Oh! Carol

A grown man on a tiny pink bicycle shambled around the corner and collided with a pair of tin trashcans. Buckling over the handlebars, he let out a howl as his torso collapsed into the wastebin, denting it with a loud clank.

Booji began to growl, stirred by the general air of commotion. I calmed him with a few pats on the head. It was a good day for dog walking, a little chilly maybe, but I had on the hat my wife knit. I wasn't the only one she knit for. The dog wore a little yellow sweater. Snug, both of us. A thin layer of snow glittered like sugar along the sidewalk. I stood waiting for the dog to do his business.

Down the street the man wrestled with his bike; the front wheel was pinched into the mouth of a trashcan. As he tried to shake it loose, a housewife dragged a garbage bag to the curb. When the man saw her, he yanked the bike free and wheeled up to her. He said something, extending his palms like a church collection plate. She scowled, shook her head and hurried back indoors.

Maybe I ought to walk in the other direction, I thought. But the dog was still sniffing around, hunting for the right spot. Back legs spread, he waddled his sunken bottom around a telephone pole. I didn't like to interrupt him. I have the same problem sometimes, in public restrooms.

Obviously it was a child's bike, his enormous torso teetering over the handlebars. Training wheels shook against the cement as a flaccid back tire trailed beneath him. The man waved, scooted up like a toddler in his walker.

"Just listen a minute. Please." He had to squat to reach the bike's junior seat, so his knees nearly met his elbows. His eyes were glossy from the cold, just like the dog's. "I'm not a bad guy."

This was a guy. Big guy on a small bike. The zipper broken, a gust of wind blew open his puffy Pittsburgh Steelers jacket. Underneath, he wore pajamas, purple and silk. Not bad, but not outerwear. Thick, wiry mustache hairs hung in tangles over his lips and bushy caterpillar eyebrows rose hopefully on his bald forehead. Diluted in the pallid winter light, his skin was maroon. But I don't mean to say I made any assumptions on account of what he looked like. Here was a guy, poor guy, maybe not a bad one.

"All right," I said, "Let's have it."

"Oh, man. You know what I'm gonna say. Anything you can spare. I been locked out of my house three days, rolling around on this damn bike. The wife--she took my keys, everything. It's all locked, even the garage. Can you believe that?" He tilted his head back and squinted, as if he were watching his married life trail away. "It's a rough patch. She'll cool off in a few days."

"Golly. I don't know," I said. I really didn't.

"I just got to get something to eat. Understand? Nothing much." He bent over and ran his hand along the pooch's back, rubbed under his chin.

"His name's Booji," I said.

"My wife's name is Carol," he said. "I'm not a bad guy. See?" He pointed to Booji, who nuzzled into the man's armpit and chortled. The dog has a keen nose, but even I smelled it: a public restroom aroma, urinal cakes and cheap paper towels.

"It's a Basenji--African Barkless."

The man smiled. "Barkless. I wish my wife were." As he stepped off his bike, he looked a little embarrassed, as if he just now realized he'd been riding a little girl's bicycle.

I took a nice gander at it: pink tassels raining from the handlebars, a shiny horn, Hello Kitty sticker on the plastic license plate, even a baseball card in the spokes. "You've got kids," I said.

"They're not mine." He looked past me, at a couple of college students walking hand in hand, talking. He was thinking maybe those folks would be of more help to him, I bet. "I treat 'em like my own flesh and blood. It don't bug me."

"That's nice," I said. "Kids are nice."

"Yep." He was losing interest. "Just five, sir. A couple bucks. I've been in the streets three days almost. She locked me out. We're having couples trouble. We're going through a rough patch. It'll work out."

"You said that."

The man gazed down by Booji, who'd finally done his business. "That's all it is," he pointed, "one harmless stain on the whole white of marriage." It was almost poetic, and I told him so. "Thanks," he said, " I'm a romantic, not a bad guy."

Now Booji jerked at the leash, so eager he choked a little on his collar. The man crouched down and cradled the pooch on his knees. "You like old Barry, don't you," he said. Booji licked his face and nipped at his mustache. "My name," he said and stood. "That sound like a bad guy's name?"

"Nope." I had to admit that it didn't. "Any friends you can call, maybe stay with until things blow over?"

"Aw, I'm in the doghouse with everybody lately. All misunderstandings, right?" he said. "Hell, him and me"--he nodded at Booji--"could be roommates."

The man leaned stiffly against the bike. Maybe he was wondering whether he should take off or stick around. At first I didn't know what to say.

I thought of my wife. You go through a lot in a marriage. There are some things you tell your wife and some things you don't. I don't know that I'm any expert. Right now she was curled up on the couch, probably, wrapped in blankets and watching TV. Certainly, the doors to the house were unlocked.

"Gee," I said, " I'd really like to help you. Really. But it's not fair unless I get your wife's version of the story. Is it?" I retrieved my cell phone from the inside pocket of my peacoat. "Why don't you call her?"

"She's at work," he said, punching in the numbers. I could hear the ringing from the earpiece. It's a noisy phone. "Here," he handed it to me, "You talk to her."

On the sixth ring she answered, through all those telephone wires and sound waves. It sounded so close. Distant but near, like some marriages. She said hello and then the name of a company I'd never heard of. I asked if it was Carol speaking and she said it was. "Is this one of Barry's friends?"

"I don't know. I wanted to talk to you about that." I explained everything to her. She didn't like it.

"Why don't you ask him what it's about," she growled.

"Truth be told, I think it's more pertinent coming from you." She remained silent, but didn't hang up. She sighed, her breath clouding the receiver. Finally, I asked her if she wanted to talk to Barry. She said no but she'd better anyway so he'd leave this poor man alone. She was talking about me. I was the poor man.

I gave the phone to the man, the man who had ridden the little bike for three days, who had ridden that bike into a rough patch, who was starving and in the doghouse, not a bad guy. The man held the phone to his ear. He didn't say anything, just listened.

The dog, good old Booji, was digging through the snow in a temper tantrum, snaking his head around and trying to shake loose from the leash. Booji hates standing. With him, it's either running or sleeping, no in-between. When I didn't relinquish the rope, he began to yodel. That's what barkless dogs do. They yodel.

The man was talking to Carol now--only kind of. "Oh, Carol, please baby," he said, "Oh, oh, oh. Come on. Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh." That's what he said. Oh oh oh oh oh oh. Maybe he was crying but I didn't see any tears. The funny thing is, it sounded just like Booji's yodeling. I couldn't tell the difference. As the man yodeled, he looked up at the clouds and his cheeks drooped like an old dog's ears. I was tempted to scratch his chin. Booji always likes that.

After a few minutes of this, he put the phone to his chest and said, "She wants to talk to you."

I took the phone back. Hello I said and she said hi. Carol sighed and then asked me if I was married. I told her yes. She asked if I had any kids. I told her no, but that we own a nice Basenji named Booji. She chuckled a little. She liked the name. Finally she asked me if I loved my wife. Of course, I told her, more than anything.

Then Carol told me what Barry had done. That was enough. I thanked her and hung up.

"Now you know what I have to deal with everyday," he said, kicking at a clump of snow.

I didn't say a word. I turned and let Booji lead me away from the man, not a bad guy but not much of anything else.

"Hey!" he yelled, "Don't listen to her. She's on the rag."

I moved faster now, skipping to keep up with Booji. From behind I heard the card slapping the man's bicycle. A motorcycle, to a little kid at least. I stopped and turned to watch him. The pooch whimpered. The man was heading the other way, limp-legged. He staggered left and then wobbled right, as if he weren't sure which way to go. Then he stopped. Leaning his elbows over the handlebars, he buried his chin in his palms and tugged at his mustache, oh-oh-ohing all the while. I'd never seen a lonelier bike in all my life.

"Wait," I said.

The man stopped, almost cowering. I tore the hat off my head and crumpled it in my hands. My wife had given it to me--before she was my wife--on our third date. It wasn't perfect; the fit was a little too snug, and on the coldest days the wind blew right through the loosely knit yarn, stinging me behind the ears. Still, it meant a lot to me. But it was just a hat. I tossed it to him. The man watched it plunge onto the sidewalk and then scraped it up. Holding it between his fingers he said, "Shit. I'm supposed to eat this?"

I didn't need the hat. They're easy to come by. I let go of the leash and watched Booji dive into a snow pile. Snow dust flittered off his wagging tail as I chased him all the way home, where my wife was waiting for us, where I forgot all about the man and his bicycle.

A few weeks later the man was on the news--a picture of him, anyway. He had done something terrible. With the lights out, the TV's fluorescent blue coated the room, filling my wife's pale cheeks with an azure glow. She lay across the couch, her head on my lap. The man's picture flashed on the screen again. He was wearing the hat, his lips forming one big O. I was going to tell her I knew the guy, not a bad one. But I didn't. I don't know why.

About the author:

Luke Geddes lives somewhere in Wisconsin with his girlfriend, Steph, and their cat, Talulah Gosh. Most recently, his work has appeared in Wandering Army and Lit Bits. He is currently at work on a novel set in an alternate reality in which the Dave Clark Five is regarded as the greatest band of all time and the Beatles are barely remembered also-rans in the rock 'n' roll canon.