A journal of narrative writing.
Bowling Shoe Diaries

We bump together at the base of the stairs to the bowling alley, and spin away from each other slowly.

“Come on,” I say, trailing a hand behind me as I climb around you and up the stairs. “Let’s get some shoes. My friends are already here.”

Your eyebrow arches at my back, but I don't see it. You’re wondering which of the school kids, grade schoolers here on a field trip, I’m counting as friends. Then you stop yourself: that’s just being bitchy. In line before the counter, recessed cubby holes hold more shoes than the back room at the first shoe store you ever saw and we take ours without a second thought. With my hand cupping your elbow, we walk the lanes to where my friends are gathered. Dana holds her cigarette over an ashtray, Michelle sits in front of her, filthy Ally in pigtails demurely sips beer from a plastic cup. And fine, friendly Phil sits in the molded plastic chair beside the scoring computer, keying in names.

“Hey,” he says, turning when we approach. “I was keying information into the scoring machine, and I couldn’t remember your name,” he grimaces as he admits this to you. “So I made one up. You’re Nico.”

“Nico?” you ask, falling into a chair to put on your shoes and I drop down next to you.

“Like Neko Case,” I say.

* * *

“Nico, you’re up,” Phil hollers from his chair, but it’s loud enough to make like you don’t hear, at least this first time you’re summoned. It’s less important than what you’re talking to Dana and Michelle about, Michelle’s volcano party, or work, or something else. Bowling is bowling, but this talking is everything for now. The music from the ceiling mounted speakers booms loud enough to make the head on your beer erupt with every snare ride. Everything smells like beer and it swaddles you, a liquid barley haze that hangs and when you're not looking drops over you a foggy avalanche.

I love to watch you bowl, your sexy ass the shape of a cling peach, all curve and thready seam. I recall every time I’ve seen you walk from bed to bathroom, naked or in panties, and wonder if remembering lets me double the number. Being a little drunk makes you unself-conscious about how short you are in bowling shoes. When you run at the line and curl your bowling ball quickly down the lane, you lean forward with your hands in your lap till the ball hits the pins. A strike! You spin and throw your hands together above your head, jumping to feel the spring of the wood under your weight, and look right over my head at Dana and Michelle where they whoop and holler. You slap the hand I hold out as you walk past, panting, to recover your first cigarette today and you feel all right.

The jukebox plays "You're the One that I Love," and you’re still breathing heavy as you pick up your cigarette. “Great shot,” Dana says, smiling crookedly and showing too many teeth.

“Thanks. I think, I think I need some fresh air. I’m feeling flushed.” You giggle and touch the back of one hand to your cheek, all of this happening where I can’t see or hear. You exhale deeply again, but still can’t quite catch your breath.

“I’ll be back in a minute,” you gasp to the boy behind the counter and point to your shoes. He’s so busy with a crowd of elementary school kids returning shoes that you’ll never know whether or not he heard you. You push the swinging door open and step into the hot sticky parking lot air.

Your eyes spark and sting in the five o’clock sun after the neon dark of the bowling alley. On a concrete pylon, with your back to the parking lot, you can wriggle your toes in your shoes and imagine you’re on a beach somewhere, that the pulse and rumble of car engines passing by is the tide at your back. These people coming and going from places that are hard to imagine: homes and dinner, a movie, maybe something stranger than that, are not your problem. It’s that there is so much of it that makes it hard to breathe: you remember a time when you came home from school and your mother was gone someplace. A pie set out to cool and you ate every piece, then filled the pan again with vomit, stuffed and regurgitate. It’s like that now, and you know you need to pace yourself. You’re sweating with the effort, and push back a mess of hair from your forehead. It’s all beautiful, this many-splendored creation, even the worm in the apple is beautiful.

A car pulls up behind you and stops. A window rolls down, and a woman’s voice says, “Nico?” and of course you turn around, even though that’s not your real name.

You recognize Rachel from the one time you met her, in the supermarket. Your nose crinkles a little and you dip your head, to see if she’s got her little boy with her. You don’t like her, the way she saws her syllables with her nose, the way she enunciates every word likes she’s modeling dialogue for a foreign language tutorial. So when she reaches over to unlock the passenger side door and says, “Get in,” why do you get in? Why not?

“So, where are you taking me?” you ask and pull your seat belt tight as Rachel waits for traffic to clear on Johnston. You don’t ask why she knows to call you Nico, or who she thinks you are, if not you. The ride feels good enough to play along.

“Oh, I’ve got some things to do for the crawfish boil tomorrow and I thought you could help.” Where you grew up, people did things together, to help one another. Rachel is the only person you’ve met since who expects the same kind of obligation from total strangers. She pulls out into traffic, and raises her arm to wave at a Jeep that slowed to let her cross the line of oncoming cars. When she raises her arm like that, it tugs a little on the old shoelace tied around her neck, the knot down so that it rests against her collarbone. At the end of the string, a skate key pokes out from the ragged old v-neck she’s wearing.

“Sure. I heard something about that,” you say, and roll your window down to rest an arm on the sill. The thing you miss most by riding the bus instead of renting a car and driving out here: the rush of wind over the little hairs on your arm, the flutter of the hair, the million little touches.

“It’s Kelsey’s birthday,” Rachel turns and says. “Tomorrow.” She turns to face you now that you’re steady in the flow of traffic up Johnson. Her lips stretch when she looks at you, the four teeth in front very white and straight like a picket fence, but then they take a ragged turn inward that makes her lip pucker at the edges. All these people, the details of their lives: who can possibly keep it all straight. “Have you got a cigarette?”

“No. They’re back at the bowling alley.”

“Well. I’m quitting anyway.” Rachel fiddles with the knobs on her radio for a minute, then rests her hand on the seat, tapping it to the music. “David will have some.”

You are trying to remember what you heard about a birthday party, or what I might have told you about Kelsey as the bakery rushes past, then the cinderblock hamburger stand and the place where you can rent an inflatable moonwalk set-up. Rachel eases into the turning lane and crosses the traffic again, down East Bayou Parkway. Her arm goes up again at the cars in the other lane, another wave, and the skate key jumps beneath her t-shirt.

It’s the fourth frame and I’ve just bowled my second spare; I need to bowl like this if I’m ever going to break one hundred, and a girl like you, and a crowd around me. I’m hopeful I might finally get it as I sit down next to Phil.