WINTER 2013 (Issue 77)

 

Sean Bernard

The Stolen Bike and other fables

1: In Which the Quest Begins and Strange Clues Gathered

narrator

Early, very early in the morning, before the sun had risen, before the finches had begun their joyful chatters, when the squirrels began nibbling at the day’s first pine cone and none but the mockingbird sang down from the eucalyptus: then, the girl opened her eyes. She had been dreaming a child’s dream. In it, she’d been riding a bicycle but, wonderfully, her head was helmetless. A helmet was a grave precaution. Her parents had stressed its importance through tales of concussed children, head-on collisions, her father always wore his helmet, always strapped hers on when she rode on the seat behind his own . . .

. . . but in her dream, it was just so great riding without a helmet. The girl stood at the top of Indian Hill Road, high in her town’s foothills, looking down the loping avenue at suburbs and mini-malls, apartment complexes and train station, the darkly wooded parks and all the other children. She took a breath, pushed off, and pedaled. The wind was so loud in her ears, and her eyes watered, the bicycle moving so swiftly she couldn’t pedal fast enough to catch the spinning wheels, she was lifting away, floating, glorious day.

And then she did an awful thing: she lifted her right hand from the handlebars, held it high in the sky, grasping the air; she lifted her left hand from the handlebars, held it high, too.

She soared handless down the hill, free, flying . . . and saw her parents. They waited at the bottom, standing beside a strange jumbly pile. Their arms were crossed and both frowned sternly: she was busted. She put her hands to the handles. She tapped the brake, slowed to a stop. Her parents shook their heads angrily and pointed at the odd pile. Bad girl, they scolded. They lifted her from the bicycle, her mother holding her feet, her father her hands, and they swung her back and forth, away from and toward the pile, and she saw that it was a pile of broken bikes and dead little boys and girls, heads bruised and bloodied. None wore helmets.

Her parents swung and swung.

The moment they let go, she opened her eyes.

Awake, she heard footsteps outside the apartment, a gate opening, the whir of wheels.

My bike, she thought. Someone’s stolen my bike.

phone clerk at police station

Hon, are your mom and dad home? Well, when they do get home ask if they got this thing, renter’s insurance? It’s a policy a lot of people have, only costs a little, and you get peace of mind knowing you can replace your belongings. Sometimes bicycles are covered by things like that. But we can’t go around looking for your bike, I’m sorry. Sounds like a great bike but we have so many other things to worry about. It’s been awful for us lately since that terrible man wasn’t caught, you know, oh, I shouldn’t say anything, well, forget I did. Anyway we just can’t go looking for a little girl’s bike, it’s sad, it’s not fair but it’s true. But ask your folks – renter’s insurance! Good luck!

sidewalk

Usually of course we wouldn’t interfere, would we, jacaranda tree and black phoebe bird? But we exist for mankind, after all. I am here to be walked upon, and you so that people can take joy in your singing, phoebe, and you, tree, so that many may admire your lovely flowers. And look at her, this child so full of hope and faith. Oh please sprinkle your purple blossoms, jacaranda, please hop along, little wing, let’s lead her to her bike, may we, please?

apartment manager at apartment office

Oh you poor dear to lose your little bicycle. A blue BMX? No I don’t suppose a sign would work. I say you just go on and ask people in the complex. I do it all the time. I’ll just go up to a body on the street and say, Hello, some crummy season, isn’t it? Everyone likes to chew on baseball, even the crazies. It’s the national pastime! This year’s in the tanks but we got ours. That Bonds just about killed me but still we won, didn’t we? Good old Troy and Darin.

Like all the rose bushes? We planted them when we won the Series! Isn’t that great?

But no, not to celebrate – in memory of that poor little girl. That was after the old handyman, that very strange man, oh it was awful. And all those other children, those poor dears. Spiteful, terrible man. Never was caught. He and I, we smoked cigarettes together. He liked to talk about the stars. He said this was that constellation and that was this constellation. Made them up. Strange man. He didn’t shave well, always a patch on his Adam’s apple. He looked like Preacher Roe. Ever see pictures of Preacher? Lanky, threw like a storm.

rose garden, fig tree

Keep walking, child, keep walking, don’t draw attention. Pretend you can’t hear us.

Natural-like. That’s it.

Listen: your bike is not far. We saw the strange activity early this morning.

The newspaper delivery boy. Seek out the newspaper delivery boy.

next door neighbor

Young lady I don’t go in search of things because that’s the path to disappointment. Give up your search. It can lead only to pain and suffering. Instead, do what I do: build things. I entered this apartment complex with little in my past to recommend me save the fact that it was over with, the past. I came alone. I found a land filled with all the stuff a man’d ever need to create. That landfill out at the end of Bonita Avenue. I was limited by not my mind, by not my hands, by not my ability. I knew little but what I knew was that one thing matters. Effort. So I took the materiel and shaped it and considered, shaped and considered. Mostly junk. What it came to isn’t much – or is, depends how I’m feeling, and upon such matters as time of day. Slant of light. Wind. Season. Epoch.

Yes, this robotic looking sculpture is entirely constructed of Folgers cans. I made it.

Great, isn’t it? There’s more in the back.

Young lady, what I’ve learned about life through making my sculptures is this:

The truth about the world is that dreams don’t mean a thing.

The truth about life is that it’s the most precious thing because it’s the only thing.

The truth about life is also that it means nothing, not one thing at all.

Why not, I’ll help you find your bike.

Let me load my shotgun first. No gun? Okay, just the knife. Always the knife.

narrator

The little band of two moved swiftly through the forest, lightly armed, confident that they would find success on their arduous journey. They peered in each shaded place, rustled under leaves, rifled through recycling bins. They found many things: a cache of Yoo-Hoo bottles, an abandoned dragon lair, a mycelium expounding upon time-space relativity, the buried legs of dolls. They delighted in their findings. The strange neighbor talked about the sun and the moon and expounded on the seasons and the decaying world. The little girl kept her focus, searching, always, for clues to her missing bike.

In a cave beyond the oak grove, they found a stack of delicate bones.

The neighbor crouched, shaking his head. He held a hand on his hip, where his knife was sheathed, as if he feared the little finger bones would reassemble and grasp him. This is the old handyman’s work, he said sadly. Those poor kids. I hope to God he’s not behind this.

He looked at the young girl. They never caught him, you know.

She gripped her next-door neighbor’s hand.

I’m not afraid, she told herself. I’m not. I’m not.

Parents

Hon, where’s Lila?

Taking a bath. I thought it’d cool her off. She was so upset about her bike. She just had a temper tantrum – woke up screaming. I know, right? She hasn’t done that in years. She lay right there and hit and kicked the floor and screamed. It was weird. Embarrassing. I don’t think she’s sick. I put my hand on her forehead. She seemed fine. Warm a little, but it’s hot out. So I drew a bath. Right thing to do, right? Stop looking at me like that.

But hon. She’s not in the bath. She’s not in her room. She’s not anywhere inside.


2: In Which a Threat Emerges

the crossroads

I am a famous place. Pause and pay respect. Souls have been swapped here.

I will tell you travelers two important things:

One: early this morning, before dawn, a man-boy came through. Pedaling a blue bike.

Two: your path will be fraught with peril. You will meet many obstacles.

That is all. These are the choices before you:

Into the darkened woods or back from where you came.

narrator

The group of two came to the apartment complex entrance. The little girl went to the gate and grasped the knob. When she saw that the neighbor had stopped, she paused. He checked his watch. He said, I thought we were just going to look around the complex? If it’s out there, it could be anywhere. Maybe your parents have renter’s insurance?

The little girl shrugged and walked back to him. The neighbor was relieved. As he walked her to her apartment, he reassured her and said that things like bikes just didn’t disappear, it would turn up, there was nothing to worry about, nothing at all.

The little girl knew he was lying. She waited until he’d gone indoors, then ducked behind an oleander shrub. She could see her parents in her own apartment, they were gesturing nervously. Her mother looked so worried. It’s all right, Mom, the little girl wanted to say. She saw her father go to the window and he looked worried, too. It’s all right, Dad.

It was all perfectly fine – she was going to do it, she was going to find her bike.

Once the coast was clear, she went back to the entrance, turned the knob, and left.

Jorge Luis Borges

Borges tells us that in terms of plot, the reader feels a deep need for primary tension to be resolved. He says need for resolution is like water to Tantalus: as there’s no resolution in our own lives, we yearn to find it in the realms of the fantastic – dreams, films, novels.

That’s great and all. But he doesn’t point out that there’s rarely tension in our lives.

I try to like Borges as a writer, but reading him feels like homework. He’s teaching me about the weird constellations in his mind, the diaphanous theories for which he’s constructed complex systems of logic. It’s tremendous fiction, sure; but medicinal.

That’s what I’m thinking the day the little girl bobs past. She doesn’t bob so much as bounce determinedly, a movement just shy of jogging. I live in the apartment complex, too, but on the outer edge – my office window faces outside the complex, and she’s outside the complex now, humming her way down the sidewalk, determined, as if she’s trying to convince herself she’s not afraid. I’ve seen her on walks with her parents. She’s a strange kid – wide-eyed, alert, quiet. She holds stares when she passes. At least once, she’s held mine.

That’s the moment I’ll remember, that last one, the one before I never see her again.

the old wise man at the bus-stop

Hey kid, don’t worry about it. Listen: I used to get so worked up over things. I mean, if the Dodgers don’t win I just about lose it! Now I know it’s better to let things go. I’m not religious, but that serenity prayer? It’s good. My trick is I just replace God with “me.” It’s more, Bob, remember: have the smarts to let shit go unless you can do something about it.

The old man laughed and laughed.

Then he leaned close and whispered, Careful, we’re being watched. Duckling – don’t go where the darklings go. It’s a riddle, figure it out, find your bike.

the man from animal control

Hey kid, believe it or not, I saw a blue bike, not an hour ago. It was chained to a bench near Shady Park, the one with all the trees, where they used to hold day camp? It’s just down the road a bit. You’ll see it. It’s like any forest, dark place, scary trees, windy, strange sounds. Be careful, though – it’s a day for wildness. Animals, people, whatever. Folks get crazy on days like this, middle summer, winds blowing. The heat grabs at you, you know? The winds, some say it strips you down to some primal awfulness. I’d hide inside if I could. This morning, I’m serious, some crazy old lady called and said she saw a wolf. I said, Coyote? She said, Wolf! She said it had yellow eyes and big teeth and a black coat. I started laughing. A wolf. But my boss said I had to check it out. That’s not even how wolves look! They’re gray and dingy. Good luck finding your bike! Keep your eyes peeled for a pretend wolf!

narrator

The little girl paused at the park entrance. Grass had sprung up in cracks between the sidewalk, and the sidewalk at the front gate had burst up from the earth. The oak trees were enormous and thickly gathered, and she could see their roots beneath the concrete, and brown hard-shelled bugs clambering in spirals over and around the roots in endless patterns. She looked back down the road, biting her lip. She could go home. She could go back to bed. She could pretend she’d been dreaming the whole time, that it was all a game. But it was her bike, and she knew she oughtn’t be afraid, somewhere deep inside her she thought that fear was not about the world so much as it was about the self, she didn’t have these words yet but she felt something like the animal control man’s wolf inside her and how could you live with a wolf within, making you afraid all the time? Wasn’t it better to tame the wolf? To move forward and not back? The world was the world. It didn’t change. Only how she saw it changed.

Resolute, she began to step into the park, into the path that wound into trees, and she saw a dark animal blur, a flash, blackyellowwolf, and she stilled her thrumming heart and thought, Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid.

the handyman in the wooded park

You can pretend that there is light in these darkened trees. That there is hope. But you cannot understand the wolf. The wolf is the wolf. The wolf exists to kill you. Nothing else.

I am the wolf. Here are my trees, here is my shadow, here my darkness, here my light.

You can’t see me, young child. Step nearer, over here, in the shaded shade.

I can spangle my fingers as the trees spangle branches.

Just a little closer, close enough to touch. That’s it, that’s right.

fleeing the woods

The wise old owl swept down, beating its wings on the face of the assailant.

The girl looked into the trees and saw the terrible man leering toward her.

She screamed and ran and from the woods. She ran and she ran, gasping fear.

She didn’t see the man grab at the owl, snatch it from air, fling the bird dead to dust.

She didn’t see him lurch after her.

 

3: In Which the World Feels Your Absence

fairy tales

They have two parts: fairies and justice. Fairies are the fairy part. Justice is the tale.

If you ever happen to read a biography of the Brothers Grimm (two are great, the rest are crap), you’ll see that a formative aspect of the brothers’ lives was the public disgracing of their mother and sister. The two brothers went about righting (writing?) the wrongs of the world.

People read for the same reasons the brothers wrote: because they want a better life.

But some people claim that art is terrible: it distances us from our natural state and, worse, from our natural emotions. It privileges the critic: only he can decode complexity, which makes the rest of us normal people ashamed of our instinctual, subjective reactions.

Art’s bad, the theory goes, because it makes you think beyond your instinct.

Okay. So this little girl – and it’s sad, and it’s real, this story, in its own way – this girl from my apartment complex was abducted last year. She was last seen supposedly delirious, searching town for her stolen bike. I was away at a conference when it happened; when I got back, there was a sudden neighborliness in the complex. Where no one had spoken to one another before, they now chatted in low conciliatory tones. Eggs borrowed and the like. I went online to see what’d happened. I didn’t know the little girl, I’d just seen her and her dad walking through the complex, picking figs, or her and her mom at the pool, she had this enormous red lobster pool-float and she rode on the carapace, and the claws lifted from the water, and she’d splash up and down and laugh and fall into water, and then she’d come up and wipe her face, suddenly serious, gasping for breath and blinking her eyes. Cute kid.

Before the parents moved out – they split up less than two months after the girl vanished – I saw the father. He was outside the complex, on the curb, smoking. He had his arms wrapped around his knees and he was just staring down the block. His eyes were red. Of course they were. They’d found her, that day. With all the other bodies.

Maybe he’ll read this someday. The father. Or the mother. Maybe it’ll make them happier, at least for a moment.

And then tell me that art is a bad replacement for reality.

patrolman

Morning, folks! We have a report about a young girl, she’s going around looking for a bike? We don’t mean to offend but we’d just like to know – maybe – is it your daughter? Yes? Do you know what’s gotten into her? Fever? Active imagination? We’ll search for her, we’re going to put all our resources on the case, everyone, yes, all the speeding cops, even Larry who just gives parking and jaywalking tickets. No, don’t worry, we won’t imply that you’re bad parents for losing track of your daughter, we’re just here to help as best we can.

Afterwards, the Mother

You’re not supposed to forget. You’re never supposed to forget.

You’re only supposed to move on. In the right way.

And tell me. What is the right way for moving on? Should I build a shrine to her and say hello to it each morning and so remember her? Is that the right way? Should I think and think and think of her before sleeping and then she will visit me in my dreams? Should I awake with her picture on the mantel in place of alarm clock, so she is my waking image, my opening (closing) to each day? And in that way she will always come to me, in those odd moments of memory, rolling out cookie dough, trimming toenails. When that John Lennon song comes on the radio that she liked so much. The wheels, the wheels. (The bike.)

It’s better to forget / it’s terrible to forget.

We forget. We remember. We forget, we forget, we forget.

We feel guilty. We try to remember. We feel guilty. We try to forget.

Supposed stages-of-grief: I tear you in half, I set you to flame. The true stages: shock shock shock shock shock shock shock shock anger anger anger anger anger anger anger emptiness emptiness emptiness nothing guilt guilt nothing nothing nothing guilt guilt guilt nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing o fond memory o I don’t feel guilty anymore.

O now I’m free. (o never) O free from the life. O once (always) part of mine.

Afterwards, the neighbors

Don’t repeat this, okay? It’s awful. But you want the truth. So here.

The kid was annoying. She left her toys in the yard. I tripped on some long vacuum thing once. This little crappy plastic thing, I don’t even know what it was. But it hurt like hell.

Now she’s gone, it’s terrible, I totally understand that it’s awful in an abstract way.

Honestly, though? I mean, hey – no more shit in my yard. No more busted ankle.

That’s the truth. Am I terrible person for saying so? Are you, for asking?

Here’s the thing: it’s not so much you or me. It’s the truth that’s terrible.

The world

If I could form a hand from the dirt I would grab this girl and sit her down.

Just sit. Be quiet. Sit here with me. Stare at the world. Be calm. Just witness it.

The longer you watch things pass the less they seem to matter.

A bike? What is a bike? Let it go, let it go. Let everything go.

If I could, I’d sit her down. Maybe we could talk a little. Children have strange minds.

But she’s too caught up in these small things, the thing she’s lost, to fully see.

The tragedy of life is two-sided:

On one hand, people ruin it with all their distractions.

On the other? Without them, life has no meaning.


4: Two Ways In Which the Story Ends

one

They found the girl wandering the city. She’d torn her dress. Her hair was thick with leaf and branch. She pointed at each person who came near, accusing them of horrible crimes. Her eyes were sunken. Her skin pale. Sweat matted hair. The policeman held her close.

The shack! she cried. The shack!

He wrapped her in blankets, called her parents.

Thank you, officer, oh my god, thank you so much –

What happened to our –

She’s okay, the officer said. She kept saying something. Go to the shack? What shack?

Word spread through the complex. All of us were there. We’d heard the girl’s cries. We understood what they meant. We walked through town and gathered at the sad dark shack in the woods. The neighbor. The apartment manager. The police clerk. The mother, the father. The child. You. Me. The officer stepped forward, hand on gun. He opened the shack’s door.

We all stared in awe at the sad old handyman.

He was decrepit and thin, a skeletal presence in shadows. He leaned against a blue bike, oiling the chain. He looked up, seeing us standing there, our fearful and angry faces, and immediately he wept for all he’d done, sank to his knees, begged for mercy . . . and the little girl extricated herself from all of us, from our rage. And she touched his brow in forgiveness.

We watched in silence.

We knew better than to talk in the presence of the profound.

two

As the girl ducked the handyman’s grasp and fled the park, she thought, was it only today she’d awoken from that splendid dream of coasting downhill, wind in her hair, innocent and free? She ran and ran, if she ran fast enough, she’d get his awful face from her mind.

His face! Like a jack-o-lantern, lit madly within.

She’d carved a pumpkin last year, the knife sawing in and out.

That was how he looked: knife-carved.

She ran, she ran, she ran. Fast and fast and fast as she can.

But we all know that a little girl can’t outrun a full-grown man.