I wrote this bit of fiction in 1989. I finally managed to sell it to a magazine–which promptly went belly up before they printed it. A few months later I started writing for Bowlers Journal, and forgot about writing fiction. I recently rediscovered the story among some old files, so here it is–
A gerbil is a furry rodent about eight inches long, weighing roughly three ounces. They generally come in earth-tone shades of brown, grey, or dull yellow. In the United States, they are among the most popular of children’s pets. Gerbils are gentle, curious, quick, prolific, not very intelligent, and absolutely harmless.
With all the bowling alleys I have been around, I never had much contact with gerbils. Most people never do, except for the parents of small kids, and the people who breed the little suckers for cash—breed the gerbils, I mean. But of course, thanks to Kennelly Grushke, we have all become more gerbil-conscious. So to set the record straight, I will tell you how it all happened. You might say I was there from the beginning.
As everyone knows, Kennelly Grushke is the proprietor of Hollywood Bowl. The name is glitzy, but the place itself is what you would call a “traditional” bowling alley—a dark, musty, second-floor, sixteen-alley joint. It might be the oldest bowling room in Chicago. Certainly it fits in with the rest of that tired old commercial strip along Milwaukee Avenue. Kennelly’s grandfather installed the alleys in 1925. There was a speakeasy on the first floor then. Now there’s a government office. That must be progress.
From Labor Day to May Day, the bowling business is easy. You’ve got your steady leagues, and there are a certain number of customers who wander in for a casual line or two. It’s the other four months that are hard. People want to be outside in the fresh air and nice weather. Once the leagues are finished with their schedule, a lot of places just close down.
Kennelly could never accept this. His parents had named him after the mayor of Chicago, and that might have been the reason he always dreamed big. He saw himself as a smart guy, a promoter. He figured it would take only the right idea to get people flocking to Hollywood Bowl in the slow months. So every summer he had a new scheme.
” . . . a tired old commercial strip along Milwaukee Avenue.”
One year it was a summer bowling league, with first prize two tickets to Vegas. Another year he tried “candlelight” bowling—turn out all the lights except for the pindeck and have people bowl in the dark. He lost money on both of those. Then there was nude mixed bowling. You can imagine how that was supposed to work. Trouble was, Kennelly couldn’t get any women to sign up.
So when I was leaving the place one night last April, at the end of my league season, I asked Kennelly what he had planned for the coming summer. He surprised me by saying he didn’t know. I laughed. Then I told him: “There are only two ways you are going to get people up here in the summer—sex or gambling. And you’ve already tried sex.”
Now as a rule, Kennelly is not really bright. But sometimes he is bright enough to take my advice. He bounced my bit of offhand wisdom around for a few days. Then one evening I met up with him along Milwaukee Avenue. He had this mad gleam in his eye and he was smiling. Immediately I knew that he had cooked up another summer plan for Hollywood Bowl.
It happened that Kennelly had gone over to his sister’s house for dinner. He was a bachelor, it was Tuesday, and that’s what he always did for a meal on Tuesdays. He was sitting around the living room waiting to eat and began watching his eleven-year-old niece. She was playing with her pet gerbil.
Kennelly remembered gerbils. He had raised his own when he was a kid—but not for long, because they had kept getting away from him, and then he had to chase them around the bedroom for an hour to get them back in their cage. Now, watching little what’s-her-name play, Kennelly marveled at the high-tech solution to his old problem.
The kid had a clear plastic globe about as big as a soccer ball. The globe snapped open around the equator. She put the gerbil inside and twisted the two halves shut. Then the gerbil could run around inside all it wanted. Pretty soon, the animal would figure out how to maneuver the globe so it could roll itself around the room.
That’s when the inspiration had hit Kennelly. It was an awesome moment, he told me—like when Edison invented the light bulb, or Ritz invented the cracker. Kennelly had the answer to his summer business problem. He would hold gerbil races at Hollywood Bowl.
Now all he needed was an Indian.
Ready to race
Among the people who frequented Hollywood Bowl, the closest thing to an Indian was Huey Tallhead. Huey’s father had been half Cherokee and half something else, his mother both-halves Italian. Old Mr. Tallhead had died when Huey was a boy and his mother had married another Italian. Huey had grown up Italian and had married his own Italian, Lena Rinaldi. Huey was about six-foot-four, and actually did look like an Indian. But he lived Italian, ate Italian, and swore Italian. Still, he was enough of an Indian for Kennelly’s purposes.
So Kennelly had left his sister’s house without eating and was on his way to see Huey. Having nothing better to do, I decided to tag along. After all, the Tallheads had the finest selection of Italian wines in the neighborhood.
We got to their bungalow and walked right in—they never seemed to lock their doors. Huey and Lena were camped out on the living room floor, watching TV. I started to sit on the plastic-covered sofa, until Lena shook a finger at me and motioned toward the floor. Kennelly and I settled ourselves on the carpet beside them.
Without any preamble, Kennelly began to explain his plan. After about a minute, Huey yawned and let his attention drift back to his TV program. But Lena smelled money. She encouraged Kennelly to go on.
Basically, Kennelly’s wanted to use the plastic gerbil-globes and hold daily gerbil races. To make it pay, he needed to have pari-mutuel betting. And the fastest way to establish a gambling enterprise is to claim Indian—I mean, Native American—sovereignty rights. They had casinos all over the place. Why not an Indian gerbil track at Hollywood Bowl?
That was the thrust of Kennelly’s argument—that and the appeal to the dignity of Huey’s people, how the venture could promote Native American ethnic consciousness, bring about greater respect from the world, and . . . Lena stopped Kennelly short.
“What’s in it for us?” That was getting to the point.
So Kennelly went back into his speech about Native American civilization, the joys of a multicultural America, the importance of giving Huey and Lena’s children an appreciation of their rich heritage—and maybe 25% share of the profits.
“Not enough,” Lena came back. And Kennelly went on about his admiration of Native American mysticism, and how he might go to 30%.
“Better,” Lena said. “Now what do we get up front?”
Lena knew Kennelly’s track record too well, and figured that 30%–or even 100%–of nothing is still nothing. So Kennelly gritted his teeth, and allowed that in the interest of promoting cross-cultural understanding, he could manage a $1,000 deposit to seal the deal.
“Fine,” said Lena, and shook Kennelly’s hand. Then she remembered something. She poked Huey in the ribs to get his attention away from the TV set.
“Huey,” she said. “We’re getting a thousand dollars.”
Huey looked up with a start. He hit his forehead with his hand and rolled his eyes. “Marone!” he exclaimed.
I won’t go into all the details about what happened next. But as I said, when you can claim Native American sovereignty rights, things move quickly. About a week after Kennelly made his deal with Huey and Lena, the Chicago City Council held a special hearing on the gerbil track. I don’t know what kind of jurisdiction they had, but in Chicago, you always make sure you get your alderman on board with whatever you are doing.
Huey came to the council meeting. He was decked out in a buckskin outfit and feathered headdress that Kennelly had rented for him, though he looked a little green from too much calamari the night before. He posed for a lot of pictures for the news photographers and TV people. Alderman Kubowski walked up and posed with him. Kubowski was going to introduce the legislation in the council. Kennelly never told me exactly how he managed that. I’ve got my suspicions.
Finally the meeting started, and Kubowski launched his speech. He wasn’t more than three sentences into it when a noise came from the gallery. The reporters, the aldermen, and everybody else woke up, and stretched their necks toward the disturbance. Even the mayor was startled. But Kubowski kept on with his speech like nothing had happened.
There were maybe ten of them there, marching around the gallery, chanting and waving signs. “Fair Play for Native Americans,” “First Americans’ Rights”–things like that. None of them looked like they were Indians. They were white, thirtyish, and wearing the kind of casually-worn-out clothes that cost hundreds of dollars. Alderman Kubowski’s assistant hurried over to where Kennelly and Huey were sitting, at the rear of the council floor.
“Get up there and talk to them,” he hissed. “They’ll ruin everything.” And he looked back at his boss, who was still speaking.
Kennelly and Huey found the stairs and headed for the gallery. At the sight of Huey in his costume, everything stopped. Huey stood nodding benignly at the protesters, and Kennelly slid forward and began talking rapidly. He was never smoother, never more persuasive. As if he needed any, he had another incentive now—one of the protesters pressing close to him was a bronzed blonde with a curled-down lower lip, a dead-ringer for Kim Basinger.
The city council was fully cognizant of the rights of Native Americans, Kennelly assured the group, and the gerbil-racing proposal would certainly win endorsement. This is a great day for our common cause. So perhaps you fine friends of the Native Americans might move the demonstration to the sidewalk in front of the building, where you could attract more general attention?
That seemed to satisfy them. Kennelly added that he hoped they would all attend the grand opening of the Hollywood Bowl Gerbil Track. He said it to them all, but when he said it, he was staring directly at the Basinger Babe. She looked back at him earnestly, and assured Kennelly that they would not think of missing the grand opening.
They all filed out. Kennelly’s eyes followed the Basinger Babe as she moved down the steps. The last guy in line stopped, turned toward Huey, and began rambling some strange words with a lot of consonants at him. Huey seemed puzzled, until Kennelly whispered that it was probably an Indian language. When the guy stopped, he held up his hand in that old “How” pose that Tonto used to do. Huey gave him a weak smile and held up him own hand. Then Huey let loose a loud belch. The guy looked puzzled for a moment. Then he belched back.
Meanwhile, down on the council floor, Alderman Kubowski was getting near the end of his speech.
* * *
I have to give Kennelly credit. Once he got the city council’s blessing, he went all out. He ran newspaper ads, radio spots, and announcements on the public-access cable channel. The story of the Indian gerbil track had been picked up by the national wire services, and the network and cable news shows. Kennelly began receiving messages from all over the country, from people who thought they must own the world’s fastest gerbil. He encouraged them all to bring their animals to Chicago.
Kennelly planned a six-week racing season. There would be ten races on the card, every night of the week except Sunday. The schedule was to be kicked off with a grand Fourth of July extravaganza. And after the first season succeeded, who knew what the limits might be? A cable TV contract? Franchising? Trading cards?
I suppose I don’t have to say too much about what happened on the Fourth of July. It’s been all over the news and the cover of People magazine. But since I was there, I will go on with it.
When I got to Hollywood Bowl that evening, I didn’t recognize the place. Red-white-and-blue bunting was stretched all over the front of the building, and along the walls of the stairway up to the second floor. The main bowling room was covered with the stuff. There were some weird little trees set in pots at various places. Banners with Indian-style symbols hung from the ceiling. And displayed everywhere were plaques with the official logo of Kennelly’s new venture—the silhouette of a running gerbil wearing a single feather.
The race course was going to be the first six alleys. The pinsetting machines had been removed, and the gerbil-owners would climb into the pits from the room in the rear. Then they would put the globes holding their animals on the alley. At the signal, they would release the globes, and the gerbils would start rolling themselves up the alleys toward the finish at the foul-line, about sixty feet away. That made for all sorts of possibilities, especially if one of the gerbils rolled his globe into a gutter.
Metal bleachers flanked the race course on three sides. Off to the right, over the unused alleys, a false-floor had been laid down. On top of this stood about twenty betting booths.
Huey was back in his rented costume, of course, and he walked around waving at people while smoking a large black cigar. Lena was on hand, but she was more interested in counting the gate. It was a full house, about 300 people, as good a turnout as at any of the gambling boats cruising the downstate rivers. Kennelly was pleased to see the Basinger Babe from the city council demonstration was in attendance. He would talk to her later.
It started off well. The gerbil-owners paraded out holding their animals in the plastic globes. There were about two dozen people in the lineup, many of them carrying three or four racers. They stood at attention on the alleys, the lights dimmed, the local Cubs scouts raised the American flag on a little poll, and the St. Robert Bellarmine School band played the national anthem. Then Huey took the microphone to thank everybody for coming—I remember his whole speech, “Thanks, everybody, for coming.” Alderman Kubowski was there, too, and looked like he wanted to make a speech. Kennelly kept him away from the mike.
Kennelly clanged a gong once, to stop the betting. He announced the first race of the evening, then gave the bell another three clangs. On the last clang, six gerbil globes came rolling out of the pits and down the alley. They were off!
To tell the truth, I was surprised at how fast and how straight the gerbils could roll the globes. With a $250 prize for the race, I suppose there was incentive for the owners to give them some training. Anyway, the whole event took maybe two minutes, about as long as a horse race. A dark grey stallion named Speedy Seymour won in a blowout. Of the other five, Herb the Gerb rolled off the alley halfway down, got stuck in the gutter, and never came out.
We were just settling down to begin betting on the second race when one of the owners came running out from behind the alleys, yelling for Kennelly. He found Kennelly standing around by the betting booths, and started dragging him back, all the while waving and babbling hysterically. I went along to see what the trouble was.
Kennelly and the other man had stopped in the doorway of the pit room, behind the alleys. Coming around the corner, I bumped into them. Then I saw the fight. It was those same ten protesters from the city council meeting, going at it against the gerbil owners. In the middle of the struggle was the Basinger Babe. She was opening the gerbil cages.
I looked over at Kennelly. For the first time since I’ve known him, he wasn’t saying anything. He just stared, and moved his lips around without a sound coming out. Anyway, the protesters were doing enough talking. They were chanting again. This time it was: “Free the animals! Free the animals! Free the animals!”
At last, Kennelly woke up. He pushed his way through to the Basinger Babe, grabbing her by an arm. With all the noise, I couldn’t catch exactly what he said. Something about how he had thought they were on his side. What about Native American rights, he wanted to know.
She pulled free of him and started chanting: “Free the animals! Free Native Americans! Free the animals! Free Native Americans!” Then the rest of them took it up.
The gerbils were swarming through the pit room. The commotion had excited them. The owners scrambled around trying to recapture them. Some of the animals jumped into the pin pits, away from the noise and toward the light. A pack of about thirty of them burst out onto the alleys and began running every which way. Somebody yelled “Rats!”
That started the spectators stampeding. There was a dash for the exit doors. More shouting of “Rats! Rats!” The gerbils were taking off in all directions, which didn’t help matters. I saw Kennelly go charging out of the pit room, probably trying to get to the microphone to calm everybody down. The surging crowd swallowed him up before he could get ten feet.
Within a few minutes, they were all gone—spectators, protesters, gerbil owners, gerbils. I had been pushed out into the street with the rest of them. Now I crept back upstairs looking for Kennelly. He wasn’t there. Nobody was. The only sound came from some torn bunting flapping in front of a broken window. I turned out the lights and left.
You remember how the media played it up the next day. All the cable stations and even the network news had something to say about the gerbil riot in Chicago. There was talk of arresting Kennelly for being the source of the disturbance, but Alderman Kubowski didn’t want any kind of investigation, so everybody tried to forget what had happened.
That was difficult to do along Milwaukee Avenue. Because within a few weeks we began to see them. Baby gerbils.
When they first started to show up, a scientist from Northwestern arrived, poked around for a few hours, and told us the wild gerbils were just a temporary aberration. The predators would get them.
I’m not so sure. Six months have gone by, and there are more gerbils around than ever. They even seem to like the snow. There have been sightings reported as far away as ten miles. The other day, a woman in a Michigan Avenue boutique lifted the lid of a toilet and found a spotted gerbil staring up at her.
Kennelly has gotten through it all okay. The bowling season is in full swing and business at Hollywood Bowl has been good. Lately, the Basinger Babe has been coming around the neighborhood, studying the gerbils in their natural habitat.
Rumor has it that Kennelly has been teaching her how to bowl.