by James Gathright
I remember the click of the door behind me. It seemed like the last sound I heard as a living man. But really, I was already dead. There was a bicycle on the porch. Shiny, cleaned and oiled. I reached across it with my right arm, gripped the handle bars, and turned it to the steps. Halfway to the street I was one-foot-up, then sitting, then pedaling.
My momentum created a breeze, the gears moved effortlessly.
The bicycle made a soft, whispered whizzing sound as I swept through the neighborhood. The Gonzalez kids wrestled on their front lawn. Mrs. Keller juggled the handles of plastic grocery bags, doing the math, figuring out how many she could get from the trunk. The new mailman slammed a box shut, stepped over a flower bed and into the next lawn.
Down into the little – what’s it called – a gutter? The dip at every intersection that moves water from one side to the other. The kind you have to stand up to ride over. Through that, and a big turn, all the way around, and pointing back at my house. Their house now, I suppose.
Another man sat on a bicycle in the middle of the street.
“Wouldn’t go back there,” he said as I stopped beside him. “Never works out very well.”
I stared at his face for a moment. I had a certain sense that manners didn’t matter much anymore, so staring was alright. He stared back.
“You an angel?” I asked.
He was a fat man, with a big brown beard, and he laughed like a fat man is supposed to laugh, right in the middle of the street. He finished laughing pretty quickly.
“Not an angel,” he answered, “I’ve just been watching you.”
“Watching me die?”
He smiled. “Yes. It’s fascinating. There were others here too, but they rode off. I decided to stick around and help you get started. But you found the bike on your own and got right on. I think you’ll be ok.”
“Funny to have someone say you’ll be ok just after you die. This is the afterlife?”
“One-hundred percent,” he grunted, flipping up his kickstand and pushing off. “Disappointed?”
We rode past my house to Treehorn Avenue, dodging cars. It was what I call the hour of long shadows. That time just before sunset, in flat places in the west, when the last rays point right at you, blinding. His name was Seamus. I asked him if he was Irish. He wasn’t.
We were in the foothills fifteen miles west of town, rolling hills of golden summer grass. Dead grass, really, but beautiful. Like wheat. An occasional orchard, a river somewhere off to the right. I felt that, but didn’t see it till later.
The ride was smooth. My legs had no tell-tale ache, my ass didn’t burn, my lungs didn’t hurt. We whizzed through curves, hair blowing, down one small hill, the momentum carrying us up another, stomach falling. I laughed, I pumped my fist, felt eleven. Felt alive.
Then I remembered some of my burden. Work. Fixing the car. Getting the kids to school. Mowing the lawn. Making deadlines. Not making deadlines. The people, small people, treating me badly. Respect. Traffic jams. Radio. Television. Newspaper, internet, politics. Shopping. Opinion everywhere, but facts gone. Hatred. Love. Crowds, smells, pressure. Being late. Being wrong. I stopped the bike.
Seamus skidded into the gravel beside me.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“Nowhere. This is it.”
I reached up to wipe sweat from my forehead but realized I wasn’t sweating. We stood on a curve looking down on the tops of trees in the valley. Not very high up, but above most things. A snake shimmied over the road.
I laid my bike in the gravel and found a boulder to sit on down the slope. Seamus followed.
“I’ll tell you everything,” he said, plucking and chewing a foxtail. “You’re dead. I’m dead. When we die, we get our bikes. Not everybody understands that at first, but sooner or later they do. And they ride. Some of us forget, some of us don’t. But it’s great, really. You can see everything, do anything. Want to see Paris? Put your bike on a boat. Want to see Antarctica? You can mostly ride there. You don’t get tired, you sleep great. And the feeling – that freedom you feel when you ride, it never goes away. Every time you get on that bike you fly, you breathe, you feel. You get high from it. Nothing felt that good when you were alive. This is it. This is everything. You’ll stop asking questions in a few days and just enjoy it, trust me. It’s a good death.”
I stared at him again. He wasn’t crazy, or stoned, or any of a number of things I should have been afraid of.
“Everything’s true here, by the way,” he said, reading my face. “All honesty.”
“Heaven?” I asked.
“This is it,” he answered. “Hell too, if you want it that way.”
There was a lot to sort out. “What about the people? Are we ghosts? Can they see us?”
His brow creased. “That’s complicated. Best if I show you.”
The little store was propped up next to a bridge. It was morning again, but I didn’t remember the night. There were a few trout fisherman in the river, waders supported by yellow plastic suspenders. Fast water, shallow, lots of rocks, and noisy. A woman stepped out of a pickup truck, stomped her cigarette on the asphalt.
A sign advertised live bait, another beer.
Seamus stepped in front of the woman as she made for the market door. She didn’t see him, ran right into – no – through him, like she wasn’t real. She stopped.
“What’s the matter?” yelled an older woman from the truck.
The smoker looked around for a moment. “Forgot what I was getting,” she said.
“Paper towels, stupid.”
She made an O-shape with her mouth and stepped through the door. A bell tinkled.
Seamus smiled at me. “Did you see?”
“Yes, but I don’t get it. We’re ghosts?”
“Not at all. We live slightly left of them, that’s how must of us think about it. Close enough that they can feel us. We can’t feel them so well, but that’s probably best. The living have some pretty awful energy, they carry a lot of crap around. These two are probably camping, but they’re thinking about the dirty dishes back home, the unpaid bills, who’s feeding the dog, and going back to work on Monday. Life’s overrated, the way people live it. Really.”
“We don’t have those things?” I asked. “No stress, no worries? No home?”
He laughed his fat-man laugh. “Nope. Just bikes. We ride.”
I’d like to say that we rode for the next few weeks, or years, but time gets tricky when you’re dead. It matters – matters most when you need it for reference, but you can let yourself forget. You kind of forget to remember it. In a very good way. I saw so many things I’d always meant to see. America. I’d never been west of Colorado, so everything was virgin territory.
We met others, not as many as you’d suppose, but they were there. Everybody told stories, they enjoyed the moments around campfires. I learned to steal physical objects from the living world. Books, clothes. Seamus showed me how to concentrate and bring objects over, make them dead things. Sometimes we stole food, just for the joy of cooking and eating. The stars were wonderful, the rain was wonderful, the wind and the sun and the moon – all new to me.
Somewhere in Louisiana Seamus and I rode in different directions. We didn’t plan it, didn’t talk about it. He turned left, I turned right, and I never saw him again. I spent some time in Florida and the Keys. Coming back through Texas I noticed animals for the first time. I stroked a coyote one night by a dry riverbed, and I still don’t know if she was living or dead.
The bike never rusted, the tires never wore. Sometimes it was a different bike. When I’d meet other riders I’d ask them the questions that had been bothering me. What about God? Who gave us the bikes? Where were the rest of the dead? Everyone on the road had the same questions. Some had ideas, theories, but nothing concrete. Nothing resembling an answer.
Riding kept me from depression, or at least a morbid sense of anti-climactic disappointment. I felt good when I rode, but I thought it was unfair that we could die and not know any more about meaning than when we were alive. Granted, this was a good time. But that burning question, that need to know, I couldn’t quite ride that away.
You can spend miles getting rid of ‘what.’ You can pedal away all the ‘how.’ You can definitely forget ‘who.’ But ‘why?’ Why will always get you in the end.
It was near home that I found out. Funny – I had kept the concept of home, and I rode back in that direction. In the suburbs of Bakersfield I saw a group of cyclists around a house. Maybe seven, some talking, some just leaning on their bikes.
“What’s happening?” I asked, pulling up on the lawn.
A dark-skinned woman, young, looked over her shoulder at me. “Someone’s dying,” she said.
I looked at the house. Typical California ranch style, quarter-acre lot. Trim lawn, flowers in the beds. Neighbors within touching distance. It was hard to believe death was happening in there, right at the moment. I walked through the door and into the living room. There were three people on a plaid couch, sobbing a little, all quite tired. The living.
“The funeral home is on its way,” said a tall woman. Hospice worker. “We don’t call the paramedics in a case like this, because they would have to revive your mother. The home hospice program will take care of everything now. Let’s get you into the den so the gentlemen can come through and get your mother without disturbing you.”
The family moved in a huddle into another room, looking past the wall furnace into a dark hallway, and then away. The young woman from outside was beside me.
“You ever see this before?” she asked.
The body was on a hospital type bed in the master bedroom. She wasn’t old, really, but not young either. The hospice worker came down the hall, running her hands through her graying hair, sighing. A long night. As she came through the door the air around her shimmered, wavered, and she stopped. She looked around, confused.
“I can’t remember what I came in here for,” she said to no one.
The woman next to me froze, recognizing the moment. She took my hand and pulled me stumbling from the house. Some of the others had gone, but a couple of riders were waiting.
That night we camped east of McFarland, in a farmer’s field. Our fire kept the chill away, and the flat land let us see for miles across the valley. There were millions of stars.
“It happened,” I said, “…just like when one of us runs into the living. But we were the only ones there.”
The woman, I now knew her name was Beth, poked the fire with a stick. “There was no mistaking the way reality seemed to fold, the way she became confused, and the usual question. She must have run into one of us.”
A man on the other side of the fire looked at us closely. “There was no bike,” he said.
I felt cold for the first time since I’d died.
He stood up, “No bike waiting, no new rider. I’d been there the whole morning, I know when she died. She never came out.”
“What does it mean?”
The oldest person in our group let out a long breath. “We all know the theories. We’ve just never encountered it.”
“Theories?” I asked.
“Yeah. That we exist just left of the living, but that there are others who exist just right of the living, or just left of us. I think you met one of them.”
“Come on,” he said. ”You can’t believe we’re the only ones. How many people have died throughout history, and how many bicyclists have you seen? It’s bad math.”
Beth hugged herself. “I’ve wondered about that. Where are all the other dead? Why are there so few of us?”
It made me anxious. I began to wonder why I got a bicycle, why was I chosen for this sort of death? The purpose. Why were we here?
“That’s not what bothers me,” said another woman. “So we’re on the left. We can see the living, watch them. What if the millions of people who went the other way can watch us? What if they’re all around us now, listening, looking?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said. “I can’t tolerate the possibility that there are hundreds of dead people standing around watching us. This is all strange enough. Why imagine it to be worse than it is?”
We slept by the fire that night. Despite my bravado I could see it in all their eyes. Being dead wasn’t so much fun anymore.