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Short Story Classics




J. D. Salinger


The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls

by J. D. Salinger


            His shoes turned up. My mother used to tell my father that he was buying Kenneth’s shoes too large for him, or to please ask somebody if his feet were deformed. But I think his shoes turned up because he was always stopping on the grass, rolling his seventy-five or eighty pounds forward to look at things, to turn things over his fingers. Even his moccasins turned up.
            He had straight new penny-red hair, after my mother, which he parted on the left side and combed unwetted. He never wore a hat and you could identify him at great distances. One afternoon at the club when I was teeing off with Helen Beebers, just as I pressed my pin and ball into the hard, winter-rules ground and was getting into my stance, I felt certain that if I turned around I would see Kenneth. Confidendy I turned around. Sixty yards or so away, behind the high wire fence, he was sitting on the bicycle, watching us. He had that kind of red hair.
            He used a southpaw’s first basemen’s mitt. On the back of the fingers of the mitt he copied down lines of poetry in India ink. He said he liked to read it when he wasn’t at bat or when nothing special was going on in the field. By the time he was eleven he had read all the poetry we had in the house. He liked Blake and Keats best, and some of Coleridge very well, but I didn’t know until over a year ago — and I used to read his glove regularly, — what his last careful entry had been. When I was still at Fort Dix a letter came from my brother Holden, who wasn’t in the Army then, saying he had been horsing around in the garage and had found Kenneth’s mitt. Holden said that on the thumb of the mitt was one he hadn’t seen, and what was it anyway, and Holden copied down the lines. They were Browning’s “I would hate that death bandaged my eyes and forbore, and bade me creep past.” They weren’t such hilarious lines quoted by a kid with the severest kind of heart trouble.
            He was crazy about baseball. When he couldn’t get up a game, and when I wasn’t around to knock out flys to him, for hours he would throw a baseball up on the slant of the garage roof and catch it on the roll down. He knew the batting and fielding averages of every player in the major leagues. But he wouldn’t and didn’t go to any of the games with me. He went just once with me, when he was about eight years old, and had seen Lou Gehrig strike out twice. He said he didn’t want to see anyone really good strike out again.
            “I’m going back to Literature again, I can’t keep this thing under control.”
            He cared for prose as well as poetry; chiefly fiction. He used to come into my room at any hour of the day and take one of my books down from the case and go off with it to his room or to the porch. I rarely looked up to see what he was reading. In those days I was trying to write. Very tough work. Very pasty-faced work. But once in a while I looked up. One time I saw him walk out with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Tender is the Night”, and another time he asked me what Richard Hughes’ “The Innocent Voyage” was about. I told him, and he read it, but the only thing he would say about it, when I asked him later, was that the earthquake was fine, and the colored fella in the beginning. Another day he took from my room and read Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw”. When he finished it, for a week he wouldn’t talk to anyone in the house.

* * *

            I’m doing fine.
            I can remember every detail of that tricky, dirty Saturday in July, though.
            My parents were at the summer theater singing a first matinee performance of “You Can’t Take It With You”. In summer stock productions they were two very irritable, passion-tearing, perspiring players, and my younger brothers and I rarely went to see them. My mother was especially poor in summer stock. Watching her, even on a cool evening, Kenneth used to cringe in his seat till he was almost on the floor.
            On that Saturday I had been working in my room all morning, had even eaten my lunch there, and not till late afternoon did I come downstairs. At about three-thirty I came out on the porch and the Cape Cod air made me a little dizzy, as though it were stuff brewed too strong. But in a minute it seemed like a pretty good day. The sun was hot all over the lawn. I looked around for Kenneth and saw him sitting in the cracked wicker, reading, with his feet drawn underneath him so that he was supporting his weight on his insteps. He was reading with his mouth open, and he didn’t hear me walk across the porch and sit down on the railing opposite his chair.
            I kicked his chair with the toe of my shoe. “Stop reading, Mac” I said. “Put down that book. Entertain me.” He was reading Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises.”
            He put down the book when I spoke to him, recognizing my mood, and looked up at me, smiling. He was a gentleman; a twelve year-old gentleman; he was a gentleman all his life.
            “I get lonesome up there,” I told him. “I picked a lousy profession. If I ever write a novel I think I’ll join a choir or something and run to meetings between chapters.”
            He asked me what he knew I wanted him to ask me. “Vincent, what’s the new story about?”
            “Listen, No kidding Kenneth. It’s terrific. Really,” I said, getting set to convince us both. “It’s called The Bowler’. It’s about this guy whose wife won’t let him listen to the fights or the hockey matches on the radio at night. No sports. Too noisy. Terrible woman. Won’t ever let the guy read cowboy stories. Bad for his mind. Throws all his cowboy story magazines into the wastebasket.” I watched Kenneth’s face like a writer. “Every Wednesday night is this guy’s night to go bowling. After dinner every Wednesday night he takes his special bowling ball down from a shelf of the closet, puts it in a special little round canvas bag, kisses his wife good-night and goes out. This goes on for eight years. Finally he dies. Every Monday night his wife goes to the cemetery, puts gladioli on his grave. One day she goes on a Wednesday instead of a Monday, and sees some fresh violets on the grave. Can’t imagine who could have put ‘em there. She asks the old caretaker, and he says, ‘Oh, that there same lady that comes every Wednesday. His wife, I guess.’
            ‘His wife?’ screams the wife. ‘I’m his wife!’ But the old caretaker is a pretty deaf old guy and he isn’t much interested. The woman goes home. Late in the night her neighbors hear the crashing sound of broken glass, but they go on listening to the hockey game on the radio. In the morning, on his way to the office, the neighbor sees a broken window in the next house, and a bowling ball, all dewey, glistening on the front lawn.”
            “How do you like it?”
            He hadn’t taken his eyes off my face while I had told him the story.
            “Aw, Vincent,” he said. “Aw, gee.”
            “What’s the matter? That’s a damn good story.”
            “I know you’ll write it swell. But, gee, Vincent!”
            I said to him, “that’s the last story I’m going to read to you, Caulfield. What’s the matter with that story? It’s a masterpiece. I’m writing one masterpiece after another. I never read so many masterpieces by one man.” He knew I was kidding, but he only gave me half a smile because he knew I was blue. I didn’t want any half smiles. “What’s the matter with that story?” I said. “You little stinker. You redhead.”
            “Maybe it could’ve happened, Vincent. But you don’t know that it happened do you? I mean, you just made it up didn’t you?”
            “Sure I made it up! That kind of stuff happens Kenneth.”
            “Sure, Vincent! I believe ya! No kidding, I believe ya,” Kenneth said. But if you’re just making stuff up, why don’t you make up something that’s good. See? If you just made up something good, is what I mean. Good stuff happens. Lots of times. Boy, Vincent! You could be writing about good stuff. You could write about good stuff, I mean about good guys and all. Boy, Vincent!” He looked at me with his eyes shining — yes, shining. The boy’s eyes could shine.
            “Kenneth,” I said — but I knew I was licked; “this guy with the bowling ball is a good guy. There’s nothing wrong with him. It’s just his wife that isn’t a good guy.”
            “Sure, I know, but — boy, Vincent! You’re taking revenge for him and all. Wuddya wanna take revenge on him for? I mean. Vincent. He’s all right. Let her alone. The lady, I mean. She doesn’t know what she’s doing. I mean about the radio and the cowboy stories and all,” Kenneth said. “Let her alone, huh, Vincent? Okay?”
            I didn’t say anything.
            “Don’t have her throw that thing out the window. That bowling ball. Huh, Vincent? Okay?”
            I nodded, “Okay,” I said.
            I got up and went inside to the kitchen and drank a bottle of ginger ale. He knocked me out. He always knocked me out. Then I went upstairs and tore up the story.
            I came down and sat on the porch railing again, and watched him read. He looked up at me abruptly.
            “Let’s drive down to Lassiter’s for some steamers,” He said.
            “All right. You want to put on a coat or something?” He only had on a striped T-shirt, and he got sunburnt the way red haired people get sunburnt.
            “No I’m all right.” He stood up, dropping his book on the seat of the wicker. “Let’s just go. Right away,” he said.

* * *

            Rolling down my shirtsleeves, I followed him across the lawn, stopping at the edge of it, and watched him back my car out of the garage. When he had backed it into the driveway a ways, I walked over. He slid over to the right as I got into the driver’s seat, and began to lower his window — it was still in a raised position from my date with Helen Beebers the night before; she didn’t use to like her hair to blow. Then Kenneth pressed the dash button, and the canvas top, helped by an overhead slam of my hand, began to go to its act, collapsing finally behind the seat.
            I pulled out of the driveway and into Caruck Boulevard and out of Caruck onto Ocean. It was about a seven mile drive to Lassiter’s, on Ocean. The first couple of miles neither of us had anything to say. The sun was terrific. It showed up my pasty hands; ribbon-inky and nail-bitten at the fingers; but it struck and settled handsomely on Kenneth’s red hair, and that seemed fair enough. I said to him, “Reach in that there compartment, Doctor. You’ll find a package of cigarettes and a fifty-thousand dollar bill. I’m planning to send Lassiter through college. Hand me a cigarette.”
            He handed over the cigarettes, saying, “Vincent, you oughtta marry Helen. No kidding. She’s going nuts, waiting around. She’s not so smart or anything but that’s good. You wouldn’t have to argue with her so much. And you wouldn’t hurt her feelings when you’re sarcastic. I been watching her. She never knows what you’re talking about. Boy, that’s good! And boy, does she have swell legs.”
            “Why, Doctor!”
            “No. No kidding, Vincent. You oughtta marry her. I played checkers with her once. You know what she did with her kings?”
            “What’d she do with her kings?”
            “She kept them all in the back row so I wouldn’t take them. She didn’t want to use them at all. Boy, that’s a good kind of girl, Vincent! And you remember that time that I caddied for her? You know what she does?”
            “She uses my tees. She won’t use her own tees.”
            “You know the fifth hole? Where that big tree is right before you get to the green? She asked me to throw her ball over that ole tree. She said she never can throw it over. Boy, that’s the kind of girl you wanna marry, Vincent. You don’t wanna let her get away.”
            “I won’t.” It was as though I were talking to a man twice my age.
            “You will if you let your stories kill you. Don’t worry about them so much. You’ll be good. You’ll be terrific.”
            We rode on, me, very happy.
            “When you look in that crib they got Phoebe in, are you nuts about her? Don’t you feel like you’re even her?”
            “Yes,” I said, listening to him, knowing just what he meant. “Yes.”
            “Are you nuts about Holden too?”
            “Sure. Nice fella.”
            “Don’t be so reticent.” Kenneth said.
            “All right.”
            “Tell everybody when you love somebody, and how much.” Kenneth said.
            “All right.”
            “Drive faster, Vincent,” he said “really step on that thing.”
            “I gave the car all it could take, getting it up to about seventy-five.
            “Attaboy!” Kenneth said.

* * *

            In just a couple of minutes we were at Lassiter’s joint. It was an off hour and there was only one car, a De Soto sedan, in the parking space; it looked locked and hot, but not oppressive because we were feeling pretty slick. We sat down at a table outside on the screened porch. At the other end of the porch a fat, baldheaded man in a yellow polo shirt sat eating blue points. He had a newspaper propped up against a salt shaker. He looked very lonesome and very much the owner of the hot, empty big sedan baking outside in the parking space.
            While I tipped my chair back, trying to catch sight of Lassiter through the fly-buzzy hallway to the bar, the fat man spoke up.
            “Hey Red, where’dja get that red hair?”
            Kenneth turned around to look at the man, and said:
            “A guy gave it to me on the road.”
            That nearly killed the guy. He was bald as a pear. “A guy gave it to you on the road, eh?” he said. “Think he could fix me up?”
            “Sure.” Kenneth said. “You gotta give him a blue card, though. Last year’s. He won’t take this year’s.”
            That really killed the guy. “Gotta give him a blue card, eh?” he asked, shaking.
            “Yeah. Last year’s.” Kenneth told him.
            The fat man shook on as he turned back to his newspaper; and after that he looked over at our table frequently, as though he had pulled up a chair.
            Just as I started to get up, Lassiter rounded the corner of his bar and saw me sitting there. He raised thick eyebrows in greeting, and started to come forward. He was a dangerous number. I had seen him, late at night, break an empty quart beer bottle against his bar, and holding on to what was left of the neck of it, go out into the dark, salty air looking for a man whom he merely suspected of stealing fancy radiator caps from cars in his parking space. Now, coming down the hallway, he couldn’t wait to ask me: “You got that smart redheaded brother a yours with you?” He couldn’t see where Kenneth was until he was out on the porch. I nodded to him.
            “Well!” he said to Kenneth, “How you doin kid?” I ain’t seen you around much this summer.
            “I was here last week. How you doin Mr. Lassiter? You beat anybody up lately?”
            Lassiter chuckled with his mouth open. “What’ll it be, kid? Steamers? Lotta butter sauce?” Getting the big nod, he started to go out to the kitchen, but stopped to ask:
            “Where’s your brother? The little crazy one?”
            “Holden,” I identified. “He’s away at summer camp. He’s learning to shift for himself.”
            “Oh, yeah?” said Lassiter, interested.
            “He isn’t crazy.” Kenneth told Lassiter.
            “Ain’t crazy?” Lassiter said. “If he ain’t crazy, what is he?”
            Kenneth stood up. His face was almost the color of his hair. “Let’s get the hell out of here.” Kenneth said to me. “C’mon.”
            “Aw, wait a minute, kid,” Lassiter said quickly. “Listen, I’m only kidding. He ain’t crazy. I didn’t mean that. He’s just mischeevious like. Be a good kid. I didn’t say he was crazy. Be a good kid. Lemme bring ya some nice steamers.”
            With his fists clenched, Kenneth looked at me, but I gave him no sign, leaving it up to him. He sat down. “Be your age,” he told Lassiter. “Gee! Don’t go calling names.”
            “Don’t get tough with Red, Lassiter!” the fat man called from the table. Lassiter didn’t pay any attention to him — he was that tough.
            “I got some beauty steamers, kid” he told Kenneth.
            “Sure Mr. Lassiter.”
            Lassiter actually stumbled his way up the single step leading to the hallway.

* * *

            When we left I told Lassiter the steamers had been swell, but he looked doubtful until Kenneth slapped him on the back.
            We got back in the car, and Kenneth dropped down the door of the side compartment and comfortably propped one foot into the cavity. I drove the five miles up to Reechman Point because I felt we both wanted to go there.
            At the point I pulled the car up at the old spot, and we got out and started to stride from stone to stone down to what Holden used to call, for some reason of his own, the Wise Guy Rock. It was a big, flat job about a run and a jump from the ocean. Kenneth led the way… balancing himself by holding out his arms like a tight-горе walker. My legs were longer and I could go from rock to rock with one hand in my pants pocket. Also, I had several years head start on him.
            We both sat down on the Wise Guy Rock. The ocean was calm and it had a good color, but there was something I didn’t like about it. Almost the instant I noticed there was something I didn’t like about it, the sun went under a cloud. Kenneth said something to me.
            “What?” I asked him.
            “I forgot to tellya. I got a letter from Holden today. I’ll read it to you” He took an envelope out of the hip pocket of his shorts. I watched the ocean and listened. “Listen to the thing at the top. The heading.” Kenneth said, and started to read the letter which came in this form.
            Camp Goodrest for slobs

            Dear Kenneth,

            This place stinks. I never saw so many rats. You have to make stuff out of lether and go for hikes. They got a contest between the reds and the whites. I am supposed to be a white. I am no lousy white. I am coming home soon and will have some fun with you and Vincent and eat some clams with you. They eat eggs that are runny here all the time and they don’t even put the milk in the icebox when you drink it.
            Everybody has got to sing a song in the dining room. This Mr. Grover thinks he is a hot singer and tried to get me to sing with him last night. I would of, only I don’t like him. He smiles at you but is all the time very mean when he gets the chance. I got the 18$ mother gave me and will probly be home soon maybe Saturday or Sunday if that man goes in to town like he said so I can get a train. They got me austersized now for not singing in the dining room with Mr. Grover. None of these rats can talk to me. One is a very nice boy from Tenesee and is near as old as Vincent. How is Vincent. Tell him I miss him. Ask him if he ever read corinthans. Corinthans is in the bible and is very good and pretty and Web tailer read me some of it. The swimming stinks here because there are no waves even little waves. What good is it without any waves and you never get scaretl or turned all over. You just swim out to this raft they got with a buddy. My buddy is Charles Masters. He is a rat and sings in the dining room all the time.
            He is on the white team and is the captain of it. He and Mr. Grover are 2 of the biggest rats I ever met yet, also Mrs. Grover. She tries to be like your mother and smiles all the time but she is mean like Mr. Grover too. They lock the bread box at night so nobody can make sanwiches and they fired Jim and everything you get here you have to give 5Ф or 10Ф for and Robby wilcoks parents did not give him any money. I will be home soon probly Sunday. I sure miss you Kenneth also Vincent also Phoebe. What color hair has Phoebe got. It is probly red I bet.
 Your brother Holden Caulfield

           Kenneth put the letter and envelope back into his hip pocket. He picked up a smooth reddish pebble and looked at it, turning it over, as though he were hoping there were no flaws in it’s symmetry; then he said more to the pebble than to me: “He can’t make any compromises.” He looked at me bitterly. “He’s just a little old kid and he can’t make any compromises. If he doesn’t like Mr. Grover he can’t sing in the dining room even when he knows if he sings that everybody’ll leave him alone. What’s gonna happen to him Vincent?”
            “I guess he’ll have to learn to make compromises,” I said, but I didn’t believe it and Kenneth knew it.
            Kenneth stuck the smooth pebble into his watch pocket of his shorts and looked out at the ocean with his mouth open.
            “You know what?” he said. “If I were to die or something, you know what I would do?”
            He didn’t wait for me to say anything.
            “I’d stick around,” he said. “I’d stick around a while.”
            His face got triumphant — the way Kenneth’s face got triumphant; without implications of his having defeated or outdrawn anybody. The ocean was terrible now. It was full of bowling balls. Kenneth stood up from the Wise Guy Rock, looking very happy about something. From the way he stood up I could tell he was in a mood for a swim. I didn’t want him to go swimming around in all those bowling balls.
            He yanked off his shoes and socks. “C’mon, lets go in” he said.
            “You gonna wear those shorts?” I asked him. “You’ll be cold on the way back. The sun’s gone down.”
            “I have another pair under the seat of the car. C’mon. Let’s go.”
            “You’ll get cramps, from the clams.”
            “I only ate three.”
            “No, don’t—” I started to stop him. He was pulling off his shirt and didn’t hear me.
             “What?” he said when his face was in the clear.
            “Nothing. Don’t stay in long.”
            “Aren’t you gonna come in?”
            “No. I haven’t a cap.” He thought that was pretty funny, and slammed me back.
            “Aw, c’mon in, Vincent.”
            “You go ahead. I can’t stand that ocean today. It’s full of bowling balls.”
            He didn’t hear me. He ran down the flat of the beach. I wanted to grab him and haul him back and drive off fast.
            When he was finished kidding around in the water he came out by himself, without my being able to tell anything. He stepped out of and past the wet-ankle, sloshy part of the water; he even rushed and passed the dry, faint-footprint part of the flat without my being able to tell anything except that his head was down. Then, as he barely reached the soft of the beach, the ocean threw its last bowling ball at him. I yelled his name at the top of my voice, and ran crazily to the spot. Without even looking at him I picked him up; carrying him, I ran jerky¬legged to the car. I put him in the seat and drove the first mile or so with the brakes on; then I gave it everything I had.

* * *


            I saw Holden sitting on the porch before he saw me or anything. He had a suitcase next to the chair, and he was picking his nose until he saw. When he saw, he screamed Kenneth’s name.
            “Tell Mary to call the doctor.” I said, out of breath. “The number’s on the thing by the phone. In red pencil.”
            Holden screamed Kenneth’s name again. He pushed out his crummy-looking hand and pushed, nearly struck, some sand off Kenneth’s nose.
            “Quickly, Holden, damn it!” I said, carrying Kenneth past him. I felt Holden rush through the house to the kitchen after Mary.
            A few minutes later, even before the doctor arrived, my mother and father drove into the driveway. Gweer, who was playing the juvenile lead in the show, was with them. I signaled to mother from the window in Kenneth’s room, and she ran like a girl into the house. I spoke to her for a minute in the room; then I went downstairs, passing my father on the stairs.
            Later, when the doctor and my mother and father were all upstairs in Kenneth’s room, Holden and I waited around on the porch. Gweer, the juvenile, hung around too for some reason. At last he said to me quietly, "I guess I’ll be going.”
            “All right,” I said vaguely. I didn’t want any actors around.
            “If there’s anything—”
            “Go home, willya fella?” Holden said.
            Gweer smiled at him sadly, and started to leave. He didn’t seem to like his exit. He was also curious after his little chat with Mary, the maid. “What is it — his heart?
            He’s only a kid, isn’t he?”
            “Go home. Willya?”
            Later on I felt like laughing. I told Holden the ocean was full of bowling balls, and the little dope nodded and said,
            “Yeah, Vincent,” as though he knew what I was talking about.
            He died at ten after eight that night.
            Maybe setting all this down will get him out of here. He’s been in Italy with Holden, and he’s been in France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and part of Germany with me. I can’t stand it. He shouldn’t be sticking around these days.