Ball and Chain

By Ed Staskus

   It was wetter than not the front end of summer and too muddy to ride the single tracks in the Rocky River Reservation. It had rained or thunder stormed nine days the first fourteen days of July. One day two inches of rain fell. Instead, I rode my Specialized on the all-purpose trail and left my Schwinn hanging in the garage. The Schwinn was outfitted for dirt, with front shocks and a low stem. The Specialized was outfitted with road tires, knobby on the outside and smooth rolling on the flat side and had a higher stem. It made for better riding on asphalt.

   It made for even faster riding down Hog’s Back Lane, which is the entryway off Riverside Dr. into the valley. Hog’s Back is laid out on a steep shale hill. It’s about a half-mile to the bottom. When the shale slumps and slides, the two-lane surface crumbles, and it becomes essential to keep your eyes fixed on the road.

   Hunched over the handlebars I could hit 40 MPH going downhill, no problem, unless I feathered the brakes, which I did, lessening the chances of flying over the handlebars at 40 MPH. That would have been a problem, if not the end of me.

   I rode alone most of the time and especially that summer because my brother Rick was getting married. He said he didn’t have time to get on his bike anymore. “I’ve got a lot going on,” he explained. He had been married once before, but it only lasted 57 days. He was determined to make his next marriage work out for the better.

   “I don’t want him racing that crazy hill and crashing,” said his fiancée, Amy Brotherton. She was down on Hog’s Back. She didn’t want a train wreck walking down the aisle at her side. She and Rick had met a few months earlier on a blind date. One thing led to another on the one-way street they were on.

   “You be careful, too,” my wife said watching me saddle up in the backyard. “I don’t want you wrecking, either.”

   The summer of 1995 was hot, in the high 80s when it wasn’t in the high 90s, and the air was humid and sluggish. I could have ridden the single tracks, since they had dried up, but I stayed on the all-purpose trails. Towards the end of one 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 skinny man in a red helmet on a hybrid.

   Inside a few minutes the red helmet was behind me, drafting, but when I slowed down for a car at the crossroads 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 up at the top.

   He tucked in behind me 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 roller blades, except on an inside-out curve, and when a biker rode up on the other side, he had to slalom wide on the grass. At the end of the curve a ditch stretches away from the trail to the Valley Parkway, and he backtracked. I waited for him to catch up.

   “That was a good pace,” he said before I peeled away to go back home, while he kept going his own way. Pedaling up Hog’s Back is a long hard slog, which is what I did, slog up the long hill. By the time I got close to the crest, I was on the verge of a standstill.

   The next day Rick and I rode downtown. He said he had an appointment for a haircut at Planet 10, on West 9th St., and wanted to ride there. On the way from Lakewood, we spun through Ohio City to Church Street. He pointed out an old church whose rectory had been converted into a recording studio. 

   “That’s where we’re having our reception,” he said. Amy was a sometime actress and singer. She had the looks and the voice. She made a living doing nails, since nailing roles in Cleveland wasn’t a paying proposition.

   They were getting married at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church instead of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, where my wife and I had gotten married. Rick was Lithuanian stock, just like me, but even though Amy was an atheist, her grandmother wasn’t and wanted her to be married in a church. Amy didn’t like the Lithuanian church in North Collinwood, so it was going to be St. Pete’s in Lakewood.

   We went south on West 25th St., crossed the bridge to Jacobs Field, and rode to the Warehouse District. The bride-to-be was still OK with Rick riding on city streets, but not any farther through the near east side, like I often did, to Cleveland Heights along Cedar Rd. She quashed that, stamping her foot.

   “I don’t want him getting killed in Fairfax by any porch monkey,” she said.

   Rick pushed his bike into Planet 10’s lobby and I rode away, going my flaneur-like way. After zigzagging around downtown, on my way home, stopping at a narrow strip of grass beside the Hope Memorial Bridge, squeezing a drink from my water bottle, I watched a black woman with shopping bags easing herself down to the ground in front of an RTA sign. She looked up at me and smiled. She had crooked yellow teeth. She was probably going back to Fairfax, maybe thinking of killing Rick if he rode his bike past her house.

   I was standing outside my garage when Rick and Amy pulled up in her baby blue Ford Tempo. His bike was sticking out of the trunk, the trunk bungee corded. “Jerry screwed up Rick’s appointment,” she complained. “He’s so unprofessional.” She was mad. “That’s not how we do business at Artistiques.” It was her friend’s hair and nail salon.

   Planet Ten was owned and operated by a gay young man named Jerry who was a junkie. He lived near Gordon Square where he could score smack in the blink of an eye. He was up-and-down on any given day. He was good with clippers and shears, though.

   It was mid-week before I rode back into the park and got on the dirt trails that branch off from the horse stables at Puritas Rd. They were dry where they were level, but they weren’t level over much. I had to ford a stream where a tree had fallen. I jumped some baby stumps, went sideways once, and when I got home got the outdoor hose and sprayed cold water on myself. It was a hot day.

   My wife and I drove to Amy’s bridal shower that weekend, which was at her best friend’s house in Avon Lake. Wendy was a big-faced woman married to a ruddy-faced Englishman who was a barge pilot on the Mississippi River. It was steamy as hell even though it was just barely August. I was sprawled across a leather sofa in the air-conditioned family room when I noticed a small dog on the coffee table. I couldn’t tell if it was a dog dead asleep or a dead dog who had been stuffed. When I reached for whatever the thing was, it snapped at my fingers.

   “You better watch out,” Wendy said. “He’s blind, so he bites at everything.”

   I went for a ride after we got home. Twilight was turning to dusk by the time I got back. Snapper, our Maine Coon cat, came running out of the neighbor’s backyard. Just when I was ready to close the garage door, Rick pulled into the driveway.

   “Can I borrow your lawn mower?” he asked.

   “All right, but don’t break it.”

   My brother was notorious for either busting or never returning borrowed tools. He had Katie, Amy’s three-year-old, with him. I picked her up, held her upside down, and spun her by her heels in tight circles. When we were done, we talked about a nickname for her, finally settling on Skate.

   “It rhymes with Kate,” I said.

   She waved goodbye through the window of the car as Rick pulled out with the lawn mower. If the child hadn’t been with him, I wouldn’t have lent him the mower. That was probably why he brought her along.

   By mid-August cumulus clouds were dotting the sky and the weather was surprisingly cooler than it had been. I rode my Schwinn down Hog’s Back and got off the all-purpose trail at Mastik Woods, veering onto the dirt track there. I rode the track for three miles and then double-backed on the horse trail. As I did, I noticed somebody was coming up.

   When he went by, I saw he was wearing a baseball cap instead of a helmet and was on a well-worn Trek. He was riding fast, and even though I followed him as best I could, I couldn’t catch him until he suddenly slowed down. I saw why when he pulled up. Horses were coming around a bend. We 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. I 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 jumped onto the trail ahead of me. He had gone around and was riding faster than before. We sped through a thicket, then across a baseball field where he widened the gap by jumping a wood guardrail, something I couldn’t do, even if I tried as hard as I could. It would have ended badly. I went around. It went well enough.

   I thought I might catch the Trek on the Detroit Rd. climb out of the valley, except he climbed so fast I lost more ground. I finally caught up to him where he was waiting at a red light on Riverside Dr. We talked while I gulped air.

   “I wasn’t planning on doing much today, but it ended up being a fun ride,” he said. “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.

   “I know my Lithuanian heroes,” he said, waving goodbye.

   A week before the wedding my brother called and said JoJo was out as their maid of honor. She was Amy’s ex-friend-to-be who arranged the blind date with Rick when Amy 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. Amy gave her a cash down payment for a Cancun honeymoon. But then the travel agency called and said they were getting anxious about the down payment, since they hadn’t received it, yet.

   When Rick telephoned JoJo, she said she hadn’t gotten any cash, but when Amy heard that she rushed to the phone. There was a long loud argument and JoJo somehow found the money. The honeymoon was back on, but Tammy had to at the last minute find another maid of honor. 

   The next day my brother called.

   “Are you going riding?” he asked.

   “I’m just going out the door,” I said.

   “I’ll be there in ten minutes. I need some fresh air.”

    I was working out the kinks in my lower back when Rick rode up the driveway.

   “Amy’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 around as we rode Riverside Dr. on the rim of the valley. We glided down and rode single tracks. The dirt was late summer dried out and the ruts were bad, but we rode fast enough. My back wheel went in sketchy directions a few times. Rick held back. He didn’t want to face plant.

   “A little out of control there,” he 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 can be risky business,” I said. “Take a look at you and Amy. You were married once, and it lasted for two months. Tammy’s been married twice. She’s got a kid by one of the husbands and a kid by somebody else. You might want to throw yourself down every downhill between now and the wedding day.”

   “I don’t think so,” he said, giving me an aggrieved look. 

   “Then the next best thing is to keep your eyes wide open before the wedding and half-shut afterwards.”

   Coming out of the park on a smooth stretch Rick suddenly slowed down ahead of me when I wasn’t looking. I got tangled up in his rear tire and went over the handlebars. I skinned my knee and put a dent in my helmet, but we were going too slow for much else to happen.

   “Crash test dummies!” a crow watching us from a tree branch squawked.

   I took me longer to put my derailleur chain, which had fallen off, back on than it did to get over my injuries. The chain was trapped against the frame. I had to loosen the rear wheel. I cleaned my greasy hands on some of last year’s fallen leaves.

   The morning of the big day, while my wife went shopping for a gift, I rode down into the valley. I felt good, but a strong crosswind was blowing, and I got tired. The bike felt sloppy, too. Going home I pushed hard because I didn’t want to be late for the show. When I finally got home, I found out I had been riding on a nearly flat back tire.

   Rick’s wedding went off without a hitch, but during the reception, when my wife was congratulating him, he made the shape of a handgun with his hand, with his index finger pressed to his temple.

   The next day I drove to Rick’s house with the gift we had forgotten to bring to the reception. Amy was lounging in the living room in a thick, white bathrobe, poring over Cancun brochures, and Skater Katie was in her pajama’s. While Rick and I talked in the kitchen doorway, Amy’s old dog limped up to me and licked the scrape on my knee.

   By the beginning of October, the park was yellow and maple red. I rode the all-purpose trail every other day. One Sunday morning my wife and I had breakfast at the Borderline Café down the street and went for a walk on the horse trails behind South Mastik. That night, while we were watching a movie on TV, Rick called.

   “I won’t be able to ride anymore,” he said.

   “Amy?” I asked.

   “No,” he said. “It’s my shoulder.”

   I 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, bumps or no bumps, my shoulder is 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 exclaimed.

   The last Saturday of the month was the last day of the year I rode in the valley. It was getting too wet and cold. I was adjusting the strap on my helmet when a gang of neighborhood boys and girls came walking up with rakes, brooms, and a wagon. They asked if they could rake our yard for $5.00. I said sure. They started pushing wet leaves into 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 my wife, and she came outside, saying she would take care of the boy and supervise the raking. “Go before it gets dark,” she said. It was getting dark earlier and earlier.

   Where Hog’s Back intersects with the Valley Parkway, I cut across a field and rode onto a single track. The path was littered with twigs and slapdash. A flock of Canadian geese went by overhead. They honked down at me. I came around a quick bend and the branches of a fallen tree on the side of the track jabbed at my face. I swerved to the left and pulled on the brakes, jumping 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 picked it up.

   On the way home I rode on the road, instead of the all-purpose trail, hugging the shoulder’s white line. A man in a shiny new silver pick-up leaned on his horn behind me, and when he went past, tried to shrug me off the road, giving me his middle finger for good measure. Some people are sons of bitches. There’s no getting around it or doing anything about it. 

   At home I hosed off the Schwinn and hung it up in the garage. I checked the tires. They looked good, although I knew hanging upside down in the garage all winter long all the air would slowly seep out of them.

   I was going to miss riding with Rick, but when you ride with somebody else you’ve got to wait until they’re as ready as you. When you ride by yourself you can go whenever your bike is spit polish lubricated and the tires look good. The White Knight had been a metalhead for crown and country, and even though his decal brought up my rear, going it alone is the real deal. Nobody wants to be alone, but sometimes you just need to be left alone.

   I did yoga at home that winter to give my lower back a break. I went to classes sometimes even though I couldn’t stand the pie in the sky talk. I had an indoor bike and pedaled on it. I would have to pump up my road bike tires again the coming April, before going back into the valley. When I did, I would keep my eyes on the road ahead, not looking back, daffodils blooming and turkey buzzards circling, the springtime warm and fine after a long cold winter on Lake Erie.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”