Saturday, February 26, 2011

Saturday Musings, 26 February 2011

Good morning,

In a life filled with ordinary days, the extraordinary ones shine, like the strong flame of a stout candle on a table in the middle of a dark room around which I stumble, tired and discouraged. I have lived an ordinary life, with the occasional flash of brilliance, the infrequent but comforting beam of a suddenly lit torch, raised in a cave, sending the shadows scurrying and the sordid creatures of scary nightmares back into their holes.

I am remembering such a shining moment, and that memory causes my breath to catch, and my eyes to close against the sudden rise of joy.

Standing at the top of a three-story parking garage with my son, more than half his life-time ago, I pulled a small bike from the back of my Buick and thumped it to the blacktop. Patrick slid with no small amount of reluctance from the passenger seat, dangling his helmet. His round face, still caught between the edge of toddlerhood and the bloom of childhood, scrunched into a frown. I don't want to learn, he told me. I had heard this before that day. I knew that he did; I knew that he wanted very much to learn to ride a bike without training wheels, because at age eight, all of his friends could, and he desperately wanted what every child wants: to fit into the group, so that he would be liked. I ignored his protest.

I pushed the kickstand out with one toe of my Doc Marten sandals and rested the bike near the car. Put your helmet on, I told him. I knew that studied, stubborn look. He settled the helmet too far back on his brown curls. It doesn't fit. I gently pulled it forward, and buckled the strap. It hurts. I paid him no mind. Come on, I said. Let's look around.

We had spent the last couple of weeks on the sidewalks of our neighborhood, faced with one failure after another. Under the rising umbrella maples, on the cracked cement of the hundred-year-old sidewalks, we had inched our way around Holmes, east on 61st Terrace, down the long hill on Charlotte, and back over to our street by way of 62nd. For the entire block-square route, I walked backwards, holding onto the handle-bars, encouraging, cajoling, and, occasionally, snapping. You can do it, I told him, with less and less gentleness, until we had finally abandoned the enterprise in a wash of his tears and my fatigue.

Now we had decided to try again. Three stories above 63rd Street, in the elevated parking structure of Cleveland Chiropractic College, my son and I faced his failure and my shortcomings, with a small black Husky bicycle minus its rusty training wheels staged between us, and nothing more than the faint potential of success and a guaranteed concrete from Foo's as incentive for his effort.

He scuffed his tennis shoes on the hot black surface of the top deck, running one toe through a line of debris. I stood, my back already aching, a trickle of sweat pouring down the crooked line of my spine. He folded his arms and studied the skyline. I placed my hands on my hip, and waited for him to relent.

After a few silent moments, he walked away from the car, over to the edge of the roof, and looked down at the passing cars. I stifled the urge to admonish him for going too close to certain death, thinking to myself, Well, you can't say he's not brave. Another little while passed.

I pushed my hair back from my face, and glanced over at the bike. Shifting my weight from one aching hip to the other, I watched my son shuffle toward me, hoping that he had found another burst of courage. But he barely looked at the bike before continuing to the car. I can't do it, he announced. I just can't. Somebody might see me, anyway. We might get in trouble. I might fall. An ambulance couldn't get up here. What if I get hurt?

With a long, hard sigh, I urge him back towards the bike. Look, I tell him. I'll make you a deal. I'll do it first. If I do it, you have to do it, okay?

I've got his attention now. He tilts his head to one side, studying my form, then the bike, then me again. His bright eyes pinch together as he draws his brows down, intently considering my proposition. You can't ride a bike, he tells me, in a voice that suggests that perhaps his only parent has forgotten her glaring inabilities. Oh yeah? Really? Then you won't mind making a deal with me, right? I shoot back, and wait for him to reflect on the odds of this seemingly sure bet. Finally, he wraps his small arms around his chest and says, Okay, yeah. You ride it, then I'll ride it, and then we'll go get ice cream, right? I agree.

At that point, I had not ridden a bike since I was fifteen years old and put the front brake of my little brother's three-speed on first, sending the back wheel flipping over and me sprawling head-first on the bike trail. I had struggled to my feet and staggered a few yards before collapsing, vomiting orange juice for a solid fifteen minutes then blacking out. I had been driven home by my friend's mother, and, later, much later, the doctor to whom my mother turned for help said I had a concussion. I have not drunk orange juice since. The memory sits keenly in my gullet.

As Patrick watched, I straddled the small bike, and hitched my heavy shoes onto its tiny pedals. I folded my knees as far from the handlebars as possible, and gingerly pushed the top pedal down. The bike started to wobble forward.

I made it about twenty feet before I felt the bike begin to tilt, and decided that I had shown enough prowess to call the bet. I put my feet down on the asphalt, pulled away from the skimpy seat, and said to my son, Your turn.

With the steady hum of evening traffic as our soundtrack, and the distant, setting sun as stage lighting, my son assumed the place that I had vacated. I stood in front of him, lightly holding the handlebars, while he settled himself. Ready? I said. I steeled myself against the earnest fear that I saw on his small face, apparent in the crinkle of his creamy skin, the one tiny tear in the corner of each of his half-closed eyes. Ready, he whispered, and I began to walk backwards. Pedal, Buddy, pedal, I said, and he pedaled, and after a few feet, I step aside, and let go.

And he went flying, on his bike, on his own, across the whole length of the parking lot, high above our neighborhood, as the sun filled the sky with one last long shimmer then sank beneath the distant line of dusty buildings.

Yesterday, my phone rang, and I heard my son's voice. I sent you my story, Mom. It's due in an hour. Did you read it? I smiled into the phone. Indeed I had. It's good, I told him. Damn good. Needs a little editing. . .maybe the foreshadowing is too obscure. . . but it punched me in the gut at the end. He did not speak at first. Then his voice, with only a small quaver, told me that a peer editor said she didn't get it. I assured him that some people would get it, and some people wouldn't, and whether everybody got it was not necessarily the measure of good writing. I heard self-doubt thick in his voice, and told myself: This too shall pass, and once again, he will fly.

When we ended the call, a wide smile spread across my face, and the room glowed with the fire of a torch held high over the wasteland of an otherwise dismal week.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

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The Missouri Mugwump™

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I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.