The Motorbike Man

         Bernie Rivkin told his son Arnold about Mike Crook, the crippled motor bike man, as they walked back to Arnold’s car after a Husky / Cougar football game, the last football game of the fall.  Bernie loved the fall football games, loved to join the crowd hooping and hollering when the Huskies rushed out of the horseshoe end of University Stadium. Each fall season Bernie’s rubbery lined face would light up when the newest batch of hard, fast kids dashed to the Husky sidelines in their burnished gold and purple striped Husky helmets. Arnold had never heard Bernie speak of Mike Crook before this day.

         Bernie and Arnold started watching Husky football games together at the University Stadium more or less ten years ago after Arnold’s mother Adele separated from Bernie late in their lives.

         “He’s too tight for me,” Adele had said. “He is as tight as a tick and you know it. From now on, I am going to live and spend my money in my way.”

         The Husky season tickets were in Adele’s name because she was a university alum, and she chose to keep the seats. Not wanting his father to unnecessarily lose anything more of great value from the dissolution of the marriage, Arnold bought two replacements for Adele’s two tickets and thereafter he and Bernie had sat together at the Husky home games.

         When Bernie had some serious surgery, Arnold bought him a satin gold Husky booster jacket trimmed in purple as Bernie lay recovering. It was a son’s small effort to boost his dad’s desire to make it through, to make him think about life after his operation. Bernie mended well and had worn the satin jacket to each Husky game ever since.

         As he sat with Bernie in each successive year at Husky games, observing his Dad  wearing that gold satin jacket with purple stripes, Arnold tried to feel that somehow his dad and he possessed an uncommon bond. Yet he realized, not without a mixture of sadness and envy, that he served Bernie simply as a convenient surrogate for Adele. Bernie never had buddies. Adele had been his only companion.

         Bernie was no spring chicken, ninety years old and pretty much deaf.  He and Arnold didn’t walk to the football games anymore because Bernie’s shrinking thigh and calf muscles, their arteries clotted and clogged, did not work very well.

         Bernie still drove and there was a pay parking lot for the disabled nearby the stadium. However Bernie chose to drive to Arnold’s house before each game. Then they would take Arnold’s car to the parking lot for the disabled. That way Arnold  would be paying for parking when the game was over.

         It was Arnold’s practice to drop Bernie off at the disabled pickup point before parking the car. From there Bernie would get a free ride in a golf cart to the Rivkin’s seats. After the game, it was still possible for Bernie to hobble the short distance to the car by leaning on Arnold’s arm.

         In the past when Arnold lived near University Stadium and Bernie’s legs worked better, they had walked to and from the Huskies’ home games.  Arnold remembered those fall Saturdays as mostly sunny.  He could recall his father and he together, strolling down Stadium Parkway with its flower beds bedecked with new yellow and auburn chrysanthemums, together strolling down to the old brick stadium bridge, kicking at drifts of crinkled fallen leaves, and smelling the musty puffs of aroma floating in the air from the summer’s last blossoms.

         Arnold always bought a couple of crimson Delicious apples near the old brick bridge, right before Bernie and he would fold into the mob of Husky fans dressed in purple and gold. The Delicious apples were fresh from the fall harvest and vendors sold them out of unpainted wooden crates. Arnold would stop for the apples while Bernie continued to walk alone, moving on past the stacks of apple crates. After paying for the apples Arnold would catch up with his dad. At half time the Rivkins would sit there in the stadium chewing away on the crisp red fruit Arnold had bought.      

         “These are the best I have ever bought. Ever,” Bernie always said, juice welling up in the happy wrinkles at the corners of his mouth, clearly forgetting that it was Arnold who bought them. As hard as he tried, Arnold could never remember a time when Bernie bought the apples.

         There always seemed to be a crowd of politicians in front of University Stadium running for this Council, or for that Judgeship, glad-handing the crowd, Their volunteers gave out free printed game lineups with the candidates’ names plastered on both sides. Bernie would always collect a smattering of free lineups choosing the one with the biggest print, the one that was easiest to read.

         “What a bargain.” Bernie would say with a leer. “I might even vote for the guy this year who put out the best quality job.”

         At first, years ago, Bernie took with him to the games the Huskies lineup from  The Seattle Times but he had stopped subscribing to any newspaper. Bernie maintained that the Times was too expensive at eight dollars a month.

         “I remember when the paper was a nickel a day,” he said in defense. “I can get the news on TV.”

         A few years after Adele had left Bernie, Arnold asked his Dad to pay for his share of the Husky tickets:

         “How much are they?” Bernie had asked. Arnold held out a Xerox copy of the invoice for his father to read.

         “They’re twenty bucks each, but the seats are available only if you join the Husky Tyee Club. That adds fifty bucks per game.”

         Bernie had looked as if he had witnessed a shooting.

         “That’s over one thousand bucks a season,” Bernie said, shaking his head in disbelief, his hands staying at his side. Bernie’s hands were those of a wrestler which he had been in his youth, his hands the size of baseball mitts.

          “Look at the bill, Dad.” Arnold handed the invoice to Bernie, offering to let him read it. Arnold remembered the old adage that once the consumer gets the bill in his hand – big or little – the salesman can close the sale. Bernie must have heard that one too, because he did not reach for the invoice. His baseball mitts stayed by his sides.

         “I had no idea,” Bernie said. “Your Mother always took care of them.” Took care of was so far away from pay for that Arnold smiled in spite of himself.

         “If I have to pay that much, to hell with it,” Bernie said, his face flushing, his lips pouting Mussolini style. “I’ll just read about the Husky games in the sport section.” He still had not reached for the invoice.

          “Dad, you don’t take the paper anymore.”

         “Then I’ll watch game reruns on TV.”

         “Reruns are on cable. You wouldn’t buy cable.”

          “Then to hell with the Huskies.” Bernie said, his eyes stupid with anger over the money. Arnold imagined that Bernie’s outraged face would look the same if Bernie that moment was in a stick-up.

         “We have to join the Tyee Club, Dad.”

         “I’ll pay for my ticket,” Bernie conceded, “and that’s it.”

         But Bernie never got around to giving Arnold a check for the tickets.


         On the Saturday that Bernie told Arnold about Mike Crook, the motorbike man, together they had watched the Huskies manhandle the Cougars. As they returned to Arnold’s car in the Disabled lot, Arnold was in a hurry to go. He attempted to speed their pace by supporting Bernie’s arm while they walked. His father’s arm felt curious and thin, Arnold thought, the veined forearm muscles had vanished. This was the same arm that seemed so huge to Arnold when he was a boy.

         Bernie did walk slowly. What was left of his ninety year old legs were cramping on him. His right leg was the worst. Bernie dragged it along as if it were a willful pet on a leash trying its best to head off in a different direction.

         Bent down at the shoulders, Bernie prodded the ground with his cane at each step, looking for cracks in the asphalt, searching for potholes, and loose gravel. They were as dangerous to him as land mines. Arnold had successfully persuaded his dad to carry a cane although Bernie didn’t know which of his huge mitts should grasp the handle in order to support his uncooperative right leg. Arnold suspected that his father fell frequently but Bernie had not been willing to admit it.

         Arnold steered his dad around the clumps of college boys and girls who were hooking up for some later events. The roiling sounds of the slow moving purple and gold crowd did not bother Bernie a bit because he could not hear them. Bernie’s hearing aids, recycled older models, were not a matching set. Bernie plugged them into his huge liver spotted ears from which wild hairs stuck out like twigs. Arnold had urged Bernie to buy a matching set of hearing aids but he would not consider it:

          “None of them are worth a damn” Bernie said, “so why should I spend any money on them?”

         “S” was a particularly tricky sound for Bernie. When they were alone Arnold would have to shout so that Bernie could hear his “s”,s.

         After drifting for a block or so, Bernie stopped to rest a while: “The right leg is worst” he explained, talking about “the leg” as if it was a separate creature.

         Parked to the side were fancy motorcycles, Harley, Honda, and Yamaha motorbikes; real eye catchers with satin black, chartreuse, red, and orange fenders and bodies, and engine parts covered with chrome. Bernie eyed the bikes.

         “I always wanted to try one but never had the courage to do it. Way before the war there was a bike shop in Sioux Falls, next door to Rivkin’s.”

         Rivkin’s was Grandpa Rivkin’s dry cleaning store, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Bernie worked there for over a decade after he graduated from college. Then he started his own cleaners in Minnesota when he and Adele married in 1941.

         “The bike shop was owned by old man Crook,” Bernie said staring at the parked bikes. “The motorbike repairs were done by his son Mike. Mike was a real daredevil. He drove one of their  motorbikes all over the place. Mike really knew how they were put together. He just loved them.”

         Bernie stamped his right leg on the ground as if a few whacks on the earth would make the limb feel better. His nose was running a little; his draining sinuses gave his voice a warbling sound, adding a sentimental quality to his story:

         “There were bikes like these – not so fancy of course – parked all around the Crook’s door, leaning on their kick stands. Mike’s friends used to hang around there too cracking jokes and laughing. Every once in a while, someone would tinker with one of them, then jump on and take off to see how it would go, would tear around the block, swerve back onto the sidewalk, bang down the kickstand and hop off, leaving the bike there steaming hot. When there was no one around, I used to go out and swing my leg over a bike, plant my butt on the seat, grab the handles and pretend I was streaking down River Street at top speed, shooting out of Sioux Falls, past the city limits, flying off on the county roads, past all those old farmers on tractors.“

         Bernie pulled out a handkerchief from his pocket and tooted his ample nose. With his perpetual nasal drip, Bernie needed a lot of handkerchiefs. This handkerchief was one of thousands collected during his days as a dry cleaner. Bernie would find handkerchiefs in the coat and pants pockets of his customers, then dry clean and press them for his own use. After he retired Bernie kept a lifetime supply of free handkerchiefs in a giant box in his garage.

         Arnold had tried to get his dad to take antihistamines to dry up the drip but Bernie maintained that the drug was too expensive.

         “If I just knock off drinking cold water it’ll stop. I know it.” The nasal drip went on as did the warble in Bernie’s throat.

         A Husky fan jumped on a Honda, cranked on the starter pedal.  The motor grunted and popped as it wobbled off past the home going crowd. Bernie watched the Honda with admiration.

         “Mike Crook would just climb onto a bike just like that kid did, kick start the thing and take off down River Street, not even looking to see if there was any traffic coming at him. He looked so wild to me, wild, a real daredevil. I envied him, I guess.  I guess I just envied his nerve. ”

         It was getting dark and Arnold wanted to get going. He pulled at Bernie’s arm.

         “Lets try it again.”

         Bernie shook his head.

         “Too soon. It’s still resting.” His right leg his old loyal dog resting.

          “One day,” Bernie mused almost talking to no one, “I heard that Mike Crook was in an accident, his bike got caught between two cars. Must have tried to squeeze between them. Got crushed but good. He barely survived. His legs were shot. Couldn’t swing them over a bike.”

         Bernie was looking back at University Stadium not at his son. Arnold had never heard this story before.

         “Actually, after the accident,” Bernie said, “Mike barely walked at all, only with a set of crutches. I could see him scraping down the street past Rivkin’s, into Crook’s shop, past the motorbikes parked outside. He never got better. I never saw him without crutches. Then your Mother and I got married and we moved to Minnesota.”

         “Can we go now?” Arnold said. He worried that it was too late, that they were certain now to get caught in the traffic jam on Stadium Parkway.

         “OK. OK,” Bernie laughed and coughed banging his foot with his cane, “Maybe it’s ready to work now.” A pat for his pet leg and the Rivkins started walking again with Bernie still talking away:

         “A long time later, after the War, I was going down Fourth Street in Sioux Falls near your Grandma’s house, walking to the grocery store to get something. Your grandparents weren’t able to do much for themselves anymore; your Grandpa was pretty sick by then.”

         “When I went into the store I passed a man in a wheel chair outside the entrance. He wasn’t going in; he was just sitting there outside the doors in his wheel chair. He was begging, actually I think. I didn’t want to look at him but it was hard not to. He looked like Mike Crook. I’m pretty sure it was him. Pretty sure.”

         Bernie wiped his nose with his handkerchief.

         “He didn’t recognize me but he asked me if I could spare a quarter. I said no, then I looked past him and walked into the store. I think I knew it was him, knew it was Mike Crook all right.  But I still wouldn’t give any change to him.”

         Bernie hobbled to a stop and put a puzzled finger on his lip.

         “I don’t know why I wouldn’t give Mike a little change. I think that was one of the most shameful things I have ever done. Just shameful.”

         Bernie’s head bobbed down as he began to drag his right leg, his misbehaving pet, looking for potholes and loose gravel, looking for land mines while he and Arnold walked toward the parking lot.

         Out of nowhere, Arnold felt an urge to tell off his Dad;

         ‘Why don’t you pay for your share of the tickets? Why haven’t you paid at least for the apples, for the parking, or even buy a game day newspaper? All of a sudden after fifty years, when it’s safe to bring it up, you pick on yourself for stiffing a cripple. You bring it up fifty years later when there is no way you will have to shell out any dough to Mike Crook. You just want me to think what a nice guy you are, even though you won’t pay for a single thing.  Nice move, Dad. Real nice move.’

         But Arnold said nothing remained silently in step with Bernie while holding his dad’s withered arm as they walked to the car. Bernie pulled open the passenger door and entered his seat butt first.

         ‘When we get to the tollgate,’ Arnold thought, ‘I’ll just pull up, block the road, and sit there. Maybe my Dad get the idea for once and maybe – despite his unreasonable cheapness – maybe he’ll pay. Maybe he’ll be a mensch about it for once.

         Arnold drove to the parking lot exit and the tollgate attendant stepped up to the driver’s window.  Bernie eyes were locked on the floor mat, his arms crossing his chest a safe distance from his wallet pocket.

         The ticket taker smiled; “All right now. Was it good today or what? Go Huskies!” Bernie made no sign that he heard the cheer. His eyes were cast down locking his huge hands tightly into his lap. Arnold saw his father was cash mute, money blinded, dollar deafened. The sun could go down, he thought, and we would sit here and my father would never lift his eyes off the floorboards.

         Arnold  took out a ten-dollar bill and asked the toll taker; “how much is it?” Three dollars came back. Bernie just sat there hearing nothing, his eyes now shut, his hands as huge as baseball mitts folded in his lap.

With the car brake on Arnold looked down at his own hands, the hands that clutched the three dollar bills. His hands were his mother’s no doubt about that, small and dimpled. As different from Bernie’s baseball mitts as they could be. The raging heat that Arnold  felt toward his Dad dissipated with the setting afternoon sun. For the first time he could see what things were out there that Bernie, his father, would not buy and could only envy. As the afternoon shadows surrounded father and son with darkness, each man in his own place with their different hands, one small pair holding change, and the other pair as large as baseball mitts utterly empty.

With a snort, then a mechanical snarl, a gaggle of motorbikes around them started up. Arnold saw Bernie look up with a start and then with unmistakable longing, gape as the bikes passed by their car, grunting, puffing, and popping each with its own unique voice.

The amplified sound of the bikes like a squad of bumble bees seemed to fire up Bernie whose breath and chest rose to a matching rhythm as the bikers accelerated around the flower beds filled with yellow and auburn chrysanthemums and down Stadium Parkway in the musty fall afternoon.

Arnold felt the excitement too, could tell that Bernie was filled with unalloyed admiration for each helmeted bike rider, a little of Mike Crook in each biker, each unencumbered by fear and incredibly free. The person his Dad had always wanted to be.

Bernie broke the spell;

“Can you imagine what one of those rigs must cost?” he said first frowning, then looking relieved as he touched his wallet, reassured that it was tight and safe and unopened in his hip pocket.

Arnold watched it all and as the gate opened, he answered his Dad’s question knowing full well that the old man had been talking to himself.

“Cost a bunch, Dad,” he said “One of those bikes would probably bankrupt you.”

But Arnold was smiling for the first time as they began the homeward run.

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