Marcus came to town, with his giant eyes and impossible laugh, with his iron legs and golden smile. He stood on my stoop, bag in hand, perplexed and imposing, an elephant, lost in the city. I imagined him thundering through the streets of Iraq, equipped with guns and armor, a terrifying behemoth, flanked by similar goliaths, the stench of victory in their nostrils.
“What’s up, man?” I crossed the street with Robbie, approaching the colossus, waving with one hand.
The big lug eyed me cautiously, fearing the worst— one could never be too cautious in the city. I held out my hand for him to grasp, confusion written on his face. “Dude,” I stopped, “you alright?”
Realization dawned, “Nathan?” he asked, relief washing over his face, “holy shit, I didn’t recognize you. What the fuck, man?” He wrapped me up in his giant arms, “What. The. Fuck?”
“I lost a little weight,” I said, trying to hold back the tears.
He set me down and had another look, “What the fuck?”
The three of us went through the hilarious front door, down the stinky hallway and into Shelob’s lair. “I thought you were joking, all that stuff you wrote on Facebook,” he looked me over again, “I had to see for myself.”
“You’re not the first person to suspect shenanigans,” I turned on the air conditioning unit. A chemical buzz poured out its flesh colored vents, filling the room with a strange not-smell.
“How do you feel now?” Marcus put down his bags.
“I have good days and bad. Galadriel came to town about a week ago,”
“We put on that art show back in the day.”
“Got it,” Marcus clicked his tongue, remembering.
“She didn’t think I was joking. She thought she was going to lose me.” I stared at the floor, remembering her tears, “We went to Ikea,”
“This giant furniture store. It’s massive and there’s only one way through, like a gerbil maze for adults. About halfway in, my guts started to ache. Pretty soon, I could barely walk. I almost shit myself near the potted ferns. Somehow, I found the bathroom. It took me half an hour to hobble out of the place. Most days are pretty good, but I’m off my meds so I have to be careful.”
“You were on prednisone, right?” Marcus asked.
“I had to prescribe that to some guys in Iraq, it’s wild stuff.”
“It fixes everything. I’ve heard of people taking it for eye infections, asthma, herniated disks, if there’s something wrong with a human being, prednisone cures it.”
“Not just humans,” said Marcus, “they give it to animals as well. It’s an anti-inflammatory, like Aspirin, but on steroids,” he laughed at his own joke, a hearty boom that filled the apartment. “Most ailments cause inflammation, it’s how the body protects itself, but the inflammation can cause problems of its own. Prednisone fixes that.”
“Thanks, Dr. Marcus.”
“Medic Marcus,” he corrected me with a wink.
“Too bad you weren’t in Aurora last night,” I said, “you could have patched up a bunch of people.”
“I wouldn’t have needed to,” Marcus said seriously, “I’d of broke the mother fucker in half before he took a second shot.”
The previous night a gunman walked into the midnight screening of the new Batman movie and opened fire. He threw smoke bombs and sprayed bullets, killing 12 and injuring 70. I’d been watching the same movie in a different theater 7 miles away. “Imagine staying up late to see a shitty movie and getting killed in the process,” I shook my head at the double injustice.
“Shitty movie? It was super good.”
“What are you talking about?” Marcus set down his backpack, “Bane was amazing.”
“The Joker was amazing, Bane was average.”
“What!?” Marcus couldn’t believe his ears. “Bane caught Batman’s punch and threw it back at him! He was totally invincible!” Marcus loved it when things were invincible.
“The Joker put a pencil through a dude’s eye socket!”
“Anyone could do that,” Marcus tried to reason with me. “I could do that. You know what I couldn’t do?”
“Catch a punch from Batman and fucking throw it back at him!” Marcus broke an imaginary bat over one knee to show me just how awesome Bane was.
The Joker cut his own face with knives!” I countered.
“How is that awesome? Why would anyone do that?”
That same day, Colorado was burning. The largest wildfire in decades was tearing through the mountains, consuming homes and devouring lives.
“Dude,” I tried to bring it down a notch, to talk some sense into my friend. “The Joker held Gotham hostage with a practical joke.”
“So?” Marcus wasn’t impressed, “Bane took over Gotham and enslaved its citizens for months.”
Outside, an ambulance blared its frantic horn, another nameless tragedy had taken place. “Exactly!” I yelled over the siren. “Not only was the story derivative, it was unbelievable. If a terrorist did that, the president would call in the Marines and ferret him out in a second.”
“You’re applying logic to a movie about a billionaire who dresses up like a bat and fights crime?”
“Guys!” Robbie said, trying to calm the situation, “Can we at least agree that Marion Cotillard’s tits were amazing?”
Marcus and I paused for a moment, nodding thoughtfully, “They were pretty good…”
The world spun madly, its anesthetized wanderers barking and bickering over crumbs, finding importance in triviality, discarding the lessons of history’s pen.
“I’m more of an ass man,” I said, thinking about Ms. Cotillard’s bossom. “I’m glad we got to see her breasts and all, but there was something wrong with her face. It only looked good from certain angles.”
“What!?” Robbie shook his head in amazement, “will you never be satisfied?”
“She’s got a weird layer of fat just beneath her skin. It distorts things. You get the big breasts, sure, but they come at a price.”
“The price is that you’re insane,” Marcus put his sunglasses in their case, “that woman is fucking gorgeous.”
And on and on. We push back against the night with petty distractions, focusing on the present, ignoring the past, breathing and breathing, until we breathe our last. Is it wrong to feel joy in the face of oblivion, or is this life’s purpose, a sacred duty, our gift to the broken and the dead?
“Robbie just got back from South America,” I said proudly. “He learned Spanish for the trip.”
“Just learned Spanish, just like that?” Asked Marcus.
“He’s got a silver tongue,” I beamed. “Guess what country he’s from.”
“America?” Marcus shrugged.
“You don’t hear his accent?”
“I hear his American accent.”
“Germany!” I blurted triumphantly, “Born and raised. He didn’t move here until he was 18, can you believe it?”
“I never would have guessed,” Marcus turned to Robbie. “Say something in German.”
“No,” said Robbie.
“I don’t know,” he replied bashfully.
“He thinks it’s an ugly language, plus he doesn’t like to show off.” I had asked the same question for years. Only recently did Robbie reveal the reasons for his reluctance. He was probably mad at me for telling Marcus.
The afternoon passed, the three of us joking and talking. Robbie told us about his travels in South America, and Marcus regaled us with gossip from Iraq. He was different than I remembered. He cursed more, this boy turned warrior, so full of pride and hate. The Army had shaped him into something new, a living weapon able to kill, then kill again. It was a necessary evil, what Marcus had become, but also terrifying, that a man can be molded like clay. Dusk fell. Robbie left.
“I’ve missed you,” said Marcus. “And I’m glad you’re alright. When I was in Iraq, reading your Facebook posts, I thought you were just being dramatic, arting super hard or something. I didn’t know how bad it got.”
“It’s still bad,” I said despondently, “I feel thin and stretched, like Frodo with the ring. Something broke and I don’t know how to fix it.”
“You’ll be fine,” said Marcus, “just give it time.”
“I don’t think so,” I looked at the floor, “it got bad,” I looked at Marcus, “I wanted to die. I was laying on the floor, wanting to die, but I couldn’t. I kept thinking about you. Not you in actuality, but everyone, sort of. It was like everyone was there with me in the darkness, pulling me up,” tears choked my throat, Marcus shifted uncomfortably. I began to cry. “I could feel you pulling me out of the darkness. You didn’t know you were doing it, but you were there.” Salt stung my eyes, tears traced paths down my face. I looked up at Marcus, “I’m alive because of you.” I was fragile and unstable. I still believed my own myth. “I’m alive because of you.”
Marcus cleared his throat, not knowing what to say, “I’m glad, buddy.”
We sat in silence, feeling the aftershocks of a madness that had torn me in two, its locus emanating from my guts.
“Think we could go see Nate?” Asked Marcus, breaking the reverie at last. He had grown up with Nate Kline-Deters, the man who took me to the Emergency Room after Sauron beat me senseless.
“Sure,” I wiped snot from my nose, “he’s working downtown.” I began putting on my shoes. My guts were still too fragile for alcohol, but I wanted to show Marcus a good time. “We should eat some pot candy. I’ve never been high in public before.”
Marcus laughed his giant laugh, “Two seconds ago you were crying and now you want to eat pot.”
“It’s the prednisone. I’ve stopped taking it, but it’s still in me, controlling my thoughts.”
I went to the drawer where I kept my sleep aides and pulled out a few slices of Cheeba Chew. Marcus ate one and I ate two. Then we headed out. The drug worked quickly, clouding my mind before we made it to the restaurant. I became aware of my surroundings, stimulus pouring in from every corner. The universe expanded. I realized I could predict things before they happened. “Do you see those guys?” I whispered, pointing at a group of black men walking next to us.
“Yeah,” said Marcus, squinting through the haze.
“Drug dealers,” I nodded importantly, my mind unfolding like so much paper, the reality behind reality revealed itself. It was as if I could feel their thoughts, “It’s about to go down.”
“Down?” Asked Marcus.
“Big time,” I nodded conspiratorially. It was a random invention, a bias made certain by my drug-addled brain. I watched them, with their corn rows and baggy pants, wondering where they kept their guns.
By the time we reached the restaurant, the world had gone blurry. Nate was there. Marcus hugged him. I could see the camaraderie between them, moving and wobbling, a palpable thing.
“We’re high,” I said abruptly, cutting the pleasantries off at an awkward angle.
“What?” Nate laughed.
“Nathan’s high,” said Marcus. “It hasn’t hit me yet.”
“Do you think everyone notices?” My senses spread, feeling the people in the bar. “I’m pretty sure they can tell.”
Time slowed down. A buzzing noise filled the air, replacing words with chaos. The atmosphere turned to mud. I stared, trying to process his question. Nate stared back, waiting for my reply. Marcus broke the silence with more buzzing. The voices melted. We ended up at a table.
Televisions hung from the ceiling, each tuned to a different sports channel. A commercial played on one of the screens. People were drinking neon colors. The colors poured out of their skin like sweat. I couldn’t stop laughing. I had ordered beans at a restaurant. It was comedy gold. The same commercial kept playing, people sweating blue and yellow, trying to be the best. How long would it last? It seemed like forever. Laughter poured out of me. Marcus got himself under control, riding the wave, feeling the flow. Did everyone know we were high? They must have figured it out by now. “I’m sorry, man,” I said through fits of laughter. “I’m so sorry.”
“Buzz, ZZ, buzz?” Marcus looked at me.
“I’m sorry,” I apologized again.
“Bu’z ZZ. Buzz’zz ZZ.”
But the commercial wouldn’t end. Or was it a different one? I couldn’t remember. I kept losing track. I looked around the room, grinning maniacally, trying to blend in, trying to figure out if everyone knew. “I’m sorry, man,” I turned back to Marcus.
Nate returned. I tried to eat my beans, but they were too delicious. The flavor overwhelmed my mouth. Time stretched. The same commercial kept playing. The same pitchers. The same catchers. The same everything. Everything was the same. I looked around the room, smiling big to hide my terror. Everyone was watching. Everyone knew, “I’m sorry,” I apologized again. Nate was gone. Where had he gone? How long had we been here?
“Buz buuuuzz, buz?” Marcus took a sip from his beer.
I smiled big so he wouldn’t be worried, “I’m sorry.”
Marcus laughed. A new commercial began to play. How long would this one last? How long would anything last?
I sat there, unable to talk. Unable to eat. The beans grew cold. They would spoil and there was nothing I could do. “I’m sorry,” I said to the beans, feeling sadness for their tiny bodies, so perfect and so black. “I’m sorry,” I said to Marcus, apologizing for my inability to speak.
“Bu’z ZZ,” said Marcus.
“I’m sorry,” I said to the people in the restaurant who all knew that I was high.
There was too much. Everything was too much. I disappeared into the black.
• • •
In the morning I woke up to the sounds of an action film. Marcus was on the floor, watching Youtube videos on his phone. “What happened?” I asked, feeling refreshed, tasting the reek of pot in my mouth.
“You kept looking around the room with this awkward grin and apologizing.”
“Why would anyone do that to themselves?”
“People like to get fucked up,” Marcus rolled over on the nest of blankets I’d placed on the floor, he was too big for my air mattress.
“What are you watching?”
“Trailers for the new Superman movie. I think they’re finally going to make a good one.”
“Superman is the best,” Marcus replayed the trailer.
“He has every power, there’s no sense of danger.”
“That’s exactly why he’s awesome,” said Marcus. “He can’t lose.”
“I can’t empathize with a perfect being. Spiderman is great because he’s a nerd. He has girl problems and struggles to pay rent.”
“Why would you want to read about a struggling nerd? The whole point is that Superman is better than us.”
His words struck me strange. Why did I like Spiderman so much? Was it because he was a loser, and what did that say about me? “Spiderman battles through adversity to unlock triumph,” I said. “Superman is triumph embodied.” Had I sabotaged myself? Was the storyteller inside leading me down a reckless trail in order to elevate life’s drama? Had I chosen the wrong heroes?
Had I done all of this to myself?
“Winning is awesome,” said Marcus. “No one wants to lose.”
“I don’t know,” I said, thoughtfully, “maybe some of us do.”
Marcus watched the Superman trailer 11 more times. I got up and made breakfast.
Marcus still dreams of a day when the Superman on the silver screen lives up to the Superman in his mind.
• • •
“They had these signs in each stall with a stick figure standing on top of a toilet,” Marcus was scrunched into the front of my station wagon, his mammoth legs bent at an awkward angle, he was telling stories about life as a soldier in Iraq. “The stick figure standing on top of the toilet had a red circle with a slash through it. Next to that was a picture of a stick figure sitting on the toilet like a normal person.”
I turned off of the highway and onto a side street, “I don’t get it.”
“I didn’t either, the first time I saw it.”
“Why would anyone need instruction on how to use a toilet?”
“Because,” Marcus looked at me seriously, “the mother fuckers don’t know how to use toilets. They think you’re supposed to stand on the things. So every morning we’d come into the latrine to find machine gun diarrhea sprayed all over the place.”
“What?” I turned off the side street and into a parking lot.
“The whole country has diarrhea because there’s poor refrigeration and sanitation, then they stand on the toilet and shit all over everything!” His laugh rattled the windows.
“Where do they normally shit?”
“In a hole in the ground, then the Army shows up and installs toilets, and the Iraqi police have no idea how to use them.” He began laughing again.
“Every fucking morning! Plus, the bastards rip the shower heads out of the walls!”
“I have no idea! We never caught anyone in the act, but the prevailing theory was that they thought they needed to climb the damn things. Every morning we’d come into the bathroom to find the toilets covered in shit and the shower heads ripped out of the walls.”
“How do they bathe?” I asked, parking the car in an empty lot.
“In the alley with a bottle of water. I can’t tell you how many men I saw pouring bottles of water over themselves while hiding in an alley.”
“Were they naked?” I climbed out of the car, unlocking the back hatch as I did.
“Fully dressed, wearing the filthy sheets they call clothes. The entire country smells like sweat and ass crack.”
We walked around the back of my car and pulled two bikes from the hatch, “Do you think democracy will take hold?”
“No way,” Marcus shook his head. “They’re different than us. They’ll play along until we leave and then the first person to show up with a bag of money or a machine gun will take over.”
“Different from us how?” I attached the front wheel to my bike and tightened it down.
“They’re animals, fucking savages. One time this dad brought his kid to me. The kid had been beaten bloody and was close to death. I asked what had happened and the translator told me the dad had pounded him with a two by four. I asked why the dad had pounded his son with a two by four and the translator told me it was because the kid wouldn’t have sex with his friends.”
“Their Thursday is like our Friday. They call it Man-Love Thursday. Men gather together to have sex with each other. This father brought his son to the party. The kid didn’t want to be raped and ran off. When his father finally found him, he beat the shit out of him, bludgeoned him until he was almost dead.”
“What did you do?” I asked, adding a little air to my tires with a pump.
“I fixed him up.”
“No, I mean to the father.”
“I didn’t do anything to the father. That sort of shit is legal over there. You can kill and rape your son and no one gives a damn. The father wasn’t even ashamed. In his mind, his son disobeyed and got what he deserved.”
“Damn,” I looked across the parking lot. In comic books it was always so easy, simple choices between good and evil, but in the real world things got fuzzy. I liked Spiderman, Marcus preferred Superman. Who did the Iraqis champion? What evil god do evil men revere?
“They’re different from us,” Marcus shook his head. “They don’t want the same things.”
We wheeled our bikes down to the riverfront trail and climbed on. It was a beautiful morning, full of sunshine and birds. Trees glistened with golden light. Half a world away, unimaginable terror lurked, but standing on that trail, a silver mist rising from the river, it seemed distant and vague.
“This thing is too small,” Marcus said, his massive knees hitting the handle bars.
“It’s the only bike Nate had,” I said. “You want to turn around?”
“Nah, I’ll manage.”
We pedaled down the trail, feeling the rush of cool air against our faces. “Dude!” Marcus said excitedly, “did you see that crane?”
“No,” I looked out at the water, but only saw the water.
“That was a whooping crane! They’re endangered. They’re not native to the area, so we’re lucky to see one.”
We rounded a corner and crossed an arching bridge, our tires rattling over the wooden planks.
“A plover!” Cried Marcus pointing at the water, “Do you see him?”
“No,” I turned back to look at my friend who wobbled uneasily on his bike. “Watch the trail,” I said, “You’re going to hurt yourself.”
“He’s just a little guy, but he sure is cute.”
I imagined Marcus and his squad, bashing through the slums of Tecrite, towering above the rabble. I thought of the terrorists, dressed in dirty sheets, hiding behind women and children, terrified of the warriors who had come to cleanse them from existence. In an alternate universe, would Marcus and I have been the ones in those sheets, suicide bombs strapped to our chests, trying desperately to repel the invaders from our land? Are good and evil a matter of perspective. Is morality a consequence of circumstance?
“Trout!” Marcus shouted from behind me, standing awkwardly on his pedals to get a better look, “A big old, giant trout!”
I looked out at the river, trying to see the fish, “It’s a city trout,” I warned, “You’re not allowed to fish for city trout.”
“Sure you are,” Marcus boomed. “The South Platte has some of the best fishing in the world. That’s why I brought my gear.”
“Here? I said, looking around at the suburban trail. There were trees and grass, but also condos, gas stations and strip malls. It seemed like a strange place to go fishing.
“Oh yeah. It’s some of the best carp fishing in North America. Look at that mallard!”
“Why would anyone want to catch a carp?” I knew people ate trout, but carp were nasty things with muddy flesh and pointy bones.
“Because they’re smart,” Marcus said. “Twice as smart as bass!”
I’d spent two years slaughtering halibut in the Bearing Sea, but never thought of fish as anything but automatons, clockwork beasts without intelligence.
“It’s one of the most difficult freshwater fish to pursue on fly,” continued Marcus, “because they strike gently a few times before actually biting, and they can see in color, so you have to use the right hook for different conditions. If you manage to get one on line, they fight like the dickens. Those carp never give up,” Marcus beamed, imagining a sleek, golden body fighting against the current.
His love of carp was infectious. I had never thought about them as anything but a nuisance, now I wasn’t so sure. Someday, Marcus would get married and have children. His children would would grow and he would teach them about dogs and cats and birds and snakes. They would learn to love carp, just like their dad. The cycle would continue.
“You want to come back here tomorrow and go fishing?” I asked.
“That’s why I brought my gear!”
We finished the bike ride early, my weak legs and fractured guts grumbling angrily. “I keep pushing it too far,” I said. “I keep trying to be stronger than I am.”
“You can’t be stronger than you are,” said Marcus seriously, his words laden with a combat medic’s wisdom.
“Well then, I keep trying to be as strong as I hope I am.”
“You are,” said Marcus. “You just can’t see it yet.”
• • •
The next morning, Marcus packed his fishing gear and I loaded up my painting stuff and we drove back down to the trail. “I saw a place near those trees,” Marcus said pointing at a distant copse, “it should be perfect for carp.”
I waddled next to him, carrying a wooden briefcase full of paints. It was impossibly heavy and the trees were far away. Marcus looked grand, decked out in his sportsman apparel, his bare chest rippling in the morning light. His stride was long and sturdy. I felt like Delilah, sneaking through the shadows, hoping to uncover the secret of his strength. What did it take to be a man? It seemed I would never know.
People on bikes zoomed past us, early risers, healthy and full of life, their asses stuck in the air like colorful baboons.
My arms and fingers were cramped by the time we reached the shade of the trees. Beneath their tall limbs sat a tumble of benches hewn from old logs, “This is perfect!” Marcus said, “Carp love slow-moving water.” He opened his tackle box and began affixing a fly. I transformed the wooden briefcase I had been carrying into a plein aire easel, unscrewing tubes of paint hidden inside. The painting I was working on was for the baby Hannah, my perfect sister’s first child. I’d be traveling to North Dakota to meet her soon, and planned to hang it on her wall once I arrived.
Marcus finished prepping his line and wandered off towards the river, “Good luck,” I called out after him, then set about finishing the under-painting. A dad and his daughters stopped in the shade, drinking from water bottles shaped like Hello Kitty.
“What’s he doing, daddy?” Asked the smallest one.
“I don’t know,” he put the pink and white bottle back into his backpack.
And neither did I. It was a strange thing, to be an artist, the endless need to create. Until that summer, I had fought against it, attending engineering classes in hopes of a more comfortable existence. But destiny struck back, tearing into me with ulcers and vomit and pain, pummeling me until I returned to my craft.
I traced the forms, strengthening the composition, bending the canvass to my will. The paint dried fast in the summer heat. I lost myself in its depths.
“Are you painting the incident?” Asked an old woman who had stopped to see what I was doing.
“Incident?” I asked, confused.
“At the movie theater.”
I looked at the painting. A robot held a child. Forrest creatures gazed lovingly at the baby. In the distance, an inlet hugged a hill full of flowers, “You see a massacre?” I asked, taken aback.
“A memorial,” she nodded knowingly.
“That baby is my niece. I’m the robot, and the forrest creatures are all the people who will ever love her.”
“Oh,” she said, a little disappointed. “My daughter is a marvelous painter. You wouldn’t believe how talented she is. Everything she makes looks like a photograph.”
“Wow,” I said.
“She hasn’t made anything in quite some time, but before she had children she was quite impressive, quite impressive indeed.”
Marcus came tromping out of the reeds, a smile on his face.
“Did you catch your carp?” I asked.
“No, just a few bass,” he set his pole on the ground.
“Where are they?”
“I let them go. No sense keeping them.”
“My grandson is quite the fisherman,” said the old lady. “He just loves the water.”
“Wow,” said Marcus, uncapping his water bottle and taking a pull.
“I haven’t seen him in a while. His mother doesn’t like me,” she trailed off, staring at the highway in the distance. “Well,” she slapped her hands together, “enjoy the rest of the day.” She stood and wandered down the trail.
“She thought my painting was about the Aurora massacre,” I said, a little dismayed.
Marcus laughed, his booming voice rising into the sky.
• • •
“Do I look cool?” Asked Marcus, holding as still as he could.
“Super cool,” I said, finishing the last few strokes. “Check it out.”
Marcus stepped in front of the mirror, flexing his chest at different angles. He was wearing camouflage shorts and a black bandana over his face. I had painted Thor’s hammer between his pecks, the sigil of his new superhero identity. “I am Thun’dar,” he declared, raising his hands above his head, “Behold my majesty.” He shook his iPhone and sounds of thunder and lightning played on a tiny speaker, generated by an app he had installed.
“And I am Blue Lightning,” I punched the air a few times to show how quick I was. My shorts were blue and my cape was blue. I’d painted a blue lightning bolt on my chest and donned a white snowboarding helmet. We were ready for anything.
“Let’s go find Nate,” said Marcus, grabbing my bike from its place on the wall.
“He’s got church or something,” I said. “We’re meeting him halfway through the parade.”
“So what bike am I going to ride?”
“We’ll have to rent you a B bike.”
“B bike?” He wheeled my single speed through the door and into the stinky hallway.
“The city has a bike rental program,” I grabbed a bottle of wine and my teddy bear with a superhero cape. “It’s expensive, but they’re free today because of the festival.”
We stepped out into the sunshine. The usually busy streets had been blocked off to make room for the parade. Everywhere, costumed hipsters rode bikes, swerving and jumping with excitement. Marcus and I walked half a block to a row of bikes inserted into vending machine-like racks, “Put your credit card in here,” I said, pointing at the pin pad. “You’ll get the charges reversed at the festival.”
Marcus inserted his card and entered a stall number. The electronic rack clicked and he removed his bike. “This looks like a girl’s bike.” He said skeptically. The red bike had a white basket and all kinds of gizmos and whiz bangs. There was a built-in bike lock, twist-grip shifters, mud flaps and a chain guard. It was all unnecessary, each component adding extra weight.
“They give a comfortable ride,” I said, “even though they look ridiculous.” I loaded the bottle of wine, our t-shirts and my teddy bear with a superhero cape into the basket. “You’ll have to extend the seat. Whoever rode it last was short.”
Marcus adjusted the bike to almost fit his frame,” You ready?” I asked.
Marcus put my black bandana over his face and raised one hand dramatically in the air, “We ride!” He boomed at the top of his lungs. We both began to pedal.
I took a leisurely pace, letting gravity and inertia propel me along the sidewalk. “Can you believe what a beautiful day it is?” I turned to Marcus, but he wasn’t there. I stopped, scanning the festive streets for my enormous friend. He was crossing the sidewalk, two blocks behind. His handle bars shook with uncertainty as he tried to pilot the tiny bike towards me. His knees kept hitting his elbows and he almost crashed into a group of squawking girls.
“I can’t ride this thing,” he said once he had caught up. “I already fell off twice.”
“If the Iraqi’s could see you now,” I laughed.
“Fuck them. Give me your bike.”
We switched bikes, “You gonna be alright, there, Thun’dar?”
Marcus raised his head towards the clear, blue sky, “We ride!” And took off down the street.
He did better on my bike than the rental and I soon figured out why. The weight of the wine in the basket on the front of the handle bars made the whole operation unstable. If you turned left, inertia took over and made it harder to get back to center. You ended up overcorrecting back and forth, again and again. It wasn’t impossible, but Marcus had never been good at bikes.
We rode to the park where thousands of costumed riders had gathered for the day’s festivities. It was like Halloween, but in the morning and not as scary. A horn blew and the long column began to move. We rode through the streets, ten thousand strong, drunk on sunshine and youth. Halfway along the circuit, we stopped at Nate’s apartment, locking up our bikes and buzzing his door. He changed into a costume and I drew winged rain on his chest, then we headed into the street with our bikes.
“We ride!” Yelled Marcus.
“We ride!” Echoed Nate and I.
Down to the park we flew, swerving and zig zagging, following the endless line of ants on their costumed trek through the city. There were Indians and zombies, faeries and cops. The girls were sexy and the boys were funny and everyone was laughing and happy and free.
On a side street detour, Marcus got into a race with a car full of females. He took off like a greyhound, pedaling my bike with all of his oversized might. The car struggled to keep up, its four cylinders whining with the weight of its occupants. The girls laughed and cheered, and just when it became obvious that Marcus had won, the chain came off the gears, derailing with a loud snap. Marcus scraped his shin down the metal pedal and slammed his foot into the ground. Blood gushed everywhere. The girls sped off, laughing and clapping. Marcus coasted to a stop. By the time Nate and I caught up to him, his sock was already soaked in red.
“I forgot to tell you not to ride my bike too fast,” I said, pulling up on the rental with the teddy bear in the basket. “If you ride it too fast, the chain comes off.”
“Fuck,” said Marcus, looking at his leg. We poured water down his shins, but it was hopeless, a thick gash had ripped him from knee to ankle. He pulled off his hiking shoe to inspect his feet, “Shit,” he shook his head. His toes were long and knobby. The big one was purple and had already begun to swell.
“Do you need to go home?” Nate asked.
“I need a beer.” Marcus ditched his bloody sock and put his shoe back on, then reattached the chain and mounted my bike, “We ride!” He yelled and began pedaling down the street. Nate and I shrugged and followed after.
The parade ended across town in a massive park full of booths and music. Ten thousand riders locked their bikes up to ten thousand racks and descended on the grass like costumed locusts. “We have to register your B bike at the booth so you don’t get charged for the rental,” I said.
“OK,” Marcus, limped gingerly next to me, his shin scabs cracking with each step.
Marcus and Nate bought beers, then we headed over to a corral filled with all kinds of strange franken bikes. Mad geniuses had welded spokes to sprockets, creating mashup transport devices that were hilarious and dysfunctional.
“Look at that one!” Said a little girl to her father.
A daring hipster was attempting to ride a bike with a hinged center that rose and sagged in the middle like a galloping dinosaur. There were bikes with giant wheels, and some that were low to the ground, others had three seats and could only move in an endless circle, there were even a few that no one could figure out. We each took turns entering the circle, riding the strange contraptions and laughing at the chaos.
“Let’s get another beer,” said Nate, his Canadian thirst kicking in.
“You gonna drink your wine?” Asked Marcus.
“No,” I said.
The line for beer was endless and festive. Bands played and kids ran too and fro. We reached the front and Marcus and Nate each ordered a frosty pint.
“We ride!” Said Marcus, raising his glass proudly, then he sucked the brew through the cloth of his black bandana. When he finished the last drop, he pulled the fabric away from his mouth, “That tasted like ass.” He spit into the grass.
“What are you talking about?” Asked Nate, “This beer is delicious!”
“It’s ass beer,” said Marcus, belching and spitting again. I began to laugh. “What?” Asked Marcus, looking at me, “why are you laughing?”
“Anarchists,” I said. “The DNC came to town for Obama’s nomination ceremony and there were all these anarchists on my stoop. I lent that bandana to one of them so he could hide his face during the protests. I forgot to wash it. You just drank anarchist breath.”
Marcus looked at me with giant blue eyes, processing what I had said, “What,” he took the bandana off his neck, “the fuck,” he threw the bandana on the ground, “is an anarchist?”
I doubled over, laughing, “You wore it all day!” I pointed a scrawny finger at his face.
“Oh, gosh,” said Nate.
I fell to the ground, unable to breathe.
“Would someone please tell me what the fuck an anarchist is?” Roared Marcus.
“They hate government,” I said, “they wear camouflage pants with black t-shirts and black bandanas so they’ll look cool during protests.”
“You let me drink anarchist face?” Marcus picked up the bandana and threw it back on the ground. Then he stomped on it, but his leg was damaged and he ended up hurting himself.
“I forgot,” my sides began to hurt as another peal of laughter shook me, “I swear!”
We finished the festival sans bandana, with Marcus limping around, grumbling about filthy hippies, and swearing to never trust me again, “Fucking bandana. Fucking bikes.” Then we rode home. I let Marcus have the first shower on account of his bloody shin. As he washed, I Photoshopped the pictures we’d taken that day, adding lighting bolts and sonic bursts to enhance the dramatic effect.
“My toenail almost came off in the shower,” Marcus walked into the main room with a white towel around his waist.
“Shit, man,” I said, looking at his chest. “You got all sun burnt.”
“I know,” he shook his head, “it itches like hell.”
“And the hammer design I painted on your chest is still there.”
“What?” Marcus turned to the mirror on my closet door. “What the fuck?” He touched the place where I had painted Thor’s hammer. All day the desert sun had beat down on his skin, burning it to a crisp. He was pink everywhere except the places where acrylic paint had blocked the light. Now he had a big, white hammer seared into his chest. Superman takes his power from the sun. He is invincible so long as the light shines on him, but humans are not that way. Even Marcus, with his massive muscles and winning smile can burn.
“Do you know what I just remembered?” I swiveled in my chair. “We forgot to visit the tent that waives the fees for the B bikes.”
“Shit,” said Marcus, “how much is that going to cost me?”
“A lot,” I said.
“What a fucking day,” said Marcus, the skin that hadn’t been torn off by my bike pedal growing more pink by the minute.
“That’s what I’m going to call this chapter,” I said, realizing his visit had a literary theme.
“Marcus’ Bad Day.”
to be continued