Dirt Bike

 
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Simon Gadke

Art by Peggy Casey-Friedman

 
 

Leon lived for his dirt bike. He was fourteen, and without it he would have been totally lost. Tanya, his mother, didn’t like the idea of him racing around the streets. She thought it was dangerous. But honestly, she considered Leon a bit of a dimwit and the fact that he took interest—and showed aptitude—in something mechanical gave her a small glimmer of hope for his future. Maybe one day he’d work in a garage. His father wasn’t around.

Leon had started out on a mini-bike: a DMP Trail Champ. It was a little red rocket, but after a while it got boring not being able to break 25 mph, so Leon hot-rodded it and added twelve more miles per hour. He was eleven when he did this and learned everything watching YouTube videos. Tanya was nervous, but impressed, and she made a space for him to work in the garage. He spent the next summer collecting scrap metal and hauling it around with a trailer he’d made for his mini. By September he had bought a broken-down Yamaha Scrambler that was older than he was by about twenty years. It was matte military green with a cracked fake-leather seat. He had the engine working by January. Tanya didn’t want him riding in the snow and she didn’t want him riding without a helmet. But she’d given him his workshop in the garage and let him buy the broken-down Scrambler. All her parental authority was gone.

Leon didn’t really have friends at school, but there were kids who got inspired by him, who bought broken-down bikes and then paid him to get them working. By the time he was fourteen he was the leader of an unofficial dirt-bike gang that terrorized his neighborhood. Although he felt totally alone in the world and only at peace when he was out on his bike—his eyes blind with tears from the whipping wind in his face—gang leader was a role he enjoyed.

 

“By the time Leon was fourteen he was the leader of an unofficial dirt-bike gang that terrorized his neighborhood. Although he felt totally alone in the world and only at peace when he was out on his bike—his eyes blind with tears from the whipping wind in his face—gang leader was a role he enjoyed.”

 

Leon and his gang didn’t really terrorize the neighborhood, they just made a lot of noise zipping and ripping around. They’d go up the street and down, up the street and down, up the street and down. Tanya was mortified but also glad. If she could hear the revving of the engines tearing through the peace of the neighborhood it meant that Leon wasn’t on the elevated parkway in the city’s industrial sector or zipping up the mountain access roads that flowed like highways and were steeply graded. Leon often talked to his mother of what it would be like for her to have to come and identify his body on the side of one these roads. He loved to taunt and terrify his mother with the idea of his metal- and asphalt-inflected death. Tanya wanted to do something, but she knew she’d given it all away.

 

The neighborhood that Leon and his gang terrorized wasn’t poor, but it wasn’t exactly nice. Hardworking honest people live here, Tanya would say, pleading with Leon to have a little respect for the neighborhood. But the neighborhood was changing. The older people were dying. New people were moving in: younger people, people with more money, people who were from Toronto but now lived an hour away from the big city in Hamilton. Leon hated this scum, and it didn’t really bother him that his revving bothered them. In fact, he liked it.

One day Leon was alone and ripping up and down the street when out of nowhere a man jumped from behind a parked truck, grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him to the ground. The Scrambler kicked out from under Leon and went skidding down the block. There were sparks and a grinding noise, but Leon was just feeling a searing white pain in his chest as he tried to get his breath back and a searing white rage at the man who had grabbed him. The man was up on his feet, yelling into Leon’s face. Leon couldn’t hear a thing, but he looked down the street and saw Tanya. She was running.

Hers was the first voice he heard:

“What do you think you’re doing touching my son?”

“This simply can’t go on,” the man was saying. “They can’t do this, these little assholes. They can’t go on and on and on.”

“How dare you touch him?”

It went on like this, theme and variation, for a while. Leon looked around, still in a daze. On a porch across the street he saw Tim, one of the kids from his gang, watching with his parents and saying and doing nothing. Tanya was the only one who seemed to care. After this, he decided on the spot, he’d ride alone.

 

He was in the garage repairing the bike when Tanya came in to talk to him.

“You can’t ride anymore,” she said. “You just can’t do it. I shouldn’t have let you buy the bike, I never should have let you ride.”

Leon stared at her, and then went back to hammering out his fenders. He was back on the bike within a week.

The next week Tim came to the garage. There was a man with him.

“This is Charlie,” Tim said. “He’s my new neighbor.”

Leon stared at Tim.

“I saw your little altercation,” Charlie said. “I wanted to meet you.”

Charlie was in his late thirties and had a little scrub of beard on a thin face. He was wearing white jeans and a pink shirt open at the neck. He was part of the scum that was moving into the neighborhood.

“So you met me,” Leon said. He turned a dead stare to Tim: “Why don’t you go stand on your porch with your parents and do nothing.”

“I wanted to talk to you about your bike,” Charlie said. “I’m a screenwriter and I think there’s something . . . interesting about it.”

“Movies?” Leon asked.

Charlie nodded.

“They’re stupid.”

Leon didn’t really have anything to do in the garage. He had just been in there, alone, trying to shut out his mom and the man and who had grabbed his shoulders and the searing white heat he was still feeling. He went to his mini-bike and pull-started the motor. It choked for a bit and then it purred. Leon looked at Charlie. He was scum alright.

“Go on,” Leon said, his voice raised over the engine. He went to the big garage door and pulled it up. The garage filled with light, showing the coil of exhaust hanging in the air. “You think it’s so fucking interesting, take a ride.”

Charlie stared at him, unsure. Leon bent down and grabbed the handles. He pulled the throttle and the engine revved. “Gas,” he said, looking at Charlie and using the voice people used to talk to him. “Brake,” he said, pulling the brake. “Take a ride.”

Leon pushed the bike into the alley. It was a grassy little lane, too small for cars, and there was a pile of old clothes spilling out of a torn black garbage bag slumped against a fence. Charlie stepped out and crouched down to the mini-bike and sat on the seat. His knees were almost at his ears.

“Go on,” Leon said. “Give ’er.”

Charlie did. He zipped a little along the alley before the bike spun out under him and he went skidding along the grass. He was undaunted and got on again. The same thing happened, but he had ridden for longer. The third time was the charm. Charlie made it to the end of the alley, turned out onto the street and zipped off.

Tim came out to stand next to Leon and for a while they listened to the revs of the engine tearing up the air.

“He’s scum,” Leon said. “But at least he has an excuse.”

Charlie came back down the alleyway. His face was flushed and he was beaming. He stood up. His white jeans and pink shirt were smeared with dirt and grass and oil, but he didn’t seem to mind.

“That’s fucking fun,” he said. Leon wasn’t going to be fooled by casual swearing from an adult and he frowned.

Later, in the backyard, Charlie explained to Leon what he wanted to talk to him about: Charlie was new to the neighborhood. He came from Toronto. He was a screenwriter, so he worked from home while his wife went into the city every day to work a real job. Charlie had heard and seen Leon and his gang revving up and down the streets, and found it really annoying and distracting. Charlie loved Neorealism and Iranian New Wave cinema, and talked to Leon about themes of incest in a violent story by a Japanese writer without blushing or hesitation. He talked to Leon like Leon was an adult, and a smart adult—and even though Charlie was scum, this warmed Leon to Charlie a little. Charlie was outlining a movie about a kid, a loner who lives for dirt bikes. He doesn’t have a dad or many friends, but he has his bike. He makes friends with a younger kid, they start dirt-biking together. One night the older kid is dragged from his bed by the parents of the younger kid and taken to a spot in the industrial sector where the younger kid has crashed his dirt bike and died. This would be something Charlie called the real set piece of the film. The ending of this movie was still a little vague; the grieving father of the kid who died blames the older kid who introduced his son to dirt bikes, but then he becomes something like a father to the kid and maybe they dirt-bike together. Charlie would figure out the end, but he wanted to talk to Leon about dirt bikes, how they work, get some hard technical details for his story. “Basically,” Charlie said, summing everything up, “dirt bikes are like a death wish and dirt biking is all about the exhilaration of courting death.”

Leon just stared at him.

 
 

A week later Leon knocked at Charlie’s door. If Charlie wanted to learn about dirt bikes, here’s what they’d do. Charlie would buy a broken-down bike and he would pay Leon to make it work. He could watch while Leon did the work and he could ask questions, but Leon had heard enough bullshit and they’d just stick to dirt bikes. Then they could do some biking together. This was how Charlie would learn about dirt bikes.

Charlie agreed.

 
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Leon started working on Charlie’s bike, and Charlie spent every afternoon in the garage with Leon. It was the beginning of summer and Leon was out of school.

Tanya was unsure about this grown man who was spending so much time with her son. One afternoon she stopped Charlie as he was leaving the backyard and expressed her concerns. Leon was a sweet kid, but a bit of a dimwit: what was Charlie getting at?

From the garage, Leon heard Charlie explain the movie, explain his love of Italian Neorealism, elaborate a little more on the incest-laced violent story by some Japanese writer, declare to his mother that dirt bikes were a death wish and the exhilaration of riding them was the exhilaration of courting death. Charlie talked to Tanya with the same easy faith in her intelligence that he had talked to Leon. Leon knew that he’d been had.

 

The next day, as Leon fussed with the fuel injection line, Charlie was going on and on about transference, a concept that didn’t mean much in a therapeutic concept but that was really important for a writer to understand. Basically, Charlie said, all relationships are traumatic, but there’s one that’s more traumatic than all the others and love just means recreating this traumatic relationship with a different person and trying to fix the past through the present.

“I thought I said no bullshit,” Leon said.

He turned and stood facing Charlie. Leon’s hand was touching the brake line and he knew that Charlie didn’t know what this was, but this fact didn’t really give Leon the power he was telling himself he felt.

Later that night, Leon took his bike up and down the street a few times, but he wasn’t feeling it. He went by the house of the man who had yanked him off his bike; the man’s silhouette was tight in the window as he rode past. He stopped the bike. Across the street was Tim’s place; it was dark but for the flickering light of a television in the upstairs window. Charlie’s house was also dark, but a porch light went on. A woman stepped out. This must have been Charlie’s wife who worked a real job in the city.

It was. She stepped down to their front lawn, which Charlie hadn’t mowed.

“Are you Leon?”

Leon killed the engine. He stared at her. She was a skinny blonde woman about the same age as his mom, in short cutoff jeans and a loose-fitting flowery tank top, with what looked to Leon like an expensive mustard-colored bathrobe wrapped around her shoulders. She had big tits and wasn’t wearing a bra.

It took him two kicks to get the motor going. He said, “I am,” but had the feeling that he couldn’t be heard over the noise of his engine. He rode down to the end of the street and didn’t look back to see if she was watching him. Then, he pointed the bike in the direction of the mountain and gave ’er.

 

Leon had a great ride. The next day in the garage, he wanted to tell Charlie how Charlie was wrong: it wasn’t death he was courting when he was riding his bike, it was life; it wasn’t his own mom he wanted to fuck, it was Charlie’s wife; there was no relationship from the past he was trying to fix through transference: Leon was totally alone in the world. He couldn’t find the words, but managed to say: “You know I could have messed with these brake lines and killed you.”

Charlie and Leon stared at each other until Leon turned around and went back to work, finally letting the smile crack on his face.

That afternoon they started the engine for the first time. Tanya heard the noise and stood at the window of the house that looked out onto the backyard and at the garage. Her wish that this strange man would crash his dirt bike wasn’t exactly the exhilaration of courting death and it wasn’t exactly transference, but it made her face feel hot and the skin around her collarbone feel blotchy.

Charlie paid Leon and left without a word. He walked the bike home and put it in the garage. It was a very expensive and poorly thought-through bit of writer’s research; and still Charlie didn’t have his ending.

After dark, Leon took his bike out. It wasn’t that he respected the neighbors or cared, but he walked it down the street. He just didn’t want Charlie to know anything about him, what he was doing, where he went. When he got to the intersection where it would be okay for him to start the bike, he couldn’t. His life felt like it no longer belonged to him, and he walked the bike home and locked it in the garage.

That night Charlie’s bedroom was hot and stifling; he opened the window and sat on the edge of the bed. Down from the mountain the revving of an engine floated, the buzz-saw sound made gentle through distance and the heavy moisture of the humid night. He wanted to be on those roads too, he wanted to carve the world in half with the sound he cut screaming up the switchback. He sighed, laid back down, and waited for sleep that he knew wouldn’t come.

His wife was asleep beside him, unbothered by the heat, smiling even. She was dreaming of a day when all male scum would be wiped off the face of the earth.

 
 

Spring / Summer 2024



Simon Gadke

Simon Gadke is a filmmaker and writer from Hamilton, Canada. His short film Monkey Paw was an official selection of the 2022 LA Shorts Fest. He was a resident of the 2019 Cineplex Film Program Writer’s Lab at the Canadian Film Centre.



Peggy Casey-Friedman

Peggy Casey-Friedman (BFA, Minneapolis College of Art and Design) has been showing her photography since the late eighties. She has had solo exhibitions at Devening Projects and Artemisia Gallery in Chicago, and has participated in group exhibitions at the Chicago Cultural Center, Hyde Park Art Center, Evanston Art Center, and throughout the United States.



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