Fiction: They Came With Front Panniers
Adam noticed them the first time he ate at the Jack-in-the-Box. They came with front panniers and always, with one exception, from the North -- their bikes tattered and wisping with bits of fabric tied on here and there, the bulk long blown free before this way-station, so that the steel tubes bristled like ciliates in the wind that blew from the nearby Pacific. They were a couple that first time, the two of them, man and woman, ordering tacos ahead of him in line, the woman with no cheese and the man throwing frequent glances out the window to tether their bikes with his attention.
On his way into the Jack-in-the-Box Adam caught one of the man's nervous glances while staring at the bikes leaned up against the white stucco building, a pair of sentinels guarding the door. He remembers distinctly trying to figure out their shapes, a task made difficult by the swimming threads and stickers and lack of solid color. He wondered, no gasped, at how difficult the purposeful design of such objects would be. So much accumulation, density of experience and knick-knack tied, lashed, taped, glued, and bolted to those bikes. He wanted to explain it as random accumulation, something without order, but he knew it was a severe form of order that had arranged these piebald machines; A severe unplannable order.
It was, he noticed with time, that unplanned order which distinguished these Northern adventurers from their more common counterparts, those of the neon flow that pedaled south along the PCH like a stream of annuals, colorful, seasonal, and always in neat little rows.
He thought that first couple was a fluke. But while the flow of bicycle tourists continued to stream past along the highway, the Jack-in-the-Box on the corner always seemed to skim off the more grizzled of that flow and he wondered about this mystery, inventing explanatory scenarios. Perhaps the owner of this fast food establishment kept a ham radio next to the stockpile of ketchup packets in the back, which he used to relay messages. An order of fries, a couple of tacos and any news from the frontier. Would you let it be known that we've decided to continue on to Guatemala, please? He imagined such transactions pulsing as a separate layer underneath the standard bargain of food purchase.
The mystery was solved by a cyclist from the South. He was tanned, deep brown from head to toe, and wore shorts and sandals. His bare toes were calloused, his long hair streaked with white to match his stubbly grey beard. He showed up alone in early December and it seemed to Adam that he had a wild tropical energy about him, something he carried as fuel for the long push North.
Before the southerner, the mystery remained just that, a mystery. Adam never asked why they came. His mood was never right for making that kind of inquiry. The Jack-in-the-Box was very much a way-station for him as well, though he lived only a five-minute walk from it. The white, cold light of the fluorescent tubes, the uncushioned seats, the standardized menu of food prepared by manual and protocol, all these qualities served to make the Jack-in-the-Box a chamber in which to observe, severed from the connective tissue of his daily routine. It was his blind, a place to watch people and patterns. He'd set up in the back booth under cover and pretense of hunger and watch as people moved through. The rutting behavior of the fraternity crowd, usually drunk or on their way somewhere to become so, dressed in their shabby form of finery, flirting, enjoying the virility and power of their singular motives. Adam watched the hipster herds in their proportion-mangling dress—small dense herds of them wallowing in a form of self-awareness that compelled them to analyze others in order to set themselves apart.
This wildness never noticed his observations. The Jack-in-the-Box claimed no clientele. It allowed no one to derive a sense of place from its pastel walls and clean tables. Graffiti was rubbed clean by morning, employees with attitude were replaced, and loiterers were sent packing. This was a watering hole that could not be owned by frequent patronage or any sense of locality. It gave you food, a place to sit while eating it, and nothing else. No hassle would be given strangers here, and no familiarity to those who came day after day.
The Southerner challenged that aloofness. He arrived in Early December when Balboa Peninsula was burdened under a cold, dense air of coming Winter. The Pacific was grey and horizonless, the ocean breeze turned to a heavy wind that pushed trash and debris across the sand at speeds impossible to catch. In spite of this December, the Southerner did not hunch his shoulders or suck his arms close. His elbows bowed out and he looked at people while he waited in line to order. Adam watched as the Southerner's behavior sent waves of uncomfortable tension through the people in the restaurant. The man sought conversation, interaction, connection, and everyone sensed and avoided it as best they could. When he finally sat down, the crowd settled back into their anonymous comfort.
The man sat in the across from to Adam, his back to the room, face to face with the observer and his blind.
"Saw you lookin' at my bike," the Southerner said.
"It's an interesting bike," Adam said.
"Is there a bike that ain't?"
"I suppose not."
"Where you from?" The Southerner said.
"Just up the hill. What about you?"
"South Dakota, originally. Just come up from Mexico, though. Before that Costa Rica." He took a bite of his hamburger, holding it between his thumb and two fingers, folding it slightly as if he were holding a newspaper. "What do you do up the hill?"
"I go to school," Adam said. "At the UC."
"You like it?"
"That's a shame. Not that we should go around doin' jus' what we like. But a shame nonetheless. Got an interest in bicycles, I notice."
"It gets a grip on ya don't it? It's a dangerous realization these bitch machines can take you anywhere."
"They don't leave no excuses. It's a dangerous path that leaves no excuse for not takin' it. That bike out there don't require of me anything that I ain't ever not had. If you've got time, and folks do even if they don't admit it to themselves, then a bike will take you any place you'd wanna go. Just like that. No excuses. That's a dangerous proposition for a lad without any kids to claim him. Though I seen that too. Whole families out on the road. No excuses." The Southerner stared out the window at his bike and bit at his burger without looking at it. A small palm frond was lashed to the rear pannier, its browning leaves pressed flat by the wind. Wooden beads on a string had been wrapped around the handlebars.
"Why is there always someone like you eating at this Jack-in-the-Box?" Adam said.
"Ain't never been a person like me in this place. Try not to lump the person with the activity. Bad form. But if you mean how come this joint gets so many adventurous types, it's probably on account of the hidden treasure just across that parking lot." He motioned with his half-eaten burger toward the window. "You don't know about Sioux City Bike?"
"Well son, your livin' next to one of the last great bike shops on the West Coast. Tucked right there between that salon and that burrito joint," he said, pointing.
"Where? I've never seen a bike shop over there."
"I said hidden treasure didn't I? The store ain't no wider than its door is, no windows, but Hal, the owner's, got more bikes in there than you'd believe possible. And ain't a one of them new. Most of the sag crowd never stops but Hal's got a reputation amongst the adventurers for havin' what you need when you need it. I hear he's got a bubble fairing, which is what I'm lookin' for. There's a mighty headwind comin' from the North."
The southerner took the last bite of his burger and wadded up the paper on his tray. "look," he said. "I can see you a sittin' here on the bank of the river. But let me tell you. You can't just put in your toe. You gotta jump in. If you don't feel like jumpin' in, you better just walk on back up that hill. Sioux City ain't for the dabblers."
Adam watched him ride off in the dark. When the Southerner had gone, Adam glanced across the parking lot. Between the burrito place and the "Phunked" hair salon was a door, no sign. He'd always thought it was a janitor's closet.
He walked back up the hill with the Southerner's words in his head. "...a reputation for always having what you need," Perhaps I'll stop in tomorrow, Adam thought.b
Keep on reading. The story's continued here...