“I’m sorry, Vernon, I really am. I just wasn’t… you know, expecting it to be that much.” The father opened the door to the Pickwick Bowl. Light streamed into the darkened entryway as he led his son toward the service island forty feet down the carpeted hall.
“It’s okay, Dad. No big deal.” The boy walked a few paces behind and to the side of his father. The sound of crashing pins and upraised voices joined together to drown out the boy’s words.
“Horses, seemed like a good idea, a fun thing for us to do together. Jesus, it’s so expensive, though.” The father’s shoes still carried dust from the Los Angeles Equestrian Center that sat across the street from the bowling alley. His mind lay scattered back there, where the money he’d earned and the money he now carried was not enough to see his son hoisted up onto the back of even the most basic training horse. The embarrassment, the humiliation, brewed slowly and methodically into an unnamed and cruel anger.
“Dad, I don’t mind. Bowling is fine. It’s—”
“It’s not fine! Dammit.” He paused, caught himself. “Let’s just… I’ll teach you how to bowl, okay? Your mom never took you bowling, did she?”
He shook his head no, then said, “But I want to learn.”
“Then I’ll teach you everything I know.”
The father led his son up to the counter where an overweight, fiftysomething man with a dark blond mustache and a weathered smile rented them shoes and charged them an hourly rate on the lanes that was far more affordable than an hour on horseback.
Vernon Taylor Gray was barely six years old when his father Nathaniel Bryce Gray packed his old high school football duffel bag and walked out of the boy’s life with no intention of ever coming back. Nate left the pink slip of his fifteen-year-old Honda next to a half-assed farewell note, written with an unsharpened pencil, on the kitchen counter. He removed half of their joint savings from the branch two blocks from where the boy’s mother, Sandy, worked, and hopped a bus to a train station two cities over that offered destinations anywhere and everywhere. He disappeared, the overall shock of his decision not hitting the thirty-year-old until the Amtrak was halfway across Arizona on its way to North Carolina.
There was no one moment that helped form his decision to abandon them, merely a slow, insidious building of resentment and anger for his wife and for their only child together. He felt physically suffocated, unable to breathe at intervals that became increasingly frequent. Conversations between himself and Sandy were strained to the point of monosyllabic exchanges. “Yes” and “no” and “uh” formed the majority of their vocal interactions. Both of them knew their relationship was in trouble, had been faltering for some time now, yet neither one had the intellectual or emotional means to do anything remotely constructive about it.
Sandy, to her credit, had tried to explore the root of their problems, had shown the insight to recognize the oncoming collapse of their marriage if something wasn’t figured out between them soon. But she was blindsided when, two years ago, she came home to find that her husband had discovered that he was unable, or unwilling, to break the cycle of abandonment that his own father had brewed up inside him. It had taken six years for the patriarchal genetic code to be activated, but despite the delay of time, the result was ultimately the same. Another fatherless child, soon to begin wondering what he’d done to make his daddy leave him. To begin blaming himself, hating himself, but never quite knowing why.
“All right! Excellent. You’ve got them all set up for a spare. Now just… wait for your ball to come back and finish them off.”
The bowling alley was crowded now, an hour after Nate and his eight-year-old son Vernon had arrived. The lanes were taken up by league players and Saturday afternoon amateurs, with teenagers playing video games in the entertainment hall and early drunks haunting the bar. The noise of the pins exploding into the back wall of the lanes whenever a player hurled an eight- or ten- or sixteen-pound ball down the center of the buffed parquet floor could be deafening. Which is why Nate found himself speaking so loudly at Lane Twelve to his only child.
“Here comes the ball. Grab it and do just like I taught you, okay?” Nate took a pull on his bottle of Bud as his boy shyly nodded his head in acknowledgement.
The Day-Glo-decorated eight-pounder swiveled and swirled at the gaping mouth of the ball return, before slamming onto the track and flowing down the narrow chute until it rested in the U-shaped middle. Vernon pushed at the ball with his heel until the three finger holes appeared, upright. He nudged his father’s sixteen-pounder over to his right, allowing room for Vernon to fit his fingers into the ball and wrench it upwards onto his lean, bony chest.
The boy—dressed in a button-up, starched and pressed white shirt, tucked into black slacks with creases down the middle, and outfitted in the Pickwick Bowl’s size five-and-a-half two-tone shoes—took a step up onto the alley floor. He planted his feet, his chin chucked under the ball. His eyes moved swiftly back and forth between the 8-9 pins at the end of the lane, his feet, the ball, and the middle-aged guy creeping up to his own lane on the right. Then he registered the young, pretty mother staring sweetly on his left, scanned back to his feet, the ball, and finally, squarely, on the pins.
“I don’t know, Dad. I’m not sure if I can hit them.”
Nate paced a few feet behind him, pulled on another sip of the beer bottle. Wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Just concentrate,” he said, his voice raising in volume to compete with the noise of the place, “you can do it.”
Another ten seconds of contemplative eye-balling of the pins, then Vernon took three steps, his right arm arced behind him, came up again, and released the ball just behind the painted line where the lane began. It hit the parquet floor with a loud thump, traveled single-mindedly straight down the middle of the lane until it got about three-fourths of the way down. It slowly began to veer to the right, where it skimmed but failed to knock over the nine pin before colliding with the hard wall at the rear of the lane.
As he turned to walk back towards his father, the young mother, now on his right, sent a smile his way. “It’s okay, baby, you’ll get her next time.”
Nate stood behind the computerized scorekeeper, one hand resting on the back of a red plastic chair, the other wrapped around the top of his long-neck. He struggled to find words for the boy. “Good try, Vern. You know, you tried. What counts, right?”
Vernon sat on the small bench behind his father, his eyes pointed downward. “I did it like you taught me. What did I do wrong?”
Nate stared at his son, whose eyes were focused far beneath the floor, into some unknown chasm of disappointment and shame.
“You didn’t do anything wrong. I just… I just taught you wrong.”
Nate’s father, Big Nate his mother always called him, never taught his son anything. He had married Nate’s mother on what seemed later as just a lark. The burly, gruff, uncultured man stuck around long enough to see his son take his first steps, then he vanished without a word or a care. His mother did the best she could for her son—nurtured him, kept him fed and clothed, in school and out of trouble—but it wasn’t enough. The father had left a mark that wouldn’t rub out. A burned spot in the middle of the young boy’s psyche that had tried to camouflage itself first with denial and later through muted acceptance, but it was always lurking, waiting for those emotionally delicate moments to come undone, emerge in anger.
Nate the boy promised himself that when he was Nate the man, any child he had would be loved, cared for, and never abandoned. It was the promise of a scared, hurt, righteously-inclined child who ached to be normal. Ached to have a mother and a father, both. A child who became an adult who discovered how to create rationalizations that would negate those promises, twist them into just and acceptable alternatives to doing what was truly right. As a man, he knew he was doing wrong by everyone involved, but he convinced himself otherwise. They were both better off without him.
The day waitress from the bowling alley bar leaned over the rail above Lane Twelve and got Nate’s attention. “I get you two anything else?”
Vernon looked up from his seat, where he chewed on a piece of ice from his empty glass of soda. “Can I have another Coke, Dad?”
“Nah. If I send you back to your mom with a major sugar-high, I’ll get hell for it.” Nate turned to the waitress, Peggy it said on her name tag. “Bring him a water, will you, please? And I’ll take another Bud.”
As Peggy straightened up and moved down the carpeted floor to the next lane, Nate stopped her. He eyed Vernon peripherally, saw a look of dejection in his face. More disappointment. “Um, Miss? Another Coke would be fine. And, uh… how about you bring me two Buds instead of the one. No telling how long it’ll take you to get back by this way. Okay?”
Peggy nodded, jotted it all down on a damp writing pad that sat in the middle of a slightly wet serving tray, then moved off. Nate finished the beer in his hand and looked at the scorekeeper in front of him.
“So, Vern, that makes three games. I got you two to one, but I see you improving with every frame. No lie. I figure we go best of five, this could be a nail-biter. What do you think?”
Vernon didn’t respond, but scratched his neck, a gesture that Nate had seen enough in the past few weeks to recognize as one of Vernon’s nervous tics. Why he was still nervous around Nate, when they had been bowling together like a true father and son for the past two hours, the older man couldn’t understand. A tinge of anger hit him at that moment, the word ungrateful came to the front of his mind and he looked quickly away from the boy before he gave voice to the thought and ruined the whole day. He had worked too hard to blow it now.
Nine weeks ago, over two years since he had left without a word, Nate appeared at Sandy’s job unannounced, his figurative hat in hand with a desire to see his son again. To try to repair what he had damaged. It had taken so little effort, so little thought or intent to turn Sandy and Vernon’s life upside down, sideways and all asunder. It would take a monumental effort in order for all of them to move on, move forward. A flood of apologies and mea culpa from the once-husband and father. A steady job and residence in the same town as his son. Hours and hours of phone calls before even face-to-face contact could occur, then only as supervised visits at their apartment. This outing at the bowling alley was their first together, alone, and Nate had had every intention of making the day as special as he possibly could. No matter what might happen or how he might manage to fuck it all up.
Nate took a pull on his fifth beer of the day, the evidence of the empties hauled away by Peggy the day waitress on her semi-frequent rounds past Lane Twelve. It was almost three p.m. according to the position of the blazing red hands on the blue neon clock that hung over Lane Fourteen. The boy had to be back at his mother’s apartment by five at the latest. Twenty minutes’ drive time, tops, from their current spot in Burbank to her place near downtown Glendale. That gave him an hour and a half to either sober up completely or keep drinking until the decision to bolt again—this time for good, no more allowances for a guilty conscience and some sense of patriarchal duty dragging him back a second time—was made all the easier.
Fear, Nate had found over the course of his life, was a much more powerful force than love ever could be. Love was strong, he thought as he watched his son roll his eight-pound ball down the lane on its way to a perfect strike, but fear was invincible. It had a force that demanded not only obedience, but full devotion to its sonorous calls of fight or flight. The call to anger, etched out of fear, was answered without thought. Immediate and destructive. The flight took courage, took denial of a better self, a greater moral foundation, and fewer men could give up the constant offerings of the stand-and-fight in exchange for the ultimate sacrifice of the cut-and-run.
But Nate had done it. Doing it a second time would, in a way, be easier than the first. The pain, however, would be greater—somehow he inherently knew this—for both of them. If the pattern was repeated after the promise of permanency had been presented and accepted, neither one of them would recover from the betrayal.
Nate saw Vernon’s feet leave the floor, a wild and impulsive jump of triumph after the last pin dropped and the strike registered on the computerized scoreboard. The boy turned away from the lane, a wide smile on his face directed toward his father.
“Dad, did you see it? You didn’t miss it, did you?”
“That was amazing, Vern. You really knocked the snot out of those pins.” He placed the half-full bottle of Bud on the seat beside him. Looked at the clock. Measured the weight, the power, of the fear at that moment.
“How you holding up?”
“What do you mean?” Vernon was still standing in front of his father, smiling from his recent triumph.
“I mean, how’s it going, you know. Between you and me. Today. Right now. How are you feeling?”
Vernon’s smile faded. He scratched at his neck. Looked off into the distance. Away from his father.
“I want you to be honest. I want us to be honest with each other.”
“Can I… Can I ask you a question?”
Nate looked at his son’s face. Glanced down at the beer by his side. He made eye contact with Vernon. Nodded.
“Why did you leave? Was it because of me?”
Nate’s left hand fell to his side. Grazed the long neck of the bottle. “What did your mom say?”
“She said it was because you’re a selfish… well, she used a bad word.”
“I can guess the word. You don’t have to say it. Did she tell you that we had problems? Me and her?”
“I guess. Kinda. She said it wasn’t my fault why you left.”
“And do you believe her?”
“I don’t know. Was it my fault?”
The hand gripped the bottle. Brought it up to Nate’s lips. He took a quick swig.
“It wasn’t anybody’s fault but mine. Blame me. Never blame yourself.”
“I don’t blame myself.”
“Trust me, you will.”
Nate finished the rest of the bottle, got up from his seat and placed it between his sixteen-pound ball and his son’s eight-pound ball, which had just rolled back from the return and onto the holding track. “Let’s go play some video games. I’ll grab us some quarters.”
Vernon was positioned inside a racing game, his arms moving wildly as his hands spun the hard rubber steering wheel and his foot pumped the gas pedal. The on-screen Ferrari went into a tail-spin and crashed against a concrete wall at the same time the timer ran out. A scroll of text alerted him that the game was over.
Nate leaned down beside Vernon. Gave him a handful of quarters.
“I’ve got to go to the bathroom. Don’t go anywhere, just stay here and play. I’ll be right back.”
“I’ll go with you, Dad.”
“Do you have to go? You have to pee?”
Vernon paused. “No.”
“Then just stay here and play. I’ll be back.” Nate straightened up and walked out of the entertainment hall, knowing that Vernon was watching him leave.
Inside the bathroom, Nate finished at one of the three urinals, zipped himself up and took three steps to his left, meeting his face in the scratched-up mirror over the sinks. He washed his hands with the powdered, chalky soap that came from the dispenser by the towels. He dried his hands, wiped his face and then stared into the mirror and through his own reflection.
Minutes passed before his eyes pulled back focus onto the glass and registered his own face. He looked back, over his shoulder. Saw that the two stalls were empty, the doors open and swung wide. He entered one, locked it behind him and put his feet up onto the half-eaten-donut-shaped toilet seat and crouched into a sitting position over the bowl.
The fear was thick in the stall, surrounding Nate in a hot blanket of suffocating responsibility and duty. The beer that remained in his system did little to dull the anguish he experienced, the shame and regret and sense of disgust he felt all over. Could he just walk out on his son again? How could he walk out, just leave an eight-year-old boy alone in a bowling alley playing video games until the realization that his father was never coming back to get him finally struck him and he was forced to find his own way back to his mother? What kind of a morally corrupt, selfish son-of-a-bitch was he? Had his own father’s abandonment taught him nothing?
It had taught him everything. It defined him, formed him, corrupted him. And now it was set to do all of that and more for this little boy—with his love and trust and an abundance of forgiveness—who had given Nate a second chance. The cycle would continue, the arc of Vernon’s life would follow predictably as Nate’s own had. Painfully, uncontrollably. An unstoppable future of repetitious acts of unkindness handed down from father to son as legacy. Nate fought back tears and tried to find courage from his intoxicated state.
He heard the bathroom door open and a tentative voice call out. “Dad? Dad, are you in here?”
Nate froze. Stopped breathing.
“Dad?” Crying. Fear. Pain. “Dad?”
Nate listened to his only child, his son, crying outside the door of the stall. He listened and struggled against his own fear. The fear that expected obedience, that demanded fidelity.
Vernon was crouched under the sink, tears streaming down his face, when Nate spoke to him. “Vern, hey, I’m right here. Your dad.” He picked him up. Awkwardly pressed the young frame against his own.
Small but strong arms latched around Nate’s neck. The father lifted his son off the cold tile floor and tenderly draped his own arms around the lean back.
“I thought… I thought…” Vernon struggled for breath. For words. “I thought you were gone. That you went away. Again.”
Nate felt the fear, but he refused to let it take over. He felt the sadness of a boy without a father, a man without a conscience. He forced back his own tears and found a reserve of strength that he was surprised still existed within him.
“I’m not going away, okay? I care about you. I’m going to look out for you.” He stroked his back. Firmly. Gently.
“I’m sorry, Vernon. I really am.”
About the Author: Justin McFarr was born and raised in the Bay Area. He received his undergraduate degree from UCLA, and his master’s degree from USC’s MPW program. Prior work has appeared in Scribendi Magazine, Flask and Pen, AlienSkin Magazine, and Verdad. His story “Aggressive Fiction” appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of The East Bay Review. His novel about 1970’s-era Berkeley, The Bear Who Broke The World, will be published in 2017 from Wheeler Street Press, followed in 2018 by a collection of short work titled Controlled Chaos.