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Gutter Ball

by Chelsea Stickle

     I probably shouldn’t have come here. I’m not great with people, strangers. I’m told that I carry myself like a rich girl. You couldn’t tell by looking at me that my dad grew up poor. Like didn’t have enough food to eat poor. He collected bottles and cans and turned them in to buy candy bars. That’s how he got diabetes. That’s what killed him. Me, I don’t have diabetes yet. I do have loose ligaments. Meaning my joints are too flexible and don’t have a strong enough hold on my bones. I once dislocated my left hip. I couldn’t tell you when or how. It just slipped out. I don’t sense pain the way most people do. That’s what chronic pain gives you: an inability to tell if you’re in some pain when only big, life-threatening pain matters. And I’m completely out of shape. I haven’t bowled in a decade. Not since college. I don’t have the kind of friends who bowl. That’s how I ended up in this Meetup of people in my age bracket bowling on a Sunday night. My trick is to hurl a light ball at a fast speed. It can bully the pins into falling. I don’t have the muscle mass I used to for more technical aiming, so this is my best approach. I launch a ball down the lane. It thunks against the wood and crashes into the pins, sending them flying into the air like a flight of swallows searching for safety. It’s a strike. I’m not surprised. I usually get a strike first. The group is speechless before they burst into applause. They didn’t expect someone like me to be able to do that. What they don’t know is that I’ll get progressively weaker through the night. This will be my best showing. I don’t tell anyone that my dad was a semi-pro—I mean, I think he was. I sort of remember my mom mentioning it, and he had a ton of trophies. We still have them in some forgotten spider-webbed corner of the basement. My mom’s been careful not to throw away anything of his. He died when I was a teenager, so going through his stuff later in life might be my best way to get to know him, beyond my shitty memories. I can’t figure out a way to tell these strangers about my dad without it coming out as bragging or opening up the conversation to my dead dad. So I carry his trophies strapped to my back during the conversation and pretend like I didn’t spend a decent chunk of my childhood hours with him ignoring his advice and tossing a ball down the lane however I wanted. Everyone else is careful about letting the ball loose. None of them expected to be the worst player. That was supposed to be my job. I ask them about their actual jobs, their lives. Because if I can steer the conversation, then I can play keep-away with my issues. They loosen up and bowl better. I become worse. I get a gutter ball. I never get gutter balls. I used to have this slight spin that I adjusted for by moving a little to the left, so the ball would hit the center pin. The spin’s gone now. My muscle memory is gone. Gutter ball. Gutter ball. Gutter ball. An inverse turkey. The group is baffled. The muscles in my wrist and shoulder are screaming. I explain loose ligaments. A guy says, “I get like that.” I say, “Really?” He shrugs. He doesn’t get like that. He’s just trying to connect because I found his accounting job fascinating, and he might want to fuck me. Soon my inner thighs and my back are added to the cacophony of voices. The more tired I get, the more frustrated I get, the more I think about my dad. How he bent me to his will. How he never—not once—asked about my joints. How we could’ve bonded if he hadn’t been so intent on ordering me around. If only he’d seen me as a person and not an extension of him. My ball smacks the alley. It ends up in the gutter, and I sympathize. My body is vibrating in pain. The voices of agony blend together, so I can’t focus on any one. Pain is the body’s way of telling us to stop what we’re doing. Fine, I tell myself. Okay. It’s okay. We’re okay. We don’t have to do this anymore. We can rest now.

Author's Note

One of the interesting/frustrating/annoying things about a pain flare-up is how it breaks down mental barriers, amplifies emotions, and brings back painful memories.

Chelsea Stickle lives in Annapolis, MD with her black rabbit George and an army of houseplants. Her flash fiction appears in Cleaver, Pithead Chapel, Okay Donkey, Hobart, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and others. She’s a reader for Pidgeonholes. Read more stories at or find her on Twitter @Chelsea_Stickle.

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