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john richmond

New Fiction


by John Richmond

      The hill had intrigued him since he first saw it rise up out of the otherwise flat countryside. It was summer, and he had made the fifty-five mile trip to Arcade so as to spend the weekend with Tom, a friend from college. He had just arrived in town, and decided that he would treat himself to a small, vanilla, custard ice-cream cone, at the local Tastee-Freez. Once he paid for his cone, he took a booth, sat down, pulled out a folded sheet of paper, from the back pocket of his cut-off jeans, and checked the directions, one more time.

                                                                                                R 16- South
                                                                                                cross county line
                                                                                                make L
                                                                                                on SR 39-E
                                                                                                tractor store on L
                                                                                                church on L
                                                                                                STAY STRAIGHT!!!!!
                                                                                                out of town
                                                                                                top of hill
                                                                                                ranch on left

      He always wrote his directions in a vertical format because he believed that it was easier to find his place and read them, not just in general, but particularly in traffic. In fact, he thought that he was quite clever by adding the arrows as aids to the flow. So much so that he began to consider himself some form of travel sophisticated—maybe even travel evolved—subspecies of hominid. They—the lower forms—were stuck in the repetitive routines of trying to read directions written in a primitive, left to right, horizontal script. Repeatedly, ever since he was a kid, he remembered the nearly countless times that he had watched various people pull out crumpled and barely legible “paragraph-style” directions and try to read them either at a soon-to-be-changing traffic light or on an interstate highway.
      “Damn,” he would invariably hear them say before they uttered those critically damning and indicting words of their own note taking style, “Where the hell…” Then, they would frantically scan what he had come to call the Faulknerian paragraph they had written, in a scrawl that could have easily been unearthed from some dead civilization, while at the same time either glancing back and forth up at the light or, in an even more disturbing bumper to bumper at seventy miles-per-hour fashion, simply checking to see if a rear-end impact from an oncoming tractor-trailer was imminent.
      He knew, clearly, that this style was neither useful nor designed to prolong what he defined as one’s “highway mortality quotient.”
      “I should be almost there,” he both affirmed to himself and reassured the fast-disappearing cone.
      He refolded his directions and put them back in his pocket.
      “I’m probably no more than fifteen minutes away,” he told the last piece of sugar cone before he popped it into his mouth.
      He was glad that he had stopped for the cone. It was a welcomed break after the two-hour ride. Now, with only village streets left to drive, he could begin to relax.
      The bike had performed well—flawlessly—but after all it still had only two tires and that alone had made the trip an exercise in the usual—albeit prolonged—diligence.
      He walked out to his bike and started it up. Then, after checking again that his dufflebag was secure and his sunglasses were in place, he pulled the bike out of the gravel parking lot and pointed it east, down the road and into the village.
      The highway soon became a street as it took him past the tractor shop, the church and over the railroad tracks. Once he arrived at the traffic light, he was reminded of his direction to “STAY STRAIGHT!!!!!” Waiting for the light to change he saw how easy it would have been to make the right-hand turn. All the arrows pointed to the right. There was the green turn arrow on the traffic light itself, the metal signage arrows, which were affixed to the telephone pole—and even the business district, seemed like it had forsaken going straight and, instead, made a ninety-degree turn to the right. Finally, the light changed and he continued straight and on through the rest of the village.
      When he arrived at the eastern edge of the village, he saw the hill. No more than fifty yards beyond the last house, it rose up immediately—and surprisingly. It was there, near the base, that he pulled his bike over onto the shoulder so as to admire it.
      He sat there, on his bike, by the side of the road, looked the hill over, from top to bottom, and figured that it had to be at least a half a mile, rising at almost a straight forty-five degree angle from the base to the top. The only variation was a touch of a curve to the road in the last seventy-five yards, right before it reached the bottom. Knowing that his bike was only good for somewhere between fifty-five and sixty on the flat, open road, he understood that he would have to be accelerating going into the hill. Then, with that assessment in hand, he pulled back onto the highway and began his ascent. Once he was on the hill, he opened the throttle, full wide, understanding that before long he would begin to slow and that he would have to downshift at least once to get to the top. His Honda Super Sport was a good bike, but this hill would eventually have him down to around thirty miles per hour.
      As he climbed, he watched and felt the cars effortlessly rush by him, down the hill, in the other direction, with gravity as their companion, their assistant—no matter what their factory engineered horsepower. He watched the look of relief on the driver and sensed an ease of performance in the vehicle as they were, almost, loosened from the bounds of this earth. Free to fly, as it were—or nearly so.
      He settled himself in for a laborious climb, hoping that he wouldn’t have to downshift, too often, but sensing that toward the end it was inevitable.

      His thoughts took him back to another hill, one much shorter in distance and less angled in slope, back to that small stretch of street at the short end of Kenmore Avenue. There, in that ever so short of a distance, he managed, under his own power, to move faster that he had ever done over the preceding thirteen years of his life.

      It was a birthday gift from his father, a brand-new, three-speed, English Racer. He wasn’t sure that he had ever seen a bike like that before; it was almost ugly barely standing on those scrawny tires and that tubular frame. But, a bike was a bike and he had been wanting something that was more in line with being a teenager than that old three-wheeler that had replaced the “kiddie” three-wheeler.
      This new bicycle—this racer—was different from any other two-wheelers he had ever been on. Every bicycle before this one was of the coaster brake variety. Stopping was simple. All you had to do was stop pedaling, apply pressure in a back-pedaling way, and the bicycle would begin to slow- but, not so with the English Racer.
      He discovered, after his first crash, that back-pedaling did not begin to slow the bicycle, in fact, it did nothing. No, on this bicycle, the hand brakes had to be used.
      At first, he wasn’t sure that he liked the idea of having to remember to squeeze to stop. But he learned. He also learned that because of the thin tires, he had to watch for ruts, uneven pavement and definitely potholes. All in all, this learning took him about three weeks. But, once he did learn and once he was out on smooth ground, he could make it move, and move he did. Sometimes too fast, sometimes without checking to make sure that all was secure, that all was safe.
      He remembered the time, when on his way to the foot of Porter Avenue, he cut across the Reese Street playground. It was there, as he plotted a path across the expanse of empty asphalt, that his generator came loose, fell into the spokes of his front wheel, and brought the racer to a sudden and complete stop. Of course, he kept going headlong over the handlebars and onto- or rather into- the unwelcoming and unforgiving blacktop.
      To this day, he can’t recall if he continued on to Porter Avenue. The next thing he remembered, after taking the fall, was sitting on the edge of his bed, and looking in the mirror at the bleeding brushburn on the side of his forehead. Later, he went and checked his racer. He found that the generator had been pulled—angled—out, away from the edge of the tire, and that he had four bent spokes in his front wheel.
      He promised himself that he would be more careful, and he took that promise into the Western Auto store on Grant Street, where he went looking for a speedometer. The reasoning at the time was that if he had a way of knowing how fast he was going, he would be more apt to be more safety-minded.
      He found one, there, back in the bicycle accessory section. Taking it out of the box, he examined it with carefully.
      “Great!” he thought to himself. “Not only is it a speedometer, it has one of those mileage things on it, too!”
      Then he notice the calibration on the speedometer— “0-90”
      “Wow!” he managed out loud. “Zero to ninety!”
      Of course, he immediately realized that he was never going to get the bicycle up to ninety miles an hour, but he hoped that maybe he could get halfway to it. Besides, he now began to wonder how fast he actually could go.
      It was expensive—nine dollars and ninety-five cents—even on his three dollars per week allowance. Normally, it probably would have taken him four weeks to be able to buy the speedometer. But, as fortune would have it, along with the bicycle he also received some money for his birthday. He was set, he didn’t have to wait an entire month.
      He returned home, brought out some of his father’s tools, attached the speedometer and went for what he expected was going to be his first calibrated ride. Slowly, he got the racer moving, but nothing was happening. He wondered if the speedometer was either broken or maybe he just didn’t install it the right way. Determined, he pedaled a little harder.
      “There!” he said. “I think I saw it move!”
      And move it did, shaking—almost nervously—off of zero and spasmodically climbing toward five miles-per-hour with each downward drive of his legs. It took some serious pedaling for him to get the racer above ten miles-per-hour and approaching fifteen.
      “Geez!” he exclaimed. “There’s got to be something wrong with the thing! I’ll fix it when I get home. It can’t be working right.”
      After his “test-run” he tried to forget about his speedometer. But, it had his attention. It called him back and he began to think about what he should do. He had to know if it was working. It made no sense to take it back to the store—he didn’t even know if it was broken! He didn’t want to take it apart—that might really mess it up. No, he knew that he had to test it, and the only way to do that was to enlist Joey, his best friend, to help.
      The speedometer test was going to be a relatively simple task. All that was involved was for Joey to straddle the racer and pull the front tire up off of the ground by holding up the handlebars. Jack, in turn, would begin to spin the tire, faster and faster, and Joey would call out the miles-per-hour.
      “You ready?” Jack asked.
      “I’m ready.”
      Jack looked back at Joey. “Are you sure you’re holding it good, real tight?”
      Joey nodded, “I think so.”
      Jack decided that he would start spinning the tire slowly, in order to give Joey a chance to get used to holding the bicycle.
      “Ready?” Jack asked, again.
      “Remember, keep telling me how fast I’m spinning.”
      “I will.”
      Jack began to spin the wheel.
      “What am I at?” he called to Joey.
      “It’s barely moving. Faster!”
      Jack worked to spin the wheel faster, and, then, the needle began to move.
      “ You’re at five…ten… fifteen!” Joey called out.
      The wheel was moving and Jack’s hands were moving, but only one of them was beginning to get tired. Jack stopped.
      “Aw! Why’d you stop?” Joey called out.
      “I’m tired. I can’t spin any faster. How high did it go?” Jack asked.
      Jack nodded his head. “So it does work.”
      “Sure it works,” Joey agreed. “But where are you going to ride where you can get it going that fast or faster?”
      “We need a hill,” Jack replied.
      Joey laughed. “A hill?”
      “There are no hills around here. They’re all down by camp.”
      Jack shook his head. “No, there has to be some hills around, somewhere.”
      Joey thought. “There’s that little one, on Military—where it goes under the tracks—before Hertel.”
      Jack acknowledged what Joey was talking about, but countered, “It’s too small, I wouldn’t be able to go fast enough. Think about some more places where the streets go under the tracks,” he encouraged.
      Joey and Jack thought in a form of expanding concentric circles from where they were standing. They dismissed the trestles on Amherst, Austin, Elmwood, and Delaware. Niagara Street had one, down where it went under the Squaw Island Bridge and although it was long enough it was not steep enough. They considered Hertel Avenue, then Skillen until they finally got out far enough on Military Road to mentally reach “that little side road,” on the left, at the first light after Kenmore Avenue.
      “That’s Kenmore Avenue,” Jack informed Joey.
      “It’s not,” Joey countered. “Kenmore Avenue starts at that first light after Skillen!”
      Jack shook his head. “That’s what you think. I’m telling you that the little road under the tracks is the short end of Kenmore Avenue.”
      Joey was dumbfounded. “How can that be the same street? They’re not even connected! It’s like it’s a couple of blocks away?”
      “I don’t know why it’s like that,” Jack said shrugging his shoulder. “Only thing I know is that’s what it’s called.”
      Joey was not convinced. “I’m going to have to see the street sign.”
      “Yeah, sure, sure, let’s take a ride over there.”

      He was almost three-fourths of the way up the hill and his speed was dropping below thirty-five miles per hour. Off and up to the left he could see the ranch, built into the side of the hill.
      “Come on, come on,” he coaxed his bike. “We’re almost there, you can do it without both of us looking like idiots.”
      He checked his rearview mirror to see if he was going to have to pull over to the extreme right side of the lane and waive a car past him. There was no one behind him.
      Another car crested the hill and rushed past him. His thoughts went back to the short end of Kenmore Avenue.

      It took them only about thirty minutes to pedal up Military Road, cross out of the city and into Kenmore. Now, that they were past the foundries that lined the city side of Military, they practically eliminated the dangers posed by the trucks pulling in and out of the loading bays.
      “How much further?” Joey called from his bicycle.
      “After this light, it’s the next one, past the bus barn,” Jack told him. “You remember, it’s on the left.”
      They pedaled for not more than another five minutes and arrived at the intersection of the short end of Kenmore and Military Road. They stopped and straddled their bicycles at the corner.
      “There! See!” Jack emphatically told Joey, pointing up at the street sign that read, “Kenmore Avenue.”
      Joey shook his head. “That’s messed up. Why would the street continue a quarter of a mile from where it ends?”
      “Who knows,” Jack replied. “But look, there’s the hill!”

      The hill was taking its toll on his miles per hour. They were dropping; thirty-two, thirty-one, twenty-nine, twenty-five.
      “Damn!” he uttered. “I might as well just get off and walk it up the hill.”
      In fact, the truth was that he was not that far- in miles per hour- from doing exactly that.

      “Wow!” Joey exclaimed. “It’s great!”
      Jack surveyed the hill, taking in all that was and was not happening. It was a hill of about a little more that an eighth of a mile long. It was steep- and probably dug out- in order to allow tractor trailers enough room to pass under the viaduct. Lastly, there was one, maybe the most, important thing- there was practically no traffic.
      Trucks coming under the viaduct from the other end—the west end—invariably had to creep through so that they didn’t hit a bump and then find themselves pinned between the street and the viaduct. The cars, since they had to follow the slow and careful moving trucks, generally, tried to avoid this part of Kenmore Avenue.
      Back at the intersection, Military Road was flat enough in both directions that you could see everything that was coming for at least half a mile.
      What this all meant was that he had a chance, an opportunity, to push his bicycle, push his speedometer—push his nerve—and see how fast he could go.

      He was down to twenty-four miles per hour, twenty-three, twenty-two—he shuddered to think that he would have to drop the bike into first gear which would have to happen at about fifteen miles per hour. The house was just ahead, probably not more than fifty yards. This time, he looked over his shoulder at the road behind him. Nothing.
      “I’m glad this is a small town,” he said through clenched teeth.
      Twenty-one, twenty, nineteen miles per hour—his speed continued to drop. The hill was exacting its toll.
      It was now becoming a race; not of speed, but of distance and time. Would he reach the driveway before he had to shift into first gear? Forty-five, forty, thirty-five, thirty, twenty-five yards- he was almost across from the driveway.
      “I guess this is time,” he advised himself and dropped his bike into first gear.
      The bike lurched down to fifteen miles per hour. He put his head down for a moment to see if he could smell the bike beginning to overheat. No, not yet. So far, so good.
      The driveway was now only ten yards ahead of him. He glanced quickly over his shoulder, saw nothing, signaled a left, then pulled across the road and into the driveway.

      They both stood, straddling their bicycles, at the intersection of Military and Kenmore, and examined the hill.
      “That’s a good hill,” Joey said. “You should really be able to see how fast you can get that speedometer up to.”
      “It’s better than I thought,” Jack agreed.
      “You want to give it a try?” Joey asked.
      Jack thought for a moment. “No, not yet. Let’s just go down it slowly to see if there are any potholes or cracks- things like that.”
      “Good idea.”
      With that understanding the two boys rode down the hill, riding their brakes most of the way.

      He parked his bike, turned off the engine and walked over to the edge of the property where he had a good view of the hill.
      “Wow,” he admitted, “that was a bitch to get up. Any longer and I would have had to pull over and give the bike a rest.”
      In rapid fashion, though, his mind left the mechanical demands—labors—of climbing the hill and began to entertain a descent.
      “I’ll bet you can really pick up some speed going down it, though.” It was here, at this point, that the hill went from being intriguing to being a fixation on the road to an obsession.

      How fast do you think that you can get it up to?” Joey asked once they crested the short rise on the other side.
      “I don’t know,” Jack began, looking back. “It’s steep, but it’s not that long. I don’t know.”
      “Are you going to try it, today?”
      “I’m not sure,” Jack said, staring back down the hill. “I’m not sure.”

      Immediately, he thought of starting the bike up, again, and giving it a run down the hill. The only thing that kept him from doing it was not the ride down but the fact that once at the bottom he would have to turn around and ask a mechanically tired machine to take him back up to the top a second time.
      “I’m going to give it a couple of minutes so that the engine can cool down,” he said.
      He looked over at the house. Everything was quiet. It seemed as if he had arrived just a little bit early.
      “They’re all probably back down at the tractor shop,” he said with a touch of admonishment. “I should have stopped there first on the way through town.”

      They rode their bicycles back under the viaduct and up to the corner of Military and Kenmore.
      “So, what are you going to do?” Joey asked with excited anticipation.
      “I’m not sure,” Jack replied.

      He was and he wasn’t sure; he was sure that he would take his bike down the hill, but he wasn’t sure if it was going to be now, later—or even today.

      “There isn’t a lot of traffic,” Joey offered.

      “This would be the perfect time,” he said, trying to convince himself. “There’s almost no traffic. I could go back down to the shop and spend some time—that would give the engine a rest.”

      “No, there isn’t a lot of traffic,” they both said.

      He stood at the edge of the driveway and recalled the time he rode down the hill at the short end of Kenmore Avenue. Back then, he didn’t know what was in store for him- this time he did.

      “So, are you going to do it or not?” Joey asked for what he thought was the umpteenth time.
      “I’m going to do it,” Jack replied.

      “I’m going to do it,” he told himself.

      “I need you to watch for traffic,” Jack said to Joey.
      “Sure! What do you want me to do?”
      “Go to the edge of the corner and look both ways. First, see if there are any trucks coming- at all. Then see if there are any cars coming with their turn signals on. Okay?”
      “Okay,” Joey answered and headed for the corner.

      He walked out to the edge of the driveway and looked west, down the hill toward the village. There was nothing. Next, he walked east, to the crest of the hill, so as to be able to see if there was any traffic coming from the east. There was nothing.
      “Nothing like a quiet little town,” he laughed.

      Jack gauged the hill, trying to determine what spot on the hill would give him the most speed. He decided that he would stay about four feet to the right of the center of the street because the asphalt on the street was put down in four separate sections, and doing it this way would put him almost right in the middle of one of the sections.

      “I’d want to see what was coming behind me, but I wouldn’t want to start the run from the east side of the hill,” he reasoned aloud. “No, it would be better to start right at the crest and build up speed going down.”

      “Are you going to do it?” Joey asked.
      “I’m thinking about it.”
      “When are you going to know?”
      “Jack looked over at Joey. “Don’t rush me, okay?”
      “Okay, okay.”

      “I guess that I should check to see if anyone is home,” he said while he mulled over his near—but not complete—certainty of what he was thinking of doing. “It would be the polite thing to do.”
      Once again, he looked over the yard and the house; no cars or trucks in the yard, windows open— “…but, hey, this is a small town…” he reminded himself, “…they trust each other…”
      He walked to the front porch, climbed the stairs and rang the doorbell. Then he waited. There were no sounds coming from inside until he heard the telephone ring. He listened. Two rings, four rings—six rings—no one answered, the caller hung up.
      “Obviously,” he concluded, “they’re not home.”
      He turned from the door and looked at the hill.

      “Okay, I’m going to do it,” Jack told Joey, with a near-fatalistic finality.
      “That’s great!” Joey exclaimed.
      Jack laughed. “Yeah, great for you to watch, but not so great for me if I hit a crack or a hole.”
      “But I thought you checked for them?”

      “I suppose it’s all right, just as long as I don’t catch a crack or hit a rock.” He worked to convince himself as he walked over to his bike.
      “I’m glad there’s that little stretch before I get back into town,” he strategized. “It would be a real bitch to cross into a thirty mile-per-hour zone doing sixty, and get a ticket my first day here.”
      Standing alongside his bike, he bent over and placed his palm closer and closer to the engine, to feel for heat. It was hot but not overheated.
      “Okay, I guess it’s time to go.”

      “It’s okay, I checked pretty good. I’m going to try it,” Jack declared in as certain of a voice as he could muster at thirteen years old.
      “Go to the corner,” he instructed Joey, “and watch for trucks and cars.”
      “Sure!” Joey said and pedaled for the corner.
      In the meantime, Jack picked a place, a spot—a starting point—along the curb from which he would start.

      He squatted next to his bike and felt the engine, one more time.
      “Seems like she’s ready to go,” he said as he stood up and mounted the bike.
      “Now all I have to do is actually do it,” he encouraged himself and then started up the bike. He drove the bike down the driveway, up the shoulder of the westbound lane and over the eastern crest of the hill.
      “It would probably be best if there was no traffic coming in either direction,” he decided.

      Jack heard Joey calling to him, and looked back over his shoulder.
      “Go! Go!” Joey called from the corner. “It’s clear!”
      “I’m not ready yet!” Jack shouted back at Joey. “Keep telling me!”
      There seemed to be a pattern to the traffic, particularly coming from beneath the other- the west- side of the viaduct. Jack quickly figured that the light on the other side resulted in what he termed “a bunch” of cars coming under and then nothing coming under. He realized that the safest way for him to go down the hill was probably when there was no traffic. It was one thing to fall after hitting a crack or a pothole but he wasn’t interested in losing control of his bike and running into a car or a truck.
      No, Jack understood that there was a pattern to the traffic, the only thing that he had to wait for was for Joey’s signal and the pattern to happen at the same time.

      He sat on his bike waiting for the traffic to clear in both directions. The town was small enough and the traffic was light enough that he knew that he wouldn’t have to wait that long.

      After a number of traffic pattern sequences, Jack knew that he was getting to the beginning of another “no traffic” pattern from the west side of the viaduct. Joey had signaled a couple of times already, and Jack checked, again, to make sure that the traffic pattern was really what he thought. It was. He was ready.
      Now, he waited for Joey’s next signal. In his mind, he knew that he would start pedaling hard and then immediately head for his path of choice just to the right of the middle of the road.

      He sat on his bike at the crest of the hill and looked back to the east. There was nothing in sight. Then, he looked down the hill toward the village. Nothing in this direction, either.

      Joey signaled. “Go! Go!” waving his arms.
      Jack thrust down on the pedals and began his ride toward the hill.

      He pulled the bike up off the shoulder and began accelerating down the hill.

      Jack glanced at his speedometer. It began to move as he slipped over the crest and down the hill; five, ten—fifteen miles per hour.

      The bike began to pick up speed easily and rapidly; twenty-five, thirty-five- fifty miles per hour. He had never had the bike faster than sixty-five miles per hour, and he was wondering what speed he would ultimately reach by the time he started getting closer to the bottom of the hill.

      Jack pedaled harder and sunk lower behind his handlebars. His glances at the speedometer now were beginning to become a steady vigil, looking up just long enough to check the street for cracks, potholes, cars and trucks. The bicycle passed twenty, then twenty five—

      —then fifty-five, sixty, seventy miles per hour—he opened the throttle up completely-

      —thirty, thirty-five miles per hour- he was right at that point when he could no longer pedal the bicycle any faster. Once again, he looked at the speedometer, forty-one miles per hour!

      He hunkered down a little lower on the long seat so as to reduce the wind resistance. Seventy-five, eighty, eighty-five, ninety—he knew that he was going to have to start pulling up before he reached the village line—ninety-two miles per hour.

      “Wow!” they exclaimed at the bottom of their respective hills as they began to slow their two-wheelers. “Wow.”

      Now, safely at the bottom of their hills, they knew- considering the speed that they were going and the size of their tires—that they were on the human, living, side of reality only due to chance.

      Jack looked back over his shoulder.

      He looked back in his side mirrors.

      Their “hills” were still there, though, looming somewhat less large than they had just minutes before.

      They rode on with little way of knowing that they would see and would drive these hills, again, but never in the same way that they did, today.

      John Richmond has “wandered” parts of North America for a good portion of his life. Along the way, he has not only seen a good number of things but he has also lived with—for varying lengths of time—an equally good number of people.
      These “wanderings” have taken him from a small fishing village (population 400) to Chicago and New York City. That which “fell in-between” were the people in cities and towns he lived in across Georgia, New York State, North Carolina and Tennessee.
      Most recently, John Richmond has appeared in Riverbabble, Lalitamba, Poetic Diversity, Marco Polo Arts Magazine, Embodied Effigies, ken*again, Black & White, SNReview, The Round, The Potomac, Syndic Literary Journal, Ygdrasil (Canada), Slow Trains, Forge Journal, and is forthcoming in From The Depths, and Kerouac’s Dog Magazine (U.K.).

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