I stand behind the maple tree in Mom’s front yard. This morning, Mom made my favorite, pancakes. To me, pancakes have always tasted like victory and vice versa. My bike is propped against the tree for easy go-to. My bike doesn’t have a kickstand. Even if it did have a kickstand, kickstands never work on lawns or uneven surfaces. I’ve learned that much in my life. But I’ve still never ridden with the Ruffz.
The Ruffz, all twenty-two of them, ride their bikes past Mom’s yard. Two look my way and woof. I woof back in a way that communicates everything I feel I need to say and not a thing more.
The Ruffz know I want to be a Ruff.
Today I become a Ruff. Today’s my twenty-six-and-a-halfth birthday, I will be twenty-six-and-a-half-years-old when I first ride with the Ruffz. Most of the Ruffz are nine or ten. They’re fourth graders.
The Ruffz ride down my street and turn the corner. I “hop to,” as I like to say. For example, when I return home during one of these weekends away from my apartment, Mom says, “Matt, go clean your room,” and I say, “I’ll hop to it.” Then I make the nine hops from the kitchen table to my room and clean what Mom and I agree needs cleaning.
I hop onto my bike and follow the Ruffz at a distance that I consider tastefully discreet.
This year’s Ruffz bike race is no different from any other. It’s at Country Day high school’s parking lot. The winner gets to join the Ruffz. The losers are pounded. I won’t lose.
The winner helps pound the losers. I’m not really excited about that. I’ll probably just give some little nine-year-old a wink and say, “Pretend I’m pounding you good, Sport.” Then I’ll fake punch his stomach and he’ll go OOOF until it’s time to go. When he stands and brushes the dead grass from his hair and bike uniform, I’ll give him another wink. This is a tough bike race. This is my seventeenth race. Sometimes at work the guys who were Ruffz when we were in school give me trouble.
During time trials I observe and analyze the other riders’ techniques from a distance. I survey the course map and consider wind resistance. I sketch a procedural diagram in charcoal pencil. The sun sets behind me and my shadow casts a dark path over the late-afternoon race.
This is the time that I’d need some sort of a pep talk from someone sweet.
But that’s okay. I just know I’ll be the winner
One of the Ruffz blows a whistle. We all take our places at the starting line. I attach my racing number to the front of my shirt. I’m number 26.5.
The lead Ruff, Bowzer, stands before the riders. He says, “I’m glad so many of you showed up today. One of you will be one of the proud, the powerful, the Ruffz. The rest of you will be pounded. If this is not acceptable, leave now.”
One of the boys says something that sounds like a marmoset mewling for a steamed carrot. He pulls his bike out of the race then rides off the parking lot. He leans it against a tree and watches.
I look at the rest of the bikers. They’re all staring at me.
No one else leaves.
I request a moment.
Bowzer grants it.
I quickly consult my procedural diagram. I am ready. I nod to Bowzer.
Bowzer says on your mark, get set, take off!
And we go.
I hop to an early lead. It is obvious I am the best rider here. As I glide through the rock driveway that had tripped me up so many previous years, I wonder why the others do not just give up.
I zoom around the row of janitorial service cars, behind the baseball backstop. As I speed up the steep inclined ramp to the upper parking lot, I smell the greenness of the plants and mowed grass. I smell victory. I inhale the day.
I look behind me to gauge my competition.
The kid named Rusty is close behind me.
I turn forward. The Ruffz have placed branches on the track. I hop over the first set, but my pedal catches in the second, two-foot diameter bundle of branches.
Yet again, I’m over handlebars and in the air. Everything is quiet. I see clouds and sense that I’m in the sky. The sun is glorious. The atmosphere is thin up here. Where are the birds? There they are. I could stay here for days.
But I notice sounds. Wind whistles. Bikes skid to slow stops near the obstacle. Branches break under tires. Bikes work their way over the branches. I hear the other riders ride, pedal, and breathe hard: I hear them race.
As I fall, I sense that someone soft has her arms around me. I smell strawberries and ambrosia. But I fall on my back in the lawn, well past the branches. I think my back is broken. I’m off to the side of the parking lot, beside some landscaped shrubbery.
Bowzer shouts, “Rusty is the winner. Long live Rusty!”
The Ruffz cheer.
Bowzer shouts, “Let the pounding begin!”
Nine- and ten-year-old Ruffz voices yell, whoop, and woof. I am set upon by all these nine-year-olds’ punches and the occasional gratuitious kick to my kidneys.
I close my eyes. I met Julie at last year’s race. She came to report on the Ruffz. She liked my uniform (a caution-light yellow suit with a tomato-orange colander rubber-banded to my head). She interviewed me, and I posed for a photo. We got along well. I asked her to a movie. After eleven months, Julie broke up with me. It wasn’t her fault.
Now I’ve lost my eighteenth Ruffz race and I’m here on the dirt beside a driveway of a private school I didn’t even attend being beaten by a bunch of nine- and ten-year-olds. I say OOF and OW. My stomach clenches. I open my eyes. Three size-four Reeboks step on rough spots in the lawn. I taste those disgusting stomach acids, and my pancakes lurch out. I spit. I spit at the Ruffz as they kick and wallop, but it all just comes back at me.