When I am in grade school and Kennedy is in the White House, I acquire what will, for a time, become the single object that most identifies me as me – a bright red Western Flyer with 24-inch rims. My dad lets me pick it out at Western Auto. “That one,” I say, standing in front of it, hypnotized.
But after the initial honeymoon, dissatisfaction gnaws at me. It’s a good bike, but it can be better. Over the next year, I make modifications. I replace the factory handlebars with butterfly handlebars. I remove the front fender because I suspect it’s cooler to not have a front fender. I replace the factory seat with a more comfortable and snazzier white banana seat. I remove the back fender because by now I know it’s cool to have no fenders. By the time LBJ is in the White House and my family purchases our first color TV, my bike has become the envy of my peers. Everyone wants to ride it.
I no longer walk anywhere. If I go four doors down to Lefty’s house to play basketball on the makeshift goal and backboard fastened over their tiny patio, I ride there. If I go to Dennis’s house, a two-minute walk, to play ping-pong in his basement and act silly (his father makes fun of us, pointing and going “tee-hee-hee!”), I ride there. If I want to talk to Theresa, who lives directly across the street and is basically under house arrest because she has to take care of her little brother and sister, I find my bike in the garage, mount it, and ride there. I don’t go directly to Theresa’s house – I ride around in the street, in neighboring driveways and yards, like a bee circling in a garden before it settles on a specific blossom, then race up the steep hill in her front yard and come to a stop at the steps of her porch.
But mostly I just ride. There are so many places to go. For example, I can coast on level ground down Southgate, a side street canopied with pin oaks, where cars rarely travel, and people stay inside their houses. The only sound is the gentle hiss of my tires rolling over asphalt and the rustle of leaves when the wind blows. No other street feels like Southgate, but it only feels that way if I’m on my bike.
Or I can circle around my elementary school and ride in a the worn rut that leads to the creek. The creek is narrower than my bike is long. It’s trashed with broken glass and empty cigarette packs; sometimes it’s stinky, too, but it’s the shortcut to Southland Park. I cross a wooden bridge and peddle up a steep incline to the Little League field. If there’s a game going on, I watch the players and feel how they feel when they bend to catch grounders, swing and miss, or connect with a crack. If there is no game, I ride through the ghosts of innings past that linger on the diamond and in the dugouts before fading away in September. Either way, game or no game, I collect whatever feelings are present, but I can only do it when I’m riding my bike.
Each place I ride is unique. The path along Clays Mill Road is a carnival ride with little hills that toss me in the air, making me weightless for a moment before landing dangerously in gravel where I will skid if I try to brake. Riding there requires a certain unbroken attention, but the payoff is like endorphins released by alcohol, as I will learn when I become an adult.
My street, Fairfield, is only two blocks long, but there are four distinct territories.
The bottom of the street, where it meets Southland Drive, carries no feelings that speak to me. Even after the mean Dalmatian who lives down there, who used to chase me on my bicycle, dies, it’s still nothing. This dead zone ends halfway up the block at small cul-de-sac called Windsor Court. Roughly 10 kids live either on Windsor Court or on Fairfield within a few houses of Windsor Court, and most of them are near my age. This part of the street is a country club of fun, and I am a member. When I ride that section of the street, I can feel my friends, as if their fragrances are inside my body and their muscles are peddling with me, as if we are all in motion together. But I only feel this way if I’m riding my bike.
The next section of the street, from Southgate to the top of the hill, is where I live. This is my territory. I feel more at home here than I do inside my own house, but only if I’m riding my bike. Something hypnotic about the motion, about traveling without my feet ever touching the ground, transforms this physical space into my emotional kingdom. I peddle to the top of the hill, turn, and coast down, take my hands off the handlebars, and the universe is mine.
The last section of the street is on the other side of the hill, where Fairfield opens to Clays Mill Road. No kids live here. It’s like a little nation that borders my own and is therefore strategically important. I am protective of this end of the street. Though my motives spring from selfishness, over time my feelings mature into disinterested love. When I ride here, I am a benevolent guardian, and my tires are prayer wheels of blessing and well-wishing.
This is not an exhaustive list of the places where I ride, but it illustrates the principle in play. Every day, except when I’m in school, I’m on my bike until it’s too dark to ride. What I want to feel determines where I ride.
But then, one day, I come out of Southland Swimming Pool and walk to the bike rack and my bike’s not there. Someone has stolen it. I soon learn from friends who took it. John. I know John a little bit – I went to a birthday party at his house when I was in the second grade – but he was never part of my circle of friends. Now that we’re older. John hangs out with the tough kids who smoke cigarettes and carry themselves with an aura of danger. They’ve never bothered me, but I’ve learned the skill of acting cool by recognizing their authority and avoiding behaviors that would make me a target or smell like the blood of weakness. I saw John riding your bike, my friends say. What are you going to do? Later that week, I, too, see John, from a distance, riding my bike through Southland Park. There’s something wrong with the color of the bike frame, but I recognize it as mine the way I would recognize a kidnapped family member. I think John notices me out of the corner of his eye. Then he pretends he doesn’t.
I don’t know what to do. Do I have to fight John? I’m not a fighter, and even though John is shorter than me, I’m afraid of him. Reduced to walking, I’m a butterfly pinned to a board, a meaningless body. I am paralyzed. My dilemma is a bright light continuously shining in my eyes that keeps me from seeing anything else. Overcome with despair, I finally tell my dad what happened. He asks me where John lives, looks up John’s parents in the phone book, and phones John’s dad. My son lost his bike and I understand your son found it. I watch my dad speak into the receiver. I don’t remember what else he said, but when he hangs up, Dad tells me we’re going to pick up my bike.
I get in the car with Dad. During the ride over, I stew about what’s going to happen. It doesn’t seem at all certain to me that I’m getting my bike back. What will John say? In the back of my mind, I still fear I will have to fight him. But Dad is in charge, now, and I don’t have to do anything. The fact that Dad has to fix this for me, instead of me fixing it myself, shames me.
We knock on the door and enter John’s house. John’s father is fat, balding. The few strands of hair he has lay across the dome of his head like a greasy cobweb. He’s wearing a wifebeater and goofy khaki shorts. He told me he found a bike abandoned down by the creek John’s father is saying, as if my father’s phone call identifying it as mine has cleared up a great mystery that has been troubling all of them.
John’s father leads us through a house in disarray, toys on the floor and half-eaten food on the tables. We follow him to the kitchen, where John’s younger siblings run around like feral cats. John’s mother offers me a cookie. I take it. I don’t look in John’s eyes.
They roll out the bike. I found it by the creek, John says to my father. I can’t help but admire the skill with which he delivers his lines. Butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. Look, John says, pointing, I even painted it for you. The frame has been sloppily painted to cover up the Western Flyer logo. Retrospectively, I analogize the paint job to make-up applied to conceal bruises from domestic violence. My dad gives John five dollars as a “reward” for finding my bike and painting it. We stand to leave. John’s mother offers me another cookie. I decline. I want to get out of there. Dad puts the bike in the trunk of our car and we leave.
During the ride home, I accept that the crisis is over. But I don’t feel good about it. Everyone knows that John stole my bike and painted it to cover up his theft. But everyone pretends to believe a different story that gives each actor a way out and gives me back my bike.
Dad pulls into our driveway and turns off the ignition. We don’t talk about what happened. I lift the bike out of the trunk and inspect it. My bike, with its ugly paint job, looks like a patient just released from the hospital. I get on my banana seat, grasp the butterfly handlebars, and ride up and down Fairfield. The bike still rides the same, but it feels like a light bulb that’s gone dim.
After a couple weeks of me riding it, the bike starts to feel like my bike again. But my relationship with the bike has changed. Now I keep a chain and lock wound beneath the banana seat and lock up when I’m not riding. I’m always a little wary wherever I ride, but I can’t identify what it is I’m wary about. I still ride to all my different places to feel feelings, but I keep the feelings small and watered-down so no one will want to steal them or, if they’re stolen, I won’t be losing so much.
Over time, the landscape for my feelings changes because more of my life is lived in places too far away or inconvenient to bike. I take a school bus to Junior High. I take a city bus downtown to the movies with new friends and shop at record stores. Some of my new friends live close enough to reach by bike, but some don’t. When I shoot hoops at the park, I often walk there because it’s difficult to bike up a hill with a basketball under your arm. Increasingly, my parents take me places in my expanded world that can only be reached by car.
Puberty affects my biking, too. Instead of biking, I walk to the swimming pool so I can talk to cute girls who are walking there, too. I don’t have anything much to say, but their aroma and the riddle of their newly acquired curves and bumps captivates me. I’m taller now, starting to get hair on my chest and in other places, and my bike is such a kids bike. I don’t know what I am, exactly, but I know I don’t want to be thought of as a kid. By the time presidential candidate Richard Nixon announces he has a secret plan to win the war in Viet Nam, I’ve stopped riding.
But sometimes, even during high school, after I turn 18 and register for the military draft because America is still at war, or later, when I come home from college, I see that bike in the garage and feel compelled to get on. I ride where I used to ride – the elementary school, the Little League field at Southland Park, under the canopy of pin oaks on Southgate – not caring if I look ridiculous, letting memory to have its way with me, hoping my bike can tell me who I am.
But it can’t.
Mike Wilson is author of Arranging Deck Chairs on the Titanic (Rabbit House Press, 2020), political poetry for a post-truth world. His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in Fiction Southeast, Mud Season Review, The Saturday Evening Post, Deep South Magazine, Anthology of Appalachian Writers, and other publications. Mike lives in Lexington, Kentucky.