Best of the Net 2007  

League Night

Something about the lanes keeps me coming here with Bo and Marty when I should probably stay home with Claudia and the baby. The smooth, pale wood-clean, polished, shining. Straight, even, simple, contained between the gutters. A bowling lane makes sense to me. I know where it starts, right there, at a clearly marked line, and I know exactly where it ends, down there in that triangle of pins. I know what to do here. When I roll my ball out into the lane, I know pretty much what's going to happen. I do one thing, and if I do it well enough, nothing fancy, then the result is the one I want, the one I expect. Things can be controlled inside the lines of the lane. Claudia seems to understand, seems to know how I feel when I'm bowling, and she doesn't mind me coming here every week, even though the baby's as sick as she is.

I get distracted sometimes, lost between the gutters. I guess I've been doing it again, standing at the line, turning the ball in my hands, staring down the lane. Marty's getting impatient.

"Hey, Neil," Marty says. "You stand there rubbing that ball much longer, you're going to have to buy it flowers or take it out to dinner."

"Keep your pants on," I say to Marty. I set myself, step into my delivery, and take out the four and the seven for the spare.

I go back to my seat, pleased with the spare, and down the last of my beer. It's a little warm by now, fat beads of moisture collected on the outside of the bottle. Bo and Marty are still talking about the hole in the ceiling above lane two.

"Seriously," Marty says, "he falls right out of the damn ceiling, splat, into the middle of lane two and, bam, takes one square in the head. Deader than shit."

Bo shakes his head slowly and takes a long drink from his Diet Coke. "And this was the same fellow who got arrested for robbing the place five years ago?"

"One and the same," Marty says and gets up to take his turn. "Unbelievable, eh?"

"For heaven's sake," Bo says.

No one's bowling in lane two tonight. Not that it's closed off or anything. None of that yellow tape blocking it off like at crime scenes on TV. As far as I can see from here, no blood stains on the wood. Just no one bowling there now, though I suppose, given what happened there last Wednesday, anyone could be a little spooked to bowl in that lane just now. I try not to look at the hole too much, but I can't keep my eyes away entirely. It's one of those suspended ceilings, and two of the panels were torn out when the guy fell through. The metal brace between the two panels is bent and still dangling there. Hard for me to say why, but the hole looks like an open wound the way it gapes over the empty lane.

Marty rolls a solid strike, drops into a crouch, and pumps his fists.

"Hot damn. That was sweet," Marty says. "If that fool had dropped out of the ceiling in front of that one, it would've cut him clean in half. Who's ready for another?"

I raise my empty bottle toward Marty and nod yes. "Please," Bo says, tapping the lip of his plastic cup.

Bo takes his turn and rolls a pretty good one, but his spin is off a bit, and he leaves the four, seven, and ten.

"Oh, golly. Shoot," he says.

Marty and I are still getting used to the new Bo. He's a good bowler, and the old Bo would have cussed up a storm after a shot like that. It would have been goddamn it this and son of a bitch that, and he'd have stomped and kicked and slammed down his beer bottle on the scoring table, after he drained it in one gulp. But now that he's cleaned up, quit drinking and started going to church, he's a lot more calm. All the things that would have sent him through the roof before, now he seems to take them in stride. Says it's all part of "God's plan." He says that a lot. I'd never say it to his face, but I have to admit, the new Bo isn't nearly as much fun as the old Bo. But, I suppose, the change is good for him. There were times he'd get so out of control, so drunk, so angry, Marty and I thought he'd end up dead or in prison before thirty. It cost him a marriage and more than one job, that's for sure.

He was always a good-natured guy, if he wasn't too drunk. And he still is. He puts up with Marty and me cussing and drinking and doesn't say much. Even smiles at our talk from time to time. I guess he can't erase all those good times we've had over the years. Every once in a while, he'll preach at us a little, to "save our sorry souls," he says, but it's not too bad. He mostly lets us be, takes us for who we are, and we do the same for him. When you've been friends as long as we have, I guess it's hard to rule out all that history just because one guy gets a gut full of God all of a sudden.

But sometimes I catch Bo looking at me, watching me, like he's waiting for his chance to set the hook, waiting for the right moment to reel me in and save my "sorry soul." He never looks at Marty this way. My guess is he figures Marty's a lost cause, that he's got a better chance of reaching me. I've seen him looking at me that way a couple of times tonight.

Bo takes out the four and seven but misses the ten.

"Appears the Lord chose not to shine His countenance on that frame," Bo says. He sits down and taps some ice from his empty cup into his mouth and crunches it.

"Maybe he was busy in another lane," I say. Bo grins and keeps crunching his ice.

I take my turn and roll a strike. My spin is just right. The ball hits on target between the one and the three and blasts the pins off the end of the alley.

It's Marty's turn, but he isn't back from the bar yet, so I suck air from my empty beer bottle and sit down next to Bo.

"How's Meghan doing these days?" he asks. He's looking at me that way again.

One of the good things about the new Bo is that he cares about things now, cares about people, really cares. But there are times, times like this, that I wish he was the old Bo and didn't care so much. Meghan's one of the things I try to forget about for a while when I'm bowling.

"Good as can be expected, all in all," I say. "She and Claudia were up to the big hospital in Charlottesville all last week, but they came home a couple days ago. We're doing her chemo ourselves at home for the next two weeks."

If I was being honest, I'd tell Bo that Claudia's doing Meghan's chemo at home. I try to help, but mostly I just stand there and stare at the stent hanging out of my daughter's tiny chest. Neuroblastoma. The word is so big, so ugly, I can barely fit it in my mouth. How could my daughter be born with her chest full of that word? I can wrap my hand around Meghan's chest, but I can't lay my hand on that word. If Claudia got her hands on that word, she'd throttle the life out of it for what it did to her daughter. Freeing our daughter from that word is going to be a fight, and Claudia's up for the fight. She sleeps in a chair by Meghan's bed for days when she has to be in the hospital for treatment. At home, she stalks through rooms wearing a surgical mask and rubber gloves, giving Meghan her medication, keeping the stent clean, keeping everything clean. I can barely stand it when I see Claudia, masked and gloved, holding our daughter, talking to her, singing to her, kissing her, like she's any other child. I help as much as I can, but Claudia is the one leading the fight. I work, pay the bills, help with the cooking and cleaning. The doctors tell us they got it all, but when I put on my mask and hold my daughter in my arms, I stare at the little pink scar forming on the side of her chest, where they removed the tumor, and I look for a bug to squash under my foot. I stare at that stent in her chest and look for something to fix with a hammer or a saw.

"We're all praying for her," Bo says, laying a hand on my shoulder. "She's right at the top of our prayer list at the worship center. God has a plan for all of us, Neil. Trust in Him. Have faith in His plan."

I want to tell Bo that if God has a plan for us, then it's a hell of a goddamn plan. I want to ask him how filling my baby daughter's chest with cancer could serve any goddamn purpose in any goddamn plan. I stare at my empty beer bottle and say "thanks, Bo," just as Marty gets back from the bar with our drinks.

"You're up, bud," I say, nodding toward the lane as Marty sets two bottles of beer and a Diet Coke on the scoring table.

"Oh, man. You guys are not going to believe this shit," Marty says. "Jay, up at the bar, he filled me in on what happened with that guy last Wednesday."

"Bowl first. Talk later," I say and take a long, cold swallow of my beer.

Marty grabs his ball and bowls, hardly dropping into his stance. He blows a seven-ten split without cussing about it a bit and turns right back to us, he's so anxious to tell the story.

"I swear, you're not going to believe this," he says. "Okay, you know this guy who plops out of the ceiling is the same one who broke in and tried to rob the place five years ago, right?"

"We know that," Bo says into his Diet Coke.

"Well, it's even weirder than that. Not weird. Just stupid. Got to be the stupidest shit I ever heard."

Marty's ball comes back, and he slips his fingers into the holes and rolls it straight at the ten, doesn't even try for the seven.

"Okay, this moron has just gotten out of prison, and where is the first place he makes a bee-line to?" Bo takes his turn and gets everything but the eight. Marty takes a quick drink from his beer and sets it back on the table as the next word shoots from his mouth. "Here. Right here. The very place he tried to knock off and that got him sent to the prison he just got out of."

"Scene of the crime," I say as Bo picks up the spare, and I get up to take my turn. "But why?"

"That's where the stupid shit kicks in," Marty says.

I tune Marty out for a second, set myself, run my eyes over the shining wood of the lane from line to pins and roll another strike.

"What's that again?" I say as I come back to my seat. "He wants his wallet?"

"His wallet. His damn wallet," Marty says, laughing while he talks. "Says he lost his wallet when he was robbing the bowling alley five years ago and now he wants it back. Can you believe it?"

"Oh, my Lord," Bo says.

"No shit," Marty says. "Anyway, he comes in and goes to the bar and asks Jay if he can look in the lost and found. It's busy as hell here, league night, you know, balls to the walls, and Jay hardly gives the guy a second thought. Tells him to check in the manager's office. And the guy does. Of course he knows where the office is. The last time he was here he was in the office, ripping it off."

"Your turn," I say.

"Hold your goddamn horses," Marty says to me. "The goddamn bowling alley ain't going anywhere. Let me tell you the rest of the goddamn story."

"My, but the Lord's name is truly being taken in vain a lot here tonight," says Bo.

"Fuck it," Marty says. "The way I see it, I'm giving the old coot a load of free publicity."

I imagine that the beer I'm pouring down my throat is being fed into me through a stent in my stomach. "Tell the rest of the story," I say to Marty.

"Well, the manager doesn't recognize him. Hell, it's been five years. He gives him the lost-and-found box and the guy looks through it and, of course, his wallet ain't there. And then-here's the pure, unadulterated stupid of it all-the guy tells the manager who he is. Tells him that when he was hiding out in the ceiling before he robbed the place, he might have lost his wallet up there somewhere."

Bo spits a piece of ice back into his Diet Coke and says, "What? Lost it in the ceiling?"

"Yeah, remember?" I say. "That's how he did it. Stood on the toilet in the men's room, pushed out one of the ceiling panels, and climbed up and hid out in the ceiling until the place was closed."

"Yeah, yeah," Marty says. "And the son of bitch-oh, this is the good part-the son of a bitch is so stupid, he tells the manager this. Tells him he thinks he lost his wallet up in the ceiling when he was ripping him off-oh this is just too much-and he asks the manager if he can go back up into the ceiling and look for it. Can you believe that for stupid?"

"Oh, my good Jesus," Bo says.

I want Marty to get up and bowl, but I want to hear the rest of the story, too. "And so what happened?" I ask. "Did he let him go up there again?"

"Are you nuts?" Marty says. "Hell no. The manager threw the bonehead out and told him he'd kick his ass if he ever saw him near the place again."

"So how'd he get up in the ceiling this time?" Bo asks.

"Like I said," Marty says, "it was league night, busy as hell. The guy slips back in, gets lost in the crowd, and goes into the john and does the same thing he did the last time. Pushes out a ceiling panel, climbs up, and starts looking around for his wallet."

Marty takes a deep breath, gulps down a big mouthful of beer, and stands up.

"I better bowl my frame, or Neil here's gonna to blow a gasket," he says.

Marty takes a breath, sets, and rolls a pretty good one. It looks like it's going to be a strike, but the nine wobbles a bit and stays standing.

"Shit," Marty says and slaps his thigh. He misses the spare and cusses all the way back to the table.

Bo stands by the rack of balls, holding his hand over the blower while Marty finishes the story.

"So, a little while after he throws the guy out, the manager goes into the john to take a leak and he sees it. The panel's been pushed out. He jumps up on the toilet and pokes his head up into the ceiling and there he is, that stupid son of a bitch, holding onto the ceiling supports, looking for his goddamn wallet."

Bo and I both shake our heads. I down the rest of my beer.

"The manager yells at him, tells him he's calling the cops. The dumb fuck freaks and starts crawling away. Like, where was he going to go, eh? He's got nowhere to go but someplace else in the ceiling-no way out-but he starts crawling away anyhow."

"I suppose afraid and stupid don't make for a very good combination," Bo says.

"No shit," Marty says. "And there he is, freaked, knowing he's headed back to prison, and crawling away. What they figure is that he lost his grip on the supports. I don't have to tell you, there ain't much of a place to get a foothold in a suspended ceiling. He loses his grip and crashes through those panels and lands flat fuck on his back in the middle of lane two and-bam. The rest, as they say, is history."

Bo rolls and gets a strike.

"Good one," Marty says.

"Guess the Lord shined his countenance on that one," I say.

"Praise Him," Bo says.

I get another spare on my turn-good left English to take out the seven.

"You know, I don't know if this isn't the damnedest part of the whole story," Marty says. "There's the guy, deader than shit, with his head bashed in, in the middle of lane two, and the woman who hit him is screaming and crying and going nuts."

"It was a woman who hit him?" Bo asks.

"Yeah. Team of waitresses from Golden Corral," Marty says. "Bet it's a while before she's back for league night."

"I bet," Bo says.

"So there he is, dead and dumb, and the waitress is screaming, and everyone else runs down the lane to see. And-oh, Jay swears this is true-the guy's laying there and, sure as shit, he has it."

"What?" I ask.

"What? His wallet, man. What else? He'd found it. He'd found his goddamn wallet and he's laying there, dead as can be, and that wallet is in his hand."

"What was in that wallet that made it so all fired important to him?" I say. "Did Jay say anything about that?"

"No. Who knows?" Marty says. "The cops took the wallet away along with the body."

It's the last frame of the game, and Bo shakes his head and walks over to the ball rack to take his turn. I feel the beer I've been drinking and get up from the table.

"I gotta take a piss," I say.

The john is empty and the ceiling panel is still out. I finish up at the urinal, walk into the stall, close the lid on the toilet, and step up on it. I have to. I stick my head up into the ceiling and look into the dim space. Light and noise drift up through the hole over lane two. What was in that wallet that was so important to him he risked going back to prison, risked death, as it turns out, risked making a fool of himself, just to get it back? The center of my chest suddenly feels like someone hit it with a hammer, and I start to shake. I'd risk anything, I'd fall through a thousand ceilings, let everyone in the bowling alley take a shot at my head, gladly die stupid and bloody if it would remove the poison from my daughter's chest. But I could crawl through a thousand ceilings and die a thousand times, and my daughter would still be lying there in her crib with that stent sticking out of her chest. I'm standing on a toilet in a bowling alley, with my head stuck through the ceiling, and it makes no more difference than anything else I could do. I look into the dim light inside the ceiling and hate the dumb fuck who died for an old wallet.

I'm shaking and my eyes are burning when I get back. It's my turn, but I drop down on one of the chairs behind Bo and Marty.

"Took long enough. Must have been one hell of a piss," Marty says. "Come on, man, it's your turn. Hey, you okay?"

Bo gets up and walks over to me and sits down in the chair beside me. That look is on his face again. He thinks he sees his chance. He puts his hand on my shoulder again and leans his face toward mine.

"Have faith and pray, my friend," he says. "Have faith in God's plan for her, for us."

I lock the fingers of my hands together and squeeze them tight. The breath comes slow and deep into my lungs. I turn my eyes directly into Bo's and whisper. My voice hisses between my lips.

"Fuck his plan."

"Hey," Marty says from the scoring table. "You going to bowl, or are you two going to sit there and make out?"

Before Bo can say anything, I get up, lift my ball from the rack and set myself at the line.

"Last frame, man," Marty says. "Nail a strike here and you've got a chance to break 270. That'd be your best ever, wouldn't it, Neil?"

The lights in the ceiling glint off the pale, polished surface of the lane. My eyes follow the shining wood from line to pins. My fingers slide smoothly into the holes in the ball. I step into my delivery, and wish, pray, for a fool of a man to fall through the ceiling and land square in the middle of the lane just as my ball crashes into his skull.

-Tim Poland (The Furnace Review)