Friday nights half the neighborhood paraded off to shul, chit-chatting about God knows what, past the other half huddling in groups by the corner, shooting the bull, laughing out loud, while I just trudged my droopy rear-end eight blocks to the Neptune Lanes, where I'd hear comments all the time like, Hey, look at Butterball there throwing gutter balls! Who let The Blob out? You in the wrong place? And, When's feeding time? I'd hear it but I wouldn't because, for at least a couple of hours each week, bowling helped blot out me having no friends and a father who wouldn't actually talk to me, except to say, "What a disgrace!" Plus, if I got there early enough my eighteen year old cousin Irwin, who had a soft spot for Mom, might assign me Lane 36, where whatever spectacle I'd make was mostly hidden from view anyway.
The crash of the ball rocketing into the pins, the echo an explosive hit in the pocket made, these sounds were magic from another world. They promised deliverance. The problem being, my game didn't generate them much cause I truly sucked at bowling, same as everything else. It wasn't till I started going Wednesdays too, straight from eleventh period at Lincoln, and whatever meager allowance Mom managed to sneak past the old man got used up paying for alley time, that my scores started inching higher.
Then the night arrived when the fat kid broke 100. Not that I had anyone to tell, not that they would've sung hallelujah even if I did. To me though, it was everything. The first thing I'd do each Wednesday and Friday after this was scour the alleys for the lucky ball I'd used: a dull Brunswick Black Beauty with one triangular nick near the thumb hole. Old Butterball, I called it, and I got to know every mark on her by heart.
This one night some pint sized lady with steel wool gray hair, powdery make up and a prune-faced scowl of concentration grabbed Butterball first and I couldn't stop pacing, counting the frames off, cursing to myself.
"What are you sweating for?" Irwin asked me. "You little mooch."
The old witch made out like she was a pro, the show she'd make of drying her hands off with resin, everything she did took forever, and when she dropped the ball one time my heart stopped. Then the second she finally walked I pounced for the thing, kissed it on the nick for good measure, shut my eyes and, before our first roll, gave Butterball my usual pep talk about me and her being two of a kind.
Twice a week I kept at it, without fail, and our numbers kept climbing. Then, fall term sophomore year, something finally clicked, my right arm muscle might've strengthened a little and I got halfway decent, shooting way up around 145. This spurred me on. Nothing to rave about till this blustery Wednesday night, the whole so-called normal world's doing homework, shooting hoops at the Night Center, or wrapped up in other social pursuits I couldn't even fathom, me and trusty Old Butterball did the incomprehensible, shattering the 200 barrier. 203 to be exact, annihilating our previous high of 172. There was nobody around to make fun of me, and she kept gliding out of my hand straight as a bullet, hitting the pocket just perfect, a thing of beauty, powee! Each frame of the first six we scored marks.
This jacked my confidence over the moon, but also got me spooked someone might mess with Butterball, or God forbid drop the thing again, and it would crack. I started taking elaborate precautions to conceal its whereabouts, pleading with Irwin to stash her away for safekeeping until my next visit. Twice a week, like clockwork, I tried buttering him up, asking politely, then twice a week he'd shake his head, smirking down from his throne by the entrance, in stone cold silence.
One time around the holidays though, the lanes were deserted and Irwin pushed his loudspeaker microphone aside. "House policy," he explained, narrowing his eyes. "Buy your own damn ball, fly shit. You ain't here enough?"
"Lend me twenty-five bucks then," I asked him, "cause every penny your Aunt Yetta could scrape together goes to me renting shoes or paying for alley time."
"Yeah, I'll lend you. Right away!" He shot me the finger, then fired up another of his Pall Malls. "Like you'd pay me back ever, you little mama's boy. Get some working papers, why don't you? You're what now, fifteen?"
"Very funny. Who'd hire me?"
"Got that right," he agreed. "So what are you rolling, at least? And don't lie, I'll kick your ass."
"Averaging close to 150 lately."
"Get away from here! You don't average no 150. Swear on your mother."
"I'm telling you," I said. "Sometimes better."
"Right. Throwing that dinky flat ball still?"
"Yeah, if I try hooking, it spins out of control."
He stared. "What you need is a freaking manager."
"What do you mean, manager?"
"Next Friday," he said, "get your butt here extra early, you hear me, Alan? It's a longshot but I'm going to have you meet someone could change your whole miserable existence. So don't say I never done you no favors. Happy New Year's. Now, get lost before I change my mind. Scram!"
I had no idea he meant Maish Appel, the neighborhood legend mixed up in all kinds of shady goings on. Don't know if it was the chewed up unlit cigar stub that never left the corner of his mouth, the stained off-white bucket hat pulled over both ears, the greasy Daily News sweatshirt, or his eagerness to take action on anything that moved, but Maish cut quite the unforgettable figure around Brighton. Me and him were unlikely to cross paths, with nothing in common but our ample girth. Unlike yours truly though, he had pockets bulging with wads of cash. And the truth being you couldn't make out what he ever said a hundred percent until you got used to the way he mumbled, how full his mouth was of cigar juice, and this nutty vocabulary he favored.
"Dig Smilin' Jack here," he said, for instance, right after Irwin introduced us that Friday, jerking a finger at Crazy Johnny Phelan, the fearsome manager of Neptune Lanes. "Cat's not hip to himself at all, got the tiniest pee wee in Brooklyn, pulls it twice a day but still needs a magnifying glass, you dig? So what's your scene, Junior?" he asked, turning to me, snapping his fingers. "You jacking it off yet?"
I cleared a path, as I'd seen Phelan's volcanic temper erupt before over nothing and fully expected the mad hatter to start throwing haymakers at this monster insult, but he just twirled his scummy mustache, called Maish an obese degenerate lowlife kook he felt sorry for, then muttered he had serious business to attend to and strutted back to his office.
"You and me," Maish said, cracking pistachios between his teeth, spitting red shells in his hand, "let's roll 'em. We got to verify your potential."
A southpaw who tossed a sweeping hook, to look at this character you'd never guess he could bowl, but once he finished the nuts it was clear that the ball rolled out of his meaty hand with authority. And, for a guy with such an imposing gut, he had this feathery touch, kicking a leg way up behind him on the follow through. He even converted on a split.
Before this, me and Butterball had played strictly against ourselves, so my knees started buckling, but we lined up, nailed a bunch of lucky strikes, and rolled a solid 169, leaving just two frames open and edging Maish by three pins in the tenth.
"All business," he said. "Out of sight! So, you got the mad munchies, Clutch?"
"Always," I answered, patting my jiggly mid-section.
In the lot outside he approached the most high class car I'd ever seen, by far.
"This is yours?" I asked.
"I's a working man," he said, patting the hood of the glossy silver convertible. "This being my one indulgence: a 19-and-65 Biarritz. Know what that is, kid? Town over in France I was stationed where zee so-called beautiful people congregate to burn their money. Bikini heaven. Paradise."
"Next year's model?" I whistled, and he just winked.
When we got in, he dialed up this corny old time music on the radio, gunned it to Tootsie's Diner on Avenue U, and hummed along to the Andrews Sisters or whoever it was without saying boo till we got there. Me, I just kept rubbing my palm on the leather upholstery in disbelief. Soft as butter, wow! Holy smokes!
The hatchet face old Toots crushed out her Tiparillo, folded Maish in a big hug, swatted his hand away when he went to pinch her backside, then walked us to that private booth in back, the one reserved for royalty.
"Goddamn Mets," she croaked, her voice huskier than his. "Costing me a fortune lately. Miserable crooks!"
"Want the skinny?" he asked her. "Don't bet baseball. College hoops."
Tootsie's rheumy made-up eyes met mine. "Listen good," she told me, pointing her finger at Maish before leaving. "Take notes, kid. He's a sports genius."
Maish lit the cigar stub, then sounded off from behind a fog of noxious smoke, getting right to the point. "So, is green even your scene, Gene? You're not some yeshiva bochur, are you?"
"Me?" I said.
"Cause, if you're for real, you and me gawn be invincible. But first, you got to clue me in: is you is, babe, or is you ain't?"
"Not sure Mr. Appel, sir. Is your question if I like money? I mean, who doesn't? But I never got any."
"That is my pee-oh-zoint, man, exact-ickly. Ain't got nothing but holes in your soles, right? You're a demoralized cat, every aspect, except how good you wail on those pins. Up to you, Clutch, you want to snap out of it? Cause we could make us a bee-oh-zundle." His hand rose from the table, an inch higher with each word. "Thousands upon thousands, you read me? Might even get yourself laid. Phelan won't hang you up no more, nothing. But first things first." He snapped his fingers. "Call me Maish. Yeah? Forget the 'Mr. Appel, sir' jazz, you dig?"
My legs turned to jelly, I clammed up and got a surge, an electric jolt really, shooting through my spine, squinting into the smoky haze, picturing riches piled on that table. Jewelry, gold watches. I repeated Maish under my breath twice, like a magic incantation.
"What?" he said, pointing. "What are you staring?"
"I mean, how? How do we make us thousands?"
"Easy: by you having faith. Know what that is?"
He peeled off a ten, leaned forward and stuffed it in my shirt pocket.
"What?" I said. "I can't take this."
He laughed. "Never heard of a down payment? In good faith?"
"Jeez. What for?"
"For me to know and you to find out, all in due time. Military secret."
I just squinted at him.
"You respect your elders, don't you, kid? You want in?"
I removed the ten and uncrumpled it on the table top. A stamp of blurry red ink on the back of the bill looked like something official from a bank. I couldn't make out what it said. What would my own bag to carry Butterball around cost? A velour shirt, like the cool kids had? Maroon colored. Some pearl earrings for Mom? I stuffed the money in my pocket.
"Atta boy. You ready for chow?" Tapping the menu, he took a big bite of a sour tomato from the relish tray Toots had sent over. Some green juice and seeds dripped down his chin.
"Just wondering, Maish: you take the cigar out to eat supper?"
A couple weeks later and we'd bowled like three hours every day but one. Old Butterball was feeling lighter than ever, we'd learned a couple new tricks, and when Maish blew into Neptune an hour late, huffing and puffing, he informed me we were heading down Coney Island Avenue just a stone's throw to win us some pocket change.
"You're hitting the mid-170's consistent," he told me. "At a minimum. Time we jump head first in a pot game."
"Think we're ready?"
"Easy pickings," he said.
"Can't bowl without my ball though," I told him. "No way it's possible."
"So? Bring it," he said, motioning with his hand. "Come on."
"It's not mine really. It's Neptune's."
He turned on his heel, pulled out a five and sauntered over to Irwin. "Your cousin's ball, pal, we're requisitioning it. Thing's a piece of shit anyway."
Irwin checked left and right, pocketed the bill and said, "All yours, Mr. A."
"Next stop," Maish said to me, "enemy territory."
So me, him and Butterball piled in the Caddy and I started shaking, while he just hummed along under his breath to some smooth hypnotic Mel Torme number. Came this close to piping up, cause the way he'd put Butterball down didn't sit right, but being scared shit, all I could do was stare out the window.
"Holy moly," I said, the second we hit the doorway.
These lanes were a different environment, sleek and spacious, lit up all garish. To the left three gray haired guys in iridescent suits and what looked like alligator shoes sat stirring drinks and yukking it up around a bar with a few dolled up old blondes in glittery dresses draped over them.
"You copacetic?" Maish asked, ushering me forward. "Looking kind of pale. Want a ginger ale?"
"No," I said, shading my eyes. "It's just, I don't know. More of a glare here than Neptune, more hoopla, looks fancier, more expensive. A little creepy."
"Slight change of scenery, you'll be A-Okay, babe. Don't go psychological on me."
"Hope we bowl good though. Don't want to let you down, Maish."
"Hey," he said, squeezing my neck. "Loosey goosey, kid. Win, lose or draw, don't matter one way or the other, could learn something from everything. Told you that, didn't I? All how we play it. Grab some shoes there and warm up, I'll go find us a pigeon. No sweat."
"Be cool, baby," I whispered to Butterball, exhaling onto my fingertips. We bowled a few frames and she came rolling out a little wobbly. Unsure of herself. After each throw I checked over my shoulder till about five minutes later, Maish and two other guys materialized.
"Tell you what," I heard Maish say, "while you're killing time till your big action match, I'll put my nephew Ira here up against both your boys. Sight unseen."
They squinted at each other, a little befuddled, just like me. Ira?
"Assuming," Maish said, "you got what it takes to play us."
"This kid, here?" the squeaky voiced guy asked him, he was bald, wearing an undershirt beneath an unzipped chocolate brown leather jacket that covered his knees. "You serious?"
"No, I'm bullshitting," Maish said. "What's the story, Sal? You want a wager, or what?"
"No offense," the other guy in the skin-tight pants and ski hat said. "But we don't give spots."
"Straight pins," Maish said cracking his knuckles. He took out one of his wads. "Pot game, say we each put up fifty. Can you cover that?"
Hearing this I almost keeled over.
"You're serious?" Sal asked again, and he started laughing, a big phlegmy laugh.
"All right, forget this, we're walking, kid," Maish called out, "Kings Highway here is all jabberwocky. Ain't got the stones to have their boys bowl The Mighty Ira."
Then both of them started waving hands in the air, squawking.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa," the ski hat guy said, "hold on, Captain, we'll bowl you. Fifty?"
"We'll start there," Maish said.
I began rubbing Old Butterball's dusty rough skin, told her, "Loosen up, get in the mood, baby, and make Maish proud. We're counting on you."
Inside two minutes this stocky red headed kid strutted over, looked about nineteen, bopping up and down in flashy purple shoes and an embroidered team bowling jacket with a big letter "O" on the back.
"Who we playing?" he asked the man in the ski hat. "Who's going down?"
The guy puffed his cheeks out and pointed at me. His eyes got big.
"No, really," the redhead said, squinting. "What's the gag?"
Then, some pock-marked toothpick whose jet black hair was swirled back in a vaselined pompadour came loping over, all shoulders and gangly arms, slapping fives with the redhead. The shiny crimson colored satin shirt he had on was open at the neck. "Good luck, O'Brien. Going to need it. Cause you ain't got nothing. Where's the fish?"
O'Brien covered his mouth and gestured to me with his head.
Pompadour wheeled around to Sal, threw a thumb my way and shrugged.
"You got it, Philly boy," Sal said, clapping then rubbing his hands together. "Do what you do, man, show no mercy."
"Piece of cake," this Philly said, chewing gum like a real wise guy. "May the best man, or whatever this thing here's supposed to be, win."
O'Brien turned to him. "Hey, Schnozzola, makes no difference if we are doubles partners, I'm going to eat your freaking lunch."
"Yeah? If we're not careful, this one here looks like he could devour both of ours. And supper too."
"Just play your game," Maish whispered, patting my backside. "Don't stoop to their level."
I nodded. "Believe me," I whispered back.
So, all through warm ups both showboats kept the patter going nonstop, cursing each other, life, their ball, me, how oiled up they complained the lane was, the fluorescent lighting, they used filthy dirty curses I never heard before trying to rattle me and one another, comments about, "Look at this baby elephant," but I didn't answer so much as one word back. Not hello, good luck, have a nice game, zero. Wouldn't glance their way even once. Me and Butterball shut everything out, just kept our eyes riveted on knocking pins down in practice.
"Now or never," I said, standing at the line. This was it. I shook my hands loose, glanced back around and saw Maish with his arms folded over his sweatshirt, like a sphinx, chewing. His eyes blank.
I wouldn't look at them, I just heard how hard the ball crashed each time they rolled. I could tell by their exclamations ("scumbag this," or "fat ass mother that") how good or bad they were doing. Didn't check my numbers either, Maish was keeping score, writing everything down.
So, no way did I imagine we had it in us, but me and Butterball went on to crush the best game of our life, and sink both these rats. A record breaker, 227. Maish had to tell me when it was over, so I didn't keep going.
He nodded, winked, shot the double thumbs up, then arranged something he called a three game total wood match for double or nothing, during which they still wouldn't stop yakking but we won that going away too, closing out with powerhouse strikes, three in a row, boom-bam-boom.
"Okay, I've seen enough," the guy called Sal said, covering his eyes. "Holy crow!"
The other guy declined Maish's offer of a rematch as well.
"Come on, Pops," his kid said, "give me another shot, head to head. This fat jackass Ira here's gonna crumble. Ain't got the stamina."
"Tonight ain't your night, Dennis," Mr. O'Brien told him, coughing up the money. "Got to work on converting those spares. You'll get him next time. As it is, you're costing me a week's pay."
"Come on! He got lucky, Pops, that's all." Then he turned to me. "Next time, guaranteed, I will wipe the freakin' floor with you, you little midget. What are you, a deaf mute on top of everything else? What is he smiling for? I'm talking to you! What's your home lanes, Ira?"
Maish inserted his massive frame between us, thrusting his chest out. "Rather be lucky than good, young fella," he said, chomping the cigar. "Get my point? Every dog has its day. Better luck next time. Keep practicing." Then he put his hands on my shoulders, steered me around and started shuffling to the exit, singing, "One, two, Cha-Cha-Cha. One, two…"
It created a bit of a scene and people started staring, hooting at us.
"Goddamn fruits," somebody yelled.
Stopping by the door Maish roared over his shoulder, so half the alley could hear, "Just goes to show: don't judge a book by its cover."
"Class dismissed," he said a minute later, unlocking the car door and waving some bills in the air. "Animals get what they got coming. And there's more where this came from. We shall return! Again and again."
I nodded, choked up, couldn't say a word.
"Way to maintain," he said once we got inside. "Grace under pressure, young man. Deaf mute act with that half-a-dunsky simpleton smile, that is some beautiful schtick you got. Real psychological. Man, I can dig it!"
"But you," I told him, easing into the seat, shaking like a leaf, "you know my name. It's Alan Lichter. Why'd you have to call me Ira for?"
"A name's a name. All right, calm down, kid. From here on, forget Ira, you're Silent Al, okay? Or Alley Oop, take your pick. All part of the master plan." He winked and passed me an envelope.
When I felt how thick it was I gasped.
Maish backed out of the spot, his crappy old time music came back on and he pulled onto the Avenue.
"You and me, Clutch," he said at the light on Nostrand, holding his palm up for a slap. "They ain't seen nothing. We is going pee-oh-laces."
When he dropped me off home I was still in a trance. Speechless. Don't think I even thanked him or told him good bye. Just tore open the envelope in my lobby and counted fifty-four singles, clasped together in a new silver money clip that glittered in the half light. Embossed with a capital "A" in swirling cursive script! Stood there counting the bills again to make sure.
The super had taped a hand written cardboard Out of Order sign over the elevator door so I took the stairs two at a time. Got tears in my eyes, palpitations, my heart started pounding. Our hallway reeked from pot roast, stuffed cabbage and onions, like usual, paint chips hung from the ceiling I never noticed before. By the third floor landing I started swaying, then staggered to the hall window, leaned out over our backyard alley, shut both eyes, and chucked my guts up. Checked the apartment windows to make sure nobody'd seen.
Alley Oop? This, I kept thinking, as I reached the fourth floor, this is the start, I hit the doorbell twice, this could be it, better believe, I'm on my way, and I squeezed the cash, I couldn't wait to show Mom.
"Wait a minute," she called, through the door, "I'm coming. Alan? Is that you?"
In the second Mom checked through the peephole bang! that's when I froze: riding high, in all that commotion, I'd lost track of my baby doll. I'd made it home safe from enemy territory, but had left her with those rats back on Kings Highway.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, AN Block. All rights reserved.