by Andrew Farkas
What, bowling? Come on. Bowling? It ain’t a sport. That’s what you tell yourself. I mean, look around. You’ve got your concession stand with the wall menu still uses those plastic letters you’ve gotta stick in the slats, about a quarter of them missing. No matter. Place serves up combos of rapidly congealing grease, salt, and sugar. That sound like an athlete’s diet? There’s a bar. A bar! Fully stocked with beers your dad drinks. American Yellows. Can use those to chase the Old Grand Dad, Old Crow, Old Fitzgerald. Unlike in the wide world of sports, “old …” well, around here that’s a compliment. And it actually means “ancient.” Look at the, are we still going with athletes? Okay. For now. But look at ‘em. On their, sure, why not? field of play. Which is hideous casino carpet leading to scuffed to hell linoleum tile and then a bank of benches and chairs made of that ‘70s two-tone orange & lighter orange plastic (easier to hose off when you slop your coagulated, I guess, food on it, when you spill your whiskey and ginger ale on it), all pointed toward the TVs that automatically keep score for you (wouldn’t want you to strain yourself now), that show you little cartoons based on how the most recent competitor (seriously? wow, just wow) how the most recent competitor rolled, everything surrounded by the loudest, most headache-inducing Day-Glo decorations, usually balls and pins, sometimes swooshes and stars. And now see the contenders, the bowlers. I’m not saying everyone has to look the same. I’m just saying Olympians they ain’t, that is those folks out there on the lanes …
Because, as you always tell yourself, this ain’t a …
The lanes. Something about the lanes makes you wonder. Makes you wonder if maybe bowling is the only sport that discourages you from thinking it’s a sport. That’s part of the whole deal, see. The people gobbling nachos, chugging brews, swilling whiskey, the screeching little kids rolling balls down the backs of plastic dinosaurs, the bumper alleys, the laughably hideous environs, the odious smells of sweat and grease and stale beer (all strangely coated in talcum powder), the plinking and clanging from the arcade, the unathletic mob, the whole scene, when agglomerated, when Voltron-ed together, forms a kind of Kung Fu master telling you you’ve come to the wrong place, there’s nothing for you here, what were you thinking? might as well go on back where you came from. Go on, now. Git!
Most of us do. No shame in that. And back where we came from, yeah, we sink a meathook into a mound of chili cheese fries. Suck down a Genny Cream Ale or Busch. Maybe even a Blatz. Chuckle as we watch people scramble around. “Where’s Larry? How come every time Larry’s up no Larry?” Shrug as we see rollers lumber up to the line, whip the ball down the lane every which way. Marvel as we take in the bowling panorama, since out of the name Bowl-a-Rama, that’s the “rama” for us. Wondering where that suffix came from. Learning it got popular in the nineteenth century thanks to diorama. Stuck around just under the radar until Cinerama in the 1950s caused an explosion. After that –aramas or –oramas were slapped on any old thing. Including this here ten-pin entertainment. Later understanding we probably didn’t care where “rama” came from in the first place.
Bowl-a-Rama. That’s our hangout. Our stomping ground. Our home. No further knowledge is necessary …
Except, for those who aren’t fooled, who for reasons unknown (perhaps unknowable) decide to take the whole damned thing seriously, who stand firm before the ghostly and disdainful Kung Fu master made up of the laughable bowling ambience, I’m told for those chosen few (who the jokester is doing the choosing, search me) everything disappears except the lane, the ball, and themselves. From what I hear, as the lane goes, you’ve gotta figure out how the wood’s been oiled – is it a house pattern or sport pattern? The first one is more forgiving and creates a funnel effect toward the pocket, making it easier to roll strikes; the second one, though, is a real bastard, meaning if you miss your mark by just a little bit, the sensei will send you packing. Then, you have to gauge the length of the oil pattern (and here I thought that grease was from all those French fries), taking into account the fact that the longer the pattern, the less your ball will hook. Speaking of the ball, get this!, there are plastic, urethane, reactive resin, and particle bowling balls (this last one must be for USS Enterprise crewmembers only), all of which can be fitted with either high mass or low mass weight blocks, all of which can be used to combat different oil patterns or pin setups or both.
But come on! Chaz Dennis, a ten-year-old!, rolled a 300. The United States Bowling Congress even approved the score. How hard could it be?
Ever notice, though, that no one says, “Mozart wrote his first pieces when he was five! How tough could composing classical music be?”
Yeah … and anyway, bowling isn’t about what you can do once. So whereas a 300 is a perfect game, a 900 series, or thirty-six strikes in a row, is true perfection. But how you get there, well, that’s when the roller comes into play. First, you’ve got to find the best starting stance. Then, you’ve got to decide which works better for you, a four or five step approach. And let’s say you pick the four. All in one fluid motion, you have to use the initial step to push the ball forward, the second step to complete the down-swing while moving your off arm out for balance, the third step to finish the back-swing, and the fourth to bring the ball forward while also crossing your ball-side leg behind your off leg, releasing as you pass your ankle. And once you’ve determined the length of the oil on the lane, once you’ve chosen the ball you intend to use, once you’ve found your mark back at the beginning of league night (meaning, you’ll be working with the much tougher sport pattern), you have to go through this ritual exactly the same way thirty-six times in a row to achieve a 900 series. And you must remain focused (so no Pabst or Miller High Life for you). The “Rama” for true bowlers, then, is the avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu. Part human and part deity, Rama brings the passion of a human and the reason of the gods, the self-consciousness of one who has studied (practiced) and the decisive action of an epic hero, the ethics to allow other bowlers to complete their frames and the aesthetics to make it all look so easy (don’t worry, even a ten-year-old can do it). Yes, Rama is who true bowlers look to, but on the rare occasion when they get close to him (since there have only been thirty-four 900 series ever rolled), they have to come back next week and do it all again. And again. And again. The bodily mastery and intense concentration needed for twelve strikes, for twenty-four strikes, for thirty-six strikes then has to be repeated for an entire season.
Who could do that?
What mortal could do that?
The answer is: no mortal.
It’s enough to make you want a beer. Any kind will do.
One ice-cold American Yellow …
And, buddy, why not? Why the hell not? Come on! It’s not the time to talk about avatars or whatever. This, this is entertainment. Amusement. Look at the place. Just look at it. Are you getting an athletic excellence vibe here? You know why? Because, say it with me now, “Bowling. Is not. A sport.” Don’t you feel better? So drink that beer. More fries will be on the way. And if you can find a Larry, probably by the time you get back he’ll be up.
Andrew Farkas is the author of the novel, The Big Red Herring (KERNPUNKT Press 2019), and two collections of short fiction, Sunsphere (BlazeVOX [books] 2019) and Self-Titled Debut (Subito Press 2009). He is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Washburn University and fiction editor for The Rupture.
Photo: Michelle McEwan/Unsplash