The young boy came to me for classes after an accident where his foot was run over and he flew over the handlebars of his bicycle after the car came fast from behind, hitting him. His face is bright and smiling as he greets me, limping slowly and straining to look straight ahead with his back and neck brace.
Through the small locked patio gate, the dog, part Alaskan husky, part German Shepard, glares with sharp blue eyes circled in yellow highlights. His short barks remind me of when a friend once told me how her mother, working in homes like me, got jumped on by a dog, even though she tried to run. After that, she never walked the same, spending her final teaching days with a rowdy middle school crew in post-Katrina New Orleans.
This dog greets me with the mirth of a puppy, leaping to sniff my cat-haired coat before following his boy, who warns me not to worry about a puppy. In deep East Oakland, everyone with a place to keep relies on dogs, he says.
We spend the first day talking about books and how he survived the accident that happened on the half mile bike ride to school. My own accident comes to mind, although it’s years ago and my injuries are long-healed.
On that Saturday, the bookmobile that came round regularly did not show up. Momma called and found out that the city had to stop the mobile and limited the route due to budget cuts for the smaller library branches. A few years more and the bookmobile would make a circuit of school visits and then disappear altogether.
Our branch sat two blocks down and eight blocks over across Stony Island Avenue, the big four lanes feeding the interstate toward Indiana and Missouri. We usually walked the eight blocks every school day and crossed Stony with our schoolmates and domestic workers catching the 28 bus.
With books soon to be overdue, we would have to pay fines, unless we made a trip to the library. While momma went to the store, my sister, nearly two years my elder, and already reading books without pictures, decided we should bicycle there. Ten blocks seemed too far to walk and we’d be back before momma.
So we rode, my brother and I trailing behind her firm legs, me tooting the bell to make her slow down, her carrying the books in the basket of her bike and my brother, bringing up the rear on his training wheels.
The ice had melted just after April and a spring breeze picked up the first bloom of wisteria. We glided past familiar routes, staying close to the curb, with my brother rolling on the sidewalk. I kept in between, so as to see my sister’s back braid and still look over my shoulder to yell at my brother to keep up.
That summer, before he turned six, my sister and I would remove his training wheels, borrowing a wrench from our neighbor who passed as Mr. Fix-It on the block. As we let go of his seat, my brother could pedal fast to the end of the block, crashing into the Watsons hedges to stop, before finally riding on without us. But on that day, he struggled to keep parallel to me on my brand new bike, my eighth birthday gift.
We reached the boulevard without a care in what seemed like fewer than 10 minutes. I have driven the same route since then, and imagine it likely took us longer, over concrete roads still bumpy from the onslaught of ice and rock salt.
The boulevard traffic lights did not reach that intersection across from the branch, roughly half a block from where we met the stop sign to cross. My sister waited for us to catch up with her at the corner, then explained how she would go, and we would follow.
“Wait for the flow to slow down,” she said. “I’ll go first, then you two stick together and come right behind after.”
We nodded, certain of our mission, though neither of us had crossed Stony on bikes but her.
In a second or two, she took off. I moved to follow, but my brother, who raced small Hot Wheel cars, calculated how quickly his bike could go, then became fearful of the bigger cars zipping faster than they normally looked from the backseat of mom’s Rambler.
When he did not come after me, I looked back at him, stuttering on the pedals with heavy feet, just long enough to pause before the grassy median. Turning my head, I saw my sister reach the library walkway and started to pump my legs when a car smashed down the brakes and skidded into me.
Crashing under the car, my shiny pink bike, with its banana seat, dipped handlebars and purple plastic basket, twisted into a metal heap, my legs somehow wrapped up in it. From the ground, I lifted my head to watch cars moving round me and the old brown Chevy whose front grille fell off upon hitting me.
The Chevy’s owner, a tall black man, about the frame of my uncle Marcus, picked up my bike and asked, “You can walk, can’t you?”
Brushing gravel from my hands, I removed a few small stones from my front braids, then pushed up from the ground and sat in the swirl of traffic. When the blood drops from my chin dripped to the road, tears ran to meet them.
I cried, “Didn’t you see me crossing?” then stood up, reaching the height of the car’s hood.
“No, gal,” the man said, quietly bending over me. “You think I woulda hit you if I’d seen you?”
I kept crying, snot running out of my nose and blood leaking from a cut on my shaking chin while my sister cruised onto the scene and took over.
“What happened?” she asked me, then turned to the driver, and said, “We were riding to the library.”
“Where are your parents?” he asked. My sister shrugged, not wanting to say.
His eyes scanned the road, as looky-loos slowed around the damage and honked to say we were blocking the lane. He glanced past the next four lanes toward the library, scanning over my sister’s four eyes and looking toward my brother, safe on the opposite curb.
“Y’all live nearby?” He asked both of us. We nodded, but did not give our address, as we now remembered how we were never to talk to strangers, and also, how we were never to cross the big street away from traffic lights, and how these two rules had been broken.
The man who hit me held my hand and I stopped crying. He lifted me, carrying me into the front seat, then handed me his handkerchief, saying, “Your bike is going in the trunk. It don’t look like neither one of y’all is ready to ride. I’m gonna follow that big girl on back to home and speak to y’alls folks.”
He drove slowly, pausing at the corner to nod and wave at my brother, occasionally checking his rear mirror to keep a short distance ahead of him.
We reached home safely. My parents, back from the Jewel store, took it all in: my brother, on his bike with the fringed handles and the training wheels, panting from the ride, the stranger who brought me back and my gnarled bicycle on the porch, gleaming blood on my left leg and the handkerchief at my chin.
Stifling horrified looks, they kept silent as the driver apologized, explaining how he hadn’t seen me until almost too late and since I could walk fine, he figured the only loss was my bicycle. He told my father he did not have anything to replace a kid’s bike and couldn’t do more.
My father nodded quietly, thanking him for bringing me home and exchanging phone numbers.
When the front door closed, momma took me to our bathroom, patched scratches up and down my leg, and wrapped my knee with a large bandage after swabbing on the iodine for all the cuts, then sent me to the room where my sister waited for me on the lower bunk of our bed.
Daddy came in. For leading us to danger, and negotiating our road back, my sister received a sharp warning. But a butt whipping awaited me–two lashes with the belt–one, he said, “for being dumb enough to listen to a fool who reads so much she will break the rules of this house,” and then secondly, “for busting up your best means of transportation.”
I secretly vowed never to ride a bike again. Most certainly not with my sister.
In revenge, I hounded her mercilessly into sharing her bike, so that whenever she took it out, I got a turn.
A couple of years later, she turned eleven and got a big girl’s bike, riding it to the store for milk and eggs, or drifting no-hands down the hills up the way. I inherited her old banana seat and hopped back on a bicycle because of what happened to our neighbor, Ron.
Ron was riding up to the White Hen on an errand when two bigger boys jumped him and stole his bike. He came running home to his momma, who said, “Boy, we don’t let people jump us. Get in the car and we gonna go find them boys.” He knocked on our door, and Skipper’s and Duwayne and them’s house. We all got our bikes, following his mother’s yellow Ford, with us fanning out down the alleys.
We rode around until we saw Ron’s new red Schwinn, tied with rope to a fence in an alley six blocks over and two up. We snatched it back, Ron riding behind his mother and the rest of us following in a chain of victory over the big boys on the dirtier streets we almost never rode.
Sometime later we left that neighborhood. Too many thefts and breaking ins, my mother said. Even so, in summer, we rode back to see our old friends, down Stony, for a couple more years.
Memories fade away as I recognize how different this young man’s injuries are from mine.
I ask the boy if the driver who hit him stopped to help him, and he laughs, for the first time since we’ve met.
“No,” he says. “Are you kidding me? They drove off fast as lightning.”
The woman who drove into him pumped her breaks only a moment on the road before carrying on. As he lay bleeding and moaning with pain, his father, headed out to work, recognized the child as his own, stopped the car and took him to the emergency room.
I ask if he misses his bike. He nods yes. And I realize I miss mine. That first bike and everything with it, now in 2015, some four decades later.
My current bike resembles past ones only slightly. For one thing, the gears exist for different terrains; the brakes start with my hands instead of pedal power. It yearns for open trails I’ve yet to use. It rests against the wall next to a dusty treadmill and a file cabinet stuffed with papers of dubious origin and boxes of books longing for readers not yet born.
Sometimes, driving around Oakland, I see my old bike, tricked out with a double banana seat and foot bars at the back tires. Grown-ass men and big boys cruise past popping wheelies, with no particular place to go, on my 8-year-old girl’s bike. Where do they go? I wonder. And, where can I find a bike like that one?