Sad, angry, lonely—Daniel Asa Rose and his sons are reeling from the recent family breakup. But in a closed bowling alley on Christmas Eve, they open their hearts and find seasonal cheer.
Their mother wanted to have a few hours to herself, so I left the little rat’s nest I was subletting in New York and drove three hours to take our two boys to a bowling alley, one of the few things open the afternoon before Xmas. But the sign on the door said CLOSED.
We charged through the two sets of unlocked glass doors anyway. This was in East Providence, Rhode Island, and the three natives who ran the place, lounging around the shoe rental counter with tall glasses of beer, seemed accosted by our entrance. Most of the lights were off, they were beginning to relax in the half-light of a long Xmas weekend, and the last thing they expected was to have three blurry figures barge in through the CLOSED sign. A robber with two midget sidekicks, maybe? Instinctively they reached for something with which to arm themselves, before the man in the blue shirt rallied.
“How you gents doing?” he called.
“Right now not so good,” I said with mounting irritation. “I called from the highway a couple of hours ago and was told you were staying open till 4:30.”
The two cronies piped up on either side of the man in the blue shirt.
“We had to close early—no business.”
“Also we just steam-cleaned the carpet.”
They were overruled by the man in the blue shirt who said, with masterful calm, “We can open up the last lane for you. What size shoes do you take?”
“You sure?” I asked, my anger evaporating.
“Sure thing. Just avoid the center of the carpet where it’s still wet.”
“Thank you, guys. I appreciate it—almost nothing’s open the afternoon before Xmas.”
“Have as many games as you like,” the man in blue said. The other two tilted their glasses to their lips and seemed okay with his decision.
So there in the dying light of Xmas Eve, we prepared to bowl, and I was glad because I wanted this to be a successful outing. The family break-up was still fresh and we needed something good to happen. Every time I said goodbye to the boys these days, the older one hugged me tight, pressing his cheek to mine so I couldn’t help but notice a few sharp whiskers. “Don’t always leave!” he moaned. His cheeks were rough-smooth and enflamed with adolescent flush, a combination of shyness and hormones. At fourteen he was raw and gangly with a mouth full of braces, but I would feel the softness of his cheek imprinted against mine, warm, for hours afterward.
As for the twelve year old, I was concerned that he was even more than usually cheeky, to use an old-fashioned word. Impishly bold. A certain amount of retaliatory cheekiness was fine, but I worried he was forcing it.
As instructed, we stepped around the wet center of the carpet, where the blue was darker. The margins were more fun to walk on anyway, festooned as they were with decorations of party hats and bright, colorful streamers. When we got to the last lane, we filled in names for our automatic scoring, selecting noms de bowl off the top of our heads, as was our habit: “Love Machine” for the little one, “Nervous Wreck” for the older, “Powder Keg” for me. But the older one said he wanted to be “Powder Keg,” so I had no choice but to become Nervous Wreck.
We bowled for an hour, having many laughs. The little one, Love Machine, would shake his butt at us each time he threw the ball, then lick his fingertips and touch them to his butt as though it were sizzling. Powder Keg kept complaining that Love Machine was throwing off his game by aiming his laser pointer on the pins. “I’m just excited by it,” Love Machine said. It was a Hanukah gift from the week before and the novelty of being able to point a red beam anywhere he wanted had not yet worn off. Our scores were comically low, and sometimes we took potshots to make them even lower. The whole time we bowled and bantered, the three guys at the counter talked authoritatively among themselves about car engines with their East Providence accents. They were enjoying their afternoon at leisure.
We started a second game but decided to stop after one frame, when all three of us suddenly realized our bowling yen was satisfied. We wrenched our street shoes back on and walked the perimeter of the carpet back to the shoe rental counter.
“That’s okay, it’s on me,” said the man in blue.
“C’mon, you’re kidding,” I said.
“You gents have yourselves a merry Xmas,” he said.
Outside we were infected with the Xmas spirit. Love Machine beat us to the car and when Powder Keg and I got there he was dancing on the roof. But inside the car Love Machine’s mood suddenly crashed, and he declared he wished he were Christian so he could celebrate.
“I think a lot of Jews feel that way around Xmas,” I said. “It’s a really nice holiday and we feel left out. That’s why there are so many Jewish parties in New York on Xmas Eve.”
Powder Keg peered into my eyes, as he did these days, frank and hurt. “Are you saying you’d rather be there?” he asked.
“Of course not,” I said truthfully. “There’s no place I’d rather be right now than here with you two.”
We all thought about that for a minute, waiting for the car to warm up. “Of course, I do have to get back there tonight after I drop you off, but for now there’s no reason we can’t take part in the feeling of Xmas. How about we go spread a little cheer somehow?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Buy a six-pack of beer for someone and leave it on their porch?”
“Pretty sketchy, dad,” said Powder Keg. “what if the home- owner has just decided to stop drinking and then he comes outside and sees a six-pack in the snow for him? It might totally ruin his life.”
Leave it to my oldest to always see the downside of things. This was a child of divorce, after all. His mom had asked his dad to forsake the family home, his dad had complied, and now Powder Keg made it his business to go cheek to cheek with his dad so the nakedness between them was almost unbearable. “Do you have to always leave?” he kept asking, every time it was the hour for me to go. “Could you please not?” So he was correct that downsides did have to be considered.
“Alright, how about roses?” I said. “Anonymous roses for someone? A gift out of the blue, from the rose boys?”
This was acceptable as a working thesis. The frigid afternoon was fast dwindling as people bustled to finish their last-ditch Xmas errands, but we managed to find a flower store that was still open. It was crowded with statues of Jesus and smelled like a mortuary, but the large, humorless woman in back said she had some roses left, four dollars each, which offended me since I was used to new York prices—two dozen for ten bucks. Was everything greed, corruption, bitterness? And was the answer to a freezer-burned universe to try to be kinder than you possibly could? We left the store empty-handed.
“Just as well,” said Powder Keg. “Roses would probably die outside in the cold anyway, waiting for the person to find them.” “Not if we rang their doorbell and ran away,” said Love machine, who always had a plan.
“Didn’t you already get arrested last month for ding-dong-doorbell?” Powder Keg challenged him.
“Not arrested,” said Love machine. “The police were just trying to put the fear of God in me, but even they finally admitted they’d done the same thing when they were twelve.”
“That was after you told them your uncle was the attorney general,” Powder Keg pointed out.
“which was quite a creative lie,” said Love Machine.
“Anyway,” I said, putting the car in reverse. “We have a dilemma in need of a solution. How’re three Yids gonna spread a little Xmas cheer without totally ruining someone’s life, getting nailed by the cops, or just being stupid? Maybe we should hit that Family Dollar for some candy canes or something?”
In the Family Dollar, Love Machine kept trying to turn off the overhead TV monitor with his Hanukah TV zapper. it wouldn’t work, though he kept pointing at it through his coat pocket. A trio of teenagers saw what he was doing on the overhead surveillance camera and nodded to each other appreciatively. But all that was left in the Xmas bin were a few fractured candy canes, looking like colorful broken teeth.
“Okay, new idea,” I said, trying to shake the image of hard chipped candy, sweet and fractured. “Instead of trying to spread anonymous Xmas cheer, let’s target someone specific.”
“How about mom?” suggested Love Machine.
“The last thing she wants is cheer from me,” I said. “But how about the guys at the bowling alley? We’ll bring them a six-pack!”
Even Powder Keg acquiesced. “And you were loaded for bear when they said the place was closed.”
“Luckily my temper doesn’t always get the better of me,” I said. “Not luckily enough for mom,” inserted Love machine.
I left the car on so the boys could stay warm while I went alone into a liquor store, filled with people jostling to buy spirits in the last minutes before the store closed. The line was long and stank of cigarette smoke, but soon enough I was toting my six-pack of Belgian ale, Blue Moon, to the car.
“Rose boys to the rescue!” they both shouted.
“Plus your grandmother Bonmama was Belgian, so it’s kind of in honor of her, as well,” I added.
They had no response to that, my too-obvious attempt to constantly bring the greater family into our discussion, so they’d feel less orphaned. Besides, they remembered their grandmother only from the nursing home in her last years, and lacked any sense of how refined she was in her prime. That brilliant woman reduced to gummy stammering. Talk about dwindling.
Evening was setting in by the time we got back to the bowling alley. We marched past the CLOSED sign into the dark lobby, causing an urgent rustling in the vicinity of the shoe rental counter, where the three men couldn’t distinguish if we were friends or foe. I held the six-pack high by way of greeting, and to show we hadn’t come to rob them. “merry Xmas,” I said.
Naturally it was the man in blue who had the wits to rally first.
“This is unheard of!” he said, coming forward with his arms open wide, as if to hug us.
“Yeah, well, it was unheard of for you to let us play before, and for free.”
“Unheard of!” he repeated, closing his arms almost with reluctance but continuing to beam. with the energy of his unconsummated embrace he patted me on the back, then patted each of my boys on their backs, in turn. He shook our hands next, which seemed redundant after the patting, but he wanted to keep the contact coming. The boys were beaming, too.
Back in the car on their return to their mom’s house, we conducted a post mortem. “Good solution to our dilemma?” I asked.
“Good solution,” they agreed.
“What I particularly liked was his use of the phrase ‘unheard of,’” I said. “There they were talking about carburetors and universal joints, and out he comes with an archaic english expression. I love when people surprise you like that.”
“I feel good,” said Love Machine. “I just wish we could spread a little cheer to mom.”
“Ho ho ho,” I said, deflecting him. “You feeling good, too?” I asked Powder Keg.
“Definitely,” he said. “Plus i’m glad we weren’t shot when we came through the door.”
“A definite plus,” I confirmed.
And it was, in the greater scheme of things. All the drive back to New York, with the burn of his rough-smooth cheek blazed on mine, I acknowledged what a definite plus that was.