish of me, but I huffed aloud to punctuate the gravity of what I was about to say. "Everything! Don't you see? If you had been a good father, you'd have spent time teaching me things, or doing things with me other than golf. With you it was always golf or nothing, so when I failed as a golfer that's exactly what I got from you—nothing. If you had cared just a little bit, then maybe I wouldn't have been caked in mud tonight, because I'd be at home celebrating with my wife."
He raised his eyebrows questioningly. "I'm afraid I don't follow."
"Oh, for crying out loud, do I have to spell it out for you? You know as well as I do that you were a terrible father."
His jaw tensed, causing his facial muscles to twitch. "I'll admit there were things I could've done better, but I don't understand how my shortcomings back then have brought you here tonight in such a tizzy."
I stood and paced across the room, pondering whether I should tell him about the earth-shattering news I'd been given earlier in the evening. He kept his eyes fixed intently on me as I moved about. "It's very simple," I said at last, starting slowly and then picking up speed as I went along. "If you had been a better father, then I wouldn't have come here tonight, and I certainly wouldn't have been caked in mud. There would have been no mud, because there would have been no car stuck in the mud, because there would have been no moose in the maple bucket, because I wouldn't have been out driving, because my wife wouldn't have been locked in the bedroom crying, because I would have probably been more prepared to deal with the fact that the pregnancy test had a giant purple plus sign on it!"
My father sat staring up at me. When his brain finally caught up with the words, his eyes lit up and he shot out of his chair. "A plus sign!" he hollered, raising his arms above his head. "Augusta, praise be! You've scored a hole in one!" He leaped over and tried to hug me, but I brushed him and his enthusiasm off like a pesky fly.
"You don't get it. I don't want to be a father. For seven years of marriage I've tried hard to avoid this very thing. How can I be a father? The only example I ever had of parenthood was you, and that's not likely to help me much."
London's face was starting to show red, blotchy traces of the fiery temperament I'd known so well in my youth. It was oddly comforting to know that I could still get his blood boiling with a few well-phrased shards of contempt. He backed up, looked at me angrily, and then sat back down. He was gritting his teeth when he spoke again. "Why did you come here tonight, Augusta? To throw darts at me?"
"Yes!" I shot back proudly. "Now you're getting it! But I also wanted to tell you thanks." A questioning look flashed across his eyes. "Thanks for putting golf ahead of everything else in your life. And thanks for always making me feel inadequate. Oh, yeah, and thanks for never being there for me. Thanks for nothing." My father had never been one to back down from a heated exchange, and when it came to verbally duking it out with him I'd always been equal to the task. However, on this night he was visibly refraining from firing back at me. In fact, to my surprise, rather than getting angry with me for my venomous words, a sadness welled up in his face that I'd never seen before.
"I'm confused," he said, shrugging his shoulders. "Is your little rant about Erin being pregnant, or is it about my past failings? I can't tell which."
"Oh, for crying out loud. Both! It's the same song, just a different verse."
"Are you almost through? 'Cause I'm tired."
To be honest, I was genuinely disappointed that he wasn't more engaged. Half the reason for my visit was to watch him blow his top. I know it's probably not what one would call "healthy," but arguing with my father had always been a cathartic endeavor. Somehow it validated my lack of trust in him while simultaneously allowing me to blow off my own emotional steam.
I wasn't ready for the argument to end. My gaze jumped around the room while I racked my brain for something that might set him off. Finally, my eyes settled on the picture of my mother, and I knew I'd found the hole in his armor. I walked over and stood next to her. She was forever young—a woman in her twenties lost to the world and to the people who needed her most. "She's lucky, you know. Lucky to have gotten out before she figured out what a jerk you are. I don't even remember her, but I'm sure you didn't deserve her."
- On Sale
- May 6, 2009
- Page Count
- 240 pages
- Center Street