It may be frowned upon to bowl on the Sabbath, but no one said anything about #wirehousedaily on Sundays. Today's contribution from Luke is a short story titled OXBLOOD AND THE ICE AGE (which is now one of my favorite titles for anything ever). Enjoy!
OXBLOOD AND THE ICE AGE
THE hallway in my apartment starts at the front door, goes through the living room, and ends in the kitchen. This stretch is just shy of the length of a lane at the bowling alley. Someone pointed it out the other night. Seems like a lot of these eye-balled measurements happen when my friends drink. Too many contractors in the mix I guess.
When I hear something like this I have to go to the door-end of things. I need to have a look. How close is the hallway and on into the kitchen to the real thing? Pretty close, I say.
“Everyone. Everyone, come take a look at this,” I say. No one looks. My wife sits on the couch.
The bowling ball is next. My friend Jeremy pointed it out as we walked into the living room that night. Jeremy is visiting us from our hometown, Santa Cruz, California. My wife Tori and I haven’t lived in our apartment here in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn so long that I’ve stopped seeing things, the way you will when you’ve lived in a place for years and years and can’t remember where you dropped that extra set of VW wheel covers or some other thing you hardly use but insist on keeping. So the ball in the oxblood bag isn’t as much a surprise that night as it might be years from now.
“That what I think it is?” Jeremy says.
“Probably. What else could it be?” I say.
I reach down and drag my grandfather’s old bowling ball to a nearby chair. Jeremy drops back onto the air mattress he is sleeping on that week. The mattress takes up most of the living room, leaving a one-foot path all the way around so we can get to the record player and lamp, and so Tori and I can make it to our bedroom.
“I always use the lightest ball I can find,” Jeremy says and sits back up. He can swing a hammer, he says, and I can attest tothis, and he can throw great stacks of roof tiling as if they’re paper plates. Something about that motion, he says, and pantomimes his bowling throw. He needs something light.
“This guy,” I say, and start to unzip the bag. “It’s got some weight to it. I roll straight, no curve or anything. This is what I need,” I tell him. “Bowled a 180 last time.” I pick up the ball.
• • •
We were drunk. We’d had beers with a late breakfast earlier that day, and adventured into Greenwood Cemetery in South Slope, Brooklyn. Adventure for us—two thirty-year-olds who work jobs we don’t want and are both in the process of redefining ourselves and careers and deciding whether to have kids and all that— means a slow walk through the grounds where some of the Revolutionary War was fought, and where, for some reason, there are blue and green parakeets rising into the trees instead of crows as I imagine there should be in a cemetery. Thirty-years-old but still I joked that the cannon tamper was a giant Q-Tip. And when we started noticing the many obelisks that mark the dead I told the story about a professor I had for early European Lit. Everything, the way my professor saw it, was a phallic symbol. The pen in that girl’s hand. The sword over there. The slim leg of the lake. Anything that came to a point was basically a penis.
I told Jeremy a little bit about my writing program. Jeremy is a good friend because he asks some questions but not many. He cares but only asks the kind of questions that are nice to answer. He didn’t ask me how many words a day I was writing or if it had been a mistake to move so far away from our friends and family. I would have lied anyway and he probably knew that.
The day built and unbuilt from our walk through the cemetery.
When we left Greenwood we sipped more beers and walked around South Slope. Once Tori was off of work, the three of us ate dinner in Williamsburg at the kind of restaurant that somehow incorporates bacon into every dish. It’s kind of a thing. We ate and drank and talked and I scowled at a table of loud twenty-somethings who didn’t much respect the space. There were candles strung across the garden and I was drinking a Manhattan and they were drinking things mixed with diet soda, and I didn’t wanted to be interrupted by their noise. Maybe it was their joy or lack of fearing things—either way, they were too loud considering that most of the light in the place came from candles.
Finishing there, the three of us went to see a movie that Tiffany, Jeremy’s wife, had recommended. She told us that it was a good movie but warned that it may not be Jeremy’s kind of thing. The movie was a kind of poem and he might not get it. He took some offense to that, but not enough not to see the movie.
Tori sat in-between us and when we all cried some I was glad she was there so Jeremy and I didn’t have to see each other like that.
The three of us all have sick fathers. Cancer and more cancer and also hepatitis C in two cases. The movie was about a dying father. The man’s young daughter, without the language to show how much she loves him, brings her father some fried alligator meat, which he eats, and the food is a kind of communion. There’s not enough of God in the room or the world, for that matter, for any kind of transubstantiation, but something happens here. He eats the meat and is happy and then his heart stops and the daughter hears it quit. Maybe he’s saved in the end and so is she. Maybe no one is. And finally there are Ice age beasts, once encased in giant blocks of ice, now swimming and running towards the girl. The sun glints off their great and naked tusks. They reach the girl, she a crawfish to a whale in size, and she basically says, I think we’re kind of friends now. The beasts back off. They disappear to the prehistoric place from which they came. I can only imagine that these great animals embody all the fear in the world and this little girl turns them away like it’s an option, which I guess it sort of is.
After the movie we needed to debrief. So we had drinks at another bar, a quieter one this time, and talked about our fathers. First remotely, like shy kids kicking a rock around, and then directly, recounting how in hospitals there’s just no air at all. We talked about the universal way fathers deny sickness and their need for certain things like rest and water. And how helping your dad take a piss hurts like hell.
• • •
Back at the house I take my Grandpa Ted’s ball out of the case and hold it up dramatically like Bob Feller in a full wind-up, ready to deliver a pitch.
“How much does it weigh?”
“I don’t know, it doesn’t say.” I turn the ball around in my hands. As with all bowling balls from this era, there is a monosyllabic name inscribed above the middle and ring finger holes: Ted.
“Brunswick Laser,” I read off of the ball. Laser with an ‘S’, not a ‘Z.’ Clever.
The holes aren’t exactly straight. The ones for your index and middle finger are set more to the right than normal. I take a wrist brace from the bottom of the bag, beneath the shoes and an old crusted rag, and Velcro the thing on. With the brace on and the ball in hand I go around the corner, to the front door, and mime a throw. A strike would have happened in the kitchen if I’d actually thrown. I’m feeling pretty good.
“The Positioner Automatic,” I say, reading the distinctive white block-type letters that seem to have been used so often in the ’50s when my grandfather bought the brace.
Jeremy laughs. I say it again.
“The shoes fit?”
“They do. They look small, though. I guess it’s been a while.” I take one out and hold it up to my foot the way little kids gauge shoe size.
“Yeah, perfect fit.”
I fish around the bag and come up with a small yellowing bag of rosin, give it a toss in the air and let it land. A cloud of the ancient stuff fills the air and falls all around us.
“That’s probably toxic,” Jeremy says.
I drop the rosin back into the bag. White dust billows out.
• • •
When I picture Ted he’s wearing a blue cardigan. He is at the kitchen table smoking a cigarette, a newspaper opened up in front of him and a cup of coffee to his right. It’s his blue cardigan and neatly combed hair and great hand running across the rim of a ceramic mug—this image is part my memory of him and part the memory of a picture of him. It’s where I always start when I remember Ted, I don’t know why. There are other photographs, like the ones where he is with the Stanford swim team in Japan. One of that set was clearly taken between posed shots. Everyone is looking around, the Japanese swimmers and the mostly white Stanford guys. Ted is jokingly picking his nose. He is young and handsome. He is smiling because he knows that he is being funny. In another from that collection, he is sitting in shorts and a tank top, haloed by morning light, and smiling. It is probably the strongest, the fittest, he ever was. Still, for some reason, the blue sweater, the coffee and all, is what I remember. It’s the one my sister has just framed and hung in her house in California.
I jump all over the place telling Jeremy my grandfather’s story, not because I’m artful in my retelling but because I’m always comparing my life to my grandfather’s. It’s not Tarantino technique. It’s anxiety and narcissism and alcohol that have me describing Ted’s two cold swims across the Golden Gate before the bridge was there (he won the second time and there’s a picture to prove it in which he’s shaking the mayor’s hand) and then cutting to a scene when he comes into my father’s room late at night with one of my father’s rifles and slurs that he is going to kill himself, which of course he did not do. He probably couldn’t have gotten the rifle to work anyway.
Jeremy is a good friend and listens as I look at the ceiling as if Ted’s life is projected there. I fiddle with the wrist brace I’m still wearing. It smells like an attic.
“I throw straight. Just down the middle. That’s why you’d wear something like this right?”
“Straight down the middle, no funny shit. I make it or I miss it.”
Ted was an Olympic swimmer. Somewhere, I think on a shelf in my father’s San Francisco apartment, we have the bronze medal. Both my grandparents went to Stanford, where they met and dated and then eloped. As the story goes, Ted and Marsha’s parents heard about the marriage on the radio. Because Ted was a star swimmer and water polo player at Stanford, he was in the sports news that day. I don’t how their folks responded. I do know that Ted and Marsha stayed together for nearly 50 years and that Marsha was just about the best and worst thing to happen to Ted. She absorbed all those years of what my father calls “wanderlust” and “dealt” with Ted’s drinking. She was kind to a fault, I guess is what I’m getting at. Before she died I went to see her. We talked and I kissed her soft and wrinkled face, and she kept asking if I could see the television okay from where I was sitting.
During my father’s seventeen years with Ted and Marsha, they lived in seventeen different houses and hotels. I imagine Ted always thought the next place would be the one. I think he liked to be consumed by a thing. A new hotel to buy, or renovating an old motel that he remembers he stayed in once. He wanted projects and then he hated them, a lot like he wanted a drink and then it didn’t do anything. He sold cars, which he was good at when he wanted to be. He could be charming. He wrote and published news stories and editorials in the newspaper, but did it so spottily that it never really took. It never defined him in a way that would have calmed his restlessness. And that whole bit with my father’s rifle, well that was just fear, I think. He was afraid of what was or wasn’t coming next and I can understand that.
After the seventeen houses and all the schools they dragged him through, my father turned to God. He let God consume him, not booze or boredom the way Ted had done. There’s a kind of lockjaw concentration in my father that I wonder if I’m too lazy or too late to achieve.
Now, drunk and living three thousand miles from my dad and sister and the Pacific Ocean, I am trying my hand at yet one more thing. I’m chasing something that’s more an ache than a dream and I can’t help but think of my grandfather’s wanderings. I think of my mother’s recollection of my grandfather, and her saying that the Wiget men are cursed. Her version of my grandfather is so veiled and like describing a car with a car cover on it and all I remember is that we are cursed.
• • •
I don’t know how much of this I told Jeremy that night.
At some point he tells me about when he was a Sergeant in the Army and had this nineteen-year-old girl who kept getting caught drinking in barracks. Something you’re not supposed to do, especially at nineteen, especially as a woman, he adds. Finally, the higher-ups decided that she had to swallow a pill every afternoon that would make her violently ill if she drank alcohol. Every day Jeremy handed her the pill and a glass of water. He didn’t check under her tongue or in her cheeks or anything like that. “You can only do so much for people,” he says.
Three a.m. conversation is as easy as waves. The depths and shallows and not knowing when or if it’ll finish. My wife is asleep. She’s heard all this before.
My grandfather took similar pills at some point, I tell Jeremy. He went through it three or four or five times. My father recalls the car at the house to take Ted to rehab. He’d never seen his dad look so scared or pale. Everyone is afraid all of the time, I think. The girl in the movie we’ve just seen somehow befriends her fears—these ancient Ice age fears whose weight has done nothing but grow and grow since before anyone can remember. Her dad is dying. My dad and Tori’s dad and Jeremy’s dad and everyone’s dad is dying. When I think about it, I see Ted in the car looking at my father and Marsha and shaking and not knowing, just having no goddamn idea. And then here is this little girl who defines her relationship to the monsters and the disease in her father. She is there with him, her alligator meat in a Styrofoam box, and really, it’s the best she or any of us can do.
I take the brace off and my hand is white with rosin.
“How much do you think it weighs?” Jeremy asks.
“It weighs enough. I don’t know,” I say, and I drop the ball back into the bag.