Descent on Six Wheels

by strannikov

            I was relieved to see that in his casket Gerald did not display the rictus that had become permanent in his final years. Dead, he looked by turns solemn and serene, as if he had recovered his innate dignity or as if he had attained an elusive nobility: but of course, he was dead, so the solemnity was to a degree self-suggesting, and none of us had been present at the end to learn of any penultimate psychic transformation. The fact that his mindless gaping grin had been cured—by the mortician, by means we were not keen to consider—maybe also suggested he'd grown younger with death, since now he looked more like we remembered him than he had in years.


            I only went to the visitation at the funeral home, I'm not much on funerals, not even for childhood chums. Plus, following the hearse in procession would have violated what I already knew to be the contribution of wheels to his demise.


            Gerald died due to his encounters with six wheels: two on a motorcycle, two on a bicycle, and the other two on another bicycle.


            The motorcycle pair of wheels launched him on his descent. Returning from a motorcycle rally down at the beach one weekend towards the end of our first decade out of high school, impaired by whatever drink or drugs he'd had, he mismanaged a sharp left turn in town and was thrown: freedom that day meant no helmet. His fellow bikers raced up to scoop him and his bike up before any police could arrive, but their quick thinking posed Gerald no great favor, he'd just sustained a concussion.


            It's next to impossible to say what might have happened had he received prompt medical assessment. Gerald did not get any medical attention until two days later, when his head pain got so severe his family sped him to the closest emergency room. We never got clear word on what was found, never got clear word on what treatment was offered once he was admitted for care: and in the months immediately following, no one was clear that Gerald had suffered any lasting impairment.


            Within a year, though, the changes began to emerge. With both short-term and long-term memory lapses, he began having trouble maintaining attention at work, which led soon enough to that grin, flashed to compensate for the perceived defect, to mask any perceived problems as trivial. Within another year, as uncharacteristic tardiness and unexplained absences from work steadily encroached, this smile began looking more desperate, almost manic, as if searching for a reason to remain on his face: everyone began to see how ever-present his jocular disposition was becoming, especially in moments when it wasn't apt.


            Just as aberrant in the following year was his eagerness to join the National Guard, months after he'd lost his welding job, maybe to secure education benefits, maybe to earn medical benefits. Projecting a positive demeanor, he got on with the Guard initially, but his enlistment played out after less than a year (I was living out of state again by then).


            We'd all had exposure in high school and in our college years (college or no) to drugs of many kinds. With the Eighties came the cocaine, and only late in the decade did crack hit our remote quarters: but serviced directly by exits off I-95, it's something of a wonder that our towns dodged crack for as long and as well as they did—but by the early Nineties, the ravages and the blight had taken their initial toll.


            Gerald was only one of the casualties, a waiting victim in his compromised state. His exposure to crack led him to the second pair of wheels on which he rolled downhill. The second pair of wheels belonged to his nephew's bicycle: Gerald sold his nephew's bike one day for five or ten dollars, enough to make another crack purchase.


            Gerald and his brother-in-law had never fought physically, but they did as a consequence of this episode. Gerald smiled through the fistfight, downplaying the seriousness of his action, then downplaying the seriousness of the injuries he sustained. His sister called the sheriff and got a restraining order slapped on him to keep him away from their house, a legal order that Gerald saw fit to disregard a couple of times before being led to the county prison farm for a few months' detention. Upon release, he was instructed to live on the other side of town, if not the other side of the county, both to keep him from his sister's family and to attempt to keep him away from his crack suppliers: one out of two was considered good odds by his sister, who had no control otherwise and by which time wanted none to exercise.


            Gerald smiled through his exile over the next few years, bumming rides to town, bumming rides back to the country, panhandling for cash, unable to find or keep even menial jobs, wandering across the yards of childhood chums to solicit donations: the appeals were becoming common, the contributions were becoming distressingly infrequent (I was still living out-of-state and was thus spared): but Gerald smiled his now-permanent smile no matter the generosity or the rebukes he received.


            I moved back only when my mom was in her final illness. Gerald heard I was back in town, so he paid two social calls my mom found more upsetting than I did. Right or wrong, I gave Gerald a five-dollar bill on his last visit for whatever his troubles then consisted of. This was our final exchange: the hand I put the bill into was smeared with soot (both hands were, I saw as he wandered off), the consequence of some recent ingestion, I took it, but his frozen smile was white, and if his eyes were still seeing they detected regret and doubt or disbelief in mine. A simple gesture: he thanked me.


            It wasn't that night or that week that his final descent took place, it was a couple of months after my mom died. Gerald had gotten a bicycle of his own, some ugly blue thing with a rattling fender. I'd begun seeing him pedaling around town not always paying attention to vehicular traffic or traffic signals, deflecting drivers' alarm with his rictus and his manic laughs. No one knew where his head was, no one much cared any longer: another casualty, but not one any of us would have predicted back in high school, when Gerald was a good guy, as sensible as any adolescent could be and no more crazy, a tight drummer in our high school-era quartet of Cream, Doors, Robin Trower, and ZZ Top—ready for a laugh, maybe too ready for a thrill (thrills do find unique trajectories). The memory of Gerald had become far preferable.


            His final spin on the two wheels of that garish blue bicycle with its rattling fender ended one night just at the new moon and just after midnight. He was pedaling to his trailer in the dark, apparently lit on his unlit bike, struck by a motorist who saw him steer in a circle from one shoulder right into her path: no need to file charges even if the collision had been an act of mercy.


            Gerald was resting soundly in his casket after his descent on six wheels, as if he'd gotten news good enough to wipe that awful smile from his face.