Sample of Starlite Lanes: We Bowl for Democracy

Chapter III

Equality

The strange threat of this intruder, this surrogate bowling ball, occupied my thoughts throughout my day off. It even disrupted my enjoyment of a fourth rack of ribs at the Cram-A-Rama. Of all the disrespect upon which I so frequently reflect—the threats and the personal injury and the accusations of treason—that may be the affront I most resent: interference with the pure enjoyment of my hard-earned buffet.

Gil, who had been bragging to the press during the incident, ignored Carl and me as we discussed the strangers. He was spending most of his time loading fatty carbs onto plate after plate, anyway. I’ve often thought that, if I owned the Cram-A-Rama, I would fake a power-failure or gas-leak whenever I saw Gil approaching; luckily for Gil, the current owners never caught on.

“Maybe they just lost their bowling nerve,” Carl suggested, “and left before they started a game.” To him, the mystery from last night only went as far as the explanation for why Short Phil and Tall Stan hadn’t bowled; for some nervous reason, I had held back telling anyone about the swapped bowling balls.

“Their bowling nerve?” A morsel of rib-meat slithered off my fork and landed noisily in barbeque sauce. “Is that a documented psychological condition? Should we,” I added, interrupting myself for seven swallows of Dr. Pepper and an oblong belch, “should we start fundraising against the tragedy of bowling anxiety?”

Puffs of cornbread flaked from Carl’s lips as he protested. “Any sport can be intimidating, Puck, the first time a fella tries it. The neighborly thing to do would be to introduce ourselves to them, and offer them a few pointers.”

Eying the golden stretch of baked goods along the wall, I absently countered Carl’s generosity. “Last time I offered someone like those two pointers, my auto insurance skyrocketed.” I pushed my soiled plate to the center of the table and leaned toward Carl confidentially. “You know, I’m sure I saw them the night Gil stopped that Mexican car thief. They were—”

“Cuban.”

Interrupted, I blinked, and asked, “Pardon?”

“He was Cuban,” Carl elaborated, “the car thief, I mean. Go on with what you were saying.”

“How can you possibly know—OK,” I shook my head, “I’m sure I saw the two of them the night Gil stopped that Cuban car thief. I’m sure they were chasing him.”

“Golly, you mean the Audi might have been their car?”

“Seemed like, but they disappeared before the cops arrived. I mean, they were there in the parking lot one minute,” I said, undertaking the chore of standing erect, “and then they were gone. The car was gone, too, in the morning, but I still have their keys.” With that, I left Carl with a look of astonishment on his face, and excused myself for my first round of dessert. Refilling my Dr. Pepper and deciding between Crumble and Crisp, my thoughts returned, like microscopic boomerangs, to the ominous ball I had hidden from everyone. I shook the thoughts loose and returned to the table, my plate loaded with some Crumble, some Crisp and six bonus cookies.

By the time I got there, Gil had occupied the entire bench opposite Carl, and was halfway through a plate of carrot, mud, chocolate and sponge, all of which he had mashed together into a sort of mutant super-cake.

“I thought you were going for pie,” I observed cagily.

“Gotta clear my palate, first,” Gil explained.

“With cake?”

“Listen,” he sputtered in multiple colors, “I gotta pick up some screamers on sale down at the Powder Keg before they go out of business tonight, then I’m heading in to the lanes for a few rounds of practice. You oughta come too, Onscreen; we can work on your backspin.”

“Wow, it’d be swell to spend the time with you, Gil, but not everyone here has the day off. I’m already late back from lunch.”

“Ain’t that the great thing about this country? Late Lunch and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Without any transition from this patriotic observation, Gil was off to relieve the buffet from its burden of pie.

Something didn’t sit well with me about the idea of Gil bowling alone at the Starlite Lanes this afternoon. I opened my mouth to say so several times, but I wasn’t quite ready to reveal my twitchy secret. Instead, I tried hard to focus on the ambiance of the room: the clatter of crockery, the drone of muzak, and the cries of children whom Gil had denied their dessert.

Knowing how little I knew that day, though, it was hard to stay focused on anything but the fake bowling ball. As Gil argued with the hostess about discounting our coupons from the cheque, part of me wondered what was making that ball so heavy. As I raised my steering wheel to squeeze my newly-potted belly behind it, I tried to decipher the cause of the two strangers’ nervousness. And, as I reached home and collapsed into my disheveled pile of covers to sleep off the calories, I wondered what might cause two customers to sneak away from the Starlite Lanes without bowling a single game. My last conscious thought admitted to me that I should have reported this as a matter of theft, but something in the mystery kept me hoping that Phil and Stan, the sweating Odd Couple, would return for their ball.

I dreamed cholesterol-induced dreams, of Gil and Carl and Deepak being replaced by exact statues of themselves. Even Kay had been swapped for a duplicate, her stationary smile beaming eternally from a statue that was flaking away around the eyes to reveal its inner contents: a tangled mass of superheated electronics. Persistent hammering filled my surroundings as I tried to force my dream-fingers close enough to peel away Kay’s blistering skin.

The pounding began to overwhelm the dream, until it resolved itself into frantic knocking on my very real front door. My bladder, bloated with four quarts of Dr. Pepper from the buffet, awakened with me.

“Puck,” Louis’ unmistakably dull voice sounded from behind a half-inch of plywood door, “open up! C’mon, Puck, ya gotta open the door. Please!”

I might have given you the impression, earlier, that Louis is the senior partner of Carl’s accounting firm. Clearly, that isn’t the case: Louis is Peter Putnam’s son, and, as part of the sponsorship arrangement, a permanent member of the Pin Punishers. He is the simplest member of a pretty simple team, and mostly limits his conversation to repeating what others have said and wishing aloud for a hamster. Not quite as addled as Gil might often imply, Louis nonetheless suffers from some form of autism that I barely understand, and this causes him to bowl very poorly, to miss many of the subtleties of adult conversation, and, frequently, to overreact.

Despite knowing this, some extra urgency in his voice caused me to open the door before heeding the punishing insistence of Dr. Pepper. How Louis had gotten past the building’s alarm sensors would have been a mystery to anyone who didn’t know him, but, knowing Louis’ relationship with electric eyes, it never entered my mind to question this.

“Easy, pal,” I tried to soothe him through the doorway. “Did you run all the way here?”

Louis’ face was a bloated mass of cherry welts, formed by a cocktail of tears, distress and exertion. Coherence was not his strongest suit at the best of times, and I worried about grappling sense from him as I sacheted my hips to keep my bathroom-related urges in check.

“You gotta come, Puck. They got him, and you gotta come now.”

“Take it easy,” I urged uselessly. “Slow down. Who’s got whom?”

“Gil! The cops’ve got him. They took him from Starlite.”

Something from my recent dream cast a shadow into my memory, and I froze in place despite my discomfort. “Louis,” I cajoled, “try very hard to tell me exactly what happened.”

The poor kid was practically tearing himself in two, trying to get to Gil and stay with me at the same time. He closed his eyes and lifted his face to the horizon in an effort to speak calmly. “Two guys come in,” he explained in gulps. “They’s all dressed in work clothes. Neckties. They wanted to know where some bowling ball was, but you wasn’t there, so they tried to get into the back room. Gil stopped ‘em, but they dragged him outside.” Some note of pride in his idol entered his voice, then, as he remembered, “Gil polished ‘em both until the cops showed up to arrest ‘em all.”

Neckties and bowling balls. My dream scolded me with facts that I should have predicted myself. The two jittery strangers had returned looking for their phony ball, just as I’d hoped they would, only much sooner. They had returned on my day off. Because I hadn’t told anyone about the ball, Gil’s loyalty and volcanic temper had driven him to protect my territory, and that had put him into a line of ammunition that I didn’t even understand.

Not yet, anyway.

I pulled my apartment door shut behind me, and swept Louis by an elbow into the car I had parked on the lawn. It was only while collapsing into the driver’s seat that I remembered Dr. Pepper’s dominance over me. I cinched my seat belt extra tight, in the hope of pinching it all inside, then retrieved my GPS navigator to program in the Provo County Sheriff.

The ride to the Sheriff’s office was a litany of minor infractions, with the navigator’s mechanical female voice correcting each of them. “Approaching right turn…on…six-three street,” it ordered me, but I knew I didn’t have time to follow those directions.

I drove at seventy-five, against one-way traffic while dialing my cell. Carl’s voice-mail answered on his work number, so I briefed him as quickly as possible before dialing Deepak.

When possible, make a legal U-turn,” the navigator suggested.

“Deputy Nirjandi speaking,” his clipped voice answered formally. “In what manner is my service to you required?”

“You slithering, backhanded bastard,” I shouted into the phone while glancing off a curb. “How dare you apply the word ‘friend’ to Gil, or to any of us?”

“Puck,” Louis pelted from beside me, but I chopped air to silence him, releasing the wheel for a critical instant. It took a short stint on two tires to avoid a retaining wall that was holding back a lawn a retiree was watering.

Keep right at the fork…in…fifty feet.”

Deepak’s voice resumed at level, as though I had just asked him for the correct time or offered him a beer. “Mr. Puck. Your voice consistently brings me exuberance, especially against the efforts of a busy working day. Could you possibly elaborate upon your hauteur?”

Destination on the right, in…point…two…miles.” Those were true words. I knew my destination, all right.

“Puck, listen,” Louis was pleading.

Listening, though, just wasn’t in me. By then, I had reached the Sheriff’s office, and thumped my car to a halt with both feet. “I’ll elaborate all over your face,” I promised the phone, “right after I use it to spring Gil from your jail.”

You have arrived,” the navigator celebrated, as I shot from my car toward my target. “Provo County Sheriff.”

“Puck, I hafta tell you…”

But my tirade was avalanching, and I didn’t even hear Louis on my way into the building. To Deepak, through my phone, I kept making violent promises. “You think he’s guilty of assault? Give me five minutes, and I’ll redefine ‘assault’ for you. I’ll help you put the ‘ass’ in ‘assault’.”

“But Puck—”

“Ah, Mr. Puck,” Deepak was explaining as I rounded the corner that led to his desk. “I am a Sheriff’s deputy. My actions are beholden only to the Sheriff’s instructions.”

Realization sucked the anger from me, just as I came face to face with Deepak across his desk.

Louis finally finished, “Deepak didn’t arrest Gil.”

“No, I didn’t,” Deputy Deepak confirmed, still into his phone. “The Provo police, not the Sheriff, have jurisdiction over charges of assault.”

Deepak and I blinked at each other, then flipped our phones shut nearly simultaneously. My ignorance of police procedure fashioned a bloom of embarrassment that made my outburst nearly forgivable. Unable to think of much to say, I suggested simply, “Let’s go, then.”

That was enough of an apology for Deepak; he rounded the desk and fell in step with us back to my car. I gave the bathroom door only one wistful glance on my way past.

We arrived at the Provo police station less than seven minutes later, where Deepak used his professional influence to gain all three of us access to the holding cells. To the officer unlocking the door into a row of four adjacent cells, I leaned over and rocked on both feet, asking, “Listen, have you guys got a bath—”

“About time,” Gil’s voice interrupted. He was leaning his chest against a cell door, with both arms hanging limply through the bars. One side of his face was swollen from the recent fight; the other side he had pressed against the door, his left jowl pushing through the bars in folds. It was a posture of surrender. “Could one of you just pay up and get me out of here?”

“I’m sorry, man,” I apologized. “This morning, all I had to my name was five bucks and a meal coupon, and I’ve just spent them both.”

“And I,” Deepak added, “am continually squandering my earnings on food for my eight ravenous offspring.”

Briefly, our eyes fell on Louis. He was busy, though, admiring the imaginary breasts that he had made by stretching his T-shirt with both hands. When the silence distended, he looked up at each of us, and released his shirt to create a sad, sagging rack. “I’m gettin’ a hamster,” he promised us arbitrarily.

Deepak broke the resulting silence by announcing that he would try to use his professional connections to get some answers. That left Gil and me on opposite sides of the cell door, with Louis bumping around me like a housefly. Gil stood up straight, leaving two red impressions on the side of his face that had been pressed against the bars. He looked at me for a while, breathing heavily through his nostrils.

Finally, I had to say something. “Look, Gil, I’m really sorr—”

“What in the happy valley is going on, Puck?

“There were these two—”

“I mean, I go in to do some solo practice, and while I’m there I try to help out a friend.”

“I know, and I really apprec—”

“They were talking about a freaking bowling ball, man. They were dead serious about it, too. Puck,” he intensified, tightening his grip and leaning toward me. “Did you steal their bowling ball?”

I stared at the red marks on his cheek, because I couldn’t meet his eyes. The anger that I had misdirected earlier toward Deepak boomeranged back at me now as guilt. This was my fault. Keeping that ball without telling anyone—without reporting the two sweating bandits—had landed Gil in jail with no way out. Dr. Pepper kept up his pressure on my overworked bladder, but I hardly noticed now that my friend was hanging from those bars, waiting for answers.

There were a hundred mitigations that I could have chosen to tell him: a hundred good reasons that I had kept that ball. The strange weight of it, the fidgety attitude of the visitors, my suspicion that they might be casing the alley: all the reasons boiled into a worthless stew that left me with a single reason that any eight-year-old could appreciate.

“They stole ours first.”

“Revenge!” Louis shouted, drawing a glance from each of us.

“Is that it?” Gil asked with rumbling quiet. “Is the genius over here right? Did you steal it for revenge?”

“Look, Gil, I’m sorry. I’m gonna make this right.”

“Make it right?” he roared, drawing a startled whimper from Louis. “Getting me out might make it right, but I doubt that cashing in your 401K is gonna cover the costs of that! There is nothing right…”

Gil interrupted himself, here, to sigh out an enormous gust of air and retreat to sit on the bench at the back of the cell. Louis withdrew the arms that he had raised to protect his face, and Gil expressed his disgust with me by addressing him, instead. “There is nothing right about being in here while the two guys that attacked me are out on bail.”

Deepak’s voice entered the hallway before him. “The payment of a bond did not secure their release,” he told us. “It was something else.”

Gil snapped him a look. “What else?”

“I am uncertain of the precise nature of the arrangement. The brotherhood between a policeman and a deputy is a tenuous one, and they would not reveal all. Someone of great influence persuaded, or, perhaps,” he added more slowly, “intimidated these officers into dropping all charges.

“Whomever these men are,” Deepak concluded, taking a few more steps toward us, “they are deeply connected.”

‘Connected.’ If there was one word to describe what our little group wasn’t, the word might be ‘connected.’ It was hard for any of us to understand what went on in the connected world, but if someone with power was springing these two guys from jail, then that bogus bowling ball must have been a lot more important than we realized.

“That tears it,” Gil decided. “You are getting me out of here. Sell your car, rob a corner store or do whatever it takes.”

“It’s done,” a new voice announced, and Carl joined us with a briefcase in tow. “I got your message, Puck,” he told me, then turned to Gil. “The guard will be here in a second, buddy. I’ve posted your bail.”

Never one to succumb easily to gratitude, Gil bunched his face in response. “How?”

Lifting the briefcase in an exaggerated shrug, Carl offered, “I’m an accountant. Finding money is my job. I just…found some money.”

The elusive curves of his explanation cued us all to avoid further questions. Louis filled the resulting silence by observing, “Carl’s the best!”

As we were escorted from the cell area, a policeman counted off, “One prisoner, and one, two, three visitors.” He began closing the door, and seemed startled as Louis trailed after us. “Four visitors,” he corrected, squinting at a computer screen. “Why did the entry sensor only count three?”

Instead of answering him, I asked him to direct me to the bathroom. Relief had intermingled with the afternoon’s distress to bring my attention back to my need to urinate.

“Sorry,” the officer explained, without seeming very sorry. “It’s closed for cleaning.”

Outside, I shifted from foot to foot as I made Gil a promise. “I’m ending this. I’m going in to work now to get the ball, and I’m gonna bring it straight back here and turn it in.”

Gil whirled on me, his bulk stirring up some air. “No, you’re not!” he snapped.

“I’m not?”

“No, way, Puck. Something about this whole thing stinks like the can in a national park. We are not gonna just let these guys smooth-talk the cops into walking outta that cell, when they’re the ones up to something. We are gonna catch ‘em,” he promised, “and whatever they’re up to is gonna hang ‘em. You feel me?”

“Revenge!” Louis shouted.

“Damn straight, genius,” Gil agreed.

I felt myself feeding from Gil’s determination, and saw the others doing the same. His sense of justice cleansed my doubts about how I had handled the switched ball, and cleansed the blame from me in a wash of relief. We lived in a democracy, and democracies weren’t supposed to treat people differently because of someone they knew; Gil had been locked up for defending my property, while those two ghosts walked away after attacking him. The noble sign nearby read, “To Serve and Protect,” and mentioned nothing about bribery or preferential treatment. This just wasn’t going to fly.

And so, before we left, I lowered my own fly to solve two problems at once; With Dr. Pepper’s help, I protested the treatment of my friend. I protested it all over the cops’ pretentious sign.

 

Chapter IV

Alienation

The ball shook my bar where it landed. Commandeering a couple of cocktail napkins, I buttressed it against rolling onto someone’s foot, then stood back to let them all examine it. The fluorescent tube flickered above my head, causing the ball to cast a flickering, tentative shadow across the bar’s dark wood.

“Gosh, Puck,” Carl said. “It looks like any other bowling ball.”

I nodded, folded my arms, and invited, “Try lifting it.”

After several glances around, it was Gil who did the honors. He lifted it, at first, as though he were about to roll a strike: three fingers extended into the holes and flexed as if in caress. When he struggled to hold it aloft that way, though, he cupped his other hand underneath it to stop it from falling. “Sweet tarot in a pie, it’s heavy!”

I lifted an illustrative hand to say that’s what I’d been telling them. All four leaned their heads to bar-level and squinted, willing the dense, contentious ball to reveal its secrets.

They had all been together at the Starlite Lanes before I had arrived for my shift, dressed in their matching shirts and practicing for the tournament as though the day before had been ordinary. The practice had gone well, I gathered, with even Louis earning claps on the back for felling a two-pin now and then. Louis’ need to be on this team was clear and obvious; his peculiarities generally prevented friends and hamsters from appearing in his life, and wearing the team’s picture on his back—of terrified bowling pins cowering from the ball flying toward them—was something approximating a social outlet for him.

The reasons for Carl’s membership were a bit more mathematical, as were most of Carl’s reasons for doing most things. A simple and unambitious man, Carl had nonetheless trapped himself in a career that expected ambition. When Peter Putnam performed his annual reviews, expecting contributions from each of his accountants that would raise the company’s profile, Carl was able to docilely cite the Pin Punishers as a public relations tool. It was a simple way to keep Putnam off his back, all the while drinking beer and knocking stuff down. Carl had treated his boss’ demands as an accounting problem, and calculated a solution that kept everyone at a minimal level of satisfaction.

The only membership on the team that made no sense to me was Deepak’s. This was a man whose priorities had been different from ours since birth: a man who now had a wife and eight children at home. When he had first come into the alley, uniformed, armed, and carrying the flyer Carl had posted searching for bowlers, we had all assumed that we were breaking some obscure advertising law. His explanation, once translated, was that he had simply wanted to join a “team of determined sportsmen,” but that explanation made as little sense now as it had on that day. Perhaps Deepak’s differences were the reason that he preferred to wear his Sheriff’s uniform to most of the practices.

This is where Gil stood out from the rest of them. Rather than embracing the game as a fun experience or a means to an end, Gil allowed the game to embrace him, and welcomed the embrace. I could see it in his posture whenever he lined up his next strike; something would straighten and calm about him, as though greatness was there, just there, at the end of the lane and behind those neat, stationary white pins. Gil had flirted with greatness more closely than any of us, and very nearly achieved it, until he suffered an injury that still caused him to cup a hip with one hand after straightening from a shot. Still, Gil had brushed up against greatness, and liked the way it tickled. He knew the feeling and wanted it back.

I couldn’t help but wonder if that was part of the reason for Gil’s insistence that we hang onto this ball. After my show of bravado at the cop shop, I had gone home to a few renewed doubts, but Gil wouldn’t hear of turning in this ball to the authorities.

“But, what’s making it heavy, for Pélé’s sake?” Carl wondered now, pushing two fingers against the ball to test its weight.

“Hammers?” Louis suggested in a moment of innocence.

Gil was not one to let a helpful suggestion slide. “Hammers?” he questioned, then took on a greased, understanding tone that everyone but Louis knew was dangerous. “Well, that’s a fine, idea, slick. Hammers would sure be heavy enough. Only…how would they get inside,” he finished in a roar, dropping his act.

Louis knew he was backpedaling, but he pedaled faster. “Through the holes,” he defended indignantly.

“You mean the finger holes? Tell you what,” he offered, reaching for Louis’ wrist. “Let’s see how much of you fits into one of these holes!”

Gil paused in response to a restraining hand that Deputy Deepak laid on his arm, filled with an authority that went beyond just his role as a lawgiver. “The matter that most intrigues me,” Deepak said, “is not the method of increasing a ball’s mass, but the reason for it.”

“That’s true,” Carl agreed, patting Deepak’s shoulder as though he’d just aced one of his citizenship tests. “Why would anyone want to hide anything in a bowling ball, of all things? Hiya, Kay.”

Carl’s greeting was directed toward Kay Carson, who had sidled up to kiss his cheek while he was speaking. I’ve mentioned already that Kay runs the lunch counter at the opposite lane to my bar, and she makes a real vocation of it. No one who ever makes a passing comment about the poor quality of bowling-alley food has tasted Kay’s Pasta Primavera or Vegetable Risotto. I was once nearby when one poor guy ordered a burger and fries, and it must have been forty minutes before she dismissed him from her lecture about good nutrition.

Carl’s casual response to Kay’s affection didn’t surprise us, because we knew Kay so well. It’s not that he wouldn’t normally have emptied his inhaler over a kiss from someone as attractive as she, but Kay was a kisser, and Carl knew it. We all did. A kiss on the cheek from Kay, normally executed on tiptoe, was a tactile treat, but it was not an invitation to pursue romance.

“What’s with the ball?” she asked, now kissing Gil, who brushed her off his face like a spider.

“Two suits took a beating for it, yesterday,” he explained vaguely. “We figure it’s gotta be worth something.”

“Oh, yeah,” Kay brightened, chewing something and turning to me. “Those two bruised-up guys in the neckties that came in earlier. They was lookin’ for you, Puck.”

The casual hand with which she delivered this news gripped my heart, for a moment, and squeezed. “For me?” I squeaked.

“Sure, for you, only they was all formal-like. Called you by your real name: you know,” she supplied, as though I wouldn’t know my own name, “Paul Petraluk.”

Suddenly glad that I had shut down all the machinery and locked up the alley for the night, I glanced my friends over one by one, looking for a clue as to how these goons had learned my name. Carl had lifted his glasses to regard me with wide eyes, Gil had clamped a hand over the mystery-ball, and Louis was blithely pursing his lips into the reflection cast by a beer mug. Deepak, though, raised his eyebrows and gave me some insight. “It would seem,” he said, “that your newest frequents have more access to intelligence than we gleaned.”

“So, anyways, I’m off,” Kay sang before kissing Deepak, then me, on the cheek. “Jimmy ain’t been eatin’ the food I leave him lately, and I gotta make sure he knocks off the frozen pizzas.” With a feminine swirl, then, she was off toward the sliding glass entrance.

The ominous air pushed away our curiosity, and clamped us into uncertain silence. We had been expecting a return visit from the strangers, but here, in the Starlite Lanes, on our terms; now, it seemed, they could come to our homes to conduct their business. It just wouldn’t do, and Gil was the first to say so.

“I…have…had it!” he erupted, rising to his feet with the ball in a finger-grip, despite its weight. “These losers throw me to the law, dodge it themselves, then come back to threaten my friends. It ends tonight,” he promised, looking around at us, “you feel me?”

We all might well have felt him, indeed, had it not been for the gunshot that rang over our heads.

As I dove for cover, some small part of me that wasn’t trying to wet itself registered that Kay must have let our friends in while letting herself out. Two more shots deafened the room, taking out the one good light above the bar; then, the echo died, leaving only the sound of Louis whimpering, over and over, “Too loud. Too loud.”

Someone hauled me to my feet by the back of my shirt, then graveled into my ear, “Where is it?”

Before I could respond, another sound split the room, this one much more familiar: a dull bounce, followed by a rumble that could only mean someone had rolled a ball.

It was Gil. He had rolled the ball.

Every head in the room turned its eyes toward the sound, toward the sight of the trophy receding toward its ten straight targets. Every head but mine, that is; while my captor was distracted, I mustered the wits to glance down at the ball-return mechanism, ensuring that I had flicked the kill switch behind the bar earlier, when the boys had refused to stop bowling. The ball would be stuck in the gully behind the pins, hardly inaccessible, but its distance might buy us a few more minutes.

By now, the ball had struck home, and struck a strike. Later, I would feel amused when I remembered that Gil couldn’t help but give his signature victory dance, even with the firearms that were trained on him. Turning and cradling his hip, he seemed to remember the circumstances we were in, and the cheese faded quickly from his smile.

“Too loud,” Louis chanted from where he lay, face down, on the floor. “Too loud.”

“I have had enough of these losers!” my captor grimaced.

“Point of information,” I responded. “Don’t losers usually do a lot more losing?”

It was the taller, nastier suit that had his muzzle jammed into my ribs, and he ground it there in response to my comment. My sarcasm felt familiar, but more tentative with the danger, like bicycling on gravel.

“Shut your hole,” he grimaced, and my hole not only shut, but contracted to a needle-point.

The shorter, more polite bandit was nudging Carl in front of him with his own firearm, crossing them both toward where Gil stood near the score bench. “I don’t know why this is so much trouble,” he placated. “All we want is the ball that we left here, and we’ll leave you alone.”

Louis’ mantra suddenly shifted to, “Finders, Keepers!” To silence him, my gun-wielding shadow kicked him sideways in the ribs. This drew a yelp of protest from Carl, who was still with his own new friend, now within reach of Gil.

The diplomat between them, though, seemed to pick up on Louis’ logic. “We own the ball,” he reasoned, “so why can’t we have it?”

Several things happened all at once, then. First, Deepak dropped from the top of the shoe shelves, where he had climbed during the confusion, still in uniform from his day’s shift and wielding his own gun. Before my captor could turn on him, Louis bit his ankle, screaming, “Ghindersh, Keewersh,” through a layer of sock. Firing an elbow into this distraction, I managed to send him backward a step or two, where he would have fallen over were it not for Deepak’s muzzle waiting to hold him up.

Concerned for my other friends, I was relieved to see that Carl had tracked his gunman’s voice to perfectly calculate the trajectory of a backward-aimed foot to the groin. Gil, the great exploiter, picked up two balls from the caddy, held them out at arms’ length like a winged predator, then swung them together to connect on either side of the little guy’s skull. Eyes popping and face elongated under the pressure, Carl’s former captor stayed on his feet, held erect by two bowling balls against his temples, and did not crumple to the floor until Gil finally released him.

“It would be in your interests,” Deepak suggested, “to relinquish possession of your firearms into my custody.”

“You’re making a mistake,” the bigger guy threatened, which was a mistake in itself because it caused Deepak to crack him unconscious with the butt of his gun.

“No fighting,” Louis insisted. It was good advice, but a few moments too late.

The room clicked and buzzed around us in its usual manner, neon signs advertising beer and snacks by lighting and darkening as if nothing had happened. We were all experiencing a sort of aftershock that follows any unlikely victory, and leaves in its wake the question of what to do next.

Then, the question was taken from us by a new arrival. “I told you, Agent Green, that we should not worry. These gentlemen have things under control.”

Just entering the room and holstering their own sidearms, two dark-haired men in suits and sunglasses were observing the results of our little fight as though it had been a sporting event. For a moment, I wondered if I were still in Provo; I hadn’t ever seen so many well-dressed denizens in so short a time.

“Indeed, Agent Brown. I should have had more faith in your opinion.”

Agent Green? Agent Brown? I was no Carl Onslow, but I could sense when something didn’t add up.

‘Agent Green’ was approaching Deepak, displaying some kind of badge in a flip-open wallet. “FBI,” Deepak read appreciatively. “It is a significant distinction to augment the efforts of the United States government.”

Green balked at this as if trying to process what Deepak had said, as did Brown on his way over to the others while removing a pair of cuffs from his belt. “Uh…thanks,” Green replied uncertainly, then regathered himself. “These, uh…gentlemen are wanted for being in possession of…government property. Have you seen a bowling ball around here?”

Questions like that are just designed to make my day. “We don’t deal in many,” I said, shrugging my gaze toward the lanes. “I mean, you know; they’re pretty rare.”

Gil began to circle defensively between Agent Brown and the ball caddy. Clearly, he didn’t want to give up our enigmatic prize so quickly. Deepak, though, was expressing full acceptance of the agents’ requests. “My colossal friend rolled the ball that you are seeking into the game receptacle for safekeeping,” he explained. Turning to me, he ordered, “Turn on the ball-return mechanism, Mr. Puck.”

“Aw, come on!” Gil protested.

“Mr. Puck,” Deepak repeated, but this time used his eyes to broadcast something that gave me a bit more confidence. “Turn it on, please.”

I complied, bringing into life the whine and scrape of machinery that laced the building. Balls began rolling into the caddy, and Deepak hurried down to pick one up and hand it to Brown. “Please accept our full buttress of the government’s efforts.”

Brown blinked across the room at Green, with Gil pacing in circles behind him all the while. “Thank you,” he finally said. “We’ll uh…take these two palookas off your hands, too.”

“Hands off the bazookas!” Louis tried to repeat.

He was close enough, as it turned out. “Now, Agent Brown,” Deepak smiled, “there is no need for you to exceed the customary limits of generosity. You would have long since been edified with regard to the rules of custody in matters of theft against intergovernmental bodies.” When Brown didn’t respond, Deepak slowed his explanation to near-monosyllables. “The property,” he explained, “is returned to you, but the thieves are remanded to the local Sheriff.”

“Right,” Brown replied, then added more confidently, “of course. Then they’re all yours, Deputy. Just let us know if you need any more help.”

Moments later, the two agents had left us, carrying their bowling ball. Only, I suspected two things that Deepak already knew.

“Come, on,” Gil objected again.

Even Carl had to agree. “Deepak, I wonder if it wouldn’t have been better to find out what’s going on before the agents left.”

That was the first thing that Deepak and I knew. “Those were not agents,” he explained. “If those had been agents, they would have apprehended me for the perjury that I committed regarding rules of custody.”

Gil’s predictable next outburst came at the same time as the ball-return mechanism rumbled, struggling more than usual to roll a ball back toward the caddy. “Then why in the name of colonial calisthenics did you give them the ball?”

That was the exact moment that caddy belched out one final ball, which knocked too hard against the others, due to its excessive weight. This was the second thing that Deepak and I both knew.

“What ball?” I called toward Gil, catching Deepak’s smile in response. “You mean that ball?”