The cheer rose to crescendo, hovering in the rarefied air just below the mineralized fibers of the dropped-ceiling tiles, and held there, floating in the blueish glow of muted florescence for a single, glorious second before falling back down to polished wood of the twelve parallel lanes. The other eleven had fallen idle as all attention crowded on Lane 9, where Costello had just sent his purple and green swirled 15-pounder sliding towards the brave pins standing like a perfect set of post-orthodontic teeth, sixty feet away.
The ball hooked hard right then scurried left, spinning in a way that seemed to give the middle finger to the laws of physics, crashing into the gap in the front teeth, sending them scattering into the gutters and each other. The ten-pin, a stubborn molar, wobbled drunkenly, unsure whether he’d fall or stand, collapse or correct. The echo of that last tooth dropping filled every bit of free space in Waterford Lanes. Rumor had it you could even hear the sound of the plastic-on-wood clattering and reverberating in the stalls of the men’s bathroom.
And as soon as it was officially down, and the judges deemed no toe had crossed fault line, and no other bowling etiquette or technicalities stood in the way, the screens flashed like two dozen malfunctioning robots, displaying over and over and over again: 300! The same cheer that had collectively burst from Costello’s fans as he hit that eleventh strike, exploded anew, part scream, part yell, part singing celebration of something that is as statistically unlikely as a rookie golfer sinking a hole-in-one on a par 3.
He stood and stared at the robotic arm sweeping away the corpses of the pins, aware but unbelieving, having courted the high 200s for years and years, thinking perfection was impossible. He cracked his knuckles and turned around to face the little boy in an over-sized shirt that matched his. The boy looked at him like a mortal upon a god, eyes glistening with pride, ears covered by his tiny hands to muffle the deafening exuberation all around him. He threw his eight-year old arms as high around Costello’s legs as they’d go, hugging him with the same zeal as a he’d squeeze a new stuffed bear just to show how much he loves it.
Whistles shot from the back of the crowd and a slow chant started, Costello’s surname rhythmically pumping with the pulse of the alley, like his legend, his perfect game, were now part of the beams and dirt and concrete that gave the alley a form. Old Arkansas, the portly and pleasant owner, came and dropped a tall domestic in his hand. “Ya finally did it you son of a bitch!”
Costello winced and then smiled. “Hey, hey now. Not in front of the kid.” He rustled the mop of blonde hair that was still firmly attached to his legs. He’d done a good job, he reassured himself. The boy, despite his lack of understanding about anything parental, was doing alright. Sure he was a load or four of laundry and a trip to Hair Cuttery away from being truly presentable. But overall, given the emotional toll of the unexpected and unwelcomed, he was growing up strong and smart.
It took a solid hour for the line of congratulants to clear out, each one wanting to shake the hand of the first man to toss a 300 in this place since Chuck Werner did it in ’66. The mob of after-party had dwindled into a few stragglers too drunk to drive, but the energy still buzzed in the air, as real as the Alan Jackson tunes that floated lazily from the dated speakers mounted in the walls. Costello sat with the boy, slowly drinking his beer, letting the silky bubbles roll around his tongue and slide between his teeth before finally swallowing. It was late, even for him, and the little eyes on the little face next to him kept popping open and then slowly closing, defiantly trying to stay awake and hang with the grow-ups.
Midnight chimed it’s inevitable arrival. Costello knew the days of hanging in the alley with Jessica or Cathy or Angela until 3:00 A.M. were over, so he finished his beer and tried to pay Arkansas, who promptly refused. “You kiddin’? That game of yours made me a bundle tonight. Least I can do is give you a beer or two on the house.” He picked up the empties and nodded toward the boy, now curled in the fetal position on the orange plastic chair. “Best get him home and in bed.” Costello scooped up the crumbled sleeping mess of boy, slinging him over his shoulder like an human-shaped sack, careful not to hit his head on the door frame as he carried him out to the parking lot.
As Costello settled the boy into the back seat of the black and rust colored Silverado, he whispered, sleep blanketing his tiny voice, eyes still closed, “Luke, will you teach me how to be a bowling hero?”
The bowling alley was as old as the town hall, and featured just as prominently; the thirty-foot Art Deco sign could be seen from almost anywhere in the town. One advantage for advertisers and billboard enthusiasts on Maryland’s east coast: no hills. In the low, stinging sun of morning the alley’s age showed in wrinkles of peeling mint-green paint and growing gaps in the grain of the wooden siding. He stood for a moment in the shadow of the massive sign before looking down at his nephew. “OK Kyle; bowling time! Let’s find you a good, 8 pound ball.”
It took Arkansas nearly fifteen minutes to dig up a pair of kids size 3 bowling shoes, but the lack of wear and scuffs made them perfect for Kyle, like they’d been on reserve for him alone, waiting for him to discover his tokens of destiny and take up shoe and ball like Theseus took up sandals and sword.
Kyle demanded to tie the shoes himself. While he fumbled with the laces and tied about a dozen knots in each, Arkansas pointed behind them both to the new, shiny addition on the wood paneled wall near the entrance. There, next to Werner’s huge sixties mustache and amber tinted glasses, hung a little picture of Costello, right arm up in the air, a candid shot of him as he released the ball for the final strike. The little gold plaque read simply, ‘Luke Costello – Perfect Game – June 1, 1998.’ Arkansas had wasted no time getting that award engraved and mounted, as proud of the achievement and the man as he was happy that it happened in his alley.
“You ready?” Kyle was already on his feet, awkwardly stomping around with the wooden heels of the shoes, showing off how well he’d adhered them to his feet. He wore his over-sized bowling shirt again, nearly refusing to take it off since the victory three nights ago, and looked equal parts absurd and adorable with the line of buttons on the front hanging just below his knees. Costello made him tuck it in; the last thing he needed was for the kid to trip and bust his lip on the slippery wood and carpet. God knows what kind of stuff was growing between the gums stains.
In his typical fashion, Kyle refused to have the bumpers raised and refused to use the chrome-plated ramp-assist, arguing with Costello that he could easily get the ball to the end of the lane, easily get a strike, if he really wanted to and tried. When Kyle became so defiant, so self-empowered and bold, he could see in the boy some of his father, the father before the accident, before the diminishing power of a motionless year in a hospital bed, before his youth and energy had all but drained into the dozens of bags of fluid and blood that collected and dripped in perpetuity.
And when he ran up to that foul-line, stopping just short to let the ball glide out of his hands with inborn grace, short arms guiding the ball skillfully even though no one taught him how, overly long blond hair twirling like the bottom of a loose summer skirt, he could see in the boy some of his mother. The ballerina, the prom queen, the girl so much better than this nothing town, the one going places, so in love with life that even her failures were enviable. The girl he’d loved just as much as his brother had, whose hand he’d held as her soul left that broken body, unable to take anymore of this world.
The ball moved well, but the slick of the polish got under it at the last minute, and Kyle’s attempt only managed to clip the seven pin. He slammed one foot down angrily. “What did I do wrong!?” Costello stepped up behind him, showing him how he’d released the ball too soon, and how that had caused the trajectory of the ball to change dramatically. He held his arm, one hand on his elbow, the other on his wrist, and swung it for him, stopping it in the air where he should release the ball. Kyle’s next throw knocked down eight pins.
Costello let him practice using his frames, not counting those towards his total, knowing Arkansas would give them as many free games as they wanted until the buzz of the perfect game and minor celebrity wore off. He sat and watched Kyle, throw after throw after throw, thinking about how he’d never expected to have this much responsibility. Thinking about how in the vast cosmic swirl of unfair circumstance, he’d become a father because of a rainstorm, had his life injected with sudden parenthood because of a poorly maintained patch of country road and a violent collision of tree and steel.
Kyle threw the last frame, finishing in a huff of disappointment, his ball hitting two pins before disappearing into the black abyss behind the lane. He looked straight forward, and cracked his knuckles, or tried to, like he’d seen Costello do at the end of a game. His confidence morphed into a huge frown as he looked up at the monitor to see his score. “I didn’t even get 100.”
“Well would you look at that” Luke playfully poked Kyle in his side, trying to elicit a laugh and a smile. “The first game I ever bowled was a 61, too.”