May 1915: For Archie, it's life-as-usual during wartime - odd jobs for pocket money; homework; and giving bicycle lessons to pretty girls. But there are always thoughts of what news the next letter from overseas might bring.
“And my brother’s in France...I don't know exactly where.”
All I knew for certain was that my trousers needed letting out again: I could see the tops of my boots. I'm standing at the front of the class, shifting my feet and stammering my way through a public-speaking exercise.
“It was his idea – him and his cohorts. They wanted to see Europe. They figured they'd be home by Christmas. I don’t know where they get their ideas from. I’ve never seen my brother with a newspaper unless it had a fish wrapped in it.
“It’s been months now but lately mother’s been acting like she’s only just noticed he’s away. Father never talks about the war. Well, he does, but in the way most fathers do – without really saying anything. That doesn’t mean I'm not tired of hearing about it.”
The fellows in the front row were mugging, trying to throw me off my game. But I'm wasn't going to let that happen. It's nice to be listened to; I just wish I had more to say.
“Of course I’d like the war to be over but I don’t want to have to go back to sharing a bedroom. Chuck can be a real louse sometimes – pardon, ma’am. Let’s just say I’m counting on the boche to straighten Chuck out for me.”
Looking beyond the front row I found encouragement in the winks and nods from the few that I counted as friends. I only wished I had heard them speak because then I might have had a better idea what was expected of me. I never seem to get it right.
“About a month ago my folks gave me a bicycle – a Pierce Arrow. They were at a Tiger game and on their way home they passed a bike shop on Michigan Avenue. They told me the story, how they saw it in the window, marched in, sized it up, and brought it home on the ferry.”
I remembered to pull my hands out of my pockets and adjust my posture. Apparently all that stuff counts.
“Mother told the story over the telephone to her friends. I liked hearing her tell it because it made her laugh. Whenever she told it, she never forgot to mention the part about how my father probably had too much beer at the game.”
That got a few chuckles from the crowd.
“The next day my father bought a basket and had me running errands for our neighbours on the block – and later for everyone between London Street and the river.
“It only took me a few days to pay for the basket. But by now I reckon I’ve paid for half the bike as well. Apparently that was the deal, though no one told me at the time.”
I looked over at Miss Fielding. She made a face that said if I didn’t throw some heat soon she’d call me in from the mound.
“Yeah, so, I’d like to finish school and go into business for myself. I know some fellows already earning good money. At the end of the week they have a thick envelope and answer little. All that appeals to me. In a couple years I’d like to trade my bicycle in for one of those Red Indian motorbikes like you see in the Baum and Brody ads. Then I could make deliveries all over the Border Cities.” I turned to Miss Fielding. “Sorry, ma’am. Maybe if I gave it some more thought I’d – .”
“That’s quite all right, Archie. It sounds like you’ve already given it a great deal of thought.”
She was being nice. I can usually tell. The instruction was that we were to tell the class a bit about ourselves and then describe how we saw our lives in the future. I was ill most of last week so I missed the finer points.
“Thank you, ma’am.”
I took my seat without making eye contact with anyone and spent the rest of the day pushing a pen across my exercise book and thumbing through my primer. There was work I needed to catch up on and Miss Fielding said there’d be more to take home.
At the end of the afternoon the student body spilled out onto the corner of Ann Street and Goyeau. Most of us would usually continue down Ann to catch the streetcar on the Avenue, but on a day as warm and bright as this, many of us found our legs.
Vera Maude was in a group already heading in that direction. Alf and Walt were holding me back, trying to sell me on another one of their half-cocked ideas. Something to do with shooting pigeons from a rooftop, pigeons they were using as stand-ins for German soldiers. I managed to shake them off.
“Don’t get yourself killed, Walt.”
It wasn’t meant to be a joke. One time Walt ran across the street, tripped, fell, and broke his arm. And now he had an air gun. It was anyone's guess what damage he could do.
I started walking. The fresh air felt good in my lungs. It had been one of your run-of-the-mill colds but sometimes it gets bad in my chest and mother says we can’t be too careful. She lost a baby sister to a cold, or so she keeps telling us. Anyway, it’s a handy card to play.
For a change of pace I crossed the Avenue and went down Victoria instead. Fine homes inhabited by even finer folk who regularly make the society columns. We know all about them – where they’re traveling; who their house guests are; and which of their daughters is celebrating her sixteenth birthday. Come to think of it, they might be good candidates for my delivery service.
When I turned left at Park I could see Vera Maude and the other girls from the neighbourhood ahead of me. I maintained a polite distance while they wound their way up towards London Street. Once they cleared the railway overpass I watched them go their separate ways.
I slowly caught up with Vera Maude at Elm. Her family was just a few doors in from London, and my family was across and down a bit.
“I liked your speech.”
I looked over my shoulder - I had already crossed over to my side of the street. She was on the steps of her veranda, standing with her books cradled in her arms. She must have known I was behind her the whole time.
A car passed between us and then she said,
“Would you teach me how to ride a bike?”
It wasn’t that I couldn’t hear her; she just took me by surprise. She was always doing that.
“I’d like to learn how to ride a bike,” she said.
I suddenly remembered how when my Pierce Arrow got fitted with the basket and I was looking for business, I came upon her father in their front yard and asked if I could pick anything up for him at the butcher’s. I was just getting back from Shelton’s with a roast for Mrs. Ritchie so he knew what I was capable of. He said no, thank you. If I’ve learned anything in this business it’s men like to pick their own cuts of meat.
“I’ve never rode a bike and I’d like to learn.”
“There’s nothing to it.”
“Maybe you can teach me sometime.”
I was feeling bold.
“How about this Saturday?”
She pondered that for a moment and said,
“Sure. Let’s catch up tomorrow.”
I watched her walk up the steps to her front door. It was going to be a long week.
Friday afternoon Miss Fielding had to leave the room and Vera Maude took the opportunity to approach my desk. This got the attention of the fellows seated near me. Some of them were a little afraid of Vera Maude, and for good reason. Not only was she pretty, she was smart and not lacking in confidence. How could the average guy contend with something like that? We discussed our plans and settled on a 10:00 a.m. start. I’d have time for my regular runs and, depending on how the lesson went, there might still be time for a few more before the shops were completely picked over.
The next morning, no sooner had I returned from delivering to the Johnson’s their half-dozen pork chops and pound of bacon than I heard a knock at the screen door.
“I’m ready, Archie.”
I tripped on the rug in the foyer but managed a smooth recovery.
“Hi – wait here and I’ll fetch my bike.”
I went out back to where I left it leaning against the clothesline pole. I guided it around the house and across the front lawn, stopped, studied it, studied Vera Maude, and then studied the bike again.
“What’s the matter?” she said.
“It’s a man’s bicycle. See this bar? Well, it’s much lower on a girl’s.”
She consider that for a moment and said, “I could just let my skirt drape over it.”
I looked at her from under my cap.
“If that’s all right with you.”
“It’s all right with me,” she said.
I straddled the front wheel and gripped the handlebars while she swung her left leg over the bar. Her skirt rode up her calves and had just enough slack left in it for her to pedal. I hoped her father wasn’t watching.
“Now put your feet on the pedals. I’m going to swing around and grip the seat with my other hand to steady you."
The bike wobbled.
“Whoa – .”
“Yeah – don’t make any sudden movements. The trick is not thinking about it. Now pedal slowly and I’ll walk with you.”
She did just that and we took off towards the river.
“Now I want you to brake – gently.”
“How do I do that?”
“Push the pedal carefully in the opposite direction.”
The bike came to a gradual stop.
“Good. Now how did that feel?”
She was smiling.
“Like fun – it felt like fun." She paused. "How long did it take you to learn how to ride a bike, Archie?”
“By the time my father got me down to Riverside Drive, I could ride it.”
She looked up and down the block, measuring the distance that was left. Not much.
“I’m going to take my hand off the handlebars,” I said. “I want you to get used to the feel of them. Okay?”
“I also want you to push yourself off.”
“What do you mean?”
“Put one foot on the ground and the other on the pedal. Push the pedal. I’ll hang on to the seat and run alongside.”
“Are you sure about that?”
“Don’t worry – we won’t be going too fast and you don’t have far to fall.”
“Is that some kind of joke?”
“No, I just meant that –.”
“That’s what’s called back-pedaling, isn’t it, Archie?”
It was my turn to smile.
“All right, you got me. Now are you ready?”
She touched the ground with the toe of her left foot and set her other foot flat on the pedal.
She slowly pushed off.
“Relax – don’t work the handlebars so much.”
“Now slow down; stop pedaling and just coast. When you want to stop, you know what to do.”
We were more than half way to the Drive when Vera Maude stopped suddenly and didn’t set her foot down fast enough. I tried to steady the bike but we ended up tipping and falling onto the Gravelle’s front lawn, just missing their rose bushes.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I think so,” said Vera Maude.
She was discombobulated, tangled in the bike, the ribbon in her hair loosened and a big grass stain on her elbow.
“How about you? You okay?”
“I think so.” I reached in my pocket. “Shoot – crushed my Maple Buds.”
She managed to untangle herself from the bicycle with some dignity and then leaned back on her outstretched arms and took a deep breath.
“Let’s take a break,” she said.
I watched an automobile pass and then looked over at Vera Maude. She was adjusting the ribbon in her hair now. Not wanting to waste the opportunity, I tried to think of something to say.
“I didn’t get to hear your speech.”
“My what? Oh – you didn’t miss much.”
“I’d still like to hear it.”
“Consider it payment for the lesson.”
Vera Maude crossed her legs inside her skirt and leaned back on her outstretched arms again, palms flat on the grass. Her big hazel eyes went up and to the left like she was searching a cluttered corner of her busy mind, and then she said,
“I have lots of brothers and sisters. Guaranteed at the beginning of every school year my teacher will ask me, ‘are you so-and-so’s little sister?’ and I’ll say, ‘yes, ma’am, that’s me: so-and-so’s little sister.’ I’m the youngest by several years. I have older siblings already moved out and with lives of their own.
“My father wants me to continue my education. He says everything’s going to be different for me and I should be ready. I’m thinking I want to teach,” she said and then she turned to me. “That’s what I said, but I didn’t really mean it.”
“Then why did you say it?”
It wasn’t like Vera Maude to say something she didn’t mean.
“I only wanted to finish the exercise.”
I was enjoying this, just talking with her. And it was better than being home with my folks. We got a letter from Chuck yesterday and it did nothing to put their minds at ease. It left me wondering if there wasn’t something more to this business in Europe.
“What do you want to be then?”
“I don’t know.” She uncrossed her legs and studied her shoes.
“Actually, being a teacher wouldn't be so bad. Could be a lot worse. I’ve got a sister that’s a telephone operator, another that packs cereal, and another who’s a stenographer at an insurance company.”
She faked a little shiver and continued.
“But sometimes I think one shouldn’t have a plan. Sometimes I think you should see what life brings you. And life can change you too. You know what I mean?”
“Yeah.” At least I thought I did.
She stood up and stretched her back.
“Can we finish our lesson now?”
We set ourselves up again.
“We should practice stopping,” I said.
I guided her through a few short exercises and then we paused in front of the Johnston's. She looked behind her at how much distance we had covered, and then ahead towards the river.
“We’re almost at the Drive,” she said.
“You’re doing fine.”
“Run faster with me,” she said, “but don’t let go of the seat.”
Before long she was pedaling and pedaling hard. The wind was blowing her hair and I could smell it. It didn’t smell like anything I had a name for. I let go and watched her ride away.
About three-quarters of the way down the block, with the river in sight, Vera Maude turned around and rode back towards me.
I took a step back, and then a couple more steps, and then a few more. I just wanted to keep watching her ride towards me, laughing and saying my name.
copyright Michael Januska, 2011