Thursday, July 3, 2014

ride

A Cache of Words Writer's Group Picture prompt for July 3 - 
Write a story, poem or song about this picture



The day before she went into the hospital, Aunt Rita asked me to go with her on a bike ride, which I thought as terribly bad timing.  Why ask me?  I thought.  Ask Rachel; she’s your daughter!  And Rachel  doesn’t have three kids … 

I agreed, mainly because she was scheduled for surgery the following day.  I’m her go-to neice that Aunt Rita calls for everything  and I love her, despite her propensity to call at the most inconvenient times.  Since I didn’t have to take her to the hospital (Uncle Bill got a rare day off) I told her I would love to, which actually was only half-true. 

I drove up to her condo at 7:30 a.m., my black Surly thrown in the back of the Wagoneer.  Aunt Rita’s bike, I thought as I pulled into her carport, would have to fit next to mine.  This is going to be tricky, I thought, as I opened the tailgate.  My Steamroller was fully equipped with a basket in front and took up too much space already. 

“Hi, Grace!”  I heard Aunt Rita call and I spun around.  She was walking toward me, pushing an ancient Schwinn 10-speed (complete with curled handlebars).  The “click-click-click” resounded of yesteryear. 

“Is that your bike?” I asked, sounding like a teenage girl.  I quickly corrected my tone.  “Is it fully operational?”

“I just had it serviced last week at the bike shop,” Aunt Rita seemed proud, unfazed by my judgmental question.  “It was my bike when I married your Uncle Bill!”  She was smiling as she looked at it, the expression of a young mother. 

“Okay, then.  Let’s go!”

“Here’s another good thing, honey,” she giggled, looking over my Steamroller .  “My bike is very small and light and won’t be that hard to fit on top of yours.”

+++

Aunt Rita had chosen the river trail for our bike ride; I knew it well from many rides.  Before Gerald and the kids came along, I entered many races and “rode competitively”.  That’s what I liked to say when people asked me what I did for exercise.  “Me?   I cycle; occasionally competitively.”

I never placed in any race; I never even came close.  I just liked saying I was among the competitors.  The feel of pedaling into the wind, straining my quadriceps uphill, was sheer elation.  Nothing was better than the joy of riding.  When I met Gerald, he bought a bike and joined me, but we rode romantically, never too fast.  

I had to go out without him to train; it felt lonely after Gerald.  When the kids came, the bike was stored in our new garage, hanging on special hooks that reminded me that I could get away at any time…

I wasn’t expecting a fast race with Aunt Rita.  She was sixty-five and didn’t even bring a helmet.  She had a Schwinn 10-speed, for crying out loud.  I might have to teach her how to change gears.

“Let’s ride without helmets today, Grace,” Aunt Rita’s face was like my mischievous five-year-old daughter, Caytlyn’s . 

I laughed.  “We have to wear helmets, Aunt Rita.  I brought an extra one for you,  just in case.”

“Why?  Don’t you want to feel the wind in your hair?  Don’t you want to feel eleven years old again?”

“We’re biking on the river trail.  It’s the law.”

Aunt Rita sat back in her seat.  “Not a law; only a suggestion.”

“I’ve been cycling for awhile now, Auntie.  Helmets are a good suggestion; I’ve seen a lot of accidents.”

“Yeah, well.”

We drove in silence until I pulled into the parking lot.  A valley oak tree extended its arms mercifully over a patch of gravel.  “Thank God,” I whispered as I pulled the Jeep under it.  Even after a two-hour ride we would still be in the shade.  July was so hot; riding early would even feel like mid-day.

We started to unload our bikes; Aunt Rita was still upset about the helmets, I could tell.  I didn’t care; if she wanted a bike ride without helmets, she should have asked Rachel to take her. 

Her bike unloaded easily; mine seemed heavy and bulky as I pulled it out.

“You have a beautiful bike!” Aunt Rita marveled.  “And look at that basket!  What a great idea!”

“Yeah, this bike was a gift from Gerald after Michaela learned how to ride.  He thought I could ride around the neighborhood with her on this.”

“Do you?”

“Not really.  She’s got soccer and everything.  We hardly have time.”

I reached in for the helmets and handed her the nice one.  It used to belong to Gerald, dark green and shiny with the orange reflector on the back.  Mine was beat up- a rouch black and white that had seen better days.  As I handed it over, she looked at me with deep sincerity; I thought she was going to argue. 

“Does she know how much it means to you?”

“What?”

“Does Michela know how much riding means to you?”

"Oh, Auntie..." I hoisted the helmet in her direction and she reluctantly took it from me.  “I used to cycle a lot; I don’t know if it still means that much to me.”

“I don’t know how to put this on,” she was fumbling with the straps.  In an instant, I could see confusion, which gave way to frustration.  The thought scared me; Aunt Rita had a brain tumor and I had forgotten how serious the upcoming surgery was. 

I started to show her by putting my own helmet on, but my face grew hot and I felt like crying all of a sudden.

“Know what?” I said, taking the helmet back from her.  “You’re right.  Let’s be eleven and feel the wind in our hair.”

“Really?”  She was overjoyed, gripping on to the handlebars of her Schwinn and beaming in thanksgiving.

++++

I didn’t need to explain how to switch gears to Aunt Rita; she was actually a pretty good rider.  I wondered if she had ridden before.

“Oh yes,” she was keeping up with my pace and the pebbled path beneath us didn’t seem to bother her.  “I rode my bike nearly every day.  I rode to the store, to the library.  In those days, we only had one car.  
Rachel and I used to ride our bikes to school together!”

I smiled. 

“How is Rachel?  I never hear from her.”

“She’s good, honey.  Busy, you know.”

“Yeah.  Is she still working at the bank?”

“You mean is she still an investment banker?” Aunt Rita raised her eyebrows at me, her hair blowing in the wind. “Yes.  You know, you can pick up the phone and give her a call as well, Grace.”

“I know.  I’m pretty busy with the kids, though.”

“Yeah.  Everyone’s busy now.”  Aunt Rita and I pedaled in silence again.  Rachel and I were dramatically different in temper and personality.  Because of this, we had stopped forcing friendship years ago.  Being cousins didn’t mean we had to be friends. 

Aunt Rita was slowing down and I looked over at her to see why.  She was glancing off to the left, eyeing an open field away from the river, one that had a dirt path that led to a tree.  I knew she wanted to go down there. 

She slowed to a stop; I did too.  We looked together at the sight.  In the morning light, it looked like a postcard. 

“Look how green that field is.”

“Yeah,” I reached for our water bottles, nestled under a towel in my basket.  I handed her one and we both took a drink.  She never took her eyes off the field. 

“Don’t you think it’s unusual for the field to be so green in July?”

I smiled.  Aunt Rita always noticed beautiful things, it was one of the reasons I loved her.

“Yeah, I guess it is unusual.”

She looked back at me and gave me the water bottle; I put it back in the basket under the towel.

“Honey, let’s go down there!”

“No, Aunt Rita.  It’s a dirt road and you’re on an ancient bike.”  She pleaded with me, almost begged me with her eyes.  “ Your tires might pop!”

“Please, honey.  Look how smooth the ground is.”

“First no helmets, now a dirt road.  What’s next, Aunt Rita?”  I was a little mad, but she squealed with delight and we left the river trail for the dirt path that was probably reserved for maintenance vehicles. 

There were no shade trees and the sun was hot on the back of my neck.  Aunt Rita was exuberant, shouting, “See, my tires are fine!” 

I nodded at her. I wondered if Rachel had ever ridden a bike in her life, she didn’t strike me as the type; no wonder Aunt Rita couldn’t ask her.  We rode down the dirt path until it came to a small sign that looked almost English, a peg with two wooden arrows, pointing in opposite directions. 

“Look how beautiful this is!”  Aunt Rita was pointing at the sign, which read: “Private drive” pointing ahead; and “recycling station” to the left. 

“Yeah, it’s beautiful.  Let’s turn around and get back on the trail.  We’re not supposed to be over here.”

Aunt Rita nodded and held out her hand to me.  I took it, moved that we shared a moment together.

“I meant give me my water bottle, honey.”  She was laughing, which made me laugh, too.  “But we can hold hands, too!  I love holding hands!”

We drank for a while and then put the bottles back in the basket.  Aunt Rita decided to give me a lesson   on local history.  “This all used to be farmland, honey.” She waved her hand over the fields.  “This used to be cattle fields and corn fields and alfalfa…  Way back when the city was small.”  I wondered if she was stalling; she appeared to be out of breath. 

“How long ago was that?”

“Oh, I guess right before you and Rachel were born.”

I nodded.  “Shall we?”  I motioned back to the river trail. 

Aunt Rita looked a little worried, but she spoke with careful volume.  “If anything goes wrong tomorrow…”  I looked up suddenly,  paying close attention to her.  “Will you promise me that you will look after Rachel?  Check up on her?  She will literally work herself to death and forget she has a family if she’s left alone.”

My eyes filled with tears.

“Nothing will go wrong, Auntie.”

She nodded, then stroked my forearm.  It was like she was comforting me; preparing me.

“Will you promise?”

I nodded.  Then, as if she decided our tender moment was all over, Aunt Rita turned her Schwinn around, pushed down on her pedal and made her way to the river trail.  Before I followed, I took my phone out of the basket and took a picture of that incredibly green field.

 I had to have some reminder of the ride. 

++++

At the funeral, Uncle Bill and Rachel were inconsolable.  We all were shocked and stunned and were trying to get through the day.  Only a week before I had been on the bike trail with her; now we were mourning Aunt Rita's life together. 

There was a cake and coffee reception at the adjoining church hall, where Aunt Rita’s friends from her church treated us like royalty.  One of them asked me if I was the cyclist.  I wondered how she knew.

I approached Rachel and decided to ask her out to lunch the following week.  She was off in a corner, texting something on her phone and I decided to interrupt her before she left. 

“Rachel?” I felt awkward at first, ignoring the buzz of activity behind me to approach her. 

She turned to me, her makeup perfect and her hair still holding its curl.  When she saw my face, instead of stiffening and putting on her usual air, Rachel melted.  Before I could say anything, we embraced and cried in each others' arms like long-lost sisters.  I never asked her to lunch that day, but I vowed to call her in a few days.  Instead, we greeted family members and Aunt Rita's friends together.  

"Thanks for being here," Rachel whispered to me as we held hands. "I would have felt so alone without you."

That day I didn’t tell her about the promise I made to my Auntie.  I don't know if I ever will; I don't know if I'll ever want to.