There was a jangling of nerves which matched the crash of the alarm. A near wet-dream that left Howie awake in a confused state of loose-ends. It would have been depressing, and left him dull for the morning, if he had not planned to be awake by 4:00 AM. Quietly down the stairs, feeling just a little excited because no one does this sort of thug. It was an idea. A kind of revenge on the stupid world. And the excitement would last for many weeks. Up the ass of the stupid world for not knowing anything about the world at four in the morning.
To the basement, where he would pump up the tires as well as his awareness. Feeling that paradoxical lethargy that couldn't grip a pencil, but can force great strokes into a pump until the fingers, too, regain their awakened state. In his bicycling shorts. He would ride hard until the morning chill was gone. He laced up the pointy shoes that looked like ballerina slippers and stumbled out the door on his heels so as not to make noise with the metal cleats that were fixed under the balls of his feet for gripping the pedals.
It was incredibly barren at four in the morning. Not the barrenness of a late drunk, when the world has gone to sleep, but the barrenness of a still world about to arise. He usually passed only a couple of cars before reaching the country-side. The dawn would stop him dead on the side of the road. From a hilltop, with nothing but drive -- or escape -- in his stomach, he would hallucinate the rosy dawn. Ail tired from the ride and the chill, when his breathing began to calm itself and the wonderful calm of fatigue would settle into his limbs -- then the world would awaken, and he too felt renewed.
The true night-time occurred in school. He would have showered and eaten his breakfast in time to be just late for the bell. There were nightmares of falling asleep as his name was being called. There was the impossibility of telling anyone who he was. When his name was called, he usually had the right answer. That was from the desperate discipline he had evolved for taking stock of the immediate situation. The learning was painfully simple, and he had no energy to delve beyond the requirements of the moment. A quick mind developed to escape the drudgery of having to work on the solution. It was just those right answers which also made it impossible for him to identify himself. He was impossibly square. Bicycle riding in the morning is like reading Shakespeare at lunch. That was the nature of high-school.
There came to be a plan in his bicycle riding after a while. It started unwittingly, but gradually took on a scheming quality. All that aloneness that drew him out at desolate hours to empty roads along which he could never be released but would be compelled to return for the morning bell; all that aloneness might have had, were he to know, as its object something more easily found among the ranks in school. He came to have a reason for not announcing his morning rides. The consequence was that he lost his nobility. It was no longer the lack of comprehension of those around him that forced his mouth shut, but the deeper shame that they would understand all too well. It was a true loss. He could no longer relish his aloneness nor its secrets.
She (yes she) was riding a horse one morning near the top of a hill at dawn. She had turned off the road along a farm track toward a small peak. The dawn was breaking in a halo around her, which left her and the horse in a black silhouette. Nothing was recognizable.
The aura was that of a girl, however, and Howie's pace was broken as he whirred silently past. He would have been embarrassed if she'd seen him, yet she would bring him back to that spot many times. He hadn't seen her for a week, and supposed that she had only been riding that once. It was a silly thing, and it ruined the composure of his rides. The dawn was lacking in its magic. He didn't know why, but it didn't feel as simple. Now there was the confusion of a fantasy meddling with the lonely impulse of his morning drives.
On a Saturday, when it was dangerous to ride -- not physically dangerous, but psychically dangerous because others would be about on their day off -- he had stopped on the road near the spot where he had seen her. The fantasy had worn off, and something of the stark beauty of the dawn was promising to return. He must have been breathing hard not to have heard her riding over in the grass.
If the sun had greeted him he wouldn't have been more startled. As it was, he had no time to be anyone other than who he was.
"Good Morning." The red of the dawn and in any case the flush of his early morning exertion would have covered any blush that was forming. When he looked in the mirror later that morning, he knew how ridiculous he must have looked in his cycling clothes. There are none more unflattering. But this had set her at ease -- like coming across the school heartthrob in his job at his father's grocery.
"I'm glad to see someone else out here to watch the sun rise. If nobody comes, it might get forgotten, don't you think?" she asked him.
He was more than a little put-off by the horse. He didn't know what to do with it. "I come out almost every morning," he said, immediately wondering that he could let that slip. "It's fantastic to be out riding when no-one else is around," he tried to recover, but fell deeper. Now for-ever his solitude was broken on those morning rides. His shyness had proven an ineffective shield. Well, then what of it?
"Do you really come out on your bicycle every day?"
"Well, lately I have been. I'm kind of in training."
How could he let that one slip? No-one could have pried it from him. It was a crazy secret that he hardly dared to admit to himself. But here in the anonymity of a chance encounter, it slipped out. A chance encounter which in reality has the only power to bare our souls.
Damn it, I can't do it. Can I call you Rick?
"Sure, Howie. But what do you mean? I was beginning to get interested. Oh, I know -- it couldn't have happened that way. You're making your own life too big. Is that it?"
Well actually, she sat behind me in class. And he told her about the bike rides. But it might have happened that way. I mean, that's the burden of this whole business. It might have, but it didn't. 0 how am I going to get the reader to trust me? How?
"Wait a minute, Howie. You're not writing this anymore. You're telling it. This is your life. Remember? That was your idea, not mine."
I'm a little mixed up. My pen fell in the bilge. That's a good sign that I ought to give up.
"I may be getting a little ahead of myself, but doesn't that go against the burden of your argument?"
I'm not sure. But I'm ahead of myself too. I haven't moved onto the boat yet.
Jackie was her name, and she sat behind him in class. And she did ride horses.
"Did you really ride eighty miles before coming to school today? I can't believe it."
"Sure." He made a quick mental calculation. Yeah, it's got to be forty miles out to Gowanda and another forty back. Later he checked on a map to make sure. Well, 67 miles. Close enough.
"Wow. Don't you get tired?"
He never knew how to respond to this sort of thing. It was just what he wanted, of course, but it always left him with unclear feelings about himself. Usually, he'd begin with some self-defeating remark, but by the end of the conversation, he'd have made certain that the other person knew perfectly well the extent of his feat. Exaggeration came naturally, though without malice of intent. He was just trying very hard to get people to believe him.
"Not after the first few miles. I ride for about twenty miles before I find my rhythm. At that point I'm really dead, but if I just keep going it gets automatic. Well, by the time I get home I can barely walk, but it's a fantastic feeling."
If anyone let him, he would go on for hours talking about himself, not out of pride really, but just because he wanted someone to know. He'd get all caught up in the telling until he'd made something out of the telling even for himself -- especially for himself. Things were more real in the telling.
"The roads are deserted in the morning that early. It's incredible. I mean, you can hear everything -- the birds. That's when they get up. It's so fantastic to watch the sun come up. Really fantastic."
But, like all good listeners, she had been hearing her own story -- interpolated. It was sometimes an effort for him to let someone else tell their story. He wasn't always a good listener, or rather his personal interpolation took shape before the story was finished. But he was kept quiet by her femaleness.
"I've been out riding -- I mean horseback -- at dawn too. I go up in the woods on some dirt roads I know. It's so beautiful. You can smell the ground waking up. The smell of wet leaves, with little scurrying sounds all through them. 0 I love the little bunnies. I've seen a fox once. Lots of deer."
Howie was getting embarrassed. Bunnies? This was getting too personal. He almost crawled back. But he, too, knew the beauty of the woods, and it bothered him that the bicycle was limited to the pavement.
"I wish I could get off the road, but I've got to get into the country, and I can't drive a damn car. You can't walk in bicycle shoes, either.
"Bicycle shoes? What's wrong with sneakers?"
"They have a steel sole, so the pedal doesn't dig in. You'd get really sore feet if you wore sneakers. Besides, they have a kind of a clip on them so you can pull back on the pedal without slipping out. It's amazing how much more efficient it is to ride with bike shoes."
He would go on about the intricacies of a bicycle's construction. She was fascinated not at all by the information, and not so much by his obvious knowledge, as by the obvious involvement he had. He really wanted her to understand. Of course she didn't, and that would only frustrate him enough to try again from a different angle. He knew how a bicycle worked -- the best way to work the pedals, how to use the gears to keep a steady, eazy rhythm, how the structure was made perfect for an even distribution of stress throughout its miniscule weight. The theories of ball-bearings and tires -- where most of the friction was built up. That's why he used sewn-up, glued-on tires. Most people don't understand, so they think it's a bother. You can't tell the difference if you're coasting along slowly, but try getting up some speed down a big hill. You take right off, man. Really, there's a big difference. Really. He wanted her to understand.
And she wanted to. It was the silent obligation of his unspoken entreaties that she understood, which attracted her to Howie. He wasn't very desireable. Handsome enough, but something which he felt too, that made the girls look at other guys. He wore his aloneness like a suit of armor, and beneath it what attractions he had were not enhanced. She didn't like him in a helpless way. She just felt a kind of obligation.
Eventually, he found out where she lived. There wasn't really an invitation or anything, but his bicycle gave him a bit of freedom, and he rode out there one Saturday. He rode up to the barn, hoping to find her there before having to ask at the house. He'd brought along a pair of sneakers, and wore denim cutoffs, though they're murder on the crotch and chafe your thighs. It was early, and he wore the scarlet flush of the wind which he couldn't help feeling made him cute.
He found her there. He was trying to like the smell of manure. He knew he could, but he had grown up in a household where chemical smells were preferred, and he had to watch where he stepped no matter how nonchalant he wanted to be. She was at work on "Snoopy" with the brushes.
"0 Hi, Howie. Gosh. Did you ride all the way here?"
His cheeks were already blushing from the wind. O, it was nothing. Really a pretty easy ride. He tried to pet the horse, not quite knowing what you do with horses. It was so huge. He felt crushed to be near it.
"Is this your horse?"
"Yeah. This is Snoopy. Say 'hi' Snoopy."
"How 'ya doin' Snoop?" A goofy horse-look tried to find its way onto Howie's face, but didn't quite manage. He'd ridden a horse a long time ago -- as a kid. But this one had an English saddle. He didn't quite want to get into that. "I always thought English riding looked kind of silly." I mean why not just ride the thing.?
Jackie wasn't into the kind of long explanations she'd gotten from Howie. "When I learned to ride, that's the way they taught. All serious riding is English-style. You just bounce around in a Western saddle. That's for cowboys. I don't know, it's just the way I learned. I like riding that way. It feels right."
"Well, I don't know a thing about horses. Wow, look at all this stuff. OK if I take a gander?" He liked these kinds of phrases that you might have picked up from your grandfather. Whenever he got a kick out of something, he took it on himself; certain that it would enhance his bearing with others. Anybody was an authority except him. He would act like likeable people, and didn't really notice that nobody got a kick out of the thing when he did it. It was somebody else's garment, and didn't look right on him. But it made it easier to say things.
He loved the old machinery hanging about in the barn. He'd always longed for a barn like this, where he could tinker away and build things. In his own house, there was only the basement, which he'd taken over for as long as he could remember. He always had something going on down there. Chemistry sets and go-carts and gadgets -- things whose basic principles he could exploit until he got something new. He was limited in his knowledge and materials, and so tried the impossible with what was at hand.
Now here were engines of all sorts -- wheels, wrenches, saws; even a welding outfit. "Does you father farm?"
"No, but my grandfather used to. Hey, you want to go for a walk or something?"
"Just a sec. I'll tell my parents."
Oh no. Now he was going to have to meet her family. He couldn't have imagined bringing her to his house. He'd be deadly embarrassed. "Is she your girlfriend, Howie? Howie's got a girl friend. Howie's got a girlfriend." Girlfriends were like drinking beer. Immature people had them. They flirted and they shifted around. It just didn't seem real to Howie. He overheard stories of weekend exploits. Once he heard someone saying with vicarious bragging, how so-and-so had come running out of the woods dangling a spent rubber, after carrying the girl away over his shoulder. He didn't like that. It was disgusting somehow. He really couldn't conceive. Sex without love. It hurt his sense of meaning deep down.
As he was waiting around the barn, he was remembering another barn. Just flits of memory that he chased away. But we'll give the details here so you know who he is. It was with the boy-scouts. They were off camping on an old farm that belonged to the friend of one of the scoutmasters. There were big fantastic cornfields that hadn't been cut, so you could play perfect versions of those innocent boy-scout army games. It was a natural maze with infinite possible patterns. Howie was a goody-goody of sorts in school, but in the boy-scouts he had a kind of rank. Probably because he'd gone camping a lot with his father, he knew more about these things and gained a natural respect from the scoutmaster that was grudgingly echoed by the rest of the kids.
Still, he had to keep that respect by making forays out of the bounds of the adults. It was a torn position. On the one hand, he had to keep the kids in control. He was usually ranked above a number of others, though he had never gotten any of the badges. He'd usually be in the position of responsibility toward someone of higher official rank. But he had an inborn sense of order, and something that could pass to the adults as obedience. A fear of getting in trouble. So he kept his charges out of trouble, while having to demonstrate a different thing to them in order to keep his authority. Different than what he demonstrated to the adults.
He would chummily overlook the boys who smoked; meekly joining in the furtiveness, even while siding with the adult morality in his own conduct. This weekend, though, there was corn-silk all over the place and lots of old corn-cobs.
Pretty soon, he had carved the handsomest of all the pipes, and was carried along by the unspoken plan that had formed, for a certain select group to meet in the barn late at night. These were those scouts who seemed always to want to pretend they weren't. They'd wear jeans beneath their uniform shirts, and not give in to the bullshit of rules. It was important to remain in that group, and Howie was getting excited about smoking his corn-cob.
They met in a corner where the hay kept out the wind. Howie tried to one-up the manner of those who'd obviously smoked before. There was much discussion about taking the smoke into your lungs the proper way, and mockery of those who were faking it. Physical abuse came easily to Howie, and he gained a point there. Others had bic pens for their mouthpieces and Howie managed to look a bit more established with his carved one. He'd found a hollow stick or reed, and was pretty good at whittling.
They had entered the whole new world of playing at adults, with the extra excitement of being forbidden. It was a time when adulthood had a hightened reality, and they felt the power more surely than the adults they mimicked. But little giggles escaped now and then from those who couldn't quite look serious with their pipes. It was exciting, and the corn silk managed to stimulate the right sensations.
Someone had brought along a flashlight, and sure enough, some magazines. One kid habitually snuck Playboys from his father, and had the same air when commenting on the tits that the seasoned smokers had with their pipes. This time, another kid had one-upped him with a tits and pussy magazine, however. Howie was aghast. Could things like that really exist? He thought about the picture taking -- the photographers. Someone was saying they put make-up on the tits. "Yeah, I'd like to have that job." "Man. I'd let a girl piss on my face just to see what it looks like. No really, I would." That kid got edged out a little for his comment.
Howie was reeling. He remembered when a friend of his had come home with the glorious discovery of condoms. He was a couple years younger than Howie. "Rubbers! just like you wear on your feet, only you wear them on your dick." Now this kid wasn't always reliable. Kind of an habitual liar, and Howie couldn't and wouldn't believe him. "I'm not kidding;" his friend laughed out in a tone that was meant to convince. "I've seen ‘em. Kids at school use them for water balloons. They're great for that. One kid stole some from the drug store. They look like doctor's gloves." Howie tried to picture these rubbers, but he really couldn't believe it. He couldn't believe that factories made these things. That lines of decent little old ladies inspected them on an assembly line. It was too much of a joke, and too awful.
Howie had grown up in a Protestant family and in a Protestant world, and there wasn't much talk of sex. It crept in stealthily, but never, in his world, enough to upset the intense personalness of the thing. He'd never seen his parents in any sort of sexual contact. A perfunctory kiss was all. When they told him about sex, he'd laughed at the terminology and hoped it could be accomplished in one's sleep. It was too personal.
He still didn't really believe that rubbers could exist until someone produced one in that barn that midnight. It was wrapped up like medicine in foil. He managed to inspect it rather closely without betraying his innocence, just to determine its substance. Whether it was real. Despite his disgust at the girlie pictures, he was fascinated and was getting quite hard in his pants. He knew from the times they'd been skinny-dipping that he was rather more developed than the others. It was a running joke that he was bigger and harrier than the scoutmaster. He was bitten by a touch of pride. Somebody had to try on that condom.
God, it was enormous! They were really shocked, and impressed. It was all they could do to contain their uproarious laughter at the sight. No question about it. He'd won the prize. The others were hardly out of puberty, and this really was a shock. Howie was really "in" now and was getting carried away by the momentum. He never knew how much he craved belonging, and how much he prevented it by his out-of-place obsession with meaning. Now, in this dark, cold barn he was getting sucked into the frivolities that he'd always scorned. But it was more real. It wasn't frivolous, and it didn't confuse anything -- or ruin anything.
Sure, it confused Howie when he later learned to masturbate, and would pull off to high heaven, all the while angry that he couldn't preserve it for when it meant something. That night in the barn, he was the leader. He'd had wet dreams, and would wake in wonder. It was unspeakably glorious, but he couldn't manage to repeat the dream in his waking life. Now he was in the center of a circle and someone had heard about masturbation. He said that he heard that some people take a soapy washcloth over the toilet. The kid with the playboys. His father must have told him. Again Howie was aghast. What profanity, and how squalid! Mysteries undone with so little ceremony.
But there he was. He wanted to collect it and take it home to look at under his microscope. He had the grin of collusion on his face as they all watched to see what would happen. Jerk, jerk; harder and harder. Nothing would happen. There was a lot of hope and a slight bit of desperation as the thing went on for a ridiculous period of time. Others were trying too. His cock was hard. It was kept hard by the undesirable profanity of the photos, and by its hardness. It felt good. There was a time when Howie was probably only three or so that he remembered an ejaculation of pee made against the bathroom door because it felt good. The mystery. But nothing would happen, and he began not to believe. It had become a soreness. There must be some trick he didn't know -- somethng he wasn't doing right. It was enough of a mystery to everybody else that he didn't lose face.
These thoughts were flitting somewhere beyond the reach of Howie's conscious thoughts as he waited for Jackie to come back out. He didn't want them anywhere near his conscious thoughts.
"Well hello," bellowed Jackie' s father from the porch. "Come on in for a minute."
"Hi, Mr. Berger, great barn you've got."
"Yeah, it's nice to have a barn. I like to fiddle around there. So, you rode your bicycle all this way. That's quite a ride from town."
"Howie and I are going to take a walk, OK Daddy?"
"Sure. Be back for lunch. Would you like to stay, Howie?"
He gave a quick look to Jackie, grateful for their exit, and saw that it was OK. "Yeah, thanks."
"Jan'll be back in a little while. We'll just have some soup or something. You'd better take a jacket, honey."
"It's not too cold. Well, see you in a bit."