Bowling with Kafka
“Where’d you learn to crank like that?”
“Where’d you learn to put that kind of spin on the ball?
“I don’t know. It just seemed the optimum method for knocking down pins.”
I’d been at the other end of Lucky Strike Lanes, drinking Early Times from a paper bag and feeling sorry for myself. Spider had crashed his Yamaha that afternoon and there went our shot at the regionals. Half the season fighting to keep ahead of the pack and it was all over with a skid into a drainage ditch. But as crappy as I felt, and even with the teenagers on Lane 6 throwing gutter balls and whooping it up, I could hear it, ten lanes away, that solid pow sound when the ball hits the pocket just so and the pins scatter. I had to know who it was. A tall skinny man, it turned out, with stick-out ears and a bushy head of hair, wearing suit pants and a white shirt with the shelves rolled up, as if he’d come straight from the office.
“What’s your average?” I asked him.
“I don’t know.”
“What about your high game?”
“I’m not sure.”
“You’re not sure? Everyone knows their high game.”
“Two eighty-something. I only come here to get out of the house.”
“I hear that.”
“And to escape the mad tempo of the inner self, the unrelenting burden of consciousness and introspection.”
I didn’t know what to say to that, but I sort of understood what he meant. “I’m Roy.” I put out my hand. We shook, his grip weaker than I would have thought for someone with his power. He told me his name, foreign sounding, like his accent.
All at once the kids on Lane 6 started hooting and hollering.
“Annoying, aren’t they?”
“Not really,” he said. “Except they remind us of our own youth, our uncomplicated joy before it’s muzzled by time and the growing awareness of our mortality.”
A professor from one of the local colleges, I guessed. I asked him,
“How long you been bowling?”
“Not long. About two months.”
“That’s all? And you’re already bowling in the two eighties? You don’t even have your own ball. You must be a natural.” I had a sudden thought. “You in a league?”
“How’d you like to be? I’m captain of the Pin Heads. I lost my best bowler today and I could use someone like you.”
“I’m not sure I’m ready for competition.”
“Of course you’re ready. And league play is about more than competition. It’s also a great way to meet people. I don’t have to tell you how it looks, a couple of middle-aged guys bowling by themselves on a Saturday night. I mean, how lonely can you get?”
He smiled in a shy way. “As lonely as Franz Kafka.”
I’d been looking for someone to do things with—a friend or buddy—ever since Janie left me for her Zumba instructor. I had my teammates, of course, but they were all married with kids and could only spare one night a week, league night, away from their families. So I was pleased when Franz agreed to get together at Lucky Strike the next Wednesday and share a lane.
He was twenty minutes late, but I didn’t mind. I appreciated his company, the mid-week break from channel surfing and pounding Bud Lights. It was also a treat just to watch the man bowl. Like any cranker, he stood to the far side of the lane, the right side in his case, being a lefty, his wrist cupped against the ball. As he made his approach, he raised his arm way behind him. At the end of his slide, he released the ball with a flick of the wrist that sent it spinning, headed for the gutter. But right before it got there it spun away, hooking and hooking until it slammed into the headpin. It was his long arms and legs that did it, gave him the whip action that made him the perfect cranker. I’m a stoker, and stokers depend on skill and accuracy. That’s what made Franz special. He had skill, accuracy and power. Triple threat.
I asked him if he wanted to bowl another game.
“I’d love that,” he said, “but I’m afraid I have to be getting home. My mother worries if I’m late.”
“You live with your mother?”
“My parents.” He sighed. “And my sisters.”
“You don’t seem too happy about it.”
“It could be worse,” he said and coughed. He took a hanky out of his back pocket and coughed into it several times before putting it away. “I’m sorry,” he said, clearing his throat. “Just because something is true doesn’t make it worthy of expression. ‘It could be worse’ is something we tell ourselves hoping that an absent God will hear us. It’s a kind of prayer of preemption, a plea for future mercy.”
“Anyone ever tell you you’re way too serious?”
“Yes. It feeds my pessimism, which itself is a sin.”
“Like I said.”
That made him laugh. For all Franz’s gloom and doom, he had a pretty good sense of humor. We didn’t have that much in common, I knew, and yet we sort of hit it off, agreeing to meet at Lucky Strike again on Monday. That was the night I discovered what a good listener Franz was. Neither of us was thrilled with our jobs, mine teaching middle school industrial arts, Franz lawyering for some insurance company. Our real lives were outside of work; for me, bowling and home repair, for Franz reading and writing, what he called “my scribbling.” It wasn’t long before I was telling Franz things I couldn’t tell other men. Like how much I missed Janie and worried I’d never find someone else I loved who loved me back. Franz opened up, too, telling me about twice breaking off his engagement to a woman because he wasn’t ready to settle down. That sounded reasonable to me but he felt terrible guilt about leading her on.
“Love’s funny, isn’t it?” I said.
Franz nodded. “Love is the knife we plunge into ourselves.”
“I don’t know about that, but . . . if it wasn’t for bowling I don’t know if I would’ve survived my divorce. Bowling gave me something to live for, that one thing that kept me going, you know what I mean?”
“I don’t want to be pushy about this, but I’ve been trying to get the Pin Heads into the regionals since I became captain. It’s a dream of mine. This year we were finally going to make it. The dream was coming true. Then Spider had his accident.”
Franz was looking at me in that focused way of his, lips pursed, big dark eyes staring in-tently.
“I’m not going to find another bowler like you at this late date,” I continued. “It would mean a lot to me, having you on the team.”
After a pause, he said, “Is refusing such an appeal even possible?”
I laughed. I thought he was joking. “I’ll take that as a yes,” I said and patted him on the back, which brought on a coughing fit. Allergies, I decided. It was that time of year, the pollen turning everything yellow, making everyone sick. The poor guy was allergic.
Franz didn’t make the greatest first impression on his new teammates. He was too differ-ent from your typical bowler, with his super-polite manner, his quiet ways, his saying weird stuff when he did talk, not to mention his Kramer-like hair and his accent. He didn’t help himself when he pulled his new ball out of its case. I’d insisted that Franz buy his own ball now that he was a competitive bowler.
“Whoa,” Kenny said, “What color’s that thing?”
“Lavender,” Brad said. “Same as my wife’s shampoo.”
“You got the wrong night, Franzie,” Ricky said. “Thursday’s lady’s night.”
Everyone laughed, Franz included, but the guys remained skeptical, Brad saying after Franz left for the bathroom, “Definitely gay,” and Ricky complaining, “I don’t understand a fucking thing he says. What’s a ‘conundrum’?”
But as I knew they would, any concerns the guys had about Franz were forgotten once they saw him in action. He had high game that night, 271, made the 8 10 split and led us to a win that kept us on track for the regionals. If I’d had that kind of night I’d be jumping for joy, but Franz was a downbeat sort of guy. Between frames he sat slumped like he’d had a bad night’s sleep, which he had, he told me, plus a headache he couldn’t shake. He always had more than his share of aches and pains. I offered to ask around for some aspirin but he told me not to bother. “Suffering is the only definite thing,” was how he put it.
For someone who didn’t think he was “ready for competition” Franz showed himself to-tally committed to winning from his first night as a Pin Head, so much so I worried he’d run out of gas before the end of the three games. Normally gangly and frail-looking, the moment it was his turn to bowl Franz rose to his full height, strode to the ball return, slipped his long thin fin-gers into the holes and flew down the lane, turning himself into a high-powered, well-oiled ma-chine, a consistent strike maker. Or as Kenny put it, speaking for the whole team, “Franz is the dude.”
We won the next week, and the week after that and the week after that, Franz with high game in each contest, his average soaring to 268 while making some of the most amazing splits I’d ever seen, including the 7-10—twice in one game! Word spread around the league about our new power bowler and guys from other teams would drift over from their lanes just to check him out. The day we clinched a spot in the regionals we celebrated right there at Lucky Strike, and I was feeling no pain. I’d just bought everyone another round of beers, everyone but Franz, who didn’t drink, smoke, eat meat or anything else the rest of us did, when I spotted him sitting by himself, his arms and legs crossed, rocking in place, and looking . . . well, like we’d lost.
I went over to him. “What’s up? You okay?”
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“In the eighth frame. I should have made it. I feel guilty about that.”
I didn’t know what he was talking about. Then I remembered. Franz had missed a spare in the eighth that would have increased our margin of victory but was otherwise unimportant.
“We won,” I said. “Why feel guilty?”
“It’s my guiding principle. Guilt is never to be doubted. I jeopardized our chances of winning. If Brad hadn’t made those last two strikes we would have lost.”
“But he did make them. Listen. I’ve been trying to get to the regionals for three years. Well, I made it. The Pin Heads made it. And it’s all because of you. Okay, you were a little tight today, but you’re the one who got us here. You made this happen. So forget the split. And forget this guilt shit. Seriously, Franz, you need to lighten up.”
A week later I invited Franz to meet me at Starbucks. The regionals wouldn’t begin until the following weekend and I wanted a little one-on-one with him before the tournament. There wasn’t time to sit and chat during competition and when I did manage to grab a quiet moment with him he seemed anxious, giving one-word replies and making little eye contact. More both-ersome, after he failed to strike or had a rare open frame he would look at me as if he expected to be punished.
“I don’t drink coffee, actually,” Franz said.
“I know that, but they have plenty of drinks besides coffee.”
“Are you sure it’s all right?”
“Why wouldn’t it be?”
“Will any of the other Pin Heads be there?”
“Aren’t you concerned about the appearance of favoritism?”
“Of course not. I can have coffee with whoever I want.”
“Well . . . all right.”
After apologizing for being late, he went to the counter and came back with a bottled water. He seemed nervous, fidgeting in his chair, avoiding eye contact, behaving toward me the way he did on league nights. I tried drawing him out, but got nowhere. After a long silence, he offered to refill my cup of coffee, then suggested we move to another table if I thought we were sitting too close to the door, treating me as if he were my eager-to-please servant. When he called me “Sir” I knew I had to say something.
“Why are you acting like this?”
“Acting like what?”
“Like I’m your lord and master.”
“You’re the captain. You’re team leader.”
“So what? I’m still Roy. I’m still your friend.” And as his friend, as the one who con-vinced him to join the team, I was beginning to feel responsible for the sudden change in him, for his going overnight from someone who took up bowling as an escape from the stress and strain of daily life, who bowled for pleasure and relaxation, to a fierce, winning-obsessed, take-no-prisoners competitor. I felt like I’d created some kind of monster. Which could make me feel like one. “I swear, Franz, sometimes you act like you’re afraid of me. What’s going on? What are you trying to get of out of bowling, anyway? What do you want it to do for you?”
“Save my soul, of course.”
“I’m not sure bowling’s good for that,” I said, assuming again that he was joking. “You need to dial it back a bit, okay. I don’t want you burning out on me. And can you try forgetting I’m your captain once in a while? Can you do that for me?”
“Yes, sir—I mean, Roi—I mean, Roy.”
The regional tournament was a single elimination blind draw played over four days, Thursday through Sunday, which meant lose one round and you’re done. If it hadn’t been for Brad’s 281 game in the first round we would have headed home Thursday night. Something wasn’t right with Franz. His release lacked the usual snap. He appeared unsure of himself, sec-ond guessing his every roll of the ball. He’d done some of that in the game that got us to the re-gionals, but this was worse, Franz averaging only 202 for three games against the Winston-Salem Turkey Baggers.
As often as I told myself it was an accomplishment just to have made the regionals, whenever I passed the winner’s trophy in the lobby I couldn’t help stopping for a long moment to stare at it. I had plenty of bowling trophies but nothing like this beauty, a big silver cup rest-ing on an onyx base. I wanted it—badly—and I wanted to go to the state tournament where the winner’s trophy would be even bigger and better. It could happen, too, it was doable, but not with my best bowler averaging in the low two hundreds, and competition getting stiffer with each round.
I knew Franz was giving it his all, he never did anything less, so I didn’t say anything af-ter the first game on Friday. But by the fifth frame of the second game, the team behind by thirty pins, there was too much at stake not to intervene. I pulled him aside.
“You’re getting tight again,” I said.
He looked away.
“Tell me what’s going on, Franz? Your allergies bothering you? I noticed you’ve been doing a lot of coughing.”
“Then what’s with this tweener business?” A tweener is part cranker and part stoker, bowling from the center of the lane with less of a hook.
“I thought I’d experiment,” he said. “I thought it might help.”
“This might not be the best time to experiment. So what’s going on? Tell me.”
“It’s just that I’m beginning to think bowling’s no different from anything else—a strug-gle against ourselves, a struggle we can never entirely win. Bowling looked to me like it was made of solid, lasting stuff, but like everything else it’s falling towards an abyss.”
I did my best to remain patient. “Bowling doesn’t have an abyss, Franz. You’re overthinking this. Like you overthink everything. Here’s what I want you to do, okay. I want you to go out there with nothing on your mind except bowling. Just bowling. I want you to think about those pins at the end of the lane and what you’re going to do to them and nothing else. I want you to throw the ball like only Franz Kafka can throw it.”
My pep talk worked. Cranking again, Franz finished with six strikes as we beat the Ra-leigh Gutter Gang by eleven points, eking our way into the semi-finals.
Which we aced against the Durham Alley Masters. But our real challenge would come in the final and deciding contest. The Wilmington Hot Shots had won the regionals for the last five years, and state the last two. The Pin Heads would have to bowl their best to win.
The night before the final I ate with the team in a diner near the motel. We all ordered burgers and fries except Franz who had macaroni and cheese with an iceberg salad, the only vegetarian dishes on the menu. We’d just gotten our food when I noticed Franz coughing into his napkin at the other end of the table. Next time I looked he was gone.
“Bathroom. Said he had something caught in his throat.”
I didn’t think any more about it, but later that night Ricky knocked on my motel door and said that Franz wasn’t feeling well and that I should check on him.
I found him lying on top of his bed looking pale and weak, paler and weaker than usual, dark circles under his eyes and a tissue clasped in his right hand. My immediate reaction was selfish: panic. The final only twelve hours away and my best bowler flat on his back.
“How sick are you, Franz?”
“Not that sick.”
“Is it your allergies again?”
“It’s not his allergies,” Kenny said. “He just tells you that because he knows it’s what you want to hear.”
“I’ll be fine. Honestly.”
“Are you sure?” I said. “Because you don’t look fine.”
“What is it they say about appearances?” Franz said. “Think of me as a tree in the snow. Judging by appearance, a little shove should push me right over. It can't be done, though. I’m rooted to the ground. But even that is only appearance.”
The Pinheads had long ago accepted their star bowler’s more mysterious comments as Franz being Franz.
“I want to win tomorrow as much as anyone,” Ricky said. “But I’m with Kenny. If Franz is too sick to bowl, he’s too sick to bowl. The hell with the regionals.”
Kenny snatched the tissue from Franz and came toward me. Red spots were on it. “You know what that is?” Kenny said. “It’s blood. The guy’s coughing up blood.”
“I have a touch of tonsillitis,” Franz said. “It’s nothing serious.”
“Leave us alone, will you,” I told everyone.
After they’d gone I said to Franz, “I’m thinking we should forfeit.”
“I can’t let you do that. Please don’t do that.” Franz took hold of my arm. “I’d never be able to forgive myself. I’ve seen you admiring the winner’s trophy. I know what this means to you.”
“Your health means more to me than any trophy.”
“I beg you. I’ll be better by tomorrow. I just need some rest.”
I didn’t have the heart to say no. He wanted so much to win, for whatever reason, and, of course, so did I. “Okay,” I said. “But if I see one drop of blood tomor-row . . . ”
“I won’t let you down. I’m at your mercy.”
“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you.”
We lost the first game to the Hot Shots by over a hundred pins, due almost entirely to me. I managed exactly one strike and three spares for a score of 133, the worst ten frames I’d ever bowled in competition. Franz had high game, but he slumped deeper than ever in his seat between frames, sitting with his arms upturned on his thighs, his mouth hanging open as if to help him breathe, the contrast between his black hair and his pasty skin pretty ghastly. All the guys kept looking at me, as if to say, Shouldn’t you do something?
“I’ll stop this right now if you tell me to,” I said to Franz.
“You can’t do that.”
“Because at a certain point”—he coughed—”at a certain point there’s no longer any turning back. That point has been reached.”
We came back to win the second game in a squeaker, by seven pins. Everyone bowled to their full potential. I ended with seven strikes and a 258 total, my second best game ever. Franz out-did himself, bowling 289. No one spoke before the final game, as if anything we said might jinx our chances. To win we knew we’d have to do as well and probably better in the rubber match.
Ricky started us off with a strike. Brad spared. Franz had a strike. I spared. Kenny spared. The Hot Shots were trailing us by 3 pins in the first frame, 11 pins in third, then we fal-tered and by the fifth frame the teams were dead even.
“Where’s Franz?” I asked after I spared in the six frame.
“You don’t hear that?” Kenny said.
From the bathroom beside the shoe concession came a hacking sound.
“He’s up next,” I said. “Can someone go see about him?”
Kenny came back with Franz who had a paper towel pressed to his mouth. He stuffed it in his pocket, grabbed his ball and threw his sixth strike in a row. Before the ball reached the pins he had his paper towel back out, coughing into it. He returned to the bathroom.
“I don’t think it’s tonsillitis he’s got,” Ricky said.
I asked everyone if we should forfeit. No one answered. They were as conflicted as I was. Until that moment, they’d only dreamed about going to state.
We fought on. I spared. Ricky and Brad had strikes. Kenny left the 8 and the 2. Franz, once again, had a strike. We were still in contention but only because of our cranker. Then some of us lost focus and we fell well off the pace. By the tenth frame we were 42 pins behind. Franz was bent over the ball return after a fit of coughing when I told him he didn’t have to bowl the last frame, that winning at this point was a virtual impossibility.
He ignored me. I wasn’t even sure he heard.
He threw the first ball. Strike. He threw the second ball. Another strike. He paused, pull-ing a paper towel out of his pocket and coughed into it. Then he threw his twelfth straight strike, a perfect game.
When the final score was tallied we’d lost by 15 pins.
Franz sat with his arms dangling down between his legs. “I’m sorry,” he said in a thin voice.
He nodded at my score card.
“Well, it certainly wasn’t your fault.”
“I could have done more.”
“You can’t do better than 300. You can’t do better than a perfect game.”
“There must have been a way. I should have found a way.”
“Three hundred is the highest score possible, Franz. There are no bonus points in bowl-ing.” I thought I’d seen that shamefaced look before. “Don’t tell me you’re feeling guilty.”
He lowered his head, weighty with suffering.
“That’s crazy, Franz. You’re beating yourself up for no reason. You have absolutely nothing to feel guilty about.”
“If only I could believe that.”
I gave up. There was no reasoning with him.
The season over, I hoped to get our friendship back like it was before Franz turned me into an authority figure. Also, I had some things that belonged to him. When I called him, one of his sisters answered. She told me Franz was in a sanatorium and would be there for an unspecified length of time. That’s when I learned that what he had was a lot more serious than inflamed tonsils. Her words seemed to hit me in the middle of my body. It felt like all the air had been pushed out of my lungs. His sister gave me his e-mail address and I wrote to him immediately. His reply was maddeningly formal, though he did mention he’d be returning home in two weeks. When I wrote back, suggesting we get together after his release, he replied with tortured debates about why that wouldn’t be a good idea (the impossibility of a real human connection with anyone, the interruption—however brief—to his scribbling, as well as general weariness and frequent headaches), then a paragraph about why we should get together after all, only to change his mind again for a reason (or reasons) too complex for my simple brain to grasp. Finally, though, he agreed to meet a week from Saturday, at Starbucks.
Never anything but rail thin, he’d actually lost weight. His eyes were set deeper than ev-er in their sockets. His face was bony and angular. I could make out the skull beneath the skin.
“I’m sorry you’re not well,” I said.
I wanted to ask about his prognosis, but I hesitated.
“I have something for you,” I told him instead and pulled from a paper bag the trophies he hadn’t been at the awards banquet to receive last month, trophies for high average and high game for the season, and for runner-up at the regional championship.
“I can’t accept those,” he said.
“You know why not.”
I wasn’t going to have this argument with him again. “You earned these. You deserve them. They’re yours.”
Franz began coughing, his whole body convulsing, his face turning a deep dark red. It was difficult to watch. I actually worried he might to pass out. After a full minute of struggling for breath, he managed, “Failure is its own reward.”
As heartsick as I felt sitting with this man who was so ill, I found myself losing patience. “You’re blowing this all out of proportion, Franz. Maybe it’s because of Stephanie, the woman I wrote you about, the woman I’m seeing, but I’ve got a better perspective on things. And bowl-ing . . . it’s not that big a deal. It’s only a game, really.”
“You might as well say it’s only life. Or death.”
The word hung in the air.
I asked him, “So what am I supposed to do with your trophies?”
Franz set his bottled water on the table. “Destroy them.”
“Destroy them? Isn’t that a bit melodramatic?” I was sorry I said that as soon as I saw the look on his face, the look of someone who yearned above all to be understood.
“If you ever cared for me,” he said, “you’ll honor my request.”
I had no reply to that. I put the trophies back in the bag. As I was folding it up I found the courage to ask,
“How are you doing, Franz? I mean, your condition? Your sister said she was hoping for the best, and with all the advances in medicine these days, I thought, I won-dered . . . Is there hope?”
“Oh, yes,” he said with a little smile. “There’s plenty of hope. But not for me.”
We parted with a handshake. I never saw him again, nor did I write. I did so as a kind-ness, having understood that, like the trophies, I reminded him of what he’d prefer to forget.
It occurred to me later that he could have taken the trophies and disposed of them him-self. But I think he was afraid he lacked the will to do it, that they meant more to him than he cared to admit. I don’t know. He was a strange man. I keep his trophies on a shelve in my rec room, alongside my own.
The next season the Pin Heads wore black arm bands in Franz’s memory. We didn’t make the regionals; not even close. The guy who replaced Franz was a cranker but he didn’t have Franz’s consistency, his power—why not say it, his genius. I have some guilt about not following through on Franz’s final request. But I have more for introducing him to competitive bowling in the first place, which he clearly couldn’t handle; also for failing to recognize sooner how sick he was and not doing more to stop him from hurting himself. I even have a touch of survivor’s guilt for how happy Stephanie has made me, for the relief from loneliness and obses-sion. I don’t mind it, though, the guilt. In fact, I kind of treasure it. Considering how important guilt was to him, how big a part of his life, I think of it as a little bit of Franz, something to re-member him by, a sort of keepsake from the greatest bowler it was my privilege to call a friend and teammate.
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