Drawing by Judith Wolfe

JOHN GARDINER

The Bike



    We were poor when I was a kid. Not real poor like we couldn't afford food and such. But poor just the same, us kids with patches on the knees of our trousers, and sometimes holes in the bottoms of our shoes before the budget afforded new ones. But it was mostly a happy life, what I remember of it. But that could be because people have a memory for the happy things and try to hide the unhappy ones. And no matter how hard a task that becomes as you grow older, because there's plenty of unhappy stuff'll come your way in this life, no matter how hard you try to hide from it, most of us remember our good times and keep strugglin' on.

    I had no bike when I was a kid. My Dad couldn't afford to buy me one. But when I was about ten, I had a stroke of good luck, and was able to talk my way into a job as a paper boy -- a considerable accomplishment for a kid with no bike. And so I trudged my route day after day that first summer -- and I remember most the incredible hotness that dripped down my back as I trudged from house to house to house. And I did my collections and my Dad helped me figure what I owed the newspaper company and what I got to keep for my very own self. And I put that money in a jar over the fridge, and, at first, it was a paltry sum, jingling hopelessly against the side of the jar. But, gradually, the jar started to fill, so that by the middle of the summer, it had grown to what seemed a veritable fortune.

    Finally, my Dad and I sat together at the kitchen table for the great counting and my Dad produced some brown papers, the kind he used when he counted the church money on Sundays, and we poured that jar of money out onto the table. We separated the different money into its separate piles for its own kind, and, finally, I was able to put a total on my fortune.

    "Eight dollars and twenty-four cents," my Dad announced, offering me a wide smile. "You've worked hard and that's what you've earned."

    I said nothing but sat wide-eyed, never having been in possession of even a fraction of such a grand sum of money -- never having had more money than the eighty cents I'd won in the fall fair for the zinnias and marygolds my Mom helped me grow from seed.

    "What will you ever do with such a fortune?" asked my mother, who'd just come into the room.

    I looked up, not really understanding that the question was directed at me; not realizing that the money was really mine, perhaps guessing that it somehow belonged to the family, the way my Dad's money seemed to.

    "It's a lot of money," my Dad confirmed. "And it's yours to do with as you please," he added. "You've earned it."
    "It's mine to spend?" I asked, somewhat amazed to have discovered this piece of information.
    "Yes," my father answered. "It's yours to spend."
    "Wow," was the only word that I could manage.

    There was a brief silence, as I began to consider my options.

    "I have an idea, though," my Dad finally said, breaking into the dream I'd been having. "I've heard that Mr. Stewart up the street has a used bike for sale. He's asking ten dollars for it. I've seen it and that's about right. We'd have to fix it up a bit, add some paint, but it would make your paper route a lot easier. It would be a good investment for you."
    "I don't know how to ride a bike," I said.
    "You could learn," answered my father. "It's not that hard. All your friends have bikes."
    "It looks hard," I answered, unconvinced at the wisdom of making such a purchase.
    "You could do it," chimed in my mother.
    "I haven't got enough money," I answered, not quite understanding why I was putting up obstacles to getting a bike, when I knew I really wanted one. It did look hard, but I needed a bike to be one of the crowd. Dad had pushed the right button with that one.
    "I'll lend you a couple of dollars," my Dad said. "I think you're a good risk."
    "What does that mean?" I asked, knowing little of the matters of money.
    "It means I'm pretty sure you'll pay me back," my Dad said, smiling warmly and reaching over and tussling my hair.

    And so, after supper that night, my Dad and I trundled off up the street to Mr. Stewart's place. Mr. Stewart was an incredibly old guy, who all the neighbour kids steered clear of, mainly, I think, because he looked so very angry all the time.

    "Mr. Stewart's son drowned years back down by the big, black railway bridge," my Dad explained, as we walked the few short blocks to our destination. "It was a very sad thing. His wife never got over it and had to be put away for her nerves." He paused. "He's not angry," Dad said. "He's sad."

    I'm not sure why my Dad told me that about Mr. Stewart, but when the old man opened the door to see who was calling, I tried to look more closely at him, to see if I could see the sadness in him. A guy I knew from school drowned a couple of summers ago while we were all at the Sunday School picnic and that was a sad affair to be sure. When the door opened, I still thought the old man looked angry, but now that I look back on it, maybe he had reason to be as angry as he liked, having been dealt such an unfair hand in life.

    Anyway, we headed out to his garage, off to the side of the house, and Dad helped him swing open the huge wooden doors. And, there, wedged in alongside a car that clearly had not seen the light of day for many a year, was a bicycle, which, by the look of it, had also spent quite some time in the dark, dankness of the garage.

    The old man grabbed hold of it and tugged it from its confinement, dragging it out into the driveway.

    I took a quick look at it and saw that it was not one of the sleek, slick bicycles my friends were all riding. It was an old-fashioned thing, with a wide, awkward-looking seat and big, balloon-like tires.

    "It's a good bike," old Mr. Stewart was saying. "Hardly been used. Was my son's. Ten dollars is a fair price."
    "I think you're right, Mr. Stewart," Dad replied. "What do you think, son?"

    It wasn't what I wanted -- I wanted a new bike, something I could brag and swagger about -- and this was definitely not it. My Dad could see my hesitation. He pulled me aside.

    "It's old, Dad," I said, quietly, not wanting the old man to overhear.
    "We can fix it up," Dad answered. "A coat of paint and she'll be good as new. You'll see."
    "We could save some more, Dad," I said, sort of pleading with him.
    "You need a bike, son," my Dad said. "It'll make your job so much easier. You can always get a better one later."

    I stood in silence, knowing I had lost this argument before it had begun. Dad felt I should have a bike -- this bike -- and I would have a bike -- this bike.

    So, we took the bike home and prepared to work on it.

    And we did work on it. Dad pretty well disassembled the whole thing, and I got to help with the sanding, and we got out a tub of water and tested the tires for leaks. Dad looked at that awkward-looking seat, and said he'd like to get a new one for me, but there just wasn't money right now, so I'd have to make do. It came to me later in life that if you make do, you're usually stuck with the result.

    But the more we worked on the bike, the more my excitement level rose, because, even though this wasn't exactly what I wanted, it was still a bike -- and when you're a ten-year-old kid with no bike, a bike is a bike is a bike. So, I waited impatiently for the day when Dad would announce that we'd made her roadworthy. I did all that was asked of me, sanding, then painting, helping to tighten the nuts and bolts, adding a squirt of oil here and there, until the old bike was verily aglow. As my Dad and I stood back to admire her that day she was finally finished, I was beaming with pride, knowing that Dad was the greatest guy in the world to have carried out such a project. And through all of it, I continued to walk my paper route, just waiting for the day when I'd be able to ride the streets with a carrier full of papers and finish my route in a fraction of the time.

    But, first, there was learning to ride. As soon as the repairs were complete, my Dad loaded me and the bike into his old clunker of a car and we set off for the other side of town. A short time later, we'd reached our destination -- the cinder-track road down by the old railroad station. I cringed as I looked at the sharp, knifelike edges of the cinders -- surely this was a bad place to make a beginning as a bike rider. What if I fell? I'd surely be cut to ribbons. I voiced my concern.

    "This is where I learned to ride a bike," Dad answered. "On my brother Alf's bike, because we could only afford one bike for the family." I'd often heard the stories of poverty in my Dad's family, how there'd been seven kids and one year they couldn't go to school on the first day because there were no shoes.
    "What if I fall?" I asked.
    "You don't fall," my Dad said. "That's why we're learning here. You can't fall on a cinder road. When I learned, just the thought of falling on those cinders was enough to keep me up and riding."
    "You didn't fall even once?" I asked, wondering how this could be possible.
    "Oh, yea, I fell a couple of times, but not too often," Dad answered.
    "It must have hurt," I said.
    "It did hurt," Dad answered, "but it kept me up and riding."
    So, with Dad's help, I climbed aboard the bike. "Remember," he said, "pedal and steer. As long as you keep pedalling, you won't fall over, and as long as you steer, you won't run into anything." Those sounded like wise words of advice.
    Dad held onto the bike behind the seat, as I sat on the contraption, my feet on the pedals, a look of grim determination on my face, knowing I must not fall, even once. Finally, Dad started to push me along the cinder-track road, keeping me upright, jogging slowly along, helping me to balance the bike. "Get ready," he warned, starting to puff from his effort. And with that, he gave me a firm push and I was on my own.

    I'll never forget that first solo effort on my new, used bike. I swear I could feel the wind in my hair and the freedom of flight even as I struggled to make the pedals turn. I pushed harder and harder, and could feel the bike go faster and faster. It was an odd sensation at first, balancing on that piece of unfamiliar machinery, but it felt good -- oh so good.

    "Keep pedalling!" Dad was calling after me. "Remember to steer."

    And I was remembering to do both of those things, and I was covering the ground of the cinder track road -- first ,five feet -- then, ten feet -- then, twenty feet -- gaining speed all the time and everything going great.

    "Slow her down, son!" I could hear my Dad calling after me from somewhere in the distance. "Stop pedalling and slow down!" I could hear him calling.

    But I couldn't stop pedalling. If I stopped pedalling, I'd surely fall over -- I knew that much about riding a bike. Wasn't that what Dad had said. Pedal and steer. Keep on pedalling and steering and what could go wrong.

    But it was at that point when I had occasion to look up from my pedalling effort for the first time in a couple of minutes, and it was then that I realized that I had used up nearly the entire cinder-track road. I was out of room and it suddenly occurred to me that there was one thing I didn't know -- and that was how to stop my brand new, used bicycle. Dad had left that part out, likely sure I'd stop in a heap the first couple of times.

    And it was at that exact moment that something called panic intruded into my young life. And as I panicked, I also forgot the cardinal rules of bike riding -- keep pedalling and keep steering and nothing could go wrong. So that I immediately forgot to pedal and I threw my hands up in front of my face, crying out in terror, also forgetting to steer, and I crashed into a predictable heap.

    So, I sat in a dusty clump, glaring at the fallen bike, my pride hurt far worse than any other part of me. In fact, as I climbed to my feet and inspected the damage, I found that I had sustained only a couple of minor scrapes, courtesy the sharpness of the cinders. It hadn't been as bad as I'd expected. I looked back and saw Dad loping up the road toward me, a wide smile on his face.

    "That was great!" he exclaimed, all out of breath.

    I beamed back, smiling from ear to ear.

    "But you've got to learn to stop," he said. "And you can't stop steering like that."

    My smile faded.

    "But you did great," he added enthusiastically, tussling my hair

    And, with his help, I climbed back onto the bike and away I went again -- this time even further than before. And I fell a couple more times, and I usually felt most unsteady on my new conveyance, but I kept getting back on and by the end of that time we spent on the cider-track road, I was feeling a small level of confidence at my accomplishment.

    Finally, though, it was time to call an end to the riding lesson and Dad packed me and the bike back into the big, old car and we made for home.

    I was treated like a king that night. Mom had made me a special treat and we all ate cookies and drank chocolate milk. It was a grand time indeed.

    The riding lesson had taken place on Friday night, so the next day was Saturday, and I was expecting that there was more bike riding in my future. After all, it was Dad's day off.

    That's why I was so depressed when the phone rang while we were eating breakfast. It was my father's boss, and he asked if Dad could come in to work for a few hours to try to deal with a problem that had come up. Of course, I knew if there was a problem anywhere in the world, my Dad was the guy to solve it. Still, my heart sank, knowing there'd be no bike riding on his day -- at least for a while.

    So, Dad got into his car, and was soon gone to make things right at work. And I was soon out into the garage, and had the bike out in the back yard and was washing it up. I rubbed and scrubbed that thing, until it fairly shone and glistened in the morning sun. It wasn't quite what I'd wanted, but it had become my pride and joy just the same -- that was for sure.

    Finally, the bike all spic and span, I walked it around to the front of the house. My mother was just coming back from having a coffee with the next door neighbour.

    "Now, don't go on the road with that bike until your father gets home," she cautioned, as she passed on her way into the house.
    "No, Mom," I answered dutifully.

    But soon after she went inside, a temptation presented itself. A couple of my friends from school, Al and George, came riding up the street on their sleek, slick new-looking bikes.

    "Well, well, look who's finally got a bike," George said, as they pulled to a stop in front of my house.

    I said nothing, not sure how he meant the statement.

    "My, but it's an old-looking thing, though," Al said, disdain in his voice.
    "Yea, look at the seat on that thing," George laughed. "It's from before the war."

    I could feel my face turn red with embarrassment. They couldn't talk that way about my bike -- the one I'd bought with my own money, and that my Dad had fixed up to look like new. It was my pride and joy. I had to protect it -- I had to protect my Dad.

    "It's really fast, though," I said quietly.
    "That thing? Fast? You've got to be kidding," laughed George. "I could beat that thing with one hand tied behind my back."
    "You could not," I answered, defiance in my voice.
    "My sister could beat that old thing," Al mocked. "That thing doesn't even look like a real bike."
    "It is too," I answered, angry. "And I could too beat your sister."

    Al and George conferred for a moment, keeping their voices quiet, so I couldn't hear what they were saying.

    "Meet us at the fairgrounds in an hour," Al said. "I'll get my sister."
    "I ain't racing your sister," I answered.
    "Afraid you'll get beat?" chided George.
    "No," I answered. "I just ain't racing with any girls."
    "Fraidy-cat," Al accused.
    "Am not," I retorted.
    "Then be at the fairgrounds in an hour," George said, a broad grin on his face.

    And the two of them pedalled off up the street, leaving me sitting on my front lawn feeling shame-faced and foolish. I wasn't even supposed to leave the property, let alone go to the fairgrounds with my bike. And I knew I couldn't ride well enough to race with anyone -- even a girl. But now, if I failed to show, I'd be the coward of the fourth grade.

    And so I had a miserable hour to spend. Should I defy my parents and take my bike out into the world before I was ready, or should I stay put and face the taunting jeers of my so-called friends when they next came upon me? It was a difficult choice, and I buried my head in my hands and gritted my teeth at being faced with such a dilemma at such a tender young age. Life can be hard sometimes.

    But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it wasn't such a difficult decision. I had to go. I was my parents' son, and they professed to love me, so it was unlikely they'd fling me out into the bottomless, blackness of life, just for having disobeyed them. To have to live with an eternity of humiliation at the hands of a band of prepubescent youth seemd the worse fate by far. When I thought the hour was up, I left the yard with nary a look back, walking, and pushing my bike along beside me.

    When I reached the corner and was safely out of sight of the house, I ventured to climb onto the bike, seeming to know that if I was to race, I should first make sure I could ride. I was wobbly and unsure of myself as I pushed down on the pedal, propelling the bike slowly forward. Gingerly, I allowed my other foot to leave the ground and to find its spot on the opposite pedal. I pushed hard, and started to move forward. Pedal and steer. I continued to push hard on the pedals, now looking up and beginning also to carry out the second part of the instructions.

    And I was amazed -- the bike moved along the street in good order and I could again feel the wind in my hair and the freedom of flight. I was riding, and the harder I pedalled, the faster I went. I smiled broadly at my accomplishment. There was nothing to this and by the time I'd gone a block, I was fairly speeding along. I even managed to avoid an oncoming car, and it came over me that I was now a bike rider. Al's sister should look out. This was indeed a fast bike and I was its equally fast rider.

    As I'd expected, Al and George had brought not only Al's sister, but half the fourth grade to the fairgrounds, spreading the word about the proposed great race while riding back through town. But I didn't care. I'd win this day. Of that, I was sure.

    "Well, at least you showed up," Al said.
    "Let's call this off, Al." I said confidently. "Your sister's no match for me." I looked over to where the tomboyish young girl was standing, her own bike by her side. She seemd to offer me a shy smile. I could feel myself flush.
    "We'll see," George answered. "I say she'll beat you by a mile."
    "She couldn't beat a dead horse," I answered, cockiness in my voice, avoiding looking toward the girl.
    "Let's get on with this," called one of the other kids, come to watch the race of the century.
    "Over here, both of you," called George, who dragged his foot across half the town racetrack, creating the apparent starting line.

    I lined up beside the girl, arching my leg up and over my bike, getting ready to make a quick start.

    "Once around the track. On three," George said.

    A hush fell over the crowd of kids, as the moment of truth was at hand.

    "One! Two!" George paused, his arm lifted high. "Three!" Down came the arm.

    And we were off.

    I made an uncertain start, as was perhaps to be expected for a lad who'd only learned his bike riding the previous day. For the first couple of seconds, I was afraid I might fall -- it was a dirt track and harder to get going on than any surface I'd been on before -- including the cinder-track. The girl sped quickly away, obviously an old pro as a bike rider. As I struggled to maintain my balance and strained to push down on the pedals, my eyes were locked on the track in front of me, but I could also see Al's sister pulling speedily away.

    "Look, she's got him already!" I heard one kid yell excitedly.
    "He looks like he's gonna fall!" cried out another.
    But I'd gradually managed to pull myself completely upright, securing my balance and pushing the pedals around and around, faster and faster, and the danger of falling passed, and I started to feel the wind in my hair. Pedal and steer, I thought. And I pedalled with all my might, around and around they went, and I looked ahead, down the track, with a look of incredible ferocity and determination. I could see Al's sister just rounding the track's first turn, glancing back over her shoulder, smiling jubilantly, feeling I'd not be able to surmount her already considerable lead.

    But she hadn't counted on having to deal with such a fast bike, or such a fast rider. And, slowly, but surely at first, but then faster and ever faster, I started to make up the ground on her. After all, I was a boy. I was bigger and stronger than she was. And my bike was the best. I grew more and more confident as I started to overtake her. I could hear the rest of the kids yelling excitedly as the two of us rode for all we were worth. The girl's last look back had made her more intent on her task, realizing there was to be a race on this day, afterall.

    But she was no match for me, and by the time she'd passed the half pole, I was breathing down her neck. The track was rough at this point, no doubt broken up by the horses that ran over this very ground on the weekly race nights. I was getting bounced about pretty good, but holding my own, as I gradually manouvered my bike out further from the rail, taking up a position to pass the girl -- to claim my rightful victory.

    And I pressed harder and harder now that I was upon her. I leaned low over the handlebars, cutting through the wind like a knife, pushing, pushing. I could feel her straining beside me -- could hear her puffing and struggling to get more speed from her bike. I could feel her as I pulled alongside, then started to pass, going ever so slightly out in front. I pressed and I pressed on the pedals. I wouldn't just win the race and beat the girl. I'd win the race and humiliate the girl. I'd show them all. I'd show them good.

    And I started to pull away from her, and by the final turn, I was clearly in command of the race, fully three bike lengths out in front. I would win in a walk -- even with such a sad start. I was the great bike racer and no one could beat me. I was champion and would beat all comers.

    But it was precisely at that point that things came unglued. I got cocky. There was only a short ways to the finish where I would reign triumphant, and I got cocky. I decided there was nothing to this bike riding thing, that I had it completely mastered, so that perhaps I should do a little showing off. I lifted my hands from the handlebars for a victory wave to my cheering supporters. And at that very moment, the front wheel of my bike hit what must have been the biggest rut in the entire racetrack with a giant thud. It threw me badly off balance, and I grabbed for the bike to try to recover, but there was no hope. The bike veered wildly toward the inside rail and crashed abruptly into one of the white-washed posts. With that, I flew off and landed in a muddy heap in the swampy infield, while the bike sagged directly to the ground.

    I lifted my head from its sorry state just in time to see Al's sister pedal furiously by, her victory now assured. My heart sank. It wasn't supposed to end like this. I watched as she cruised across the finish line, lifting her arms high into the air as she celebrated her win. The other kids mobbed her.

    I managed to regain my feet and limped back to my bike. Just then, Al and George and few more of the guys came over to where I was inspecting the damage.

    "Told you you couldn't beat my little sister," Al sneered.

    I looked toward him, but I was beaten, tears in my eyes.

    "And get a real bike, would you!" George said, whereupon they all laughed.

    And with that, they were off to torment the next loser kid they could find, because that's the way of it when you're a kid -- either you're the one tormenting the loser, or you're the loser -- and on this day, I was clearly the loser.

    I had a difficult time of it getting my broken bike back home and there were none who cared to help. The few who'd remained after George and Al and the others had left were standing in a quiet little group, no doubt laughing over their shoulders at me, but doing it in silence, so I gave them a wide berth.

    Finally, I came into the yard of our house, and let the remains of my bike settle in a pile on the lawn. It was then that I noticed my Dad sitting on the front verandah watching me.

    "That's doesn't look like a very good place to leave that," he said, but there was no sterness in his voice. It was soft and supple as it came to me.

    I looked up at him, but said nothing.

    "Tough day?" he asked.
    "Sort of," I answered, but it was hard to say even that with the considerable lump that was growing in my throat.
    "Care to talk about it?" he asked.

    And it was then that the tears finally really came, with sobs that shook my ten-year-old body right to its core. He came down off the porch, and put his big arm around me.

    "There, there," he said quietly. "We'll talk about it. You'll be all right."

    I melted into him, feeling my young body fit snug and secure against him. He started to lead me away; to take me to a place of comfort, but I stopped him. I looked back toward the bike.

    "What about my bike?" I asked, my voice halting and unsure.
    "I'm afraid I don't have money to fix it right now," he answered. "It might have to wait until you can save a bit of your own money. You might be walking that paper route 'til next spring."
    "Yessir," I answered. "But we can fix it?" I asked.
    "We fixed it once and we can fix it again," he said. "Don't you worry about that, sport."
    "I'm sorry, Dad," I offered.
    "I know you are, son," he answered. "But you've got to learn something from this. A bike can always be fixed, but there are things that can't."
    "Like what?" I asked.
    "Like your Mom's trust in you," he answered. "She trusted you and you let her down. She's been worried sick. I'm very disappointed in you, as well."

    And I could tell by the tone of his voice that he meant it.

    "I'm sorry, Dad," I said.
    "I know you are," he answered, "and all's well that ends well. Now, let's go in and see your mother."

    And we went into the house. And I'm sure I did learn something that day. It was a hard lesson about winning and losing and not getting too cocky, but it was also a lesson in what was expected of me. And, as odd as it may sound, the memory of me and that first bike and the great race with Al's sister and the way it all ended is mainly a good one. I took a lot of ribbing from the guys for a few days and then it seemed forgotten. And I walked my paper route through the rest of the summer and into the fall and through the winter, until Dad made good on his word and carried out the necessary repairs to my bike just as the warm sun of spring returned. And, again, I felt the wind in my hair and the freedom of flight as I rode. And it was good. Very good.


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