Things Mechanical

Ron Karpinski  1995


In the fall of 1982, my friend Karen Beaman and I rode our bicycles from Santa Monica, California, to San Diego.  Our route covered one-hundred and thirty-five miles, hugging the Pacific coastline the entire distance.

The trip took two days, leaving Saturday morning and arriving Sunday afternoon.  Friends met us at the other end.  We stayed with Joe and Ann Sunday night and took the train back to Los Angeles on Monday morning.

*          *          *          *          *

At sunrise on Saturday, a thick blanket of fog hugged the coastline.  The air hung chill and damp.  Hunched over the handlebars, we leaned into each pedal stroke.  By midmorning, we were cold, wet, and hungry.

Karen spotted a small diner off to the left, away from traffic.  It looked quiet and cozy, so we crossed the street and locked our bikes to a wrought iron railing out front.

An empty booth waited by the front window.  The waitress brought coffee and took our orders.  I asked for a stack of pancakes, and Karen chose an omelette.

Coffee tastes best, when you first come in from the cold.  Wrapping frozen fingers around hot, steaming mugs, we sat in silence, breathing in the rich aroma.  Each sip brought us one step closer to life.  I closed my eyes and let the warmth soak in.

Slowly, the feeling returned to our frozen limbs, and we began to chat.  Leaning across the table, Karen rattled off a list of the places she hoped to see that day.  We had both been down that route many times, but she made it sound so fresh and exciting.

Karen rubbed off on you that way.  She made you smile, no matter how tired or low you might have felt at the time.  Her zest for life carried me along for the ride.

Around noon, the sun broke through and burned away the fog.  The day turned warm and then hot.  One by one, we peeled off outer layers of clothing until we were down to shorts and T-shirts.

We stopped often to enjoy the ocean view.  So much water takes one's breath away.  To the left and right, up and down the coast, and all the way to the horizon, blue-green water rippled in the brisk wind.

At two in the afternoon, we ducked into the cool darkness of a beach front bar . . . to escape the heat for a while and talk about things that didn't matter.  Gazing out the door, we watched people passing by in the bright sunshine.  Karen could put away some beer.

Back on the road, the sun beat down, and Karen felt an urge to go swimming.  Every male on the beach turned to watch, as she threw off her outer clothing, revealing a bright red bikini, and romped toward the surf.  She splashed and squealed and screamed at me to join her.

It remains one of the great regrets of my life, that I did not join her in the water that day; but a single seed of doubt caused me to hold back.  Unlike Karen, I did not trust my fellow man.  If we left our belongings unguarded on the beach, someone would surely steal them.  So, I stayed on shore.

*          *          *          *         *

A mile short of San Clemente, our goal for the day, Karen had a flat tire.  That stretch of road did not offer enough room to fix the tire on the spot, so we walked the rest of the way into town.  Pushing our bikes off on the shoulder, we inhaled the warm sweet late afternoon breeze and listened to birds chirping high in the Eucalyptus trees.

A small motel loomed ahead on the left.  Built in the 1950's, it looked to have about thirty rooms, with a circular gravel drive.  Out front, a small neon sign glowed in the early dusk; we could just make out the word "vacancy."

It looked clean enough from the outside.  Besides, we were hot, dirty and tired and in no mood to be picky.  We approached and rang the doorbell.

A second later, the top half of a Dutch door swung open, and an old lady appeared.  "We are really tired after a long day's ride," Karen announced, "and we need a couple of rooms for the night.  Would it be okay to bring the bikes inside?"

*          *          *          *          *

Sitting on the edge of a king sized bed, we both stared down at the flat tire on Karen's bike. "Well?" she demanded.

"Well, what?" I asked.

"Well, when are you going to fix my flat tire?" she said.  It wasn't a question.

"Why me?" I asked.  "This is the age of equal rights.  Fix your own bike."

Karen stared at her fingernails and let out a long sigh.  "Ladies don't know much about such things," she demurred.

I hate it when they do that.

There would be no getting around it.  When a woman falls back on that age-old ruse of helplessness, there is no defense for the well-bred man.  Guilt rises slowly to the surface until, at last, he steps forward to save her the agony of a chipped fingernail.

Spreading my few meager tools out on the carpet, I surveyed the bike.  Of course, it had to be the back tire.  As we all know, removing the rear wheel is a dirty, messy job.

*          *          *          *          *

The next day, Sunday, did not go well at all.  For one thing, Karen had a hard time keeping up.  No matter how leisurely I pedaled, before long she fell fifty yards behind and struggled to catch up.

Each time Karen fell behind, I pulled over to the side and waited.  Propping a foot on a low stone wall, I took a long swig of water and gazed out at the ocean.  The keen salt air filled my lungs.

At one point, Karen thought something might have been wrong with her bike.  She said it seemed much heavier than the day before and harder to pedal.  Even on the flats, she had to strain, as though it were uphill.

"Let me have a look, little lady," I offered.  "We men have an innate grasp of things mechanical, you know."  Crouching low, I gave the bike a thorough going-over.

No loose bolts or screws stood out, and no sprung springs or other parts dangled in the breeze.  Nothing seemed out of place.  The bike passed the test, and I pronounced it fit for the open road.

"Karen, my dear, I think this is all in your head," I told her.  "You are probably just tired.  You need to suck it up and pedal harder."

Due to my partner's failing stamina, the miles passed at a slow and painful rate after that.  We fell so far behind, in fact, that Karen had no chance to go for a swim that day.  That, I think, disappointed me more than anything.

*          *          *          *          *

Joe and Ann had agreed to meet us at one o'clock on a high grassy knoll in a park near Mission Bay.  They would bring a six-pack of beer, they said, and we could all sit on the grass and drink it.  Karen and I could regale them with tales from our journey.

That had been the plan; but, thanks to Karen, we fell more than an hour behind schedule.  The sun burned high in the sky, and Joe couldn't wait, so he drank all the beer before we got there.

When we did arrive, the welcome had lost some of its luster.  With the beer all gone, none of us were in much of a mood to talk, so we just dropped down on the grass and sat there in the sun.  Off to the side, Karen lay flat on her back, panting in the heat.

After Karen had caught her breath, we got up to load the bikes on the car.  As Joe lifted Karen's bike, he paused a few seconds to study the rear wheel.  "Say," he said, "did you know the rear brake on this bike is stuck?  Looks like it's been dragging that way for a long time."

"What?" Karen shrieked.  "Let me see that."

 Joe showed her what he had found.  She turned and glared at me.

"Oops.  Uh . . . heh, heh, heh."


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