Elizabeth McCracken's "Bowlaway" Is BuzzFeed Book Club's April Pick. Here's The First Chapter.
A mysterious woman is found unconscious in a cemetery — next to a bag containing one corset, one bowling ball, one candlepin, and 15 pounds of gold.
They found a body in the Salford Cemetery, but aboveground and alive. An ice storm the day before had beheaded the daffodils, and the cemetery was draped in frost: midspring, Massachusetts, the turn of the century before last. The body lay faceup near the obelisk that marked several generations of Pickersgills.
Soon everyone in town would know her, but for now it was as though she’d dropped from the sky. A woman, stout, one bare fist held to her chin, white as a monument and soft as marble rubbed for luck. Her limbs were willy-nilly. Even her skirt looked broken in two along its central axis, though it was merely divided, for cycling. Her name was Bertha Truitt. The Gladstone bag beside her contained one abandoned corset, one small bowling ball, one slender candlepin, and, under a false bottom, fifteen pounds of gold.
The watchman was on the Avenue of Sorrows near where the babies were interred when he spotted her down the hill in the frost. He was a teenager, uneasy among the living and not much better among the dead. He’d been hired to keep an eye out. Things had been stolen. Bodies? No, not bodies: statuary, a stone or two, half a grieving angel’s granite wing.
The young man, being alive, was not afraid of body snatchers, but he feared the dead breaking out of their sepulchres. Perhaps here one was. Himself, he wanted to be buried at sea, though to be buried at sea you had to go to sea. He’d been born on a ship in Boston Harbor, someone had once told him, but he had no memory of his birth, nor of any boat, nor of his parents. He was an orphan.
The woman: Was she alive or dead? The slope worried him. He’d had a troubled gait all his life — the boat, or an accident at birth had caused it — and between the slick and the angle he might end up falling upon her. “Hello!” he shouted, then, “Help!” though he believed he was the only living person anywhere near.
Soon everyone in town would know her, but for now it was as though she’d dropped from the sky.
But here came another man, entirely bundled, suspiciously bundled, dusky wool and speckled tweed, arboreal. From a distance, dark, and the young man expected him to brighten up the closer he got but he never did.
“What is it?” the stranger asked.
The young man said, “The lady,” and pointed. “She dead, you think?”
“Come,” said the stranger, “and we will see.”
The slope, the frost. The possibility she was dead. The young man said, “I’ll call a doctor, shall I.”
“I’m a doctor.”
“You?” He’d never heard of a colored doctor before. Moreover the stranger had on his back an immense duffel bag more vagabond than medical, and looked as though he’d been sleeping rough for some time. He had a refined accent from no region the watchman could place.
“Better get another.”
“Now, now,” said the man, and he took hold of the young man’s sleeve, and the young man resisted. “How strong a fellow are you?”
“Enough,” said the watchman.
The foreigner, the doctor — his name was Leviticus Sprague, he’d been educated in Glasgow, but raised in the Maritimes — caught him by the wrist, to tow the boy — he was a boy, his name was Joe Wear, he was just 19 — skitteringly down the hill. Almost immediately Dr. Sprague regretted it. The boy was unsteady on his feet and cried out as he slid. “Careful,” Dr. Sprague said. “Here, take my shoulder. Difficult for any man.”
How in the world had the woman got there? The frost around her had not a footfall in it. With the green grass beneath, it looked like a foam-rough sea, jade and fatal, and she going under. If she had dropped out of the sky, she’d been lucky to miss that obelisk.
“Look in the bag,” Dr. Sprague told Joe Wear. “See if that tells us anything.”
Dr. Sprague knelt to his patient. He saw the curve of one eye tick beneath its lid. The eyelashes of the dozing are always full of meaning and beauty, telegraph wires for dreams, and hers were no different. Dr. Sprague marveled at their fur-coat loveliness. He took hold of her bare wrist, which was, against logic, warm.
She blinked to reveal a pair of baize-green eyes and the soul of a middle-aged woman. When she sat up from the frost it was as though a stone bishop had stepped from his niche.
“Hello,” she said pleasantly to Dr. Sprague.
“Yes,” he said to her.
Then she turned to Joe Wear, who had fished from the Gladstone bag a small wooden ball and a narrow wooden pin, and was regarding them, then her, wonderingly.
“Ah good!” she said. “Give here.”
He did. She held them like a queen in an ancient painting, orb and scepter. She was alive. She was a bowler.
“A new sort of bowling,” she declared.
“Madam,” said Dr. Sprague, but Joe Wear said, “Candlepin.”
“Of a sort,” she said, with a papercut tone. She set the pin and ball on the ground beside her. Then, to Joe, “You’re a bowling man.”
“Have been. Tenpin. Worked at the Les Miserables house.”
From the Avenue of Sorrows a voice called, “Ahoy!” A policeman, a middle-aged anvil-headed man, with gray hair that shone just a little, like hammered aluminum.
She was alive. She was a bowler.
“Let us get her to her feet,” Dr. Sprague said to Joe Wear, and they pulled her upright as the policeman doddered down the frosty hill on his heels. She left her dead shape behind in the grass, a hay-colored silhouette, as though she’d lain there a long time. The dead grass persisted weeks later, seasons. From the right angle in the Salford Cemetery you might see it still.
“What’s your name, missus,” the policeman said to the woman, once he’d got there.
She got a thinking look.
“You haven’t forgotten.”
Still thinking. At last she said in an experimental voice, “Bertha Truitt. Yes, I think so.”
“Better get her to a doctor,” said Joe Wear.
“I’m a doctor,” said Dr. Sprague, and he took her by the hand, where her pulse was, her blood, her bones.
She smiled. She told him confidingly, “There is not a thing wrong with me.”
“You were inconscious,” said Joe Wear.
“We’ll take her to the Salford Hospital,” the policeman decided.
Joe Wear couldn’t shake the alarm he’d felt upon seeing her in the morning frost, the pleasure when she’d opened her eyes. She had been brought back from the dead. Her nose was now florid with life, her little teeth loosely strung. He wanted to slap the grass from the back of her dark jacket, as though she were a horse.
“But what were you doing here,” Dr. Leviticus Sprague asked her.
Poor man. She admired how their hands looked folded together. “Darling sir,” she said. “I was dreaming of love.”
Our subject is love because our subject is bowling. Candlepin bowling. This is New England, and even the violence is cunning and subtle. It still could kill you. A candlepin ball is small, two and a half pounds, four and a half inches in diameter, a grapefruit, an operable tumor. You heft it in your palm. Candlepin bowling is a game of skill: Nobody has ever bowled a perfect string, every pin with every ball, all the way through, till you’ve knocked down 130 pins in a row, multiplied and transformed by math and bowling into a 300 game. Nobody’s got more than five-sixths of the way there. Nobody, in other words, may look upon the face of God.
We have all of us invented things that others have beat us to: walking upright, a certain sort of sandwich involving avocado and an onion roll, a minty sweet cocktail, ourselves, romantic love, human life.
This is bowling in New England (except Connecticut). A game of purity for former puritans. A game of devotion that will always fail. Tenpin balls (what most people think of when they hear the word bowling) are the size of hissing cartoon bombs. Tenpins are curvy and shaped like clubs. Candlepin balls are hand-size. Candlepins are candle-shaped. Bertha Truitt’s gravestone would eventually read inventor of candlepin bowling, the sport of ladies and gentlemen, and so she was, no matter what the history books say, if history books care at all for the game of candlepin. Most don’t but this one does, being a genealogy.
Maybe somebody else had invented the game first. That doesn’t matter. We have all of us invented things that others have beat us to: walking upright, a certain sort of sandwich involving avocado and an onion roll, a minty sweet cocktail, ourselves, romantic love, human life.
Our subject is love. Unrequited love, you might think, the heedless headstrong ball that hurtles nearsighted down the alley. It has to get close before it can pick out which pin it loves the most, which pin it longs to set spinning. Then I love you! Then blammo. The pins are reduced to a pile, each one entirely all right in itself. Intact and bashed about. Again and again, the pins stand for it until they’re knocked down. The ball return splits up the beloveds, flings the ball away from the pins. You stay there. The ball never does, it’s flung back by the bowler, here it comes flying, blammo.
You understand. It only seems unrequited.
The policeman brought the so-called Bertha Truitt to the Salford Hospital, where it could not be determined whether she had amnesia or a privacy so pigheaded it might yet prove fatal. Did she want to stay in the hospital? Of course not. How old was she? She wouldn’t say. Did she know anyone in town? Possibly: She hadn’t gone door-to-door to ask. How long had she been in the cemetery? If they didn’t know, she surely did not. Where had she come from?
“I’m here now,” she said.
Lie down, lie down.
“Will you let me go if I do?”
The Catholics came to see her, and members from the Hebrew Ladies Sewing Society, and some Presbyterians. She didn’t need or seek charity; they just wanted a gander. Newspapermen came to interview the curiosity but found only a pleasant plump woman whom nobody could account for. Those the city was full of. The mayor visited; his deputy had suggested that the recent reports of a strange creature stalking the fens on the north edge of the city — the newspapers called it the Salford Devil — had been this woman, looking for a place to lie down. The Salford Devil had red eyes and brachiated black wings, was the size of a dog, or a swan, or a malnourished child, had a long tail with a tassel (like a zebra or giraffe or a sphinx) or one that opened like a fan (like a bird). Bertha Truitt had none of these things, and on the second day of her hospitalization Moses Mood, the owner of the hardware store, swore he saw the still at-large Salford Devil steal a poodle where it had waited for its owner outside the public library. A real poodle, a pony-size one.
Bertha Truitt confounded people. She was two things at once. Bodily she was a matron, jowly, bosomy, bottomy, odd. At heart she was a gamine. Her smile was like a baby’s, full of joyful élan. You believed you had caused it. You felt felled by a stroke of luck.
Nobody who knew her came to visit, though the nurses noticed she was always peering down the ward with a hopeful expression. She had no recognizable accent, no regional manners, no cravings for a certain cabbage salad known on only one side of the Mississippi. When asked about her past, she waved it away. “I’m here,” she said. “Wherever that is.”
People began to dream of her. Not just her fellow patients, though they were the first, they dreamt of Bertha Truitt sneaking into their beds, lowering the mattress, raising the temperature, dissolving in the daylight. She got into the dreams of the nurses and doctors, then people through the town. One man swore he saw her fly through the air on her back, naked as a piglet, using her impressive breasts as wings.
Well, maybe more like rudders, he allowed. Otherwise I stand by it.
It was just a dream, his wife told him, as wives did everywhere in Salford, husbands, too, parents who could not imagine where their children had heard of the smiling lady who whispered in their ears at night, I have a game for you. And, it is possible to bowl away trouble.
The other patients hung around her bed to be smiled at. This included Jeptha Arrison, a lump-headed young man who’d been hospitalized after swallowing a bottle of aspirin, one pill at a time, like consuming a tree twig by twig. Soon enough he was found sleeping under Bertha Truitt’s bed. “Let him stay,” she said, and though it was the woman’s ward he was left alone. Jeptha Arrison began to sleep abovedecks at the foot of her bed. “I like it here,” he said to Bertha Truitt. “The hospital. My ma told me I once nearly died in a hospital but now I think they do me good.”
“You have a fine head,” said Bertha Truitt. She gave him a look of admiration.
“Ought I become a doctor?” he asked.
“Heavens, no,” she said. “No, you’re not suited for that at all. I meant the shape of it. I was speaking phrenologically.” She touched his temples with the gentling tips of her fingers. He would have done anything she suggested.
It was the early years of American sports. She weighed the ball in the palm of her hand; she got Jeptha Arrison to set up her single pin, thin as a broomstick, all the way at the end of the ward. Again and again she knocked it over. “You have a problem,” she would say. “Bowling can take it away like this.” Knock it over again. It was impossible, the floor tilted to the south, the agitated footfalls of the sick sent vibrations through the boards, yet she managed it every time. Bertha Truitt told her visitors that the pharaohs bowled, of course they did, the pharaohs did everything first. Martin Luther bowled, before he was devout; Henry VIII had lanes built at Whitehall Palace. Rip Van Winkle was watching his neighbors bowl at ninepins when he fell into his famous sleep.
“As for me,” said Bertha Truitt, “I’ll build a bowling alley. What is this place.”
“This place?” Jeptha asked. He pointed at the bed he sat on. “Salford, or—”
“Salford,” Bertha Truitt said. “Massachusetts, then. Yes.” ●
Excerpt from BOWLAWAY by Elizabeth McCracken. Copyright 2019 by Elizabeth McCracken. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
Elizabeth McCracken is the author of six books, Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry (stories), The Giant’s House (a National Book Award finalist), Niagara Falls All Over Again, the memoir An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, Thunderstruck & Other Stories (winner of the 2014 Story Prize, long-listed for the National Book Award), and Bowlaway, three of which were New York Times Notable Books. She has received grants and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. She has served on the faculty at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and currently holds the James Michener Chair for Fiction at the University of Texas at Austin.