Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Back Pedal Brake Mechanic


My first bike had a banana seat.

I learned to ride with my Dad in an open strip of grass just off the main street of Jonesboro, the one lined by skinny trees with Joey Ramone locks of green bushy mane that had a gravel path up one side feeding back to log cabins were artisan crafts people made candles and soap to sell to summer tourists.

The bike's frame was red and white; the same colors candy striped the long vinyl seat with the chrome metal hoop at the back for prospective friends to hand on too, though none ever rode behind me that I can remember.

My Dad ran along with me as I tried to find my balance, pedaling furiously and trying to stay upright, third time charm and I bound along off the gravel path and bounced across the thick, springy grass, spot the slight embankment ahead that fed down into a shallow creek, realized I had no idea how to stop and steered my steel steed into the nearest tree. The tree stopped my bike and I managed to remain defiantly, determinedly upright.

After that Dad showed me how to backpedal to break, a lesson that often proves true in many aspects of life. By the end of the overcast afternoon I could pump that bike around as though born with it, and for several days afterwards the bike and I were nearly inseparable; if I couldn’t ride I dreamed of riding, and when riding I tried to master riding all that much better, meaning, learning from each and every wipe out, both better balance and better roadside repair. The beauty of that era of bike is the simplicity of the construction. All you needed to realign the front tire was a pair of clenched knees and some upper arm strength to ratchet the handlebars back into place. A slipped chain could be wrapped back on no worse for wear but for black fingers and streaked jeans. A flat could mean riding on the rims, but those rims could carry you to Dixie and back without warping, as though made by the Sea Bees or the US Army Corps of Engineers, made to last on the backs of hard won lessons from the past.

Not a month past learning to ride, and itching to demonstrate my skills at the drop of an eyelid, on one fine morning I encountered some youth in the same field where I’d so recently learned to ride. I had my brother with me, who hadn’t yet learned to ride but had every confidence that if I could do it, he certainly could. The kids had a bike, burlier than mine with fat, heavy treaded tires that were likely the precursors to the BMX and Mountain Bike formats both. Through some sort of braggart style big talking I persuaded the kid that seemed to own the bike, and frankly, appear overwhelmed by it and earnestly in need of someone with experience to show them what their bike really was capable of. Someone like me, ignoring the fact I’d been riding less than a month and had never ridden anything as buxom as their bike.

Sortly after I’m riding loops around the grass, empowered by my confidence and encouraged by how wonderful the kid’s bike feels to pump the pedals on, how bouncy it is, how it has a lower center of gravity and reacts with quick, twitchy leans. The kids seem enthralled, and who am I to disappoint an audience. The reality, when I recollect this anecdote now, that the kids were probably just terrified some local poor kid might be about to make off with their bike didn’t occured to me then, likely because never occurred to me to steal the blissfully blunderbuss bicycle. Why would it, I loved my banana seat ride waiting for me at home. My initial curiosity had given quickly way to a deep desire to perform, to be the dancing monkey, to hear the astonished accolades as I did the unthinkable, rode the un-ride-able, sang the un-sing-able. Or something like that. I believe I had been trying to pick something apt to emote when my brother, who I had been willfully ignoring as he begged for a turn to ride the bike despite having never actually ridden a bike previously himself, leapt out from nowhere directly in my path with his arms out as though trying to startle a tiger whose tail he’d tied to a tree with hope of making some butter.

For a split second I had two choices, and I chose to ride through him. More precisely, I rode over him without swerving, up his crotch and arching slightly across his chest. I didn’t think to backpedal brake until I’d landed on the other end of him, when I heard him gasp with shock, followed immediately by a sharp inhale that informed everyone in a half block radius what was coming, and then the tears started.

I was off the bike and over too my brother, helping him sit up, having a peek at the tread marks already raising shaped welts up his belly and chest like a tire print, trying to sooth and otherwise coerce him into not getting me into trouble in an instant. I don’t think I’d sorted out toys as bribes yet then, though I don’t think I resorted to threats then, either. I believe I just begged. And when I looked up to see if the kids were watching or making judgments about us, they and their bike were gone, some leaves drifting on the breeze like witch’s hairpins the only evidence of their passage.

Somehow I managed to convince him not to tell my parents. I have no idea how, although he might have already been formulating his revenge, so perhaps he didn’t want our parents in the way of his agenda. That night I sat in bed beneath a sheet reading something with a hand me down flashlight shaped like an upside-down L of olive plastic; a Hot Dog magazine from school maybe. I’m just beginning to flip a page when I hear a creek from outside the sheet I have like a cartoon ghost over my head. I look up as though I can see anything through cotton fabric, especially when the sole source of illumination is in my lap, and then I feel pain and see stars.

My brother waited until I was reading in bed before getting one of the wooden blocks from his toys, a blue painted dowel, a four inch column that proved ample impact enhancement for a pissed off five year old looking to inflict some payback. I opened my eyes as I felt the warm rush filling both nostrils and saw the wet hit the inside of the sheet as though spray painting a pair of Chinese fans. I yelps, escaped the tangle of bloodied sheets, clamped my hands over my nose, and ran downstairs to where my Mom and Dad were winding down by lamplight. My Mom sat with one leg tucked beneath her on the couch with her red hardcover Betty Crocker cookbook, the threadbare one I believe formerly belonged to her Grandmother in NY, the one that got a birthday card from Jimmy Carter when she turned 90 as well as a mention from Willard Scott on the Today Show morning news program back when surviving past 85 meant something. My Dad came into the living room from the kitchen, he might have been studying by then, as I believe he had resumed college before my Mom did, his influence the reason she got back into academia, a course of action, pardon the pun, that saw them both end up being professors years later.

I briefly tried to make the attack seem unprovoked; however that approach failed as soon as my brother answered the call and joined the impromptu inquiry proceedings developing in the living room, as soon as he lift up the hem of his shirt and my Mom, seeing the raised ridges of the tire print on my brother’s pale belly, she reached over and my hopes for getting away with the antics of the day faded as she lift his shirt the rest of the way, her eyes following the track to where it ended at his shoulder. I remember looking cautiously at Dad, waiting for the reprimand, blood still trickling through my fingers, though slowing as though even my own nose blood felt I deserved this smack down from my brother.

My Dad didn’t yell, if anything, he looked bemused. Not laughing, not quite yet, the initial shock and concern over seeing the tire track on cutting across my brother’s upper torso like a botched autopsy tattoo giving way to some relief as clearly no bones were broken, teeth killed, or organs burst. Dad looked from him to me, back at my brother, and back to me. He sighed. “Let me see your nose.” I dropped my hands away, he looked, went to the kitchen, I heard the tap turn on and off, he returned with a wash cloth doused with cold water. He told me to hold it to my nose and tilt my head back.

My Mom checked my brother over, took away the blue wooden block he still held clenched in tiny fist like David looking for another giant to pummel down to size. Satisfied he didn’t have anything broken, she sent him back to bed. I could feel sentencing coming. I held my breath. I waited. The need to breath forced me to pant, rekindling a small stream of blood from my left nostril. I tried to calm myself and clenched the cold rag over my nose, turned my eyes to heaven with unspoken prayer.

“Looks to me like someone got what they deserved.” Dad said with some amusement in his voice, his dry sense of humor showing through, something I’d come to appreciate when I had many more years behind me. He took the wash cloth from my face; “All done?” I nodded, tentatively breathing though my nose again, finding the passages clear and compliant. He rubbed my Mom’s shoulder and disappeared back into the kitchen with the wash cloth.

Mom followed me upstairs to get a replacement sheet for the bed and to tuck everyone in. She put the flashlight on the dresser. It stayed there for a couple months after that, my appetite for reading beneath the sheets lost for some strange reason.

Years later my brother showed me a small tattoo he’d gotten based on a drawing I’d made when I tried to teach him how to draw one of the big bug eyed aliens I liked to draw in high school. I never have told him how speechless I was over that, and not just because I was speechless. The kid I ran down with a borrowed bike, the toddler I flipped over in a shopping cart, the tween I indoor wrestling threw over the back of the couch to land on his rental cello, smashing the bridge, this person valued something I tried to teach him with a tattoo.

I hadn’t really considered this until now, but the wood block revenge is perhaps the first karmic retribution cause and consequence experience I understood, and modified behaviors because of. I’m not particularly religious, however I do believe in karma. And my own tattoo, the pair of coy fish tattooed by Shoko Sonoda, represent that belief, the one initiated from my brother’s impressive payback for my decision to run him down rather than swerve or back pedal brake. 

Not a huge stretch then to say that my brother helped influence one of my tattoos as well. Looks like we managed to make a few marks on one another through the years. Hopefully most of them were beneficial for more than brute survival.

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