| Riding a unicycle is harder
than it looks. Unless of course you already think it looks hard - darn hard in
fact - in which case you'd be absolutely right. I can contend this without hesitation,
for I have taken a brief, yet clear glimpse into the magic of the unicycle. Liam's
Uncle Eaton's unicycle, that is, and boy was it a doozie2.
Confessedly, I was a stranger to the bitter controversy that unicycles entail
until that fateful Tuesday when the roots of this twisted episode took shape.
Most bystanders were
baffled, a few of them were fascinated, and some of them couldn't help
but demonstrate their keen grasp on the obvious by taking me aside and
telling me that I had a unicycle in the same tone of voice they would have
used to tell me that I had forgotten to put on a pair of pants that morning.
You can bet my face was red when I looked down and--whoa! I did have a
unicycle! But mixed feelings over the "spectacle" I had created reached
even deeper than casual comments from hallway denizens. The Administration
held a meeting to decide whether or not they should require parking passes
for unicycles, a "Unicycle Club" was quickly formed and disintegrated after
we realized that twenty people couldn't share a single unicycle, and my
own sister, appalled by my weirdness, pretended not to know me. Such is
the stir that is can be caused with only half a bike.
How did I get my hands
on such a coy toy? Simple. I weaseled Liam into letting me borrow it .
. . for a small favor in return. "You wanna just borrow my unicycle until
I give yours back?" I asked him, trying to reach some sort of favorable
"But you don't have
a unicycle," stated a confused Liam.
"Exactly," I replied.
"And that's my final offer."
"Hmm," he calculated3
in that head of his. "How about your unicycle plus your first-born son?"
"How about No?" I replied.
The half-witted haggling ended eventually, with my borrowing the unicycle
in exchange for my treating him to a Whopper Deluxe the next time we found
ourselves at Burger King. All in all, I'd say it was a fair trade, especially
since I don't plan on giving it back.
'But that's stealing,' you
say? No, no, no, my friend. Let's not be too hasty with our accusations. I'd
prefer to look at it as "borrowing indefinitely." Besides, Liam and
his uncle never use it, and neither of them can ride it anyway. In fact, Liam
even told me that it had been doing nothing but hanging on the wall in his garage
for the past three years, looking pretty4.
I was doing them a service by taking it off their hands.
Ask yourself: Why are you still reading this?
I couldn't wait to
get home and try out the newfangled contraption. As soon as I got in the
door, I headed straight to the kitchen where I already had a plan worked
out. I would hold on to the counters to steady myself and practice going
back and forth, trying as hard as I could not to crack open my skull. The
counters made the skull part a relatively simple task, but staying upright
was a different story altogether. One of the things about unicycles is
that the rider doesn't just have to worry about not falling off to the
left or the right as bikers do, but there are also the annoyingly open
opportunities to fall forward on his fat face or backward on the back of
his fragile skull--my case in point. My mom pointed out another pitfall
to avoid when she told me, "Be careful. I do want grandchildren, you know."
I was already fully aware and actively trying to prevent any such accident
from occurring, but it was still reassuring of my sister to point out to
our mother that she still has two daughters, just in case. So I peddled
forward and backward, forward and backward, flailing and falling off the
counters like a goon. It didn't take me long to realize that I wasn't going
to be Mister Uni-racer Champion of the World overnight, so to restore my
spirits and sense of accomplishment, I quit for the night and ate a piece
"Nice wheel," mentioned
my dad, upon first glance of the ineffable cyclic wonder. His comment indirectly
made me scrutinize its condition for the first time. I noticed the state
of disrepair the seat was in; a third of the cushion appeared to have been
mauled by a inordinately-large, rabid animal (probably a crazed gorilla
or something), exposing part of the cold, unfriendly metal. It was no wonder
my toosh hurt. The entire frame was beginning to rust so badly that I was
certain that the Pennsylvania Transportation Safety Police would have forbidden
me to ride it if it hadn't been for that Tetanus booster shot I had last
year. Also on the frame was a red sticker tape that said, "EATON KELLY,"
to tell the finder whose it was in case it accidentally got lent out by
his crazy nephew or something. As for the wheel, the tube was sticking
out of the well-worn tire, ready and waiting to pop at a moment's notice.
It goes without further description that this unicycle had seen better
Tuesdays, but what I don't understand is how in the world it got so worn
out when neither Liam nor his uncle could even ride it! Don't expect me
to believe that it's all part of the normal wear and tear of hanging in
someone's garage for a few years; I've heard that one before. Its inexplicably
poor condition added to its mystery, though, and it's the mystery and the
magic of unicycles that makes me revere them so. I've been told countless
times never to force a magician to reveal his secrets, for without preserving
his illusions, the magician becomes an ordinary man, and life loses its
wonder. I believe that the same holds true for my mechanical friends, the
unicycles, and so I try not to question them.
No, no, ask yourself this: Why the HELL are you still reading
Sometimes I catch myself
calling the unicycle "her," as if it were my lover or something ridiculous
like that. I've always thought car-lovers and boat-lovers to be moronic
when they referred to their vehicles in a feminine sense, but now that
I've found myself falling into the same loop, I must out of conscience
forgive them for their insolence. It's pure craziness, I know! But I can't
help feeling affectionate about her. Oh, there I go again. The next thing
I'll know, I'll be taking her out to dinner and getting jealous when she
looks at other bikes. Sometimes I think I go too far.5
So for the next week, I cycled
everyday after school like a madman--until my legs got tired, that is, which
would usually be after about twenty minutes. Hey, after working so hard to let
my quadriceps atrophy all year, pedaling becomes a chore! One night halfway
through the week after having taken at least a hundred spills and having made
half as many dents and scratches in the woodwork, my dad decided that I really
needed to go practice down in the basement before I got hurt much worse--if
I knew what he meant--and I did. Downstairs, in between making daring leaps
in the stretches from pole to pole, I noticed that the right pedal was acting
peculiar. "Eh, my foot must be imagining things," I rationed to myself6.
I still have mixed feelings as to whether or not I wish my foot had been telling
me fairy tales, because soon thereafter, the bloody pedal fell off. "Okay,
so the pedal came loose," I said to myself. "No problem at all."
I stuck the little bugger back on. After a couple more trips around my basement,
it came off again. And again, and again, and again; for every time I tried to
stick it back on, it invariable popped right back off in three seconds flat
and clattered to the ground, snickering at my frustration. How on earth was
I supposed to become the Grand Uni-racer Champion (if there even is such a thing)
when my retarded pedal won't even stay on? Having only one wheel was difficult
enough to begin with, but one pedal? Utter absurdity. Upon close inspection,
I realized the problem was that the threads inside the arm had been stripped.
That couldn't have been done in those few short days that I had it; it was obviously
on its last legs (or should I say wheel?) anyway. So I packed up my efforts
and my dreams for a few listless days.
Duh Duh Duh
The next day in gym
while walking around the track, I told Liam about the defective unicycle
he had lent to me. "I think you owe me a Whopper Deluxe," I demanded, not
that I even like Whopper Deluxes, mind you; I always have to take everything
off and eat it plain. But I was hurt nonetheless.
"Whoa there, Sean,"
he replied, holding his hands up in a defensive gesture. "What do you mean
"The pedal fell off,
and it won't stay when I put it back in. The threads are stripped. That
garage of yours must have really put some heavy mileage on it," I explained.
"My garage put some mileage on it," he laughed to himself. Then his tone
changed. "You broke it!" he screamed.
"I didn't break it,
it was dying when I got it!" I yelled back. "You unicycle murderer!" continued
Liam. "AaAAAggghhhHhhHH!!!" He dashed around the circle track, screaming
like a maniac. When he got all the way around back to me, he slowed down
to a walk and tried to catch his breath. "So will your uncle be mad?" I
asked him sincerely, not that I was going to take responsibility, but I
did wonder whether or not I should fear for my life in the case that his
uncle did choose to blame me.
"Nah, he won't care,"
explained Liam. "He doesn't even use it."
"What does your uncle
do, anyway?" I inquired.
"Nothing. He's a deadbeat.
He lives with his mother."
"How old is he?"
"He's about thirty-five."
"Say, I have an uncle
who's a deadbeat," I shared. "He sits around and drinks all day. His wife
makes all the money for them. When we visit them, he tries to get us kids
to pick up all the junk in his backyard. Sometimes we do, and we throw
it all in his pool. No one ever goes in it, anyway. It's too disgusting
from all the junk that's in there."
"Yeah," Liam agreed,
not that he had even seen the pool or even met my uncle, but that he knew
how a deadbeat uncle could be from having one himself. Well at least Liam
wasn't that mad. Incidentally, he never bought me a Whopper Deluxe, despite
everything I did later. I guess those extra things I'm referring to were
simply done out of my own convictions, so I can't demand any recompense
from him and call myself fair. Nope, it was my own choice to get the unicycle
fixed, starting with the hardware store.
Admit it. You're reading this only for the the smart remarks
between these lines
I wanted a nut to screw
onto the other end of the pedal and then see how well that would fasten
it. Right off the bat I had two dilemmas though; I kept thinking a nut
was called a bolt, and the "bolt" needed to be threaded backwards, which,
even if there was such a thing, would never work with my unicycle. No one
at the hardware shop had heard of a backward bolt. I decided to look for
myself in the section that had all sorts of neat little parts like screws,
washers and nails, unable to find anything to suit my needs. A wild-eyed
Irish employee with curly black hair approached me and asked if he could
be of any assistance. My mouth dropped open when I saw his name tag; it
said Smith's Hardware, and printed below it in red sticker tape was the
"Uh, I need a quarter-inch
nut that's threaded backward. For a pedal," I told him, debating whether
or not I should tell him that I know his nephew Liam and how he lent me
his unicycle and how it broke the third day I had it, even though it wasn't
"A backward nut?" he
grinned at me. "I don't think we have such a thing."
"You know, I didn't
think you did. Oh well," I sighed. He continued to grin strangely at me.
Did he already know who I was? Should I say something, I wondered. Oh what
the heck, just ask if he's really Liam's uncle. "Hey, are you related to
Liam Kelly?" I asked him, fully expecting him to say yes.
"Yeah," his eyes lit
up. "He's my nephew. He's cool; he comes over my place sometimes. Are you
his friend?" Ah, I thought, so he calls his mother's house his 'place.'
"Yes, I am," I replied.
"He lent me his unicycle, and said it was yours." He also said he was a
deadbeat, but I didn't have to mention that. "Actually, that's what I need
the nut for; the pedal fell off and I'm trying to fix it."
"He lent you my unicycle?"
Eaton questioned, his grin changing to an expression of concern. Uh oh,
Liam. You said he wouldn't care.
"Uh, yeah, he said
you wouldn't mind since you don't use it. Well, that's what he said." Way
to go Sean. Had to go and talk to him and make an idiot of yourself. Just
"Well he's lending
people my stuff! Sheesh! But that's okay; he's cool. Say, you and Liam
should come over my place sometime and we can party. I got N64."7
He grinned some more, expectantly. At least he was docile again, but for
some reason I wasn't inclined to accept this stranger's invitation.
"Well, I don't really
like N64 all that much," I tried to decline.
"But I've got Mortal
Kombat 3 and Super Mario World. You should come, and some of Liam's other
friends too. And bring the unicycle, it'll be cool." Ah-hah, so he was
really after the unicycle--or was he?
"Actually, I don't
believe in video games," I told him.
"That's okay, I have
tons of other fun stuff to do," he countered, ever-more expectant and grinning
"I don't believe in
fun," I said flatly, and turned and headed for the door, walking more briskly
"Where do you live?"
he yelled. "Can I stop by? Do you have any pancake mix?"
"No! No pancake mix!"
I shouted back, and ran to my car and zoomed away. The same as I told Liam
the next day, that was one crazy guy. I thought he was going to molest
me or something. And what was the deal about his wanting me to bring over
the unicycle, but not actually asking for her back? Perhaps he didn't fully
comprehend its magic. I think he was just a little "off." At any rate,
the quest to fix the telltale pedal continued.
Save yourself! Stop right now! Before it's too late, and you've
wasted ten minutes of your life that you can never get back!
Having been unsuccessful
in trying to find a quick-fix to the problem, I defaulted to Plan B: a
real bike shop. To my dismay, there weren't any in the phone book; not
a single one. I knew that somewhere in this godawful county of Montgomery
there had to be at least one bike shop, and I was determined to find it
even if it meant giving up lunch for a day. I was really serious about
getting her fixed. Luckily, one of my Ambler-resident friends knew of a
small, inconspicuous bike shop on a side-road that ordinary people would
pass without a second glance8.
Ironically, it was called McFarland's, because it was farther than I was
hoping to have to go. Upon entering the dusty yet friendly shop, I heard
an old radio softly playing the type of sweet old-fashioned melodies to
which my grandparents listen. A stout old man with completely white hair
appeared from out of the repair room in the back. He looked at the unicycle
and then at me. I spoke first.
"McFarland, I presume."
"That would be me.
You need help with that unicycle there?" he asked.
"Yes. The pedal's fallen
off, and I'm not sure what to do about it." I handed him the unicycle and
he inspected the arm and the detached pedal.
"Well," he said, studying
it, "you can do two things. You can either weld it in, or you can rethread
the arm here. I'd suggest trying to rethread it first."
"How do I rethread
it?" I asked, utterly clueless as to how I'd go about performing the task.
I should have known what he meant.
"Well we can do it
right here," he gestured around the store. "I'd probably have to end up
welding it, though; it doesn't look pretty."
"No sir, it's not pretty
at all," I agreed with the man we call Old Man McFarland. So we struck
a deal. He said he would fix the pedal, and I expected it to cost about
twelve dollars. When he said, "Six dollars," my socks were as good as knocked
off. What a bargain! McFarland was an honest man, genuinely trying to help
out his customers, including the snotty-nosed kids like me. If he wasn't
in tune to the magic of the unicycle, he was obviously in tune to something
just as splendid. I left that bike shop a happy guy, unable to wait till
next Tuesday to pick it up.
I kept Liam informed about
the repair status of the unicycle. He didn't really care, as long as I wasn't
going to make him pay for it. I wouldn't make him pay for it, anyway, since
I'm really trying to make it mine and all. If I were a real weasel, it would
be a fairly neat trick to con him into paying for its repairs and then letting
me keep it for free, but I was never one to weasel over my friends. If there's
one thing that nobody likes in our school, it's a weasel.9
Next Tuesday, right
on the dot, I called up Old Man McFarland and asked if my unicycle was
ready yet. "Oh, it's ready," he told me, but did I know that "the tire's
about to bust? The tube's sticking through the tire, and I can't believe
it hasn't popped already!"
"Yeah, I know, I know,"
I said, hoping to avert that problem before it made itself prominent. "How
much would that cost to fix?"
"Oh, about six or seven
dollars. Might need a special wheel, since it's a unicycle and all." See,
he knew how special unicycles are.
"Okay, then, let's
fix the wheel too. My friend had better appreciate this."
"Yep. It ought to be
ready tomorrow; you can come back then." And so I waited, with visions
of Uni-racers dancing in my head.
Saturday! The first
chance I had to pick her up, I was so there. I charged right into that
bike shop, and stated my purpose: "I'm here to pick up the unicycle." The
unicycle. The undeniably most unique anything-cycle in that entire blessed
repair shop. "Here it is," he said, pulling it out of the wall of bikes
and bike parts where it had been resting invisibly when I came in. The
pedal looked fantastic; in fact, it was an entirely different pedal. He
had put on a new pedal and a new tire, which was also marvelous. It was
deliciously fresh and fully treaded and plump with plenty of air. We walked
over to the counter. "You're gonna want to kill me," he said gravely.
"Oh great," I moaned.
"How much is it?" The previously-apparent bill of twelve or thirteen dollars
skyrocketed in my head.
"Well, I had to get
a new pedal, and the wheel was a special size for unicycles. I tried to
keep it down as best I could, and it came out to be $19.03. But just $19
is fine. Is that okay with you? $19?"
"Yes," I was relieved.
I had twenty dollars in my pocket, and anything less than that was fair
by me. I actually wanted to be able to give him more if I could, since
I felt a connection to him--what with us being commiserators with the unicycle
and all--and since he couldn't possibly be making much more than just enough
to cover the costs of running his shop in downtown Ambler. But then I realized,
oh yeah, they all run numbers to stay in business. So my qualms vanished,
and I kept my dollar in change.
"You know you need
a new seat on that thing?" he pointed at the ragged cushion-mess. "But
then that would be special too, for a unicycle." Had he been an auto mechanic
I would have smelled something fishy, what with him offering to fix one
thing after another, calling them all "special" deals. We both knew the
real story, though, that my unicycle was just plain dead--or was dying,
rather, before McFarland saved its sorry wheel. His offer was a sincere
one, and I was tempted for a few fleeting seconds. But that day I needed
my unicycle. The seat would simply have to wait.
See, now you have almost finished it. You suck for reading this
far. Your life has hit an absolute bottom.
Of course as soon as
I got home, the first thing I did was pull her out of the trunk and try
her out. With the brand-new wheel and peddle, she was a completely different
unicycle! I could ride her right away! The whole time, hanging on Liam's
garage wall and sitting in my basement, there was a beautiful invention
trapped inside that loosely held-together pile of nuts and bolts, and it
took the skilled touch of Old Man McFarland to bring her beauty to the
surface. "That man is amazing," I said to myself. Finally, a unicycle that
works, and I can ride it! So I pedaled uncertainly down my driveway--farther
than I had ever gone before--all the way to the bottom where I fell off
into the street on my butt. But it was fun.
All day--that day and
the next--I would run out every hour or so and take a quick spin on my
newly-improved unicycle, usually starting at my mailbox just to mount it,
and then wobbling on down the street until I'd fall the heck off. I can't
exactly turn yet, I can't go backwards, I can't mount it without a wall
or a mailbox to hold onto, and I can't idle on it either. But I can't stop
thinking about the Monkees--how that group of silly guys who didn't play
their own instruments rode around on their unicycles in one of their music
videos. Perhaps they never learned to play their instruments because they
were too busy riding around on those crazy one-wheeled vehicles--or maybe
they were just too busy with singing. Whatever the reason, they could unicycle
better than I can, because they learned about the magic before I did. It's
the magic of unicycles; it's about cycles and the way they're balanced.
It's about how absurd we can make ourselves look if we really try. And
it's also about life and all of its mystery, spinning and swirling around
that singular magical wheel. Our neighbors across the street have just
started to ostracize us, and I think I may have something to do with it.
That's okay by me, though, because I always thought they were weird anyway.
I'm just going to keep on practicing, maybe learn how to fall off and actually
land on my feet for a change. Eventually--who knows? Heck, I may one day
become Grand Uni-racer Champion of the World.