Lane Five. White Russian across and over the desk. Tributaries of milky booze. I nailed a whiskey sour on Lane Nine with the big, yellow sponge. It’s a wet night. I clean 300 Bowl; lane to desk, bench to shoe. Two mops, wet and dry; three rectangular towels, a pail, one box of scorecards, thousands of tiny pencils, a bottle of blue spray, and my hidden rebellion all push on to the next sit-pit. Tiny things make me do it.
Billboards on the interstate and the gigantic pins in the parking lot read 300 Bowl, but to me it’s the “Vault.” Every day, except for two odd days off, I appear, seeming by magic, after a seventeen-mile drive through Phoenix desert. My twenty-year-old flesh became indentured here by my own choice. For the past two years, I call silent to no thing that I might someday wipe different sweat; one from hot lights, drums, boys with long bangs, and screaming hard. It’s still 1981. I write power pop songs. But these aren’t the tiny things that keep me going.
Jen, also twenty, became front desk manager a week ago. She makes announcements into the overhead PA—“Sign up now for Wednesday Leagues!”—along with quips for me that echo through the building:
“Come see my new sandals.”
“Split hot fries in five?”
I ignore the rotten-toothed heavers who want to get laid. They roost in the desk pits and harangue me robotically. “Can I have a side of you?” or “Stick your finger in my Heiny and make it sweet.” They hoot, slowly tip sideways, and, sometime after eleven, sloop completely over the blue, plastic benches in their silly rented shoes. Then there are kids who finger-paint with nacho cheese, gluing point pencils to the floor. Wives eye me like I’m the fine print on a ticket. Am I good? My grin gives the illusion I think it’s super-ducky these folks came here. Crinkle-cut fries sticking up from ketchup splotches and other found food art, like smashed hot-dog bread, get lost in the camouflage tile. Some unhuman thing, some unseen eye of the lanes, forces me to use my fingernail to scratch it loose.
May I ever leave? Nope. I’m in the vault. Tiny things keep me inside.
I moved out from Mom’s just so I could work here. No jobs in the city. I can’t own up to feelings or they start to blister, then I’ll outright cry like a sucker. It’s really better to not think any thought too long. Better forget it. I get a paycheck with an insult tax bite. I alchemize twenty-four bowling stations to a vinegar shine in less than thirty-one seconds—the time it takes the machines to loop a ball back to a greedy hand. Tiny things are a huge help.
As bowling alleys go, the Vault’s location is supremely isolated. Just when a car hits high desert and they start to whiff creosote bush through the AC vent, they’ll spot the high-volume parking lot with a million spaces open. With only gas and a quick mart near, 300 Bowl attracts locals from a short line of adobe homes. The marquee announces it’s COOL INSIDE! and has a jukebox bar. The place lounges like a 1950s starlet wrapped in a sidewalk of sparkly pink cement. On any day, till 1 a.m., you’re welcome to heave an eight-pound ball down a free waxed lane. Eventually you’re sure to get tiny things yourself. Everyone does.
The Vault barely covers my studio apartment on the edge of town, where I keep a small closet of Levi’s, cutoffs, sneakers, flip-flops, a few tube tops, and a red futon with gigantic king sheets. The sheets were taken, right before the final door slam, from Mom’s dryer. I fix Folgers in the fingernail kitch and zap fish sticks. When everyone caravans to float the river, I’m in the Vault. On breezy, lush nights I wear rubber gloves. I toy with delusions of leaving the Vault. But even though I write lyrics and sing as good as any cassette you’d hear, I can’t quite find the guts. Tiny things are sort of to blame.
The Vault is special but pretty much no one knows. Just inside the doors you’ll see a space-age chandelier jutting chrome spikes in every direction. To your right there’s a short hallway to a long, vintage bar, the sides quilted with crimson padding. Eight tables with napkin holders and Tabasco wait for your hash browns, and 45s from Johnny Cash to Frank Zappa wait for coins. From the bar room, if you follow the vermillion carpet (the ferocious color gives a good jolt at 1 a.m.), you’ll see a high-sided welcome desk where shoes, clipboards, talcum powder, and the day or night clerk service incoming bowlers. There’s probably not an inch anywhere, including some people, I haven’t shot cleanser at. The Vault’s darker nooks collect an amalgamation born from varied chemicals and lubricants (food grease, pin machine oil, shoe spray, splashes of hard liquor), mixed with an earthy foam that seeps out from bowling shoe leather, a kind of dead gunk that loves plastic furniture. And then there’s the mascot: the pusher of tiny things.
He’s an old man who stands just inside the front glass doors. He wears the same pinstripe suit with a yellowy-tan shirt. We call him Jolly Rancher because he hands out sweets in shiny foil. With his chin open and his eyeballs spread wide like fried eggs, he asks anyone who walks by to “Please enjoy a piece of candy!” In spite of wearing heavy combed wool in 115-degree heat, his skin looks bone-dry. He stands by the welcome mats and quivers. An imperceptible breeze seems to rock him back and forth in his long, pointed shoes. He reaches down into his thick, square pocket and gives out butterscotch, coffee nips, mints, strawberry, lemon, even pineapple. I’m sure I’ve had most every flavor. Jolly Rancher never bowls, eats, or drinks, and I’ve wondered if he knows where he actually is. I guess a retired dandy, perhaps lost at a Greyhound station, who somehow started a life from coins buried in a box by the river wash. Who knows. His tiny bits are sometimes everything to me. He keeps me coming back, and back again. I count on the Rancher. I like to see his eyes shift and the little red feather in his tweed hat as he forks it over. I like to see his withered hand surrender the bright, tiny treat. His candy is special.
When Jen got me an interview, I didn’t understand how much life force I’d be shoveling to the Vault. “Oh, come on, it’ll be fun!” she yipped one mellow day when I was snug at Mom’s. I squashed out my post-application smoke, and before I knew it my head pushed through a bright-orange 300 Bowl poly-blend. I empty butt-flowing trays, herd up rental shoes and douse them with antibacterial spray, dry-mop the bar and pit floors, singing to repeat juke plays of Blondie’s “Atomic,” and build up my ’ceps stacking boxes of gin bottles behind the building. I rock it hard, I sing through every scrubbing. But the job wears me down. From the parking lot, even before I get to the doors, my verve swings out from my body. It flies back, out to the road. I almost turn to leave before I see Jolly Rancher. He’s way more than a giver of sugar. He’s funny and kind and his tiny things get me back inside.
But I want the music trapped in my head and body to explode. I hear full drums and cracking guitars behind my shoulders. I want to sing across the map, a long way removed from stub pencils and hot-dog paper. I practice anywhere I can: while I pull a shirt over my head, behind the wheel, or when I scour the bar floor with a torn cloth under my knees. I’ll escape this piddle-pay scene. I need to sing for real, outside of tape decks and car windows, in places where I’m not conquered by cardboard dish-boats and, well, tiny things. One day, one second, I’ll drive away and relish each mile. But that feels unlikely. My legs can’t screw up any jump.
I grab crash naps behind the lanes, where the pins tumble like shot soldiers—over and over. If you’ve paid dues the night before, the waffled sounds of bowling pins are pretty fine. Harsh and buttery, their muffled noises knock me to the center of a perfect delta sleep within a minute. I open my eyes, shocked, forgetting myself. I wake up from these underhanded sleeps and remember: I’m an alley porter. I reappear in front of the lanes in a hypnagogic state.
“Where were you?” Jen fires through the PA.
I spot her frazzled, out-of-menthol-100s look. She shuts off the mic. “I’ve been paging and paging. Can I have one?”
I smooth my hair and open my bag under the counter. “Here. I got distracted stacking hand towels.”
She sits high on her stool and snaps, “Right!” through a sharp snort of smoke. She knows those towels were under my skull. Her tiny, five-foot frame and freckled cheeks make her look way younger than she is. It’s hysterical how most guys don’t get how whip-smart she is. With scratch paper and some quiet, she’ll draw the hairpin twists of the shrub-covered trail that will get you to the next weekend kegger. Chad knows she’s smart. He lassoed her from the back room of the kitchen, out to the front desk.
Chad is the 6’6″, forty-year-old day manager who irons his slacks to a finger-bleeding pleat and saunters like a khaki panther with oiled blonde hair. He scours each lane for whatever might challenge his idea of glamour. He cross-checks for unruly bowlers, misfits, drugged fidgets, irate losers, pushy hook-ups, and winners who might score free dinner in the bar with the never-won Perfection Bonanza: “300 games at 300.” He flashes salutes to his stable of warriors, the prideful bowlers who swing their monogrammed bags, model tasseled shoes and satin jackets with sequined titles like No Pity Diamondbacks. All day Chad groans softly as he strokes the bottom of his left sideburn. That’s a tiny thing for him. It might curl off one day, like paint. He’s content with the way I squirt spray in the sit-pits. I swagger to an internal chorus that plays in my brain. I empty, scour, shove back in place, and sing low and hard under my breath. Keeping the Vault clean is my act of art. It must be or I couldn’t come back. Not without tiny things!
Chad retreats up a side stair to his mini fridge, open cans of Vienna sausage, an oversized tumbler of year-round Christmas corn—all in reach of his pocked-up desk. A lot of tiny things. He watches us through a square of one-way glass. I know he believes in the suicide of losers and the ecstasy of winners. I know he believes there’s a larger reason why we’re all here. But really, because of the desert that surrounds us like a drained aquarium, he knows he has the locals by their eight-to-twelve-pound balls. There’s also Doris, who works the bar, a charcoal-haired sixty-plus who’ll always slide a little nosh down the bar. “Need an olive, hon?” Olives are her tiny things. And there’s Jen. She’s got the microphone. Other than the vending stockers, machine repair, bathroom janitor, and kitchen staff, we’re the blotchy, smiling face of the Vault. And we all have our tiny things.
I slink to the back just to watch the pins slide through the metal. The air is rare and strange back here, like a casino, or a library, or any place where the clock is slowed. This is the true bones of the dream, the true Oz of how things go, and the falling pins remind me of me. I see how they’re taken up, spun around, clobbered, and put back for another round. It’s messy and oily, softly violent, but timed so the pins meet every suck with just the right pressure after the sweeper pushes them to this back world like dead dolls. Their fat bottoms and thin necks give the right gravity to tumble into a moving car, only to drop to a perfect elevator for the split of a second. I picture my own neck like a helpless tube, waiting to be hooked up to the next thing, whether I suck candy or sneak a nap. Next, the pins are clipped by a magnet in a carousel and set to dangle in the rim of a vertical wheel. Flawless and white, they’re dropped in rows to stand clean, only to go down again. I got taken into the Vault and then hypnotized, so I stay. I’d be lucky if I landed soft like columns of hard dough, like they do. But I don’t. I twist and complain. We all need a force to yank us out. Or getting pulled into a machine will be our sorry Oz, and something inside us will die off. Who knows what could whip us to a new wheelhouse. There’s an alley myth that once a ball nudged a pin just right and it flew way far, like a mute dove. Almost made it to the doors.
I sneak back, out to the front of the lanes. I head for the lobby. I’ll go see Jolly Rancher and watch him, so gently, sway in his unsuitable suit. “Thank you!” I’ll tell him as I guess what flavor I have. I go with fatal cottonmouth. I know I’ll unwrap the bit and leave him as he slides shoe to shoe with his gooey smile. I get the sense he thinks—that I think—he’s secured my high regard. I stride wide, charge across the nasty rug, make a blur of the shellacked lane boards, and get myself past the lane pits, mock a teethy-smile to stool-bound Jen, and burn heel through the lobby and past the bar, to the fresh country of the front entrance. I see him now.
I see his mouth begin to move, to ask me for the third time this afternoon to “Please, enjoy a piece of candy…” I’d love a coconut nip. As though cued by Pavlov’s ding, my mouth waters up. But before I sew even a half-dot of sense, something different happens when I extend my hand. The Rancher’s eyes look different. He has beady slits that don’t see me.
He snarls and throws his arm with a back-arch thrust and lunges for my breasts. Isn’t my Vault shirt like company armor? Jolly misses my chest by three inches as I swiftly step back from the arc of his hooked paw. Before I can read the glint shining from his eye, his other hand turns downward and does a scooping scratch for my groin. Does he really want sex? Now I see he is an old javelina, or a vulture that some wife or mother forgot to give a breast to. I fall back and snicker, but the sound doesn’t come from my throat. It comes from the back of my neck, where my own survival hides; the place that looks out my apartment window to see if I can haul ass to the trash cans in my nightshirt. He’s way too slow. He breathes hard and mutters some broken thought. I don’t say a thing. I walk backward two steps and slowly angle myself in the opposite direction. I go quickly. I go to Jen.
“Jen, Rancher just attacked me.”
“Who… the candy? Whad’ he do?” Jenny has enjoyed zillions of pieces. But she would never let this happen. I imitate the old man’s rusted moves, his snarled noises, and I do it to Jen. I miss her chest by a short inch. My head buzzes with freak shock tempered by my own silly theater. Jen’s eyes darken. She booms into the PA:
“Chad, please come to the front desk.”
My heart thumps a double beat. “What…?”
Chad strides up. His face looks ironed flat. Again I tell the story in mock theater style. I flash how I’m cut off from tiny things! I feel secret disgust. Wordless, Chad’s sideburns, like a mood ring, change to dark blonde. He starts to sail and we follow him, footless. We glide like mindless fish to the door. There’s Rancher, bent over like a dark hook. Right as we arrive three feet away, even with Chad and Jenny right there, Rancher lunges—again—for my company breasts. Now it’s official. Rancher does not see me as a full person. He releases a sharp growl, a rashed-out rage. His frustration has waited too long. He’s overcooked, strung out; again he bursts like a caldera, copious from somewhere, maybe many years away from these welcome mats. Or his hate is brand new and meant for me.
As Rancher settles, Chad grabs the shoulder pads of his suit. He picks up the old man’s frame and, in a split second, dangles him like gangly wire. They push out to the hot particulates of the driest wind you’d ever feel anywhere on earth. Rancher’s shoes scuff and his leather soles lose balance on the sparkly pink pavement. He nearly falls and lets out a squawk. His gray eyeballs glow utter confusion. I sense the Vault’s immensity behind me. The pink bricks weigh in with an ooze of shame. Chad scoots Rancher to the driver’s side of a faded-yellow Cadillac and makes the old man slouch under and in, like a bad tiger to his cage. I’m scrappy and blank. Chad yells something through the car window and makes sure the engine turns over. The torn white hubcaps aim for the road. The tailpipe blasts two tumbleweeds straight at us. The Rancher turns his head back, his lips move. I think I see “Get out, dumb fool.” Don’t know for sure.
Later on I drive home and watch the early night dust merge to sunset inside my windshield. Far off I spot a band of coyotes eating a white carcass by a palo verde grove, and they twitch when a sixteen-wheel diesel slams wind behind me, almost changing their mind. Hundreds of seconds later I pull up to my studio and feel different than I ever have over these two years. Later, after a cold cheese sandwich, I roll up in my sheets. I’m far too tired. I shut off the light and close my eyes. Electricity buzzes thin from the fridge. My bones feel finished and fall down hard to the foam under me. The Vault, the cleaning, all the ground my feet covered in a day, this week, this year, snatching millions of tiny things, and what happened with the old man takes me to a half-happening dream. I’m on his back. He’s a board, a stiff plank I’m meant to ride. We dip and soar through waves of vermillion carpet. I feel a coconut nip in my hand, the one I didn’t get. He cranks his head to see me. “I don’t want you.” In my almost-awakened state, it occurs to me how candy tasted different in the Vault. I never even liked hard candy before, even from coffee tables.
Next day I tell Chad and Jen I’m leaving.
No more running for cocktail rivers, rolling bottles, rented shoes that look like melted-down action figures, hard naps on small towels, or the millionth juke play that took me nowhere else. A band I know is moving to San Francisco, and there could be drums that will pierce my chest perfectly. We should always aim for the best Vault.
I pull my car away from 300 Bowl. I know Rancher was terrible in an obvious way. I know, besides his explosion, and as much disgust as I felt for him and myself for being so stupid, that he somehow made things work. He shoved me out and into the distance. I cast my blankness to a fresh sky. Maybe my nails will be my next meal. But I imagine Rancher’s wool pinstripes and watch them vibrate information; a secret song. I drive easy, glancing the desert with free and open eyes; I spot the grove of palo verdes and the white carcass from yesterday, hollow and open. The coyotes have all left.
Bonnie Lykes has been published in outlets such as Crack The Spine Literary Journal, The Penmen Review, The Coachella Journal, Jonah Magazine, and “The Strange Recital” podcast. Her work was also chosen for the annual book collection;Crack The Spine VI. For two years, she hosted and produced “Non-Fiction Railroad Hour” on the “Writer’s Voice” on WIOX 91.3 FM, in Roxbury, New York. She is currently enrolled in the graduate writing program at Sarah Lawrence College.