Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Zeke’s my friend. He loves his wife, his dog, his house, his car. He’d love his kids, too, if he had any. He drinks little, swears less, shakes hands with a strong grip, meditates, runs, lifts weights, and does forty laps in the pool every morning. He eats tofu, yogurt, sprouts; avoids red meat because it’s a killer, he says.
Zeke and Kathy have been married five years. Five! And I was at the wedding. He’s something.
He calls. I’m in bed. I pick up the phone and say, Hey Zeke, before he says a word. I know his ring.
He asks if I can come up tomorrow. Zeke and Kathy are spending weekends at Chautauqua. They’ve rented a small place there for the summer. Zeke studies art and listens to the orchestra. Kathy swims, sits on the beach.
I say, For sure. I figure we’ll ride bikes, maybe swim, fly kites. I sell kites big enough to lift a kid off the ground and kites that do loops and dives, but my favorites are the old box kites. Some you can get up there high enough to hang on a cloud. I sell bikes too. Nothing like biking, either — wind and wheels, legs and lungs. My bike’s in the bedroom, hangs on hooks from the ceiling.
We’ll go golfing, Zeke says.
I hate golf but say, Sure.
Zeke hangs up happy, rolls against Kathy. I stare at the ceiling, Frances at my feet.
Frances is a Lab with papers, a nine-hundred-dollar dog, Zeke’s dog. Smart as some people I know, smarter. Zeke bought Frances when he was duck hunting in the Dakotas. She was a pup, fit in the pocket of his winter coat, but now she weighs sixty-five pounds. On the weekends, she sleeps at my feet, dreams, makes little woofing noises.
Zeke’s too good. It isn’t healthy. You need vices to let go of when you get a problem — things you can drop, like a tail on a kite, when the breeze gets light and you find yourself falling.
Kathy isn’t like Zeke. Zeke’s dark; Kathy’s fair, blond and blue eyed with a dimple, a Finn. Finns are survivors, living next door to the Russkies there on the Arctic Circle. They steam themselves in a sauna, then jump into a lake of ice water. Sisu — that means guts. Kathy taught me that. Kathy teaches seventh graders.
Sometimes Zeke calls and says, Come on over after work and we’ll go for a ride. He wants to ride his bike around the Great Lakes. He has given up hunting now and is searching for ways to get closer to nature.
Sometimes Zeke forgets he called and doesn’t come straight home. He might be swimming laps or lifting weights. Kathy and I sit on the front-porch steps, waiting and talking. Once I stood up and brushed off the seat of my shorts, and she said, You know what your problem is, Toby? I said no, and she said, You have no ass.
Kathy and I rolled in the grass laughing. You can’t get Zeke to say darn, and there was Kathy telling me I had no ass. But she was right. I have skinny tendencies, which is one of the reasons I have difficulty getting dates. A few bad habits and a slight stammer don’t help either.
Another time Kathy met me at the door, shook her head, and pointed upstairs to the bathroom.
I’ll wait, I said, but she said, No, go on up.
I climbed the steps. Zeke? I said. Zeke?
He pushed open the bathroom door. He had his foot in the sink, his leg lathered up. He was dabbing at a spot he’d nicked.
What’s up? I asked.
He ran the razor down his shin bone, then under the faucet. Less wind resistance, he said.
I sat on the pot, watched a drop of blood run into the sink.
Zeke finished his legs and toweled them dry, splashed aftershave on them, and rubbed his hand up and down the smooth and shiny skin.
When I got downstairs, Kathy squeezed my arm. She squeezed through my long-sleeved sweat shirt and into my skinny arms until I felt the tips of her fingernails pushing against my skin. But when I was on my bike and I glanced back, she was looking at Zeke’s legs, making this face like ain’t those cute.
Saturday morning I pack the bike and kites in the truck. Zeke says Chautauqua is no place for a dog, so I kiss Frances on top of the head and tell her I’ll be back later.
Chautauqua’s two hours away, a town and a lake. The lake’s big, maybe five, six miles long. Maybe more. The town’s small, not really a town — they call it an institute — and it has a wall around it. I park the truck across the street; it’s the only truck in the lot. Two bucks. I walk up to the gate, whistling and filling my mind with pure thoughts. It’s that kind of place. The smart-looking man at the ticket counter says, Seven bucks.
People shuffle around here like they’re in a library or at a funeral, talking in low voices and in no hurry to go anywhere. They sit on front porches behind boxes of flowers or on a park bench reading a newspaper or a hardback book. Lectures, operas, ballet, concerts, old people, ministers, retired schoolteachers, golfers: everybody smart and peaceful.
I find Kathy. She does a little skip and sticks out her arm like I’m to escort her around. There’s a dimple high on her cheekbone, just a little below her eye; not a wrinkle, a tiny dent. Zeke bumped into someone, she says. He’s gone windsurfing. Kathy and I stroll in big circles around the amphitheater, the bookstore, the Tally Ho Hotel. We’re in no hurry to get anywhere. We duck into the Sweet Art Shop for cones and then sit on the library steps. Kathy says sinful chocolate is the best; she holds it in front of my face. I take a lick and say, Yes, it is.
Kathy and I browse the bookstore. She’s got this favorite author. Here, here, she says, pulling on my elbow, Listen to this. She reads to me, whispering between the aisles. Do you like it? she asks. I say I do. We buy the book to read in the park while we wait for Zeke, but no sooner do we find a bench than up he pops.
He flashes in the Chautauqua sun: silver sunglasses, large white teeth, smooth-shaven legs and slicked-back hair.
We golf. Me and Zeke. How I hate the game. Walk, walk, walk, whisper, whack, whisper, walk, walk, walk. I drink beer and swear and get on Zeke’s nerves. The clothes! Those hats! And you can’t take off your shirt. But Zeke’s got it all: the leather bag, the parrot green slacks, those white shoes with the fringed flaps.
Nothing disturbs Zeke. The concentration! He steps up to the ball, lines it up, and whack. It hooks off the end of his club, heading for the trees. Leaves and twigs fall to the ground. Zeke stands there, shakes his head, and says, No.
Damn it, Zeke, I say. Can’t you say shit or throw your club or something? What’s wrong with you?
I pick up my golf ball and throw it as far as I can — farther than I usually hit them — then dump my bag upside down and kick the clubs, tees, and two beer cans that fall out. Do I have to do it for you? I ask.
I rip the putter out of my bag and throw it toward the trees; it spins like a loose helicopter blade. Then I tee up one of the beer cans and whack it with a nine iron; foam everywhere.
Zeke and I walk to the beach through a miniature replica of the Holy Land: the Dead Sea, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Galilee, all there at our feet. We find a bench and sit and watch the sailboats on the lake.
First thing I think of when I see a lake like this is that I want to swim across. It would be touch-and-go — that’s how big it is — but I’m close to doing it, throwing down my clothes and going in.
Two women pass, give Zeke the double take. One is in jeans, but the other is wearing nylon running shorts, bright red with a slit up the side. A runner: spring in her step, small ankles, thin legs, but muscle too, enough. Zeke’s not looking.
So I’m sitting here at Chautauqua, the Holy Land behind me, sailboats in front, long bare legs swinging by, and Zeke says he’s coming here every weekend. Every weekend. Golf. Sail. Learn the arts.
I watch the woman in the red running shorts disappear beyond the Sea of Galilee. Zeke shakes his head at me. He leans forward on the bench, arms resting on his knees. His fingers are laced together as if in prayer: a cat thinking pure thoughts.
Walking back toward the place they rent on one of the little brick streets, we pass flower boxes full of petunias and red geraniums. I wrinkle my forehead, pretend to ponder.
Zeke and Kathy say, Stay over, don’t go back, don’t be silly. But I’m not sure. Chautauqua has a wall around it, the bike is still in the truck, and Frances is alone at home. Besides.
Zeke says at least stay until he gets back from his art class. I call him a Renaissance man, and he laughs and then says, You think? And I say, Hell, yes, like I usually do, and he smiles.
Kathy says she wants to swim. I love to swim and it’s a warm day, so I agree to stay a little longer. Zeke runs to art class; Kathy and I check out the beach. We swim, get rowdy, splash, and yank each other’s legs out from under. She stands on her head underwater, her legs and feet sticking out above the surface: long toes, red toenails. Young kids are watching us and smiling like aren’t they strange. Kathy and I swim to the ropes, and then, just to annoy the lifeguard and because she is Finn, we duck under and swim beyond. We talk back and forth across the water as if we’re the only ones on the lake. I can feel the water swirl off her fingertips, off her toes. The lifeguard is standing on his chair, blowing his whistle. Kathy and I swim toward the beach, which is not sand at all, but grass and flowers. This is Chautauqua.
We get out, sit on a towel. Kathy watches the sailboats out on the lake. She points with a long finger at a butterfly flitting from one daisy to the next. Beads of water evaporate from her hands and arms.
Zeke meets us there, shows us a stack of prints he’s been studying. There’s so much to learn, he says. But he loves it: he’s going back to the studio tonight. He shows us his camel’s-hair brushes and explains the proper way to arrange paints on the palette. He hasn’t started painting yet, but he knows about washing the canvas to make it warm or cool, and he’s got ideas he thinks are going to go over in a big way.
We walk through the Holy Land, through Galilee, Judea and Samaria, back to the quiet house on the quiet street. I tell them I’m going home, back to Frances and Ohio.
No, no, they both say. Please stay.
Kathy grabs my arm and says if I leave her alone in this place she’ll never forgive me. I say I’ll think about it, that I’d like to, but I don’t want to crowd them, and what about Frances.
Zeke smacks his forehead, says he is not going duck hunting anymore — a violation of nature, he says. She’s yours if you want her. I look over at Kathy and she looks at me and we all take turns looking at each other. She’s a good dog, he says. Think about it.
After supper, Zeke’s eager to get to his studio; if it goes well, he’ll have something to show us when he gets back. I’m still undecided. I call my sister and ask if she’ll check on Frances, and she says, Of course.
Zeke keeps looking at his watch, and I think maybe he’s changed his mind and wants me to go. But when I mention going, he says no, he wants us to run in the morning, maybe take a fast bike ride around the lake. He watches his reflection in the mirror over the table. He excuses himself, says he’s eager to get started.
From the window I watch Zeke run down the street in the direction of the art studio. Kathy and I go out onto the front porch. I sit in a chair with my feet up on the railing. Kathy swings back and forth in the porch swing, her bare feet skimming the floor with each pass. It looks funny, me rocking in the chair and her rocking alone in the swing, so I go sit beside her. The old couples walking past grin at us. I grin back.
The sun goes down and the air gets cool. I see stars between the leaves of the trees. A light breeze, perfect for a small box kite, carries the smell of nearby cooking. From time to time we hear water splash down by the lake, dishes being stacked in a neighbor’s sink. The orchestra is playing. The chains of the swing go creak, creak, creak. Kathy and I talk in soft voices. Her whispers come warm on my face.