It seemed as if the old woman on the bus knew that I would follow her. Before I knew it, in fact. The moment I laid eyes on her she looked wary. Her eyes held a subdued terror. There was something about her; I couldn’t stop staring. I didn’t know what it was. There was nothing truly remarkable about her appearance, not if I considered the many other noteworthy characters I had encountered on the bus, and yet she exuded a certain mysterious aura that strongly suggested she had a story. A proper story. One so valuable she kept it clasped closed against her worn skin lest some talentless hack attempt to snatch it away.
That was probably why she looked so afraid. She could sense I was a writer. A bad writer, but one nonetheless. It was in my cursed blood. I was born the daughter of two writers and doomed to repeat their fate. I couldn’t help but heed a good story’s siren call, even if I was due to mop things at The Warehouse at precisely two and it was two-oh-one.
I never took my eyes off the woman once as we trundled downtown towards The Warehouse. She wasn’t as old as I had first thought, just well-used and broken down like the soft felt ear on a sad old teddy bear. Mousey brown and grey hair (what little of it there was) was smoothed back in to a ponytail that came out the hole in the back of a pastel pink ball cap with “GAP” on the front. Large turquoise sunglasses covered half her face. Her thin, frail-looking frame held up a pastel blue sweatshirt and light pink golf skirt. She wore grey Northstars on her feet. Her clothes looked brand new though I could tell from their outdated style that they were not.
Her hand, thin and tan like the rest of her, gripped the metal bar beside her tightly, and she shook slightly even when the bus was at a complete stop. Maybe it was this silent buzzing vibration that entranced me. She looked like she could, at any moment, break open and reveal her secrets.
I purposefully missed my stop. I’d figure things out with The Warehouse later. Or at least, that sounded reasonable.
I knew the woman saw me staring, but she never so much as glanced my way. It was curious. She stared straight ahead (as far as I could tell), her thin lips formed in to a pained grimace. Perhaps she had expected this day to come.
I watched her all the way out of downtown, through the hip neighborhood, out to the very edges of the fringe, a hard-baked urban desert of cracked concrete and trash piles, with not a Starbucks in sight. That was where she pulled the cord and slowly got to her feet. I followed behind her closely and realized with delight as I got closer that she smelled sweetly and strongly of coconut.
This attribute somehow confirmed what I had so far conjured up in my mind about the woman. She was cracked in several places, but she was not broken, and in fact, she might once have been perfect.
She limped awkwardly off the bus and continued at a painstakingly slow pace up the street. I dawdled behind. We walked to the corner and then turned left, then up several blocks. After ten minutes I became overheated and impatient. Where was she leading me? I’d never been in the area before and the quietness of it was off-putting. Even the homeless people sorting through the trash bags on the curb were going about their business in perfect calm silence. They did not look at us as we passed, didn’t even seem to be aware of our existence.
I was coming up on the woman’s heels due to my discomfort at the slow pace and I reminded myself to fall back. I watched my footsteps, making them smaller and smaller still. When I looked back up the woman was gone, and a grimy bowling alley sign loomed in front of me, as if out of nowhere.
I let out a disgruntled noise. The woman was clearly more spritely than she had let on, and much wilier. In a last hopeful effort to find her I pulled open the blacked-out bowling alley door and entered in to a cool, dark vacuum.
It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. My eyes searched for the light sources, which turned out to be two dirty skylights in the front area of the alley, a strip of dim bulbs above the counter where a man stood looking at me with disinterest and luminescent strips that ran down the length of six bowling lanes to glowing green pins in groups of ten. A rather dinky disco ball also hung in roughly the center of the expansive space, throwing a few meager spots of dancing light around it. Classic rock and roll played very lightly in the background, adding to the general outdated feeling of the place, with its chipped paint and worn carpet.
I searched for the woman. With a thrill, I spotted a hunched figure at the lane on the furthest left.
“Can I help you?” said the man at the counter.
He had already had enough of me, and I hadn’t even spoken yet. He was a large, heavy man with long wavy hair parted in the middle and a goatee.
“A lane please,” I said, taking off my backpack to get my wallet, “Second to furthest left.”
“Okay,” said the man, resting on his elbows on the counter, “But it’s not our best lane. Dips to the right. Most people can barely get a pin.”
“Sounds great,” I said, wanting to hurry him along, “I like a challenge.”
He looked me up and down slowly then shrugged.
“Your choice,” he said, then began to ring me up.
Five minutes later I had a pair of large, foul-smelling and damp pair of bowling shoes on my feet and was headed towards the second to furthest lane which shuddered to life with the disturbing creaks of a hastily set-up carnival ride.
My heart beat quicker in anticipation as I approached the lane and came closer to the figure which did indeed appear to be the woman from the bus. The story was close, I could just feel it.
As I set down my backpack I turned my eyes toward the figure. Yes, it was her, beyond the shadow of a doubt. Perhaps I should have spoken to her then, but something stopped me. It wasn’t simply nerves, though I was nervous. It was something else. The timing wasn’t right. For some strange reason I couldn’t articulate, I wanted her to speak first. Even stranger, I knew she would.
I picked up a bowling ball and my arm sagged pathetically. A lighter one, then. I picked up the lightest, and delicately approached the lane. After a moment’s hesitation I heaved it forward without any talent or style. The ball didn’t even make it halfway through the lane before dropping in to the right-hand gutter. I looked over at the woman’s lane.
The woman was preparing to bowl a ball. She was trembling harder than before, and still wearing her sunglasses. I felt very sorry for her, certain that it would be an even more pitiful attempt than mine. She took several steps forward, wound up suddenly and released the ball on to the alley in a crisp, fast spin. The ball rocketed directly in to the center of the pins and sent them falling in all directions. A perfect strike.
The woman hummed a tuneful sigh.
“I learned how to do that on yours,” she said, the suddenness of her gentle, gravelly voice surprising me.
“Really?” I said, anxious to keep her talking, “why?”
The woman sighed again.
“He gave me a discount,” she said, jerking her head towards the man at the counter.
“He didn’t give me a discount,” I said with a slightly offended laugh.
“You don’t look like you need one.”
It wasn’t meant to be an insult or a compliment, just a fact.
“That’s true,” I said, my smile fading.
The woman looked at me and I saw myself reflected in her reflective sunglasses.
“Let’s switch,” she said.
“Are you sure? You don’t have to do that.”
“It’s fine. This one’s too easy anyway.”
I grabbed my backpack and we switched lanes, her coconut perfume enveloping me for a brief moment.
She picked up another ball, not nearly the lightest I noticed, and I watched intently as she inhaled a rattled breath, bowed her head to the ball three times quickly in succession then stepped forward and threw the ball rocketing up the lane with a mean left curve.
The ball hooked down only at the very end of the lane, bursting in to the pins with a satisfying smash. Most were knocked down, but three remained.
“Wow!” I exclaimed.
“Hm,” said the woman, clearly displeased, “I’m losing my knack for it. I’m glad you gave me this lane. I need to practice.”
“It’s no problem at all… I- I hope you didn’t mind my following you,” I said, unsure of my footing.
The woman shrugged.
“It’s not the first time.”
I sensed my opportunity.
“People have followed you before?”
“Same reason you followed me,” she said, suddenly cracking a smile, revealing perfectly aligned teeth but not nearly enough of them.
Her gums were receding and she didn’t have many molars on her top set. No wonder she hadn’t smiled yet. It was likely a rare occurrence, borne of an impulse that couldn’t be restrained. I felt honored, and I felt confused. I only wanted her to reveal her mystery, but my skills were rusty from months of mopping and little to no proper investigation.
“I don’t know why I followed you,” I said.
She shrugged and prepared to throw another ball.
“Me either, then.”
I felt the window of opportunity closing and felt a sudden rush of adrenaline. I couldn’t let her go, not when she was so close.
“That was a lie,” I said boldly, “I do know, it’s because you have a story and I want to know it.”
The woman sent out another fast curve ball and smiled slightly again, whether it was because her shot had just downed the last three pins or because I had admitted the truth to her, I could not tell.
“You’re a writer,” she said, a question though not intoned like one.
“No,” I said, “Well, not right now, anyway. Right now I specialize in mopping things. But it’s in my blood. My parents were writers.”
The woman nodded as if this made sense.
“What happened to them?”
“Oh, nothing, they’re fine,” I said, realizing I had given her the wrong impression.
“What will you do with my story if I give it to you?”
I had not been prepared for this.
“Well, um, I’ll tell it I suppose.”
“You can do that while you’re… mopping things?”
“Yes,” I replied eagerly, “I can choose when to do the mopping. I was supposed to do it today, actually, but I chose to follow you instead. It’ll be fine.”
That wasn’t necessarily true, but it felt that way in the moment.
The woman was quiet for quite a few moments, standing, ball in hand and looking thoughtful. Eventually she began to chuckle. It was a strange sound, halfway between the purr of a motorboat and the cackle of a witch.
“What’s funny?” I asked.
“I’ve kept my story so long, all to myself. I’ve kept it from distinguished journalists and Pulitzer prize-winning novelists, all because the time wasn’t right. Today I woke up and I knew it was the day. I didn’t want it to be the day, not here, not now, but I knew it was. And here I am, with you, in this dive of a bowling alley about to give away my most prized possession. You’re not even a writer. You mop for a living. Mopping, of all things! It’s ridiculous to the point of hilarity.”
I was stunned. I had hoped, I had dreamed, but I hadn’t dared to expect this woman would actually me reveal her story to me. I felt a little guilty about my inexperience and lack of qualification for the job.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Don’t be. You’re the one. I knew it the moment you walked on that bus, and I know you did as well.”
“Then that’s all there is to say about it.”
“Should I get a notepad out?”
“You won’t need one.”
“I know,” I said.
And I had known. She took a deep breath, bowed her head three times, then bowled a strike.