I’ve heard the words, you should know better, often in my life and I’m sure I will hear them through the many stages I have yet to go through – marriage, fatherhood, aging, and death. These words have been spoken mostly from a place of love, so I harbor them no ill will, but more a grudging acceptance. You’re right. I should know better.
On Sunday, there was no one to speak these words to me, which is not a justification because if a family member or girlfriend spoke them, there are strong odds I would have ignored them. Stubbornness is one of those qualities that cuts across the grain. Tasks are accomplished, goals are achieved, but not everything that can be done should be done. These thoughts weren’t in the forefront of my mind on Sunday. Instead, I was thinking about the scrapped bike ride on Saturday because it rained for an hour and the roads were slick. I was thinking of being out on my road bike, feeling the wind against my face and the motion of my legs propelling me over the cement through neighborhoods in decay, among the canyons and cobbles of downtown St. Louis and along that wide meandering waterway, the Mississippi. Afterwards, there would be the sore legs, wobbly and light from use, exhilarated to have logged twenty-five to thirty miles. These were my thoughts. Forecasts and weather patterns predicted by excitable men in ill-fitting suits often turn out incorrect or caution us against the outdoors. Without television or Internet, I looked out the window and thought it looked alright out.
We biked through the Delmar Loop, the skies grey overhead and followed the road east toward the river. Storefronts transformed from buildings bustling with people to boarded up windows, vacant lots, signs weathered from years of humidity, freezing winters, and neglect. Somewhere we hung a right, turned again and caught Washington, passing the shell of a church it’s interior open to the sky as if it had been transplanted from a French village after World War II, the Contemporary Art Museum, the Fox Theatre, then the moment passed and the vibrant spike of life dipped back towards the melancholy trough of poverty and disuse. We climbed a long, slow hill, broke the top of it and descended into downtown where people packed the streets on a Sunday to participate in the festivities of the All-Star game, their cash spent on beer, mini-helmets, and baseballs for the kids. It began to drizzle, but we were so close.
The trail was paved and began among a cast of old industrial buildings along the waterfront. Rusted, corrugated, and looming, the buildings don’t let you forget this is an urban area even as the Mississippi crawls by on the East. We began to cycle on the trail, a smooth surface of asphalt separated with a painted line down the middle. The trail danced with the floodwall, a huge concrete barrier well suited for keeping out water or invading hoards from across the river. Passing through the flood gates, there was an ominous feeling, what if those gates were to close? It was easy to imagine. Sirens would wail. Lights would flash. Metal would grind in slow motion. Water full of tree limbs and debris would breach the banks; cyclists would be swept down toward Memphis, the Gulf, a warm flux caught between islands and cruise ships.
As we pedaled, the warm rain continued lightly, leaving our skin damp. We topped a berm, the earth piled against the wall, and paused. To the west stretched a storm-front gusting in from the plains. The wall of clouds appeared flat, a cross section of greys with a highlight of muddy yellow, perhaps from the sun edging along the outskirts. Beneath these clouds, the city sprawled in shadow. We pedaled on.
In the long run, maybe I did know better. That voice came from within this time. We should turn around. Continuing on with the mindlessness of nature the storm roiled nearer, we looped around, the sounds of the river shifting from right to left. Within moments the heavy rain started. A downpour opened over us. Then the wind hit. With the added speed, the water felt like hundreds of needles driven into our exposed skin. Trees thrashed. Leaves swirled. Water pooled on the trail, soaked into our clothes and shoes, forced us to tilt our heads against it and squint. Still, we pedaled on. Urgency fueled with fear. When we topped the berm again, we were thrown into the full force of the storm. The wind swept up over the weedy grass of the exposed hill, visible by the spray of water which flicked with the contours of the earth. It hit me and I felt fear. Not of closing flood gates, but of riding a metal frame through a thunder storm, of blowing off my bike and breaking an ankle or hearing the crack of a collar bone. I shifted into the wind. My body pitched at an angle, the drops popping on the plastic of my helmet. Gusts blew and I counterbalanced. Should I get off my bike and jog it off the hill? This idea was overridden by the desire to escape the storm as quickly as possible. I pushed myself. Hoped my friend was behind me, because looking back would have been one action too many. We rode down the hill, passed through a floodgate and were on the other side of the wall. An older man, much smarter than us stood in a niche, sheltered from the wind and rain. We passed by him, his gaze tracking our movements. Life on this side of the wall was different. The wind broke against concrete and steel, barred, it offered us a brief respite though the rain still managed to drown every inch of our skin. Our clothes heavier from the water stretched on our limbs.
At last, we ended up along the landing back in St. Louis. An emergency sign informed that the area was closed. We pedaled up the steep hill into the city, and stopped at the first bar we saw. With little deliberation, we locked the bikes, walked into the dark room. The Cardinals were losing to the Cubs in Chicago, the scene sunny and removed on the TV. We sat at a table near the door, thankful the floor and stools were solid wood as puddles formed from our dripping clothes and shoes.
We ordered beer and a platter of fries, our money soggy but still good. Nasty out there, the waitress said, made it in just in time. Yeah, we replied, shaking our heads as the scene replayed for both of us, and lightning cracked between the buildings. I drank my beer, thankful for a roof over head, for a friend with whom to toast my glass, thankful for a tomorrow when a loved one once again tells me the words I should heed.