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Scratch Handicap

by Don Webb

“Hello, Harry, how’s business tonight?” Maude leaned on the counter of the manager’s desk and gestured at Harry’s 20-lane bowling alley. Only about half a dozen lanes were in use, three or four at each end.

“Well, hi, Maude. Not bad at all. See that crowd from the Legion post at alleys 10 and 11? They’re buying a lot more from the bar than they would if they were bowling... You’re the complete reporter tonight, I see: camera and all. Here, let me take your raincoat.”

“Thanks,” Maude replied. “The Tribune comes out on Wednesday. I want a couple of pictures and a story about the individual championships. I’m not too late for the semi-finals, am I?”

“Just in time. Joe Cecito won his. Mark Bein and Tom Brassard are in the middle of the third game in theirs. Each has won one game in the set so far, and this last game is close. ’Scuse me, they’re having a little dinner party in the cafe afterwards, and I want to make sure Howard’s ready... Hey, Howard, a cup of coffee for Maude here... It’s on the house, Maude.”

* * *

Mark was hurting. At age 64, he felt even the warm, late-spring rains in his joints. But tonight it was his left arm, of all things, that was giving him trouble. At least it wasn’t his bowling arm. He rubbed his left shoulder and elbow, but that just spread the pain around. If he didn’t win tonight, maybe he’d just put away his bowling ball next year, find something less strenuous.

Tom had just struck in the 6th and was leading by 8. Mark went to the ball return, picked up his ball, wiped it down, and took his position. He carefully aligned his right shoe on the fifth board, visually marked his planting point, and stared at the third arrow on the lane, visualizing his ball rolling just to the right of it. He held the ball waist-high, thumb upward.

Then he began his slow, two-step approach: step, push, plant... Searing pain tore his left elbow and shoulder. He gritted his teeth and ignored it. Release... The ball rolled over the spot, curved neatly into the pocket. But just a tiny bit too high: the 5-pin hit the right-hand baffle and just touched the 10-pin. The pin spun, moved crazily into the 9-pin position, tottered, and remained standing. The crowd groaned, and Mark could even hear Tom say, “Holy smoke...”

The 9-pin spare is a cinch: just roll the ball over the 8, 9 or 10 spots and you’ve got it. Mark took his place as carefully as before but three boards to the left. He cocked his hand for a straight ball, and rolled it over his spot. He grimaced as the pain again shot through his left arm, and he went down on one knee.

He watched as the ball, at the last minute, curved ever so slightly into the 8-slot, brushed the pin... and missed. The crowd gave a smaller groan this time. Mark leaned down just a little and saw with years of experience a slight reflection on the golden hardwood of the alley. Just as he thought: late in the set, the oil had worn off the balls’ track; the alley was grooved. And Tom didn’t wipe down his ball often enough. Mark got back up slowly and repressed a smile.

“Tough break, Mark. I thought sure you’d pick it up, both times,” said Tom. No one stands on formality in a friendly league, but everyone plays to win.

“That’s the breaks,” replied Mark. “Go get ‘em.”

Tom’s style was completely different from Mark’s. Four steps, a strong right arm powering the ball into the pocket. But he had a way of putting his right leg way to the left, behind him, and that tended to make his ball come in low. When he got tired, compensating could make him a little erratic. The game was Tom’s to lose, but it was also Mark’s to win.

Mark watched Tom’s shoulders. Yep, he was rolling the ball as hard as ever, but this time Tom turned just a little too much to the left. The ball knocked the head pin aside, hit the left pocket and left a 6-7-10 split. Tom rolled cross-alley, picked up the 6 and 10 pins easily enough and came back to sit down. Mark shrugged his right shoulder. “Yeah,” said Tom, “and now I’ve got to think about it.” He grinned ruefully, “Looks like you’ll have to go on without me.”

Those words and the simultaneous crash of pins from four alleys brought Mark back to the jungles of Vietnam. The rain, the crash of mortar fire, the searing pain... and the same words he’d said to his platoon mates, who ignored his protests and risked their own lives dragging him to safety. At the hospital in Tokyo, he’d met Tom, who was one year younger, and from his own home town. And now, forty years later, Vietnam was still with them both.

Mark shook off the flashback and just said what his comrades had said to him: “Fat chance of that.” He got up, took his place, put the ball down carefully into the groove, gritting his teeth against the pain in his arm all the while. He finished with two strikes and a spare, enough to win, 189 to Tom’s 182.

* * *

Joe was waiting for them at their table in the cafe. “Close game, eh, guys?”

“Just the way I like it,” said Mark, as he and Tom sat down, he on the left, Tom on the right. The three of them were life-long friends, all veterans of ’Nam. Joe had been a Marine while Mark and Tom had been in the Army.

“That’s easy for you to say,” said Tom, reaching over to his left with his right arm and giving Mark a playful shove.

“Aw, could’ve gone either way.”

“Wait’ll next year.”

“Right,” Mark grinned. “Maybe it’s just as well Maude is writing us up this year. Who knows what young dude will come along and knock us off next time? Could’ve done without the pictures, though.” His voice reflected his wry grimace.

“Aw, don’t gripe,” said Joe. “We can’t all be handsome dudes like you and Tom.”

“Say, Joe, tell us something,” asked Mark. “When you’re at the line, what’s your technique? I’ve got to bowl against you tomorrow night, and I need all the help I can get.”

“It’s all positioning and repetition. Once my right foot is in place, I do exactly the same thing every time. Takes tremendous concentration; it’s really wearing. I think I may hang it up after this year. And speaking of hanging things up, when are you going to hang up that crutch, Mark, and get a wooden leg? And how about you, Tom? How come you don’t get a prosthetic left arm?”

The three friends had been around this block before. “It’s not easy to replace an entire missing limb. We’ve just gotten used to it,” said Tom, shrugging his right shoulder.

“Here’s your dinners, fellows,” boomed Howard, bringing them the house staples: baked potatoes and salad, but with steaks ordered specially for them.

“Thanks, Howard,” said Joe. He fumbled for his fork and found it after a second. Suddenly he was no longer a star athlete and ex-Marine; he just looked old.

Tom spoke evenly: “Steak at 6 o’clock; potatoes at 10 o’clock; salad at 12 o’clock.”

Mark added, “And the salad dressing is at 1 o’clock, right by your plate.”

Joe picked up the salad dressing and, guiding his hand along the edge of his plate with his little finger, poured a helping onto his salad.

Copyright © 2003 by Don Webb

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