Daniel shook Charlie awake, “Dad, it’s time for us to go bowling.”
“Yeah,” Charlie pulled his glasses off, wiped his eyes, and looked at his watch, “it sure is.”
Daniel put his hand out without being asked. His dad took it and pulled himself up from the chair. “Run in and get the keys to the El Camino for me, Dan.”
The El Camino was a curiosity. It was neither a car, nor was it a truck. It rested in a place between car and truck where it was neither and both at the same time.
“You ever seen one of these?” Charlie asked.
“No, sir. It looks pretty neat.” I wasn’t sure what to say.
“I thought it looked pretty neat too. Wish I’d of known it was a piece of shit before I bought it though. Thing only has a hundred thousand miles on it. Barely runs.”
“What year is it?”
“1987. Bought it new when Sandy and I were married. Right around the time Daniel was born.”
I ran out of things to say, so I nodded my head in agreement. Daniel ran out of the house with the keys.
“I call window seat.” Daniel yelled as soon as he was in sight.
“Window seat?” I looked at Charlie.
“Yeah, the one by the window,” He chuckled.
Charlie opened the driver side door and waved for me to climb in. “It’s got a bench seat. Someone has to sit in the middle.”
There was a routine to fitting three people into the El Camino, Charlie explained. The person in the middle had to climb in first and buckle their seat belt. Only then could the passenger and the driver get in. When we all were in the car, my shoulders and knees were against Daniel. I put more distance between Charlie and I.
“Now, a word of warning Mike,” Charlie started, “the old girl runs a little rough. She always starts though.”
Charlie put the key in the ignition, and using his left leg, he pressed and released the accelerator while turning the key. The engine turned over a dozen times before the car sputtered to life. A geyser of black smoke issued from the exhaust as the car idled down.
“Told ya so,” Charlie smiled. He put the car in drive and romped on the gas. The tachometer jumped, but the car didn’t move an inch.
“It’ll go here in a minute.”
The car jerked forward. Our necks all snapped back with recoil. The rear wheels spun for a moment in the gravel, and the roar of the motor died down. The tachometer’s needle fell, and Charlie eased off the gas. “Once we’re rollin’, we’re good. Car’s good at goin’. Just not so good at gettin’ started.”
The car crawled down the mountain toward town. Each time the car stopped, whether it be for a stop light or traffic, Charlie stood on the throttle until the transmission engaged and the car lurched forward. The car behind us honked and flashed its lights. Charlie stuck his finger out the window, “fuck you, asshole.”
I was glad to reach the bowling alley. It was just starting to get dark. The parking lot was full, and the front of the building was covered in gaudy neon. We opened the door and stepped into a wall of smoke, noise, and UV light.
We cut the air and stepped past rows of bowlers. There was a bar to the left with bubbling fryers just beyond, which was separated from the bowling lanes by a half-wall. Red baskets lined with wax paper were stacked on the counter waiting to be used. A large man in a sweat stained white smock pranced back and forth. Just passed the bar sat three arcade cabinets and a machine for turning bills to quarters.
The bowling lanes themselves seemed alive, glowing with neon and strobe lighting. The screens above each swirled with fractal graphics and dots of laser light danced across the ceiling.
Dan and I started toward the counter where shoes were rented. Charlie stopped us and pulled a crisp twenty from a beat up money clip. “You boys go get a lane and shoes. I’m going to stop by the grill. I’ll catch up.”
We went one direction and Charlie went the other. The shoe rental counter looped around at a right angle. The swing open counter butted up against the wall. The counter top was peeling and bubbling in spots, and the paneling on the front was riddled with holes. The man behind the counter was seated on a stool. Dan approached the counter and shouted “Hey Dave,” over the music and crashing pins.
“Hey Danny. Who’s your friend?”
“This is Mike.” Daniel pointed a thumb in my direction.
Dave bent down behind the counter and came up with a pair of red and white striped shoes. He sat them in front of Dave, “there’s yours.” He turned to me, “alright Mike, what size will you have?”
I answered. Dave brought the shoes to the counter and sprayed both pairs with deodorant. He took our money, “you’ll be on lane 8.”
“How did that guy know your name?”
“Dad brings me here a lot. I usually bowl by myself or with some guys from the bowling league. I’m pretty good at it. I won a trophy one night for the highest score.”
“I guess your dad can’t really bowl with you,” I pointed out.
“No. He can’t.”
Daniel carefully selected his bowling ball, take turns hefting each and checking for a proper fit. I wasn’t sure what made a good bowling ball, but Daniel took a moment and explained to me that he was looking for one that was the right weight for him to throw, and that he was looking for a ball with grips that fit his fingers just right. If they were too loose it would be hard to control the ball, but if they were too tight it would hurt his fingers and pull him down the lane.
I imitated the way Daniel tested each ball, but I found myself unable to tell them apart at all. I settled on the first one I liked the look of; it was green.
Daniel set up the computer and our names appeared on the TV above where we sat. Daniel took the lane with confidence. He held the ball in front of his eyes and lined it up with the arrows on the lane. He tiptoed forward a bit and his arm came back. When he released the ball, his leg swung behind, and he slid forward on the floor with momentum.
The ball rolled straight toward the gutter and then hooked toward the middle. All of the pins fell. The TV above flashed the word strike and placed an X in the first box of the scorecard.
“Wow. Where did you learn to do that?”
“I told you, man. My dad brings me here a lot.”
We bowled five frames before Charlie appeared with the cook from the restaurant. Charlie had a white styrofoam cup topped with white foam. The cook carried a basket of fries and two cans of Coke.
“Thank you, sir.” Charlie sat his beer down on the table and slipped the cook a few dollars. “You boys hungry?”
We spent the next few hours alternating between bowling, eating, and playing the arcade. Daniel loved the arcade racers. He worked the simulated steering wheel, clutch, throttle, and shifter with the ease brought by countless hours of practice. Watching him drive the virtual car was impressive, and strangers coming and going stopped to watch him for a moment before moving on.
While we moved between bowling and playing the arcade, Charlie disappeared every so often to return to the bar. He always returned with the same white cup. As the night went on, his speech changed slightly and his limping became more pronounced.
When Charlie appeared and told us it was time to go, I pulled Daniel out of ear shot. “Is it safe for your Dad to drive?”
“What do you mean?”
“He’s had a lot to drink.”
“Yeah,” He looked down at his feet. “He drinks like that all the time,” He waved away my concern. “We’ll be fine.”
“We’re going back to your mom’s right?”
“Yeah,” Daniel nodded.
Charlie’s limp was a benefit to his drinking. It made it impossible to tell how drunk he actually was. He always staggered. He was naturally lopsided and off balance, or he was so frequently drunk that normalcy could never be observed.
We made our way out to the El Camino. The car revved and started in fits just the way it had before. Once we were on the highway, the car swerved back and forth within its lane, always just shy of falling off the shoulder or crossing the median. Daniel was gripping the door handle. His knuckles were white. I had nothing to hold onto, so I closed my fists and clenched my jaw. Charlie chain smoked the entire way home. He held the steering wheel with his leg and let the car’s throttle back off while he balanced the wheel, the throttle, his cigarette, and a lighter between one leg and one arm.
No one said a word. The car bounded silently down the highway and over the ridge to Daniel’s house. Sandy was waiting on the porch when we arrived. Daniel and I were thankful the ride was over. We bailed out of the car. Daniel said goodbye to his father and I thanked Charlie for taking me bowling. Charlie stayed in the car and Sandy stood on the porch with her arms folded. Her face was blank, but there was a blaze just behind her eyes.
“Did you boys have a nice time?” Sandy asked as we stepped onto the porch.
“We sure did,” Daniel answered for us both, and without providing anything further, he walked into the house. Daniel walked through the living room straight to his bedroom. I stopped to talk to Jason.
Sandy’s boyfriend and I always got along. He spoke to me like an adult, and he made no efforts to hide anything from me like Sandy and my mother did. Daniel hated Jason because he was not his dad. He viewed Jason as an obstacle to his mother and father being remarried. Daniel wasn’t willing to see that Jason was a better, more present father than Charlie. Sandy didn’t follow us inside.
“Hey man, how’d it go?” Jason sat in his recliner smoking a camel light. He turned the volume down on the TV.
“It was interesting,” I dodged the question.
“Sandy will be out there for a while I guess,” Jason sighed and took a drag off his cigarette. “It’s like this just about every time Charlie brings Danny home. Drunk as a skunk.”
“Daniel never told me that his dad was like that,” I whispered, not wanting Daniel to hear.
“You can’t see it when he’s your old man. You know what I mean?”
“I guess so.”
“Your dad’s special because he’s your dad. My dad was an asshole man, but I didn’t know it until I left home. It’s like while you’re a kid you’re blind to all the bad shit your parents do.”
“Like Charlie drinking too much.”
“Yep.” Jason took a pause and thought, “Daniel won’t ever like me. No matter how much I love his mom, and no matter how much time and money I spend on him. It’s just because I’m not his dad. So I’ll do the best I can, and Sandy will do the best she can, and Charlie will do the best he can. But it’s really up to Daniel to choose who he should look up to.”
Jason took another drag off his cigarette and blew the smoke out into the air. I looked at the floor and pulled at a callous on my hands, not sure what to say.
“You’ll find out what I mean when you get a little older,” He chuckled, “Why don’t you get something from the kitchen for you and Dan and go back to the bedroom.”
He turned the volume back up on the TV and I did as I was told.
Daniel was sitting on his bed cross legged, controller in hand, and staring at the TV atop his dresser.
“Gran Turismo?” I asked. The whine of a virtual car engine roared through the tinny speakers.
“Yeah. You want next?”
After a while Sandy called out for Daniel. He sighed, passed me the controller and crawled down from the bed. He drug his feet across the floor, leaving two lines in the carpet behind him.
I had grown tired of playing alone by the time Daniel returned. He grabbed the controller from the bed and we both agreed that for the rest of the evening we would be silent.