Thursday, October 01, 2009


In Which We Find the Path...

May 1976:

I am not quite to the part of our street where the tar ends and the dirt road begins, but I can see it. It’s far, but not too far. I crank a little harder. My old green Schwinn shakes and rattles and sounds like it’s going to tear itself apart as I speed up. The dirt road is getting closer.

Then, even above the sound of my old bike, I hear my Dad’s truck. He makes a wide arc around me, but in passing he still manages to spray me with dirt and bits of gravel. I jam on the brakes and the bike skids sideways to a halt. Dad jumps out and stares at me for a moment.

“You supposed to be riding out this far?” he asks. It’s a rhetorical question, so I don’t answer. I get off the bike and wheel it over to the truck. It’s a heavy bike, but Dad effortlessly picks it up by the frame and shot-puts it over the tailgate. I open the door and climb up into the passenger seat. Dad puts the truck in gear and we roll down the last stretch of road up to where the tar ends.

“You know where this is? This is the town line. It’s more than a mile from the house,” he says, reminding me what I already know: I’m not supposed to ride my bike any further than down to the neighbor’s or up to the bridge. The town line where the dirt road begins is way past the bridge.

“I know,” I say. “It’s what I was going for.”

“Why would you? Knowing you’re gonna catch hell from your mother?” he asks as he makes a u-turn and we head back.

I can’t answer him, not completely, not at the age of eight. I’m tired of riding up and down our little span of street, tired of my Big Brother jumping out from various hiding places, trying to knock me off the bike I’ve only
just learned
to ride. I’m proud of this new skill, so hard-won; intoxicated by the sense of potential, of the things I can do with it. Every time I pedal out onto our road and hear the whirring of the tread on the tar, feel the wind in my face, I become aware of an immense possibility. I could go anywhere now, I think.

“Well?” Dad asks. He’s waiting for an answer.

“I just wanted to cross the town line,” I said.

Dad shakes his head. “Your come this way in the car four or five times a week! Why--?”

“Not on my own!” I cry. I’m not supposed to interrupt my Dad--it really riles him--but I can’t help it. I feel a sense of determination building in my head. This seems like an important point to me, but it’s beyond my power to articulate. “I just wanted to see how far I could get on my own,” I say finally, as we pull into the driveway. Mom is waiting on the steps; the look on her face is the look of a woman who just got the weather report, and it’s all storm clouds. I lose bicycling privileges for a week, and also have to bear up under the supplemental punishment of being smirked at by BB. It’s a few days before I realize that my Dad never yelled at me for interrupting him.

September 1976:

It’s quite an accident scene, if I say so myself. Viewed from overhead, it must look awesome: Here are the two cars of the old ladies who went this way off the camp road, and that way into the flower bed. There’s the truck of the guy who wasn’t looking, down in the ditch, its engine ticking and smoking lightly. There are the two big tire ruts from the truck, including the big swooshy one that went right over my old green bike. Oh, and here’s the best part: the big depression in the dirt right next to the bike, and the trail of blood from the depression, leading off and away.

Yeah, overhead it’s a pretty cool scene, but probably not so much from my Dad’s perspective. From his view, pulling up in the main entryway of the campground in Skowhegan, Maine, it must have been a little worrisome. Especially when he saw the distinctive battered green bike, this far down the hill from our campsite.

The manager of the campground is out in the middle of the road, trying to direct traffic. The guy in the truck is drunk and his axle is broken. He’ll need a tow truck. Old Lady #1 is already backing her car onto the road and getting the hell out of there. Old Lady #2 has left her car in the flower bed, and that really seems to have annoyed the manager. He’s calling for her, but she isn’t answering. She’s sitting next to me. In a second, so is my Dad.

“Knew if I followed the trail of blood I’d find you, by Gorry,” he says with a laugh. But he sounds shaky, like he’s just had a bad scare, which I know is impossible. Dad’s not afraid of anything.

“Got reflexes like a cat, this one,” the lady says, then tells Dad how the guy in the truck came through the main gate way too fast and started fishtailing in the dirt road, driving oncoming cars this way and that. I just remembered seeing a truck coming at me and knew I couldn’t turn the bike to avoid him--it was a heavy, cumbersome bike, a little too big for me to steer with any speed or grace. So I jumped, off the bike and to the side, landing in a hard patch of gravel that laid the underside of my arm raw like a big piece of sandpaper. The truck must have missed me by only a foot or two, but I never noticed. I was too busy staggering over to the campground swimming pool. My arm was studded with bits of dirt and whole actual stones, sunk right into the flesh. I needed to wash it off and see how bad the damage was. So I knelt down and dipped my arm in the public pool. The chlorine stung like a mother. Old Lady #2 came over to make sure I was alive, I guess, and keep me company while I picked small stones out of my arm. After pulling out one particularly deep stone, a small but persistent spray of blood started jetting out of my wrist and into the pool. At the lady’s urging, I pressed hard against the injury with my other hand, and that’s how my Dad found me.

“Look,” I say, nodding my head at the pool. It’s not a big pool and its color has gone from sea green to light pink. “Hey, it’s a pool of my own blood. Get it?” I laugh. I feel dizzy.

“Were you headed for the gate?” Dad asks as he pulls out a clean hankie from his back pocket and ties it--hard and tight--around my wrist.

I look around and wonder absently where the old lady went. Then I look at my Dad. “Yeah,” I answer. “It’s only two miles to town. I wanted to--"

“I know what you wanted,” he says as he helps me to my feet. The old lady is back in her car in the flower bed, gunning the engine. Dad walks me to his truck. Someone comes running over to us, wheeling my bike. It has been run over by a truck and still the damn thing works, not so much as a broken gear or bent rim.

“I hate that bike,” I mutter as Dad shot-puts it into the back. “I don’t care if I can’t ride it for a week.” Not that I’d want to, not with my arm bleeding and sore the way it is.

Dad hops in next to me and start up the truck. “Well, sir,” he says, “I’d be inclined to get you a new bike if I thought you’d ride where you’re told.” He doesn’t realize it at the time, but he’s just struck a deal with me.

April 1980:

“This way!” I gasp, making a sharp left off the main street and into the alley. My best friend Shawn follows me on his bike. Shawn is the tallest kid in our class but he has to crank hard to keep pace with me. This is because I am highly motivated: the Privat boys are right behind us, and if they catch me, I’m convinced they will pull my tongue from my head.

I fancy myself something of a boy detective most of the time, but right now all I am is a smart-ass on the run. The older Privat boy, Larry, is BB’s age and size. He and his younger (but not much smaller) brother Craig saw me and my friend in the park. I was wearing the Army utility belt that served as my Mobile Crime Lab and had taken out my magnifying glass and a piece of paper. Shawn and I were testing our survival skills, trying to start a fire by holding the glass in the sun, above the paper. You never knew when you might be on stake-out some cold night and needed a fire, you know?

Larry called over. “What are you two little fags doing with your faggy magnifying glass?”

“Why?” I called back before I could stop myself. “You want to borrow it so you can find your ding-dong?”

And so, to the bikes.

I was riding my faithful steed, my trusty, speedy Huffy Thunder Road racing bike, complete with authentic motorcycle hand-grips and battery-powered 8-channel CB radio (working range up to 25 feet!). My parents got it for me almost four years ago when we left Maine. I had behaved myself ever since, riding only within sight of the house and using my new bike mostly to jump makeshift ramps that BB set up in the driveway. Then we moved to Kansas, to a small town with big sidewalks and quiet, untrafficked streets. Gradually, BB and I were given the run of the town, so long as we didn’t ride out on the highway past the school, over the railroad tracks on either end of town, or past the Litch farm, where the town road disappeared into the vast sorghum fields. I stayed within those limits, but made it my business to know every street, alley, and access road in town.

Halfway up the alley, I hook a sharp left and hope Shawn is keeping up. Then I veer right, across an old embedded track from when they used to back box cars up to the back of the feed store. Now we’re in a dark alleyway lined by vine-covered fences on either side. “Where--?” Shawn asks, huffing behind me. I brake hard, then turn the bike left and duck under an ivy overhang. We’re on a very narrow sidewalk running between two tall buildings. Elbows and knees brushing brick on either side, we glide along the cool dark space and emerge two blocks from where we first turned. The Privat brothers are nowhere in sight.

Shawn is impressed, and that takes some doing. “Not bad,” he says. “Did you really know where you were going?”

“Yes,” I said simply. “Yes I do.”

October 1991:

It’s mid-month and still unseasonably warm in Chicago. I’m sitting out on a bench in front of my office building, eating a tomato and bologna sandwich which, at that time in my life, I considered the second-most delicious thing ever. The most delicious thing ever is walking toward me from the parking lot, where I just watched her pull in.

“Hi,” Her Lovely Self says, sitting down on the bench next to me. I can smell her perfume, and something else. The high sweet smell of oil, of a kind that puts me in mind of my Dad’s chainsaw. She arches her back, turns her face to the sun. “It’s beautiful out,” she says.

“Beautiful,” I echo, staring at her, bits of sandwich all but falling out of my mouth, I'm that pathetic. Then I catch myself and before she can see me gazing at her with such adulation, I direct my eyes down at the ground. At her shoes in fact: a pair of off-white flats. One of them has some kind of dark scuff mark along the top. The mark looks like--

“Can I have your nuts?” she asks. I look up, startled and strangely hopeful, then see her pointing to the bag of cashews sitting nearby. “Thanks,” she says as I hand them over. “I didn’t have time to eat lunch today. Had some birthday money burning a hole in my pocket.” I nod. Her birthday was last weekend. She went out partying with her roommates and her current boyfriend, some ding-dong she met on a bus to a Cubs game. This guy seems to have locked up all of her free time, time I wouldn’t mind sharing with this vision of loveliness. But I need an in, some way to--

Then it hits me. The smell: chain oil. The scuff on her shoe: a tread mark. No time to buy lunch because she was out looking at something to spend her birthday money on. She’s buying a bicycle, I think. God bless you, boy detective, wherever you are.

“I hear it’s going to be warm all weekend. What are you gonna do?” she asks.

“Oh,” I say nonchalantly. “I’m going to take my new bike for a spin, maybe ride up the Skokie Trail--"

“Did you just get a bike?” she says, genuinely enthused. “I was just shopping for one!”

“No way!” I cry, giving her a what-are-the-odds look, even as I’m wondering where I’m going to find the money--today--to buy the bike I just told her I owned. Except...I can’t quite find it in me to beat myself up for lying. Because in that moment, I realize that I’m telling a kind of truth. “I love my bicycle,” I say. “Ever since my old Huffy rusted to bits, I’ve wanted a new bike. It’s how I find my way. When you’re on your bike, well, that’s when you really know where you are. You know?”

Her Lovely Self just stares at me. “You say some funny things sometimes,” she says, then pats me on my forearm, the one with all the scars and gravel divots. “But that’s okay. I’ll pick you up Saturday morning. You can figure out how to put my new bike rack on the back of my car.” I smile and before I can stop myself, I tell her how happy I would be to get my hands on her rack.

August 2009:

I wake in the darkened room and for a minute, I don’t know where I am. Then I feel the tension headache pulsing behind my eyeball, feel the tightness in my shoulders, the pulse in my neck. I stare at the clock--it’s almost nine--and jump out of bed. Late! I think. I can’t be late for work!

Then I remember: It’s Saturday. My first week as editor-in-chief is over. I survived it. I didn’t end up in a pool of my own blood. I didn’t have to run and hide in an alley. No one took away my nuts in a baggie. The relief is palpable.

I throw on a t-shirt and shorts and stagger downstairs to the kitchen of my temporary living quarters. I make a cup of coffee and step outside. It’s already a warm day. Runners and moms with jogging strollers are making use of the walking trail just across the way. Someone told me the walking trail connects to a canal tow path, which in turn joins up with a rail-trail that gives you access to the entire city. I look over at the side of the building, to where my old bike sits, waiting. It could be my green Schwinn, my black Huffy, the mountain bike I bought in Chicago on impulse, and that impulse was love. It's my bike and it sits and waits, but not for long.

In a few minutes, helmet adjusted and water bottle filled, I’m slowly pedaling over to the walking trail. The headache is evaporating, the tension across my shoulders easing. I may have survived my first week on the job, but I still have a city to learn, boundaries to stretch. I see a sign pointing me to the dirt path along the canal, to the city, to the future. I coast along the tarmac walking trail, onto the road, and down the hill.

I am not quite to the part of the street where the tar ends and the dirt road begins, but I can see it. It’s far, but not too far.

I crank a little harder.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

You're just fucking amazing.
That's a great tale. Welcome back.
What a wonderful way to start a Thursday morning, a new post from MM. And it is a great story, thank you. Hope the new job is going well and the family is settling in.
Fantastic view of your young life, fascination with our bike and finding your own way. It obviously paid off.
Thank you for posting. Finally. :)

It was worth the wait.
What an amazing post. Brings back so many great memories of growing up in Los Angeles suburbs. Dad rode me to school on the handle bars of the bicycle, and then I gradually began riding all over the place with my best friend (a boy) on our bikes.

Just a great, great post.

Enjoy your new bike and your new city.
Awesome story. Welcome back!
It's so good to hear from you. I've been checking in often, waiting for a new post. It completely made my day to read about your journys (new & old). Hope your settling in and all is well.
What a nice surprise to find a new post. And I concur, amazing story. I just love the way you tie your memories together.

So on to new paths and new adventures. Hope you are enjoying the new "ride" and scenery.
Cool story, MM. Welcome back, and looking forward to hearing more about your new city and new gig when you have the time!
I grew up in the middle of an orchard and rode my bike through the trees. This is an awesome post, thanks for sharing.
Hooray! I was just wondering if we'd hear from you in time for October Moments and was thrilled to see your beautifully written post. Welcome back!
What a delight it was to see a post up from you -sitting there in my Reader, just waiting for me to peruse it. And what a delightful way you led us down the path through the back alleyways, trials and tribulations that have brought you -and us -to this point today. And how good it is to hear that you are still pedaling, onward and upward and using those boy detective skills to find your way in a new city, new job and all kinds of new thrills!
Welcome back and hope you'll be telling us more in the near future.
I know what I'm going to do this weekend...go for a bike ride!
So pleased to see this -- it's beautiful, as is so much of what you write. Wishing you and your family happy bike trails in your new location, and looking forward to the next time you get a free moment to write.
Amazing and wonderful; I've missed your writing so much.

Glad to hear the first week went well.

Hope the transition is going ok.
I was so excited to see a new post and utterly enthralled by your story. Thanks so much for such a great post.

And while I now feel utterly guilty for even mentioning it considering the demands on your time, I too am hoping for some October Moments this month.

Hope life is evening out for you and the family, MM. Enjoy your bike rides.
What a wonderful string of stories! I'm so glad to get to read another MM post :)

Glad to hear you're settling in, and making connections with your new city the way you always did as a kid.

I love biking too :)
I really enjoyed reading this, hte moments tied together. I'm also glad you survived your first week in the new job.
(working very hard not to make a joke about HLS keeping your bag of nuts...)
I remember so well the freedom, the joy, the escape that was my bike.

Thanks for bringing back some happy memories. I hope you and your bike have fun learning your new city together.
Delightful connection in the chain of events - thanks for sharing. Sounds like you have a great location to explore. Lizardmom
That hit the spot.
Solid performance.
I yearn for more.

Can I have more?
ah, simply wonderful.

i'm glad you survived the first week. good luck exploring your new world, and try to avoid the drunken trucks!
As always, well done!
Your ability to wander around and take a story from *here* to *there* blows me away every darn time. Great tale, loved it.

PS so glad you are thriving in your new gig MM.
Welcome to my neck of the woods, MM! I hope you are enjoying the autumn colors and settling in nicely.
Glad to have you back, man.
More glad that it seems life is toodling forward.
- K.
well played sir!
Beautiful Story Man! Really enjoyed it. And being a regular you can sort of see where it slots into the sotries you've already told but it also stands on it's own. Sweet.
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