Gutterball was first published in the Santa Clara Review, in February of 2019.
He stands six lanes down. He’s not a friend, just an acquaintance, someone whose existence you acknowledge, but little else. You are in the same running group, but you’ve barely ever spoken. You can see him across the gleaming refracted light of spinning balls, racing their way frantically down the oiled wood. He’s a big man, not tall, but wide. Big shoulders, big chest, and big arms, stretching his black t-shirt so tight that it looks to be several sizes too small. He’s starting to get fat, not overly so, just the beginning signs. The type of chunkiness gained by former weight lifters. The added bulk of a man who used to pump iron at the gym every day, but has since given it up for whatever reason. Just the starting signs. The gradual bulging of the gut. The slow collapse of the pectorals. A physical specimen slowly but surely collapsing from the peak of his perceived former glory. The steady ruination of an oversized monolith due to the lack of maintenance.
You wish she had never told you.
“Can I talk to you about something?”
“Sure, what’s up?”
He’s bowling. His lumbering size is strangely graceful. Each step floating his mass across the floor. His stair step calves tighten. His body lowers. His arm, the upper half covered in tattoos, whips back and extends. The ball in his meaty hand, covered in green swirls, softly kisses the hardwood without a sound. The holes slip from his fingers. The growing thunder of the roll, right down the center, building to a cataclysmic rumble as the ball strikes the pins. They fall as one and he raises his arms in triumph, turning back to his spectators at the lane who greet his feat with howls of victory.
You sit with your friend. The tears in her eyes the only sign of emotion. A story told in a voice that is flat and monotone.
His spectators are made up of a woman and a little girl. The girl can’t be much more than five. You had heard that he had a daughter. Somebody had told you, a fact in passing, or perhaps it had just been something you had once overheard. Now living proof stands in front of you. Big brown eyes and dark brown hair. She has her father’s nose and mouth. The rest must come from her mother. Who knows? You have never met the woman. A phantom from a past life. Briefly mentioned like the daughter, a fact without further explanation. An ex long gone before you ever met him.
“What do you want me to do?”
The little girl is wearing a pink shirt, emblazoned with Hello Kitty, and black tights. She’s jumping with excitement. Little red lights built into the heels of her princess covered sneakers flash every time her feet touch the ground. Her hair, in a ponytail, whips up and down. There’s a hole in her tights. A small one on the left knee. White skin pale against the black. The smile on her face is his smile. The same toothy grin. The same gap between the upper two front teeth.
You can hear her voice in your head. You can see the words emerge from her lips, each one part of a steady dirge, pounding with the resonating regularity of a clock tower at midnight. The words come out, but she has gone away.
“It was a long time ago. Over a year.”
The woman with him is a stranger. She is short and a little round, just enough to make everything pop in the right places. She is a little too done up for your taste. Dyed jet black hair hangs loose to her shoulders. Skin tanned much darker than the current natural sources of light had any hope of producing. She wears tight black jeans, a fashionable white loose fitting top, and multiple gaudy bracelets on both her wrists. Too much makeup. Dark eye shadow. Thick mascara. She looks out of place amongst the aging decor, cracked vinyl seats, and stained ceiling tiles of the bowling alley. He sits down and takes a sip from a glass of beer on the table. She gets up and bends over to pick up her ball. He says something you cannot hear. She rises and turns back to look at him and replies, a coy gaze targeted his way. A little smile, narrowed eyes, and cocked hip speak more than words. He laughs and she laughs too. The little girl sits and sips her soda, oblivious to the interplay between the two adults. Unaware of a world that will only reveal itself with time, the opening of a treasure chest full of cursed gold.
“Don’t tell anybody.”
“Okay. I promise.”
You wish she had never told you. Why did she have to tell you? She is a friend, but not a close friend. Why did she have to force you into a limbo with no way out? A world of knowledge without action. A co-conspirator in a secret that’s not yours, but has somehow become yours to keep. You feel guilty for such thoughts, but they sit there in the back, furiously raising their hands, desperately trying to call attention to themselves. Of course she had to tell someone. Of course she had to share. She’s your friend. It’s what friends are for, but still, still you can’t deny that part of you wishes she had told someone else. Part of you feels dejection at the added weight of the load placed upon your back. You were glad to be there for her. You were glad she had someone she could trust. The weight is nothing compared to what she herself must have to carry. The description nothing compared to the actual experience. It’s not even close.
“I was asleep. We’d both been drinking. I didn’t want him to drive home. I woke up to him inside me.”
You sit and stare at him as he sips his beer. You sit and stare at this acquaintance of yours, a man you have known for several years, but don’t really know beyond the few passing facts. You sit and you stare at him, trying to hate, trying to feel disdain. He is nothing to you, just above being another anonymous face in the crowd. The few facts you know only due to the coincidence of group dynamics. Two people. Same place, same time. He is not your friend. You’ve never done anything but exchange pleasantries, follow the social norms, and now it is required that you hate him. Hate him for what he has done. Hate him for committing such a cardinal sin.
“You should do something.”
“I don’t want to.”
He looks up and notices you across the way. Your eyes lock across the distance. He gives you a little nod and raises his hand in greeting. The reaction is automatic. Your hand raises back, a mirrored gesture. You lower your hand and look away. Your hand feels dirty. You stifle the rising need to go into the bathroom and wash it. He looks confused for a moment then looks away, his shoulders shrugging. The connection is too small for your strange reaction to spark much thought or worry. The bastard. The fucking bastard. He sits there in the gleaming fluorescent light. Relaxed. Happy. Enjoying the undeserved bounty of his time. You want to stand up. You want to point your finger. You want to denounce him. Declare to the world what he is. What he has done.
“Don’t tell anybody. Do nothing. It was such a long time ago. Nearly a year.”
It’s the little girls turn to bowl. He stands up and pulls over a metal stand, a sloping ramp of stiff wires which goes from waist height down to the floor. The little girl watches with eyes wide open, taking everything in. He lifts up a ball with purple swirls and places it on the top. He lets the little girl instruct him how to aim it, pushing the bottom end with a few well placed taps of his foot. The little girl makes loud demands, contradicting the last command. He dutifully follows each order, eyes twinkling, mirth playing across his lips. The woman watches from her seat, sitting back, sipping on a beer. Her face gives away the emotions of her mind. Warmth. Adoration. The planting of the seeds of love.
“This is hard for me to say, but I need to say it to somebody. I need to tell somebody.”
Nothing. There is nothing you can do. You have made a promise. Given your word. It is not your place. Not your sin. You are not the victim. You do not get to decide. Rapist. He is a rapist. You yearn to say the words. To fall upon him with righteous indignation. To shatter the facade and reveal to all the ugliness underneath. To unmask the monster that lies within. To watch the adoring eyes of the woman with him turn to disgust and horror. Sucked in. You’ve been sucked into a vortex. She is not a close friend, but she is a friend. A promise is a promise. The bastard. The fucking bastard.
“You’re an easy person to talk to. I feel like you’re somebody I can trust. Is it okay if I tell you something?”
The anger subsides and falls back. You dig deeper, trying to restart the flow, but the well has run dry. There is no way to sustain it. You are not the victim. You are none of these people. Truth be told both he and the one you call your friend could drift out of your life and leave no mark. It is a terrible thought to have. One tinged by further pangs of guilt, but there it is. You don’t want to see her hurt, but there is nothing you can do after the fact. Just sit with the knowledge you’ve been told not to share by the very person on whose behalf you feel the need to try and fill yourself with rage. Without sufficient emotion such passion is unsustainable.
“I see him around sometimes. It doesn’t bother me much anymore. What’s done is done.”
What are you supposed to do? You are neither judge nor jury. You are just someone who was there to listen when someone needed to talk. A proxy by happenstance. Now obligated to feel the anger required by society. Forced to take up the mantle of the right against the wrong. What was described to you wasn’t right, what was described to you wasn’t fair, but you weren’t there. You don’t know. Does he even know? Does he even know the harm that he has caused? The hurt that he has wrought? If you were to march over and tell him that you know, would you be met with denials, or would you be met with horror and tears? Would he be a monster, or a man scared of himself, desperately wishing he could be washed clean of his sins? Your promise has left you neutered. You will never know. You can never ask. All you can do is stare and wonder. All you can do is keep your mouth shut and hope. Hope that he is a man and not a monster. Hope that the terror he fashioned was a mistake and not a trend. You don’t know. There is no way for you to know.
“Have you ever said anything to him?”
He helps the little girl push the ball down the ramp. It picks up speed and she squeals in delight. He crouches beside her, watching the progress of their efforts. The woman in the seat leans forward. Watching. Waiting. The ball slowly glides to the left. Inch by steady inch. It grazes the furthest pin as it rolls past. The pin shakes. The pin shudders. The pin falls. The little girl screams with joy. The woman hoots and claps her hands. He stands and tosses the little girl into the air. He lifts her onto his broad shoulder. The little girl is smiling, one fist pumping the air, the other holding tight to her daddy who parades her about, celebrating her victory.
“What do you want me to do?”
You feel a nudge on your side. It’s your turn again to bowl. You return to the broader world. You rise and pick up your ball. It’s green with swirls. It feels heavy in your hands. You insert your fingers into the holes. Your steps move you forward. Your arm extends back. Your arm arcs forward. You can see them from the corner of your eye. All three are smiling. All three are happy.
“Can I talk to you about something?”
The ball clatters into the lane, a resounding thud that draws in eyes from all around. The ball slides down the lane, straight into the gutter. Everyone but you looks away.
“Don’t tell anybody.”
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force, Senior Airman Timothy Taylor