Somewhere in Pennsylvania he felt something cool on his cheeks. He took his hand off the steering wheel and touched his face. Wetness. He was crying. Not sobbing or blubbering or talking things out with himself. He was just staring, stone-faced, straight ahead, tears running down his face.
Then he was hearing the scratching sound. Intermittent. Every twenty miles or so. Maybe more. He varied his speed, accelerated, quickly let his foot off the gas at sixty miles per hour. Nothing seemed to cause the scratch, it was just starting and stopping at random. He decided that once he was a little farther from New Jersey, when traffic thinned out, he would pull over to the side of the road the next time he heard it. Until then, he would soldier on. He had a long drive ahead of him and the CD player in the Subaru he had just bought from his friend Ted hadn’t worked in years. He had only his thoughts and the occasional radio reception to occupy him.
He had driven across the country a few times, lived here and there in the Midwest, the South, couch surfed the West Coast. With each drive, each move, there was an amazing adrenaline rush he felt about the new possibilities. All the promises, the new riding spots, the new girls, the new scenery, the hope of more opportunity and a secure income, it was always thrilling. One of his best friends once gave him a great compliment he never forgot. He had said, “Dylan, what is great about you is not that you never fall down, you fall down more than a lot of people, but you always fall forward.”
But he wasn’t feeling it. He was anxious, not excited. The white lines passed by him and rather than thinking of the future, he had the feeling that he had left New Jersey defeated. He had lost the girl he moved there for. He had the Great Recession as an excuse, but he had gone to the densely populated state hoping for more opportunity, not to spend a few years cementing his existence as a bicycle mechanic. When he was in his twenties, it was just the job he had at the time. There seemed to be more around the corner. Somewhere along the way, though, he wasn’t a guy paying off his student loans working at a bike shop.
Blame it on the Lance wave that pulled all the golfers off the course and into the herds of gray-headed riding groups. Blame the BMXers that cashed in by launching backflips on mountain bikes, selling an entire generation on overbuilt huck-machines. Blame it on the magazines that glorified the job as some kind of Jedi/Buddhist monk whose robe was a Park Tools apron. Somewhere being a bicycle mechanic became an identity, a round hole that everyone wanted to pound you into, even if you were a square peg.
And then the scratching. Could it be a wheel bearing? Sounded like it was coming from the back of the wagon. He turned to look at the boxes and bike parts piled in the back of the car. Through the window, his eyes met with a pretty girl in a Tahoe that was passing him.
“Oh, how that must look,” he said to himself. “A guy driving a Subaru Outback with a rainbow sticker, bike on the roof, crying into his beard. I might as well pull into the next Whole Foods and get a job stacking organic oranges into a pyramid.”
“I wasn’t listening to The Cure! Or Enya! I swear!” he shouted to the pretty girl in the Tahoe now half a mile in front of him.
He was somewhere in West Virgin-pennsyl-tucky when the scratching suddenly got intense and was joined with an animalistic screeching growl. He had no real knowledge of car mechanics and had no hope of finding the problem unless it was blatant and obvious: a piece of the fender rubbing against the tire or a dragging muffler. He decided to pull over at the next gas station he saw when he noticed a truck up ahead pulled over to the side of the road. As he got closer, he could see a girl’s face in the side-view mirror watching him approach. It was the Tahoe. Flat tire. He pulled over and stopped a couple of car-lengths behind, hoping that would seem less threatening. He got out and walked up to the window. She rolled it down a crack.
Tahoe was beyond the pale of hotness. Steel blue eyes, dark brown bangs framing her cheekbones, olive skin. Fit. Cleavage to Cleveland. He liked to consider himself world-weary with an I’ve-seen-it-all weathered attitude…in fact he secretly mourned that when he saw a hot girl all he could think of was what kind of toll she must take out of a man’s heart, soul, and credit rating…but he was at a loss for words at the sight of her. Couldn’t even remember what he had planned to say as he walked to her truck.
“I have roadside assistance on the way, thank you sir,” she said through a small crack in the window. She kept her gaze straight ahead as she talked, hands at ten and two. Nervous.
“Look, I’m no car mechanic, but if you have a spare, I have a jack, and I can change a tire. But I don’t blame you if you want to wait, I’m just some random stranger. You passed me a couple of hours ago though, noticed your Jersey plates. I just left that shit-hole for good myself…”
She finally turned to look at him. Then looked into her rearview at his car. “You’re the…sensitive guy…with the bike?”
“Yeah. Sensitive. Some might say brooding and enigmatic, but I guess I can’t argue.”
“Whatever,” she said, opening her door.
He hated “whatever.” The Boss used to say it all the time when he asked a pressing question that needed a concrete answer, like, “Hey, this wheel build is for a friend of yours, does he want 32 hole all around, or 32 rear 28 front, and does he get a discount?”
“Just make sure it’s strong and light, and makes him happy, and help him out a little…you know, WHATEVER,” would be the reply. Only after The Boss saw that the customer got 3 cross 32 hole front and rear with brass nipples for $800 would he shit a brick like Dylan should have somehow known differently.
“Whatever, meaning, you need help?” Dylan asked.
“My phone battery died. My mom kept bitching at me to charge it before I left, but I forgot. If you can’t fix it, can I use your phone to call someone?” She had dropped all pretensions, he figured, her thinking he was “sensitive” and all.
She had a spare and jack, and he went right to work. Thought about how he dropped into a martyr mechanic mindset so quickly, that “Well, I have better things to do but I’ll drop everything to help you” kind of mindset that he used as leverage all too often in his career. It was the strange little power trip that loser bike mechanics thrived on, the only time you could have the head of some major oil company pandering to a dupe with a fine arts bachelor’s degree because he knew how to replace a front derailleur cable since said CEO cared more about going on that Saturday morning ride than he cared about his BMW, or his next billion dollar Dubai deal.
“Holy crap are these things rusted,” he said, unable to loosen two of the lug nuts.
“I can try to flag down someone else?” she offered.
“Just give me a minute,” he answered. He noticed that she had his second-least favorite bumper sticker behind “Bush/Cheney,” which read: “Jersey Girls Don’t Pump Gas.”
“Maybe if they learned to pump gas, they could change their own flat tires, like all the girls I know in the Midwest,” he thought.
There was one catch, though. The lug nuts didn’t want to budge. But he knew he had a seatpost in the back of his car that would work as a breaker, and some lube he could put on the threads. He walked back to the Subaru and opened the hatch.
“Holy-no-freaking-way,” he said. He put both hands on his head in an attempt to stabilize the world. There, facing outwards, hidden under a pile of clothes, was a pet carrier with a paw sticking out of it. Frankencat.
She pushed her face against the grated door of the crate and bared her teeth at him. Scratched at the plastic floor of the crate.
“Well that solves my car problems,” he thought. There was a note taped to the crate, but he wanted to stay on task and get Princess Tahoe back on the road. He would have to read it later.
Princess Tahoe, as it turned out, was on her way to Memphis to be the next big country music star. He quizzed her a little as he finished changing her tire. She couldn’t play the guitar. She had never written her own song. Yes, she always wears cut-off jean shorts. “You have all you need to be a country star,” he assured her.
He watched her drive away, picked up his tools, and headed back to the car, wondering what kind of note Ted left as he sneaked Frankencat into the car. Then his heart skipped. He had left the hatch open, and the door to the cat carrier was off its hinges.
It was empty.
He was no longer concerned with how he must look to people driving by. He was screaming for Frankencat, scanning the road, then running up and down the ditch looking through the tall grass, hoping the cat had gone that direction, and had not tried to cross the highway. He pulled out whatever snacks he had, hoping she would smell it. He begged. he pleaded. He lost his voice. He sat on top of the car looking for her until the last bit of sunlight peeked through the trees. He had lost all sense of time. It felt like hours, even days, since Tahoe had driven away. He finally opened the note:
We had a family meeting, and decided it would be best for you if you had someone to travel with to keep you safe and make sure you went to bed at a decent hour. Since Andy and I have jobs and real lives, Frankencat decided it was up to her to be your guardian. She’ll take good care of you.
He got into the car, put the keys in the ignition. Got out and walked around the car again. Looked under it for the millionth time. Got back in and started the engine. He had run out of tears. Exhausted. Twenty miles down the road, he came to a gas station. He couldn’t believe how bright it was inside. His eyes stung. He used the bathroom, couldn’t look at himself in the mirror. Went up to the counter with a Coke.
“Anything else?” the clerk asked. He was tall and lanky. Tattooed. Guages in his ears. He had a yellow box of American Spirits in his shirt pocket.
“Give me a box of those,” he pointed.
Back in the car, his hands were shaking too much to work the matches he had taken off the counter. He pushed in the car’s lighter, waited for it to pop. Tried to look at himself in the rearview. Still couldn’t do it. When he lit the cigarette and inhaled, he felt an urge to cough but stopped just short. Held it in and felt dizzy as he exhaled. He felt something tickle his neck, then sharp claws as Frankencat climbed onto his shoulder. She swatted at the smoke and sneezed.
“Where in the hell were you hiding?” She didn’t reply.
He looked at his map. He was about seventy miles away from the next town. There would be stores. Hotels. He was exhausted, but he could make it. He had to.