My first bicycle was a sixth birthday present: A blue Montgomery Ward knockoff of a Schwinn Stingray; sissy bar and ape hanger handlebars; a black banana seat with a white racing stripe. I wasn’t a quick learner so I spent the first few weeks running next to my ride up and down my neighbor, Swede’s, driveway, imagining the boss wheelies I would eventually pop. Eventually I tamed the beast and learned the secret of childhood: Two wheels expand the neighborhood.
Three years later I moved up to a lime green diamond frame Huffy with drop handlebars and a coaster brake, purchased from the legendary Johnny O’Donnell for twenty bucks. Johnny was moving up to a ten speed. Owning his old Huffy was like owning a holy relic. It was much too big for me — I had to stand on the curb just to get my leg over — but I was riding The Kid’s bike.
Another five years passed and I lost my interest in bicycles. My little silver Honda expanded the neighborhood like no bicycle could. I could ride for miles, the only rule being that I couldn’t get on a main road since I was too young to drive legally.
And then a pretty girl fell for me. I’d had my kissing and fondling fun over the year since Holly made out with me at the sock hop, but no one had taken an interest in me longer than a party. But Melody did. She was a year behind me in school, jet black hair and dark brown eyes, big red lips and just the slightest hint of overbite. She dressed like an Untouchable but she didn’t act like one.
The third time we talked on the phone she burst into TNT. I could hear it playing in the background.
“You like AC/DC?”
“Yeah, they rock.”
Later she would confess to disliking the Aussie menace. “I borrowed it from my sister,” she told me. “I thought it would impress you.” Her tastes ran more toward Hall and Oates. “You Make My Dreams Come True” was her favorite song because “it reminds me of you.” Puppy love.
Melody’s mother worked at the school district office, which was adjacent to our junior high school. Each afternoon we would say goodbye. I would load up onto the bus and she would hoof over to the district office, where she sat around for an hour waiting for her mother. “I wish you didn’t have to take the bus,” she would say.
“Me too,” and then the big black and white engines of the DC-3 would growl to life and our melodrama would end until the next morning.
And then one afternoon on my way home from the bus stop I found a rusty, baby blue Western Flyer ten speed laying in a ditch. It was ugly and in pieces, but it had gears. With gears I could climb the big hills in Timberlake — I could handle the monster climb on the other side of Rainbow Lakes Bridge — and unlike my motorcycle I could ride the main roads. The bicycle could expand my neighborhood again, this time all the way to my junior high 6.5 miles away. All the way to Melody.
I dragged the carcass home, took it down to my father’s workshop and stripped it to the frame. For two weeks I sanded, painted, polished and greased until the rusty baby blue Western Flyer was a gleaming silver ten speed. Fuck the bus.
For the next year I rode my bike thirteen miles a day, just for an hour with Melody. When school let out for the summer I rode to her house when I knew her mother was at work for whatever time I could get. And when the bike couldn’t get to her the telephone could.
We spent hours on the phone discussing absolutely nothing. It was enough just to be connected by those four volts bubbling through copper wire. I couldn’t even break the current long enough to pay attention to my pal Hal when he stayed the night. He entertained himself with a bottle of gin and spent the evening blacked out by the stereo.
When talent show time came around I learned that Melody played piano. Talent show meant rehearsals, and rehearsals meant more after school time. I talked Mr. Gannon, the talent show coordinator, into letting me man the lights and curtain. We met twice per week in the school auditorium. Melody practiced piano and I practiced opening the curtain.
The big night arrived. Winkie did an improvised pop and lock routine to Lakeside’s “Fantastic Voyage.” Some kid from my science class knocked out a nice version of Hank Jr.’s “Country Boy Can Survive.”
The third act was Melody. She walked on stage in a red satin dress, black hair perfect, sat at the piano and launched into Olivia Newton-John’s “I Honestly Love You” for the packed auditorium. But she didn’t. She sang it to me, the hunchbacked curtain puller in the wings; my own Esmerelda serenading me in front of the entire school.
I loved that girl dearly, more dearly than a puppy love should be allowed, and like every stupid teenaged boy I eventually managed to earn her hatred. I can’t complain. My time with Melody sparked my love for bicycles and a secret sentimental fondness for Hall and Oates.