It was startling to Steven as he turned the corner on that late summer night, the front tire of his bicycle catching the curb and nearly causing a spill as the random activity caught his attention and jolted him from his meditations.
A man was emerging from the driver's side of a car parked in a driveway, standing to meet a woman and a child who were walking toward him from the curb, and he could've sworn that the man was carrying a gun.
And what a contrast this burst of life was when compared to the silence of this suburban neighborhood, lined with single-story brick homes inside which most people his age had the good sense to be in bed in front of the glow of their television sets by now.
But Steven let the scene in that driveway pass over his shoulder with the rest of the neighborhood, giving those people no more significance than he would have given any of the other parked cars and garbage cans and stop signs that he passed with each strong push of his pedals.
He took in a lungful of the night air and enjoyed the freedom of this neighborhood ride. After all, it was his plan all along to tap into this feeling, to rediscover that which made him so happy as a kid to pedal his red Mongoose through his own neighborhood streets. He could still see David and Peter and Clark and Lenny, all getting on their bikes and pedaling alongside him to catch up, as free as any humans could ever be, or would ever be again.
The Mongoose was long gone, and Steven was now riding a brand-new $99.00 Roadmaster that he'd bought over the weekend at the local Wal-Mart. And he had to admit, the bike was taking the imperfections of these streets better than he would've thought. The bike was red, because it had to be red, and the bike looked just as modern and sturdy as all of the other bikes that hung from the racks at Wal-Mart, even the ones that the salesman said were reserved for the more serious cyclists.
He'd therefore expected the bike to fall apart right out from under him by the end of this ride. But by then, the bike would've already served its purpose as the gateway to his remembering. And so he loosened his grip and slid his hands off the handlebars to drive only with his fingertips, turning them ever so slightly to the left and to the right to create those broad, semi-circular patterns from one curb to the other that he loved to make as a boy. And he felt saddened suddenly by the effort that this was all taking, the absolute chore that it was to clear his adult mind just long enough to enjoy the simplicity of this ride.
The sense of wonder that he was attempting to conjure wasn't lasting long, but was rather coming in waves of memory with varying degrees of clarity, images with just enough potency to convince him that if he tried hard enough, he could quite possibly pedal his way all the way back to the beginning.
Steven began to wonder if he should've at least purchased a helmet and some reflective clothing. But that's not what a child riding through the night would even begin to think. And so he pushed the concern to the furthest most grownup corner of his mind with the rest of his adult concerns, the ones that were all fighting for position to get in front of these fresh new ones.
There should be only one concern tonight, Steven thought, and that concern would be to make sure that he filled his tires with just enough air to make all of the jumps that he had planned.
Up ahead, a bump materialized out from the darkness, and so he stood on his pedals and picked up speed to hit the bump and pull up on his handlebars. And as planned, this series of movements sent him up and sailing over a good three feet of untouched concrete before landing with a cushioned bounce, a bounce that required only the slightest correction of his handlebars. This excited him, but a young boy would never celebrate such a small feat as was that jump, would never think to distinguish that jump from any of the other thousands he'd already made or planned to make, and so Steven moved on without fanfare.
Approaching an incline in the street now, Steven could see that he was about to connect with the main boulevard up ahead, and so he stood again on his pedals and picked up just enough speed to make the incline and stand with his bike between his legs. And upon arriving, he marveled at how deserted this boulevard actually was at this time of night, far from the gridlocked morning mess that made a winding trail of fiery windshields all the way down to the Interstate on-ramp. The businesses along this street were lit up as if open, but in fact they were far from it, and Steven folded his arms and stood there with his bike to enjoy this special solitude.
And it was here that he noticed someone else engaged in the same activity at the same intersection, just a few yards over to his left, only he was sitting quietly on a bus-stop bench. The individual sat with his arms outstretched along the back, a large and foreboding man with a bald head, wearing a tattered jumpsuit that revealed an even dirtier, stained undershirt. And leaning against the garbage can was a bike of his own, a red Huffy.
Steven wanted to nod to this person, wanted to acknowledge that perhaps they shared a mutual enjoyment of night cycling. But this man paid him no mind, instead staring out into the night behind what seemed to be a veil of thoughts so thick that it blocked out any awareness of his surroundings. Then his head dropped, and his arms fell from the back of the bench, and within moments this bald giant of a man was standing and reaching for his bike, mounting it finally to pedal off down the sidewalk with a slow and rhythmic cadence.
And that was the last time Steven had ever expected to see this man.
Only the following afternoon, as Steven drove home on his usual route in the stop-and-go wall of red brake lights, he spotted through his passenger's-side window the very same red Huffy bike with its front tire tucked into a bike rack outside of a public library. The bike was parked there by itself, strange to Steven at this early-evening hour, and he wondered if perhaps the bike had been parked there all day. The library was more than likely where the man had worked, but Steven wanted to think otherwise, wanted to believe that the bald giant on the red bike was perhaps some sort of mad intellectual.
Maybe this man arrived at this library every day just to sit quietly and comb through academic journals in his particular field, or maybe he engaged in long shifts of writing that would produce a finished work of his own, a biography, or a novel of fiction.
And so that night Steven took another solitary bike ride to have his questions answered, eventually finding himself at that very same intersection. But the bus-stop bench was empty tonight, the garbage can not working to serve as a prop for the red Huffy bike.
Alone again, Steven thought, alone as the only member of this new club of neighborhood night cyclists.
And Steven would've been content to call it a night right there had it not been for the sudden materialization of the red Huffy, coming up the sidewalk now with the large man rocking slowly from side to side with each casual turn of the pedals. This time the bald giant was wearing a backpack, and immediately Steven figured the bag to be filled with his work, with books and drafts of pages scribbled with red-pen edits. The bike passed directly in front of Steven as he stood there with his bike between his legs, so close to him now in fact that he could see that the man's eyes were still vacant and lost, staring ahead, or perhaps staring at nothing at all.
But within only a few more yards the man stopped pedaling and applied his brakes, sliding off of the bike seat and standing to catch his breath for a moment before leaning his bike against the bus-stop garbage can. He took his seat on the bench, again resuming the posture that Steven had first seen, with both of his arms stretched out along the back of the bench and his chin held up high as if he were a king that was leisurely surveying his sleeping kingdom. Steven held back the urge to approach this man, not wanting to disturb his meditations on some particular subject, or his efforts to work his way out of a potential plot problem in his novel.
Yes, Steven thought, this man was a writer. No other possibility made more sense to him now than this, that the bald-headed man with the red Huffy and the backpack and tattered jumpsuit was in fact a brilliant man who'd chosen to work independent from the world. His solitude, Steven concluded, was more sacred to him than anything else in the world.
But Steven had to know.
Which was why the next afternoon, when Steven saw the bike parked again outside of the public library, he turned out of his gridlocked commute back home and parked.
Still dressed in his workday suit and tie, Steven entered the library and began the pantomime of casually browsing the stacks, placing himself finally just close enough behind the bald giant to observe without his being noticed, watching the man as he sat at one of the public computer cubicles typing away with great agility.
Steven repositioned the books in front of him to make the perfect peephole through which to examine the computer screen over the bald giant's shoulder.
But it was only a video game.
Standing suddenly from his peephole, Steven felt betrayed, embarrassed that he'd given so much credit to this man, thinking that he possessed genius when in fact he was just a lonely man who played video games. No works of great prose were on that computer screen, no indication of any document of any kind. The bald giant was simply, and now tragically so to Steven, just passing his time.
And so as the weeks rolled by following Steven's revelation, he found it odd that he was now seeing the bald giant more than he'd ever. He saw the man no less than a half-dozen times around his neighborhood, at the local supermarket where he spotted him pushing a basket as he gazed at the shelves, on random streets and in scattered parking lots where Steven spotted him pedaling slowly in a circle. Even the red Huffy had become a landmark now, always at the library when Steven passed it every afternoon on his way home from work.
Solitude. Alone at the library. Exploring empty parking lots in the middle of the night.
But as the days went by, Steven began to understand this behavior, and it was precisely what Steven had intended for himself all along. Where Steven had failed trying to tap into that mysterious corner of his mind, this man had now surpassed him in both experience and opportunity. Such was the bald giant's life, a life that began in practice long before Steven had ever thought to attempt such a thing for himself.
And Steven began to wonder if perhaps no one listened to this man as well, if maybe when he spoke, no one even attempted to understand his worldview. He wondered if perhaps the man was being ignored, and if what he was doing now was nothing more than just holding his cards close to his chest. Steven wondered if this man was married, like himself, and he wanted to know if this man had kids of his own, kids who like their mother had established that nothing of any importance would ever come out of his mouth.
It was enough to put Steven back on his bike that very next night to cycle past all of the sleeping storefronts again along the boulevard, out of his neighborhood altogether to ride under the orange glow of the highway overpasses. He'd made it as far the mall, a total of three miles, when out of fatigue and hunger he chained his bike outside of the food court and went inside.
He stopped and stood in the center of the food court, slowly turning to scan his options, trying to find a counter that wasn't being wiped down for the night, when among the scattered shoppers who still remained, Steven spotted the bald giant sitting at one end of a table with the other end hidden behind a column, and he was engaged in some lively discussion. He was speaking with his hands waving expressively before him, his eyes and facial expressions and nods of affirmation telling Steven that the bald giant had in fact some interested company there, if only Steven could see who that company was. But now a janitor was obstructing Steven's view of the other end of the table, lifting a bag out of a trash receptacle and hoisting it over his shoulder to be dropped into a tremendous, rolling barge of a cart.
Steven waited for the mall worker to finish the task and move on, to push that cart away from between where it separated himself and the bald giant's table to reveal what would perhaps give him some idea of what a friend to such a wandering soul would look like, or if he, or even she were no one more than just a fellow vagabond in tattered clothing.
He wanted to join the conversation, if for no other reason than to serve as a gateway to speaking to the man himself, this mysterious bald giant on the bike who it would appear was articulate after all, who had a mind filled with ideas and opinions that he wished to express.
And then the mall worker's cart moved, and with it, so did Steven's expectations.
No one sat listening across from the bald giant, regardless of the fact that the giant was still attempting to explain something, something that seemed to be a story of consolation, a gesture to a friend who was not there at all. The bald giant was smiling as he spoke to this phantom, reassuring it with this gesture that everything was going to be all right.
Steven imagined himself to be sitting across from the bald giant, there in that chair hearing those words of consolation, being told that everything was in fact going to be all right.