It’s raining when I bicycle over the fragment of a broken beer bottle. The rain is making the whole road glisten like glass in my headlight beam so a single shard of inconvenience is effectively camouflaged. The shard is a perfect sword, the rain is perfect cutting oil and my tire is the perfect victim. I hear a small crunch and a second later I feel the air pouring out the gash at approximately the same rate as curses leave my lips.
I coast to a stop, surveying my damp options. Because I am a cautious man, I have prepared myself for this eventuality. I have a spare tube and a tire pump. I have patches in case the tube is faulty or in case I have a second puncture. I have a bit of duct tape with which I can boot the tire if the gash proves to be severe. I have the extra fifteen minutes in my schedule which I regularly set aside for situations such as this. But being prepared does not make me happy or dry.
I curse again. I curse myself. Just this afternoon I had commented on my recent run of run of good fortune. Some fates should not be tempted.
There is a street light up ahead and one of those little shelters parents make for their kids so Junior doesn’t have to stand out in the rain waiting for the school bus. It’s late on a Friday night and no bus will be by until Monday. Tonight I’ll gladly make use of the light and the shelter. Perhaps this is the universe’s way of saying “Sorry about the glass and the rain, here have some light and a dry place. No hard feelings, eh?”
I figure if the universe can balance things out, the least I can do is cut down on my cursing. I say “thanks” to nothing in particular and everything in general and roll my bike the half-block to the bus shelter.
I’m settling into the shelter, unpacking my tools, when I see a single headlight beam rolling down the street. It’s bright, like a low-flying aircraft, and I shield my eyes against the glare. As the beam gets close I hear a familiar voice call out from just behind the beam, “Ya, got whatcha need?”
“Yeah, I’m fine...” I start to answer, “Is that you Perry?”
Perry rolls his recumbent bicycle to a stop next to the shelter and snaps off his hundred watts of home-brewed halogen. “Crappy night,” he comments.
“Yep,” I agree, “I should be home having a nice cup of tea by now but the Puncture Fairy had other plans.”
“Puncture Fairy,” Perry mocks, “you believe in the Puncture Fairy? You sure believe some weird things.”
“I believe weird things,” I say, tossing Perry’s tone back at him, “I’m not the one who thinks the government is monitoring my brainwaves. How’s that foil beanie working out for you?”
“Oh they’d love it if they could get all of us who are onto them to wear foil. It’d make it so much easier for them to keep track of us...”
I can tell Perry is winding up for one of his trademark rants but before he gets up to speed I divert him with a question, “You still carry a floor pump in that thing?”
That thing is Perry’s battered, hand-built custom recumbent velomobile. If an aluminum sausage mated with a bicycle in the cluttered back-room of a very old hardware store, the progeny of that demonic union would be the device in which Perry is currently reclining. Given half a chance Perry will explain in great detail why this particular road missile is better than any other pedal powered machine on the planet. Given more time he’ll get around to telling why “they” suppress such technology and if you give him a few more minutes to ramble on he’ll get around to telling you how this particular iteration of his bicycle is is not nearly as good as the next one he has half-built in his basement.
Some people think Perry is weird but the weirdest thing about him is that the longer I’ve known him, the more I begin to suspect that he may be right. His machines, and he’s built a series of them over the years, each more frightening than the last, tend to go like hell. I’ve seen very fit dudes pound every Watt they’ve got into the pedals of state of the art carbon wonder bikes as they watch helplessly while Perry rattles past them. Many have speculated that he has a motor tucked away somewhere under the hood of his machine, but I’ve inspected various of his unique vehicles from stem to stern and in every case the only motor tucked inside has been a scruffy guy named Perry who has some rather unique ideas as to how a bicycle should be built.
“Yeah,” Perry says, “I’ve got a pump and yeah, you can borrow it. The old Silca will get you rolling quicker than whatever aluminum flute or carbon fiber candy cane you’re carrying these days.”
He flips a few latches and the front cowl of his craft lifts up. He rises from the rig stiffly, like being vertical is an alien, inefficient and unwelcome orientation for him. Once he’s extricated himself from the comfortable coffin he insists on calling a bicycle, he turns his attention to the rear of the machine, pops another latch, reaches in and hands me a full size, full weight, floor pump.
I’ve debated weight with Perry in the past, pointing out that a bicycle is a machine where the passenger is also the engine and speed is generally considered to be a function of the power to weight ratio. I've continued on noting that a human being can only generate so much power and asked “doesn’t it make sense to at least try to build a light weight bicycle?” I’ve had better luck explaining Daylight Savings Time to my cat. Perry only looked at me as if I was being obtuse and proclaimed, “if you build a fast bike, it looks like this and it weighs this much. Besides,” he added, “weight doesn’t matter once you’re rolling.”
Tonight neither of us are rolling at the moment and Perry seems content to hang around and indulge my odd ideas while I work on replacing the tube and booting my tire. “Tell me more about the Puncture Fairy,” he says.
“Well,” I say, warming to the topic, “have you ever noticed that if you comment on how long it’s been since you’ve had a puncture or you are in some way unprepared to deal with a puncture, then within the next 24 hours, you puncture? That’s the Puncture Fairy in action.”
“Really,” Perry notes, “so were you unprepared this evening or...”
“I’d just remarked this afternoon how it had been months since my last puncture,” I admitted.
“And this Puncture Fairy overheard you, rushed out here to smash some glass and teach you a lesson?”
“Yes,” I insisted, “that’s the way the Puncture Fairy works.”
“Kind of an egotistical view of the world you’ve got there,” Perry notes.
“How so?” I ask.
“Well, you think a mystical little pixie has nothing better to do than hang around listening to you talk about tires? When it’s not digging through your bag making sure you’ve packed a patch kit?”
“Well,” I say, defensively, “it’s not just me. The Puncture Fairy monitors all cyclists, in word and deed.”
“Busy little critter,” Perry comments, “So is this Puncture Fairy a single entity with an astounding workload, like Santa Claus, or are we talking an entire species, a global network of gremlins intent on thwarting the travels of the the unbelieving or the unprepared?”
“Given the frequency of punctures in the world,” I say, “I’m inclined toward the latter hypothesis.”
“Ah ha!” Perry counters, “As long as you’re hypothesizing, how about this for a theory: There is no such thing as the Puncture Fairy. What you observe can be explained by coincidence, observational bias and science.”
I must admit that hearing this bit of clear reason from Perry surprises me. Perry and I have a long history of bouncing increasingly whimsical world views off each other and Perry’s retreat toward simple logic has me wary. “Coincidence and science I understand,” I say, “but tell me more about observational bias.”
“Observational bias,” Perry explains, “is when you notice data that confirms your hypothesis and ignore data that does fit your theory. Today you commented on your good fortune and tonight you flatted. If you hadn’t flatted tonight would you have noticed your good luck in making it home without incident?”
I reluctantly admit that he has a point. “And further,” Perry pressed, “tires do wear. You’ve gone thousands of miles on that tire without a problem, right?”
I’ve been changing the tire as we talk and in checking the tire, I see Perry is right. The rear tire on my bike has gotten very thin and has several nicks and gashes. “I guess I have been running on borrowed time,” I agree.
“Yep,” Perry says, “and that long run of luck begins to get noteworthy and you note it by saying something and when that luck runs out coincidentally you credit some sort of mythical Puncture Fairy. That’s not very logical.”
“Well thank you for setting me straight, Mr. Spock. And thanks for the use of the pump.” I’ve already removed the glass from the tire and booted the gash with a strip of duct tape. I fit the replacement tube, pump the tire up to full pressure and hand Perry’s pump back to him. While I've been working the rain has stopped and to the east the clouds have parted. Stars and sliver of moonlight shine down on us. I comment, “You would think that if we can land a man on the moon, somebody could come up with a decent bike tire that doesn’t go flat.”
“Well,” Perry says, “there’s a simple explanation for that as well.”
“You mean that solid tires suck and that everybody trying to uninvent the pneumatic tire eventually rediscovers that? And that as bicyclists we’re always trying to find the right balance between a light, fast tire and one that’s tough enough to go the distance?”
“Actually, no,” Perry says, “the reason we don’t have flat proof tires is the same reason we can’t go to the moon any more.”
“What do you mean we can’t go to the moon any more. Of course we can go to the moon.”
“No,” Perry says, “no we can’t. NASA doesn't have rockets that’ll get us there anymore. The Russians don’t, the Chinese don’t. Nobody does.”
“Well,” I counter, “we could, we just don’t want to.”
“Like I said before, you believe weird things,” Perry says. “If somebody wrote a story years ago that said we’d build all the stuff to fly to the moon, fly and land there in 1969 and then forty years later we’d be incapable of doing it because we didn’t want to, it would never get published. That, my friend, is an unbelievable scenario. If we want something, we make it. Unless somebody stops us. We’re being stopped.”
“We’re being stopped? Whose stopping us?”
“The same guys who are keeping flat proof bike tires off the market. The little grey guys with big bug eyes.”
“Aliens?!?” I say, “Aliens shut down our space program and are keeping flat proof bike tires off the market?”
“Yep,” Perry says, “think about it. We can build machines that can go 57 miles on the energy contained in a bean burrito yet we drive 3-ton SUVs to the grocery store. We’ve had brilliant engineers working for a century and cars still get the same mileage they did in Henry Ford’s day. We spend more time engineering cup holders to hold 64 ounce Slurpees than we do improving fuel standards. Haven’t you ever wondered why?”
“Because there is money to be made in the oil business?” I venture.
“Don’t get me started on that whole ‘trade your life for money’ scam,” Perry says, “that’s just the tip of the iceberg. And speaking of icebergs, you know they’re going away. That’s the point, that’s the goal.”
“Global warming is the goal?” I ask.
“Yep,” Perry says, “they’ve got to warm the place up before they all move in.”
“I think you’ve been watching too many episodes of the X-Files,” I say.
“The X-Files is part of the plot. They carve out a big hunk of pop culture with stories that are close enough to the truth and then they can label guys like me as conspiracy theory wackos. It’s a pretty clever way to undermine those of us who know. It’s like the foil beanies.”
As Perry speaks, a meteor streaks across the eastern sky. I start to make “ooh pretty” fireworks noises, but then I see the look in Perry’s eyes. He’s not thinking “ooh pretty” he’s thinking something else.
“I gotta go,” he mumbles, “I’ll see ya around. You know I was just kidding about that alien stuff, right?”
“Yeah, sure Perry,” I say, “thanks again for the pump.”
Perry tosses the pump in the trunk of his machine and climbs into the cockpit. He looks me in the eye, as serious as I’ve ever seen him. “Just kidding,” he says as he pedals off, “just kidding.”