Most of all, I just wanted to get it right for Chuck. And Emma.
I was late, so I was just going to have to go ahead and meet Beth with the knees of my pants grass-stained from Natalie’s soccer practice. I had an idea the green wouldn’t show up much against the dark cloth once it dried.
Beth didn’t even glance at my knees when I walked over to her in the parking lot. With my hand on her far shoulder and my arm light across her back, we crossed the street and went in the door and once we got down the hall we started looking around for Bearcreek Chuck. He’s one of those guys I hardly know at all off the bike. I see him around town here and there on foot, I guess, but I can’t tell you the last time I talked to him when both of us didn’t have our bikes along. I really don’t know his family, any of his siblings or even his wife or anything and, completely honest now, I wasn’t even sure about his last name. We’re riding friends — which in ways all cyclists understand and have experienced runs surprisingly deep, but which I know probably doesn’t sound like much to anyone who isn’t one of us.
“There he is,” I think I said, and in making our way over to him Beth and I ended up, in fact, introducing ourselves to his mother and she said, “You must be riders, too.” We said we were, and it felt less like the bond I’d always believed it to be than an admittance that out of all the things a life might be, it was the sole connection we had with her son. “We race cross together,” I added, as if that might somehow explain something more.
I was still feeling stupid when I said, “Hey,” to Chuck, and I instantly felt stupider because of all the things I could have thought about I thought about the last time we’d ridden together. It had been a couple weeks ago, at Yozell’s cyclocross clinic up in the big dewy green field by the compost center. There were probably around 25 of us there, and Chuck and I were both surprised, I think, to find ourselves in the “advanced” group with Yozell. We rode rangy circles and filled our treads with mowed grass and when we got in front of Yozell we unclipped and stuck our right leg between the left and the frame and grabbed the top tube with our right hands and stepped off the bike and walked a few paces then got back on, and the next time we came around Yozell told us what we could do better, or told us sometimes we’d done it right.
I had to keep leaving to ride over to check on Nat, who I’d had to drag along with me. She had her bike, but the riding in the grass was pretty tough, and she had her Nintendo, which isn’t much fun in the direct sun, but she also had a soccer ball, and when I could see her getting bored I’d go over to her and we’d do some juggling or take some goal kicks through the beginners group, which made us both laugh.
I got to do a little work on getting rid of my stutter-step, and we were just going to practice uphill runs when I looked over and saw Nat just standing and looking down at the grass. I’d kept her there longer than I’d told her I would that morning, but I also needed to practice grabbing the downtube for uphill dismounts, so I was pissed off when I rolled over to her and I of course let her know that by jamming all of her stuff into the backpack without talking. I turned and waved across the field that I had to leave but not many people saw me. They were shouldering their bikes and running up the hill — grabbing their damn downtubes — and remounting and gliding down the hill and circling back to do it again. Chuck was looking over at us, though, and he waved goodbye, and I rode off with Natalie.
Chuck’s daughter, Emma, was lying in the casket Beth and I had just walked by. She’d fought hard to live two years and nine days.
Beth and I ended up over with the rest of the cyclists, who were all sitting together off to the side, Yozell, Steak, Selene, and Brad and Tracy, and Christoo and Plunkett. A couple of them were sniffling but the others sat plainly looking like I felt, stunned. We sat for what felt like a long time watching our riding friend stand up there and thank people for coming. Every once in a while one of us would say a sentence or two, in different ways but always about the same thing, about our incapacity to imagine bearing what had happened. I was thinking about how goddamn lucky I was to be able to have grass stains on my knees from my 10-year-old daughter’s soccer practice, and I kept wondering what Chuck had been thinking as I rode off angry with Natalie, and I could barely talk at all.
Someone eventually said something about the race coming up on Saturday, and Plunkett said he was going to wear his white kit, and someone called him more or less an obscene disgrace and we were talking then about shaving high and we were making fun of each other and laughing, a little, and I didn’t know if we were right or wrong but it was all we had, and I asked Yozell if he thought I should run file treads Saturday. We talked about BB30 bottom brackets, and how much UCI licenses cost, and somewhere in there Chuck and his wife left the front of the room and walked in a big, loose arc around the pews and chairs and ended up behind us. We stopped talking about bikes and fell silent, and we all looked at him and thought whatever we were thinking or tried not to think at all.
Chuck said, “So, see you guys out there Saturday?”
You could hear our breath release, all of us. We nodded and said yeah and of course and Beth said, “I saw that you had pre-registered.”
I said, “Old Guy B, right?” — the 35+ Cat 3 race — and when Chuck said yes I said, “I’ll duel you for last place,” and a few of us laughed because it was the right place for a laugh, and Chuck said he’d ridden twice so he thought he was peaking and all of us laughed because we felt better or because we hoped he did, at least a little, at least for a second or two or a minute or two. Chuck said, “It’ll be fun just being out there.”
On Saturday I’ll be there at the start with Bearcreek Chuck, who most people would just say is my riding friend and I couldn’t really argue with them. We’re going to have fun just being out there. We’ll find each other at the finish, him and me and a bunch of our riding friends, just the way we always do, just the way we always will at all the starts and all the finishes that wait for every one of us.
Originally published in the September 18, 2009 Sitting In