Tuesday, July 26, 2011
A Laughing Matter
By the time I inherited my brothers’ three-speed bicycle, the odometer had already recorded more than 3,000 miles. Unfortunately, I don’t know how many miles I added myself, because the odometer stopped working shortly after I began riding. If I had to guess, I’d say I traveled another thousand before the bike finally disintegrated.
Although I usually rode the bus, I did take the bike to Wilson School one morning when I was in the fourth grade, to participate in a bicycle safety program. It wasn’t until I was pedaling my way through an obstacle course of orange traffic cones that I realized just how broken down the thing was. The seat squeaked steadily, the spokes clicked, the tires were ancient and cracked, the reflectors were missing, the chain and lower part of the frame were caked with dust and used tractor oil, the paint was gone, the glass on the speedometer had disappeared, and the metal basket attached to the handlebars looked like it had been used to haul bricks.
The situation provided some amusement — to those in charge, as well as several of my schoolmates who lived in town and owned shiny bicycles that had never been off the pavement. Having lived an orderly, civilized life, they had no idea what my bike had been through — the number of puncture vines that had been pulled from the tires, the clouds of gnats and dust it had passed through, the uneven ground strewn with sticks and weeds it had been made to navigate. And so they laughed. And because it would have been ridiculous to feel offended, I laughed with them and told them they were jealous, then offered to sell the bicycle to the highest bidder.
I had no trouble passing the part of the test devoted to skill, but the bicycle itself was deemed unfit for use on the road. One of the reasonable adults on hand gave me a checklist of the things he said needed my immediate attention. I looked at it politely, folded it, put it in my pocket, and threw it away when I got home.
I saw the matter this way: The bicycle had served faithfully for years, and was still good enough to ride down Avenue 408 past the ditch by Joe Mulford’s house, then across Road 80 by the Miamoto place, all the way to the far side of the open field where the Schwabs grew melons and packed them in a little wooden shed full of black spiders. All told, it was almost three-quarters of a scenic mile, the entire distance of which I was gloriously free.
From Songs and Letters, originally published March 31, 2006.