On Memory Lanes
by Shawn Jacobson
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
Uncle Carl handed me the soda, and I asked, “Uncle Carl, what are the Spirit Trains like?”
“When we get to Chicago tomorrow, you may get to ride the elevated trains.”
“So, the spirit trains are like the El?”
“Kind of,” he replied “but they’re underground, like the subway they’re digging in Des Moines, and they go a lot farther, a lot faster, too. You can travel from the Canadian border to the Arizona corridor in four hours, maybe less. Pretty much the only folk who ride them are the Spirit People, but sometimes ordinary folk ride them when there is need.”
“And you rode them?” I asked knowing that this would start Uncle Carl on one of his stories.
“Just once,” he said, “I was supposed to mediate some issues at a High Council north of Tucson. They wanted the Council convened quickly, so I rode down from Deseret with a couple of Mormon leaders and a couple of the Spirit Folk. It was incredible: very fast, but very smooth. It wasn’t very scenic being underground, but impressive nonetheless.”
“And how about the High Council?” I asked, prompting him to continue.
Uncle Carl continued telling a wondrous tale of a school with Spirit Folk and ordinary kids in the same class and the problems that caused. There were heroic children having their minds read by telepaths and ceremonies and mysterious rites and all sorts for excitement. It was one of Uncle Carl’s best stories, and every time he told it, it was just enough different to feel new.
“What did the Council decide?” I asked, though I knew the answer.
“They decided that the teacher should write down what happened in her school so that there would be a record. Then they would make a final decision.”
I would have given my right arm to read those chronicles. And I would have given my soul to go to such a magical school, to have my life touched by such wonders.
I looked up to see Dad bowl another perfect strike. As the thunder of falling pins subsided, I noticed the scoreboard. Dad was perfect through four frames. I took a swallow from my drink, now interested in what happened on the alleys.
There is a pro bowler known as “The Machine” because of his consistency. Dad was like that, seemingly mechanical, throwing strike after strike. If Dad was ever going to bowl a perfect game in his life, well, this would be the night. Dad had mentioned on the way from Iowa that the owner would pay five grand to anyone who bowled a perfect game. I thought of cool ways to spend the money.
But even machines malfunction. Dad’s approach in the ninth, was just off enough to swing the ball too far right. It finally hooked toward the headpin, but way too late. Dad tried to pull the ball toward the pocket as if it were on a string, but that never worked.
The ball hit to the right of the headpin shoving the pins on the right side to the back of the lane. Suddenly, a pin bounced back from the pinsetter and tapped the seven just hard enough. Pins started falling forward till the headpin tottered and fell. It was a backward strike.
“Now that was as strange as anything I’ve seen out west,”Uncle Carl said.
“Weird,” Brad said tersely as he pulled off his headphones, returning to the world just as things got strange.
“He’s going to do it now,” Mom exclaimed, “He got a lucky break on that shot. Dad’s going to get a perfect game! Only three more strikes. Just do it.”
Dad had come close before. A couple of years back in a league game, Dad had thrown ten strikes. Then, on what had seemed a perfect shot, he’d left the ten-pin standing. He’d cussed the lanes with fury the whole way home; no one wanted to be in the same room with him the rest of the night.
I sat there waiting for the tenth frame. I glanced to the right. Lisbet gave me a smile so bright that it seemed to harness the sun. It lit me up briefly, warming parts of me I didn’t know I had.
“I told you he’d get better,” she said. Then she turned back to her father, leaving me with a residue of what I later learned to call joy.
By the time Dad got up to bowl, everybody turned to watch. Even the guys drinking at the bar turned their stools to look at Dad as he picked up his ball. He wiped it with a towel to get the oil off and backed up till the backs of his shoes touched the end of the approach. Pushing off, he started towards the foul line. Dad let the ball swing, letting his body power the shot as he had taught me to do. Then there was the release: strike!
We all sighed with relief as the pins came down; the machine was back. Dad just picked the ball from the ball return, wiped it, backed to the approach’s end and threw another businesslike strike as if it were the simplest thing in the world. We all figured he’d get his 300 game now.
Some people say that there is no beauty in bowling; they are wrong. When my dad threw the ball, and did it right, it was a graceful act, a soaring stretch of body and swing of arm. A good approach put me in mind of a bird taking flight. Dad’s last shot started that way.
“Stop! You’re dropping the ball!” a man screamed as he ran towards Dad from the door marked “STAFF ONLY.” Dad flinched, just enough, and the ball went skidding towards the right, riding the edge of the gutter. We turned away from the disastrous shot.
I started down to where Dad stood to see what was going to happen. I pushed past a couple of guys who were getting out of the way — I suspected they had a good idea what was coming — and tried to get to my dad. Mom grabbed me by the sleeve.
“Stay here!” she said. The note of command in her voice froze me to the spot.
But by now, I was close enough to see it all. Dad and the other man, I would learn that he was the owner of the place, were yelling. Dad used Army language that would have gotten my mouth washed out with Lava soap. Some of the other bowlers were trying, vainly, to calm him down, afraid of a fight.
Then I noticed Lisbet right in the middle of it all screaming at the man. “If you don’t have the money...” Her voice broke, unwilling to say the rest.
And then something scary weird happened. She gave the man a look I’ve never seen before and hope never to see again. The owner started to quake and I knew — never mind how — that he’d gone beyond stark terror to some nightmare place beyond.
And then I knew why: his thoughts, his petty deceits and lies and his disregard for others, were thrust before me and, somehow, I know these thoughts for the evil abominations they were. For all the shock and shame I felt at seeing these things, I realized that I only got a shadow of the dark revelation, as if I stood at the edge of a soul-consuming furnace of divine wrath.
I would learn later in life that the owner was no worse than most folk but, right then, his evil was inescapably scarlet. I’ve never been a churchy sort of person, but whenever I hear preachers talk about the judgement of the damned, I go back to that moment in the bowling alley.
The owner wailed, shoving wads of cash at Dad. “Take the money. Take it all; it’s all I have. Take it and be gone. Take your devil-spawned friends and be gone. Take the money, just never come back. Never bring your devils here again. Just leave. In the name of almighty God, leave!”
And while all this was going on, I looked up at the overhead scoreboard. Somehow, Dad’s ball managed to stay on the alley knocking the ten-pin off the back of the pinsetter back to catch the seven. Two pins down on the last ball, a 292 game.
Later, at a calmer time, Dad would show me the certificate he had received. It said that 292 was the rarest score in bowling. Out of all the games bowled in history, only 20 games had ended up with that score. I guess if you can’t have perfection, you can have something extraordinary, and that’s something. But Dad wasn’t thinking of the compensation of an extraordinary game when he grabbed his ball.
“Let’s get the hell out of here,” he said. Nobody argued; Mom didn’t even criticize his language.
In silence, we left that place on the edge of town, past the giant ball and pin into the night, full of the sounds of town and the country smells of hay and manure.
“Too bad that guy ruined Dad’s perfect game,” I said, turning to Carl.
“You’re right,” he said, “though I’m not sure it was really all his.”
“Why wouldn’t it be?” I blurted.
“Remember the ninth, that lucky strike?”
“Yah, I guess,” I said though now it seemed forever ago.
“You ever see Dad throw a backwards strike? For that matter, have you ever heard of one?”
“No,” I replied, “what are you saying?”
“You know that family, Bram, Lisbet, their folks, the ones we had supper with and you played with?”
“Sure,” I said, “really nice folk. What about them?”
“You remember that their father said that they were from west of where we live, west of Iowa?”
“Yeah, from Nebraska or someplace like that.”
“I’d guess they’re from farther west than Nebraska. From a lot farther west.”
“From the Spirit Lands?” I asked. “You think they’re Spirit Folk?”
“I don’t think so, not regular Spirit Folk anyway. If they were regular Spirit Folk, they would have done some real damage. Spirit folk aren’t known for putting up with the owner’s sort of garbage, and they don’t mind showing their power when it needs to be shown.
“No, it’s more likely they’re newcomers. You remember how I told you that the newcomers came from the same world as the Spirit Folk, but later, about a century ago, during those stalemate wars with the Indians. Well, they don’t write of it in the history books, but the newcomers did much to bring peace to the West. As you said, they’re really good people.”
“But if they’re good people,” I asked, “why would they help Dad cheat?”
“Because they’re alien,”Uncle Carl replied. “They are like the Spirit Folk in that way. They look like us, talk like us, and mostly act like us when they’re not showing off. It’s easy to be lulled into thinking they’re human. But then something happens...”
“Okay, I understand they’re alien,” I said, “but what about the bowling?”
“You remember that I told you they were telepaths, that they could read each other’s minds and even read ours?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Well, if they win in a game, they feel the victory, but they also experience what the other guy feels when he loses. It makes for being less competitive. I don’t think they have a lot of competitive sports or play a lot of games with winning and losing. I don’t think they have the concept of sportsmanship the way we do.
“They may very well consider sports to be like art. To help someone bowl a perfect game might seem to them no more wrong than it would be to help a sculptor carve a statue out of a particularly difficult piece of rock. While Dad was bowling his game, someone in their family, probably one of the kids, decided to help him create this great work of bowling art. Just like Bram helped you create pinball art.”
“It was more than just a flip of the wrist?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, “definitely more than just a flick of the wrist.”
And then I remembered Lizbet telling me that Dad would do better after the fence Mom had given him. ‘Where did Dad’s bowling leave off and the magic begin?’ I wondered, but I didn’t want to ask, not tonight.
“The adults know enough not to mess with what they don’t understand,”Uncle Carl said, “but the kids need to learn these things. Lisbet, for instance, might have lent a hand with the bowling. For one thing, I think she’s a little sweet on you.”
“Ugh,” I said, but my heart wasn’t in it.
Carl went on: “Them being newcomers explains a lot of stuff, like the hunger we felt this evening. We were probably feeling their lack of food. You see, the Spirit Folk, and especially the newcomers, are rich in spirit and in power, but not rich in money; they’ve probably been skipping meals.”
“And then there’s what happened to the owner,”Uncle Carl continued. “I guess you heard him, everyone did.”
“I felt it, too, some of it, anyway. What the hell was that?” I asked. “Or maybe I don’t want to know.”
“It’s called the mirror,”Uncle Carl explained. “It takes the things buried in your head and brings them to the surface for you to see. Their version of psychiatrists use the mirror to help folks face their problems. When used wisely, it can bring healing. When used in anger, as happened tonight,”Uncle Carl continued, “well, it’s like having an angry God stomp through your soul throwing your trash out for everyone to see. It can be a truly horrifying experience; you can break people with the mirror, especially when you’re as strong with it as Lisbet is. She has talent.”
“Yeah,” I said, “I can believe that; I thought I was going to break, and I just got the edge of it, not near what the owner got.”
“Newcomers consider it a perversion of a gift to use the mirror that way. Lisbet may be in serious trouble with her folks for doing what she did.”
“I should hope so,” I said shuddering with the memory. It was crazy hard to believe that the girl with the sunny smile could do that. Suddenly I realized that wonder was more than the fun in stories, it could be dark and scary and make you unsure of just what was real. I realized that there might be good reason to fear the Spirit Folk, to see them as devils. Fear was not always a bad thing.
I spent that night wrestling with the things I had just experienced, weighing fear against wonder. How did I really feel about the West, the Spirit Folk, and all of Uncle Carl’s stories?
As the night progressed, wonder won out. I would still sell my soul to go to the magic school of Uncle Carl’s stories, even if danger was part of the bargain. This left me with a question for Uncle Carl.
“Do you think I could ever go to the Spirit Lands?” I asked Uncle Carl the next day as we headed east toward Chicago.
“When you’re old enough, if you want to seek Lisbet out there, it will be your choice,” my uncle replied.
I wondered how he could read my mind like a Spirit Person. “And when will I be old enough?” I asked.
“First,” he replied, “you should know how much of you wanting to go is you and how much is Lisbet. That can be hard to tell, even for an adult.” Uncle Carl paused, letting me ponder that.
“You need to know that the mirror is far from the scariest thing out there,” Uncle Carl continued. “If you ride west like a cowboy, not knowing what to fear, you could get yourself killed or worse. Not all the Spirit Folk are as good as the folk we met last night.”
“Evil?” I asked.
“Worse,” Uncle Carl replied. “Careless. They don’t all worry about what happens to bystanders when they do their miracles of science. Their science is great, like magic, and it takes great responsibility to use it right. They’re not always responsible.”
“I can see that,” I said reconsidering the mirror.
“If your heart is set on going west,” Uncle Carl said, “I should tell you different stories, stories of fear and madness and the dark places I’ve seen people end up, places from which it is damned hard to return to the light. After that, if you still want to go, then going is what you should do; it may be your destiny.”
“Yes, I would like that,” I said with some trepidation, feeling that I was making the first big decision of my life.
Today, I am traveling west. I cannot say that I know it is all my wish and not some other’s or that I know what I will find there, but then these are the unknowns of life. I do know that I carry Uncle Carl’s stories, the joyous ones and the dark ones, and I hope to find friends at the end of my travels. Maybe, like the schoolteacher in Uncle Carl’s story, I’ll be called to make a record of these things. If so, I hope these tales find their purpose and that what I have told you is the first of many stories.
Copyright © 2017 by Shawn Jacobson