An Undergraduate Literary Journal from UW-Milwaukee

The New Bicycles

Fiction by Adam Grinwald

It was a morning of a thick, omnipresent fog that lay across the entire city, suffocating the light from above, leaving no block safe from penetration. It was a fog ominous enough that Neil Bittle, peering sheepishly from his bedroom window, was nearly prevented from taking his morning bicycle ride…but no! Neil took the mindset of a mailman when it came to his bicycle, for neither rain, sleet, nor snow could prevent him from feeling the wind in his cold, pale face as he cruised along the boardwalk, leaving pedestrians in the proverbial dust. “So long, you bloody chumps!” Neil would barely be able to resist shouting at the top of his lungs, which would tingle with pleasure–and oxygen. No lousy fog would prevent him from this ecstasy.

In his bedroom, he fell to his hands and knees and crawled like an animal around the hardwood floor, which creaked as he moved across it. His hand, as if it were acting on its own accord, pranced under the bed, grasping at air until…! “There you are lovely,” Neil purred as his hand closed around its prey. He pulled the object out and held it an inch from his blue, beady eyes, examining its sleek body. These same eyes reflected the image of his beloved kinetic-powered headlight, one of a hypnotically round shape that glowed so brilliantly like a moon when it and Neil were on the open road together. Yet now, it lay blanketed in a thin layer of dust that Neil rubbed off with his slender fingers. He could nearly feel it purr with satisfaction under his fingertips, and once the dust had vanished, he could nearly see his smiling teeth in the reflection of the glass.

Spinning victoriously on his feet, Neil pranced over to his one true dearly beloved: a crème colored Peugeot bicycle, born in 1965—ten years before Neil—with its roaring decal of a lion that remained fixed firmly to the bike’s front; this lion would stare at all those it would sneak up on and leave them in the dust that it kicked up in a vicious rampage. The bicycle leaned against the wall seductively, its handle bars spread eagle, whispering for Neil to approach. Approach he did, headlight in hand, and he fixed the device on the front of the bicycle, the kinetic dial of the headlight caressing the tire. He gave the bars of the bike a quick petting and saddled the seat, taking a quickie of a ride around the narrow apartment.

“You beautiful thing,” he spoke to the bike amorously.

“Oh, but I look like a bum today!” a familiar voice lunged Neil’s heart into his throat, causing him to clench the brakes and let out a hoarse grunt. The bicycle tipped over, sending Neil, his hair worked up in a wild mess, sprawling across the floor, groaning and breathing deeply. Neil looked up to see a petite young woman, born in 1974—one year before Neil—with a luxurious head of leonine hair that spread about in many directions and ended in thick curls. “What on earth were you trying to prove with that maneuver?” the voice, belonging to the young woman who looked upside down in Neil’s disoriented view, spoke.

“Prissy? How the hell’d you get in here?”

“Through the door. How else?”

“Wasn’t it locked?”
“Oh, yes, but Mrs. Daventhord let me in.”

“Mrs. Daventhord…” Neil’s voice trailed off as he clenched his teeth firmly at the thought of the woman, a nosey, ancient bag of a landlord that lived across from him

Neil got up, wiping the dust off his knees as if it were a contaminate of some critically dangerous category.

Priscilla, the young woman who now stood still in the center of Neil’s kitchen, parted her scarlet lips to show a set of teeth meticulously placed one after another. Not letting this smile fade, she said, “and what kind of greeting is that, anyways? Aren’t you happy to see me?”

Before Neil could raise any defense, he became aware that an argument was inevitable, and paced to the window, hoping to change the subject, “Pretty dreary goddamn day, wouldn’t you say, deary? Perfect day for a good-old-fashioned ride,”

“You can’t say you plan to go for a bicycle ride with the fog like this. You aren’t trying to say that are you? Please don’t say that.”

Neil, sensing another argument, suddenly felt more prepared, “You’d better bloody believe it! Do you think I’m some sort of coward or something?”

“What? A coward?”

Neil offered no retort, but only tipped the bicycle back on its two wheels and hoisted the top bar onto his shoulder, carrying the thing with one arm.

“You are going for a ride, aren’t you? Oh, don’t be reckless, alright? Be careful out there.”

Neil slammed the door open and stood in the doorway, a limbo between the two separate worlds. He offered a quick wink to Priscilla, grinning. “We’re always careful, aren’t we?” He once again caressed the seat of the bicycle with his free hand. “See you in the funny pages, Pris.” He exited the doorframe and closed the door behind him.

 

Saddling the Peugeot bike, Neil worked up a sweat attempting to ascend a particularly steep hill.

“Come on baby, that’s it,” he purred as he reached the peak, and released an exhale of satisfaction as the incline ceased and the ground became level. Wind began to toss his hair. His fists clenched the handlebars. Tears began to sting his eyes, though Neil was entirely unsure whether this was from the wind or the sheer bliss of the bicycle ride. The headlight projected a light that cut in and out, in and out of the fog with each pedal. At one moment the light would pierce the fog, and another it would cease to exist altogether.

Neil reached a small picnic area where he and the bike lay sprawled out on the dewy grass. The moisture soaked into his overcoat and left beads of wetness on the back of his neck. He and the Peugeot bicycle lay there, inches apart, yet inexplicably intertwined from the intimate experience that had just proceeded. Three perfectly circular orbs of cerulean blue appeared in the distance and approached Neil with a rapidity that concerned him; he leapt to his feet and clutched the bicycle in his arms for a brief moment, then quickly straddled it once the glowing orbs broke the crest of the fog and revealed three young woman, each on a bicycle of a different shimmering color. Their hair up in tight buns, the three women screeched to a halt inches from Neil and his Peugeot. They eyed him up and down, each struggling to contain a bought of laughter, something that caused Neil to quake with self-consciousness.

“Hey, buddy, nice gears,” they giggled and pointed to his Peugeot. Neil looked them up and down, his heart racing with anxiety.

“Well, uh…” his voice trailed off as he inspected their bicycles to notice some sort of a difference between theirs and his. He noticed, between the two tires, that the gear and chain were threaded entirely differently. Theirs was in the “fixed gear” style that held such popularity at the time. Everybody was riding fixed gear-style bicycles, frequently swapping bicycles between one another and swapping back again. Neil was not a participant in this phenomenon; he had learned to know and love his Peugeot bicycle tremendously. He knew every bend and curve of its figure. The intimacy of the experiences between he and the bicycle often brought tears to his crystal blue eyes. He loved his Peugeot for what it was, and, in some cases, for what it wasn’t. The Peugeot was his, and he was its. Any attack against his Peugeot was an attack against him; they had become so tightly intertwined that they were almost one being, at least in Neil’s mind! Scanning the women’s bicycles once again, Neil leapt to the defensive.

“Well, nice originality!” he screamed at the top of his lungs, pedaling away feverishly on his Peugeot, his face reddening with shame and embarrassment. How dare those women criticize my Peugeot? Sure, it was not without its faults, but couldn’t they see Peugeot’s true beauty?

Back inside his apartment, Neil propped his bicycle back against the wall next to his bed. He stroked it, as if to console it. “I love you, darling. I love you terrifically, and never want you to change,” he spoke to the bicycle.

“Oh, that’s so sweet of you, Neil. You know I love you, too!” Priscilla’s voice once again presented her presence lying flat on the bed. Neil had been so upset that hadn’t even noticed her lying there, his mind remaining glued to his Peugeot.

“I met some women on the bike trail, Pris.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful, I’ve been wanting to say–” Priscilla began before Neil cut her off.

“And they made fun of my bike and I. Can you believe it?”

“Well, it is a gorgeous bicycle, Neil, but don’t you want to try something new? Everybody’s riding fixed gear nowadays; you know that.”

“No I don’t want to try something new. I want Peugeot and only Peugeot. It completes me and I complete it.”

“Neil–”

“I’d like for you to leave, Priscilla. Leave me to my thoughts…” Neil let his voice fade out as he exited the room, leaving Priscilla seated on the bed.

“Are you serious, Neil? What’s going on with you?”

“I, quite frankly, don’t want for my darling to be insulted. You may not think Peugeot is perfect in its imperfections, but I do. I don’t want you around right now.” He opened the door and motioned for her to leave. Wearing a face of confusion and bewilderment, Priscilla exited the apartment.

Several days later, Priscilla returned, this time with a new bicycle that Neil had never seen before—or perhaps he had. It resembled so closely the fixed gears that he had seen the few days prior on the trail. They all looked the same to Neil, for he would always compare them to his Peugeot and consequently find them hideous, tacky, or bland.

“What’s this?!” Neil shouted as he observed the new bicycle. “What ever happened to your old bike?”

“Oh, well,” Priscilla began, “it just wasn’t doing it for me. It bored me. I still like that old bike, Neil, I just wanted a new one. I wanted a break from it. Besides, my friend Gretta wanted to ride it for a while. So I picked out this little number. Isn’t it cute?”

“No it isn’t cute! And it’s not goddam charming, either, if you’re going to say that next. It’s barely even a bike, Pris, I thought you’d at least have the good taste to notice that. It’s some sort of something pretending to be a bike. It wants to be one so badly, but it just isn’t.”

“I wanted to ask you if you wanted to go for a ride. But if you’re going to be so weird about it…”

“Oh, you can forget it. I’m not riding with that thing around. Besides, I know what’s coming next. You’ll try to convince me to trade in my Peugeot for a fixed gear. Well, I won’t do it, goddam it!”

That night, Neil lay on the edge of his bed, touching his bicycle with his fingertips. Perhaps they were right. Neil began to think he should perhaps try something new; perhaps he should try a different bike and give his Peugeot some time with another rider. By God, no! He wouldn’t allow his mind to be polluted by such silliness. Peugeot meant more to him than anything, and he wouldn’t trade it in for the world. He turned the light off and watched his Peugeot glimmer in the moonlight until he fell asleep.

When he woke up, he rubbed the crust out of his eyes and stood up to stretch. The sunlight flooded in, offering its motherly presence to the room. Neil wiggled his toes in the warmth of the light.

“It’s a good day to be alive!” He crooned. It was a most perfect day for a ride, and what better way to celebrate his freshly rekindled love for his bicycle by riding it along the lake, watching as the fish leapt out of the water effortlessly to catch the bugs. Yet, when Neil turned to look at his bicycle, his heart dropped deeply into his gut. Where his Peugeot once leaned gently against the wall, there was a neon green bicycle, one with over a dozen decals and stickers. It was an attractive bicycle, Neil had to admit, but the absence of his Peugeot horrified him.

“Oh, I hope you like it, darling. I know how attached you are to your old bike, so I didn’t get rid of it. I just traded it, temporarily, to a friend of mine for this one. Just try it out! Everybody’s riding fixed gear, Neil. It’s about time you made the leap.”

Reluctantly, Neil climbed aboard the bicycle. It felt comfortable, but it simply didn’t feel right. He felt across the handle bars, expecting a rugged, thin layer of grip tape that closely resembled sandpaper, but ended up feeling a soft, cushiony padded tape. He searched for the checkerboard-patterned bell that he would so frequently ring at those casual bicyclists that he passed in a hurry—the goddam slowpokes! Yet nothing was there; no bell, just the metal where the handlebars met the frame.

“How does it feel?” Priscilla asked excitedly.

“It feels wrong! It’s all wrong!” Neil got off the bicycle and began to sob. “It’s not the same! It’s a nice bike, I’ll admit that, but it isn’t the same. Don’t you get that? I’ll never ride this bike! Not ever! I don’t care if I never ride again, I’ll just never ride a bike that’s not my Peugeot!”

After getting the address of Priscilla’s friend who had been traded Peugeot, Neil walked a dozen blocks, his feet blistering, to find his Peugeot and get her back. He found the apartment complex, and a bearded man, smoking two cigarettes at once, let him in. He found the door of the apartment and knocked desperately. When it opened, it revealed a man of comparable stature to Neil, though perhaps a hair thinner, whose beady grey eyes blinked in a fury as they stared into Neil’s.

“My bike, I want her back.”

“Your bike? Whaddaya talking about, man? What bike?”

“Peugeot. My bike. My darling. You have her. You gave me a neon-colored heap of garbage and took my Peugeot. I want her back. Where is she?”

“Ah! You must be Prissy’s friend,” the gentlemen spoke slyly, as if he knew something Neil didn’t. “Sure, I’ll show ya your bike. Come on in, take a load off.”

The man led Neil to an empty room, where a single bike leaned attractively against the wall. It leaned the very same way as his Peugeot, yet it surely wasn’t the same bicycle. It couldn’t be! Where his Peugeot was painted a delicate shade of crème, this bicycle was merely off-white, a mockery of Peugeot’s color. While Neil’s bicycle had been completely blank apart from its one leonine decal, this bicycle had half a dozen tiny stickers plastered across its body. Oh, its beautiful body! Its sleek, simple, wonderful design! It was Peugeot, yet it wasn’t! It was his old love, that much was true, but it had changed in countless ways. Neil fell to his knees and let out a cry of anguish.

“You ruined her! She’s not the same! She’s just not the same bike that she was when I had her! I loved her and now she’s ruined!” Neil sobbed.

“She’s still a good bike, son. It’s just not right for me. You can have her! She’s just not what I thought.”

“She was perfect, you bastard, and now you went and changed her! Goddamn you! Don’t you see what you’ve done?”

“I fixed it, don’t you see? She’s a fixed gear now! That’s what she was always meant to be! If you really loved her, you’d know that!” the man towered above Neil and bellowed his insults into Neil’s face.

It had been done. The bicycle he had known and loved was changed into something else entirely. He couldn’t ride this bicycle; not anymore. Not after everything they had shared together. Not after–! Neil’s memory flooded with the countless rides he and his bicycle shared, and now, as he stared deeply upon the bicycle, he questioned how he ever could have let it go. To ride any other bicycle now was a lie, to both Neil and the rest of the world. He had loved his bicycle with all of his heart, and now that it had been changed into something else entirely, he knew he could never ride it again. Taking his Peugeot in his arms, Neil strode past the man, his eyes puffy with tears, and spoke to the bicycle.

“I love you. I love you, I love you. I’m sorry, darling. I doubted you for a moment’s time and now it can never be again. I’ll always love you. Always.” Neil kissed the bare spot of the bicycle where the bell once was and exited the apartment.

Time passed as it always does, the sun rose and set many times, Neil traveled gloomily on his usual daily routine, and Peugeot sat still in her corner of the room of the apartment. And there she stood still, untouched by Neil, but inspected by his teary and glossy eyes each night before they shut themselves into unconsciousness. Every night he dreamed of awaking to crusty eyes and the old Peugeot he knew so well, the Peugeot from his beloved memories, but each morning he awoke disappointed; each morning he would rise, pause before the bike, and nod acceptingly at the fate it had received.

One morning his feet dragged across the floor, collecting a fair amount of dust along with them. They went over the threshold, out the door, and into the wild city that engulfed the comparatively insignificant apartment complex that housed him, Peugeot, and hundreds of other souls who each had their own story. Mindlessly, Neil made his way to the curb of the street and halted. Only seconds past before a shimmering yellow cab halted before him, its four wheels, engine, and hopefully adventurous driver collectively offering endless possibilities to Neil. He opened the door, crawled in, and the cab took off in a direction he was far too indifferent to notice.

The streets blurred, the colors melted into indecipherable concoctions and hues, and Neil thought of nothing but Peugeot. The cabbie leaned back to ask Neil for a destination, general direction, or even the most vague of ideas of where to head; he was met with silence as Neil silently mourned his beloved. She still existed, that much was certain, but in an entirely different and unrecognizable form. And what was the cause of such a metamorphosis? A moment’s doubt, a fraction of uncertainty, and a submission into a wretched trend of swapping bicycles? Was nothing sacred, and was he so wrong to love Peugeot and Peugeot alone?

The cab skidded a turn, the images of the city returning back to their proper form, and the image of a park materialized out the window beside Neil.             What he saw caused his mouth to hang open in awe. He muttered gibberish to the cabbie, causing the taxi to break, and handed him a fistful of bills that, by any means, could have been any denomination. Neil cared not, for what he saw taking place in the park was so serene that he could pay attention to nothing else. The door flew open, and Neil fell upon the pavement on all fours like a whimpering dog or squealing pig. He looked up before him to see dozens of people—they all were there: Priscilla, the fixed-gear women from the park, the man from the apartment who had ruined Peugeot—all swapping bicycles, riding them in circles, and swapping them back again, patting each other on the back and grinning from ear-to-ear. Neil now found this fate inescapable. His thoughts turned to Peugeot, the Peugeot of the past, his Peugeot, and he bid the memories a final adieu. He then looked into the heart of the collective of bicyclists, none faithfully dedicated to their own machine, and saw a garden of unexplored territory—forbidden fruit ripe for the picking. Tears struck his eyes in this bittersweet moment, for he loved his Peugeot and always would, but felt overcome by the ecstasy of the temptation of pursuing these countless options and varieties of bicycles that rode in circles, grunting with pleasure before him. Neil swallowed his sentimentality as he joined the crowd and all of the new bicycles.

 

Adam Grinwald wrote a short story that can be found in this magazine. As Jean-Luc Godard once said, “documentary is about someone else; fiction is about me.” A short tale of fiction can tell all that can be known about its author, and perhaps it’s best to search there.