Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Bicycle Thief's Anaconda

Now, 70 years later, Mr. Walker was riding the same bike, in the same uniform.

    (Dec 8, 2014) Mr. Walker was 94 years old, and he spent most of every morning, afternoon and evening whizzing around our beautiful neighborhood -- with its 19th century homes and huge trees -- on a beat-up olive-green bicycle and wearing his World War II uniform. When I was out jogging, in the predawn darkness, he was already racing up and down the streets, tossing the Salt Lake Tribune onto people's lawns. Before long, the news would become a soggy mess (having formerly been a scandal- and catastrophe-filled mess) when the sprinklers burst into action.
    "It ain't my fault, baby girl," he told me. "They should be up and eating their eggs and bacon by now. The news waits for no man."
    I loved being called "baby girl," for some perverse reason. Black guys referred to me as "baby" and "sugar" and "mama" when I lived in New York, and it made me feel special, even though they called everybody that (the ladies, anyway). In Utah nobody called you anything. Then I turned fifty, and cool young dudes started calling me "ma'am," even when I was wearing my MegaDeth T-shirt, cargo pants and combat boots. Bummer. I didn't feel "mammy" at all.
    Mr. Walker took a leisurely breakfast break after finishing his paper route, and then he escorted his two little yapping dogs for a brief walk. They yapped even louder, and with a bit of joyfulness thrown in, after they'd "done their business," which I totally related to. "You can't beat a good shit," Mr. Walker told me. "Nothing makes sense until that deed is done." So true.
    But as soon as the pups' evacuatory needs had been met, he was back out there on that bike again, as if he were a patrolman, careening through the neighborhood . His very sweet face was red and splotchy from all that sun exposure. He was a tall, lanky, handsome man.

 Art by kc pelletier

      I think Mr. Walker was probably in the early to mid stage of dementia, although that didn't occur to me at the time. He just seemed pleasingly eccentric, and he'd had the resiliency to create an enjoyable life for himself after his retirement. He kept a neurotically meticulous yard, using a push mower, and old pruning shears for his fabulous roses, and a dandelion digger, but other than that, he was The Bicycle Man. 
    When his wife died, I didn't go to the funeral, because I can't go to funerals. I start crying every time, even if it's someone's mother whom I'd never met. It's not a quiet little weep. It's sobbing, with a whole lot of mucus involved. I think I must be crying about death and loss in general, but whatever the cause, it's inconsiderate for me to be there.
    So instead, I put on my Mormon Temple T-shirt, to show respect for Mr. Walker's religion, and walked across the street after the funeral, to join his family and friends for the usual potluck gorge-fest. My plan was to take over a fruit platter garnished with flowers, give him a hug, express my condolences, and leave. 

    When I hugged him, though, I burst into tears. Everyone else was fine, including his lively kids and grandkids and great-grandkids. I felt like a fool, apologized profusely, and fled.
    Within minutes after I got home and poured myself a tumbler of bourbon, he showed up at my door. "Can I come in?" he asked. "I had to get away from that zoo over there."
    Much to my surprise, he said, "I'll have what you're having." Turned out he'd only been a churchgoer to appease his wife, and she'd only been going to appease their children.
    "I want to thank you kindly for your emotion a minute ago," he told me, as we sat in my sunny kitchen's corner booth. "But I gotta be honest, baby girl: I couldn't stand that woman. That's why the whole bicycle thing got started. After I retired from Geneva Steel, we was both there at the house all day and she was always on my ass about one thing or another. So I jumped on that bike to get out of there, and I haven't stopped for 25 years. Now, it's become my life, riding through the breeze all day, and I like it just fine."

Our neighborhood was perfect for jogging, biking, roller-blading, skateboarding.
     "Is the bike from your military days?" I asked.
    "Yep, it is -- I stole it from the bastards," he acknowledged. "They broke pretty much every promise they made to me."
    "All that exercise must keep you healthy," I said.
    "And happy, too," he added. "People waving at me all day, gettin' to see what all these folks is doin' with their yards, all the remodeling, all the domestic dramas, the young mamas with their jogging strollers, those wacko kids on skateboards tryin' to run me off the road, all them good smells from the cooking. I feel like I've made a two-square mile area my own personal territory. To hundreds of folks, I'm a familiar sight. It makes 'em feel good to see me. I bring a smile to their faces. They think I'm a crazy old coot, but that don't bother me none. I think they're probably right. Anyway, honey, don't go crying no more about Evelyn. I'm glad she's gone. It's a weight offa my shoulders, don't you know? But now I'd best leave. This here whiskey is making me blurry."
    Several months later, he left me a Christmas gift on my back porch. It was a reflective vest.

     "It gives me the willies to see you running down the street in the dark every morning," he had scrawled on the card. This was one of the most thoughtful gifts I'd ever received. At first, I only wore it so his feelings wouldn't be hurt when he saw me out there, but I soon came to love it, and I did feel much safer. That was 25 years ago, and I still wear the vest. I made him a bourbon-soaked Yuletide pinto-bean bundt cake (with walnuts and ground flax seeds) in return. Nutritious and delicious.
    One morning, I was running through a raging blizzard of snow. These blizzard runs are always the most exhilarating for me -- in part because I'm proud of myself, and in part because I feel so privileged to be witnessing this beauty. If it weren't for the streetlights, I'd have no idea how fast and furiously the snow is coming down. I have to keep brushing it off the reflective band on my vest every few minutes.

A magical time to be jogging, accompanied by rock 'n roll. Rhapsody in the snow.
     Then, as I tore down the beautiful, wide residential street, I leapt into a pothole, injuring my ankle so badly that I collapsed in pain when I tried to stand up. I crawled to the curb and just sat there. Pretty soon, the snow would cover me up, and I'd look like nothing more than a big sack of leaves.
    Thus came Zarathustra, and his "eternal recurrence": Mr. Walker on his trusty bike.  He put his coat around me (I was sleeveless) and lifted me onto his handlebars. This "crazy old coot" sped me back home, my knight in shining armor. "The news waits for no man," but this morning, it was waiting for me.
    The following summer, I headed back to my garden, behind the garage, to pick some chard and mustard greens for my brown rice and blackeye peas dinner. I was stunned to find Mr. Walker straddling a row of hot pepper plants, using a knife to eat one of my three cantaloupes. 

    He was startled and looked a bit sheepish. "It's stolen fruit that's the sweetest," he said, juice dripping down his chin. I hate this word, but I felt violated. I was too angry to deal with him, so I went directly back inside, not saying a word.
    As I fumed over a cup of Yogi tea, I had a thought: Not "what would Jesus do?" but "what would Mama do?" The answer was clear. I went back out to the garden a while later and filled a basket quite artistically with squash, greens, peppers, broccoli, tomatoes,  and string beans.

    I took it over to his back porch with a note that said, "Help yourself any time!" As I turned to leave, I noticed that his backyard had a much larger garden plot than mine, including both several cantaloupe and watermelon vines.
    So how would Jesus and Mama feel about this?  They would just shrug, I guess, and say, "maybe it really is sweeter when it's stolen."
    By this time, Mr. Walker must have been nearly 100 years old, still out there most of the day on his bicycle, but coasting rather than zooming along.
    One night, I awakened with the certainty that someone was in my room. I lay there paralyzed, with my heart pounding so hard I couldn't hear anything else. At last, I turned on my bedside lamp. Looming over me was Mr. Walker, who still had my key after having come in to feed my cat while I spent a couple of days in Taos.
    His zipper was down, and he was proferring his "anaconda" as if it were a bouquet in full bloom. There was no aggression in his face. He looked sad, plaintive, apologetic, confused.

Snakes scare me.
     If I'd had my wits about me, I might have responded in a more compassionate way, but I yelled, "Get out of here, you asshole, and don't ever come back!"
   He hung his head and ambled away.
    Should I have said, "Please don't ruin our friendship," or "I'm sorry you're lonely, but you need to go back home"? I am still haunted by my harsh tone of anger and revulsion. What must he have gone through before making such an extreme, perilous overture?
   I have had a love-hate relationship with men since puberty. It's the anaconda part that accounts for the hate. But I still love the non-anaconda aspects of Mr. Walker. May he rest in peace.