| THE BEST|
The vintage red corvette convertible swung into the Strike Um Out Bowling Center's parking lot. Slowly passing rows of parked cars in the crowded lot, the driver noticed a person by the entrance pointing and others watching the car as it made an easy turn into the space reserved for Dice Johnson. Dice listened to the sweet hum of the motor and felt exhilarated as he shut down the engine.
Stepping out of the car, Dice casually ran his hand through his curly blond hair as he walked to the trunk and took out the black bowling bag with the logo of a pair of dice on both sides. Dice smiled at the sight of a full parking lot which meant more people to see him bowl. It was Friday night and the Center was packed. Dice was six foot two and around a hundred ninety pounds with a devil may care look in his blue eyes that attracted quite a few looks from the ladies. But that was all he wanted the ladies to do. His true love was bowling. Bowling was his life and nothing else mattered.
Shutting the trunk of the corvette, he strolled across the parking lot and up the steps of the center waving at a few acquaintances standing outside taking a smoke. Dice opened the door and stepped inside the center and paused for a moment, his heart rate speeding up at the sound of bowling balls striking pins.
The Strike Um Out Bowling Center had only been open for a year and was equipped with activities for all ages. A triumphant cry of victory came from one of the Foosball tables tucked away in a corner and the smell of hot buttered popcorn permeated the air as he passed. Dice was only there for the bowling. He had won the state championship three years in a row, but that wasn't enough. There was a void; an emptiness in his heart that he knew would never go away until he became known as the best to ever bowl. He would do anything to be known as the best.
He passed the concession stand and looked across forty two bowling lanes all filled with bowlers with the exception of the two center lanes. Those two lanes were reserved for Dice every Friday night at ten o’clock by the owner Mitch Baker, a close friend of Dice’s.
Approaching the counter Dice saw Mitch and said, “Hello Mitch."
Mitch looked up, saw Dice and replied, “Just like clockwork, never late on Friday night are you Dice?”
“You know it Mitch; you can set your watch by me. One day I will be known as the greatest bowler in the world." said Dice
“You could be right son, you could be right." replied Mitch.
Dice walked over to the two center lanes and sat down to put his bowling shoes on. Reaching into his bag he took out a clear urethane bowling ball with a pair of dice in the center. Stepping up to the lane readying for his approach, he could feel the eyes of most of the regulars watching him. And that was just what he wanted, to be noticed.
Settling into his stance, he concentrated on the ten wooden pins coated with plastic only sixty feet away. Breaking out of his stance, Dice took his standard five step approach, released the ball, and watched it roll towards the pocket of the pins as if guided by a laser. When the ball was only halfway down the lane Dice turned and started back to the ball return. Two steps from the ball return Dice heard the ball strike the pins and could tell by the sound that it was a strike. Barely twenty two years old Dice had rolled eighty-five perfect 300 games, more than any one alive. The only person that had bowled more perfect games than Dice was the legendary Johnny Green with 140 perfect games. Picking the ball up from the ball return Dice prepared to throw another ball thinking to himself that no one had ever been as good a bowler as he was. Dice ended up his three game set with two 300 games and a 298. He packed his ball and shoes into his bowling bag, so irritated with the 298 game that he barely heard the round of applause from the people watching him.
“You da Man!” Mitch called out as Dice walked by on his way out. Dice just smiled and waved.
Dice arrived home and went into the kitchen opening up the Chinese take out he had purchased on the way. Settling down at the table to eat he ran through his mind every ball that he had thrown that night. Finishing his meal, Dice threw the container into the waste basket and went to his bedroom to change into his pajamas.
Pulling back the covers he settled into bed and glanced around the walls at the posters of famous bowlers that he had plastered on every wall, his eyes finally settling on a life size poster of Johnny Green, widely acknowledged as the best bowler ever. Johnny had barely been five foot tall, with pasty white skin from spending so much time inside, a bulbous red nose from too much drinking, and a trademark Cuban cigar hanging from his lips. He was about as nonathletic looking as you could get, but the man could bowl! There were myths and urban legends about Johnny when he suddenly disappeared from the bowling scene while still in the prime of his career. Some say he had been the victim of a mob hit from refusing to throw a bowling tournament, others say he just got burnt out and walked away from bowling. No one knew for sure.
'I can beat you man', Dice thought as he closed his eyes and prepared to go sleep.
Three hours of tossing and turning and unable to shut down the thoughts of bowling running through his mind, Dice knew there was only one thing he could do. He had to bowl.
Dice crawled out of bed, dressed, reached into his desk and got the key to the Strike Um Out Bowling Center that Mitch had given him. On the drive to the center Dice played over in his mind once again all the shots he had made earlier that night. He was determined to be the best bowler ever. He pulled into the barren parking lot devoid of any people or cars.
He walked up the steps to the center pulling the key out as he neared the door.
Unlocking the door he walked into the center as he had many times before in the wee hours of the morning. Dice went behind the counter and turned the two center lanes on, the lights from the two lanes the only illumination in the center. He changed into his bowling shoes and removed the clear urethane ball from its resting place in his bag. Dice made his approach and watched the ball hurtle towards the pocket of the pins. Once again he had thrown a perfect strike. Within the rolling sound of the ball return, Dice heard someone's hands clapping. His heart skipped a beat as he whirled around. He felt his jaw drop as he realized there was a figure sitting in the dim light from the two lanes
“You know who I am kid, you have nothing to fear from me,” replied the figure. “Come a little closer kid.”
Dice felt as if the wind had been knocked out of him. This cant be real! He thought to himself as he gaped at the dream-like figure in front of him, he was beyond astonishment. " What...Who? " He spluttered, dazed.
Still not knowing what to expect, Dice slowly walked closer detecting the aroma of cigar smoke as he neared the figure. His eyes widened when he got close enough to recognize who the figure was. “Why you are Johnny Green”, Dice exclaimed. " You have been dead for thirty years.”
“That’s right kid, I am Johnny Green.” the man replied.
“Quit calling me kid, my name is Dice.”
“That may be true, but I am not good with names, so kid it will be.” Johnny said.
Irritated at still being called a kid, Dice replied, “Why I could out bowl you anytime old man, I am the best that has ever been.”
“That remains to be seen kid, but here and now if you are man enough to take the chance, we can find out tonight."said Johnny.
Unable to believe his eyes or ears, Dice sat down and stared at the man.
“What’s wrong kid? You mean to tell me that for all this time you have wanted to be the best, and you are not going to take the opportunity to prove it?” Johnny taunted.
“Why I can take you any day old man, any time and any place.” Dice replied with his face turning red from anger at being taunted by Johnny.
“Lets do it then kid,” Johnny exclaimed.
He reached out with one hand and took Dice by the arm while making curious circling motions with his other hand. Suddenly the room started spinning; the air around both of them shimmered and tendrils of smoke started engulfing them. Unable to bear the spinning room and the stinging smoke any longer Dice closed his eyes. After a few seconds Dice could no longer feel the room spinning or smell the smoke. Unsure of what he was going to see, Dice slowly started easing his eyes open and found he was no longer at the Strike Um Out Bowling Center. The only thing that Dice could see was two bowling lanes in front of him. There was no sensation of being in a room or a building, the two lanes was all he could see.
“As I said before kid, let’s do it.” Johnny said with a chuckle in his voice. This is your chance to be the best kid. Are you going to take it?”
Bewildered and unable to believe what was going on around him Dice sputtered, “Of course I am old man, no one has ever been as good as I am.”
“ I don’t have any money on me kid. Do you have a coin to flip to see who gets to throw the first ball?” Johnny asked.
Fishing in his pocket Dice pulled out a quarter and flipped it. “Call it old man.”
“Tails”! Johnny cried.
Dice watched the coin on its way down flipping end over end until it bounced and landed on its edge spinning round and round. It felt to Dice as if the coin would never stop spinning. Finally the coin slowed and fell over on its side. “Tails.” Johnny gleefully exclaimed.
“That’s bad for you kid, really bad. I don’t know if you can handle the pressure of me throwing strike after strike without you folding under pressure.” Johnny said with a twinkle in his eye.
His face flushing, turning a deep red color, eyes blazing with fury Dice said, “You can run your trap all you want to old man, you can’t rattle me. I told you I am better than you ever were."
“Not trying to put any pressure on you kid, but you do know that you only get one chance to beat me, right?” said Johnny.
Dice snapped back at him with “That’s all I need old man.”
Johnny picked up his ball, made his approach to the lane and released the ball. The ball screamed down the lane as if it had been shot out of a cannon, striking the pocket and wiping the pins out.
Dice stepped up to the lane and calmly picked the clear urethane ball up, kissing the dice for good luck. As soon as he released the ball he knew it was true. Both of them had thrown a strike in the first frame.
“Not bad kid, not bad. The problem is going to be matching every strike I throw. Your nerves will get you soon kid.” said Johnny.
Ignoring the taunt, Dice stepped up and rolled another strike. Johnny kept up his bantering with Dice seemingly trying to say something that would get to Dice and make him miss. Reaching the tenth and final frame both of them had a strike in every frame.
“This is it kid. This is where you separate the men from the boys. Three more shots kid and it’s all over. One of us will walk away the winner. Have you got it in you to do it kid?” said Johnny.
“I told you old man; there has never been a better bowler than me. The pressure is on you now because you know that I am not going to miss.” replied Dice.
Johnny picked his ball up and threw two more strikes. He looks back at Dice and says “One more strike makes 300 kid. You can’t do any better than that.” Johnny’s last ball goes flying down the lane once again striking the heart of the pins. The ball struck so hard that the five pin which had been taking out the ten pin jumped into the air and flew over the top of it missing it completely. Johnny’s mouth flew open in disbelief as he saw the ten pin still standing. He turned to Dice and said “That’s 299 kid, can you beat it? This is your only chance kid, don’t blow it.”
Dice threw two more strikes and only had one more strike to go. Picking up the ball Dice thought one more strike and I will have beaten the best that has been before me. Settling into his stance he felt a nervousness that had not affected him during the entire game. He walks back and picks up his bowling towel and wipes his ball down, willing his nerves to go away as he wipes the ball. Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out, ran through Dices mind and his nerves calmed down as he breathed in and out. Picking up his ball once again, he kissed the dice inside the ball for luck, made his approach, released the ball, and as soon as it came off his hand he knew that it was a strike. Turning around he expected to see anger in Johnny’s face when he realized that he had lost, instead what he saw was a curious smile.
“Well kid you have done it. You really are the best.” Johnny said. “I want to thank you kid”
“Thank me?” Dice asked with a puzzled look on his face.
“Kid, I am tired. I have been here in this room for thirty years now taking on every Tom, Dick, and Harry that thought he was better than me. You beat me kid. I told you earlier that one of us was going to walk away the winner. Even though you won the game, I am the one walking away. I can rest now. This room is yours now, enjoy it kid.”
With a puff of smoke Johnny vanished and Dice was alone. Dice had finally got what he had wanted with all his heart for so many years, he was the best. Now he was sitting all alone in a room filled with a malevolent darkness that pressed into his soul, waiting for the next person who thought he was “The Best”.