There was a gate to Kinkead Cemetery, but it was never locked. It was about a mile from my house, a mile of gravel. I liked to ride in the cemetery because the paths were all paved. After all, riding a bicycle was not about getting anywhere, but about going fast. Once I got off the gravel and made it past the first iron fence, which held the Kinkead name, I could really pick up speed. No more rocks and holes to slow me down or wipe me out. Nothing to stand in the way of tire whizzin’, hair blowin’, teeth clenchin’ speed….nothing, except Mr. Whitman.
He lived in the white house just outside the iron fence. He took care of the cemetery. He was old for his age, so my mother said. In my head, old was just old. He had gray stubbled hair on the sides of his cheeks, more than on the top of his head. He was missing two front teeth, one on the top and one on the bottom, which I discovered the first time he growled at me. In one hand he always carried a shovel or a rake, which shook as fast as my knees when he raised it in the air along with his upper lip.
But we lived on a gravel road, and the cemetary was the only tarred, smooth ride, within my bike riding distance. A beautiful, fast and smooth ride that lured me daily.
Mr. Whitman took lunch from 11:30 to 12:30 every day. By 11:32, he leaned his rake against the fence, 11:33 out the gate and 11:35, the screen door of his house was slamming behind him. 11:36 was my beginning. I had my course all mapped out…from the gate to the flat markers, and then past the large upright ones, down the middle of the cemetery… up a slight incline by the brick shed and then down a big curve, that’s where I’d really pick up speed. I needed to. The next corner was Baby Land. It was spelled out in flowers, pink, blue, yellow and white – the same colors of the flowers on my banana seat. Even though it was the saddest part of the cemetery, it was the prettiest. The flowers were beautiful. Once past the corner of Baby Land it was a straight shot back to the gate.
I didn’t have a watch, so he caught me mid-lap several times. But once I figured out that sixteen was the magic number, I was never caught again…until that one day. Now, I won’t say that I wasn’t easily distracted…say, by the song playing in my head, or the turtle on the path, but I was pretty good with my lap times. I knew how many pumps it was from marker to marker, corner to corner. It was a game, a game I had won for two weeks straight. Then, on the fifteenth day, the eleventh lap, the corner right before Baby Land, I hit a rock, flew off the path and landed in a dark, deep hole. My bike abandoned me. I was alone in this…this empty, dirty hole, this…this terrible, this, oh….I was in someone’s grave. “Maaaaaahhhhhhhhmmmm,” I hollered out of reflex. She was miles away at work, but again I hollered. “Maaaahhhmmm!”
I flopped down on the seat of my cut-offs. “How did I always…?” I slapped the dirt in disgust. The grave was new, but the situation…not all that unfamiliar. I had to think of a plan. There had to be a way out. I didn’t have much time. I was on my eleventh lap…and as near as I could figure, a half a lap’s worth in the fall, another half sitting in disbelief..that left me with just a few laps’ time before Mr. Whitman came back from lunch. I jumped up. I jumped again and again…and again…each time a little less near the top. There was nothing to hang on to. The dirt was still loose. No way out.
I jumped and grabbed. I could just reach the top, but it didn’t matter, I always came down. I could see the back tire of my bike waiting just outside the hole as if to say, “Hey, if you don’t get out soon, we’re both going to be in big trouble.” My bicycle had always been there for me…saved me from barking dogs, neighborhood bullies and the fear of standing still.
He would be coming soon. I jumped. “If I could just…” I jumped again, this time touching the wheel.
“He can’t catch me here. He’ll kill…” I jumped again, this time moving it slightly.
I heard the iron gate close. I jumped again and again. I heard a tapping. It was getting closer. Now louder. It was something hitting the ground. “Was it steps?” I jumped again. He had picked up his hoe and hit it against the pavement with each step. It was getting louder. I had to get out. I jumped again. And this time I did it. Boy did I do it. I grabbed the wheel…and the bike came in after me. There I was, buried with my bicycle.
The tapping stopped. He must have gone onto the grass.
“Yes!” Victory was mine, for that instant. He had passed me by on his way to Baby Land.
Although sweet, the victory was short. I had remained unnoticed, but I was still stuck with my bicycle in that stupid hole. Now, even if I thought of a way out, I’d have to wait for Mr. Whitman to leave. That could be hours.
I sat down in disgust and threw a clump of dirt at my seemingly useless two-wheeler.
“Dirt, dirt, dirt. D – I – R – T. Dirt, dirt bo-birt, banana fana fo firt…” It was going to be a long wait for freedom.
My best friend was Cathy Norton. She was my age and lived within biking distance – that was really all I needed. I taught her how to play the “Best – Worst” game. You know the one, you have to claim your best day and your worst day…best gum, worst gum…best teacher, worst teacher. Nobody ever won or lost, so it wasn’t really a game, but a way to waste time. And speaking of which…at that moment, I had a lot of it. I decided to play both of our roles.
“Best Candy?” She’d have said Tangy Taffy. Me? I always went for Pop Rocks. It wasn’t that they tasted so good, just so fun to eat.
“Worst?” For me it was Charleston Chews. For her, Wacky Wafers.
“Best Gum?” We were always in agreement on this one. “Bubs Daddy – Red Hot.”
“Worst Gum?” In tandem, “Anything in a green wrapper that made your breath fresh.” We had worked hard on that answer.
“Best Singer?” Cathy always switched off between Michael Jackson and Andy Gibb, depending on which song she had heard last on the radio. Mine was always the same. She thought I was crazy. “Frank Sinatra. That’s right, ‘Ol Blue Eyes, The Chairman of the Board.” My mother taught me the all the words to “Mac the Knife” when I was five. How could there be another?
“Hey that shark has…pretty teeth, dear…And he shows ’em pearly white. Just a jack knife..” My rendition wasted another five minutes.
“Best Day?” I wasn’t really in the mood. Now worst day, that seemed to come right to mind, as I clenched a handful of dirt.
“How long have I been in here? Doesn’t this man believe in coffee breaks?” I could hear his hoe, or his shovel or something hit a rock or tombstone every once in a while. He was still around.
“Ok…focus now. Back to the game. Worst day?”
Worst day. That was easy. It had started the night before.
My mother and I had our own routines before bedtime. I’d wet my toothbrush, dampen a washcloth, flush the toilet and then let her have the bathroom. While she flossed her teeth, I’d count the number of sleeping pills in the bottle on her nightstand and hope for a similar count in the morning. Luckily, she was so rigorous with her routine, she never noticed mine.
Our routines changed that night with our good-night hug. Oh, we always hugged, but this time, instead of giving me a hug, she seemed to be taking mine. She held me so hard, I thought she would squeeze the life right out of me. She let go so slowly, I could almost feel her sadness. I laid in my bed very still. I was confused and a little bit scared. It was one of those nights when I didn’t feel too old for my Raggedy Ann pillow case and sheet.
I’m not sure if I had been sleeping yet when she came back in. She stood over me in the darkness.
“Are you sleeping?”
I wiped my eyes and shook my head no.
“Why not? Are you scared?” she asked.
“No.” I lied. Of course I was afraid, but not of what she thought. I was afraid of what was happening with her…afraid of the fear that she seemed to be feeling.
“It’s ok if you are. You can come and sleep in my room. I’ll make you a little nest.”
We had always called it a nest – a few blankets on the floor beside her bed. Whenever I was scared…of the dark, the thoughts in my head, the new place we were living in…she’d make a nest for me…and then I was saved. But what scared me tonight was the realization that this time, and maybe some of the others too, she was the one that was scared…of the dark, the thoughts in her head, …and the only way she could save herself was to believe she was saving me.
I felt so responsible. How could I save her? I had to, but how could I? What did I know? I knew about bicycles and candy. Bubble gum and Band-Aids. I couldn’t save her. The world was so big. I was only allowed to ride my bike one mile away.
Without the light, I could barely see the outline of her face…but her eyes looked harder at me than they ever had before. I had seen that look. It was the same look a mother gave the flowers in Baby Land. She looked to them to give back a beauty that had been taken away. “How could they do that?” I wondered. I always thought the flowers had too much responsibility. And now I felt that look on my face.
I couldn’t change things. I couldn’t make her world pain free…bring my father back, make the town more forgiving…I just couldn’t. But she continued to look at me and I knew I had to try. The only thing I could do, for that night, for that moment of darkness, was to let her save me. For the first time, in a nest that she had made, I stayed awake.
I counted the pills when the sun finally came up. She went to work and then I went to sleep. I set the alarm for 11:15. Not long after, I found myself in a hole, in Kinkead Cemetery. Not a good 24 hour period. Definitely, worst day material.
I continued to let handfuls of dirt slide between my fingers like sand in an hourglass. Mr. Whitman continued to work not far away. Could he still be in Baby Land? How long was he going to spend there? Wasn’t he needed anywhere else?
There I sat, in my open grave. It was no nest. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair at all. Cathy Norton was probably riding on her motorized three wheeler right now…not having to worry about anything. She had four sisters, a mother and a father. They had lived in the same house forever at the north end of VanDyke road. Her mother didn’t have to work. Her father came home every day at 5:30. And she never, never ever counted sleeping pills.
That’s why I ended up in this stupid place. I was tired. It was just too much. I couldn’t have someone’s happiness as my responsibility. I couldn’t do it alone. I couldn’t. Who would take care of me? I didn’t want to be looked to. Who would…?
My thoughts were interrupted by a whistling Mr. Whitman. I didn’t know he whistled. Was he ever going to leave Baby Land? He spent more time on those stupid flowers than…
And then it hit me. He did spend more time on those flowers than anything else. He weeded and hoed, shoveled and watered, picked and caressed, watered and whistled too. Yes, those flowers had a big responsibility, maybe bigger than the rest, but they weren’t alone…a gardener was looking after them, harder and longer than any other flowers in the cemetery.
Mr. Whitman finally went for his coffee break. It was my big chance. “What did I have? What were my tools, my options? Ok, the bike’s useless…but I must have something…a stick…a rock? No, there was nothing…nothing but that stupid, flowered, banana-seat bike. Banana Fanna fo fanna, a mee-a, mia, mo… Wait a minute..that’s it. My stupid bicycle. Ok, not stupid…my fabulous bicycle. It was my escape. It had been there the whole time. It was so simple. Why hadn’t I seen it?”
I braced my bike the short way. The wheels dug into the sides, steady as a staircase. I climbed onto the seat, reached my hands to solid ground and climbed out. Just as I was about to raise my hands in victory, I looked down and realized my bike was irretrievable. “Now what?”
I decided I would just have to leave it…come back for it when Mr. Whitman’s day was over. “But then what?” Well, I didn’t have time to think of that now. I had to get out. I had no idea what time it was and I wanted to beat my mother home from work.
I ran the mile home. I grabbed my knees to catch my breath in the kitchen. The clock on the wall said three. I had made it. Plenty to spare. I had made it – made it through the night, the fall, the grave…and I knew I could survive anything.
My clothes were filthy. I washed them in the sink with shampoo and dried them with my blowdryer.
I waited on the front step. She drove up, just a few minutes after Mr. Norton drove by. She got out of the car. “Did you have a good day?” I asked.
“Yes,” she answered with a smile, grabbed my hand and I believed her.
“You?” she asked.
“The best.” And I believed myself.
After dinner I recruited Cathy to walk back to the cemetery to try and retrieve my bicycle. We had all the necessary tools – rope, a hammer and three packages of Bubs Daddy bubble gum. I don’t know what the plan was actually, but we had all the confidence that age had not yet diminished.
When we got to the gate we saw the most amazing thing. My bike was resting against the iron bars. And it wasn’t even dirty. Someone had rescued it.
“I thought you said your bike was…” Cathy started.
“It was. It really was buried.”
“Well it’s not now. Let’s go. Brady Bunch will be on soon.”
It’s funny how easily we both accepted the tiny miracle that rested against the Kinkead fence.
“It’s probably just a repeat,” I said as I straddled my bike.
“I don’t care. I still want to see it.” Cathy hopped on the back of my seat.
We started the ride back.
“Best Brady Bunch?” she asked.
“The one where Jan drops her bracelet out the window and Alice buys her a new one.”
“Yeah, that one was good. Worst?”
“The trip to the Grand Canyon. It was so beat.”
“Best Brady Boy?” she continued.
“Yeah, he’s the cutest.” She held on to my waist as I pedaled.
“Best bike ride?” she asked as we neared her driveway.
“This one,” I said, “Definitely, this one.”
That night my mother tucked me in and went to her bed. A few minutes later I got up and went into her room.
“What’s the matter? Are you afraid?”
“No,” I answered. And this time I meant it.
“I heard Mr. Whitman whistle today,” I said. “I just thought you should know.”
She smiled. I returned to my bed and we both slept through the night.