My life in the gutter Essay


Just why my brother-in-law John wanted to lure me into the bowling
game is not clear. Perhaps he felt conspicuous being the only one in
the family with one arm two inches longer than the other.

Why his arms are of different lengths is quite clear. John has
been bowing for 20 years. His bowling ball weighs 15 pounds. He rolls
that sucker once–or more often twice–in each stanza, ten stanzas per
game, three games per night, four nights per week. That comes out to a
weekly total of a ton and a half. Multiply that by 20 years and the
miracle is that his right hand by this time isn’t dragging on the

Something else. When his team is doing well, John wears his
bowling shirt to church. (If his team is in the basement, he carries
his shirt to the bowling alley in a paper bag and slips it on at the
last minute.) Maybe he wanted to make a bowler out of me so he
wouldn’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 her
husband had been killed in a mining accident? When she answered his
knock at the door, he said, “How do you do, are you the widow
Brown?’ In my case, John talked Lois out of the golf cart I was
expecting for Christmas and into a bowling ball. My son gave me bowling
shoes, one daughter donated a bag in which to carry the ball and my
practical daughter risked bankruptcy by adding a can of talcum powder to
the bonanza. The best I could say for the stuff–at least it
didn’t increase my cologne and after-shave inventory, numbering 28
bottles at last count.

“I’m going to make a bowler out of you if it kills
me,’ said John, giving me a hearty Christmas Day slap on the back
that sent me to my knees. “You can’t beat it for

Well, I’ve never tried coming down the Matterhorn on one ski
and carrying an armload of dynamite, but surely it would give the sport
of bowling–if sport it is–a run for its money. And I would send John
to his knees telling him so, but unfortunately we are no longer
backslapping brothers-in-law.

This is how it happened:

“You’ll have to try the ball a few times to see if it
fits,’ said John on our way to the bowling alley. “All we had
to go by was the impression your fingers made in the shingles that day
you slid off the shed roof.’

The ball didn’t fit. In fact, John had no more than said that
the first thing I should do was to relax–and I had no more than
relaxed–than the dumb ball slipped off my hand and came down precisely
on the big toe of his right foot. Thus ended the first lesson.

“The span isn’t right,’ he moaned as I helped him
hobble to the car. “We’ve got to exchange it.’

So I drove to the bowling-ball store. While John nursed his
wounded toe, I went around sticking my thumb and two fingers into
various balls and bringing them to him for inspection. He finally
decided that a multicolored 15-pounder was “me.’ And it was
back 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 of
balls had caused my thumb to swell. But he said this time we’d be
concentrating on the trial swing. That’s where I would go through
the motion without delivering the ball. “To see if the pendulum of
your arm is straight and smooth,’ John explained.

As soon as I had my pendulum straight and smooth, however, he began
marking off five paces back from the foul line, from which point I was
to begin my running start for launching the ball toward the four
staggered rows of dumbbell-shaped targets waiting at the end of the
slick surface between these two furrows. Walking back to where John was
pointing, I took a deep breath–which was lucky, because I wouldn’t
be 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 those
shiny boards with his thumb stuck in the hole of a 15-pound ball. Or
who 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 my
brow, someone asking if I knew what day it was and John dribbling 10W-30
motor oil around the rim of the hole, still occupied by my thumb. When
they finally got me up–well, John should have known enough to keep his
feet out of the way. The ball landed this time on his left foot, and he
was still limping on his right foot. I couldn’t help noticing, on
our way out to the car, how much his gait now resembled that of Groucho

But give John credit. When he says “if it kills him,’ he
means if it kills him. So back to the bowling-ball store, this time to
have my span measured for a custom-drilled job. I tried to tell him
that it would be a waste of anthracite, or whatever those things are
made 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 thumb
and two fingers, the swelling had gone down, John was walking pretty
good and Lois had made me a bowling shirt. Because I hadn’t yet
been invited to join a team, she had simply stitched the letters
“STODDARD,’ cut from my pajama top, across the back. I would
have preferred that the back be left blank. Not that I minded so much
the sacrifice of my pajama top (I never dress formal for bed), but she
used one of John’s shirts for a pattern, and the right sleeve was
two inches longer than the left. And in light of what happened, I would
have 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 are
square with the foul line.’ This is also where the ball gets away
from the bowler on the backswing and catches the bowlee, according to one witness, “right in the breadbasket.’ All I know is, I
heard John suddenly coin a word, something like “yeessch!’ and
I looked around to find him on his hands and knees, from which position
he slowly rolled over on his back and stared up at me.

While waiting for him to catch his breath, I got the ball away
twice without mishap. But even this failed to cheer him. Both balls
having dropped into the furrow before reaching the targets might have
been a factor.

“You should have an opening, or at least a hump, about halfway
down to give the ball a second chance,’ I said to the manager. His
reply was something about the hand at release being between three and
five 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 of
the 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 team
would be going home with stomach cramps in the ninth inning and the
alternate 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 my
sleeve to uncover my hand, it’s no wonder my first ball got away
from me on step two and hopped into the furrow before reaching the
playing surface. Inspired by my teammates’ cries of “It only
takes one!’ “Get ’em next time, baby!’ and stuff
like 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 slight
cooling of enthusiasm.

By the time the contest wound down to my final two rolls, the
situation, I was told, was this: My opponent, one aisle over, had come
up with what they described as “an impossible split.’ I could
win all the marbles by knocking down just one of those dumbbell-shaped
targets. Now, when it comes to pressure, there’s nothing quite
like having four fellows bombarding you with advice at the same time,
your brother-in-law running around looking for the ball with the biggest
thumb hole and then standing well back while cautioning you to move as
far right as possible and to keep your left hand under the ball until
you let ‘er fly. All of which I did–only to watch the ball fly
into the hole where balls are supposed to return.

I should have gone home while they were getting it out. But you
can’t believe how fast word gets around when someone throws a ball
down the exit hole. So I had a pretty good audience waiting to witness
my second delivery. And I am not one to disappoint a pretty good

This time I went by the book. Relaxed, squared my shoulders with
the foul line, got in all five steps, brought my pendulum through nice
and straight and turned the ball loose at, I’d say about half-past
four, give or take five minutes. How in the world it ever jumped two
furrows into the other aisle and made my opponent’s impossible
split, 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 their
arms 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 John
no longer wears his bowling shirt to church. Nor has he mentioned
bowling to me since. Which is just as well. I’ve been wearing my
bowling shoes to keep from slipping off the shed roof and they’re a
mess. I keep the bowling-ball bag, fitted with pajama bottoms for which
there 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 my
custom-drilled ball, Lois has it resting on the ledge of our enclosed
front porch with vines now creeping out of the holes.

I just hope it doesn’t roll off and land on her foot. I guess
that really smarts.


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