The Bikes of New York is a science-fiction novella of twelve chapters, posted serially by me, your locally vacationing host, Cheeseburger Brown.
I'm off work and at home, and the first thing my wife says to me this morning is, "Why are you already awake?" I nod wearily, knuckling my eyes. "The Bikes," I remind her. "I have to finish up The Bikes."
I'm not complaining: the baby has been sleeping through the night and so have I. Slowly but surely I am eroding my debt of exhaustion. It's been a tough month but soon it'll be behind me, every deadline squarely met.
The opening at the museum went well the other night. There were all these funky artsy guys with silk shirts split to the navel and white scarves around their necks, even indoors. This one flamboyant fellow even wore a shawl. Lots of artsy people have really big hair. My friend Sunshine Anderson tells me many of them are part of regular junket of hangers-on and wanna-bes who show up for the opening night of every exhibition in the city (art, architecture, museological) in order to feel like they're a part of something, even though they don't know anyone involved and aren't on the guest list. Also, they snag free wine and cheese.
It's a mad, mad world.
And now, we conclude our tale:
It's autumn in New York.
"Where to, boss?" asks Paco, tapping down the volume in order to be heard over the blaring ranchera music. "You want to check out Bryant maybe?"
Luc shakes his head as he shoots his cuffs, the golden links winking in the afternoon sun. "Times Square, Paco," he says.
The wind is indecisive, blowing leaves off branches in one direction and then sending the debris skittering along the streets in another. Central Park is a gay mashup of yellow and bronze, ruby and rot. The trees don't care that there will be no snow -- they go by the length of days.
As they drive down Park Avenue Luc cranes his head to catch sight of his balcony high above, takes a moment to wonder what Celise is doing at home. For a moment he imagines she is standing at the widow's walk in a billowing white dress, looking down at him, but it's just a sheet hung out to dry in the breeze. In truth she's probably asleep, the fat baby resting on her breast. Maybe the radio is still playing, the way Luc left it this morning. It drinks from the wall and doesn't need to be wound, so anything is possible.
He wonders when they will forgive each other.
Paco pulls over on the side of Broadway. Luc steps out, flattens his jacket with a smoothing hand, then scans the bikefield. Everything is running as it should be, the winged bicycle wheel banner of Les Bicyclettes Libres snapping against the flagpoles. It's been a long summer, and many hard battles have been won.
Luc grins. He spreads his arms wide and captures Dade in a hug. "How does it go, my friend?" he asks, pulling the man's hand around to shake.
"Situation nominal," says Dade. When he smiles the lines across his face bend, the silvery scar-tissue flashing. One of his eyes is a falsie but you can't tell. "The air smells like fall. Makes me remember school."
"Yeah," says Luc. "Me too."
Dade blinks. "Shouldn't you be in church still?"
Luc shrugs, looks away. "I don't go there no more, the church."
A murder of crows sweeps over the square, squawking at a morning dove in defense of their turf. Their cries echo off the concrete, piercing the hum of traffic and the babble of the crowds. The dove flees, flapping fiercely, disappearing behind the buildings.
Dade clears his throat. "You have time to grab a coffee?"
The two friends amble into a familiar cafe, accept nods of greeting from teenage waitresses who show cleavage for tips. They take a regular table with a view of the bikes, settle into their chairs and dawdle over the memorized menu. "Who's on point?" asks Luc idly.
"Jennifer," replies Dade, squinting over the menu, lips moving.
"She doing good?"
"She's a believer, Look. She's solid as they come."
Across the street the bikers are singing. Luc doesn't recognize the melody but they carry it well. He returns his attention to the table as their waitress puts down two cups of coffee, lingers as she leans, her young breasts swaying playfully. She snaps her gum and touches Luc's shoulder. "What can I get you fine gentlemen today?"
"Just the coffee is good," says Luc.
Dade can't say anything, so he simply smiles. His cheeks colour and his hands sweat. He breathes a sigh of relief when the waitress leaves.
Luc chuckles. "Why don't you ask her for the date?"
"She'd never go anywhere with me at this point," says Dade. "Look at me, man."
Luc scoffs. "You're a big wheel in Les Bicyclettes Libres, Dade. I bet she have the fantasy about a date from you. For attraction the scars they are nothing compare to having influence."
"She's just a kid."
Luc shrugs. "She have a job. She make her own decisions for life." He pauses, sips his coffee. "Like we all do."
Dade brings his cup to his lips but hesitates, his gaze flicking over Luc's head. His mouth slowly forms an 'O' of surprise. "What?" says Luc, turning around. People are running in the streets. "What's this?" says Luc, perplexed and suddenly worried.
A tall latino with acne-pitted cheeks flings open the door of the cafe and shouts, "The Times Square television is on! The Times Square television is on!"
The entire population of the cafe jumps out of their seats and rushes to the windows, leaning over Luc and Dade to press their faces against the glass. "What'd he say?" asks someone, spilling Dade's coffee. "What's going down?"
"It's on! It's on! The TV came on! Look!"
Just as suddenly as they had surged to the windows the crowd now gushes out through the door, joining the river of scurrying pedestrians crossing the street into the square. Luc and Dade get to their feet and wander after them, casting about curiously, stepping out into the cooling air of the encroaching evening with a dumbfounded waitress at their side. "Wow," she gasps, "have you ever seen something so beautiful?"
Times Square is aglow.
The waitress is too young to have ever seen the like, but we're not. You and I remember when every city was like this: a blast of lights, a dazzle of advertisements, a phantasmagoric pulsing of messages and images and electric glitter. Luc and Dade and damn near everyone around is instantly transported back to childhood, staring in rapture and wonder at the scintillating billboards and flashing signs flanking the great bright window of snowy static on the jumbo-size television screen above their heads.
"Co-ca Co-la," reads the waitress carefully. "I wonder what that is."
Traffic has stopped. Paco is standing on the hood of his cab, gap-toothed mouth agog. There comes the collective sound of overlapped ratcheting as a hundred people all wind their radios at once, hungry for the news. They point, they gape, they blink.
The static on the screen is replaced with a giant image of the mayor of New York. As his lips begin to move the crowd falls silent, allowing the words to be discerned echoing from tiny speakers clutched in hands, embedded in dashboards, from dusty or rusty housings mounted on the sides of buildings...
"People of New York, good evening," says the mayor. The crowd roars, and then insistently hushes itself. "This is a very special evening for all of us," continues the mayor; "all of us in the world, all of us in America, and especially all of us here in the greatest city on Earth."
The crowd goes mad again, and this time the din is harder to silence. When the hubbub dwindles the mayor's voice rises into audibility again: "...since the fuel crisis life has been hard, and many of us have suffered terribly. But I'm here to announce that our hardship is coming to an end. I'm here, tonight, with the special privilege of telling New York first -- it's over, people. A new day is dawning."
Dade furrows his brow, frowning. "What's he mean?"
"For the past year," continues the mayor, "my office has been in negotiations to acquire a new, ground-breaking technology that will change the way we look at power forever. We've kept this quiet because I didn't want to raise your hopes without knowing -- and I mean knowing -- this could be a real and viable solution for us." He pauses, collects himself, looks squarely into the lens. "We have erected a brand new power plant to utilize this technology, and I'm happy to inform you that that plant just came on-line, as of about, um, fifteen minutes ago. Folks, New York is now on the grid."
There is no containing the jubilance. The square veritably explodes with cheers and shouts. A hundred hats are thrown up into the air at once, spinning as they sail back down. Horns honk. Bells ring. Feet stomp.
"In the coming days and weeks every citizen with a permanent address will be receiving one of these," says the mayor, holding up a small, oblong silver orb; "This is an Aresian Power Bead, and once activated it will channel electricity wirelessly from the power plant directly into your homes and businesses. Clean energy, renewable energy -- delivered to you reliably and affordably, now and in the future. Welcome to the new age, New York! In our path the whole world will follow."
The mayor has more to say but it's lost to the hooplah, which increases tenfold as the elevated lamps up and down Broadway wink on one by one, prying the streets out of the twilight. A moment later fireworks fly up over the Hudson, crackling and bursting in air, casting garish curtains of pink and green light crawling down every face as the sparkles fall. "Ooooh!" coo the multitudes; "Aaaah!"
Dade is beside himself. He keeps saying "Ho-ly shit!" over and over again. He grabs Luc's shoulder and shakes him, then hugs him, then throws his arms in the air and hollers with glee. "Holy shit, Look! Can you believe it? Fucking A, man! Fucking A! It's all over!"
Luc nods, his lips pressed tight. "Yeah," he says heavily. "It's all over."
The streets have become a party. People are pouring out of their apartments and offices, hearing the news, hounding the overwhelmed restaurants and bars and walla carts for beer and liquor and wine. More fireworks burst in the purpling sky overhead.
"What's wrong?" says Dade, searching Luc's face -- orange in the glare of the fireworks, now blue. "What's the matter, Look? Aren't you happy?"
"It's all over," Luc repeats, his features a study in misery. "I sacrifice everything to this, and now there is nothing for us."
"What do you mean?"
"The bikes will close," explains Luc, pinching the bridge of his nose as he closes his eyes. "The bikes will close and I'm left damned. Do you think the world will change overnight? It won't. In a week everyone will have electricity, and there will be no more bike. But you and I, my friend, we will still be poor."
Dade's face falls, the realization sinking in.
"We will still be poor," repeats Luc grimly, "but all the bike will be gone."
"Things are going to change," says Dade hopefully.
"Yeah," concedes Luc, eyes on the fire-spangled sky. "And God only knows what we will be forced to do for our bread until the changes are done."
New York celebrates. It won't be until the cold light of dawn that people begin to wonder what debt they'll owe the makers of Aresian Power Beads -- what debt the whole planet will owe Ares -- in return for being pulled out of the darkness. No one knows what deal the mayor has struck, or what this technological lifeline may cost their wounded civilization.
Mars has won.
But tonight there is light and laughter, and it's contagious. Even Luc cannot remain glum. He smiles when someone pours champagne over his head, breaks into guffaws as Dade picks up the pretty waitress and swings her around, then kisses her.
Someone in one of the buildings edging the square has released bags full of shredded paper and it falls like confetti, a twirling snow of manilla cardboard, white bond and dead film.
Nobody will ever forget this night. I won't. You won't.
For Luc it also holds the memory of his final ride, head bowed over the handlebars, feeding the great, unseen, underground flywheel, pedaling his way to infinity in the middle of the Times Square bikefield all alone. I don't know where he's going but he's getting there fast, pushing his body to the limit, sweat running off him like rain. The bike hums, its connections crackle. Luc's legs are a blur.
He's desperate, mad and Hell-bent. He's trying to feel clean.
Though he never moves an inch he weeps all the way over the horizon, chasing his soul.