“Hey, can I help you find anything?” He looked like a bad photo collage, this little scrawny dude with disproportionately huge legs.
“No, we’re just looking around.” Sherri held my hand tightly. She always held my hand tightly.
“Well let me know if you need anything.”
“What kind of bike is that?”
“It’s called a mountain bike. They’re really popular in California right now.”
“Is it a ten speed?”
“It’s actually a twenty-one speed.”
“Man, that thing must fly.”
“Just the opposite. Its gears are so small that you can ride it up Mt. Mitchell if you want. You can even ride it around inside the store. Try it.”
I mounted the freaky beast and peddled it around the perimeter of the store. “That’s pretty cool.”
“You should get one,” the salesman said.
“No, I’m into racing bikes.”
“Oh? What do you have?”
“A Schwinn Continental.”
He laughed. “That’s not a racing bike.”
“It has long cranks.”
“That doesn’t mean anything. Come here.” He rolled a bright red Club Fuji from the rack. “Pick that up.” The bike felt about half the weight of my Schwinn, not that it mattered much since I hadn’t ridden my bike since I received my driver’s license.
“Man, that’s light.”
“Want to take it for a ride?” He set the saddle height for me and held open the front door. The bike moved effortlessly with every pedal stroke. I felt greasy fast flying through the gears — click click click. I don’t know how far I rode, but I never wanted to stop.
“I want it.”
“Is that what you’re looking for?”
“I guess. I just really like it.”
“Then you should check this out.” We walked to the end of the rack, where a blue bicycle was parked doing forty miles per hour: black saddle, white handlebar tape that matched the frame-mounted tire pump and leather toe straps. Like an Indy car the bike was covered with exotic labels: Mavic, Columbus, Campagnolo, Silca, Pinarello, Pinarello, Pinarello. Treviso, Italia. The thing was a thoroughbred, a Ferrari, a work of art, a machine, pure sex.
“These are hand-made in Italy. As far as I know there’s only one other one in Spartanburg County.”
“How did you get it?”
“We special ordered it for a customer and he never picked it up.”
“Can I ride it?”
“Sure, after you buy it.”
Why not a million? A billion? “Oh, okay. Thanks.”
“We can do layaway. If you have twenty dollars now and come in with some money every week I’ll hold it for you.”
I gave him twenty bucks and we left, but I didn’t really leave. I dreamed about that bike. I imagined myself flying over the hills of upstate South Carolina with ease, just me and my blue Pinarello. It’s all I talked about, thought about. Each week Sherri and I drove to the bike shop and visited the Pinarello, laid down another twenty bucks.
Lee G. came up with the idea that we should ride our bicycles to Myrtle Beach that summer, a distance we estimated at three hundred miles since we had to stay off of the interstate. Once we got excited about the idea others started piling on. Soon we were up to a group of ten riders, none of whom had ever ridden a distance greater than maybe ten miles. I was the only one with a decent bike, and I only owned five percent of it.
But once that seed was planted I was committed. I could see myself rolling onto the sand on my blue Pinarello, a real life Dave Stoller without all of that quarry strife or Jackie Earle Haley. The more I talked about it the more grief I took.
“Hey, Ponytail Boy, you going to ride your little bicycle to the beach?”
“I guess you don’t have to worry about your balls since you don’t got any.”
“Ah, ha ha. Klinger think he can ride a bike to Myrtle Beach. You a funny motherfucking white boy.”
(Writing that last line was the first time I remembered ever being called Klinger. This was a reference to my nose, which at least according to one individual resembled Jamie Farr’s. Either that or he was referring to the Korean vacation that I spent in a dress. Don’t judge me.)
There were two fundamental problems with our “ride to the beach” scheme: 1) We were doing a lot of talking but no bike riding; 2) At twenty bucks per week I would never get the Pinarello out of layaway. Enter my mother.
I don’t know if this is common to all households with a controlling parent, but my mother tried to quietly bring balance to The Force. My father’s primary means of control was money. Prior to him leaving us years earlier my mother never worked, but when he returned she continued working. I don’t know how she did it, but she managed to hold some of her wages back for the offering plates and for her kids. She didn’t lavish it upon us but rather used her savings to right what she perceived as injustices or to help us out of a spot. My mother’s shadow assistance was invaluable in getting onto my own two feet, and her generosity will surface many more times before I turn off the Why It Matters lights.
She must have felt my enthusiasm or seen the crazed look in my eyes because once I was a few hundred dollars into the Pinarello she approached me with the nervous energy of a rookie drug dealer. “Take it,” she said, and she stuffed a wad of bills into my hand. “If your father asks you’ve been saving up. Go get your bike.”
The first ride on my new Pinarello was my first ride on a real bicycle. Everything prior to that was a toy: my Wards Stingray knockoff; Johnny O’Donnell’s hand me down Huffy; the Western Flyer I overhauled to get to Melody; the Schwinn Continental that I bought from the pedophile neighbor so that I could ride to Melody even faster.
From that very first ride the Pinny didn’t feel separate from me. It was as if I thought and it did. I could carve turns so effortlessly that eventually I was passing cars on the descent from Chimney Rock, N.C. back to my house. I could brake on a dime and accelerate on a whim.
Hills became our specialty, the steeper the better. We were sure, the Pinny and I, that climbs were daring us to fail, so we refused to give up, no matter how badly her cranks creaked and my quads burned. And at the top I yelled at the offending hill, “You lose, you son of a bitch!” and then we’d turn and claim our reward — a screaming descent that felt like we were flying.
We spent hours together, weaving along the backroads with nothing but peach orchards all around us; the only sounds the whirr of the Pinny’s freewheel, the birds, and me literally singing with glee. “Bicycle Race” was a favorite for obvious reasons, as was The Fixx’s “Reach the Beach,” but I’d sing anything that popped into my head. Sometimes the bike would decide the song, my pedal cadence suggesting a rhythm. To this day my 1983 Pinarello Treviso is the only thing I own that I can’t imagine parting with. Take the rest of my junk, I don’t care. That Pinny isn’t a bicyle — it’s family.
But at that time there was more than fast descents and melodic rides through the peach orchards and I knew it. My mother didn’t hand me cash that day, she handed me a mandate. Do something great, she didn’t say. Show him. Show them. You are someone special. You can do great things. No one ever spoke as loudly as that quiet lady, and no one ever said more.