Especially the flowery kind her Mama made her wear when she was twelve. It's a late Thursday afternoon and she's in the walk-in closet, getting ready to go out bowling and she sees this bra on the floor she's kept around for 23 years. It's way too small now but she's just never had the mind to throw away. Seeing the bra makes her start thinking about what a drag it is to wear a bra when you're twelve.
Funny, how the mind works, she thinks.
Back then, Betty Jean called them straight jackets for girls. They weren't like the small, soft bikini tops she saw Ginger wear on Gilligan's Island. No way, not with a cruel Mama like she had. Betty Jean's bras were old-lady-like monstrosities with metal fasteners, thick elastic straps and a scratchy tag on the inside of the right cup that made her twitch and jerk her shoulders like she was a prisoner in one of those places where they kept crazy people.
�Boys don't wear bras.� That's what she said every morning when her Mama made her pull her T-shirt down over her shoulder, to reveal the strap that proved to the world that she was wearing her armor. Mama always said that Betty Jean would thank her some day when she didn't end up like her Aunt Edie Bell, whose titties sagged so low at age 29 she had to wear a special brassier with steel reinforcement. When she was young, Edie Bell didn't want to wear her bra either, Mama said.
Back then, when she was teetering on that funny, uncomfortable cusp of becoming a teenager, Betty Jean didn't like bras, or boys with bad attitudes. She always saw them in the morning, the way-too-cool boys, waiting for the school bus, making faces at old women on the street and picking on the second graders, spitting on the ground and making them try to pick it up.
After school, she just got so damned tired of sitting in the front seat, waiting at everyone else's house, staring at the bald spot on the back of bus driver's Hank Tolliver's head before the man finally made up his mind to turn down Taylor Road on those hot and cloudy Tidewater afternoons.
Betty Jean was convinced that old Hank just did it to make her mad: stopping at every corner, even the ones without stop signs, lurching along even slower than her Daddy's tractor, if you can believe that. Hank was no better than those boys.
�That bus bugs me,� she'd tell her Mama.
Betty Jean didn't like school, anyhow. She always said the other girls were too prissy and that they tried to impress those same boys who hung out the window when the bus finally dropped her off at 2:15 every afternoon, those ones who made fun of her homemade clothes and her Mama's 1957 Ford with the Carolina plates parked out on the front lawn.
Even back then, the girls she knew, the ones who would talk to her, they wanted all the wrong things.
If she could, Betty Jean would have made every day a summer day, when she could stay inside the barn and groom her horse, Star, and give him a tour of her bedroom when Mama went down to Edie Bell's to smoke cigarettes and gossip.
Then there was her chicken Pete-Pete. There wasn't a human alive who could provide that kind of companionship, Betty Jean always said. Pete, he just always understood.
�Why can't people listen like Pete does?� she asked her Mama.
Mama said Betty Jean was just too hard-headed. She always blamed herself, of course. Said she had no business having babies at age 16: without a job or even a high school education. Mama said she didn't know the first thing about raising children, didn't know what to do to make them stop crying or lay right inside the crib.
Even with a 5-pound bag of sugar propped against that child's head, Betty Jean still rolled over onto her back, night after night, until the back of her head got kind of flattened.
�That's what did it,� her Mama would tell Edie-Bell, lighting up a filterless Marlboro at the kitchen table. �Bad circulation to the brain. What else would make a girl so mean-spirited?�
Meanness. It's why the child dropped that corn lizard down her Uncle Peanut's back, and then just laughed and laughed as he ran around the barn yelling �Git it off! Git it off!�
It wasn't that Betty Jean was a bad child, she just had such a mind of her own at a young age. That's what Mama said.
�Like that night she mouthed off to her Daddy and he sent her out to pick a switch from a backyard tree for her whipping. Well, that child slammed the screen door in her Daddy's face, poor man fell down the stairs and broke three ribs.�
That's what her Mama told the school guidance counselor, who sat there nodding his head real slow, like he was beginning to understand why Betty Jean bloodied that boy's nose on the way to school that morning. She'd snuck out of the house without her bra and he'd made a joke about her titties and, well, that was that.
Walking from the office, ignoring the smirks from the other girls, Betty Jean told her Mama that it was OK with her that she couldn't take the school bus for the next three months. If that was their idea of punishment, she said, these people didn't know what real punishment was.
�Me and Pete, we can ride Star to school every day,� Betty Jean said. �Ain't that right, Mama?�
In the closet, Betty Jean takes the old bra in her hands and brings the soiled cup to her nose, takes a deep breath to recall the essence of herself as that little girl who rode horses and had a chicken for a best friend.
Then she sits on the bed, dials her Mama's number.
�Hey Mama, do you remember that time when I was twelve and I broke that boy's nose and they said I couldn't ride the school bus for three months?�
�Of course, I do,� her Mama says. �You never did go back to riding that bus. Your Daddy and I drove you to school for four straight years before you got your driver's license. But what on earth made you think about that?�
�Oh, nothing, Mama.�
Then Betty Jean hangs up the phone and has herself a good cry, right there on the bed.
Her bowling ball moves toward the red and green florescent pins at the Up Your Alley Lanes in Hillcrest — a rumbling surface-to-surface missile zeroing in on its ten unsuspecting victims. The ball travels along the rightmost ridge of the well-oiled lane, then makes its move, crossing over the third alley marker from the right, Betty Jean's usual mid-lane target, and seems to pick up speed as it rolls.
For Betty Jean, the ball is a gift, an autographed, tie-dyed Jerry Garcia special her husband gave her for her 30th birthday and it shoots an explosion of psychedelic colors as it does its work: Twisting orange. Pretty pink. A rash of purple. Swiveling her hips, throwing her right hand toward the ceiling like a practiced blue-collar ballerina, Betty Jean's style of delivery and the unabashed athletic beauty of her ball as it moves and grooves toward the pins is usually enough to make the girls from the Filthy Frank's Tuesday night bowling league oooh and ahhh in jealousy and respect.
Ten exotic dancers and two waitresses have the night off to work the kinks out of their pelvis-swaying temperaments, to congregate each week in the only bowling alley in San Diego's gay community, to sharpen their styles and secretly improve their averages at the only freaking place on earth where they know they won't be hounded by patrons -- those well-wishers, slobberers, gawkers and runway lookie-loos.
�Being a topless dancer in a Navy town is tough work,� is how Darlene had described it to Betty Jean her first night on the job. �It's worse than being a Hollywood starlet. You don't get much privacy around here. And sometimes, you know, well, a girl's just got to find a place to let her hair down, someplace she knows the whole fucking masculine world's not watching her.�
But Betty Jean isn't thinking about this as she watches her ball. She's thinking about the score. She knows she needs just three more strikes for a 225 game to maintain her spot as the best average in the league.
Then, blammo! The Garcia special makes contact, slaughtering pins, spewing and ricocheting them every which-way in a blur of wood and polyethylene. To Betty Jean, the violent scene of this wrecking ball bludgeoning those pathetic-looking pins has always reminded her of Jesus Tafoya, the determined Filthy Frank's bouncer, plowing through a clutch of drunken patrons to break up another Friday night fistfight. When the mindless mayhem is over, only the seven and the ten-pin survive.
�Oh, shit!� Darlene calls. �Not another Gleeson-Wilder leave! Not again! You're killing us, girl!�
Peaches leans back from the scorer's table, where she has been fidgeting, using her cigarette butt to play in the ashtray as though it were a sandbox, writing the girls' names in neat, block lettering, using rounded little hearts in places of the o's.
�What the hell's a Gleeson-Wilder?�
�It's the great divide,� Darlene says, matter-of-factly, pressing on with her well-practiced line. �The greatest distance between two people on the same planet. It's the impossible pickup. The last exit to Splitsville.�
Betty Jean shoots her best friend a drive-by glare.
�Dar,� she says, smiling. �Eat the corn out of my shit.�
Darlene flips the bird, kissing her middle finger for effect.
�Christ, just leave the boy out of this,� Betty Jean says of Jay under her breath, turning to consider her predicament. She stands, left hand on hip, right hand absentmindedly dangling over the air vent atop the Brunswick ball return. It's a bowling alley pose she strikes without thinking, a habit ingrained in her subconscious from years of lying on her Mama's living room floor Sunday mornings, chin in her hands, spellbound by the weekly hour-long antics of the ladies on Norfolk Bowls! Especially the overweight, hairnet-wearing Earldine Lassiter, Betty Jean's childhood heroine.
Without looking, going only by the sound of things, Betty Jean reaches for The Garcia when she hears the telltale whoosh of the ball climbing the final hill, spit from the chute to rejoin the others in the circular bin. When it finally comes, her hand is there waiting for it, intercepting it. She steps immediately to the line, holding the multicolored ball with outstretched arms, at eye-level, placing her right thumb in the lowest hole.
Betty Jean flinches. She walks back to the ball return and bends over her ball, pulling a yellow slip of paper from The Garcia's thumb hole.
By now, Darlene can hardly contain herself. �Don't even tell me,� she calls out shrilly as Peaches reaches for her ears. �Not that little pinmaster again!�
�What's the fuck's a pinmaster?� someone calls.
�He's the guy back there who sends our balls back to us if they get stuck down there,� Darlene answers shortly, annoyed at the ignorance around her. �He's like the stewardess of the lanes. You press the button and he comes running. What, did you think those jammed-up balls come scurrying back all by themselves? We're not talking about your customers here, sweetheart.�
Peaches coos like a 10th-grader finally getting the math concept. �I thought they killed off all those guys back in the 50's or something,� she says.
�Well, they didn't box for brains,'' Darlene calls to her.
�Suck my butt juice, Darleeeeeeen,� comes the weak response.
�But Betty Jean isn't listening to any of them. Instead, she looks straight down Lane 22, into the black chasm between the two standing pins. In her mind's eye, she thinks she can see brown eyes staring back at her.
Then she peers down at the note. �You look butiful tonigth,� read the words. �But where is your blue sweter? My favorit.�
Somebody yells from the crowd of girls: �Throw the ball at him, girl! Knock him out!�
Betty Jean stuffs the paper in her pocket. Then she picks up the ball and quietly studies the pins. With her back to the other girls, she allows an embarrassed, encouraging smile to cross her lips. For a minute, it seems, she stands there, smiling helplessly, her hands trembling, until Peaches calls out. �Throw it!� She delivers The Garcia to do its thing. The ball crawls tantalizingly, in slow-motion, arcing to the right side to barely kiss the ten-pin, sending it reeling toward the gutter.
Betty Jean turns with a satisfied smile to face Darlene.
�And what was that?� her friend whispers as she passes, ready to bowl her frame. �love tap?�
Betty Jean walks back to the blue and pink benches and takes a long swig of her watermelon shooter, all the while thinking of this stranger who has delivered a few badly-spelled notes, right out in public, before her friends, to make her feel girlish again.
But before Darlene can throw her first ball, Peaches leans back.
�Uh-oh,� she says. �Don't look now. But here he comes.�
Betty Jean looks up to see him walking toward her with The Garcia cradled in his hands. He straddles the gutters in Lanes 22 and 23, squinting his brown eyes, scanning the crowd for her face. His hair is shoulder-length, his body lean and compact, the face a beaming brown oval, with eyebrows so thick they look almost connected into one long bushy brow.
�He's beautiful,� whispers a voice from the bevy.
�No, he's not. He's gorgeous,� groans Peaches. And Betty Jean's eyes begin to tear up with unexplained emotion.
Then he is standing in front of her, holding The Garcia, the girls having parted like a cluster of inner-city crime scene spectators when the police arrive. Betty Jean stands unsteadily.
�It is beautiful, this ball,� he says softly.
�Thanks,� Betty Jean stammers, searching her mind frantically for the right words to say next, at the last moment choosing the wrong ones. �It's a gift ... From my husband.�
He looks at her unblinking. She tries to place his face, wracking her memory to recall if she has seen it before, coming up only with the young alley counter man who holds her gaze a moment too long each time she returns her rental shoes.
�My name is Sergio. Sergio Dellacruz,� he says. �But my friends call me Checho. Please. Call me Checho.�
For Betty Jean, the alleys are suddenly silent, even though games go on all around her.
The stranger leans in, angling his head as though to kiss her. �So,� he says, �you will be here next week?�
�Yes, of course,� she blurts out without thinking. Then she catches herself. �I mean, no. I won't ... I can't.� Her words come softer now, the air leaving her lungs, the last few syllables barely audible. �I'm going away ... On vacation ... With my husband.�
�Well, then, I will be here when you get back,� he offers with a gentle flair. �And, please, do not forget. The blue sweater.�
He hands her The Garcia, touching her hand as he does so. And then he walks past her, up the steps and into the men's room.
�A swinging dick if I ever saw one,� says Peaches.
�Time to play ball, girls,� Darlene announces to the group.
Betty Jean stands there, frozen, not seeing any of them, oblivious to their snickers and the whack of the pins and the Donna Summers song blaring from the loudspeaker above. She hears only the steady throbbing in her throat. Slowly, she walks to the ball return to replace The Garcia among the others. Placing her thumb in the hole, she can feel it, the note he left there for her. Without giving herself away, she gently removes the tiny slip of paper and holds it tightly in her hand, slipping back to her seat. She finishes her drink and turns to walk toward the bar to order another.
Then she stops cold. And she reads it.
�My number is 634-2219. Call me. Please.�
She glances up quickly, surveying the alley, looking for him, the brown eyes, to see if he is watching her. Then, instinctively, guiltily, she looks toward a nearby metal trash can where Peaches stands, watching her from the corner of her eye, emptying an overflowing ashtray.
Caught. Caught between ten dutiful years and a split-second impulse of passion. Caught between wadding up the note in feigned disgust and leaping straight into the air, shouting to her friends in unabashed, adolescent joy. �What would Jay do?�
As if she doesn't know.
Then she makes the decision she cannot know will one day change her life: she turns toward the bar, shoving the paper into the front pocket of her faded Guess? blue jeans.
�Another shooter,� she tells the bartender, smoothing her behind with both hands. �A double shooter, please.�
Write "Ellavon" at email@example.com.
Released: November 11, 1998