By Marilyn Fahey -
The bike lay abandoned alongside the railroad tracks, way out in Rattlesnake City, a field no one dared venture out into unless they had to, or if they were drunk and had lost their way, and those that did venture out oftentimes got snake-bit. In other words, it was a bad place for a bike, and the thing might have rotted there forever if not for the big curvy handlebars sticking straight up in the air, reflecting the sunlight and catching the man’s eye as he walked his daughter home from school.
“Lookit!” he said, and pointed. The bike was the perfect size for his daughter — he could see that even from a distance — and her birthday was just a week away. His mind began to spin —
Could he get it? Yes.
But would he? Yes again.
He handed her the bookbag and lunch pail, tugged down on the legs of his coveralls (not giving the snakes any naked ankle to bite) and made ready to go fetch it.
But his daughter held him by the sleeve. “Daddy, please don’t!” She had a powerful grip for a 10-year-old, but that wasn’t the only reason he stopped. Almost too late, he sensed her embarrassment. It was bad enough, him wearing his dirty old coveralls every day he picked her up from school — how much worse for her to stand here at the edge of this forsaken field, waiting for her ragged old dad to retrieve a battered-up old bike. Not too many other kids lived this far out from school, but some did, and not only would they witness him hauling junk from the field, but also him rolling the thing home, if the wheels even worked.
And then, worst of all, her having to ride the thing after he cleaned it up, when everyone knew its history. “That there bike’s a piece a junk,” they might say, snide and offhand, from behind their lace curtains. “She must not care what she rides.” All this, his daughter had understood much quicker than he had, but that was as usual.
So they continued home without it.
But a night passed, and another whole day, and still the man could not forget those gleaming handlebars. The rest of the bike, well, there was no telling what shape it was in, but surely with a little elbow grease, a little spit and polish, he could make the thing presentable. The idea itched at his brain like a flea.
He would get it. In secret, of course — not just from her, but from the whole town. His daughter might guess its origins, but no one else must, not ever. If all went well, he could make the bike look brand-new, or nearly so, and then, what a grand birthday present it would be!
So, the day after he’d hatched his plan, and during his lunch hour, with most housewives in town klatching over their coffee and all the kids in school, he returned to Rattlesnake City. Standing at the edge of the field, he made a slow 360-degree turn, casual-like, hands on hips, pretending to look for something lost. Really, though, he was checking for the “all clear” — ensuring no one else had ventured out to this god-forsaken spot, snake-filled on the one side, the rusty old cotton mill on the other. Not seeing any prying eyes, knowing that the time was ripe, he told his feet to move.
But before his first step he reconsidered. The bike seemed further out than it had before. Perhaps a drunk had moved it, he thought, and, calculating the distance, and also how many snakes per yard he might encounter, the seriousness of the matter caused his heart to pound; he nearly turned and headed back to work. But being a determined man, and not one to give up easily at any other time, and with that vision of the refurbished bike top of mind, he took a deep mouth-open breath, tugged down on his pant legs and ventured out into the field, wary as all get-out, and watching every step.
And as often happens during a precarious situation, it got even more so. A train passed when he was half-way there, stirring up dust and debris and, worst of all, irritating the snakes. The man stood stock still, waiting for the train to pass and the hissing to calm down, and then, even more careful with his steps, and praying to St. Jude (“…come to my assistance in this great need…”), he continued on. Two times a rattler surprised him, and vice versa, but no harm was done. In fact, the rattling only increased the man’s determination. For pity sake, he thought, I have fought the Germans and surely I can fend off a snake or two. So thus spurred and heartened, he soon reached the bike and, after brushing off the twigs and rotting newspaper, his hands shaking, he began the long and careful walk back, the bike hitched up at his side.
He got the thing home, and each night for the next week, after tucking his daughter safe into bed, the man retreated to his shed to work on it. He removed the rust from the big curvy handlebars and rims, and cleaned and painted the frame, and replaced all the old screws with shiny new ones, and swabbed and brushed the grit from the chains, and oiled them nice and slick.
As he worked, the man whistled the same old tunes his father used to whistle, Mary’s a Grand Old Name and Put on Your Old Grey Bonnet, and forgot his troubles as he always did when tinkering in the shed.
See what he could do with a little elbow grease? A little determination? Surely their lot in life was not so bleak. He was still somewhat young; he had many years of work ahead, and the factory wasn’t going anywhere. Sure, they didn’t live in the best part of town, but they kept a clean house, the roof never leaked, and no rats got in. Most important of all, he and his daughter loved each other. Look at this bike — if that didn’t prove his love for her, what did? Yes, they had a good life, him and his girl. And it would stay that way. He’d make sure of it. Determination is all it took. That, and a little elbow grease.
In that state, busy and content, he lost sight of the bike before him. He only saw it again, really saw it, the night before his daughter’s birthday, when the bike was nearly done.
That’s when he hauled himself up from the old wooden stool and stood back, ready to appreciate how far the bike had come. Sure enough, the thing was a sight more pretty than the day he’d brought it home. And the purple of the frame, which had seemed too dark at first, almost black, had dried to a pretty shade of morning glory.
Pleased as he was, he might not have noticed a nagging unease. A small feeling, a little thing; like a worn-down thorn in your shoe, made nearly harmless by the thickness of a sock. But prone to noticing such things, the man saw that a worry had arisen, and, working it over in his mind, wondering where it came from, he determined it had to do with the purple. Maybe, he thought for the umpteenth time, he should have chosen a different color; something that would complement, not clash with, her favorite purple dress.
Standing even further back, he tried to picture his daughter a-top the bike, wearing that dress — the little white collar, the big white buttons, the purple everywhere else. She was very particular about color coordination, even refusing the orange coat from the charity bin at church because it clashed (he had learned that word from her) with the color of her other clothes.
That brought up another worry, one more deeply set. One he’d had before. Had he spoiled her?
He wiped his hand on a rag and considered. A new dress and new shoes at the start of the school year and at Easter, and piano lessons with the church organist, when there was money to spare. Almost unthinkable, the expense, he had to admit, but he had promised his dear wife that he would bring their girl up right.
But spoiled? The ladies at church certainly thought so. The neighbors too. “Uppity,” they called her when they thought he didn’t hear. “Too good for her britches.” But they were wrong. The tilt of her nose, that steely look in her eye (determined, just like him) — his daughter had a queenly bearing, that was all. Always had. “Poised” — that was the word. Some might see her as spoiled. But inside, she was sweet and kind. Every morning she spooned sugar into his tea. Would someone spoiled do such a thing?
He thought probably not, but didn’t know for sure. His wife, she was the one who’d understood people, how they ticked, but his wife was dead. In any case, the bike was purple. Too late to change it.
The last thing to do was put on the bike seat — he whistled and tried to regain his contented mood, but now, worried about the purple, worried about the neighbors and that maybe he hadn’t raised his daughter right, and maybe he had no business bringing up a girl on his own, and maybe he should have sent her off to his sister’s like everyone said, with all that on his mind, his mood had dampened. Still, he unscrewed the old tattered black seat and, careful not to smudge it with his oil-stained hands, screwed on the white one.
Not brand new, this seat. Another cast-off. A lucky find at Dressler’s Second Hand and Thrift. “In near-perfect shape,” Mr. Dressler had said, making his pitch. “Only a tiny tear in the back. No one will ever notice.”
The man had let himself be convinced. But now he wondered. Now the tiny tear seemed gaping and raw. Worst yet, the seat looked too new compared with the rest of the bike.
He saw now that this was still an old bike, just cleaned up. One abandoned in a field. One he coulda got snake-bit retrieving. Someone else’s trash. That was their life, his and his girl’s, when all was said and done. Thinking otherwise was just fooling himself.
She would hate the seat. She would hate the bike. She would hate it all but pretend otherwise. He’d been a fool to rescue it. The snakes must have watched him that day and snickered and smiled, whispering among themselves, calling him ignorant.
He sat down on the old wood stool and tried once more to admire it. This purple contraption was not the gift that, if he had the means, he would have given her. But it was better than last year’s present: a porcelain tea cup with a chipped rim. So a real birthday present this year. Still a silver lining, after all. And in any event, she would be surprised.
But here he was wrong.
As of five minutes earlier, she knew all about the bike.
Something had disturbed her sleep, maybe the wail of a train. She had woken and, finding the house too quiet, her father not snoring in his bedroom and nowhere else in the house, she’d wrapped herself in a blanket and ventured out to the only other place he could be — the shed.
How cold the air! She wrapped the blanket tighter as she scurried barefoot across the dewy grass. The shed was dark except for a shaft of light from the window; he had set a board against it from the inside but (and this was typical of him, the old dear) he’d left a gap.
He was hiding something from her …
Her birthday present!
What could it be?
The one from the Sears catalog?
“Some assembly required” — she had read that herself, sounding out the words.
What better place to assemble it than out here in the shed?
She had the perfect spot for it, too, under her window, next to her bed. How pretty it would be assembled and propped in its perfect spot. Every night from now on for the rest of her life she would stare at it until she fell asleep.
Would there be furniture, too? A tiny kitchen table? A tiny bedroom set?
A worry arose: What about the dolls to live in it? She had only one — such a large house for such a shabby little thing. Well, she would just need more dolls; that was the answer to that.
She stood on her tiptoes and peeked through the gap, ready to feast her eyes —
The three stories, the three rooms a piece, the real staircase from bottom to top …
But there was no dollhouse.
Just her dad, sitting on his old wooden stool, dead tired. His hands grimy, coveralls dirty. And before him:
Not a dollhouse.
No, not a dollhouse at all.
One with big curvy handlebars …
The one from Rattlesnake City.
The old abandoned bike. Painted purple now. With a bright white seat.
She covered her mouth to stop from gasping. Stared a moment more. Pulled her eyes away. Turned and ran quick and quiet back to the house.
Back in bed, she pulled the covers over her head. Brought her knees to her chest and wrapped her arms around them and made herself small and tight until the shivering and shaking stopped.
Warmed up again and somewhat over the shock, she nudged a corner of the blanket aside, just enough to see the window, which she stared out of, up at the sky, waiting for the star that she waited for every night, the one where her mother lived.
While she waited, and thinking of all she would tell her mother, the girl began to cry, and she continued to cry, but silently, until the star rose in the sky. And then she whispered, “He walked through the snakes, Momma. All just for me!”
Marilyn Horn is a technical editor in Silicon Valley. A collection of her short stories has been published by Thinking Ink Press. You can find her at marilynhornwriting.com.