In the Big Ring

How far away in another world can you be? Even with the crash and hum of humanity slamming against you—the people yelling, the starting horns, the racers jostling with you as they approach the starting line—you can be completely alone. The whole wide world can disappear in an instant.
I wore my race number on my chest, my Cat 5 Cycling license in the back of my jersey, my new Look pedals and cleats… I clatter-stepped through the crowd of bikes, walking forward with my twenty-two pounds of chrome-moly and machined aluminum. I was only 2 bikes away from my starting horn and if you saw me from my perspective, I was not just another racer but a bubble boy, space-alien freak, adrenaline-drenched mental patient thousand-yard staring at nothing at all.
Another horn went off.
Jake and Andy came with me, now out along the course somewhere, and they just wanted to get high, sip from a flask, and see what happened. I had been riding hard lately—and probably Kiley would come and that would be cool—but I could only feel all the wrong things inside my bubble: a slight pain in my knee, the despair of coming out a loser—and, then, the FEAR: my mouth tasted like pennies—the taste of my father in a rage, of the worn leather belt, of the smooth paddle… or fear’s other metal flavors: the lead-paste taste of dry spit as I turtled up with my ribs as they bent then cracked under the weight of punches; of standing in a circle of a hundred kids in the parking lot of the Taco John’s near Public School Stadium, with blood smeared on my face and half my knuckles scraped off—staring down another kid just as fucked up as me—and neither of us allowed to quit even as the taste of taconite collected around our teeth.
On the drive out, Jake said: “Are you sure, Finn? There could be, like, pros there.”
“There aren’t any pros in Minnesota.”
Andy: “Greg LeMond lives in Minnesota.”
“He’s riding in the Tour de France right now.”
Jake: “We’re just saying, ‘Dude—you don’t seem like you’re doing this for fun.’’
I was up next. I cracked my back by flexing my muscles—then felt my legs go heavy as wet cement while my stomach churned. The sun was still high in the summer sky. Most days we’d be down at Nokomis playing hacky-sack and getting baked at this time of day, but it was Wednesday night, which meant it was Black Dog Time Trial out on the Minnesota River. Which meant all my smack about racing was now going to be judged by hot asphalt and gravel and a stopwatch.
The horn sounded and my head emptied in a rush.
My thighs started burning in the first minute: sharp, mind-emptying pain—accompanied by panic that I had no fucking business on this bike, on this road. Black Dog was almost perfectly flat, with just a few dips and rises, just one long 30-degree curve and otherwise straight, too: 11 kilometers, round-trip. When I took the left from Nicols road onto Black Dog I was only a half-K into the race and had been in the big ring from the first 100 meters and felt like I wouldn’t even be able continue pedalling to the channel where we circled for the return leg.
Riders were started a minute apart, so the bike ahead of me was a couple football fields ahead. I had started near the end of the roster, so racers were coming back, even as I started. The exhausted, haunted, astonished faces of the riders were flushed red, their teeth showing, their cheeks blowing like a trumpet player’s, the chests of their jerseys stained with sweat. I tried to just focus on the road, my head tilted down like I was doing zazen, just able to see the rider ahead of me at the top of my vision—a level I had to maintain in front of me, or raise, so that I could still see them as I closed the gap.
At 25- to 26-mph, tucked in an aero position over my drops, I didn’t dare scan the scattered groups of people along the road to look for Kiley. I wondered if she’d even recognize me in my new yellow jersey, matching yellow racing cleats and black racing shorts?
The pain was more than I expected. And it was everywhere: my lungs hurt, my knees felt like the tendons would pop, my quads were screaming. The cycling stories all said that riding was pain. That Hinault had once ridden so hard in a mountain race that he froze his fingers to his handlebars, unwilling to abandon his lead in a snowstorm. That picking gravel out of your shredded skin was how your earned your beer. Pain… Pain is what made Winners.
Pain was also being stripped naked and whipped with a belt until your ass looked like a pulped raspberry. Pain was having your head pushed so hard into the wall you dented the sheetrock. Pain was being asked to wrestle with your drunken father and then have him go for another beer while your sight and breathing came back after he body slammed you in the still-frozen dirt of the back yard. Pain… so many of its own flavors to accompany fear: the pain of being kicked, again and again and again in the ribs, until you couldn’t breath or hear anything other than the roar of blood in your head, drowning out the laughter on the parking lot… the pain of picking the gravel out of your face.
And so I spun in the big ring, circle on circle on circle, pain’s inhabitant, powered by fear.
I didn’t see her, but I now knew Kiley was here. I felt a sharp twinge of happiness and then I went back to feeling pain and I wondered what she saw when she saw my face. Did she see the pain? What face did I deserve?
What was my face before my parents were born?
I braked hard at the turn-around and I thought I was doing pretty well, because the rider ahead of me was closer than they had been earlier. But then, back up to full cadence, back in my 12, I heard, “On your left!”
Failure. Sucking. Suckitude. Being fucked. Biting it. Blowing. That was a different kind of pain, the one that hurt with its own unfathomable variety. And I was its best present expression: a rainbow of fucked—and Kiley was just up ahead.
I added 10 rpm to my cadence and decided that the people along the road, with their indiscriminate calls of, “You can do it!” “Feel the pain,” “Leave it all on the road,” really meant it for me. And then I looked up, and I saw Kiley with the sun shining in her face and some girlfriends with her and her slightly-gapped front teeth and her smile so wide I could crawl inside it and be safe from pain forever.
“Be the man with the hammer, Finn!” she yelled.
“Go, Finn!” cried one of her girlfriends.
I put the pain in the hole she’d just blown open in my heart and pumped it, pedal stroke by pedal stroke, into that cavity. And I peeled the scars from my body and stuffed them in there, too. I threw in some rage and despair and loneliness and doubt and a flaming 55-gallon barrel of my fuck-ups—and I could feel the future closing.
The rider who had passed me earlier was just ahead of me now. I drafted him and he started to pick up and then dropped me again and we played cat-and-mouse with our pain, trading agonies to the finishing line. What the fuck kind of pain, I wondered, is HE eating?
I clocked in at 17:41 for the 11 km route. Around 23 miles an hour. The leaderboard showed only the top riders, with times like 15:03 and 15:36. The rest of us were numbers hastily penned in next to other numbers on clipboards, while we rolled ahead far enough to fall over in the gravel alongside the cars stretched a half mile behind the finish line.
I don’t know how long I lay there alone, but after a while Jake and Andy stood over me, looking down.
“Dude, you and that old fucker had a race.”
“Had to piss you off when he passed you, didn’t it?” asked Jake.
“Nice comeback, though, Finn—you almost gave me a boner with that chase.”
I squinted at the blue sky behind them, eyes burning with salt. The gravel felt good—pain’s cold massage.
“Is Kiley coming,” I asked.
Andy reached down to pull me up, “Let’s get you up and find out.”
Lycra man called out to me as I was walking my bike to the car with Jake and Andy, hoping to see Kiley on the way. “Hey, kid—how’d you do?” He was leaning against the back of a Saab with his bikes on top, drinking a Heineken. I only recognized him by his voice, which was radio-announcer low but with a smile riding in it.
“Almost 18 minutes… I got passed.”
“Welcome to your first race. I didn’t finish the first five or six road races I entered.”
“It sucks to suck,” I said.
“You don’t suck, kid,” he said, “you just have to keep riding… You have to stay in the big ring a long time before you figure out how to live in it.”
“Thanks, man,” I said. “Can’t quit with one…”
“I’m Jim,’ he said, “You can’t quit with any—and I can’t wait to see you win.”
“I don’t want to win,” I said.
“Your entire body says you want to win, kid—and your eyes say anything else is losing. What’s your name, anyway?”
“Finn,” I said, looking down at the gravel-streaked asphalt. When I looked up, Kiley was standing in front of me, her hair all fucked up by the breeze coming off the river, as she echoed me:
And fuck if I could help it, but a tear just exploded from my face and I wiped it and I leaned forward in the hopes that someone would be there to catch me.



Kasan’s “Banging the Drum”
Kasan taught: “The studious ‘Hear’; having achieved learning is ‘Being Near’; in surpassing these lies the ‘True Beyond’.” An acolyte asked, “What is the ‘True Beyond?’” Kasan answered, “Banging the drum.” The acolyte asked a new question, “What is the reality of Buddha’s teaching?” Kasan answered, “Banging the drum.” The acolyte asked again, “Forget about the Buddha’s mind, what about Buddha’s No-Mind?” Kasan answered, “Banging the drum.” The acolyte continued to press: “The enlightened–when he comes, how do you greet him?” Kasan answered, “Banging the drum.”

— from Charles Waters’ translation, Lotus in Ashes: Koans from the Mumonkan and Hekiganroku





This is the eighth section of Zen Arcade, a novel by Joel Turnipseed. We will be publishing a new section every other Sunday until Summer 2015. Read them here or get an email notification when the new section is available.

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