I wasn’t by myself this time but I really did think I was going to have to fight my way out of the place. Five of us had left early for what would end up being an 85-mile-long bicycle ride. We had taken an indirect route to Lake Diversion then followed a crazed labyrinth of farm roads until we were back on the wide shoulders of the highway, the sun glaring mercilessly in our faces now. Having gone some 70 miles already, we decided to take a break. The Good & Plenty Café was just down the road in Holliday.
Soon we were sitting at a table near the front drinking lemonade, iced tea, and coffee. Two of the group had ordered cinnamon rolls when I noticed a raw-boned, Rottweiler-eyed man looking at us from across the room. He was sitting at a back corner table with a woman and a heavyset older man in bib overalls. The older man, I overheard, was having trouble dumping his four-unit apartment down the way. The mean-looking, sun-smudged younger man didn’t seem to care. He was keeping his eyes on us, and for some reason directly at me, though I wasn’t altogether sure. He was just walleyed enough to make me uncertain about what exactly he was looking at. I went back to my coffee, the trick of an energy boost my legs said I needed. Periodically, though, I glanced over to check the man. His gaze continued to burn toward us, and he looked unhappily wound. I turned away but before long noticed he was still watching us. Surely he wasn’t belligerent about the colorfulness of our outfits, though some I knew would be. Suddenly he gripped two corners of his table. He had undoubtedly made a decision about something. With big-veined forearms he pushed himself up, and he was coming now toward us.
“Don’t look around but get ready,” I said. “A mean-looking visitor’s on the way.”
They knew in effect what I meant. A lot of the men around the area didn’t like bicyclists, or runners, or apparently anyone who exercised in public. The fingers they shot and the hoots they airhorned at us were aggravating, but finally not of much concern; maybe a snappy insult back now and then. Others, though, were truly bothersome, even threatening. We had all had pickups whip and screech by us, their howling drivers obviously trying to see how narrowly they could miss us. Some would even edge us off the road, and on Hotter ‘n’ Hell Hundred day, some had even gotten up in the middle of the night and changed the route signs. For several years some scattered tacks all over the roads that everyone except those doing the 25-mile and shorter routes would be riding down.
Early one evening on a training ride with a sizable group, my wife had had an unopened beer can thrown at her. Luckily it missed and exploded against asphalt just off the path of her front tire. Disaster was certainly possible and no idle drama of a daydream. There were others, however, who, when they saw you changing a flat in the weeds off the road, would stop and ask if there was anything they could do to help: Give you a lift back to town, lend you some tools they had that you might need. One even gave me a deck of playing cards illustrated with cartoons he said he had drawn. You didn’t know what to expect.
Still, there were plenty of reasons for wariness. One day a friend of ours got slapped on the back by a guy riding shotgun, and he still didn’t know how he had avoided crashing. Then another friend got his rear wheel clipped by the edge of a bumper. The wreck killed him. Defending himself, the young driver said he’d been swatting at a wasp, it’d flown in his cab and he’d momentarily lost concentration, he said. It coulda happened to anyone. But none of us believed the excuse. What had happened to our friend had too many parallels with what had happened to almost every cyclist we knew to encourage any sympathy for accident theories. I had also run across a couple retirees–fine athletes who had taken up biking after bypass surgery–who said they had already put up with too much crap in their lives and had started carrying guns in their bags. Being wary and even ready to fight sometimes did not seem foolish; and the creature heading toward us was getting close.
He came around the table and stopped behind me. For a long time no one said anything. Then his voice came out in a halting growl. His attention had been on Gene, not me. The wandering eye had thrown me off.
“I know who you are,” the man said in a tone of defiance. “I know where your office is, too,” and if he had said he was going to firebomb the place, I don’t think any of us, according to our later conversation, would have been surprised.
“That’s how come I’m here,” the man said. “Your partner’s the one I really know. He’s the one hired me. Got me to roof your place.”
“Well, you did a good job,” Gene told him. “It hasn’t leaked yet.”
“Not going to either,” the man said, sounding as if he were ready to coldcock anyone who said it might. “What happened,” he began explaining without changing the dark cast of his voice, “was I got in trouble. And I was down on my luck. Your partner helped me out. I couldn’t pay him. Didn’t have anything to pay him with. So he let me work off what
I owed him. That’s why I come over. Recognized you. Thought I’d say thanks, though we ain’t never met, not officially.” Then in the same scratchy, tense-gaited low voice he told the rest of us that he was glad to meet us, too.
Feeling a bit absurd for doing it, I reached back to shake hands. The gesture was my way of apologizing for misreading his intentions.
“I wanted to thank you and your partner again,” the man told Gene, then leaning over the table he ceremoniously shook hands with all the others, too. I had the feeling that in his mind some formal tie, some gesture of a bond, was being established.
“If you ever need help,” he said, “any of you can count on me. What I’m saying is, if anyone ever bothers you, just let me know. I’ll take ’em out. And I mean for good.”
A little later as we were saddling up, Murphy started shaking his head and grinning. “You think he was serious?”
“No doubt about it,” Gene told him. I wasn’t sure, though, if he were speaking from learned impulse or just a momentary love of chaos.
James Hoggard is a poet, translator, essayist and novelist. He teaches at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls.