It had absolutely nothing to do with doing something obligatory with my son. It was my weekend for custody, and I truly loved hanging out with him. I missed him every moment of the day he wasn’t around. I recognized I wasn’t going to win any father of the year awards; although in fairness I had managed to come up with enough creative ideas for our weekend get-togethers to get me firmly anointed as “Fun Guy” very much to my ex-wife’s chagrin.
I hated it. Absolutely nothing about bowling appealed to me in any sense of the matter. Trying on countless pairs of shoes often worn by society’s lowest common denominators for whom socks were an unnecessary luxury made me cringe. In an environment so hyper focused on avoiding germs and contact, I would have to lovingly finger several balls, none of which would ever remotely fit, resulting in a ridiculous blister, or popped and dislocated joints.
Invariably, my son would want to eat something in the perennially “B” rated cafe in the alley. Where microwaving was considered a high form of culinary achievement. At best, it would be stale, flavorless pizza that would be considered a masterpiece if you made it at home with a jar of ragu in your toaster oven. At worst, we would experience a slight touch of food poisoning from severely undercooked wings.
As much as I pleaded for alternatives, his heart was set. We were going bowling. The great equalizer. The United Nations of Sports, where all were created equal, and as a bonus, you were encouraged to enjoy an alcoholic beverage as a participation trophy.
The alley was a beehive of activity with the droning faces of fathers in similar predicaments slogging about, casting the occasional furtive glance at the one bowling alley waitress slinging cocktails. Eager kids darted about between lanes and the ubiquitous video games and rigged claw machines that made more money than most hedge fund managers.
We were granted a stroke of luck to have an empty adjacent lane in our pod. No superfluous small talk with lane mates encouraging their picked up spares, or how fast the children grew.
For my son’s sake, I maintained an even demeanor even as my foot slid into the unnaturally moist shoe. Our selection of bowling balls took on a Westminister Kennel Club level of evaluation until selecting ones unlikely to dislocate shoulders and provide a modicum of blistering.
Before we could start, a disheveled homeless man took the adjacent lane. He wore flip-flops and slid his bare foot into a bowling shoe thankfully produced from a bag he carried. I stared too long because he caught my gaze as he flicked his sunglasses up and placed them in his rakishly unkempt hair. I couldn’t help but marvel how any adult actually owned their own bowling ball and shoes. Then again, I was an elitist asshole because I owned my own golf clubs and multiple pairs of shoes for different course conditions.
“Nice shoes,” I offered politely, hoping to put a period on all future interaction.
“They work,” he responded offhandedly.
A cocktail waitress severed our connection when she served him a cocktail glass of milk. I failed to contain my snicker, and he responded by raising his glass in a silent toast.
As my son prepared to bowl, I pressed the button that set the automatic bumpers to protect against throwing a gutter ball. This elicited an unexpected torrent of energy from my otherwise placid lane mate.
“Hey man, you can’t use those.”
“Listen, we’re just trying to have some fun here. Neither of us is very good, nor take it seriously. It’s kind of ridiculous, really.”
I made it a point of staring at his shoe and ball bag when I said this to emphasize my disdain for the sport.
My lane mate was unfazed.
“There are no bumpers in life, man. Sometimes we hit the gutter, sometimes it’s straight and narrow, but you have to learn somewhere. You can’t be there to put up bumpers for him all the time.”
I was furious.
He was right.
The homeless guy whose bowling gear cost more than the clothes he wore was giving me life lessons on how to raise my kid.
Twice I turned to tell him to mind his own fucking business, but he just stood there serenely, almost beatific. I was bowling next to Saint Brunswick of the Waxed Lanes who sipped milk and grinned like a Cheshire Cat.
He was right.
I took down the bumpers despite my son’s protestations. I explained that he never used training wheels to learn to ride a bike, and he wouldn’t need bumpers to learn to bowl. Whining morphed into exasperated acquiescence and he launched his first ball.
He clipped two pins and was ecstatic.
“Far out man,” my neighbor waxed enthusiastically.
The waitress returned and asked if he wanted another White Russian. Before he could answer, I told her to bring two, on me.
He raised his glass and nodded towards me, “The Dude abides.”
With ball in hand, he danced a sleepy samba down the lane and launched a perfect ball for a strike.
Dutch Simmons established a creative writing program for his fellow inmates while incarcerated. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, won the Secret Attic Short Fiction Contest, and was a finalist for the Texas Observer’s Short Fiction Award and the Julia Peterkin Flash Fiction Prize. He is a fantastic father, a former felon, and a Phoenix rising.