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The Final Frame by Brett Coker
published in Volume 9, Issue 1 on March 1st, 2002

Max Kleinman had a seven/ten split going in the seventh frame, a nasty fix, but one he had gotten out of a million times before. He stood before the polished, brightly lit lane with a solemn, almost priestly expression on his face, his Day-Glo yellow ball poised on his fingertips, as if he were making an offering to the bowling gods. His sturdy nose peeped over the top of the ball like some suburban Kilroy. His eyebrows, grown white and wild with time, twitched involuntarily, like twin albino caterpillars in the midst of simultaneous death throes. His left foot lay flat, toes pointed toward the pins, while his right rested perpendicular to the floor in balletic repose. It was a stance Max had perfected over thirty years of bowling, and now it appeared as natural as the measured stride of a stallion or the seamless swoop of an eagle. Carefully eyeing the two remaining pins and the vast space that separated them, fixing the exact point where his ball would need to graze the seven, causing it to slide neatly into the ten, Max suddenly became aware of a column of cool air blowing down from a ceiling vent. It felt refreshing. A momentary sense of well-being tickled at the back of his neck, then was gone, seeming all the more precious for its brevity. The diverse sounds of the bowling alley engulfed him: the balls striking pins in adjacent lanes; the tortured strains of country-rock emanating from the jukebox; the curses and whoops of rowdy weekend bowlers; the boisterous laughter of children. Somewhere behind Max, a telephone rang and rang and went unanswered. Over the snack bar's P.A. system, a woman's bland voice announced that a patron's order of chili cheese fries was ready. None of it distracted Max. These sounds were as familiar to him as the sounds of his own aging body. Only today, there was an unusual intensity about them, a lingering resonance, as if they came to him in a dream.

"They ain't gonna fall over by themselves, Maximilian!"

The voice belonged to Max's friend and fellow bowler, Hal Casey. This too Max ignored. Or rather, assimilated. The sound of Hal's gravelly voice was all part of the ritual, a weird, magical timbre that others mistakenly attributed to years of Scotch and swearing and countless Tiparillos, but that Max knew his friend had in fact developed as far back as high school, sometime in the dim and ancient past. Whenever. Yes, cavemen they were, all but forgotten, their remains turning up here and there in diners, bars, and bowling alleys across the country, revealing evidence of a strange and exotic culture that once existed, a world without cell phones, iced mochas, laptop computers, or SUVs. A peculiar time when union membership was a given. A time when leisure was not merely part of an ongoing training regimen. Odd, ancient people, these. Max imagined with a smile what their place would be in the fossil record, as years from now fit young paleontologists came across their dry brittle bones buried beneath layers of the earth's strata. Homo-bowlicus. They would find him with his yellow twelve-pound ball resting alongside him -- "Old Yellow" he called it -- like the corpses of Rome's British enemies interred with their severed heads.

Max made his move. Stepping forward, he eased toward his target, bringing his right arm straight back and shoulder high before coming swiftly down just before reaching the regulation line. The toe of his left shoe kissed the line without transgressing it. Max did not toss the ball like some bowlers do, but instead laid it gently down, with a sweeping motion that resembled the swath of a scythe. His right knee nearly touched the floor as he released the ball and his body froze before the rolling scene in an artful tableau: a subtle torsion of the upper body; throwing arm curled before him; left leg crossed behind the right, concealing the stenciled black plastic "10" on the heel of his red-and-white bowling shoe. It was a pose that any sculptor would have done well to model in clay or ivory. Rarely would one see Max appear so dignified.

Leaving behind its human catapult, the yellow ball wound its way down the long stretch of lane in a graceful arc, curving slightly to the left, as if pulled by some magnetic force. As the ball reached its destination, it sideswiped the seven pin, sending it careening into the ten. The two pins made their final bows and exited stage left. Max had picked up the spare.

"Beautifully done, as always," Hal complimented his friend.

Max smiled, but did not reply. He turned to walk back and join Hal at the scoreboard, but tonight he was in no special hurry. Tonight, he absorbed his bowling environment, this place that for so many years he had taken for granted. He spied the chili cheese fries sitting in their paper basket on the snack bar counter, still unclaimed, a puff of steam rising from their brown, molten surface. He witnessed a giggling red-haired boy chasing a giggling brunette girl on the turquoise carpet behind the ball racks and heard the overwrought voice of a young mother shouting for them to settle down. Glancing through the window of the Pro Shop, Max noticed a couple of teenage girls talking to Harvey, the handsome high school boy who worked behind the counter on weekends. One of the girls wore a gray sweatshirt with the hood up and was chewing on the end of a soda straw as she shyly glanced at Harvey. The other spoke to him more directly, with both hands firmly planted in the back pockets of her jeans.

Signs of life everywhere. All was well with the world. "At least for now," Max said to himself.

His eyes suddenly shifted across the alley to Marie, who was leaning over the front counter, leafing through a fashion magazine. As she turned a page, her cherry acrylic fingernails caught the glare from the florescent lights overhead. Max had known Marie since she first began working at Alpha Bowl nearly ten years ago. But for some reason today she looked even prettier than usual to him. Was it the way her brand new frosted blond permanent cascaded delicately over her giant silver hoop earrings? Or the way her large blue eyes ran languidly across the magazine's photos and advertisements? Had he never quite noticed the gracefulness of Marie's long pale neck or the way her gently sloping nose somehow gave her a look of perpetual curiosity? Maybe it was the way she was absent-mindedly nibbling on her bottom lip as she read. Whatever it was, Max felt that even behind a counter, dressed in a black Alpha Bowl polo shirt, Marie exuded a quiet beauty.

Her husband, Don, was the Alpha Bowl's owner. Max knew that Don didn't truly appreciate Marie. He could tell by the way Don spoke of her when she wasn't around -- or even sometimes when she was -- as though she were an employee rather than a wife. In Don's mind, there was little difference between the two. Before Marie and Don were married nearly five years ago, Max had toyed with the idea of asking her out himself, but he couldn't work up the nerve. He had been married to Doris for so long that, following her death, he could not remember how to even flirt with a woman. Besides, he was far too old for Marie. The next thing he knew, Marie and Don were engaged. The honeymoon lasted for about a year, until it began to slowly dawn on Marie that marrying the Alpha Bowl's owner was not going to get her out from behind the counter. As for Don, he knew he had a good thing going. Now that Marie was his wife, he reasoned, he didn't even need to pay her. This underhanded arrangement led to a number of voluble and very public marital spats in the old bowling alley. It was not the kind of financial situation Marie had been expecting. For several years she and Don fought over the situation tooth and nail, but just in the past year, Max noticed, Marie had become uncharacteristically quiet and sullen. She seemed to have turned inward. Once so garrulous and friendly, even with strangers, she now rarely spoke beyond what was necessary for a business transaction: "What size shoe? Lane seven is open. That'll be ten dollars."

Max had seen it happen to so many wives over the years, as their youthful dreams of marital bliss clashed with the harsh reality. He sometimes wondered if it would have eventually happened to Doris too had she lived. No, he thought. Not to Doris. He and Doris had something special, something few people would be fortunate enough to experience in a thousand lifetimes. She was everything to him, and he to her. With Doris, the daily frustrations and humiliations of life just didn't matter. He felt they had a charmed life. Until one day, suddenly, she was gone.

Max watched as Marie turned another page. A sigh seemed to pass through her rouged lips as she regarded the chic fashion ads. If Max thought that even for a second Don would listen to him, he would tell the man to wake up and realize what he's got. He would convince him not to take his wife for granted, for one day he could lose her, in one way or another. But Max was certain that Don wouldn't listen. Don never listened to anyone. All Don heard was the redundant ring of a cash register.

"So what's the score?" Max asked Hal as he eased into one of the red plastic chairs behind the scoreboard.

"You're up by eight," Hal told him. "But not for long, Maximilian."

Max smiled as he rubbed the back of his neck. The damn thing had been bothering him for the past several days. Muscle spasm, perhaps. "Must have slept on it wrong," he told himself, then added as an afterthought, "Christ, that's the least of my worries." Hal in the meantime stood beside the ball return puffing away at his Tiparillo, cooling his throwing hand over the air blower as he eyed a shapely young blond woman bowling in the next lane. At first, Hal didn't even notice the mean strike she threw, since his eyes were locked lecherously on her rear end. But when he glanced down the lane and noticed the empty space there, the pin sweep picking up nothing but air, he appeared comically stunned, his mouth hanging open like a broken trap door, Tiparillo dangling. He tried to congratulate the young woman, but could not resist the crass double entendre.

"Nice form, honey," he told her.

"Screw you," she said out the side of her mouth as she walked back to join her girlfriend.

Hal laughed and glanced over at Max, who made a nudging motion towards him with one hand.

"Bowl already," Max said impatiently.

Hal picked up his black-and-white ball, his "Yang and Ying" as he mistakenly called it, took his mark, and squared his round, stocky body. Unlike Max, Hal was one of those bowlers who didn't waste much time with either form or concentration. Taking short, rapid steps towards the line, steps that increased in momentum the closer he came to it, like a cartoon cat creeping up on a mouse, Hal let go of the ball only at the last second. The bowl plopped down onto the lane with a loud, heavy thud and rolled uneasily toward the pins. Max called Hal's technique "a throw-back," since it reminded him of a disappointed angler releasing a scrawny mackerel back into the water. Max felt Hal held onto the ball far too long, and for years he had been urging his friend to work on his release, but Hal never listened to him. He didn't need to listen. He could match Max pin for pin. Case in point:

"Stee-rike!" Hal yelled with a clenched fist before his face.

"Jesus," Max laughed, shaking his head. He had never known such a lucky bowler. Now he had to suffer the indignity of Hal's trademark dance back to the scoreboard. "The fool!" Max said to himself. "A fifty-five year old man dancing in a bowling alley!" The blond and her brunette girlfriend in the next lane chuckled as they watched Hal dance. "Shake it, pops!" the blond called out.

"Well wrap your legs around me, doll," Hal said turning towards her, "and I'll show you how much I can still shake it!" He placed his hands behind his head as he said this and made an obscene grinding motion with his hips.

"Ooooh, gross!" the blond and brunette said as they made icky faces at one another.

"Goddamn it, Hal you idiot, sit down!" Max shouted.

"Where does she get off calling me pops?" Hal said indignantly as he returned to his seat.

"Maybe it's the fact that you're old enough to be her father."

"Ah, age ain't got nothing to do with it."

"How many times I tell you to stop popping Viagra before you come bowling?"

"Just throw, you son-of-a-bitch," Hal said staring straight ahead, gnawing on his Tiparillo.

Max would miss these mock-caustic exchanges with Hal. The two of them had the kind of friendship where each could curse mercilessly at the other without offending. Swearing created a kind of solidarity between the two men. They spoke the same language, after all. It was a language of frustration mixed with ribald humor and friendly barbs. But for all the seeming hostility of it, Max knew that his friend would gladly give his life for him, just as Max would give his for Hal. Of course, now neither would have to.

Max prepared to throw again, Old Yellow resting on the ends of his long fingers. Hal used to comment that Max's bowling stance looked as though he were about to present a rhubarb pie "to the fucking Queen of England." He quit saying it once Max stopped laughing at it. So now Hal resorted to bodily humor instead. When Max heard Hal belch from behind him, he knew that was his cue. He inched forward, pulled his arm slowly back, and made his sweeping release. The yellow ball curved gracefully down the lane, looking like a miniature sun rolling toward a group of pin-shaped clouds. As if on divine command, all ten of the clouds dissipated.

"Stee-rike!" Hal called out like an umpire. "Jeez, you're hot tonight, Maximilian!"

Max smiled as he made his way back to the scoreboard. Along the way, he noticed a little boy two lanes down using his whole body to roll the ball. Fortunately, the guardrails were up. Max stood and watched as the ball crept slowly down the lane, taking its time. For a moment he thought it might never reach its destination. The boy regarded the ball with infinite patience, twisting his arms over his head, as if he had all the time in the world for just this one frame. And indeed it seemed to Max as if time had somehow eased its relentless rush as his eyes followed the ball in its sluggish movement down the lane. Perhaps this moment would go on forever. Perhaps the boy would never grow old and frail and these people would never leave the old bowling alley and it would remain exactly as it was, without making way for an office building or a condominium or a supermarket (Max knew Don was considering selling) and Max would take the time to learn the names of every patron present, learn about their families and personal histories, talk about his own, give advice, share some laughs. Perhaps he would never have to step outside those double glass doors again, out there where time continued to roll ruthlessly forward.

The boy's ball did finally reach the neat triangle of pins, just barely touching the ten and causing it to tip over. The boy stretched his hands high above his head and shouted gleefully. So much excitement over one pin. Lucky boy, Max thought.

"You want another beer, Max?" Hal asked as Max returned.

"I still got half of this one," Max said, pointing to a red plastic cup sitting near the scoreboard.

"Let me get you another one. That one's warm."

"No, it's fine."

"Come on, I'll get you another."

"I said it's fine, Hal. Look, I know what you're trying to do. You're trying to get me drunk. Impede my game. Well forget it. You're going down tonight, you son-of-a-bitch."

"Competitive bastard," Hal said beneath his breath as he walked towards the carpeted steps. "Well I'm getting myself one."

"Bowl already."

"Hang on. Why are you in such a hurry all of a sudden?"

Max shrugged his shoulders and Hal waved an arm at him in disgust. In fact, Max wasn't in a hurry tonight. Not in the least. He just didn't want to be alone. He knew that if he was alone, he would stop thinking about bowling. As Hal stood at the snack bar waiting for his refill, trying unsuccessfully to chat up Marie at the next counter, Max's eyes couldn't help but fix themselves on the unidirectional arrows painted on the lane before him. Seven small red arrows, all pointing dutifully at the pins that stood there side-by-side, like soldiers in a parade, poised for their sole, recreational purpose: to collide, to tumble, to be swept up and repositioned for the next violent fall. For a split second, Max thought he saw the pins tremble. It must have been a trick of the florescent lights.

A distant memory suddenly returned to Max as he sat there, one that had not surfaced in many, many years. It was an image of his late wife, Doris, back when they first met. It was at this very bowling alley. She kept throwing gutter balls in the lane next to his. Seeing Max's obvious skill, she asked him for a few pointers. Max obliged. He stood behind her and held her throwing arm, showing her the proper motion and release. At one point, his thigh accidentally brushed against her hip, but she said nothing. He held her waist to show her how to move evenly towards the line. Her chestnut hair smelled of lilac, and he caught a subtle hint of flowery perfume. Her limbs were smooth but strong. She smiled slightly as he held her.

But the image that now came back so strongly to Max was one of her standing before the lane, prepared to throw. He sat and watched her from behind, interested both in helping her improve her game and in the sensual swell of her dungaree-clad hips. She turned her head back towards him and smiled over her shoulder. It lit him like a Roman candle. It was that over the shoulder smile that would stay with him forever. It seemed like a silent invitation to follow her wherever she went. And so he did. And so he still was. Even in death.

Then he remembered the strike she threw afterwards. And every subsequent strike she threw that night. No one learns that quickly. It soon dawned on Max that she was a much better bowler than she had made herself out to be. Rolling gutter balls, it seemed, was her sly method of seduction. Had she done this with other guys, he wondered? It was a thought that always intrigued him. Later, after they were married, he would ask her about it, but she would just smile and say nothing. Just as well, he figured. Always good to keep a bit of mystery in a relationship.

Well, it worked for twenty years. Her smile still lit him up after all that time. Until one afternoon when she was on her way to the supermarket, driving her tiny blue Subaru, and a drunk driver in a Chevy pickup ran a red light and snuffed Doris' light out forever. She never saw what hit her. Max just happened to be coming home from work when he spotted the line of flares near their house. As he approached Lincoln & Fifth, he noticed something oddly familiar about the demolished blue car sitting in the middle of the intersection, surrounded by a phalanx of police cars and fire engines. He got out of his truck and walked towards the car. One of the police officers who knew Max and Doris tried to keep him away from the scene, for the ambulance still had not arrived. But Max caught a glimpse of her. Afterwards he wished he hadn't. The terrible sight of his wife through the shattered front windshield, pinned behind the steering wheel, a web of blood across her face, was not the image Max wanted to remember. He was happy to discover that he still held on to that over the shoulder smile.

Hal returned with two plastic cups of beer and a silly grin on his face.

"I told you I didn't want another one," Max said.

"Who said the other was for you?"

"Alright," Max said, pointing towards the lane. "Less drinking and more bowling."

Hal somehow managed both with equal finesse. He grabbed his dual-gender ball, walked up to his mark, threw another strike, and danced back to his beer to take a long swig.

"Bowling's a thirsty business," he said before letting out a long, lingering belch.

"Disgusting idiot," Max muttered.

The blond in the next lane rolled her eyes. The voice over the PA system said, "Order number 51: Hush Puppies." Max headed for the ball return, grabbed Old Yellow, and made his way to his mark. Before throwing he glanced over at the blond, who stood before the adjacent lane holding her orange ball, apparently waiting for him to throw. Max thought about saying something gallant like, "Beauty before age," but decided against it. "Get with the times," he told himself. "You haven't got much left." The woman smiled as she motioned for Max to go first. Apparently older guys weren't completely repulsive to her, he considered. If only it were a year earlier. "Oh, who am I kidding?" he chided himself. "I wouldn't have had the nerve even then." Max eyed the pins and stepped forward, but as he brought his throwing arm back, the image of Doris returned, and he let go of the ball too soon. The ball rolled wide to the left, taking down only five pins.

"Rotten luck, Maximilian," Hal said shaking his head. "Keep your mind on the game, not on the girls."

"You're one to talk," Max replied.

Max rolled a second time, but missed the spare and left two pins standing. He was feeling tired, and his game was clearly suffering from it. His neck hurt. His back hurt. Even his toes hurt. Yes, he told himself, this would definitely be his last game.

As Hal prepared to throw, Max peered across the alley and caught sight of a young man bowling in the far lane. He reminded Max of his son, Philip. He was bowling with an older man who might have been his father. Philip never bowled, not anymore, not since he was a kid. Back then, Max used to take him on the weekends. The two of them had a wonderful time together. Even when Philip was in high school, a time when most adolescent boys would just as soon not be seen with their fathers, they would still throw an occasional game together. They bowled. They drank beer. They cursed. Philip was a natural. Max knew that if his son had kept it up, he would have surpassed even his old man.

But after college, Philip changed. He became an architect, and was more interested in putting things up than in knocking them down. He switched from swilling beer to sipping wine. He stopped cursing. He married the daughter of an advertising executive -- Linda was her name -- who belonged to a Reform temple. She urged Philip to join, which he did. Growing up, Max himself had eschewed religion, much to the consternation of his Conservative parents. Now he was getting it from the other side. "Reform?" Max said in disbelief when Philip told him. "That's practically New Age."

Linda was not amused. She blamed Max for not providing Philip with a more spiritual upbringing. She never hid her distaste for her husband's godless, working-class father. She liked Doris though. Everyone liked Doris. It was impossible not to like her. She was like the source of life itself. And she had a way of smoothing things over between people who didn't otherwise get along. Now that she was dead, Philip and Linda rarely invited Max over for dinner. Lately, Philip seemed ashamed of his father. Driving a water truck for a living just didn't seem dignified to him. "How's work, pop?" he would ask in a rather condescending tone. For twenty-two years Max had supported his son by driving that truck, even put him through college. But now Philip acted as though his father's occupation was an embarrassment. As were his friends. As was his love of bowling.

Hal brought down only eight pins his first time up in the tenth, but he picked up the spare. That gave him two more throws. To Max's amazement, Hal threw two consecutive strikes. The son-of-a-bitch was really on his game tonight. And the drunker he got, the better he got. The blond and brunette in the next lane were disgusted by Hal's self-congratulatory bravado that became more effusive as the night wore on and the beer wore down. Max could only shake his head at Hal's sudden comeback. He knew he had his work cut out for him now. This was not how he had expected his final game to go, but there it was. All of a sudden, he was behind in the final frame. As he stood up, he felt the backs of his knees stiffen. His throwing arm hurt like hell. Hal didn't notice the slight grimace of pain on Max's face as he slapped him on the shoulder in passing. He was too drunk with winning, with beer, with sexual titillation. He was in a world all his own.

Max grabbed Old Yellow and gently massaged it, as if it would tell his fortune. But Max already knew his fortune. He remembered Marlene Dietrich's line to Orson Welles in Touch of Evil: "Your future's all used up." Everything else was just a formality now. Still, he had to go through with it. Pushing forward, Max felt the pain in his knees intensify. As he lifted his arm, for a second he thought he might actually drop the ball, but didn't. It was such a relief to finally let go. But the ball didn't follow its usual curve. Instead, it rolled straight and fast, and before Max knew it, eight pins had fallen. He couldn't believe it. Another seven/ten split.

"Ooohhhh!" Hal groaned.

Max dried the sweat on his palms over the air blower as he waited for his yellow sun to rise one last time in the ball return. Picking it up, he walked back over to his spot. He glanced over his shoulder at Hal, who was sitting at the scoreboard, grinning in cheap oblivion. Then he looked over at the blond in the next lane, who was just picking up her orange ball to throw. He noticed she was watching him with what seemed a look of genuine concern. Had she been marking the progress of her neighbors' game? Was she hoping Max would beat his obnoxious friend and put him in his place? Or was it merely the respectful regard of a fellow bowler who wished every throw could be a strike, even that of a total stranger or an opponent? Max stared at the empty space between the pins, then zeroed in on the seven. He ebbed forward, feeling a little less pain this time as he swept back with the ball and gently laid it down. The yellow sphere curved somewhat this time, but not enough, and caught the seven pin square in the middle, sending it back into the black rubber cushion. The ten remained standing.

"I won!" Hal said in disbelief.

Max kept staring. What had happened? He rarely missed that shot. The ten pin continued to stand there, alone, indomitable, until the sweep finally brought it down. Max straightened himself up and took one last look down the lane as the machine set up the pins for the next game. But there wouldn't be a next game. At least not for Max. Max turned and saw Hal doing his little victory dance behind the scoreboard, index fingers curling, belly shaking. The blond woman eyed him scornfully for his lack of bowling etiquette. Max watched her as she turned towards the pins and threw another strike.

"Well, better luck next time, old man," Hal said patting Max's shoulder.

"There won't be a next time," Max said matter-of-factly, as he sat down to change his shoes.

"What?" Hal said, removing the Tiparillo from his mouth. "You're going home already? But we've only thrown one game."

"There won't be a next time," Max repeated. "Not tonight. Not ever. It's my last game, Hal."

Hal stared unblinkingly at his friend, waiting for the punch line.

"What are you talking about?" Hal asked when it didn't come.

"I saw my doctor yesterday. Pancreatic cancer. I check into the hospital tomorrow."

The cigar fell from Hal's hand. He was completely dumbfounded.

"Cancer?" he said. "Is this some sort of a joke?"

"I wish it was."

"Holy crap, Max, why didn't you tell me?!"

"Because I knew if I had, you would have let me beat you. I wanted my last game to be sincere. Not a pity game."

Hal, for once in his life, was at a loss for words. The two women in the next lane had heard the words "pancreatic cancer," and stood looking over at Max, unable to decide if they should come over and console him or leave him alone. Being complete strangers, they chose the latter. Hal in the meantime silently watched as Max changed his shoes, appearing as if he were trying for all the world to think of something to say. As Max slipped on his sneakers, he did not look up, but he could feel Hal's stare. He grabbed his ball bag and walked over to pick up Old Yellow.

"So you've got pancreatic cancer," Hal finally said, trying to sound unconcerned. "So what? That doesn't mean this is your last game. You can beat this thing."

"It's too advanced," Max said, picking up his ball and slipping it into the bag. "The doctors said that if they had caught it earlier, maybe, but now my chances aren't so good."

After several uncomfortable seconds, Hal said, "Jesus, Max, why didn't you tell me?" He sounded truly hurt.

"I'm telling you now," Max said.

"But why didn't you tell me before?"

"I just found out yesterday."

Max saw the mixture of fright and sorrow on his friend's face. He walked up to Hal and gently clasped his arm.

"Don't worry, Hal. You don't have to say anything. There's nothing you can say."

Hal looked at the floor. Then, feeling he had to say something, he asked, "Did you give them notice at work?"

"Notice? Hal, I'm dying. I'm not switching jobs. I think the company will survive, even if I don't."

Max walked back to pick up his bowling shoes, but as he glanced down, he noticed the little boy from two lanes down standing there, staring up at him. Max walked over to the boy and knelt down.

"Here, kid. I want you to have this," he said, handing the boy his bowling bag. The boy's eyes expanded as he took the leather bag. He could hardly lift it above his feet. The boy's mother noticed what was happening and came over to intervene.

"Oh no, mister. He don't play too often. It's too heavy for him anyway."

"He'll grow into it," Max assured her with a smile. "I hope he has as much luck with it as I did."

So they wouldn't bury Old Yellow with Max after all. Max liked the idea of the trusty old ball seeing more games, more life, even if he wouldn't. It was as if a piece of him would go on playing.

"That was damned decent of you, Max," Hal said, as the two of them watched the young mother help the boy carry the ball back to their seats. "Giving up your prize ball like that."

"It can't do much more for me now," Max said, as he picked up his shoes and headed for the counter to pay for his game. Hal tried to stop him.

"Hey, wait a minute, Max. Stay and play another game."

"Nope. That was it."

"Come on, Max. I promise I won't let you win."

Max smiled and shook his head.

"Well at least let's stop someplace and get a beer," Hal urged him.

"I'm sorry, Hal. I'm feeling tired. I need to get home and rest. I'll give you a call later tonight. We'll talk then."

"Can I at least come and visit you at the hospital?"

"I'm counting on it."

"Which hospital?"

"St. Vincent's. I'll give you a call and tell you the room number. We'll talk then. Goodbye, Hal. Thanks for being such a great partner."

He shook Hal's hand, feeling a little pained by the look of misery on his friend's face, then turned and walked toward the counter. Hal hurriedly put on his shoes, grabbed his ball, and tried to catch up to him, but Max had already reached the exit by the time Hal made it up to the counter to pay for his game.

"I already paid for you, Hal," Max called back to him.

Hal put his fat wallet back into his pocket, grabbed his ball bag, and scurried towards the exit.

"Come on, Max. Just one beer. What do ya say?"

"Sorry, Hal. I'm wiped out. I'll call you when I get home."

"Just one?"

"Sorry," Max said, waving.

And with that wave of the hand, Max Kleinman walked out of the Alpha Bowl for the last time, out of the hypnotic roar of crashing pins, cursing adults, laughing children, easy banter, and country-rock, back into the cold stream of time. Naturally, Hal ran after him.

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