Views of My Bicycle Being Stolen
Why should anybody steal a watch when they can steal a bicycle?
- Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman
To be disappointed, one must own a bicycle. I am not cynical. I am just unwilling to be deceived by one more calamity that tiptoes its way in-between myself, happiness, and my bicycle (fig. 1).
One day it was a boy by the name of Marcel (fig. 1). Earlier in the day I had found a comfortable wall to lean my two-wheeler against. I left it there, self-assured. I disappeared to eat lunch in the open air, stare at the sun, read a newspaper. I did not own a lock because I owned a bicycle. Until I met Marcel, I thought this was fairly perceptive.
When I returned from lunch there was Marcel rattling my two-wheeler against the stone wall. I yelled across the grassy square: “excuse me, boy, but that’s my bicycle you’re getting personal with.” Marcel said nothing in return. Instead he climbed onto the seat and began pedaling in circles around me.
“What is your name?” I asked.
“Marcel,” he said, jostling the handlebars and sending the bike into a violent wobble that nearly ejected him from the seat. When he regained control he stood up and began pedaling faster.
“Now, Marcel, I admit that life’s grim obligations make a bicycle a necessity, but…” I cut myself off, seeing that Marcel was not paying any attention to what I was saying. In general, I have a hard time getting through to young people. It was then that I remembered the chocolate truffles I had purchased after lunch. I pulled the paper sack from my pocket and shook the truffles into my palm.
“Marcel? Now, Marcel, wouldn’t you love a truffle?” I said.
Marcel slowed his pace to inspect what I held out for him. He relaxed onto the seat and let the bike coast. He said: “presented with the alternative of love or a bicycle, young people of all countries have chosen the bicycle.”
Like every child with a bicycle, I measured other cyclists by what they had accomplished, yet asked that others measure me by what I planned someday to do. Because, when I was eleven the future was terrifyingly alive and I had planned to be there, very soon, pedaling (fig. 2).
Everyone in the neighborhood heard the news, the promise of a day to come when we would be forced inside to lie on the carpeted floor with our ears to the radio, our eyes on the television, our bikes abandoned in the grass. A cluster of bicycles on every lawn in the neighborhood, with all those wheels slowly spinning, the spokes glittering with sun in the vacant afternoon. And this is how I’d planned it: to be outside, to be banking slow methodical turns through the empty streets, to stand up and pedal as fast as I could only to break suddenly, to skid wildly across the pavement, to do this over and over until the rubber thinned and the tire popped and I’d have to borrow a new bike. I would almost bore myself with these thoughts.
At my request, my mother crafted a lead-lined suit (fig. 2). “So long as it doesn’t drop directly on you,” my mother said, “you should be fine.”
I practiced throughout that entire summer. Every humid July afternoon I’d take a spin around the block in my suit, incubating. It wasn’t long before the suit began to cling to my sweat-covered skin. The mouth-hole didn’t allow for much circulation. Hot breath was constantly deflected back into my face. I used to talk myself through those afternoons, in my suit, when I was sure I was closing in on heat-stroke. Is this tolerable? I’d say. Is this boring? I’d ask. Is this heat-stroke yet?
Yet, whenever I would spot another kid in the neighborhood on their bike, I’d get motivated enough for a chase. There I was, bleary-eyed and greasy, standing-up, pedaling hard, shrieking wildly while I tracked down so-and-so’s kid from next door. Sure, the shrieks were muffled behind the lead-lined suit but they were heard. And besides, did I really care what so-and-so’s kid was thinking at that moment anyway?
Eventually, July gave way to August, and August gave way to the fall and winter, and cycling in my suit became tiresome. Eventually, we all gave up the idea of waiting inside, as if our boredom could be restrained to just our living rooms.
I had a friend once – cancerous, bicycle-less – who insisted that the object of life was to make sure that one dies a weird death. “Make sure that however it finds you, it will find you under very weird circumstances. Live that kind of life,” he’d said.
When the doctors told this friend of mine that he had only a few months to live, he came to me with plans to build a bicycle (fig. 3). “Although you’ll have to do all the pedaling and the steering,” my friend explained to me, “we’ll both get to enjoy the scenery.” My friend had wishes and I had tried to meet them. “There’s no point in waiting for death bedside,” he said, and I agreed.
For the most part this type of cycling was easy going. We toured the city and the country. We stopped to gaze at buildings and bridges, valleys and streams. Occasionally, I would lift my feet from the pedals and let the bike coast and my friend would sit up in his bed, his hair scattering in the breeze, and he’d say “nice speed.” For the most part I did a fairly good job of avoiding hills. Because a hill is a problem when you’re on a bike which one person pedals and two people ride. So any time I’d see the road gradually rise in front of me I’d stand and pedal fast and gain speed and I’d hope that we were lighter, faster. I’d hope when my friend sat up and said “nice speed” it would mean something.
But, of course, there was the one steep hill, alongside the river. We were climbing it and my friend sat up and said “nice speed?” We’d slowed to a complete stop. I struggled for what seemed like hours to keep the pedals from going in the other direction, from spinning in reverse. And for the most part, I’m ashamed to say that I failed. Eventually, I gave up and the pedals spun back, as if out of revenge, and we began rolling downhill, picking up speed, moving in reverse. We drifted off the side of the road, carried through the air over the embankment, and splashed down into the river.
I managed to swim to shore. I saw my friend floating slowly downstream in the bicycle. I couldn’t think of anything to say.
After a long pause I called out: “are these circumstances weird?”
He looked around. The bicycle filled with water, his body slowly submerging.
“Not really,” he said. “To be honest it kind of feels like swimming.”
“Honestly?” I said.
“Yes,” this friend of mine yelled, “and I hate swimming.”
Once I was nearly in love with a woman. She did not steal my heart. She stole my shoes.
The day I met her I was swimming in a river. When I came to shore my shoes were gone. At this point, I was not in love. I think I was only nearing depression. To be in a world with bicycles, to have in fact ridden and owned one, and then to be forced to walk home barefoot – for once, I felt sorry for myself and it felt unavoidable. And isn’t this nearing depression?
On the outskirts of the city, I came up the road behind what appeared, from a distance, to be a woman balancing on a stationary bike (fig. 4). It wasn’t until I was almost beside her that I realized that she was in fact moving, albeit in slow, somewhat arduous clumps. She was using shoes, mine alongside others, as wheels (fig. 4). If you can in fact call them wheels.
“You have my shoes there,” I said, nodding at her front wheel. She gazed down at my bare feet. “I suppose you’re right,” she said. “When I saw them on the riverbank back there I assumed they belonged to someone who had drowned. I figured: why let them go to waste.”
“Fair enough,” I said. “But didn’t you see me swimming? I was just off shore? Didn’t you think that maybe the pile of clothes and the pair of shoes belonged to me?”
“I guess I didn’t know that was swimming,” she said. Fair enough. But my capacity as a swimmer was not what was at issue here. This woman was plodding along on this odd contraption she called a bicycle and my heels were bleeding. I asked her if I could test her bicycle out and she agreed.
The pedaling was rough and the movement was sluggish and sporadic. The bike would jolt and inch, and you’d pedal and pedal. After a few moments I began laughing. “Well, this is simply ridiculous, you can’t even feel the breeze in your face,” I said, not cruelly or in condescension, but almost lovingly. “Do all these shoes belong to dead people?” I asked.
“I suppose so,” she said, “but I’m not sure what you mean by dead or belonging.” She had her hands in her pockets and walked slowly alongside me. She said: “the best shoes are the shoes we have lost.”
Fair enough, I thought, stepping down from the bicycle and leaning it over to the woman. I asked her if she would like to join me for dinner, later in the evening, once we’d made it back to town. And she agreed. I asked if I could have my shoes back. I showed her that I was bleeding. And she agreed.
“Well then,” I said, sitting on the ground, lacing up my shoes. “I look forward to tonight.” And she smiled and climbed back onto her bicycle.
Later that evening, in town at the restaurant, I ate dinner by myself and talked briefly, curtly, with a waiter that could tell I was expecting someone. Later, when I was outside the restaurant wanting to go home, I leaned against the building and began unlacing my shoes. Of course, I didn’t leave my shoes behind. I threw them over my shoulder and walked home that night, barefoot.
When I was younger, and deeply frustrated by what my future had to offer me and by what I had to offer my future, I had a habit of showing up for work (fig.5).
At that time I was working as a chauffer for a successful businessman in town. The businessman bought the tandem bicycle, the uniform, the boots, the boot-shine, and put me to work carrying him places. I would show up at his house every morning at seven, ringing the bell on my handlebars, and his wife would open the door. She would hold out his jacket for him and he’d slide his arms into the sleeves and she would kiss his perfectly bald, balloon-like head and send him skipping to me with a newspaper tucked under one arm.
I would pedal him to his office and he would read his paper, grumbling softly at news (fig.5). I would pedal him to a café for lunch and wait curbside, and he would take down a sandwich in a few massive bites, he’d blow his nose vigorously into the café’s linen napkin. Sometimes, if he wasn’t reading his paper at lunch, he’d wave to me with cheeks full of food, his happy face stretching. Sometimes when we hit a bump in the road or would pick up speed going down a hill, I would hear the businessman emit small squeals of happiness. Although we rarely spoke with one another, my businessman and me were just fine.
At that time I had friends who had similar feelings as me, but who’d given up work, who’d withdrawn from business as others saw it, with its talk of motivation and personal investment. They spent their time trying to enjoy themselves. They would harass me when I’d pass by them on the streets, yelling things like commute, work, commute, sleep. Or, you will end up dying of comfort. Or reform my ass! And if I were carrying the businessman somewhere I’d pedal past them, shrugging my shoulders. If I were on the bike by myself, I’d yell back: have you ever had a habit before?
Of course, there was that day where we suffered the flat tires. That day I was taking the businessman to a meeting across town. I turned a corner and there was broken glass covering the street. When we passed over it the tires popped and hissed air and, somehow, I managed to maintain control, bringing us safely to a stop. I stepped off the bike and prepared to fix the flats, pulling out the spare tubes and tools I kept in my pockets. The businessman sat still on the back seat, reading his newspaper, chewing on the nub of his cigar. It was a hot day, and his face and forehead were glistening. I tried to get the tires off but couldn’t because the businessman was sitting on the bike. Sir? I said, jostling the bike up and down. I made the businessman get off the bike and I could tell he knew that we were going to be late for his meeting. He sat on the curb sweating under the sun, chewing his cigar, as tears welled-up in his eyes.
This was, as they say, how the opportunity presented itself. I walked over to him and took the cigar out of his mouth and threw it on the ground. I grabbed his perfectly bald, balloon-like head, a hand on each puffy cheek. I licked his soon-to-be tear soaked face from chin to forehead, and then returned to my old ways.
The trick to enjoying a bicycle ride with your father is simple: always make sure that it is your father, your bicycle.
I had made the mistake of not checking the bicycle or the man attached to it once, when I was most likely old enough to know better (fig.6). It was in the afternoon and the school day had ended. My classmates and I walked from class to the road out front where our rides were lined-up, where our seats were waiting. I took a seat and started pedaling (fig.6).
To be honest the ride that day, with another man acting as my father, was enjoyable. Or, at the very least, it started that way. He was an adamant pedaler, leaving me to do little work—which was nice. His torso was wide and windshield-like and he didn’t move it whenever we went through a swarm of insects or a pile of ashes that had been tossed into the air, he simply absorbed it into his white coveralls, which was also nice. And lastly, we never spoke. So it was quiet. The quiet, someone had told me, is nice. Nice and quiet.
But at some point on our ride this man stopped pedaling. I had to work frantically just to keep us moving. I yelled out, “hey pop, what gives?” still thinking that this was my father. I heard nothing. I pinched his hamstrings. I rammed my head into the small of his back, over and over. And nothing.
Eventually another father and son tandem rode by. I asked them: “you two mind talking some sense into my dad, he’s practically given up.”
“Aha!” The gentleman said, “dead weight.”
“Yeah. Dead weight,” his son said, parroting from behind, a large wad of gum in his mouth.
“Sure, but could you say something to him? He won’t listen to me,” I said, pinching again at a hamstring and getting nothing.
“Nope.” The gentleman said. “When I say dead weight I mean dead weight.” Then, his boy followed with: “Means it: dead weight.”
The gentleman continued: “That man riding on the front of your bike is dead, deceased.”
“Not breathing. Kaput.” The boy said, spitting out his gum.
“Besides, that isn’t your father,” the gentleman said.
“Couldn’t be.” This from the boy.
“He doesn’t have your nose.”
“Tell him, pa.”
“And I know a nose when I see one.”
“Ain’t that the truth pa,” the boy said, eyeing me as they sped off ahead.
I quit pedaling and let the bike roll into a curb and my supposed father and I tumbled to a stop. I crouched over the man and held his face in my hands. I realized, all noses aside, that this looked nothing like my father. And, yes, the man was dead.
I left the man there, dead, by the bicycle that was not mine and began walking. At that point I was old enough to know when to deny a ride if the wrong ride offered itself. Besides, I couldn’t imagine pedaling that bicycle the rest of the way home, by myself.
Sometimes one has the opportunity to choose how they will get from place to place, choose the style in which they arrive, so to speak. And sometimes one’s life attaches itself to a budget and a lifestyle that makes such arrivals difficult, which makes something like purchasing a train ticket impossible. And most times, if not all the time, one hates (like I hated, truly hated) riding in cars. And so what did I do when I found myself escape-hungry and broke, bicycle-less and wanting, needing, transport? I made do. I made friends who worked in the line of getting things places.
Once I called on a friend who had a job in the handling side of a shipping and handling company. In short, he put things in boxes. He offered to find a suitable box for me. When he found one—more of an oblong wooden crate than anything (fig.7)—he asked where I wanted to go.
“Somewhere less despicable than here,” I said. “Maybe somewhere with a horse track or a baseball team, you know, some place where I can watch people lose, where I can sit back and raise my self-esteem.”
“Fair answer,” he said. He said the shippers moving the load, the two men who pedaled the bicycle that towed the boxes and crates (fig.7), never checked the packages. So I should be safe. “What’s inside a box is not in their department,” he said.
My friend used the word incognito as he shut me into my crate, the daylight disappearing with his smiling face.
In my crate I could hear the shippers bantering, the two cyclists bickering over who wasn’t doing their fair share of pedaling.
After a while in my crate, I couldn’t tell if we were moving or not. Then we hit something, and I knew.
The cyclists had crashed violently enough to break the ropes holding the boxes together, enough to throw me from my crate onto a pile of cardboard. I sat up, stunned, and stared at the shippers that were out cold on the side of the road. I walked over to the bicycle. Both tires were flat and the front wheel was bent into an almost rectangular shape.
For some time I sat on the side of the road, beside the unconscious shippers, and contemplated walking home—not sure which way that would be. Then, I decided to open boxes. I found boxes filled with office supplies, loaded with staplers and unsharpened pencils. Other boxes I opened were care-packages filled with baked goods and framed photos, things sent from one family member to another. I opened a box full of canned goods, mostly jam, apricot. And for a while, I sat on the side of the road eating jam intended for no one in particular, cleaning-out the bottom of jars with two fingers. I left apricot smudges on almost every glassed photograph I touched. I helped myself. I went through every box, saying the word incognito as I tore open the cardboard.
When I was on the bicycle, I never really worried what I was travelling toward until someone asked. My friend, the designer of the bicycle (fig.8), and I had worked on the bicycle together and not once did we think or even care about what I, the rider of the bicycle (fig.8), was going to be propelled towards. We thought being propelled was enough.
“Something has to be done about this pedaling thing,” I had told my friend one hot summer day, after I cycled all the way over to his house and sat panting on his couch, my clothes drenched with sweat. “I agree,” he said, rubbing his chin, looking me up and down with disgust. And that’s how this whole project began. It was done out of necessity.
It was only a matter of weeks before my friend was attaching the rockets to the back of my bicycle, before we we’re gearing up for a trial run.
“Here, take this for your head,” my friend said to me on the test day. He handed me a leather helmet. “Just in case,” he said, returning to the rockets to tinker with them one last time.
We lined me and the bicycle up on a road that went straight for miles. “Hang on,” he said. “Don’t pedal,” he said. His safely goggles were already on his face. “I hadn’t planned on it,” I said. He let me do the countdown and when I reached zero he ignited the rockets. I was propelled.
The rockets were loud and violent, sure, but I was surprised and satisfied with the amount of control I had over the bicycle. I was satisfied with watching the scenery fly by while my legs remained motionless.
Then, the family came. A car, filled with a husband and wife and two kids riding backseat, passed me on my right and the family stared at me through the car windows. The man rolled down his window and asked me what I was doing, he asked me why my bicycle was on fire.
“The bicycle is being propelled,” I said, keeping my eyes on the stretch of road ahead.
“Hear that kids, he’s being propelled,” the man yelled into his car. “Well, it looks dangerous enough to me,” he said. “So why did you feel the need for all this propulsion?” the man asked.
“We’re doing away with pedaling,” I said, glancing over at him. His left arm hung casually out his window. “My friend and I, we’re making a pedal-less bike,” I said.
The man began to chuckle, rapping his hand against the outside of his car door. “Do you hear that kids?” he said gazing into the rear-view mirror. “A real blast-from-the-past,” he said, and no one laughed, not even the man—he just rolled up his window. In the back seat of the car, the man’s son and daughter were watching me through the same window, their faces expressionless. They did not feel the need to press them against the glass. The boy and the girl sat there silently, side by side, staring at me.
I spent some time looking at them. Then I inhaled deeply through my nose, collecting all the mucous I could. I spat, heartily. The saliva hit the window and spread and dripped and I put on the breaks. I put my feet down against the pavement to help me come to a complete stop. I walked the bicycle back to my friend, keeping my leather helmet on, already longing for what could’ve been.
Alex Czaja grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah. Other work by him has recently appeared in Corium. He lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.