Cecil Geary: Bicycle Paths (short fiction)
Southern Legitimacy Statement: I was raised in central Kentucky, southern Indiana, and southern California. My relatives first came to Kentucky from Virginia in 1800. I usually write humorous stories about the folks I knew in Kentucky. The attached story is not one of them.
They had moved again, this time from Louisville across the river to Clarksville. They moved often and always at night. As usual, his parents blamed him for their having to move. The big clock on top of the Colgate Palmolive Building read ten minutes past twelve when they came off the bridge on the Indiana side of the river.
Their new home was a second story apartment in a large house on South Elm Street. South Elm was a quiet residential street of older homes and tree-lined sidewalks. Stansifer Avenue bordered South Elm to the south and Harrison Avenue to the north. The closest businesses were a barbershop, café and grocery on Stansifer and a drugstore and dairy on Harrison. There was also a small park on Harrison known locally as Davis Woods.
The landlord lived on the main floor of the house with his wife and six children. All the children were younger than Robert except Caitlin. She was a year older and very tall. She had curly brown hair and wore bright-colored dresses that swished when she walked.
The front yard of the house was a narrow patch of grass between the porch and the sidewalk, but the backyard was large with a cherry tree, an apple tree and a child’s swing set. Beyond the backyard was an alley and beyond the alley, a field overgrown with weeds. Robert and his friend Larry cleared a space in the middle of the field. They called it their clubhouse.
Larry lived two houses down from Robert. He was Robert’s age, but heavier. He liked to wrestle, his favorite move was to pin Robert to the ground and sit on him. He would restrain Robert’s arms with his fat legs and thump him repeatedly in the chest with his finger. He called it the Indian finger torture.
Larry smoked. He stole cigarettes from his father and sometimes from the grocery store on Stansifer. He had some green tubers he pulled off a tree in Davis Woods. He said they were Indian cigars and he and Robert could smoke them once they dried out.
“I’m going to the bicycle paths tomorrow,” said Larry.
They were sitting in their clubhouse. Larry was smoking a cigarette and Robert was making a sundial. He had seen it done in one of the westerns he watched on television on Saturday mornings. He drew a circle in the sand and scratched in the numbers as they appeared on the face of a clock. He stuck a stick upright in the middle of the circle.
“Do you want to go?”
“What are the bicycle paths?”
“You’ve never heard of the bicycle paths? Everybody around here knows about them.”
“Well, I haven’t lived here that long.”
“They’re old Indian trails over by Silver Creek. They go up and down hills like a roller coaster. I’ve been going there for years.”
“Silver Creek’s a long ways from here.”
“I know a short cut. Do you want to go or not?”
“I don’t know. My mom likes me home for lunch.”
“Tell her you’re going to Davis Woods to look for arrowheads.”
“I ain’t going to lie.” He remembered the last time they caught him lying. His father whipped him with the belt and threatened to send him to military school.
“Suit yourself. If you want to go, meet me in front of my house at eight tomorrow morning.”
Robert looked down at the sundial. “I’ve got to get home.”
“Here.” Larry offered him what was left of the cigarette. “Have a drag.”
The next morning, Robert made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, shoved it in his pocket and rode his bicycle over to Larry’s house. Larry was waiting for him in front of his house.
“So they let you go?” said Larry. “What did you tell them?”
“That we were going to the bicycle paths. I’ve got to be home by supper.”
They rode their bikes down South Elm to Harrison. They proceeded on Harrison past Davis Woods, the dairy and the drugstore. At the railroad crossing, they left the road and took the cinder path that ran alongside the tracks. They followed the path until they came to another crossing and a paved road. They continued on the paved road past soybean fields and occasional patches of woods. They arrived at an ancient bridge. Sawhorses blocked the entrance with a posted warning of ‘Danger Keep Off.’ Larry rode around the sawhorses and crossed to the other side of the bridge.
Robert stopped abruptly. The bridge was in an advanced state of decay. The arched sides were rusty and tilted crazily to one side. The wood deck was black with age. Wooden beams placed end to end, lay across the deck. From their split, twisted appearance, nothing had passed over them in years.
“Come on,” yelled Larry.
Robert got off his bike and pushed it across the bridge, taking care to stay on the beams.
“Follow me,” said Larry. He pedaled rapidly up the road and turned down a path into the woods.
Robert followed, peddling hard to catch up to Larry. The path wound through the trees over numerous small hills. Other paths split off from the first in multiple directions. The boys rode over all of them, going so fast they literally flew off the top of the hills. Exhausted, they rode out of the woods onto the road. Across the road from the woods was a large grassy area. They dropped their bikes here and sat down to eat their sandwiches.
“Well, have you and Caitlin done it yet?” said Larry.
“You know what I mean.”
“Have you even kissed her?”
“Why would I do that?”
“I know what I would do to her.”
“She’d knock your teeth out if you even tried.”
“She couldn’t take me.”
“She could and she’d have help.”
“From who, you?”
“Ha, I’d beat the crap out of those snot-nosed punks.”
“I wouldn’t bet on it.”
“You want to make a wager?”
“No. Let’s talk about something else.”
“Okay,” said Larry. He reached in his pocket and pulled out two Indian cigars. “I brought one for each of us.”
“I ain’t smoking those things. They might be poisonous.”
“They ain’t poisonous. Indians smoke them all the time.”
“Have you ever seen an Indian smoke one?”
“Yeah, lots of times.”
“In the movies.”
“That one about the railroad with Randolph Scott.”
“I saw that movie. Those Indians were smoking sticks of dynamite.”
Larry grabbed Robert by the collar. “You calling me a liar?”
Robert pushed his hand away. “Cigars are made from tobacco. Tobacco grows on plants not trees.”
“Well these are Indian cigars and they grow on trees.”
“Do they sell them at the store?”
“I don’t know. Probably.”
“I’ve never heard of anyone buying any.”
“You don’t need to buy them. There’s Indian cigar trees everywhere.”
“Well, maybe I’ll try one later. Let’s head back to the paths.”
“Not until we have a smoke.”
Robert got to his feet and started walking towards his bike. Larry jumped him from behind. He forced him to the ground, turned him over on his back and sat on him.
“You either smoke a cigar or suffer the finger torture.” He locked Robert’s arms under his legs and started poking him in the chest with his finger.
“Get off me.” Robert turned from side to side, trying to keep Larry from poking him. He managed to free one arm. He hit Larry hard in the Adams Apple. The bigger boy rolled off him, holding his throat and gasping.
Robert jumped to his feet, got on his bike and took off down the path into the woods. He thought he had escaped, but then he heard Larry coming up fast behind him. Larry caught up to him and kicked the rear wheel of his bike. Robert lost control and went over the side of a hill, slamming into the bushes at the bottom.
He pushed his bicycle back up the hill. Once on the path, he got on his bike and went after Larry. His legs and arms were sore from the crash, but he was too angry to notice. He rode furiously over the paths looking for Larry.
He exited the woods and peered up the road in the direction of the creek. The old bridge gleamed like an apparition in the bright sunlight. Larry was on his bike halfway across the bridge looking down at the water.
Robert rode quick and determined onto the bridge. He kicked the side of Larry’s bike as hard as he could. The bike flipped over and Larry went flying over the edge. Robert did not hear his scream or the splash when his body hit the water. All he could hear was a monotonous droning like a bee buzzing in his ear.
The sun was directly overhead and the glittery surface of the water made his eyes ache. The dark object below might be Larry, but he could not tell for sure. He got to his feet, retrieved his bicycle and pushed it the rest of the way across the bridge. Once he reached the other side, he leaned his bike against a sawhorse and stumbled down the bank to the edge of the water.
Robert surveyed the creek for any sign of Larry, but all he could see was a flat unbroken plain of slow moving water. He removed his shoes and socks, rolled up his pants legs and stepped into the creek. The water was cold. Goose bumps rose on his skin. He waded ankle deep across a submerged rock toward were he last saw the dark object. Suddenly, his feet slipped off the rock and he plunged in up to his waist. He proceeded with more caution. The current tugged at his pant legs. The water kept getting deeper. It was up to his shoulders. He saw something floating out from a clump of debris. He leaned forward and grabbed it. He tried to pull it to him, but it was stuck firmly in the debris. He pulled with all his strength. The object broke free sending him crashing backwards into the creek. He thrashed about frantically trying to get his head above water. He regained his footing and stood up. He still had the object. It was a shirt, but it was too wet to determine the color. He dropped it in the water and watched it float away. He returned to the debris clump. It was composed of tree branches, strands of fishing line and creek slime. He could go no further. The water was getting too deep and he had never learned to swim.
He waded back to shore and climbed up on the bank. He sat down in a sunny spot and wrapped his arms around his knees. He was trembling and felt like vomiting. After a while, he stood up and looked around for his shoes and socks. They were some distance away. He had come out of the creek at a different place than where he entered.