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Volume 3 Number 2 • Fall 2011

M.P. Jones IV

Ride for the Dead

Starting out across the smoldering blacktop I felt genuine terror; the kind that starts at the base of your spine and creeps like a spider up the back of your neck till it crawls through the brain stem, that reptilian cortex, and strikes like a lightning bolt through your consciousness at the howl of each passing semi. I'd barely been a 'cyclist' six months, though most of my upright life I spent on two wheels, and in that time my longest trip couldn't have been more than twenty miles of backwoods Alabama. The only thing to be afraid of out there were packs of loose dogs—moments when the pine needles rattle and you see a gang of drooling mutts running wild with the patter of pads, the clatter of claws, drawing closer.

Those were situations you got used to after a while, problems with solutions. When I passed certain trailers I expected to see the familiar face bouncing along behind me, I could just reach for some spray, growl back. If nothing else, a swift kick was always a good final recourse, but this was different, the passing cars were so abrupt I could barely keep myself together. "Traffic is just bad because it's so early," Christoph explained when we stopped and he saw me shaking. "Give it a couple hours and they'll all be at work."

I was glad to be riding with such an experienced cyclist. I could barely change a tire myself, partly because the wheels on my bike were somehow larger than any tire in its size. "That's Campy for you," Bike Dude, the bearded face of Auburn's cycling scene, told me when I first brought the bike in to his store downtown, "great bike though." Bike Dude saw me grow up through the bicycles I brought in. In middle school I had a GT Vertigo B.M.X. that was my life. My friends and I went to the shop after school and Bike Dude would show us how to change brake cables, replace tubes, "if you want to play the guitar" he explained, "you gotta' start by tuning up." I was too rough with the tools, too ready to be back on the road, so it looked like I was playing piano with a hammer as I turned my wrench.

High school rolled around and I changed to mountain bikes after seeing my Cousin Bill's shiny Christmas present when he came to town one weekend. We rode through Auburn all Saturday, deep into the woods and back, all the way to the bike shop. He loved the bike shop, it was like nothing he knew in Georgia; I was so proud then. The last time I saw him we rode trails with his best friends Blaire and Blaze, near his house in Lilburn.

I graduated to road biking when I moved to the Montevallo campus; the flat streets were perfect. Many of my classmates pedaled to class, and I started watching craigslist for bicycles. After plodding through hundreds of ads I bought one off a guy in Birmingham, near the little college town, for three hundred bucks. It was a nineties something Bianchi Trofeo, an incandescent green some might mistake for seafoam. Even being the cycling novice I was, I felt like I was stealing the bike as I handed him my crumpled wad of twenties, "its all I got," I explained. The little Italian man sighed and said "just make sure you treat her well." Glancing down at the scuff marks and tiny scratches that now covered the bottom tube, I wondered if he could forgive the damage, knowing what I was about to do.

We stopped to eat; Christoph stood over the wooden table-top back of his bicycle, smearing melted peanut butter onto bread so mashed it looked unleavened. What is he doing, going on this trip, I wondered as we sat in the shade eating. I knew why I was here, what I had to do, but what possible motivation could he have for going along with me? Still, it took him only seconds to respond the morning I told him what I wanted to do, to ride a BICYCLE all four-hundred and fifty miles from my hometown, Auburn, to my grandparent's beach house near Rosemary Beach, Florida. I told him, and all he said was "I'm starting in Montevallo. I've never gone over six-hundred miles before." Apparently the time he rode from Tennessee to Birmingham had only been one way and, despite the fact that he pedaled the entire trip with a kayak strapped to his Xtracycle stretch-bicycle, he still felt the need to prove something more.

We were going to die out here, my friend and I. A swollen armadillo carcass lay on its back, feet pointed toward the sky, black flies hovered like rain clouds in the stench. I could already imagine seeing the little roadside ghost bikes, sprayed gray white, bearing placards I prayed were written by someone with a sense of humor. I thought I told you to share the road! or Here lies road-kill I figured would do nicely. My only consolation was that I wasn't putting an innocent person in harm's way. In fact, it must have been the threat of harm that appealed to him. I could think of no reason other than death-lust for him accompanying me on this ride. I wasn't complaining though; I needed all the help I could get.

So there was nothing else to do but follow when he got back on his colossal bicycle and pedaled on. It was early. I still felt asleep as we made our way out of Auburn down highway 147. Staring down at the wildflowers rising from the ditch, I tried to imagine what sleeping in a tent after my first mile century would be like, sore muscles on foam mat.

All I heard was a screech.

I looked up, just as the two shadows collided; a red mustang turning left onto the main road must have been watching us instead of looking at the oncoming white diesel truck. Metal met metal with a sickening crunch; I cringed and held my breath as the truck's back wheel fired like a rocket into the air, still spinning as it bounced past us.

Everyone was getting out of their cars by the time we got close and dismounted. A grey haired couple emerged from the cab of the truck, and a young girl climbed from the mangled mustang. "Oh mah gawd" she sobbed, "I'm so sorry! I was just late for school and wasn't payin' enough attention."

"It's quite all right little lady," the old man spoke slow but clear, "nobody's hurt, it's all just stuff." Christoph looked up at me and seemed to say What should we do?

"You guys need any help?" I heard myself ask, still shaking with adrenaline.

The old man shook his head and we went on, afraid if we stayed too long each would tell the other this was a bad omen, that the whole trip was blown. I couldn't let that happen; I had a promise to keep. So for a long time the only sounds we heard were turning wheels and our own breath.

As we rode through Tuskegee National Forrest I thought of my brother.

For veracity's sake I should say that David was my half-brother and, at times, it seemed like even that description lacked any real semblance of his absent-presences in my life. When he was my age, and even a little younger, he spent his time in and out of councilor's offices, juvenile centers, rehab clinics, he spent a week in jail once, where my mother said he brushed the enamel off his teeth.

David's greatest sin was always pride, the punishment for which is being "broken over the wheel". His vanity broke him over many wheels, usually with the help of a bottle. His ego swelled to protect all the tiny cracks, inadequacies he saw when he looked in the mirror, the older boy's with girlfriends in passenger seats of trucks he could never afford, the home broken along the Alabama line, the looks of horror from the Auburnites as they stared at the fourteen year old Georgia boy with a cigarette in his mouth.

Somewhere around nineteen, he started selling drugs. I've heard it claimed that he supplied the majority of Auburn's LSD for 1989. That all ended for him just a few miles past where we now pedaled, down one of those dusty service roads that spread out like veins though the wilderness, in some derelict campsite. He was meeting someone to swap briefcases. They chose the forest because it was so remote, so wild. He must have bragged, trying in his usual way to show off for his friends or some girl, because when he pulled in to the dark campsite strange headlights surprised him. A six foot corn fed monster emerged, double-barrel shotgun aimed straight through the driver's window, wearing a yellow jagged toothed grin as he motioned for him to get out.

"I thought I was done for," David admitted later to my father. If he hadn't been on crutches from a recent motorcycle wreck he probably wouldn't have gotten so lucky. Instead they just took his stuff, his car, and left him stranded in the darkness. Those eight miles hobbling through the desolate forest on crutches must have been sobering.

Hills rolled up and down as we rode on as I wondered how Christoph could manage to still outrun me on that giant bicycle. He even carried most of the gear, citing his bikes cargo capacity as the cause, but secretly I knew it was just my handicap. I rode at my best pace, trying to stabilize myself, the stuff-sack full of tent poles and power bars swaying back and forth on the carrier rack with each pedal stroke. From the saddlebag of his bicycle a 12-pack of high-life mocked me.

We rode through Tuskegee and I remembered what my dad said about his old high school friend who got a job at the hospital here in the early seventies, getting paid for working with the leftovers from the syphilis experiment, herding brain-dead patients to their rooms like cattle. Sometimes my dad met him coming home. From the driveway he could see Joe's face wrenched in the same look some Nazi soldiers from block 10 probably wore, walleyed like the patient's crusted listless sockets.

Plantations stood on the outskirts like giant ghosts, haunting the margins of the town. A rebel flag fluttered in the breeze. The surrounding landscape was marvelous, long flat rows of every imaginable plant spread out around us. We each pointed, laughing and yelling out "Cotton," "Tomatoes," as we passed. Big white columns of antebellum homes loomed from behind giant porches, some leaned precariously, vines threatening to pull them over. Others looked lived in, loved. An old black man waved from a rocking chair, a gummy smile flashed from under his straw hat as we rode by.

The giant acres rolled into tiny shacks, street corners, paint peeled from the shanties. Smoke poured from the big Buick boats that floated past us. An old factory on the left had every window smashed to pieces, grass erupting in little spouts from the crackling pavement. On the corner a young man stood in a dark blue oil-stained hoodie. From a distance he seemed small, decrepit, but he rose from where he hunkered as we neared till nothing but his undead eyes held the disheveled hungry stare, and lines of Robert Service's drifted through my head:

They were coming, they were coming, gaunt and ghastly, sad and slow;

They were coming, all the crimson wrecks of pride;

With faces seared, and cheeks red smeared, and haunting eyes of woe,

And clotted holes the khaki couldn't hide.

Union Springs passed without a second glance, we were making time now. I felt wide awake, just pedaling and drinking in the landscape. The sun was getting high and sweat dripped down my face, off the hairs on my forearm. My hands had a buzzing feeling in them.

"Don't grip your tiller so tight," Christoph replied when I told him about my hands, "and remember to sit in different positions on the bike, use different grips." The concern in his voice alarmed me. I thought about carpal tunnel as we rode on.

By the time we hit Brundidge I was ready to quit. My legs felt like jelly, I was sun burnt, sick, dizzy and hungrier than I'd ever been in my whole life. Only the thirty mile promise of a Mellow Mushroom kept me going, that, and the excitement of having pedaled my first century.

Slumped in the little wooden booth we stammered out our order. The biggest pizza they could make lasted minutes at the table. My tongue was utterly scalded but I didn't care; I just kept shoving the molten cheese and vegetables into my mouth. Christoph was a vegetarian, and out of politeness I decided to accede his dietary convictions, "the high carb diet is perfect for endurance sport," he informed me between crusts.

Our waitress' high-school friend went to Montevallo. I knew her, or knew of her, and we chattered about our trip, and the school itself. We asked if there were any good campgrounds nearby. "You could camp under the giant rooster, it's on yall's route, just a few more miles," she said.

"Dude, I don't think I can do ONE more mile today" I whispered as she walked away, so we slipped off into the woods behind the strip-mall to set up camp in the twilight.

I lay in my tent that night feeling swollen limbs throb, burned inside and out by the sun and the ride. When you sleep in the woods it's very different; you sort-of sleep in shifts, jolting awake every few hours. My bloated stomach swam with all the cheese and I lay on my back like the armadillo I'd seen, eyes glazing over with sleep.

In the gray mist I could see myself walking toward the riverbank beside where a giant Red Oak leaned out across the water, its reflection rippled across the river's silvery surface. The sky, so dark the moon barely broke through the black clouds. I came to the bank and felt my legs sink in. The sandy shoreline's wet slimy mud squeezed between my toes.

Barely able to hold myself up, I leaned forward across the glassy surface to see my reflection. My blue eyes looked a cold metallic grey, my face tired and swollen. Bubbles popped as something rose to the surface. I tried to back away but was frozen, feet trapped in sandy cinderblocks. His face surfaced, the empty sockets cast their hollow gaze, I screamed as a giant arm pulled me down, down, into the shadowy black.

I gasped awake, tasting the stench of my cold sweat. Jolting upright, I knocked the poles from my tent apart. As it fell I just lay there in the darkness, collapsed tent engulfing me like a coffin, hot tears running down my cheeks. I pressed my face into the muggy plastic of my rain gear pillow to muffle the sound.

I barely remembered Bill's visitation, the church where a thousand faces gathered, his mother's tears through brown eyes mourned the loss of both husband and son, the suddenness, the loneliness. She looked like a single rose up there, cut from its roots. Black iron gates are one of few images I can conjure when I imagine the funeral. That, and when Blaze smiled through tears, saying, "Geezuz Bill you're heavy," my second time as pallbearer.

Most of what I knew about the murder came from the evening news. It was so strange to watch that man on the grainy screen talk about Bill and his father Billy, about the deranged gunman who came to their door, taking only their lives and the sanctity of that house.

When they lowered him into the dark ground I remember staring over the edge and feeling cold. Behind me the world was as still as a photograph collecting dust on the bureau. I thought about those sunny days we played as kids, tearing through the streets like cowboys. This was so different from David's funeral. His was open casket, they managed to clean him up from his car wreck, flew him to Perry, Georgia with plenty of time. I got to kiss his rubber forehead before they shut the lid, but Bill's was different, closed casket, I just never saw him again, never said goodbye. He disappeared in one crackling phone call from an Aunt whose matter of fact tone a clear sign of shock, disbelief. I thought, maybe it's just a bunch of rocks when we carried him from the hearse. Feverish sleep crept like storm-clouds over a pasture.

The next morning we arose shivering, covered in dew. Everything was soaked. The bicycles looked like they'd been rained on; my tent had a puddle in the middle of it.

Loading my gear into the stuff-sack I tried to sound encouraging. "At least we'll be sleeping in beds tonight," I announced as we wheeled out onto the tarry asphalt. The sun was still behind the trees, but songbirds decorated the air, cheering me out of my solemn trance as we got back on the road.

It wasn't long before the blazing orange sun rose above the pines and again we were drenched in sweat. Sunscreen and road tar filth dripped from my limbs. As we crossed the Florida line I hooped and hollered; we were getting there, this was really happening. The road widened to a comfortable shoulder, the closest we'd come to a bike lane so far. It gave me confidence. I pedaled harder. I was saddle sore, but from the look of things Christoph was in worse shape. It's his third day I reminded myself, trying to imagine.

I checked the map at DeFuniak Springs, only 40 miles to go, and we pedaled on, a swarm of gnats chumming in our wake like the furies.


Like a rubber band, my chain hopped from the teeth of the sprocket. I lurched forward, flipping over my handlebars, landing on my back in the pine straw, joined shortly thereafter by my bicycle.

I pried myself from the dog-pile and surveyed the damage. My knee was bloody and swarming with gnats; I swatted madly.

"It's your derailleur." Christoph turned from where he squatted to where I sat in the shade.

"Can you fix it?" I asked, trying not to sound worried.

"Sorry man, it's out of my pay-grade, but there's a bicycle shop near your beach house, right?"

He got the chain back on, but it popped off except in the lowest gears. "I think I can make it," I said, feet spinning 200 RPMs, "but it's going to take a while."

We pedaled for hours, I needed regular breaks just to keep going, rapid spinning hurt my tired knees, making it even harder for me to balance. I thought about the shower and the bed that awaited me.

Rounding a bend, the giant Florida Bridge that once answered screaming children's "are we there yet?" drifted back from childhood before my eyes. Climbing the big hill felt good in the low gears and I thought about the time Bill and I rode way out into the woods outside Auburn, how he asked me if I would ride with him all the way to our grandparents' beach house when I graduated high school.

I looked over at my friend, wondering if I could summon from within myself the words that would tell him what was happening, what it meant to cross this bridge under the blazing orange sun, of the listless eyes that stare from hollow sockets and about the promise I made to Bill when we were just kids, but I just smiled instead and rode on.

M.P. Jones IV is a recent graduate of the University of Montevallo with a B. A. in English. He resides in a cedar shack outside town. There he spends his days nestled amongst the pecan trees, writing and playing banjo for his exasperated chickens. Cycling is a favorite hobby, and method of raising awareness about alternatives to fossil fuels, even if it kills him.

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