Duck at Gus’s


If you came and set pins at Gus’s, they paid you a five dollar bill. It was the easiest way for a eight- and nine-year-old to make money in the King’s neighborhood.

Gus’s was a bar in the area, with a Pabst Blue Ribbon sign over the door that read “Gus’s Place.” It looked like every other bar in the city. This one, though, was the only bar in town that was also a duckpin bowling lane.

Duck was simple. It was like normal bowling, save the fact that the pins were wooden and about half the size of a normal bowling pin, but fatter. The ball was smaller, too, about the size that would fit in a hand, with no holes and also made of wood. The pins were set shallow and wide, ten pins taking up as much room as a normal row but half the distance back. It was not a very popular sport, but was a paying gig Cage and I clamped onto in a hurry.

The lanes were about half the length of an average bowling lane. The pins were set against a back stop, and above that stop was a small bench. We sat on top of the bench and waited for the throw. When the pins were hit and jumped, we dropped down, rolled the ball back, and set the pins again. Back up we would climb and the next roll was upon us.

We loved it at Gus’s because the pay was five dollars, but the guys who played tipped us and the soda was free. We placed pins for them for hours at a time, yelling to our favorite players and cussing when the pins nearly hit us.

That day we had been setting for about two hours. We had made close to twelve dollars in tips and were happy with our haul. The night was almost over when the Kings showed up. They walked in, ordered a few beers, and sat and waited for duckpin.

The crowd grumbled, because Gus’s was off-limits. It was a favored drinking hole among the Germans and Pollocks who made up most of the neighborhood, and Gus had long ago let it be known he would not deal with the Latin Kings.

When the Kings showed up, Gus served them their drinks and told them he would let them have two, then they had to go. From the way they laughed, it was obvious they would not honor that agreement.

Docky was a big man, but not very bright. He loved duckpin and had made up names for me and Cage that he loved to hoot out as loud as he could when we were setting for him. Docky had been hit with a baseball bat upside the head when he was small and had not been right since. He was kind and childlike. He was simple and had a boyish giggle that marked him as disabled.

When the Kings started making fun of Docky, Gus started steaming.

The bar bums shouldering up to the bartop started to grumble and Gus pulled out a bat of his own and set it on the bar. The Kings looked at him and laughed.

Docky giggled and looked at the Kings. He tossed another ball and, like often happened with Docky, his ball sailed right over the pins to slam the back stop. It was like hearing a mortar go off, and when our ears stopped ringing, we heard the Kings spit out a curse.

“You let this idiot play here? This place must be a dump,” one said.

“Place for the beasts and bitches, I say. Look at that whore at the table in the back. Darling, you give hand jobs for beers?” The King grabbed his crotch and the entire bar turned to him. Cage cursed and stood on his bench. He could see over the little roof the lane had in the back, and he looked at me and grinned.

Slowly, every patron stood. The drunk woman they had been talking to pulled a knife and Docky and another man, whose name my mind has misplaced, stood. They walked to the end of the lanes to block anyone from getting to us.

The fight was not much of an altercation. The Kings were beaten and tossed from the bar. The Germans and Pollocks of the neighborhood had made a stand against the Latin Kings. Cage and I did not know what that meant, but we did know we ought to stay away for a while.

They rebuilt Gus’s after the fire. But they never put the lanes back in. Our career as duckpin setters was at an end.

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