When to Use the Brakes

I remember the look of exasperation on my mother's face, as well as her irritated sigh, whenever she pulled up the driveway to our home and found Patrick Kelly waiting in the backyard. On this particular instance I was returning home from a Little League game, and sure enough, there was my next-door neighbor waiting like an obedient lapdog for the return of his master.

Coffee House Readings

Patrick made his way to the car as I gathered my belongings from the backseat. Clearly too eager to wait any longer on what he had to tell me, he threw open the side door and immediately started talking about the new package of Pokemon cards that his grandparents had bought for him. There were no pleasantries or explanations—Patrick got right to business. He blurted out whatever happened to be on his mind exactly as it came to him, perhaps out of fear that he might forget if he stopped to let his thoughts formulate.

"Quinn can't play tonight, Patrick," my mom eventually interrupted, tired of waiting for a place to interject in his high-pitched ramblings about which cards were the rarest. "It's late and he hasn't even started his homework yet. Maybe you can call and set up a play-date tomorrow." She offered this final sentence knowing its futility before the words left her mouth. Patrick never called in advance; his eight-year-old brain didn't think that far ahead. If he wanted to play, he just hopped the white picket-fence separating our two backyards and banged on the rusty screen door until someone answered. If no one was home, he waited until they were. It was a routine that my mother knew all too well.

Having been rejected for the night, Patrick hopped the fence back into his own yard and my mom helped me bring my things inside the house. "That boy needs to learn how to just slow things down," I heard her say to herself as she unlocked the door. "He'll just keep talking until you go nuts."

I had become friendly with Patrick during elementary school, as much because of our shared interests as the proximity of our homes. It wasn't long after we first met that he started coming over almost every day. He was always the one initiating our get-togethers, and I was always the one that ended them, due to exhaustion, frustration or both.

Patrick could be hard to get along with. I was a relatively patient child, which helped keep our friendship intact. Truman, my younger brother by two years, was not as tolerant and often became fed up with Patrick's impetuousness. Patrick was easily twice as energetic as other boys his age. It was difficult for him to just sit still, and people would often lose their temper with his constant questions and crazy ideas. His parents were very loving, but they wore themselves out telling him not to cut his own hair, not to use the stove without permission, not to make fires with grass and sticks in the driveway… If Patrick wasn't told not to do something, he assumed that he had carte blanche.

Patrick's adventurous, consequence-be-damned attitude usually led him to injury. He was always coming over with some part of his body bandaged or bruised. The band-aid on his pointer finger was from when he curiously stuck it in his car's cigarette lighter, he would explain; he was walking gingerly on his right foot because he stepped on a piece of glass in the street, without any shoes on; his forehead was scabbed over because he jumped off his porch on roller-skates and took a tumble on the sidewalk. Often times, one ailment wouldn't be fully healed before he showed up at my door with a new one. He would ignore my protests about his lack of common sense with the same one look that always implied, "It seemed like a good idea at the time."

"One of these days, you're really going to hurt yourself," I would warn him. "Then you'll learn."

One evening, Patrick stayed for dinner while his parents went to pick up family friends from the airport. I figured it was like most nights—Patrick spending all of his time at our house—except tonight we were cutting out the middle man and feeding him ourselves.

Patrick and I decided to ride bikes around the church parking lot across the street before dinner. We liked to take advantage of all the empty spaces on weekdays, riding around and around for as long as we wanted. After several dozen laps I usually got bored with riding around in circles, but Patrick always wanted to ride until the air hissed out of his tires. Truman tagged along as we walked our bikes across the street. I loved my little brother, but Patrick was less than thrilled to have to hang out with "a little squirt."

"Truman," Patrick taunted, "did you know that I learned how to ride a bike without training wheels when I was only four years old?"

"So, what?" Truman responded. He had just had his training wheels removed and was quite proud of his newfound balance on a bicycle. He didn't appreciate Patrick's attempt to belittle his accomplishment.

"So it means that I'm a better bike rider than you are," Patrick stated his opinion as if it were fact. Truman argued with him, heatedly. He straddled his little red bike, leaning on the ground with his right foot.

His hands were wrapped around his handles so tight that I could see his knuckles turning white. Patrick remained calm, enjoying the sight of my little brother as he started to boil over. "If you're really better, then you'll race me around the block."

"He's two years younger than you, Pat. That's not fair," I butted in, trying to moderate the situation. I wanted to help my brother, but I didn't want to embarrass Patrick by siding against him. I compromised. "You should at least give him a head start."

"I don't need a head start," Truman objected, as irked by my well-intended condescension as he was by Patrick's mean-spirited challenge. "I can beat him without one."

It was clear that neither of them was going to back down. We pedaled to the end of our street and laid out the race course. Since they were going around the block, my house was to be the starting and finishing point. I rode behind the two competitors to ensure that no shortcuts were taken and that I had a good vantage point, in order to view the winner of the contest.

I signaled the beginning of the race—with an enthusiastic, "On your marks, get set: Go!"—and followed Truman and Patrick from a few lengths behind, observing my brother take an early lead. As the competition progressed, however, Patrick started pedaling faster and faster, taking turns at a daring pace. Truman wasn't skilled or bold enough to keep up.

Patrick had a commanding lead as he approached the final turn, which would take him back onto our street. Maybe he didn't know how far ahead he was or maybe he wanted to really put Truman in his place—perhaps a bit of both—but he didn't slow down at all as he attempted the last turn.

All I could do was watch as Patrick's front tire turned too sharply and bucked him from his seat. His airborne frame smacked into the firm metal bar of the Stop sign on the corner as his bike somersaulted into the street. Truman and I arrived on the scene to find him splayed out on the curb, but other than the prerequisite, "Are you okay?" we weren't quite sure what to do.

Patrick got up slowly, covering a substantial gash on his forehead with his hand. The helmet on his head was comically askew, covering his left ear and leaving his crop of blonde hair poking out the other side. He had scraped up his arms and legs pretty severely on the fall, which had also ripped his shirt. Blood was trickling from the wound on his head. He let out a series of pained whimpers; I wondered if the immense head pain made him forget how to cry. Then the tears began to fall down his cheeks.

With the aid of Truman and me, Patrick was able to hobble the half block trip back to my house, where my parents called for an ambulance. Paramedics arrived shortly, treated the wounds, asked Patrick some basic questions, and took him to the hospital for X-rays. When my dad came home from the hospital later that night, he informed me that Patrick had incurred a minor concussion and was going to be fine.

"What happened?" my dad asked. In the chaotic aftermath of Patrick's accident, no one had found the time to sufficiently explain it to him. I told my dad about Patrick's argument with Truman and race that ensued. He was still confused. "Why didn't he see the sign? Was he looking for Truman behind him?"

"He thought that he could make a sharp turn and avoid it, I guess," I said.

My father smiled. "Patrick has never known when to use the brakes," he joked, smiling to himself. I thought about that statement. Obviously, Patrick knew how to use his brakes, though he had woefully neglected to do so. I concluded that the meaning was beyond my comprehension and went to bed.

Within a day, Patrick was back to knocking at my screen door. His head was bandaged like a mummy that hadn't been fully wrapped, with a loose strand of gauze hanging over his left ear. Other than the physical evidence, Patrick didn't seem any different than before the accident.

We went upstairs to play with my action figures. Truman was there when we arrived, lying on the floor in the playroom, meticulously building Lego skyscrapers.

"Whoa!" Truman exclaimed when he saw Patrick's bandages. "Does your head still hurt?"


No, my head never really hurt at all," Patrick lied.

"Yes, it did. I saw you crying."

"I wasn't crying! My eyes were just watering because I was angry that I didn't stop my bike in time."

"Okay," Truman conceded, preferring to return to his miniature construction project than get involved in another futile argument. Unfortunately, Patrick wasn't on the same page.

"It doesn't matter anyway, because I still won the race."

Truman looked up. "How?" he asked.

"I was ahead when I got knocked off my bike, so that means that I won and I'm the better rider," Patrick sneered.

"I won because I stayed on my bike the whole time!" my brother countered, and like that, an argument had been ignited that likely wouldn't cease until both boys were ready to get back on their bikes and race each other again. Their stubbornness frustrated me, but for some reason, I really just found myself angry with my friend.

"Patrick!" I yelled, getting his attention. "Just drop the whole subject. Why do you have to care so much about who won a stupid race? Grow up! There was no winner, so stop trying to annoy Truman about it—he's two years younger than you. Didn't you learn anything?"

Patrick looked surprised; I'd never taken sides with Truman in one of his disagreements before. He clammed up. For the rest of the afternoon, we played with action figures. Truman joined us, but neither he nor Patrick mentioned the bicycle incident again.

In bed later on, I thought about what had happened that afternoon. I felt bad about snapping at Patrick, but I was tired of waiting for him to get over his immature habits. Even Truman was learning when to pick his battles, and that he didn't always have to be right. Why was it so difficult for Patrick?

As we grew older, our friendship waned. Patrick still lived right next door, but his visits became less frequent as we graduated through the school system. By middle school, his inconsistent work and unfocused attitude had held him back a grade behind me. By high school, I had a completely new group of friends and so did he.

We still remain friendly with one another, but it's mostly out of respect to a friendship that has long since passed. It's difficult to assess why we don't keep our childhood friends as we get older, but sometimes I try anyway.

For me, it all goes back to Patrick slamming into that traffic sign, and my dad, sitting on my bed and smiling, as he says, "Patrick has never known when to use the brakes." I finally understand.