From the Road
The first weekend in spring, I go into the dark garage. The floor is slick with old leaves and the black spots where the bleeding station wagon sat all winter trying to keep from freezing. But now it’s gone, and Dad with it. The garage has his smell—oil and sawdust and metal. My bike is hanging from the ceiling to make room for the bags of wood pellets for the stove. I’m not quite tall enough to reach the bike, so I drag over a sawhorse and somehow manage to get it down.
The kickstand is stuck in the up position. The wheels need air. But the chain is dull, oiled, anxious to be moved. I get the pump from the shelf and plug it into the hungry tire. Air hisses through, lifting the bike. I’ll have to sit on it so it doesn’t rise up into the air.
Outside, the sky is spilled paint. Streaks of pink clouds trail through a blue so bright it hurts my winter eyes.
I coast down the driveway, past a dirt-crusted pile of leftover snow, past the garbage cans, past the flower garden where snowdrops are lifting their white faces. On the sidewalk, I marvel at my ability to balance this machine of wheels and gears and aluminum. Then the wind puffs up against my back and wraps around me. I can smell the end of winter, the dirt recharged and ready to spew out green plants, the fields yearning for the scratch of the tractors and the tractors hungry for the loam and open sky. I ride east toward the forest, where snow is lurking under the heavy arms of the pines. I wonder how far I can ride by myself. I realize I can go anywhere; I can go as far as my legs can keep kicking at the pedals. But today I stop on the bridge at the edge of town and watch the wind churn up little brown waves in the thawed and swelling river.
The main highway runs through the forest a little way, and then cuts across over the tops of hills where the ground is mostly flat. Farms have built up here; little communities of outbuildings, driveways, and crumbling wooden barns. It is May and I have explored this straight path all month. I have to stay on the shoulder of the road, which is nearly always wet. The crushed gravel sucks at the wheels of my bike trying to pull me into the weeds. Monstrous semi-trucks groan past me and SUVs pulling boats and sometimes a minivan that honks as it goes by. I’m a kid on a bike and I’m not wearing a helmet. Mom is worried that I’ll get hit one of these days, that she’ll find me on the road, a pale, still beanbag of a body. I had a helmet for a while, but I lost it somewhere in the garage. I worry more about getting lost on the winding side roads. I’d rather have a compass than a helmet any day.
Today I’m bored, so I turn north on the first road I see. I’m riding into the forest, now, instead of through it. The maples grow right up against the side of the road, squeezing the asphalt into a thin, snaking trail full of blind corners and steep hills. Sunlight swims down through the new leaves. Birds call. My bike is a boat on a jungle river. I strain my eyes for deer and pheasants.
At a stop sign, I turn left. I think the road will eventually come back to town. I’m not too concerned as I’m only a few miles away from my garage. But still. Things look different from these roads. Houses are hidden. Rows of pine are interspersed with the hard wood. Suddenly the forest is gone and there is a huge empty field on either side of me. In the distance, trees stand ready to take over if the crop is not sown this year.
I pass a farm house with a wide, cluttered porch. The top floor of the house is leaning dangerously forward, as if it is searching the yard for something it dropped. From the road, I see a figure come out of the front door and stand on the porch. He is as old and bent as the house itself. He puts his hands on the railing of the steps and points his face at me. I slow. Stop. My feet are still buzzing with movement from the bike and they shuffle restlessly against the crumbling road.
The old man is looking out at me. He is working me over in his mind like a piece of food that needs careful chewing. Finally, he raises his hand and waves. Then he beckons. I see the little dark place of his mouth open and close, but he’s too far to hear. He is calling to me.
I walk my bike down his long gravel driveway. When I get near the porch, he sits down roughly on the steps and puts his hands over his eyes.
“Are ya alright?”
“Well, what do ya want?”
He wipes his sleeve across his face and pulls himself up. He approaches me. I hear his breathing before I hear his voice.
“I seen you,” the old man says. “From the road. From the porch. I seen us.” He pats a withered hand against his chest.
I’m scared of the old man. He’s not just old, he’s ancient. His hair is the yellow silk from a ripe ear of corn. His skin is the papery top layer of an onion.
“I gotta go.”
I wheel the bike around and pedal back up the drive. Now I’m shaking so hard that the handlebars squirm around under my palms. I can hear him calling me by my name, even though I know I didn’t tell him my name. His voice drifts off into the air.
Back home, in the garage, I drop my bike into a pile near the lawn mower. I go inside and close the door to my bedroom and lay down on the floor. Mom has recently started dance lessons at night and smoking during the day. Stuff that Dad would never let her do, if he was around. I stare up at the cracked ceiling and cigarette smoke tickles my nose and the old man’s face forms in the cracks. Something about him is familiar. I hear Mom coughing at the dining room table. That’s my cue to find a book and curl up in bed and stay out of her way.
In July, I spend most of my days swimming with my cousins in the cold, tea-colored water of a spring-fed lake in the forest. I am dark with sunshine and I feel stretched-out, warmed through to my bones. The urge to explore is silent until one day when I glance at the calendar and realize that in one month, school will be starting. Middle school, with its incomprehensible rules and rituals and, this year, only me and Mom around to try and make sense of it.
So I take my bike out on Saturday morning, early. The sun has been up for an hour or so but the houses are still sleeping, and the air is full of the noise of mourning doves. I spin the tires, oil the chain, tighten a few things that I think might need tightening. I’d like to spray it with the hose, clean off the dirt and dust of June, but I’m too excited to get started. So I take a rag and wipe down the seat, the handlebars, the dull metal bones of the thing. Then I jump on, each push of the pedals an apology for neglecting it for so long.
After half an hour of riding, I am in front of the old house again. The porch is empty this morning. I pick at a scab on my knee before deciding to coast down the long dirt driveway. I am careful, in case the old man is still sleeping. I don’t know why I came back here or what I am looking for.
There is a rusted mailbox on a rotten post laying in the uncut grass next to the drive. I can just read “A. Barker” in barn-red paint on the box. My stomach kicks a little, but I’m not completely surprised. I wonder if the “A.” stands for “Andrew.”
I lay my bike in the grass and creep up the porch. It’s shady and cool and my sneakers scratch against the flaking white paint. A sudden clicking sound startles me. A tall mason jar is resting on the floorboards and a mouse is trapped inside. It scrabbles against the glass, fruitlessly trying to climb its way out. I hunker down and watch it for a minute or two.
The soft, gray skin along its sides is fluttering with panic and fear.
I lick my lips and head for the front door. I can see myself reaching for the worn wooden knob on the screen door, but I am also within myself. I can hear the strange, alien noise of my breathing from somewhere far away. But I am also myself, sucking wind through my open mouth and trapping it there.
The door opens, creaking. There is another door beyond it, but it is ajar. As if someone inside is waiting for me. Stepping through to the musty inside of the house is like entering a cave. The shades are all drawn against the daylight.
The pieces of furniture in the front room are faded square shapes covered in newspapers and dirty clothes and dishes and cardboard boxes filled with things. I stand, blinking.
“Andrew?” an old voice groans from across the room. I turn and see the old man, leaning against a doorframe. He is dressed in baggy jeans and a long-sleeved shirt. His leather belt hangs open at his front.
I nod, put my hand on my chest, then say, “Andrew?”
His head is quivering so hard that I can’t tell if he is nodding or just trying to hold still. He licks his lips with a dry, white tongue and takes a step toward me. I turn and run away.
During the days, while I am playing video games or eating ice cream or playing UNO with Mom, I don’t think about the man in the house. I’ve tried, but he doesn’t belong to Mom or to lazy afternoons. He is my own secret and he belongs to the darkness.
At night, I am convinced that somehow the old man is me.
I don’t understand this, in the same way that I don’t understand who God is or why Dad left, but I know it’s true. That old man in that old house is me. He is trapped there, waiting for the young me to come help. His eyes are my eyes. His name is my name. And whenever I see him, there is the unsettling feeling of being doubled. I am myself, but I can also see myself and hear myself from outside.
On Tuesday, after I return my books to the library, I start down the highway on my bike. It’s 3 in the afternoon, but the sky has been threatening rain all morning and by now great, solid towers of dark clouds have piled themselves above the forest like a city of burned skyscrapers. I’m almost to the old house when the storm starts. Lightning crackles through the air followed quickly by a crash that sounds like the earth split into pieces.
Then rain. Sheets and sheets of rain blowing sideways, rain like bullets. Thick, hot, hard stones of water. Another white bolt of lightning slashes the sky and hail like tiny angry fists pummels down at me.
I drop my bike in the grass and dash up the porch. The doorknob is unmoving under my hand. The old house is locked. I pound against the door, but with every smack of my hand, the storm sends another bone-rattling shock if thunder. I call out, but my voice is drowned in the storm.
Remembering the moldering outbuildings, I run around to the back of the house. The huge, warped door of a barn is hanging open on broken hinges. I slip in and double over, panting and drenched.
Dust hangs in the dry air and I listen to the rain dashing itself against the roof and walls. My eyes grow accustomed to the dim light and I wander around in the barn. It is full of rusted tractor parts, oil-stained metal cabinets, shelves full of unidentifiable boxes and canisters.
Among the maze of ancient, discarded machinery, I come upon a bike frame leaning against a canvas-shrouded box. The frame has no wheels or pedals, but I swear it looks just like my bike. My heart is pounding with the thunder outside. I tug at it to get a closer look, but it’s stuck on something. I lean back, pulling hard, and the handlebars come off in my hands. I am thrown backward and the tarp slides off of the box.
A machine looms over me. There is a space inside of it just large enough for a man to stand. On a side panel, buttons and knobs and blank lights stare into the darkness. I run my hand over a dial that looks freshly oiled.
I look up suddenly. The rain has stopped and I can hear gravel crunching under car tires outside. I make my way outside. If the old man has come back, he can show me what he needs to help him fix the machine so he can get back to his future, my future.
But a short man with dark hair and a close-cropped beard is standing in the muddy drive when I come out. He looks startled when he sees me, then he frowns.
“Hey! Get out of here!”
“Chris,” a woman says to him, “He’s just a little boy. Maybe he was a friend of Dad’s.”
The man jabs his finger at me. “Go on home! No trespassing!”
Trembling, I run to where I left my bike. As I ride, I wonder about the old man. Where did he go? Was he in the house? Or had he already escaped? Why did he come here and call me to him if he didn’t want my help? Why do people come and go with such randomness in my life?
When I get home, the house is empty and I find a note from Mom: “Went to visit a friend. Dinner is in fridge. Be good. I love you. Don’t wait up.”
Steev Baker is a writer and musician who lives in Wisconsin. He likes to read and prays that “The Silmarillion” will never be made into a film.
You can read an interview with him here.