My life in the gutter Essay

MY LIFE IN THE GUTTER Just why my brother-in-law John wanted to lure me into the bowlinggame is not clear. Perhaps he felt conspicuous being the only one inthe family with one arm two inches longer than the other. Why his arms are of different lengths is quite clear. John hasbeen bowing for 20 years.

His bowling ball weighs 15 pounds. He rollsthat sucker once–or more often twice–in each stanza, ten stanzas pergame, three games per night, four nights per week. That comes out to aweekly total of a ton and a half. Multiply that by 20 years and themiracle is that his right hand by this time isn’t dragging on thesidewalk. Something else.

When his team is doing well, John wears hisbowling shirt to church. (If his team is in the basement, he carrieshis shirt to the bowling alley in a paper bag and slips it on at thelast minute.) Maybe he wanted to make a bowler out of me so hewouldn’t be the only one there without a necktie. Whatever the reason, his approach was about as subtle as–well,remember the fellow chosen to break the news to Mrs. Brown that herhusband had been killed in a mining accident? When she answered hisknock at the door, he said, “How do you do, are you the widowBrown?’ In my case, John talked Lois out of the golf cart I wasexpecting for Christmas and into a bowling ball.

My son gave me bowlingshoes, one daughter donated a bag in which to carry the ball and mypractical daughter risked bankruptcy by adding a can of talcum powder tothe bonanza. The best I could say for the stuff–at least itdidn’t increase my cologne and after-shave inventory, numbering 28bottles at last count. “I’m going to make a bowler out of you if it killsme,’ said John, giving me a hearty Christmas Day slap on the backthat sent me to my knees. “You can’t beat it forexercise.

‘ Well, I’ve never tried coming down the Matterhorn on one skiand carrying an armload of dynamite, but surely it would give the sportof bowling–if sport it is–a run for its money. And I would send Johnto his knees telling him so, but unfortunately we are no longerbackslapping brothers-in-law. This is how it happened: “You’ll have to try the ball a few times to see if itfits,’ said John on our way to the bowling alley. “All we hadto go by was the impression your fingers made in the shingles that dayyou slid off the shed roof.’ The ball didn’t fit. In fact, John had no more than said thatthe first thing I should do was to relax–and I had no more thanrelaxed–than the dumb ball slipped off my hand and came down preciselyon the big toe of his right foot. Thus ended the first lesson.

“The span isn’t right,’ he moaned as I helped himhobble to the car. “We’ve got to exchange it.’ So I drove to the bowling-ball store. While John nursed hiswounded toe, I went around sticking my thumb and two fingers intovarious balls and bringing them to him for inspection. He finallydecided that a multicolored 15-pounder was “me.’ And it wasback to the bowling alley to see if I could keep the thing off his feet. In retrospect, I should have enlightened him–all that trying on ofballs had caused my thumb to swell.

But he said this time we’d beconcentrating on the trial swing. That’s where I would go throughthe motion without delivering the ball. “To see if the pendulum ofyour arm is straight and smooth,’ John explained. As soon as I had my pendulum straight and smooth, however, he beganmarking off five paces back from the foul line, from which point I wasto begin my running start for launching the ball toward the fourstaggered rows of dumbbell-shaped targets waiting at the end of theslick surface between these two furrows. Walking back to where John waspointing, I took a deep breath–which was lucky, because I wouldn’tbe breathing again for several minutes–and took off for the foul line. The last thing I remember was John yelling, “Release it!Release the damn thing!’ Easy for him to say. He wasn’t the one galloping down thoseshiny boards with his thumb stuck in the hole of a 15-pound ball. Orwho ended up, for that matter, with his head in the right-hand furrow when his feet could no longer maintain the pace.

My next recollection was of wet paper towels being draped across mybrow, someone asking if I knew what day it was and John dribbling 10W-30motor oil around the rim of the hole, still occupied by my thumb. Whenthey finally got me up–well, John should have known enough to keep hisfeet out of the way. The ball landed this time on his left foot, and hewas still limping on his right foot. I couldn’t help noticing, onour way out to the car, how much his gait now resembled that of GrouchoMarx.

But give John credit. When he says “if it kills him,’ hemeans if it kills him. So back to the bowling-ball store, this time tohave my span measured for a custom-drilled job. I tried to tell himthat it would be a waste of anthracite, or whatever those things aremade of–but since I would be paying the bill, money was no object.

By the time a ball had been drilled to accommodate my swollen thumband two fingers, the swelling had gone down, John was walking prettygood and Lois had made me a bowling shirt. Because I hadn’t yetbeen invited to join a team, she had simply stitched the letters”STODDARD,’ cut from my pajama top, across the back. I wouldhave preferred that the back be left blank. Not that I minded so muchthe sacrifice of my pajama top (I never dress formal for bed), but sheused one of John’s shirts for a pattern, and the right sleeve wastwo inches longer than the left. And in light of what happened, I wouldhave just as soon remained anonymous. Lesson No. 3, we’ll call it. This is where the instructor,or bowlee, stands behind the bowler to see that his “shoulders aresquare with the foul line.

‘ This is also where the ball gets awayfrom the bowler on the backswing and catches the bowlee, according to one witness, “right in the breadbasket.’ All I know is, Iheard John suddenly coin a word, something like “yeessch!’ andI looked around to find him on his hands and knees, from which positionhe slowly rolled over on his back and stared up at me. While waiting for him to catch his breath, I got the ball awaytwice without mishap. But even this failed to cheer him.

Both ballshaving dropped into the furrow before reaching the targets might havebeen a factor. “You should have an opening, or at least a hump, about halfwaydown to give the ball a second chance,’ I said to the manager. Hisreply was something about the hand at release being between three andfive o’clock and my hand having been at a quarter past six. Anyway, that’s as far as I had progressed up to the night ofthe local tournament that closed the season. It was John’s idea,certainly not mine, that I go and “see how it’s done.’He couldn’t know, of course, that the fifth member of his teamwould be going home with stomach cramps in the ninth inning and thealternate would be on vacation and guess who would be filling in.Otherwise, he wouldn’t have showed up himself.

Considering the tension, along with my having to keep pulling up mysleeve to uncover my hand, it’s no wonder my first ball got awayfrom me on step two and hopped into the furrow before reaching theplaying surface. Inspired by my teammates’ cries of “It onlytakes one!’ “Get ’em next time, baby!’ and stufflike that, however, my next roll didn’t hit the furrow for, oh,I’d say a good 20 feet. Still, I thought I detected a slightcooling of enthusiasm. By the time the contest wound down to my final two rolls, thesituation, I was told, was this: My opponent, one aisle over, had comeup with what they described as “an impossible split.’ I couldwin all the marbles by knocking down just one of those dumbbell-shapedtargets. Now, when it comes to pressure, there’s nothing quitelike having four fellows bombarding you with advice at the same time,your brother-in-law running around looking for the ball with the biggestthumb hole and then standing well back while cautioning you to move asfar right as possible and to keep your left hand under the ball untilyou let ‘er fly.

All of which I did–only to watch the ball flyinto the hole where balls are supposed to return. I should have gone home while they were getting it out. But youcan’t believe how fast word gets around when someone throws a balldown the exit hole. So I had a pretty good audience waiting to witnessmy second delivery. And I am not one to disappoint a pretty goodaudience. This time I went by the book. Relaxed, squared my shoulders withthe foul line, got in all five steps, brought my pendulum through niceand straight and turned the ball loose at, I’d say about half-pastfour, give or take five minutes.

How in the world it ever jumped twofurrows into the other aisle and made my opponent’s impossiblesplit, I don’t know. But then, I’m not a bowler. Naturally, I braced myself for a backful of congratulatory slaps,only to have both teams gather into a big knot and begin waving theirarms and shouting until I could hear them clear out in the parking lot. I still don’t know how the thing was settled, except that Johnno longer wears his bowling shirt to church. Nor has he mentionedbowling to me since.

Which is just as well. I’ve been wearing mybowling shoes to keep from slipping off the shed roof and they’re amess. I keep the bowling-ball bag, fitted with pajama bottoms for whichthere is no top and with half my inventory of after-shave and cologne,in the trunk of the car in case of an emergency. As for mycustom-drilled ball, Lois has it resting on the ledge of our enclosedfront porch with vines now creeping out of the holes. I just hope it doesn’t roll off and land on her foot. I guessthat really smarts.


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