It all happens here. The interior design is unintentionally retro and ash trays haunt the tables like relics of a less civilized time. A man tells his wife that she has to feel it right here and proceeds to grab just above her knee with alarming force. A young couple grab-asses between and during turns, throwing shots through legs and high-fiving after fives and sixes. Steve sees a child’s ball marooned half-way up the gutter on lane 27 like a lost friend. The child attempts to ice-skate down the slick lane but is lifted from the armpits by a nearby woman who Steve hopes to be the boy’s mother. She then pushes the bright red button that summons Steve.
The woman doesn’t seem to be feeling it. She steps up to the lane and basically underhand tosses the ball toward the pins, her back and knees as straight as ever and the ball getting multiple seconds of air-time. The thigh-squeezing husband pops out of his plastic seat and advises like a Ying Yang Twin: Get low. Bend over. Let it touch the floor. He proceeds to demonstrate (Just watch how I do it…) while the woman drinks beer from a plastic cup and locks eyes on anything but the man in front of her, wondering how it is she ever wanted to have sex with this person in the first place. His exaggerated bending of the knees and rotating of the hips makes him look like a bad workout video that is aptly antiquated for the setting, iridescent spandex or no. The young couple kisses before and after every shot.
The cabinet looks empty with just one person’s dishes. Three plates. Two Bowls. A handful of coffee mugs that are now so old he can’t remember which he purchased ironically. There is a nail in the wall above the microwave for something to be hung but nothing hangs. There’s no apron on the oven handle that says Kiss My Ass, I’m Cooking. No clever refrigerator magnet about hanging one’s self instead of hanging in there. He doesn’t have a clock because the microwave keeps the time, but he’s not sure how he feels about a cooking oven being the only thing that keeps him tethered to temporality. This could be anyone’s apartment.
The house phone that the cable company forced him to get startles him as it rings. Steve lets it go to voicemail, but his answering machine is of the kind that plays the person’s message aloud as they leave it. So he has to sit and listen to his mother (the only one who calls this phone) struggle to think of the word for that feeling of ants crawling all over your body in regard to how she’s doing at the assisted living home. The voice is raspy from both age and the bad speaker on the machine, and the hmmm of her thinking sounds like a stalled engine. Muffled voices come from upstairs, like people talking underwater, and the a/c clicks on with a grunt and an exhalation. He thinks of the Six Feet Under episode in which it takes a week for anyone to find the body of a woman who choked to death in her apartment. He isn’t sure if this thought is in relation to his mother or himself. Formication.
There is no music in the bowling alley. He’s not sure if this is good or bad. You can hear the clacking of bumpers on lane 36 all the way down on 5, where Tommy Herzog blows pins away like they insulted a close relative. A well-known expletive follows every strike, and Steve’s almost sure they hear that, too, down on 36. Pizza parties are rare here. He is spraying shoes with an orange zest disinfectant, and Marty is watching CNN on the old Sanyo in the office. Breaking news has been said almost a dozen times this hour. At what point does all recently acquired news become breaking news? Or is the anchor just referring to the same story over and over again? Is the news still breaking at the end of the hour if it broke at the top? Stay tuned.
A group of young guys on 14 are so serious about their bowling that it seems ironic. They all have personal balls and bags with eccentric coloration and non-birth-name engravings. They bring their own shoes. On 19 a man shows his daughter how to bowl without bumpers, and her face drops a little more with each thud of the ball locking into the rivets of the gutter. She won’t speak to him on the drive home. She is going through a phase. When does ironic behavior just become actual behavior? When does calling one’s self a “nerd” actually make one’s self, irreparably, a nerd? If he leans down close enough, he gets a buzz from the disinfectant. A zesty buzz.
They took my legs away, Steven. The super is fixing the drain on his shower. Preternatural noises emanate from the bathroom and/or drain. Just what was down there? I’m telling you I no longer have any legs. Steve has to remember to tell him about the scratching coming from inside the a/c vent. Could be rats. Could be… worse. They pretend like they don’t notice that I’m just some stump in a bed now, Steven. It sounds like the refrigerator from Ghostbusters, his drain does. He now genuinely worries for the safety of the super. You bet your ass they notice. The living room of his apartment faces another apartment and he can see a woman’s top half stretching in a pink sports bra. No word on what the bottom half is doing. Dammit, Steven. Pick up the phone. The noise stops and he’s afraid he’ll have to contact another super to fish this super out of his drain. He leans back on the couch and peers into the bathroom through the cracked door. Breaking news.
You just have to feel it. The man is behind his wife, pressed up against her like he is teaching her a golf swing. The lights are dim and the air is thick with cigarette residue and maybe asbestos. They just stand there, ball up. His arms around hers. A little girl says Yay! Strike! when her dad bowls a spare. A teenager gets a split and throws his hands up like I’m done with this. Steve can’t tell whose fingers are in the ball but he assumes hers. An illusion of control. Somehow they step toward the lane without tripping over each other. One of the possibly ironic young guys throws a strike but is still somehow unsatisfied with his turn. A ball rolls down a bumpered lane like it’s frozen in time; the small boy who rolled it stays at the edge of the lane, watching expectantly.
They are one. Chests heave toward the floor, knees bend, and arms pendulum back, then forward. They release the ball down the lane. Someone at the bar coughs or laughs until they fall off the seat, choking fatally or elatedly. Steve is summoned to the front desk by Marty who sounds like his mouth is full. They bowl a seven. It is dark but she seems to be crying; tears of joy unlikely. She looks thirty-seven.
Palm trees bend languidly. A wave threatens to break over jagged rock, and the sky is frozen in a perfect dusk. It is a painting she thinks she got from a garage sale some ridiculous amount of years back. A vacuum cleaner is on in the hallway. It’s not all that well done, but it seems annoyingly significant now, a sun forever setting, a wave that never leaves its peak. The vacuum gets louder, then softer. Louder, softer. She would like to be dead in this painting, a corpse on the sand that viewers confuse with a beach dweller perpetually taking in the sunset. She tries to guess who it is in the hall by their push-pull technique. Maria does short strokes. Back and forth back and forth. The frame has an ugly gold lacquer that looks like something her mother would put on the rim of dinner glasses. Hank’s are arrhythmic: back back front back wall back wall front back wall cough. She looks at the phone but it doesn’t ring.
Everything about his apartment says that he’s been recently dumped. He leaves food in the fridge long enough for it to morph into completely new species, bringing the dead back to life. There’s a box in the corner of the living room that he’s half-certain was already there when he moved in. But there it stays. The Chinese food guy knows Steve by his first name even though he orders from the anonymity of his computer/smart phone. Neither he nor Steve is Chinese. This seems important. The spare bedroom and/or office has been almost done for three years, but it’s been so long since he’s been in it that he’s pretty sure another person might live there already. He doesn’t check for fear of seeming rude. He hasn’t had a serious girlfriend in over five years.
The nurse’s name is Greg. He knocks on the door and says her name three times but she pretends to not hear him. If you pretend to be asleep, sometimes the nurses will skip you and get your tests and medication and what not on their way back. And then they may even forget entirely. The sunlight warms the carpet. Almost everything in her room is either white or off-white, and it shines during the day. She has a magazine open in her lap that she’s already read more than once, and the abs of a guy in a cologne ad glisten in the sunshine. She rubs some on her neck. Through the wall she can hear Horace shift in his bed next door. He needs to lose weight.
The call goes to voicemail as it always does. She slows down her speech and stretches out the pauses in between words, letting uhhhs and hmmms drift inconclusively. She can’t remember how many years ago the dog died. She tells him this. Or what his father looks like. She asks him the first initial of his father’s name, just a hint and she’ll get it. She asks him how old he is again. She stopped counting after college. Gosh and what was the name of the woman from Seinfeld; she’s in so many things nowadays. She lets this one sit, silence soaking up the seconds of a message that’ll probably never be heard. She’ll call back with the name.
Steve makes eye-contact with no more than two people a day. One of the two is Marty. Customers stare at the desk and slide over money. They smile at the floor as they take the rental shoes. They look at his shirt. They look at the top of his head. They look at their friend. He is a cash register.
It is neither night nor day inside. There are no windows, and the doors have a dark tint that blocks even the slightest hint of sunlight. But it is late. There are only a few bowlers left, and the ones that are wobble toward the lane like babies taking first steps. Balls fall and people laugh. An old couple has been working on a single game for almost two hours. The man’s beer has spilt over and he doesn’t seem to notice or care. Their scores hover around the same point as do their individual heights. Marty dims the lights after midnight to let people know it’s time to go, so there’s a cave-like glow to the place. It is silent when no one is bowling. The lanes are still as bright as ever. The oily sheen of the wood and the specific arrangement of the pins makes it look religious. People bend down before the line and offer prayer.
They are the only two left. They seem to be enjoying themselves but their sagging faces look perpetually disappointed. The woman’s ball slowly veers into the gutter and stays there. The man may or may not be asleep. Marty doesn’t know how to tell them to leave, and Steve doesn’t know why he always assumes a man and a woman bowling together are a couple. She looks left then right for assistance but quickly retreats to her chair instead. The ball stays in the gutter. The woman now appears to be nodding off as well. The lights above the lanes go off one at a time, right to left, with an industrial clack as each shuts down. It looks ceremonial. Steve taps their chairs with his broom handle. He doesn’t look them in the eyes.