**Note from Tom. I’ve been writing reams of stuff these days. Mostly these kinds of stories. Hope you enjoy.**
As the last light of day started to fade into wherever it goes each night, our four skinny front tires rolled into a suburb of Syracuse, NY. Keith, Rickie, Mark, and I had started this journey 30 days ago and were entering the home stretch.
We were riding bicycles across the US to raise money for a non-profit based in Massachusetts. One of the administrators, Rachel, grew up in Syracuse and she’d coordinated with her Mom and Dad to let us sleep in their house for a night as we passed through on our way to Boston. Previous nights had been spent sleeping under the stars, on strangers’ couches, under army surplus tarps, and in chain hotels every few days so that we could shower and eat pizza in bed.
Once we got into town, I called Rachel’s folks and her Dad gave us directions to their house. Twenty minutes later we were pulling into their driveway in the dark. We were in a quiet neighborhood in a hilly section of town. It was late June and the evening was still thick and steamy. As we unclippled from our pedals, the metal storm door strained and hollered on its worn spring and hinges.
“BOYS! You made it! Welcome!” bellowed Rachel’s dad.
We all mumbled some kind of appreciative greeting. We were gassed.
“Come on in and grab a shower. Dinner will be ready soon.”
We kicked off our cycling shoes and padded through the mudroom in our sweaty pearl izumi socks and then downstairs into a half finished basement with a couple of rooms.
Once we were safely in the basement, we peeled off our spandex bike shorts and jerseys and stuffed them into the washer. At this point in the journey, we’d begun shipping items home anytime we passed a post office. We were traveling light, cranking pedals and making solid time. We were road hardened and bearded by the 70+ miles we were clocking each day. We’d adapted nicely to the demands of waking up, shoving a bike up your ass, and cranking away for 8-10 hours. We were less than 7 days from home.
We huddled up in the basement where they had a utility shower. A phone booth sized shower stall that was functional and not at all for show. We took turns ducking in to get under the hot water. We scraped caked salt from our bodies and faces. We scrubbed away old layers of sunscreen. We rubbed off the grime from the back of our calves that gets kicked up by fast spinning tires. We carefully washed our chafed inner thighs and undercarriages.
We showered and put on our street clothes. The clothing we wore when not on bikes was soft technical T-shirts and packable REI shorts and flip flops. Comfy, looser stuff was such a relief to put on after being jammed into bike shorts for a full work day.
With our skin still pink from the hot water, we trudged back upstairs where we took seats around the dining room table. The table was built of heavy dark wood with a leaf that was stowed underneath. We helped them pull apart the ends of the table to drop in the leaf for extra capacity. It was a shinier surface than the rest of the table. The Nelsons were empty nesters and while I hoped they sat down together often, they almost never required the extra capacity that tonight’s group needed.
Mr. Nelson joined us at the table and Mrs Nelson started bringing over heaps of food. We started with a mixed green salad. The kind of homemade salad that gets passed from generation to generation in a household. Every family has a slightly different house salad.
Sometimes you get shredded carrots. Sometimes a family fully peels their cucumbers. Some homes will peel ribbons off the cucumbers and give you those pretty striped cukes. Sometimes there’s neon orange french dressing and sometimes you get Ken’s Creamy Italian. Maybe one in five salads, you get a homemade oil and vinegar that gets shaken up in a little tupperware bottle that has been through the dishwasher 5000 times. One house may add store bought croutons that damage the roof of your mouth while another might add imitation bacon.
We had small foggy glass bowls for the salad. We ate 2-3 bowls each as we settled in for conversation. We’d been living off Perkins and Denny’s short stacks in the morning and pizza every night for bike fuel. It was a dream to get some veggies in the system. The Nelsons were kind enough to get a 12 pack of beer for us. For most folks, three beers each is a generous nightcap. After the salad course, Mrs Nelson went to the stovetop where our next course had been resting. She returned gripping a heavy tray and we were presented with the best kind of food to warm your belly after a day of heavy exercise. A silver tray of molten, cheesy lasagna. Its hard to know if the food was excellent or if it was excellent because of the setting. Does it matter? Mrs Nelson served us eight inch tall slabs with a spatula. We’d each hold out our empty plates a couple more times until we could hardly move.
After our pasta course got cleared, Mrs Nelson brought over a similar sized tray of homemade brownies. We made a huge dent in what I’m guessing she hoped would last them a week.
We deleted the 12 pack in the blink of an eye. I remember drinking the beer in long, cold gulps. The kind of glugs that make a noise. We had such a lovely time sitting around chatting with Rachel’s folks. Soon after the table was cleared, the Nelsons retired to bed. Mrs. Nelson went first. Mr. Nelson followed after a couple extra minutes with the boys.
We repaid their generous hospitality toward strangers by being shitty twenty two year old kids. Mr. Nelson noticed that we’d gotten rid of the 12 pack in record time, so he directed us to an extra fridge in the garage that held a miscellaneous selection of beers and canned beverages that had been left at their house during the holidays and summer cookouts. If you grew up in the suburbs, you know about the garage fridge. People show up to party with a six pack of what they like to drink and leave four of them behind. These four packs compound into a mountain of mismatched drinks.
We made ourselves way too comfortable in the living room to watch Forest Gump on TNT. In 2006, Forrest Gump played 3-4 times per day on TNT and TBS. We must have watched it eight times in motels across the US. We sprawled out on couches and yanked on the lever of Mr. Nelson’s favorite recliner. We chatted in outdoor voices that crept up in volume as more cans piled up around us.
We started on the cocktails. We sent Keith to fetch the first round of drinks and I think he returned with a Heineken, a Coors original, a Smirnoff ice, and a Sam Adams Winter lager. We fell into a familiar rhythm of busting each others’ balls and chugging beers. We drank for hours. We easily emptied the entire garage fridge. There must have been 50 or 60 miscellaneous cans in that fridge. Every drop of booze in the house was gone. All of it. Dry.
We even went back and finished off the brownies. We found a couple of mason jars of homemade banana peppers and got into those. We were like raccoons who had gotten into a dumpster of delicious items.
In the morning, the Nelsons went off to work and we made ourselves at home in the kitchen. I scrambled all of the eggs that they owned and added in piles of venison sausage from the freezer. We ate them out of house and home.
There was only one rule in the house that we were aware of. We were not to use the toilet in the master bedroom.
After breakfast, we started to shower and get prepared for the day. We applied sunscreen, chamois butter, and yanked on bike shorts, socks and jerseys. We wiped sunglasses, checked tire pressure, and packed bags.
I sat down at the family Compaq to bang out a blog post. Unknown to the rest of the group, Keith had snuck off to take a dump in the master bedroom. It’s unclear if he hadn’t heard the rule or had chosen to ignore it. He flushed the toilet and finished up his morning routine. He finished his routine by snooping around in a chest of drawers in the room where I was typing away. He couldn’t help himself.
I’m cranking away loudly at the keys of the late 90s machine when I hear the loudest crack that I’d ever heard. Only one thing could make that noise. Reflexively my palms went to my ears to try and quiet the high pitched ringing. It felt like I was underwater.
The next sound I heard was Rickie yelling at the top of his lungs.
“What the fuck was that? Was that a gun shot? What the FUCK?
I slowly turn around in a chair and see Keith standing behind me with a smoking antique pistol. His mouth was O shaped and his eyes went from the gun to my face and back again. He’d fired a gun inside their house and Rickie had almost walked into the buckshot as it scattered and flew across the hall and plugged in the Nelson’s bedroom door. I’d never seen Rickie so mad.
“Are you fucking crazy, man? What is wrong with you!” he shouted.
Keith looked like he’d seen a ghost. He could not get a word to come out. He just sat their and took the tongue lashing from Rickie.
Rick and I started looking for damage from the round. What were we going to do? These people had welcomed us into their modest home and we were destroying it.
We tiptoed into their bedroom to search for damage. As we walked deeper into the room, we noticed that the plush carpet in their room was sopping wet. Our feet were squishing into the carpet like mud at low tide. This is how we discovered that Keith had flooded the master bath.
We went into problem solving mode. I remember Keith and I trying to sop up the water with towels while Rick plunged the crap filled toilet. We found a shop vac in the garage that Marc used to suck up some water also. We checked the basement. We saw water leaking through the drop ceiling. Not good.
The Nelson’s bedroom door had a scattering of small holes in it from where the buckshot had sprayed into the wood. Should we go to a hardware store for sandpaper and paint? Buy a new door?
Here’s the best option we came up with. The bathroom door in the basement was a close (questionable) match to the damaged door so we popped them both off the hinges and made the swap. After an hour of work, we regrouped at the dark wood table where we’d been served like conquering heroes the night before.
After 4 minutes of silent temple massaging, Rickie stood up, walked out of the room and returned with the cordless phone and a scrap of paper from the fridge marked “Emergency phone numbers”. He shoved both at Keith and said, “Make the call.”
“What call?” Keith nervously mumbled back.
“Call Mr. Nelson at work and tell him what happened. We can’t leave this place like this without telling them.”
This was of course the right thing to do, but the weight of it settled in the air. Keith had panic on his face.
After a bunch of pacing and some whispered rehearsal, he punched in the numbers and mumbled his way through an apology.
We heard some sentence fragments as he nervously paced around the kitchen. ….“accidentally shot a gun indoors…” and “turned your bedroom carpet into a shit sponge…”.
Somehow, Mr. Nelson remained calm and understanding. Keith said he responded with, “Jesus! Don’t shoot anyone until I get home!”
We cleaned up as best we could, clipped into our pedals and hit the road for Boston. I can remember thinking that when Mr. Nelson returned home and assessed the situation, he was going to get into his truck and catch up to us down the road and use that antique gun on us.