Timothy Wilkie is a mythic Hudson Valley Writer, poet, artist and singer songwriter living in the Hudson Valley in upstate New York. His stories, art and music are things of legend. He has written for both radio and TV and his stories have been featured in countless magazines. He has two grown sons, Justin and Blake, and lives in what they refer to as the New Brooklyn area of Kingston New York. 


by Timothy Wilkie


Joing is gypsy-carnival slang for rigging a game so you can’t win.

It was a huge, old bowling alley, so large that you couldn’t see from one end to the other and it felt like the lanes went on into infinity. It had been built in a time when larger was better: stores were super and bowling alleys were family fun centers.   

The place was completely empty. Bowling balls and pins all left behind as if frozen in time. Big signs covered the walls with advertisements. One was a big red, sweating can of Coke with the words A Coke and a Smile.

“Isn’t this place great?” said Billy. The balls were still in the shoots, as if in the middle of the games, all the bowlers had just disappeared. It felt creepy. It was like those hallowed halls were preserved in time for us to see.

A big sign in bubblegum-pink over the shiny pinball machines read Barrel of Fun. Underneath it was a huge, scary clown face. As the face glared down at me, I realized the fresh paint seemed to conceal a hidden nature within—lifeless eyes, a big red nose, and a spinning tie with a squirting flower to draw the children in.

“Hey!” Billy said as he gave me a shove. “Earth to Matthew. He’s done a great job of restoring this place, hasn’t he?”

“The outside still looks like shit,” I replied.

It was a bizarre contrast of old and rundown on the outside and brand-new and shiny inside. I swayed back and forth, uncertain for a moment on what  side of reality I fell. As I backed away from the sign, Billy repeated, “Isn’t this great, though?”

“What’s our deal again?” I asked.

“My dad knows the owner. He’s a collector and he needed some help to fix the place up and get it ready.” Billy told me.

“And why are we here at night?”

“That’s when the owner can get away from his daytime job. My father says it’s kind of a hobby for him.”

“Expensive hobby,” I observed.

“I don’t know…my dad says he’s rich and he’s got houses all over the world. What do you care? He’s going to give us each a hundred dollars to help him for one night. Maybe we’ll even get to work tomorrow, too. I could use the money.”

“Look, gang-bangers used to hang out here. I remember there was a shooting once. This place is creepy and I don’t like it.”

I couldn't remember a time when the huge fun complex hadn’t been hanging above us on North Mountain Street. The Thunderbird Family Fun Complex had been a part of my life for as long as I could remember. When it had been open, my whole family had come and bowled. Sometimes my father would just bring me there and I would watch him play pool with his friends in the bar. He would buy me a Coke and a bag of Cheetos and I was good for the night.

And then the gang members took over and the families quit coming. Eventually the bowling alley was abandoned.

“Okay, where is this so-called rich owner?” I asked.

Billy laughed. “He’s got to be here. The place was unlocked and his car was in the parking lot. Do you realize in two weeks we start our freshman year? I’d rather not be broke. High school cheerleaders, Matthew. Catch my drift?”

“Yeah, sure, Billy,” I said sarcastically. “They’re just waiting for us. Come on, get real. We’re not exactly football players.” Then I looked around. “Let’s find this guy. I don’t want to spend the whole night waiting.”

Suddenly all the lights came on and the pinball machines came to life. I jumped and grabbed Billy by the arm. The music blared and the colors flashed. Red, yellow, orange, blue and green. They were blinding.

“I told you the owner was here!” Billy said. “Wow! Ain’t it cool!”

Bowling sounds filled the air, rolling thunder and pinsetters snapping back and forth. The stench of beer and AquaNet hair spray as well as Brylcreem and Sen-Sen filled my nostrils. I had a vision of hormones raging as blood and mayhem waited in the bathroom stalls and in the alley in back. I had images of rival gangs, their raw violence drowned out by the pins as they tumbled into the racks. Horns and bells tried to disguise the true nature of the disease which was the poverty-stricken parts of America many years ago.

I could barely hear him over the noise. “Do you smell that? Beer and hair spray?”

“You’re crazy, dude.” He suddenly hit a button in the back and started playing one of the pinball games. It had the Happy Days theme played in that pinball game-kind of way. “Hey, let’s play for a minute until the owner comes for us.” He got a look in his eyes like he was in this trance and he started working the flippers like mad.

There was a deep voice over the P.A. which sounded like one of those rock jocks from the golden days of rock and roll and the voice said, “Welcome all you boys and girls. This is Richie Lavender laying down the wax and playing all those cool vibes.”

That was enough for me. This was a bad place; I could feel it. “That’s not creepy or nothing. Listen, I’m out of here. You can keep the money; I don’t want it if it means staying here even one more second.”

I didn’t want to hear some random disc jockey from another era. I didn’t even like any music before 2010.

The metal balls dinged against the bumpers and bells rang. When I looked, Billy was jumping up and down. “Look at my high score!” he yelled.

“I don’t care,” I told him. “I’m leaving, and if you have any sense, you’ll come with me.”

“Come on, man,” Billy said. “Don’t be weird.”

I started to leave when I was suddenly paralyzed by this overwhelming sense that something incredible was about to happen. The sound of a hollow gust of wind filled my ears as a figure seemed to appear out of the shadows under a sign that read, Barrel of fun!

“Is that the owner?” I asked.

Billy visibly shuddered. “It’s Richie Lavender,” he said, his voice stricken.

“What’chu been smoking? Lavender has been dead for decades,” I said.

The skinny guy with a checkered suit coat and skin tight jeans stepped out from under the clown sign into the light. His hair was greased and shaped in a pompadour. “Hey kiddies, are you ready to rock? Bowling is family fun!”

I couldn’t remember being so terrified. The smell of hair beer and hair spray changed into something rotten; something rancid, with undertones of decay. It was a horrible, disgusting stench. I thought of road kill rotting in the sun on a dark desert highway. Images of gooey maggots in maple syrup assaulted my mind and then it was all gone. No more smell, no more images.

Instead, I was surrounded by a carnival of people. They were everywhere in the bowling alley. The game bells and buzzers from the pinball machines rang out, surrounded by the sounds of laughter and family fun. The place was mobbed. In order to move, I had to walk down between the seats by the lanes.

Billy had disappeared in the confusion and I was all alone in all the madness.

The skinny guy was suddenly right in front of me. “Welcome to Family Fun Day at the Thunderbird Family Fun Center here on North Mountain in the beautiful Valley of the Sun. I’m Richie Lavender and I’m your disc jockey. I’m going to be spinning your rock around the clock!”

It was so crowded. Everybody was talking and laughing but when they turned towards me, I could see they all had no faces—just skin pulled tight over bone. No features. No mouths or noses. Even their ears were gone. All that was left were their eyes and they were wide open, bulging out of their sockets like they had some kind of thyroid disease.   

I stood there absolutely still, paralyzed by pure terror. Now I knew the expression “frozen in fear.” Deer did it when cars barreled towards them, but I always thought that it was only stupid people who acted like deer. I never thought it could be me.

Right in front of me, coming down from the ceiling using an umbrella as a parachute, was this very tall, gaunt-looking clown. It was a very Disney-type effect, like a macabre Mary Poppins if she was in hell surrounded by Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees.

My throat tightened as the clown got closer. Finally he touched down right on the alley in front of me. Slowly he brought one red gloved hand up and made a peace sign. “Pretty cool, huh?” he said. “Kind of like the psychedelic sixties. Get your White Rabbit on. Groovy, man!”

Richie Lavender moved next to the morbid clown. “I buried the cat in the yard,” Lavender announced like he was introducing a new track on wax.

“What?” I stammered. I wasn’t sure I had heard him correctly.

“It was the Fourth of July. You know, a family holiday.” Lavender laughed. “It was my first kill, that cat. Certainly not my last, though. Don’t you get it? Satan is joing the game in this place. You can’t win.” 

The faceless people all gathered around him. Blank faces with soundless mouths just stared at me.

“I was thirteen.” The clown said. Really just a kid playing with his old man’s lighter. He took a few steps closer until his white face was right next to my ear. “You want to hear a secret? You can’t tell anybody. You got to cross your heart and hope to die. Do it!” he snarled.

I did nothing. I was too scared to move, but he seemed satisfied. “The gang bangers took over the place. They chased the families away. Daddy paid off the fire inspector. My old man. Can you dig it?” He laughed. “What a card!”

Richie Lavender cut in, “What a blast from the past that was.”

Billy’s scream was enough to break me out of my stupor. A shadow passed in front of me and suddenly everybody was gone. All that was left behind was a dirty, gutted old shell of a building. On the floor at my feet was a teddy-bear. The kind you win at a carnival.

When I looked up, Richie Lavender was standing right in front of me. He leaned over and picked up the teddy bear, which was suddenly sodden with water and slightly burned, as though Lavender had plucked it from a fire.

I finally was able to speak. “Where’s Billy?” I shouted. “What did you do with him?”

“Billy should have left when you told him to. Come to think of it, you should have left, too.” Slowly Lavender’s face began to blacken and the flesh blistered, filled with yellow pus that popped and oozed down his chin.

I heard myself scream. I whirled around to run. I could feel heat as smoke seemed to engulf the bowling alley. I ran blindly through the smoke, still screaming for my friend. But I didn’t stop to search for him. I knew I was that deer in the car’s headlight, too afraid to do what was right. I was amazed to discover the cowardice within me.

Through the smoke, I saw an old, broken window. I prayed that Billy would be waiting for me outside. I reached for the window-sill to pull myself up. It gave me a glance outside.      

I could see how bad the fire was in the yard. With what was almost passion, it consumed all the faceless souls that had been in the bowling alley just minutes before. Yet I knew I had to jump outside from the window and try my luck with the fire, as inside the bowling alley was eternal damnation.

Still I hesitated, my hands on the window sill. The skinny clown was suddenly beside me, with his bright red nose and his powdered white cheeks. “There she blows!” he yelled above the roar of the fire. “Hey kid, are you coming or going? Don’t you want to play with your friend? You could stay here with Billy and have lots of family fun!”

I pulled myself up and fell out of the window. I could barely breathe through the thick smoke and I could feel my hair singe. But I jumped up and ran.

When I came to the edge of the lot, I was so overcome with relief to see Billy standing there that I literally cried. Billy started talking. It was soft and with the sirens blaring I struggled to hear. “Thomas Boyd is here.”


“He’s the one that started that fire ten years ago. He was just about our age. He died today of lung cancer. You know, back in the day, people didn’t know that cigarettes cause cancer.”

“How did you get out of the bowling alley?” I asked Billy.

“I didn’t. Neither did you. Don’t you remember that cheerleader we killed together in our freshman year of high school? Satan is joing the game.”