I had to ride my bike to school in junior high. We lived two miles from school and there was no way in hell my father was going to drive me even though he worked at home most mornings.
The school bus was out of the question because my brother rode it. “If you ever come to the bus stop with me I’ll beat your face in. And I’ll do it every morning until you quit or don’t have no more teeth left or both.”
My bike was a gray Murray 10-speed and I had a raincoat and a backpack from Wilderness Experience. In those days NO ONE wore a backpack. Guys carried their books under one arm, one hand only. Girls used two hands and held them out in front. Backpacks were for people who enjoyed getting beaten up.
“If you ever flat or your bike breaks, don’t hitch a ride,” my dad said on my first day of school. “Or you’ll wind up murdered.”
The good old days
This was just a couple of years after Elmer Wayne Henley and Dean Corll had gone on their torture-murder rampage in Houston, and I knew all about hitchhiking, handcuffs, torture, and murder. I felt vulnerable enough riding down Renwick with the cars whistling by at 50, and worse when I thought of all the sadistic killers behind the wheel waiting for my bike to break down.
Every morning I checked the weather, which meant I looked out the window before deciding whether or not to take my rain jacket. We didn’t have a TV and I never read the weather news in the paper. This particular early fall day was overcast. I winged it.
Halfway to school the skies opened up. If you have ever been in a Houston rainstorm you know what I mean. If you haven’t you’ve never seen rain. In seconds I was drenched, and then my rear tire flatted. I pulled over and dragged my bike onto the sidewalk. Now I was worried that the rain would get into my backpack and destroy my books, so I huddled for a minute under the eaves of an apartment building.
An old pickup swung over and put on its flashers. “You okay?” the old man said, and by “old man” I meant “over thirty,” after which age they all looked the same.
“Yeah,” I answered.
“Where’s your school?”
“Jane Long.” I could tell in a blink that he was a mass murderer.
He put on his cowboy hat and got out, tall, kind of stooped, a raggedy face and broken teeth in front. All these decades later I still wonder about how old he really was. His arms were muscled but he was lean as a rail. On his forearm was a tattoo of an anchor. His nails were dirty and ground down by work, not nail clippers. “Gimme your bike,” he said, not asking, and lifted it with one hand put it in the bed. “Get in.” It wasn’t a request.
I felt like he was a snake charmer and I was the snake. I got in. “This is how you become famous,” I said to myself. “By hitching a ride with a mass murderer.”
There was no a.c. in his rusted out Chevy and because it was raining hard the windows were only cracked, which made it steamy and uncomfortable. He had a cigarette going in the ashtray and a half-full spit cup on the dash. “Don’t let that fall on you,” he said. I put it between my legs and looked down at the sloshing mess of Skoal and spit. The cab stank. He stank. The whole situation stank.
Just another statistic
He turned off down a side street. “Jane Long’s that way,” I said. I was now robustly terrified.
“I know.” He made a few more turns and pulled up to a ramshackle house with two broken cars in front and a couch in the front yard, vintage 1970’s Houston. He had a carport and pulled under it, then got out.
“I’m going to be late,” I squeaked.
He didn’t say anything, just grabbed my bike out of the bed and took it into his garage. Ten minutes later he came back out. The rear tire was inflated. “You can get out,” he said. “She’s good to go.”
The rain had stopped as quickly as it had begun. “Thank you,” I said.
“No matter,” he answered. “I was a kid on a bike one time, too.” I looked at his broken orange teeth as the corners of his mouth turned up, and I believed him. The pavement smelled like fresh rain, washed clean.
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