My landlord said that I’m not allowed to be on the roof of the apartment building. She said it’s a liability for the building because there are no railings up there. She lives right next door to me in 301, so if I were to break her rule, she would hear my footsteps through her ceiling and probably send me a strongly worded email. But right now she is in Hawaii.
The roof access is blocked by a locked door and a black iron cage. The architect must have thought no one would have the nerve to hop the railing and scale the side of the cage, exposing themselves to a three story fall. I clambered across, paying close attention to where I was placing my feet, and made it onto the flat top of the building. I looked around. To the south was a poor man’s view of the city skyline. I saw the shiny black skyscraper where I had delivered pizzas on my first day as a bike messenger. I had to secure the boxes with bungee cords to the rack on the back of my bike. It was pouring rain and when the guy saw me sopping wet on his doorstep he gave me a ten-dollar tip.
Parked cars lined both sides of the busy street below. A driver stopped and got out with his arms full of shopping bags. I watched him walk into his apartment building and a few moments later, saw him appear through his window. He dumped his bags on the kitchen counter and promptly began fiddling with his cellphone. I looked through other people’s windows. With a hum of disdain, I realized that every occupied apartment with open blinds revealed a solitary person fixated on their cellphone, laptop, or television. A quick scan of the apartments flanking the other side of my building showed more of the same: people in glass rectangles staring at glass rectangles.
I huffed and tapped a cigarette out of the pack. I rarely smoke, but this was a special occasion. The other day I had spotted the pack abandoned in the bike lane so I made an abrupt U-turn and swiped them. Only one cigarette was missing, leaving me nineteen. I guessed that someone had been trying to quit but something rough happened and they really needed one. You can’t buy just one cigarette so this person had to buy the whole pack. Rather than waste them by throwing them in the garbage they tossed them onto the street for someone to find.
I inhaled and sensed the nicotine uniting with the caffeine in my bloodstream. I felt lightheaded and content in the morning sunlight. I gazed down at the street. Twin traffic lights phased a dull orange as a cyclist zoomed through the intersection. He slowed gracefully to the bicycle rack outside my building. With a swing of his messenger bag and a flourish of his keys he secured his bike. I watched him clip his helmet to his handlebars and then I walked back to face the cage. The journey back across was more intimidating because of the cigarette in my mouth. I breathed through my nose so as not to choke on the smoke, trying to push out the thought of the cigarette slipping from my lips and burning my arm, causing me to let go and splat on the pavement. The rider bounded up the stairs. I ran my fingers through my hair and prepared to meet him.
Soon Calvin and I were weaving through Saturday traffic. A dog with its head out of a car window followed my gaze as I rode past.
“What a day!” I shouted ahead.
“For once. Still, I want to move somewhere warmer.”
He slowed down so we could ride side by side.
“Like where? Somewhere flatter?” We were approaching a hill.
“Somewhere south. I need to get away from my parents. But I have all these nice warm clothes. What do I do with them?”
“I dunno, wear them when you’re home for Christmas?”
We stopped at a grocery for cheese, salami, and a baguette. I put the food in my backpack. The baguette stuck out of the top.
Back on the road I followed Calvin’s lead. We squeezed through minuscule gaps between car bumpers like rats through tubes. It seemed like all of the drivers were alone in their cars. Most of them were texting. It was depressing to see only one person behind the wheel of each car. I wanted to introduce the drivers to each other so they could carpool. It would really thin out the traffic.
Suddenly a black blur blew past me and Calvin. The delayed whoosh of air hit me and I smelled sweat and stale tobacco. The rider slowed and cranked his head around.
“Nice baguette, Emily. You two going for a picnic? Two little lovebirds. You know it’s dangerous to date a co-worker.”
His head was newly shaved, with little bald scores where the cutter must have slipped. As usual, he was clothed in all black, except for his bike, which was white. An enormous cardboard box was strapped to his ratty messenger bag. Like pistons, his calves mechanically slowed their cadence until he was riding beside me.
“Nice haircut, Horse,” I said. “Where’s your helmet?”
“I ride better without one. And cars give me more distance.” He ran a gloved hand over his scalp. “I’m glad I cut my hair when I did; I’m sweating enough as it is.”
Calvin wedged his bike in between ours. “You look like a turtle. What are you carrying?”
“Some kind of furniture, guessing by the weight. What other food do you have in there?” He asked, looking at my backpack.
“Aren’t you on duty?” I said.
“I’ll drop this off and come join you. Believe it or not I’ve got beer in here too,” he said, pointing at his bag with his thumb. “Where will you be?”
I paused to see if Calvin would answer since the place was his idea, but he didn’t speak.
“Washburn Park,” I said.
“Excellent! I would love to swim right now. See you slugs later! It’s so fucking hot out…” His words trailed off as he sped up and was gone.
Calvin and I swam in the lake for a long time and then dried off in the sun. We made and ate our sandwiches next to our overturned bikes. I looked down at my damp sports bra and watched the sun evaporate the glinting droplets of lake water. Calvin lay beside me, bare-chested, with his hands behind his head. His body was lean, almost skinny. Too much beer and not enough vegetables, maybe. His blue eyes were framed by a rather rugged reddish-brown beard. He didn’t bother to shave his neck, I noticed, which some guys do. He was handsome enough, but there was no sense getting involved with someone so quickly. I couldn’t forget why I’d moved. I longed for a fresh start, away from familial obligations, from the worry of running into an ex at a bar, and towards full autonomy. Calvin seemed too timid to put me in a position where I would have to turn him down. I wasn’t giving him any clear, flirty signs, though it was doubtful that he would pick up on them anyway.
“What’s your favorite place in the city?” he asked.
“Too soon to say.”
“I’ll bet you know more about it than most people. It’s the nature of our job. We see everything.”
“Well, I’ve really been liking my rooftop. I like to watch people when they don’t know they’re being watched. Like yesterday. I watched this shirtless Indian man shave his face for like ten minutes. He was so focused. It was like watching a woman put on mascara.”
I took a bite of sandwich and washed it down with a swig from my water bottle. “Where’s your favorite place?”
“I can’t tell you. But I can show you.” He grinned flirtatiously.
Suddenly I heard the familiar rattle of a bike chain. It was approaching fast. A white bike came screeching to a halt in front of us. We looked up and saw a panting Horse. There was never a dull moment with him.
“Where’ve you been?” I asked. “We’ve been needing beers over here.”
Horse dropped his bike and sat heavily next to me, still breathing hard.
“I got doored.”
Calvin sat up. “Shit, man, you alright?”
Horse laid down on his back and looked up at the sky. “I’ve been waiting for my door ever since I started riding. Like Monster’s, Inc., you know?”
Calvin and I nodded.
“But fuck. The guy just got back in his car and sped off. I should have chased him down.” His scowl was murderous.
There was a silence where both Calvin and I inspected Horse for damage.
He waved away our concern with a gloved hand. “Any food left?”
He ripped the baguette I handed him and wrapped the bread in salami. As he wolfed down bite after bite, he relayed his crash story and showed us his fingerless cycling gloves, which were scraped down to the palm. I took his hands in my lap, peeled off the gloves, and began picking out bits of gravel. His fingers were black with grease and smelled like gasoline. While I worked on his hands, he hung his shaved head, emitting small moans.
“I miss your hair,” I said. “It looked so cool flowing behind you.”
“My hair got to be too much. And I refuse to pay for haircuts. Maybe twice a year I just buzz it. These big clumps of hair end up all over the ground… it’s like hitting the reset button.”
Calvin reached over me and into Horse’s bag. He rummaged for a moment and then pulled out a can of beer, which he cracked open. It foamed aggressively so he brought his mouth to the can and sucked, wide-eyed.
When he had his beer under control, he said, “It’s not a great look for you; your ears kind of stick out.”
“When I was a kid I used to fall asleep wearing baseball hats. Good enough Em, thanks.”
He pulled his hands free and brushed them off on his pants before burying one into his back pocket and producing a silver case. He opened the case, pulled out a spliff, and lit it. He puffed and a cloud of smoke rose. Two women walking by gave Horse a look of reproach, but he didn’t seem to notice.
“Yeah, I look like a chump for about a week,” Horse continued, “but so does every guy after a haircut, even those guys who pay forty bucks to have the sides of their head shaved and the top snipped so they can feel attractive. I think they look like they’re from the future. Maybe in twenty years it will be a hot look, it never has been before and sure as hell isn’t now.”
He took another hit and passed the spliff to me.
“I’ve been feeling like going on a drug binge lately,” continued Horse. “It’s like… I’m stable internally so maybe I can observe the otherworldly sensations from an outsider’s perspective and land safely, with minimal consequences.”
“What kind of drugs?” The smoke in my lungs made my voice high-pitched. I exhaled and passed the spliff to Calvin. He blew smoke into his beer can and took a sip.
“Any and all,” said Horse, watching the people in the park with a dazed expression. A car alarm went off behind us.
Horse groaned. “Why can’t people just ride their bikes? Look at Scandinavia. Cyclists dominate the roads. The whole region is just statuesque humans with clean looking coats buzzing around on their little city cruisers. It’s the dream.”
“People are lazy,” I said.
“Yep,” said Calvin, reaching around behind me to return the spliff to Horse. “Back when I had to deliver all that shit for ABC Legal there was never any room in people’s mailboxes. They were too lazy to walk out to their driveway get their mail, so I always had to try and cram it in with all their other crap.”
With the spliff drooping from his lips, Horse reached into his messenger bag. He handed me a beer and began drumming two fingers on the top of his beer to settle the carbonation. I copied him. The beer was warm but I enjoyed it anyway.
The three of us were riding home at a pretty good clip. Horse was in the lead, with me in the middle and Calvin bringing up the rear. Suddenly, Horse roared “Oh, SHIT!” and slammed on his brakes.
As I swerved to avoid him I heard the unmistakable crinkle of rubber meeting glass. I slowed and turned to approached Horse, who had already taken a knee on the sidewalk and was picking shards out of his front tire. Glass pebbles from a broken car window glittered beside him.
“This fucking city,” he growled.
I leaned my bike against a telephone pole, knelt down, and began working on Horse’s back tire. First pebbles in his hand, now glass in his wheel. Calvin made his way slowly towards us along the edge of the road. A car honked at him. Horse was flipping the driver the bird when a sound like a gunshot went off and then all I could hear was a shrill whine letting me know my eardrums had been damaged. Horse’s front tire had exploded right next to our faces. I could see Horse’s mouth moving but I couldn’t hear what he was saying. It was like watching a football coach react to a bad call on television. He snatched up his bike and marched down the block to the bus stop. I yelled at him to wait, to come back. An impeccably timed bus blocked him out of sight and when it drove off again, he was gone.
A warm stream flooded over me and I pushed my hair back. I was still feeling the weed, which was making my skin tingle. I had never been so aware of how yellow the tiles were in my shower. I sat down in the tub and let water hit me in the face. I tried to think about nothing at all. I pictured a square room with white walls. Then I imagined being on a beach so foggy that all I could see was the ocean. I thought about Horse. There were mens’ men and comedians’ comedians. He was a couriers’ courier. Tattoos, black clothing, powerful legs, and attitude. He buzzed through the city arterials like a blood borne pathogen. I turned the valve as cold as it would go and stood there, groaning my way through the discomfort, feeling the water travel down my spine and cool my overworked hamstrings.
I stepped out of the shower and shook each leg until water droplets went flying. I wrapped myself in a towel and opened the bathroom door to find Calvin sitting on my couch.
“Sorry. I climbed the tree next to your building.” He gestured to the open window.
I pulled the towel tighter around me.
“You were making noise in there.” Said Calvin. “Were you…”
“No no no. I was taking a cold shower.”
“What are you doing? Why are you in my house?” I was dripping onto the hardwood floor.
“It’s Horse. He’s been texting me. He sounds cracked out.”
“More so than usual?”
“Yes. Apparently he found the guy who doored him and now he’s out for revenge. Look at this.”
He flashed me his cellphone screen. The text read, “IBJ7321 is so fucked” followed by “Come help” and then “Oakwood and 3rd”.
“I tried calling you. Will you come with me?”
“You want to help him fuck with some dude’s car?”
“No! I just want to make sure he’s okay.”
“I didn’t think you guys were close like that.”
“I’ve been friends with him for too long to stop now.” He motioned to his feet. “I’m wearing his socks right now for God’s sake. You know you’re close with someone when you find their socks in your drawer.”
I scoffed. “Okay… it’s just, today you sorta clammed up when he showed up in the park.”
He paused. “Maybe I wanted to spend some time with you. Just with you, without Horse charging in like a god damn train.”
I readjusted the towel and leaned against the kitchen table.
“I’m still settling in here, getting a feel for this place, these streets, my co-workers. I don’t want to rush anything.”
“Good, me neither.” Calvin sighed and his shoulders deflated. “Last week I got a flat tire on a run out to Falcon Heights. Horse borrowed his brother’s car and came and picked me up. What kind of friend would I be if I didn’t at least go and see what was up?”
I pondered for a moment. I thought about my sister. She had called me the other day, crying. She was overworked at her job in San Francisco and was unable to talk to my mother about it because it would shatter the illusion that she was living a perfect life. My sister made safe choices. I took risks, went on adventures, and considered myself as a bona-fide daredevil.
“Let me get dressed.”
Car lights and street lamps glowed and flashed as Calvin and I dashed through the streets like alley cats. We rode for ten minutes in silence until we passed a cyclist on a handsome, cleanly built fixed gear.
“That was a gorgeous machine,” I said.
“I agree,” said Calvin. “My mind fluctuates between bikes and girls. Sometimes I’m checking out bikes, sometimes girls. Right now it’s mostly girls, probably because it’s springtime and they’re all out in their sundresses.”
“It is mating season,” I said, laughing.
“Oakwood Road,” said Calvin, pointing to the green street sign and easing up on his pedals.
“Ho-ly shit,” said Calvin.
I audibly gasped.
Every car we passed was sitting lamely on deflated tires. As we continued down the street, a gentle hissing noise got louder, as if we were hunting a rattlesnake.
Suddenly something came zipping out of the darkness and exploded in the spokes of Calvin’s back tire. I smelled sweet fruit as bits of the projectile sprayed up into my face. A dog was barking somewhere. Sirens wailed in the distance. Calvin traced the path of the fruit back to a dark figure squatting beside a white SUV. The sirens were getting louder.
“Horse!” Said Calvin. “Let’s get the fuck out of here man.”
I stopped in front of the driveway and Horse’s eyes met mine, iridescent and glimmering like a cat’s in the night. I narrowed my eyes and saw that his were bloodshot, maybe even purple. He was chewing presumably the last bite of whatever piece of fruit he had decided to throw at Calvin. He was also smirking and wielding a buck knife. He began scuttling toward the back tire of the SUV.
“Horse, no!” I hissed. “What would the Scandinavians think?”
He stood up, looked at me, and spit. It hit the pavement with a slap.
Calvin dismounted and leaned his bike against a fence. He grabbed Horse’s shoulders and steered him back towards his bike.
“How the fuck did you even get here man?” He pointed to the direction of the sirens. “Listen! Get on if you want to avoid the PoPo!”
Horse situated himself clumsily on the rack above the rear wheel of Calvin’s bike. Calvin got on and began to pedal, straining to get them moving. I followed them closely, watching Horse gaze skyward, swinging his legs and clutching the sides of the rack. His buck knife dropped and clattered to a halt on the pavement. I picked it up, stowed it in my sweatshirt pocket and kept riding.
“I got your knife!” I yelled. But Horse didn’t seem aware that he had dropped anything.
We rode for twenty minutes, hearing the sirens all the time. The moment they started to fade away, they would return, piercing our ears with their wicked refrain. My eardrums were still sore from the tire explosion, and my heart was pounding.
“How many cars do you think are after us?” I shouted ahead. “Three, four?
“It sounds like four to me!” Calvin yelled back.
Calvin’s intimate knowledge of the city took us through alleyways, playgrounds, and even peoples’ backyards. Finally, the sirens faded completely. We hopped a sidewalk curb and rode through a grassy park above a freeway. Calvin slowed and Horse stepped off the back, turned a somersault, and flopped onto his back with his limbs splayed, where he remained. On the freeway below, cars danced back and forth, jockeying for position. Calvin lay his bike down and fell beside it with a sigh. The moon was a sharp, bright crescent. Behind me I heard orchestral music. I turned my head and took in a beige, concrete building of experimental design. Because of its shape and layers, it reminded me a croissant. Music wafted out of the building and into my pounding head. The strings ran up the scale as horns swelled.
I lay my own bike in the grass and sat next to Calvin, who was watching the whoosh of the cars and looking relieved. Horse brought himself slowly to his feet and, hands on his knees, began to retch. A bullet tied to a string swung under his neck and made a distinct shadow in the green lawn. Recognizing the rectangular bulge, I reached forward into Horse’s back pocket and pulled out the silver case. I produced a spliff, lit it, and handed it to Calvin. I was doing my best to relax. I didn’t want them to think I couldn’t handle a little pressure from the law. Maybe these were the brothers I’d never had.
“Favorite place in the city?” I asked.
“You know it.” The spliff’s orange tip glowed brightly as Calvin inhaled. “We’ve got unlimited free passes to the symphony. Stick with us and we’ll show you all the city’s secrets.”
Horse was still bent double, gasping and spitting. The cars zoomed. The orchestra was reaching a climax. Horse wiped his mouth with his sleeve and straightened up. He turned to look at me.