I’m pedaling down the side of a two-lane, riding the weathered strip of asphalt between the dirty shoulder and the road itself, and the wind is holding me back the way a friend might in the middle of a school-yard fight, because he’s not worth it and you’ll get in trouble and et cetera. I’m dressed appropriately for the mid-Michigan September morning, clothes meant to guard one from the remnants of last night’s dip in temperature; but I’m also dressed for success in a collared shirt the color of vacation waters, some nice pants, and a pair of dirty boots, all of it very business casual, until you get to the boots, anyway. It’s early, a couple-few hours after the sun’s initial push over a horizon that never gets any closer, no matter how hard I pedal against the cool wind buffeting me hither and thither, and the gentle rays are working hard to warm blades of shivering grass, trees that seem to be thinning a little at the temples, and warming me too, if the sweat drip-drip-dripping from my nose is any indication.
“You’ve gotta be fuckin KIDDING me,” I say, muttering to myself and reaching up to wipe my sweaty brow, a quick motion meant to minimize the potential for mistakes, and I return it to the handlebars just in time to correct the bike away from the steady stream of late-to-workers blowing by me at intervals. The front wheel shimmies and shakes, back and forth, to and fro, making everything a little more interesting than I’m comfortable with, but isn’t there something innately uncomfortable about riding a bike comprised of pieces from several other bikes? “C’mon, Frankie, don’t lemme down now.”
Frankie, as the bike has been dubbed, whines in rusty protest, the sound of oldness and left-out-in-the-rain-ness and unnatural togetherness, and the chain ratchets and pops, shifting Frankie from seventh gear to something that feels very less-than-oneish. He’s built for neither speed nor comfort, perhaps moreso out of necessity than anything else. A piece here, there, a chain and a new wheel from this pile of garbage, a seat taken from the remnants of someone else’s bad luck, and so on. And I do the only thing I can do, I pedal harder, hurling a couple effing-mothers into the gusts of cool wind smacking me in the face like kamikazying summer bugs blindly seeking the sort of honored infamy bugs rarely find.
A semi truck passes then, the horn blaring a needled punch deep into my ear, momentarily reversing the aerodynamic drag to slap me in the back in a cmon-what’s-taking-you-so-long kind of way. I curse some more, wipe my brow, and I curse again through gritted teeth my pulse thumping angrily, my hamstrings and adductors and quadriceps and whatever else tensing and releasing and tensing and releasing and tensing, tensing, tensing.
The morning hadn’t started off too bad. Sure, it had only been as good as waking up jobless and penniless can be, as good as drinking instant coffee and eating off-brand oatmeal can be, as scanning Craigslist for job offerings that seemed less murdery than some of the others can be, but it hadn’t been terrible, that morning, and it had seemingly taken a turn for the good, the morning and the day and life in general, when I’d found a job posting that seemed rather promising.
SUBWAY IS now HIRING! Do you enjoy working in a FAST-PACED setting? Are you TEAM-ORIENTED? Are you dedicated to providing our customers with EXCELLENT FOOD, GREAT CUSTOMER SERVICE, and a CLEAN EVIORNMENT? If so, please apply in person at-
And blah blah blah. The ad itself had seemed homey, down to earth in some way, human and folkish in that whomever had written the ad had gone through this much trouble to craft the damn thing, capitalizing this and exclaiming that, and had somehow, whether intentionally or not, misspelled the word EVIORNMENT. I didn’t think a murderer would have put that much aforethought into a bait ad only to post it with a misspelled word, and the only sick pervert associated with Subway had been put behind bars a while ago, hadn’t he?
So we’d gotten to the job interview like twenty minutes early, me and Frank, and we’d just sat there for a while outside the place, watching cars pass and worrying, wondering if I’ve dressed appropriately enough for a job interview at Subway, and how their perception of what was appropriate might differ from my own; and too, wondering if like, I was too early, assuming they’d seen me ride up, assuming they’d assumed it was me, he of the weak and thin resume, he of the out-of-town-accent, and if they were waiting inside, checking their watches intermittently, checking the wall clock intermittently, and comparing the two; and wondering, lastly and most of all, whether showing up on a bike that looked as if it had been stolen from several different places, pieces taken from the gravesites people left near the road, another man’s trash and all that, and dressing in what I considered my good jeans and my nicest collared and a pair of work boots, and showing up early, as early as I had, awkwardly early, was enough to show that I did indeed enjoy working in a FAST-PACED environment, that I was TEAM-ORIENTED, and that I was fully capable of providing their customers with EXCELLENT FOOD, GREAT CUSTOMER SERVICE, and a CLEAN EVIORNMENT.
I shake my head and pedal harder. Frank groans, shifting gears for the fuck of it, and shakes his head too.
It hadn’t been, ultimately, and that was the whole thing of it. And why? Too many reasons why. There’s a sort of servility that comes with attending a job interview, groveling and beseeching mannerisms to which I’m not really accustomed, and who knows, maybe it had showed. She’d sat there across from me, the interviewer, this uncomfortable mask made facelike by the proportionate and symmetrical positioning of eyebrows and eyes and nostrils and lip curvature, and there had been nothing there, on her face, that suggested or hinted at a future for me as a sandwich artist or whatever. And my weak attempts to appear more affable than I really am, more cheery and amicable than your average bear, had fallen flatter than her face, and I’d left with nothing but a we’ll-be-in-touch and a weak handshake, like shaking hands with a fish, and the feeling, this distinct and unsettling notion, that Frankie had a better chance at landing a job in such a CLEAN EVIORNMENT than I did.
A car passes with two more in tow, a disjointed snake slithering past at a speed well above the unspoken 9-you’re-fine-10-you’re-mine directive. One honks, a sheep-like bleat, and I lift my left hand chest high, finally fed all the way up, unfurling the wings of what feels like the most glorious bird to have ever flown.
“Yeah, beep this, you mother-”
And the thing is, riding a bike down the side of the road? It’s an art. It takes hawkish concentration to keep that baby steady, centered right there in that sweet spot between the weathered white line and the weathered gravel carpeting the roadside. Do that and you’re all but golden. Don’t do that, and throw in the fact that the bike itself has little to no desire to be riding down the side of the road in the first place, that the bike seems to want nothing more than to throw himself into the raging flow of mid-morning traffic, and what you get is what you get. The suicidal jerking of a barely serviceable front wheel. The corresponding overcorrection made by a hastily placed hand. These things paired oh-so-conveniently with the rusted chain’s swan song, a dry popping. And directly afterward, the sad sound of pedals being pedaled without pedaling, as the bike, Frankie, finally gives up the ghost, pitching the both of us facefirst into the roadside ditch with the words FAST-PACED and TEAM-ORIENTED and EXCELLENT FOOD and GREAT CUSTOMER SERVICE and CLEAN EVIORNMENT, EVIORNMENT, EVIORNMENT bouncing off the inside of my skull like ping-pong balls.
I just lay there for a minute, staring skyward. A car passes, meeping joyfully. The clouds overhead are thin, their mass embellished across the blue backdrop, stretching into mere afterthoughts as they approach the sun, stealthily teasing, pantomiming the idea of shade as they eclipse, just so, and flit off. The sun glares steadily, a retina-sizzling heat. And The Kid stares back, retinas be damned.
It wasn’t like I’d truly wanted the job, making sandwiches, sandwich artistry or whatever, that’s nobody’s dream job. I’ve been to Subway plenty of times, and believe me when I tell you, there’s nothing even vaguely artistic about a meatball sub. And so, maybe not really wanting the damn job had showed; or maybe it had been the way I’d dressed, or rather, and moreso, the way I hadn’t dressed. Maybe it’d had something to do with Frankie, with riding up on a bicycle that seemed to openly mock the very idea of being a reliable mode of transportation; hell, maybe it had been a little bit of everything, one aggravating factor after another, too many to ignore.
Or maybe it’d been the big, fat checkmark next to “Yes” on the part of the application asking me if I’ve ever been convicted of a felony.
“Reliable,” I say, finally conceding my petty staring contest with the sun and closing my eyes against its triumphant glare. The residual effects pulse red and black and hot white behind my eyelids. “You’re not very reliable, Frankie.”
Frankie whines, low and distraught, his back tire spinning inefficaciously, squeak-squeak-squeak. I sigh. And grimace a little, I can already feel how much this is going to hurt tomorrow.
But it hadn’t been about finding some dream job. It usually never is, people work jobs they hate all the time, for any number of reasons. It’d been about needing it. Because The Kid’s dreams of writing a book and publishing it and being all he could be and et cetera just hadn’t gone the way he’d thought it might. There’s no money in almost doing something, but somewhere, somewhen, maybe at the end of the whole process, he’d thought, there’s being Rich and being Famous and being a Writer and all that, some surreal combination of James Patterson and Phillip Meyer, where critical acclaim and assloads of cash and awards would come cascading down like some fortuitous waterfall, and damn the past, and damn the more realistic possibility that The Kid might, in fact, find himself hunting for a minimum wage job just to pay the bills, and might, in fact, find himself lying prone by the side of the road, squinting his eyes against a September sun and breathing in the smell of passing traffic and listening to the sounds of people looking at him as they drive by, of birds arguing in the trees, of Frankie, this unreliable bastard son of a bastard son, still squeaking from his post-accident resting spot a couple yards away, noncommittally half in the roadside ditch and half out.
“Shut up, already,” I say, unsure if I’m talking to Frankie or myself. I brace myself for the pain and sit up, wincing to my feet like awkwardly like it’s my first time.
Because none of the aforementioned for-whys were the real reason I needed the damn job. The real reason being a very big something that’d happened an entire 8 months ago, maybe longer, when I’d been out of prison for about a month, sitting on a stool in the very back of a small pizzeria, his arms crossed on the table in front of him, a nervous sweat building on his forehead, his upper lip, beneath his arms, and he can barely hear her talking over the sound of his own heart thumping madly, pounding against his breastbone like an inmate convinced of his own innocence. The Kid’s hands are both cold and sweaty, somehow, as is the very tip of his nose. His mouth is an arid wasteland, his throat, and every swallow is like eating sandpaper. It’s a big world, and things have changed, they must have, it’s been years. But that’s not what scares him. What scares him is how much everything has stayed the same, almost as if he never did what he did, almost as if the past 51 months have been a lie, something he made up in his head. But only almost. Because every breath he takes is a reminder of all of that well-deserved time he spent behind bars, and just because the world hadn’t moved when The Kid pushed it doesn’t mean it hadn’t kept turning, spinning like it always has. Did you hear what I said, she says, wrapped in her own shawl of nervousness, and The Kid nods, hoping the sweat doesn’t run down his face, gathering at the tip of his cold, cold nose and drip-drip-dripping onto the table in front of him, hoping she doesn’t see the growing panic in his eyes, a panic that might have something to do with being in public after so long, but doesn’t, that actually has moreso to do with the words I’m Pregnant hanging over the table like the sudden appearance of a storm cloud in an otherwise cloudless sky.
“Just shut UP,” I say, drawing my leg back to give Frankie a swift kick for his troubles, and it’s only as I aim my boot at what’s left of Frank that I realize the back tire has stopped spinning completely; that the front tire is also motionless, buried in a tuffet of roadside grass that hasn’t seen a mower blade since early spring; that the squeaking is actually coming from deeper in the ditch, a squeaking that sounds less like a tire needing some grease and more like a hot and pissed off bundle of orange fur struggling mightily to push its way through ropy waves of ditch grass, out of that snarled heather, past unreliable ass Frank and right toward me.
“Oh no,” I say, my shoulders slumping even more. I look left, up the road toward home. I look right and back toward the failed job interview. No cars coming, or going, nobody to see this idiot standing by the side of the road, talking to himself, nothing and no one now, just me and Frank and what looks to be a bright orange baby racoon.
“No fucking way.”
Another annoyed squeak, longer and squeakier this time. Definitely pissed off.
“Absolutely not. I just… I’m not…”
I lean over and yank Frankie out of the ditch. I don’t have words, not any that would offer up a valid excuse, anyway. And I begin walking home. Slightly limping. Frankie rolling along beside me, limping in his own way. Leaving the scuffed dirt and ditch and tuft of thick grass and its tiny occupant right there, just so, as the words FAST-PACED and TEAM-ORIENTED and I’M PREGNANT and EXCELLENT FOOD and GREAT CUSTOMER SERVICE and I’M PREGNANT and CLEAN EVIORNMENT, EVIORNMENT, EVIORNMENT make hollow, defeated echoes in the otherwise silent chamber of my head.