“Here he is,” Justin says, pointing at the pickup truck with his cigarette. He and Paige have been waiting for fifteen minutes, working doggedly to achieve an effortless pose, leaning against the building. They have settled on a stance with their hands in the back pockets of each others’ Levis, like intertwined Siamese twins, joined palm to cheek. In his right hand, the cigarette, in her left, a paper soda cup filled with Coke and a splash of clandestine Jim Beam.
The monolithic brown Ford F-150 circles the parking lot, pausing every so often as though mulling over the possibility of simply crushing a Datsun-or-some-damn-thing and parking on top of its flattened carcass.
Back on the wall, the stringy-haired restless youth disengages his hand from his halter-topped girlfriend’s ass. Flicking away his cigarette butt, he yells at the truck, “Come on, Dad, just park it. Whaddya scared?” Paige takes a sip through the straw and smiles at her old man.
Finally, an old rusted Duster pulls out and the pickup fills the vacated spot. The doors open and a man and woman climb out. Justin waves at them and they wave back. He puts his arm around Paige’s neck – almost a head lock – he kisses her on the cheek and whispers in her ear. “Tonight, Paige. It’s gonna be tonight.” He spins her around, his parents still three quarters of the parking lot away, and escorts her through the door – into Buddy’s Can You Spare a Strike Bowling Lanes.
Fergus Martin has not had a rewarding day. From the burned toast for breakfast to the dead battery on his forklift. From working through lunch loading trucks by hand to the line that resembled a run on the Soviet meat counter at the bank. From the pimple-faced little shit cashier at the corner store that made ringing up a six-pack look more complicated than a Rubik’s Cube – like he didn’t ring up about a hundred a day – to barely having time to swing by the house to shower and choke down a plateful of Elaine’s meat loaf before heading off for the lanes. In short, he has every right to look beat.
But now there’s a bounce in his step as he crosses Buddy’s parking lot, watching as Justin and What’s-her-name, the sixteen year-old with the perky tits, the girlfriend, turn and go on in ahead of him and Elaine. A few frames and he knows he’ll be as right as rain.
Suddenly a friendly voice hurls his name across the parking lot. Looking up he sees Ed McGill, a forklift driving comrade from the warehouse. “Hey Ed, whaddya got there?” Fergus asks pointing at the case in Ed’s hand. “Is that your new ball?” Now the two men are quiet close.
“Yeah, I just dropped by to pick it up,” Ed says with the pride of a new father. “Buddy drilled the holes for me this morning. You’ll see it on Tuesday. It’s a beauty.” Tuesday is league night. Ed and Fergus are the stars of the warehouse team. “What are you doing here tonight? Justin?”
“That’s right. I’ve got to go in there and put him in his place again. Show him who the head of this family is,” Fergus answers, equal parts bravado and yuks.
“I just whipped my boy last week myself. He knows what’s what . . . but hey, remember how Hudson’s kid . . . couple months ago.” Ed shakes his head. “It’s not like I’ve never seen it happen before but it still gives me the willies.”
A cloud passes between the two men. Fergus says, “That Hudson kid ain’t much older than Justin huh?”
“That’s right Ferg’. Don’t take that boy of yours too lightly. They have a way of sneaking up on you. But hey! On the other hand, Billy Jr. tried til he was, what, forty-five and finally gave up on ever taking out Big Bill.”
“Yeah, yeah. Here’s to Big Bill!”
Everyone has seen an abandoned sneaker, lying forlorn in a vacant lot, in the middle of the road, in the lint-filled corner of the laundry mat. The homeless transients of footwear. It is a pair of these that Justin hands to Buddy in exchange for a pair of red and black shoes, the number 10 stitched on the backs. At best, they occupy a marginally higher social standing than the sneakers.
Fergus and Elaine walk in and meet up with their son and his girl in front of the counter. Fergus remembers the girl’s name and says, “Hiya, Paige, nice to see you.”
Paige smiles and nods, but not vigorously enough to ruffle her fathered hair. Justin hugs his mom.
Fergus speaks loudly over the continuous crash of pins and thud of gutter-balls, “Which lane are we on, Chief?”
“Three,” answers Justin.
The whole company strolls over to lane three and sits down on the blue and orange molded plastic seats. Justin puts on the red and black rentals, tying the remaining knotted shreds that pass for laces. Fergus opens his black leather bag and takes out a pair of blue and green Brunswick shoes. Waitresses are shuttling beer bottles to the thirsty patrons, returning with empties. Fergus orders a Coors, Justin says he doesn’t want anything. Elaine and Paige agree that root beer floats would be a hoot.
Justin walks up to the rack. The black balls clunk together as he shifts them around, looking for his favorite – the sixteen pounder with the chip just below the thumb-hole. He spots it on the bottom row, scoops it up and lugs it back to lane three. Meanwhile, Fergus reaches into his case again. With consummate reverence, he brings forth a blue and green marbleized ball, Brunswick. It matches the shoes. Not unlike a medieval monk removing St. So-and-so’s holy toe-smasher from its reliquary, he holds it up for adoration.
The elder Martin, by virtue of his seniority, bowls first. Elaine keeps score and Justin sits with this arm around Paige, his foot tapping time with Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid,” which is playing only in his head. Fergus opens with a strike and Paige looks at Justin. He stands up. “What?” he says to her.
Justin pushes the hair out of his face before sending his chipped sixteen pounder spinning down the lane like a planet careening wildly out of control. It hits in the pocket: a strike. Paige claps and squeals, “Awright!”
“Hey Chief, looks like you mean business tonight.” Fergus laughs and slaps Justin on the back.
They stay close for the first four frames, the difference is three pins. Then in the fifth, it starts. One, two three, four strikes in a row, Justin is in the groove. On fire. Unconscious. He is bowling the game of his life. Fergus is bowling well too, but losing.
It is with some queasiness that he stands up for the ninth frame. The word has spread like a tabloid rumor, “Fergus Martin is going down.” All the other lanes have fallen silent, and a sizable crowd has gathered to watch the Martins. Paige is beside herself, squirming, and kissing Justin after each strike. Elaine looks grim sitting at the scorer’s table. Fergus makes his professional three-step approach and rolls a thundering strike. The spectators, the older ones at least, burst into applause.
Justin’s first ball in the ninth frame results in a 7-10 split that grins back at the young man like a hockey player’s teeth. His second ball picks off one of the pins and members of the crowd start making choking gestures. Elaine enters 172 in Justin’s ninth frame. Fergus sets his jaw and strikes on all three balls of his final turn. He sits down, secure in the knowledge that whatever happens, he has finished with a chest-pounding flourish. His final score is 190.
Justin stands for his final frame. He needs nineteen pins for the win. Paige pats him on the butt and crosses her fingers. Fergus tries to look stoic, Elaine is biting her fingernails. The entire crowd is leaning at a 45 degree angle towards Justin as he sends the chipped black planet careening forward once again . . .
Although the local ordinances give him until noon the following day, Fergus sees no need to wait. As soon as they get home, he and Elaine gather up a few clothes, bottles of water and canned goods in a large backpack. At the door, Justin hugs his mom and tells her he lovers her. Fergus, in turn, shakes his son’s hand and says, “You bowled like a champ tonight, son. I’m proud of you. Don’t worry about us, we’ll make it.”
“Thanks Dad. I know you will.”
Fergus and Elaine take a last look around the house before walking, hand in hand, to the edge of town and out into the desert night. Flat land and star-speckled sky surrounds them like the belly of a whale.
On Monday morning, Justin awakes in the master bedroom’s king-sized bed. Paige is naked, asleep next to him. He nudges and nuzzles her so that she is mostly awake when he rolls on top of her . . .
After breakfast, he heads down to the warehouse. The foreman greets him at the door, “Welcome aboard, we’re glad to have you,” he says. “I was expecting you today. Buddy called me Friday night and told me. That’s your father’s forklift right over there.”
“No,” Justin says. “That’s my forklift.”
© Whiskey Leavins 2015