In the roadside ditches between my house and Nortonsville, between the road itself and the rolling green pastures and oak flats, there are three used masks. They're not together. The first one - a nice white N-95 - is right around the corner here, less than 500 yards from where I sit and write this. The other two, a black one and a blue one, are about a mile past that, just on the edge of Buck Mountain, in some tall grass on the right. It's possible they were purposefully discarded there together, homemade cloth masks that someone obviously labored to create, now spent. It's also possible that they simply blew out of the window of a passing car, just an accident. It turns out that masks, divisive little items which they have become, can also be litter, intended or not, and maybe that means something.
On the same stretch of road, there are about twenty empty, blue bud light cans. At least twenty. That number goes up and down a little based upon the schedule of roadside clean up crews, how fast the grass grows, and presumably how often these assholes drive the road and throw their cans out. On long rides out through the county on hot days, litter is something I have struggled to understand. Who on earth is doing this? Is it on purpose? Is it a single individual, a lone-wolf, bud light bandit in reverse? It might, in fact, be a single bad actor, though if COVID has taught us anything, it's that bad behavior begets more bad behavior. These things come in packs.
My wife literally runs. She logs her miles in a spiral notebook that she keeps by our bed, spends hours out on the narrow country roads that spread north into the surrounding counties, out into Greene and Madison, like roots. Hours per day, miles per week, she prefers to deal with our bizarre new reality on a one-dimensional plane, one foot in front of the other. She was born here.
“It’s like they’ve become emboldened now,” my wife summarized her experience on the road recently. It's summer, Sunday, too hot for a long run unless she started early. So she’d left home in the dark, trudged without coffee through humid air thick with fog and manure. Along the way, she’d been horned twice, both times by big trucks, rednecks, whooping at her and catcalling. She couldn’t read their license plates as they careened away, North, out into the county, but in the back window of both, the same kinds of stickers.
I had a theory going for a while that the sub-culture of people who throw beer cans at cyclists, and the sub-culture of people that harass female runners, and the sub-culture of people who refuse to wear masks in public - if you mapped them all onto a Venn diagram - would be a single, overlapping circle. But that hypothesis got crushed on a ride recently, at the bottom of Bleak House road above the river, when I came upon a French-Canadian guy with an old steel Nishiki propped against the guard rail. He was having a smoke and halfway through his first of two 20-ounce tallboys. He had the two cans tucked neatly into the bikes' bottle cages, a perfect fit, and he wore a bright yellow safety vest. I spoke some French and he spoke some English, but eventually we settled on English because his English was way, way better than my French. This man was quite a paradox. He claimed, between enormous gulps of malt liquor, to be a former ironman triathlete, which I found believable as he recounted in detail the massive costs involved with race travel. He'd just been coal-rolled, up near the intersection of Woodlands and Reas Ford, by some huge truck with a modified exhaust, and it had burned his eyes. So he was pounding a couple of beers here, at the bottom of the hill near the river, to take the edge off before he rode home.
"Motherfuckers," he swore, with a thick, French-Canadian accent. We leaned against the guardrail in silence for a while. He smoked, and I watched the flow of traffic.
He asked me about the Virus, "What do you make of all of this?"
I confessed that I honestly didn't know.
He said he thought it was a Shame. Or he said he thought it was a Sham. I couldn't tell which he said.
That's vital information, of course, his whole point of view in the conversation hinges upon the existence of a single letter - that "e". I wanted to ask him, but in a strange way I felt it didn't matter. I didn't want to know anymore. We're all just playing parts now, some bizarre, nationwide attempt at improvisational theater where we've all been assigned roles but no one knows their lines. What would my character say about this? We check twitter the way that an actor checks the script. Line, please.
But what do we really know?
“It’s my faith in people, now,” my wife mutters. But she cracks her knuckles anyway and jumps the three steps down off the deck on her way out for a run again. She will never stop, I know. It’s barely dawn but already hot, and she’s glistening under a thin layer of sweat, resplendent in her defiance. Take your best shot, motherfuckers.
It's a sham, or a shame. Maybe it's both. Maybe it's something else.
Up, up, up.