After my mom went to bed, I noticed that there was still half a bottle of red wine left in the living room. I carried it upstairs, lit some incense, fried all of a well-packed oney, then settled in for Eno’s “Apollo” and a night of my own—with my own stars, my own journey. You stare at candle light through a glass full of red wine, and watch the glow, the play of shadows, the red against darkness… and you know that there must be, somewhere, a beating heart.
“Jesus Christ, motherfucker — wake up!”
Jake stood looking down at me, spitting into a can of Dew. It can be very hard to be awake, at any hour of the day, but today… Not a good day.
“We’re going for a ride, Finn.”
“You fucking organized it, at my place.”
I looked at Jake, smiling, blond hair rolling from his well-tanned face, Clash t-shirt on. Jake. I swung my legs from beneath my blankets and sat up.
“Right. A ride. I need a ride.”
“Better get up, then. Your mom is making breakfast.”
Todd was already eating when I got downstairs, Sam was doing Czerny exercises, and Jake was helping himself. There were hashed browns, sausage patties, french toast, orange juice, and a bronze pitcher of coffee stacked on the small table in the dinette corner of our kitchen.
“Your water bottles are cooling in the fridge, Finn,” said my mom, as if my first weekend at home were my 100th, and history was a nightmare woken up from daily, served with breakfast.
If you can make a tradition in two summers, it was a summer tradition for me and Jake and Todd to go for long weekend rides on our bikes, out to Bush Lake Road, out over Cedar Bridge, out onto Black Dog or onto 13 and long stretches of highway chased only by pick-ups pulling horse trailers and the occasional Harley. It was how we met, in fact, with me in the garage, two summers ago, tearing down my Fuji and putting on the new Shimano 600 group I’d saved up for all the last year—derailleurs, cassette, cranks, shifters, brakes, cables, everything: light and new and hand-crafted by me, onto my bike.
“Good Question,” asked Jake, as he heard me torquing a six-speed cassette onto my rear wheel hub and howling Elvis Costello.
“Sometimes you have to walk on,” I said.
“The times are troubled.” he replied.
“Nothing funny about them.”
We both laughed—and that is how friends are made. And how we rode. And we rode everywhere.
Todd rode an older Peugeot we “found” with a sad-assed 3-number lock combination down at the park one night; Jake rode a Masi—just like Breaking Away—that he paid for in cold hard classified cash; and I rode a Team Fuji that I had taken down to 19-and-a-half pounds by mowing lawns, shoveling walks, and generally being a cheap-assed bastard in every regard other than record-buying. The wall of my mom’s garage was half spray-painted rage, half evidence of the money I dropped on bike parts, and entirely the place I’d spend all day jamming to mix tapes—The Clash, The Jam, Costello, Sex Pistols, ‘Mats, Hüsker Dü, Shaman Clowns— while deconstructing a bicycle: my Park stand in the corner; peg board covered in Sharpie-outlined tools; extra sprockets; long cranks. That and graffitied across two of the three walls: an anarchist sign, a Suburbs stencil, Black Flag’s logo, and my own freehand tribute to the Sex Pistol’s last show at Winterland: “D’you ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?!”
I guess my mom was happier that it was all on the inside of the garage rather than on the outside. Like the Proximity, image was everything—and I made sure that everything looked together on the outside. Hell, upgrading the group on my bike was a function of how well I kept the yard aligned to perfection, to the Proximity. It may be complete bullshit—but you know: sometimes you can use bullshit to your advantage.
Once Jake and Todd and I got into our clips and out onto the road we headed south on Nicollet Avenue, heading toward Richfield, then Bloomington. GI shacks—all these small, one-and-a-half storey houses built when the American dream was right-sized; before Reagan took dynamite to it; 7-11s, Super-America’s—everything screamed unlimited hours and no future, but we rode past them anyway, just warming up, sweating out a hangover, not really paying attention to the desperation and decay, but instead rebelling, stroke-by-stroke, turning wheels on pavement, rebelling against “that shit,” all of it wheels within wheels in our heads. The sun spotting us on our ride as we spun beneath canopies of ash and silver maple and the last of the elms.
Once we got out to Old Shakopee Road, it was downhill cruising to the Cedar Avenue Bridge and the satisfying music of six sets of wheels playing xylophone on the wood planks hovering over the Minnesota River.
“Finn,” cried Todd, as we approached the bridge, “Just remember–if you drop us, we can’t help you get laid this summer!”
“True story,” said Jake, who was a better rider than Todd. “We know you have a lot to burn off, dude—but remember who you’re riding with: we’re here to help.”
What was my face before my parents were born?
“No shit, Finn. This is true wisdom: bike less, fuck more.”
I pulled over to the side of the road and dropped my bike, just before the bridge. It was less to do with Jake and Todd and the mundanities of my first summer of sex than it was a real thrashing, a violent, hell-bent crashing of life ahead of me. Just off the banks of the Minnesota was a school of massive carp feeding, just below the bridge. Their silver and yellow scales shimmered beneath the muddy brown waters, the green of the algae; the madness of their fray countered by their slow, meditative grace once they broke off as individuals, just a short distance beyond.
“Too bad we don’t have our bows,” said Jake as he sketched down the gravel bank beside me.
“Awww…,” asked Todd, “can you fuckers not SMELL that?”
He was right. There was a very large, and very rotting fish in the vicinity, and nothing the cool breeze blowing across the Minnesota River could do to mask it. This was not your “fish-and-algae-on-a-hot-day” smell, but the rank, wretched smell of death, which turned stronger as the wind shifted.
“I wanna see!” yelled Todd.
“I want to get the fuck out of here,” said Jake.
Gravel scattered as Todd ran up the bank, over the road and down, after barreling between scrub bushes, to the other bank. “OHHHH!”
“I don’t want to see it,” said Jake.
“Yeah, me either,” I said.
“But we’re going to go see it,” said Jake.
It had to be 40 pounds and close to four feet long. Maggots crawled out of its eyes and belly and its scales were now a dark brown, tinged to black. The river was cut into the bank at this section and the slow eddy swirled with algae, the water a bock beer brown beneath it, the grass rising high from the banks. It didn’t matter that it was a fish we were staring down at, we were staring down at death, our feet firmly planted at a murder scene.
“It’s fucking AWESOME!”
“It’s fucking gross.”
“I’m getting my bike,” I said, turning back to the road.
Todd continued, “Dudes—that was just fucking RAD.”
“I’m going to spark,” said Jake, pulling a dugout from the cargo pocket of his cut-off camouflage pants.
“Dude—doctor ordered,” I said. “But not for me today.”
After we crossed the bridge, we took a right down onto Black Dog Road, which ran West toward the massive NSP power plant, whose stacks rose in the distance. Ahead of us on Black Dog road was a guy on a fancy bike, practically glowing in Lycra. He was spinning at a high cadence and riding straight on a line. Like a lure.
Click. Click. Rattle. Click. In the big ring. In the biggest gear. High or not high, I had a second sense for ring size and ratio and cadence. My speed a simple function of spinning and oxygen and glucose stores—my hope a function of their playing out. And today? They played well. I dropped Todd and Jake instantly, a quarter mile behind me by the time I looked back, and I was soon riding hard on the back wheel of Lycra-Man. As we turned the only corner on Black Dog road, I decided to see what would happen if I pulled out from behind him and challenged him wheel-to-wheel.
I could feel the wind pushing against me, heard him click into higher gears, pant at keeping up his cadence, and slowly, without any doubt, I pull ahead of him… just pounding the crank as hard and fast as I could, letting myself dissolve into a hundred revolutions per minute, in top gear, head tucked into the wind… nothing else mattered. I just put my head down over the handlebars and watch the ground whir past my as I thought up nothing but the pain, nothing but turning the crank, nothing but…. I didn’t dare, but—freedom.
When I let up on the pedals and began to coast as the I-35W bridge loomed above me, I looked up and Lycra was no longer behind me, but a quarter-mile ahead, stopped to let me catch up to him.
“You a racer?” he asked as I pulled up beside him.
Why would he even ask after kicking my ass like that? Todd and Jake were bobbing in the heat, in its waves, slow wobbling shadows rising from the road behind us. We were on the other side of the freeway, which flowed above us. “Racer” I said in my head, looking out at the river, then down at the small sprays of gravel on the black asphalt. My Chuck Taylor’s were starting to show a hole in the pinky-toe. My clips were fucked up from hitting curbs. My thighs burned. Who the fuck was I? Forget “Racer”—did I even know who I was?
“You should. There’s a time trial series on this road—every Thursday through July. You might be surprised at how much fun you have.”
“Yeah. You don’t need to win—just race. And who knows? You may even learn how to express yourself on a bike.”
“What do you mean?”
“You tried too hard; gave up too early.”
“I was pushing as hard as I could.”
“Hmmm…,” said Lycra-Man. “Maybe you were. Maybe you were doing something else wrong? Thinking of your own pain? Thinking about your gears or cadence? Looking for a man in bright yellow Lycra. Chasing—instead of riding.” He let these questions hang in the air, then put his toes in his clips before turning back to me, “You should come out some Thursday. It’ll cost you ten bucks to get your license, but something tells me that’ll be the hardest part of your ride. And the easiest thing for you to commit.”
“The Strong Man”
“Why doesn’t the strong man lift his legs?” Asked Shogen Osho. He replied: “That’s not how he speaks.”
Mumon remarked on this striking passage: “Shogen lays bare his insides. But no one understands. And if someone should dare to understand him, I will beat him with my stick! Why? To find unadultered gold, you must find it in fire.”
This is the fourth 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.