On Memory Lanes
by Shawn Jacobson
If you want to know why I am traveling west into the mountains of mystery, you will need to know what happened on that strange night, the night when Dad bowled for a perfect game, and weirdness walked the alleys. Though it seems odd that a night of bowling should profoundly change a future, you will see why it changed mine.
The strangeness started with hunger, a hunger beyond explanation, as if I hadn’t eaten in forever, a hunger you got from doing something, not from sitting around while your father bowls.
“How was it?” the waitress asked.
“Wonderful,” I said through my food.
I expected to be told not to talk with my mouth full, but Mom and Dad were too busy stuffing it in to take time to criticize. Uncle Carl was eating like there was no tomorrow. The weird hunger was even affecting Kate, my kid sister; she was eating her peas, and that was just plain unheard-of.
“It’s the best in the land,” the waitress said. “We’re famous for our food around here.”
“It sure is good,” I said as I savored a large bite of meat with gravy. I washed it down with grape soda, the good kind from bottles, not the fizzy canned stuff.
“I have to be running,” the waitress said.
I looked around the restaurant at all the other inexplicably hungry customers. Most of them were dressed like farmers, but some were bowling in the tournament with Dad. My attention was caught by a family in the corner, one that didn’t fit either group. They were in their Sunday best, and I got the impression that they were wearing the only good clothes they had.
I wasn’t that interested in the little boy who was Kate’s age or the older girl between my age and that of my older brother Brad. The middle boy was the first boy my age I’d seen on the whole bowling trip. I hoped he might be my playmate for the evening. I had great hopes when their dad came over to our table.
“Hi, my name’s Jake,” he said sticking out his hand.
“Ben,” replied Dad. “Good to meet you. Are you bowling in the tournament?” Dad liked to swap bowling stories and was always on the lookout for a kindred spirit.
“No,” Jake said, “we’re just watching. You’re bowling well.”
“Thanks,” Dad said. “I’m not doing that well tonight though.”
Indeed, his bowling thus far had been average: not bad, but not good enough for prize money. I expected to hear him cuss the lane conditions all the way to Chicago.
“Daddy’s the best bowler here,” I said, too proud of my dad not to butt in.
“You should be proud of you father; he’s as good a bowler as I’ve seen,” Jake said, turning to me. Jake turned back to Dad. “By the way, you folk from around here?”
“Nope,” Dad replied. “From Boone, north of Des Moines. How about you?”
“Oh, we’re from a bit farther west than that,” Jake said with a laugh.
At this, Uncle Carl perked up, the way our hound does when she scents a rabbit. Uncle Carl had been way out west, out in the Spirit Lands, where magic ruled and where, if you believed Pastor Bryce, the Devil had his abode, a place of wonder shunned by respectable people.
“Yes,” Jake continued, “we’re from just west of Iowa.” He had a furtive look that I had never seen on an adult before, the look of someone who has said too much. “Well,” he continued, “I’d better get back to the family. Good luck.”
We returned to our food, still astoundingly hungry.
“What do you want for dessert?” Dad asked. “The blueberry pie looks good.”
“A la mode?” I asked.
“Sure,” Dad said. “I think I’ll have that, too.” As if on cue, the waitress appeared.
As we were finishing, the boy I hoped to play with came by. “Want to play cowboys and Indians?” he asked. “My pa says it’s OK.”
“Run along, son,” Dad said, interrupting a whispered conversation with Uncle Carl.
“How about over there?” my new friend asked, pointing to the labyrinth of bowling lockers at the far end of the building. “I don’t see anyone over there.”
As we approached the pretend west, the boy stuck out his hand. “By the way, my name’s Bram.”
“I’m Bill,” I replied shaking his hand.
We drew straws and, since I’d drawn the short one, I got to play cowboy. We ran among the lockers used to store bowling balls, pretending they were canyon walls. Then Bram said, “Spirits arrive. Cowboys can’t shoot Indians anymore.”
Just then, Bram’s sister arrived like a rescuing angel. “Bill,” she said, “your mom wants you. Dad’s getting ready to bowl.”
“Aw, Lisbet,” Bram said, “do we have to stop now? We’re just getting to the fun part.”
“You know what Dad says about minding,” Lisbet said, “and about being selfish. The rest of the game won’t be much fun for cowboy Bill.”
“OK,” Bram sighed, and I walked back to where Mom was sitting.
Lisbet was right about the game; things went badly for the cowboys once they ran into the Spirit Folk. I remembered from history classes, how the Spirit People had stopped the white man’s advance into the West.
I remembered reading about the Battle of the Badlands and the first and second battles of Denver Creek. The lesson on the disastrous battles of Rollins and Laramie that had doomed the Cheyenne campaign was especially memorable.
The Spirit People had been too few to push the settlers back across the plains, but they had kept us out of the mountains. Finally, after a long list of battles, the treaty of Tucson brought an end to the Indian wars once and for all.
If you wanted victorious cowboys, you would have to read one of Louis L’Amour’s alternate history books, the kind without Spirit Folk, where the cowboys rolled to the Pacific without meaningful resistance, the kind eaten up by the good folk of Boone.
Of course, if I wanted to know about the Spirit Folk, I would ask Uncle Carl. He said the Spirit Folk were no more magical than you or me. They were from another world and had some very advanced science, but that didn’t make them devils. He said folk who talked that way were ignorant. “They don’t know what they’re talking about, and they don’t care, either.”
When I got back to our seats, I noticed that Brad had put his headphones on, tuning out the world.
I envied him his radio, and my gaze wandered from the scene in front of us. I counted the lanes, 28, just like this morning and this afternoon. Nor had anything else changed; the restaurant was at the near end of the building.
Then there was the entrance framed by a giant blowing ball and pin, the sort of equipment you’d bowl with if you were God, or a giant. A shoe rental counter stood to the right of the entrance facing the restaurant.
Further along was a bar with a bartender and a couple of barflies who would probably be drinking all night. Next were some old-looking pinball machines and three doors, two restrooms flanking a door marked “STAFF ONLY.” Finally, there were the lockers and a fire exit. Beyond that was the Illinois night.
Dad was bowling average, like earlier in the day. I looked up and he was facing a split. He rolled a straight ball as fast as he could towards the ten pin in a valiant, but unsuccessful, attempt at a spare.
“I’ll give you a fence,” Mom said. She was keeping Dad’s score. “Go on like it didn’t happen.”
I looked around again. “Can I have some pinball money?” I asked Uncle Carl.
“Sure, good luck,” he said, handing me a quarter
“Now you be careful,” Mom interjected. “Uncle Joe started with pinball, and you know where he ended up.”
Uncle Joe had ended up living on the streets of New Orleans after throwing everything he had into the casinos. It was a story Mom told every time I wanted to play pinball.
“I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about,” Uncle Carl soothed as Mom groused about his lack of parenting instincts.
“Get a good score,” Uncle Carl said, “just stay away from the gambling bug.”
I walked back to where the pinball machines were. On the way, I stopped to watch Dad bowl. He pushed off and swung the ball down the lane. It made a smooth rolling sound as it hooked into the pocket. There was a white blur of flying pins, then nothing stood. It was a strike, a thing of beauty.
“Your dad will be all right now” said Lizbet.
“Thanks,” I said.
I checked the machines to see which gave the most balls for a quarter and settled on the oldest machine. As I dropped my coin into the slot, I heard a voice.
“If you let me play a ball, I’ll show you how it’s done,” Bram said.
“Well, sure” I said. “I hope this will be more fun than cowboys and Indians.”
“Oh, shucks,” Bram said as he shot the ball. “This will be a lot of fun. Trust me.”
The ball rattled around in the bumpers for a while, then it came down and Bram caught it just right with a flipper, sending it through a gate — one of those where you can get tons of points if you hit it right — and back into the bumpers.
“How’d you do that?” I asked. If I could get the secret, I could play free games all night.
“It’s all timing,” he replied. “You have to flip your wrist just so at just the right time to make it work. I’ll show you on the next ball.”
When he had finished, he said, “Here, you try it.”
I sent the ball up into the bumpers. It came down quickly and teetered on the edge of the tube before falling where I could flip it.
“Now!” said Bram and I flipped the ball with coordination I’ve never had before or since, as if my body had some psychic bond with the game, making me and the machine one. There was a joyous sound as the machine went crazy adding to my — well our — score.
“Like I said,” Bram continued, “it’s all in the wrist.”
We switched off balls for a while, winning several games. Then Lisbet called him back to his folks, and I went back to being inept; soon the games were gone.
I walked slowly past the bar on the way back to our seats. The man behind the bar looked bored; serious bowlers don’t mess with booze while they’re bowling despite what you hear about beer frames and the rest. He was alone except for the drunks talking about baseball expansion.
“Do you think Havana will get a team?” the first drunk asked.
“No way,” the second drunk replied. “Senator Castro makes too much trouble with his common man’s agenda. You can’t go around calling rich folk thieves, especially if they are.”
“Okay,” the first drunk replied. “How about Fargo?”
“Come back now,” Uncle Carl called. “Your mom will have a fit if she sees you hanging around that bar. Tell you what: I’ll buy you another grape soda and tell you a story.”
“Sure!” I said. Uncle Carl new a lot of Spirit Lands stories. He’d lived out there a long time, being some sort of diplomat or problem-solver or something.
As we walked back to our seats, Dad threw a strike that could have been the twin of the one I’d seen him throw earlier on the way to the pinball machines.
“That’s three in a row,” Mom said excitedly. “If he’d started better, he’d have a really good game.”
Copyright © 2017 by Shawn Jacobson