On Father’s Day, I took my older boy down to where Minnehaha Creek flows into the Mississippi River. We parked our bikes by some bushes where the path eroded away into sand. My son wanted to look for lost fishing lures to place in the little tacklebox I had given him. He carried it everywhere, even to his weekly appointment with the counselor who was altogether befuddled by his ramblings about Mepps spinners and Mister Twisters. The tacklebox was almost filled to capacity and he was already pestering me for a larger one. It perturbed me that every gift seemed to somehow necessitate another.
“Just be satisfied with what you have,” I told him which was something I was forever telling myself.
The bank was crowded with people angling and throwing rocks. A festive procession crossed the footbridge to follow the creek back up to the waterfall. The creek was a foot lower than the last time we had been there catching bluegills from the bridge. Now the water was too fast and low for that. I commented to him how the river was a little different each time. I pointed out the island out towards the dam, how sometimes it was underwater with just the trees visible. I told him we’d canoe out to it someday and fish. He seemed a bit lost as to where to begin his search. I suggested he try looking in the exposed roots of a dead tree that usually held fish when the water was up. He managed to find a few jigs and a bobber, but seemed disappointed.
“Well, you can keep on looking if want or help me pick up trash,” I said raising the Hefty bag I had brought along.
We split off in opposite directions. I stooped over to place the discarded energy drink cans, plastic water bottles, bait containers, broken beer bottles, soggy diapers, and whatever other manner of American detritus I could find into the sack. It was sickening to me that people treated the shoreline of what I considered a national treasure with such contempt. Almost unavoidably, when I told anyone I liked to fish there for walleye and smallmouth, they were surprised that anything other than a carp could live in such a polluted sewer. Well, I wouldn’t drink out of it, but it did support an incredible abundance of life–birds especially. I almost always spied a bald eagle or a heron whenever I went there. As I like to tell my boys, “If you throw a worm into the Mississippi, you never know what you might catch.”
I turned my attention to an accumulation of bottle glass along the concrete wall of a graffiti-covered storm drain. Drunken hooligans had tossed their empties down from above. I smiled apologetically for intruding on a Spanish-speaking family fishing nearby. Pausing in my collection, I looked around for Miles but couldn’t see him. I hurriedly gathered the rest of the trash along the wall and went back toward the bridge. The bag was heavy now and I was eager to dispose of it. Finally, I picked him out of the crowd by his bicycle helmet. Moving along the shore, he looked like a walking mushroom as he scanned the river-stones for treasure.
I paused near the dead tree where a man was staring intently into the water as he repeated the same short cast with a plastic worm. Utilizing my polarized sunglasses, I could make out a pike undulating in place like an eel in the creek current. I reached Miles and showed him all the trash I had collected. He grumpily showed me a hook he had found.
“That’s a good catfish hook,” I told him. “Should we get back home? You seem tired and I don’t want to keep you out here too late.”
“No,” he snapped. “I’ve barely found anything. I’m still looking.”
“All right, a little longer. Look son, people don’t want to lose their fishing lures. They’re expensive. You just have to find them by accident when you fish. If you go out looking for them it won’t happen. That’s how it works. Why don’t you look in those rocks?”
Riprap lined the shore all the way to the lock and dam. I watched him balance nimbly on the boulders and concrete slabs. He had become a boy, determined with his own interests. I cautioned him to be careful. My son possesses a great innocence and sensitivity, an openness to new experience that will unavoidably dull over time. People will make him ashamed of these qualities and he will learn to disguise them from the world. He will be corrupted. He will grow up. I cannot stop this from happening, nor would I want to. I can only recognize this moment we inhabit together as special.
“Try looking under the rocks where people might have gotten snagged. The best time to try would be right after the water level drops. I’m going to get those plastic bottles up there and then we’re going to leave. We need to get you into bed.”
We scrambled up the bank. I placed the bag of trash into a barrel and went to the spot I had left the bikes. I looked down at the blank area of grass a bit startled and confused.
“We left them somewhere around here,” I said turning my head about wildly as I walked in a circle.
“Our bikes were stolen,” my son stated in a flat, dejected way.
I felt gutted, like something had been carved out of me from my throat to my solar plexus. I placed my hand on my son’s small shoulder.
“I’m sorry this happened. This is Dad’s fault.” I looked around at the laughing people feeling altogether violated and stupid. “I should have locked them up.” I looked into my son’s face. He was calmer than I would have expected, in shock I suppose. “We’ll have to walk home.”
I was relieved he was taking it so well. Two miles would have been a long way to carry him. I took out my phone then put it away. I was quite worried about what my wife would say. We walked quickly down the gravel path, both of us angry in our strides.
“Maybe we can catch up to them,” I said even though this was absurd given they had bikes and we didn’t. We both had our helmets on. God, I felt like a fool! “You might get to see Dad kick someone’s ass,” I muttered.
I was angry with myself. I had that mountain bike since 1995. It was a damn good bike. I thought of all the miles I’d rode on it. Then an image of my son standing confidently on the pedals of his own bike formed before my eyes. On the way there, I had been so proud of how well he rode. He’d started out the season on training wheels, reverting to them after a bad experience. The bike had been a little big for him before. It was his first bike. I had given it to him for his birthday. Now it was gone. What kind of a sociopath steals a father and son’s bicycles on Father’s Day? I realized that I had become overly comfortable, living in some imagined bubble. There were rapists and murderers living in Minneapolis. I had to do a better job looking out for my son. I stopped walking and rubbed his back, asking him if he was ok.
“I want my bike back,” he declared angrily.
“Look, we’ll get you a new bike. This is Dad’s fault. This isn’t your fault.”
“Can I get a mountain bike?” he asked, perking up.
“Maybe, I have to talk to Mom. Money’s a little tight right now. We’ll take care of you. You’re gonna have a bike.” We started walking again. “I just want you to remember how this made you feel. That’s why we never steal from anyone, because this is how it makes them feel.”
He furrowed his brow and nodded in deep understanding.
“You saw all those people down there. Most people are good. But a small number of bad ones ruin it for everyone else.”
He nodded again. I texted my wife the unfortunate news. We came to a pool where kids like to wade with a large family gathering nearby. I looked for our bikes amongst the crowd of picnickers. Internally, I continued to beat myself up. The evening before Miles had complained about being bored and I suggested we hang the birdhouse that had been in the basement since winter.
The ground was a bit uneven and the footing on the small stepladder wobbled under me as I strained to fasten the birdhouse to the limb with a length of rope. To make him feel involved, I asked him to hold the ladder. I immediately realized this was stupid, but blundered ahead anyway. The rope slipped and I saw the house strike the top of his head and the bright red blood on his shirt.
“Oh, my God!” I exclaimed and ran for a towel.
It looked worse than it was, a small cut in his scalp that didn’t require stitches. We got it to stop bleeding. I’d started my second beer before this happened. I was always scrambling to meet the demands of my family. I barely had time to take a shower, let alone sit down when I came home from work. I needed things to stop moving so fast, but I knew they never would.
We had left the river area and came to the playground. I wanted to check the bike racks by the waterfall in case someone had just taken them for a joyride. It was a slim chance, but I wasn’t ready yet to let go. Miles had been complaining about his legs being tired. I asked if it would be all right to leave him.
“I don’t want to lose you too,” I said.
I jogged down to the falls and of course found nothing, many bikes but none of them ours. I hurried back to Miles. We checked at the Dairy Queen because, as I said to him, “criminals tend not to be the brightest people.” Walking along the sidewalk of Minnehaha Avenue, I noticed someone walking a bike with someone else riding a block ahead. It looked like a children’s bike.
“Those could be our bikes,” I said to Miles.
I started running. Miles started running too. They weren’t our bikes which was probably just as well. I felt like a twelve-year-old. It was time I got my son home. Bike-less, we said hello to the neighbors without explaining what had happened and put our helmets into the garage. He started crying when he got inside the house. After we’d finally got him settled down, I saw him throwing punches in the air inside the shower.
A couple of days later, Emily found a children’s mountain bike at a good price on Craigslist. I drove Miles to Roseville and we checked it out. It was black with gears and a suspension fork. Miles loved it. I had been concerned about him using a hand brake. He didn’t have any problems. My first bike had been a red Schwinn with a banana seat. It had a horn and a bell. My parents made me put a flag on it. When I got to be school-age I realized I should have bought a dirt bike like the cool kids. Driving home with the knobby-tired bike in the trunk, I felt redeemed.
“This is kind of an upgrade,” Miles said happily from the backseat.
The next evening, I took him on some flat trails that meandered through the trees along the Minnesota River. He tried to go through the first puddle he saw and got stuck in the mud.
“You have to go around the big puddles here,” I said. “You better follow me.”
With his low center of gravity and fearlessness he was a natural, cruising over obstacles that I didn’t even attempt with the narrow tires of my wife’s bike. It had been years since I had been on that trail.
“I love mountain biking!” he cried out in exuberance more than once. Both him and his bike were covered in mud. He could ride as fast as me.
“If you’re doing this at seven, think what you’ll be doing at seventeen.” I told him. “Dad won’t be able to keep up with you.”
“Yeah!” he cried.
“Dad will be old then,” I said too quiet for him to hear. “Dad’s old now.”