by Thaddeus Rutkowski
My bicycle has become a trash receptacle. Someone has stuck a used napkin into a crevice in the handlebars. Someone else (or the same person) has clipped a half-empty water bottle into the rack behind the seat and left the bottle cap on the saddle.
I have parked my bike where there is no garbage can. Many people have walked by, looking for a place to throw their trash. Not finding a container, a few have put the refuse on the next-best thing: a bicycle. Never mind that the bike doesn’t resemble a waste can. The rider wasn’t around. Who’s to care?
Who were these hoodlums? I have no way of knowing. I remove the litter and ride.
While I’m riding, I feel an intense, nameless fear, though it’s not really nameless. It is a common, ordinary fear, the kind I feel to a lesser degree most of the time. Now, it has reached a peak and overwhelms other emotions. I’m afraid I will have too much time to ride—too much unstructured time. I will not be called on to do anything else, anything with a purpose. I will roam the streets on my bike (or, worse, stroll the streets on foot). I’ll have nothing else to do. I’ll just coast along, looking for downhill stretches and avoiding ascents.
The fear is baseless, I believe. But my belief is only a hunch.
At an intersection, a poodle tries to attack me. I know it’s a poodle by the curliness of its fur. The dog is not large; it might be a miniature or toy poodle. Whatever its breed, it goes after the leg I have extended to keep my balance. It runs at me and snarls. I am surprised by the volume of its voice, and I can see its toy teeth. Fortunately, the dog is attached by a leash to its owner, a woman who seems used to the dog’s behavior. The leash is an adjustable type—it resembles a spring-loaded tape measure—and the woman presses a button to reel the dog in.
I get trapped behind a garbage truck. I can’t ride around the truck; there is no space between it and the cars parked on the street. I could ride on the sidewalk, but that path is narrow, and pedestrians occupy it. Riding a bicycle on a sidewalk is illegal anyway.
No one is at the wheel of the garbage truck. Apparently, the driver is also a carrier. He has left the cab and is picking up black-plastic bags from the street to throw into the compactor. I’m thinking: His job is not bad. No one is watching over him. If he wants to sit on a trash bag and have a smoke, no one will stop him. He can listen to music in his cab—any genre he likes (probably country, not classical). He can park somewhere and take a nap, though such parking must be against regulations. But who’s to care?
As I ride, metal parts of my bike squeak and groan. I don’t know which pieces are grinding against each other. A pedal arm could be hitting the chain guard; an axle could be resisting the rotation of a wheel. But as long as the bike is rolling, I don’t mind the sounds.
I come to a fruit cart and lean the bike against a fence (the bike has no kickstand). The street vendor nods at the machine with approval.
“Good bike,” he says.
“It’s not good,” I say. “I have two bikes. This is the bad one.”
“But it works. How long have you had it?”
“Three years,” I say, remembering when I got the bike—just after my previous bike (another good one) was stolen.
“How much did you pay?”
“A hundred dollars.” I tell him the name of the shop where I bought the bicycle and hope he remembers it.
“A hundred is cheap.”
The vendor has a car—he sits in it when rain is falling. I don’t know why he wants a bicycle. In any case, he has given me confidence. I ride away from his stand relatively fast, though I am actually going slowly. I snake between cars, unafraid of collision. I bob and weave, ducking my head and shrinking away when moving objects come too close. Pedestrians, when they see me, run out of my path.
I come to a place where there are mountains of garbage. These mountains seem to go on for miles. The discarded objects are of many colors, but the overall effect is gray, with loose pieces of paper and cloth flapping in the wind. Birds circle above the hills of waste, now and then dive-bombing for edibles. Higher up in the sky are larger birds that might prey on the smaller birds. Feral dogs paw over the mounds. As I get closer, I see rats rummaging through the stuff.
In one spot, there is a pile of cables and concrete—the remains of the World Trade Center, trucked in from Ground Zero. No creatures inhabit the wires and cement.
On my way home, I smell smoke. Shortly, I see a small mushroom cloud that rises between buildings on a downtown-directed avenue. I can’t see exactly what has happened, but the fire is big. It has consumed a building.
Shortly, I come to my block, the one where I live with my family. Almost immediately, I am inside our apartment, and I see a covered plate that holds food that might still be warm.
“I was worried about you,” my wife says.
I wonder if my daughter was worried as well. I don’t have to ask her; all I have to do is look at her. She looks like she was worried. “A building exploded,” she says.
From where we are, we can see the mushroom cloud. The building was about five stories high, with a restaurant on the ground floor. In the basement, we learn, people had loosened pipes in order to siphon gas. People had died from the blast. We are not close to where the building stood, but we are too close.
THADDEUS RUTKOWSKI (www.thaddeusrutkowski.com) is the author of seven books, most recently Tricks of Light, a poetry collection. His novel Haywire won the Asian American Writers’ Workshop’s members’ choice award. He teaches at Medgar Evers College and has received a fiction writing fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts.