BACK GATE BOWLING from “Swamis”

In my latest condensation/edit/rewrite of my manuscript for “Swamis,” I have already eliminated the back story for Harold ‘Buddy’ Rollins, and, in fact, moved it to a more fitting place in the narrative. The character, Buddy, is based on two different people, Lacy ‘Buddy’ Rollins and Denny Levine.

borrowed image to represent a fictional bowler

The first one, Buddy, was a white guy who learned sign lettering in a Florida prison. I was his apprentice from 1969, just after I graduated high school, to 1971. I worked, at first, out of a shack of a building in South Oceanside. Buddy was about 36, his wife, Sandy, 21. They, at first, lived in a shed behind the shop, then a trailer in the lot. When Buddy took over the restoration of the old “Blade Tribune” building, 1st and Tremont, he and his wife moved into an apartment above it.

Oceanside at this time, so close to Camp Pendleton, was chaotic and exciting and dangerous. I was working one block from the Greyhound Bus Station, two blocks and railroad tracks from the water, two blocks north from there of the pier. Perfect location.

The area for the shop was huge, with high ceilings, a hole in the middle where the presses had been. A self-glorified nub, I had the freedom to work on my own projects while I went to Junior College. Somehow work overwhelmed study and, because of the other tasks Buddy took on, other skills I progressed in but in no way mastered, I was able to get a job as a journeyman painter in San Diego at barely twenty years old. Though I often say Buddy’s not firing me when he should have ruined my life; thank you, Buddy.

Denny LeVigne (not sure how to spell it correctly) was another wise-cracking white guy, the owner of and the ‘pro’ at Key City Lanes, the bowling alley in Port Townsend. Trish and I took our kids up there to learn how, and we played in some mixed leagues for a few years. Trish bowled on various teams in women’s leagues for years. She played a bit longer after the alley closed and Denny became a car salesman. Fitting. He died of a heart attack.

The last I heard of Buddy was a trip Trish and I took to Las Vegas. They called his name over a casino loudspeaker. Trish and I pretty much fled. Like Denny, a constant smoker, I can’t believe Buddy is still alive. If so, he’d be about 89.

So, no. But, if so, thanks again, Buddy.

So, here’s the excerpt:

… Back Gate Bowling

I was carrying my mom’s bowling bag. She had her purse over one shoulder and was holding her shoes. We were early. There were several groups of three or four women spread out in the open area between the lanes and a wall that had openings to the restaurant and the cocktail lounge, with bathrooms labeled ‘strike’ and ‘spare’ between them.

The counter was centered in this open space, a place where wannabes could rent bowling balls, available in a wide variety of weights and hole patterns. Most of the balls had been left behind or traded in for new ones, fancy-patterned, custom ordered. And there were shoes, multi-colored oxfords with various amounts of the slider material remaining on the souls of each pair, size-coded with large numbers inside and outside the heels.  

Buddy was there on this morning, cigarette in his mouth, turning briefly away each time he sprayed another shot of aerosol fog into a shoe, some of it coming back at him.

I probably should mention here that Buddy was black. His hair, which had been slicked-down and back, ‘conked,’ when I first took group lessons with him, was now longer, looser, styled in a sort of subtle afro; his beatnik-like goatee replaced by long sideburns. He didn’t have a mustache; but did have facial hair just below his bottom lip.

Because I had looked at him a bit too long, “Soul patch” was the first thing he said. “It’s okay, Little Joe; I also play drums;” as if being a musician was a prerequisite. I never heard Buddy play, but, since I do play harmonica, I do sport a mustache and a soul patch. It’s okay.

“Buddy Rollins, professional bowler” was stitched on Buddy’s two-tone, traditional bowling shirt. He was wearing not-quite-white double-knit pants and non-bowling versions of the quite flashy custom bowling shoes he would wear on the lanes.  

“If you aren’t on the lanes, you don’t wear bowling shoes. Fucks ‘em up.” That’s a quote most of his adolescent class snickered at. Naughty.

I should also add, Buddy was frightfully skinny.

“Moriko,” Buddy yelled, my mother still at least twenty feet away. “About time y’all showed up.” 

I held out the key and the piece of metal with ‘in case of emergency, break glass’ stamped into it, ready to mentally record his reaction.

Buddy didn’t seem surprised. “You bring me back my gun, Little Joe?”   

Buddy seemed to be mentally recording my reaction; as did my mother, I could tell, as she approached the counter.  

“Atsushi, do you have Buddy’s gun?”

“No,” I said, as if this was a joke, “no gun today.”

“No problem; gettin’ by wit’out it.” Buddy took two pairs of shoes from two girls, ten or eleven years old. Younger than the shoes. “Y’all have some good games?”

“She did,” one of the girls said. “I… I don’t know. Last time, I did so well. One-seventy.”

“That’s the thing about bowling. Frustratin’; but not like golfin’. No. But, guaranteed, next time you’ll do really good.” He turned to the girl who had bowled better. “Watch out, girl; next time….”

Neither girl looked that inspired. They turned away. I put the key and the piece of metal on the counter.  “Your gun, huh?”

My mother looked at the key and the ‘in case of emergency’ tag, set her bag down, pointed toward the ‘spare’ bathroom and walked toward it.

“Never was actually mine.” He looked at me as if it was my joke. “What gun you speakin’ of, Little Joe?”

 …

Buddy found me in the middle of a line of lockers. 14A, top row.

“Give me the key. Please.” I handed him the key. “I have to keep these things rented out. Dollar here, dollar there. This way.”

Buddy guided me toward his office.  We passed my mom, standing with a group of women. Two were white, one might have been Filipina, and one was Japanese. They all knew each other. This was the team my mother had been a part of; her team; and now, would be again. Maybe. They were all looking at me. Yes, I had grown.

When we got to the back end of the building and down a hallway past where they kept the cardboard and the dumpsters, Buddy said, “Hope your momma doesn’t get my wife all up on takin’ back her own Japanese heritage.”

“Since my dad… died. She keeps calling Freddy and me by our Japanese middle names.”

“I hear you, At-su-shi.” Buddy unlocked the office door with a key from the ring he kept on his belt.  Yes, white belt, double knit pants. I can’t say if he was ahead of those trends or behind.  

“Some folks do seem to think my Christian name is Buddy. I did know a guy once whose given first name was Junior; Junior Zephiren.”

Somewhere on the walk, Buddy had eliminated the half-step out of his gait, dropped the easily discernible rhythm from his speech.

“Here we are, Atsushi,” he said in what I believed was a lower register, flat. “My hideout from all the… jive, the shit people expect from me.”

He unlocked the door and gave me a gentle push into his office. Extremely neat. Cabinets all around. Dark cherry, including the file cabinets. No bowling trophies on display, no pinup calendar on the wall. There were books on the open shelves and three on his desk.

I looked. Buddy noticed. He picked up the book on top. “It’s ‘Soul on Ice.’ Eldridge Cleaver. It’s, uh, you should read it.”    

“Maybe I will, Harold.”

“Harold?”

I pointed to the wall. “On your business license. Next to your… San Diego State… yeah, Bachelors of… art. Harold O. Rollins. O?”

“Oh. So it is.”

Buddy/Harold opened an upper corner cabinet and pulled out a metal file box out and set it down on the back counter. It was, for reference, slightly smaller than an average counter model microwave. He didn’t open it, but he did motion me over.

“Books,” he’d said. “Multiple. Now, I never really cared about what was in them. Are you sure you want to know?”

“Yes.”   

Buddy was obviously enjoying the anticipation on my face. As I reached for the double latches on the front of the box, he put his hand on the lid. “Now, about the gun…”

“I’m not asking… Harold.”

“That’s good. You know, I did live in Fallbrook for a while. It was football season… wife and I’d go to games, ride the rooter bus. Back of the bus, of course.” He kept his hand on the lid. “Ha! It was the same night I saw you in the parking lot. Didn’t seem like your… scene. Heard about it. Big to-do, huh?”

“Oh, yeah; that night.”

“The gun,” Harold ‘Buddy’ Rollins said, “your father took it from me. I wasn’t supposed to have it. Felony record. Nothing too serious. Florida.” He left the ‘Florida’ out there, as if it was an explanation. “There’d been an incident, a few nights before. Here. Cocktail lounge. Two fuckers; they were already drunk; one of ‘em pulled a gun on my wife. She was tending bar. She pulled out the pistol, said… she’s still got the accent, you know; not like… your mom. She says, ‘It a slow night. You want to die for…’ she dumps the money on the counter, left hand, starts moving it around. It wasn’t too much. She still has the pistol in her right hand. The guys scoot out. She chases after them, yells ‘Thirty-seven dollars, assholes’ as they’re bookin’ it.”

Buddy looked for my reaction.  I was properly impressed.

“Tough woman, huh?” I was still nodding. “So, I’m running over from a game… I was hustling this dude from… somewhere; we, Emiko and me, we get to the front door. They’re riding away on motorcycles, and Emiko, she’s running outside, waving the pistol. I would have followed her, but…”

“But you were… you were wearing your bowling shoes.”

Buddy laughed.

“Exactly. Anyway, Oceanside cops could not have cared less. A joke to them. They start asking me all kinds of questions about the gun. Not mine. They don’t care. Separate story. So, you know that tavern; roadhouse, really… this side of Bonsall. We’d passed it… on the bus. Motorcycles outside. So, I drop Emiko off at home, and, well, I go out there, go on in to check it all out. I seen the dudes; but other guys were… I wasn’t too well received by all these white hillbilly bikers. I pulled the pistol as I’m backing out the door and… shot off a round. In the air. Up.”

“Up. Sure.”  

“I’m pushing it. I wasn’t even to the bridge when your daddy, he was in a station wagon, must have had a radio: he flashes his headlights, does a big u-turn, pulls me over. I recognized the car.”

“The Falcon?”

“Guess so. Your daddy… you know, nobody fucked with him.” 

“Almost nobody.”

“Him and I’d became friends, kinda; mostly on account of bowling and us both having Japanese wives. And we’re both vets. I was just a truck driver, mostly; but, after the war, over in Japan… it was, um, different. It was… you have to know, Little Joe, it was better… better than here. And here’s way better than… Florida.”

Florida again. “The gun, Mr. Rollins?”

“The gun? Yeah. Don’t want it back.”

I opened the top of the metal box. There were stenographer’s pads, six inches by nine inches, spiral bound. “1968” was written on the top one. I removed them, set them aside. The next layer was eight-and-a-half by twelve-inch legal pads. I couldn’t quite get a finger under the middle of the top one. 

Buddy handed me a gold letter opener, a mermaid on the handle. “Careful with that, now, Little Joe; Emiko and me got it in Copenhagen.”  

I wedged out the top three notebooks, with more below them, stacked them on the counter. 

“Your daddy comes up to my window, says, ‘Buddy, there’s been an incident. Some fool waving a gun, firing off a couple of shots at some bikers. Wouldn’t be you, would it?’ He didn’t wait for me to answer. He opens the door, says, ‘Highway Patrol and two on-duty Deputies are headed this way. If you would kindly step out.’ I could hear sirens. I could hear motorcycles. I had one hand on the door handle. I was waiting a bit, and… wham; he grabs my head, yanks me out the door… and boom; I’m on the ground. He steps on me; reaches in, grabs the pistol, sticks it in my face.”

“This is all in shorthand,” I had the top steno pad opened to the middle. June.

“Yeah, I know.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Your mom and Emiko. They took some night classes. Gregg shorthand. That’s where they met. It was before the bowling. The, um… the uh… your dad’s notebooks are underneath.”

I pulled the remaining legal-sized notebooks out, dumped what was left in the box onto the desk.  Small, chest-pocket-sized notebooks, three-and-three-quarters by six-inches, bound, three or four together, with rubber bands. Each banded group was a year. I didn’t count how many years there were. Not then.

Buddy’s story had become background.

“So, the sirens are coming, and my own gun’s in my face, and your dad just kinda picks me up, pushes me up against my car, says, ‘Guns don’t know, or care, if they’re being handled by heroes or cowards. Mostly cowards.’ I’m about to shit myself, and he asks if he can keep my pistol for me. ‘Safe keeping,’ he says.”

“’One round,’ I say, ‘in the air.’ He says, ‘of course.’”  

The office door opened and my mother and Buddy’s wife, stepped into the room. Both looked at the notebooks scattered on the desk. My mom signaled Emiko to close the door.

1968. The rubber band was off.  I was starting at the last pocket notebook, scribblings in my father’s own shorthand. 

“10/09/68- 1830. White’s packing house. Flbrk. 2 many cars. Harvest. 15+ workers. Guards. Outoftowners. Closer.”

“Atsushi.” No response. I was reading. “Junior.” Reading. “Joseph.”

“Huh?”

My mother set her bowling bag down on the desk, on top of the larger-sized notebooks. “How long do you think Adam and Eve were in the garden of Eden before…?” I was vaguely aware she had opened the bag.

I looked up. She was holding Buddy’s gun, as far back on the butt as she could manage, making weak circles in the air, toward and around the opened box.

“We’ve been out of Eden a while, Mom.”

“I had some hope that you wouldn’t… but you do; you want to know.”

“I need to know.”

Moriko DeFreines offered the pistol to Buddy. She was shaking her head.  Buddy/Harold shook his. She let the bullets clatter into the empty box, set the pistol inside, restacked the steno and legal pads, looked at me, said, “I’ll keep these.”

Emiko Rollins took two new bowling towels from a shelf, removed the pistol (also by the barrel) and the bullets, placed the towel in the bottom of the box, replaced the gun, added the bullets, covered them with the second towel, pressing it into the contours. My mother added some of the rubber-banded notebooks. They both looked at me. Buddy looked at the two women, then, also, at me. I looked at the box, at the notebooks, then at my mother.

“What do you think you need to know, Atsushi?”

“Everything. Something. More.” 

LONG, HUH? There is actually a bit more. Bikers show up at the scene before a Sheriff’s Deputy arrives. Joey’s father stands up to them and sends them off. Several of the bikers are pulled over by Mortenson, a California Highway Patrolman whose role in “Swamis” will be diminished before I get through. Mortenson is based on a well-known and feared local Patrolman in the Fallbrook area when I was a teenager, and another local Washington State Patrol officer in the Jefferson County area when I first moved up here. I have stories about both of those… officers. LATER.

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