Friday, April 25, 2008

Bike by Bike

When my wife picked me up from the bookstore on that fateful February afternoon, I opened the truck's door to find a tangle of gaudy steel, rubber, and self-dressed children. Thrift-shop bikes were packed into every nook and cranny of the vehicle, sharing seats with and providing footrests for children. One child complained that the handlebar was digging into her ribs.

"They're ugly," I protested as I re-arranged the bikes the best I could. "The tires are bald." I slammed the tailgate and pulled myself into the driver's seat. I gave Laura my best look of exasperation and I turned the ignition. "They're crap."

"Fix them for the kids," she said in soft Marian tones.

"I hate crap from thrift shops," I wanted to bellow, though the stores often clothe my family.

And, until spring, the bikes lay in a pile under our carport on the red lava rocks that pave our drive. Spring comes easily in North Carolina. One of the bikes was picked up, the one with training wheels, by a child visionary who dreamed of freedom, of wind in her hair, who had fire in her legs. She cajoled her parents into supervision. She rode back and forth in front of our house and the others heard the whoosh of her bike and saw the joy radiating from her cherubic cheeks. Once, as she passed closely by, the breeze stirred the latent embers of desire in other small chests, chests that also yearned for freedom regardless the cost.

I saw the flame in their eyes; I shook my head silently. I turned and looked at the pile of broken bikes that needed fixing. "Shit."

It happened nearly as soon as a thrift-shop bike was ridden, the tire would go flat. One after another, as systematically as bubble wrap. So I went to the bike shop and laid out big money for a quality floor pump. (It also inflates automobile tires easily and has an accurate gauge.) Next, I stopped at Wal-Mart to pick up new tires and inner tubes, bike tools, and helmets (after a brief conversation with a police officer who stopped by one afternoon while the kids were riding bareheaded). All told, I spent nearly as much as I would had I bought all new bikes for the kids. Of course, to be fair, they still wouldn't have helmets, and I wouldn't have my bike tools and my expensive floor pump.

So I made a sign and officially opened Fat-Ass Bike Repair, the red-neck branch (is there another?), and went to work. I changed multiple inner tubes and put on new white, BMX style tires. The floor pump worked beautifully. Having the proper tools for the job was a dream. Soon the girls were riding. And within days, all of them were riding without training wheels. With Vulcan still sweating furiously in my breast, I retrieved my 25-year-old Raleigh 12-speed. It's moved with us everywhere across the Southeast, but hasn't been ridden since college. It needed a new tube for the front tire. It will also eventually need new brakes, as the old ones brake softly, and new shifters, which don't work (or perhaps derailers - I'm not sure yet). The seat is fine, if too small and too hard - a bit like bull-riding on a birch stump, I would imagine - and my large ass looks as if it is on the verge of swallowing it. But the bike works. (It was this bike that gave me piles my freshman year in high school. We have memories.)

Still, my wife needed a bike also. When we bought our house, two old bikes were parked under the carport. One was a men's 10-speed and the other was an old Huffy BayPointe 3-speed, a vintage cruiser, for a woman. The BayPointe was in need of some air and care, but that's about it. And soon, after adding a basket, and after a good rust scrub and wash, the bike was ready to go.

The girls rode their bikes at every opportunity. They gained the confidence and skills necessary for a trip down to the locally owned grocery (about a half mile down the road) and rode down yesterday for soda and candy with their mama. (Laura's basket detaches from its mount and can be used as a grocery basket inside the store, which is cool.) They made their daddy proud - especially when they brought him a Snickers.

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