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Volume 14, Issue 2: Pictura

Babylonian Bowling

Ben Merkle

It had been the most unusual season that Sara had ever seen. First, the registration form had arrived. The other sixteen teams merely dropped off their registration forms themselves. This was customary since all of them lived within walking distance of the bowling alley. But a curious registration form arrived by mail the day of the deadline. Not only was the method of delivery out of the ordinary, but the strangeness of the letter itself immediately attracted Sarah's attention as she carried the bundle of envelopes back to the alley from the post office. Both the postage mark and the return address were printed in some strange and illegible foreign script. And, if that wasn't already enough to arouse the entire league's attention, the fifteen dollar registration fee was paid, with neither cash nor check, but rather a small tarnished silver coin shaped in the outline of a zigorat, covered in that same illegible script. They registered under the cryptic name, "Team Babylon."

Sarah knew that this summer was to be a crossroads in her life. It had been three years since she had finished high school. All of the classmates that went on to college had fairly well cut off their ties to the hometown. At first they had come home for the summers and holidays and everyone had pretended that nothing had changed. But they had all slowly lost their rural roots. Roots that had once been a badge of honor. Sarah, bitter at first, had finally admitted that she didn't blame them. Rather she envied them. But for her, all roads seemed to lead back to Edgartown, Nebraska. Not even her upcoming graduation from beauty school seemed to offer any hope of a ticket out of town.
She had been in the midst of rolling her plight over in her mind when she picked up the mail that day. The postmark caught her eye immediately. With all those strange figures stamped all over it looked like the trunk of a world traveller. This was the sort of thing that might fall out of J. Peterman's coat pocket. Oh, to have visited just one of the stops that this letter had made. She held it close to her nose and drank deeply of those wild scents. Finally handing it over to the Manager of the alley took all the strength she could muster.
It had been quite a while since the town's bowling community had drawn attention from the oustide world. Not since Bobby Gibbson had risen from their midst had the humble people of Edgartown had any real contact with the bowling community at large. But here was proof that the world still looked to Edgartown as a proving grounds for bowling greats. By the evening of the deadline, the whole town was aflame with the news of the newcomers. The next morning at beauty school Sarah was bombarded with questions. She dismissed them all with what she hoped looked like mild indifference. As the other students argued about the odds of the newcomers being married or single, Sarah busied herself sorting the dye kits by color. But any close observer would have noticed by the way she haphazardly placed the Summer Berry with the Golden Honey that her mind was not on her work.
After several weeks of tortuous anticipation, Team Babylon arrived. However their arrival brought more questions than answers. They showed up a week before the tournament in a rented van, and immediately reserved a lane for themselves for the entire week as well as the most expensive room that the Motel 6 had to offer. The four of them spent the entire week bowling from noon to closing. Their practice sessions were a spectacle that drew the attention of the entire town. Dressed in linen tunics reaching to their sandaled feet, with long hair, elaborate turbans, and always smelling heavily of spice and oil, Team Babylon brought out the strangest blend of animosity and hero-worship in the citizens of Edgartown.
For Sarah it was as if that sense of wanderlust that had been slowly growing inside of her had suddenly come into bloom. No longer could she put on airs of indifference. Deep spoke to deep. Everything about Team Babylon seemed to sing of a world that Sarah had always dreamt of, but never spoken about. Sarah was not alone in her admiration. Many of the locals felt an unexplicable kinship to Team Babylon. The strangers had such an aura of the unknown, the foreign and exotic, sophisticated and metropolitan.
On the third day after they had arrived, most of the town crowded into the alley to watch the team practice. Initially, Sarah had joined the crowd, elbowing her way through the thronging mass to where her slight five-two frame could observe the four Babylonians. But after the first hour she began to feel rather ashamed of herself. To be twenty years old and still susceptible to this sort of idol worship was embarrassing. She pushed her way back through the crowd and slipped out a side door.
Out in the fresh evening air of the summer she tried to collect her thoughts. She lit a cigarette and drew deeply. Just then another figure emerged from the same side door. It was Nergal-Sharezer, by far the quietest of the Babylonians. He began walking towards her.
"Could I get a light?" he asked.
Sarah didn't bother trying to find words. She held out her lighter. He took it and nodded appreciatively. Sarah studied closely every line of his face lit by the glow of the flame. It was a youthful face, bright-eyed and round. As he handed back the lighter she noticed that he wasn't much taller than herself. Was that why he was so quiet around the other Babylonians? Did they intimidate him with their size? Sarah forced herself to strike up a conversation.
"You've got good lift," she hazarded.
A smile rose over his face. He had the sort of smile that demanded every square inch of face participate. But he quickly bowed his head, as if embarrassed by his rambunctious smile. "Thanks," he whispered.
"Really," Sarah began again. "You've got the most graceful approach I've ever seen. And your lift is unbelievably smooth."
"Thanks," he repeated.
It was going well, so Sarah pressed on. "My name is Sarah." She extended her hand. "I work at the alley part-time. You can let me know if you need anything, more chalk or something."
"I'm Nergal. Nergal-Sharezer. But everybody calls me Nergal," he replied while shaking her hand.
"Hey, if you want someone to show you around town or something let me know. Ya know, I'd be happy to give you the tour." She was getting more daring than she had ever been in her entire life.
"That'd be cool," said Nergal. "But I'd have to ask Hammurabi."
"Is he kind of the boss?"
"Yah. But he'd probably let me out sometime. How do I get a hold of you?"
"I'll be around, but I could give you my number."
"Yah, yah. That'd be cool." He seemed to be as new at this sort of conversation as she was. He fumbled in his pocket and brought out a scrap of paper and a complimentary half pencil, then handed them both to Sarah. She scribbled quickly and returned his goods with a smile. He smiled a bit sheepishly.
"Well, I gotta go."
"Okay. Well, give me a call whenever."
"Yah, yah. That'd be cool." And with that he dropped his cigarette butt, turned, and slipped back into the alley.
The next day found Sarah once again elbowing her way through the growing mass of Team Babylon's fans. This time she felt she had a bit more justification. She wasn't just a random fan. She was an aquaintance. The crowd was larger today. Wild stories fed by unrestrained speculation had stirred the collective curiosity of the town.
Nergal was chalking up and waiting for his ball to return. Apparently, he had just left a seven-ten split, which had sent Hammurabi into a wild tyrade. Hammurabi's face had turned a bright crimson, set off nicely by his white turban. He was screaming, inches from Nergal's face, what the entire audience took for a stream of obsenities, in a tone which not even the language barrier could mask. Nergal stood, unmoved, focusing on the two remaining pins, as Hammurabi's spittle misted his face. After retrieving his ball, he stood on his mark where he seemed to drop into a deep trance. A silence fell over the crowd, which only Hammurabi failed to observe. His screams only intensified as Nergal began his approach. But despite Hammurabi's screams, the movement of Nergal's approach brought the deepest sensation of peace across the entire audience. He seemed to have switched from bowling to ballet as he crossed the floor. But suddenly, as he reached the foot fault-line, the ballet exploded from grace to amazing power, as his arm whipped down, rocketing the bowl forward. The ball crossed the lane diagonally and reached the right gutter two thirds of the way down, where the powerful spin held it, teetering on the brink of the gutter. At the last second, the spin pulled the ball slightly back onto the lane where it launched the ten pin into the seven. The crowd errupted with cheers, and a silenced Hammurabi found his seat.
However Nergal, rather than returning to his seat, began elbowing his way through the crowd and made for the back door. Sarah followed as inconspicuously as possible. She found him out back, where they had first met. He smiled when he saw her emerge.
"Hey, I was just looking for a pay phone to call you," he said.
"Really."
"Yah, Hammurabi said I could go out for a bit tomorrow night. If you're still free you know."
"That'd be great. Should I pick you up?"
"Yah. I don't think Hammurabi would let me use the van. Could you get me at seven?"
After the details were established, Nergal quickly excused himself, explaining that if he wanted to get out, he would need to stay on Hammurabi's good side.
The next evening found Sarah in an emotional malestrom. Had she put herself too far forward? Was she moving too fast? But all of her fears were relieved when Nergal climbed into the car. He was dressed casual—a faded denim shirt, untucked, Khaki cargo pants, and and a well-worn pair of hiking boots. His hair was still damp from the shower. And despite the slight fragrance of the shampoo, there was no trace of cologne. Sarah was relieved with this discovery. Everything about his attire testified to the category of the evening. It was casual. "We're just casual," she told herself again and again. "It's not a date. We're just hanging out. I'm showing him around town." She checked for cologne again with a subtle sniff in his direction. Nothing. She smiled her approval at him. It was so nice of him to not force anything on her.
Sarah could not have imagined the evening going smoother. Nergal quickly broke out of his timid shell and the two were soon engrossed in one another's conversation. Sarah took Nergal to the diner, the ice cream shop, the park, and many other local landmarks. They talked about bowling mostly at first. Then conversation to their childhoods, careers, dreams, and more. It seemed like before the evening had begun it was time to take Nergal back to his hotel where they said good-bye with the warmth and conviction of deep friends.
The next morning the sun rose on an Edgartown boiling over in excitement at the prospect of the coming tournament. By noon the alley was full of various bowling team members and their spectators. Sarah finally saw Nergal waving to attract her attention and motioning to a seat down on the floor by himself. She pushed through the crowd and slipped into the seat, just in time to see Hammurabi mark up for his first frame.
The tournament lasted the better part of the afternoon. The presence of the Babylonians raised the competition to a new level. But despite the improved performance of the locals, Team Babylon held a steady lead throughout. Nergal was bowling a nearly flawless game. Even Hammurabi seemed to be relaxing. He had only had one real outburst of wrath and that hadn't even been directed at his teammates, but rather at the waitress who forgot to hold the onions on Hammurabi's chilidog. By the end of the sixth frame, members of Team Babylon had begun to give autographs in between frames. Rabmag had even thrown his chalkbag into the surrounding crowd of fans. As the tournament was winding down, Nergal mentioned to Sarah that he would be free that evening if she was able to slip away, and the two began debating whether Mexican or Chinese sounded best.
Then it happened. It took some time before Sarah understood that a change had come over the crowd. It came like a shift in the tide, slow and gradual, but steady and unstoppable. It began with several glances in the other direction—anxious, uneasy, darting glances. Then a slow murmur began to grow. Finally, a chorus of gasps burst out across the alley. Sarah, oblivious to the shift until now, finally turned to see what was happening. As soon as she saw it, she added her own horrified alto to the growing symphony of terror. Three lanes down she saw it. Above the lane, on the white screen, floated a hand gripping a short pencil, scribbling on the wall three lanes down a message of judgment and doom. From the tip of the pencil streamed a series of menacing Xs. Strike after strike. Every member of the team had turkeyed in the tenth.
"Who is that?" whispered Nergal to Sarah.
"That's the Cyrus Carpet Factory team," she whispered back. "I didn't know they could bowl. They just moved here last fall."
"Where are they from?"
"They're Arabs or something. I only talked to them once. I think they said that they were from Iran."
Nergal reeled. His whole spirit fell. "Persians," he muttered in a horrifed voice, as if he was revealing the identity of the Beast.
Hammurabi turned to him. "What is the matter Nergal? Why are you shaking?"
Nergal motioned toward the Cyrus Carpet Factory score. "Persians." His voice hardly made any noise, but after seeing the sillouette of the hand on the wall above, Hammurabi quickly grasped the significance. Turning white, Hammurabi fell back in his seat, rolled his eyes to the heavens and went limp. Rabmag and Evil-Marduk both gave a similar performance when Nergal mouthed the word "Persians" to them.
Before Sarah knew what was happening, the Babylonians had begun gathering their things and making their way to the door. The fickle crowd had already abandoned the Babylonians and had formed up around the Carpet Factory team where the victorious Persians were signing wristbraces and throwing chalkbags to the crowd. Nergal cast several pleading glances over his shoulder at Sarah, as Hammurabi hurried his team to the exit. But Sarah was still immobilized, unable to grasp what was happening. Before she was able to find words or the strength to move, the four Babylonians were passing through the door into the parking lot.
Sarah finally woke from her stupor and began pushing her way through the crowd, trying to make her way to the exit. But by the time she reached the door, the rental van was already leaving the parking lot. The hotel was a mile and a quarter walk from the bowling alley, which Sarah began at a brisk pace. Fifteen minutes later found Sarah reaching the motel—five minutes too late. The Babylonians had packed and checked out in seconds flat, explained the pimple-faced boy at the desk. He assured her that they had left no clues as to where they were headed.
She sat down on the curb outside the hotel, resting her head in her hands. She was no longer just a beautician, but another victim of the Persian conquest.

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