2011 by James Sclater
The alarm clock rang at about five a.m. for Pete Jacobs on the day of the race. Pete had this momentary desire just to pull the covers back over his head and sleep another two hours and blow off this race altogether. He was still sore from his fall off his bike yesterday, and the thought of going out at six a.m. and beginning the eighty-six mile ride from Modelle to Picayune and back was not exactly high on Pete’s wish list for today. It was going to be a scorcher, too; he would need every ounce of will he had to make it back in good time. The heat and humidity were bad enough without the soreness. He knew he couldn’t let his teammates down, though.
He dragged himself out of bed and stumbled into the bathroom to shower and shave. After getting dressed in his racing clothes, Pete fixed his usual race day breakfast of granola, bagels with peanut butter, and juice. As he was eating, he flipped on the television and caught the early news show. “Same song, tenth verse,” he thought to himself after listening to a few minutes of the anchor drone on about the G-8 summit, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the crisis in funding the local hospital expansion. “Not much new under the sun these days,” he mused.
When the anchor started in on the story about the mama cat that adopted the baby rabbit, Pete had had all he could take and switched off the set.
“These 24-hour news channels are really turning our minds into crap. Yessir, turnin’ ’em into crap,” he muttered to himself. “One of these days I’m gonna put that TV set out in the driveway and run over it with my truck.” With that he got up from the table, gave his breakfast dishes a cursory rinsing, and put away the remainder of the granola and peanut butter.
Sitting on his bed that morning, Dave tried to determine what to do about Jill. He couldn’t just sit around waiting for her to call. He didn’t know if she was in trouble or not, and her ambiguous message on his answering machine was still eating away at his confidence in their relationship. He got up and tried calling her apartment again, and again got no answer. He tried calling her friend Earline too, but she didn’t answer; she had probably left for work already. Earline was one of the few people he knew who didn’t have a cell phone, so it would be a while before he could expect to reach her.
After a few minutes, he said, “Screw it!” and got up to take a shower and get ready for work. As he stood at the mirror shaving, he thought of all the things he might have done to cause Jill to say what she did.
They did argue about stuff a lot after they became engaged, but he loved her and she said she loved him too. There were more than a few issues about Jill’s family. She wanted to live close to them; he didn’t. Dave got the strong impression that Jill’s mother thought she could do better. He could just see Annie going on about, “My daughter deserves better than a cable television technician, not that there’s anything wrong with the occupation.” Dave thought Annie was a grabber who wouldn’t be happy until her daughter married someone like a gynecologist who brought in the really big bucks. Big bucks, big house, big car, big country club membership; Annie probably got all sweaty just thinking about it. By the time he left for work, Dave was working himself into a big snit about the whole business. One good thing, though -- Jill’s father, Billy Ray, liked him and, according to Jill, didn’t mind telling Annie to zip it up when he heard her putting Dave down. He and Billy Ray both had a love of the outdoors and spent some good times together on Billy Ray’s bass boat. Dave thought he wouldn’t be surprised, though, if Jill’s mama had put her up to going away for a few days to make sure she wanted to go through with the impending marriage. Thing is, Jill really wanted to please her mama, and Annie took those feelings and ran with them. He loved Jill, though, and would tolerate her mother if he had to.
Pete put all his gear into the back of his pickup truck, drove down to Modelle High School, and parked his truck close to the starting area for the race. He got there about the same time as Buddy Finch, Tom Finch’s boy. Buddy and Pete had been competing in these cycling races for several years now and were really good friends in addition to being quite good cyclists. They helped each other through the rough spots in the races, encouraging each other and defusing the problems with a large dose of humor and good-natured competition. Today was going to take every bit of their ability and concentration because of the length of the race and the heat, always an issue in early September.
Dave threw all of his work gear in his truck and backed out of his driveway. He had a full schedule of installations to do today, from just north of Modelle almost halfway to Picayune; Donnie Harris, the other local installer, had been out sick for a couple of days, so Dave had to pick up some of his load, too. He hoped this day would at least take his mind off his problems with Jill. On the way out of town, he pulled into the local Perk’d Up and got one of those giant cups of coffee to last him through the morning. He looked forward to that part of his daily ritual; he just couldn’t understand how folks could get along drinking that decaffeinated crap. He tried it once and quickly poured it out. He was hooked on the real stuff and he knew it.
After he finished his first work order of the day, he checked his cell phone to see if he had had any messages from Jill. He simply couldn’t come to grips with the fact that Annie didn’t think he was good enough for her daughter, and worse than that, Jill’s seemingly overwhelming need to please her mama.
“Maybe she’s right after all,” Dave mused. “Maybe it’s time to cut my losses.” If she’s going to be a mama’s girl all her life, he thought, what kind of life will we have together? How long will I be able to put up with knowing her mama would have preferred someone else for her darling daughter? How will all that play out on a daily basis? “We’re gonna be starting out with two big strikes against us,” he thought to himself, more and more resigned to the possibility that this latest refusal to contact him was just an indication of all the crap they’d go through in the future.
The first few miles, Pete and Buddy were taking it easy, giving themselves time to warm up their muscles and gradually build up to full power. It was turning out to be an overcast day that meant it wouldn’t be too hot after all, but the humidity would still be hard on all the racers. Both of them had competed on tougher days, though, so they were confident they could handle this one too.
When Pete was in this kind of groove, he just felt like he was at the top of some tall green mountain in the Great Smokies. Here he was, doing one of the things he loved most in the world with his good friend. He was focused and strong; this was going to be one of the good days, he felt. Occasionally, when all the cycling planets were in conjunction, Pete wasn’t even conscious of his effort. It was like he had these big silver wings that just lifted him several inches off the pavement and carried him forward. Even the climbs were smooth as glass; the difficult stuff just seemed to flow like a bubbly mountain stream over glistening rocks on a day like this. He imagined himself flying over the strips of road that cut the soybean and corn crops into symmetrical portions, and he felt he now knew how the Blue Angels felt when they flew in the skies off Pensacola Beach. Pete felt as free as any one of those pilots; they had nothing on him. He suddenly realized he was humming a song he didn’t know, becoming a poem he hadn’t read. He could almost look down at himself rolling along, absorbing everything that life could give him at this exquisite juncture. He felt himself shiver with a profound delight.
Dave arrived at his third installation at about 9:45 a.m. By this time, he was really beginning to lose all confidence he had in being able to make the situation with Jill any better; hell, he didn’t even know if he wanted to fight it anymore. He was trying very hard to get on with the duties he had to do that day, with the schedule he had to keep, but the events of the past couple of days just thrust their way into his brain and heart, leaving a more and more bitter taste. He knew he couldn’t just let this thing overwhelm him that day and crush him. He still had to suck it up and keep going, keep going and do a good job.
After pulling into the driveway at his next job, he gathered his gear and work order and stepped outside the truck. He felt like he was just going to explode if he didn’t get some closure to this situation. Pro or con, Jill or no Jill, something had to give.
Before leaving for the next house, he decided he’d get some early lunch. There was a place up the road that he frequented for the spicy Cajun red beans and rice they served. He enjoyed talking to the waitress, too; she had a knack for lifting his spirits when he was low. He just needed to get inside and hear some George Jones or Percy Sledge on the jukebox and chill out for a while. Besides, the forty-four ounces of coffee he had downed that morning had kicked in with an urgency he couldn’t ignore any longer.
As Dave came out of the restaurant after his meal, he was thinking about all the good country music songs that were on the jukebox in there. When he listened to some of that stuff, his problems didn’t seem quite so pressing.
“Those Nashville songwriters are pretty good shrinks,” he thought. “No wonder they’re so popular. Even when you’re feeling pretty damn low, Percy’s ‘It Tears Me Up’ causes you to start your toes tapping. How does Mr. Sledge make feeling so damn bad feel so damn good?”
When Dave got back to his truck, he decided to try one more time to reach Jill by phone. This time there was an answer, and a weepy-sounding Jill started talking -- and went on talking for maybe ten minutes. He just listened. He really didn’t know how to respond. After Jill stopped speaking, Dave was silent for a few moments. Then he said, “So that’s it? I don’t get to present my case in this matter? Do you care what I have to say?” More silence. “You’re willing to just throw all that we have away?” Then his anger got the better of him and he said, “I guess your mama is real pleased about this, huh?”
Jill responded weakly, but Dave cut her off. “Tell you what, I’ll just come over tonight and we’ll see where this all is going. I’ve got work to do for now. Call you later.” With that Dave flipped the phone shut and broke the connection, thinking to himself, “Where this is going is into the toilet.”
Angry with her, and with himself for having spoken so abruptly to her, Dave threw his gear in the back of the truck, cranked the engine, and spun out of the driveway and back onto the highway. He told himself that he’d have to hold it together until he could meet with Jill tonight.
At the start of their relationship, he had really thought that this was going to be the one that finally worked out right, the end of his search for a friendship that could grow, ripen and bear fruit. Now he saw this, too, as becoming just another one of his damn failures. He didn’t know whether to be more upset with Jill or with Annie. Speeding along the highway, Dave felt sick with disappointment and anger.
As he came over the top of the hill south of Sims’ Nursery and Landscaping, his mind was racing. He flipped on the radio to see if he could find something to calm himself down. Punching the buttons randomly, he managed a laugh and said, “Percy Sledge, where are you when I need you?” He imagined a big neon sign in the cab of his truck flashing on and off: “LOSER! LOSER! LOSER!” When he looked up from the radio dial, it was much too late to avoid the cyclist directly in front of him, not ten yards away.
Pete had managed to fall to the back of the pack of riders, mostly as a way to take a breather. Buddy and he had been trading the lead for much of the early part of the race. Now that Buddy was a good twenty yards ahead of everyone else, Pete thought this would be a good time to just relax a bit. There would be more opportunities to catch up; the race was about less than half over, and it was time to let the others set the pace. His early state of euphoria had not left him; he felt a golden transparency settle around him and carry him forward. Pete’s favorite way to describe this feeling was “Cruisin’ with a capital C,” something he had experienced many times on these rides. Today the intensity of this feeling almost took his breath away. He was focused on the road and riders ahead of him; those unwritten songs were being sung; he was becoming part of the marrow of all he surveyed.
He didn’t hear the truck come up behind him and was not entirely conscious of the impact. To him the sudden movement into the air was that same rush savored by the Blue Angels themselves as they took off into the cerulean skies over the Gulf of Mexico. Pete was now conscious only of the soft feel of the breath of the air as it washed over him. He felt himself soar past a few of the riders ahead, soar past the rows of flora so carefully arranged and pruned beneath him. He swooped past Buddy and thought he should wave to him but didn’t. He flew into the sweet smell of the cultivated loamy earth surrounding the highway and the barns and houses of those attending the crops and the herds. His bicycle seemed to be an arrow spinning through the heart of time and nature.
He felt himself fly higher,
past the screaming children on the playground of his elementary
school, past the pool where he had first learned to swim. As he
soared, he looked down to see his mother cooking her pot roast and
his dad smoking his beat-up pipe as he changed the plugs in his old
gray Chevy truck he saw his smiling grandfather in his wheelchair
soaring beside him on his right wing and his old algebra teacher Miss
Farmer at her desk to his left he flew past his house and still
didn’t hear the wind which he sensed around him a wind which
lifted and washed his spirit as he flew higher and higher he saw the
whole of the county spread out below him vibrant with myriad shades
of green and muted brown he flew past the soaring kites as they
circled before diving on their unsuspecting prey he flew higher and
higher he flew past the wind and the heat of the summer’s day
he flew he flew he flew past the light of the sun into a gentle
coolness he flew beyond time itself and felt himself smile broadly at
his skill his wonderful skill yes oh yes Buddy would love this yessir
he would yessir.
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