The storm front had passed quickly and lightly as it often does in late May, and the sky had cleared by the next afternoon after a morning sprinkle. I pulled up to the Emery with two bicycles in the back of my van just before 5:30 p.m. Jake was waiting in shorts and a tight, red tee shirt, his burgundy rimmed sunglasses pushed up onto his hair above his batik hair band. We drove out to University Village, parked and unloaded the bikes. Jake looked at them both and then frowned—really frowned.
“Do you have a tool box?” he asked, somewhat acidly. “And maybe some WD-40?” I looked at the bikes and thought they looked okay to me, except for some rust patches. I guess the chain did look a little dry.
“There are some tools in the trunk.” I’m orderly about paper work and numbers, but tools? As long as I keep my tools in a limited number of places, I can find what I need. That’s as organized as I get about tools. I opened the trunk and pulled out a tool box, then opened the glove compartment and pulled out a few more tools.
“I used to think you were so organized,” he said, with a grin. “Disorganization by you. Point for me. 187 to 186.”
“I am, it’s just a different type or organization. If I can find it quickly, isn’t that organization enough?”
Jake didn’t answer, so I figured I had lost the point permanently. He pulled out some tools and started to work on the bikes. “We could use some WD-40. Why don’t you run over to the hardware and get some? Take some money from my wallet,” and he swung his butt toward me to let me get into his back pocket.
For some reason, I swatted him somewhat forcefully. “I’ll pay for it. But thanks for the offer.” And I swatted him again, before I walked down the street to get the oil.
“I didn’t know you were such a bicycle maniac,” I said, on returning.
“And I didn’t realize you were such as sadist,” he said, rubbing his butt. “Besides, I’m an expert, not a maniac. At college I would ride every day, even in the snow. I even did some racing. I would’ve in Mississippi if it hadn’t been so hot and we hadn’t been so busy. Even, in Vietnam…” His voice trailed off, and he became quiet and suddenly distant. I didn’t understand his mood change, but it didn’t bother me.
Jake got the bikes into what he pronounced “temporary shape” and we took off for Puget Sound, about a 9-mile ride along Lake Union, through the Fremont and Ballard districts and along the Ship Canal leading to the shores of the Sound. It was about 65 degrees with a breeze coming from the northwest—nearly perfect weather for this exercise.
“Don’t you have a helmet?” I asked.
“No, never use one.”
“I’m going to buy you one next ride. I want to see you stay alive.” Jake looked at me as if I were a mother hen, but I hoped he would wear one if I handed it to him on a silver platter.
We rode hard for the first 20 minutes past the University, the old Gas Works and the Fremont Bridge, me leading, getting our heartbeat rates up, then we rode more slowly side by side through the backstreets of Ballard, giving Jake a sightseeing tour of, well, the industrial / commercial backstreets of Ballard. The boatyards did make that leg of the trip somewhat interesting.
I would look over at Jake from time to time, sunglasses now on his nose, the wind blowing the hair beneath the batik band. He looked like a teen-aged boy about to get into mischief, a grin shining on his face. On several occasions, he would look at me and break into his radiant smile. He seemed happy.
As we got closer to Puget Sound, the smell of the sea percolated through the air. We sprinted the last few miles to Shilshole Marina, bought some tonic water, then rode out to the beach at Golden Gardens Park and watched the sun on the waters of Puget Sound as it dropped toward the Olympics beyond. We listened to the seagulls and lap of the waves as we straddled our bikes. There was enough color in the sun to bring out the reds in Jake’s hair and complexion, reminding me of what he looked like at the end of our Mississippi summer.
We left the beach in order to get back to the University District before dark. This time Jake led the way and set the pace. He had memorized the route. I rode behind him, admiring the lines and flats of the muscles in his calves and thighs. We sprinted the last mile, and he won easily. Another point for him. Score: Me 187, Jake 187. After we got to the parking lot, we packed our bikes in the van and went out for pizza at the Northlake Tavern and ended up talking and drinking beer for a couple of hours.
The bike riding and dinner afterwards set the pattern for the rest of the week. We were at Kidd Valley the next night, sitting at a picnic table outdoors, eating hamburgers, garlic fries and milk shakes.
I started to reminisce about our time in Mississippi—the usual ‘remember that time we did such and such’ sort of stuff. Remember Grannah’s fried chicken, I said. Remember the hornets nests we had to scrape off her house before we painted it and how fast I had to run when you knocked a live one off, Jake said. Remember how bright-eyed those kids were, I said. Remember when we went skinny-dipping and we had to hightail it to shore, Jake said. And so on.
“God, we were naïve then,” Jake said. “We thought we could change the world.”
I thought about his comment for a few moments. “I think we did change the world,” I responded somewhat defensively.
Jake looked at me quizzically. “You’re serious?”
“I would go there and do it again and again, knowing what I know now. What we did was important in a small but significant way.”
“Even with what you know now?” he repeated, but his tone carried just a hint of a wish to believe me in the midst of doubt.
“Yes,” I said emphatically. Jake looked perplexed at my response. “I don’t know how much of a difference it made,” I continued, “but I’m sure it added some small bit of good to the world, and that was what our summer was all about. I have felt proud and good about what we did ever since.”
“But it all turned so ugly, with Vietnam, Kent State, ghetto riots—too much death and destruction, too much violence.” Jake looked uncomfortable and unsure of himself. He became very quiet, and our conversation died. We talked in monosyllables for another 10 minutes, pretending to watch the sports event on the television.
“Why don’t we call it a day?” I suggested finally, and he nodded with relief on his face.
As I dropped him off at the hotel, he tried to brighten his mood up, but he sounded to me that maybe he was doing it only because he was desperate to maintain our relationship despite our differences. We parted on a friendlier note, though: “Is it okay if I come over and tune up all your bikes this weekend?”
“Thanks, that would be wonderful, Mr. Bicycle Maniac.”
He didn’t acknowledge that he had heard me. “Just bring them all over to your place and I’ll do the maintenance there.”
“Are these two bikes fit enough for you for another ride tomorrow?” I asked, archly. “Or will you have a fit at their state of maintenance?”
“They’re good enough,” he allowed, “but not as perfect as they can be—until this weekend.” He sounded relieved that he would have the opportunity to make them perfect. He grinned at me as we said good night.
As I thought about our conversation, I had to admit I was seriously disappointed that Jake’s and my view differed so much on the meaning and importance of our work in Mississippi. Had Jake lost all his idealism? Had he changed that much? I felt distinctly less close to him after that exchange. Maybe he had retreated into cynicism more than I thought. But he was an old friend, so I vowed to continue to be pleasant to him for his short stay in Seattle.
“Okay, now tell me what you’re really doing in Seattle,” I said as we sat down in our booth at Duke’s, another one of the neighborhood restaurants that had pretty good wine, after we’d dropped our bikes off at my condominium.
“I’m doing a project for this startup, computer-software company that I work for. If I told you what I was doing I’d have to kill you,” Jake laughed at his little joke. I made the requisite face. “I’ll be here for about a month or two.”
The waiter came and took our order and returned shortly with a bottle of Associated Vintners Riesling and two glasses.
“Normally, I just herd a bunch of programmers around, but this is a special project.” Jake said as he poured us two fresh glasses of wine.
I asked dubiously. “I’ve heard of herding cattle and cats, but programmers?”
“Unfortunately, it bears a very strong resemblance to herding cats.” I could see him thinking over what he said. Jake’s eyes suddenly shone with the amused, mischievous look that I remembered as he would joke with me or the kids in Mississippi.
“Let me explain,” he said, gathering his story-telling skills together. “This company I work for has dozens of hot-shot programmers who work 18-hour days for almost nothing except access to the latest personal computers and free vending machines. But these programmers are free spirits, to say the least. They’re into code and electronics, not people or any language but Fortran or Cobol or Pascal—definitely not English. The company founder needed someone to make sure that what these computer ‘nerds’ produce was usable in the real world. Nerds is a complimentary word by the way.
“I convinced the company that I was that real world, or that I could fake being it—hah! my fucked-up life is the real world?—and I could test the programs that these coders produced. So somehow they hired me. Well, not really somehow. Actually, mom and dad knew the owner of the company. Fortunately, the company liked what I could do.”
“How long have you been at this?”
“About six months,” Jake answered. “Time moves fast in the software business. I found the job shortly after I got back to Boston for my dad’s service. Mom wanted me to stay around the Boston area for awhile till she got back on her feet.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know about your dad, Sawyer.” That was the first time that I used the nickname I attached to him since that summer in Mississippi. It just came out of my mouth.
“That’s okay.” Jake eyes seemed to mist over just before he turned his eyes down. The waiter arrived just then with bowls of steamed mussels in broth and crusty bread, filled our wine glasses, asked if we needed anything more and departed when we said no. “I haven’t heard Sawyer used in 14 years, but I’ve thought about it more often than you might think. It brings back memories. They were good memories—about everything.” I think that might have been a partial apology for his remarks the previous day.
We ate and chatted further about Jake’s work and what he did. “I’m supposed to act as a typical program user, for whom this stuff, after all, is all written,” he said. “I call myself the Conscience of the Program—the programmers shorten it to COP—representing the one touch with reality before the program goes public.” He smiled to himself.
“For example,” he went on, “these young guys couldn’t figure out why the user would have a problem with software commands like GREP. It was no big deal for these hot-shot kids to learn these commands and what they did—‘GREP is trivial to remember’, they would say. That’s their vision of the marketplace, and Sally Secretary be damned. It’s unbelievable sometimes how arrogant—no unaware—these kids can be.”
“Okay, what the hell is GREP?”
Jake thought for a moment. “You don’t want to know.” He went on. “What I do is make myself into a guinea-pig customer for their programs. To get ready, I go out and observe real people trying to operate their computers. They swear, they grimace, they smile. They learn—or don’t learn—how to operate my company’s programs. Then I go back to Boston and swear, grimace and smile, just like I learned how to do. I assume the role of the end user and let the programmers train me in how to use their program. You know I’ve always liked acting, and this job is perfect for an actor.
“God, can I frustrate the programmers,” he said, laughing. “I would completely get engrossed in the role of the average Joe or Sally trying to learn their programs. I would forget commands, I would not save files and turn off the computer. I wouldn’t do things in the right order, I would bristle and get mad when the programmers were arrogant, and I would demand to talk to the manager—who was, for these tests, the founder of the company and who always backed me up. I become the epitome of the terror trainee for them.” Jake giggled, and I broke out laughing. I imagined Jake putting his all into the role.
“The boss thought this role playing was all very humorous—but he knew it was extremely serious for his company at the same time,” Jake continued, “and he would be sure these frustrated programmers had to make things work for me—or go out the door. Believe me, a lot of programmers have gone out the door.
“Robbie, I absolutely love the role playing. It’s acting. The programmers really hated me for about three months for taking them out of their code world into the real world. I would just grin to myself as they griped about the things they had to do to please me.”
I was shaking with laughter at his story, tears rolling out of the corner my eyes as I envisioned Jake making life difficult for these programmers.
“However,” Jake continued, “these guys are finally coming around to making programs usable to average Joes. And sales are rising.
“Maybe it’s the play acting, maybe it’s coming back to the States and being with my mother, but this is the only real lift I’ve had in 14 years.” Jake stared across the restaurant as the memories came back to him. “Since I’m 3,000 miles away for the time being, I get to be a pain in the ass by telephone for the next few weeks during breaks in this special project. I look forward to tormenting these guys some more.” He smiled to himself again.
I took him back to the hotel that night and dropped him off before heading back to my condominium. I sat alone and finished the evening paper before heading off to sleep. Maybe I could tolerate a longer stay from Jake after all.
Jake came by on the weekend and, true to his word, he made the bikes as perfect as possible—at least from his perspective. The weekend also gave me an opportunity to introduce him to Alec, whom I felt somewhat guilty about neglecting. Alec shook Jake’s hand forcefully, as if to prove he were almost a man and not the almost-13-year old that he was.
“God, he really looks like you did when you were handsome,” Jake laughed.
“I still am handsome,” I said, as I turned my body and preened in front of him.
“Dad is particularly ugly when he preens,” Alec said, winking at Jake as Jake set the bikes up on the work bench and started to take them apart.
Alec started to watch closely, showing eagerness to learn what Jake was doing. He peppered Jake with questions—about the bikes, about Jake’s life. . What did he do for a living? Why was he in Seattle? Where did he meet me? How did he learn so much about bikes? How do you adjust the derailleur? etc., etc. Alec was a sponge for information; he never stopped trying to gather it in, and he was quick to absorb what was told him. His face brightened constantly with expressions of understanding when he learned something new.
About an hour into his barrage of questions, Alec knelt down and was looking at Jake through the spokes of the bike, his body prone on the concrete floor of the garage and his face propped in his hands, all eager to get the answer to a question. Suddenly Jake started. His body actually froze for a moment. He stared at Alec with a strange look on his face—that same look of infinite sadness that I recognized from the day I met him at the airport—now tinged with something darker.
I thought I saw tears in his eyes. He set his tools down without a word, got up, wiped his hands on a paper towel and walked out the door and down the street. I looked at Alec, he looked at me, and I shrugged my shoulders. What was that all about, I wondered? Jake came back in about 15 minutes, an apologetic look on his face and resumed work.
But something had changed. Jake turned his back to both Alec and me as he continued to work on the bikes for a couple more hours, even though Alec kept asking questions. The answers turned from the gracious offer of information to begrudging monosyllables. Alec looked a little puzzled at the change of attitude, but he shrugged his shoulders and came over and sat by me.
I thought maybe Alec had disturbed Jake’s concentration too much, so I sent him into the condo for some beers for us and a pop for himself. I did notice my beer was somewhat light and had a large swig-ful missing, and Alec had an impish guilty smile on his face as he handed it to me. I gave him a hug to indicate I forgave him. Ah! Near-teenage boys.
We three took off riding toward the Fremont district, then headed north up the hill to Woodland Park. Jake led a speedy pace, but the athletic Alec had no trouble keeping up. I kept up, but I had to hide my shortness of breath a couple of times for fear of losing points. We spent a couple of hours at the zoo. It felt wonderful to spend the time with my son on one side of me and Jake on the other. I felt happy with the three of us in the sun as we walked our bikes through the park. Looking back, I realize I was so wrapped up in my own thoughts that beautiful day that I wasn’t paying much attention to the interaction—really the absence of it—between Jake and Alec.
Jake and I adopted a weekday riding pattern, wherein I would pull by his hotel after work, he would hop in, we’d go somewhere in the city for a good hard bike ride, him agreeing finally to wear the helmet I had bought for him. He didn’t look as good with his helmet, but I knew he was safer. Sometimes our old friendly rivalries would be rekindled, and sometimes Jake’s Mississippi warmth would emerge, like the sun burning through the morning clouds over Puget Sound. I realize now that it was the physical activity that bound us together, like the camaraderie that comes from playing sports together or horsing around. During these times I put my reservations about the person Jake may have become into the background and decided just to enjoy the present.
Alec would sometimes join us when we got back, and we three would end up going out to dinner or bringing something home to the condo. Jake and I would talk, and, as the days went on, our reminisces became warmer, and I could hear pride rising in his voice from time to time—even about our time in Mississippi. Maybe he wasn’t such a lost cause after all.
After a couple of weeks, however, I noticed that Alec was finding more and more reasons to decline the rides and the dinner with us, and Jake was not seeking him out.
“What’s wrong?” I asked one evening.
“I don’t know. Partly, I feel like a third wheel on a bike on these trips—not because of you, dad. It’s Jake. He just stares at me sad-faced and says nothing of significance—except he’s polite and says the usual things. Dad, I know you want to entertain your friend. I just don’t enjoy the trips. So, why don’t I just back off for a while? I’ll survive. Jake’s only going to be here a short time anyway.”
It hadn’t occurred to me till then that anything was wrong. Months later, as I thought about what was happening over that time and the subsequent months, I remembered that turning point when Jake walked out of our garage after working on our bikes. It was then that Jake began acting strangely toward Alec. I realized from hindsight that after that day he never encouraged Alec to join in our discussions, never asked his opinion of anything, never rode alongside him. Jake’s interactions were always with me, as if Alec wasn’t there. I just hadn’t noticed what was happening at the time. I was oblivious to Alec’s and Jake’s relationship, or lack thereof.
I was just enjoying Jake’s company more and more.
Alec, apparently, was enjoying it less and less.
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