Every Friday and Saturday I worked in the bike shop, which was really just a large garage/ storage area with a medieval rolling door that looked out on the tracks. The lot behind the shop doubled as an industrial storage area, with a constantly changing assembly of culverts and jersey barriers that we used as seating for movie nights. The neighbors, an auto-detail shop, also used the lot as a driveway, so periodically everyone had to move their bikes to let a freshly painted lime-green Lamborghini go through. There was no bathroom and no running water and only one pathetic light suspended by a cord from the ceiling, which meant that most of the shop was in darkness, especially in contrast to the bright sun outside. Bikes hung in rows that disappeared into the back of the shop, like bats in a cave.
Additionally, when it rained a lake formed on the roof of the adjacent building, and for weeks afterwards the water ran down the back wall and seeped across the floor, so that even in the drought heat of August our cement floor was mysteriously wet.
The floor was pretty grody anyway from the accumulation of grease and dirt and the building crumbling around us. The space was donated to us for free by Coran Capshaw, manager of the Dave Mathews Band, who was using it as a tax write-off until he could parlay it into the condo boom which had never gone bust in our town. His other shitty, thrown-up-in-a-week high-end condos loomed just a short walk down the tracks, on the other side of the train station. The tracks were active, coal trains coming through from West Virginia, maybe livestock too since there were cars with vents, and boxcars too. Sometimes the drivers pulled the whistle for us, and on movie nights we had to pause the movie when the night trains went by, except for the one night when we were watching Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and in perfect synchronicity a freight train passed right as Pee Wee was riding the rails, projected on the garage door.
Since we had no plumbing we all had to sneak in to the hotel next door to use the bathroom, both adult mechanics and kids too who liked to lift a few apples and granola bars from the breakfast buffet. We had one big jug of water to drink, a la Saturday morning soccer, and at the end of the day we cleaned up with orange mechanic’s soap and grimy rags. The truly filthy rags that practically slithered out of your fingers we threw away; the rest we reused, like everything else. On Fridays in the summer I closed up and then practically bathed in orange soap: arms, legs, neck, face, so that I could go to the best wine tasting in town at the crowded underground Wine Cellar. I sipped wine with dirty nails and orange fumes rising all around me.
The hottest days of summer were amazing. The sun rode the sky over the tracks all day, trained on the lot every minute. Inside the bike cave the grease atomized into a fine hot mist that coated my skin. One time I was late to open and a kid waiting in the lot passed out. But as hot as it got, people always showed up, to fix bikes, work on bikes, talk bikes. We filled up all of our stands and spilled out into the lot.
On the truly unbearable days I biked straight home to the rain barrel at the back of the house, my closest source of water for full immersion. I could practically hear a sizzle as I climbed in, fully clothed. Bliss. I could sit in the blue plastic barrel, arms resting on the rim, and look out at the yard: the vegetable garden off to my left with too many morning glory vines bowing down the fence; the sinuous trunks and limbs of the peach trees all around. At the edge of the yard forest took over and dropped away to the river, too low to swim in this time of year and too dirty the rest of the time. Sewer vents lined this particular section of the river and released noxious gases all along the banks. Just before the edge of forest was an encampment which had sprung up overnight where my ex-girlfriend had pitched her tent after she lost her apartment. Somehow, within days, surrounding her tent she had gardens, fairy circles, and daily group therapy sessions with my housemates, all of them in lawn chairs checking in for the day before it got too hot and we all had to go lie on the tile floor inside just to survive.
Once, as a house activity, we released our goldfish into the rain barrel, just before Easter. It seemed, somehow, ecological. Then, on Easter weekend, heavy rains overflowed the barrel and our little fish was lost forever in the peach orchard. That year I cooked Easter dinner for friends and served it on the long table in the main room, almost all windows that overlooked the orchard. That Easter, also, my roommates butchered a deer in the yard, a roadkill deer that traveling primitivists found on their way up from North Carolina. Throughout dinner blood-spattered and rain-soaked guests stepped inside the house periodically and huddled by the door to dry off, casting envious gazes at our vegetarian dinner. The carcass hung on a beam that was just out of sight from where we ate. Somehow it didn’t occur to them that leaving buckets of deer blood out in the heavy rain was a problem, so over the next day the rain barrel rivers were joined by rivers of blood that meandered down through the peach trees. Someone took the deer head and mounted it over the path to the river to scare off surveyors. Those were the years in which steeply wooded hillsides suddenly became potential building sites. Everything became a building site. Those woods are gone now. The peach trees are shielded only by a thin layer of bushes and brambles beyond which a barren precipice descends to a cul-de-sac of model homes. Some of my good friends moved into those homes. I used to forget that the rotting deer head was there, on my way to the river, but on the return, the approach to the house, its eye-holes, its tongue visible inside the slightly open mouth, its ragged neck would suddenly loom over my head and make my heart stop.