Memory Lanes

To pros like Monica Chieco, bowling is more than a sport. It's life.

Monica and James Browning are the fifth couple, and they stop at Lanes 9 and 10, where their first set of amateurs awaits. The music stops, and the players turn to face the spectators. The announcer introduces the players one by one, and when he gets to Monica -- three 300 games, winner of the 1999 Texas Bluebonnet Queens title, a member of New York City's bowling hall of fame -- she looks almost embarrassed. Pro-ams always make her self-conscious.

There's a lot of money involved here; the serious prize money comes from the pro tournament that accompanies the pro-am. The pro-ams, though, are packed with amateurs who've paid to play with the sport's elite. The amateurs study the pros' gear, and their form. They even watch the pros' behavior when they're not holding a ball: what the pros drink, how they talk to each other, how they handle victory or defeat. At a pro-am, Monica tries extra hard to behave graciously, to be the kind of role model that she thinks all professional athletes ought to be. She considers herself bowling's ambassador. When she bowls badly at a pro-am, she keeps the cursing under her breath.

James doesn't look at all nervous. He is, in many ways, Monica's opposite: male to her female, Texas to her New Yawk, black to her white. If Monica is bowling's ambassador, James is its joker. "Moanie," he calls his partner, and "superstar," and he claims that she "bowls like a girl." Soon after they've said hello to their amateurs -- most of them people Monica already knows from Dynamic -- James grins and looks slyly at his partner. "Oh, I love Moanie," he says when someone asks what it's like to play with her. And then, with everyone listening, he teases, "I'm gonna marry her."

Monica Chieco
Deron Neblett
Monica Chieco

Monica blushes a deep, sixth-grade red: "I can't believe you!"

"She's my teammate," James explains, highly satisfied. "I gotta mess with her. If I don't mess with her, she thinks I'm mad."

"I have to work now," she says, mock-disgusted, and takes refuge in signing a stack of "I BOWLED WITH THE PROS" certificates. In the lower left corner of each page, there's a photo of Luci, a pretty woman with high cheekbones, large eyes and short feathered hair. It's a photo Monica has never seen before, and looking at it makes her even quieter.

When it's Monica's turn to bowl, she approaches the lane seriously. She's a no-frills, classic-form bowler, the same as Luci was. All focus, she rolls the ball toward the pins -- a strike! -- but grimaces as she limps back to the chairs. Last year she had a bone spur that required surgery, and the foot still bothers her.

"That hurt so bad," says Monica.

"She's a whiner," says James.

Monica gets quiet again. She's thinking about Luci, who never whined. And she's thinking about another friend, one in New York, who just had a mastectomy. Besides the breast, she lost feeling under her right arm and on that side of her back. On the phone, she told Monica that she's going to bowl left-handed from now on, that she wants to become the first woman to earn 300s -- perfect games, as rare as no-hitters -- with both her right and left hands.

After a few minutes, Monica rouses herself and chats with a couple of amateurs, Eric Wu and Vince Markwalter. It's the idle, friendly talk that sometimes seems as much the point of bowling as knocking down pins.

Eric, who looks thoroughly Americanized, says that he has a wife in China who doesn't speak English. Monica looks shocked. Some people, he tells her, say he has the perfect marriage.

Vince jokes that he's lost five pins off his average every time he's had a child.

"That's why I'm not going to have kids," says Monica.

Monica points out Luci's sister Cathy Hill, a dead ringer for Luci. "Freaks me out," says Monica.

Eric says, "You hear about the guy who died on Lane 22? Of a heart attack?"

"Really?" asks Vince. "That's how I want to go."

Monica doesn't bowl especially well that night, and over the weekend, doesn't do much better in the pro tournament. She and a different partner, Derek Williams, miss making the finals by a measly 14 pins. "I wish it had went better," she says, "but you can't get down on yourself."

In other ways, Monica is deeply pleased by the tournament's storybook ending. Luci's son Jess Bonneau won the pro-am; the pro tournament went to Donna, Luci's best friend, and her partner, Mark Scroggins.

In other words, Jess and Donna, two of the people Luci loved most, won her tournament.

After the tournament, Jess called Donna. "Can you believe it?" he asked.

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