December 1, 2014 by The Citron Review
People in town called John “Ghost” because he was so pale and because they weren’t very creative. He was as white as an albino. He wore floppy hats and glasses like they do, but he wasn’t one. He just didn’t like light.
He got the bike on his fourteenth birthday. It was a Japanese racing bike, a Fuji model S-10S, in performance green. My other brother, Alan, who was twelve then, got John’s old bike, a Sting Ray OrangeCrate five speed, which is all Alan had ever wanted, until the S-10S, then he wanted that instead. He said I could have the Sting Ray, but I had my own yellow Schwinn Fair Lady with a chrome sissy bar, a gold glitter-stuffed banana seat, a white woven plastic basket with a string of flowers on the front, also plastic, and a cross bar angled down, for ease of mounting.
At first, John rode in his sun hat. But the wind would catch it under the rim, sail it back toward our driveway, land it flat in the street. After he shaved bald with Dad’s Norelco, his head dipped like a misshapen moon, patched with stubble and blood, setting between the handlebars. Alan said John did it for the Fuji. Aerodynamics.
It was a week after that Mom hunted in John’s room for drugs and found Dixie Cups instead, the little ones from the dispenser in the kitchen, filled with John’s urine. The cups were nestled between piles of Mad Magazines, under soiled socks and mottled Fruit of the Loom undershirts, on his bedside table, in his shoe organizer.
That was the first time John went away.
He got a chain for his bike and wound it through the tires and frame and secured it with a dial lock. He took the black molded seat off its post and hid it in his room, told us he would know if we went in there.
He was gone all summer. When he came back, he still rode all the time, often well after dark. He let his hair grow long and, in a couple of years, when he could, his beard too. He rode with all those inky black tangles streaming behind, as if some airborne Godzilla were charging after him, just one hot dragon breath away from swallowing him whole. He stopped sleeping and spent nights in my dad’s shop in the basement, wrapping things with the black electric tape he bought for the Fuji’s handle bars: a hammer, broken clippers from the shed, a baby bird he found dead on the lawn, his bike pedals. Sometimes he stuck pieces of it on his own bare skin. He made a shiv from an empty can of peaches and sculpted its handle from tape. He held it to my chest and told me it could rip through my nightgown, leave me naked. Then he cut his own arm to show me the truth of it. I think we were both surprised when he bled red.
The second time he went away, Alan said, “I’ll watch your bike for you,” but John didn’t answer. We stood under the basketball hoop, bouncing a ball between us, pretending not to gape. Dad pushed John’s head down into the backseat of the Seville, and Alan and I waved but could not see through the tint of the window if John waved back.
He came back for the last time, a year later, the night before we found his bike at the bottom of the pool. He sat on the front stoop, his pearly arms crossed over a plain black tee shirt.
“I need my bike,” he said.
Dad shook his head. Mom said, “Oh my dear.” Alan said, “I’ll get it for you.” John said, “Don’t bother.” Mom said, “Let’s go inside.” John said, “I’d rather talk out here.” Mom said, “upstairs.” Alan and I went.
We watched “Love American Style” and “The Carol Burnett Show” in my parents’ room. We sat on the harvest gold shag carpet and leaned our backs against the tapestry bedspread, which barely cushioned us from the jutting metal frame beneath. Words from the yard below smashed into the window screens like so many spikey asteroids, any one of which might crack through the suburban stratosphere, wipe us all out: cunt, psycho, retard, sicko, fuckwad, fuck, fuck, fuck you. At eleven, we went to our rooms, shut out the lights, shut our windows against the assault, even though by then it had slowed to a gentle rain of cricket chirps and my mom’s sobs.
When we woke up the next morning, John was gone. The water in the deep end of the pool rippled in the breeze and flecked the S-10S at the bottom in sprigs of light. The wavelets pulsed and blurred the bike beneath, but I could still see it was John’s: the brake grips jutting out like a silver scarab’s horns, the handlebars scarred over with peeling tape, the black teardrop seat, the spider web spokes.
“The water will strip the gears.” Alan stood next to me. He smelled like a lemon sweating, though it probably wasn’t even seventy out yet. The towel around his acned shoulders was stiff with bleach. I could see the blood under his skin travel up his neck, enflaming each zit along the way, a string of Christmas lights going on one by one.
“I’m going to go get it,” said Alan.
“Don’t,” I said. I thought it more likely the bike would get him.
Beneath the queasy surface, the Fuji came into focus, went out, and came in again. Alan dropped the towel and dove. He tugged at the handlebars, turned the front wheel, aimed through a cloud of bubbles for the surface, one brother, at least, finding a way to ride the ghostly bike back into the world.
Kate Sparks is a writer and retired Senate staffer. She lives with her husband and more chickens than either can be bothered to count on their Shenandoah Valley farm. More of her short fiction will be published this spring in WhiskeyPaper, and she is currently working on a novel about cowboy poetry and an obese pet mortician who loves it. On the rare occasions when she is feeling succinct, Kate can be found at @OnTheFenceWrite .