This post is in congratulations of friend and swing dancing extraordinaire Dominic Howarth, who won the CL Writing Contest 2017 for Judge’s Pick in Fiction. His piece is titled “Sleeper” and you can find the original link to his work by clicking here.
By Dominic Howarth
“Yo, Anteater, you gonna go? You’re up,” Cooper shouts over the din of the bowling alley. The roaring ruckus of splashing pins explodes across the way, acting as an exclamation point to Cooper’s sentence. There’s the sound of cheap vending machines spilling out soda cans to greedy kids already plastered with sugar. Flashing lights dance and sing in the far-off arcade while the smoke from the bar wafts into the lanes, creating a distinct haze.
Antoine looks up, away from his phone. “Yeah, yeah. Yeesh, give me a second, will ya? Deborah keeps texting me. You and I finally get together, just the two of us, and she won’t put the phone down.” He stuffs the device back into his forest green slacks as he stands up from the neon yellow bench, which is sticky for some reason. Antoine decides not to think about it.
“What? Why?” Cooper asks, shoving a handful of popcorn in his mouth. The fake butter sets his taste buds on fire, and he feels like he’s 12 again. “Man, I love this place,” he says.
Antoine shuffles up to the ball return, leans over. He takes his towel and starts shining his ball. The white swirls embedded in the black finish glisten in the light. “I don’t know. I think she’s just afraid something is up. You, me, and our wives have been going out to dinner every week since before Reagan was in office. It is a little strange to go out without them, you gotta admit.”
“Hey!” Cooper says, wiping the not-quite-butter off of his lips with the back of his hand. “Can’t two old war buddies just be old and cranky one night with each other without their wives interfering?”
Antoine picks up his ball, settles the weight in his hand, and stares down the lane. “I suppose so,” He says coolly. His disposition begins to morph. He breathes. He focuses. He is the ball. He is the pins. He is the lane.
He is annoyed by what comes next.
“Swing, batta-batta-batta, swing batta!” Cooper sings from his seat, rolling up the sleeves on his ill-fitting flannel shirt. He takes a swig of root beer and clinks the glass bottle against an empty one that’s still standing strong on the table.
“Juvenile as always, Coop!”
“Oh, let me get a few more soda pops in me, and I’ll be bouncing off the walls like a ping pong ball!” Coop whistles.
“I can’t concentrate with you shouting at me, you old bastard,” Antoine calls back, shrugging as he settled back into his stance. He reconsiders his footing.
“That is literally the point!” Cooper says, stomping his feet against the ground.
Antoine lets himself grin, and he exhales. He takes three long strides, and tosses the ball. It strikes the slick wooden floor, rolling gracefully with a 90 degree rotation. The two men stare, watching, waiting, one wishing while the other prays, both for different reasons.
“AYYY!” They yell in unison as the ball destroys the pins, sending them off in every which way. The machine clamps down and the process of resetting begins.
“Nailed it! I haven’t lost my touch,” Antoine says. He licks his pointer finger and makes a sizzling sound as he flicks it out. “Yeah, that just happened,” he says, before settling down in his seat.
“Pish posh, ya schmuck!” Cooper retorts. With one deft swipe, he stuffs a handful of cheesy nachos into his face.
“Damn it, Coop. Slow down. You want to have a heart attack by the time you’re 71?” Antoine asks, raising one of his bushy eyebrows.
“Nah, I’m not really worried about that,” Cooper says, going for another handful. He quickly dispatches them and wipes his greasy fingers with some cheap napkins, before standing up and walking over to the ball return.
“Well, you really should. We aren’t those young kids anymore. If I even look at a pizza the wrong way, I can get arrhythmia!” Antoine states with a frown, rubbing at his chest.
“Ha!” Cooper shouts. He’s struggling to lift the ball to his chest, but once he gets there, he’s fine. He shakes his feet, lifting one off the ground and then the other, as if he’s being attacked by fire ants. He steadies himself once more, and then goes in for the kill.
Antoine lets erupt a ridiculous roar of laughter, sputtering about as he watches the thing slide down the lane. Cooper turns around, completely unfazed. “Pfft, that was your one mulligan. I didn’t want to beat you too bad anyway.”
“Coop, it’s 194 to 40,” Antoine says, his smile glowing.
“Yeah, but you know me. I’m always full of surprises,” Cooper mentions before sitting down. He pops open another soda, starts guzzling. It’s half gone before Antoine knows what happened.
“Seriously, Coop. What’s with the diet? As your best friend who also happens to be an actual doctor, I seriously don’t think that’s a smart idea. That’s your fourth soda already and we’re only in our second game,” he says. He scans the food on the table and grimaces. “I’m getting a contact heartburn just sitting here.”
“Yeah, well,” Cooper says, and a heavy sigh escapes him. “Like I said, I’m not really worried about that. I have stage 3 multiple myeloma. Saturated fats and corn syrup are the least of my worries,” he says, and looks at his friend while he pops some pretzels in his mouth.
Antoine’s smile, slowly, slowly, slowly, melts away. He processes the words. “Wait, what?” he asks. He wishes that the sound of the bowling alley was rigged by a switch and he could shut it off.
“Yeah, stage 3. Multiple myeloma. It’s a bitch, isn’t it? It’s a form of blood cancer-”
“I know what it is, I’m an oncologist,” Antoine rushes to explain. His eyes are pressed closed and he holds his hand out, asking his friend to stop talking. “Okay, okay… so, when did you find this out?”
“Yesterday afternoon,” Cooper says matter-of-factly.
“That’s right when you called me to set this thing up,” Antoine replies.
“Yeah. I came home from the doctor, and I called you almost immediately.”
“Does anyone else know?”
“Nope,” Cooper simply says.
“Damn… well, when are you telling Barb?”
“Oh, I’m not,” Cooper answers. He tosses his finished root beer into the trashcan about four feet away, and pumps his fist in victory.
Antoine screws up his face. “You’re, what?”
“I’m not telling Barb. I’m not telling anyone.”
“But you’re telling me?”
“Well, I had to tell someone. I was going to blow my head off otherwise.”
Antoine thinks for a moment. “Well, what treatment did your doctor suggest? I know some people who-”
“Oh, I’m not seeking treatment.”
There is a commotion in the lane over. Someone has spilled a pitcher of beer, and the buzzed crowd is scrambling to wipe it up. The sound is overwhelming.
“You… aren’t?” Antoine asks. He feels a pressure on his chest.
“No. I’m not.”
“And I’m supposed to do what with this, huh? Keep mum?”
“Well, yeah. Of course.”
“Go shove your ‘Of course’!”
“Hey,” Cooper says, raising his hands. “You’re my best friend. I needed to tell someone I trusted-”
“And you tell me like this? In a goddamned bowling alley on a Saturday night?” Antoine says. He wants to shout, but his hushed whispers are already grabbing attention from the lane next to them.
“Well, I wanted to have a good time, and honestly, this seemed as fine a time as ever.”
“No. No. Not having this discussion here. I’m going outside for some air,” Antoine says, shaking his head. He stands up and begins walking away.
Cooper is hot on his heels, walking strangely, as if on hot coals. “Anteater, wait up-”
“Don’t call me that right now,” Antoine mentions, growling the words out. The automatic doors whoosh open, and the brisk night air surrounds them. They fight through a crowd of rowdy teenagers entering the alley, and Cooper almost falls trying to keep up.
“I told you…” Antoine says underneath his breath, zipping up his jacket as he hurries on outside.
Cooper limps just fast enough to get in the way of his friend. “Told me what?”
“I’ve told you to go get a checkup for years now!” Antoine says. He starts counting on his fingers. “Richardson, Garret, Jones, O’Brien, Samson, Garcia, ALL of them. Cancer. That’s half of our platoon. You know about Agent Orange and all the chemicals the government sprayed while we were in country back in Vietnam. You and I, we’ve been walking time bombs for years. You bastard. Why didn’t you go get yourself checked sooner? Huh?”
“Let it out, Anteater, let it out,” Cooper says.
“Don’t patronize me, you prick. Why? Why didn’t you go to the doctor? I got myself checked. I had two close calls. You know that. I was one of the lucky ones.”
“I don’t know why I didn’t go. Scared? I guess?” Cooper answers.
“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. You don’t go to the doctor because you are scared something might be wrong?”
“Well, you were always the smart one. I mean, that’s why you became the doctor and I became the comedy writer.”
“Shut up. Please, just shut up,” Antoine says, and starts walking away again.
“Where are you going?” Cooper says, trying to keep up.
“To my car.”
“What, you’re gonna leave your best friend after he told you he’s dying of cancer?”
“No, I’m leaving an asshole who has no respect for his family or for himself.”
“Antoine! Please, stop walking so goddamned fast. My feet are killing me.”
“What’s wrong with your feet?”
“Damned neuropathy from the cancer. I get these pins and needles sometimes, it’s the worst. Makes it hard to move around,” Cooper says, shambling up beside his friend. Antoine slows down, and finally stops. They are both wheezing slightly.
A silence hangs there. Antoine is looking down at the ground. “I don’t even remember where I parked.”
The sentence floats out into the black of the night. They just stand there, Antoine looking at the gravel, Cooper looking at his friend.
“You aren’t going to try? Not going to see if you can beat this thing? Because you can, Coop. You can,” Antoine says. He looks up, stares at Cooper, pleading and persisting.
“No. I won’t do it. I’m not going to partake in it.”
“Not going to partake in it?”
“So, you are just going to do nothing, eh?”
Antoine nods his head, methodically. “Well, that’s the most selfish fucking thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Selfish?” Cooper says, bristling.
“Yeah. Selfish. This isn’t just your life, Coop. This is everyone you love. This is me and Barb and the kids and their kids. Yeah, it’s selfish.”
A silence falls again. The wind howls, working its way between the two men. It tries to knock them down. They budge but an inch.
“Well,” says Cooper. “Fuck you, then.”
Antoine fumes. “Fuck me?”
“Yeah, fuck you! Selfish?” Cooper says. “Do you know what Barb had to go through when her Mom went through chemo? Do you? Were you there for it? No, you weren’t. You were living in fucking California at the time. I was here, watching the whole thing. No way am I making Barb go through anything like that again. I’ve never watched anything as horrible as that, Anteater, and you and me saw some shit back in the day… it took her forever to die. Her Mom just wasted away in that bed. She was a fucking skeleton by the end.” A faraway look enters Cooper’s eyes.
“I’m not gonna go through that. I’m not letting Barb pick my hair off the goddamned pillow and have her wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of me puking,” Cooper says, breathless. He blinks a few times. “And then my kids… they have lives. Families. Careers. They’ll hear I’m sick and they’ll come back home because that’s how they are, and I’m not going to throw a wrench in their lives just because mine is ending.”
“We don’t know that,” Antoine says weakly. He’s wiping away at his eyes.
“I don’t care. Just… just, please, don’t call me selfish. I want to throw up I’m so goddamned scared right now. And I know that this is going to eat me from the inside out, but the alternative… this, this is what I want. I want to spend the time I have with my wife, being boring and old and just loving the shit out of her and seeing my family for Hanukkah and having them not worry about me and have it be like it always has been. And we’ll see how long I can go on like that for,” Cooper says, his breath catching on his words. “And I’m so fucking sorry, for putting you in this position. But man, the doctor told me what was what, and I went in the car and I cried for a fucking hour, and then when I got home I just shut myself in my study. I didn’t know what to do. And I looked up, and I saw that picture of us. You know, the one of us in front of the barracks building, back in ’68? You are giving the peace sign and looking stoic in your fatigues and I’ve got my arm around your shoulders, and I look like a nut: shirtless with my tongue out and my mini-Mohawk.”
“Not your best look,” Antoine interjects softly.
“No, definitely not,” Cooper says. He relaxes into himself slightly. His eyes are glassy.
“I figured,” Cooper says, “if that fucking war was gonna get me in the end anyway, then I still wanted Anteater with me in my foxhole.”
The two men look at each other for some time. Cooper coughs. He turns his back on Antoine and wanders to a nearby bench. he sits down, as if getting off his feet is the best choice he’s ever made in his life.
Antoine follows, slowly but surely.
“Hey, stay here,” Antoine says.
“I’m not going anywhere quick with these feet, so don’t worry,” Cooper says with a smile. Antoine laughs. It was clipped and short, and to anyone else it would have sounded fake, but Coop knows it to be genuine: it was that nervous laugh, the one Coop had heard hundreds of times back in the war, when neither of them had any idea what the hell they were doing or how they were going to survive this one.
Antoine disappears into the bowling alley. A few minutes later, he comes out with two bottles.
“Damn, more soda? I can’t. I’m gonna pop… pun, fully intended,” Cooper says.
“Nope. The harder stuff,” Antoine answers, handing his friend the bottle.
Cooper looks. “Damn. Ice cold beer. You know I’m not supposed to take this with my blood pressure medication.”
“You know, for just this one night, I think you can let it pass.”
“Damn, what kind of shitty doctor are you?” Cooper says. They both chuckle.
They use the bench to help pop the tops off their beers. They clink their bottles together, and take a swig.
Cooper smacks his lips, a chill running through his body. He looks at the bottle for a second, and he laughs, and his eyes are dancing ever so slightly.
“What are you laughing about?” Antoine asks.
“It’s nothing,” Cooper says. “Just… you remember, back during the war? When I got really scared at night, you and I, we would sing ‘99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall?’”
Antoine stops for a moment, and then laughs, loud and bright. “Yes! Yes! Because you insisted I didn’t sing anything else because I couldn’t remember any of the words.”
“I still insist that actually,” Cooper says.
Antoine lifts his beer in agreement. “Touché.”
They clink bottles again, take a drink.
Pitched low and off key, Cooper starts. “99 bottles of beer on the wall…”
Antoine plops next to his friend, and throws an arm around his shoulder. “99 bottles of beer…”
In unison, the two sing.
“Take one down, pass it around, 98 bottles of beer on the wall!”