Losing Fausto Coppi

Bruce McDougall

          The bike that Jack first learned to ride belonged to the older brother of a girl in his kindergarten class. Their mother and Jack’s mother both belonged to the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire. Their father worked for a multinational company that made soap; Jack didn’t know exactly what his own father did. His mother and father argued a lot.

          The brother used the bike to deliver newspapers from a cast-iron carrier bolted to the handlebars. It held about a hundred newspapers and weighed almost as much as the bike. In the summer, after dinner, he let Jack ride the bike. There was never much traffic on their street, so Jack could wobble around on it until he learned to ride it. When the boy outgrew it, Jack’s parents bought it and gave it to him for his fifth birthday.

          Soon after he got the bike, Jack decided to help the kid who’d owned it before him. He went to the kid’s house one afternoon, piled his bundle of newspapers into the carrier and delivered one to each house on the street, whether they subscribed to the paper or not. Jack thought he was doing the kid a favor, and he wondered why his mother got so upset when she had to go to the store to buy thirty-five more papers. He didn’t know then that his father had spent almost all of their money.

          As months passed, Jack rode farther from his house. Sometimes he rode down a cobblestoned hill to race around a cinder track beside the local high school. Or he rode the other way, three blocks to Bloor Street. Streetcars ran along Bloor Street, and his mother told him never to cross them. For a while Jack obeyed her. His father didn’t seem to care where he rode the bike.

          Sometimes Jack went for a ride with his friend Richard, who lived in a house down the street. Richard was about three years older, but he didn’t seem to mind riding with Jack. In Richard’s parents’ house, he had his own private clubhouse under the basement stairs, where a light bulb hung from the ceiling on a cord and he could lock the plywood door with a padlock from the inside. Richard was Russian. Jack’s mother said that his dad worked for a communist newspaper. When Jack went to Richard’s house one day, Richard’s mother said he couldn’t go outside. But Richard told his mom to go to hell and stormed out of the house. If Jack had done that, his mother would have washed his mouth out with soap. But Richard’s mother didn’t say a word. Jack figured Russian families were different than his.

          One day Jack went with Richard and his father in their car to a bike shop, where Richard’s dad bought him a yellow ten-speed Cinelli. Jack had never seen anything so beautiful. It had a Campagnolo rear derailleur that guided the chain over the sprockets. Levers on the handlebars controlled the brakes through cables fastened to the frame. The handlebars were wrapped in yellow cloth tape. On the pedals, there were chrome-plated toe clips with red leather straps. Richard’s father said the bike was just like the one that Fausto Coppi rode in the Giro d’Italia. Jack had never heard of Fausto Coppi. The only Italian Jack knew was the guy on the spaghetti tin named Chef Boy-Ar-Dee.

          One evening that summer, Richard suggested that they ride their bikes to the exhibition grounds three miles away to watch the cycling races. To get there they had to cross Bloor Street and ride through a park to the waterfront. Jack knew that, if he asked his mother first, she wouldn’t let him go. So, he went without telling her and hoped she wouldn’t find out.

          The cyclists raced at the exhibition grounds on bikes with no mudguards, no gears and no brakes, just a frame with two wheels, two pedals, a seat and a set of dropped handlebars. They wore tight black shorts and leather gloves, which they used to stop their bikes by pressing their palms against the front tire. After Jack went home that day, he wrapped black hockey tape around his handlebars and more tape around the crossbar.

          Racing around the cinder track at the high school one evening, Jack saw a girl from his class. Her name was Oksana. She was taking a shortcut through the schoolyard, and Jack could tell that she was watching him.

          Oksana lived on the other side of the high school, half-way up a hill that was so steep that cars parked with their front wheels turned in to the curb. The next evening Jack stood on the pedals and rode his bike up Oksana’s street, hoping she’d see him as he grunted past her house. After that, he rode past her house almost every night, but she didn’t appear until the evening when he discovered another kid riding up the same hill. That’s when she finally came out of her house.

          They both stopped their bikes by the curb and waited for her to walk to the sidewalk. Looking at their bikes, she asked Jack why his handlebars and crossbar were wrapped in black tape. “Because mine’s a ten-speed,” Jack   said. “Like Fausto Coppi’s.”

          “Who’s Fausto Coppi?” the other kid said.

          Jack took off then and rode up the hill, pedaling as hard as he could. When he reached the top, he turned around and flew back down. By the time he passed Oksana, he was going so fast that he couldn’t stop. When he reached the bottom of the hill, he just kept riding until he got home.

          Jack might have done that every night for the rest of his life, if he hadn’t visited his father the next day. His dad had spent the summer selling potted plants from a vacant lot near a wealthy neighbourhood a few blocks from their house. Near the end of the summer, he found a job in a bank downtown. Jack decided that day to visit him on his bike.

          To get there, he rode for an hour along Bloor Street. Cars and trucks and streetcars streamed past, but they didn’t bother him. He’d ridden his bike enough by then to know what he was doing.

          “How did you get here?” said his dad.

          “Rode my bike,” said Jack.

          His father put the bike in the trunk of his car and told him to wait till he finished working.

          When they drove home, Jack’s mother said she’d been worried sick. She’d said the same thing many times. It seemed to Jack that she said it whenever she didn’t know exactly what he was doing. She never seemed to understand that sometimes Jack didn’t want her to know what he was doing. Now she told his father to take the bike downstairs and lock it in the basement. In the basement, Jack’s father propped the bike on its kickstand next to the workbench and fastened a chain around the front wheel with a padlock, but he left the back wheel free to spin. Jack couldn’t move the bike, but he could sit on it and turn the pedals. His mother said he’d have to wait to ride it again on the street until he was old enough to do it sensibly.

          When Jack told Richard what had happened, he said Jack could ride his old bike while he rode his new Cinelli. After that, they snuck away a few times to watch the races at the exhibition grounds, but Jack never rode again up the hill past Oksana’s house.

          One night after Jack had gone to bed, he heard his mom and dad arguing. His dad asked his mother why she’d married him. She said she should never have done that. His father said he was sorry he’d disappointed her. She said he wasn’t sorry at all. “You’re right,” he said. He wasn’t sorry. There was more yelling, and then Jack heard a thud and his mother crying. She came into the room where Jack was sleeping. She threw a key onto his bed and said, “Here, go ride your bike.” But Jack didn’t dare to do it or even get out of bed.

          Jack wasn’t sure how much time passed after that before he and his mother moved away from his dad. It happened one morning after his dad had gone to work at the bank. A moving van parked by the curb. Two guys in coveralls removed everything from the house except for the piano and hauled it all to another house in the suburbs. His mom said Jack could ride his bike again. She removed the lock, and Jack took the tape off the handlebars and rode around his new neighborhood, past rows of identical bungalows. He thought sometimes of riding back to his old neighborhood, but he wasn’t sure how to get there, and he couldn’t follow the streetcar tracks, because he and his mom had moved far past the end of the line. A few months later, his mother told him that his father had died.

          The girl whose brother had owned the bike asked Jack one year to a dance at her school. Her father had become an executive with the soap company. She lived now in a bigger house in the wealthy neighborhood where Jack’s father had sold flowers. His mother said Jack should go to the dance, but when he got there, he didn’t have much fun, and he wasn’t very kind to the girl. He thought he might have had a better time with her brother.

          Jack was in his mid-twenties when he got a ten-speed bike of his own, a Holdsworth Cyclone, made in England. He rode it once through his old neighborhood, but he didn’t expect to see anyone he knew. Richard had moved. He could hardly remember what Oksana looked like. When he rode past the house where he’d lived with his mom and dad, he felt as if the best years of his life had been locked away there, like a bicycle in the basement, and when he rode away again, he knew that he could never take those years with him. 

Bruce has written or co-written sixteen non-fiction books, published essays in The Antigonish Review and Easy Street and short stories in Geist, subTerrain, Amsterdam Quarterly, Rumblefish,  HereComesEveryone and Scrivener magazine. A collection of his short stories called Every Minute is a Suicide was published in Canada in 2014 by The Porcupine’s Quill, in Erin, ON, and received a gold eLit Award and a bronze medal in the Independent Publisher Book Awards. His non-fiction novel, The Last Hockey Game, was published in Canada in 2014 by Goose Lane Editions, in Moncton, N.B., and was shortlisted for the 2015 Toronto Book Award.

Bumbling around after college with no clue how to become someone of value, he worked as a tail sawyer in a sawmill, a companion for mentally handicapped adolescents, an airport attendant, a bouncer at a night-club called the El Mocambo, a taxi driver and a newspaper reporter. He’s a graduate of Harvard College, where he was an editor of The Harvard Lampoon. He attended the University of Toronto Law School but escaped before becoming a full-time writer.