The car won't start up again. The old station wagon just doesn't cut it anymore. I guess I should have seen this coming. Having a bad first car is kind of a staple in American teenage culture, not to mention that it makes for a great conversation piece. I had gotten Big Blue (that's what I call the hunk of junk) as a hand-me-down from my older sister, and before that it was the family car. By the time I got it this past summer, my sister had already choked the interior with girly deodorizers and bad music. The bumper still shows signs of where I had to peel-off stickers with such adorable phrases as "Little Princess" and "Miss Perfect." It was really disgusting, not to mention a challenge to my manhood.
I try again, but the car still won't start so I pull out my handy hammer from the glove compartment and start beating on the ignition. Trust me, I know what I'm doing. It works. That's a good thing, too, because I'm about to be late for work. I work at a place called Bowling, and like most places at the beach, it's named after what you do there or what the place actually is, just like you might eat at a place called Pizza or have a drink at a place called Bar.
Anyway, back to Bowling. I love it there. The pay isn't that great, but it has real atmosphere. It has a mood, like a smell or something. You walk in there and you feel like you've been a bowler all your life, and for many people who come to Bowling, that's true. For example, Larry Holden has been taking advantage of the bowl-three-games-get-the-fourth-one-free Tuesday night special since he was eight years old. So what if he turned nine last Friday? I still think that's commitment.
I pull into the parking lot and the sign is still lit from the night before. Actually, I don't think we ever turn it off. The "B" and "ING" are burned out, though, so the sign only reads "OWL" which at night is real confusing because The Owl Inn is about three blocks down the street. There's no worse way to end your work day than to be closing down and have a family of four pull up looking to check in.
I enter Bowling to the usual sounds of crashing pins and people slurping on the last of their giant $2.50 sodas from the concession stand. My friend Mike is waiting for me at the counter. He's a real tall, lanky guy. We both tried out for the junior varsity basketball team freshman year; I didn't make it, but he did. It was purely because of his height, which the coach liked to call "potential." His potential pretty much added up to bad ball-handling skills and setting a Buena Vista High record by committing three fouls in 20 seconds. I was very proud of him that day.
Mike and I had conjured up this plan to work at the bowling alley for our first job between junior and senior year. At first the job sounded great: hand out shoes, collect money, and watch good-looking girls bend over all day. The handing out shoes and collecting money worked out well, but the closest thing we ever get to seeing good-looking girls is on Wednesdays, which is Pregnant Women Bowl Free Night. Weird, I know. We have Teen Night once a month or so, but that's always a bust, usually just some ugly girl out for a night on the town with her dad. We've been waiting for the day when the girls of our dreams walk through the double doors. To be honest, that is one of the few things that has kept me from quitting, which is pathetic.
"What's up, man? Why are you late?" Mike asks as I take my spot behind the counter.
"Big Blue wouldn't start up again."
"Ah yes, old Big Blue," Mike says, as if he were talking some outlaw from the Old West. In all fairness, Big Blue is kind of legendary around town. It was the car that took Molly Hilton to the hospital when she got injured in the girl's championship soccer game, and the only station wagon in recorded history to regularly go mud slinging. Like I said, it's a great conversation piece.
"When are you gonna get rid of that piece of junk, man?" Mike asks, breaking the nostalgia trip. Maybe it isn't so legendary.
The day begins well. Mike and I talk about school starting up again, and the Braves' chances of winning the World Series while we split an order of nachos. This is our lunch break. That's another up side to working here, free food. Then again, it's also a down side because the food is barely an evolutionary step above cardboard. Not to mention old George, who runs the stand, is 60 going on 112. He's not the kind of guy I would trust to make my pizza, or refill my soda, for that matter, but I do anyway because, like I said, it's free.
"Does this look like a bug to you?" Mike asks, pointing to something black on his nacho.
"No, probably just an olive or something," I reassure him.
"Hey, George, you puttin' olives on the nachos now?" Mike shouts back to the concession stand. George ponders this and then says, "No sir, I don't believe I do." Mike sighs and tosses the chip into a nearby trash can.
Then through the doors comes the worst sound ever - 20 sugar-crazed, balloon-equipped six-year-olds ready for a couple hours of quality bowling. This, of course, can only mean one thing, the one element of hatred that binds bowling alley employees together: a little kid's birthday party.
The leader of the pack of moms introduces herself.
"Hi, my name's Cindy, and today is my son Timmy's seventh birthday. Do you have some kind of deal for large groups?"
"We sure do," I say in my most customer-friendly voice.
"Well, great, let me go get everyone's shoe size," Cindy says. You can tell she's real excited and proud of herself for putting on such a grand event for her little Timmy.
"Um, excuse me, but I don't think you want to do that," I say, stopping her in her tracks.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Listen, Cindy, right? I don't mean to be mean, but you obviously didn't put much thought into this." I really had her attention now. "This is what's going to happen, alright? See that kid right there?" I point to a chubby kid with glasses and a bowl cut. She turns to see who I'm pointing at, but before she can say anything I continue. "Everyone's going to get a ball except him, and he's a crier, I can tell. He's going to be crying about it the whole time. Then everyone's going to have to wait their turn to bowl. We're talking two bowls per frame for ten frames. Even with the bumpers up their balls aren't going to be traveling faster than two miles per hour. You could be here till closing. Then they're all going to get hungry, which means you pay for all their food. Then I'm thinking a food fight's going to break out. Food flying everywhere, kids are screaming, they're crying, you're crying, and all the kids are going to be calling for their mommies." By now all three moms' jaws are practically on the floor.
"Well, I, I suppose you're right," Cindy says, obviously shocked.
"Listen, there's a Party Zone right down the street, about five blocks past The Owl Inn on the right. You can't miss it. The kids will have a great time there, I promise."
"Wow, thank you. Thank you very much," Cindy says and then turns to her accomplices. "Let's go, ladies." And so the little monsters leave. I give the chubby one with glasses a big smile.
"Hey, man, nice work." Mike says, giving me a well-deserved pat on the back. I sigh.
"Yeah, you know, I try." Days here are full of minor disasters like that. It helps keep life interesting.
Hours pass and Mike and I do what we do best: observe people bowling. Two regulars, a couple of bikers, play each other on lane four. They're real hardcore, they wear those black bowling gloves and have their own engraved bowling balls. You haven't truly lived until you've seen two 50-year-old men come close to punches over a bowling match.
The alley has these speakers that we play music on while people bowl. I guess that's part of the atmosphere. Mike and I surf the radio stations, looking for something good, but no luck. We eventually just leave it on National Public Radio and listen to some lady talk about 101 ways to cook a potato. That doesn't sit well with the biker buddies on lane four, but we don't care.
I'm pretty sure that Mike and I used to have friends we did things with, but judging by our boredom, I'm starting to doubt it. I laugh and turn to Mike and ask, "Hey, do we have some kind of special tonight or anything?"
"Yeah, didn't you see the sign on the way in? It's teen night."
"Oh, great, I love those," I say, rolling my eyes.
Enter Ryan Deckman. This is a surprise. Ryan is a friend of ours; we've known each other since the sandbox years, but he definitely isn't a regular at the bowling alley. He wears a white polo shirt and khakis. I can smell his cologne from ten feet away. He likes to refer to his style as "always prepared."
"What's up, Ryan? What're you doing here?" Mike questions.
"You know me, man, just cruising around. I heard you guys were working here this summer so I thought I'd stop by and see the wondrous world of bowling," Ryan says, lifting his arms into the air and then spreading them as if he were revealing the bowling alley. I couldn't have put it better myself.
"Yeah, we get that a lot around here," I say as I spot a couple walk through the double doors. They must be here to take advantage of teen night, but they look like they barely qualify.
"Looks like I got some business to handle here, guys," I say, and Ryan steps back from the counter.
"I have a coupon here for half off on teen night," the boy says shyly. His voice cracks on the word teen. Ha!
"Let me see that," I say, and he hands me the coupon. "Uh huh, I see. Yeah. Sorry, bud, but we don't take this one anymore."
"Really? Well, okay, I wear a size 10 and she wears a size 7," he says, trying to act confident.
"Here you go, bud. Lane 16. Go get her." I throw a wink. As they walk away, Mike turns to me and says, "What were you talking about, man, we still take that coupon."
"Yeah, I know, I just haven't seen him around here before. I don't appreciate people who come here just on nights we have deals," I respond.
"He was just trying to save some money. This is probably his first date. You're a jerk, man," Ryan lectures me.
"Get used to it," Mike suggests.
"Hey," I say pointing a finger at each of my accusers. "I am not a jerk." As I speak, the most unlikely of events happens. Through the double doors of Bowling come the three most beautiful girls we have ever seen. It is a miracle that these girls want to waste their precious lives at a bowling alley on teen night, but I'm not about to argue. These girls should probably be doing something more complementary to their looks, like trying on clothes at the mall or looking in their mirrors, anything but this. Their walk to the counter seems in slow motion. After a couple hours they walk up to me. This is the moment Mike and I have been waiting for all summer.
"Umm, two size sevens and one eight, please," says the blonde. Her voice is perfect. Her hair is perfect. My life is perfect. Mike reaches back for the shoes.
"Hey, I got this," I say as I beat Mike to the shoes and hand them out to the girls. "That'll be two-fifty each, ladies. Lane three." They hand me their money and we stare as they walk to their lane.
"Oh man, that's just ridiculous," Mike says as soon as the girls are out of earshot.
"Yes, yes, it is, my friend," Ryan agrees.
"Well, what are you doing just standing here? Go liaison for us. We get off in 15 minutes," I say to Ryan.
"Yeah, you, Prince Charming, you got this," I encourage him. It works.
"Yeah, I got this. Just call me Prince for short," he says, all ready to go attack the world of women.
"Yeah, whatever man, just go," I say, half disgusted, and hand him a pair of shoes. "You're on lane two. Work your magic." Mike and I watch him walk off. He has this real obvious kind of strut when he's getting ready to impress someone. Mike rolls his eyes and I sigh. I have a feeling I just made a major mistake.
Mike and I just kind of stare at the girls in lane three, and then Ryan in lane two, then the girls, then Ryan, lane three, lane two, back and forth, and wait for our last 15 minutes of work to melt away. The lady on NPR finishes her amazing potato list and I spot the teen boy sneak in a kiss for good luck before his girl bowls her last frame. This is going nowhere, just like I thought.
Finally, Ryan makes his move. He talks to the blonde, probably making some ridiculously dumb comment to break the ice. Something along the lines of "I see you're wearing pants this evening." Whatever it was, it must have worked because after a few minutes he has all three girls yapping about God knows what. He points up at Mike and me and talks some more. All the girls smile and nod at Ryan. After a couple more minutes he comes up to the desk.
He approaches us with a big grin and points at each girl as he tells us, "Penny is the blonde; beside her in the red shirt is Amanda, and the last girl on the right is Amanda's cousin, Janine. They all go to Kingman."
"University?" Mike questions.
"Yeah, believe it or not. Guys, this is a fairy tale come true," Ryan says, proud of himself and what he has accomplished.
"No kidding," I agree, "but are they going to do something with us or not?"
"I got it all worked out, man. We started talking, right, and they started asking me what we did for fun around here, right, so I told them about Sailor Swamp." Sailor Swamp is where all the kids from school go mud slinging. It's one of our bigger sources of entertainment. Everyone packs in a car, gets real dirty, and pretends like their lives are real exciting for a couple of hours. "But there's one problem, we can't all fit in any of our cars all at once ... except maybe ..." This sounds like a job for Big Blue.
So now my two friends, the three most beautiful girls we have ever seen and I all cram into the old station wagon. The car is in pitiful shape. There's a half-eaten bag of potato chips in the back seat and a heap of clothes mounded into a pile that protects the old tennis shoes underneath it. Needless to say, all that combined with the 100-degree weather we'd been having did not amount to a very pleasant smell. The only real problem will be seeing if the car starts. I put the key in the ignition and turn it. The car works. This is why I believe in God.
The ride to Sailor Swamp is only about 15 minutes, but it seems even shorter tonight. Ryan, Mike, Janine and Amanda are all stuffed together in the back seat that should really only be holding two. Ryan and Mike are on the outside, sandwiching the two girls. They put their arms around the girls, but are practically holding hands with each other because they don't have any room. As for me, things are going great. The blonde, Penny, is sitting shotgun and we're talking about what college life is like. I lie and say I have a scholarship to play football for Wilson University, Kingman's brother school, in the fall. Penny even laughs at my jokes. They're not hitting it off too great in the back, but I don't care because I have Penny.
We cruise along and in no time my headlights illuminate the sign for Sailor Swamp. It's a place out of a ghost story on nights like this. It's only been dark for half an hour but already there's a light fog blanketing most of the swamp. There are a few trees here and there and Spanish moss is tangled in their limbs like spider webs, shifting with the wind.
"Maybe we should just park here and hang out," Ryan says, obviously trying to signal both me and the girls that he wants to skip the mud slinging and go straight to making his move, but before Mike or the girls can weigh in with their opinions I blurt out, "Come on, we can't let these girls miss out on Big Blue in Sailor Swamp. It's a once in a lifetime experience." I really want to impress Penny.
I slam on the gas pedal and the mud's tossing fast. I'm pretty sure I know what I'm doing. The girls start to get the hang of it and are laughing and clapping, enjoying the ride. Mike and Ryan take their arms away from around the girls and start shouting, "Oh, yeah. Go, Big Blue! Yeah! Faster, man, go faster. Turn right. Go, go, go!" I do. I take a quick look back at the back seat with a big smile and survey the scene. Everything is going great.
I turn around just in time to see the outline of a tree in front of me and barely miss it, but then a loud clunk comes from the front of the car. It's a sound worse than that kid's birthday at the bowling alley. A thousand times worse. The car is starting to sink into the mud.
The girls' laughs immediately stop and the guys aren't yelling anymore. Mike is shouting something at me but I don't even think to listen. I press down on the gas and turn hard to the right. A branch slams into the left side of the car, but doesn't break any glass. We all just look at each other for a split second. Everyone appears to be okay.
We snap back to reality when we feel the car sinking again and Ryan starts to roll down his window. He squeezes himself out and gets on top of the car. Mike and I take a cue from him and do the same. The girls, all screaming, manage to get out too, but now the car is getting pretty deep and mud is starting to seep through the windows. Once they are all safely on top of the station wagon, Penny starts to cry and Amanda, the girl in the red shirt, searches her purse for her cell phone to call the police. Janine consoles Penny. No one really says anything because we can't stand to even look at each other. I can hardly remember all their names. It is, to say the least, awkward.
Police sirens. That's not a very pleasant sound, either. The police manage to get us all out of the swamp after about an hour of strategizing. They don't even attempt to pull Big Blue out. The whole scene feels pretty surreal. I lean up against a tree, muddy and stinking of swamp, and start to think. I'm not thinking about how I've ruined these three girls' night, or how I'm lucky I'm still alive, I'm not even thinking about how mad my parents are going to be. All I can think about is how uncomfortable my bike seat is, and how it's going to be a long ride to Bowling in the morning on just two wheels and foot power.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.