Wishing only to escape from the dreadfulness of our current political strife and the Sturm und Drang of economic collapse, I give you an extemporaneous riff, which began with no idea or direction in mind. It was written to the accompaniment of Metheny Mehldau Quartet. I hope you enjoy it. It's for you.
In a shallow pool of green water, four white herons stalk minnows. Tiny flashes of light from among the reeds: the morning sun catches the movement of the wind stirring the water. Overhead, a jet's contrail leaves a pair of chalk lines on the face of the sky.
The path had once been a railroad bed. The dike through the marsh on which it had been built doesn't provide much place to stop a bicycle and rest, but I like to stop here. Once, all of DuPage was just such a bog. The mammoths would get stuck in it. Periodically they'll dig up mammoth bones. Wheaton College has a fine specimen.
The marsh is filling in. A few meters along, three huge carp thrash in murky shallows under a young willow tree, an early settler to the new ground. Redwing blackbirds sway on cattail stalks in their scarlet epaulets and glossy black plumage, screaming at each other. My legs begin to stiffen and I mount the bicycle again
I bike with too much stuff, but I ride long distances and I've wanted everything in my bag at one time or another: a first-aid kit, extra inner tubes packed in talcum powder in plastic containers, Teflon spray lubricant, graphite grease, allen wrenches, a crescent wrench, a Leatherman's tool, tire dogs, several different rolls of tape, a few granola bars, a doohickey for holding brake calipers. A real air pump, Imodium, sun block, a package of baby wipes. I stop the bike again, fish around in the bag, pop two aspirin and chase it with orange Gatorade, the only flavor I like warm.
The marsh ends after a mile or two, the trees begin again. Not a soul on the trail, though it's a nice day. Pull off the trail, open the bag again to retrieve my doobie and a Bic lighter. The pungency of jade green weed, sticky, the first huff of herb is startlingly effective. Forty miles of riding has opened my lungs, I cough reflexively. My mind opens and the subtle haze of the buzz choruses in me like Pat Metheny's hollow body guitar resonating through his digital delays. Heraclitus was right, however often I may return to this place, I will never see the same place again.
Often enough, I am seized with the belief my life has already ended and I am merely dreaming. Speak memory. Nabokov said life was a great sunrise, death a greater sunrise.
I start riding at first light. I wash out my water bottles the night before, pump up my tires (how quickly they go down!) and charge my cell phone. I lay out my gear obsessively, helmet, bike gloves, a habit acquired long ago. Never do in the morning what you can do the night before: all those journeys, all those jets, all those patrols. Get up, wash up and climb into my gear. A few stars were still shining when I rolled down the driveway.
It's an old red Fuji bike, nothing fancy or stylish, but it's got everything I've ever wanted on it, an odometer, a gel seat, two water bottle mounts, a rack and bag. Bought the bike from a kid who needed the money and I've ridden it for 20 years. New tires and a tune up every year keep it good. The bike is me and I am my bike. On weekends, I'll ride it one day all day, from dawn to dark. If I push myself, I can do 100 miles, but that takes too much work. Eighty is fine for me.
Stubbing out the doob, pointless smoking once I'm stoned. You either are or you aren't, and more won't make you more so. I take another swig of Gatorade, back on the bike, down through West Chicago, past my old high school, seen through the trees. Over Geneva Road, I pass up the bike shop and the Dairy Queen. I remember J when he was just a boy of maybe nine or ten, his ice cream popsicle fell off the stick onto the floor. I bought him another one on the spot. I remember the look on his face. I'll never see that face again.
Past the horse farms, I make the long slow descent into Wheaton. Down Main Street, I pass the chichi art gallery, once a little hardware store. Toad Hall bookstore used to be where the real estate office is now. Even the train station's been fixed up. The town threw much coin at Main Street. Now condos are springing up. It is the fate of the old to remember as I am fated to tell you this story. Where it is going, I have no clear idea yet. I'm closing in on 800 words, just riffing.
I stop for lunch at Café Wheaton, once the Wheaton Restaurant, chaining my bike to the rack so thoughtfully provided by the town. They've got a fancy menu now, and a bar. Heavens, Wheaton has a bar, once unthinkable. Two pints of weissbier and a reuben sandwich later, I ask the bartender to fill my water bottles with ice and top them off with water.
I walk up to the comic book store. I pick up Moonshadow by John Marc DiMatteis, carefully wrapping it in the plastic bag and putting it in the bike bag. That's another advantage of this bike bag. I usually end up heavier by a few pounds of cellulose before I've finished the ride. Too many bookstores tempt me along the way.
Out of Wheaton, I make the long dry run through to Batavia, past the DuPage County airport, past the electrical towers where Brad and his dad came to grief in their Cessna. Past the Murk house, where once I courted a girl, kisses remembered. The pedals keep moving, I become a simple machine, a Carnot Engine, reducible to thermodynamic equations.
I pass families on their bicycles, am passed by the road racers on their expensive bikes with the skinny little tires. How many of them have I seen come to grief out here – this isn't a racetrack, it's an endurance course. Of course they don't carry a tire pump. They don't even have patches. Over the years, I've helped plenty of people out here, the pair of crying grade school girls who'd gone too far and one had a flat. I happened to have an inner tube for my son's bike which worked for them. They called home on my cell phone while I repaired the tire. I got a nice call back the next day from their Dad.
Geneva comes up imperceptibly, as I swing toward the north, through the park. The Fox River to my left, I'm heading north. Geneva's hard pushing, and I'm running low on water. I stop for another refreshing fermented beverage along the way, take advantage of working plumbing.
I work my way north, watching the angle of the sun and my odometer. Up to St Charles and I take a break at Town House Books. Marianne has a book for me. Marianne always has a book for me, this time it's David Foster Wallace, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. We talk a while over a cappuccino and a scone. I fill my water bottles again and pack the book into my bag. I downshift and work up the first real hill on this run, the bike swaying from side to side as I muscle up the street, then the long slow climb out of town. Along the rivers is the only real terrain in Illinois. I pace myself, put myself on a breathing regimen. Panting only makes things worse. Downshifting too far only makes my legs pump faster.
At the top of the hill, there's a little park. I pull in, take a leak and walk around a bit. I fish around in the bag again, find my half-smoked J in its Ziploc bag and furtively ignite the stinky thing. The dull, pleasant haze of a well-deserved buzz envelops me, my mind whirls, idling, I am inside my body. Below me the river curves around the bend, only a few inches deep, full of round, soft, sedimentary rocks. I put my helmet back on, adjust my mirror and set my odometer to the speedometer view.
I pass between the boulder obstacles where the road ends and the bike path begins. I shift my gears up, put my head down, my ass up. The two miles of uphill grind translate into a quarter mile of downhill slope. The air rushes past me as I pick up speed, 20, 25, 28, 30 miles an hour. Then clattering over the wooden bridge at the bottom, rolling out onto an island, then onto another section of bridge, I grin like a child. Up and down a few hills, I'm now on the west side of the Fox River, coming up into South Elgin. Through the little park, past the slides and monkey bars and sandboxes where I'd taken my kids so many times when they were tiny. My real bike store is in South Elgin, run by a tough, much tattooed girl. I don't need anything today, though I could probably use another pair of bike pants, the good loose ones the BMX bikers use with the thick pad through the crotch. None of those fussy Spandex things are for me, not any more. Form follows function. I'm through being cool. I'm just passing through.
Over the bridge in South Elgin, around that off ramp back to the bike path where I'd taken that horrible fall when some little kid cut me off. Thank God I was so close to the bike store, I walked my bike back, bent rim and all, where the much-tattooed girl and her taciturn boys put my bike together again. I'd sat on a stool and bandaged myself. Most of my medical stuff in my bike bag I got that day.
I pass the fishermen knee deep in the water at the foot of the spillway, where the water has enough oxygen to support a decent population of fish. I stop for a drink of water. I ask a old Mexican gent and his grandson fishing on the bank -- "Tienen suerte, caballeros?" They grin and show me a huge catfish.
Here the path gets tough again, the river to my left. Up a few steep rises, then around curves, up and down, I race round curves where anyone could be lurking. People walking dogs, pushing strollers, J took a terrible fall right here. I'd gone on a while longer, not realizing he'd fallen. I turned around and pedaled back up the hills, to find him crying. I'd patched up his knee, apologizing to him. He'd soldiered on. J was a tough kid. No quitter, him. I'd asked him if he wanted to turn around, or have Mom come pick us up. No way. I'd hugged him, but never rode too far in front of him again.
Now he rides far in front of me. He's ridden off over the horizon, and I miss him.
I round the corner, coming back to the apex of the triangle where I'd gone left before. After Dan Hyland my business partner died in August, I'd slowly worked through his estate, for though he was a tidy man, he threw away nothing. I'd buried him, took in all his possessions and his wife for a while. While others had grieved, I'd just soldiered on. "When will you grieve" they'd asked me. Exasperated, I'd replied, "as soon as I've got time to grieve."
Came October of that year, about as late in the year as I like to ride. I'd ridden around this triangle twice, a total of 105 miles. At the apex of the triangle is a gravel triangle where all three paths intersect. I'd gotten off my bike, this bike, taken out a water bottle and squirted it out around the triangle twice, for the two trips I'd made around it. I raised my hands over my head and prayed for a vision. I'd ridden home in silence, as I ride home now, in the setting sun.
That night I dreamed I was putting my son to sleep on a vast floor, completely covered in blankets and pillows. Earlier that day, I'd made a little house for my daughter of a hard disk drive box. In those days, hard drives were much larger, and came encased in foam. I'd cut some holes in the box for windows and taken out one half of the foam. R had lined the foam with squares of tissue paper and put her little collection of plastic animals inside, looking out the window.
In the dream, either the box had grown hugely or I was very tiny. A square hole appeared in the wall of the box, through which could be seen a familiar light. Dan Hyland illuminated his kitchen with grow light bulbs. The light swelled to a golden haze and through the wall stepped Dan Hyland himself.
He was dressed as he always dressed for work, in Vietnam-era green fatigue shirts and black jeans. There was nothing especially miraculous about his appearance, and he was somewhat shy. I stood up and held him by his forearms, suffused with joy and wonder.
"It's really you, isn't it?"
"Yes, it's me."
"Can you return like this at will?"
"Yes, I believe so."
He looked into my eyes, perceiving my doubts, as if he knew I doubted it was really him. Without saying a word, he transmitted an awareness of my previous dream, a ragged, confused dream of Ireland and the Good Friday Peace Accords. For Dan was Irish. Not only could he return, but he knew of my dreams.
I'd woken, in tears of happiness, walked into the living room. I told my wife and his wife what I'd seen. We sat quietly and drank a little Bushmill's whiskey in his honor.
The sun is a few degrees off the horizon. I push hard into Elgin itself and up the final hill toward the hospital where my children were born. The day is dying as I come down the last few blocks, into my neighborhood, then down my street. I come in the front door, lugging my bike into the foyer, then into the garage. I pull out my books, reset my trip odometer and hang the bike upside down on its hooks, over the hood of my wife's truck.
Up the stairs, strip naked and climb into the shower. My wife comes back in from the back yard. I come downstairs in clean clothes to make dinner, flank steak and green beans.
Nabokov confessed he didn't believe in time. Not sure I believe in time, either. Time is only a place in time. Once written down, memory is given life. All is an endless chain of longing.