Night of the Schwinn
By Erica Mosley
February 11, 2015
It is a mistake to look at old family photos just before bedtime, but I did, and around 3 a.m. my mother appeared to me, shiny and new, at the foot of the bed. She was wearing an aquamarine windbreaker. She never wore a windbreaker in life, so I was confused as to why she would start now. It was difficult to hear her, far across the void as she was, but I finally understood when she pretended to clutch an invisible pair of handlebars, and I was filled with guilt.
In the morning I called Gwen. She agreed to come over. We did not get around to talking about it right away, although I’d left the picture sitting out on the desk and sighed often in anticipation of what we had to do. We ordered a bag of tacos at the drive through and worked our way through them and through some cheap movies about zombies reanimating with missing arms or missing feet and when I realized that the room had turned gray without my noticing and that my neck had begun to ache also without my noticing I got angry, as though it was Gwen’s fault. It was, in a way. She had more reason to procrastinate than I did. And it was her idea in the first place, about the bike.
Gwen had already unhooked her bra and nestled into the couch cushions, and I knew if I didn’t get her up now the day would be lost. I passed by the desk on the pretense of going to the kitchen for more ice and picked up the picture, which I dropped onto the cushion in front of her nose. “So, that’s the one,” I said.
She took a minute opening her eyes. She felt the picture with her fingers, felt the rounded antique corners, then sat up slowly and studied it in the light of a dish soap commercial.
“Oh my god!” she said. “She’s so cute! Look at her hair!”
The picture was hazy, golden-hued, the kind of hue people put onto their pictures on purpose now. My teenaged mother and my mother’s father squatting in the grass surrounded by bike parts. My mother washing a naked wheel over a bucket of water and her father tightening the handlebars with a screwdriver.
I’d begun working through the pictures systematically about a week before. In my waking hours they did not cause me much trouble but I was afraid now that my nights would be interrupted by my mother’s declarations of vengeance for the yard sales and Salvation Army donations, for all the missing parts, and by her request for restoration.
Gwen looked up and said, “Oh Pee Wee,” as though I were about to cry, but I would not let her see me cry. I gave it a good laugh instead.
“I think I made a mistake,” I said, smiling like maybe it wasn’t a huge mistake.
Then Gwen sighed and I sighed our anticipatory sighs and we ate the last two tacos, and when the last zombie movie was over, we got in Gwen’s car and drove to the community college. Campus was closed and half the lights were out but we knew our way around. We’d both been students here for a while and both dropped out, me in an existential crisis and hordes of debt and Gwen in shame after her mother enrolled in art classes to find herself. We walked across the wet pavement checking all the doors to the Humanities building and finding all but the last one locked, and then felt our way by memory down the dark hall full of plaster sculptures of hands and papier-mâché sculptures of breasts.
A light was on at the end of the hall, in the studio. Gwen’s mother was there, her hands and arms covered in a gray substance and looking like wet stone. She did not say hello. She just said, “Oh?”
“Hi, Mama. Whatcha workin on?” Gwen said. They were new to this thing, this care for each other they’d promised to take.
Gwen’s mother tried to swing all her long gray hair behind her shoulder without the use of her stoney hands and said, “Nothing too important. Just busy homework.” Gwen stepped over and gently gathered up her mother’s hair and braided it down her back while her mother washed her hands in the sink. As long as these two women had been in my life I’d never seen them touch. And I wasn’t sure if I liked it. Gwen’s hatred of her mother had been the first confidence of our friendship, and I couldn’t understand a Gwen who was suddenly so in love. And this was all because of me, my bike, my mother’s bike.
But it was fragile ground. Gwen took a breath only I could hear and said, “How’s the bike project?”
Her mother’s eyes glowed with gratitude. “Let me show you.” Like a mad doctor she tore around the studio whipping drop cloths off mountains of dismembered bike parts, rambling all the while about the renowned artists before her who had done great things with old bicycles by taking them apart and putting them back together in new and witty ways. It was a horrible scene. Pedals piled like children’s shoes in a corner. Inner tubes ripped to ribbons. Chains hanging like entrails from the bellies of dead machines. And I realized that, without noticing it, I had stopped breathing. I was too late.
But I wasn’t. My mother’s bike was not there. I inquired about it. In a flutter of hands and with her long gray braid bouncing across her back, Gwen’s mother disappeared from the room and we trotted out after her. We trotted down a stairwell and trotted out a service door that Gwen’s mother propped open with a rock and there, under the sad glare of a motion-activated security light, was the old blue Schwinn.
I never thought she’d do this. When I gave the bike to Gwen and Gwen gave the bike to her, she’d been ecstatic over how old and vintage the bike was, about how it had been kept in such good condition. And now here it was, strategically placed under the clockwork drip of a drain pipe. Orange stains had begun to bleed out from the bolts and screw heads. Gwen’s mother touched the stains longingly with her fingertips and said, “I guess I’ll have to start sand papering. It’s such a quality finish it’s not really deteriorating as fast as I’d like and I have to finish the installation by next week.”
Gwen’s mother leaned with her hand on the bike seat and rambled for a while about her theme—some statement about urban decay or maybe just general decay or the loss of childhood or something like that. She wasn’t sure yet. It would all come together, she knew, even if right now it felt a little disjointed. She just had to have faith, vision. Seeing her hand on the bike seat made me flush hot with the deepest shame and the deepest anger.
I began to inch my way toward the bike, slowly, with my head down, trying to look like I needed a minute alone with it, hoping to make Gwen’s mother uncomfortable by entering her personal space. When she finally backed away I touched the leathery skin of the handlebars and the smooth, proud neck of the frame, and I thought of my mother standing at the foot of my bed in her aquamarine windbreaker, demanding restoration, and I gripped the handlebars and rolled. I knew Gwen wanted to ease into this, wanted to do about half an hour of explaining and apologizing before asking nicely, but I couldn’t wait around. This was an emergency evacuation.
Gwen’s mother smiled for a minute because she was confused, and let me get all the way through the service door and to the foot of the stairs before saying, “What are you doing, hon?”
Gwen ran between us and said, “Wait, everybody, Mom,” while I hoisted the bike up onto the first step.
“Did I misunderstand something?” Gwen’s mother said.
I couldn’t waste breath explaining, couldn’t even waste energy feeling too bad for Gwen, who was caught in the middle of the stairwell between us. I had both wheels on the stairs now, just me and that bike and gravity. God, it was heavy. They don’t make them like that anymore.
“I thought you gave it to me,” Gwen’s mother was saying. “I thought you wanted me to use it.”
They went back and forth for a while. I was struggling for breath on the stairs and not really listening, but I felt the change in their voices. It wasn’t about the bike anymore.
Gwen’s mother said, “I thought you believed in me. I thought you finally believed in what I was doing,” and started to cry, then started to yell. By the time I got to the top of the stairs and sat on the floor to take a rest they had filled the entire stairwell with their screams and reverberations. Their hatred spilled out into the hall and while I rolled the bike through the darkness, past the plaster hands and papier-mâché breasts, I heard Gwen yelling that she wished her mother was dead already so she could sell her body to science.
When I got close to the car I realized with horror that I would have to take the bike a little bit apart—at least disconnect the handlebars—to fit it in the trunk, and I texted Gwen to swipe a screwdriver from the studio on her way out. And then I sat there in the parking lot holding the bike up, petting it, waiting for the two of them to finish. It seemed so silly to me now, these dramas between mothers and daughters that I had long forgotten about. And I wanted more than anything for Gwen to leave her mother and rejoin me so we could go back to our zombie movies and our mutual hatred. Back to the apartment where I would reassemble the bike and put it safely away in the closet, where it would live forever and haunt me.
Erica Mosley lives and writes in the Missouri Ozarks. Her work is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, The Chicago Quarterly Review, A cappella Zoo, and elsewhere.