A Mechanical Scrutiny
It is a hot day in the city on the edge of summer, the sun shining clear and crisp like a giant overhead lamp. Two boys sit on a bench. The first is tall and thin, with masculine shoulders and hair made of the straw he used to roll in and that his mother eventually gave up trying to remove. His face would be almost perfectly formed were it not for his nose which hasn’t been even since an older boy smashed it in grade school. He leans with elbows jutting outward and hands cupped over kneecaps, his eyes idly following the motion of the street but not focused on anything in particular. Later that night he will meet up with his girlfriend from the state college across town because someone cut her bike lock the previous weekend, which means for going all the way out to see her he should be able to expect at least a blowjob. He exhales and runs his hand through his hair. These thoughts occupy his mind as he turns to his roommate who is busy watching people on the street. He has narrow shoulders and wears khakis even during the summer because he’s embarrassed of his thin legs. His frame is slight, his height concealed by a mild hunch. He breathes loudly, as if he thinks his brain needs more oxygen than other brains. Later that night he will go for a long walk across town and through the park, alone, hoping to find a way to clean out his insides before returning to the apartment where he will lie in bed all night, trying to stare through the ceiling into the room above him. He taps his fingers against the table.
He turns. ‘Jake?’
‘You hear about those two dudes and that nun got run over by the state college?’
‘Swear to God. Girlfriend told me this morning. These two dudes were walking this old nun across the street when this big U-Haul with no driver’s side door and a dinosaur on the side shot out the dorms and run them over at a crosswalk. Saying it was a drug deal gone bad but they didn’t find nothing on the bodies.’ He pauses to let this information settle, but in the thick spring air the words just hang uncomfortably in front of them, so he adds: ‘Seems stupid, though, go to the effort of dressing one up like a nun then doing the exchange in the middle of the street and all.’
‘They catch the guy who was driving the truck?’
‘It wasn’t a man. Heard it was this woman with a crazy beehive and sunglasses. At two in the morning. Girlfriend told me she’d seen her driving that U-Haul around campus a couple times before so it must have been going on for weeks, but she figured it was just someone’s mom helping move out early. You never think someone’s mom’s going to be in on distributing but I guess anything’s easier if you can turn it into a family business.’
‘You think they’re going to find who did it?’
‘Doubtful. I imagine now they’ve run afoul on one deal they’ll change cities and start over. Lay low for a while. Maybe find a new school, repaint the truck. That’s how these things usually go.’
Weird shit, Davey.’
They pause for a moment, let Jake’s words linger. Davey goes back to watching people on the street. He squints his eyes, trying to imagine the terrible things going on in the minds of others.
‘When did Phil get a bike?’
‘Phil doesn’t have a bike.’
‘Well he’s got one now.’
Davey turns to see their roommate Phil, with his fixed grin, bouncing down the sidewalk on a cherry red bicycle. The bike screeches, halts in front of the bench. Davey can’t help but stare at the chrome fenders which reflect little suns straight onto his retinas. He looks down, closes his eyes. When he looks up again, a pulsating purple blob hovers where Phil’s head should be.
‘How you boys doing?’
Jake slides off the bench and moves toward Phil. ‘Mind if I take a look?’
‘Be my guest.’
Davey’s eyes clear and he turns to Jake, who proceeds to examine Phil’s find with a mechanical scrutiny particular to boys from the state’s far-flung counties. Davey attributes a certain mythic quality to this phenomenon which, he observes, touches boys of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds. He envisions the eastern state as a sepia-toned expanse of dirt and uncut grass, dotted by the rusted remains of Fords and John Deeres, around which county boys congregate daily, as if observing an unspoken — perhaps unspeakable — ritual. They scour their machines with the reverence of scribes, contemplating the subtleties of rust spreading over an engine block, or picking at the meaning behind a piece of leather flapping in the wind with their pocket knives. Surely, they posit, some secret waits anxiously beneath infinite layers of minutia. Their efforts do not go to waste. When they emerge from their ancestral homes, the boys of Pike, Bourbon, and Hazard counties possess the arcana of the mechanical that well-dressed city boys, foppish dandies by comparison, secretly covet. Jake finishes his assessment. The first hints of rust begin to creep outward from behind the fenders. The chain needs oil. The back tire sags a little too much. ‘Still,’ Jake says, ‘it’s nice. Where you find it?’
Phil’s grin widens. ‘You know Jefferson Street?’
‘Well, there’s this guy there, sitting in front of a house, completely crazy, but he’s got all these bikes, you know? Just sitting out in his yard. So, I’m going by there earlier today, you know, and I stop by and ask him how much he wants for one and I pick up this little honey for twenty-five dollars.’
Jake’s eyebrow rises. ‘Where’s he get them?’
‘Well, man, here’s the thing,’ Phil lowers his voice, ‘I hear he gets them around the neighborhood.’
Jake looks skeptical. ‘That for real?’
‘Yeah, man. Old woman at the convenience store told me he and his brother and wife or girlfriend or something get them from kids. Like I hear they wait until it gets dark and go out wearing big heavy work boots and animal masks. They walk up and down the street shoulder-to-shoulder. Barn animals with baseball bats, like they’re on patrol. You know? When they walk abreast like that kids can’t get around them. They just sweep the neighborhood, up and down every street, real methodical, like a pattern. And if that doesn’t work, I hear they crouch in bushes or hide in trees and then come down on kids when they ride by. That’s how they get the bikes. Think about that. You’re just riding home with some milk from the gas station and then this guy with a cow’s head jumps down from a tree and goes to town on your legs with a baseball bat.’
Davey keeps his eyes trained on the ground, hears heavy boots pounding pavement, the sound of bones snapping like dry tree limbs after a storm, the sound of a sack of flour hitting the floor hard. Then human sounds, moans, while the whirr of bicycle wheels and the tenor tremble of a little bell fades with distance.
‘That’s fucked up.’
‘I know, man.’
‘Wait. How does that even make sense? Why they got to break the kids’ legs? Why don’t they just take the bikes?’
‘I don’t know, man. They’re crazy, you know? Maybe they don’t even care about the bikes that much, maybe they just do it for kicks. Or maybe they got crutches for them or something.’
‘That story don’t make any sense, Phil. Does everyone in the neighborhood know these guys are doing this shit? Why don’t they call the cops? Or why don’t they just go over to the house with a shotgun and get all the bikes back if all these guys got is some baseball bats? Where do you hear this shit, man?’
‘Shit, man. You know. Sometimes there are just stories. You find them somewhere and then you tell them.’
‘So what happens when the neighborhood runs out of bikes?’
Davey jumps in. ‘Or they run out of crutches.’
Phil only addresses Jake. ‘Come on, Jake. Who knows? Who cares? Maybe they go to different neighborhoods, I don’t know. I was just telling you this thing I heard because I thought you might be interested.’
Jake pauses. ‘Girlfriend just got her bike stolen.’
‘You do anything dumb lately you should make up for?’
‘Not that I can think of, but it might be good to give her something just in case I did something I didn’t know about.’
‘You think he’s got anymore like that?’
‘Probably. You ought to go out and take a look. Maybe find something for yourself, too.’
Jake stares ahead for a moment, his eyes blank, making calculations and value judgments in rapid succession. He nods, slow and slight at first, then more emphatically. He turns to Davey ‘You in, man?’
Davey pauses, looks down. He doesn’t like the feel of wind against his face and besides that can’t will away the onslaught of images: men with animal heads carrying bats, children with limbs twisted in unnatural directions, a single bicycle lying on its side in the grass, the front wheel still spinning and clicking softly. He shivers and the hair on his arm stands up. In his brain he feels like he shouldn’t go which is how he knows he should. He raises his head and nods slightly to Jake.
Jake returns the nod and turns to Phil. ‘Good. You going to show us where this place is?’
‘Down on Jefferson a few blocks north. I’ll take you over there.’
Jake rises and Davey follows a moment behind. They cut across the park, through the buzz of inane conversation and neglected burgers sizzling on grills and country music playing from blown Jeep speakers, to the sidewalk along Fourth Street. Phil follows behind at his leisure. Fourth Street is lined on the side opposite the park by a series of apartments, urban jungle trees forming a dense canopy of satellite dishes, antennae, and rainbow umbrellas. Revolutionaries and rock stars fill the window frames. As the boys move away from the major roads, buildings slowly decrease in height, reduced to empty lots of cracked concrete punctured by patches of grass and chain link fences which terminate at the corner, unmistakable for its stop sign mangled by years of impaired driving. The boys pause at the corner. A black child in an enormous leg cast hobbles across the street. The rubber thud of crutches followed by the sound of plaster grinding across the concrete makes Davey wince. Jake and Phil politely avert their eyes. After the thudding and grinding fades into the background, they cross the street.
Jefferson Street looks like a permanent yard sale. Families spend entire days in empty houses, watching their furniture and appliances on the lawn. They patiently await the arrival of their creator in the form of an ethereal auctioneer, big mustached, who will come in checkered suit and tie with golden gavel in hand to relieve the men and women of Jefferson Street of their worldly burden, allowing them to rise, their cornrows and nightgowns fluttering gently, into the soft and breaking clouds. For now, however, their earthly goods, subject to earthly elements, fade and mildew and rust, while they creep behind windows of empty houses. Houses, themselves in various stages of dilapidation, the most distinguished among them adorned by small pink placards like prize-winning produce, awarded not by the ethereal auctioneer, but the county building inspector, who recognizes distinguished entrants based on a bureaucratic calculus of many variables: number of broken windows, crooked door frames, missing shingles, dead grass, dead dogs, live dogs, dogs tied to fences, children, children tied to fences, missing house numbers, rusted lawn furniture, 40 oz cans on lawn, etc., etc. As he passes by, Davey keeps his head down; he knows what the neighborhood looks like and doesn’t need to be reminded. He hears Phil pull up alongside him and Jake and sees him gesture toward a house that looks at least an Honorable Mention.
On the sidewalk, Davey sees four young black boys flicking bottle caps on the pavement. One sits in a wheelchair, too high to participate, leaning over the other boys sitting Indian-style. They play without joy, their expressions blank, detached from the movements of the game. A pair of rusty bicycles lean against the chain link fence. Davey attempts to wave at them, but his arm refuses to rise above his shoulder, and the gesture comes off as somewhat aborted.
‘Davey, we’re here.’
Davey stops, finds himself standing in front of a house overrun by bicycles. They spill out into the yard of tall grass, dozens, chained together against the house, lying sideways in the grass, or propped up by unreliable kickstands. Many lack chains, others look like cannibalized pastiches on dry-rotted tires, rust the only consistent feature among them. Amidst these, the owner of the house, Phil’s man, scours the boys through jaundiced eyes, the only clearly delineated features on an otherwise dark and bald head. His skin is a deep black, almost purple to the boys, and he wears a white t-shirt plastered by sweat to his chest. On the porch directly behind him sits a woman, hunched forward in a kitchen chair, her features largely obscured by the shade from her towering hair. She keeps her knitting in her lap, turning the needles over in a methodical way perfected through countless afternoons like this. A discarded car door, white with a red stripe, leans against the porch, the rearview mirror cracked in the grass around it. The man rubs his raised chin with his thumb and middle finger, stroking outwards, as if indicating the direction he plans to speak. For a moment, the boys remain in front of the man, hands in pockets, stiff with the awkwardness of a first date. Finally, Phil cocks his head back and says ‘How you doing, man?’
The man doesn’t turn to face Phil specifically, instead addressing the boys’ general direction. ‘Good.’
‘Brought a couple of friends of mine to look at your bikes.’
‘Tell them go ahead.’
Jake glances at Phil and then advances toward the bikes. Davey looks the man over, head to toe, once, twice, before heading to the closest bike. Phil lays his bike down on the sidewalk and comes up alongside Jake. Davey sticks close to the boys, partly because he fears being caught alone in the man’s field of vision, and partly because he doesn’t know a thing about bikes. Jake runs his hand over frames, trying to detect subtle defects in welding or alignment, squeezes handbrakes with his ear between the handlebars, his eyes sliding side to side each time he applies pressure. Phil squats and examines tires for punctures or signs of dry rot. This ritual continues for several minutes. One bids the other to come, look here, waiting for the other to find a defect noticed by the first, which when discovered, prompts the other to confirm, yeah, he saw that, too. They find most in need of repair before riding can begin, and all too small for Jake or Davey. The man stands to one side with his arms folded, watching the boys sift through the tangle of metal and rust. He tosses a question among them: ‘Y’all boys from the state college?’
Jake turns. ‘No, man. We just live nearby.’
‘Ah. I figured y’all for college boys. At least that one,’ he indicates Davey, ‘You met my wife?’ he gestures to the woman on the porch, still enmeshed in her knitting, ‘She spend lots of time at the state college nowadays. She likes to check out books from the library. I tell her she keep it up one day they going to make her pay tuition!’
Jake tosses another wreck to the side. He turns to Davey, who is still looking thoughtfully at a flat tire. Then, visibly dissatisfied, scratches his head and says, ‘Hey man, this all you got?’
‘You looking for something else?’
The man’s response makes Jake pause. From his angle, Davey can see Jake’s eyes shift quickly, as if searching for support in the eyes of his friends. ‘Just a bike. But something that my girlfriend can ride.’
‘These is all twenty-five dollars. But I got some other ones if you’re interested.’
Jake and Phil exchange curt nods. ‘Yeah, we’d like to see those.’
‘A’right. Come on, then.’
The man uproots himself from the center of the yard and walks to the house next door, a two story house the color of old mustard with a partially collapsed roof and boarded up windows. On the porch next to the padlocked door rests a faded pink placard, which reads: ‘This house has been declared UNFIT for human habitation by the Magnolia County Housing Commission’ followed by an illegible date and signature. Davey turns to Jake, whose eyebrow hangs high on his forehead. Phil gives them a quick nod and motions with his hand that everything is cool. The man stops on the porch and reaches between his shoe and sock, producing a small key which unlocks the door. He tugs at the door a moment, one hand gripping the handle and the other the decaying frame, prying it loose with a creak that releases a gust of cool, musty air into the faces of everyone trying to look in. The man steps from the doorway, his stony hand resting on the frame.
‘OK. Go in.’
They go in. On the wall facing the entrance hangs a stuffed boar’s head that Davey almost stumbles into upon entering. It has begun to peel around the snout and looks short several tufts of fur which have drifted down and collected in a neat pile on the floor below. The man pulls Davey by the shoulder and directs him further back in the house, where the other boys move through a narrow hall lined with nails where portraits of dour matriarchs once hung. On the floor lay discarded rims, bike locks, and fenders which groan and crack as they walk over them single file. The hall spills into a larger room — perhaps a former dining room or kitchen where the dour matriarchs received their dour guests — which houses four pristine machines resting as if on permanent display. Jake and Phil’s expressions brighten.
‘These is all forty dollars if you’re interested,’ the man says, then, indicating a solid black bike in the corner nearest the door, ‘except this one. Y’all boys can’t have my Harley.’
The man erupts in laughter, his teeth the same color as his eyes, gesturing toward the letters h-a-r-l-y scrawled in white across the bicycle’s frame. Jake and Phil manage weak chuckles, and the man exits without sound. The boys move toward the bikes. Jake mounts the white one along the back wall, gets a feel for it. The joints might need a little oiling, but everything else feels nice and smooth. It’s a little big for his girlfriend but it fits him just fine. Phil looks over and whistles his approval. There’s a mount on the back where they envision a boombox fitting snugly, spilling punk rock anthems with bass-boost all over the sidewalk on trips to wherever they feel like going. With these bikes, they will become marauders and highwaymen. They will descend without warning. They will ride in formation all around the park and to the record store everyday. They will ride while listening to ‘Ride of the Valkyries.’ They will ride shirtless. They will ride to the park near Third Street and get high in secret places. They will ride circles around friends who are trying to get someplace on time. They will write rude things on the sides of restaurants that ask them to keep the noise down. They will ride at night, and challenge other established bicycle gangs that rise up against them. They will do battle in the parks and in the streets, in abandoned churches where the moonlight spills through fragments of stained glass, bathing the combatants in rich blues and reds and greens like court jesters while they pummel one another with arm rests from broken pews. They will become renowned for their prowess with the stretch of pipe and broken bottle. They will establish territory, and it will stretch from Fourth Street to the Walgreen’s on Broadway and west to the park. They will collect tribute from defeated gangs and the police, whom they will allow to continue operating only in designated areas and at designated hours.
While Jake runs his fingers along the spokes of his find, Davey realizes that he has no business here, in this house, around stolen bicycles, with the boys. He stands up and walks back through the narrow hallway. He hears the faint buzz of a television in another room. He waits a while longer for Jake and Phil, sure now that he will never be the kind of boy that can ride a bike and look cool or make girls want to sleep with him based on force of personality. He imagines himself the conscience of his generation, the one who will list the evils he observes on a long roll of paper that unfurls from where he writes and forms a huge pile in the corner of his room, where he will meditate on them in his room, in hopes that his creator will notice Davey in his quiet vigilance and tell him that he is his faithful servant and seat him at his right-hand side, where they will meditate on the failings of man together, forever.
Then from the other side of the house, wafting in from the open window, comes a sound like metal clanging over men’s voices. The buzz of the television increases. Davey moves back down the hallway, careful to avoid the broken fenders and bike locks, and past the ancient boar’s head. He follows the lingering clanging like a scent hanging in the stale air. He becomes a tangle of contradictions. He becomes aware of the inside of his body for the first time. Outside he remains still, cool, motions steady while his organs revolt. His stomach coils and twists, attempting to swallow itself like a suicidal snake while his brain screams and pounds and throws itself against the inside of his skull. He sweats anticipation and dread, secretly fearing and hoping that someone is watching and taking note.
As he turns a corner he nearly trips over a heavy pair of wire cutters. The sound leads him to a room stripped bare except for two metal folding chairs and an old television tuned to a dead channel, the source of the buzzing, paneled in fake wood, sitting on the floor among piles of dust and cigarette butts. On the wall hangs a large map of the city with supplementary maps of the sprawling suburbs tacked onto the corners. Portions of the map are exed out or circled in hasty black marker. Dotted arrows turn off major roads into labyrinthine back alleys all the way back to Jefferson Street. The room is dim save for two windows, open but with blinds drawn. The clanging comes from just outside. Davey walks over to the map, traces his finger around the thick black circle that lassoes the state college across town. He can’t help but feel disappointed, can’t help but feel that the heart of this house should be something more, something less empty. He moves to the first window and pulls the blinds apart and on the other side the enormous yellow eye of an allosaurus stares back at him. For an instant his insides fill with terror, in full-view of something much greater than himself. His stern resolve turns to something like cold oatmeal and he pulls back from the window. Before he can collapse, however, he pauses. The moment’s hesitation makes him reconsider the eye, framed by a high, pastel colored ridge, given texture by a row of rivets. The rest of the face is a single shade of peeling green, locked in a permanent roar, between its jaws a hunk of ketchup-stained brontosaurus meat and below that the words ‘UTAH: The Fossil State.’ The scene feels crudely excised from its natural position, as if set apart for closer examination. It is silent except for the sound of men breathing and rubber rolling across sheet metal which appears to come from somewhere beyond the Jurassic period. The background is lab coat white, except for a red stripe which runs horizontal behind the allosaurus’s head. Davey tilts his head to one side, absorbs what he thinks should be a lesson from the scene in front of him, though not sure what to do with it. After a moment he hears the definitive slam of retractable steel and the sound of a diesel engine revving. The allosaurus and his meal begin to tremble, perhaps with fear of academic scrutiny, perhaps with anticipation at the approach of a meteor they know to be arriving a geologic period too early.
Davey closes the blinds and retreats back down the hall, knocking the side of his face against the boar as he passes it, afraid that evil might just be an empty room in an old house where someone left the TV on. Clambering out the door, he finds himself in the burning clarity of afternoon light. After a moment, the softly focused mass in front of him solidifies into Jake, his back to the door and clutching the white bike by its frame, standing near Phil and the man, who has removed his shirt and wrapped it around his head like a turban. An Arab merchant in the middle of Jefferson Street. Jake flails his arms, first toward the man, then the bike.
‘You said all those bikes in there was forty dollars.’
‘This bike’s different. It’s a hundred.’
‘What’s so different about it?’
‘It’s an import. I get it from Europe.’
Jake turns to Phil, who looks immaculately composed. He says: ‘Hold on, Jake. Now, man, it’s a nice bike, but that don’t make it worth a hundred dollars, surely.’
The man doesn’t budge. ‘It’s a good bike. It’s the only one like it in this country. I get it from a little Spanish kid with one arm. He know the king of Spain. He save the king’s life and the king give him the bike. This bike a king’s bike, boy. How am I going to sell this for less than a hundred? Look, it even got his seal on it.’
The man points to a chipped white decal of a five-pointed crown, below which reads: ‘Royal Bicycle Co., Cincinnati, OH.’ Phil scratches his head. ‘Well, yeah, man, that’s nice and all, but he don’t have a hundred dollars to spend on a bike.’
‘It’s got a rack on the back for your boombox, too.’
‘Yeah, but he ain’t got a hundred dollars, man.’
For a moment this settles the issue. The man remains as he has the entire time, his arms folded, statuesque. Jake turns to Phil, nervous, and then notices Davey for the first time. He looks him up and down.
‘Where you been?’
Davey responds with a look like the sounds that just came out of Jake’s mouth were in some ancient pagan tongue, if not from some darker, subhuman source. The heat rising off the street makes the intersection look underwater. Davey thinks and sees in slow motion. By the time he forms something resembling an answer, Jake has turned away. The woman on the porch continues to turn her knitting over and over and over in her hands, the sunlight collected in the jewelry on her towering hair, now a papal tiara on a pagan priestess. She could be a tarot card. Her dominion is the front porch, where she reposes after conducting her sorcery, oblivious or ambivalent toward the events unfolding in the yard, which belongs to the Arab merchant. He stands, legs slightly splayed, and flexes his jaw. ‘Make me an offer.’
Phil says: ‘He’ll give you forty for it.’
The man’s eyes narrow, but Jake and Phil can spot the tiny spark that let’s them know this man’s a haggler at heart and from then on they know the bike is theirs.
‘You said all those bikes was forty.’
Pretense of strategy and subtlety evaporate in the day’s heat. ‘Sixty-five.’
‘Forty-five’s all I got.’
‘That’s an awful good bike and I don’t want to sell it for no forty-five dollars.’
‘It’s what I got.’
‘It’s from Europe.’
‘I’ll give you forty-five dollars for it. That’s all I got and I’m offering it.’
The man works his jaw for a moment, biding his time, as if hoping more money will appear in Jake’s pocket to be laid on the table. After a moment he concedes. Jake and Phil exchange satisfied glances. Davey stands apart, hunched over and pale like a sick thing. Jake digs in his pocket and produces a few wadded up bills. Money changes hands. The man unfolds each bill meticulously and softly counts them, pausing to adjust the t-shirt wrapped around his head, wiping beads of sweat from his forehead with the excess cloth.
The transaction concludes without words. The man’s face returns to its normal configuration and he moves back toward the center of the yard where he folds his arms, satisfied with the day’s trading. Phil takes his bike from the ground while Jake mounts his. They begin to pedal. Davey takes one more glance at the Arab Merchant and his Pagan Priestess and begins walking a few feet behind his friends. As soon as they’re out of earshot, Jake and Phil congratulate one another on their shrewd dealing. Riding high on their shining mounts, they are crusader kings, returning from the Holy Land with treasure liberated from heathen peoples. The buildings along Jefferson Street are the ransacked Constantinople. The whirr of their spokes lingers in the air and follows them as they roll around the corner and disappear onto Fourth Street.
Farther back, Davey walks through the ruins with his head down, without haste or even an awareness of it. The air is still heavy and sticky and he feels almost too tired to continue, but he can’t stop here. Up and down Jefferson, the children flicking bottle caps stop and watch Davey. With every step his feet seem to cement themselves more fully to the pavement. Nervous sweat runs in his eyes.
High above, a laboratory demonstration is taking place in a brilliant white room proffered by the creator. Principalities and dominions fill the lecture hall, every seat occupied for hundreds of rows, the seraphim in the choicest seats near the front, taking meticulous notes as the creator indicates Davey with a pointer and glides the overhead lamp into position as needed. On the dry erase board, he scribbles an elaborate diagram with equations and flow-charts that lead nowhere. Nervous sweat runs in Davey’s eyes. He looks up, but there’s only bright, clear sky. He staggers to the intersection and turns, not wholly in one piece, but alive enough, and disappears behind the fence, hoping to evaporate and rise above the hot and heavy air, drifting up and dispersing into the atmosphere.