I'm Vic, it's nice to meet you. The person belonging to that pair of legs you see sticking out of the dumpster is Rennie. We're really glad that you could join us, aren't we? I don't think Rennie can hear us. Where is everyone else? Well. You're actually the only one who answered the email we sent out last weekend. You're the only one who really thought that Americans needed to do something to get out of the rut we've worked ourselves into. I mean, the economy is one thing, but what I'm talking about is adventure. Extreme sports are good, but they are only safe if you're an elite athlete with top-of-the-line equipment. All we have are some rusty old bikes. Wow, yours is nice. Is it a mountain bike? Oh, a cross-country bike? How often do you take it out?
Well, anyway, other typically American hobbies that we've noticed in the recent past include whining, dining out, shopping, and EXTREME SHOPPING. Stop laughing, Rennie, I mean seriously. After the market crash, you're just not going to be able to spend your weekend wandering around a big box store, looking for the exact item you need for your house, or whatever. You might not even have a house. I mean, not you, personally. But maybe you. These are uncertain times. Which is why you need to have some fun. And this weekend, you ARE going to get to do something different...something awesome that, I hope, catches on. And your life will never be the same. I'll just hop on my bike here...come on, Rennie. Kickstands up, my friends. Follow me.
We're not so far off the beaten path out here, but there aren't so many trucks at this time of day, so we don't have to worry about that. Can you still hear me? Oh, you're right there. Good. We aren't so far off the beaten path, but if you'll look to your right...the tall grasses just barely yield one of the last existing sets of...I won't ruin it for you. "In this vale...of toil and sin...your head grows bald...but not your chin...Burma Shave!" Didn't think there were any of those left, did you? Especially not ones that almost moralize like this one. It's amazing...almost like we're going back in time, pedaling up these hills. You're not tired, are you? Do you need a rest? Rennie! Catch up! Rennie looks to be in good shape, but I can't remember the last time we've been able to bike shoulder to shoulder. All right, we'll rest a minute. Didja bring some water, like I said in the e-mail? Go on, drink some. I don't need any, I'll have some at the next break, but thanks for offering.
You're so slow sometimes, Rennie. But it's gorgeous out, and I don't care how many times we stop and wait before we get there. Where? I can't tell you. No, I mean I really can't tell you. We'll know when we get there. It's beautiful.
Why did you decide to come with us today? I mean, I'm just curious. You're a writer, I got that from your email, but--oh. That's it? You wanted something to write about? Well. Good luck describing all this. I bet you wouldn't even know how to describe me. I'm a little bit of everything, you know. Rennie too. And this evening's activity is something that you probably won't even understand. Heck, I don't understand it all, but I know it works. Do you think you'll keep up on this leg, Rennie? Are you ready? Kickstands up, my friends.
Vic and I take this ride a lot. It's kind of our special place, but Vic thought it would be a good idea to bring strangers along and teach them the beauty of what we do. I don't like that idea, which is why I'm letting Vic do all the talking, but I also didn't think it was a good idea to let Vic and the stranger go without me. The stranger doesn't seem like a bad sort of person, but sometimes I think Vic wants to flaunt things that really should be kept quiet. What if the stranger doesn't get it? Strangers are unknown quantities: if we scare them, they could either laugh or kill us, but we won't know which until it actually happens.
Vic is yelling at me to keep up, but I like to ride in the back. I like to watch people riding in front of me, their bodies exerting the way my body is exerting, bones driving muscles to twitch under protective fat, each foot pushing the pedals up, down, up, down, taking turns. Vic and the stranger push harder than I do because they feel they have something to prove (to each other? to me?), but when we get where we're going, my mind will be sharper than theirs. My body, more fresh. I want to tell them to slow down, because my enjoyment will be less if they are tired, but I refuse to talk to the stranger.
The squirrel I was feeding, back in the dumpster near our meeting place, was a pregnant mother squirrel. She was just about to pop with squirrel pups, and a few minutes earlier, I had watched her mate get flattened by a crazy teenager in a speeding Camaro as he crossed Main Street. I gave her my raisins and peanuts, which she appeared to eat a few of before stuffing the remainder into her nest. A dumpster is no place for a family, even a squirrel family, but I didn't try to move her. If I'd been bitten, I probably wouldn't have been able to make the trip.
We're getting close now, I can feel it. The sun is starting to dip-dye the sky in a spectrum of oranges, and the air is noticeably cooler as it flows around my bicycle. Soon, the afternoon fire will fade to the coral, pink, and purple of evening, but for now, I slow my pedaling to hang back with the long, dark shadows that Vic and the stranger are casting. I get farther behind, but I reason that a shadowlength is a good amount of space to leave between us, even as the sun sets and that distance grows.
"You weren't serious about not talking, were you?" Vic shouts back at me.
I do not answer, and Vic knows better than to press the issue. Besides, we are almost there.
It has been a longer ride than I thought, maybe ten miles, but it only felt like three or four. We pedaled uphill the entire time, so logic dictates that I should be more tired. Perhaps it is Vic and Rennie that make me feel like we are just a bunch of kids out riding bikes until dinnertime, or maybe it is my sense of adventure. I have climbed Mt. Everest and leapt from cliffs in Greece, but somehow, this feels different. Perhaps it is the fact that I don't know what's in store for me when we get where we're going. Vic pulls off the main road onto a dirt path, and I am suddenly glad for my fancy cross-country bike. I follow and listen for the clank of Rennie's aged gearshift behind us.
A few minutes later, the dirt runs out and all that's left is grass. Vic pulls over and says, "Kickstands down, my friends. We're here." It's a gorgeous clearing full of short grass and fireflies, and I wonder if anyone cuts it, or if it just stays short, like dwarf grass. The fireflies are just starting to wink on for the evening, and it is just barely dark enough to see them. Vic walks to the center of the clearing and stares out over the edge. All this time, we had been riding up the side of a mountain, or so it seemed from the beautiful birds'-eye view. The sun is practically gone now, glowing red in its little corner of the earth. All we have is early starlight and fireflies.
Vic lies down on the grass and says, "Well. This is it. This is what Americans should do. They should see America. Like this." Vic's eyes go out of focus for a moment, then back in. Then Rennie lies down on Vic, that is to say, Rennie's head rests on Vic's stomach. Rennie motions to me, the most acknowledgement I've received today. Before I realize what is happening, Vic's head is resting on my stomach as well, and we have made a laughing circle--a laughing triangle, I suppose. But nobody is laughing. We are just breathing, slowly and deeply. The air is pure up here, sweeter than anything I've breathed in a long time. And when I am finished being awestruck at my own ability to draw a breath, I see it. The field of stars above us is so enormous, I suddenly forget that anything else even exists. My eyes go out of focus, then back in, and I see the fireflies, lazily blinking on and off as they swirl around us.
"What do you want to do, Rennie?" Vic asks.
I feel Rennie's stomach rise and fall with a deep breath. "I want to help animals," Rennie says.
"What do you want to do?" Vic asks me. I think about the question. It was one I hadn't heard since I was a little kid, a variation on the theme of "what do you want to be when you grow up?" I don't know how old Vic and Rennie are, or for that matter, anything else about them. But I know how old I am. And I know that there are still a lot of things that I want to do with my life. There are a lot of things that I'm afraid to say I want to do, but I am only noticing this fear for the first time.
It sounds kind of lame in my head, but I say, "I want to write a novel." When I actually say it, it feels like something I could really accomplish. I feel Rennie sigh softly, and I can see Vic smile.
"What do you want to do, Vic?" Rennie asks.
Vic says, "I can do anything."