NEW STORY -- The Last Mistake I'll Make

So when I was out biking with the owner of the local bike shop I let him talk me into participating in the coming race, which his store was sponsoring. We peddled up the dirt road and he told me the race was low-key, no problem, only local people.  I said maybe and we went on; it was early spring and he was just getting into shape, though his outstanding calves had stood the winter well.  When we got to the end of the road I told him about my impending divorce; it was just one of those things that happen, when you’re stupid and old.  He nodded and said so I guess you’ll be alone and I thought that I have been alone most of my life anyway, and we peddled back.

When race day came weeks later Vermont was showing off its muscle; though it was late May it was cold and windy and raining with a prediction of snow.  The race was going to be long and painful anyway, with many self-recriminations and urgings and small humiliations brought on by my longstanding need to do something, anything, better than I was able to at that moment.  Now in addition to those recriminations and humiliations and the pain that was brought on anyway by the task, it would be cold and wet, not to say dangerous for an old, too competitive guy coming around downhill corners on wet roads in a crowd of other angry, competitive riders.

So I bailed, and stayed home and later, from my deck, watched the pathetic riders plowing through the wind and rain, covered with new-fangled racing gear that puffed them up so that the wind could get better hold of them and hang them there, on the hill, while the rain smashed into their faces and hands and still they had a long, long way to go.

But still of course I felt like a coward and a weeny because they were not allowing themselves to be turned aside by a little pain and suffering. Rather, for no good reason at all they were opening themselves to absurd levels of misery, simply because it was there to be had. They were existential heroes, I was once again the onlooker.

Though there wasn’t much misery I had passed up in my life, what with the divorces, the lost children and houses, the childhood trauma and neglect, the many failures both large and small, some private but most on life’s stupid stage, witnessed by friends who cared about me and were made momentarily miserable by my ineptness, as well as by others who didn’t give a fuck about me and couldn’t wait until I would truck my sorry self to some other place where they were not.  And so I felt a little strange passing up the misery of the bike race in the cold and rain and wind, like the one thing I did well, which was suffer for no good reason, was passing me by with those miserable riders out there, who had what it took to be miserable and be in some way happy about it.

But that day I let it go and did some work and later some extreme yoga that gave me not nearly the suffering that would have been delivered by the bike race.  And the day after, when Vermont showed its happy face and was warm and sunny and shining on the bright grass, I made myself bike the same course alone, clad in my gear and pushing myself as if there had been someone else there to humiliate me. But I got that done and then did some more work and then, because the beauty of the Vermont spring afternoon had a lot left, I went for a ride in the new car that a lifetime of commitment to misery had allowed me to buy, and I drove through the lovely green hills, over the rivers and past the small stores, all of them selling real Vermont maple syrup.  I cruised on and on and I found myself remembering a time many years earlier when I had gone to a writer’s conference, on a “waiter’s scholarship”, given to young people who had made some efforts at recording language but also had no money and little pride. Turned out that job fit me to a T and I had shown up and slopped the tables and read my recorded language and hung out with writers, some of them famous and now dead and others no longer famous and still dead and a few famous and still living and many, many not famous and so it is unknown whether they are living or dead, except by those who were close to them, who have witnessed the years go by for a person who for a moment was a writer among other writers, but then something happened, as it often does, and the years were filled with whatever destiny delivered until there was nothing left to be received.

But for the life of me I could not remember the name of the place and I thought, here I am becoming demented, the past slipping away until all that is left is the thin sliver of the present, which was how one of my ex-wives suggested it was better to be anyway. And then, after many moments of chagrin, there it was, sliding up beside the window of my new misery-delivered car, the place itself, now bereft in the off season but still standing there in the sunlight, its clean yellow clapboards catching the diminishing rays. And here I was, alone, and where I had been decades before, and I turned down the dirt road that led past the dorm I had slept in, across the wide green fields in front of the barn where lectures were delivered by authors now living or dead, past the dining room where I served meals on a reasonable facsimile of fine china, down the road to a pond where, so long ago, I had lain with a good woman with a face freckled like a cornfield in the sun, and I got out of my new car and walked to the banks of the pond where I had lain with her, so long ago.  We had been there, in the silence of the moment, and a trance had come over me as the dragonflies hovered buzzing over the water, and the leaves, even now as they had before, waved glimmering in the breeze, and the surface of the water curled slowly, so slowly, as minnows bucked a tiny whirl and moved on.

As I sat there, thinking about the time and the lost children and wives and homes and all the casualties, even of the periods of purpose and moment, I teared up at the pure perception of the decades and what they contained and did not contain. I looked at the tops of the trees swaying and remembered that peaceful moment so long ago, and sure enough she had written me later, sought me out, but, as was often the case, I was too young and stupid to follow a path that benevolent destiny had presented to me. Instead I thought what I thought and did what I did and now, here I was, with the moment in my hand and asking, where should I go?

And I realized then that there was nowhere to go but here and it was long past time to surrender the grief born of the lost self; and I was glad I didn’t do that race, and somehow missing that misery had brought me right where I needed to be, in the sadness and the appreciation of the hum of the bees, the whirl of the water, the generous warmth of the sun, and nothing more.