There are very few beacons in this world. Darkness has a way of swallowing beacons, corrupting them slowly from the edges inward before snuffing them entirely. Most beacons ignite and quickly vanish, taking with them the hopes of those who dared to follow them, but some beacons burn and endure, providing guidance, giving relief and, occasionally, protecting democracy. That’s what our beacon did that month; it protected democracy. That was the month I became truly proud to work as night manager for the Starlite Lanes Bowling Emporium.
Now, don’t get my words all twisted; I was never sorry to work there. It was a stable gig, and paid for my frozen dinners and Dr. Pepper. More importantly, there were people around, people whom I knew existed and who proved to me, with their stale jokes and casual obscenities, that I existed right back. It’s just that, once in awhile, a group of happy losers gets a chance to really keep the world from folding in on itself. Most folks don’t even notice those chances, but our little county team of bowling losers took our little chance with both hands and squeezed it until it gave juice. We actually saved the country. Hell, that’s too small: as Gil Chetney might say, ‘we saved the be-freaking world!’
The night before it all got exciting, Gil himself was regaling me with stories of his former greatness. “It was a 2-10 split, and I needed a near-perfect game to set up the tourney,” he was saying, demonstrating the two pins left standing by straightening his forearms like goal posts. “I had to pick up at least a spare to keep my score in the running. You feel me?”
“Like rickets in my drawers,” I answered, clearing away Gil’s mug with its sad teardrops of foam, and replacing it with a fresh beer.
Whenever he told his stories, Gil had a habit of asking everyone if they “felt” him. I know that this was a common expression for the day, and that was the problem; Gil was well past the day, and then a few years. He was old enough to have been a professional bowling champion when that still meant something, and old enough to have told me this exact story at least four dozen times.
“So, I’m looking down the lane, and it’s like those two pins are staring back at me, one from either side. Challenging me, you know?”
“I feel you,” I answered, counting on Gil to miss the sarcasm, as usual.
“I couldn’t just take a chance on the ricochet like I normally would. I had to be sure that both pins would go down. You know what I invented that day?”
I was ready. “The Dental Drill,” I shot at him.
“The Dental Drill,” he said at almost the same moment, and then realized that I had already answered him. “You’re damn straight, Puck. I spun that ball so fast that it changed direction as soon as it hit the first pin, and the Dental Drill has been serving me like a freaking butler ever since.”
“Oh, yeah,” I grinned, polishing the bar. “You’re a bowler with a butler.”
“Don’t placate me, boy. You’ve got not idea how close I was to—”
“Hi, Puck. Hi, Gil.” This familiar voice severed Gil’s story in mid-boast, and he waited through the percussive rumble of three balls in nearby lanes before responding. “Hi, Carl,” he finally smiled through tight teeth.
“Hi, Carl,” I added, now that Gil’s tirade seemed to be vented.
“Hey, that beer looks great,” Carl gushed as only Carl could. “You think I’ve got time for one, Gil?”
Carl Onslow was a local accountant, and the only one I’d ever known personally. Still, I could have picked what he did for a living just by looking at him; he dressed in tweed and cotton-blend, greeted everyone with breathless civility, and, if there had ever been any intimidation in his eyes, it had long since been hidden behind his multi-focal lenses. Carl had never made partner with his company, Putnam and Partners Provo Taxation, and I’m not sure he’d ever tried. He was oddly content, as though filing tax returns and balancing books was his form of heroism: his way of earning his beer and bowling.
Still, he always felt that he had to ask Gil's permission first, before even drinking a beer. Theirs was an inverted relationship, because, if anything, Gil owed Carl. A lot. Carl had found Gil, unemployed and begging change for drinks, but Carl’s soul was too generous to just throw quarters into a human like a slot machine. He had taken Gil to dinner and, after sharing a sub, discovered that Gil had been a professional bowler whose injured left hip had knocked him out of the tournament. Historically, this discovery had significance, because it inspired Carl to talk his firm into sponsoring Putnam’s Pin Punishers, the very county-league team that would go on to help me protect our freedom and safety.
With Gil as team ringer, though, Carl Onslow still felt some strange obligation to ask his permission to have a beer, take a leak or even visit his mother on weekends. Fortunately for Carl, Gil was in a generous mood. “Drink up, Onslaught,” he offered with a jarring clap on Carl’s back. “Just be sure you’ve drained the cesspool before Putnam and the Deputy arrive.” Gil looked over his shoulder at the lanes with this instruction, and, as he awaited the rest of his modest little team, I saw his face take on a sheen that I had begun to recognize. He watched a few balls roll and pins clatter, pressing his lips into a horizontal line across his face.
Carl sipped twice from the mug I had drawn him, then rolled his eyes heavenward and made a sound of soft ecstasy. “Best beer,” he proclaimed, “I have ever tasted.” This struck me as unlikely, since Carl had given the same praise on every visit since I had known him, but I said nothing to discourage his optimism. “How’s things, Puck?”
A fluorescent tube that I’ve been meaning to replace flickered behind me. “Good enough,” I answered, “but the old man’s been on me about the car thefts. Says it’s giving him bad press.”
“I don’t know what else you can do,” Carl said, waving a limp but supportive hand toward the sign I had scrawled above the lunch counter: ‘Recent Thefts: Do Not Leave Car Keys Unatended.’ This was typical of Carl: he would support anyone’s efforts, no matter how cursory, and honestly had faith in my misspelled sign to prevent someone from stealing a car.
Gil, on the other hand, was not nearly so generous. “You know what you need,” he offered. It was a statement, not a question. “You need to catch one of these dudes—just one—and show him some de-terr-ent.” Gil split the word cleanly into three syllables, as if to italicize it for the criminal element.
This was typical of Gil’s approach to life. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a good guy with a strong sense of loyalty, but he rarely sees the need to negotiate with others or see their point of view: at least, he didn’t back then. To Gil, problems were solved quickly and cleanly, without necessarily shying from healthy violence. He was a devotee of loud noises and explosions, and kept an account at The Powder Keg—Provo’s premiere supplier of fireworks—where, throughout each year, he acquired a legendary collection of pyrotechnics. These, he would proudly ignite every Fourth of July, using his patriotism as a reason to take extreme risks with them.
“Deterrent, huh?” I stopped for a moment to lean both elbows on the bar and regard Gil’s stratified face. His membership on the team had won him a job at Peyton’s Chomp-n-Pump on Route 91, which kept him supplied with cable TV and Ho-Hos, but stripped a layer of youth from his features whenever he wandered into the desert sun to pump gas. “Maybe we could force them to join your bowling team. That would deter anyone with the standards and pride of a car thief.”
Before Gil could express his righteous outrage over my comment, a shout cleft the usual rumbles and clatters of the Starlite Lanes. “My keys! Stop that guy; he’s got our keys!”
Twisting about, I caught sight of an olive-skinned, darkly bearded man in an overcoat, darting between benches and score desks with an RF key tag dangling from one closed fist. This was not the usual rodent that I would expect to steal a car, but a tall, strong figure who, even now, seemed to command respect. With the speed he was running, I couldn’t be sure, but I would have sworn that I saw a flash of camouflage-khakis peeking from beneath the coat.
From the far lane, two middle-aged men were giving chase, but even the taller of them didn’t have a hope of catching this athlete in time. I vaulted the counter, knocking the contents of Carl’s mug into his lap and somehow causing him to apologize to me. Not waiting to listen, I rounded the bar in pursuit of the car thief while Gil reached across it to the shelf of bowling balls that we keep in need of repair.
The automatic glass doors were sliding shut as I approached them, and I knew they wouldn’t open for me until they had met one another in the middle. Running in place, I tapped off the seconds that it would take the sprinter to make it across the lot. By now, he would be using the key tag to find the car that he meant to steal.
As soon as the doors had opened far enough to admit my body, I sidled through and located the thief, who was sprinting to the opposite corner of the parking lot, toward the only Audi parked there. I was about to give chase when Gil’s commanding voice bellowed from behind me.
“Clear a path!” he shouted.
Something primal came through in his voice—some authentic fabric of leadership that I hadn’t ever realized was there. It took any indecisiveness from me, the way that a soldier might give in to a General’s voice in times of combat. Without needing to think, I dropped to my side and rolled twice, landing on my back. I saw the owners of the car emerge from the building, two classic silhouettes like Laurel and Hardy, or Abbot and Costello. Maybe Fred and Barney.
Then, Gil was blocking them, a tower in my perspective, lining up a shot with the injured bowling ball from the shelf. He sailed it across the lot so that it spun without touching ground for nearly ten yards, then began to roll in a rapid curve toward the thief, who by now was heading for the Audi’s door.
He was just slightly too late, though; Gil’s shot landed in his path, and the thief went down, striking his head on the pavement so sharply that we later swore we could hear it from even that distance. Still lying on the pavement myself, I propped up on one elbow, then looked in astonishment from the prone thief to Gil and back, trying, with the most creative parts of my mind, to believe what had just happened. Carl had appeared in the sliding doors, holding them open by freezing like a statue between the two sensors, but I realized that the owners of the car had vanished. The ball was still spinning slowly, and made a lap around the lot until it tapped to a loyal stop against Gil’s hiking boots. Shadowed against the Starlite Lanes’ neon ornamentation, he bent to retrieve it as I pushed myself to my feet.
“The Dental Drill?” I asked him simply.
“You know it was.”
Finally, Gil had found a practical use for his signature shot: knocking down fleeing criminals. Little could we predict how soon he would have occasion to use it again.