Monday 8 January 2007

The Bikes of New York, Part Four

The Bikes of New York is a science-fiction novella of twelve chapters, posted serially by me, your weekend wearied host, Cheeseburger Brown.

This last was a sabbath I'd as soon forget: wife and daughter feverish with some sort of chest cold, infant son infantile, everybody needing care on the weekend I am obliged to bring home my office workstation to blearily perform an overdrive push on a thick project. On the other hand, the weather's been quite nice.

Let's get on with our tale:


Now, perhaps, we notice Luc Drapeau. You or I might give him a second glance: he's one of us -- just a regular guy -- in some kind of a situation. He's got a nice suit but he's sitting on the curb with his head in his hands, sweat glistening on the back of his neck.

But I've got places to be and so do you, so we move along. This is New York. Who lolligags for a hard luck case? Just angels and predators.

Luc's borrowed tram card no longer works, and he's forgotten his parasol in Philip's office. It's a long, hot walk uptown and Luc has paused to give his tired dogs a moment to breathe. The air smells like armpits and yeast, punctuated by crackles of ozone from a nearby row of wallas' carts. "Hot dog! Newsfeed! Recharge!"

He licks his lips. He's spent his last coins on water but he's thirsty again.

When he closes his eyes he sees Philip's hapless shrug as the police bag his head. The inside of Luc's nose still smells like cigar smoke. He opens his eyes again: what is he going to tell Celise?

On the far side of the Eighth Avenue Canal is a plaza of bikes, criss-crossed by the sharp noon shadows of the walkways above. Over the shuffle and shout and splash of city bustle Luc can just barely detect the noise of the riders' overlapping efforts, pedals spinning in rough-edged social synchronicity giving rise to a unified low hum -- a hum so familiar that it's often hard to hear, even up close.

But Luc can hear it. He can feel it.

He finds himself crossing the canal over West Fiftieth Span, then winding his way back to the bikes. It's a busy day. He saunters along the plaza's periphery, his jacket at his shoulder, hunting for a free mount.

He whistles Poulenc: Trois mouvements perpetuels.

Luc Drapeau doesn't hang his head in resignation. He blinks in anticipation, eager for relief. He knows in the ride he will find solace. At least for an hour his purpose will be clear, and his reward tangible. His heart beats faster. He flexes his palms.

A bike comes free.

Luc lingers, stretching out his calves. He glances up to check if anyone else is heading for the bike. Instead he sees another bike vacant, this one cleared by an old woman in a burqa who gasps for breath as she snatches up her coins from the box. He passes her as he strides to his mount and settles in.

He rolls up his sleeves. He hangs his jacket over the seat and ties his tie around his brow to catch the sweat.

After testing the pedals gingerly he closes his eyes for a moment, his lips twitching in communion with the trinity. He pushes the pedals through a full cycle, feeling out the machine's character, lets go then catches the pedals again playfully, sends them falling into the round and taps them onward...

Luc rides. The world falls away.

He enters a private dimension where time is flexible, space is irrelevant, and pain is numbed. Luc wouldn't tell you anything more specific than that, so neither will I. It's the dignity of dreams.

The snap back to reality is rude in the best of cases. In this case it is especially rude because someone has bodily rammed Luc off his ride and sent him sprawling to the pavement to strike his head on the next bike in line. He gasps, ducking to avoid the rider's flying pedals, scuttles sideways to stay clear. "Tabernac!"

Two hard brown boys with narrow eyes stand over Luc, their boots on his mount. The people around them keep their heads down and ride on. The boys wear matching crimson sweatbands around their foreheads and wrists; black tanks and biking shorts; leather gloves and tattoos. They sneer when they're not chuckling, and they're chuckling now as they look down at him.

Luc's muscles are vibrating from interrupted motion, his heart pounding. "Why you did that there?" he asks, getting up on one elbow and breathing hard. "You think that's funny, the pushing?"

"No," sneers one of the brown boys. "Do you?"

Luc gets to his feet. "You want to ride this one, kid? Be my guest. I will take only my jacket."

He reaches for it but finds himself suddenly on the ground again, his forehead pressed into gritty concrete by a knee. The knee pulls away and Luc slowly lifts his face. One of the boys squats down in front of him. "I did not say you could get up," he chuckles to Luc, then sneers, "And I am not your kid."

Luc is on his hands and knees. "I don't have any money," he says.

"Eat your money," says the boy. "This is about respect."

"Respect? How about respect for the elder?"

This earns Luc a backhanded smack across the face. He winces, skin stinging. He casts about to the other riders but their eyes are locked elsewhere. The brown boys are chuckling again. "No, Pepe le Piu, this is about respect for the powers that be."

Luc frowns. "Who are the powers that be?"

"Kala Kala, motherfucker," hisses the boy. "These are Kala Kala's bikes, and you're in Kala Kala's square."

"I didn't know. I'm sorry."

"Yes," agreed the boy with a chuckle, "you will be sorry."

Luc is blindsided by a kick to the ribs from the tough guy behind him. The other two advance and let their feet swing, pummeling Luc's body and limbs with their boots. He tries to roll into a ball and take it quietly until they get bored but they don't get bored. It goes on and on. They laugh. The kicks become sharper.

"Jesu!" groans Luc, just someone stomps a heel against the side of his head. "Somebody help me!" he cries, reaching out to the riders around him. They keep their heads bowed. They pedal faster. Luc's outstretched hand is thrown down and jumped on. "Au secour!" he pleads.

He is kicked in the mouth. He tastes the iron tang of blood.

A moment later he is picked up, his face squeezed between rough hands, the blurry features of the sneering brown boy swimming close. "You suck Kala Kala's cock," the boy whispers fiercely. "Say it. Say it!"

"I suck Kala Kala's cock," says Luc.

He is dropped. He folds like a pile of laundry onto the pavement, leaning against the back of a bike. Its rider ignores him. Luc spits blood and sees stars. He wipes his mouth with the sweat on his forearm.

He looks up.

The boys are walking away, pullings Luc's suit jacket back and forth between them as they shred it. "Tabernac, tabernac," swears Luc, shaking his head. He gets to his knees and then slowly stands. His knees quake.

He spots a dress shoe he didn't know he'd lost. He picks it up, fondling it absently as he looks around and blinks, dazed.

The bells at St. Patrick's mark two.

On the way home Luc Drapeau stops at St. James to go into the toilet and clean himself up a bit. He drinks the rust-coloured, lukewarm splatter from the sink. He dabs at two small bloodstains on his collar and succeeds in giving each one a rust-coloured halo.

He opens the door of the boarding house in Brooklyn, climbs the steps, fumbles through the dark hall, passes quietly into the cramped unit. Celise sits on the bed feeding the baby, cradling him in her arms, her gown untied and her milky breasts exposed. Her hair is wet and the room smells like baby soap and talc. She looks up, searching the feeble candlelight to understand Luc's expression. "You've been hit!" she gasps.

"I was mugged," says Luc.

"Your jacket!"

"I left it at the office."

"Jesu, Luc."

"I know, I know. I'm fine. Don't worry. Everything's fine."

He sits on the bed beside her as the baby ceases to suckle, turning aside and falling quiet. Celise touches Luc's face tenderly, watches him wince. He drops his eyes to the sleeping baby. When he looks up she's still watching him. "I was worried," she says.

"Don't worry," he tells her.

"This place is so strange."

"We'll find our way," he promises.


Orick of Toronto said...

Boy I hope that's rock bottom. You sure know how to start a week CBB.

I write more depressing things when I am happier. I wonder if that's true for most people. Does this mean your work is getting better CBB?

Anonymous said...

I'd say it's more like CBB's rough weekend is rubbing off on the storyline... those "whole house" illnesses are the worst.

You're bringing me close to tears, you know (which I suppose is a bit of a relief in this stifling corporate environment).

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear all,

I'd forgotten to report the secret soundtrack for this story: it's the Gary Jules version of Mad World (currently known to many people as "that song from the Gears of War commercial").'...tired.

Cheeseburger Brown

Mark said...

Whoa. Dark turn here.

If the bikes are always in the same spot, it seems it wouldn't be hard for law enforcement to police the area and prevent their adoption as a gang's territory.

But, there probably are worse things going down, especially in future NYC.

Teddy said...

definitely the right song there. I think Luc is going to have something to do with removing the gangs from the bikes, but in the meantime he's definitely going to get back on the bikes somehow or another.


gl. said...

i remember (and love) that cover of "mad world" from donnie darko. and if that's your soundtrack, no WONDER this story just moves deeper and sadder. unlike your other stories, so far there are no highlights or successes (except the job he almost had. but that's the point).

i loved this graph: "He enters a private dimension where time is flexible, space is irrelevant, and pain is numbed. Luc wouldn't tell you anything more specific than that, so neither will I. It's the dignity of dreams."

especially right before he gets kicked off the bike. you're walking this great line between disembodiment and grit. the random interjections of observational narration just accentuate it.

Anonymous said...


When the police are coming, the gangs know it.

When the police arrive the older toughs are gone.

When the police leave, the younger, innocent-looking gangsters-in-waiting tell the toughs who the police had talked to and what they had said.

The toughs then beat the crap out of those who talked, and, worse, keep them from pumping electrons.

Pretty soon the only thing a smart citizen who needs to pedal will ever say to a cop is "Leave me alone; I don't want no trouble."

Surveillance cameras? Please! Who has spare ergs for video. Not the great city of New York, New York!

Undercover? Yeah, like some cop is gonna risk his life for some losers on bikes.

Hell I bet the gangs keep the bikes full, even. I wouldn't even be surprised if they have contracts with the City to guarantee a steady flow of pedalers.

I'm sure the little b@$tards have ways "finding" feet to push pedals in the wee hours when fear would otherwise overcome the need for coin.

The whole system is probably very efficient, really. Cruel, inhumane, tragic, and very, very efficient.

Ivyqqzro: Tonto tell Ivy population count, last African flightless bird dead

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear all,

I am most likely to be without Internet access today (gasp!), so new comments will probably not be moderated until suppertime.

Also, Mandrill, who cannot seem to access the .BLOGSPOT domain lately and so has been following the story through my main site, sends his regards and regrets he cannot participate in the post-chapter discussions.

I am off to a big client meeting!

Cheeseburger Brown