Note: the following is an award-losing bit of fiction I wrote for Dirt Rag's literature contest. If you want to read a better story than the one that follows, pick up a copy of Dirt Rag #145 and read the one written by Kevin MacGregor Scott. That fellow can really tell a good tale.
Here, for free, you can read my effort. I'm releasing the story under Creative Commons (see the license at the end) so feel free to pass it around. The story is totally free but if you want to toss some money my way, I won't argue. Any money I get from the story goes into my 2010 Tour Divide Race Fund. The little button at the bottom will let you send any amount to my Paypal account at email@example.com
Bob's Bike Shop
by Kent Peterson
Steve rolls up, five minutes before closing time with a seriously tweaked wheel and a sob story about a race tomorrow. I try to put him off, but when he offers to buy us all burritos, Tess and the boys out-vote me. Tess takes Steve's cash and the evening's bank deposit, promising to return with burritos for all. I pop Steve's wheel into the truing stand and the boys each keep working on the bikes in their respective stands.
As I turn my attention to the wheel, Steve asks an innocent question, "So, how did you ever get into the bike business, anyway?"
My younger son lets out a groan and his older brother turns to Steve and says "Oh man, why did you have to ask that?"
"What?" Steve says.
"Pay them no mind," I say, "they've heard this story a few times..."
"More like a few dozen times," the one with the smart mouth interrupts.
"Maybe a hundred times," the one with the even smarter mouth adds. "But now you've done it. Did you know Dad used to have a car?"
"Strange, but true." I say to Steve, "I used to have a car. Back when I was your age," I add, addressing my son, "I wasn't that bright..."
It took all winter and the first part of the spring, but by April I'd saved up enough snow-shoveling and lawn-mowing money to buy Tex's brother's old MG. The car was my British racing green ticket to freedom and in my dreams I'd give Cathy rides home after school, her blond hair flowing in the wind, her laughter like music as she chuckled at my latest observation of the human condition.
The car was great, with real dials and an honest-to-god rag-top but it had its quirks. The car had an unhealthy thirst for oil and it spewed smoke like Q had rigged a smoke screen that would let 007 leave any villains coughing in confusion. The electrical system would've been more at home in Dr. Frankenstein's lab than under a car hood. Excuse me, bonnet. When you own an MG, even if you've lived in Wisconsin your entire life, you start dropping British-isms into your speech and you wear one of those tweed driving hats. At least that's what I did.
I drove the car back and forth to school and I got a job where I learned to smile as I asked "You want fries with that?" My paychecks all seemed to go into gas, oil, big checks to an insurance company and fixing the latest and most drastic of the MG's quirks. The only times I got to see Cathy outside of the couple of classes we shared would be when she and big dumb Todd would stop by at Gordy's and I'd ask if they wanted fries with their order. I'd hear her laughter like music as Todd made some obvious observation of the human condition. God, how I hated Todd.
I was on my way to work when the MG broke down.
This time, some hose cracked and something leaked and a ton of smoke poured out of pretty much everywhere. I coasted to a stop in front of Bob's shop. Of course, I didn't know then that it was Bob's shop. I didn't know Bob and I'd never had any reason to go into his shop. Bob's place was a bike shop and what would I need a bike for? I had a car. Bikes were for kids.
I was still swearing at the car when Bob came out to ask if I need any help or a fire extinguisher or anything.
"A phone," I said. "Can I borrow your phone? I gotta call work and tell 'em I'll be late."
"Sure, sure," said Bob, and I followed him into his store.
The place was packed with bikes and smelled like old tires. There was stuff everywhere. Tires hung on pegs above the rows of bikes and there were baskets and bells and brightly colored shirts and a board with a bunch of gears hanging on it. Wrenches hung, each on their own hook, next to tools I didn't recognize above a workbench containing a vice and some gadget with a wheel clamped in its jaws. Posters advertising brands I didn't know flanked pictures of skinny guys I didn't recognize sprinting across some finish-line somewhere in Europe.
"What's a Molteni?" I asked, pointing to the picture of some dark-haired guy with big legs. I'd read the word off the front of his shirt.
"Molteni?!?" Bob paused, then followed my gaze to the poster. "Oh," he laughed, "some Italian company, I think they make sausage or something."
"Who's the dude?" I asked.
Bob shot me the look you get when you ask a really dumb question and then smiled broadly and said "Merckx. His name's Eddy Merckx. Don't you have to make a call?"
"Oh yeah," I said, as Bob pointed me to the phone. "I'm not looking forward to this. Gordy was so pissed the last time I was late."
"Gordy?" Bob asked. "You work at Gordy's? The burger joint?"
"Yeah, " I said. "I know you... Double Cheeseburger, no mayo, right?"
"Yep." Bob laughed. "I guess it's true, you are what you eat."
"I'm supposed to be at work in twenty minutes. I betcha Gordy fires me this time."
"Ride there," Bob said.
"What?" I said.
"Ride there," Bob repeated. "I'll loan you a bike."
"But - but it's too far," I protest. "And it's up a big hill."
"Geez!" Bob exploded, "Hand me the phone and I'll call Gordy myself and tell him to fire you! It's two miles at most!" Then he paused for a second and added, in a quieter tone, "Look, I ride there darn near every day and I'm an old man. You can certainly do it. You know, bikes have gears these days."
"I dunno." I paused, still holding the phone.
"Look," Bob said firmly. "You're burning time debating this. You can take my burger bike. It'll take you ten min..." he paused for a second, looked at me and quickly amended, "You can make it. At Fourth Avenue cut over to Maple and take it up the hill instead of Pine. It's a block out of your way, but it's not as steep."
"OK," I said, kind of relieved not to have to make the call. "But I've got a dumb question. How do I work the gears on this thing?"
Bob gave a half-roll of his eyes as if to say "Kids these days!" and then patiently explained the two levers that work the gears. "The lever on the left controls the front der... chain shifting thing. Moving the chain over to the smaller ring up front makes things easier. The right lever controls the rear derailleur, we call the shifting things derailleurs, and the back is the opposite of the front. In the back, the smaller gears are harder and the bigger one is easier. Oh, and you shift while pedaling."
"Where's the clutch?" I asked.
"No clutch," Bob replied. "Bikes don't have clutches. But they don't like to shift under load, so downshift before you need to. You'll catch on, it's easy. It's like riding a bike."
We agreed that I'd bring the bike back after I'd finished my shift at Gordy's.
"I'll leave my car as collateral," I said.
"I'd rather have something of value," Bob grumbled in response. "Bring me a burger and we're square."
I made it to work with three minutes to spare.
Riding back to the shop was easier than riding to work. The wind blew through my hair and for a few minutes at least I out-rolled the smell of french fries that clung to my work clothes.
The shop was closed by the time I get there, but I saw Bob inside. I knocked on the glass and held up the greasy burger bag. Bob opened the door and let me in.
He went back to working on a wheel that was clamped in what I'd later learn is called a truing stand. "You're working late," I said.
"I've got a lot to do," Bob said. "It's my busy time of year. So, how are you going to get that car out of my parking space?"
"Oh - I, uhmm..." I hadn't really thought this through.
"It's got a blown head gasket," Bob explained, "I checked it out after you left. You're not driving it anywhere for a while. You got money for a tow?"
"That's what I thought. OK, I'll help you push it around back. I've got some space back there and you won't get ticketed. When is your next paycheck?"
"Friday, no, a week from Friday. Crap."
"You're burger-based career plan seems to have gone slightly awry, my friend. How are you getting to work between now and next Friday?"
"Maybe I could bike there?" I ventured.
"My generosity has its limits, kid," Bob grumbled, but then he went on. "Look, you need wheels and I can use some help, so here's what we do. You keep the burger bike for the next couple of weeks, but you come here before and after your shifts at Gordy's. You don't seem that bright but you can probably get the hang of sweeping up and putting away parts and things..."
And so I rode for the next couple of weeks. I swept and shelved and Bob decided that maybe I could learn a few more things so he showed me the differences between brake and derailleur cables, how to adjust brakes so they don't squeal, how to lube chains and true wheels. I listened as he debated the merits of drilling out brake levers and derailleurs with various customers.
"How much is Gordy paying you?" Bob asked one day and when I answered he followed up with "Heh, I guess the burger business is every bit as lucrative as the bicycle business. If you want, you can keep working here and I'll match what Gordy's paying you. Your hands will still get greasy, but at least you won't smell like fries."
"But - but," I protested, "Cathy never comes here."
"Cathy?" Bob asked and I told him all about the goddess with the golden hair and the lilting laughter and that someday she'd see that she would be much better off with me than with big dumb Todd.
Bob nodded sagely and said "Let me see if I have this straight: you're working at a job you don't like, to pay for a car you can't afford, to impress a girl with an established track record of liking big, dumb guys. Right?"
I admitted that it sounded kind of stupid when he put it that way.
"Oh no," Bob countered. "The plan will work. You've got the dumb part down and you just have to shoot up another six inches and she'll fall for you like a ton of bricks." He dropped the sarcasm from his voice, shifted gears with just the slightest pause and went on, "Look, kid, I'm sure she's a looker and hell, maybe she's the one for you. And when I was your age I was probably twice as stupid as you are now. But there are lots of gals out there, some that are pretty and some that are smart and a lot that are both. I'm sure you don't believe me, but it's not worth settling for a woman who will settle for dumb. And you know," he added, "some cute gals come into bike shops, too."
I gave notice at Gordy's the next day. When school got out for the summer, I started working full time at Bob's.
I learned a lot that summer and some of it was about bikes. Bob helped me replace the head gasket in the MG and then I sold it to Todd's little brother. I used the money I got out of the car to buy an old Peugeot PX-10. "Oh God," Bob said, "going from a British car to a French bike. You must be one of those guys whose not happy unless he's got something to tinker with."
Bob taught me how to tinker with a lot of stuff. Sometimes in the busy season we'd stay late, after we'd closed up the shop just to catch up on repairs. At night the skip off the ionosphere would let the shop radio pull in the blues station from Chicago and we'd listen to B.B. King and John Lee Hooker and Billie Holiday.
One night after work Bob popped a tape in the VCR and we watched a documentary about Eddy Merckx. The guy came in second in some race and we watched as his shoulders dropped and he looked sadder than any blues song I'd ever heard. He wasn't pissed, he was just sad. And then he went and rode. In the rain and on rollers next to his washing machine. And he rode and he rode and he rode. And he won. "See that?" Bob said. "You keep going."
And Bob kept going. He was twice my age and twice as fast on a bike. As I got to know Bob, I learned his story. He talked about his wife a lot, even though she'd died a few years before, a victim of a hit-and-run. I thought maybe that was why Bob hated cars, but that turned out to be one of those simple and wrong conclusions that kids jump to some times. Bob kept talking about Martha because he still loved her and he didn't stop loving her just because she was gone. He told me that she was pretty and smart and that she'd been worth waiting for. And he didn't work all those hours in the bike shop because he hated cars, he did it because he loved bicycles. You find someone or something to love and you stick with it. Bob didn't hate cars, he really seemed to enjoy himself when we were working on the MG, but he never loved cars the way he loved bikes. I think Bob was one of those guys who was happiest when he had something to tinker with.
"You should go make something of yourself," he told me. "It's a big world, check it out." On Saturday mornings, before the shop would open, we'd go down to the long, flat Sawmill Road with bikes and a stopwatch and we'd time-trial. Thursday nights after work, we'd do laps out by the Airport. And at least a couple days a week, I'd do burger runs up to Gordy's. I no longer needed to go a block out of my way and go up Maple. I'd punch it straight up Pine, just like Eddy Merckx.
A knock at the window puts an end to my story. I slide the deadbolt and give my wife a big kiss as she rolls her bike through the door.
"Finally!" says Eddy. "We're starving here."
Tess shakes her short brown hair free of her helmet, her laughter filling the shop like music. "It's up a big hill!" she says, repeating one of our oldest family jokes. "Actually," she adds, "I've never seen the taco truck that busy. I guess the word has gotten out." She hands Steve's change to him along with the first burrito and passes a second one on to Eddy. Turning to grab his supper, Eddy notices for the first time that his older brother is getting red in the face while pushing on a big wrench.
"Hey, College Boy," he says "you'll never get it out that way. It's Italian. Right-hand thread on both sides."
My eldest son gets that "Doh!" look on his face and Tess and I exchange a half-roll of our eyes as if to say "Kids these days!"
My lovely wife hands me a burrito. "Miss me?"
"Every time you go," I say, "but you're worth waiting for." Turning to our son I add, "Take a break, Bob. It's burrito time."
Bob's Bike Shop by Kent Peterson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.