As it is the first month of a new year, I've been reviewing 2020--a year that took us in all sorts of unexpected directions--and making plans for the new year. Looking forward always leads to looking back, of course. And thinking about beginnings makes me think about Green Bike, the group novel that put Meadowlark on the path to what it has become today. Join me on a ride down memory lane with a few excerpts from Meadowlark's very first book.
Tracy Million Simmons
McGuffin (məˈɡʌfɪn) —n
an object or event in a book or a film that serves as the impetus for the plot
That Damned Green Bike
Calvin was suspicious when Bea came home to her apartment with a bike, a classic green Schwinn, the kind Harley always rode around town. Harley ran the bike shop, and Calvin knew Bea didn’t have the dough for a new bike. She said it was a gift or a loan, she wasn’t sure, but Harley told her to take it. Calvin had always wondered about Harley’s intentions, and now he had some evidence. There was something there.
Harley wore retro clothes, often a mechanic’s jumper with someone else’s name on the lapel, “Dave,” or “Joshua,” or “Stan.” Harley brought Bea chamomile tea when she visited the bike shop, brewed the tea in a round metal steeper and put a few flower petals from his jasmine plant on top; they floated in the yellow, soporific water. He winked at Bea when she passed the bike shop, “Jake’s Bikes.” Calvin didn’t even know if there was a Jake, but Harley ran the shop, kept up the name, and hit on Bea every chance he got.
Calvin loved Bea and didn’t want to appear jealous. He brought home a bread loaf-sized Saraswati to her. She was seated with her sitar guitar on an enormous blooming lotus, its petals surrounding her like a feather boa. That same day the green bike showed up. Bea looked at the Saraswati and kissed Calvin, then claimed she had “things to do” and rode her bike into town. Calvin lit incense, watched the Saraswati in the yellow embers of autumn, Manhattan-Kansas light. A shadow fell on the figure’s forehead.
That night, Bea didn’t come home. Calvin wrapped Saraswati in one of Bea’s hand towels, put it in his backpack, and walked home to his room, part of a big yellow house with chipping paint divided into five units. He rarely slept there anymore. Bea’s was where he had slept the past semester. He spent evenings and mornings at Bea’s side while they graded freshman composition papers. To these English GTAs and masters candidates, this was what candlelight romance looked like: dim light, red pens, quiet ruminations over grammar and substance, written argument and rhetoric, over Tohlman’s warrant and claim, over thesis, body, and conclusion. And so it ended that morning when Bea didn’t come home, and the green bike was gone. Calvin cried in his apartment. He set the statuette on the highest shelf, and it seemed to watch him as he packed Bea’s things into a laundry basket. Black lace bras and panties were the last things he packed. He thought he’d kept nothing, but weeks later, he found a bottle of nail polish remover under the bathroom sink. Bea had always painted and repainted her nails.
Miles stepped out the back door of the English building, moved away the obligatory thirty feet and lit a cigarette. When he’d taken a drag, his cell phone rang.
“I have an hour,” the voice said. “Can you make it?”
Miles dropped his cigarette and looked at his watch. Twelve blocks there, twelve blocks back, a class in just over an hour. Damn. It would be cutting it close, but hormones swamped reason.
“Yeah, I’ll be there.”
He rang off, cursing his decision to walk to campus today instead of driving his rusty Cavalier. He’d have to jog. He reached the corner of the building and noticed the bike rack. Three bikes were chained to the rack, but a fourth one, an old green Schwinn with balloon tires and a bell on the handlebars was leaning against the rack unchained. Miles looked around. Students were drifting along the sidewalk, chatting on cell phones or plugged into iPods. Miles snatched the bike and pedaled south under the arch and off the campus. It took six minutes to reach her door. She opened it before he knocked.
“That was fast,” she said with a smile.
“Yeah, well I had incentive. Where’s Jimmy?”
“Out with one of his dopey friends gathering guns and ammo and deer piss and whatever else they use to kill and maim defenseless creatures. He said he’d be back for lunch.”
“Terrific, Wanda. If we get caught, he’ll not only be angry, he’ll be armed.”
Wanda moved closer to him and whispered, “Hush,” into his ear. She tilted her head back, and he kissed her and led her backward toward the bedroom.
Wanda had been a student of his, of course, and he knew he was being stupid. He really had listened to his senior colleagues who had warned him against this sort of thing.
“Stay away from the coeds, Miles,” they said. “They’re trouble. Your brain is larger than your penis. Use it.”
And he’d listened. He wanted tenure, dammit. He didn’t need this. Still, he’d succumbed, and his life had become a cliché. She’d taken his Milton class, and he should have realized something was up when she showed more interest in Milton’s divorce tracts than Paradise Lost. She’d even written her final paper on the tracts, analyzing Milton’s unhappy first marriage and the relationships that followed. Miles had read the rough drafts, made appropriate comments and suggestions to improve the paper, and had listened as Wanda told him the problems in her own marriage. He moved from teacher, to counselor, to lover in the space of sixteen weeks.
They were nodding off when the cat jumped onto the bed. Miles looked at his watch. Eleven minutes till class started. He dressed quickly, gave Wanda a hug and took the stairs two at a time. He jumped on the green bike, and as he rounded the corner, he saw Jimmy’s pickup coming toward him. He lowered his head, but noticed a guy sitting next to Jimmy looking at him. Miles didn’t recognize the face, but the guy was wearing a ball cap that said “Jake’s Bikes” across the front. Six minutes later Miles parked the bike in the rack and dashed into the English building.
Brady’s Last Summer
Tracy Million Simmons
This wasn’t the way he was supposed to spend his last summer before heading off to college, his last summer of childhood, though most of his friends would be offended if he referred to them as children. He would have been offended himself, except that’s the way he’d begun to think of it. His summer—perhaps the final, carefree summer of his life—had been stolen from him.
Brady let the soup reach a boil and then carefully ladled it into the bowl. He grabbed one ice cube from the freezer and dropped it in, stirring. He knew from experience that one cube would cool it just enough for her. She couldn’t take things hot these days, nor could she take them excessively cold. He set the soup and the spoon on the tray with extra napkins. She always needed the extra napkins. It made his heart sick, but she had developed a tendency to drool... or sometimes just to spit whatever he was feeding her back at him. He poured half a can of Ensure into a juice glass. This way he would know if she was actually drinking it and not just tilting the can to her lips in pretend. He picked up the tray and looked at it for a moment. He put it back down on the counter and dashed outside.
His mother’s flower gardens in the front of the house were a wreck. It was obvious that nobody was taking care of them. But it was Brady’s job to keep the lawn mowed so that the neighbors didn’t complain, keep after the house, and to take care of his mother, of course. He’d tried to make himself weed the flower beds several times, but he always found excuses. He was too tired. He’d rather clean inside the house. Something about the monotony of pulling weeds gave his mind time to wander and it tended to wander to places he couldn’t afford to go right now. Taking care of his mother was the least he could do, and he was trying like hell not to resent his obligation.
He grabbed a handful of flowers—they were actually quite bountiful in this season of neglect—and took a moment to separate the weeds from the collection. Back in the kitchen, he took a vase from the shelf and filled it with water. He placed the flowers in the vase on the tray. That was better. Maybe it would bring a smile to his mother’s face.
When he entered her room, her head was tilted toward the window. He and his father had rearranged the bedroom furniture before his dad had left for work this time. Brady thought she might enjoy a view of the neighborhood. He was disappointed to see that her eyes were shut, but when he sat the tray down on the table by her bed, she said, “There’s someone new across the street.”
He’d noticed. The moving truck, anyway. New families with potential kids as new friends didn’t thrill him the way they did when he was a kid.
“You should introduce yourself,” she said. Her eyes were still closed. “There’s a girl about your age. She’s pretty. Red hair.”
This he had not noticed. He found himself looking through his mother’s window across the street into an empty yard. He didn’t even see that she had opened her eyes until she said, “You brought flowers. They are beautiful.”
Brady felt himself relaxing. His mother was being talkative and that was a good sign. It meant she would likely sit up and spoon her soup into her own mouth. It meant she would quiz him on his housekeeping techniques and advise him on things he might be overlooking, like the grease buildup on the hood from the gas stove and that it was time to change the filter so the air conditioner would continue to run properly.
He watched her lift the juice glass and drink greedily. If he’d had any idea, he would have brought the rest of the can to take advantage of the moment. She returned the glass to the tray and leaned forward. He arranged her pillows so that she sat up a little straighter, doing his best not to touch her bony back and be reminded of just how thin his mother had become. It was hard enough to look at her face, eyes too small in sunken orbits, or to watch her thin lips spread over teeth that seemed too large for her pained smile. Everything about her looked mismatched these days.
“I can get you more.” He motioned to the near-empty juice glass.
“No, this is fine,” his mother said.
He arranged the tray with its sturdy legs across her lap and relaxed as she began to eat the soup. He let his eyes wander to the yard across the street. His friends had actually been very supportive and accommodating, at least at first. The first week after graduation they’d come to his house to spend the evening watching movies and hanging out. He wasn’t much of a host, however, and he could tell it made them uncomfortable, just knowing she was up there. He’d had to check on her several times. He had helped her to the bathroom. He wouldn’t blame them for not wanting to be around. When his dad returned, five weeks in Guatemala this time, his friends would throw a good party and he would go out and make up for some of his lost partying time.
“You know what I’ve been thinking about?” Her voice startled him. It was strong and clear. She sounded almost like her old self, his mother before the cancer had come. “I’ve been thinking about my bicycle. It looks like lovely bicycling weather.”
He’d noticed his mother’s classic green Schwinn in the garage just the day before. Its tires were both flat. It was covered in dust and cobwebs. The sight of it had made him choke up a little. His mother had ridden that bike everywhere before she’d gotten sick.
“You know what, Mom? I’m going to give that old bike a tune-up,” he said. “I think it could use a little TLC. I’ll fix the tires. Oil the chain. It’ll be all ready for you, as soon as you are well enough to ride.”
She looked at him and smiled. They both knew she wouldn’t be riding anywhere again.