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The Bikes of New York
A novella from Chester Burton 'Cheeseburger' Brown
CHAPTERS 1|2|3|4|5|6|7|8|9|10|11|12
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The Bikes of New York, a science-fiction novella by Cheeseburger Brown, illustration by Matthew Hemming

CHAPTER 4

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.

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