The place had opened for business at eleven a.m. but no one showed up. The old man wasn’t surprised, though, since Thursdays were often like this. But when nine p.m. came and went and there were still no customers, he decided to close up, and switched off the wall lights. With no games being played, he could hear the cooling compressor of the Coke machine humming noisily. It was the kind of vending machine with glass bottles, the kind of old-fashioned dispenser his maintenance man had seldom seen before. In the evenings something strange often happened to the old man’s hearing, but now it seemed fine. It’s pretty bizarre, though, he thought, that in order to cool down beer and sodas you need heat. The more you chill them, the more hot air gets blown out and the hotter the room becomes. Then you need to run an air conditioner to cool off the room, and the hot air gets blown outside by a fan. The heat never disappears—it’s just transferred from one place to another. Much as he had been, back in his thirties, worrying so much his stomach hurt, concerned that his own life might end up merely generating excess heat in order to cool something else down. But the memories were no longer so clear.
The automatic doors slid open and he glanced over. A young couple stood on the doormat, peering inside. A large potted plant blocked their view and they didn’t notice him standing there. He was able to catch their conversation, and was glad he hadn't removed his hearing aid.
“It’s kind of dark,” the young man said. “Must be closed already.”
“There’s a light on over there,” the woman said.
“But it’s still pretty dark. Are you sure this is a bowling alley?”
Just then the young man finally noticed the old man at the counter, standing there erect and alone like a long-eyed needle forgotten in a pincushion, silently watching them, We might as well ask, the young man said to his companion, and strode over to where the old man stood. Good evening, the young man said, nodding slightly.
“Good evening,” the old man replied.
“Excuse me, are you still open?” the young man asked.
“We’re closing in thirty minutes, but please go ahead.” To the old man his own words sounded like they were blocked at his eardrum, as if he were underwater. “There’s time for one game if you’d care to play.” The old man watched the young man’s lips carefully, a trick he’d picked up long ago to help when he couldn't catch all the words.
“Actually, we just wanted to use the restroom.”
The young man turned around. The young woman didn't look embarrassed as she stood there, erect, clutching a small leather handbag with a thin strap in front of her. She had pleasant features, her chin tucked in a bit as she watched the old man. She didn’t appear fidgety, as if she were holding it in.
“We drove for a long time but all the places I thought to stop at were closed already, and this was the only place with the lights still on. Do you mind?”
“Not at all. Please go ahead. It’s in the back, on the right.”
He pointed to a narrow, L-shaped corridor that ran back from the shelf of shoes beside the counter. The young woman, standing a pace or two behind her companion and waiting for his response, thanked him with a glance and disappeared down the corridor. As soon as she had, the young man said he guessed he’d use the restroom too, and followed after her.
November nights in this mountain valley town tended to be cold, but the young woman must have left her coat in the warm car, for she was dressed lightly, in only a beige sweater and gray slacks. After using the facilities she no doubt planned to hurry back down the stairs to the parking lot. The young man was dressed in blue jeans and a navy blue and white windbreaker and gave the impression of being younger than the woman. He spoke in a friendly, yet polite way. Both of them were probably in their mid twenties. So this young couple aren’t going to be my final customers, the old man mused, and was struck by an emotion he’d never experienced before, unsure whether he felt relieved, or somehow sad.
The bowling alley, Little Bear Bowling, was a medium-sized two-story building, a flat concrete box supported by pillars, with an open parking lot beneath. It didn’t have one of those huge bowling pins you find on the roof of most bowling alleys; the only indication that it was a bowling alley was the electric sign of a bear clasping a bowling pin on the outer staircase. Logs cut in half were set into the outer walls as in a log cabin, so from a distance it looked more like a restaurant. The inside was cozy, with only five lanes, and a single pinball machine and nine-ball billiards table for people to amuse themselves with while they waited to bowl. The corner of the building facing the road was a glassed-in snack bar, but now a wooden board hanging from a thin chain on the thick glass door announced that the shop was Closed. Luxurious artificial planters were set into the boxes that partitioned off the tables. The florescent exit sign next to the counter illuminated some of the plastic plants, the veinless leaves of which shone as if painted with phosphorescent paint.
Back when his wife was healthy this little snack bar had been quite a lively place. She was slightly lame, and guessing this would put her at a disadvantage on the job market, after she graduated from a junior college she studied to be a chef. And this turned out to be unexpectedly useful. They had thought of the snack bar as simply a place for people to take a break after bowling or while they waited for an open lane, so the menu was simple—drinks and a few snack items—but the sandwiches, a different variety each day, became so popular on their own that people came not to bowl but for the food, and some bowlers ordered takeout. People had all sorts of suggestions regarding the snack bar—that they build stairs outside so customers could enter the snack bar directly, that they find a nice piece of property nearby and open a separate restaurant—and the old man had given it some serious thought. His wife, though, rejected any such suggestions outright. The name Little Bear is the English translation of my maiden name, she explained, and besides, it doesn't make sense to have the snack bar anywhere but inside the bowling alley.
Since they only had five lanes, on weekends, when times were good, there were lots of families who would put their names on a waiting list and go shopping at the shopping center in the next town while they waited for their turn to come up. He’d give people a rough estimate of when their turn would come, and not wanting to leave any lanes unoccupied if they weren’t back in time, he’d go to the next group on the waiting list, which sometimes led to complaints by those who felt slighted. Back in the early seventies, however, when he was still running a used-car dealership, things were different. This was the peak of the bowling craze in Japan, and people were eager to bowl as much and as often as they could. He remembered the owner of a bowling alley he used to frequent telling him how much trouble he had turning down the offers of a former high school classmate who worked at a bank and came to him with investment opportunities to expand his business. As far as bowling was concerned, things were a bit crazy back then. Even the old man himself, who often went out to bowl a game whenever he had spare time, had a sense that this bowling boom couldn't last forever.
He’d been working for a company in Tokyo when his father, who owned a used-car dealership back in his hometown, passed away. Reluctantly he took over the business, which wasn’t doing well, got it back on track, and had gotten married, and the future looked set. Then he suddenly decided to close the business and turn the land he had used as a parking lot for excess inventory into a bowling alley. The bowling boom was over by then. He’d managed to run the place ever since, for some twenty-plus years until the turn of the century, and before he realized it he was well past the age his father had been when he died. After his wife died, his own health became precarious and he wasn’t strong enough to wax the floors using the old polisher he’d brought over from the car dealership to save money, or to help the maintenance man repair the old machines. It was about time to close the place, he decided. A month ago he let go his sole employee and began preparations to close for good. He would still need a few more days to clear everything out, but today was the last day the bowling alley was open for business.
He didn’t tell anybody he was closing. If he announced his plans there’d sure to be people who’d come out of the woodwork saying he’d been kind to them and their friends when they were in college, or people whose companies had used the place for company outings—in other words, people who’d use any excuse to hold a farewell ceremony at the bowling alley. When he first opened the bowling alley he had printed up leaflets advertising the place, and thought that perhaps he should do the same when he closed, to draw in some final customers, but he wanted instead to let the curtain drop quietly. After he had quietly taken care of business and things had settled down he could then send out a nice farewell note.
Suddenly, in his good ear he heard the young man saying Thank you very much. The old man had been gazing at the line of antique pins, like so many Jizo statues, lined up in the pin deck of the lane in front of him, and turned toward the sound of the voice. The young man looked around, saw that his girlfriend had still not come out, and, shaking his wet hands, looked sheepishly at the old man’s eyes on him. Restrooms in Little Bear Bowling didn't have electric hand driers. The old man didn't like the sound—noisy as a vacuum cleaner, he thought—and though people were constantly telling him to install them he’d always refused. The young man’s hands were still wet, so the old man realized he must have forgotten to put a fresh roll in the automatic towel dispenser. It was his fault, but the young man continued to look embarrassed as he gazed around the bowling alley with its lights turned down low.
“It looks kind of lonely,” the young man commented as he turned around. “Maybe because the machinery’s so old.”
You’re right about that, the old man replied. The young man’s voice had a mellow sticky sort of sound as it left his throat. So the old man knew his left ear was still working OK.
“I doubt you'd find anything like this anywhere in Japan. Unless, of course, there’s a place that still employs pin boys.”
“It's kind of drab looking,” the young man said jokingly.
“Yes, drab it is. But it still works fine,” the old man smiled.
“You were just about to close, weren’t you? I’m really sorry we barged in like this.”
“No problem at all. I’m glad to help. You two may turn out to be the last real customers I’ll ever have.”
The young man’s expression changed, as if he were remembering his gloomy first impression of the place, and just then out of the corner of his eye he noticed his girlfriend coming back from the restroom. What do you mean by the last? he asked.
“I’m going out of business in thirty minutes. I might not look like it, but I’m the owner. Starting tomorrow the business won't be open. In other words we’re closing down. Don’t worry—I didn’t go bankrupt, I’m just closing up shop for good. I was sure nobody would be coming today.”
After he spoke the young woman thanked him, her face now so cheerful she looked like a different person. She must have been holding it in for a long time. There were some restaurants along the highway, but after nine p.m. the only ones open would be in the next town over, near the railroad station. They could have driven there in fifteen minutes, but instead they came into the bowling alley, which meant they most likely weren’t from around here. The young woman had apparently caught the end of their conversation. What does he mean closing down? she asked the young man.
“He said this is the last day for this bowling alley. He’ll be closing in thirty minutes.”
“Really?” she said, her eyes wide as she looked at the old man. “I thought it seemed a little too quiet. We’ve bothered you at a bad time. But you really saved us.”
“You’re quite welcome. I didn’t do a thing.”
After giving it some thought, the old man said, “Maybe this is fate or something, but if you’d like to, how about bowling a game before we close up? My treat, of course.”
He clicked on two switches behind the counter and the indirect lighting on both sides bathed the interior in a soft orange light. The light reached even to the back of the lane, and the gray pins stuck out into the foreground of the light pink diorama.
“That’s very kind of you,” the young man said. “Maybe we should take you up on it.”
“We can't do that,” the woman said. “He was nice enough to let us use the restroom, and we can’t impose any more.”
“Please, it’s fine,” the old man said. “It was my idea. If you’d care to, I mean. It’s entirely up to you.”
His tone was unexpectedly warm, the opposite of his earlier feeling of wanting to quietly close down all by himself. It was like this young couple were relatives who’d happened to drop by and he was trying to persuade them to stay longer, a feeling he hadn’t experienced in a long time. It’ll get too late if we stay any longer, the young woman said to her boyfriend. “We have to get to Yukinuma,” she explained to the old man. “We’re staying at an inn run by a friend of ours.”
“Yukinuma? There are a lot of curves on that mountain road and you can’t drive too fast. Better give yourself a good hour to get there.”
“See?” the young woman said to her boyfriend. “We’d better leave right now.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll drive carefully,” her boyfriend said.
“Are you serious?”
“Just one game, OK?”
The young woman sighed. “Oh, all right,” she said. Seizing the opportunity, the old man checked their shoe sizes and pulled out two pairs of bowling shoes from the shelves in back. I don't need any, the young woman demurred. You’d better wear them, the old man said. Otherwise you might slip and fall. He handed her a pair of beige leather shoes with a dark red stripe. As soon as he put his shoes on, the young man started rummaging around the house bowling balls and came up with a green 14 L.
“Please use the middle lane,” the old man said. “I’ll keep score. No practice—just go right to it.”
So that he could hear their voices clearly, the old man came out from behind the counter and sat down at the table, which was part of the ball rack. I haven’t played in ages, the young man said, then lined up his toes with the round stance dots, slowly stepped forward with his left foot, gradually sped up, then threw the green ball as if he’d been walking home swinging a shopping basket and dropped a cabbage. The resin cabbage didn’t so much roll as drop with a thud at his feet, just missed falling into the right hand gutter, then curved slightly as it grazed the number one pin, twisted into number two, and knocked over six random pins. Three, six, nine, and ten remained standing.
A muffled sound reached the old man, like a stone thrown into a deep cavern. He’d insisted on using these almost antique machines because he loved the sound old pins made. It hadn’t been easy to acquire these old lanes, pinsetters, and balls. After much searching he finally was able, through a broker in Los Angeles, to locate a complete set of one of Brunswick’s early models from a bankrupt old bowling alley, for next to nothing. The resetting moved slowly, and it took twice as long for the ball to return as with modern machines. Other pins could be used instead of the original ones, but with parts, even used ones, hard to come by, unless there needed to be a complete overhaul by a skilled mechanic familiar with these old machines, he couldn’t see replacing just part of it. Besides, he was particularly fond of the sound these old pins made when you bowled a strike, which wasn’t the wonderful chord you normally hear but a more muffled, distorted sort of sound, so he had kept the original machines and pins with only minor adjustments along the way. They didn’t make a uniform sound that leaped out at you. Instead, after all the pins had fallen, the sound formed into one invisible mass back deep in the lane, which slowly built up speed as it moved back toward the bowler. You could catch that sound best at the counter that lined up with lane three, so that’s where he always tried to stand.
I’m really out of practice, the young man muttered. The bowl rumbled back toward him and he picked it up, set both feet at the same spot as before, and aimed at the number three pin. The ball drifted to the right and was swallowed up into the darkness without hitting a single pin. The old man, with the same pressure as when he used an F pencil back in drafting class, wrote a 6 in the first box on the scorecard, then a minus mark in the small box on the upper right hand side, then on the bottom wrote another large 6.
“That was pathetic.” The girl, seated to the left, kidded the young man. “He’s been so kind to you, so just give it a good bang right up the middle!”
“If you want a good one I’ve got to hit right in the pocket. Not in the middle. Otherwise I’ll wind up with a split.”
“A split? What’s that?”
The young man gazed steadily at her. Apparently she’d never bowled. We’ve been going out for two years and I can’t believe I didn’t know that, the young man thought, looking at her in amazement, and then went on to concisely explain what a split is: it’s when there’s a gap between pins that are left standing. Then he turned to bowl the second frame. This time he went too far with his backswing and didn’t bring his arm back forward smoothly. The ball barely made the right hand pocket and sounded like a dog’s yelp when it struck. Seven pins down. The head pin was down, and the red indicator lamp showed three pins in the right corner remaining. The old man wrote down 7 on the score sheet and waited for the next ball; after seeing the second ball bowl over two pins, he wrote 2 in the upper right hand frame and 15 on the bottom. In the third frame the ball hit the pocket all right, but without enough force behind it, leaving the number five pin standing in the middle. “I was sure you'd got them all!” the young woman, who was smoking, said loudly, sounding regretful. “It sounded so good.” But the old man couldn’t hear the sound too well. There was indeed something about this time of day that played havoc with his hearing.
He wore a hearing aid in his right ear, one that he’d had to adjust many times before he felt comfortable with it. About three years ago the sound of the pins had become muffled. He’d started having to ask customers to repeat themselves, and soon after that he noticed something was strange about his hearing. The weighty sound of the pins from the back of the center lane started to sound imbalanced. After his wife’s passing these symptoms grew worse and he began to have slight dizzy spells, but when he went to see a specialist he was told it was a sudden hearing problem that would get better if he could reduce his stress. But he didn’t really have much stress, and after numerous examinations, the cause remained a mystery. He was eventually advised to try a hearing aid, and though he’d done so and put up with it ever since, there was no hope of recovering his hearing. He planned, after he shut down his business tonight, to get rid of the device for good, figuring it would be of no use to him anymore. Once he closed the bowling alley there weren’t any more sounds left he wanted to hear. Besides, no matter how efficient a hearing aid might be, sounds heard through a device like that had something unnatural about them.
Once more the young man failed to get a spare. Well, it’s not a competition, he said, explaining it away. The score sheet showed a 9 and a minus, for a total of 24. As the solo game progressed, his girlfriend, who hadn’t been much interested in the beginning, started to get excited, and the old man noticed how she pumped her fist each time the ball struck the pins. In the fourth frame the young man put too much on the first ball, which went to the left and only downed three pins. He pulled himself together for the second ball and got five pins. The old man wrote it down, and the total of 32.
In his mid thirties, when he’d convinced himself that selling used cars was his calling and he was putting his all into the business, he told his wife that in addition to selling Japanese cars he wanted to sell the kind of foreign cars that the large used-car companies didn’t handle. So they set off on a business trip to the U.S. In reality all they did was sightseeing, and though he didn’t speak much English, they rented a car and drove everywhere, rather than take a package tour. It took some courage to do so, but he figured that with his wife’s bad leg, a bus would be better than a train, and car would be better than a bus. It had seemed an entirely natural choice. On the third day, when he was finally getting used to driving on the right side of the road, they drove on and on for half a day, seeing nothing but highway, until they finally spotted a roadside restaurant. His wife went to use the restroom and he was waiting at the entrance when he spotted an old three-lane bowling alley in a corner of the restaurant. Men who appeared to be truck drivers taking a break from work were bowling.
He wondered what the pins were made of. Back beyond the music from the jukebox, the cigarette smoke, and the smell of steaks and garlic sizzling on the grill, there was a sound he’d hardly ever heard in Japan. Heavy, indistinct, yet somehow warm. The jerky motion of the pinsetter and the fluorescent logo above the pin deck were all very appealing, but it was the unique sound of the pins that fascinated him. Men with arms that looked as big around as his waist were throwing bowling balls as hard as they could, but the explosion of the ten pins falling made a sound quite the opposite of what you'd expect—a soft, muffled sound as if wrapped in a blanket. He remembered hearing this sound before. When his wife came back from the restroom he took her over to the corner where the bowling lanes were.
“Please, I don’t want you to bowl today,” his wife said. “We haven't decided to stay here, and once you start you never stop.”
“I don’t want to bowl. It’s the sound.”
“What do you mean?”
“The sound of the pins. Listen when they’re bouncing around.”
His wife nodded as if she finally understood what he was getting at, and, as was her habit, leaned over a bit and inclined her head as she listened intently.
“Do you see what I mean?” he asked.
“No, I don’t.”
“It’s like the sound Hi-Test used to make. The sound the pins made after he knocked them down.”
As he explained this to his wife, and listened to the music of the lanes swelling up one after another, he realized his cheeks were getting flushed. Since she found it hard to balance on her bad legs, and tired easily, his wife had never played any sports. Whenever he bowled, she just sat there and kept score. Not that she seemed to mind. She always enjoyed the little jokes and stories they shared as they waited for the pins to be reset. The excitement he’d felt, though, didn’t cool even after they returned home from abroad, and when he announced that he wanted to order the exact same equipment and open up a little bowling alley, his wife was taken by surprise.
“Excuse me, are you tired?”
The young man’s voice slid into his good right ear, and he came to himself.
“In the fifth frame I got seven and two, and in the sixth I got eight and a spare.”
Flustered, the old man quickly wrote down the score. The young man had bowled a spare, but complained that the ball wouldn’t curve the way he wanted it to. The old man was about to explain how you can never hook the balls you find at bowling alleys the way you can professionals’ balls, but kept quiet. House balls had holes that either right-handers or left-handers could use, but were weighted in the middle. The same principle behind tops that spin well, with a steady axis that made it difficult to curve the ball much. Custom balls, though, had off-center weighting, so when you bowled one it would tilt to either the left or the right, and the moment it hit the unwaxed part of the lane friction would come into play and the ball would curve like a snake raising its head. Hi-Test had taught him all this.
Hi-Test was a customer at the gas station he worked at part-time while he was studying science in college in the outskirts of Tokyo. He drove an old, but well-maintained car. He always asked for their best quality gasoline, and as a joke would specify a kind of high-octane gasoline used only for racecars, a bit of knowledge he must have picked up somewhere. That’s why the employees at the gas station gave him that nickname. Hi-Test was easy to get along with, and even he, though normally reticent, found himself talkative whenever he was with Hi-Test.
Once when he went out to fill up Hi-Test’s car, there was a black bag, like the kind doctors use, on the seat beside him. Are you a doctor? he casually asked as he serviced the car, to which Hi-Test replied, no, it’s a bowling ball. Do you know the bowling alley just down the road? The Eight Princes’ Bowl? I work there, Hi-Test said, smiling. Why don't you come on over sometime? When out of curiosity he and a couple of friends went over to check it out, Hi-Test was very happy, and that’s when he discovered that he was a former professional bowler. He couldn’t make enough on tour, so he had supplemented that income as a teaching pro and managed to make a living that way. One year, however, when he was moonlighting in construction, he had an accident at a site and injured the thumb of his throwing hand so badly he couldn’t compete professionally anymore. He worked hard at rehabilitation to make a comeback, but playing three games in a row was all it took for his thumb to seize up to the point where he couldn't bend it. No matter how hard he practiced, his endurance didn't return. Since he couldn’t bowl the way he wanted to, he couldn't call himself a league pro anymore, and couldn’t earn money teaching, either. Hi-Test was a very conscientious person, and decided, in his mid-forties, to retire, and he asked the bowling alley that had sponsored him on the tour to hire him. Whenever he had time between his duties at the bowling alley, he coached well-mannered budding professionals for free.
Hi-Test was a wonderful teacher. He just gave his students a few simple pointers, and didn’t lead them by the hand, but when others saw the transformation in his students, they understood how perfect his advice was. As with the grass on a baseball or a soccer field, or the ice on an ice rink, the amount of wax on a bowling lane depends on the time of day. Even at the same time there would be slight differences depending on the day, and Hi-Test loved to talk about how it took a lot of experience to be able to read the lanes. If you asked him, he’d sketch out correct stances for you.
Strangely enough, though, when Hi-Test gave one of his rare practical demonstrations, he completely ignored his own list of do’s and don’ts. To start off with, his form was unusual. His rear end stuck out, and he didn’t lift the ball to his chest; instead, he dangled it at his belt, knees bent, like a heavy watermelon he could barely carry. The more he bent forward, the further his rear end stuck out. He had barely any backswing at all, and from the back he looked like a giant penguin mascot. But that cramped form produced a ball that slipped down the lane without a sound, and that would play, when it struck the pins, the tune the old man loved so much. Even in a huge bowling alley, when all thirty lanes were occupied, he could quickly pick out the sound of Hi-Test’s ball. Not just him, but anyone could.
“. . . six here . . . . I was hoping for at least nine,” the young man said.
In the seventh frame the second ball failed to hit any pins and the score stood at 65. Perhaps because his mind had been wandering, to the old man sounds were drifting in and out. He couldn’t quite hear the same pleasant sound of the ball he heard in the first frame. When he glanced at his watch the young woman immediately reacted, asking if it was getting too late. It was well past the time when he’d been planning to close. Don't worry, he smiled, when this game’s over that’ll be when we close. He turned to the young man. When there are some pins left, maybe you should change where you’re standing, he said, giving him some beginner’s advice. Hi-Test often gave the same advice. To figure out the right distance and spot to stand that fit your power and form, you had to figure out where best to stand in relation to the stance dots set into the floor. You had to picture in your mind the foul line and the track your ball would take just past that, and never stare at the pins. When you’re trying to get a spare, you change your stance depending on which pins are left, and shift where you place your feet to adjust the angle of the entry point of the ball. As long as your form is set, everything depends on the approach.
The funny thing, though, was that no matter how hard a spare he might be facing, Hi-Test never changed where he stood. He never moved over even one stance dot, never moved over to the edge of the lane even when he had parallel pins standing. Depending on the pins, this style of bowling sometimes made it impossible to pick up spares. Which might explain why he couldn’t win in competition. The old man could never understand where Hi-Test’s insistence on maintaining the same stance came from. Before he became a professional bowler, Hi-Test was hoping to be a professional baseball pitcher, but the rumor was that he never made it and quit. And it seemed plausible, since his form and style of bowling did, in fact, resemble a baseball pitcher who can throw different pitches from the same release point.
One thing for sure, though, was that when Hi-Test’s ball struck the pins it made a sound unlike any other. Visually the pins flying when they’re hit might look the same as everybody else’s, but one beat later, from way back in the lane, this sound would rise up and, without becoming any louder, become a large clump of air and wend its way back toward you. A soft, sweet, unaggressive sound, like the sound of its mother’s heart a fetus hears. Many times the old man tried to figure out the secret linking this sound and the position you stand in, but Hi-Test only laughed and said, Stance dots aren't for changing your stance, but to make sure you haven’t. For me, at least. Even when he was facing a spare that would decide a mock competition, Hi-Test never changed where he stood. And neither did the melody of his pins. Hi-Test’s stance could never be imitated. Before the old man and his wife married, he often told her about Hi-Test. Just as they were getting Little Bear Bowling ready to open, he heard from a friend that Hi-Test, the man who never ever changed his stance, had died.
Why, he wondered, were these memories coming back to him? The young woman was holding a cigarette in her left hand, on which she wore a silver ring with a purple stone. The stone gave off a faint gleam. So she was born in February, the old man thought. His wife sometimes wore an amethyst ring, too. A birthday present he’d given her. If I wear this, I’ll be lucky, his wife often said, baselessly. It's a good luck charm that will give me a long life—I feel like I’ll live till a hundred.
“. . . wonder if I’ll make a hundred.”
The young man’s voice startled him. They were nearing the finale. In the eighth frame the first ball got eight pins, and the young man, following the old man’s advice, moved over to the left and aimed diagonally for the tenth pin, but the ball slipped into the right side gutter. In the ninth frame he couldn't pick up the spare and got nine pins. For a total of 82. The last frame, then, would decide whether or not he could break through and score a hundred. When it’s all over, the old man wondered, what sort of expression should I show them? Or what kind of expression should I show myself? He started to get unexpectedly tense.
Just in front of him the young man was leaning over, saying something to his girlfriend. His voice sounded very far away. The old man used to lean over and whisper to his wife in the same way.
". . . think . . . it’s . . . ” the young man said.
The old man couldn't catch his words. His could just see his mouth moving but couldn't hear the words, and it puzzled him.
“I’m sorry, but what did you just say?”
“. . . and . . . probably . . . best.”
His voice cut in and out. The young man wouldn’t be talking like this, so the old man knew something must be wrong with his ears. I’m really sorry, he apologized again, I wasn’t paying attention. The two of them must have figured his hearing was bad—they’d noticed the hearing aid—but probably didn’t expect that he wouldn't be able to hear out of the other ear.
“Just wanted . . . the restroom . . . never thought we’d . . . but I guess it’s getting . . . ”
The two of them stood up and bowed to him, which startled him. You still have the tenth frame to bowl, he said hurriedly.
“. . . played enough. . . . You should bowl the last . . . closing up . . . you should be the one to finish it.”
Ah, so they were telling him to bowl the last frame himself.
“No,” he said, “you’ve come this far, so please, go ahead.”
“That’s enough for us,” the young woman’s mouth moved. The tone had changed, and he could hear her now. “It’s strange for us to be telling you this, but please—go ahead.”
It definitely was strange. For a while his silence was his response to this unexpected turn of events. After his hearing started to go bad—no, actually after his wife passed away—he never bowled again. And along the way he’d given up his dream of reproducing Hi-Test’s magical sound. Not once in his bowling alley had he heard that special, unforgettable sound. If he was going to try, this might very well be his last chance. He had been looking at the stance dots, but now he raised his eyes to the young couple, took a breath, and said, Thank you. I guess I’ll go ahead. He went back to the counter and took out a black bag from the double doors at his feet. This was his own custom-made ball he’d ordered as a reward for himself back when he was selling one car after another. The ball was black, with a shallow grip for his middle and ring fingers, and a hole for his thumb that fit him perfectly. But it did feel heavier than it used to. At my age, he explained, though no one had asked him, you have to use a ball that fits you perfectly or else you’ll get injured. He stood at the approach line.
I feel like I’ll live till a hundred, he heard his wife say. A hundred, he thought. If I get a strike on the first ball, or a spare on the second, and then pick up eight pins we’ll get to a hundred. The score, though, wasn’t what he was after. He was after that sound. He gave the ball a quick wipe with a cloth and quietly removed the hearing aid from his right ear. All sounds suddenly left him, and he felt as if he were alone in a huge space. He raised the ball and lined up his right toes with the second dot from the right. The same stance dot he’d used since he was in college. He’d never once been able to produce that sound from that spot, so was it really the best position for him? He didn’t know anymore.
Behind him the young couple waited in breathless excitement. He slowly brought his left foot forward. From the second step he could already see the line the ball was going to take. He knew how much wax he applied to the lane that morning, and how it had been spread. More than anybody else, he knew how much the ball would slide, where it would hook. If he stepped straight ahead and threw the ball hard at the right hand spot of the foul line, the ball should strike right between the number one and number three pins. But at the instant of release his fingers slipped out of the ball, and just like the young man’s, the ball was flung hard against the lane. But the sound of the ball striking the lane vanished in an instant, and it rolled smoothly down the lane, arriving at the sweet spot, and in one more breath, he heard the sound of the pins falling. Not sure if he was really hearing the sound, or whether it was an illusion welling up from his deaf ears, in the midst of the agitated silence the old man felt a faint shiver rush up his tensed neck.