3.07.2011

now and then

“I know you,” I whispered, taking the girl’s hand and guiding her to where the bikes were. She didn’t speak, but allowed me to lead her past the pile of gravel to the little concrete building in the middle of the field.
              “Is the Apple Rock trail really still there?” I asked. It was hot, and my hair was already stringy and sweaty from my short ride to Bearsville. She nodded in answer, looking past me and into the woods, where I remember the head of the trail was.
              Her hair was longer than mine, just past her shoulders, and parted on the side. There was a snarl in the back that looked like it might become trouble if it didn’t get brushed out soon. You know the kind, like a ball on the back of your head that’s there because maybe you forgot to brush it in the morning and then you went swimming and rode in the car with the windows down and went to bed without brushing it all day. Before you knew it you had that snarly ball that you tried to hide with a bit of smoother hair but unless you really got in there, and that usually meant your mother’s involvement, unless you really got in there and combed it out strand by strand you ended up with another short haircut or a bald patch in the back.
              I have a 21-speed mountain bike that hasn’t gotten much use over the years. I thought it would be fun but discovered that riding in that weight-forward hunched position hurt my wrists, which had been abused with too much production weaving and the winding of too many bobbins on a vibrating bobbin winder.
              Her bike was small and sturdy, and rusty in parts. It had only one gear and only a back brake. The seat was torn and there was something that looked like hay sticking out through a hole on the side. She didn’t seem to care. She picked the bike up from the ground and threw a tan and muscled leg over the back, straddling the seat. She was wearing cut-off shorts and a faded sleeveless cotton t-shirt, and her legs were covered with scratches and scrapes in different stages of healing. There was a streak of chain grease above her right ankle and her flip-flops looked like they might fall apart, the piece of rubber between her first two toes pulling out of the sole.
              She took off, not bothering to sit on the bike seat and just pumped across the field toward the woods. I rode after her, adjusting the bike’s speeds with a smooth little clicker on the handlebars. In moments she was at the woods line, and she turned around to make sure I was following. I remember this trail in my bones, its levelness, the path with stumps and roots and an occasional rock imbedded into the hard dirt, and I know I can ride it even now, after 35 years.
              I catch up with her and we enter the woods. She’s riding fast, again 20 yards ahead of me, her hair flying behind her and bits of dirt and wood scattering under her tires. She turns her head and sees me from the corner of her eye and on the next flat relaxes into her seat and stops peddling, coasting now as she waits for me to catch up.
              I know up ahead is the stream and I wonder if it’s possible that the same fallen tree is spanned across it like a bridge as it was so many years ago. “Are we going to cross?” I ask, out of breath. She nods and we dismount. There is no tree, and I can see that the stream is shallower now than it was, and easy to ford. The girl picks her bike up and holds it out in front of her, and plunges into the cold, knee-deep water. I follow her, carrying my own bike, without bothering to take off my socks and sneakers. My pants get wet to my shins and the damp wicks up to my knees, but it’s hot and I don’t care, it’s water, and everything will dry.
              From here I know that a quick cut right would bring me up through the Glasel’s property and I’d be on Broadview in no time. Then just the few short hills before Canon Circle, the street my best friends lived on, and the brutal quadriceps-pounding 45-degree last quarter mile to their house.
              But that’s not where we’re going today. We got back on our bikes and stayed on the path, the girl riding easily through the woods, like she was at home, like she knew these woods, every tree and rock, every hill and turn. Ahead I saw the place I’d wanted to revisit, sitting tall and gray but smaller than I remembered. We called it Apple Rock then.
              The girl didn’t leave the path or get off her bike. I leaned mine against a tree and walked across the stones right where the stream curved. I sat and stared at the rock, letting the conversations and experiences of my childhood sweep over me, no sound but the running stream.