It was wet more than dry the front end of summer and too muddy to ride the single tracks in the Metropark valley. Instead, I rode my Specialized on the all-purpose trail and left my Schwinn hanging in the garage. The Schwinn was outfitted for dirt, with front shocks and a low stem. The Specialized was fitted with road tires, knobby on the outside and rolling on the flat side, and a higher stem. It made for faster riding on asphalt.
It made for faster riding down Hog’s Back, too, which is the entryway off Riverside Drive into the Rocky River valley. Hog’s Back is a steep two-lane road more than a half-mile long. Hunched forward on my Specialized I usually topped 40 going downhill, unless I feathered the brakes.
I rode alone most of the summer because Skip was getting married. He said he didn’t have time to get on his bike anymore and go riding, anyway. “I don’t want him going down that crazy hill and falling,” said his fiancée, Tammy. She was down on Hog’s Back.
By July it was hot, in the high 80s and the weather was heavy and humid. I could have ridden the single tracks, since they had dried up, but it was overcast the last week of July, and I was still riding the all-purpose trail. On the Thursday that week, after getting home from work, I rode twelve miles out, almost all the way to Berea. It was on the way back that I passed a tall man on a blue hybrid bike.
Inside a few minutes he was behind me, drafting, and when I slowed for a car at the crossroad to the entrance of the Little Met golf course, he slipped ahead when the car paused to let us go by. The trail goes up a long hill there and I finally caught the blue bike at the top.
I tucked in behind him and we rode fast to where the trail zigzags through some curves, and to where he got sloppy. He tried to pass two young women on blades, except on an inside-out curve, and when a biker rode up on the other side he had to go wide on the grass. At the end of the curve a ditch stretches from the trail to the Valley Parkway and he had to backtrack. I waited for him. “Nice pace,” he said later when I peeled off to go back up Hogsback, while he kept going.
Going up Hog’s Back is a slog, which is what I did, slog up the long hill.
The next day Skip and I rode downtown. His bride-to-be was still good with him riding on city streets, but not farther on into the east side ghettos. “I don’t want him getting killed in Fairfax,” said Tammy. He said he had a haircut to go to at Planet 10, which was downtown, anyway. On the way from Lakewood we rode through Ohio City to Church Street. Skip showed me the old church whose rectory had been converted into a recording studio.
“That’s where we’re having our reception,” he said. Tammy was a sometime singer and actress. We spun our bikes south on West 25th Street, crossed the bridge to Jacobs Field, and rode to the Warehouse District.
Skip pushed his bike into Planet 10’s lobby and I pushed off. On my way back home, stopping at a narrow strip of grass at the base of the Bob Hope Bridge, I saw a fat, black woman easing herself down onto the ground in front of an RTA sign. She looked up at me and smiled. I looked at her and returned the smile.
I was standing outside our garage when Skip and Tammy pulled up in her baby blue Ford Tempo. “Jerry screwed up Skip’s appointment,” she said. “He’s so unprofessional.” She was mad. “That’s not how we do business at Artistiques.”
She was a nail technician at a hair salon when she wasn’t acting.
It was mid-week when I sped back down Hog’s Back and got on the dirt trails that branch off from the Puritas Road stables. They were dry where they were level, but they weren’t much level. There were patches and mud bogs all along the tracks. I had to ford a small stream where a big tree had fallen. I jumped some baby stumps, fell down once, and when I got home turned on the outdoor hose and sprayed cold water over my head.
Vera and I drove out to Tammy’s bridal shower that weekend, at her friend’s house in Avon Lake, who was a broad-faced woman married to an Englishman who was a barge pilot. It was steamy even though it was just barely August. I was sprawled on a leather sofa in the air-conditioned family room when I noticed a small furry dog on the coffee table. I couldn’t tell if it was a stuffed toy or a dog sleeping soundly. When I reached for it the pushed-in face snapped at my fingers.
“You better watch out,” said Tammy’s friend. “He’s blind, so he bites at everything.”
I went for a ride after we got home and dusk was turning to darkness by the time I got back. As I got off my bike Snapper, our orange Maine Coon, came running onto the driveway from our neighbor’s backyard. Just when I was ready to close the garage door, Skip pulled into the driveway. Snapper ran to the back of our backyard.
“Can I borrow your lawn mower?” he asked.
Skip had Katie, Tammy’s four-year-old, with him. I picked her up, held her upside down, and spun her by her heels in tight circles around me. When we were done we talked about a nickname for her, finally settling on Skate. She waved goodbye through the window of the car as Skip pulled out.
By mid-August cumulus clouds dotted the sky and the weather was cooler than it had been. I rode my Schwinn down Hog’s Back and got off the all-purpose trail at Mastick Woods, swerving onto the dirt tracks there. I rode the track for three miles and then double-backed on the horse trail. As I did I noticed someone had come up behind me.
When he passed me I saw he was a young man wearing a Nike baseball cap instead of a helmet and riding a good-looking Trek. He was riding fast, and even though I followed him as best I could, I couldn’t catch him until he slowed suddenly. I saw why when I pulled up. Horses were coming around a bend.
He banked to our right and rode into the trees toward the river and the single tracks on the bank. I followed him, bumping over ruts and logs and through thick underbrush, but soon lost sight of him. I got on the track, then the horse trail, and then the all-purpose trail. I pushed it up the hill running along Big Met, then down, and as I came into the clear the Trek jumped onto the trail ahead of me. He was riding fast. We sped through a copse, then out to the baseball field where he widened the gap between us by jumping a wood guardrail, something I couldn’t do like he did.
I thought I might catch him on the Detroit Road climb out of the valley, except he climbed so fast I lost more ground. I finally caught up to him when he stopped at a traffic light on Riverside. We talked while I gulped air. He had known I was behind him. “I wasn’t planning on doing much today, but it ended up being a fun ride,” he said.
A week before their wedding Skip called and said Jo was out as their maid of honor. She is Tammy’s ex-friend-to-be who arranged the blind date of Tammy and Skip and who wrangled a promise that she would be maid of honor if the date led to anything. She’s also a travel agent who they gave a check to for their Cancun honeymoon. But, the travel agency called and said they were getting anxious about the payment, since they hadn’t gotten it, yet.
When Skip telephoned Jo she said she hadn’t gotten the check from Tammy, but when Tammy heard that she got on the phone with Jo. There was a loud, long argument and Jo later somehow found the payment. The honeymoon is back on, but Tammy is searching for another maid of honor.
The next day Skip called again.
“You going riding?” he asked.
“I’m just out the door,” I said.
“I’ll be there in 5 minutes.”
I was stretching in the back yard when he rode up the driveway.
“Tammy’s sick,” he said.
“What’s wrong with her?”
“Cramps. I think it’s nerves,” he said.
“Let’s go,” I said.
The sky was overcast and gusts from the southwest pushed at us sideways as we rode on Riverside along the rim of the valley. We glided down Hog’s Back and rode single tracks. The dirt was dry and deep rutted and I rode fast. My back wheel went in dangerous directions a few times. Skip held back. He didn’t want to crash.
“A little out of control there,” Skip said when we crossed over to a horse path and relaxed.
“Maybe a little,” I said.
“I want to make it to the altar in one piece,” he said.
“Getting married is risky business,” I said. “Look at you and Tammy. You were married once and it lasted for 56 days. Tammy’s been married twice and she’s got two kids by two different fathers. You might want to throw yourself down every downhill between now and the wedding day. It would make sense.”
“I don’t think so,” he said.
Coming out of the park on a smooth stretch Skip slowed down when I wasn’t looking, I got tangled in his rear tire, and went over. I skinned my knee and banged my helmet, but we were going too slow for much else to happen.
The morning of Skip’s wedding, while Vera went shopping for a gift, I rode Hog’s Back into the valley. I felt good, but a crosswind pushed me around, and I got tired. The bike felt sloppy, too. Going home I pushed hard because I didn’t want to be late for the wedding. When I finally got home I found out I had been riding on a nearly flat back tire.
Skip’s wedding went off without a hitch, but during the reception, when Vera was congratulating him, he made the shape of a handgun with his fingers pressed to his temple.
The next day, while Vera made dinner, I drove to Skip’s house with the gift we had forgotten to take to the reception. Tammy was lounging in the living room in a thick, white bathrobe and Skate was in her pj’s. While Skip and I talked in the kitchen doorway, Tammy’s old Irish setter limped up to me and licked the scrape on my knee.
By the beginning of October the park was blond and brown and maple red. I rode the all-purpose trail every other day, One Sunday morning Vera and I had breakfast at the Borderline and went for a walk on the horse trails south of the Puritas stables. That night, while I was watching the Cleveland Indians play the Seattle Mariners in the ALCS, Skip called.
“I won’t be able to ride anymore,” he said.
“Tammy?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “It’s my shoulder.”
I had seen how he couldn’t lift his right arm above his shoulder without some difficulty.
“After any ride,” he said, “roots or no bumpy roots, my shoulder’s in a lot of pain. I’ve been taking Voltaren, but my doctor told me it’s rubbing bone on bone. There’s almost no cartilage left. He said sometime in the next couple of years, depending on how fast the deterioration goes, I’ll need a replacement shoulder.”
“Oh, man!” I said.
The last Saturday of the month was the last day of the year I rode down Hog’s Back into the park. I was adjusting the strap on my helmet when a gang of neighborhood kids came walking up with rakes, brooms, and a wagon. They asked if they could rake our yard for $2.00. I said yes. They started pushing wet leaves into messy piles. The biggest of the girls walked up to me.
“Mister, can I ask you something?” she said.
“Sure,” I said.
“That small boy,” she said pointing to a small boy. “He’s having a potty emergency.”
I rang the doorbell for Vera and she started laughing coming outside, saying she would take care of the boy and supervise the raking. “Go before it gets dark,” she said. The days had gotten short.
I rode away.
Where Hog’s Back intersects with the Valley Parkway I cut across a grassy field and jumped onto a single track. The path was littered with big brown leaves. I came around a quick bend and the branches of a fallen tree alongside the track jabbed at my face. I swerved to the right and pulled on the brakes. I jumped off the bike when the tree I was going to run into became the tree I ran into. I landed on my feet and the bike was all right when I lifted it up.
On the way home I rode on the Parkway, hugging the shoulder’s white line. A big man in a white van blew his horn behind me and when he went past almost shrugged me off the road. I cursed under my breath. At home I hosed the Schwinn off and hung it up in the garage. I checked the tires. They looked good, although I knew that hanging there for the next five months all the air would slowly seep out of them.
I knew I would have to pump them up again in April before going back down on Hog’s Back again.
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.