Problems We Can’t Name

“I didn’t hear Norman this morning,” Theo said to Max, clicking into an easier gear. These were the first words since they left the city limits and a formidable headwind forced Theo, the weaker rider, to let Max ride in front. “Didn’t even bother to check on him.”

“Say what?” Max said, butt lifted off his seat, head slightly turned.

The turning point was in sight, but that didn’t mean they were all that close. Out among the bare cornfields they could see across all of Illinois, probably into Missouri, maybe even out to Kansas. It was that flat out there, a fact about Theo’s surroundings that didn’t bother him. Actually, he liked it. He liked the transparency, nothing hiding around a bend or just over a hill. He liked knowing what he was going to get, what he had signed up for.
Theo wanted to be at Max’s side, not a wheel’s length behind his muscular haunches, which blocked a good amount of the wind, allowing Theo to keep pace. He leaned forward, dug into his pedals, and swung wide. But the wind slapped him, his quads burned, and he started to gasp for air. Frustrated with himself, he fell back into the drafting position.

They didn’t know each other well, but they knew each other better than anyone else in their little central Illinois city. They’d each only been there about a year, Max for a position with a startup engineering firm, and Theo had a gig living with and caring for Norman Ackerman, a ninety-five-year-old man with no major health problems.
Theo was simply collecting room and board and a modest stipend from Norman’s daughter who practiced immigration law in Chicago. Most of the time Norman wanted to be left alone. Every now and then he would invite Theo to sit with him in the living room and give Theo a clue from his crossword or summarize a newspaper article then ask Theo to give his opinion on the issue. Often Theo wasn’t sure how to feel. He could see most issues more than one way, which made him overwhelmed by uncertainty. He preferred not to think about how conflicts in the Middle East could be negotiated or how meat was being produced. It’s not that he didn’t care, he just didn’t feel he had the mind to deal with its complexities, which he was okay with. He didn’t think everyone with a college degree needed to contribute to solving global problems, or really any problem outside of one’s own home.

This time Theo shouted, “How long would it take to ride to Colorado?”

Max glanced back to make sure there were no cars, drifted into the middle of the road and eased up until Theo was at his side. “With this headwind, we’d be all dried up by the time we even got to Kansas.” Theo was pleased that Max entertained the question, though slightly disappointed that he didn’t come up with an original joke. He’d heard this one before. He may even have invented it himself. They defaulted to aging and fertility jokes. In their earnest moments, they mostly talked about cycling and TV and occasionally told funny stories from childhood, Theo’s in Chicago and Max’s in Indiana.

The next morning Max would be moving to Denver for a more prestigious, higher paying job.

Back in the lead position, Max picked up the pace. He seemed determined to get to the turning point where they wouldn’t have to deal with the wind and their ride could become social and enjoyable. He dropped his hands down to the hooked handlebars, reeled his elbows into his sides and lowered his head to his hands. His body looked small like a child’s, but Theo knew it was solid and full of power. He had playfully punched Max in the shoulder, abs, obliques; they were all the same, hard and firm like an ironing board. Theo admired Max’s calves. Though they were swarthy and covered in curly black hair, they reminded him of upside down bowling pins. Theo’s calves were skinny and less muscular, more like beer bottles.

When Theo and Max met, they had both been running. They were across the street from each other going in the same direction. Each used his peripheral vision to keep tabs on the other. For several blocks they gradually increased the pace until eventually they were sprinting. Matching strides, neither man knew when and where the race would end. After a quarter-mile or so Theo felt his lunch trying to bring itself back into the world, and so he stopped running. He paced up and down a short stretch of sidewalk with hands on head, elbows splayed out. Max shuffled across the street and slapped Theo on the shoulder. “We’ll have to do this again some time,” he said, only slightly out of breath. Sweat dripped from the tips of Theo’s bangs into his eyes. He squinted and muttered, “God, I hope you’re younger than me,” then chuckled and offered Max a handshake. Max was thirty-two, three years older than Theo.

They made the turn and the wind let up, or rather it now cut across them. Soon they would turn again and the wind would push them along so that if they didn’t want to, they wouldn’t have to pedal. They had a plan to do a century in the summer. They’d been creating possible routes online and emailing them to each other, with little side comments such as; at mile forty-three we could stop at the taco truck for lunch; not much wind protection in the middle thirty miles; worried about traffic; should find a few little hills in the state park! But since Max announced his job offer in Denver, neither of them spoke of the century. They both knew there was not enough time to train, and Theo could tell even if there was, Max’s priorities had shifted.

Max shouted and jerked his bike into the middle of the road. Theo couldn’t react in time and rode through the shards of glass from a shattered Miller Light. Max dropped back to Theo’s side. They were now within a football field of their turn, an unnamed road marked by a knee-high charcoal boulder with the words private keep away etched into it. “Sorry for the late warning there,” Max said. “Was distracted by something my uncle said to me.”

“It snuck up on you. Easy not to pay attention out here,” Theo said, with great warmth, like a kindergarten teacher encouraging a stuttering student to read aloud. Theo looked down at his front tire and then at Max’s. They both seemed fine.

For the first few months they ran together five days a week. Then Max’s knees and Theo’s shins started to hurt. There was too much concrete in town and the parks with woodchip paths were too small to make good mileage, so they switched to biking to preserve themselves. They both wanted families one day, though as men they still had plenty of time. They’d joke that biking would help bring their extreme fertility down to a normal level, or that biking would in fact increase sperm count. Regardless, it was a winning situation for them and they had plenty of time to sort it out. We are men, one of them would remind the other, and then they’d smile proudly, their faces flushing red.

They turned again, and though they could barely feel it, now the wind pushed them forward. Theo wondered why he still had a hard time keeping up with Max. He found a nice breathing rhythm, his legs recovered, and Max was upright and coasting. He wondered if it was psychological. His parents often used the word psychosomatic. He already missed Max and felt guilty about Norman. Perhaps these feelings had now occupied his legs making them tired and weak.

Though Theo didn’t have much to say, he wanted to be at Max’s side. They never said much, they were more doers than talkers, but Theo wanted to hear Max breathe, for drops of Max’s sweat to land on his forearms, for their legs to spin at the same cadence, their knees and feet in identical positions. Theo found it peculiar that even with a tailwind and a leisurely pace, he couldn’t keep up. Maybe he had the flu. Maybe he had given the flu to Norman. He shook his head, and looked down at the pavement and noticed his front tire flat against the road.

They stood in a ditch between the road and a cornfield. Max did most of the work. Occasionally Theo would hand him a tool, hold the wheel steady, and tell Max he was doing a good job.

“So what’d your uncle say?”

“He offered me the company again,” Max said. “Told me it was my last chance, has someone else lined up if I don’t take it.” With his forearm Max wiped a bead of sweat from his temple and gave Theo half a smile. Managing the office of his family restaurant-equipment business in Indianapolis had left Max antsy and unfulfilled. He was one of the few people in his family with a Bachelor’s degree and the only one with a Master’s. His family still gave him a hard time for being “too smart for the family business,” but assumed that one day he’d come around.

“Is he disappointed?” Theo said.

“I don’t know. I said I’d get back to him.”

“You did?”

“The thought of all new people, trying to figure out what they stand for, if you trust them, if you actually like them – it makes my stomach feel funny like when I drink a second cup of coffee before breakfast.”

“You’re still young though,” Theo said, but it came out more like a question.
Max stopped working to offer a nod and then a shrug.

“And you’re a man.” This time Theo said it with so much enthusiasm it sounded like he was defending himself, defending Max.

“I need to start fresh,” Theo said, holding the bike while Max aligned the tube into the groove of the rim.

“Then you should. You’re not even thirty,” Max said, slightly out of breath.

“But I’d prefer not to. I want to feel like someone would be disappointed if I left.”

“You need to find a nice lady friend.”

Theo knew by society’s standards it was a despicable act to leave a dead man in his bed to go for a bike ride, but this was his last ride with Max. Had he stopped to confirm Norman’s status as not alive, he would then have had to make a series of phone calls and wait around for someone to take him away, perhaps never to see Max again. Maybe Norman was still alive, in which case Theo hadn’t done anything wrong other than be a tad neglectful. The body, the phone calls, the arrangements could all wait a couple of hours. Even if he were alive, tomorrow wouldn’t be any different; Norman needed little care and what he did need he refused to let Theo have his hand in.

“Do you want a navigator tomorrow?” Theo said, struggling to hold his bike steady as Max pumped air.

“It’s pretty much a straight shot,” Max said. “Seriously though, you’ll find a new riding partner in no time.”

“Then perhaps someone to cook and clean while you settle in.”

Theo had been engaged. He and Melissa lived in her three-bedroom townhouse in Chicago’s western burbs. He worked mornings filing medical records for a doctor who refused to switch to an electronic system. In the afternoons he hung around the house, inventing new pasta salads, mowing the lawn, dusting dressers and tabletops. He enjoyed physical work much more than intellectual. He liked tasks that he could see to completion. Sometimes while doing these activities he thought about what others were doing: his sister finishing a PhD in Sociology, his best friend months away from becoming a father, his parents in their eighth year of phasing out their practices and transitioning into retirement. Friends and family always wanted to know what he was planning to do next. But he didn’t have a plan. He wondered why everyone assumed he was bored and unfulfilled. He wondered why he didn’t feel bored and unfulfilled. He took great pleasure in watching Melissa bite into his famous turkey reuben or open her closet to find a week’s worth of work clothes washed, ironed and hung up. In bed one night, Melissa suggested Theo find something to do that gave him great pleasure and self-esteem, something that required him to use his brain, a cerebral challenge, she said. She insisted he came from a certain type of family and was born with a certain type of brain and certain resources in a certain society that would relentlessly pressure him to do more than simply take care of others. “You should work on becoming an individual who will leave his own little legacy.” She hadn’t wanted to enter marriage feeling even an ounce of pity or resentment for her life partner to-be.

Theo noticed Max’s cheeks filling with pink. He offered a little laugh because he had no choice. Max laughed too. A young man making the home of another young man – both intending to find wives – would be preposterous.

Instead of turning off at the gas station and taking the most direct route to Norman’s, Theo rode with Max back to his little gray ranch house. Out front on the sidewalk they straddled their bikes and Theo commented that the U-Haul in the driveway looked big enough to move a family of four.

“I’m just being conservative,” Max said, “and you know long my couch is.”

“I’m just messing with you,” Theo said.

“Sure, sure. My sense of humor’s a little off today.”

“You’re fine.”

Max kicked his leg over his handlebars and gently laid his bike on the lawn.

“Well,” Theo said, extending his hand, “no need to draw this out.”

Max received Theo’s hand and with his other hand he squeezed Theo’s bicep then reached around and slapped his sweaty back so that they were doing a handshake-one-armed hug.

Theo gave Max a squeeze and then they released their grips, their faces red and sweaty and creased from their helmet straps.

“Norman might be dead,” Theo said.

“Dead? Might be?”

“I didn’t hear him this morning. Not even a throat clear or creak of his reading chair.”

“I know he’s old, but chances are he’s fine, he’s never died before.”

“I think he’s ready to go. Sometimes I hear him get up in the middle of the night and mutter to himself, praying that he joins his wife.”

“Then it won’t be all that sad, his passing, when it happens.”

“But then I’ll have no reason to be here.”

“Then you can hangout with me for a while in Denver.” Max’s eyes shot up into his head like he was immediately rethinking his offer.

Theo’s pulse quickened. He imagined a life out there, fixing up an old house for Max, sanding baseboards, painting walls, and installing new shelves. He imagined jumping out of bed in the morning to send Max off to work with a stomach full of eggs and fried potatoes and orange juice. He would research century routes with an emphasis on safety and scenery. He even imagined growing old together; their bike rides getting shorter, their knees needing Ibuprofen and days off, their arms and legs shrinking along with their bladders and appetites.

“And if Norman is fine?” Theo said.

“Then you still have a job.”

Theo imagined what it would be like if Norman was still alive. Norman would read the paper in the living room while Theo would get paid to mostly stay in his bedroom. He would start jogging again and would try to match strides with and shoot glances at other joggers. He imagined riding out among the cornfields fighting the wind, every few minutes checking his tires, his knees aching, praying for no flats, praying for the turning point, trying with great urgency and patience to stretch his vision beyond the golden pink horizon.

Together they rode to the old man’s house, letting the tailwind do most of the work. Theo put his bike down in the yard and told Max to wait outside. Norman wasn’t in the living room, but there were signs of his morning routine on the side table, a half empty cup of tea and a newspaper and pencil, though the items could have easily been from yesterday.

Peering down the hallway Theo noticed that Norman’s bedroom door was left a few inches open. He could count on one hand the occasions he’d entered Norman’s room, it was not a space where he was welcome. He walked lightly through the hallway and tapped on the door. No reply, but Norman’s hearing was not perfect. He knocked harder. Nothing. He nudged the door open expecting to see a body for the first time. He worried it would make him ill. But there was no one in the bedroom.

Norman once told Theo he regretted not dying before his wife. They were in the living room, which smelled of lemon tea and old newspapers. “It wasn’t your choice,” Theo said, reaching for Norman’s teacup. But Norman raised his eyebrows and gave Theo a closed-mouth smirk that suggested maybe there was more to tell. “You don’t decide these sorts of things,” Theo added. Norman held the rim of the mug against his mouth, occasionally sipping his tea. Theo waited. The conversation was cryptic and unsettling, and Norman had started it so Theo felt he was entitled to some closure. But Theo knew Norman’s silence meant that he wasn’t wanted in the living room any longer, so Theo began to make his way into the kitchen. “Let’s just say,” Norman’s voice pulled Theo back into the room, “had I known what it’d be like, I’m not so sure I wouldn’t have gone with her.”

Back in the hallway Theo noticed that the bathroom door was closed. His own grandma had passed away on the toilet. An unfortunate place to find someone. To be found. Theo put his ear to the bathroom door. He heard nothing. He could now go tell Max that it had happened in the bathroom and ask if he should call the police or see if the door was unlocked. First he would count to ten Mississippi. This was no time to be hasty. On six Mississippi he still heard nothing, but on seven Mississippi he heard what sounded like a clearing of a throat and then water going down pipes, and a jiggling of that finicky toilet handle while Norman cursed it. Good, Theo thought, all was well then, all was the same as yesterday, but he now felt a deep emptiness in his stomach, which perhaps was hunger, they had gone for a long ride without any replenishment. It must have been hunger. But it didn’t feel like hunger.

He hurried out of the house before Norman finished washing his hands. Max was sitting on the front stoop. He was spinning his helmet on his finger like a basketball, sweat glistened on his head and collected around his neck. He looked liked a restless teenager, a patch of hair on the crown of his head sticking up, his leg tapping. For some reason adolescent Max put Theo at ease.

“Well,” Theo said, trying not to sound too eager, “I hope you’re ready to make good on your Denver offer.”

“I’m so sorry,” Max said, getting up to comfort Theo, “but what a run of luck he had. Let us all be so lucky.” Max rested his hand on Theo’s shoulder and gave it a series of gentle squeezes.

Putting his hand on top of Max’s, Theo’s stomach danced with adrenaline. “No, no, it’s not what you think,” he said. He waited and studied Max’s face before saying anything more.

Michael Don

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