Professor George Wallace complained to everyone about teaching in the big lecture room in Gilman Hall. He wore a red cashmere scarf to class in January, the beginning of the spring semester, because the tall, arched leaded glass windows let in a draft. He told students that the Smithsonian had called him to ask about putting the classroom computer in their Ancient Technologies Exhibit. He joked about the chalkboards – “How many of you have ever seen one of these before? I hear they’re cutting edge!” Then he pointed the computer remote at the blackboard and pushed buttons, frowning, shaking the remote, trying again. “Must need new batteries,” he’d mutter, and the students always laughed.
Secretly though, he loved the old room, the raked rows of desks ascending into darkness in the back, the small square teaching stage, the podium that looked more like a pulpit, the fact that he had so many students signed up for his section of Marketing 101 every spring and fall that he needed the big hall in Gilman.
On the website for the class, Professor Wallace listed his research interests as “regret and betrayal.” He’d said this once at a Marketing Conference and broke up the whole room. “Buyer’s remorse” – it was the rage when he was in graduate school and he’d ridden that train for a long time. He’d designed research projects, created questionnaires and surveys, talked about desire, about lust – “An expense of spirit in a waste of shame / Is lust in action.” He quoted Shakespeare’s whole sonnet in his lectures, loved the catalog of what lust made humans become: “perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame, / Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust.” Good stuff. The man knew his buyer’s remorse! “Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight.”
Professor Wallace became, by informal account, the most popular professor at John’s Hopkins Carey School of Business. On Rate My Professor.com, students awarded him “chili peppers” for his looks; anonymous raters called his nose “aquiline” and his small, dark eyes “intense.” He had a shambling, easy way of moving his tall body around the room that made students think he was approachable, informal. Students said he was “cool” or “funny,” because he joked, drew his examples from products they knew and used – Smart Phones, Nikes, Dominoes, CrossFit. He thought sometimes that he’d like to research the marketing tactics of marketing professors in their teaching, write a paper on “self-branding.” He used to think he was great at it – from his “just formal enough” clothes to the typeface of his syllabus.
In the last few years, though, he begun to feel his brand was getting stale. He’d gotten bored. He still enjoyed the captive audience, but he felt like he had nothing new to say. He’d do his spiel on the before-and-after pictures in weight loss ads, with the same pictures and the same jokes, and he’d watch some of the students who’d taken other classes with him remember and raise their eyebrows at each other. His lectures explaining things like “price point” or “the perils of celebrity endorsement” tasted flat on his tongue. He tried a graduate seminar on buyer’s remorse – Buyer Beware! The Politics of Regret in the Market Place — but that only made it worse. The grad students nodded at him knowingly, sat around the seminar table discussing, sipping their coffee, delivered papers every week, but they said the same things he always said, no new insights, and now he had to listen to someone younger say them, and say them earnestly. It was depressing.
“I’m getting older,” he said to Larry, his department chair and sometime tennis partner. “I’m 54. And you know what happens after this, right? I graduate from the 25 to 54 demographic. Bang! I don’t matter — from a marketing perspective.”
Larry grinned at him. “Well, I can’t give you a sabbatical. And what the hell, we all get older, George. Do you want to teach Buyer Beware again?”
“God no!” George rearranged his scarf. “Regret is boring . . . or I’m bored with it, or by it.” George watched Larry shift from foot to foot to stay warm, digging his wallet out of his coat pocket. “I’m listening,” Larry said. “You’re bored.”
George sighed and his breath floated in front of him, a white puff. He thought of his words filling in the white cartoon bubble. “I guess I regret regret,” George said, giving Larry his best rueful smile. “Twenty-four-year-old me had no way of knowing what it would feel like to teach this stuff for so long. To spend a whole career telling people where the magic isn’t. Deflating dreams. The supermodel on Match.com who spends her free time hiking the Appalachian trail and feeding the hungry is probably a guy in the Phillippines who’s about to hit you up for money. Before you pay off that home gym you bought on QVC, you’ll end up hanging your underwear from it.”
Larry stepped up to order. A bus passed painted with a red and white sign that said “Think Outside the Bus for Your New Campaign.” Sales for the bus ads must be down. George noted it automatically. His nose ran and he started to shiver. They’d come through the Homewood Campus lawns, brown now with the cold, and out onto Charles Street, from the country into the city. He and Larry shared a nostalgia for the bucolic feel of the “real” campus, so different from the Business School, housed in Legg Tower over in East Harbor, all chrome and glass and investment bankers in suits from the big firms milling about in the lobby.
Larry passed back a large cup of coffee and the roast beef with Swiss George always ordered. “I bought you lunch,” he said.
“Thank you! It’s not even my birthday, big guy.”
“You’re welcome. Consider it the answer to all of your problems, cause it’s the only one I’ve got. You’re too young to retire.” Larry stuffed his wallet and loose change back into his pocket and started walking. It was too cold to sit on the steps by the fountain. They’d have to find somewhere inside one of the buildings or eat in Larry’s office, a last resort since they’d be sure to be interrupted.
“And too poor. The alimony alone. Jesus.” Cheryl Lynn was George’s third wife. Not exceptional really — there was a creative writing professor in the English department who was working on number seven – but enough, enough for George.
A group of students passed and George heard a girl’s voice say, “Hi, Dr. Wallace,” but he didn’t turn in time to see her.
“And I can’t give you a sabbatical and you don’t want a graduate course. So . . . maybe what you need is to give up regret, find the magic, turn yourself into a different kind of expert. Start a new line of research. You know, tampon ads or something.”
“Fuck you very much,” George said. Larry smiled.
So Professor Wallace tried researching other topics: counterfactual thinking, the role of peer groups in marketing. It was all the same – it all came down to two things: manipulation and regret. Lies. His new wife, a real estate agent, suggested that he start writing about the particular intricacies of home buying, she could help. “You could do ‘ride alongs’,” she said, “like the writer on that cop show last night.” George said he’d think about it.
But by the middle of the spring semester, he discovered what he knew he’d spend the rest of his career trying to understand. The bike. What it meant. How even he, even a marketing professor, could come to believe that owning something might fix your life.
A Pinarello ROKH Italian road bike – carbon frame, black and red, asymmetric frame set. The bikes of glory. The brand ridden by Team Sky’s Chris Froome, the 2013 Tour de France winner.
George knew he wasn’t Team Sky material just yet. He told the guy at the bike shop that he hadn’t been on a bike in a while, but that he was serious about it. He said he’d been looking at the Pinarellos.
“How long?” The guy stood behind a wooden bench and clamped a pedal in some special vise. While he talked to George, he spun it around thoughtfully. He looked exactly like the guys on the commercials George had been watching on You Tube – strong in a ropey kind of way, close-cropped hair, sun-strained face. You couldn’t tell his age, like some sort of Zen master.
“For like months, reading every thing about them. I’ve been on London Cyclist, INRNG, Cycle Love – all the sites.”
He heard himself say “like” the way his students did, a verbal tick he’d picked up from being around them.
The bike guy smiled. “No, I mean, how long since you’ve been on a bike?” He spun the pedal again and looked up at George.
George looked away, out the front window to the cars going by outside, the late dry snow melting as it hit the ground. “Like . . .” Fifteen years, he thought, maybe more. “Well, a long time, years,” he said. “But I’m looking to make up ground fast. I’ve signed up for some races at the beach this summer.”
“Cool. Great. I’ve got a couple of really nice entry-level bikes.” The guy came from behind the counter, wiping his hands on a red bandana. “Look at this Scott Speedster over here. It’s –“
“I want a Pinarello. A Pinarello ROKH.” He pulled the computer print out from his pocket – a picture of the bike and all the specs. “This is it,” he said, smoothing it out as he handed it over.
It didn’t start with an ad. He wasn’t lured in cold by one image. It had started the summer before when he was working on his lecture on celebrity endorsements. “Liar’s Remorse!” Lance Armstrong, he thought. The rise and fall, which companies bailed, when, and why. Then he’d caught some of the Tour de France on the TV at the gym. It had been a scorching afternoon in July, too hot to run outside.
He picked the treadmill right under the air conditioning vent and flipped aimlessly through to ESPN2. The Tour de France. He watched the riders glide over the mountain roads while he pounded the treadmill, some sort of techno music coming from the speakers on the far wall. On the little screen in front of him, the cyclists cut through crowds. Cheering drunken idiots stepping in front of them, chasing them. The riders stone faced, immune. The lack of barriers struck George as profoundly European. The riders moving like a river running through the main streets of French towns, right in the middle of it all, children reaching out toward their legs as they flowed by.
Later, in the shower, he found himself still thinking about the way they moved, their speed, their strange grace. They were all younger than he was, but in their helmets and sunglasses, they looked ageless and otherworldly.
The next day, even though it was cooler and cloudy, George opted against a run in the park so he could watch the Tour on the treadmill again. Late afternoon, the gym almost empty, he watched himself in the mirrors plugging away with the rest, a pony-tailed woman on a stationary bike reading a magazine, a man in a sweaty T-shirt counting push-ups on the matt. Then he looked up to the little screen and saw another kind of animal all together, another kind of life. They moved economically, beautifully, cutting through mountains and valleys. Walking out, he saw a back issue of Bicycling Magazine in the rack by the door and he slipped it in his gym bag.
In bed that night, he made love to his wife and when she rolled on her side and fell asleep, he lay wide awake, looking down the length of his naked body. His pale belly rose and fell with his breathing and he sucked it in and ran his hands along the bones of his hips. He thought of the word “skeleton.” He moved his hands up and touched the spaces between his ribs. He tried to imagine what the muscle there looked like, the webbing of connective tissue over his chest. He quieted his breathing to know if he could hear his heart, feel his pulse, if he could sense his own blood like a river moving through the landscape of his body. Then he was falling off to sleep and the river of blood became cyclists cutting through mountains and valleys and they were in him and he was all of them and he moved through the reddest and realest part of his life more alive than he’d ever been and he said “I am a bike” and dreaming, he knew both that this was true and that it wasn’t right.
* * * *
All through the fall, he’d wrestled with the bike like Jacob’s angel. He read everything he could find – blogs, magazines, websites. He’d even picked up Lance Armstrong’s book It’s Not About the Bike, though he hadn’t been able to bring himself to read it. He didn’t want anything to kill the dream, to make him skeptical, but he was. He couldn’t help but be. You know how this works. You know this language – “it’s a bullwhip, it flies.” You don’t need a bike, for Christ’s sake, he told himself. You’ll get over it. This will pass.
But suddenly it seemed like the world was full of road bikes. Propped on the roofs of passing cars or lashed to bumpers, between the legs of men or women — sometimes he couldn’t tell — who wore bright tights and tops, who flowed beside and between the traffic. He said the names of the bikes over to himself like they were exotic cities in a new country he longed to visit: Fuji, Trek, Cannondale, Bianchi. He’d seen no Pinarellos anywhere and that made him happy and oddly lonely, like he missed the one bike he wanted most.
Finally, he went to the bike shop that first time on a January afternoon with the print out of the Pinarello and his mind made up.
“Think about it,” the bike store guy had said. “Give it a day or two. I’ll look into ordering the Pinarello and you look over these other bikes and some of these brochures and stuff. We will talk.”
“Okay,” George said, “but . . .”
The guy lifted his hands and looked at George earnestly. “Here’s the thing. It isn’t that I don’t want to sell you an expensive, high-end bike and all. I just want to sell you the right bike. I want you to keep riding and to love it and to buy all your bikes here.”
George shook his head and bit his lower lip. “I appreciate that. I really do. But I’m pretty sure that this” – he held out the computer print out – “this is the right bike.”
The guy stuck out his hand. “It might very well be. My name’s Percy, by the way. I should have introduced myself before. I’m one of the owners.”
George shook Percy’s calloused hand, noticed that his thumbnail had a blood blister under it. “George,” he said.
Percy! The name threw him. It wasn’t the name that he’d expected at all. He’d never met a Percy. He thought of the name as “old”, imagined a Percy would be refined and snooty. British — ascots and tea cups. The King’s English in a drawing room. Not a bike shop. Not this dude. But then he thought, maybe the name is new again. Like Emma. Maybe Percy has become cool. He’d noticed this in the years that he’d taught. Seven Jennifers and Michaels in one class and then years later, that very popularity having made the name unpopular, no Jennifers. Instead, old names came back Phoebe and Joshua, Ella. He’d even had two Shadracks.
Percy went back behind the wooden counter and George drifted over to look at the helmet display on the wall. The bell on the door jingled.
“Alex, my man!” Percy called. Alex’s smile broke across his face and he took three big strides toward the counter and reached across to fist bump Percy.
“What up?” Alex mocked the words as he said them. He wore a full dark beard, wool cap, hiking boots. He scanned the store perfunctorily and smiled in an offhand way as his eyes slid over George.
“This is George,” Percy said. “He’s looking to buy a road bike. To get back into riding this spring.”
“Excellent.” Alex picked up envelopes that were beside the register and flipped through them.
“Alex is another owner,” Percy explained.
“So you guys are partners?”
“Not exactly. There are four of us right now, but the store is worker owned and democratically operated. So everyone who works here is an owner.”
Alex put one hand on the counter, jumped over and started pulling tools off the wall. The physical grace and strength of the move shocked George.
“Alex is teaching a class next week on basic maintenance and the rules of the road,” Percy said. “That might be something to think about for you, since you’re just starting back.” George hated the idea, hated more that he’d been put in the category of hopeless beginner and not bicycle racer. Alex and Percy began a conversation George couldn’t follow.
Worker owned and operated. George knew that, from a marketing standpoint, this fact didn’t matter to most buyers. He himself put it in the same slot as “fair trade coffee” and “free range meat” – things he understood were good in the abstract, but never cared enough to deliberately seek out. Maybe this would change, he thought. Maybe he would become part of that small percentage who bought differently. Maybe this would be part of having the new bike, having friends named Percy and knowing where his eggs came from, wearing wool caps. Maybe he’d be in great shape by this summer, muscular, jumping over counters. His mouth turned up at one corner. Jesus, he thought, you are a piece of work, Wallace.
Alex walked past George, headed to the back of the shop. “Hey, how did you hear about us, George?” he asked.
“My students – I teach at John’s Hopkins – some of them ride and they told me you were the best.”
“Cool!” Alex said. “It’s great to hear that your students like us. Happy customers are the best advertising.”
“So true,” George said. “That’s what I do, actually. I’m a marketing professor.”
George waited for Alex to say something else, to look impressed, but Alex turned and kept walking to the back. George looked at Percy, then, waiting for a reaction to “professor” or “Hopkins.” Wanting to keep the conversation going, wanting him, one of them, to understand.
“Teaching at Hopkins is great,” George said.
But Percy had turned back to the vise, eyes narrowed, concentrating on whatever it was that wouldn’t work in front of him. George felt awkward, aware that he wanted this man to take him seriously. I’ve seen better customer service! George thought. Christ! This isn’t a cheap bike I’m thinking of! And I’ve done my research. I know this stuff. He thought of ways to get Percy in a conversation, ask his last name maybe, ask if maybe his parents were British. But he knew better. Having come of age in the 70’s with the name George Wallace, George knew what it was to suffer a name and imagined maybe “Percy” wasn’t cutting edge, maybe Percy hated “Percy” the way he’d hated George Wallace.
In college, after he’d learned some marketing principals, he used to refer to his name as a “branding problem.” Growing up, when he complained, his mother told him that he should be proud of the name, that he’d been named after her father, his grandfather, who’d raised five children selling shoes. The store his grandfather had owned was still there, though it had been turned into a bar. When he passed the corner, George could always pick out the faded places on the brown façade where the old sign hung –Wallace Shoes – a ghost, a palimpsest.
As a young man, the name gave him trouble. Raised eyebrows, knowing smiles. “George Wallace, huh? Hell of a moniker.”
George first came across the story in high school history class where his teacher referred to the Senator from Alabama as “your namesake”. In the picture in the text book, George Wallace stood with his thin mouth set, hands behind his back, flanked by the National Guard, blocking black students from registering at the University of Alabama. The stand in the schoolhouse door – the racism, the assassination attempt, the wheel chair, the “most important loser.” George had grown up hating his name and the Senator who had tarnished it.
Years later, listening to an NPR program he’d almost turned off, George heard Senator Wallace’s daughter talk about her dad. She explained that her father’s story hadn’t ended there, with hatred, with the picture of defiance and white privilege. The image belied the complex truth of the life. George Wallace had a change of heart after the assassination attempt, after suffering so much himself. He apologized to black activists and to the students he’d tried to keep from the University of Alabama. She herself had worked all of her life to further the cause of equality.
But no one would remember George Wallace as someone who changed his mind, who learned. George Wallace suffered from bad branding. Everyone remembered the picture in the history books, the defiant racist. Until, eventually, no one would remember him at all.
* * * * *
On a Saturday morning in February that had the promise of spring in the wet breeze blowing over patches of melting snow, George drove back over to Falls Road, back to the bike store for the second time; he’d left last time with a folder full of information and choices and the absolute conviction that none of it would change his mind. George whistled as he turned past the reservoir. He felt resolute, giddy with the thought that he would order the bike before he left the store. This feeling baffled and embarrassed him. When he looked at the magazines, at the ads on You Tube, he could list every strategy designed to make him believe that he needed a Pinarello, but knowing this didn’t change how he felt, what he knew in his gut to be true. He wanted that bike, not any bike, not a bike, that bike.
When he left the shop, after placing the order, George felt an exhilarated buzz in his stomach and head that made him dizzy. Alex had been behind the counter and he’d remembered George’s name. Colors looked brighter and he tasted the cold, wet air. He went next door to the coffee shop and ordered a fair trade latte with skim milk and he sat at a table by himself and looked out the window at the people passing, walking quickly in their winter coats, and he felt an almost crushing tenderness for them, for them and for himself and for everyone moving through the world. Every now and again, the white disk of the February sun tried to muscle through the clouds and George imagined that the struggling light was an omen of the brighter days to come. A small white stray cat darted out from under a parked car and into the hedge. A man and woman entered wearing bike shirts and tights, and clicked across the floor in their riding shoes. When George smiled at them and nodded, they smiled back.
George spent a good part of the week after he ordered the bike thinking about what accessories he wanted – the shoes, the jerseys, the helmet, red and black to match the bike — imagining how he would look and feel riding the long highway from Dewey Beach to Fenwick Island, riding between the bay and the ocean on long summer evenings. But two sharp-edged thoughts kept arising to puncture those dreams: how he’d tell his new wife that he bought it and how he’d hide how much it cost.
He and Cheryl Lynn had been married just over a year; it was the third marriage for both of them and they went into it with a sort of abashed hesitancy and a good deal of practicality. They’d agreed at the outset to have their own bank accounts and divide the household bills more or less evenly between them. They hadn’t yet fought about money, but George feared a $4,000 bike and all of the things that went with it was about to change that. And yet he was desperate that it shouldn’t. He joked with Cheryl Lynn that she was the best wife he ever had, but in his heart he believed that she was the closest he’d ever come to the perfect woman for him, and that she was really the last chance. He wanted to be married, but if he couldn’t make this one work, he knew he would never do it again.
A week and a half after he’d ordered the Pinarello, he stood in front of the full- length mirror in their bedroom while Cheryl Lynn sat propped up in bed, fiddling with her phone. George started undressing and sighed and ran his hand down the front of his white undershirt.
“I’m gaining weight,” he said.
“You’re not,” she said, still focused on the screen.
“You sure don’t look it.” She put down the phone and smiled at him.
“Really, though, I can see it. I need more exercise.” He looked at himself in the mirror and at his wife behind him, gauging her expression. She picked up a brush and pulled it through her shoulder-length blonde hair.
“You go to the gym everyday!” Her phone buzzed and Cheryl Lynn picked it up and squinted at the screen and put it back down again. “You look just as hot as the day I first laid eyes on you.”
George sat on the edge of the bed, grabbed her foot under the covers and squeezed it. “Thanks, doll. I do need more exercise though. I’ve been thinking . . .”
“You could join my Saturday walking group. You’d like those people and it’s an easy way to get some exercise on the weekend.”
George nodded. “Maybe. Maybe. Actually, you know, I’ve been thinking that I might buy a bike.”
Cheryl Lynn sat up straight and clapped. “That’s a great idea!” She almost sang the words.
“You think so?”
“Absolutely, I’ll get one, too, and we can go riding together. I’d love that! I haven’t been on a bike in years and years, but I remember loving to ride. Back in the day, you know, back in my twenties, just after college, I did a couple of the mini-biathlon things, biking and running. It was a blast! I would love to be in that kind of shape again. Let’s do it!”
“Well,” George said. “Well, . . .” He stared down at his bare feet on the blue carpet. His stomach hollowed out. Why could no one see how serious he was about this? How much he needed it just for himself? “I hadn’t really thought that . . . I mean, I’m not really thinking about that kind of riding, more like, you know, solo rides.” This wasn’t the argument he’d expected to make. He’d scripted something much more straight-forward where he overcame her denials with logic. He grabbed her foot again, but didn’t meet her gaze. “I’m just not in the kind of shape you are, my child bride.”
That she was his “child bride” became a standing joke when, on the first date, they’d discovered that they had the same birthday two years apart, and that she was the younger.
“It won’t matter who’s slower or faster,” she said. “We can throw the bikes on the car in the spring and go for a ride around the park. Bring them with us to the beach in the summer. It’ll be great!”
“I was thinking of this bike . . . Not that we can’t do it together, too, or you can’t get a bike . . . but, I was thinking of this bike thing as something, well, more for me. I’ve actually, I’ve signed up for a couple of races this summer. I really want to try this, to try it on my own.”
Cheryl Lynn turned the brush over again and again in her lap. “To race? You want to get a bike so you can race?”
“Well, not at first, obviously. I mean, I’ll have to get comfortable again. But, you know, how hard can that be? Right? It’s like riding a bike!” He squeezed her foot again. “Lame,” he said. “I know, that was lame.”
She kept her eyes down, looking at the brush. He felt her stiffen and pull into herself, and he let go of her foot and felt suddenly furious and guilty and alone.
He stood up and walked to the other side of the room and looked back at her. “Okay, look, I already ordered the bike.”
She blinked slowly. She looked hurt and resigned. “You already ordered the bike,” she said. She nodded, as though she were taking it in. “What kind of bike?”
“A road bike.”
“Right. I figured. What kind of road bike, George?”
“It’s called a ROKH. Like stone, you know? It’s Italian.” He leaned back against the bureau, watched Cheryl Lynn open her mouth and close it again.
“A Pinarello ROKH? Really?”
George started to pace, felt his hands go numb. He listened to his own words come out fast and out of control. “I want it. And I’m getting it, Cheryl Lynn. I want it and I’m getting it. And we can get you a bike, too, and all of that, but I’m going to do this. Do you understand?”
Cheryl Lynn looked up at him. She ran her tongue across her top lip, a tick she had when she was thinking. “I want one, too, then,” she said.
George sat down on the bed across from her like someone had hit him and he stared at her blonde hair and her new eyes, eyes he’d never seen before and he wondered how much more he didn’t know about who was behind them. “Why?” he asked. “Why would you?”
She smiled a tight smile. “If the bike is nice enough for you to lie about, it’s nice enough for me. You sold me, George. I bet she’s a beauty, huh?”
“I wasn’t trying to sell . . .”
“Oh, I know you weren’t! But you’re just that good.”
George turned to the wall. He could feel her at his back like the heat of an oven.
“For Christ’s sake, it’s not like it’s a woman. I’m not having an affair. I didn’t do anything wrong. I just want this bike – Jesus! – a bicycle.”
“An Italian racing bike. Do you think I don’t know shit?” She got out of the bed and wrapped herself in his plaid robe and moved the stack of laundry and sat in the chair.
“I’ve never seen you like this.” He looked at her there inside his robe, sitting in his chair.
“Like what?” she spat. “Like what? What am I being like? Like you? It’s easy, George, I want what you do. If you get it, I get to have it, too. I’m not saying no, I’m saying yes. Yes and double that. I shouldn’t want it? I can’t want what you have?”
George lay down on the bed and looked up at the ceiling. He closed his eyes and saw an image of himself moving fast between the ocean and the bay, moving like water, like a tributary river into some darkness. It was a romantic picture, he thought, like one at the end of a movie and the words “riding into the sunset” came into his head, and George became suddenly, stingingly aware of the sunset that he was truly riding into, bike or no bike, and he started to laugh, just a little at first, and then more.
“What the hell is so funny?”
“An expense of spirit in a waste of shame.” George choked out the words and then took a deep breath and looked at Cheryl Lynn’s hands clenched at the neck of his robe. “I’ll call tomorrow,” he said.
“To add mine to the order or to cancel?”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said.