My First Bike Ride

Fiction by Taj Alexander Mahon-Haft

He was a burly, scraggly-bearded salesman of a different time, or perhaps no time at all, traveling from town to town alone on his tandem bike. Above each seat rested a parasol, kept in place by LED-infused duct tape. He coasted constantly between Main Streets, the empty seat on the back of his bike a permanent invitation to accompany him.

Likewise, his Pink Lady apple cheeks and the way one eye crinkled slightly when he smiled screamed friend. Combined with his tie-dye corduroys, pizza sauce-stained and faded Super Mario Bros shirt, and slightly asymmetrical white guy ‘fro, it was easy to overlook the fact that his canines were needle sharp and extra long, and that his dark brow eyes faded all the way to black as his pupils swallowed his irises in the sun. Perhaps the loquacious pet raven on his shoulder or the odd array of bruise-colored umbrellas, pinwheels, and razor-edged kites he touted as both signage and inventory could have been a clue… but who can tell for sure what some things mean in the moment?

My first glimpse of this well known stranger was of him cycling between high rise hotels, pedaling and peddling down Atlantic Avenue, parallel to the beach. 

I met him officially the next day on the boardwalk, posted up with his wares. I was compelled by curiosity to sneak away from our family beach blanket to see what he was all about. Everyone else was busy digging in the hazy glare at the water’s edge, seeking sand crabs to populate the castle’s moat, so I just bolted away with a halfhearted excuse that I needed a drink, my last one still sticky on my lips. 

Though there seemed to be constant throngs around him from afar, he was conveniently free at exactly the moment I strolled up. He smiled. Chuckled. Chimed: “greetings, salutations, and expectations,” like a gull convincing a tourist to share some fries. “I knew I’d make a new friend today.” 

I swallowed, uncharacteristically nervous, with my theater nerd Underoos still in my dresser drawer. I felt my throat clench as I stammered, “Hi.” 

He responded, “Yes, and soon you will be, too.” He proceeded to inquire, “Have you ever wondered what the ocean looks like from above the boats but below the planes? Did you know there’s a bike path in the sky?” 

In the two decades since, I have never been able to recall exactly how the bike looked on the day I rode it. It’s like a gray veil was pulled over the face of my full memory. 

I do know that the frame of the bike was slightly rusty, in a way that Mike and Frank would call charming patina before congratulating the picker whose house they were currently raiding without a warrant. It said Huffy on the side, but I’m sure it wasn’t manufactured on a Midwestern assembly line. It offered many speeds, but no gears were evident to control them. 

We rode together that first time, the pedals spun themselves, moving my legs faster than they’d gone before. We covered the distance to the broadwalk’s shimmering blacktop terminus before I could take two deep breaths. Even though the pedals turned effortlessly, my chest was heaving and I’d sweated dark orange patches in the pits of my faded Hokies tee. 

At the end of the concrete, instead of meeting the unexpected quagmire of sand and rubber tires of the street, the bike mounted on an invisible ramp and went upwards, above it all. It reminded me of the path across the bottomless chasm to the Holy Grail in the third Indiana Jones movie. It was physically there, but it couldn’t be seen: it looked like the ground beneath me from whichever angle I stared at it. And then even that disappeared. The captain of the impossible ship cackled at me, somewhere between a drunken, jovial uncle at Thanksgiving and the Wicked Witch of the West. The parasols above the seats began spinning and whirring and I was entranced. 

Vague images of wonder remain painted on the flickering fire-lit caves of my memory, but no coherent path was paved. 

I recalled whales spouting octopus ink, the creatures joined in friendship at a rave. Dolphins playing soccer with anemones. Sea turtles and cormorants surfing white caps on neon green longboards while wearing banana-colored board shorts. Submarines chasing cruise ships, but only to play tag. Sharks luring sunburned, overprivileged men into the waves with shredded currency, only to use them to flavor their soup. 

Then suddenly I awoke on my ragged 18th Street Surf Shop towel. 

The sun was almost down and the breeze smelled of coconuts at this inappropriate latitude. My parents and siblings had left to return to the condo, presumably. I felt sandy, sweaty, blistered, blissed. Confused and slightly weak-kneed, I slowly braved the still-scalding sand with my feet now bare. Somehow I had become separated from my shoes, with no idea how or when I had lost them. To this day, I still wonder. Perhaps those orange-trimmed New Balances became kin to all the single sneakers seen on the side of so many country highways.

I definitely wanted—no, needed—to buy a bike of my own. I just didn’t know where to find one like that. Would any old seller suffice? Could I ride alone, without sunshades or hippie friends, and still see the sea from above, without wings or fuel?