the museum of americana

a literary review

Speaking to Bike Heroes—Nonfiction by Laura Madeline Wiseman

 

“What tires do you ride?”

“That bike,” I nod toward the glass doors leading to the bike rack, “is a hybrid, my commuter.” Nebraska’s October comes down in sheets. Everyone in the spin class talks storms and black ice, talks bikes that have slipped and crashed, talks parts and gear.

“Standing climb,” the instructor calls, and we rise. “Add two gears.” Some add more, some less. “Thirty seconds. Then we’re off.” We climb for sixty seconds, then drop to our saddles, sip water, stretch, sit back, wipe the sweat from our faces. The next virtual ascent starts. The banter picks up and drops off, quiets on climb and sounds with jokes on flat stretches when we spin easy and fast. Then we wipe down our bikes, gathering belongings. The banter turns teasing. A gal calls, “Do you wear socks?” meaning my clip sandals, the predicted weekend’s ice.

“Nah,” someone says for me. “Who needs ‘em,” another chimes in. Then we talk shoes and cleats. We walk towards the door when one asks “You’re biking home?”

“Yes,” I say. “You’re driving?”

At home, my chow-mix Echo bounds towards me, tail wagging. Parking the hybrid in the garage, I pat her side. The bicycle I rode as a girl suspends from a hook on the wall, dusty, rusty, strung with webs. Is it possible to transform a busted bike into a rideable one? I run a hand along her name, Olympia.

~

Olympia’s flat. Hands on hips, my friend says, “The tubes are bad.”

“Shucks, and no one sells tubes anymore.”

“The tires are cracked.”

Valve cap off, I pump them. They fill, just as they did back when I was a girl. When I got my first part-time job in a nursing home feeding the elderly, my dad fixed up my aunt’s old bicycle, an orange 10-speed Olympia Huffy. It was my commuter bike. Pedals snapped, the chain slipped off, the handlebar tape unraveled, and I’d be stranded at work, begging for extra hours in the kitchen until my dad could pick me up and lift Olympia into his truck. We’d drive. For years, I didn’t touch her. I rode other bikes. I wanted to ride Olympia again, even if just for fun, but I didn’t know how. Bike shops cowed me. My dad, who had been my girlhood bike hero, lived in another state.

Tires full, I wheel her into the grass to spray with a hose. She glimmers, water bending the light. I inventory her parts. Some work, but some are gone. This is not the first time I’ve tried, not the first friend to tell me—not possible. One friend teased, “She rusted and out of true.” The fiancé of another pointed out, “She’s too small for you.” A roommate said, “She’s not rideable.” Once, a friend promised to rebuild her, after first repainting her blue. It began with a dismantling—wheels, cables, and chain from frame. The promise faltered at the failure of skill. Her parts were stored in buckets, tangled together with other bike bits. Nevertheless, some were lost.

“I’m riding,” I say, snapping the chin strap to my helmet, “Watch me,” and then whispering, “So I don’t die.” I wheel her into the driveway, step over her frame and settle onto the worn saddle. If Olympia had brakes once, she doesn’t have them now. I hover on the bike bumping over the driveway cracks. The street rumbles under the wheels, rough and jolting. The chain stutters and drops.

Unable to shift or steer, I stop, plant my feet on the ground, and rock the wheel without the momentum of the roll. There’s rust on the bolt at the stem. I loop out again, foot brake and roll back. I squeeze the tires. They’re full. Though I can change a flat, I never had to as a girl. I always called my dad. Rolling up the drive to my friend who watches from the shadows of the open garage, I say, “She’s rideable.” It’s a lie, but a hopeful one.

~

My dad answers his landline. He’s moody, squirrely. I tell him I’m fixing up Olympia, but can’t remember her story. I ask about family bike rides, then bikes. I ask about repairs. I ask, “Olympia was my aunt’s, right?”

He says, “If you remember it that way, than its true.” He says, “We rode bikes?” He says, “The problem at Leech Lake was the horse flies chased you.” He says, “I fixed up Olympia?” He says, “I have to let the dog out. Hold on.” The phone clatters. His front door slams, audible over the miles between us. My neighborhood of pre-July fourth fireworks, pop, pop, pops. From another direction, Bang. A firework whistles. With the garage lights on, the comet tails remain unseen. A boom reverberates, drilling into my core. He gets back on the line. “I took the dog for a walk once out at Grandpa’s and he pulled me over, right off the bike. I’m not doing that again.”

His verbal offensive, answering every question with a question, makes me wonder if it’s not him, but me. Maybe I’ve ridden past his expectations. He needs to think of me as needing help to tend a bike. If I can do these things myself, then I must need him for something else, or worse not at all. “I was just calling for stories. Night, dad.”

“That’s all the stories I have today, kid. Goodnight.”

If my dad can’t fix my bike and I lack the skills, then who will? I pick up the phone and call my friend. “I’ve got this bike,” I say, and add as a dare, “I doubt you can help me, but maybe you know of a place.”

~

My friend arrives, secures Olympia to a bike rack, and drives her to a bike workshop—not a typical bike shop, but a place of old bicycles, spare parts, bike mechanics who serve the community for free. Any kid in town can go there and get a bicycle without cost. Any adult can volunteer ten hours and earn one for free. Olympia disappears down the street. The hours roll. I make an omelet, a mug of tea. I do the dishes, the budget. I brush Echo, read a book. I shower, then head outside to let Echo out one more time. When I turn on the porchlight, my friend is there, waving me towards something beyond the gate. The glow somersaults with moths. “If you’re coming out here, be warned. She needs work.”

“I’m in pajamas.” Olympia is there, half in shadows and light. “Is she rideable?”

“I rode her, but,” my friend says, then opens grease-stained hands, “the shop is closed. It’s not open again until next weekend.”

“Next weekend? I could do it before then.” Sliding my sandaled feet onto the pedals, I say goodbye to my friend, who promises to send instructions.

A few pushes gets Olympia going down the driveway to wheel a brief loop into the street. Back in the garage, I make her night-rideable—filling the tires, oiling the chain, adjusting the seat, adding lights. My friend had said she was rideable. Is it possible to go a few blocks tonight?

I pull on a helmet and ride. My neighborhood’s hills rise and fall. The cool night air swirls. The gears shift awkwardly until the chain catches. Then the wheels turn smooth in each setting. The brakes slow the descents and stop at corners. The replacement parts are silver and light, aluminum flourished with delicate patterns. Unlike my hybrid or road bike, she’s more responsive to the lean of my hips than the nudge of the handlebars. I settle back and ride with her—more partnership, less command. When I arrive home, I release Olympia into her sassy kickstand tilt. I give her a hug, wrapping my arms around her frame. I don’t need to fix her. I have other bikes, but I want to ride her, as if I can ride into the past, find the girl pedaling through the dark streets after work, and join her on the commute home.

Echo wiggles up, a fluff of orange, tail wagging. On the garage floor between bike and dog, I text my friend the most sincere thank you I can compose.

My friend texts back, “I’m no hero. Be careful,” and sends a list of to-dos.

~

I order a bike work stand, a seat post, and a bottle cage. When the stand arrives, I haul it into the garage. In less than an hour, like a large tripod with an arm, the stand is assembled. To secure Olympia’s step-through frame, the clasp must be lowered, then turned, and gripped on her seat stay. She wavers as I lift her, sweating as the front wheel swings, but soon, she’s in the air. She floats there and I think of Olympia—the word and name, like a place to pray and dream, a medal of interlinking loops for the win, a mountain for gods.

Echo bounces through the dog door. “Are you watching the gate for me?” I ask. She bounces back out again, as if she understands—bicycle tires in the road, footsteps in the driveway, the gate’s latch lifted, an anticipated friend. I swap the short seat post out for the new one, then add a bottle cage. I pull the Velcro strap tight, sweat sliding down my face. Echo leaps into and out of the door. She trots from dog bowl to me, panting and dog-smiling. I reset my ponytail, tucking loose strands.

My friend arrives and a moment later, I say, “Hold on.” I run into the house for the bathroom scale, return and set it on the garage floor. “Will you step on this for me? I won’t look.”

As the numbers settle, my friend says. “You can look.”

“Memorize the number and step off. Take Olympia and step on it again.”

“38 pounds—are you sure you want to ride that? It’s made of steel.”

“Ride her. And yes, I already do.”

“You could buy a new bike.”

I tap her seat. Now that she’s rideable, where exactly will I ride her? “I don’t want to ride her far.”

“But you could.”

“Just to yoga.”

~

In the morning, Olympia becomes my yoga ride. She shifts as I shift, quick and strong. It’s hot. It’s cold. It rains. Thunder and lightning fill the sky. I wear socks. I wear a jacket. I overdress. I underdress. Some days I remember bike lights. Some days I don’t. I bring a yoga mat. Or I don’t bother. I wear a helmet. I experiment with shoes. I try sneakers, clogs, sandals, ballerina flats. I wear bike gloves or not. I wear bike kit or not. Mostly I pedal. I spin the faded code of the lock, securing her to the rack. Sometimes there’s banter about my neon socks, my jacket splattered with rain, why I’m not in spin anymore, how many rides I do in the summer, the length of my commute to yoga. “It’s only a mile.”

“Only a mile?” they repeat. One woman calls me hardcore. Another shakes her head.

All the while, Olympia waits for me outside as the light moves between blue and gold.

Miles and days later, I’m pedaling in the rain, half-asleep, studying the space of Olympia’s handlebars when I realize I’ve forgotten my bike lock. I’m unable to decide— leave her untethered at the gym, borrow a lock from someone, or go back and search along the road. Queuing up to check-in at the gym, I reach for a tissue, sniffling with allergies and damp with rain. A woman ahead whispers about membership prices, her head bent low. A kids’ camp flyer announces a fundraiser and raffle. Olympia waits outside the glass doors, unlocked in the light by a trashcan.

The clerk glances at my tissue. “What’s wrong?”

“Do you rent locks?” I explain about Olympia, point towards the door where the mist has become drizzle.

“You can bring it in here, unless it’s a high-end carbon.”

“She’s retro,” I say, purling out the specs of her brand. As I say it, I wonder who I’ve become compared to who I was when Olympia was in parts. I dash towards the door, carry her inside and lean her against the wall. She glimmers in the low light near the offices. Does it matter if I can’t yet name all of her parts, if I can name some—hub, cassette, chainstay? How many words are enough to speak the language of bicycles?

~

With Echo in the backseat and my bike on the rack, I arrive at my dad’s. We drive to a small town to bike the High Trestle Trail under a full moon. I tell my dad about fixing Olympia and pedaling to yoga. I ask about his fleet of machines spread out across the driveway and garage at home and at my grandpa’s nearby. “They’re all paid for. I just got to keep them up,” he says. His bicycles are all from the past—an original Schwinn he rode as a boy, an exact replica with fenders he found on the curb, bikes bought at garage sales for a couple of dollars and wheeled across other states, bikes saved from the trash There are hundreds of spare parts. “I could build a number of bikes just from what’s in my garage. You don’t find Schwinns on the curb like you used to.”

He tells me his sailboat is for Gray’s Lake in town and the motorboat is for Leech Lake in Minnesota. The blue truck is his work truck and his brown truck is for the weekends. His old red station wagon is for storage of scrap. “I always drive the old white car, your grandma’s old car, out to Grandpa’s every night after work. The old white car gets good gas mileage,” he says, tapping the steering wheel. “It’s ten miles there and ten miles back.”

“Only ten?” I say, wondering about route specific rides, how far I could ride Olympia.

“That’s totally bikeable.”

“It’s dangerous,” he says. I wonder, dangerous to whom? As a girl he prescribed the path I followed from home to work, but now I plan my own routes, sometimes the mile to yoga and sometimes one around the neighborhood. On my road bike, I’ve ridden 83 miles through the hills of Kansas and on the hybrid, 71 miles of Iowa. If a couple of miles are possible, could Olympia be ridden farther?

~

Echo bounces around the garage, to her bowl and then away. I let her out and bike to yoga. When I return she’s still bouncing and leaping. Setting the kickstand, I join her in play in the back yard. She chases and whirls, wagging her tail. We go on like this, her leaping and me giving chase. Finally, I push Olympia into the garage. Echo jumps again at her bowl and I fill it, but she seems to have something else on her mind. “I’d take you for a walk, but I promised Olympia a ten mile ride tonight. Maybe after?”

Hours later, I enter the garage. My friend arrives and we push into the evening, cruising the blocks in the last light of day. I say, “Let’s see how fast Olympia can go.”

“Where are we going?” my friend asks.

We cross at the light to the trail. “Can you keep up?” I call. I pedal fast, lifting myself from the seat over newly laid sidewalk pads to keep the momentum. At the corner, we cruise the full green of college campus in the summer. We bike the blue light, from school to streets, passing a hardware store, a city pool. We bike neighborhoods where people stand in their driveways talking among cars. We pass students, one running flat-footed as another bikes alongside, the third pressing a phone to an ear, navigating potholes. We bike fast. We bike slow. Cresting a hill by a middle school, on the descent I say, “You’re fast, Olympia.” I laugh.

“What?” my friend calls.

“Let’s beat them home, Olympia,” I whisper, realizing suddenly I’ve learned enough of the language to talk to bicycles—not any bicycles, just mine. I pedal hard, wondering about the roar of wheels and the permission of the tongue. I climb, gripping the handlebars, feeling the work of my legs.

“Who were you talking to?” I glance at my friend, others on the road, people standing in their driveways, Olympia beneath me—why not speak bicycle? The light changes and we’re off.

~

Curled fox-like in the garage, Echo pants beside Olympia, all chow fluff. We’re packed. She will be staying with my dad while my road bike, Lexa, and I join nearly 20,000 riders on RAGBRAI, the week-long ride across Iowa. “Echo, ready to go?” She stretches, clicks her muzzle, stands. Olympia leans towards the door—all blue bodied and smooth. The fork bends at an angle, like the arms of a cyclist poised for a long-distance ride. Her polish catches the light, the two swooping tubes, a swift mount for yoga tights, the thighs of the strong.

“I fixed you,” I say, touching her saddle and handlebars. The tires are full and the wheels true. She’s a bike that could go far. “Watch the house, Olympia.” I collect Echo’s leash, and call over my shoulder, “Maybe we’ll try twenty miles when I return.”

 

~ ~ ~

laura madeline wisemanLaura Madeline Wiseman is the author of twenty-two books and chapbooks and the editor of Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence, selected for the Nebraska 150 Book List. Her collaborative book with artist Sally Deskins, Intimates and Fools, is a Nebraska Book Award 2015 Honor Book. Her book Drink won the 2016 Independent Publisher Bronze Book Award for poetry. Her recent collections are An Apparently Impossible Adventure and Leaves of Absence. Her essay “Seven Cities of Good” was an honorable mention in Pacifica Literary Review‘s 2015 Creative Nonfiction Award. She teaches at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

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