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A Novel By Greg Garrett

Greg Garrett--a cyclist, novelist, and Baylor University professor--shares with The Bicycle Exchange the first two chapters of his exciting new book. Below is Chapter One. (Book Facts: Cycling, by Greg Garrett, 256 pages, published September 2003, Kensington Publishing, available on Amazon via this link.) 

Cycling

There's a lost soul coming down the road 
Somewhere between two worlds.

~ Bruce Hornsby, "Lost Soul"

The mere realization of one's own unhappiness is not salvation: it may be the occasion of salvation, or it may be the door to a deeper pit in hell.

~ Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain

One

It is mid-August in Waco, Texas, the Year of our Lord 1993. The mercury stands at one hundred for weeks on end, the grass goes first brown and then gray, and the parched ground cracks open. In fact, my grandfather, Jackson Bradford Cannon, Jr., called last night from his monumental home over on Austin Avenue to gleefully report the momentary loss of my grandparents' idiotic tabbycat Buster, who blundered into a chasm in their gigantic but poorly-watered back yard.

"Should have seen it, Jackson,"  he said. (Although most people call me "Brad," my grandfather insists on calling me by our common given name; I am, of course, twice distant, JBC the Fourth. Anyway, Buster the much-maligned cat.) "One minute he was there, the next, whoop, he was gone. I almost bust a gut laughing. Evelyn made me go and pull him out. Too bad the cracks aren't any deeper."

They are deep enough for my liking, and they are everywhere. It has been weeks since we had rain, and even some of the roads have begun to crack, mostly at the shoulders where the dry ground shrinks away from the pavement, but sometimes out in the middle of the throughway. The cracks are generally only an inch or two wide at the most, nothing noticeable for motorists, but they are potentially lethal for a cyclist, which is what I am, now and forever, even in these scorching August afternoons.

What in God's name am I doing out here? Why am I puffing up this hill in 105 degree temperatures, rivers of sweat coursing down my face, a big truck whooshing past me just inches from my left elbow? I'm not certain that I can explain it. But you are right in thinking that it's an odd time to be outdoors, let alone out riding long distances on a bicycle. Everyone else in the state of Texas sits inside in air-conditioned comfort, waiting for fall with the anticipation a snow-bound Michigander must feel for spring. This afternoon, putting in thirty miles on my Specialized mountain bike, I could almost be the only living creature on the planet. The dogs who in more temperate seasons charge out from their porches to defend their territories now loll, panting, in the shade; the floppy-hatted retirees who normally tend their lawns and flower beds with meticulous loving care have been forced by water rationing to sacrifice their verdant St. Augustine and Bermuda for the public weal; the farmers who are in between harvest and sowing wouldn't set foot on a tractor for love or money.

I don't blame them. I shouldn't be out on a bicycle; I'm supposed to be writing, finishing a book that I have not yet even begun. Let me explain: Five years ago a New York publisher released my history of the Confederate invasion of New Mexico during the early years of the War Between the States. I didn't make this up: I first read about it in Shelby Foote's Civil War, and after I managed to graduate from Baylor University, a venerable Baptist institution, I spent three years rooting through the university's excellent Texas Collection, through the like-named collection at Texas Tech in Lubbock, through the Confederate Research Center up the road at Hill College. In those days I was still young enough, Southern enough, to be fascinated by military action, no matter how futile or ill-conceived--in this case, five hundred Texans rode up the Rio Grande expecting to conquer a territory almost as large as the state they'd just left--and to my amazement I filled up notebook after notebook with what I discovered in the collections. The end result was a book that has sold copies by the wagonload in Texas, sold fairly well across the South, and is apparently even bought by the occasional Yankee Civil War buff.

Following that, my publisher encouraged me to get to work on one of the two projects that I have at various times claimed to be writing--a book on the Texas Brigade and their service under Albert Sidney Johnston at Shiloh, or on the diplomatic relationship between the Confederacy and Mexico, depending on my mood. The farthest I ever got was to read a few books other people had written and decide that nothing I had to say was interesting enough for me to add, so I did not and have not. Although I know I ought to be nervous about this being discovered, I am not for two reasons: first, the whirlwind of takeovers and buyouts in New York City publishing has meant that five different editors have assumed control over my project in the last five years, and until the most recent, Eddie Todd, not a one of them has been around long enough to do more than call, introduce himself, and ask how my work is coming; second, while it seems that I must once have cared enough about something to write a book, I have no plans to write another; I have no plans, period. Consequently, as long as my slender royalties, my grandparents, and my occasional columns on Texas greasy spoons and honkytonks for Texas Monthly continue to pay the bills, I am free to pretend to fill notebooks with my research, free to court in my noncommittal way the women in my life, free to pedal to my heart's content through this super-heated August air.

I am reluctant to admit that there is any tense save the present, and I am not here to recount my sad stories, but since we are recalling temps perdu  with this rolling account of my brief authorial career, I suppose that now is as good a time as any to unload the other sordid details. Everything will all come out at some point; it always does. So I guess, as Jackson might say, it's better to slap a mosquito with a bang than let her suck your blood in silence.

Here it is then, the unsavory and unalterable past: to begin with, I have been married twice and divorced twice in the past seven years. If any blame is to be attached to such a record of connubial failure, it must fall squarely on my head. I have a problem letting people get close to me. Although it's unfortunate, I can't seem to help myself; life seems easier if I just don't care too much.

Different people have attributed my fear of intimacy to different things. My first wife simply opined that I was a son of a bitch and left it at that; my second wife thought my distance was the result of my artistic temperament; if pressed, I like to say that it comes from being born and bred a male in the great state of Texas, since this seems to shut off debate at a surface level. My grandparents, however, alternatively suppose that my reluctance to connect has something to do with my past, and so it is the dark highlights of my history I must reluctantly recount for you--at least in brief--if you are to have any hope of understanding.

When I was twelve years old, my beloved mother, father, and kid brother got knocked off of Interstate 35 and into eternity by a gravel truck. While this in and of itself seems sufficient to me to justify some lamentation--I seem to recall that this kind of thing knocked Hamlet on his ass--I recognize that not everyone agrees: Fathers die, Hamlet, and mothers and brothers, too. And so they do, an ineluctable fact of life that perhaps should not--in and of itself--be paralyzing. I can say this: it is true that I loved my family dearly, that the mere thought of their fate now is like a crunching blow to the stomach. All the same, what happened to them seems like a long time ago, like another life, and not even my life, but the life of some character I read about once and then closed the book on.

This is not, unfortunately, true of everything in my past. There is something else which might account for the spare and shuttered life I lead, although many of my more recent acquaintances do not know of it except as lurid whispered gossip, the kind people in grocery stores cluck about and people in churches shake their heads over sadly.

There are gravel trucks, and then there are gravel trucks.

When I was seventeen years old, I took my girlfriend Susie Bramlett out of a Saturday night to see Urban Cowboy and then to the so-called Health Camp restaurant for good greasy burgers and butterscotch malts. Susie was a beautiful red-headed outdoorsy girl with a laugh as big and bright as the night sky, and she laughed at me all the time, which was one of the things that made me love her madly.

I made jokes about Urban Cowboy all evening, even after we had parked on a deserted country road south of town to make out. I was telling her how stupid I thought it was for even Debra Winger to ride a contraption like that mechanical bull and Susie had thrown her head back and was laughing that laugh when a big black Lincoln or Caddy that had been creaking its way across the plank and trestle bridge behind us pulled up alongside and a dark-haired man with a big gap-toothed smile leaned out the passenger window and pointed a silver-plated revolver at us.

I should have done something. Should have. But I sat, stupid and stupefied, and the man behind the gun stepped from the car, ordered us to get out, and handcuffed me to the steering wheel. Then he held a knife to Susie's throat and did things I cannot recount, for your sake as much as my own. When he was finished and her body lay splayed in the creek below, he climbed back into that huge black car and drove off into the darkness, where he remains.

They never found him.

To this day I do not know why he killed Susie and let me live; he was not doing me any favor, believe me. When her body had fallen from the bridge into the creek bed with a crash that still wakes me sometimes gasping in the middle of the night, he turned to me and smiled his gap-toothed smile, and left me standing, as perhaps I have been ever since.

There is only one more thing I have to say, the saddest thing, and then I'll depart this unhappiest of subjects. It is Susie's eyes that remain with me long after I have had to resort to looking at the one picture I hid away in a drawer to recall the shape of her nose, the tilt of her head. In the one moment when I could bear to meet her gaze, her eyes were bright with the tears she had shed and wide with the horror she felt, but there was something else in them that shredded my heart so that it has ever since been strictly ornamental: I will always believe that, even in the midst of her own terror, she also understood what it had done to me to have to watch.

That's the kind of person she was.

Sometimes in the golden moment just before I wake, I am permitted a life with Susie Bramlett. In these dreams we are always holding hands and laughing, gazing into each other's eyes while children orbit us like playful moons. In these dreams I am a normal man who works and plays and mows his lawn and loves his family, and not a person who stood by watching paralyzed while hideous things were done to the person he loved most. I could happily dream those dreams forever and never again open my eyes to this waking world.

Anyway, there you have it: the whole sloppily-wrapped package which now puffs up another long hill and which answers to the name Brad Cannon. I will confess that I am an unholy mess; it doesn't take Dr. Joyce Brothers to see that. In fact, everyone around me seems to know how I could be improved, but isn't that always the way? I can spot cracks in the well-ordered facades of other people, although--unlike them--I hold myself back from offering advice. What would be the earthly good of it?

Anyway, my life is not completely out of control, not completely without shape or form. Once a semester I come back and speak to history classes at my alma mater about my tiny corner of the Civil War; once a year I do a book signing over at the Baylor Bookstore, usually for Homecoming Weekend; once every year or two I return to the building named after my grandfather to talk to beginning writers in the English Department about the craft I have mostly long since abandoned except for the occasional cranky letter to the editor composed late at night and the restaurant reviews I write when the mood strikes me and the magazine publishes when the mood strikes them.

These columns are as much a fluke as my ever having written a book; upon complaining about Texas Monthly's sparse coverage of the vast expanse between Dallas/Fort Worth and Austin, the editor as much as invited me to do better if I thought I could. So I started writing about the restaurants I like--places frequented by truck drivers and farmers and janitors, barbecue places and family taco stands and meatloaf shacks on small-town main streets and soul food restaurants hidden away in back alleys. I have no assignments or deadlines, which is probably fortunate; I write when I feel like it, generally when I come home exhausted and happy from putting away a good meal at a place I hadn't known existed.

My stomach is growling now just thinking about it.

The rest of my life can be summed up thusly: I see my grandparents, a group of buddies with whom I eat lunch once or twice a week, and the women whose lives I seem to drift through, or perhaps more properly, drift in and out of, like the tide. My grandfather, who recognizes that I am drifting even if he can't exactly put his finger on it, tells me, "Jackson, what you need is to find yourself a good woman," but I have already been married often enough to know that the problem is with me, not with the women, and that while they can entertain me for a time they cannot change my life, make me happy, or give me purpose. That I will have to do myself, if it is to be done, which I doubt.

Still, living so obviously without a purpose beyond riding a bicycle makes most rational people twitch in my presence, so when the question of my shiftless life comes up, I have taken to explaining my compulsive cycling in this way: "A few years from now," I announce, "I would like to ride in the Tour de France." I do not deceive myself; I have no more interest in or talent for that level of competition than I have current plans for the year 2020. I am too old, and--even riding thirty miles or more a day--too out of shape for such a grueling event. Still, as ridiculous as it seems, the story satisfied the first people to whom I told it, and so I now employ it at every opportunity. It is nice to be able to explain at least something about the way I live.

"How wonderful, Brad," they often say to me, their faces lit with the mere possibility of it all. "Oh, I'm sure you'll do it."

Their faith in me is touching; borne aloft on their false visions of me, I almost imagine I could do it, that I would like to do it. Then I come to this moment at around the twenty-five mile mark when my legs decide that even thirty miles may be too much. So I shift up into the highest gears to climb an inconsequential hill, my thighs burning as though someone has injected something thick and viscous into them, and I start to laugh hysterically.

At such times, I almost believe it would be easier to try to live a normal life. Surely I could have come up with a better cover story, one without this much hard work and hardship.

When I rose at ten o'clock this morning it was already startlingly hot outside, and now my t-shirt is soaked through with my sweat and hangs from me with sodden weight. Although my ride includes several roads that offer some shade, and one wonderful half-mile stretch overgrown with towering pecan and oak and cottonwood trees that form a cool dark tunnel--all behind me now, alas--the Texas sun is lethal, and without sunscreen I would burn horribly. As it is, I am as tan as a lifeguard, and my brown hair is bleached blonde. My grandmother believes I am courting skin cancer, but I tell her something else will probably kill me long before that can happen.

She does not, somehow, seem reassured by these words.

Then there's the summer wind, constant and powerful and no more cooling than the air around a blast furnace. Today I headed south initially, as I usually do, and the first eight miles of my ride went straight into the wind. The road I followed across rolling farmlands was raised and completely exposed--no trees at all except in the bottomland and only the occasional woodframe farmhouse or barn, all far back from the road and thus of no practical use to me--and the wind whistled across the pastures and past the white-faced Herefords and tail-swishing Appaloosas, rustled through the dark green fields of corn and one field overgrown with the beautiful lavender blossoms of thistles, through the towering power lines and the barbed wire fences on its way to try and knock me off of my spinning wheels.

Despite all this, if I miss a day on the road I find an unnamable anxiety building within me. It's impossible for me to spend a day indoors and not end up pacing like a big cat in a cage; although I'm not home yet, I'm already feeling a sense of dread at arriving there. Unlike most everyone else I know, television has never calmed me, and music or books are only a stopgap measure. When I spend too much time indoors alone it seems to me that I become too full of myself, that memories come swarming around my head like hornets, and that only by getting out here, straining, sweating, courting catastrophe, can I let the excess self squeak out of me like air escaping a balloon.

"One of these days you'll get squashed by a truck out there," Becky Sue Bradenton--the youngest of the current women--has told me, "and I'll have to spend my days nursing you back to health." She may be right, although I am strangely detached from everything her statement implies. I don't much care if I'm hit by a truck; although I can almost hear the rumble of the vehicle looming behind me, can imagine the sudden sharp impact, can even see the spot in the ditch where I'd wind up--next to that discarded pouch of Red Man--I feel indifferent to any fate up to and including death. Likewise, while some men might love to be fussed over, I have had a caretaker wife already, and I know from experience that I react badly to constant faithfulness. While I know Becky Sue will fuss wonderfully for a husband one of these days, I'm not inclined to let her practice on me.

If I should ever get hit by a truck, I hope it kills me instantly, and that my granddad sues the miscreant gravel company and wins a huge settlement.

It beats a number of alternatives, some of which I have already had the misfortune to know personally.

Cycling: Chapter Two

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