Showing posts with label Riley Fox. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Riley Fox. Show all posts

24 January 2020

Ten Pin Alley


Riley Fox
Riley Fox
Riley Fox is my oldest grandchild. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee.  He's been writing or telling little fiction stories ever since he was five years old. For past ten years he has done stand-up comedy writing his own jokes. This is his first fiction story to be published.     — Jan Grape


TEN PIN ALLEY
by Riley Fox

There’s something about the smell of a bowling alley that is hard to define. From the coat of mineral oil on the wooden lanes, to the inescapable presence of cigarette smoke that clings to the brick walls like a memory that refuses to leave you alone in the dead of night, to whatever it is they spray into the insides of those cheap rental shoes that always seem to be too big and too small at the exact same time, it’s a smell that you can only identify in fragments. But that’s exactly what Earl loves about it. Sometimes you can only appreciate a full image by its parts.

Earl has owned this bowling alley for so long that many frequent visitors greet him by name. Even the ones who don’t know his name recognize his ever-present smile peeking from beneath his thick white mustache and his piercing blue eyes that seem to see into your heart without seeing through it. He asks them about their days, their families, their lives, and he remembers the details. He delights in their successes and commiserates in their failures, and usually throws in a free game or, depending on the circumstances, a free alcoholic beverage to long-time regulars. He never sees them beyond the bowling alley, so they are the closest thing to friends he has, but he doesn’t mind. He’s happy to have the repeat business.

Each night, when the hour strikes eleven, Earl switches off the neon sign outside, and after escorting the night’s final patrons to the exit, he locks the doors, goes behind the bar to pour himself a glass of Coors Light, plays the Hotel California album by The Eagles on the jukebox, and opens a lane to roll a single solitary game. Some nights go better than others, but he doesn’t think nor care about the score. Instead, Earl uses the nightly ritual to meditate and reflect, to wander and get lost within the vastness of a mind that has vicariously lived hundreds of lives in a single day. The bright crackle of pins being knocked around by a speeding ball is an intoxicating sound, itself a repetitive rhythm that soothes the soul and ignites the synapses to look into the past, present, and future. Some nights he imagines the ball rolling on forever until it becomes the size of a speck of dust and then disappears into nothingness. Infinity is only bound by the limits of how far one chooses to see.

After the last roll of his game, Earl waits for the ball-return machine to spit his bowling ball out to him so he can return it to the nearby shelf of in-house balls. Bowling balls are identical in size, but vary in weight. For casual players, this simply means finding the weight you are most comfortable rolling. However, for more experienced players, this can create strategic opportunities: a lighter ball can be spun faster and create a wider-angle trajectory for picking up tricky spares, while a heavier ball creates a more powerful impact to increase the likelihood of a strike. As Earl has gotten older, his preferred weight has dwindled slightly– he currently uses an eleven-pound ball as opposed to the fourteen-pounder he rolled in his younger years– but he still likes a simplistic approach: feet lined up along the center boards (the thin lined rows along the lane), throw it down the middle, between the center head pin and the pin to its right, which seasoned bowlers refer to as “the pocket,” and try to strike. Then, if any pins remain standing, adjust to the left or right along the boards, and angle the throw however necessary in order to attempt the spare. Earl never bowled at a competitive level himself, but after spending so many years watching others, he learned a few things along the way. If he saw someone successfully pick up one of the more difficult spare arrangements, such as a 6-7-10 split, he might pick their brain for a tip.

After placing his ball back on the shelf, Earl sat at a laneside chair and finished drinking his beer as the warm sound of The Eagles continued to fill the room. When the final song concluded, he unplugged the jukebox, performed one final sweep around the alley to turn off all the mechanical machinery that makes a bowling alley operate, turned out the lights, and headed for the exit. Looking out into the parking lot, he saw a handful of vehicles scattered across the moonlit pavement. The air was thick and still. Even though he was the last one to leave, oftentimes visitors left their cars overnight, particularly if they had had too many alcoholic beverages and called a cab home, and later returned to retrieve them the following day. Earl never minded this; he was certainly much happier to allow these vehicles to remain parked in order to prevent someone from driving when they shouldn’t.

Because he remembered what happened that night.

He remembered the glint of shattered glass on the highway beneath the stars. He remembered the grim taste of blood in his mouth. He remembered the overbearing stench of burnt rubber. He remembered the way time itself seemed to slow to a harrowing crawl; every second seemed like a minute, and every hour seemed infinite. He remembered the cacophonous anti-symphony of wailing sirens and shrieks. He remembered not remembering what happened next. He remembered waking up in a bed that wasn’t his own, surrounded by people he didn’t recognize. He remembered a man in a suit standing at the foot of the bed, speaking words that blurred together, a violent collection of syllables twisting into each other until three slashed their way to the forefront.

Manslaughter.

The word sliced through every cell in his body. The man in the suit dryly and methodically recounted the sequence of events, as though he were giving a presentation. Earl did the best he could to keep up despite his disoriented state: torrential rain, low visibility, hydroplaned, lost control, careened into oncoming traffic, female high school student, graduation party, flipped into a roadside ditch, died instantaneously upon impact. Infinity is only bound by the limits of how far one chooses to see, and he had robbed someone of making that choice for themselves. The man in the suit said something about justice for the family. Earl looked at the couple holding each other next to him. They were sobbing. Earl cried with them.

The trial was mercifully swift. Earl pleaded guilty. The girl’s parents asked the judge for moderate leniency on Earl’s sentence, citing the fact that Earl had no prior criminal record, and that living with the guilt of his actions--which he had already begun to experience when he grieved with them in the hospital--would be punishment enough. Earl testified that, while he was grateful for the parents’ kindness and compassion, he felt he did not deserve it due to the nature of the crime he had committed, and asked the judge not to grant any measure of leniency, for he believed that the only thing the family truly deserved was something that was impossible, and therefore anything less than the maximum sentence would still come up short of what he considered to be justice for the family. The judge handed down his sentence: four years in prison, half of the maximum federal sentence for involuntary manslaughter.

Earl’s incarceration was a lonely time. When he slept, he dreamed haunting tales of isolation. When he was conscious, he would read books from the prison library, or he would simply lie on his bed and stare at the ceiling. He thought about the girl. He thought about her parents. He thought about that night. He replayed the details over and over until he made himself sick and vomited into his toilet. He wanted to rewrite her history. Scratch that, he wanted her to live out the rest of her story. His was over anyway.

On the one-year anniversary of the day he entered prison, Earl received a letter in the mail. His first piece of mail since being incarcerated. He looked at the envelope. The return address was from his town, but he didn’t recognize it. Maybe it was from an attorney about his case, or a relative who had heard about what happened. Earl carefully opened the envelope, treating it like some kind of rare gemstone. Inside was a letter addressed to him. Before finishing the opening line, he began to cry. It was from the girl’s parents. His heart flayed open and his soul crawled through the incision, not like someone trying to escape but like an infant emerging triumphantly from a pile of rubble, fully aware of its surroundings and yet without the communicative tools to express itself effectively. He pored over each word, each line, with the studious eye of an academic, while letting every emotion underneath fight its way to the surface.

He learned about the girl, at least as much as the parents were willing to share to the man who stole her from their lives. He learned about her sociopolitical interests (criminal justice reform, the environment, gun safety), her hobbies (binging Netflix shows with her friends, fashion blogging), her favorite authors (Haruki Murakami, Toni Morrison, Ursula Le Guin), her dreams (she had planned on attending the University of Oregon that fall with the intent to major in journalism, but wanted to wait a year or two before committing). Each new detail was another stroke of paint on a blank canvas, and after finishing the letter, Earl wanted to expand the palette of colors. He wrote back to the parents. He thanked them for being kind enough to write to him, explaining that their letter was the first communication he’d had with the outside world in a year. He asked them to write back, to share more about their wonderful daughter, because he wanted to use the remainder of his life to honor her in whatever way he could. He wanted to lift her into Infinity’s grace, so she could see the precious gifts that lie beyond the limits of space.

For months, Earl heard nothing. Each day the prison guard tasked with handing out mail would pass by his cell without acknowledgement, and Earl would spend each night silently begging the girl for forgiveness, for just a modicum of compassion. He looked out the window of his cell at the sparkling dots of the distant city, each one twinkling at its own tempo. He often wondered if one of them belonged to the home of the girl’s parents. He imagined them attempting to have a meal together, only for it to be derailed when one of them broke down in tears. He often wished he could be there for those moments, in order to comfort them, to hold them tight and tell them he was sorry, that sorry would never fill the permanent void in their hearts, that he shared their feelings of loss, that he hated himself as much as they did, even if they never dared to admit it, because they didn’t want to desecrate her memory with vengeful rage, even if it was a natural part of the grieving process, to feel the impulse to wrap their hands around his throat, to become a self-appointed god of revenge, to hear the croaking struggles of his desperate final breath, to see his eyes become vacant and lifeless, in acceptance of a fate so violent, so primal, knowing he deserved to choke on his own benevolence, such that were he to ask for mercy, he would know the true answer. Every night, he wished for this. And every night, his yearning desires went unanswered, and he would cry himself to sleep. So often the pain of not knowing hurts worse, because there’s no bone to stop the questioning blade from slicing deeper, until your body has become a pile of shredded ribbons where you once stood.

A few weeks before Earl was scheduled to be released from prison, the answer he begged the endless sky for arrived. Another letter had come for him, this time with no return address. The envelope was much thinner than the one he had received previously, but he didn’t care. He ripped it open with the same ferocity of a child on their birthday, eager to caress the contents between his fingers but careful not to damage them in the process. Inside was a single piece of paper. It was another note from the parents. They wished him luck with the rest of his life, and asked that he refrain from ever contacting them upon being granted his freedom out of respect for their privacy. Then they reiterated their hope that he would use his remaining days to honor their daughter, like Earl himself had pledged. Unlike the first letter, however, this one ended differently. The first letter had been signed with two names: those of the two parents. This one had a third name added to the signature line.

Sadie.

He read the name over and over. Sadie. Sadie. Sadie. Sadie. Sadie. It rattled around his brain until it hurt. He certainly thought it was a prettier name than his own. For a name without any hard consonants, Earl had a guttural inflection to it that he often likened to human vomit (it didn’t help that his name rhymes with hurl). The name Sadie was soft and delicate, like a rose petal floating gently towards the ground long after the flower itself crashed with a bursting thud. He wanted to keep her name suspended in midair, between the chasm of life and death, where all things can exist forever in Infinity, from the blackest days to the brightest nights, with the dazzling vibrancy of colors, the sonic clarity of sounds, and the neverending collage of the grand tapestry of the universe.

Back in the present, as Earl approached his vehicle in the bowling alley parking lot, he gazed up at the stars as they danced in the moonlight. He turned to take one final look at the pink-and-yellow neon sign in front of the building– which read: Sadie’s Ten Pin Alley--muttered a prayer to himself, and drove into the night as the sign illuminated her spirit into the sky.