A Minor Character

This is a thing I wrote in 2014 for Red Kite Prayer, lightly edited, because I know a little better now.

Sometimes I have trouble locating the bike in the story, although it is there in plain view, bright blue with knobby tires, or party balloon red on razor thin rubber strips. The bike is there clearly enough, but how does it connect? Is it a character, or just a detail, a bit of the mood-setting scenery?

I didn’t cry when I learned that Scott had died, although he and I had spent enough time together, an intense couple years when he tried in his slow, relentlessly cheerful way to mentor me. Almost twenty years my senior, he gave me a shot at a job I didn’t deserve and then stood by and supported me while I bulled my way around the china shop, a supercilious little prick, who didn’t know what he didn’t know.

I wanted action and progress. I wanted control. I wanted to be the boss, and Scott never discouraged me, but sat smiling as I poured out my frustration in his office. He told stories, a lot of stories. Good god, he talked a lot, and I came to see his smile and those stories as part of the reason he was so ineffectual, except that years later I can see that he knew better than I did what was important. He talked, but he also listened.

Scott was a runner when we worked together, an obsessive, foolhardy runner. He ran every day with no rest, no days off. He said if he stopped, he wouldn’t be able to start again, and at 40-something his knees were breaking down. He had pain, a developing limp.

I was a cyclist, one of the strange few who rode a bike to an office where ties never looked out of place, and Scott’s knees and unwavering cheerfulness pushed him toward the bike. We rode together a few times with me ostensibly showing him how to ride a mountain bike, as if that’s a thing you can actually teach a person. Again, stupid me, the bike wasn’t that important. It was only a way for us to connect.

I left that job after the CEO told Scott he thought I was an asshole, an attitude I adjudged might hamper my further progress up the food chain, and Scott and I drifted apart as I continued the quixotic tilt at my career. Linked In and then Facebook kept me vaguely aware of his life. In the 15 years that followed our work together, Scott became a cyclist the way he had been a runner, riding every day, covering longer and longer distances, 200km, 400km, 600km, 1200. I learned this after he died.

He was riding his bike along a busy road in Florida when somehow, the details are vague, a blue Corvette traveling at a speed well beyond the road’s suggestion left its lane and hit him. I imagine he died instantly, 60 years-old. I don’t remember the last time he and I spoke. It had been more than a decade, I think. Now it seems such a shame, given all we must have had to talk about. The bike, there it is again.

When Eddie died the tears came more readily, great sobbing gouts of tears. I don’t remember when I’ve cried like that. The day we got Eddie from the shelter, a pair of shining eyes and a swishing tail in white fur and black nose, was a dim memory by then. I’d never had a dog before and was reticent about the whole project. I didn’t know why we would take on the responsibility really, and I said so to my friend Charlie, who shook his head and smiled. “You’ll cry when that dog dies,” he said.

Eddie was a mutt, with shades of greyhound and lab in him. As a young dog, he could run all day, and often did in the Fells where I rode mountain bikes. I could loop the perimeter of those woods over and over, 6 miles per lap, and Eddie would blaze along by my side, occasionally darting off to tree a squirrel before returning again to formation.

A smart dog, he would pace and yap excitedly any time I pulled the bike out. I’m not sure how many seasons we passed together in the woods. In my mind it was more than a careful consultation of memory would suggest. In the last five years of his life, he was nearly fifteen when we had to have him put down, I don’t recall him going out with me at all, but those times are still integral to my memory of him. He was a good friend, and always very willing.

Last week, a friend and I were talking about all the people we know who’ve been hit by cars in the last year. The number has grown to a size that’s hard to ignore, and we are both feeling our mortality a bit. That could be age, or it could be a burgeoning rational case for the risk of riding a bike. I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

But where is the bike in this story? Sometimes correlation only hints at causation, they say.

Scott died on his bike, and Eddie lived with the bike, and they’re both gone, but is the bike really any more than a prop in either scene? You can, and naturally do, argue that Scott died because of a careless driver, and that the high risk of riding a bike played no small part, and that seems obviously true. Maybe I just feel I need to perform the mental gymnastics necessary to keep riding in light of yet another cycling tragedy, except that tragedies happen, right? Friends and family get cancer, or worse. Old dogs die. Life goes on, and the joy of riding with a friend is no more rare and strange than another report of a friend laid up in hospital with broken ribs, collarbone and spirit.

Anything in the path of that Corvette was going to die, that Scott was there, on a bike, was the cruel coincidence. The bike brought him to that place, but he could just as easily have been walking or waiting for a bus.

The bike illuminates a young dog and makes his old friend wistful and sad after he’s passed on. Is it just the order of events, or the drama, that draws your attention to the bike? Or maybe, again, the bike has nothing to do with it, is only incidental, like a cell phone glance in the wrong moment, or the decision to take a too-busy road. All of the details pile on top of one another, form a composite. Maybe drawing the bike out, focusing on it, is wrong. Corellation is not causation. Friends die. It is awful and sad, but if you are lucky, and you let the composite remain intact, you can see that you were lucky to have ridden with them at all.