Fiction Issue - Honorable Mention: Uncrossings
I don't know why I finally started riding my bicycle to work. I thought about riding my bicycle to work for years and didn't do it. I'd even pack my bag and put air in the tires, but when the alarm went off a little early I'd say, "fuck that." What I want in the morning is a cup of coffee and a cigarette, preferably two. For years, I drove three traffic-plagued miles and parked in an expensive parking deck, walked across the pedestrian tube, rode down the escalator and up the elevator and paid for a damn gym membership. I frequently spouted off about how the streets of downtown Atlanta had all the soul of a mall parking lot. I slandered my city's streets when my own feet never touched them, all the while getting fat and angry. I had what the Edgewood Avenue folks call a "crossed condition." A crossed condition is getting stuck in a way that works against you. Everybody has some kind of crossed condition. A bad one can kill you.
After the first time I rode down Edgewood Avenue to work, I went every way to avoid it. All kinds of people are hanging around down there before 7 in the morning. Eagle's Nest Ministries gives away a free breakfast, so 20 people will be lined up with 20 more shuffling that way. They move slowly. They have limps and hospital bands and no where to be. Of all the ways to get to downtown from Grant Park, Edgewood Avenue is the creepiest. I kept coming back to Edgewood because those creepy people were genuinely happy to see me in the morning. I like them. I'm afraid of them, but I like them.
Mind you, I am my own kind of weirdo. I'm a 5'2" fortysomething white woman and I only wear dresses and skirts. My red bicycle has a wicker basket on the front with a red and pink felt flower with green leaves and a yellow jewel in the center that I made myself. My bell is a little Asian tea pot. I like to ride in flip-flops even though your toes get really dirty. I wore a helmet for awhile, but I forgot to put it on one day and never remembered to put it on again. I always have a big stupid grin on my face because riding my bicycle makes me happy. Every day, it makes me happy.
I say good morning to anyone who makes eye contact with me. My good mornings start with people who wait for the bus by my house, then the guy that opens the Intown Market and the MARTA bus drivers at the MLK station. I'm proud to report that the roofers on Hilliard Street are keeping the wolf-whistle alive and well. After them, it's the guys that work the hotel loading docks, Sysco truck drivers and parking lot attendants. I am most impressed with the Edgewood Avenue folks. A woman who slept under the interstate, who is standing in line for a hand-out breakfast, has a smile and a good morning for me when you people who sleep in beds and drive cars are mean as hell in the morning.
I trust in the safety of motion. I try to never come to a full stop down there ever since I got kissed. The kisser is harmless, he's just gross. I was trapped by a bus turning left and he was in the crosswalk. There was no where to go. He came toward me with open bear arms and love in his eyes. He reached down and hugged me. His double chin brushed my cheek and he planted a wet whisker smooch on my neck. He smelled like beer, stale sweat and peanut butter. He squeezed me and said, "It's so good to see you, baby doll." I smelled like peanut butter when I got home.
Underpass Eddie witnessed my exchange with the kisser in the crosswalk and fell down laughing. Eddie's name really is Eddie. I know this because he refers to himself in the third person. "Eddie saw that! Eddie saw that! Bwahahaha!" Eddie has a big stupid grin on his face all the time, too. I have never seen him any other way. He is a wiry man with zero body fat and he is jumping out of his skin with energy and he is always pleasant. If I had to live with several missing teeth, I would not be pleasant. Another thing about Eddie, he smells good. When I pass Eddie, I ride through a little cloud of lavender, which is odd on a man. Sometimes it's rosemary. I said hi to Eddie almost every day during the spring. One morning in early summer he saw me coming and started jumping up and down yelling at me from blocks away. "Eddie got a bike! Eddie got a bike!" Eddie had a bike. I had to brush back a tear of joy for Underpass Eddie. The first time I saw someone else with Eddie's bike I was about to call the police. Then the dude rolled up to Eddie and the others standing in line for breakfast. I've seen all of them on Eddie's bike and it seems like Eddie is always walking around with a busted tire tube.
I ding my bell at the breakfast line but I ride far left when I go by there because one time a guy threw a Bible at me. The Bible-thrower is not my favorite. Granted, it was not a malicious overhanded pitch, it was a mischievous frisbee toss. I think he was trying to put it in my basket, but it flew in front of my face and landed in the street on my left. It startled me and caused me to wobble and that pissed me off. If someone knocks me off my bike with a Bible there's going to be a fucking holy war. When I pass the Bible-thrower I give him the evil eye and he chuckles. I was at his elbow one day buying bacon at the Auburn Market. He didn't recognize me off of my bicycle. I have no business buying bacon, but some mornings all of downtown smells like bacon and it drives me to bacon-buying. The bacon cloud starts at the Market and spreads over the pay-day loan shop and up to Sister Malina's, the spiritual healer and advisor. Another bacon front hangs in the street around the Georgia State Cafeteria. Then when I turn north on Peachtree Center Avenue, there is a bacon breeze coming down from all those fancy hotel breakfast buffets. The Bible-thrower ordered his bacon first. He smelled like spray paint and had black paint on his fingers. I wondered if the Bible-thrower had something to do with the new big black cross spray-painted under the interstate with a date written below. It was exactly the same as the one on Keisha's palm.
Not everyone down there is poor. I was offered cash for services once. A white man stood up grinning and hooting when he saw me coming. I couldn't hear what he was saying because he was across the street, so he resorted to universal sign language. He got his wallet out and pointed it at me, and then he pointed it at his dick. Maybe I don't look like other bike commuters, but when is the last time you saw a whore on a bicycle?
I used to worry a lot about getting a flat tire under the interstate in the dark. Then I stopped worrying about it and never thought about it again until it happened. I was coming home from a date at a gallery on the West End. On the way there, I rode by the black cross and noted that the date written on the wall would start at midnight. It gave me the willies. My date had hand sanitizer in his pocket and that gave me the willies, too. At the end of the evening I shook his hand and he said, "Be careful!" At least then I had my favorite rant to keep me company on the way home: When did the U.S. standard issue farewell become "Be careful"? What happened to "Good night"? What the hell happened to "Happy trails"? I'm sick of the fear-mongering that has infected my country. Hand sanitizer is going to be the death of our nation. Purell is creating a country of people who are afraid of door knobs, who are driving private tanks into the city and acting like they're in an enemy-occupied war zone. No matter how carefully you live, you are going to die. There is really nothing to be done about dying, but there is everything to be done about living! The clock is ticking, "Live, live, live!" And that is what I was thinking when my front tire blew out and I fell off of my bike in the street just on the west side of the interstate bridge at a quarter to midnight.
A crowd the size of the breakfast line was gathered around the black cross painted on the wall. They were looking at me, sprawled on the street in my date-hopeful black dress. My skinned knees and torn stockings were illuminated in the strobe of my bike light. My basket popped open and my purse spilled out. My phone skittered across the asphalt and into a puddle in the gutter. I picked up my bike and my purse and I reached for my phone. But my phone wasn't in a puddle of water, it was in a puddle of piss. The Bible-thrower's drunken laugh echoed from the dark under the bridge, followed by a chorus of snickers and the dulled clink of 40 ounce bottles in paper bags.
I left the phone. The safe light of Vesuvius Pizza glowed just on the other side of the interstate but there was no way I was walking under the bridge. A light was on at Sister Malina's. My plan for a flat tire was to call a taxi, not a spiritual healer and advisor, but her window did say "All Problems Solved." I peered through the curtains before I rang the bell. Two women were seated at a table holding hands and praying, one of them was Keisha. I glanced back at the bridge. No one was chasing me. I could wait a minute to panic. I could let them finish praying before I rang the bell. I read all the things painted on Sister Malina's windows. She offered a lot of services. Marriage Candles to marry your lover, Anointed Oils to make him faithful, Blessed Prayer Cloths to protect from jealous enemies and Blessed Prayers to reveal God's plan for your life. In the center of these was painted a big white X and it said Uncrossings.
I saw two figures coming toward me from the interstate and I rang the bell. Sister Malina and Keisha looked toward the door but did not move. I was about to ring again, when I recognized the kisser on Eddie's bike and Eddie trotting beside him. "Eddie! Am I glad to see you!" Eddie shushed me. He whispered, "Eddie's gonna fix that tire and you gonna get outta here. Get away from that window, Keisha's in there. It's almost her date. She'll be loose in a minute, heaven help us." He shot a worried glance at the kisser and the growing crowd under the interstate. The kisser said, "Yeah. You need to get away from here tonight, baby doll." He patted me on the head. The kisser smelled like bay leaves and peanut butter. I whispered, "What do you mean, it's her date?" Eddie popped my tire off and said nothing. The kisser whispered back, "It's her death date. There's about to be a crazy party. Keisha'll be gettin' what ever Keisha wants."
"How did she get her death date?" I asked.
"She bought it." said the kisser.
"Sister Malina sells death dates? No way. Is she always right?"
"No," said the kisser, "But Sister is right sometimes, and that's why she's been in business for 30 years. I seen her been right twice. She was right about Bobo and Little Sam. Their marks are painted on the wall at Pal's Lounge, they're covered up in X's scratched in the brick. There are other markers, too, but Sister's dead are special. You can ask them for favors. People draw X's and leave something. Pal's mama got scared of those X's and don't want Sister's dead over there no more."
"There are X's on Marie LaVeaux's grave in New Orleans," I said. "They draw X's and leave a cigarette or booze and ask her for something."
The kisser nodded, "Same thing, but poor people in Atlanta get buried in Palmetto so we can't never go to their graves."
"Where's Palmetto?" I asked.
The kisser shrugged, "Who the fuck knows."
Eddie pulled a piece of glass out of my tire and found the hole in the tube. He had a patch kit in his pocket. "My air pump is inside Sister's," he said. We'll get it when Keisha comes out." I thanked him and said, "Eddie, you always smell so good. You smell like lavender." Eddie snorted, "That's because I'm always screwing up and having to start over." He nodded at the kisser, "He's all the way to the bay oil." The kisser was proud. "I'm all the way to the bay oil, baby doll. Me and Eddie's gettin' uncrossed. We gonna do it this time. Ain't we, Eddie? Keisha gave up on gettin' uncrossed. Shit, Keisha's crossed in so many ways it's a wonder her eyes ain't crossed. She ain't been right since she got busted smoking crack inside of Martin Luther King's head. Guess you can't uncross stupid."
"Keisha ain't stupid," Eddie snapped.
A large sculpture of Martin Luther King's head is on the corner of Auburn Avenue and Fort Street, across from Thelma's Kitchen. If you stand inside his head and look through his eyes you see the interstate and the people who live under it, you see Pal's Lounge and Big Bethel, the church with the blue neon on its steeple that says Jesus Saves.
Keisha stepped out of Sister Malina's and the door closed and locked behind her. She was in her blue dress and pink socks and she was high as a kite. In one hand she was swinging a six-pack of PBR tallboys with two missing, in the other hand was Eddie's bicycle pump. She looked at the three of us and giggled. "Eddie, you smell like a woman. Kisser, you smell like some kind of fucked-up jambalaya. Baby doll, you the weirdest lookin' whore we ever seen down here. That workin' for ya?" and she gestured at my bicycle. "Hey! Y'all want a beer? I got money and I'll be pissed if I die with a dime in my pocket." Keisha held a beer out toward me. I said, "Thank you, but no. I need to get home." She said, "I know that's right. You best get your happy ass outta here. Eddie! You're gonna have a few with me tonight, aren't you?" Eddie hesitated. "Oh, for Christ's sake, Eddie. You gettin' uncrossed for beer and cigarettes again? Beer and cigarettes wreckin' your life? If you're gonna wreck your life, pick somethin' better than beer and cigarettes." Then a softness came to Keisha's eyes. She was suddenly beautiful. She said, "Eddie, be with me tonight. Then I'll watch over you. I'll send your uncrossing. I promise."
Eddie finished putting air in my tire and handed me my bike. "Get out of here, baby doll. Now. Go around, take Auburn." I did as I was told. I rode away north and turned east at Pal's Lounge. There was Pal's graveyard graffiti wall that I had passed by for months and never noticed. The side of the building was full of spray-painted names and dates, drips running grimly to the ground. A red pealing heart said "Miss you." Two large black crosses dominated the wall, flanked by hundreds of little X's scratched into the brick. Below these were liquor bottles and beer cans, withered stuffed animals and faded plastic flowers. I didn't realize I had come to a stop until I heard the yowls of Keisha's party getting started. I sprinted under the bridge and ran the light at MLK's head. I slowed at Vesuvius and looked back down Edgewood Avenue. The kisser was riding away on Eddie's bike. Eddie was walking with Keisha, and Keisha was dancing.
Chantelle's the captain of the Krewe of the Grateful Gluttons, a group of merrymakers that does playful community arts events like the Beltline Lantern Parade. After a hyper-social spell of ring-leading mania, she enjoys sitting quietly alone and writing. She loves riding her bike as much as the lead character in her story does.