My neck burns, strained from looking straight ahead, so I let my chin fall; it kisses my chest. I groan and never want to look up again. My entire spine tingles as the pain melts away and relief trickles down my back. While I savour this euphoria, the sun begins licking my exposed neck.
The road is a blur of grey beneath searing tires as sunscreen-soaked legs pump and glisten in the summer glare. Sweat escapes my bandana and slides to the peak of my nose. A salty drip grows and trembles from the hum of the tires reverberating through me until, no longer able to cling to my skin, it falls and splatters into oblivion.
After Bob died, I dreamt about him. He was sitting in his favourite chair, holding a book with his left hand and tracing a figure eight on the armrest with his right. His hair and beard were as Gandalf-like as ever, his plaid shirt and blue suspenders tight around his full belly. It was as if the cancer had never been. He looked up from his book, stood, and bear-hugged me. His smile was in his arms, his laughter in his hands. When I woke up, I knew he’d come to say goodbye.
Garbage clutters the shoulder from Red Deer to Calgary. It’s like a landfill spread out over one hundred and forty kilometres. The gophers are the only things out of place in this dump; their countless bodies litter the highway.
One runs out in front of me. He scurries and bounds for the median, making it halfway when a truck flattens his head into a white stripe in the middle of the road. My heart and tires skid to a stop. I want to run out to him, but cars zoom by and cut me off. Step out anyway. Force them to stop. Force them to care. I imagine myself lying beside the gopher, just as flat, just as dead, and the cars just keep zooming past.
I bow my head, slide my feet back into my pedals, and ride away. Looking back, I wish I could have saved him.
“Let’s bike there,” Brendan said.
“You wanna bike?”
“Yeah. I’m sick of cars and planes.” He stared at me from under glasses, a permanent fixture his face looked naked without. His fiery hair stood on end and his small, athletic frame was suddenly imposing and inescapable. “C’mon, let’s just bike there. We have to go to Sechelt for Bob’s memorial anyway.”
I remembered how Bob looked in my dream and knew pedalling towards that image of him, even though it was only an aura in my mind, was the right thing to do. Brendan needed it too. Needed to connect with his grandfather one last time.
“I am sick of driving.” The realization infected me like road rage, creeping up and sinking its teeth in.
“So let’s do it. Biking is the most efficient way to travel you know.” He sounded like a salesman.
I tried to imagine myself pedalling through the mountains on the side of the highway. “What about gear?”
He shrugged. “We’ll buy gear.”
“I’d have to buy a new bike.”
“So buy a new bike,” he said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “You wanted to get a new one anyway.”
I stared at Brendan, saying nothing. My stomach cramped up and my chest tightened and all I needed was a deep breath but the wind felt knocked out of me.
“Come on. It’ll be unbelievable.”
“It would be,” I said, biting my thumbnail and feeling as if I stood on the edge of a cliff.
“Let’s do it.” Brendan smiled excitedly, his eyes and red hair practically glowing as he nudged me closer to the edge.
I shrugged, lowered my hand…
“All right. Fuck it. Let’s bike,”
… and, jumped.
“You should read As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner,” Bob said, stroking his long, wizard-like beard. “Some of his sentences go on forever.” Bob took a gulp of milk then wiped his whiskers and mouth with his palm. “As long as the ideas are unified, a sentence can be as long as you want it, or at least as long as your readers can stand it.” Just then he looked past me, sat up straight, and said, “That black bear’s in my garden again.”
I spun around and moved to the end of the patio. About one hundred feet away, a black bear sauntered through the backyard. As I stared at the bear, I wanted to look into its eyes and run my fingers through its fur. “I’ve never seen a bear outside of a zoo before.” The realization made me feel as if I hadn’t really lived.
Bob stepped beside me. “Well get a good look ’cause it’ll take off in about five seconds.” When the bear stepped into the garden, tripping the motion-censored sprinkler, water shot into its face and sent it running for the trees, growling and shaking its head. Bob laughed—a deep, contagious laugh that made me smile.
Suddenly, “Get a car!” hits me like a frostbitten fist punching the small of my back. I jerk and swerve, narrowly missing the curb before regaining control. Straight ahead, and half-hanging out of a passenger side window, is a man who looks like an obsessed hockey fan grimacing after his team got scored on. Gawking and shaking his head, he disappears into the sea of traffic.
I crank my music to help forget about the heckler. Over my shoulder and down the windy slope Brendan is a few football fields away, but I could see his flaming orange shirt from Everest’s peak.
I pant and perspire my way to a summit somewhere between Golden and Yoho National Park, stop, and dismount. Removing the bicycle seat from my butt is heavenly, like picking a concrete wedgie or standing after a ten-hour flight. I stretch, a tiptoed, fingers extended stretch that cracks my entire spine. Then I roll my head from shoulder to shoulder; it sounds like tiny rocks are grinding in my neck. Brendan rides up looking as red-faced and tired as I feel.
Brendan nods and pants.
I take off my helmet. “Some guy yelled at me.”
“What’d he say?”
“Get a car.”
“Really.” Brendan laughs. “That’s funny.”
“Hilarious.” I roll my eyes.
“Why do people do that? I don’t feel like yelling, ‘Get a bike’ at every car that passes us.”
We flop down beneath a nearby sign and rest in an ever-shrinking patch of shade.
“Did you get any honks?”
“No. Did you?”
“Oh yeah, two or three. One guy even gave me a thumbs-up through his sunroof.”
I close my eyes. “I guess that evens it out.” Sleep is right behind my eyelids.
We’re flying down a smooth stretch of highway somewhere past Golden. I look down at my odometer:
Cooled by the dusk air, I feel like I can pedal forever. Brendan’s right in front of me, our tires almost touching. I crouch, grip the lowest part of my handlebars, and pedal harder. Smiling at Brendan as I pass him, I set our new pace. It feels like we’re going downhill, like nothing can stop us. When I glance back to grin at Brendan, I see him slow down, stop, and hop off his bike. My smile fades and I do exactly what I don’t want to—stop and turn around.
He’s squatting beside his back tire. I dismount. “What’s up?”
“Flat tire.” He walks towards me. “This sucks. We were flying.”
While retrieving the pump from my pannier, I hear buzzing. A mosquito hovers above my arm; I shoo it away and realize something horrible. “Brendan.”
“We didn’t bring any bug spray.”
“Shit.” He waves the mosquitoes away from his face.
A swarm of mosquitoes large enough to blot out the setting sun looms in the distance. They jump us like junkies to free crack. Moving as fast as we can while constantly rubbing our skin and scratching our bites, I kneel and pump, and Brendan holds the bike as steady as he can, which isn’t steady at all. I grit my teeth and try to ignore the mosquitoes so I can pump faster. They bite and bite and bite while I pump and pump and pump. As pressure builds, the pumping gets harder and slower and the bites longer and deeper. Covered in bugs, guts, and blood, I jump to my feet and flail around as if doing the hokey pokey while on fire. “Ahhhhhh, fuck off. They’re going through my clothes. Their stingers are like needles.”
“I know. What’s it at?” Brendan squirms and kicks the air.
I glance at the pressure gauge. “About fifty.”
“Good enough. Let’s get outta here.”
Jumping on our bikes, we pedal like we’re evading vampires. I look back at the cloud of thirsty bloodsuckers and scratch the bites on my exposed, mosquito-smeared skin as we escape.
Bob sat across from me wearing his red housecoat; suddenly it looked baggy on him. His huge hands sifted through the mound of compost dirt in the middle of the table, stopping periodically to pinch a worm and drop it into the rapidly filling coffee can between us. His hair and long beard were thinner and matched the rest of him.
“Thanks for helping me,” Bob said in his deep, hoarse voice. “This usually takes me all day.”
“No problem,” I said, my dirt-stained hands working busily. “It’s the least I can do to thank you for helping me set up my compost.”
“You don’t need to thank me. You did it.”
“Still.” I dropped a worm into the can. “Cleaning it alone is kind of a pain.”
“I like doing it. It’s meditative.” He tossed a couple worms in the can. “I don’t think about my next doctor’s appointment or if I’ve missed a pill. I don’t even think about how I’m never hungry anymore.” Another worm in the can. “I just concentrate on this. Everything else melts away.”
“It’s like in Buddhism. Being in the moment without letting the world distract you.”
Bob nodded and picked up another worm. “The right concentration. It’s part of the Eightfold Path. No distractions from your present reality.”
We sifted through the rest of the compost in silence, Bob’s arduous breaths filling the air. I wanted to thank him for adopting me as a grandson and letting me be one of his last students. To tell him about my sixty-seven-word sentence he’d inspired. To get up and kiss him on his gaunt cheek. But I just sat up straight, breathed deeply, and let the world melt away. Just me, Bob, compost, and the worms.
Surrounded by semis, we’re camped on a little patch of green at a rest stop near the Coquihalla Toll Plaza.
“Did you hear that?”
“What was it?”
Brendan shrugs, and we finish eating our instant soup.
Brendan and I look at one of the semis.
Whee. Whee. Wheeee.
“That truck’s full of pigs.”
Soon, screams and bangs are all we hear. Brendan heads to the bathroom to wash the dishes, and I approach the truck. The entire trailer rocks from the struggle within. Afraid of getting caught for stealing a look, I sneak forward. A snout, moist and glistening in the floodlights, pushes through a hole and stares at me. It sniffs the fresh air. I reach out, but before we touch it disappears into the trailer and fuelled by claustrophobia-induced rage, starts a fight. The horrible shrieks make the soup bubble up in my throat.
“They’re antsy tonight,” a trucker says, walking towards me. “Two hundred and twenty-seven … That’s all we can carry in the summer.”
“Any more than that and they get too hot, and then, explode.” He mimes an explosion and makes the sound effects. “No sweat glands. They just overheat and blow up.”
“Yep. I’ve seen the trailers after it’s happened. It ain’t pretty.”
A war wages inside the trailer. I want to free them, to help them run away and hide in the dark forest all around. As the half-digested soup burns my throat, I regret every slice of bacon, piece of ham, and pulled-pork sandwich I’ve ever eaten.
“Where ya coming from?”
“Red Deer.” I retch, but he doesn’t notice.
“Red Deer. Long way. Where ya headed?”
“Vancouver? I’ll be.” He adjusts his hat and spits onto the dark cement. “Well, good luck on your trip. I better hit the hay if I’m gonna head out before it gets too hot. See ya partner.”
He walks away, and so do I. Brendan’s waiting at the picnic table.
“It sounds horrible,” Brendan says. “It sounds like … ”
“People. I know”
“I think I’m gonna throw up.”
We move to the other side of the rest stop where the screeching becomes a murmur easily confused with the wind against the tent. Exhaustion makes me fall asleep, but hours later, I’m woken up by screaming; the pig truck chugs past and saliva fills my mouth. I unzip the tent and spit into the cold, morning air, but the bad taste doesn’t go away.
Bob wasn’t really there. He sat across from me in his rocking chair, his hair buzzed, his face bald. He looked like a turtle without its shell. No book. No figure eight tracing. No suspenders. He just stared blankly and squeezed the armrests.
“I brought you The Name of the Rose,” I said. “I heard you wanted to watch it.” I handed it to him and hugged him. His embrace was weak and shaky; I could feel almost every bone in his back.
“Thank you.” His voice was a distant whisper. “I really appreciate it. Thank you. And for coming. Thank you for coming.”
I helped Bob to his feet before he disappeared into the bedroom. He had no time for movies. He spent most of his day sleeping and taking morphine.
The final hill is the worst of all. It laughs at us and gets steeper with every pedal. The mountains seem easy compared to this ninety-degree monster that grabs our tires and tries to push us off our bikes. “I’m not gonna make it. I’m not gonna make it,” I gasp.
“Almost … there … should we … take a break,” Brendan wheezes.
“If I stop,” I huff, “I’ll never,” I puff, “get going again … and … there’s no way in hell … I’m walking … this last bit.”
“Fuck you hill,” Brendan yells, pedalling harder.
“You’re not … stopping us,” I shout between gasps, pedalling in time with Brendan.
Up ahead, over the peak, the driveway calls to us; we stay side by side, fighting for every painful inch we take.