“Bowl is life.” The sign above the door boasts explosive clip art of a bowling ball striking pins over Ariel Bold font. You push the metal bar on the door and step into a rush of hot, stale air, the air of the alleys. Incessant rolls of thunder and subsequent crashes on repeat.
Marge at the front desk, one part shoe-check, two parts self-appointed bouncer shoots a gaze your way. No part of her husky figure flinches, just the grey eyes. Her bowed arms in confirmed pit-bull stance stick in contrast to her red-orange ’50s curls that perch first in high bangs that curve down just-so and frame her round face that merges at the shoulder just above the confident, but resting, cross-stitched hens on the chest of her country red sweatshirt.
“Hey, neighbor.” Her voice, guttural and cracking, betrays the kindness of her words.
She knows your face, though she’s seen you only once before. This isn’t her usual shift. You try to win her loyalty with a compliment, “I like your sweatshirt.”
She brightens, looks up.
“Thank you. I make a slew of these each Christmas. Family loves ’em. Did a ton of dragon eggs this year. They’re into that Game of Thrones. Are you?”
“No.” You respond too quickly, shocked that your plan to win her worked. Her gaze thickens the longer you search your mind for a response. You weaken and say lamely, “Size nines please.”
“I know.” Bad girl is back and her beady eyes turn black.
Marge and her miracle memory have been handing out shoes for 37 years, the same time that you’ve been on the planet. She lifts the worn nines onto the tall counter and expertly whips the strings and shoes about-face. She fake smiles through her horn-rims. Wide lines, whincing closed mouth, somehow sarcastically challenging you to beat her bowling record. All of this she says with her mouth closed.
As you walk toward lane eight, you ponder the unique and ironic parallels between bowling and a Mr. Rogers episode. Everyone is always changing their shoes in public, switching cardies, smiling at the bowlers in the next lane for a second then seriously getting back to the game. Won’t you please? Won’t you please? Please won’t you be …my neighbor.
Mr. Rogers had the uncanny ability to comfort and convict, like the Holy Spirit. Like that book by Oswald Chambers. Mr. Rogers would look at you through the television wavelengths. Really look. Into your soul. He’d ask, “Are you ever afraid of things?” Then he’d simultaneously chastise and challenge your fears countering them with truths like, “You’ll make friends.” “Parents are people too.” Or, “You’ll never go down the drain.” The one you could never believe despite the deep lines of wisdom in his face was, “You’re a winner.”
Lost in thought over that whole trolley thing in each episode, you look up and see your motley team strolling in.
Really, you got tricked into coaching. It’s not your gig, definitely not your forte.
Their freshman year, these boys needed a spot to eat lunch one rainy Thursday. They asked if they could eat in your classroom and they never left. Now, three years later, every lunch they march in two-by-two chatting and shoveling in pizza or sliced apples, tossing trash like they own the place. They’re good guys, and they mean well.
As a joke one Tuesday a while back you chided them for being a club that meets but has no high school letter to show for it. Bowling Club became their chance to “fake letter in a fake sport.” They joked, but they kept showing up to practices. They liked bowling and decided to compete despite their 91 group average. When the tall freshman joined, you all thought they might have a flying chance at state. He’s good. No spin on the ball, but a great shot. Throws like a handshake.
The first lane coach the league assigned your team quit after one week. Said to your face that your kids “weren’t no good. None of ’em are serious.” You attempted a retort but so far under your breath and so long after he started walking, you barely even heard the coach from Lincoln High that uses your same alley for practice make a snide comment about you. You turn and see that she is wearing another shirt with her name embroidered on it. She’s the competition, so you stay cool. You smile and wave as you recall the day she told you that one of her players “can’t help but bowl a perfect score every time.” “It’s his God-given ability,” she said as she gave your team the up-down size-up.
A few girls from your school joined just in time to get bowling shirts and be in the team pic. But, today, the boys stroll in alone, all looking at their phones. They’re gangly young men with ten second expressions. You look at their faces and wonder what life would be like if you all lived in war times. That’s how you treat this. Battle commander who hasn’t seen many battles but needs to stay strong for the men. Keep their morale up. Who knows how long they’ve got. Gotta make this good.
You step up to the approach and ball return. Lucky gold is waiting for you. It’s a ten pound swirly houseball with just the right feel. Your state bowler Jake waits just behind the ledge of wood flooring to your right. Bowling is a gentlemen’s sport. Jake knows to wait just off the approach until you throw the ball.
You acknowledge Jake with a nod and refocus.
Right fingers aligned, left hand balance.
Tall stance, feet together. Breathe in.
Then, in juxtaposing parallel grace you step right as your arms slide down.
Step slow left, drop back right.
Right step, arm back.
Left step, right dip.
Your right arm releases as the right leg curtsies back.
You pause listening to the thunder roll. “Be the ball,” comes the mantra from lane coach Gary’s one lesson. You pop up and wait, fingers crossed in hopeful superstition that there is more than skill to this game. It’s luck and chance and heart too. Pow! One down, nine more to go. Your first shot rode a little lefty and will need to be corrected in the follow up if you’re going to pick up the spare.
Jake rolls a split. “Tough to gauge. You’ll have to aim hard left and hope it ricochets right,” you tell him. Jake nods and goes for it.
Then, as if the fiery gates were swinging wide to release the dragons of hell, two sounds explode above the ball returns and lane throws: Marge wails a low “No!” as Jake’s seven pounder collides with the sweeping gate at the end of the lane.
Jake had tried to turkey in the tenth after two perfect strikes but forgotten that it sweeps through and starts him with a fresh set of pins. Strikes are good in bowling but bad in baseball. Jake brakes the lane mechanisms and Marge comes a running. She pivots and swivels round the chest-high tables like a pro surfer gauging waves.
“Hey!” comes her gravel cry again, and this time the alley halts in shocking stillness. The boys barely have time to rally. Cameron, right behind you, speaks his thoughts in breathy clarity, “She’s a B word,” as he moves into the half-moon with the lunch bunch. Marge is past you in an instant and holding Jake’s arm like she’s bringing the TinMan back to life. She squeezes each of his arm muscles. Even the coach from Lincoln, though amused, stands jaw agape waiting for the what could possibly come next.
“Hey kid! Do you see this?” Marge makes a muscle like a living Rosie the Riveter. She picks up Jake’s bowling ball as it pops out of the return. “I throw a 16-pound ball. And what is this? It’s a seven pounder. Get over here.” She lets the ball thud back down into the return and immediately poises herself for battle at one of the high tables, one fist into the air then slams the elbow down hard onto the table.
Jake looks back at you like a frantic thief getting caught. “Does she really want me to arm wrestle her?”
You lift your shoulders and wait in curious anticipation as Jake walks forward and hesitantly lifts his right elbow to the table.
You see right away that he’s no match and it’ll all be over quickly, but you wonder if you should step in. It’s all happening so fast. Hilariously fast. The alley cats have moved in like they’re ravens to roadkill. The back of Jake’s hand hits the table. Silence. Marge pushes back from the table and half-chants in pirate fashion, “Bowling’s not a sport for weenies.”
At this, the half-moon huddle bursts with laughter that roars and foams with delight over Jake’s failure for the next half an hour or so.
Only Cameron continues to pout with Jake making steady comments about the “B-word.” You wonder why he doesn’t out and say the word, just the initial, but you can see that Cameron’s speeches are a comfort to Jake in his time of trial.
Somewhere inside of you, you decide that you agree with Marge. You’ve been reminded your whole life that you’re not really an athlete. You call your mother, who is the perfect stoic cocktail of Lutheran and Norwegian, and she says, “Oh, for sweet.”
She used to joke that she told you once that she loved you and if she changes her mind she’ll let you know. You still need affirmation, so that’s why you call. You remember a hard day at work when you went to her for comfort, crying on her porch step and she washed your car for you in front of you. This is how she shows love.
When you call to tell her about the bowling coach gig, you laugh and say, “Mom, I’m an athlete.” A few days later, she shows up with a framed picture of your grandfather and his bowling team. Their black and white shadowless figures stand tall posing with bowling balls in hand, straight faces over their bowling shirts with names perfectly embroidered across the pockets. Your grandpa, the one you never met, handsome with hair greased back in ’50s coif, takes a knee front and center. His work-worn face curls into an almost smile. He’s tough. “He’s the team Captain,” she says proudly. And she smiles like the sunrise.
You step up to the approach because your name is flashing on the screens above, the ones that usually show Elvis movies between rolls. If ever asked, you know you prefer Viva Las Vegas to Blue Hawaii, but right now rolled gold hits the ground running and bam! It’s a strike.
Marge sees it. Your team sees it. Heck, the whole alley sees it.
You bowl. You’re an athlete.
As you stroll out into the fresh air of the evening, feeling better in your own shoes again, Marge salutes you, “See ya, neighbor.”
And suddenly, you feel like a winner, just like Mr. Rogers said you were.