by Keith Blaney

Every day. Every day at lunch, the tall man in the dirty work shirt walks into the steam-table buffet/all- you-can-eat-restaurant at the bowling alley, drops a quarter in the juke box, hits the button with the number, then the button with the letter, grabs a beer from the bar, sits down at his table alone, and listens:

"There is a house in New Orleans, they call the Rising Sun. And, it's been the ruin of many a poor boy, and God I know I'm one."

Then, he gets up from his table, gets out another quarter, walks back to the jukebox, hits the number, then the letter — and does it all over again — and again, and again, and again:

"Oh mother, tell your children, not to do what I have done. Spend your lives in sin and misery, in the House of the Rising Sun."

The fucking Animals — over and over again: House of the Rising Sun. Three or four times a day. Every day. That fucking organ solo. What the fuck is going on, man? Why so sad? Huh? Why the long face, Mr. Ed?

This crosses my selfish 16 year-old-mind fairly often in June of 1982 — at my summer job, at the Cloverleaf Lanes — the Ye Olde Irish Bowling alley just a few miles up I-95 from my house in North Miami.

I come this close to sitting down at his table and asking him, '˜You want to know real sadness, Mr. Rising Sun? Just guess which Cloverleaf Lanes bus boy dreamed all junior year about going to a super-cool 6-week (summer) high-school acting thing in Chicago, but instead, got a shitty letter in the mail politely saying, "no," and that he's "the alternate," — and now, all summer long, that same Cloverleaf Lanes bus boy gets to clean endless piles of smelly plates of half-eaten mashed potatoes and gravy at an all-you-can-eat Irish bowling alley buffet restaurant just off I-95 for the first half of his work-day, then teaches 6-year-olds how to bowl for the 2nd half? All while you won't stop playing "House of the Rising Sun," on the jukebox. Which bus boy, huh?'

One guess, Mr. Rising Sun; one guess.

Then, same as every day, Mr. Rising Sun, pays his tab and leaves — without me ever asking him why he's so sad, and without me ever telling him why I am too.

I slop the last of the lunch potatoes into the garbage, then make my way out to the bowling alley, ready-to- teach America's next great generation how to bowl.

I've never taught anything to anybody before. Ever.

Besides, how hard can it possibly be to teach 20 6-year-old kids how to bowl?

So far, three weeks and smooth bowling'¦

(And) all I do is bend down for one second to help one little bowler girl tie her adorable little bowler girl shoelaces — I turn my back for one minute — and when I turn back around, one 6 year-old boy is holding a 7 pound bowling ball, over his own head, with a huge smile on his stupid little face that says, "I'm gonna do it."

As I reach out to stop him, in a sort of a total-all-encompassing-vocal-and-physical, "Noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!" He does it. He does it. He drops a 7-pound bowling ball, on his own head.

And, he's out. Cold.

I'm sure he's dead. So, I run to the snack bar and grab as many bags of crushed ice that I can carry, just in case we can save him.

Because, I decide right at that moment no stupid 6-year-old kid at my bowling alley summer job is gonna die on my watch.

About a minute later, when the little boy comes to, he opens his eyes, suddenly realizes he's the kid who just dropped a 7-pound bowling ball on his own head, and screams bloody fucking murder till his mom comes to pick-him-up-and-take-him-home.

That afternoon, driving home from the Cloverleaf Lanes in my 1971 Mercury Comet that used to belong to my Uncle John the trumpet player — driving home from the abbreviated bowling clinic that almost ended in child murder, or negligent homicide, or manslaughter, or kid-slaughter — at the very least an unflattering photo of me in the Miami Herald — driving home, I'm starting to think a career in bowling, or bowling education, or any education for that matter, may not be in the cards for me.

That evening, in the middle of dinner with my mom, the phone rings. I'm sure it's the bowling police.

My mother answers, listens for a moment, holds the phone in my direction, and says, (dispassionately) with a suspicious look in her eyes, "It's for you. It's that acting program, in Evanston, Illinois."

Then, I hear, "Hi. Keith? Hi. This is such-and-such at the National High School Institute at Northwestern University — well, it seems that one young man has unfortunately come down with quite a nasty case of red/scarlet/typhoid/dengue river fever and won't be joining us, and since you're the alternate, if you'd still like to come to the acting program, we'd love to have you for the summer. Feel free to take an hour or so to decide and call us back, okay?"


I hang up, and sit back down to dinner with mom. We barely look at each other, and we don't say a word. We both know it's going to cost my parents a little chunk of money to send me, and I'm scared. I don't want her to feel bad if they can't afford it, but I wanna go so bad. I don't know what's going to happen.

But, I do know I want "something" to happen — something — to save me, from a summer of mashed potatoes, bowling, and murder.

I take an introspective ride on my bike — around the block a few times, to clear my even-more-garbled-than-usual adolescent brain. When I walk back in the house, my mom's still at the dinner table. She pauses for a moment, turns to me and says, "Okay. You can go spend the summer in Chicago'¦if you still want."

I clear these dirty dishes quicker than I ever did (the ones) at the bowling alley, say the biggest, "thanks, mom," either of us can ever recall — then call them back and tell them, "I'll be there."

Something really happened, and I get to have — that summer: the summer on Lake Michigan.

The summer when they call us all "Cherubs," because every cheerful morning over breakfast they read to us a from a book of poetry called "The Cheerful Cherub."

It's the summer of Greek tragedies and 2nd Cities; movement classes and Bertolt Brecht; (and) Dr. Frankenfurter, and Joseph, and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

It's the summer of nail-guns and bunk beds, Trojan wars and glass menageries, sewing machines and stand-up comedy: with jokes like:"we were so poor, at Christmastime we'd all gather '˜round to decorate the branch."

It's the summer when 11 years of Catholic school are almost completely undone in less than 45 minutes by a tiny little one-act play by David Mamet called, Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, starring my acting teacher that summer, Laura Innes, who would eventually go on to save countless fictional lives despite her pronounced fictional limp, on television's hit medical drama ER.

It's the summer I get hit with a Tupperwear bowl. A can of peas hits my foot, right before, I get hit with a golf ball during a production of True West with Gary Sinese at The Steppenwolfe Theatre — and I know at that exact moment — I know what I want to be.

It's the summer I fall in love. And I fall hard.

For one perfect summer, that almost wasn't, it's everything I thought being an actor was always going to be, all the time (and, kind of would never exactly be, again).

Like a murky silhouette of something perfect from a decade before the last, that was almost never really there, but you're so grateful it really was, even if only, for the most fleeting of moments.

And, on one of those days — one of those days, when I'm at a Toyota audition at a strip mall in the Valley with a permanent sign out front that says "no actor parking," with fake buckles on my shoes, a vaguely-Ben-Franklin-looking-costume-shop-powdered-wig on my head, naked from the waist up — it's one of those days — when I retreat to an Irish bowling alley somewhere deep inside my mind, walk over to the jukebox — push the number, then the letter. Grab a beer at the bar, sit down at a table alone, and listen...

"Oh mother, tell your children, not to do what I have done. Spend your lives in sin and misery, in the House of the Rising Sun."

I can listen to that organ solo forever.