COPYRIGHT 2014 by Douglas A. Ingold
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Sunday morning and I was out alone riding my bike, thinking about my wife Gail and the fuss she makes when it comes to birthdays. Now for me, birthdays aren’t that big a deal. Of course it’s nice to be remembered. Nice to know you are being thought of. Some folks must go through the whole day and no one knows it’s their birthday or gives a damn. Well, those are people Gail either doesn’t know or doesn’t care a rat’s ass about.
She’s got a special calendar, Gail does, a birthday calendar she keeps on the wall by her desk at the house. On this calendar the dates in a month are not wedded to the days of the week so you can refer to it year after year. On the line beside each date of each month she has written the names of the persons she cares about who celebrate their birthdays on that day. Beside the sixth day of May, for example, it says “John.” So, when we came to the end of April and she flipped the page, she saw that one of the people celebrating a birthday in May was her husband.
The sixth of May was last Sunday and it wasn’t just any birthday, it was my sixty-fifth. Now to me, the thirty-seventh, the sixty-fifth, what’s the difference? It’s a day like any other day, a number like any other number. But that’s not Gail.
So when I woke up about six-thirty and headed for the john to take a whiz she called out from the bed saying, “You come back here now soon as you’re finished.” I hadn’t even remembered yet that it was my birthday but when I heard that tone in her voice my first thought was, Okay, it’s my birthday and we’re going to enjoy a little pre-breakfast “snuggle.”
Snuggle’s the word we use for it. That’s all I’m going to say. It doesn’t matter if we like oral, or do it missionary or dog style, use massage oil or whips, watch porno flicks, talk dirty or sweet or never whisper a sound. It’s none of your business except to know we use the word snuggle and for us the sex part of our marriage always has been and still is great.
So, I finished my business and got back in bed as instructed. She gave me a big kiss and wished me a happy birthday. Then, soon as I made a move, she called a halt. “No, no,” she said, holding up a finger. “Not yet. First thing is breakfast in bed.” And before I knew what was happening she was out of the bed and standing on her feet.
I could have anything I wanted for breakfast (except the snuggle) and I was going to have it in bed, whether I wanted it there or not. She was a tad disappointed that I ordered the usual, some oatmeal with raisons and half a banana, a couple slices of toast, a glass of OJ and a cup of coffee. But it was my birthday and if that’s what I wanted, that’s what I’d get. A few minutes later she’s back with a tray. In addition to my order there’s a vase holding a single flower and two cards, the envelopes sealed, my name carefully written on the outside.
Gail is big on cards. Altogether I got seven cards on my birthday. Two with the breakfast, three at random times during the day and two more when she took me out for dinner at an intimate little French place not far from the campus. The two cards on the breakfast tray were joke cards. Cards about growing older. Cards making fun of the old man. The three during the day were sweet, couples walking together along a beach holding hands, that kind of thing. The one she handed me after the waitress had taken our order was one of those expensive multi-page gismos with ruffles and affirmations of true love now and forever. When I looked up from reading it Gail had a little grin on her face and tears in her eyes. Then, after the main course and before the dessert, she pulled out my present. Gail doesn’t go overboard on presents. It’s the thought more than the stuff for her. But this was a small nicely wrapped package containing a pair of Lycra cycling shorts. When I held them up she whispered that I should take them to the restroom, put them on and model them for her and the other diners.
Fat chance, kid. Then the chef and the entire restaurant staff delivered a little cake with a candle and stood around the table singing Happy Birthday. (Fortunately, I don’t get embarrassed all that easily.) Anyway, after all that, and after a cognac, Gail handed over the last card. This one was downright risqué, pointing us toward home and back to the bed where it had all started. When I got that card I realized that the day my wife Gail had planned for me had been one long seduction. Not a bad way to spend your sixty-fifth birthday.
But now as I descended the little hill on my bike and entered the village of Korbel I began to think that something else had been on Gail’s mind beside seduction and showing me a good time. Korbel, by the way, is a tiny place that hangs off the side of a large sawmill like a fanny pack. It being Sunday the mill was shut down and the village quiet. Riding through town felt like pedaling through a museum after it had closed and everyone had gone home.
The subject Gail brought up during our pillow talk after the snuggle and before we fell asleep had been, I now thought, the ultimate objective of her carefully and charmingly laid plans. She had learned of a seminar, she explained, a seminar being held the following night and she wanted the two of us to attend. A seminar on the lofty subject of estate planning. Tell me, what, at that point, could I say?
I crossed the old bridge at the edge of town and stopped at the base of a long hill. I pulled a water bottle out of its cage and leaned my bike against the grassy bank at the side of the road. I stretched my back and looked around. A cool ocean fog had come in overnight making the sky gray and the air still. It was a fine May morning. A fine day for a bicycle ride, a ride into new country. A ride I had fanaticized about for some time.
The seminar that I had consented to while in a state of post-coital bliss took place in a sterile conference room at the Serendipity Inn located near the off ramp north of town. The coffee was bad and the cookies worse and they were the best parts of the evening. The seminar itself was presented by an out-of-town slick-suit and choreographed like one of those late-night infomercials with endless attachments and one-time-only offers while the dude droned on about annuities. He had a young assistant whose task consisted of holding up and waving around samples of the documents the guy was discussing, as if the pieces of paper had special significance in themselves even though we couldn’t read a word written on them. The assistant had an air of faint embarrassment about her as if she too smelled a scam. In my frustration and boredom I had a vision myself confined to a wheelchair, an afghan wrapped around my useless legs. My young wife is placing a pen in my quivering fingers saying, “Happy birthday, my dear. Now sign this while you still can.”
As we walked out to the parking lot afterwards I made the following comment to Gail: “Hunter S. Thompson. Now there was an estate plan.”
“What are you talking about?”
“A pistol in a drawer.”
“Asshole!” she said, slamming the car door in my face.
I’m not proud of that exchange, by the way. I did resent Gail dragging me off to a miserable Monday evening and I now felt a vague sense of betrayal as if all the muss and fuss around the birthday had been calculated to lure me into the seminar. But the remark itself I was not proud of. At my age, I like to think I am beyond “scoring points” with comments like that. A “caustic tongue” was the term my first wife Rachel had used to describe this tendency that I apparently possessed back then. A tendency I employed when I wanted to be “hurtful” rather than “open” and “sharing,” if I may rejuvenate a few of Rachel’s favorite words back in the days when our marriage was going to hell.
Still, standing now by the old bridge at Korbel, the Hunter S. Thompson quip did bring a smile to my lips. It struck me as quite clever actually, and when you come down to it perfectly justified. Gail’s timing had been atrocious. A seminar on estate planning, for Christ’s sake! The very day after my sixty-fifth birthday! The whole birthday scenario planned around it? Where, I wondered, had she come up with that idea? Some ad in the local paper? Chatter at the health club with a gal on an adjacent Stairmaster, both of them marching along at seven in the morning over-fueled with lattes? A seminar with some out-of-town slime ball? Did she think there were no local attorneys doing this kind of work? Most of whom I know to one degree or another through my appraisal work. And hadn’t we already talked about this? Hadn’t I mentioned Dave Silver as a guy who had this kind of practice? A guy we could work with?
I distinctly remembered now that we had discussed the issue a couple of times. And, yes, I had agreed it would be a good idea to update our wills at some point. I was open to that. I had no problem with that. Our existing wills were hopelessly out of date. We had signed them years before when Celeste was a toddler and Braden, my son from my first marriage, was only fourteen. Now with Celeste nineteen and just completing her first year of college all that language about guardians and someone to manage the estate was irrelevant. Were the worst to happen, Gail and I were confident that Celeste could handle whatever life placed before her.
Admittedly, as to Braden there are concerns. How to fit him into the plan, that is the question. Rachel, wife number one and Braden’s mother, described him in a recent phone call as troubled. Gail would, I suspect, prefer the word “devious” though she has never used that exact term with me. I agreed with Rachel that Braden was troubled, had lost his way, felt beaten down, and being in that state could, I agreed with Gail, under certain circumstances act in a devious manner. But I didn’t think then, and don’t think now that my son was, or is, in any way really devious.
The problem was Gail’s timing and her urgent insistence on the seminar that annoyed me more than anything. That wheelchair vision had not been fun, and in a way I blamed her for putting me through it. All that talk about physical and mental deterioration. Mr. Slick-Suit had been a self-serving town crier of bad news, spieling out fear and dread in the service of sales. As I stood now at the foot of the Korbel hill I measured that dark wheelchair image against the man I knew I was: a healthy, vigorous, sixty-five year-old with no chronic health problems. The last time I went in for a physical the nurse asked what medications I was taking. When I said none, she seemed astonished. The expression on her face gave me something to gloat about for days.
Of course, to give Gail her due, being only forty-three herself, a sixty-fifth birthday might seem more like a milestone to her than it did to me. “My husband is turning sixty-five!” I could imagine that phrase rattling around in her cute head as she searched the racks for clever cards. “My husband is old!” As if I wasn’t old yesterday but was today! The foolishness of that line of thought was self-evident to someone like myself who works with numbers all day, though it is probably less obvious to a self-confessed lover of birthdays, anniversaries and holidays who spends most of her waking hours thinking in French, this being the subject she teaches at the local high school.
On the other hand it was also possible, I now realized, that the milestone, if there was a milestone, measured Gail’s condition more than mine. With Celeste off to college this has been the year of the empty nest coupled with the soon-to-come “time of life,” as they euphemistically say, further compounded by the sudden arrival of Braden back on the scene. Whatever the cause, I had been aware for the last few weeks that Gail’s usually buoyant mood had grown somewhat uneasy. A sense of foreboding tended to color her perceptions. Her exaggerated fears about Braden, this sudden urgency for an estate plan, to give but two examples.
The water in the bottle was cool and refreshing. I pulled out an energy bar, tore open the wrapper and bit a chunk off the corner. I glanced at my watch and then the odometer. Nine o’clock. I had been on the road for about an hour and had gone thirteen casual mostly flat miles. My average speed was 12.5 and I wasn’t pushing it. I had a long way to go but I wasn’t out of breath. My legs felt strong. I had just gotten warmed up.
Rudy, my late father, came to mind as I chewed. Not to my mind, I was thinking, but to Gail’s. It seemed reasonable that my birthday should have brought Rudy into to her fertile mind, an unwanted popup ad featuring Rudy as this rude medieval peasant who stands in her doorway threatening to step in and soil her carpet. Gail never could stomach the old factory worker. Not that I blame her. From the beginning Rudy saw Gail as a whore and though he made feeble efforts to hold his tongue his underlying opinion never wavered. Nothing personal, really, that was more or less Rudy’s definition of a second wife, any second wife, especially a younger one. And to Gail, Rudy had always seemed not simply barbaric but ancient, he being almost thirty years older than Al, her own father. Al, the absent somewhat idealized daddy, the literary down-on-his-luck and dead at fifty, Al.
“At that angle you remind me of Rudy,” she has been known of late to observe. I don’t take it as a compliment.
Standing on the south side of Korbel this Sunday morning chewing an energy bar and enjoying the open air, I decided that I was happy to be alone on the ride. Alone, however, had not been my first choice. I was alone because my friend Steve Grogon had refused to join me. Steve, along with the other gray-hairs in our cycling group, would be starting out about now on our normal Sunday ride. That ride goes north along the coast, twenty miles up and twenty back with decent pavement, most of it level, a mocha and a bagel at the turnaround, a prevailing tailwind to push you home.
But to honor my sixty-fifth birthday I had wanted to try something more challenging. Earlier in the week I had decided to attempt the Loop. It would be a birthday present to myself. A secret birthday present because I hadn’t mentioned my plans to Gail. She would be out of town picking Celeste up from school and enjoying a girls-only Mother’s Day weekend in the city. Given her mood of late I saw no reason to worry her.
The Loop is a famous ride among local cyclists. At forty-seven miles it’s not much longer than our normal Sunday ride, but it takes you back into remote and rugged ranch and timberland. It’s strenuous enough that cyclists who ride centuries use it for training. You need to carry two bottles of water, a good supply of food, tools, a tube or two and a patch kit. Much of the road is terrible, some of it gravel. A lot of it is up. There are two major climbs. The first, which I was standing at the base of now, would climb over a thousand feet in two and a half miles through a series of turns. The road surface on the hill was paved, but lumpy and broken, particularly at the bottom, and the grade would be steepest at the top where I would be least prepared to handle it. That’s what I had been told. I had driven the route in a car but never tried to ride it. As to the second climb, well, I decided not to think about that now.
Steve Grogon had tried to talk me out of this little adventure. According to him I was crazy to try the Loop alone. He might be willing to accompany me at some later date, he said, but he wanted us to complete a strenuous two-month training program first. Steve is an organized, careful, hard-science, kind of guy. He emailed me a spread sheet which I translated as follows: Continue our Sunday rides but extend them in weekly five-mile intervals to sixty miles along with other shorter rides as time permits. Add spin classes two days a week at the local health club, the one where Gail does her Stairmaster gig. Meanwhile, he wrote, we would need to get lots of rest and good nutrition. He even sent along some suggestions as to diet and an itemization of what supplies we should take on the ride. Two months of that regimen and he might be willing to join me. Maybe our wives, he proposed, would follow us in a van filled with tools and supplies, a van large enough to carry both bikes and both bodies home if things didn’t work out.
Gee, Steve, I thought when I read that, sure you don’t want a Medivac team hovering overhead?
That’s what I thought. What I shot back was: “Steve, I’m going this weekend. By myself if necessary.”
“Sorry to hear that. I think you’re making a mistake.”
I climbed on my bike. I shifted into a low gear and started up the hill.
It felt luxurious to begin slowly. Being alone I felt no pressure to keep up with the peloton. And with Gail and Celeste entertaining themselves in the city, I didn’t have to imagine my family sitting at home worrying.
Traffic was minimal and I could weave about the roadway looking for the smoothest course, avoiding the multiple potholes and bulges in the asphalt. The mounds of asphalt reminded me of the hives that had suddenly popped out on Braden’s skin one night when he was visiting us as a teenager. They were all over him, arms, legs, belly and back. The thin pale boy had come into the kitchen that morning, naked but for his white briefs, a look of horror on his face, his hairless body quivering. Gail, seated at the breakfast table nursing Celeste, had ordered Braden to leave the room immediately, thinking the kid was the carrier of some vicious contagion. “And get yourself dressed,” she yelled toward the retreating child. “Your father is taking you to the emergency room.”
The hives were mostly gone by the time we reached the hospital and so far as I know have never returned. But what do I know? They could have come back. They could have returned a dozen times and I wouldn’t know. After the breakup the boy had been raised on the East Coast by his mother with annual two-week visits out here.
That night as we were driving home from the seminar, Gail had said, “John, we really do need to think about this stuff. We do need a plan. A real plan.”
“You’re right, we’ll do a plan.” I was coming to regret the Hunter Thompson quip. Clever, yes, but regrettable. It wasn’t Gail’s fault the guy had been a slime-ball.
“You say that, but you don’t do anything about it. You said you were going to talk to Dave Silver. That was weeks ago. I’ve asked five or six times: Have you talked to Dave? And you haven’t. You still haven’t.”
“I haven’t had a chance, I tell you, but I will. I’ve known Dave for years. He’s a good lawyer and he does this stuff all the time. Not like this clown.”
It was well after dark and the fog was thick and low. I wanted to reach over and caress my wife’s thigh but I felt obliged to keep both hands securely attached to the wheel. The lights from the approaching cars were blinding. That is something I’ve noticed of late. I’m becoming less comfortable driving at night.
Gail went on talking: “If we don’t have a plan, one of us will be left with a mess, you know that. And if we both went at the same time? Like on a plane or something? I shudder to think. You heard what that guy said. If we both died without a plan Braden gets half of everything you own!”
Gail had carefully asked Mr. Slick-Suit that question. Soon as he opened it up for questions, hers was the first hand in the air. Good teacher, good student.
“Okay, we’ll do a plan.” I was trying to focus on the traffic. It’s those damn huge pickups they’re driving these days. The headlights are flat-out aggressive. They come at you like machines of war. And you know who’s driving them, I was thinking, guys on drugs, guys on booze. Some clown who’s just had a brawl with his girlfriend. Half of them probably got a weapon stowed in the glove compartment.
“Can you imagine the kind of pressure he would put on her?”
“Who? Braden, of course. Are you listening at all?”
“Gail, we need a plan. I acknowledge that. How many times do I have to say it? You’re right. We need a plan. And I haven’t gotten on it as fast as I should, all right?”
I hoped that this outburst contained the requisite amounts of admission, confession and remorse. Ingredients belonging on the spice rack of every spouse, as over the years I have slowly and painfully come to learn. Which is not to suggest insincerity. I meant what I said. On the other hand, given the small fortune we had just shelled out for Celeste’s first year in college and knowing that three or more years lay ahead, I wasn’t, truth be told, eager to pay a lawyer two or three grand just to set up something I didn’t think we needed all that urgently. According to Slick-Suit a simple will no longer cuts the mustard. No, we needed a trust. We needed sheaths of documents. We needed a whole plan. And it wouldn’t come cheap.
Gail was quiet for a moment but then she said, “Do you know how old you are?”
“Of course I know how old I am. What kind of question is that?”
“You are almost half way between my dad’s age when he died and the age Rudy was when he died. Think about that.”
I thought about that. My wife’s logic eluded me but I dutifully ran the numbers. Al, Gail’s old man, had been taken out at fifty by pancreatic cancer. He felt a pain while seated at his desk in the miserable little shop in Portland where he sold used books and old vinyl albums and it was downhill from there. In my mind you can forget the decades of cigar smoke, the drugs and the other vices Al had put himself through in his determination to be bohemian. What I most remember was his store in Portland. It has always seemed to me that if musty can kill it was musty that got Al.
But even accepting Gail’s bizarre thesis-that since I was as many years older than her father at the time of his death as I was younger than my father at the time of his, that my own croaking was therefore likely at any minute-I still had a couple of years to go before I reached the halfway point. My dad Rudy, after all, had made it to eighty-four. Most of which he spent eating bacon for breakfast, ham for lunch and sausage for dinner while engaging in nothing more strenuous than mowing the lawn a couple of times a month, scooping out the occasional snow drift (later he got a snow blower) and punching the remote to make sure he didn’t miss a single professional wrestling match. But rather than question Gail’s reasoning or her math, I thought I’d be generous.
“Dead center,” I acknowledged.
“John, that is not funny.”
I agreed. It wasn’t funny. About this subject nothing is funny.
I climbed the hill seated, spinning away in the granny gears, the smallest of the triple in front, the outsized largest in the rear. The country was already feeling remote, scrub timber, glimpsed views back down into the valley. I passed no structures and saw only two vehicles, both rumbling, work-a-day pickups. That’s why you do it on a Sunday, the very fit woman at the cycling shop had advised me: no logging trucks. I watched my odometer with an obsession that I knew to be somewhat foolish, counting each tenth of a mile a triumph. A mile up from the bridge I stopped for water and another chunk of energy bar.
Gail was going through changes, I thought when I started out again. A few months ago that Hunter Thompson barb would have bounced harmlessly off her. She might have given tooth for claw as it were, responding with a wisecrack of her own, or in the alternative dismissed me with something like “Clever, John,” one of her favorites, meaning, of course, the opposite.
And had I let loose with that crack not one but twenty-two years earlier, back when Gail and I met, she the lovely new French teacher starting her first job out of college, me the distinguished forty-five-year-old professional serving his first term on the school board, well back then she would have erupted in bright unrestrained laughter, tears of delight glistening at the corners of her eyes. She used to read Hunter S. Thompson, for Christ’s sake!
At least that’s the way I remember her during those crisp days the autumn we met. An autumn that followed a cold and dismal fog-gray summer during which my marriage to Rachel had fractured like lake ice before an icebreaker. Propriety required, of course, that I resign from the school board a short time later. It was a position I had campaigned for (my only effort at public office) and won the previous spring. During the campaign I had presented myself as the responsible father of Braden, then in the fifth grade, and the loving husband of Rachel, whom everyone knew as the yoga teacher who attended PTA meetings in tights and advocated for the elimination of all forms of sugar from school grounds. Now a few months later I was the old man banging the new French teacher while my wife stood around plucking at her leggings, red-eyed and enraged.
The divorce became final the next summer and Gail and I got married a few days later. An act which, coupled with my resignation, allowed Gail to remain on staff. She really is a great teacher and no one wanted to get rid of her, but….
With the mill closed and quiet below me and there being no wind, the only sounds came from my own breathing, from the rattle of the bike on the rough surface punctuated by a rhythmic click from where the cleat of my right shoe locked into the pedal. “You can’t call climbing this hill fun,” I said out loud, “but I’m doing all right.”
By the time Gail and I got hooked, Rachel and Braden had fled to Philadelphia where years before Rachel’s mother had herself fled, she to distance herself from Rachel’s father who was on faculty at Cornell and according to family legend, a legendary scoundrel. About that purported scandal I have no firsthand knowledge. Rachel’s parents’ marriage had broken up some time before I met her. My only sighting of the alleged scoundrel occurred at our wedding where I seem to remember him as a handsome fellow hovering always close to the drinks’ table.
I do have reason, however, to question the truth of the charges made against this man, seeing as how that family has laid charges against me. I can state with complete certainty that my marriage to Rachel did not break up because of Gail. The marriage was over before I even met her. But according to Braden, Rachel’s mother, though perhaps not Rachel herself, relates a different tale. In the mother’s version Rachel and I hadn’t really broken up when Gail and I got together. Rachel and I were going through a brief separation, a sort of summer camp experience you might say, brought on by my obsession with work, and that we had planned to get back together again in the fall.
Recalling this juicy slander sent me pedaling a bit faster up the hill.
Braden refuses to have an opinion on the issue, incidentally, or if he has one, has wisely refused to express it. Gail, however, has long suspected that Braden is an operative for Rachel. That he secretly believes that his stepmother destroyed his cozy childhood by stealing me away, leaving him and his mother abandoned and bereft.
Personally, I didn’t think anyone including Braden or Rachel gives a good damn about any of this. Rachel remarried and appears quite content, or at least was until things started getting weird with Braden.
My eyes were still reflexively watching the odometer as I approached the second mile and a second rest stop well earned. That’s when I became aware of a new sound. I turned my head thinking it came from the trees somewhere to my right. Amazingly, and irrationally, my first thought was that somewhere in the middle distance a bongo player was wandering the steep woods stoned on mushrooms. The sound was rhythmic, all right, loud and pronounced. Could it be a woodpecker? Not so. The bongo, it turned out, was being pounded from the inside. The old ticker, as Rudy used to say, and my chest had become a drumhead.
I stopped. I pulled off my helmet. I tried to breathe deep and low against the diaphragm. I drank some water. Then as the pounding subsided I became aware of how quiet it was. No cars, no wind, no airplane overhead. No jet skis, no leaf blowers, no car alarms, no chainsaws, no asshole closing a stock deal on his cell phone…. I was alone in the world standing on a hillside straddling my bike.
I looked back toward the valley and a breath of air pressed against my jersey. The damp cloth felt deliciously cold against my chest and stomach. A movement now caused me to glance up and I caught sight of a raven gliding down just above the conifers following the bends in the road. It navigated with minute adjustments of its wings and tail feathers, and passed silently over my head. I took another bite of energy bar.
The ascent was steep when I resumed, steep enough that even in the lowest gear I was punishing my knees. The old knees. The knees that had forced me to give up jogging not long after I met Gail. After that I walked, then swam, then rowed and finally took up cycling. Cycling seemed to strengthen the knees, but only if I did it right.
Don’t rush, I told himself now. That was the temptation. Get to the top, end the pain.
The stress on the knees reminded me of Gail’s recent suggestion that we move to a smaller house. Celeste was mostly gone now. We would keep a room free for her but we didn’t need all the extra space, the large yard. Gail thought we should have a garage sale and pare down. She also thinks I should cut back on work with an eye toward retirement. With her teaching schedule we could do more traveling if I wasn’t working so much. She wants to get back to France where she had been an exchange student two or three times and has visited on a number of occasions since. Not for a week or two she was suggesting. Go there. Find a place and settle in for a while.
Gail’s understanding of our economic situation, it seemed to me, has been shaped by twenty-two years of monthly paychecks. The school district has been underfunded for years. The finances grow ever more dire, causing the suggestion to resurface now and then that French be dropped from the curriculum entirely. Still every month a paycheck settles with deft electronic precision into her account. And with each payment her retirement benefits wax a little fatter. This experience has given Gail a sense of comfort that does not exist for me, that seems vaguely delusional to me. At my office the phone has to keep ringing. People have to call seeking my services or no money makes its way into my account. Yes, we have investments. But how much will we need? How long will we live? How much care will we require? In this economy can you count on anything long term? Once I turn off the faucet nothing more will come out the pipe.
Besides, I told myself now, I enjoy appraising real estate. I like the contact with people, deadlines, obligations. Truth be told, I am a plodder by nature. “I do what I do and I keep doing what I’m doing,” was a self-assessment I offered to Gail not long ago, bringing a baffled expression to her face. Admittedly the sentiment so stated will not likely to find its way into Bartlett’s book of great quotations. But it was true, I thought. Take right now. I had found a rhythm and I was staying with it. True, there was something faintly absurd about the whole enterprise. Who but a plodder would be fool enough to climb this hill on a bicycle? There’s lots of flat land and smooth road. It’s not like you can’t get exercise on the flat, assuming it’s exercise you’re after.
Finally as the summit neared the forest gave way to a patch of sloping range land. Early that morning as I was riding out of town I had passed a number of what Canadians call hobby farms, small spreads with brightly painted barns, neat white fences, a horse or two grazing near the road. The hobby farms were now far behind me. I had reached the bottom edge of a working ranch. The outbuildings, the fencing, the chutes and troughs were gray, bare-boarded slack-looking and functional.
On one side of the road a lone bull stood near the fence nosing his morning ration of alfalfa. He was mature, thick, dusty, black, still. One horn curled in as if deformed and on his flank near the base of his tail the number 0114 had been etched neatly in dirty white. Across the road a woman in her forties, also thick, was forking chunks of loose alfalfa from the bed of a pickup to a dozen or so cows. I could smell the hay and the animals as I passed. The woman grunted an acknowledgment of my little wave. I lacked the breath to say anything.
A hundred or so yards beyond the cattle and the diligent cattlewoman the road forked. The left branch continued climbing up through the ranch and on toward still higher country. Tales had come to me of riders who dared go in that direction but they played in a league beyond mine. I veered right and was soon plunged back into patchy logged-over timber.
As everyone who hikes, climbs or rides well knows, to reach the top of an obstacle fueled by your own power is intoxicating. As I bounced along the lousy asphalt a flood of joy-juices began coursing through my bloodstream. Yes, my legs felt weak as warm rubber, but my God, I thought, look at this country, at the wild remote sense of it. “Eat your heart out, Steve Grogon,” I muttered. “You have no idea what you’re missing!”
I had become, it seemed to me at that moment, the person I most truly was: a soul set loose on this sweet earth, free to wander about looking for grace. This epiphany led to an idea that seemed wildly inspired. Not tonight probably because Gail and Celeste would be tired from their long drive back from the city, but Monday after work I would pile them in the car and drive them over the Loop. I would point out the sights I was seeing now, the hills I was climbing, the terrain I was covering. I would show them what it means to be sixty-five, vital, healthy and alive. Seeing this country, seeing what I had accomplished would bring comfort to Gail. From the back seat Celeste would be patting my shoulder, kissing my neck, wildly impressed.
I realized now, what I had been only dimly aware of before, that I was on this ride because of Gail. Look, my dear young wife, it’s just a number! We have years, good years, ahead of us.
And Braden! Maybe I could persuade him to come along. The whole family bunched together in the car. When he was a toddler, two maybe a little more, Braden loved to have Rachel and me set up treasure hunts for him in the living room. He would be a determined little man, running about poking his head under the chairs, lifting up pillows, opening drawers, laughing and yelling. Watching him in his sweater and his baggy corduroys you got the impression that in Braden’s mind the thing he was searching for, the candy kiss, the tiny toy, was actively hiding from him. That it might sneak from one place to another the moment he turned his head. That it was having as much fun as he was.
I have no idea where that child has gone. What remains is a balding man in his thirties, seemingly lost in a funk. Maybe Braden has decided that the thing he was searching for, whatever it was, has proven itself too wily, too smart for him. But sitting in the backseat beside Celeste, seeing what I had accomplished, might he not recapture some of that childhood joy, that enthusiasm, that will to try, that determination to see things through? Might it not inspire him to climb on a bike himself? Cycling, of course! Why hadn’t I thought of that before? We would start slow, build up his strength and endurance. I would help him get the right equipment, the right fit so he was comfortable. No unnecessary pain. The idea was to have fun out there. Soon he would be joining us old guys on the Sunday ride, a new man, a new Braden.
About this time a tiny alarm began sounding in my skull. Its message was simple: the euphoria you are experiencing, sir, is not a sensation you can trust. You have more than thirty miles still to cover. Right now you need to think about the next ten of them. It will be bad road, sir, all of it. There will be little climbs that sap your strength. It will twist and descend until it eventually delivers you to the banks of Maple Creek. Then it will take you along the valley to the bridge that crosses the river. And from the river, sir….
Yes, I understand. From the river I will have to start climbing all over again.
Sobriety, instantly restored.
“What would we do in Europe?” I asked Gail over cocktails the other night.
“Yeah. You know, after a while. You look at a few cathedrals, you visit a few castles, art museums, you shop, you eat in restaurants. But what would we do?”
“I can’t believe you’re asking that question,” she said.
But she saw it. She recognized I was putting her on, and the memory of the glint that came into her eyes made me laugh out loud. My God, I thought now, I do love that woman. Quick as a whip, she is. Loved her from the start and I love her now. Nothing else matters, really. You can take your careful calculations and throw it out the door when it comes to this kind of thing. So what I was a forty-five year-old real estate agent with a son, an estranged wife and a reputation in the community. So what she was a twenty-three year old college graduate with a sort of boyfriend back in France and a new career in a new town where she wanted to present herself in the best possible light. None of that mattered. There was just the energy, the passion, the giggling intense rush of it. The idea that we should have or could have turned away was ludicrous.
A couple miles beyond the fork I stopped. I was standing below a ranch house set high on the sloping hip of a grassy hill. The spread appeared occupied but there was no one about that I could see. I knew the house in a superficial way. I had never appraised it, but years before when I was still selling real estate I had done a walk-through with a dozen other realtors. Nothing unique or particularly interesting about its layout or design, so far as I could recall, but the view was spectacular. And from when I drove the route, I knew that this house was the only building I would see, this grassy hill one of the few openings in the forest that I would pass, between the fork behind me and the next ranch miles below on the banks of the creek.
The fog felt lower here. It hid everything in the distance, obliterating the view I so fondly remembered. But I knew I was perched on the eastern side of a deep cleavage formed by the river and its tributaries. To the west, miles away as the crow flies, was a series of hills that led to the second summit and the road that would deliver me back to town. A few yards in front of me, the meadow ended and the narrow strip of asphalt descended back into the trees.
I had promised myself before I left home that I would do an assessment at this point. I needed to honestly determine whether I should turn around here or go the distance. The choice had to be made now. Once I reached the valley floor, whether I turned back or went ahead, the distance would be roughly the same and either way out was up.
I pulled a wedge of orange from the plastic bag in my pouch. I put the whole thing in my mouth, grabbed a corner of the rind with my fingers and pulled, peeling the precious fruit free with my teeth. I drank water. I finished off the first energy bar. I took out a second wedge of orange. By the time I reached the trees I was clutching the brakes.
My mind returned to Gail and Braden. Her fears about him were, it seemed to me, exaggerated but deeply felt. It was a long-standing, deeply ingrained problem. As a new stepmother she had tried too hard, wanting badly to establish a bond, knowing instinctively that I was more likely to leave her for Braden than I was for Rachel. Not yet twenty-five and starting a new career, Gail had probably not given thought one to being a parent, must less stepmother to an emotionally fragile thirteen-year-old boy. The age factor was particularly challenging. She was, by more than a decade, closer to my son’s age than to mine. The temptation had to be overwhelming. Braden already had a mother; she would become his big sister, his friend, his contemporary.
For his part, Braden resented and distrusted her. Her advances must have struck him as fawning, fraudulent and somehow sinister. And being the age he was, the little animal inside almost certainly experienced both guilt and constant lust whenever he saw her. I felt now a sudden rush of sympathy for both of them and the positions they found themselves in. At the time, I had a clumsy sense of both her desperation and his resistance and I fell into the role of the hapless placater. I was the fool with the stupid grin, wanting everyone to have fun, filling them with ice cream and candy, organizing competitions, taking them to movies and game parks, whatever it took to cover the chasm with an illusion of harmony.
Shared custody had been a nightmare. Gail and Rachel could barely look at each other and remain civil. Each exchange of physical possession involved a negotiation, flesh was demanded and sold. Braden felt shuttled back and forth, two houses but no home. Rachel’s decision to finally take Braden and return to the East Coast brought both relief and profound grief. Gail pushed for a quick marriage. Then for a child. Only when she became pregnant with Celeste, it seemed to me now, did my young wife truly relax.
By contrast, the pregnancy had terrified me. I had seen a marriage go sour. I had lost a child and I had no stomach for reliving that particular nightmare. But Gail had been right, her instincts true as often they are. The birth of our sweet bright daughter brought a sense of calm to everyone. I had a new child to adore. Gail now had a second bond with me. Rachel remarried and ended up having another child herself. Braden settled into school in Philadelphia and seemed to get along with his step-father. I gave up selling real estate and turned to appraising it, freeing my weekends to be with my new family. Gail took three years off to be a full-time mom and then returned to teaching.
I was having trouble all of a sudden seeing the road. I have truly become an old fool, I now realized, but I couldn’t help it. Tears welled up in my eyes. The thought of Celeste, sweet child, and what she had done for all of us just by innocently coming into the world struck me at that moment as an act of great charity.
Every summer Braden came out for two weeks in July or August. He loved his baby sister and she him. We tried to do things together as a family. But Gail was now a mother. She could play the role with either child and Braden was a sloppy, forgetful kid who liked to sleep in, who left clothes lying about, who tended to drop precious objects on hard surfaces. Each year a new Braden would show up. He could be awkward, acnied. He could be funny, charming, sullen or withdrawn. One summer he only wanted to play basketball. The camping trip we had planned he found boring and stupid. He couldn’t wait to get back to the playground so he could work on his jump shot. His one goal in life was to play in the NBA. When he arrived the next year I had hung a backboard and hoop off the garage. The present brought a surprise to both of us. Braden had no interest anymore in basketball. Now it was sports he thought stupid. The year he turned seventeen Gail caught him smoking marijuana in his room. The few times I got him to talk, Braden’s dreams struck me as wildly unrealistic. One year he wanted to become an actor yet he seemed uneasy communicating much with anyone. When Braden did open up I thought I saw a vulnerability that was painful to look into. He did, however, possess a comic sense that could and regularly did send Celeste into hysterics, usually just before bedtime. Years later Celeste would take advantage of the backboard with its faded paint and the basket with its tattered net. She played on the basketball team all through high school.
The visits and the child support ended when Braden turned eighteen. Our family flew back to Philadelphia for his high school graduation, a weekend of cautious civility and shared discomfort. We went again for Braden’s marriage at the age of twenty-two to a divorced woman six years his senior, a disaster that ended five months later. After that he attended a clown school, partially on my dime, an act of generosity that Gail resented and still brings up now and then. For a while he worked in a bookstore that though I never saw it, I imagined as not unlike the one that had killed off old Al.
Then last winter Rachel called. We had exchanged Christmas cards but it had been years since I had spoken with her on the phone. She was calling about Braden, she said.
“I see.” I feared the worst.
“He’s lost his job again.”
“The bookstore? John, Braden hasn’t worked in a bookstore for years.”
“I didn’t know.”
“No, I suppose not. He says you never call. Sales, he was in sales, shoes mostly, but in this economy.”
“Anyway he got laid off, that’s the important thing. Then he couldn’t make his car payments and the bank….”
“Couldn’t you help him on that?” I inserted without thinking.
The yoga teacher lost it then. “What do you think we’ve been doing for the last five years! And what have you done!”
My God, John. He’s not Bill’s son. He’s yours.”
“I understand. But you mean he’s ours don’t you? Yours and mine. And he’s hardly a kid. He’s thirty…almost.” All of a sudden I couldn’t remember my son’s age exactly.
Rachel sighed. “He’s thirty-three. Your son is thirty-three.”
“He should’ve called. I could’ve sent him a few bucks. So he has no car?”
“No car, no job, no apartment, no girlfriend, no prospects. He’s back here living upstairs.”
“He brings his laundry down and shows up regularly for meals. I’m worried about him, John. I’m afraid he might do something, you know, to himself. And Bill has had it up to his eyebrows.”
“Oh my,” I said again.
“He doesn’t need a few bucks. He’s your son and he needs a fresh start.”
Years had passed since I had been in regular communication with my first wife but I felt myself sliding into a familiar groove. I knew exactly what Rachel was about to suggest.
“I don’t know that we could do that…,” I started to say.
“I know Gail won’t be….”
“Yes. And Celeste is in college now. The cost is mind boggling….”
“I understand. But Braden has always talked a lot about the times he spent with you. Both before and after our divorce….”
“I didn’t know.”
“He admires you greatly, and he loves Celeste!”
Everybody loves Celeste, I said to myself.
“Oh my,” I said one more time to Rachel.
I had entered the most remote and the least maintained stretch of the ride. I could not take my eyes off the road for more than a second. The pavement was jarring and unpredictable. I thought my tire pump might dislodge, that the water bottles might pop from their cages. Sometimes the pavement disappeared entirely and I found myself bouncing over gravel. My shoulders and elbows, the palms of my gloved hands all felt battered. I had to constantly adjust to maintain my balance. Pushing against both sides of the road were stands of recovering forest. Near the road itself, the ground beneath the trees was covered with poison oak, its foliage coated with grayish road dust. Timber company land. Now and then a dirt road led off into the trees, its entrance blocked by a locked steel gate.
I came upon a recent clearcut and then rounding a curve, a second. Raw stumps jutted from the hillside amid the scattered debris of branch and bark, the earth exposed, scarred. Visions of desolation segued to thoughts of death and my son and then on to mountain lions lurking in the brush. The population was growing, sightings becoming more frequent. Last week’s newspaper had a report about two women hiking at the edge of town. A young male lion had appeared from nowhere. It had circled swatting at them as they made their panicked way to the nearest house. Here there was no “nearest house.” Here there was nothing and no one for miles. Then Steve Grogon, trying to be helpful, had emailed me a story about a mountain biker found dead in a Southern California park. A lion had apparently dropped onto this poor fellow from an overhanging boulder. The article hinted that the cyclist had still been alive as his liver was being devoured. Hard working guys, those mountain lions. No middleman. No long haul supplier. No shrink-wrapped by-the-pound boneless. No freezer in the garage. Just out there day after day after day stalking living things, killing and eating them.
I moved to the center of the road and pedaled on. Sounds came at me from both sides. Sounds that I hoped came from lizards scurrying about in the duff, from fir cones tumbling through branches to the dry forest floor.
My late and second father-in-law, Musty Al, was born the same year as me, which at the time seemed a curious twist, and the occasion for some acquaintances, Rachel included, to try their hand at amateur psychoanalysis. Al was a Francophile and a poet, and the musty store he called home was named Baudelaire’s. (It was literally his home: he lived in the two back rooms.) The first time I met the man he asked how much older I was than his only daughter. I stiffened, thinking I was in for a scolding. “Only twenty-two years?” he responded. The news seemed a relief to him. Baudelaire’s father, he told me, had been thirty-four years older than his mother.
Gail’s mother, Marty, also in my age range, never married Al and Gail was seven before she met him. Still, she got her love for all things French from Al and it was he, I suspected, who from the grave was pushing Gail to persuade her tag-along husband to cut back on this silly work business and head off to France. Celeste is a co-conspirator in this, by the way, not quite calculating that from my office comes a good part of the cash flowing into her account and out through her debit card.
It was an honest question, I thought now, teasing or not: What would we do there? And what about the mess we’d leave behind? Meaning, among other things, Braden.
My wife said, “No way is that man going to move into my house at his age!”
“That man? He’s my son.”
“Your thirty-four-year-old son.”
“Thirty-three,” I corrected confidently, having been previously corrected by Rachel.
But yes, a late age, I conceded, to begin, or to give myself a modicum of credit, resume, parenting ones child. Still, I needed to make some effort, I thought, which meant, as it almost always does, spend some money. So, I flew Braden out, set him up in an apartment and bought him an operating vehicle. We called it a loan.
Why I was doing this was unclear to me and to everyone else except Rachel. Rachel thought it “only fair,” she having examined, I presumed, some ancient tally sheet maintained in a secret drawer in her boudoir along with a few tarnished pieces of silver and some bits of yellowed ivory.
Guilt, I suppose, which has a half-life longer than a human life, but there is also duty and that greeting-card thing called love. I look at my son and what I feel is what I call love in one of its many forms. I feel pleasure and pride when things go right for him and pain and shame when they go badly. I enjoy seeing him and hearing what he has to say and giving him a hug and wishing him well. Because, you see, he’s mine.
Gail was hesitant but not unsympathetic. Like the rest of us she has territorial interests, her home, her daughter, the family’s assets, but she also understood, and even, she said, admired, my impulse to help. What Steve Grogon called when I discussed it with him, my desire to “reinvest” in Braden.
The family debate pivots around whether a particular action will help or hurt. How much do you give and how far do you go. What encourages and what discourages initiative. Even, when do you “give up” and what does “give up” mean. Who decides when you’ve reached the “giving up” point? And if you think this is just “your problem” think again because this is “our home” and “our family.” It’s “our lives” and “our savings” you are talking about.
And just who, I thought now, knows the answers to any of this? Certainly I don’t.
Shortly after he arrived, I offered Braden a position at my office. I thought the idea brilliant to tell the truth. He could learn a skill under his father’s watchful eye. In time he would become a partner. It’s not brains he’s lacking. He has the ability to do the work. The business is a going concern. It has a reputation and a client base and provides a steady income. One day he could take over. Then Gail and I would be free to go touring through Burgundy.
I tried this case before two separate judges and both ruled against me. Braden said it would be “weird,” he may have used “kinky,” to work for his dad. His eyes said he couldn’t work for me because he would fail and the failure would break both his heart and mine, and of course that look caused as much, if not more, breakage than trying and failing would have. But I may have been wrong about that as well. Maybe what I thought I saw wasn’t there at all. Maybe he just doesn’t want to work for the old man or do the kind of work the old man does.
Gail, for her part, was annoyed that I had naively proposed the idea to Braden before I discussed it with her. Suddenly, it appeared, the appraisal business was “our” business, not just “mine.” She had even considered, she revealed, that one day Celeste might take over the office herself. “Given this economy, who knows what she might have to turn to make ends meet?”
“‘Have to turn to?'” I shouted back, feeling a sudden rage. “‘Have to turn’ to appraising? So, what is wrong with appraising real estate? You act like I’m selling myself to strangers in the men’s room of an interstate rest stop or something.”
Gail didn’t even look up. “Get a grip, John,” she said casually, blowing a cool breath of air across her morning coffee. She teaches in a public high school. Nothing can phase her.
Braden, meanwhile, has been working on his magic skills, card tricks mostly. He wants to start a little business, he explained, where he would entertain kids and others at birthday parties and such. A sort of clown, magician combo from what I could make of it. In the meantime he has found part-time work at a local casino, bussing tables in the bar-restaurant. Minimum wage but there is room to move up. They might even want him to do a magic act on their stage, he told me, when his routine is more polished.
Hearing this Gail said, “Magic shows for kids’ birthday parties. Now there’s a money maker.”
Still, I was impressed by what I saw as Braden’s initiative. I called Rachel to give her the happy news.
“Oh, oh,” she clucked.
“It’s not good he’s that close to booze.”
“Or the slots. He’s had problems with both.”
Sometime after ten as I was crossing a particularly treacherous stretch of gravel, concerned for my stability, the sun broke through the morning fog. A damp closed-in feeling seemed to lift. I became aware of birds fluttering in the brush. The air felt cool and clean. Not long thereafter I reached the valley floor and the pavement improved. I spotted a barn that I remembered from the drive and a few minutes later passed a couple walking beside the road. Seeing them was a shock. I had somehow convinced myself I was in the middle of nowhere, but here they were enjoying a morning stroll a few hundred yards from their front door and maybe forty minutes by car from my own.
About eleven I arrived at the bridge that spans the river. I crossed over and leaned my bike against a post on the far side.
It was getting hot. I had traveled twenty-seven miles, considerably less than the normal Sunday ride, but I felt a little unstable on my feet, a sailor back on land after a long time at sea. To steady myself I walked back and forth across the bridge, glancing over the side at the tidy little family drama being staged below.
On the rocky beach a few yards upstream a man and a woman stood in swimsuits. They had just shoved an inflatable kayak with two young girls off into a wide calm stretch of water. The woman stood at the water’s edge and yelled with seeming alarm, “Chantele, are you comfortable?”
“Chantele, are you all right?”
“Mom! Would you stop?”
The man ignored both her and the children. He busied himself putting away the pump he had used to inflate the kayak. I understood that man. I saw into his soul in a flash. As emotions swirled around him he sought shelter for himself by performing a useful but purely physical task.
Personally, I mow the lawn. The large one Gail thinks we should get rid of. “Why are you out there pushing?” Steve Grogon asked me. “Get yourself a ride-around.” It’s the plodder again, caught in the act. He starts in one corner and mows the whole damn thing.
I leaned against the guard rail. I ate the last two wedges of orange and then lifting the plastic bag to my lips allowed the precious dribble of lingering juice to roll down onto my tongue. The banana was gone. One water bottle was empty. I was halfway through the second energy bar.
The woman’s warnings reminded me of the seminar and something Mr. Slick-Suit had said: “We go through life being afraid of death but most of us end up living longer than we want.” He was pitching long-term care insurance at that point.
“Chantele,” the woman yelled, “be careful!”
An image of my Aunt Catherine entered my mind. Catherine is the lone surviving relative of my parents’ generation. Ninety-five and in a nursing home. “I wish I were dead,” she reports regularly on the phone.
Musty Al is dead. Gone the way of all flesh has Al. From the desk drawer in the old bookstore Gail removed his stack of poems. These she lovingly assembled in a book she had privately printed. The poems are a tad scatological for my taste, and scattered throughout like fly droppings are French words and phrases that leave me lost. But some people find meaning in Al’s poems, even a harsh beauty.
A few months following his death, Gail organized a memorial service in Portland. I felt quite noble, to tell the truth, tolerating with little complaint this extravagant waste of time and money for no purpose, and not a little embarrassed for Gail knowing in my heart that not a soul would show up. Wrong again! Come they did, women in skirts that touched the floor, young men, their necks wrapped in scarves, old guys with accents and tobacco-stained facial hair who wore tattered sport coats and carried a newspaper trapped beneath one arm.
Live on, I thought staring absently at the kayak. Live on and hopefully learn. What else can you do?
I was twenty miles from home. The second summit was ten miles away and more than two thousand feet above me. Riders I talked to never failed to describe how pumped they had felt, and thus I would feel, when the summit was topped. They told how if I dared I could coast a full mile from that point without turning a pedal. Touch the breaks only if absolutely necessary, they warned. To make the mile you’ll need to fly through a couple of blind curves so listen close for cars. Following that first mile would be a series of rolling hills and then about six miles from home I would top a rise and a promised panorama would open before me. A thousand or more feet below I would see the bay, sailboats like specks of tissue on the water, and beyond that the ocean itself. The temperature would instantly drop ten or fifteen degrees. From then on it would be a party, three more rolling miles followed by the final brake-clutching, road-twisting, heavily-trafficked descent that would deliver me at last to the front door of our humble abode and its well-mowed lawn.
What a prospect, I thought now. To be immersed in cool ocean air. To hear it roaring in my ears, to feel it whipping at my jersey. To know it was all downhill from here. That I had earned this breath-taking final descent, had paid for it with sweat and pain, and had the right to enjoy it without reservation. The joy! The glory of it! How I would revel in describing that dare-devil descent to my adoring family!
Unfortunately, I had not yet paid for it, had not yet earned it.
As I climbed on my bike, left the bridge and set out once again a sour-breathed vulture seemed to settle on my shoulder. What a mistake, it observed with casual good-humored malice, to have indulged yourself with fantasies of glorious descents when you still have miles of climbing left to do. Tusk, tusk, old boy, a major booboo on which you will pay interest at usurious rates. See now what has happened? While you were spinning your fantasies and smugly imagining yourself resting up at the bridge, age and decay have assaulted your legs.
Indeed, so they had.
When it comes to magic you can forget Braden’s shy sleights of hand. “Is that the card you chose?” he asks with a hesitant bit of a grin. Time is the real magician. A magician with gravitas. When this artist saws his lovely assistant in half, he may or may not put her back together; the rabbit pulled from the top hat may hop happily off the stage, or the magician may in full view of the gasping audience eat the damn thing raw, furry and still kicking.
I don’t belong on a bike, I now realized. That vision I endured at the seminar was prophetic. I should be sitting beside Aunt Catherine, one in an arch of wheelchairs staring blankly at a flickering screen. I was twenty miles from home, for Christ’s sake. The second summit was ten miles away and more than two thousand feet above me.
Steve Grogon and I had taken up cycling five years earlier when I was sixty and Steve fifty-seven. We had met on a backpacking trip a few years before organized for the exchange students our families were hosting at the time. That had been my last backpacking trip. The knees and the back couldn’t handle it anymore. Grogon had played tennis for years but his knees and ankles finally forced him to quit. Near the end Steve was popping four ibuprofens before each match and another four after. The sprint, the springing jump shot, the curve ball, the jarring tackle, the knife-like backhand, had all gone the way of hide ‘n seek and kick the can, casualties of impact, friction and time. But cycling seemed to be different. We started riding and we got stronger. We bought better bikes with lighter thinner tires. We started wearing clothing wildly inappropriate for our age. We ventured farther out and came back later in the day. Flying down a hill, the reckless exuberant sense of being a child returned with a rush.
No downhill rush now; the grade was up and the thrill was gone. Over the first quarter mile a dull aching life returned to the legs but it was obvious the springs had sprung. My task was to find a pace, a steady spin in a low gear, each revolution of which would deliver me farther from the bridge and closer to a shower, a meal and a nap.
Musty Al, I thought now, pedaled through life like that, writing poetry and noodling away on the sax. At one point he hosted a local public radio show, which, the few times I heard it, consisted mostly of Coltrane and dead air, the latter resulting from Al’s abhorrence of all things technological. Had the man lived to see me now, a decade and a half older than the age at which he died, wearing this color-drenched body-tight getup pedaling away on a bicycle through the great out-of-doors, his disdain would have been palpable. Disdain may have been Al’s dominate emotion. He coated himself in it like a glossy shellac. Or, make that matte. Al did not do glossy.
The picture of Al that I was now painting for myself while true was grossly distorting. Al’s disdain was toothless and offered up as a form of camaraderie. He could be quite entertaining when you got past the first encounter. His head was packed with anecdotes both personal and historical. He read constantly, observed his fellow man, his customers, his landlady, the employees in the greasy spoons and failed hotels where he took his meals. He talked with them and gossiped about them without hesitation. He saw himself and everyone around him as characters in an absurd drama that played itself out without purpose or design. Since everyone, in the end, had been assigned the role of Fool his analysis of their behavior could seem cruel, hilarious and forgiving all at the same time. The script he recited, though was a lie, all of it. A bitter fib he told everyone, himself included.
I learned the truth of the matter when his daughter, my dear wife, betrayed everything he professed to believe in by loving him without reservation. That he finally came to accept and to trust her affection, was perhaps Al’s greatest triumph. He lived to meet the infant Celeste, fell madly in love and then died, perhaps in awe of all the good that had come his way. Al’s estate plan was elegant in its perfection: own nothing of value, have no one dependent on you, leave a few poems stacked in a drawer.
The pavement here was better than before, better in the sense that it was relatively free of potholes and hive-like patches. But it began to climb from the bridge abutment and it would continue climbing pretty much all the way to the top. Vehicles were more frequent, though frequent meant one every ten minutes or so. The ascent was not as steep as the earlier climb but it went on and on. Vistas now and then, bright in the sun, caught my eye but mostly I was traveling through trees often with a high cut bank on one side or the other. It was getting hotter and I moved toward shade when I could and kept climbing.
It may be, I thought, that in a perverse sort of way the love Gail gave Musty Al is what irritates her most about Braden. She sees the flow of care between me and Braden traveling in the wrong direction, as something counter to the natural pull of gravity and time. I could have been flattered when she went on about how great a father I have been to my son, and how ungrateful he has proven himself to be. But what I felt, hearing this, was annoyance at her not-disinterested analysis. It was not true, I told myself. I had moved on with heated loins happy to leave the child in the care of his mother. Besides, what obligation did she have toward Musty Al, a man who spawned and ran with no more a look-back than your average steelhead? Yet we took him in, turned our home over to his hospice care. It has to be that care goes where it is needed. It doesn’t simply fall down through the generations like water splashing on rocks.
I did feel the need to provide something for this prodigal son of mine even knowing that what I leave may be squandered in a rush of misplaced passion or impractical enterprise. The gambling problem hinted at by Rachel I had yet to reveal to Gail or dispassionately think through myself. Such a mess!
At some point while the mind was feverishly mulling all this, my body passed beyond tired and arrived at battered. Various parts and particles had begun to scream. My seat and crotch felt raw, a general ache had spread across my lower back. My thighs burned on the steeper stretches. An unwholesome transaction was taking place between a throbbing point at the base of my skull and another on my left shoulder. Then there was the damn helmet. I could have sworn it contained its own heat source. I wanted nothing more than to rip the damn thing off and toss it into the ditch.
To ease the spirit I started to count by threes from zero to the shady resting place of an even three hundred. Up and then back down, that’s the practice. Picture the numbers as they pass. Think of nothing else. It’s like crossing a stream on a string of carefully placed stones. Watch them appear in steady sequence. Balance yourself. “Chantele, be careful!”
Numbers have brought me a living and much comfort over the years. Awakened in the night I play only with them until they ease me gently back into sleep. Numbers are precision engineered and self-lubricating. They possess a smooth neutrality, bring a pleasing satisfaction without stirring passions that set the mind to whirling. You arrive at a sum, a product, and you have acquired a thing of settled value. Something you can hold in your hand or take to the bank or place on exhibit without fear of contradiction.
When it comes to age and death numbers step forward taking their place at the head of the line. That Gail will outlive me by decades is far more likely than not. That she will remarry seems reasonable, given her relative youth and vitality. Of course I would want that, I tell myself bravely. No widow’s weeds for this family! What matters any of it once I am gone?
That on that happy day some step-father might give Celeste away….
A hard swallow that one.
But it did bring another thought to mind: should Gail control everything what would become of Braden? In the beginning I had chosen to ignore my faithful numerical friends preferring to see Gail back then as a mature, fully developed young woman while Braden was a skinny kid just arriving at the underside of puberty. To see, in other words, only with my yearning heart: to imagine that while Gail and Braden came from different generations she and I shared the same. It was a comfortable but unsustainable illusion. When Gail has reached her dotage at eighty-five Braden will have passed seventy and still be waiting off stage like some unanointed Prince Charles. If he has to await her death will he get anything at all, he being of the early-dying gender? Or will there be anything left to give, she having spent it all? Or might she not at some future date, she now remarried and me a distant memory, alter whatever plans we so carefully prepare, cutting Braden out entirely for one, easily imagined reason or another?
On the other hand were I to insist on a generous gift to Braden at my death, which he then squanders in a few months, and my dear Gail lives on for another quarter century or more with less than she needs to be comfortable…. Or, heaven forbid, something happens to Celeste that requires our help…. I remember well the inflation of the late seventies and the string of bubbles that have grown and popped in the years since.
It was Musty Al and his death-engorged pancreas that first brought home the hard numbers that separate me from Gail. The maturity that I had gloried in, that I liked to imagine helped lure the lovely young French teacher to my side, was now a gulf opening between us. I was the same age as this gray and puffy soon-to-be-dead man we had lifted from his stacks of curling paperbacks and faded album covers and loaded into the spare bedroom. Surely, Gail, with her Gallic-honed instincts, was as aware of this fact as I. Perhaps she saw the care she gave to Al as practice for what she would eventually bring to me. I certainly did. And I realized as I watched her carry out this work that a sense of profound loyalty runs through my wife’s character. It is a pillar, central, strong, structural. Never have I felt such tenderness and love for her as when I watched her ministering to Al. Relief as well. I too would one day be so sheltered, looked after, fussed over, ministered to, hand delivered to the final doorway.
The counting trick did not work. Each time I started the journey from three to three hundred the mind would stray back to family, to distances and pain.
The immediate goal was a junction six miles from the bridge. The road to the right would lead to the summit and from there I would begin the much-anticipated ten-mile descent toward home. As I neared the junction the pavement made a hairpin turn as if it were scurrying back and forth along the flank of the hill, searching for an opening where it could turn up and climb to the top. The hill had become extraordinarily steep, and the road, set on a narrow shelf cut into the hill’s side, seemed to shrink back from the edge.
The rate of climb had been gentler for a while but now it became steeper again and I was out of breath and badly in need of a break when I finally saw a sign that the junction lay ahead. Then the road itself appeared cutting up and sharply back like the barb on a fishhook.
My God, I realized when I stopped, it’s gravel. I had forgotten that the next two miles were gravel.
I set my bike in the grass and walked slowly back and forth along the edge of the road. I had no wish to sit, or rest, or even stop moving. It felt best to pace. My mouth was dry and the warm water I swallowed did little to change that. I forced down an energy bar that bore an unpleasant resemblance to cardboard laced with peanut butter.
Gail and Celeste entered my mind with an explosion of color. I imagined them sitting at an outdoor table somewhere in the city, looking leggy and chic in their sunglasses, ice tea for mom, lemonade for daughter, a few bright shopping bags tilting at their feet, the two of them giggling over the menu. A sense of youth dominated the sunny picture basking in my mind’s eye. So young! A casual observer might mistake the two of them for sisters.
But then the picture darkened as I paced and other thoughts came to mind. I had assumed we were both going to pick up Celeste. But then on Tuesday morning, the morning after the seminar, Gail had suggested she go alone.
“The trunk will be packed to the top, you know that. And we’ll need every square inch of the backseat just to fit everything in.”
I said, “Well we took her down together last fall. It was cramped, but we made it.”
“You know how Celeste is, hon. Trust me, she’s been accumulating stuff all year long. Enjoy the weekend. Ride your bike.”
“It’s Mothers’ Day weekend.”
“I know, and that’s great, but we can celebrate together that evening. The three of us, when we get back.”
I felt released, to tell the truth. It left me free to try the Loop. I sent off my first email to Steve Grogon later that morning.
But what if I had it all wrong? I thought now. What if Gail’s eagerness to get us into Mr. Slick-Suit’s seminar had been prompted more by concern for her own pending demise than my own? Musty Al’s young death from cancer had lodged a qualm in her psyche that had never gone away. Then a few years later a pre-cancerous abnormality showed up on a Pap smear that resulted in a cervical “scraping” at a gynecological clinic. Since then every exam had been normal. But have I been missing something? Did she have things to talk about that she had not brought to me because of my annoyance at her morose moods, my irritation with her urgent need for an estate plan? Have I been acting old and cantankerous, pushing her away? Was she more comfortable now revealing her deepest fears to Celeste than to me?
With a sudden nervous clutch I groped for my cell phone. I pulled it from the pouch, turned it on and found I had no signal.
A very slight breeze seemed to press against the hot air but then stop as if the effort were too much. In the tan-dirt ditch beside the road a strewing of beer cans and the weathered-wrapping from a discarded twelve-pack. From the dense underbrush on the uphill side came an occasional discrete sound: a junco fluttered its wings, a branch cracked, a living creature snapped up and devoured.
Your thinking has become deranged, I told myself. Get on the damn bike and pedal your butt home.
The gravel stretch proved treacherous, washboardy, exhausting. I traveled in my lowest gear moving along at three and a half miles an hour with all the vigor of a banana slug. I checked and rechecked the odometer with manic compulsion, trying to calculate the exact distance between my location and the top. My faithful numbers wrenched from their neutrality and set to spinning in my mind.
By the time I reached the narrow strip of pavement and began the final steep ascent my surroundings had withdrawn and become shadow-like. I felt my consciousness descend into a dim hypnotic-like trance that I knew to be dangerous.
I heard then a vehicle rattling and banging along the gravel road behind me. As it approached, the compounding racket seemed to signify everything loud and aggressive and oblivious about the species to which we belong. The vehicle arrived at the pavement and accelerated even more. I was too unstable to share the road with this roaring machine. Just before it reached me I pulled off into the trees. But putting my foot to the ground, my shoe failed to unlock from the pedal-clip and I fell sideways into a tangle of huckleberry and weeds. I lay in the mangled bush with the bike still between my legs, my feet locked securely to the pedals. A position best described as impossible.
The vehicle stopped. A door slammed. I was frantically kicking to free my feet when I saw before my eyes a pair of battered cowboy boots. Standing in them was a tall, big-boned woman with a large head and reddish brown hair beginning to gray. She wore leather gloves, jeans and a work shirt. The paunch emerging below the western belt buckle was particularly prominent from my perspective. It was, I realized, the alfalfa-pitching bull owner I had passed much earlier in the day.
“You all right?” she asked, a grin spreading across her wide and burnished face.
“I’m fine, damnit.” I finally wrested my right foot free. “Here, hold the bike will you?”
She grabbed hold.
“No! Don’t lift it. Just hold it there.”
“Right.” The grin became even more pronounced.
I pulled my other foot free, staggered from the bush and took the bike out of her hands.
“That was quite a landing,” she observed.
“I see that. Thought at first you’d just keeled over dead. End of the trail sort of thing.”
“Well, I’m not dead, damnit.”
“I see that too,” the woman said. “You wouldn’t be bleeding like that if you was dead.”
She pointed down at my left leg.
“Shit.” An abrasion ran along my shin and a stream of blood was flowing down onto my sock. I pushed the bike back into her hands and bent down to examine the leg. “It’s just a scrape,” I told her. “It’ll stop.”
“Reckon it will,” she agreed, “sooner or later. Meanwhile you want a lift to town? We could toss that bike in the bed of the truck. Have you there in fifteen-twenty minutes.”
I took the bike back and ran a quick check. The wheels turned freely. The brakes and drive train seemed fine. I pushed it to the edge of the road and studied the thin strip of asphalt climbing up through the trees.
“I want to finish.”
“Are you sure?” asked the bull owner.
Gail does that at times. She asks a question and then when I’ve given my answer, she asks if I really meant what I said. As if my decisions were like ice cream; that they begin to melt soon as they see the light of day.
“You think maybe I’m not sure?” I asked with what I suspect was a cold glare. “You think maybe I’m a little confused or something?”
“Well, I am sure. I want to finish the ride.”
“Fine,” the woman said, backing away.
“And tomorrow I’m going to call Dave Silver too. First thing in….”
The woman was staring at me.
“That’s fine,” she said again. “I’ll be on my way then.” She started moving toward her truck.
“No, really, it’s fine.”
A moment later the door of the truck slammed shut and she was gone, leaving a cloud of noise and exhaust fumes and the fading scent of alfalfa.
I leaned the bike against a tree and examined it again. Both water bottles had fallen out. I walked back to the scene of the crash, found the bottles and drank much of what remained in the second bottle. It was very quiet. I sat down in the duff and leaned back against the narrow trunk of a tanoak.
The still sun-dappled air smelled of heated vegetation. Everything at that moment possessed a strange beauty. It appeared to me extraordinarily bright and glistening, as if I were looking at the world through a thin film of water. Don’t be an idiot, I told myself. You’re not really crying. You’re just exhausted. You have lots of time. There are hours of daylight left and they won’t be home until late. Sit here a moment and you’ll be good as new. I took my helmet off and leaned my damp head against the tree. The blood had begun to clot. I could feel it drying along my shin.
I imagined Musty Al just then, watching me from a few feet away. He was slowly shaking his head and not bothering to suppress a smirk-like grin. You could almost see the story forming in his head. Old Al knew exactly who I was, and in the end he would forgive me for everything.
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