Excerpted from “Nickel,” a Novel by Robert Wilder




Prose


 


Rio Lanes. Hadn’t been there since I was like ten.

When the three of us went, it was fine. Fun actually, but I was only ten and remembered the place smelling like that shake-on pizza cheese and foot odor and smoke. I also remembered a bar inside and a snack center, slices behind a greasy glass case that rotated so you could grab your own. “Home of the Easy Bake Oven pizza,” my mom had said to Dan, not thinking I’d heard.

“Here we are,” he said again.

Craned my neck all around like I was on stage. “Got ears, professor. Aren’t we going to El Dorado today?”

“Not today, next week.”

“So we won’t see Mom?”

“Hard to say.”

I almost let myself get excited. Could feel the butterflies start to emerge, but I cocooned them again. This was too odd. Why would my mom meet us at a bowling alley?

Mom would not meet us in bowling alley.

“WTF?”

“Coy, I know what that means.”

“Didn’t say it. Abbreviations don’t count. Vowels do all the harm. English teacher says.”

“Clever.”

The place hadn’t changed. I’d forgotten about the colors though. Old school peach and pale yellow. The back wall had these ribbed panels that kinda looked like drapes that alternated yellow, peach, yellow, peach. All the trim between the alleys were peach, all the plastic chairs were yellow. Time warp really. The only sign of even the twentieth-first century was one of those shiny banners advertising a margarine brand and the “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Gutter” singles bowling league.

I turned to Dan. “Why are we doing this?”

“Shoes first.”

“Do I have to? Didn’t know our little adventure would include a change of clothing.”

“Don’t be such a downer, bro.”

“You’re lucky I almost like you.” One lane held only colored balls. A little blonde girl in a ponytail and white dress was waving at everyone who went by, even the sketchy old men with nasty smelling beards. I mean I wasn’t close enough to smell them but they looked rank. Know what I’m saying?

Exchanged our dogs for the fruity bowling kind and the washed out looking guy with a Sanchez mustache asked for Dan’s license.

“Why do you need that?” I asked.

When he answered, “Cause folks steal the shoes,” he looked straight at me. Hard stare. “Some sort of fashion thing I guess.” Inarticulate arseneck.  As if I’d want those poser new age Allie Sheedy thinsoles. “Don’t get it myself personally, I don’t, but that’s just me.”

We walked past the little kids rolling balls with two hands, their gutters filled with long tubes to avoid a miss, a goth couple who frenched after the trench coat omega male managed a spare. Some buttoned up guys straight outta Intel keeping strict score on the one lane that still had a scratched overhead projector. This whole colony of people I never really knew existed coming here week after week, throwing their balls around, having conversations about love, TV, what to eat, movies, books even. All the spheres even just in my town where I lived now: Mom and Lindy in El Dorad, Monroe in her bubble, Mack and his cubes, construction workers, teachers. You could choose to visit them all or stay in one forever. Then I saw it. “Oh god!” I yelled, kinda like a puss. I might have squeaked. Sad.

H   A   P   P   Y    B  I  R  T  H  D  A  Y    C  O  Y  ! in white copy paper across the peach and yellow wall, each letter on a single sheet, taped over a long table on the other side of a metal fence separating the bowling part of the show from the snack age portion. A few balloons were fixed to the wall (tape was showing) and the tablecloth had cartoon guitars all over it. Plates, cups, and napkins too. Monroe and her mom were sitting there like a sad depressing photo I once saw in a museum or something. Depression era status I think. Monroe not even in the smiling area code and had on a white birthday hat like a French clown who’d lost her way in a black and white movie. Her face was the only colorful thing on her body: red as a traffic light.

 

Robert Wilder is the author of two critically acclaimed books of essays: Tales From The Teachers’ Lounge and Daddy Needs a Drink. He has published essays in Newsweek, Details, Salon, Parenting, Creative Nonfiction, Working Mother and numerous anthologies. He has been a commentator for NPR’s Morning Edition, the Madeleine Brand Show, On Point and other national and regional radio programs including the “Daddy Needs a Drink Minute” which aired weekly on KBAC FM. Wilder’s column, also titled “Daddy Needs A Drink,” was printed monthly in the Santa Fe Reporter for close to a decade. He was awarded the inaugural 2009 Innovations in Reading Prize by the National Book Foundation. Wilder lives and teaches in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Visit his website at www.robertwilder.com.