Phil Goes Cosmic Bowling  
    Joan Wilking

Saturdays Phil leaves work early. He moors his boat, or if the lobstering is really good, sends the crew out alone and drives his girls, Nicolette, Gracie and little Sharona to the Essex Lanes for two hours of Cosmic Bowling. From four to six Phil sits in the dark in a molded plastic chair that's bolted down. The fog machine fogs, and the laser light-balls pulse their colored beams through the haze. Phil keeps score. The girls giggle and dance and toss six inch balls down an alley lined with bumper tubes filled with corkscrewing worms of magenta light.

The music is loud. Phil likes it that way. Before, he used to bring a book, sit in the way back and read. Now he sits up front with his girls. The strobe lights turn his white t-shirt fluorescent blue. His skin looks grayish green next to its glow. He inspects the backs then the palms of his hands, their color, their texture. They look like they're afloat underwater. The color of a dead man's hands, he thinks before pushing the image away.


Phil's wife Cindy calls his Saturday afternoons with the girls her time-out. Time-out from the kids. Time-out from the house. Time-out from the life she lives every other day of the week. Time-out from Phil.

Phil tries to understand. Sunday through Friday she's a lobsterman's wife, then for a few hours on Saturday she turns into someone else. A woman with longings for things Phil doesn't understand. She talks about beauty and grace, about being somewhere for a few hours where no one has the smell of fish on their hands.

"I never got to take lessons in anything when I was a kid," she tried to explain when she told him she'd signed up for ballet. "No piano, no horse back riding, no flute, no modern dance, no art, no nothing. If I don't do it now, when will I? I need to do something, something just for myself."

But at thirty-eight, ballet? Needlepoint, paint your own pottery, one of those things might have been better, might have been easier, might have been safer he wanted to say, but didn't. He wanted to watch, wanted to bring the girls to watch their mother dance.

“Not until I’m ready. Not until the recital at the end,” she’d said. “Then you can all come watch me twirl in my tutu,” and she’d laugh the same laugh Phil first heard her laugh when he was ten, watching her honey colored ponytail bounce in the center of a knot of girls gossiping in the school yard. When he listens to her laugh now he hears it differently. It’s as if his hearing has been retuned. There’s a tone to Cindy’s laugh, a kind of musical note he’d never heard before.

The intonations of his daughters voices, they've changed too. They've become separate, distinct, no longer a blur of intertwined words. Nicolette's has a cutting edge. Gracie's is lower, almost a whisper. She's his shy one.

When Sharona begs,"When do I get to twirl in a tutu?" Phil hears a tinkling in her voice he never heard before.

"Sorry sweet pea," Cindy answers as she twists her hair into a neat bun and pins it into place. "No cute little things allowed. Just old ladies like me."

Then she and Phil exchange looks and she smiles. It's good to see her smile. The air around them feels warmer, the daylight seems brighter now when she smiles.


After lunch on Saturdays Cindy changes into white tights, a pink leotard, and black ballet shoes, the kind with the elastic strap and the little string bow in the front. Phil has to admit she looks pretty good considering she popped out three kids in less than six years. Her tits are still great. Her thighs are firm. Her butt's still tight. Her stomach's flat. Her waist hasn't lost its curve.

The girls swirl around her. She lines them up, lean Nicolette who's looks are starting to hint at the beauty she is about to become, Gracie with her wide-set cat's eyes (just like her mother's) and Sharona, his pixie queen.

"First position, second position, third position, fourth position, fifth position (they all struggle with that one). Now plie girls, plie."

Phil watches them go through the movements. Nicolette is tall, lean starting to take a woman's shape. Gracie stands straight. She's self conscious, careful, trying to do it just right. Sharona can't keep still. She's all waving arms and swinging feet, a Mexican jumping bean. After they compliment each other on their grace, the girls hug their ballerina mother until she hustles them into their coats and out the door. Phil follows behind.

He takes his time walking down the path to the driveway. He knows the shape of every stone. He's memorized the exact number, five hundred and seventy three. He set them all himself, scribing their outlines into the grass, peeling the sod away, replacing it with one stone after another.

They switch cars, not enough seat belts for them all in Phil's pick-up. Before they drive off, they kiss. They kiss each other goodbye and say I love you. They always do.

Cindy climbs into the battered truck and drives off in one direction. Phil loads the girls into the station wagon and drives away in the other; down the long curving stretch through the marsh, past the town landing. He always spot checks his boat now. Up East Street, then the turn onto Main past the Choate Bridge Pub then left to the bowling alley.

Nicolette and Sharona run ahead. Gracie starts up the walkway then turns back to meet him halfway. She puts her arms around his waist and hugs him. He inhales the sweet watermelon shampoo smell of her hair. She holds on until he gently peels her arms away.

Sixteen steps to the door. How does he know? He keeps count. He finds himself counting things these days. The number of stones in the walkway from his house. The number of steps to the door of the bowling alley. The number of kisses he plants on his girls. The number of times he smiles at Cindy. The number of times she smiles back. The number of times he tells his crew, "Good job today."

He's started taking the exact measurements of his life. He's keeping score the way he's kept score at the bowling alley every Saturday since he started living a more careful, more mindful life. Phil likes the sound of that. In the dark, in the confessional when he told his priest how it felt, how it had changed him, that's what the father had said. "It's taught you to live a more mindful life."

It isn't a big life. It's no more or less of a life than Phil has ever thought he wanted it to be. He thought it was a pretty good life before. Now he's not so sure. He finds himself taking the measure of it, resizing it, refitting it less to his own needs, more to what Cindy needs, more to what his girls need.


Lobstering, Phil tells anyone who'll listen, isn't an easy way to make a living. The work is hard; too cold in winter, too hot in summer and the Marine Fisheries "know-it-alls" make it almost impossible to wrestle a decent wage out of it. But he's proud to have made a go of it. Cindy never questioned his decision to fish. Not like some of the other wives, always trying to talk their men out of the water.

It had been easy to find a reason to stop at the Pub every night. Easy to convince himself it was more important to have a few with his crew instead of heading straight home from the dock. Easy to be late for dinner or not make it for dinner at all. Easy to crawl in just as the girls were going to bed. Not so easy to watch them turn their heads away from the smell of beer on his breath when he tried to kiss them good night.

"Life's too short for this crap," Cindy had said, watching him dribble gravy from the reheated meatloaf and mashed potatoes down his chin.

He'd tried to joke her out of it, but when he reached for her in the middle of the night she rolled away from him, curling up into a ball like she was trying to give birth to herself again, without him. Then she'd signed up for ballet.

Phil didn't like it but he'd promised to take the girls bowling while Cindy danced. And that's just what he'd done until that one Saturday when the wind was blowing from the northeast. He'd told the girls he had to check on the boat and dropped them at his mother's instead. Nicolette was sulky, Gracie pensive, Sharona pissed. "But you said..." she'd wailed as he'd pecked her on the cheek and nudged her through the screen door.

He'd sped past the landing without stopping, without even looking, straight to the Pub.

"So she wants to dance. A pirouette here, an arabesque there. If it makes her feel better, if it gets her off my back, what do I care?" he'd joked to the bartender, then sucked down a couple of beers before heading over to the pier.

By the time he'd finally pulled up at the dock his boat was swinging dangerously close to the one on the mooring next to it. Following seas were tossing rolling swells back and forth, heaving the two boats at each other like amusement park bumper cars. The captain of the other boat was on board frantically trying to fend off.

"Shit," Phil cursed out loud, running for the skiff. It should have been a short ride. The last thing he'd heard was the high pitched whine of the engine as the roiling seas lifted the propeller out of the water.


Now every Saturday while Cindy jetes across the floor in a dance studio on the other side of town, Phil is content to sit in the dark in his white shirt turned fluorescent blue remembering how it felt to drown.

The music pulsates making the floor beneath his feet vibrate and he remembers how the skiff went down. As Shania Twain sings, "Man I Feel Like a Woman", Phil sees the rogue wave flip the skiff and dump him, like one of his lobster pots, into the Atlantic Ocean.

The music changes and it's Shania again, singing, "You're the One," and Phil feels the bow hit his head, stunning him into a muffled nether world, a watery casket that was, just for an instant, surprisingly comfortable.

The mirror ball in the center of the ceiling rotates sending out glittering bits of light and Phil can feel again what it felt like when the salt water filled his lungs.

As Gracie picks a marbled ball from the return Phil feels the pressure in his chest and the burning. Regret surrounds him like a shroud. All the little day to day things he had neglected crowd the churning seas, suffocating him.

As Gracie takes her turn she shouts,"Daddy watch me," and a hand, like the hand of God, reaches down and plucks him out of the water, slinging him like a netted fish onto the deck of the boat next to his.

Nicolette wants money for pzza, the kind that tastes like the round of cardboard it was baked on. As Phil counts the money into her hand he touches her and holds the touch a little too long for the comfort of his almost teenage daughter. As he forces himself to pull away he feels the pounding on his chest, the pumping of his lungs, the seawater leaving the way it came.

Sharona the pixie queen is alone now at the head of the lane. The pins at the opposite end are set and ready. They were bathed in pink light during the last string, now they glow green. Her sisters have gone for the pizza and watered-down cokes. Phil watches as she cups her hands, arms extended straight out in front of her. In them is one of the transparent Cosmic Bowling balls. It glows in the beam of ultraviolet light. She begins to spin around faster and faster, laughing, howling almost, over the relentless beat of one of those Latin pretty boys. Phil's not sure which one. She's howling like the Irish banshee baby she is, holding the ball like it's some sort of mystical religious offering, spinning around and around and Phil relives the moment again, the moment he heard God say, it's not your time yet, and grateful that it wasn't, he took a breath and climbed back into life.

Joan Wilking's short fiction has appeared in issue V of In Posse Review, and is upcoming in Ablemuse and the January 2001 issue of the Mississippi Review Web.

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