Do Not Always Come Home
Bowling wasn't what it used to be and neither was Harry Kreevich. Once, the pro bowling tour got good ratings, tape-delayed, Saturdays on network television; back then, Harry's place, Cuyahoga Lanes, hosted important events. The great Nelson Burton Jr. once bowled a 300 game there. Harry considered him a personal friend. But Burton retired. So did the great Earl Anthony. There were no more giants in the sport. Tour events moved to newer facilities. As bowling's TV ratings dwindled, so did Harry. His wife Anna, whom Harry had loved until the end but who had been, in Harry's opinion, frigid, bought a book about masturbation called Women: Selfloving, and left him. His older daughter Debra, the painter, moved to New York and married a creep. His younger daughter Jane spent ten years in college and finished with an unfinished Ph.D. in English and no discernible skills, so Harry invited her home and groomed her to take over the alley. To his surprise, Jane turned out to be a frugal, careful manager. Theft went down. Profits rose. Harry began to date. No one special, but it was a start. Things started looking up. Then the new lane girl disappeared.
She had reminded Harry of Debra, though not in the looks or personality departments. The lane girl was a big midwesterner with a husky voice and white, American teeth, plus long thick legs and a stunning amount of blond hair, styled in a way that screamed Parmatown Mall! Debra, like her mother, was dark, thin, smart, and pretty, with a lone shock of white hair that arrived, overnight, in her late twenties. But both Debra and the lane girl had the pout. When Harry told the lane girl she was hired but, sorry, he had a policy against pay advances, boom! Debra's pout. Lower lip barely stuck out, eyes blinking only twice. Harry gave her the money (she said she needed it for the deposit on an apartment) on the condition that she please not mention it to Jane. For two weeks, Harry had the lane girl of his dreams: smiling, quick, graceful with the drunks. Anything went wrong with an order, she flashed the customers the pout, and boom! all was well. She hit it off with Ray, the bartender, who was black and seemed honest but was hard to get to know. (Ray had been there a year; about all Harry knew was that he was pursuing a teaching degree at a pricey Catholic school on the east side.) The new lane girl made enough tips on just two league nights to pay Harry back. But on the day of her first payday, she didn't show up.
At first, Harry just thought she was late. Who misses work on payday? An hour passed. A senior citizens group from Rocky River began to arrive. "We're about to be butt-slammed, Dad," said Jane. She'd pressed herself into service at the main counter. "Where's the new girl, what's-her-face?"
"Karen," said Ray, overhearing. "She has a name. Karen." He sat in front of the bar. He was reading a library book by someone with an Asian name. The dining lounge was empty.
"Can someone call Karen?" she said. "Dad?"
Harry went to his office. The number on the lane girl's employment application was in Cleveland Heights. The phone had been disconnected. No further information, a voice said, about this number. "Any minute, probably," Harry told Jane, "she will be here."
Cuyahoga Lanes was filling up with old people, tottering in, lugging their own shoes and balls. Last of an era. The average American home, Harry had read in a trade magazine, no longer contained a bowling ball.
Harry decided to wait the tables himself. The seniors didn't order much. When they did, he was often forced to say sorry, no no-salt, no-fat chips, but he'll look into it. No veggie burgers. No soy milk. Sorry.
The seniors went home sharply at nine. For the next two hours, the alley was dead except in lane eight, where three young men in goatees and polo shirts were getting noisily drunk. Ray asked Jane if she'd talked to Karen. "Yesterday at work," she said. "But we didn't really talk talk."
"Does anyone know where she lives?" Harry asked.
"God knows," said Ray. "But I don't." He sang: "'That's the difference between God and me.'"
Jane found this very funny. Harry didn't know the song.
"What do we know about her?" Harry asked. "Boyfriends and whatnot. What," he said, looking at Jane, "do the women know?"
"Oh, Daddy," Jane said. "You're so cute."
Mrs. Urancek, the ancient Slovenian cook, couldn't even remember Karen's name. Harry called his other lane girl, a married young redhead named Maureen. A baby wailed in the background. "Sorry, Mr. K," Maureen said. "She and I never said more'n hi and bye."
Jane and Ray told screw-in-a-lightbulb jokes for a half hour. Then she said he could go home.
At eleven, Harry ushered out the college boys, making sure they returned their shoes. The janitors arrived, a fiftyish Mexican couple. The only conversation Jacinto and Luisa remembered having with Karen concerned Elvis. She felt many of Elvis's movies were underrated. Luisa agreed; Jacinto disagreed. "All crap," he said. "Every one." Luisa elbowed him, and he chuckled. "Our first date," Jacinto said, "it was Girl Happy."
Jane closed out the register, and Jacinto let Harry and Jane out the locked side door. As they crossed the parking lot, Jane waved the canvas bank-deposit bag in the summer moonlight. "Maybe you're right, Dad," Jane said. "Maybe something's wrong."
"Probably it's nothing," said Harry. "Don't worry."
Two days later, Harry flew to New York to see Debra. She had an opening in what she called a small, influential gallery, in a warehouse in TriBeCa. "Brace yourself, Dad," Debra had said on the phone. "My new work is a real leap from my old work."
"What am I, a philistine?" he said. "Artists are supposed to make leaps."
"Mom was shocked."
"Your mother isn't me." He was hurt Anna had seen the paintings first. Harry was a Sunday painter. He painted scenes on old saws, scenes of old farm women, wagons, scythes, frolicsome boys and girls in fields of grain: images of his childhood in Croatia. His family had emigrated in 1947, when Harry was eight. Things had been bad in Croatia then, but now! He could only imagine. He wouldn't have the heart to go back. He painted the pictures in his mind. He knew it wasn't really art, like what Debra did. Debra had training, the best schools. She'd been written up in New Art Examiner. She'd won a grant from the United States government. Still, Harry was proud that, each June, when he set up a tent at a craft fair, his saws sold briskly.
The gallery was in the basement of the warehouse, and the opening did not begin until 11 P.M. Beforehand, he, Debra, and her husband-the-creep had dinner upstairs, in a restaurant owned by three famous actors Harry had never heard of. Today there were so many new stars. Too many.
"When was your mother here?" Harry asked. The pointlessly huge tables forced diners almost to shout.
"Last month," said the creep. He did that, answered for her.
"She and Jack were en route to Paris," Debra said. Jack was the new husband. "A layover."
"Paris," Harry said. "Huh."
The creep, Eric, a record executive, told a tiresome story about Parisian rock music. He was tall, with a high voice, and had never, in Harry's opinion, taken Debra seriously as a painter. In their apartment, Eric had a home office and a fitness room. Debra was forced to share studio space in a part of Brooklyn where she'd been mugged twice.
Dinner was served before Harry had an opening. "So," he said, "what's shocking about your work?"
"You'll see," said Eric. "Man, will you see."
"Maybe my daughter would like to answer."
"I'm right here, Daddy," she said. "No need to call me 'my daughter' with me right here."
Harry nodded, in concession.
"A year ago," Debra said, "when I got the NEA, I made a list of the things I liked about my work and all the things I didn't."
"Good idea," said Harry. Harry was a list-maker.
"What I liked was the light and the space," she said. "I didn't like how austere my work was. How serious."
"Not too serious, I never thought." She had been doing odd still lifes-bowls of fruit and cheap toys, with dozens of TV sets in the background. Harry loved them. "But to grow is important."
"Well, I'm doing nudes now."
"So?" said Harry. His stomach lurched. "There is a long tradition, nudes."
"Mom was shocked."
"Enough already with your mother."
The check came while Debra was in the bathroom. The waiter left it near Eric, who looked away, as if forgiving a rudeness. The table was so large, Harry could not reach for it. "Here," Harry said, pointing. "Let me."
Eric frowned. "This?" He picked it up and looked at the total. "I got it," he said. "When we're in Cleveland, you can get it."
Harry gamely protested. Eric-though he was in the music business, and Cleveland now had the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (of which Harry was proud, and kept meaning to visit)-was the sort of man who bragged about never having set foot in Cleveland.
Debra took them downstairs for an early preview. Two young women were setting out wines and adjusting the lighting.
The nudes were penises.
Close-up, painted in shades of gray. Erect and limp, all races, circumcised and not, dangling from squatting positions, fat men and thin. One penis was so alarmingly small, Harry wondered if it was a freak. The paint was thick, purposefully cracked.
"People you know?" Harry said, trying to sound cosmopolitan.
"Models," Debra said. "Plus a few friends. The friends said it helped their self-esteem."
Harry did not want to know how.
"There hasn't been as much done with the penis," she said, "especially by women." She laughed. "Women painters."
The laugh put Harry at ease. "Right," he said. To his surprise, he found himself able to study the paintings, with appreciation. It was not what he'd hang at the alley (which featured four of Harry's saws, two of Debra's still lifes, six posters of Cleveland sports figures, and an aerial photo of the city he'd bought at the Cleveland bicentennial celebration). Still, though he didn't have the training to explain what impressed him, his instincts were that this would help Debra make a name for herself. The penis, Harry thought, truly is a sad, slouchy little guy. "This work is amazing, sweetheart."
Copyright © 2002 by Mark Winegardner
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