One summer evening in 1984, feeling good with a belly full of flounder and fries, I flung the screen door open, moved with the swiftness across our front porch, and climbed aboard The Mongoose. If you never saw The Mongoose, which I am guessing you never did: let me help you out with that. She was everything. Chrome. Red pads. Red knobby tires with park dirt up in the treads. Her pedals were heavier than a Huffy’s, more serious it felt like to me. Maybe more determined? I don’t know. It felt like a bike rider’s bike. Everything before The Mongoose had been K-Marty. Plastic chain covers that you had to kick off with your sneakers as soon as you were down in the alley far enough from the house.
My mom would have lost herself if she saw me out the window kicking the chain guard off of a brand-new bike. But you know: she never did: I wasn’t gonna let that happen, obviously. I’d kick it off down in Bally’s Alley; snap at it with a couple sharp pops and it would crack and break and just fall off eventually. Then I would tuck it back in the junk trees under some leaves, my fingers brushing aside dried up locust shells.
You know that sound? The sound of a dried-up locust shell flying off your finger flick?
It’s like a TCK.
One…two…three…TCK TCK TCK.
Jesus…why? I would pay money to have a coffee can full of dried up locust shells now. Just to flick them with my kids. Off into the yard. Flicking little abandoned exoskeletons or whatever the hell they are…it just feels comforting. Is that weird? It wasn’t if you were 12 years old and body high on fried flounder and you had the chorus from Oh Sherrie playing on a loop in your brain and the sun was starting to go down and you were staring at The Mongoose as if your very life depended on whatever was about to go down.
Oh, there’s a locust shell.
Now it’s gone.
GODDAMN THAT FELT NICE!
Chain guards were for dorks. For losers. For shit heads. But they were not for me.
I was a back alley cruiser/ a behind Town Valet Cleaners speed bump hopper/ a Silt Basin deer chaser with the luck to lose. I would take The Mongoose to Josie’s candy store and skid out a long crimson skid mark right up to her front stoop: a winding red suburban Philly rattlesnake: and then drop the bike AS it was still sliding into the steps/ move FROM the bike onto the steps like liquid/ fluid/ husky kid cool/ and open that banged-up white metal screen door with a black silhouetted old time horse-drawn carriage up in the middle of it just below the screen/ and pull myself into that cool mystical darkness on the backs of fifty million Swedish Fish heading to spawn up that raging river of Tahitian Treat which flowed directly beneath the wheelchair upon which sat one old, Italian, mean-ass but also lovely woman with stubble and glasses and a small box full of change which contained all the mixed coins of a life played out once upon a time/ God knows where?/Sicily?/ Philly?/Norristown?/ Pfft if l’ll ever know.
I was The Mongoose between my legs and she was me.
That might sound dirty but I don’t care.
We WERE dirty together. We were one, like sex way before sex. Like something better than sex even maybe?
That evening, out front the house as the neighbors started coming back to the neighborhood from work, cars pulling their extended selves around the tired corner onto our street like big boats moving off the bay/ pulling themselves back into tiny lagoons of stiller water/ there she sat: her kickstand poking down into the grass by a clump of someone else’s small dog stinky summertime sneaker-bound dog shit: shining/ GLEAMING in all that tired daylight, her cheap silver paint accentuating her redder hues, her name in orange and red: MONGOOSE: right down her body bar: I stood there and felt the energy of the deep dark ocean (frozen Acme flounder!) rising up in my blood stream.
I swung my leg over her seat, knocked the kickstand back with the heel of my Nike, and effortlessly, Easy Rider on a Mind Harley heading up Forrest Street, heading to the north and to the east.
Towards New York City.
Towards the Norwegian Sea and beyond that, the eastern most archipelagos of Russia, in all her early 80’s weirdness…just sitting up there, up that long cold beeline from where I was pointing the Mongoose, waiting to devour me and my flounder guts.
At Mrs. White’s house, Babs, her chihuahua, flung herself at me as I rolled by. A small torpedo in the shade of the ivy, she aimed herself, 100 heartbeats a second/ a revving of the engines/ timed it just right and then slammed into the chain link fence, attacking the air with hissing fangs and ridiculous barking as I swung the hard left on 9th Avenue and started past Mr. Anson’s place towards the park.
Lawnmowers cut the sky that evening. Far off humming, buzzing, sputtering. Sometimes I would see a man up ahead, sometimes a kid, pushing the mower, spewing the week high grass onto the freshly-sheared strips of lawn. If I could, I’d swerve my bike out into the street then. If I couldn’t, I’d stand up, raising my butt off the seat, my entire body straight up and down now like some cavalry Custer blazing down the lane, and I would meet the eye of the mower just as I flew by them and they would be sweaty/ high on ketchupy steak or Shake-n-Bake pork chops and broccoli and cheese and cool milk or warm tap water or lukewarm Miller High Life, and I would smile a little at the last second if I knew them or just nod maybe if I didn’t and they would do the same I guess. I don’t really remember. I wish I did.
Gaining speed, down over the sidewalks, uneven bricks giving way to smoother concrete, tree roots pushing entire plates up over the years and forming hops that were so familiar to us, to me and The Mongoose, that we could almost do the entire street with our eyes closed.
That’s what home is, you know?
You can ride a Mongoose down any street and feel the bumps and the jumps before they even happen. With repetition came familiarity. With familiarity came a kind of melding. And once that had taken place, there was nothing separate anymore. Me/the bike/the horrendous sudden rising bricks that would have killed a stranger hurdling at the same speed, they came to me moments before I came to them. I could anticipate entire prairies, entire wilderness passes, just by squinting my eyes and breathing in the new cut grass smell, just by clocking old Verna’s house here: I could begin to lift into the sidewalk pushed up into….a jump….right…..riiiiiiiight…….THERE!
Through the air we would go then, and through the air we went that day: the breeze of movement sliding her finger combs through both sides of my head at once, my scalp tingling, my eyes closed, rejoicing in the air born freedom of thought and expression…living life/ finally!/in the true Utopian land of equality and thought where all men and women are created equal…up there in the middle of that busted sidewalk rampified jump through the never-ending sky that started right across from Michael Brenner’s house and lifted us up up up past the ancient tree that had probably watched kids just a little older than me march off to die in the Civil War…up up up….up.through the summer evening/ up through the green tree top/ past a squirrel’s nest we shot/ Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Squirrel!/ Hello there, Mongoose Serge! Nice night for a ride!/ …up up up/ until I could look down and see with my own eyes the work-a-day men and the second string defensive ends and the divorced moms with drunk ex-husbands and the tube sock’d teenagers and the shirtless old grumps with skin cancer dots dabbing their bald crowns with blue and red bandanas…..all of them down there mowing their little patches grass as the sun was starting her long set in the west…..that fragrance/ that sweet sweet summertime cut grass honey shooting up my nose and through my skull and out the other side and up up up into outer space….
We hit the sidewalk on two tires at once, so fast but we’re both ready for it and my heart is bursting and I have no other thoughts in the world.
Not pain or longing.
Not sadness at the end of the day.
Money doesn’t cross my mind.
Ladies, they don’t cross my mind.
Even the Phillies don’t cross my mind as I’m hurdling down 9th Avenue in that Conshohocken summer twilight on the back of The Mongoose, past the mailbox at Maple Street, picking up speed as the hill comes on. And she is a big hill, sir, if you have never seen her: out of nowhere, out of flatness, dipping down to Sutcliffe Park, I get scared and it’s why I’m doing this. I want the thrill. I’m no danger boy/ my life is ice cream and boners and baseball cards and I get so high on the dinners my mom makes me and on the smell of all these lawns being mowed every night now, and all I want from life, unconsciously, is to somehow feel that I will be okay. That I will make it. That I will find my way and roll down the hill and live to tell the story to people that love me and need me and would cry if I died.
Even right there, as I race without stopping or thinking, I am beginning, at least, to understand that deep down I am simply trying to prove to myself that I exist. And that that matters. And that I counted for something, God: for anything in the end.
The hill is a mountain and we hit it at full throttle like we have never hit it before.
The Mongoose does not pause.
The Mongoose obeys.
The Mongoose abides.
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Serge Bielanko lives in small-town Pennsylvania with an amazing wife who’s out of his league and a passel of exceptional kids who still love him even when he’s a lot. Every week, he shares his thoughts on life, relationships, parenting, baseball, music, mental health, the Civil War and whatever else is rattling around his noggin. Once in a blue Muskie Moon, he backs away from the computer, straps on a guitar and plays some rock ’n’ roll with his brother Dave and their bandmates in Marah.