AT THE TOP OF THE RISE he waits for the signal from the bottom, and when he hears GO! he lets off the brake and pushes the pedals. It’s not a big chainwheel he’s got, so his feet are spinning at top speed in about three seconds—but by then he’s already flying.
Last weekend he ﬂashed past the dip at the bottom and got twenty feet up the other side before he had to stand out of the saddle. You had to stand when you climbed because it gave your legs more power.
This time he’s going to hit the uphill with great strength, pump right up it, even the steep part, and then take the curve at the top without stopping, all the way behind the trees where no one can see him.
GO GO GO GO the words whip past his ear and make him grin, sun and shadows strobing in his eyes, and then he’s ten feet up the shallow grade, twenty, thirty, the bike slowing so soon on the steep part and he’s up out of the saddle, fists clamped around the rubberized grips, King of the Mountains, polka-dot jersey. He chants:
GO GO GO GO! behind him. YOU CAN DO IT YOU CAN DO IT CLIMB LITTLE MAN CLIMB CLIMB CLIMB CLIMB!
Bobby is six.
His daddy’s cheering for him. He climbs, climbs, climbs, conquers the little part where it’s steepest and you have to push your legs hard instead of just riding your bike, and then he’s out of sight where Daddy can’t see him, which is a great joke.
Walking up the paved pathway toward him is an old man.
“Hey, Bobby,” the old man says. “Remember me?”
Bobby’s still looking at him when he hears his daddy’s bike come rolling up behind him.
“Dad,” his daddy says.
“Bob-by!” says his grandpa to his daddy.
“HOW’S HE DOING in school?” the old man asked, leaning in the kitchen doorway with a beer dangling.
“All right.” Robert rinsing a pan.
“His teachers all love him. They call him ‘The Cool Kid’.”
“Cool kid, huh? Sounds like he’s getting more pussy than you.”
Robert set the pan on a dish towel and unscrewed an orange sippy cup. “He’s six, dad.”
“Never too young. Less there’s something funny about him. You getting any?”
“Me? I got a kid.”
“Oh I dunno.” Robert Senior’s voice took on a lilt. “Didn’t slow me down…”
Water ran, dishes clanked. His father looked at the walls—the messes of water damage and the gulleys of cracks along the corners.
“So,” Robert said, “where you thinking you’re gonna stay?”
The next voice was Bobby’s, saying, “Grandpa, this is my bike wrench.”
“Oh yeah?” the old man said as Robert turned to check the interaction. “No shit.”
“What,” his dad said, and the direct confrontation he’d been waiting for flared in the beered-up brown eyes. “Dad what.”
A keg waited to be touched off.
Robert said, “Hey Bobby, whyn’t you show your Granddad all your tools?”
“Yeah! Grandpa, come on!”
“He carries ’em all around.” Turning back to the dishes. “Knows lots of stuff, how to fix a flat. He’s a strong little dude, but his hands are little so I gotta help him get the bead off the rim.”
“Yeah, I’m a strong little dude.”
“Yeah really, Buster Brown, you think so?”
“Yeah, I’m really strong.” Bobby looked up at his Grandpa, so loving and happy, and Robert Junior’s heart broke.
“You’ve made a friend today!” Bobby said.
BOBBY SET HIS tire levers and patch kit in a row on the dining room table for his Grandpa, explaining each, and Robert saw himself, thinking it was up to him to unlock the love.
“Bet you can’t get that tire off that rim,” his granddad said.
“No, my hands are too little.”
“Thought you said you were strong.” And up popped the grin, the one a step behind that turned belittlement into a joke you were supposed to be able to take.
“He is,” Robert said.
“Uh huh,” his father said, looking at him. “That right.”
“Come on, Bobby. Bathtime.”
After the bath, the song, the book, and the kiss, he put Bobby’s lullaby CD on low and went back out to the dining room. His dad was drinking the last beer and looking at a flier for the neighborhood safety patrol.
“You do this shit?”
“Yeah, dad, I do.”
His father laughed and tossed it on the table. “Yeah, okay. Where’m I sleeping?”
His dad shrugged. “You da man.”
“Yeah,” Robert said.
“HEY,” HE WHISPERED at the open door. The final lullaby was faint in the hall. “Anybody awake in there?”
Bedclothes rustled and a thick voice said, “Hi, Daddy.”
He went in. “Hey.”
Bobby scootched over and patted the bed.
“Nah, I don’t fit anymore,” Robert said. “I’ll just sit on the floor.”
“You came to see me.” Bobby spoke softly.
“Yeah I did.”
“What should we talk about?”
“What do you want to talk about?”
Robert waited for a question about Grandpa.
“Can you tell me how do air conditioners work?”
He chuckled. “Air conditioners, huh. Okay, lemme think…
“Okay,” he said again, and thought too long.
Bobby said, “It’s okay, you don’t have to tell me.”
“Okay, thanks, man.”
“You’re welcome, Daddy.”
“I’ll look it up for you tomorrow, though, okay? You gotta remind me.”
Headlights swept by, and a fusillade of bachata music, five floors down.
“The pedal turns the—”
“The crank turns the—”
“The crank turns the—”
“The chainwheel turns the—”
“The chain turns the—”
“You used to say rocket.”
“Yeah, I did.”
“The sprocket turns the—”
“What turns the pedals?”
It used to be Daddy’s feet, back when Bobby, age four, wanted a bike so bad you could see him vibrating with it. “Where do your feet get that energy from?”
“You’re a pretty good little bike guy, you know that?”
“Yeah, I know.”
He got on his knees next to the bed. “Love you a lot, Bobby.”
“I love you a lot, Daddy.”
“SO WHAT YOU do if you see a criminal?”
His dad was drinking coffee, holding the safety patrol flier. Bobby was eating Cheerios and kicking his chair and didn’t need to hear about the bad things that happened in the parks where he played tee ball and practiced hill climbing.
“I dunno, dad. We take care of things.”
“You and your bike posse. What is it, two bikes? Three bikes?”
“Whoever shows up. Might be ten, might be just me.”
He let that go.
“I’m a safety patrol officer!” Bobby said.
The old man snorted. “You’re a little boy. Yeah, you got shiny badges? I mean, long as you’re pretending to be somebody.”
Robert watched for the sting to sink in, for Bobby’s face to color. But Bobby just kept eating his Cheerios. So he let that one go, too.
“Lemme use your phone,” his dad said.
BOBBY GOT HIS safety patrol badge when it was time to ride to school, and Robert pinned it on his shirt. It had plastic wings and said United.
He wasn’t going to call the badge to his dad’s attention, but Bobby turned around at the door with his backpack and helmet on, holding his handlebar with one hand, slapped his chest with the other, and stated loud and clear, “Safety Patrol Officer,” and looked at his grandpa.
“All right,” Robert said, holding the door and his bike. “Say bye to grandpa and let’s ride.”
“I don’t get no kiss?” Arms wide, head cocked. His dad could charm. Bobby’s face crinkled wide and he toed his kickstand down, ran across the dining room and whacked into his grandpa.
“Oo, man. You are a big one, ain’t you.”
“Feel my muscle.”
“Nice. Now you feel this one.”
“Go on, feel it.”
“Wow, that’s awesome!”
“Bobby,” Robert prompted from the door. “Dad, you want me to pick you anything up when I come home tonight?”
“Yeah, you don’t got no vodka?”
“I’ll see if I can find some.”
His dad looked at him. “It’s real easy to find, Junior.”
Bobby got his bike. As Robert held the door for him, he turned and said, “When I’m older I’m going on patrol with my father.”
“Yeah, you will,” Robert said.
“Gonna protect all the good people, huh?” his dad said, and because there was all manner of land mines in that conversation, Robert said, “You ought to see him on the playground, taking care of the other kids. He’s really something. Now scoot, Bobby. Elevator button, please.”
When Bobby was through the doorway, Robert said, “He’s gonna be a good Daddy.”
His father’s face closed up.
“You got a fresh mouth, Junior,” his dad said. “Get your little faggot to school.”
HALFWAY TO SCHOOL on the paths that said NO BIKE RIDING, Bobby said, “What’s a faggot, Daddy?”
“I dunno, baby. Sometimes grandpa says weird stuff.”
“I sure love Grandpa.”
“You sure are one big ball of love, little boy.”
“Yeah, I am.”
“Okay, I’m going in the street here, bud. See you at the corner.”
“I’m gonna beat you!”
“Oh, you think?”
“Yeah, I think!”
“What’s the rule?”
“Slow down by the bus stop and don’t scare the people.”
HE ROLLED HOME at eight, with the vodka hanging off his handlebars. Bobby was downstairs with a neighbor, already asleep by the time Robert made it by to give him a goodnight kiss.
His dad wanted to go on bike patrol with him.
“You don’t want me to, that’s fine. I don’t need to go. I got other things I could do.”
“No, no,” came out before he could think. “I’m just surprised.”
“I can’t be interested?”
“Well…gotta admit you never struck me as a community guy, dad.”
“Hey. If you don’t have community…”
“Yeah, all right. Uh, you can ride…I’ll put some toe clips on the road bike for you, and I’ll ride the folder.”
He looked at the clock and slid the pedal wrench from where it was threaded between the straps of Bobby’s saddlebag. A classic Eldi 61, slim, graceful, light as a ruler, cool in the hand. He’d overspent after reading overly poetic ad copy about it, but Bobby loved that he was trusted to carry Daddy’s best tool.
“Too bad I don’t have my old ten-speed,” his dad said. “I’d kick your ass. What’s that thing you got, eighteen?”
“Can’t get ten anymore.”
“What is that, what are those, clips?”
“Speedplays, dad. Those are good pedals. But don’t worry, I’ll put the stock ones back on for you. Or—the folder’s got platforms, you could ride that.”
“That monkey-lookin thing? No, you can ride that. I wouldn’t be caught dead. Lookit them little wheels. That little faggot’s bike got better rims than that—”
Robert stepped to him and said, “Uh-uh.”
His dad’s face wrinkled. The smile hovered everywhere but his lips. “So you got a place I can’t push you, huh?”
“Guess you think you grew a pair.”
“I don’t know about that, dad, but uh-uh, you don’t go there. And you don’t talk that ‘little faggot’ shit around him, either.”
“Or what, you gonna—”
“Test me.” Their faces a foot apart.
His dad’s face went haughty.
“Test me, dad.”
“Yeah, you know, statute’s not up on the getaway driver.”
“They catch him, that little boy’s gonna have no daddy for ten to twenty.”
Robert said nothing.
“Yeah, you know, I think I will test you,” his father said.
Robert nodded and turned back to his bike. “One thing you need to remember while you’re pushing? That little boy’s gonna know he’s got a man for a father.” He had the stock pedals and toe clips on the road bike in a few minutes. “You coming or you staying,” he said, “ ’Cause I gotta roll.”
“Just waiting on you,” his father said. “Again.”
“I don’t drive anymore, dad,” he said, and they were out the door.
ANOTHER MAN NAMED Bud was waiting downstairs with his wife’s old mixte. Bud didn’t care if it was a girl’s bike. He’d been a Golden Gloves champ when he was a lot younger, and he didn’t much care what anybody thought about anything.
After introductions, they rolled down Payson and toed their way slowly across the packed party scene filling Dyckman Ave.—cops, cars, motorcycles, drug dealers, female curve and male swagger, traffic clogged to a dead stop, or creeping along the restaurants of Alcohol Alley, a thousand people drunk and stoned in clots and herds on the sidewalks; and always motorcycles throttling through gaps, splitting lanes, making the engines spit and shriek so pretty ass and legs would turn around and be face and breasts.
But not on the cross streets. So the block-long climb up Henshaw felt silent despite the echo of decibels, and at the brick entryway to Fort Tryon Park, tires rolled over the white NO BIKES ON WALKWAYS stencil and the dark laced its fingers over them.
It was quiet and dark—and steep.
There were minimal buckles and cracks on the wide, paved climb to the Cloisters, and it was lit just enough by old-fashioned streetlamps, but the angle was a hiking grade. Bud got a third of the way up and dismounted and walked it. Robert was a sitting climber, so he geared down and got philosophical. Ahead of him, his dad stood out of the saddle and pumped, and Robert was suddenly both thirty and fourteen, always getting dropped by his dad and his riding buddies on the Central Park loop. They’d never wait, they just went, and if he wanted to hang he’d have to push his legs and lungs until he nearly puked. At nineteen he got his muscles and picked them off one by one, left them looking for their racing legs. And for a few seconds his dad had shown pride, and taken credit, and Robert had been proud.
It was his dad’s wrists, the way they cocked on the brake hoods, and when he climbed he rose from the saddle with an odd daintiness, but strong. Those things…lit by these dim streetlamps they spoke to him again. He knew them like you know a face. Some day Bobby would look at him climbing, or turning to speak, and know it too: You come from where you come from. By the time you see it, it’s long since stained you all the way through.
At the top, they waited for Bud and remounted. Bud talked about his kid figuring out a model kit, and Robert would have mentioned Bobby’s hill climbing, but he knew a rider twenty feet ahead with his back to you is probably listening, and he didn’t want to give up that piece of Bobby to a Grandpa who called him names.
They looped around the sunken streets ringing the Cloisters, where whole families were just hanging out in the dark. Toddlers playing with doll strollers, tweens and mothers talking on cell phones, fathers expressionless. Then they tilted back down onto the dark, silent paths.
IN THE MOBBED and trash-strewn Bacchanalia of the Dyckman ball fields, where Bobby played tee ball on Sunday mornings with the Hudson Cliffs Stinky Sox, a pocket of silence moved with them through thirty acres of libertine din. Despite Robert’s being in front, all the eyes went to Bud, who came from the Midwest and looked like it. The order of the silent throwdowns was Bud, Robert, Bud, Robert’s dad, Bud.
A stoned white girl standing in the cracked and patched roller hockey rink showcased her brazen moxy for her stoned friends by counting as the bikes passed: “Cop one…cop two…cop three…” and they rode all the way up to the end where it was darkest, where the path looped around a tree and came back. A dozen feet down, all the logs and trash captured by the Hudson on its way up Manhattan departed the island and floated North.
They pedaled back the way they’d come, the bubble of silence moving with the bikes, stony eyes tracking them. A train horn sounded from over Spuyten Duyvil, blurred with echo on the hard water.
THEY CARRIED THE bikes over a stone bridge as the train blasted by below, bound for Penn Station, and then rode the park trail toward the very tip of Manhattan. The first little stretch was the same big dip where he took Bobby for hill climbing practice. It was black here, and Robert had the only headlight, so he took point and made sure not to outpace Bud.
“Cops know you do this?” he heard his dad ask.
“Oh,” Bud said, breathing hard a little. “Yeah, they’re all for it. Long as we tell them we’re coming and don’t try to be heroes, they like the extra eyes and ears.”
Robert said over his shoulder, “We got no precinct up here, dad. The thirty-fourth gets additional officers on loan sometimes when something makes the news, but you don’t see a lot of them up here in Inwood. Lots down in the Heights right now, though, just all over the place, because of the assaults.”
When he stopped to raise the front of the bike and shine his headlight up a dark fork in the path—there was never anything but bark and leaves up there, but no point not doing it—his father said, “So he’s doing good in school.”
“Yeah, he’s doing good.”
“Yeah…but…more like he doesn’t give up. He keeps after things.”
“Yeah, tenacious. Like with his homework, if I tell him he got something wrong, he goes, ‘I got to concentrate!’ and just buckles down to it. Tries my patience, man, trying to sit there while he does it, but he never gives up. Usually gets it, too.”
He was thinking whether to share other things, like how two minutes after taking Bobby’s training wheels off at the playground when he was five, he’d turned around to see a skid and running dismount—his own, in miniature—into the men’s room. Or how in pictures of Bobby helping fix things around the apartment, the tools looked so natural in his hands. Things Robert had needed to learn—he hadn’t known they could simply exist, fully realized, in a child.
Or how when Bobby walked down the street in his cowboy hat, he wasn’t a little boy in a cowboy hat. He was a cowboy.
“Guess sometimes it skips a generation,” his dad said.
THEY ROLLED OUT into the larger portion of the park, the upper tip of Manhattan, and looped around past the salt marsh.
The groups here were smaller and isolated, twos and threes strolling, or gathered at benches. Sometimes solitary men were draped on benches, doing nothing. No newspaper, no radio. Just indolence and the territorial masculine impulse to stare down a 400-lumen headlight.
On one bench, a middle-aged man with a salt-and-pepper mustache and a big gold rings was parked like a walrus on a floating deck. Robert saw his dad’s head not turn.
Whadda you looking at came back to him, the packet slipping from one man’s hand to another’s on the Central Park loop, then into a pannier or jersey back.
“I didn’t know that man was out,” his dad explained when he saw Robert noticing, and nodded as a person would when pleased by something innocent. The world could be a delightful place for men with peace in their hearts.
“How long you staying, dad?”
“How ’bout I stay as long as I fuckin want to?”—and Bud, apparently with something to ask or mention, had rolled up alongside at that same moment. He made an “Okay—” face and dropped back again.
“Saw your rent coupon lying around,” said his dad. “With ‘final notice’ on it.”
“I’m good,” Robert said.
“Oh, you’re good.” His dad dipped his head a few times, like a nod, just a little downturned quirk of a smile.
WINTER HAD DEFERRED his promise to take Bobby to the Highbridge Park pump track, and then school illnesses and odd jobs wiped out Spring and Summer—but out of nowhere came the gift of a hot October Saturday, no runny eyes, no work, and Grandpa already gone when they got up.
“Guess what,” he said over Cheerios, and Bobby’s whole face lit up and he yelped, “Pump track!” so excitedly that his voice broke.
IT WAS BOTH of their first times, and it was awesome.
Mountain bike jumps and circuits of varying difficulty had been dug at the top of the singletrack trail that scribbled down Fort George Hill. A deeply tanned blond dude in baggy knickers was watching when Bobby took a bad endo off the top of one of the sand jumps, and when he saw the way the kid yanked up his bike and the murderous look he gave the jump while readdressing his starting position, he laughed in approval—and the kid got an hour of free lessons from a nationally ranked pro.
Which meant a few more spills and abrasions, but the kid was in heaven.
“I’m a safety patrol officer,” Bobby told the dude.
“I believe it,” the dude said.
BOBBY WAS LONG asleep in his cool room with his sunburn and bandages when his granddad came home wheeling a black steel 1980s Nishiki with a chipped white seat tube and a flashlight taped to the handlebars. He stopped by the dining table and put a stack of hundreds on top of the “final notice” coupon.
“What’s that?” Robert said, looking over from his job-hunt websites on a seven-year-old Dell that groaned like it had the bed spins. His dad just went “Huh” and started shoving bikes around to make room for the Nishiki.
When Bobby’s little red Specialized fell over, Robert sucked his breath in and locked his arms straight on the tabletop. Then he went over to the bike area and reached past his dad and gripped the junior-length top tube, lifted it up one-armed over both their heads, same weight as an adult bike, and he didn’t intend to do this, but when it was at the top of its arc, he stopped and held it upside-down under the high pre-war ceiling.
They looked at each other like that, his dad mean and blade-slim, and Robert broad and deep like his mother’s side. Like Bobby.
He put the little red bike down more gently than he strictly needed to. The flick of his hand at the others said Ding up those ones instead.
At the table he sat and looked back at Central Park again, at the back of his dad’s old ten-speed, canvas panniers slung over the rear rack, carrying his cargo.
The steel Nishiki had panniers too. Brand-new high-capacity waterproof Ortliebs, shiny and red, two hundred for the pair, bulking on both sides like giant headphones, making hollow sliding noises against the wall.
His dad left the Nishiki balanced along the wall in the best spot and went toward the kitchen.
“You gonna just leave the other ones over there?”
“Don’t see why not.”
“You don’t, really?”
“Why, do you?”
“Well, yeah, how about you’re a guest here, this is my home…”
“I’m a guest…”
“You don’t live here…you’re not staying…”
“Think I’m staying long as I need to.”
“Now why do you think that?”
“You know, Junior, I went away for you? So I figure you can owe me one favor.”
Robert’s eyebrows went up, and his lips pursed, ready to say “Wow,” or “Whoah,” or “What?”
“Went away,” he said. “For me.”
“Yeah. What do you think, I couldn’a given you up, got a shorter sentence? You think I wanted to go to prison?”
“I think you got caught.”
“Yeah, and why was that?”
They stared at each other.
A wail rose from down the hall—Bobby’s nightmare cry. Robert stared for another moment and then shook his head and took a step, and met his father’s arm in the doorway.
“Get out the way, dad.”
“You need to re—” said his father, and then he was against the closet door in the hall with Robert’s blocky face in his.
His father’s arm was locked in his elbow, and his hand was on the side of his father’s head. “You,” he said slowly, “need to remember.”
Neither of them blinked.
Bobby wailed again. Robert let him, then backed off the pressure and stood back. His father moved off the door.
“You don’t get between me and that boy.”
“And what. You gonna what.”
He shrugged as he turned. “Find out.”
BOBBY WAS SITTING up in bed in his underpants, looking at nothing because he wasn’t actually awake, and Robert knelt and widened his arms, but he couldn’t get Bobby to see him.
“Bobby, did you have a nightmare? Was it a nightmare, Bobby? Bobby. Bobby, it’s Daddy. Daddy’s here. Bobby, c’mere. C’mere, little man. It’s okay.”
He hugged his boy to him, and the broad little body leaned in for a second and buried its wet face in his shirt, but only for a second before pulling away uncomfortably and screaming. The gauze bandage on Bobby’s left elbow hung by its tape, the whitest thing in the dark room.
“Okay, baby, lie down. Lie down, you’re okay—”
Bobby shrieked, “Grandpa!”
“Grandpa!” It was sheer panic. “Grandpa! Grandpa!”
“Honey, baby, it’s okay. It’s okay.”
“No! Grandpa! Grandpa!”
“Lookit—look, look, grandpa’s here. Look, he’s here. Bobby, look.” He made an exaggerated turn toward where his father darkened the doorway at the foot of the bed. “Look—it’s grandpa.”
Light glistened on Bobby’s tears as he finally turned toward the door. He scrambled to his feet on the bedclothes and launched his body toward his grandfather, who staggered at the sheer solidity.
“Yeah, baby,” his grandpa said. “Don’t cry. We don’t cry. We’re tough. You a tough boy? Yeah? You tough? That’s right, we don’t cry. That’s good. We never let nobody see us cry.”
The upturned little face was hopeful and beautiful in the hall light.
“Can we go for a ride and go night fishing?” Bobby said.
“Night fishing!” Robert snorted. “No, we can’t go night fishing! It’s eleven-thirty on a school night and you are supposed to be asleep.”
“Has pleeeeease ever worked with me? In your entire life?”
“Right, so lie your little butt back down, close your eyes, and go to sleep.”
“Your daddy says no, the answer’s no. Now do what your daddy says and go to sleep.”
His dad backing him up—weird feeling.
“Yeah, yeah, aw man. Kiss grandpa goodnight and lie down.”
When grandpa was back in the dining room and Bobby’s lullaby CD was playing low, Robert knelt by the bed and stroked his baby’s hair.
“You crack me up, little boy. You okay?”
“Yeah, Daddy, I’m okay.”
“You got your Bear, you got your flashlight, you can read a book if you want.”
“Night, little man.”
“That’s my Bobby.”
“That’s my Daddy.”
“YOU, ME, AND Grandpa,” Bobby said on the way to school. “We’re the good guys!”
They were crawling as slow as bikes could go, both balanced up on tiptoe, knocking the pedals forward for a little momentum every time they were about to stall out. In front of them a platoon of ladies and a couple of old men were doing tai chi or something in formation, walking sideways and doing arm motions.
Bobby said, “Are we the good guys?”
Robert was wearing Bobby’s little Phineas and Ferb backpack because he’d read an article about kids and back pain. Bobby had actually wanted a Breaking Away backpack after they’d watched the bike racing parts together, but all he’d found on eBay were vintage posters, one of which now hung over the radiator where Bobby was supposed to keep his shoes.
He said, “Good guys,” giving it some juice like it was a commercial slogan and hoping that carried it as an answer.
But he didn’t like how it sounded.
“Hey,” he said, and waited for Bobby to look. “Don’t ever wait for other people to be the good guys. You be the good guy. Even if other people aren’t.”
“Okay, Daddy.” Perched easily on the pedals, looking sideways up at Robert as he rolled forward.
“No matter who they are. You hear me?”
“I hear you.”
“You really hear me?”
“I really hear you!”
“Make me proud.”
WORK PICKED UP in November. One afternoon he finished ripping carpet out of a school basement early and surprised Bobby by picking him at school with bikes, and they rode to Pizza Palace to do homework.
While the kid was concentrating, Robert backed up against the wall with his phone and got a good picture of him with his pizza slice and some pennies and nickels that were helping with a math problem.
He slid back into his seat and held up the phone. “Check it out. Nice one, right?”
“Yeah…” Bobby stared at it. “Why aren’t you sitting next to me?”
“’Cause I’m holding the camera, baby.”
Bobby frowned at it, still a little perplexed, until Robert directed his attention back to math.
HIS FATHER ROLLED in around eleven, and had to haul the rear end of the Nishiki around to swing it up against the wall. The shiny red panniers were packed and sagging. When one hit the wall it went clunk.
Once he was sure the bike wouldn’t fall, he went into the kitchen, ran the tap, and came out with a full glass, which he sat at the table and drank.
“Good ride?” Robert said.
“It was all right.”
“You been out a lot since you got the new bike. How’re those old quads holding up?”
“Steel, baby, steel.”
“What’s—” Robert fell silent. “So what you got in there, dad?”
“Business is it a yours, Bobby?” His dad took a leisurely sip.
“Oh…my house. Kinda thought it might be my business.”
“Now I know you ain’t that stupid.” His father drank some more, put the glass down with his fingertips perched around the rim like a spider.
“What is it you think I’m gonna do, dad?”
“I have no idea, Junior.”
“But you can’t trust your son, is that it?”
“Trust—you think no son ever turned on his father? You think that little boy, yeah, you’re everything to him now, but give it a little time, Junior. Give it ’til he’s sixteen. You’ll find out. You can’t trust nobody, and that goes double for family. And that goes triple for family you think you know what they’re gonna do.”
“Doesn’t matter if I can trust him. He can trust me.”
“To do what? Trust you to do what? You ever think about that?”
“To be there, dad.”
“Be—what is that, ‘be there?’ I heard that shit in group. ‘Be there.’ What is that shit? You know what you can trust me to do?”
Robert had the late realization that it wasn’t water in his father’s glass.
“You can trust me to do what I gotta do. You can trust me to step up. You can trust me to survive. Protect my family, you know what I’m saying?”
“A man steps up.”
“A man protects his family.”
“Somebody comes at you or yours, you put him down.”
“A man—” He cut himself off. He shook his head. Then he said, “I adored you, dad.”
His dad’s forehead wrinkled in that grin, the one that said you were an idiot, but you were funny.
The room was quiet.
“You hurt me.”
It stayed quiet. The echoes of music and yelling bounced up six stories of brick.
“You gonna try and hurt this family next?”
“You just remember where I went, and why I went there,” his dad said, softer. “We’ll be fine.” He picked his glass up again. “And, you remember what I know.”
“What you know?”
“You coming at me now?”
Robert nodded. “This is a family of men now, dad. And men do step up. You remember that.”
“Men? You’re two little boys, both a you.”
“And you’re a criminal.”
His father stared at him, a little wobbly.
“And what are you?” he said. “You father of the year?”
“Daddy!” Bobby screamed from down the hall, and then wailed, with a different edge to it than usual. As Robert rose from the table, DADDY! came louder and Bobby staggered into the dining room, distressed and blinking in his underwear. “I had a bad dream!”
WHEN HE WAS tucked back into bed, Bobby wrapped his arms around his Daddy’s neck and looked at him a long time. Then he smiled falsely and said, “Can we take bikes and go night fishing?”
“No, we can’t go—”
“Yeah,” Robert’s dad contradicted, appearing in the doorway. “Let’s go night fishing. All three of us. That sounds nice.”
As Robert turned, Bobby said, “Really?”
“Yeah, come on.”
Bobby lurched to his feet on his mattress and ran to hug Grandpa over the footboard. “I love you, Grandpa.”
This, directed away from the parent, struck Robert as a little overdone.
“Yeah, okay, love you too. Come on.”
“Can we, dad?”
“I said no.”
“But Grandpa said yes, and he’s the boss of you.”
“Back in bed, Bobby. Now.”
“I don’t want to get back in bed! I wanna take bikes and go night fishing!”
“Do you want to lose privileges?”
“Lose privileges?” His dad snorted. “You ain’t got no belt?”
While he said nothing and ate his rage, he glanced at Bobby. The kid was, no shit, batting his eyelashes at his grandfather.
“We don’t do belts, dad.”
“Kid wants to go night fishing. I wanna go night fishing. You don’t wanna go, I’ll take him myself.”
“Yeah! Come on, Grandpa!”
“Statute’s not up, Junior. I can make that call right now. You gonna show me how you go down then, or step up, or whatever the hell, make like you’re a man and all?”
Down on the bed, Bobby was going pleeeeeease, pleeeeeeease, pleeeeeeease…
“I’ll call him right now, Junior.”
Robert stared into his dad’s eyes, didn’t see any of the rest of his face, just the eyes, wet and mean.
“Nah,” he said. “Not over this. Bobby, get dressed, get your bike.”
HE WATCHED BOBBY spin the helmet onto his head by its straps, buckle it, check the pedal wrench, and knock the kickstand up.
“Where we going?” his dad asked, swinging the weighted rear end of the Nishiki around to head for the door.
Robert blew some air out. “Okay. Either Dyckman Fields—”
“Little Red Lighthouse!” Bobby said.
“Little Red Lighthouse!”
“Or I guess down by the Little Red Lighthouse.”
“You can stick right next to me, Grandpa, I’ll show you where to ride!”
A HUNDRED AND forty feet down, the Hudson River glittered through breaks in the black foliage on their right, and the bike path sloped gently up toward the 181st Street footbridge in the Heights. The air was cool and heavy. To their left, occasional headlights on the Henry Hudson Parkway swept by in a rush of tires and wind, but mostly the noises were well-oiled drivetrains and the tick of Bobby’s pedal hitting his flimsy chain guard where it was bent.
“Daddy.” Bobby was close by, sharing his headlight beam.
“How come you said we could go night fishing?”
“Oh, you know. Just thought we could.”
Collapsible poles and a little tackle box were strapped to his rear rack. Dim light glinted off the gold plastic of Bobby’s United Airlines pin. “Thank you, Daddy. I love you.”
“Love you too, Bobby. You’re welcome.”
“Aw, that’s beautiful,” his dad said, over to the side, riding into the dim beam of the flashlight on his handlebars.
“Grandpa, will you fish with me?”
“Fish by myself, little man.”
“You stupid, boy? I said no.”
“Oh no.” Robert surged ahead of Bobby, into his dad’s space. Behind him, Bobby stage-whispered, “Daddy!” and kicked up his own speed.
“You don’t talk to him like that, old man, you get me?”
“How about I talk however the fuck I want, and you won’t do shit about it?”
“Daddy, what does ‘put him down’ mean?”
“And we both know why you won’t do shit about it, too.”
Bobby’s Grandpa bumped shoulders with Bobby’s Daddy. Both bikes swerved toward him, and Bobby went smoothly up onto the grass hump that ran the length of the highway barrier. Grandpa regained his line and Bobby stood on a pedal and shifted his weight backwards with his thighs locked on his saddle, hit an open pothole with an orange cone over it, touched down with one foot, cleared the rolling cone, and was back on the pedal, whacking the coaster brake into a tight little fishtail next to Robert.
“Nice.” Most of Robert’s will was occupied with not giving his rage control of his tongue. “Nice. Nice. Nice save. Nice save.”
The crest of the hill was just under the foot bridge.
“Just thought we could, huh,” Robert’s dad said.
“Daddy,” Bobby stage-whispered behind him, his pedal ticking. “What does adore mean?”
“Uh—” The path had begun its gradual descent, and he was angry and the question confused him. “Ask me that later, bud, okay? Hey, uh, uh, why don’t you tell Grandpa all about your fishing spot—”
“Bollard!” Bobby sang out.
The three-foot timber was planted upright at the precise beginning of the real descent, right in the middle of the path so climbers and descenders would be forced to their respective sides. The path hooked sharp right at the bollard and immediately dropped into a wicked 20% grade that only the serious could ride up.
“Watch out for the hill, dad,” Robert said flatly, a bike length behind.
“You watch out.” His dad canted angrily into the turn, the taped-on flashlight illuminating almost nothing, and as he dipped past the bollard onto the descent, Bobby sped past Robert with the pedal wrench clean and natural in his hand.
“Steppin’ up,” he announced as he passed.
Bobby’s little Specialized blew past the bollard onto the downgrade.
“Slow down, bud, what are you—”
The little butt went up and hovered just back of the saddle, in the mountain descent position he’d learned at the pump track, and dropped away into black.
“Bobby—” He hiked his own butt up and gave the pedal a shove to shoot him downhill on an intercept, and the force slipped the chain, the pedal falling to the bottom of its orbit and he banked too sharp and cracked his knee on the bollard, wrenched the handlebars too hard to recover, and body and bike went down spinning and tumbling on steeply tilted blacktop.
GRANDPA’S WHEELS BA-BANG over a pothold in the dark. Immediately so do his own, at a different pitch. Bobby knows how to ride over potholds. He’s a bike guy. He absorbs the shock in his hips and knees.
Despite the bass roar of air, his hearing is locked on the whir of Grandpa’s drivetrain a few feet ahead of him.
The place where he wiped out in summer will be coming up right after the sharp left into the little tunnel that smells like pee and the brief descent to the bridge with wood nailed on it. Bobby can’t ride one-handed very long except on the flats, so he’s holding the pedal wrench against the handlebar grip.
He knows how to ride stealth behind an adult because he likes to scare Daddy sometimes, and he knows that when he’s coasting and not making the pedal tick, his bike is quieter than a grownup’s, because it doesn’t have gears. He very forcefully does not think I must concentrate. He’s been worried that he’ll say it out loud.
Ssssssssss, go grownup brake pads, so Grandpa’s about to turn. Bobby hesitates one frightening moment longer so he won’t hit the black iron fence he can’t see but knows is there, banks left to cut the corner into the mouth of the pee tunnel, tucks his inside knee up for the turn. He can feel that they’ll be riding as a pair when they come out on the other side. So his bank into the entrance was perfect.
The tunnel is so short that already they’re through it and tilting down the shortest of the three steep places.
Wooden planking clacks twice under their four wheels. Grandpa’s silent except for his bike, and Bobby feels great pressure. He almost lets it burst out as an “I love you, Grandpa,” but he’s pretty sure he doesn’t say it.
After the bridge the path doesn’t level all the way, but there’s about a twenty-foot stretch where he can ride one-handed before the final and fastest descent. This is where he has to step up.
“What you concentrating on, little boy?”
Bobby doesn’t hear words now.
ROBERT HAD TAKEN enough tumbles to decide he’d only been out for a few seconds. And there was no shrieking, so maybe Bobby had negotiated the whole treacherous descent.
In the dark.
His front wheel wouldn’t roll, only skid. He tried to shove it forward, then bolted downhill and let the bike fall, his knee joints wavering with each crashing footfall down the steep grade. His shoulder hit the inside wall of the tunnel, and then he could see across the wooden footbridge, where a small shape was up on the pedals, leaning forward with its right arm extended—a small shape that had wiped out on that very spot in August, that had seen the Italian racers in Breaking Away jam a frame pump into their American rival’s spokes.
He couldn’t open his mouth to yell before the pedal wrench went true into the blur of spokes and both riders went up, and both came down, and the bikes went up and swiveled and gleamed and came down twisted.
All he could see of Bobby was the bottoms of shoes; butt; the back of a red helmet; body flat on the path. His dad was somewhere down over the edge.
He vaulted the little Specialized and came down on his knees, one hand gentle on Bobby’s back.
“I did it, Daddy.”
Bobby’s face was dirty and wet. Tears were flowing, but the crying was subdued. His chin was abraded. His teeth were bloody.
“I stepped up.”
“You’re gonna be okay, little man. We’re gonna get you to the hospital.”
Bobby pushed his upper body off the path and shrieked. Blood ran down the little finger of his left hand, down his wrist.
“I know, baby, I know, give it here, you’re okay, you’re gonna be okay, give me your hand—”
Bobby looked toward the path’s edge without seeing, and Robert glanced with him. The adult road bike lay on its side with the front wheel turned upward and a dozen handguns scattered around it from a burst pannier.
“Where’s Grandpa?” Bobby whimpered.
Robert’s breath froze in his lungs.
“Bobby,” he murmured, still looking at the guns, reaching vaguely behind himself, “give me your hand.”
Bobby screamed, “GRANDPA!”
He almost caught Bobby’s wrist, but the kid was on his feet yelling GRANDPA, running to the edge of the path where it dropped off. He looked down for a long two seconds and then turned. “Daddy. This is an emergency. You have to call the nine-one-one.”
“Baby—” he said.
“Daddy.” The voice definite, the injury not forgotten, still felt, but prioritized. “You have to call the nine-one-one. This is a real emergency, and we have to do the right thing.” His head dipping with each emphasis.
Blood rolled down Bobby’s forearm and dripped off his pinky. Robert could see the pinky nail sticking sideways in a chunk of flesh or skin. A little breeze gusted and Bobby sucked his breath in and shivered.
Down off the edge, leaves and trunks were dark gray on black. The slope down to the Hudson was steepish, climbable but rocky. He looked over. His father was looking up at him and shaking his head. “No calls,” he said. “No calls, Junior. No nine-one-one.”
He turned around, saw the guns from the different angle, Bobby starting to look confused and worried. Daddy wasn’t on his phone.
“Junior!” his dad’s voice weak, down the hillside. “Step up, god damn it!”
He took the phone out of his pocket, thumbed it on, looked at the EMERGENCY CALL button.
Bobby stared at him.
He shoved the phone in his pocket and stepped toward his dad, turned and stepped back towards Bobby, turned and went to the path’s edge. His father was pushing himself up toward the path with one foot, the other leg dragging. His hands grabbed rocks and short vegetation. There was shiny black blood on his face in the light from the streetlamp eighty feet up, on 181st, the GW Bridge so gargantuan above that, it was like it was small and close, tiny lights studding it so high they twinkled.
Robert knelt, braced, extended a hand. “Come on.”
“Get those fuckin pieces back on the bike, fool.”
“Daddy—are you gonna call the nine-one-one?”
Riders and nighttime walkers and families with Hibachis and children who didn’t attend school all used the greenway at this hour. Moonlight edged the grips and barrels. Insects restarted their racket all around, but not where his dad was.
“Bobby, we’ll handle this,” he said.
“Daddy. This is a real emergency.”
“We’ll handle this—”
“Daddy, are those—”
“I said we’ll handle it!”
Bobby’s cowboy stance went away and his body twisted in uncertainty.
“Now sit down. Over there. Over there. Where I’m pointing. Goddammit! Go sit. Now.”
“But aren’t we gonna—”
“Now, Bobby. Right f—right now!”
Bobby’s body shuddered and Robert saw it wasn’t just stress, it was a chill. He pulled his jacket off.
“Here. Bobby. Bobby. Put your arm in. Other one. Hold this closed—”
Bobby gasped sharply and turned to face up the incline. “Somebody’s coming!”
“Move those fuckin pieces, Junior, now!”
He turned and kicked the guns full-on with the toe of his shoe, one a time, fast and efficient forward stomps, and each went sailing past the dropoff black against the sparkling Hudson, skittered or clunked, stopped somewhere down the rocks.
Wocka, went the wooden bridge, fast road tires hitting it, and Robert kicked once more as a black carbon road bike with a white rider shot down the incline. The bike had a useless blinky headlight and the rider went, “Whoah,” and braked and said “Everybody o—” and that became “—kay…” when he saw the last two guns on the pavement. He’d been putting a toe down as he braked, but it came back up and clipped onto the pedal, and as he lifted himself from the saddle to give it all his power, Robert saw the top tube and handlebar stem, and how he could just hold them and arrest the bike. He reached—but something way back in his head broke the trajectory of his hands and they sailed up over their targets without touching them.
“I’m sorry,” he said to the unshaven white face. The rider didn’t break eye contact. Robert showed his hands and backed away.
“Sorry,” he said. “Have a good ride.”
Still eyeing Robert, the rider shifted too far and stood on the pedal too hard, crunching the gears, but he didn’t drop his chain and he shifted out of it clean and fled down the last descent.
“He’s gonna call nine-one-one,” his dad said, down off the path.
Robert walked to the edge and looked down at his dad looking up, gaunt.
He pulled his phone out.
“Put that down. What are you doing? You gonna stop him? Just…look…I got a call.”
“Said the cops were on the way. To your place.”
“For the guns.”
“You were in with Bobby.”
“That’s why you made us go on this stupid ride?”
“Got you both out of the way, didn’t it?”
He didn’t have time. “Bullshit you got a call, man, you don’t even have a phone.”
He moved to dial.
“I got a phone, I got a—hold on—”
“You think I don’t protect you? You think I don’t take care of my family?”
“Yes, seriously, goddammit, why the fuck else would we be out here?”
“This is crazy.” He moved to dial again.
They looked at each other and Robert couldn’t breathe again.
“I’m sorry, dad.”
“Look on the bike, Bobby, just look.”
He shook his head and dialed 9-1-1.
“Please state the nature of your emergency.”
“Yeah, uh,” he said.
“Sir, do you have an emergency?”
Shadows bounced at the bottom of the descent where the rider had disappeared.
The air down there lightened until a white glow and red flash saturated the tennis courts.
“Sir, do you have an emergency?”
The patrol car emerged from the tennis courts and rolled up the narrow path with one soft tire on the grass.
“Sir, do you have an emergency?”
The patrol car loudspeaker said DROP THE PHONE AND PUT YOUR HANDS ON TOP OF YOUR HEAD.
“Yes, I do,” he said, and dropped the phone. He swiveled his body with his hands on his head to look back at Bobby—who wasn’t there.
He spun all the way around. “Bobby!”
Officers got out on both sides of the cruiser as more headlights and flashers approached, down by the tennis courts. He swiveled all around, looking up the path, up the hill, into the lights and deep shadows.
“Who’s Bobby?” said the bald officer approaching him.
“My little boy,” he said during the patdown. “Bobby! He was—he was right here.”
There were cop cars and an ambulance, blinkers and rotary lights, headlights and flashers, and dark clusters of uniforms clumped like punctuation.
He shivered. “My dad’s down the side, there.” He pointed with his chin. Two cops were already looking over the edge.
“Step this way, sir.” The nameplate said Lynch.
He stepped as told. “I gotta find my little boy.”
“How old is your little boy?”
“He’s six. He was right here last time I looked.”
“And the boy’s name is Bobby?”
“Bobby’s all right. Sit here.”
He sat in the open backseat of the cruiser. “He’s all right?” Beyond Lynch, he saw Bobby coming down from the wooden train bridge with the too-big jacket around him, holding a female cop’s hand, a male cop walking next to them. The male cop was Gonzalez, the safety patrol liaison. A tall EMT from the ambulance met them with a medical kit, knelt and started talking to Bobby.
He pointed and said, “Can I—?”
“I need you to stay here, sir. Your son is fine.”
Bobby sat where the EMT told him to, on a big rock, and got his pupils checked and his hand bandaged. Time became hard to estimate among the flashers. Cops conferred. His dad was hauled up on a stretcher. Pictures were taken of the guns and the bikes.
When the tall EMT went back down to the ambulance, Bobby stood up and looked for his daddy in the glare and chaos, but his attention was diverted by one of the cops asking him a question.
Bobby, the cops…he watched the way they related. The sameness of their body attitudes, the way they listened to each other. Bobby nodded in agreement with Gonzalez, pointed off the edge of the path where Robert had kicked the guns.
Then he pointed up the hill, toward the train bridge, the tunnel, the bollard. All three cop heads turned to look, and as the heads turned back, he jumped excitedly and ran across the path, bent down, and presented the cops with the pedal wrench.
Robert knew what he was saying. My Daddy lets me carry it…
Two EMTs got his dad into a gurney and two cops handcuffed him to it. Bone stuck out of his shin, and his foot was pointing the wrong way. He turned his head to look at Robert as they wheeled him past the cruiser. Robert couldn’t read it. It could have been anger. Or resignation. Or a warning not to talk. They put him in the back of the ambulance, climbed in with him, and left the rear doors open.
Bobby and the three cops were all assessing the United pin. Gonzalez ruffled Bobby’s hair and came down the path, looking at the guns as he came.
“Helluva kid,” he said.
“Talk to me,” Gonzalez said.
WHILE THE COPS conversed, he watched Bobby get fidgety with the female cop and start looking around for his Daddy again—saw his gaze alight on his Grandpa and his face go dark. Robert stood, and Gonzalez broke off from the cop conversation and said, “Robert, I’m sorry, but if you don’t sit down, I will have to cuff you.”
Bobby bolted down the hill and started yelling. The jacket flew off behind him onto the path.
One of the cops on the path snatched after him, but he reached the open ambulance, his good hand coming down audibly on the metal bumper.
“You’re a BAD GUY!” he yelled into the ambulance. “You have to go to JAIL!”
HIS GRANDPA LOOKS at him. There are two policemen with him, and two ambulance people working on something like a broken white stick with blood on it that’s stuck into Grandpa’s leg.
“You’re a bad guy, Grandpa,” he says.
The ambulance people glance at him too, but one’s eyes flick past him. That means his police friends are coming up behind him, which feels good.
“That what you think?” his Grandpa says. His hand, at the rail of the gurney, has metal on it.
“I thought you were a good guy, but you’re a bad guy. You’re a criminal. That’s why I stepped up.”
“Oh, stepped up, huh, you think—”
“Don’t you ever hurt my Daddy again,” Bobby says, and now everyone goes still and looks at him, and Bobby knows what’s inside him has just been recognized.
ONCE THE KID was collected by the female cop, Lynch returned to the man on the gurney and said, “Back to the guns.”
The man watched his grandson go.
“They’re mine,” he said.
“I NEED YOU down at the three-four in the morning,” Gonzalez said. They were standing by the patrol car before getting their ride home. Bobby, so exhausted his eyes were drooping, had finally cried when his daddy picked him up, and now he was turning into a sack of deadweight at Robert’s shoulder and slipping down his chest.
“Thank you,” Robert said, hoisting him back up. “Thank you so much. I know you stuck your neck out.”
“I know Bobby. I know you. I know your dad. Just—” The cop held up one hand. “Don’t let me down.”
“You’ve got my word. We’ll be there.”
The doors of the ambulance slammed.
“You know, for a minute there,” Gonzalez said, “I thought he was gonna pull you into it with him.”
Two of the cruisers moved away down the path and the ambulance left with them.
Robert pulled his head back to look at Bobby’s face. “So Grandpa’s phone fell out of his pannier and you picked it up and called nine-one-one?”
“Yeah…” Bobby said. His eyes were closing every few moments.
“That’s two times you stepped up today, little man.”
“Uh huh…” Bobby said in a shadowy voice halfway to dreamland, and in the same murmur said, “But you didn’t.”
“CAN WE GO to Chuck E. Cheese’s tomorrow?” he said, halfway home in the cruiser. Robert watched the lights on Broadway go by on the other side of his reflection, and Bobby dropped back to sleep.
Originally appeared in RIDE: Short Fiction About Bicycles. Couldn’t figure out how to make it free at Amazon, so here you go.