Big Wheel

by Jeffrey McDonald

When my parents moved me from the Upper West Side of Manhattan to rural Maine to start my sophomore year in high school, I experienced something way beyond culture shock, it was my personal learn-as-you-go for a completely new set of mores and acceptable behaviors, and after only a couple missteps (you truly do never get a second chance on that first impression) I was pretty much a social outcast.  So I did what all social outcasts do, I befriended another one.

Craig was a skinny blond Navy kid, he lived on the base housing that you could reach from our high school via a five-minute walk on a trail that led around the soccer field and through some sparse woods.  In contrast, my parent’s new home was under construction in Harpswell, three towns over, a forty-five minute drive.  As my friendship bloomed with Craig, we naturally spent most of our time hanging out at his house.

It was the normal teenage pariah’s routine.  Shunned by all at school, we’d find our own things to get into, like model rockets, bass guitar and Metallica.  One thing we liked especially was the motocross bikes that a lot of the older kids in base housing owned.  There was hundreds of miles of backwoods riding available from the trails that intersected all about the base, which had been built far off the main road, far away from any civilian homes, and right smack dab in the Maine woods.  It was the perfect place to own a powerful biped.  We admired the bikes parked in the carports on his block, Hondas, Yamahas, Kawasakis.  We’d hear the echoes of their high pitched throttle tearing up the soil way back in the woods as we dug in his yard for worms to kill.

The school year pressed on.  The holiday breaks came.

I was at home on Christmas afternoon when Craig called.  He was out of breath.  All he could get out was that he’d gotten one, he’d gotten a motocross bike.  I didn’t even know he’d asked for one.  He told me to get over there and before my phone was back in its cradle I had asked my mom for a ride.  She must have been feeling generous on our Lord’s birthday, compared to the countless times I was left on my own to hitchhike into town, because about an later I was standing in Craig’s carport with him, admiring a Yamaha BW350 Big Wheel that felt as much mine as it was his.  We had advanced into the ranks of the motorized.

My prized Christmas present, a pair of brown wooden nunchucks, were stuffed in my back pocket and forgotten.

We were both beta males, but today we were ready to ride.  The bike came gassed up.  We agreed that it was technically his, so he’d drive us out into the woods with me on back.  The engine sounded like a magic dragon belch as it roared to life.  The headlight cut out of the carport and into the heavy snowfall that had been coming down all day.  Visibility was not good.  We didn’t care.  On a last second whim, I grabbed a plastic sled that was hanging on the wall, and a long length of dirty rope tangled in a milk crate on the floor.  I tossed my nunchucks back in the plastic crate for safe keeping.

We rode for at least two hours, deep into the trails.  The sled and rope had been tossed off the path, and we took turns standing to watch the spot, shivering in the cold and wet snowfall, while the other guy rode off into the woods.  We had little-to-no company out there, the storm and holiday saw to that.  We had the woods to ourselves.  On my turns to ride, I struggled with the clutch a lot (something Craig was strangely familiar with already) and never really got to open the throttle wide enough to break any speed limits.  Never the less, it was thrilling.  I hung my knee down around the curves like Agostini on the flat track.  I screamed victory on the straight-aways.  I tried to pop wheelies.  I slid around a lot in the snow.

I rode back, with my face locked in a grin, to where Craig was waiting his turn, dancing in place.  It was the last time he’d ever dance.

It was getting dark, so it was agreed that we’d get to our sled experiment.  We triple-knotted one end of the rope to the tow hook below the bike’s tail light, and about twelve feet behind we tied the plastic shell.  I jumped in first.

It was pretty amazing, more fun than driving the bike, really.  The sled rode smoothly along in the rut from the bike’s oversized tires.  By this hour there was five inches on the ground, and the ride became the equivalent   of a high-speed luge on flat ground.  I screamed for him to go faster.  The snow blinded me as it whipped by.  We stopped and traded places, along with the snow goggles reserved for the driver.  Craig took his turn in the sled.  Deeper and deeper into the woods we rode.

After we had switched a couple more times, we realized our haphazard twists and turns onto and off  familiar trails had taken us to the Fire Tower Hill, where most kids in the know did there extreme sledding.  There were jumps and rock-face drops at extreme angles that no Radio Flyer Family would ever approve of.  We’d ridden down this before, coaxed on by locals calling us pussies and a sense of adventure.  My first trip down had familiarized me with what people meant by “cracking your ass”.  Craig had a similar experience.  Now we stood at its base, looking up, with our sled tied to the back of a powerful machine and only the silence of snow falling in the woods around us.  I proposed it, but we both already knew.  We must use the bike to sled up the mighty hill.

Since it was his bike, the virgin run in the sled would be his, though logic may have dictated the reverse, it was his decision.  I hopped on the bike and waited for him to board.  I looked back to see him prone on his back, giving me the thumbs up.

I gunned it.  Straight up the hill.  I didn’t want to get stuck.  I wanted Craig’s ride up to be exciting as the ride down.  I went straight over mounds in the snow.  I angled around a log at speed.  I opened full throttle on a particularly steep section.  My troubles with the clutch vaporized.  I was lost in the moment, conquering the mountain.  A man on his mighty steed, nothing could stop me.  I drove with reckless abandon and broke through any inhibitions I’d had with the accelerator on my earlier rides.  I screamed in victory, this time for real.  I tore over a patch of ice and felt it explode under my wheels.  I took the hill moment to moment, one obstacle at a time, until I looked up and realized I was just about at the summit.

I looked back to Craig in triumph, if it was that good from the bike, it must have been amazing from the sled.

The blue plastic flapped in the wind of my wake, empty.

Craig was about half way down the hill.  I jumped off the idling cycle and slid through the snow to his side.  He was bent at a strange angle; he appeared to be trying to touch his toes with his legs locked straight.  His face was red, his eyes shut tight and his mouth locked into a snarled grimace.  He was soaking wet.  The snow around the crotch of his jeans was yellow.  He wouldn’t answer me.  I thought he was pissed at me, and hurt, in that order.  Down the hill a bit, a large section of jagged limestone ledge had been exposed, the sled’s trail cut away the snow cover.  I decided that no matter how mad Craig was, I would get him home, right now.  I rolled the bike down the hill a ways, until the dragging sled was next to his body, and then rolled him in.  I heard cracks from inside him as I straightened him out of his tweaked position, but he remained quiet.  He was so red, I wondered if he was even breathing.  I got on the bike and drove.

It took me almost an hour to find my way out of the woods.  Everything looked different with half a foot of snow on it, and the panic in my nerves compounded my lapses in direction.  I’d check behind me every thirty seconds to make sure the sled wasn’t flapping vacant again.  It was pitch black with no moon when I finally pulled back into Craig’s cul-de-sac.

His dad and two men I didn’t know were standing in the carport.  He stepped towards me as I pulled up with anger in his eyes.  The moment he realized I wasn’t his son he looked right through me and focused on the sled.

“He got hurt” was all I could get out as he stomped past.  He knelt down next to Craig.  The other two men followed.  They were silent and still, not at all what I was expecting.  One of the men squeezed Craig’s fingers.  I cut the bike’s engine so I could listen.  They stayed over him for a long time.  I couldn’t hear a thing, just the hint of whispers in the winter wind.

All at once, they all rose together, holding the sled between them like a stretcher.  They walked him to the back door of an unfamiliar Ford, which must have belonged to one of the men I didn’t know, parked in the driveway.  They slid him into the back seat, and piled in the front.  They moved as if time were now at a premium.

I looked down at my nunchucks in the milk crate.  For some reason I felt appropriate, I grabbed them and ran to the car as it was backing out of the driveway.  They stopped for me.  I opened the door and leaned in.  The red was leaving Craig’s face and he was breathing regularly.  He almost looked normal again.  I put the nunchucks on his chest and closed the door.  They left.

I walked out of the base, past our high school, another twenty minutes to the bridge, across, and into town.  I stuck a paper clip in a pay phone and called my mom.  She took her time.  I shivered in front of Amato’s sandwich shop for almost two hours before her Subaru pulled into the lot.  We got home just after midnight.  I thought to myself that it wasn’t Christmas anymore.

Craig had a severed spinal chord, just below chest level.  Best case scenario would have him undergo intensive rehab to become quadraplegic rather than paraplegic for the remained of his life.  He’d be in the hospital until at least March, his mom told my mom on the phone, and he wasn’t taking non-family visitors until he’d been acclimated to his condition.  The time went by.  I made some new friends.  March passed.  I smoked pot for the first time, made out with a girl.  Summer came.  I heard Craig was in a rehab center in Lewiston.  I got into punk music, dropped acid, had sex with a girl.  Junior year started.  Christmas came.  My mom gave me her old Subaru.

Two days after New Years, I drove to Lewiston to visit Craig.  I didn’t really want to, but I felt I had to.  A year had passed.  On the way there, I smoked a joint by myself.  I told myself that it was just this one time, that I had to go once.  I thought of how I’d apologize, and that someone, or something, owed us both an apology.  I walked into the one-story unmarked building and gave his name.  He was at the end of the corridor.  The placed smelled like floor polish, floors that saw more wheels than feet.

He was alone in bed.  The TV was off.  He had gained at least twenty pounds.  He stared at me for a long time before he spoke.

“How’s school?” he asked.  His voice was higher than before.

“Still shitty.”   The best answer I could muster.

“Your hair is long,” he said.

“Yeah.”

I shifted from foot to foot.  I started sweating under my coat.

“My dad quit the Navy,” he said, snapping me out of my tension.

I exhaled heavily.  “That’s crazy, wow, why?”  I didn’t care why, and I knew he knew I didn’t.

Craig didn’t say anything for a long time.  I noticed his arms were tucked under the blanket at his sides.

“Who were those other guys with your dad that night?”  I asked the question without knowing why.

“My uncles.  You can go.  You don’t have to stay,” he said without pausing.

I felt perhaps I should argue his dismissal, but instead I just turned to leave.

“Wait, take those.”  I turned back to his voice and followed his eyes to the bedside table.  I hadn’t noticed them before, my nunchucks.

“No, you keep them.”  They seemed like a silly kid’s toy to me now.  Craig’s arms didn’t work anymore, but they were better off with him then me despite it.  He didn’t protest.  I left.  The last thing I saw on my way out of his room was his wheelchair, empty in the corner.

I finished high school.  I fell in love.  I got a job.  I moved to California.  I worked, went to Community College.  I moved back.  I broke bones, crashed cars, got two girls pregnant.  I worked more.  I got older.  Ten years passed.  I fell in love again and got married.  I had kids.  They grew up.  Another ten years.

Craig’s mom found me and wrote me an impersonal message on Facebook last month.  I looked over her profile and comments, tried to find Craig on her Friends List.  I gathered two things:  he wasn’t a member of the site, and he was still in Lewiston, now at a different assisted living center.  It seemed he never made it back into the world, I speculated about his parents not being able to care for him properly, combined with long-term medical coverage courtesy of the US Navy, and it became plausible that he’d never made it home.  I didn’t answer his mother’s message.

I drove to our old high school last night, and walked the trail back to base housing.  Somewhere along the line the government had cut funding, and our local military installation found itself on the chopping block.  Though it was now deserted, the Navy held onto the real estate and spared the bulldozers.  Coming off the trail to all those rows off dark empty buildings that used to be homes felt like walking into a ghost town.  I didn’t look for Craig’s old house.  I walked back to the trails that would bring me to the Fire Tower Hill.

After an hour I found it.  Looking up, nothing had changed.  Nature had frozen this scene with my memories twenty years before.  The ledge of limestone was right there where I remembered it, innocently peaking out of the soil above and below it.  It belonged here.

I didn’t.

I turned and ran into the woods, off the trail.  I ran as fast as I could, ignoring the risk of a turned ankle in the twisted roots underfoot.  I ran and I ran.  Birch braches whipped across my face.  I couldn’t feel them, couldn’t feel anything except the tears streaming across my face, partly from exertion but mostly from anger.  My breath pounding clouds ahead of me, my heart pounding in my chest.  I ran with no regard for the physical shape I was in, I ran like a child.  I ran for my life as a child in the city, a life without woods.  All these years, my entire adult life running by as he sat in that chair.  I ran and ran until the hollow thuds of my feet crashing along the forest floor seemed to belong to someone else, while my body rose above, floating through the trees, the woods darkening around me.


You can read more about Jeffrey McDonald at www.millionheadedmule.com

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