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, Frank rode his Specialized on the all-purpose trail and left his 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 smooth rolling on the flat side and had a higher stem. It made for faster riding on asphalt.
It made for even faster rolling down Hogsback Lane, which is the entryway off Riverside Dr. 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 becomes smart to keep your eyes on the road.
Hunched forward on his bike Frank could top 40 MPH going downhill, unless he feathered the brakes.
He rode alone most of the summer because his friend Steve Petrauskas was getting married. He said he didn’t have time to get on his bike anymore, anyway. “I’ve got a lot going on,” he explained. When they were kids, everybody 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 his name always landed him on the losing end, so he went by his middle name, Stephen. He wasn’t a mighty oak, anyway, which is what his name means.
Frank had gone to a Catholic school in the old neighborhood, full of Serbs, Slovenes, and Poles. His name was never a problem, even though it was Pranciskus Kazukauskas. When his father got a promotion, it became Glass. His name meant ‘free,’ but it became Frank in grade school.
They had been riding together on-and-off since Steve moved to the west side. They met again by accident. Their paths had diverged, but they still had enough in common to hit the Metropark single tracks and all-purpose trail together.
“I don’t want him racing that crazy hill and falling,” said his fiancée, Tammy. She was down on Hogsback. She didn’t want a train wreck walking down the aisle at her side.
“You be careful, too,” Vera said to Frank in their backyard. “I don’t want you wrecking either.”
By July it was hot, in the high 80s and the air was humid and heavy. Frank could have ridden the single tracks, since they had dried up, but it was overcast the last week of July, and he stayed on the all-purpose trails. Towards the end of that week, after getting home from work, he rode twelve miles out, almost all the way to Berea. It was on the way back that he passed a tall man in a yellow helmet on a blue hybrid.
Inside a few minutes yellow helmet was behind Frank, drafting, and when he slowed for a car at the crossroad to the entrance of Little Met, he slipped ahead when the car paused to let them go by. The trail goes up a long hill there and Frank finally caught up at the top.
He tucked in behind him and they rode fast to where the trail zigzags through some curves, and to where yellow helmet 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. Frank waited for him to catch up.
“Nice pace,” he said when Frank peeled off to go back up Hogsback, while he kept going. Going up Hogsback is a long hard slog, which is what he did, slog up the long hill. By the time he got near the crest, he was on the verge of a standstill.
The next day Steve and Frank rode downtown. Steve said he had an appointment for a haircut at Planet 10, on West 9th Street, and wanted a pedal. On the way from Lakewood, they rode through Ohio City to Church Street. Steve showed him 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 Frank had gotten married. Steve was Lithuanian-American like him, 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 Lithuanian church in North Collinwood, so it was St. Peter’s in Lakewood.
They spun south on West 25th Street, crossed the bridge to Jacobs Field, and rode to the Warehouse District. The bride-to-be was still good with Steve riding on city streets, but not farther into the east side ghettos, like they used to do, to Cleveland Heights along Cedar Rd. She quashed that.
“I don’t want him getting killed in Fairfax,” Tammy said.
Steve pushed his bike into Planet 10’s lobby and Frank rambled away. After zigzagging around downtown, on his way home, stopping at a narrow strip of grass at the base of the Bob Hope Bridge, squeezing his water bottle, he watched a fat woman with shopping bags easing herself down to the ground in front of an RTA sign. She looked up at Frank and smiled, crooked brown teeth. She was going back to the near east side, maybe thinking of killing Steve if he rode his bike past her house.
He was standing outside his 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 Frank rode back 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 level much. There were patches and mud bogs all along the tracks. He had to ford a small stream where a big tree had fallen. He jumped some baby stumps, fell down once, and when he got home turned on the outdoor hose and sprayed cold water on his head.
Vera and he drove 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 a ruddy Englishman who was a barge pilot. It was steamy as hell even though it was just barely August. Frank was sprawled on a leather sofa in the air-conditioned family room when he noticed a small furry dog on the coffee table. He couldn’t tell if it was a dog dead asleep or a stuffed dog looking dead. When he reached for it the pushed-in face snapped at his fingers.
“You better watch out,” big face said. “He’s blind, so he bites at everything.”
He went for a ride after they got home. Twilight was turning to night by the time he got back. Snapper, their orange Maine Coon, came running onto the driveway from the neighbor’s backyard. Just when he was ready to close the garage door, Steve pulled into the driveway.
“Can I borrow your lawn mower?” he asked.
“All right, but don’t break it.”
Steve was notorious for either busting or never returning borrowed tools. He had Katie, Tammy’s four-year-old, with him. Frank picked her up, held her upside down, and spun her by her heels in tight circles. When they were done, they talked about a nickname for her, finally settling on Skate.
“It rhymes with Kate.”
She waved goodbye through the window of the car as Steve pulled out with the lawn mower. If Katie hadn’t been with him, I wouldn’t have lent him the mower, Frank thought. That’s probably why he brought her along.
By mid-August cumulus clouds were dotting the sky and the weather was cooler than it had been. He rode his Schwinn down Hogsback and got off the all-purpose trail at Mastick Woods, veering onto the dirt tracks there. He rode the track for three miles and then double-backed on the horse trail. As he did, he noticed somebody had come up behind him.
When he went by, he saw the rider was wearing a baseball cap instead of a helmet and on a good-looking Trek. He was riding fast, and even though he followed him as best he could, he couldn’t catch him until he slowed suddenly. He saw why when he pulled up. Horses were coming around a bend.
They waited while the horses cantered past.
The Trek turned to the right and rode into the trees toward the river and the single tracks on the bank. Frank followed him, bumping over ruts and logs and through thick underbrush, but soon lost sight of him. He pushed up the hill running along Big Met, then down, and as he came into the clear baseball cap jumped onto the trail ahead of him. He had gone around and was riding faster. They sped through a copse, then out to the baseball field where baseball cap widened the gap by jumping a wood guardrail, something he couldn’t do, even if he tried as hard as he could.
It would just end badly. He went around. It went well.
He thought I might catch the Trek on the Detroit Rd. climb out of the valley, except he climbed so fast Frank lost more ground. He finally caught up to him where he was waiting at a red light on Riverside Dr. They talked while Frank gulped air.
“I wasn’t planning on doing much today, but it ended up being a fun ride,” he said.
“I know you,” Frank said.
“Yeah, I work at the Latvian Credit Union, where you do your banking.”
The Lithuanian Credit Union in North Collinwood 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 he got a check a few months later from the insurance corporation and they 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 Frank’s rear X-Blade fender. “Not many people know what that is,” Frank said.
A week before the 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. She was promised she could be maid of honor if the date led to anything. JoJo was a travel agent. Tammy gave her a cash down payment for a 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, but when Tammy heard that she rushed to the phone. There was a loud long argument and JoJo somehow found the money. The honeymoon was back on, but Tammy had to last-minute find another maid of honor. She was an all the time improvisor.
The next day Steve called again.
“Are you going riding?” he asked.
“I’m just going out the door,” Frank said.
“I’ll be there in five minutes. I need some fresh air.”
Frank was working out the kinks in his back when Steve 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,” Frank said.
The sky was overcast and gusts from the southwest pushed them around as they rode Riverside Dr. along the rim of the valley. They glided down Hogsback and rode single tracks. The dirt was late summer dried out and the ruts were bad, but they rode fast. Frank’s 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 they crossed over to a horse path and relaxed.
“Maybe a little,” Frank said.
“I want to make it to the altar in one piece,” he said.
“Getting married is risky business,” Frank 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.”
“I don’t think so,” Steve said, giving him a flustered look. “Anyway, I intend to keep my eyes half shut after the wedding.”
Coming out of the park on a smooth stretch Steve slowed down when Frank wasn’t looking, he got tangled in his rear tire, and went sideways over the handlebars. He skinned his knee and banged his helmet, but they 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, Frank rode Hogsback into the valley. He felt good, but a crosswind was blowing, and he got tired. The bike felt sloppy, too. Going home he pushed hard because he didn’t want to be late for the wedding. When he finally got home, he found out he 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, Steve made the silhoutte of a gun with his hand with his finger pressed to his temple.
The next day, while Vera made Sunday dinner, he drove to Steve’s house with the gift they had forgotten to take to the reception. Tammy was lounging in the living room in a thick, white bathrobe and Skate was in her pajama’s. While Steve and he talked in the kitchen doorway, Tammy’s old setter limped up to him and licked the scrape on his knee.
By the beginning of October, the park was yellow and maple red. Frank rode the all-purpose trail every other day. One Sunday morning Vera and he had breakfast at the Borderline Café and went for a walk on the horse trails behind South Mastick. That night, while they were watching a movie on TV, Steve called.
“I won’t be able to ride anymore,” he said.
“Tammy?” Frank asked.
“No,” he said. “It’s my shoulder.”
Frank had seen how he couldn’t lift his right arm above his head 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!” Frank exclaimed.
The last Saturday of the month was the last day of the year he rode in the park. It was getting too wet and cold. He was adjusting the strap on his helmet when a gang of neighborhood kids came walking up with rakes, brooms, and a wagon. They asked if they could rake their yard for $5.00. He said sure. They started pushing wet leaves into piles. The biggest of the girls walked up to him.
“Mister, can I ask you something?” she said.
“Sure,” he said.
“That small boy,” she said pointing to a small boy. “He’s having a potty emergency.”
He 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.
Where Hogsback intersects with the Valley Parkway, Frank cut across a grassy field and rode onto a single track. The path was littered with slapdash leaves. A flock of geese went by overhead. He came around a quick bend and the branches of a fallen tree on the side the track jabbed at his face. He swerved to the left and pulled on the brakes, jumping off the bike when the tree he was going to run into became the tree he ran into. He landed on his feet and the bike was all right when he lifted it up.
On the way home he rode on the road, instead of the all-purpose trail, hugging the shoulder’s white line. A beefy man in a shiny new white pick-up blew his horn behind him, and when he went past, tried to shrug him off the road, giving him the middle finger. Some people are assholes, Frank muttered. There’s no getting around it or doing anything about it. At home he hosed off the Schwinn and hung it up in the garage.
He was sure by then it was the end of Steve-o. He wasn’t going to be that anymore. He was going to be Azuolas again, raising a family, like a mighty oak, probably having another child-or-two in no time while he still had time. He would be riding alone next year. He checked the tires. They looked good, although he knew that hanging upside down in the garage in the winter months all the air would slowly seep out of them.
He was going to miss Steve, but when you ride with somebody else you always have to wait until they’re ready. When you ride by yourself you can go whenever your bike is spit polished and lubricated. The White Knight had been a metalhead for his liege, and even though his decal brought up Frank’s rear, going it alone is the real deal. Nobody wants to be alone, but sometimes you just need to be left alone.
He did yoga alone at home that winter. He went to a couple of classes but couldn’t stand the pie in the sky talk. He rowed his Concept 2 and did band work. He didn’t have an indoor bike and didn’t pedal a stroke for five months. He would have to pump the tires up again the coming April, before going back down into the valley, staying beeline and keeping a peeled eye on the road down Hogsback Lane, never looking back, strips of daffodils blooming, turkey buzzards back in the warming air, the new springtime fine-spun after an icebox winter on Lake Erie.
Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”