Jim Milak
•Easy Sex the Hard Way

Kiki Mercury
•The Modernist Gift Guide
•Iranica/Opposite Day in Iran

Matthew Shultz
•Animals in Pornography

Eric Ottens
•A Message to You
•Japanese Hangover

Mike Toe
•Bob Chinn's Crab House
•Stream of Bowling Conscious Wood
•My Young Coconut Juice

John Dugan
•My Terrorist Romance
•Politics in Your Coffee




Mike Toe

Stream of Bowling Conscious Wood
(continued from page 1)

I then realize that while I am staring at his back and thinking about nothing but the Sunday specials that I am going to ask him about when he eventually turns around again (and about his wide dumpy back and the garish rayon that hangs distastefully from it), this lady has meanwhile been pleading my case to him: “Come on, you know lane 32 won’t be used and there’s several lanes between it and the last league lane, so it’s not like he is going to cause any distraction. Can’t you have a heart and just let him bowl?”

So she has volunteered herself as my advocate. But about her question regarding the joining of the league, I am somewhat flabbergasted. I don’t know what to say. I know that I should not say “What is a bowling league? What are you talking about? How does it work?” (Because of course I know of bowling leagues—I hear the phrases “bowling league” and “league night” all too often, in fact, since these phrases often foil my plans to practice bowling—but I have never even thought about joining one, let alone been asked to, and so it occurs to me, upon being asked, that I really have not even the slightest idea what they entail or how they work.) And I also know that I should not say, “Well, I live about 60 miles northeast of here, so I really have no business being here at all, much less in a league here.” But I must say something because she is staring at me awaiting a response, so I (somewhat hilariously) say, “How much does it cost?” “$20 a week,” she says with a smile. To which I (even more hilariously) say, “Hmmm…not bad!” I tell her I will consider it and I ask if she has any literature on the subject that I can peruse in the meantime. This totally throws her off, she fumbles confusedly and then finally, in frustration, rips a sheet of red-colored paper from a counter display that holds dozens of different such sheets, slaps it down on the counter in front of us where I observe that the purpose of the sheet is to list the hours during which the alley is closed to the public due to leagues, points to the timeslot that says Friday nights from 6 – 10 pm with the words “Tri-Burbs Men” next to it, and says “Here, it’s this one,” and then turns fully away from me in anger. I say, “thank you,” take the sheet, wonder what the “Tri-Burbs” are, and proceed to lane 32.

Meanwhile, the few bowlers who were here when I first entered have inexplicably stopped bowling, and, as I’m unloading my equipment, putting on my shoes, toweling off my bowling ball, and placing it on the ball return, I notice that the alley is filling up to the brim with nothing but dozens upon dozens of macho blue-collar West-suburban men. They are descending upon the alley like locusts. I feel like they are a floodwater, and that the space of three empty lanes between mine and the end of theirs is a half-assed sandbag embankment that soon will collapse under the overwhelming pressure of all these dozens upon dozens of macho blue-collar West-suburban men.

I look down the expanse of lanes and observe that all of them are shut off (the pins are not lit up). All except for my lane. In spite of the dozens of men pouring in, it is remarkably quiet: just the muffled sounds of men quietly stating their names as they are checked in, then quietly ordering their pitchers of beer in the quiet bar. Except for one disconcertingly jovial (and disconcertingly short, as if they had suddenly become ashamed) burst of cheering in response to something that the Cubs quietly did on the quiet bar television (and even this cheer was quite restrained compared to anywhere else where this kind of thing occurs), the atmosphere is a serious as a funeral.

But the men just keep pouring in (much later I did a count of them: there are 130 in total). And as I sit here, staring, probably with a shocked if not slightly horrified-appearing look on my face, I am astonished: they all have the machismo that is so pervasive, so concentrated in Chicago’s Western suburbs, and they have it in spades. Every single one of them has at the very least a big bushy brown mustache. Many have full goatees or beards. Every single one of them is in a short sleeved shirt (while most of them are thirty- or forty-something, there’s even a twenty-something thick, beefy, stubble-headed, fully-goateed, fan-of-pro-wrestling type in a sleeveless rock t-shirt) proudly showing off their massive, brown-or-black-fur-covered, mutton-leg forearms. Several were even wearing shorts, to show off their massive, brown-or-black-fur-covered, mutton-leg calves. There are no blondes here (excluding the dishwater-blonde Melanie Hutsell), and certainly no one who could even remotely be called effeminate.

I, meanwhile, was the only one in the entire alley who was dressed “business casual” in flat-front khakis and bright, window-pane plaid, long-sleeved oxford shirt. I was also the only skinny one. And the only one without facial hair (more often than not I go around with a few day’s worth of stubble on my face, but, in an instance of unfortunate timing, I had just shaved this very morning). As if an alley filled to the brim with macho beef was not intimidating enough, on top of that, they were clearly all hardcore bowlers, wheeling in their suitcases-on-wheels full of bowling balls, carefully lining up the balls in the ball returns, strapping on their elaborate wrist supports, checking the slide-ability of the sliding inserts of the soles of their sliding shoes (real bowlers have one shoe that slides and one that does not, and the one that slides uses interchangeable inserts for the sliding—often Teflon—so that the slide may be replaced when it wears out, without having to replace the shoe). Throughout all this I was either ignored (I would say sometimes even consciously ignored, ignored as a statement, like the statement, “you’re nothing”) or else given the occasionally curious glance.

If I were to stand up and begin to bowl now, in the middle of this, it would be like a bomb going off in the building. That is to say, when you have 32 lanes of smooth hardwood, and 31 one of those lanes are shut off and sitting in darkened silence, and you’ve got 130 men in the building who are just standing around quietly waiting, if you were to then suddenly begin to bowl, which entails first the dropping of the ball onto the lane, which is a louder and more violent sound than you have ever realized (it sounds like a professional fireman slamming the blade of his axe through a hardwood door), followed by the wall-of-tension noise generated by rumbling-scraping of the ball as it churns down the lane, then the shattering explosion against the pins (which—with the “heavy back-end reaction” ball that I am using—sounds like a piano crashing onto a street after plummeting three stories), needless to say, were I to do this, it would stop the entire alley in its tracks and every single eye in the house would turn and stare at me (first with just a feeling of surprise at the unexpected sound of someone bowling, then with the question “Hey, why is that guy bowling?!” followed by “And why by himself?”, “Why at a time when the alley belongs to us?”, and “Why so embarrassingly badly?!”).

So I just sit there, looking down at my shoes (my astonished staring at all the men as they entered had by now become conspicuous, and so I simply bowed by head toward my shoes), pretending that I have not put them on right and therefore have cause to keep fidgeting with them for an incredibly long amount of time. If this is indeed a bowling league, then sooner or later they will have to start bowling, and that is what I will wait for. (But just how long must I wait: it seems like hours have passed in this near-silent alley. Why can’t they just start bowling already?!) Finally, perhaps because the pitchers of beer are beginning to take effect, the tenseness of the atmosphere relaxes a little as the peripheral talking begins to increase ever so slightly and take on a more casual tone. This makes me feel comfortable enough to look up, not at any of them, but straight up in front of me, at my lane. That is when I see that the lights have been turned off, and that the electronic scoreboard above my lane has been darkened except for a blood red warning flashing across the top of it that says, “Resume bowling now or you will forfeit the lane!”

And so now I am trapped. I cannot leave (that would be too much, to get up, put all my stuff away, and walk past all these men without having bowled a single frame, like a coward), and I cannot keep sitting and waiting. I have no choice now but to bowl. Slowly, with a feeling of devastating humiliation, humiliation so thick and tangible that I can’t even find a way to describe it, I stand up, pick up my ball, step onto the lane, and bowl. I try not to think the words “All of them are going to turn and stare at me.” If I were to think those words, I know it would ruin me. I try only to think about what I have to do in order to make this a strike. I tell myself, I am alone here, in my own private alley, no one is watching me, because no one else is here. I try to focus on the formula that my coach has attempted to drill into my head (and which I nevertheless keep managing to forget), the formula for getting a strike. I throw the ball, it crashes onto the lane like a fireman’s axe through a hardwood door, it rumbles and scrapes down the lane with a tenseness that tingles the spine, then it explodes into the pins and they shatter into the back wall and ricochet violently off of the sides—a strike!

Knowing that when the first shocking impact of the explosive bowling noises that reverberated throughout the entire silent house and echoed off all that endless hardwood drew the attention of 130 macho hardcore West-suburban bowlers, that they saw a strike, instead of, say, a (much more typical of me) gutter ball, does not make my one-man spot-lit bowling show easy, but it makes it possible. Had I thrown a gutter ball for that first shocking throw, I don’t know if I could have ever lived that down. I don’t know how I would ever have extricated myself from the place. Having to walk out of that alley, to walk past every single one of those 130 macho men (which is what I would have had to do, as the exit was on the other side of them), knowing that the defining moment between me and them was my violent, obnoxious, pathetic gutter ball that startled them from their serious pre-game mental chilling—I just can’t even imagine. I couldn’t do it, I know. I would have instead had to do something rash.

But it was a strike! So now at least I can proceed. But still, it remains incredibly difficult to keep doing this. It’s quickly becoming just a blurry dream of humiliation. I’m paying utterly no attention to my bowling. Am I even bowling? I don’t know. All I know is that I am repeating to myself, over and over, “I will live. I will probably live through this,” while my body, blindly and unthinkingly and therefore randomly and chaotically, keeps throwing ball after ball at the pins, to unimpressive effect. Then I start to wonder whether or not it would take me more than five minutes (which is what the “Resume bowling now!” warning has stated is the maximum amount of time I can go without bowling before forfeiting my lane) to go to the bar and get a drink. I blurred my focus so as not to make eye contact with any of the men—which would have been humiliating— and glanced at the bar: the bartender was unoccupied, so I made a run for it.

(continued next page)

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