Fiction, Vol. 8.3, Sept. 2014
Leon told Fritz about Match.com at the Labor Day picnic at the Linger Longer Over 55 Mobile Home Park and RV Storage Clubhouse and Pool. Fritz had been sitting alone at one of the picnic tables outside, with his sectioned paper plate and plastic fork, looking at his runny coleslaw, alarmingly yellow potato salad, and pale, skinless hot dog on a pale, untoasted bun. Skinless—that’s how he felt coming to these events alone.
Although Margaret had been dead for two years, everything reminded him of her and the lack of her. Margaret’s potato salad had been perfect, except that she sometimes put in too many celery chunks. How they would have laughed together at this mustardly concoction with its crunchy potatoes and lack of hard boiled eggs. Margaret would’ve taken the hot dog back to Frank the griller and said, “Burn it again, Frank.” But there was none of that now.
He was trying to get out and be social. Everyone said that is what he was supposed to do. He knew that if he’d stayed home watching Forensic Files, trying to distract himself with the blood evidence of past murders, he still would have been lonely and grieving.
Leon and his wife brought their plates to sit across from him, just as one tear slid down Fritz’s nose into the coleslaw. He never liked coleslaw anyway. How could anything appetizing be called “slaw”? Leon’s wife, Maria Elena the Canadian, gave him a stern look. “It’s time to start looking around, Fritz. The world is full of wonderful women looking for a nice man like you.”
“Hello to you too,” said Fritz, wiping his face with the red, white, and blue napkin, left over from the Fourth of July picnic. It had rained that day, and the picnic was not well-attended, he remembered. Those who stayed had to eat inside the rec hall, where there hadn’t been enough chairs. Fritz had stood that day with his coleslaw, his potato salad, and his hot dog, waiting for time to pass. It did. Now it was Labor Day.
Leon said, “Maria Elena has a point, Fritz. It doesn’t have to be this bad.”
Fritz grunted. “Did they put the potato chips out? I didn’t see any when I was in line, but I was pretty early.”
“Here, have some of my chips.” Leon pushed the plate toward him. “Think about going online.” Fritz looked at the line near the grill. “Online. On the computer. Lots of guys meet nice women online. They find out they have things in common, and they meet. At this stage of life, you can’t just sit around waiting for someone to come to you.” Maria Elena the Canadian nodded.
“I’m not waiting for someone to come to me,” said Fritz. “I’m not waiting for anything at all.” He sucked in his breath, and then the sobs took over.
Later that day, Fritz, Leon, and Maria Elena the Canadian hovered around Fritz’s computer, setting up a profile for him on Match.com. They did exaggerate his love of art and exercising, but overall, it was a pretty accurate picture. They looked at the photographs Fritz had of himself, but all the good ones included Margaret, and, of course, he could not bring himself to Photoshop Margaret out of a day in the mountains or at the beach. He didn’t want to Photoshop Margaret out of anything—he just wanted somebody to have a hot dog with and laugh about the generic ketchup.
The next day, Fritz dressed up in his best jeans, his cowboy boots, and the snappy plaid shirt he never liked that Margaret had given to him. He stood at the fence by the dog run, where there was an oak tree with Spanish moss. Maria Elena the Canadian took his picture with her phone. “Your face looks like I’m holding a gun, Fritz. Relax,” she said. Fritz wondered why Maria Elena couldn’t have been a widow. You could eat a hot dog with Maria Elena, easy. But that would mean that his friend Leon would have to be dead, and Fritz would never want that. What was he doing, thinking about Maria Elena the Canadian like that?
Every day, several times, he checked his e-mail. He received a wink from a very large woman who liked Jesus and truck rallies. He received another from an attractive enough woman who said she didn’t want anyone who was “into games or drama! If you’re not serious, DO NOT REPLY!” Fritz did not reply, and she e-mailed him twice more. Then, for a while, there was nothing. Time passed.
Finally, there was a wink from a nervous-looking woman with one eye closed. In her photo she stood in front of an oak tree on which hung Spanish moss like blown away brides’ veils. She, too, liked art and exercising. Their e-mails were a little formal, but friendly. “Let’s meet someplace where you’d be comfortable,” Fritz found himself writing.
The reply had come back immediately. “Pin-Splitters.”
The bowling alley! Fritz cringed and thought that of all the places on God’s good earth, the last place he would ever want to enter again was a bowling alley. Why a bowling alley? And one with same name as the bowling alley of his youth! How could that be? What kind of cosmic joke was that? “Sure thing,” he e-mailed back, and Fritz and Lulu made plans to meet the next evening at the alley at 4:30.
As he opened the door, the smell of shoes and beer, the sound of pins falling and bad music brought Fritz back to the last time he’d been in a bowling alley.
Bowling had been a “unit” in junior high school physical education. All the other eighth graders were excited. Twice a week, the school offered to bus them to Pin-Splitters, if their parents had signed permission slips. The kids whose parents wouldn’t sign or couldn’t afford it stayed at the school gym and played volleyball.
Fritz had begged to stay behind. All of the other kids he talked to had bowled before. At least they had some idea of what they were doing. The arcane and complicated scoring made sense to them. Worse, girls would be there, too—it was the only physical education activity that was co-educational at Herbert Hoover Junior High. But Fritz’s parents had insisted. He argued as long and hard as he could. “I could use the time after school to study, do chores…” He watched his mother stand up and slam her cigarette butt into the glass ashtray that said “Genesee Beer.” “You’ll have fun,” she said as she left the room.
“Damn right,” said his father, following her into the bedroom. And that was that.
The school bus had arrived at the bowling alley in the midst of a sleet storm. Fritz twisted his ankle getting off the bus. Blushing, near tears in embarrassment, he tried to pretend to slip and skid on purpose on the greasy blacktop, but the boys in his class laughed at the wet streak down one side of his body, from his soaked shoes to the collar of his Buffalo Bills parka.
Inside the alley, things were even worse. Though the shoes he rented were dry. He had to put them on over wet socks, and the fact that he was sharing these shoes with all the sweaty people who had gone before him bothered him.
He shared his lane with three classmates: two bullies who were twins and the new non-English speaking Vietnamese student, Dong. Moose and Eddie wanted to win. For a few hopeful moments, Fritz, knowing the twins to be very competitive, hoped they would want to link arms with him and work together to beat the girls’ team, but the twins rolled their eyes and looked disgusted to be there with two losers like Fritz and Dong.
Around them, adults rolled balls and hit pins—an activity seriously observed by Dong. Some people were even laughing. This was supposed to be fun, Fritz noted. People seemed to do it on purpose.
The young Fritz’s feet slid inside the multi-colored left-handed bowling shoes. They were a size too big, as if the clerk thought that somehow during the afternoon he would grow into them. From the rack, he chose a lightweight orange ball meant for beginners.
Dong had rented shoes, too, but the twins had brought their own. Eddie laughed at Fritz’s too-large shoes and orange ball. “We have our own balls,” he said, and then he and Moose laughed uproariously. Throughout the game, one of them would say, out of nowhere, “We have our own balls!” and their laughter would begin again.
For the first frame, Fritz watched his ball wander down the gutter. For a time, the ball looked as if it might stop. The twins chortled with glee and disgust. Dong, too, had a gutter ball. He stood at the line watching it as if it might just leap out of the gutter and onto the lane, or burst into flames. As the twins bowled, each of them clearly and impossibly hitting pins, Fritz wondered if he could tell the gym teacher he was sick, and sit on the side looking nauseous with his head between his knees. Around him, happy people hit pins. He could hear them everywhere.
Once again, it was his turn, and he threw another gutter ball, but it was a better one. It didn’t slow down, but rolled down the gutter with authority. Eddie and Moose each hit the same four pins on their turns and high-fived each other. Dong stood at the line, watching bowlers to his right and left. He turned and stared down his lane so long that Moose and Eddie began shouting.
Finally, his arm angled back, and he let the ball go. It meandered up the center of the lane as if, like a well-trained dog, it knew where it had been told to go, and went there with a kind of surefootedness unusual in a junior high bowling ball. At the end, it sidestepped to the left, and, with grace and precision, knocked down all the pins.
Fritz was awestruck. There was a silence, and then the twins were all over Dong, congratulating him and assuring him that their team was going to “mop up” the other teams. Dong didn’t understand a word of it. He only knew the twins were not hitting him.
And they did wipe out the opposition. Their teacher gave them each a certificate to take home, the kind of certificate parents get excited about, even though they know teachers buy them by the gross in some teacher store somewhere.
When Fritz took his certificate home to his parents, he was vague about his own performance. His mother was sure he was just being modest. She felt the certificate was an outward and visible sign that she’d been right all along. She talked about it for months, and at Christmas, under the tree, there was a pair of left-handed bowling shoes and a bag to carry them in. Fritz bit his lip to keep from weeping.
Even now, here, waiting for Lulu, the footy smell and the crashing of pins made him want to run out the door into the freedom of the Pin-Splitters parking lot and beyond, but it was too late. A woman approached him as surely as Dong’s ball had approached those pins so many years ago. “Fritz?” she said. She wore navy spandex pants and a red, white, and blue top. Of course. The holiday was coming. Or it had just passed.
“Lulu?” he said.
“Let’s have a beer and talk awhile,” she said.
“I don’t actually drink anymore,” Fritz said. “But I’ll have a Coke.”
“Sounds like a plan,” she said, and led him to the bar. She told him about her childhood in Palmyra, NY, about the Erie Canal, the ducks, the best places for apples in October. Then she said suddenly, “Not that I’m Mormon. Just so you know. I have nothing against Mormons, but I am not a Mormon. Well, I guess that’s obvious since I’m drinking beer.”
“Oh,” said Fritz, startled. “I didn’t think you were Mormon. Not that I would mind. I mean it just didn’t occur to me you’d be one thing or another, but of course you would.” She looked puzzled. “Be something.” He wondered what he was talking about.
“It’s just that where I come from, if you say you’re from Palmyra, people think you’re probably Mormon, because there are so many there. And there’s the pageant and everything.”
“But you’re not.”
There was a silence. He found she’d been married twice to abusive men, (“My shrink says my picker’s broken.”) and Fritz squirmed. “But that’s the past,” she said. “I lost everything important to me, but I learned to forgive. That’s the key, you know, Fritz. Forgiveness. No matter how bad it can get. Are you ready now?”
Fritz was startled. “Ready?”
“I don’t actually bowl,” Fritz said.
“Then why did you want to come here?”
“I didn’t. You suggested it.”
“But that’s because I assumed you had sense enough not to go somewhere you didn’t want to go and then play the martyr.”
“I don’t think I—”
“That’s a kind of abuse, you know.”
“We can bowl, Lulu. Honest. It’s been a while, but we can bowl.”
“Jesus. A martyr right to the end.” She picked up her many pocketed red, white, and blue bag and marched to the door. Fritz did not follow her. He paid for their drinks and waited a long time to be sure she was out of the parking lot. Around him, pins fell.