by Jere Matlock
From the top of the cedar tree next to the farmhouse, Ray waited patiently for the Flahive’s weather-beaten delivery van to disappear around the curve of highway. He knew the Reverend Flahive and his family would be back in their own unhurried time, when they were through with their excursion to Jacksonville. Another Sunday picnic, sandwiched between the morning and evening church services, with the neighbor congregation from another southern Oregon town. All part of the sober Church of Christ, of course; no musical instruments, no dancing, no drinking. But they did like to sing their hymns, unaccompanied and loud. They also liked to have an entire congregation from a neighboring town like Grants Pass stay over for evening services to listen to one of their younger men, a reverend in training, deliver a sermon he’d sweated over for weeks.
Ray loathed attending church services, half because the enforced boredom of his young person sitting still for three hours at a whack was utterly unbearable, and half because he was already at eight years old a fully developed, if secret, agnostic. But this picnic would no doubt be more fun than usual, with all the kids swimming in the warm Applegate. The Rogue River, that ran not a mile from the farm, was much too swift and cold to swim in for long, even on such a hot late spring day as this. The Applegate wound in lazy coils through its valley, soaking up the warmth of the sun, saving it up for just such a Memorial Day weekend.
He had been waiting to be alone on the farm for many weeks. His older sister, Cora, was usually watching him. She could not know about what he would be doing today. His younger sister, Eileen, would not be there as witness or to bug him, tag along, or start crying or begging him to play with her. The Flahive’s oldest girl, Janice, wouldn’t be there making sure he followed the rules that she agreed with, as laid down by her parents. “Stay out of the house except when it’s raining, then stay in your room.” “Speak when spoken to.” “Don’t play in the barns.” “Don’t chase the cows.”
But most especially, young Glenn Flahive would not be there to tell him not to touch his battered, rusty, precious bicycle.
When Ray could no longer tell the normal haze of the valley from the dust kicked up by the van’s departure, when he was utterly sure they would not be returning to the farm for a forgotten swimsuit or an apple cobbler left in one of the huge refrigerators, it was time to get down from the tree.
The branches of a cedar are limber and quite pliant at their ends, and their needles fan out in a way to make it very much like a wild slide ride, if one were careful. Cora, Glenn and Janice had done it many times when the Reverend and his wife were away from the farm, but never Ray. He thought enviously of sliding down the sixty feet of cedar to the ground, but dismissed it as beyond his skill. The trick was to slide down on one’s behind, reaching out to grab onto whatever you could find to slow you down and guide you away from the big gaps where you could plummet and break a leg or, as Glenn had done last spring, an arm. Ray was not confident he had the strength of grip to guide himself safely away from the gaps.
About one thing Ray definitely agreed with the Darwinians. Man must have been descended from the tree-dwelling apes. Kids, or at least boys, were living proof of their theory. Ray believed in a very few things, but among them was his own infallible judgment about tree climbing. He’d only been hurt once, in countless trees climbed around any of the dozens of houses he’d lived in, all across the country. And he’d just been a baby then, really, only three years old. He’d gotten stuck in a huge old live-oak tree on his grandpa Tiny’s dairy outside of Brownsville, Texas, when his older sisters had forgotten him upon hearing the call to dinner. He’d been forty feet up and decided he could just jump the rest of the way down. He’d been knocked unconscious and a dead branch had stuck through his lip, up his nose into his sinuses and broken off up in there. As they were pulling out the dead wood with a pair of rusty needle-nosed pliers, he had decided to master tree climbing or die in the attempt. Part of mastery is knowing what is within one’s skills and what isn’t: Ray believed himself to be uncoordinated and gawky, and he didn’t trust his sense of balance. He climbed down slowly, carefully, one branch at a time.
The Flahives had left him behind on their excursion, not because he had asked—they would have refused, of course, as they did any request he made. He’d learned long since not to ask for what he truly wanted. No, the real beauty of this day, the thing about which he felt most clever, was that he’d earned this vacation from their supervision and control as a punishment.
There were specific rules one could break without incurring the wrath of his temporary foster parents. Despite their rule against making too much noise, one could make plenty of noise while outside, banging on the galvanized garbage cans or working the dogs into a barking frenzy. At worst, little Mrs. Flahive would stick her head out the back door and yell at you to be quiet.
One could explore through the barns as long as one didn’t lollygag, especially if the Reverend were in there milking, or if the vet were there with his arm completely covered in a huge, long rubber glove, feeling around up inside a cow.
But under no circumstances, no matter if the house were burning down, could any of the foster kids go into the Flahive’s bedroom. There were other rules that applied only to the foster children, but this one was the most galling to Ray. Glenn, only two years older than Ray, could enter the bedroom without anyone’s leave and look through the drawers of the little desk, under the bed or in the top of their closet with no fear of retribution. But never the foster kids.
So Ray had stealthily entered their sanctum that Friday after school, while Mrs. Flahive was occupied cooking dinner, and gone exploring. He’d found nothing of real interest in the desk drawers except old fountain pens, political buttons and broken watches–none of it even worth stealing. But in their bedside table he’d hit the jackpot; a box of balloon-like things, each wrapped in foil, each labeled “one lubricated latex condom”.
Now, Ray had only the vaguest ideas of the mechanics of sex between humans, although he had seen bulls bellowing atop cows and had watched the dogs on the farm “making puppies,” as Mrs. Flahive had called it. But somehow his imagination made an instant connection between these discovered condoms and human sex. He emptied the box and stuffed them all into his pockets. He made absolutely sure to leave the bedside table drawer slightly open, with the lid of the box just barely visible enough to be noticed.
The condoms he stuffed under his pillow next to his pajamas, the first place anyone with half a brain would look for them. As per his plan, the condoms were found and returned to their proper location by the Reverend before breakfast on Saturday.
The Flahives were firm and, once you understood that a different set of rules applied to the Reverend’s own children, justice was even-handed among the foster kids in the true Christian spirit of “spare the rod and spoil the child,” applied liberally and without rancor. The Reverend’s switchings were professional and unemotional, quite unlike the tearful jags his mom went on when she felt the urge to discipline one of her brood, whenever she might be around, with her unlikely, burbled disclaimer that, “This hurts me more than it does you.”
Because of his entry into their forbidden realm, the theft involved, the somewhat sexual nature of the crime, and because Ray received his entire switching mutely, without tears, without flinching, and without any apparent remorse whatsoever, he knew that in the Reverend’s mind the simple switching would be nowhere near enough punishment. He had taken Ray’s proffered bait, hooked it firmly, and had run with it toward deep water. For one month Ray would not be allowed to eat with the group, watch any TV, go to any movies, or go on any outings other than to church.
Yesterday, while the Reverend marked the starting and ending dates of the punishment on the calendar in the kitchen where the family ate, Ray had celebrated his success on the back porch, eating his breakfast from an impromptu table and chair made from chunks of firewood stood on end.
After the church service this fine Sunday morning, as they had loaded up the van for the trip to Jacksonville, Ray had pleaded with Mrs. Flahive, “Sybil, can’t I please go with you?”
She looked at him with her head cocked ridiculously to one side, like one of the dogs trying to identify something out of its sight by sound alone, then shook her head, “No. We’ll be back after dark. There’s a salami sandwich for you in the icebox for lunch.” His request would get back to the Reverend, who would feel relieved, thinking his punishment had bit.
The dogs met him at the base of the cedar tree, yapping and leaping up on him as if he were one of them. They followed him from ahead, through the back yard, into the storage shed off the garage where the rusted bicycle leaned against the wall next to Glenn’s newer, bigger bicycle and those of the girls.
He didn’t want to use Glenn’s new bike because he had to live with Glenn, who could be devious and dangerous–any damage to the new bike would be obvious and the resulting upset would be catastrophic to their friendship and Ray’s continued good health. The rusty old bike would have to do.
He made a rueful survey of what he had to work with. It had no kick-stand. Both tires were flat and the rear fender badly bent. The seat was twisted off to one side and the chain was off its sprocket. Yet this was the precious bicycle Glenn would not part with, even though he had gotten a new bike for Christmas.
He found a crescent wrench on the workbench and loosened the nut holding the seat column in place, pushed the seat around where it belonged, and tightened it properly. He wrestled the heavy old bike upside down, so it stood up on its seat and handlebars, then used the handle of the crescent wrench as a lever to bend the fender up off the rim into an approximation of its original shape.
He adjusted the wrench to fit the bigger nuts of the back wheel, loosened them and slid the wheel forward in its socket so the chain would fit back on the sprocket wheel. Then he pulled the rear wheel back into place, lining it up in the center of its supports so it wouldn’t rub, and pulled the chain taut in its proper place. He tightened the nuts down to hold it firmly in place. He gave the pedal an experimental turn and was satisfied to see that it moved the wheel easily. Everything he’d done so far he’d seen done before; he was a good, careful observer.
He searched for the bicycle tire pump and couldn’t find it anywhere in the shed, the garage, or the barn. Frantic, he wondered if they had packed it in the van. He searched them all again, then remembered they’d used it last week to pump up the tire of a wheelbarrow in the back pasture. It was probably still there–he’d have to go see.
The dogs scouted ahead as he walked through the fields, being very careful to keep away from the electrified wires of the fences. Eileen had gotten stuck to the fence more than once–he’d had to knock her down to get her hand to loosen its grip once she had grabbed the wire.
Sure enough, he found the pump, half-submerged under a fresh cow pie. He carried it gingerly by its hose to the cattle trough and washed it clean. Back in the garage, it took him fifteen sweaty minutes to pump up the tires until they were firm.
He manhandled the bike upright, leaned it against the wall and stood back to assay what was now before him: one ugly but quite serviceable bicycle.
He wheeled it out into the badly rutted driveway. Well, they called it the driveway but it was really just two ruts that started behind the farmhouse, curved past the barns and sheds, turned back in front of the farmhouse, ambled along the edge of the clover pastures and dumped out into the old Redwood Highway where the mailboxes leaned idly in the sun.
Here next to the storage shed, the driveway was not so much a road as a succession of huge potholes half filled with dust and broken rock, merging into two roughly parallel troughs.
This would never do for the very specific project he had in mind, to erase the trap into which he had so stupidly stuck himself, to terminate the lie, to resolve the shame with which he would no longer have to live after today.
The day after last Christmas, only a week after his mother had deposited Cora, Eileen and Ray with the Flahive family, Glenn had allowed Cora a brief ride on his brand-new bike all by herself. She’d been so excited she had chattered on about how their dad had taught her to ride a bike when she was eight. Not to be outdone in any facet of their separate relationships with their dad, and before Ray could stop himself, he’d claimed that their dad had taught him how to ride a bike when he was six. That two-fold lie was the trap: his father had taken no interest in him since re-marrying three years ago, and Ray simply did not know how to ride a bike.
With that lie now firmly in place among all the children as undisputed fact, he could not ask anyone to help him learn how to ride without admitting that he’d lied about his dad. Yet at every opportunity to ride since Christmas he’d refused, on one excuse or another. Glenn was openly suspicious, and Cora was becoming so. He couldn’t fool them any longer–summer vacation was nearly here, and they were already planning a bike excursion along the Rogue River next month. He had to learn to ride, without excuses, without help, and without any further delay. All the other kids knew how. If Cora could do it, how hard could it be?
He walked the bike out toward the Redwood Highway. The only straight stretch of the driveway bordered the clover fields and roughly paralleled the dry creek-bed. It was about a quarter mile long and its two tire tracks, separated by a dry grass berm, had a minimum of curves, potholes and rocks.
He leaned the bike against the corner fence post of the clover field, where the drive turned into his chosen straightaway. He walked slowly in the right-hand track toward the mailboxes and the highway, kicking the larger rocks out of the track and using his foot as a rake to fill gravel into few of the larger potholes. At the mailboxes he turned around and gave the other track the same treatment.
He walked the bike out into the right-hand track and got up onto its seat, leaving one foot on the ground for balance. He tried scooting himself along with that one foot, but the bike seemed to have a will of its own and was soon out of the track, bumping on the clumps of grass. He banged his leg on the pedal as it turned, and fell over.
He got up nursing a bruise, dusted off his pants, picked the bike up, dragged it sideways until it was back in the center of the track and got back on. With his right foot on the pedal and his left foot scooting him along, he tried to get up some speed. He knew that speed was important because he’d seen Glenn fall over a few times when going too slowly. He tried for as much speed as he could get by scooting, but as soon as he tried to steer the bike back into the track he lost his balance and fell over again, this time landing on some of the very same rocks he’d kicked out of the way.
He got up again, dusted himself off and dragged the bike into place. His knuckles and knee were now bleeding. He got back on. There was a hole in his jeans he would have to explain on laundry day. He didn’t care. He scooted and balanced as best he could, going about as fast as a walk, and quickly fell over again.
Ray was getting tired. This was hard work, much harder than just walking!
He focused on what was happening when he would get the bike up to any speed. He kept losing his balance. Why? Whenever he turned the handlebar to keep the front wheel in the track, his body kept going in the original direction, throwing him off balance. There must be some trick to this he didn’t know. Maybe it was just a matter of needing more speed. He wished his father were there to help him, to tell him what the trick was. But that wasn’t going to happen.
He was halfway to the mailbox now. He fell off again and again. Both elbows were now bleeding. He hardly noticed. He didn’t care. He had to figure this out!
If the trick were just more speed, maybe he should run alongside the bike and jump on, the way he’d seen the trick pony riders on television mount a horse on the run. He pushed the bike up to as fast as he could get it moving, then tried to hop onto the seat. Ray and the bike rolled across the berm, across the other track, and into the blackberry bushes next to the creek. He cautiously disengaged himself from the blackberry vines, pulled the dry thorns out of his legs and arms, dragged the bike out, and put it back in the track.
He tried it again, running as fast as he could this time while pushing the bike. He jumped but missed the seat, straddling the rear fender and bruising his groin. He and the bike collapsed in a heap next to the mailbox.
Ray blinked back tears of frustration, wiped them aside with a bloody forearm. He silently cursed the bike, all bicycles, all absent fathers, all liars, all sisters, and all children of all the ministers in the world. He turned the bike around, put it in the other track of the road heading back to the farmhouse, and started running with the bike again. He jumped and actually made it onto the seat, balanced perfectly for the briefest instant, then had to steer it slightly and lost control and balance at the same time, jumping off this time before it collapsed on him.
So, speed helped, but did not achieve control. So what did equal control? How could you steer the bike without losing your balance? He ran alongside the bike, getting it up to speed, but instead of jumping on this time, he sought to control the bike from the side. He found the best way to keep the bike in its track was to keep it balanced upright, using his left hand on the handlebars to steer it while using his right hand, on the seat, to tip it one way or the other. When it had some speed, it responded instantly to how he tipped it, moving left when he tipped it left, moving right when he tipped it that way.
Now he was back to the farmhouse. He turned the bike around, put it in the right-hand track, and climbed on. He didn’t push it, he just sat on the seat and tried to balance it without going anywhere. It was impossible. Once it started to go over, there was no stopping it. He took it out of the track and stood it up near enough to the fence post to put a hand on it and balance himself with both feet on the pedals.
He made a tentative hypothesis. Did balance equal control? He didn’t trust his sense of balance. Heights didn’t scare him, so long as he had his hand on something for balance, but without some type of handhold he felt a kind of panic. Why let a little panic rule his life? He looked down at his skinned knees and elbows, his ripped jeans, and laughed–evidently he must not care any more what happened to him.
He balanced the bike upright, keeping his right hand on the fence post, for a good fifteen minutes, letting the bike just tentatively start to fall over and then snapping it back upright through the strength of his arm on the post. As he inadvertently turned the front wheel from side to side, he noticed that it altered the location of his center of balance to one side or the other, even when the bike wasn’t moving.
He put his weight on the pedal and let go the pole, smacking his hand to the handlebar as the bike pitched forward. He leaned the bike into the track using his weight alone, all the while pedaling hard to gain some speed. It kept rolling forward, and he was still on it, and still upright. He shouted, he laughed, he forgave the bicycle everything: he had the last piece of the puzzle. He was riding! As he neared the mailbox he coasted to a stop and put his foot down, without falling off.
He got off, turned the bike around, got it in the track, and climbed back on. He started pedaling, steering, and leaning as if he’d done it his whole life. He sailed past the farmhouse, past the barns and sheds, and to the back of the house. He dared himself to lean the bike into a sharp circle, then took the road out to the mailbox and back one more time just to be sure. Riding wasn’t just fun, it was better than fun!
After an hour of riding back and forth to the highway, he took the bike back into the shed and, using a nail to hold the valves down, let the air out of its tires. The nut holding the seat in place loosened easily. He twisted it back to the side. He loosened the nuts on the rear wheel enough to take the chain off its sprocket. A sledge in the shed and all his strength banged the fender back down onto its rim. Carefully, precisely, he leaned the bike back into its place of neglect along the wall.
The bicycle pump he took back to the pasture, dropping it in the same cowpie and covering it with manure.
In the yard Ray took a long drink from the hose, then used it to wash the blood off his hands and arms. He wandered over to the cedar tree and lay down in its shade.
On sudden impulse he climbed all the way to the top, to where the whole tree leaned over a bit from his weight. The farmhouse, the fields, even the sky all looked somehow smaller than they had an hour ago.
He climbed down to the big branch where the other kids would begin their slides. You had to go out all the way to the end of that particular branch and just launch yourself. He shook his head, mustered up his nerve, and leaped before his courage could fail.
Falling feet-first, grabbing onto one branch then another to guide him, he slid, plunging faster and faster from one branch to another toward the ground. With a resounding thump and a yell he was on his feet with only the smell of cedar on his hands and a grin to prove he’d done it, all alone.
He wondered where the salami sandwich would taste best–sprawled on the Flahive’s big, soft bed, or in the living room watching the forbidden television.
# — #
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