by Thaddeus Rutkowski
It’s raining, and I’m on foot, heading for my parked bicycle, when I see a bike go by with two umbrellas attached to it. One umbrella is over the main rider, and the other is over the back wheel, as if to protect a small passenger. Maybe there is a child in the jump seat, but I can’t see any passenger as the bike rolls away.
“This isn’t so bad,” I think as my pants get soaked. “At least the air is warm, and I don’t have far to go.
I ride through deep water at the side of the street. With each pedal downstroke, one foot gets wet. Maybe I should get two umbrellas for my bike. They could protect me and my daughter, if she were still small enough to ride on the back.
Between the traffic and the curb, a taxicab door opens in front of me. I’m too close to stop. My front wheel hits the door, and I fall off my bike. I pick the bike and myself up as a woman gets out of the car’s back seat and walks away.
I get back on my bike and ride, but when I’m out of sight of the cab, I notice that my hand hurts—something might be torn or broken. I realize I should have gotten the woman’s name and phone number. She seemed totally unconcerned, but she would be concerned if I had her contact info. If my hand is injured, she should pay.
Then I remember: I couldn’t sue when I fell and broke my arm a couple of years earlier. There was construction on the street, and someone had left a fire hydrant running. The water had frozen, but the ice looked like water in the dark. I was walking fast; then I was flying fast, briefly, through the air.
After my fracture back then, I took pictures of the pylons and dividers, the flooded manhole next to where I fell. I studied the parked trucks, vans and heavy equipment. But I couldn’t find the name of a responsible entity. It was nobody’s fault but mine.
I notice a hole, or a series of holes, in the seat of my pants. The pattern looks like I sat on barbed wire. I blame my bicycle. My pants must have ripped when I hit the taxi’s door. Maybe I caught my pants on a metal clip that holds a cable. Maybe a seat spring was loose. My hand isn’t the only thing that was hurt.
I examine the bike, but all I see is the relatively soft seat. No sharp pieces of metal are sticking out. The seat looks totally harmless.
Farther along, I see a rat squashed on the street with an orange circle spray-painted around it. Why is the rat marked? I don’t stop to find out. Then I wonder, did I not see it correctly? I’m pretty sure I saw it for what it was—a squashed rat. There are other orange markings on the pavement. Maybe they indicate gas lines or water mains under the street. Construction is going on. Maybe the rat was flattened over a key piece of infrastructure and had to be officially marked. But I doubt it. I think the spray painter was just being whimsical with his can of orange pigment.
As I approach the block where I live with my wife and daughter, I see that the street in front of our building has been cordoned off. Police cars’ lights are flashing, and no one can cross. People have gathered at the corners, as if waiting to see something.
Shortly, a motorcade goes by. A cheer goes up when the U.S. president’s limousine passes. The president must be in town for a television or fund-raising appearance. I see small U.S. flags fluttering on the hood of a car, but I can’t tell who is inside.
The street has been narrowed by construction barricades—the same pylons and dividers from couple of years earlier. The street looks the same as it did when I broke my arm. So the motorcycles and limos have to follow a single lane, from one side of the street to the other. The vehicles slow down, then stop in a jam.
I want to write a letter to the president, complaining about the construction. “Dear Mr. President,” I’ll write. “The city has been tearing up our street for several years now. I can’t even ride my bicycle on the street anymore. I have to ride on the sidewalk, where I am yelled at by pedestrians. Our tax dollars are paying for this project. Can you do anything to stop it?”
I see a mushroom-shaped cloud between the earth and sky, but it isn’t a nuclear blast. It’s a lighter-than-air mass that resembles a shape I’ve seen somewhere else, in another country. There aren’t many, or any, mushroom-shaped clouds in this city, at least that I’ve seen. This cloud reminds me of where I’ve been, in a country where the air was smoky every morning. Later, the sun would burn through the smoke in that country and heat the air with incredible intensity.
Inside our building, I take my bike to the basement, stepping carefully down the narrow metal stairs.
On the lowest level, I see a freight elevator. It wasn’t here before; it must have been newly installed. It is just below a pigeon’s nest, which sits on an air duct. It looks like a contraption in a building where I used to live. The car of that elevator once fell on a man and broke both of his legs.
I get into the elevator, glad for not having to take the stairs. I push the handle and the car starts. It stops at the building’s front hallway, but no one is waiting there, so I continue on. When I get to our floor, I stop the car by moving the handle. But the floor of the car and the floor of the hallway are not aligned, so I can’t open the gate. I push the handle the other way, and the car moves a couple of inches. When the surfaces are perfectly aligned, I open the door.
I am back at the time I told my wife and daughter I would be.
“I’m not late,” I say when I walk in. “Look at the time.”
I can’t see a clock from where I’m standing, but I’m sure that any timepiece would agree with me.
- “Hard Biking” is one of the stories included in the recently released collection Guess and Check, from (Arlington, VA) Gival Press. Includes work praised by John Barth as “ . . . tough and funny and touching and harrowing.” Described in Kirkus Reviews as, “A stark, engrossing, Hemingway-esque portrait of a life spent in the margins.” Another story from the collection, “Out of Fashion,” can be seen here: http://old.ragazine.cc/2013/04/rutkowski-fiction/. It is reprinted here with permission.
About the author:
Thaddeus Rutkowski grew up in central Pennsylvania. He is the author of the books Violent Outbursts (Spuyten Duyvil Publishing), Haywire (Starcherone Books / forthcoming from Blue Streak Press), Tetched (Behler Publications) and Roughhouse (Kaya Press). Haywire won the Members’ Choice Award, given by the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in New York. He teaches literature at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn and fiction writing at the Writer’s Voice of the West Side YMCA in Manhattan, where he lives with his wife, Randi Hoffman, and their daughter, Shay. He received a fiction fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts. Visit him at www.thaddeusrutkowski.com.
Photo by Buck Ennis.