I was seven when I got my first bicycle, a used Huffy with fat bald tires and a fresh coat of spray-paint the color of rust. The seat was of scuffed leather, half-red, half-white, and was so huge it could have held a butt twice the size of mine. Daddy bought the thing one Saturday for eight dollars from someone at the bar he frequented over on Army Street. I guess he thought we could afford it. But even I knew different: eight dollars was just about the whole week’s food money. Mama knew it too. When he showed up staggering at the front door with the bike, wearing his painfully familiar drunk-goofy smile, an exasperated look fell across Mama’s face like the shadow of her own personal storm cloud. “Oh, for Christ’s sake, Bill!” she said.
“What?” Daddy said innocently. “What’d I do?”
Mama glared at him. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Nothing,” she said finally, nearly whispering. “Nothing at all.”
She stepped to one side, shaking her head wearily, and Daddy steered the bike through the doorway as best he could, crashing and banging it against the door and the stairway banister. Then he nearly ran both me and Karen over with it when it got away from him and smashed into the living room wall and fell to the floor with a loud clatter.
“Hey, son!” Daddy said to me breathlessly. He gestured grandly toward the bike, whose front wheel was still spinning. “Here. Bought you a bike. Thought it was time my son had a goddamn bike, goddamn it!”
“Wha—?” I sputtered. “For me?” It hadn’t occurred to me he’d bought the bike for anyone other than himself. “A real bicycle?” I felt as if I’d just won first prize in a contest I hadn’t realized I’d entered. “All right!” I cried out. I jumped up from the floor where I lay and started to inspect my new treasure.
“Call it a late birthday present,” Daddy said, hiccoughing. He stood the bike up and held it unsteadily and beamed while I looked at it, running my fingers over every part of it: the frame, the sprockets and black-greasy chain, the spokes. Then I stood back and he brought the kickstand down—stabbing at it roughly, twice, with his foot—and leaned the bike over slightly until it stood up on its own.
“Wow,” I said, shaking my head, still not quite believing my sudden good fortune.
He winked at me, a deliberate and slow wink. It seemed to take a great effort to reopen the winking eye. “Tomorrow,” he said, tottering, “I’ll tee—teesh you how to ride it!”
Suddenly Daddy looked exhausted, as if he’d taken a sleeping pill and it was just now taking effect. He plopped himself on the couch next to Mama and his eyes fluttered shut. Slowly, he slumped against her. Moments later, he was snoring.
I’d seen Mama watching the goings on from the couch. I could tell she was seething. She’d twisting her mouth around and angrily chewed the inside of her cheek. Now she regarded Daddy, sinking into her more each moment, with rising irritation. She looked at me, still admiring my ‘new’ bicycle. “Take it into the kitchen,” she said curtly. “Put it against the wall by the door. I don’t want to be tripping over the damned thing.”
I did as she told me without argument. I didn’t want to spoil what was left of this momentous occasion by making Mama any madder than she obviously was. I heard Mama tell Karen to get ready for bed. Karen started crying, protesting that Perry Mason wasn’t over yet. I smiled at this: I knew Karen hated Perry Mason. She just wasn’t ready to go to bed yet. Mama ignored her and began prodding Daddy to wake up. I took my time in the kitchen, standing the bike against the wall just so, to keep it from falling over. When I finally came back out into the living room, the lights were off, and Mama and Daddy were trudging up the stairs like a small train moving in reverse, a steam locomotive pushing a rail car. Daddy was first, and Mama pushed on his butt to keep him moving forward. More than once Daddy banged against the wall or the banister and I thought he might be losing his balance, that he’d fall down the stairs again and this time take Mama with him. But eventually they made it to the top and rounded the corner and disappeared into their bedroom. No sooner did I hear their door close than Mama started to gripe about something I didn’t really care to try to make out.
Sleep was next to impossible for me. I tossed around in my bed as if it were Christmas Eve. I had a bike! My brain began overflowing with all the possibilities, the opportunities owning a bike made available to me. It occurred to me that none of my friends had a bicycle. Suddenly I was in a new social status. Suddenly I was mobile! I pictured myself traveling. Perhaps I’d ride all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge! People would look at me with a new respect. Of course, it followed logically that I would no longer be the last one picked for the kick-ball team at school. And Laura Morris, the girl with the round, smiling face and curly brown hair who sat behind me in my second grade class, and whom I loved—but who, until now, barely knew I was alive—would see me riding by her like a screaming jet plane, and she would love me for it!
I woke up before dawn the next morning and lay in my bed for nearly an hour before I finally figured out I wasn’t going to be able to sleep anymore. I got up and went downstairs to the kitchen, and sat in the gathering light and looked at my bike, watching it becoming clearer and more vivid and real. Over and over I pulled on it so that it stood upright, off the kickstand, just so I could feel the weight of the thing, and I marveled and giggled out loud when I thought about learning how to ride something so big, so—grownup.
At last, I heard a door close upstairs, and for a moment felt a delighted hope bouncing around in my chest. But then there was the sound of small, careful steps and I realized it was just Karen coming downstairs. I got out the Cheerios from the cupboard, then a couple of clean bowls and milk and sugar. Karen sauntered sleepily into the kitchen and we ate breakfast. No talking, just the sound of our spoons clinking against the bowls, and Karen slurping her milk, which usually annoyed me. Every once in awhile, when she thought I wouldn’t notice, I saw Karen eyeing my bicycle. I could tell she was jealous. The thought crossed my mind to tell her I might let her ride it, if she’d quit being such a little snot to me. But then I remembered I was supposed to hate her, and I let the thought pass.
After we ate our cereal, we both went into the living room and turned on the TV and watched the Sunday morning cartoons. Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, the Road Runner, and the rest of the Looney Tunes gang. But I wasn’t as interested in them as I usually was; I kept listening for some sort of activity upstairs, from Mama and Daddy’s room. The waiting was pure agony, a smoldering fire in my belly that made me want to scream. I fidgeted. I couldn’t seem to sit still for more than a second. I got up every fifteen minutes or so and went into the kitchen to look at my bike. All that did was make the waiting even more maddening.
It wasn’t until ten o’clock when they finally came down for breakfast. First, Mama, who went right to the kitchen after a brief detour to the front porch to retrieve the morning paper. Then Daddy. He moved slowly down the stairs, still in his bathrobe, holding on tightly to the handrail. When he finally made it all the way down, he shooed Karen from the couch and settled himself down full length on it and closed his eyes. My heartbeat quickened. At least, I thought, he was up and around, and not still sleeping. But I could tell he was in a sour mood. He called to Mama gruffly to fix him some scrambled eggs and toast and coffee. Then he reminded her not to brew the coffee so long this time, the last pot she’d made tasted like shit. Oh, and get him some aspirin, his head was killing him.
Mama called me into the kitchen to get the aspirin and water for Daddy. I carried them out (without spilling a drop) and watched as he tossed the pills toward the back of his throat and gulped down huge mouthfuls of the water, draining the glass. Then he belched and handed the glass back to me. On the TV, The Sunday Morning Movie was just starting: a western starring someone whose name I didn’t know. He didn’t seem that interested in the movie. He lit a cigarette and grabbed the paper from the coffee table and thumbed slowly through it. When he noticed I hadn’t gone back to the kitchen, he frowned. “What?” he said, without really looking at me.
“You said you were going to teach me to ride my new bike today,” I said, trying without much success to keep the whine out of my voice.
Daddy closed his bloodshot eyes and rubbed one of his temples with the thumb of the same hand that held his cigarette. Then he reached over to the coffee table and flicked the ash into the overflowing ashtray. “Not right now,” he said tiredly, scanning the newspaper. “Maybe later, we’ll see. If I’m feeling up to it.” He made a sucking noise as he drew in another mouthful of smoke and blew it out again, like a long, mournful sigh. A white, acrid haze filled the room. Then he lifted the paper up to where I couldn’t see his face anymore.
I stood helplessly for a few seconds, watching Daddy pretend I wasn’t there, the echo of his gravelly voice bouncing around in my mind, the “we’ll see” that almost always meant “probably not.” Something hard and heavy, like a grown man’s fist, burst forth sharply into my stomach, so that even breathing was hard, followed by the stinging onrush of tears behind my eyes.
I turned and ran into the kitchen, almost colliding with Mama, set the empty glass on the counter, and rushed past my parked bicycle and out the back door before anyone could see me crying. “Damn it, Billy!” Mama’s screeching voice trailed after me, “If I have to tell you one more time to quit slamming the screen door…!”
I wanted to yell back at her, something cruel and profane, the way Daddy often yelled at her when he was drunk, but I knew what that would have got me—the belt, and maybe even some soap in the mouth. More important, I’d probably never see my bicycle again. I held my tongue. I jogged over to the stand of pine trees next to the apartment building and sat on the ground at the base of the tallest one, where I let the tears flow and didn’t worry about anyone seeing me.
I had once thought that particular tree was gargantuan, but now it seemed strangely small and insignificant, and not worth climbing at all. In fact, the pulse-quickening thought struck me that I ought to set fire to the tree, to all the trees there. Burn the whole scraggly woods down to the ground, and watch it happening from across the street, laugh while everybody scurried around, yelling, the noise of the trucks, the sirens, the lights. The thought cheered me considerably. I threw some rocks at the nearby birds for awhile, then picked up a big stick and whacked it against the tree trunk until it was nothing more than kindling. It felt good. I found another and did the same thing all over again. When I got tired of that, I sat against the tree again and looked up into the sky at the passing clouds, imagining what it must be like to fly among them, huge white caverns in the air.
An hour or more passed before I finally heard Daddy’s voice, calling sharply from the back door, “Billy!” Just the sound put a knot in my stomach. But when I looked, he was standing on our back porch—with the bicycle! My heart leapt in my chest. “I’m over here!” I cried, “I’m coming!” I couldn’t get to my feet fast enough. I ran with arms flailing toward Daddy while he rolled the bike out to the cement walkway and waited for me.
I had to bend over when I got there to catch my breath. Daddy bent down with me and tousled my hair. “Easy, there,” he said. “You don’t need to kill yourself. It’s just a bicycle.”
“I know,” I said, smiling up at him. “But it’s my bicycle!”
Daddy did his best over the next hour to teach me how to ride my bicycle. It was a hard lesson. It worked like this: he’d lean the bike against his leg, then pick me up by my armpits and sit me onto the leather seat. Then he’d remind me where to put my hands on the handle bars, there on the rubber handgrips. Then he’d stand the bike upright and ask me if I was ready. When I nodded, he’d take a deep breath and start pushing me along the cement walkway, gradually increasing his pace until he was nearly running. And then with a final burst of energy, he’d shove the bike (and me) in front of him. Then he’d stop (usually hunched over and coughing) to watch where I might land. I got great mileage from Daddy’s shoving. “PEDAL!” he’d yell at me. But his shoves usually knocked me back on the seat and off balance, and my feet would fall off of the pedals, and I’d be too scared to look down to find them again. I still couldn’t figure out the whole steering thing. The best I could do was to watch helplessly as I rolled into trashcans, through lawn sprinklers, and into bushes or bare walls. Sometimes I’d end up slowing to the point I couldn’t stay up anymore, and I’d simply fall over, onto the grass or the dirt on the side of the walkway. Every time, Daddy would run over and pick me up and dust me off, and after checking for cuts or bruises or broken bones, we’d walk back to our starting point in our own back yard to do it all over again. Along the way, he’d coach me. “You gotta pedal,” he’d say, “so you can keep on going. The bike’s gotta be moving or it won’t stay up. Understand? And you gotta lean. When you feel yourself falling to the right side, you gotta lean to the left, and vice versa. You know what vice versa means, don’t you?” I nodded my head eagerly, though I really didn’t understand much of what he said to me. Nor would I understand, for many years to come, that this was one of the happiest moments I would ever spend with my father.
When he’d decided that the practice part of the lesson was over for the day, he said “Let me show you how it’s done,” and picked me up and set me on the handlebars. “Hold on!” he said, “and keep your feet away from the front tire!” He got on the seat and stepped on the pedals and away we went down the walkway, then a sharp turn down the sidewalk that had me catching my breath and holding on for dear life, but it was fun, and the wind was blowing through my hair and I could hear Daddy breathing hard behind me as he pumped the pedals. “You see how I turn the handlebars to keep my balance? How I lean into the turns? How I keep on pedaling? The faster we go, the easier it is to stay balanced!” We were going faster, and I started to laugh. Daddy laughed too. “See?” he said. “This is fun!”
He showed me how the brakes worked when we went around another corner, and then another. Now we were going uphill. Daddy really had to work at pedaling. He coughed once in awhile. But we went right past the walkway leading to our apartment, up the big dirt hill in back of the building. My butt was hurting from sitting on the handlebars, but I was having too much fun to say anything.
We got to the top of the hill. Daddy stopped for a minute to get his breath. From where we were, we could see the whole neighborhood, row after row of white cement-block buildings and red roofs. And beyond them, the blue water of San Francisco Bay, and Candlestick Park, where my Uncle Jimmy had taken me to see Willie Mays and the Giants play the year before. “Wow,” I said. “We can see really far today!”
“Yep,” said Daddy. He seemed to be looking out even farther than the ballpark. I watched as his eyes changed: at first they looked happy; now they didn’t.
He told me again to hold on, and we started down the hill. Right away, it started to get bumpy, and I had to hold on tight to keep from falling off the handlebars. Daddy had to work the brakes all the way down, but we were still going really fast, and suddenly I was scared. I started sliding off the handlebars, and when I tried to sit up I put out my legs to stay balanced. That’s when it happened: my foot got caught in the spokes of the front tire. It was like something trying to break my leg in two and pull it off my body at the same time. The wheel stopped moving, and Daddy and I and the bike were flying, then crashing and rolling down the hill.
Dust was everywhere, in my eyes, my mouth, my nose. I was crying. Suddenly Daddy was there, picking me up, feeling my arms, my legs, looking into my eyes, my face. “Are you okay?!?” he said to me. “Son?” I saw something in his eyes then I’d never seen before: he was scared. I tried squirming around in my clothes. I could feel the scrapes on my skin, but they didn’t feel much worse than the times I’d fallen out of a tree. I did that a lot. Even my leg didn’t hurt that bad.
“I think so,” I said.
Then Daddy held me to his chest. “Oh, God,” he said, “I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry!” And for a second I thought he was actually crying.
A month later, my father was gone. I would see him twice, maybe three times again over the next few months, then never again. No one warned us kids, or said anything about it at all; it just sort of happened. Afterward, Mama would only tell us that she and Daddy had got something called a divorce. She told me that I would be the man of the family, that it was time to grow up.
The same week Daddy left, my bicycle’s front tire went flat. Mama didn’t have any money to get it fixed, so it just sat in the kitchen. Then I had this neat idea: I turned the bicycle upside down and put baseball cards on the frame with clothespins, so that the cards stuck into the spokes. And when I turned the pedals, the rear tire went around, and the clackety-clack of the cards in the spokes sounded like a real motorcycle engine.