A bowling alley can survive in Chicago if the suburb is south enough. This one has a lot the size of a city proper block lined with massive yellow spines sitting largely empty six days a week, an asphalt canvas for drivers to make smooth curves on when leaving the gas station to head back out towards work or home or the highway.
Fridays’re different though. It starts after school with a few neighborhood kids crawling out from the apartment complex and the surrounding subdivisions. Their aesthetic is androgynous: black shirts, dirty jeans, and skate shoes, uniformly large. They typically arrive alone and congregate by the far entrance to the alley near the game room, gliding across the lot in JNCOs and graphic tees, greasy astronauts traversing their pavement terrain. Tonight, somebody’s mom drops off a carload en route to a night shift and they pile out, put their hair in their faces, and join the rest in awaiting sundown. There’s at least fifteen Monster cans being passed around by the semi-goths as the sky dims.
The regular bowlers and drunks start to roll up around four, a mix of recently leased Dodge Durangos and beat up sedans filling the spots alongside the alley, four-wheeled aluminum filings magnetically pulled from the middle of the lot. Over the summer, one of the union guys’ friends accidentally left his truck out in No Vans Land, a name given the year before to any part of the lot not along the perimeter after an incident involving an unfortunately parked Windstar that had inexplicably ended up flipped and ablaze at the far corner of the gray expanse, and the guy’d needed a ride to work for a full month until the insurance company could thoroughly investigate the claim that his vehicle had been mysteriously dismantled and left in a heap in the runoff ditch in front of the Speedway. Ever since, the bar’s a chorus of “ya park right?” and “ya dint pulla dipshit Jimmy, didja?” when somebody walks in after work, union or not. Jimmy hasn’t been back.
Responsible adults avoid the intersection entirely. No family unit has been to bowl on a Friday night in years, even before the van burning, but especially not since. This evening a desperate father stands for gas just before the sun slips below the subdivided horizon, nervously glancing from pump to the mob of macabre teens taking up an increasingly large patch of blacktop. They all raise a neon can in one hand and a middle finger on the other until his wagon’s in gear. He warns his children not to look but they do, seeing one of the teens spray drink in a mist from their lips, down their chin, and onto their Invader Zim hoodie.
The cornfields have almost completely swallowed the dusk when a cop pulls up and parks where the Windstar once smoked. He looks like every other cop in town: white, middle-aged, buzzed-head, completely unremarkable. He cradles a coffee in his crotch while trying to spread strawberry cream cheese on a bagel, Big & Rich filling the interior of the squad. He half-watches the kids crowd around a Crave Crate somebody just dropped out of the window of a rusted-out Cutlass with a case of RC. A lanky teen in Tripp pants crouches and shoves four sliders into their mouth at once, choke-laughing as their friend pours a pop in the general direction of their face. The cop sips his coffee, closes his eyes.
The sky’s dark and starless. The oil refinery billows smoke over the army training area on the edge of Joliet, reflecting itself as it does every night. Poles beam down ponds of light across the southland. The kids drift toward the luminescent pool at the middle of this lot like goth moths. The cruiser lurks, pluming its own little exhaust cloud as it idles.
The side door of the alley swings open, spilling light and the sounds polyester hitting plastic hitting wood into the night. A woman in an overlarge Bears hoodie steps out and stumbles with the reckless confidence of the severely buzzed. She yells into a hot pink Motorola Razor. “Hey! Yeah! This guy’s in here, I sweartagod, trynta set the Buck Hunt game on fire! Sweartagod! Canya just send somebody over here? Yeah, it’s gonna be an emergency if this whole place goes up! Cantya just tell ’em, why I gotta call ’em?” Well into the lot, she registers the cop car sitting at the far end and flips the phone closed with a click. “Ay! Officer! Ay, they need you in there! This guy’s trynta burn the place down ’cause he’s sayin’ the game’s a scam, that it ain’t like real huntin’ at all, that if it was he’d have the high score first try, I sweartagod!”
Focused on scraping a dried booger off his bulletproof laptop, the cop doesn’t realize it’s time to serve and protect until the woman’s thumb ring clicks frantically against his window. Then, with the agility of an aging former high school offensive end, he’s up, out, and striding across the parking lot, his fauxkleys flipped backwards on his head, the woman speed-shuffling behind him. A kid with faded pink hair pig squeels until they’re swallowed by the building, then turns their friend, grinning.
The cop had have been in there no longer than five minutes, but it’d been long enough.
The squad is tipped up onto its trunk and set against the light post with the light bar strobing, washing the strip mall and neighboring apartment buildings in manic blue-red bursts. Every window on the car’s busted clean out from the inside, glass everywhere. The air’s thick with the scent of sulfur and burnt sugar. Somehow the vehicular PA system’s been hooked up to a portable CD player and a loop of what one Miller-filled witness will forever recall as “some kinda Satanic scatting” distorts the suburban night. The kids are nowhere.
Hi. I’m Nick. I founded, edit, and design for Sobotka Lit Mag, Ursus Americanus Press, and No Rest Press. I live, work, and write in Chicago, IL.