Who’s Gary Cooper?

by Richard L. Gegick

In the fifth grade I took the test for the gifted program. I failed. So my grandfather took me bowling.

“Come on, kid,” he said. I sat in their basement on a Saturday afternoon in November, dead-eying the television and brooding. “You can’t sit around the house all day like a damned fool.”

So I got up. I couldn’t say no to my grandfather, and I don’t think there were too many people who could. He had this infectiousness about him. His exterior was mean. His arms were covered in blue-green Navy tattoos and his build was that of a solid steel beer keg. He cursed loud and often, and he told racially charged stories about the people he ran into while filling cigarette machines in Pittsburgh’s black neighborhoods. All that gruff talk greeted people with a delirious smile stretched across his face as if even he couldn’t believe the words tumbling out.

The sun was powerful for autumn and made what leaves were still clinging to the trees shine. As we zipped up the hill to the Miracle Lanes in his yacht like silver Plymouth Gran Fury, he never once mentioned the gifted program. I didn’t have anything to say about it. He sucked on his dentures and drummed his perfectly manicured fingers on the steering wheel while I ran the particulars of the test through my head, trying hard to figure where I’d come up short.

It was those cards. Mr. Irwin, the bald headed instructor of the program summoned me to a small office the size and scent of a utility closet during my science class. Along with the word exercises and math stuff, both of which I found relatively easy, he had these white flash cards with red shapes on them. A rhombus or a parallelogram. And I was supposed to look at the shape on the card and assemble them from memory using white blocks with red lines while Mr. Irwin timed me with a stopwatch. I just could not do it. My memory distorted the shapes and the blocks would not fit together. As we exited his car, I kept trying to piece the shapes together, though I knew I’d never get a second crack at the test.

The echo of tumbling pins and cigarette smoke that hung like heavy blue storm clouds welcomed my grandfather and I into Miracle Lanes. There was a girl working the counter who looked young at first, but older as we got close. She had blonde hair, but it grew dark at the roots, and she parted it down the middle of her scalp. The lines on her face cracked her heavy makeup. Behind her, a sign advertising the Monday service industry special blinked white light.

“Hey peanut,” my grandfather said. He dropped his leather bag to the floor, tipped his ball cap up, and leaned into the counter. “I need a lane to roll off for my league. And my grandson over there needs a lane and shoes. What size, Charley?”

“Five and a half,” I said.

“Jesus Christ,” he said. “He’s a handsome bastard, ain’t he?”

The girl leaned over the counter and eyed me. She winked and I shoved my hands into my sweatpants pockets and went stiff with fear.

“He certainly is,” the girl said.

“And you know what they say about guys with big feet?” he said.

“What’s that, Gabe?” she said.

“You know,” he said. “Big meat.”

The girl laughed. She said my grandfather was a dirty old man. He said he wasn’t too old for her. He was, but this was the interaction my grandfather relished most. He just couldn’t help himself. Waitresses, clerks, women browsing the racks at a discount shoe outlet. It took me years to figure out that this was just a diversion like any other.

The girl laid my shoes on the counter and sprayed the insides with disinfectant. My grandfather took his money clip from his pocket and laid crisp bills on the counter for my shoes and lane.

“Come on,” he said to me. “We got lanes nine and ten.”

I took my heavy shoes and tried to not look the girl in the eye. I followed my grandfather past the arcade and the snack bar. A few kids lingered, sipping tall red ICEE’s and feeding quarters into a Playboy pinball machine. The smell of burnt coffee and hot dogs mingled with the heavy smoke and floor wax. A man yelped a few lanes over, his celebration rose above the pin crashing din as a bright orange turkey flashed on the scoring screen above him.

While we sat unlacing our street shoes, he looked past me at that girl who worked the counter.

“Hot damn,” he said. “Did you get a load of the cans on her?”

I nodded yes. I knew what cans were. A few of the more mature girls at school had already sprouted. We, the boys, tried our best to discuss them the way we thought men would, scared shitless, though we didn’t want to admit it. God. Tits on a ten year old girl. For a ten year old boy it’s like your future wrapped in a training bra. They’re like the flickering light of a distant oncoming train you’ve no power to stop or avoid.

After tying his shoes, he pulled his red hanky from his back pocket and blew his nose. Then he lit an unfiltered Camel and asked me if I wanted a Coke. I said yes, and he strutted off to the snack bar, cigarette perched between his lips while I searched the loaner racks for a ball light enough to throw comfortably. I settled on a black Brunswick five pounder with light blue cracked lines through it. The ball looked like a giant marble.

My grandfather had returned from the snack bar and started to roll. I watched as he blew cigarette smoke through his nose and set the still burning butt into a metal ash tray. He lifted his bright green ball from the return rack and made his approach. He bent his knees, took forward steps while his arms worked in concert with his lower body. Then he released the ball, his right arm jutting up above his forehead on the follow through. The ball spun wickedly from the edge of the gutter to the center of the lane and took eight pins with it. The two remaining pins reset while he stared ahead, took another pull from his burning smoke, and sipped his coffee. He dried his hands over the blowing air vent.

When his ball arrived through the return chute, he did everything again, and cleared the remaining two pins to pick up the spare.

“Goddamn,” he said. Then he turned to where I stood on the edge of the lane, still carrying my ball. “Come on, Charley. Roll it, baby.”

“I’m no good,” I said. This was true. My previous birthday party bowling exploits were feeble. I’d never been able to keep the ball from sailing straight into the gutter.

“Well fuck it,” he said. “Do it anyway.”

He’d already paid for the lane. Refusing to bowl would’ve been nothing more than a childish tantrum and a waste of good money. So I stepped up and tried to mimic him, but I released the ball too late. It sailed through the air and then landed on the lane with a hard thud before sputtering into the gutter.

“Told you,” I said. I was ready to place bowling in the list of skills I’d never obtain like throwing a basketball or fixing my car. That list still grows, and keeps growing the longer you live. Sometimes giving up on things is healthy.

“Hold up,” he said. He set his coffee on the scoring machine and walked to me at lane ten. My loaner Brunswick shot through the return hole and he grabbed it and placed it in my hands. He stood behind me and moved me two paces to the left. “Line up like this. Hold your breath until you throw the ball.”

The scent of his Camels and Speed Stick lingered when he let go. I did as instructed, held my breath until I released the ball from my hand, sending it slowly down the lane. It kept, and took five pins out.

“Good show,” he said. “Now just keep doing it.”

I did, but I didn’t have much more success. I kept rolling as he motored his way through his league frames, chain smoking and guzzling coffee. I managed to throw a strike on luck, but sometimes luck feels just as good as achievement. People get those two things confused most of time.

I kept at it long after my fingers and arms were sore. Not once did my failure to meet or surpass the “gifted” bar cross my mind. I remained focused on the task, the ball and those white pins, only pausing to watch my grandfather give his little fist pumps at every thrown strike of his own. The moisture rings grew around his armpits and neck.

The spell broke when we finished. My body ached and I was hungry. No doubt my grandmother had a dinner waiting for us. That was her begrudgingly accepted lot in life, to cook and clean for my grandfather who spent most of his life like this, away from home in bowling alleys or car garages or flea markets. He tipped his cap low and carried my shoes to the counter while the Saturday night early league bowlers leaked through the doors in their brightly colored uniform shirts. He said goodbye to the girl, and they both said they’d see each other in the upcoming week.

“Bye hon,” she said to me.

I smiled, but couldn’t say a damn thing. I just gave a wave and headed for the sliding doors ahead of my grandfather, who had designs on lingering just a few minutes longer.

“He’s the strong, silent type,” I heard him say. “Like Gary Cooper.”

“Who’s Gary Cooper?” the girl said.

Outside, the day had fallen into a dream-like, pink close. Cars with their headlights blazing pulled into the lot. Professional men and women who wanted nothing more than a weekend night out with their friends drinking long necked Budweisers and smoking cigarettes, but who still wished to be in bed by the 11 o’clock news, exited their mid-priced brand new used sedans and mini vans. My grandfather came up beside me laughing and elbowed me in the ribs, high on his brief flirtation with a girl who possessed huge cans.


A lot of people like to give advice about how one should live, and they mean well when they say we should all live for today. That we need to expend our life’s energy for the now. What bowling and strange women were to my grandfather were what any hobby and pursuit are to a person. The search for that now-ness where thoughts of past failures and future disappointments are rendered irrelevant. My grandfather lived most of his life in this space.

Years later, he fell ill and was physically unable to chase that feeling. His past misdeeds came to reckon and he died a regretful man. I should be thankful that my grandfather took me bowling that day, and I am. Unlike him, though, I gave up the search for the now because I know we can’t escape our past disappointments and failures of life and character. They’re always there like a giant stone we’re tethered to and the rope is unbreakable.

Richard L. Gegick is from Trafford, PA. He is the 2011 winner of the Chatham University Best Thesis-Fiction Award. His work has previously appeared in Hot Metal Bridge, The Cleveland Review, and Stymie Magazine.