Gone for the Duration
He answers on the third ring. “Your grandpa has something for you. He picked it up at the flea market. It’s a whole shoebox of bicycle brake pads. They’re rubber.”
“Dad, I need a place to stay,” I say, but he doesn’t seem to hear.
“All you got to do is slide off the old ones and slide in the new ones,” he says, talking maintenance.
Echo, my old chow-mix, shuffles as I trace the spines of cycling books on a shelf. Above it, a half-dozen bicycle maps fill the walls. My dad has such maps, such shelves, as does my Grandpa, my kin. I like to think we’re artisans of another class—quilters, collectors, builders. Though other work pays the bills, it’s our chosen vocation—or vacation, as Mark Twain advises—where we reside. We’re makers, finding joy in creation. I leave the maps for the hall, then descend the stairs to the deconstruction—smashed drywall, broken tile, exposed pipes. Plastic sheets sway in each doorjamb. Dust coats or drifts. I squeeze the bridge of my nose.
“You could stay with Grandpa,” Dad says, interrupting his list of bicycle to-dos. “Ask him about the motorbikes he built during the war.”
“Is a motorbike a real bicycle?”
“That was quite a feat for him to do that. There were no interstates back then. He rode a motorbike he’d made all the way from Peoria to Des Moines in one day.”
I leave the house for the garage where bicycles glimmer in the light. “I thought he was going to Florida?”
I meet Dad at Grandpa’s. The dog trot begins. Echo shakes her collar. Jimmy, Dad’s dog, chews treats as he dashes, crumbles falling. Bonnie, Grandpa’s dog, wiggles under my hand as I talk nonsense about her dog goodness. Then, I ask the housesitting basics—Can I walk Bonnie? Would he eat dinner if I made it? Which shower should I use? Which bed? I wait for his eyes. “Can I take Grandpa’s bike down from the hook in the garage to ride?” It’s a real Schwinn cruiser. It’s January. It’s Iowa. I was born here. It’s never too cold, right?
“Don’t drop it on Grandpa’s car.”
“Do you want a pop?” I set an RC Cola on the table as he talks, to me, at me, or simply filling the kitchen with words. I unpack groceries, make room on the shelves. Then, he pockets his phone. “I’ve got to get ready. You’re welcome to come to the collector’s meeting. It’s at the library. Do you know where that is?”
I join him at the table. My tablet’s map finds our location and the library in town, as he sketches roads on a sticky note. He talks directions. I read the digital route. When I glance between the two, his involves side streets, residential roads, while the internet suggests major thoroughfares. Bonnie naps. Jimmy wiggles eyebrows alert to the tones of my dad’s voice. Echo stares at nothing. Why is her aging so hard on me? She no longer barks at the mail truck, neighbors, or my roll into the backyard. When I call, she doesn’t turn. I’ve begun to exaggerate gestures. If my great arm sweeps inspire Echo’s movement, friends freeze or stare.
When my dad takes a breath, I ask, “I go this way?” sliding my tablet over.
Dad lifts his glasses to squint. I demonstrate the motions—swipe, pinch, unpinch—but at his pinch that triggers a quick zoom, he jumps back. His chair jerks with the startle. Bonnie and Jimmy leap to attention, though Echo remains staring, ears turned outward as if listening to something far away.
Groaning about his knees, Dad abandons the maps. “Call your grandpa. Ask him about motorbikes.”
“I started when I was about fourteen,” Grandpa says.
As he talks, the dogs doze, curled puffs of orange and gold. He tells me about his first bicycle, “It had red balloon tires. I bought it for five dollars,” then describes the shoveling he did to save for its purchase. “It was a funny looking thing. I rode it all over Des Moines. We’d go over and park our bikes in my grandfather’s office and walk down to the junkyard.”
Bonnie rises to inspect the sliding door that looks towards Grandpa’s workshop, then barks. I follow her gaze—driveway, spruce, waning moon. “Did you build a motorbike from your five dollar bike?”
“The first one I made a motorbike out of was a Hawthorne,” he says. “I had no way to weld anything during the war when you couldn’t get anything done, and you couldn’t buy anything. So I made it out of wood and screws.” From scavenged milk machine engines, he repurposed their motors. Every piece of metal that needed drilling was done by hand. “I built seventeen of one particular size.”
As Bonnie’s bark interrupts again, I say, “I’m just going to let her out.” Once hooked to the rope, she leaps into the cold as if she’s searching. Does she hear Grandpa’s voice on the speaker phone as he spends a couple of weeks in Florida or does some other sound her massive ears?
When the conversation resumes, Grandpa’s voice becomes merry with memories about riding a motorbike home from Peoria where he took classes in machine shop, welding, and automotive, another ride he took to Marshalltown for fun, one down to Lineville, Missouri to buy firecrackers. He tells me about a bicycle shop in a friend’s garage, magazines he read for building ideas, being known as the motorbike guy in high school. He tells me what’s stripped off a bicycle and what’s added to motorize it. Mechanically orientated, he speaks the words of parts—crank, generator, jackshaft. If I can picture some, most remain in the nebulous region of garage lingo. “Was it legal?”
“There was nothing legal about it. We were supposed to have a motorcycle license but this was during the war, and there wasn’t any new stuff being made. You couldn’t go to the hardware store and ask for a bolt; the sign would say ‘gone for the duration.’ You just couldn’t hardly get anything to work with.”
Bonnie barks. “Just a sec, Grandpa,” I say, exhaling. I bring her in, give her a cookie, pat her flank as she sits before me with alert ears as if she too needs to understand why men rip apart something to rebuild something else.
Grandpa tells me he doesn’t remember what happened to all his motorbikes but remembers the bicycles he used to build them—Columbia, Schwinn, Western Flyer. I ask him why he built motorbikes, but he tells me about erector sets. I ask him if the constraints of the war made it a sort of game, but he tells me about building tree houses. I ask him if there’s something he wishes he still had, but he tells me that when he went away to study at the General Motors Institute in Flint, Michigan, his parents moved, but saved him a box of his things. It was labeled Bicycle Chains.
In the morning, I carry Echo to my grandma’s shower to bathe her. I find an old bottle of her shampoo. Four years ago, she died of a heart thing she’d told no one about, yet she’s still here—her quilts on the wall, her stencils above the doors, her paintings. If Grandpa lives alone now at 85 with his children checking in, he dwells elsewhere. My kin chooses a workshop space and build. In the house he built himself, his workshops include a basement wing, two garages, a shed, a driveway with an American flag. “Cal?” men call into these spaces where Car Talk burbles on NPR and workbenches sit bright with tools, air compressor humming. Smudged by grease, he emerges to accept their milk crates of car parts—carbonators, alternators, starters—dark, heavy, and tagged. They talk. Some of them are garage men, but not all. Some, like him, carry the mark of such an occupation pressed deep into the lines of their hands.
Echo struggles to stand in the tub. I lift her, rinse. Knock-kneed, she grins. “Do you remember pulling me on a bicycle?” I dry her, reminiscing. Then everyone gets a cookie. I settle down to read about motorbikes. When I lift my eyes, I take in a house built from nothing—quilts and vintage cars, paintings and antique bottles. When I brew tea or refill the dogs’ water dish, I study the twelve-month calendar on the wall open to the last month of my grandma’s life. Her looping, flourishing handwriting remains in the boxes—anniversaries, events, birthdays.
Bonnie barks. Dad opens the door. The dog trot begins again. Streaks of orange, gold, and black swirl across the kitchen. Pants, crunches, and patter replace the silence. Dad groans sitting down. “Did you call your grandpa?”
“Good.” He talks as I set the table—pork chops, spinach salad, green beans. Despite the cookies, dogs beg. I brush paws from my legs. I glare at canine eyes who turn their gaze towards Dad’s. Only Bonnie settles in the den politely, still aware of Grandma’s preferred dog protocol. Dad talks work, meetings, plans. I wait for my moment to ask, “Will you help me fill Grandpa’s bicycle tires?”
“I can do that,” he says. I talk bike books, how they appear everywhere—boxes at my office, envelopes in the mail, sample chapters on my tablet. When I talk to friends, we speak only bicycle. “You’ve got bike on the brain, kid.”
Then I’m in the garage, bracing the cold, sidling between wall and restored car. I reach to Grandpa’s bicycle, hold it high and away from where it might drop, and sidle out. Joining me, he talks to the dogs, hooking up Bonnie and Echo to ropes, but letting Jimmy run free. I squeeze the tires, then scan the garage as if a pump could materialize by his presence. Like he tended my girlhood bicycle, I wait for him to this now. He opens doors, enters one place, then another, prattling a noise of words and phrases that identify what he’s doing, what he’s looking for, what apparently isn’t switched on. This noise of men calms. Once the air compressor switch is located, he fills the tires. “They don’t take much,” he says. “Ride it around the driveway.” I ride into the chill, both jolt and pleasure, then pedal beyond the spruce through moon shadows. When I return to Dad’s still talking in the garage. I don’t say what needs tending—rusty chain, low seat, misaligned handlebars—but let him say, “Well, you have a bike now.”
In the morning, I brace the garage’s cold to make repairs, but the bolts below the saddle have seized. There’s oil everywhere, but none labeled in a way I understand. I bike anyway. If the trees are all bigger than I remember when I spent summers here as a girl, the rise of the land remains the same, where it opens to sky. I pedal loops of the neighborhood for the simple joy of the saddle. The world is bright with cold. Then, I grocery shop, listen to the message on my phone about the work being done on my house, the next estimated cost. When my aunt stops by to check on Bonnie, she says, “You could sell it.”
Later over dinner, Dad says, “What is this, Laura? It’s just leaves.”
“Good leaves.” I show him photos of the house’s progress—paint cans, mop buckets, trash—to his further home repair suggestions, knee groans, and harrumphs. Then I say, “Tell me a bike story.”
“I’ve told you all my bike stories.” I wait. Then he says, “Did I ever tell you about my bike with a steering wheel?” During the Stingray craze of the 1960s, Grandpa built unusual bikes for Dad.
“Stingray?” I ask.
“You know what I’m talking about.” He pulls a drawing board across his knees. “I’ll draw it for you.” Then he talks and talks. When he stops, I pretend to read, the whisper of the pages somehow igniting his words. “It had one great big back wheel,” he says, sketching, “and one itty bitty front wheel.” He leans over the work, explaining that rather than handlebars it had a steering wheel on a long stem. It lacked a saddle, but had a rack. The proportions were off for his size, forcing him to reach to grip the wheel even to attempt to steer. “I even rode it to school a few times.” He squints at the sketch, then hands it to me. “It had kickback brakes.” He tells another bicycle story, then switches to his to-dos. “There’s just not enough hours in the day. Call your grandpa. He’s real glad you’ve kept Bonnie company.”
I go home. Grandpa returns. Then I’m visiting again. Dad and I arrive, finding Grandpa shoveling. As dogs leap from the cars, Dad takes the shovel. “Go on in and talk motorbikes with Laura.” I follow Grandpa into his workshop. He shows me what he’s been building—a shelf, a birdfeeder, a desk. He shows me the milk machine engine that was once on a motorbike he built. He shows me a black and white photograph from the 1940s of three guys and a motorbike. One grins. Another smirks. One watches the smirker. They wear flannels and bibs with the pant cuffs rolled up above their boots. They sport crew cuts that flip up at the forehead. They pose in a driveway of a brick house—all Midwestern, Iowa, home.
“Can you show me where you rode motorbikes?” I say as if he might trace the past on a map that represents the now, as if I might bike into that past pictured in his photograph to swing a leg over such a motorized bike. The city map flutters in my hands. He names streets or locations. His eyes trace the ceiling line of his workshop rather than what I hold, as if he knows he can’t point me to it, not really, that the world where he worked in gas stations washing cars is gone, and I can only make a representation in language of what I can barely understand, despite the motorbike book I read, the bicycle books on my shelf, this research Dad keeps asking me to do, as if he’s more fearful of its final loss than Grandpa himself.
Driveway shoveled, Dad’s entrance lets the dog trot begin. Cookies are offered. Echo shakes. Her leash tangles on workshop objects. I untangle her, then Dad does. Jimmy runs the stairs. Bonnie accepts the pets, all manners. We go on like this, me asking questions, pointing to other places on the map, dogs circling. Dad rests on a stool, absorbing it all. Then the phone rings. Grandpa answers. “Phil, I’ve got my granddaughter here, and I was just showing her the picture of you on that motorbike.” Soon their call is over. Soon I leave. Soon it’s April. I’m riding my bicycle all the time. Then it’s my birthday. There’s one message on my phone. It’s from Grandpa. “Laura,” he says. “Happy birthday.”
Before all this, the housesitting and doctor’s visit, the motorbikes phone calls and wounds that won’t heal, the riding of old bikes and sale of my house, I call him. “I’ve got extra lights and a helmet, if you’ll go.”
“I’m not wearing a helmet,” he says when we meet in the gravel lot at the bicycle trailhead in Madrid, Iowa. I clip my helmet in place, then attach lights to Grandpa’s bike. I open the car windows a bit for Echo, then lock the door. We roll the bikes to the High Trestle Trail.
“Look at all these people, Laura. I can’t believe this. Where are they all going?”
“To the bridge.” I let him lead. Though Grandpa bicycled the trail’s opening four years prior, my dad never has, until tonight. We ride towards where it spans the Des Moines River, hoping to glimpse the full moon.
“Is this organized?”
“Sort of?” Stretching from Woodward to Ankeny, the bicycle traffic moves constant on the trail in the dark. Walkers join the procession. Flashlights cast arcs around sneakers. Others chat, their voice their light. Red bicycle lights stretch into the distance. White bicycle lights approach, like a bouncing line of lanterns floating through the air.
“We’ll see how they feel tomorrow, but my knees don’t hurt at all.” He swerves, commandeering the trail.
“On your left.” Cyclists pass. My dad leans over the misaligned bars. He can’t hold his line but veers whenever he speaks over his shoulder, gray hair glinting with light.
“I can hear you, dad.” He talks and talks, if tonight’s prattle is childlike with curiosity, with a softness that feels like joy.
“Oh, it’s a tunnel. Look at that.”
“There are a couple of tunnels.” His head and wheel swing towards the art on the wall. He rights the wheel, then pedals. I coast behind him as he exclaims over this or that—this bridge pillar, those blue lights that seem to rotate across its expanse, that informational plaques on the overlook where he chats with a man he calls, “a bike ambassador.”
“Talk to me, Laura,” he says on the ride back.
“If you find a unicycle, will you collect it for me?”
“A unicycle,” he exclaims. “Your grandpa…,” he begins a story.
When we finish, he lifts Grandpa’s bike into grandma’s old station wagon. I lift my own onto my hitch. “Open your door, Laura. I need to see Echo moving.” I do. Echo lifts her head. Around us, the lot is full and beside it, the trail teems with traffic, everyone on their own pilgrimage to an old train trestle bridge repurposed as one for bicycles. Above us, clouds glimmer with the brilliance of the full moon. Dad hugs me goodbye. “I’ve got to go tell Grandpa all about this.”
Laura Madeline Wiseman teaches writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and 24 Pearl Street. Her essays have appeared in Mid-American Review, Sou’wester, Arts & Letters, Southern Indiana Review, Pithead Chapel, and elsewhere. Her essay “Seven Cities of Good” was an honorable mention in Pacifica Literary Review‘s 2015 Creative Nonfiction Award. Her latest book is Velocipede (Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2016), a 2016 Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Award Finalist for Sports.