Last Thursday I motored my mothers car onto Texas State Highway 97 and headed toward Pleasanton, Texas. It’s only a five mile stretch, but every inch requires supreme focus, due the many 18-wheelers that run up and down the road, 24/7. I am in Oil! Country, ladies and gentleman. The rigs are either carrying Oil! or fracking water or fracking chemicals or the coil tubing to run both the fracking water and chemicals into Mother Earth to crack her up and free her of her marrow. As fast and often as these rigs run, they still can’t keep up with all the drilling, in these boom times. So the giant steel mammoths race on. To them, the speed limits are funny jokes along the way, and stop lights are outright un-American – or at least anti-Texan, which is more offensive down here in Oil! Country.
Weaving in and out of the line of 18 wheelers are normal size pick-up trucks – Fords, Chevys, Dodges – that seem to have evolved into some kind of jacked-up monster. Hunchbacked, metal and chrome creatures growling as they weave around under the herd of 18-wheelers, as if they are offspring to the Mamma Semi-Trucks, hoping to find a free teat on which to suck.
I successfully navigated my way through the giant herd to Pleasanton and into the parking lot of Eagle Lanes. Yes, folks, I was going bowling. I love bowling, and, even more, I love bowling alleys. Eagle Lanes did not disappoint, either. It looked like every other small town bowling alley I’d ever been to – like it was built sometime in the olive drab 1970’s and remodeled in neon pink 1992. A faded old American flag hung over the lanes, and beside it, a broken Budweiser Clock. The lanes were worn and scarred, the seats had ass-grooves. The house balls were dull and chipped and had been fingered a million times each, I’m sure, and the shoes were shaped to the feet of people who are probably dead by now or awaiting their 5th parole hearing. The computer-scoring monitors looked like cousins to the Direct TV satellites that perch on rusty trailer-houses. And don’t forget the smell of decades of cigarette smoke and fried food. I drank it all in and felt liked I’d found home after losing it for a very long time. Wouldn’t you?
Only one fellow was bowling, and he stopped when he saw me and came over to the counter to wait on me – he was the employee. He handed me my shoes and gave me a lane right in the center. I walked to it like a movie star on the red carpet. Three men sat at the bar watching ESPN. They all smoked, they all had gray mustaches whether they had gray hair or not, and – though I know it’s an exaggeration – I want to tell you they were all wearing khaki Members Only jackets. There was a man and a woman behind the bar. The man was cooking fried food while the woman stood by him and existed. The employee who waited on me popped the top of a Bud Light, went to the pool table, racked ‘em and broke ‘em – the collision of the balls rattled throughout the establishment. Just before I rolled my first ball, the lady behind the bar stared talking, and though I couldn’t understand what she was saying, I knew enough about the frequency to know she wasn’t being mean, or angry, or nice, or anything, really. She didn’t sound surprised, either, and I gathered – from her inflection – that she’d not been surprised since she won homecoming queen in 1986.
It’d been 10 years since I last bowled. Most of the first game was about me coming to terms with that. I only bowled a 113. However, in the 7th frame, I bowled a strike but the computer only gave me a 9, and the score was off from that point on, so I was probably real close to 300.
“Yeah, it does that,” said the employee. “Just go to the next lane.”
I did so, and I bowled three more games to slightly better or worse scores than 113. I didn’t care, I was having a good time. I was also flooded with memories from childhood and high school when I bowled all the time – with old friends that I hadn’t thought of in years, most of whom I had no clue where they were or what they were doing. Then there was the memory of the last time I bowled. New York. Ten years ago. I was on a date with a girl named Kate, she was 22 and I was 28 – it’s easier to remember rhymes. We both tried to bowl our best, but bowling wasn’t why we were there, or at least I wasn’t. Kate was pretty and funny, so I spent all my money. I don’t remember our scores but I remember having fun. We were both left handed, I thought that was so cool. Our balls strayed to the left in the later games, due to fatigue, but we kept bowling anyway. We were both new to the city. New York was like a giant amusement park and the future was…
…guttter ball. It wasn’t even close. I realized I’d played almost two games while lost down memory lane. The computer grinned at me with teeth made of missed spares, and I hadn’t bowled a strike since the first game. At that point I decided to bowl seriously. I didn’t wait for the memory of Kate to abait – boom. I willingly let her go and I focused, dammit. I stared at my mark, breathed deep, balanced my wait, minded my steps, kept my arm straight as I pulled back and…
Ahh…improvement. I’d realized I’d been muscling the ball all afternoon, causing me to veer left. By the fourth game, my arm was tired, but I actually increased my speed by using less muscle and more speed upon approach. Hmm…more pins were knocked down on the first roll, making for easier spares to pick up on the second roll. I didn’t really go for strikes, but got a few anyway, just by tweaking the muscle and speed. Mid-game, I started rushing my approach, which caused me to veer right. I slowed down, which helped, though I naturally wanted to muscled the ball again. But I didn’t. I just paid attention to what was happening after each roll, and adjusted accordingly. By the time I’d had the perfect balance of both speed and power, I was in the tenth frame of my last game. Much like life I, assume.
I put my ball back on the rack and took my shoes to the counter. As I waited for the employee to finish his pool game or beer or both, I’d noticed the bowling alley was sprinkled here and there with teenagers. School was out by then and it looked like the teens came to Eagle Lanes to either make out with each other or stare into space. The same men were at the bar, forever in Members Only jackets with eternal gray mustaches and never ending cigarettes. A vending machine ate one of the teenager’s money, and his kicking of the machine attracted the employee’s attention.
“Yeah, it does that,” said the employee, handing the kid a dollar.
The kids looked at me like I was wearing a space-suit. They weren’t unfriendly by any means. They just weren’t anything at all. Same for the employees and the Members Only at the bar. It was quite a beautiful little world. In the small town bowling alleys of America you don’t have to be anything at all. I took a long look around Eagle Lanes before I left. I felt something. I searched for a name to this feeling as I walked out. By the time I’d made it to the door, I’d found it. I felt…alright.
But back on the road, I found myself amidst the speeding herd of mamma and baby monsters. My shoulders tensed as I gazed for a safe path with beady eyes under a furrowed brow. It was quitting time in Oil! Country, and the monster family was headed to a happy hour somewhere or to Castle du Mortgage. They sped on, farting their poison that kills all the lower carbon-based life-forms, brutishly weaving in and out of the lanes. There’s never enough speed and never enough power and never enough of anything in this metal animal kingdom. I glanced up at one of the jacked-up trucks as it swerved by. Perched inside it was something like a pigmy, its head just above the steering wheel, its eyes straight ahead,trained on some point in the future. The little pigmy didn’t want to be where it was. It already wanted to be where it was going, and cursed the beast on which it was mounted, whipped it, cursing louder and louder to get to the future faster, to use its strength to crush anything in its path. But no matter how fast or strong the monsters grow to be, they would never get there in time to satisfy the little pigmy. Even too much speed and too much power would never be enough.
Saturday morning, I braved trip to Pleasanton again to get a cup of coffee. While sipping it down, I struck up a conversation with Ron, a grizzled, wrinkled, retired military man and Viet Nam veteran. It was an easy sunny morning, and it was easy to hear Ron tell me of all the traveling he’d done in retirement. He had grandkids all over the country and drives all over to visit them. He loved boxing, too, which was not a surprise to me – Ron looked like he could still put up a good fight. But he was also old and tired.
“Two ex-wives are still around but I lost my last one a while back,” said Ron. “The grandkids are great, and my kids have great wives and husbands, but you just don’t get over losing…her.” He looked outside and took a deep breath. “I don’t know why I’m a bit off today, and thinkin’ about that kinda stuff. Guess I need to just go off somewhere and break down and cry. It’s ok to do that, too. D’you know that?”
He asked me where I was off to as we walked out to the parking lot. I told him I was going with my family out to Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio, to visit my father’s grave.
“Hey, there buryin’ me there when I go. Make sure you say hello to me there, after I do.”
“I’ll do that.”
“Well then, I guess I’ll see you again soon.”
“I guess you will.”
Ron walked to his little PT Cruiser. It had a Viet Nam veteran bumper sticker and a sticker from the Boxing Hall of Fame, in Canastota, New York. He glided easily to the little vehicle – somewhere in the 8th or 9th frame of his life – not muscling his way or rushing to the future, but with a pace that suggested the future could come to him when it damn well pleases.