He joked to Janice that maybe his next job could be writing reviews for the local newspaper, except that he would write interesting ones, since every article in the paper was about some town meeting or how the garbage dump smelled.
She smirked. “Start with the bowling alley in town then, and copy someone’s review from the 1950s. Make it easy for yourself.”
He wondered about that, because every morning when he passed the bowling alley on his way through town, it did look the same as it always had from the outside. She folded her arms, slumped there next to him on her living room couch. The clock ticked in the kitchen, and her father snored from the bedroom down the hall.
“How many jobs have you had since I’ve known you?” she asked.
“A few. What’s that got to do with anything?” He folded his arms too, except tighter against himself.
She didn’t answer, and he looked down at the coffee table, at the huge open baseball book that her brother had shown him. Two baseball players from the early 1900s stared at the camera. “It’s old because the camera is old, but it was new to them,” her brother had said. He’d half-listened, wondering if the kid would really become his brother-in-law someday.
“If we lived back then, it would be new,” her brother insisted, “but the camera’s old, so it’s old to us.” Janice shooed her brother away.
Outside the Christmas lights blinked at separate intervals.
“I have to go,” he said, standing up.
She followed him to the door and whispered from behind, “What do you mean? Go where?”
“Nowhere. Out. Home.”
She shushed him because her father had snorted out of sleep from the other room. He sulked his way out the door, shrugging away from her light grip and heading out into the cold air.
At the bowling alley entrance, he passed long-haired slouching teens in their canvas sneakers and windbreaker hoods as they made their way outside. They could have been Ricky and Nick and Kevin from junior high twenty years before, slouching, and hanging out, smoking and not bowling. Inside, an older woman behind the desk gave out shoes to a couple. He watched them settle themselves, and the lights came on in their lane. There were no scoring tables or large scoring sheets with fat pencils, only digital scoring screens.
The woman set him up with shoes.
“That’s it?” he said.
“That’s it,” she said in a rasping voice. “What else?”
His lane was next to the couple, the only other bowlers. He took his time putting on the shoes and he watched them bowl. The man threw the ball hard and scattered nine pins, but he couldn’t get the spare and cursed himself. The girl, with her beautiful waist and throwing arm, blew away the left side pins, leaving the stubborn right side for her second shot. She spun to give her boyfriend an exasperated look.
The balls were the same, and the return racks, and the air hole that blew a steady stream. He stood next to it and held his fingers there.
Fifteen years before, Amy had been among his circle of friends. They went out every Thursday night. He bowled in the 130s or 150s, depending, and held his fingers to the air hole after every first throw, wondering if Amy’s eyes were on him. He was twenty, and Amy was out of reach somehow, Janice just some junior high kid he wouldn’t know for years.
He bowled three frames and scored only twenty points. His shoulder ached. In the fourth frame the girl next to him stopped herself and waited for him to take his turn. He knocked down three pins and held his fingers to the blowing air and waited for his ball to return while she eased up the lane for a throw.
His ball twisted out of the hole. He watched the spinning red return wheel.
He still felt the same inside himself, but the rest of them had been gone for fifteen years, and Janice crossed her arms and waited for him to land an important job, and her father snored, and the clock ticked on the kitchen wall.
His score stood at thirty-five after five frames. He sat and stared at the number—his age—on the screen. The couple next to him didn’t seem to notice that he’d stopped. Except for them and the voices at the front desk, the alley was quiet. He watched the girl, her turn again.
Amy had only bowled sometimes, but once when she did bowl, she got her face close to his after a turn and grit her teeth playfully. “Beat that,” she said, and he laughed and wanted to marry her. He’d watched her and kidded with her the rest of the night.
He got up to bowl the sixth frame, but the red return rack was poised over the white pins as though protecting them. After searching everywhere for the reset button, he drifted to the front desk and stood for a long time staring at a framed old photo of a happy winning bowling team while the woman with the rasping voice talked to a man in a lumberjack coat.
He was still the same inside himself, but they were all gone. It felt like fifteen years ago, except that there was no Amy or table or scoring sheet or fat pencil.
Later the woman led him to his lane and pressed a hidden button under the ball return wheel. The rack swept the pins away, and then he had to lean backwards when she moved her face too close to his face to scold him in her rasping voice about not knowing how to work a simple reset button.