By Ed Staskus
It was wetter than dry the front end of summer and too muddy to ride the single tracks in the Rocky River valley. Instead, I rode my Specialized on the all-purpose trail and left my Schwinn hanging in the garage. The Schwinn is outfitted for dirt, with front shocks and a low stem. The Specialized is fitted with road tires, knobby on the outside and smooth rolling on the flat side, and it has a higher stem. It makes for faster riding on asphalt.
It makes for faster riding down Hogsback Lane, too, which is the entryway off Riverside Drive into the valley. Hogsback is built up a steep shale hill. It’s more than a half-mile long. When the shale slumps and slides, the two-lane surface crumbles, and it is smart imperative to keep your eyes on the road.
Hunched forward on my Specialized I could top 40 MPH going downhill, unless I feathered the brakes.
I rode by myself most of the summer because Steve was getting married. He said he didn’t have much time to get on his bike anymore, anyway. “I’ve got a lot going on,” he explained. When we were kids, we called him Delicate Steve. At least until he joined the Army, when he became Steve-o, even though his real name was Azuolas. He had gone to a public school and Azuolas always got him on the losing end, so he went by his middle name. He wasn’t a mighty oak, anyway. I had gone to a Catholic school in the old neighborhood, full of Serbs, Slovenes, and Poles. My name was never a problem.
We had been riding together on-and-off since he moved to the west side. We met again by accident. Our paths had diverged, but we still had enough in common to hit the Metropark single tracks and all-purpose trail together.
“I don’t want him going down that crazy hill and falling,” said his fiancée, Tammy. She was down on Hogsback. She didn’t want a wreck walking the aisle at her side.
“You be careful, too,” Vera said to me. “I don’t want you wrecking either.”
By July it was hot, in the high 80s and the air was humid and heavy. I could have ridden the single tracks, since they had dried up, but it was overcast the last week of July, and I stayed on the all-purpose trails. Towards the end of 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 in a yellow helmet on a blue hybrid.
Inside a few minutes he was behind me, drafting, and when I slowed for a car at the crossroad to the entrance of Little Met, 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 away 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 Hogsback is a long hard slog, which is what I did, slog up the long hill. By the time I got near the crest, I was on the verge of slipping backwards.
The next day Steve and I rode downtown. He said he had an appointment for a haircut at Planet 10, which was downtown, where I would leave him. On the way from Lakewood we rode through Ohio City to Church Street. Steve 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 actress and singer.
They were getting married at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church instead of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, where Vera and I had gotten married. Steve was Lithuanian-American like me, but even though Tammy was an atheist, her mother was Episcopalian and wanted her to be married in a church. She didn’t like the ethnic church on the east side, and so it was St. Peter’s.
We spun our bikes south on West 25th Street, crossed the bridge to Jacobs Field, and rode to the Warehouse District. His bride-to-be was still good with him riding on city streets, but not farther on into the east side ghettos. We used to push to the Heights along Cedar, but she had quashed that.
“I don’t want him getting killed in Fairfax,” said Tammy.
Steve angled his bike into Planet 10’s lobby and I rtambled away. After zigzagging around downtown, on my way home, stopping at a narrow strip of grass at the base of the Bob Hope Bridge, I saw a fat woman with a gab of shopping bags easing herself down onto the ground in front of an RTA sign. She looked up at me and smiled. She was a black woman going to the east side.
I was standing outside our garage when Steve and Tammy pulled up in her baby blue Ford Tempo. His bike was sticking out of the trunk, the trunk bungee corded. “Jerry screwed up Steve’s appointment,” she said. “He’s so unprofessional.” She was mad. “That’s not how we do business at Artistiques.”
She was a sometime nail technician at a hair salon when she wasn’t acting.
It was mid-week when I rode back down into the park and got on the dirt trails that branch off from the stables at Puritas Road. 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 on my head.
Vera and I drove out to Tammy’s bridal shower that weekend, which was at her best friend’s house in Avon Lake. She was a big-faced woman married to an Englishman who was a barge pilot. It was steamy as hell 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 dog dead asleep or a stuffed toy dog looking asleep. 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. Twilight was turning to night by the time I got back. As I got off my bike Snapper, our Maine Coon, came running onto the driveway from our neighbor’s backyard. Just when I was ready to close the garage door, Steve pulled into the driveway. Snapper ran to the back of the backyard chasing a chipmunk.
“Can I borrow your lawn mower?” he asked.
Steve had Katie, Tammy’s four-year-old, with him. I picked her up, held her upside down, and spun her by her heels in quick tight circles around me. When we were done, we talked about a nickname for her, finally settling on Skate.
“It rhymes with Kate.”
She waved and waved goodbye through the window of the car as Steve-o pulled out with my lawn mower. If Katie hadn’t been with him, I wouldn’t have lent him the mower. If he happened to return things, they were always dirty or broken.
By mid-August cumulus clouds were dotting the sky and the weather was cooler than it had been. I rode my Schwinn down Hogsback 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 wearing a 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.
We waited while the horses strolled by.
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 back on 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 had gone around and was riding faster. 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, even if I tried as hard as I could.
It would just end badly. I went around. It went well.
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 where he was stopped at a red 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.
“I know you,” I said.
“Yeah, I work at the Latvian Credit Union, where you do your banking.”
The Lithuanian Credit Union had gone out of business after its president and several employees were arrested by the FBI for embezzling $12 million dollars, half of the bank’s assets. The state closed the bank. Vera and I got a check a few months later from the insurance corporation and joined the Latvian Credit Union in Lakewood.
“I saw the Vytis decal on your fender,” he said. There was a red decal of the White Knight on my rear X-Blade fender. “Not many people know what that is,” I said.
A week before their wedding Steve called and said JoJo was out as their maid of honor.
JoJo was Tammy’s ex-friend-to-be who arranged Tammy and Steve’s blind date when Tammy had been on the prowl after her latest divorce and who was promised she would be maid of honor if the date led to anything. She was a travel agent. Tammy gave her cash for their Cancun honeymoon. But then the travel agency called and said they were getting anxious about the payment, since they hadn’t received it, yet.
When Steve telephoned JoJo, she said she hadn’t gotten any cash from Tammy, but when Tammy heard that she rushed to the phone. There was a loud long argument and JoJo somehow later found the cash. The honeymoon was back on, but Tammy had to last-minute search for another maid of honor.
The next day Steve called again.
“Are you going riding?” he asked.
“I’m just going out the door,” I said.
“I’ll be there in five minutes. I need some fresh air.”
I was stretching my bad back in the backyard 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 us sideways as we rode on Riverside along the rim of the valley. We glided down Hogsback and rode single tracks. The dirt was late summer dried out and the ruts were bad, but I rode fast. My back wheel went in dangerous directions a few times. Steve held back. He didn’t want to face plant.
“A little out of control there,” Steve 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. “Just take a look at you and Tammy. You were married once, and it lasted for 78 days. Tammy’s been married twice, and she’s got a kid by one of the dads. You might want to throw yourself down every downhill between now and the wedding day. It might make more sense.”
“I don’t think so,” he said, giving me a flustered look.
Coming out of the park on a smooth stretch Steve slowed down when I wasn’t looking, I got tangled in his rear tire, and went sideways over the handlebars. I skinned my knee and banged my helmet, but we were going too slow for much else to happen.
“Crash test dummies!” a crow squawked.
The morning of Steve’s wedding, while Vera went shopping for a gift, I rode Hogsback 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.
Steve’s wedding went off without a hitch, but during the reception, when Vera was congratulating him, he made the shape of a gun with his hand with his finger pressed to his temple.
The next day, while Vera made Sunday dinner, I drove to Steve’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 Katie was in her pajama’s. While Steve 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 behind South Mastick. That night, while we were watching the “The French Connection” on TV, Steve 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 trying hard.
“After any ride,” he said, “any ride at all, ruts roots or no roots, my shoulder’s in a lot of pain. I’ve been taking Celebrex, 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 rest of it 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 into the park. It was getting too wet and cold. 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 $5.00. 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 came 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, as well.
Where Hogsback 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. A flock of geese went by overhead. I came around a quick bend and the branches of a fallen tree on the side 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 road, instead of the all-purpose trail, hugging the shoulder’s white line. A burly man in a shiny white pick-up blew his horn behind me, and when he went past, he almost shrugged me off the road, giving me the finger. I cursed under my breath. Some people are jerks. There’s no getting around it or doing anything about it. At home I hosed the Schwinn off and hung it up in the garage.
I was sure by then it was the end of Steve-o. He wasn’t going to be Delicate Steve anymore. He was going to be Azuolas, raising a family, like a mighty oak, probably having another child-or-two while he still had time. I would be riding alone next year. I checked the tires. They looked good, although I knew that hanging upside down in the garage for the next five months all the air would slowly seep out of them.
I was going to miss Steve-o, but when you ride with somebody else you always have to wait until they’re ready, until the acorns are all in a row. When you ride by yourself you can go whenever your bike is spit and polished. Vytis was a metalhead for his liege, and even though his decal brings up the rear, going it alone is the real deal. Nobody wants to be alone, but sometimes you just want to be left alone.
I would have to pump the tires up again in April, before going back down into the valley, staying headline and keeping a peeled eye on the road down Hogsback, leaves budding, strips of daffodils blooming, bumblebees and turkey buzzards back in the warming air, the new fresh spring fine-spun after an icebox winter on Lake Erie.
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.