Benny's Story by SandyX: A Curious Vehicle

portrait by Linn

A bicycle is a curious vehicle. Its passenger is its engine.  
John Howard, Olympic Cyclist 

 

Benny coasted down the tree-lined path, weaving his way through strollers and yapping dogs and came to a stop in front of Darryl Kimzey’s hot dog stand. A rainy morning had turned into a sunny afternoon and city-dwellers and tourists spilled into the park. The middle-aged vendor with the crooked smile dispensed his wares from under the shade of his large yellow and blue umbrella. On seeing Benny, Darryl pulled a paper sack from the lower compartment of his shiny stainless-steel cart while a young woman with two small children retrieved payment from her purse. “What’s up Boss?” he called out to Benny as he accepted a handful of bills and coins from the customer.

“I’m starving. Give me one with the works,” he said, rubbing his hands together in anticipation. “The park’s packed today,” he commented as talking couples and laughing children streamed by.

“Crowds are good.” Darryl opened two steamer compartments, extracting a hot dog and a bun. “I’ll take a rainy morning any day. It brings ‘em out and brings ‘em out hungry.” A squirt of spicy mustard down either side of the dog, a slather of sauerkraut on top. He handed the steaming frankfurter across to Benny. “I bet they get in your way.”

“The people?” Benny took a bite of the hot dog and shook his head. “Nah. They make things interesting,” he said, looking at his watch. “Gotta run.” He took another bite and wiped some mustard from the corner of his mouth.

“Don’t forget these,” Darryl said, handing Benny the paper sack.

Benny pulled a small stack of envelopes from the bag and shuffled through them before tucking the missives into the courier pack slung over his shoulder. Not too bad. He inserted a sneaker-clad foot into a pedal cage and pushed off. Two for uptown, plus these. Sliding the toes of his other foot into its respective enclosure and continuing the motion ‘round as he pressed his weight against the crank arm, pumping. One … two … three … there. He sat back in the saddle, adjusted the volume on his Walkman and got into his rhythm. It’ll be a short day if nothing else comes up. He crossed Central Park and headed further uptown. Coast … shift … the free wheel’s whirr and rattle as the derailleur tugs the jockey wheel … once around with the pedals to coax the chain to its new gear, each motion magnified now, each push and pull larger. He cut across traffic and shot through to a westbound route, breezing past a snarl of cabs in his lane-between-lanes, a free-flowing white-lined river  amidst boulders of moribund steel. Whoa! He leaned out and swiped closed the opening door of a light blue sedan. No doors in my river, please.

His fingers extended out over the brake levers at the sight of a familiar figure. Rubber eased against steel as his legs moved to a backward pedal - a habit with no effect except to continue the motion, prolong the shuffle. He bumped over the curb and came to a stop.

***


“Hi’ya Gorgeous.”

“Hey, Benny,” the beautiful blond greeted him with a grin as she descended from her perch at the top of the brownstone stoop to join him on the sidewalk.

Occasionally running into Cathy Chandler was a perk of the job. He liked her. Besides being easy on the eyes, there was an honesty about her that was nice and she had an ease of affection towards the kids playing in the street and gangly bike messengers who delivered papers to her father.

“You’re still here,” he said. He’d talked to her often enough to know she was headed to law school soon and she wasn’t real excited about it.

“I am,” she replied matter-of-factly. She leaned close and lifted one of the headphone pads from his ear, listening. He waited, not minding the sudden closeness. “Stravinsky?” she asked, sounding a little incredulous.

He shrugged, ignoring her query. “When’s the big day?”

“We drive up Friday,” she said, still looking puzzled about the Stravinsky thing. “The girls are picking me up for one last goodbye to the lazy days of summer.” Now she was eyeing his wheels. “Benny, how did you become a messenger?”

“Someone gave me a bike and I started riding,” he replied. That was the truth of it. Fire-engine red with shiny chrome banana bars. 15 years old and I was suddenly on top of the world.

“Not your parents?”

“No, not my parents.” He could guess what she was thinking. Charles Chandler was a successful lawyer who wanted his daughter to follow in his footsteps. “Does he have your name engraved on the office door yet?”

Cathy laughed. “I thought we were talking about you.”

“You could do something else,” he suggested.

“I don’t really want to do anything else. It’s not that I don’t like law …” They watched the traffic  in front of them make improbable progress through a bottleneck created by a delivery truck stopped on one side of the street and the residents of a neighboring brownstone disembarking from a hired car on the other. “Maybe I’d be happier if it had been my own idea, though,” she said. “What did your parents have in mind for you?”

“Picture these in tights,” he said, pointing down at his skinny denim-clad legs.

Cathy looked down and scowled. “Why have you evoked this image?”

He laughed at her reaction and suddenly felt a little naked. “My mom and dad are dancers ….”

“Stravinsky!” She said, lighting up with the triumph of an ah-ha moment.

“The music stuck.”

“You studied?”

“Two years with Madame Cosenza.” He held up two fingers in a “V for Victory” gesture because he did consider surviving those two years a victory of sorts. “Poor Madame Cosenza,” he added with an exaggerated frown.

“That bad?”

He was horrible. His parents made it look easy. Their every move was grace. He had seen them defy gravity. But, impossibly, two gazelles had produced a moose. It just wasn’t going to work. “I was … inelegant,” he said in imitation of Madame’s Italian accent. “My folks took mercy on me and let me quit.”

“Was it a disappointment?”

He thought back on the failed attempts to train untrainable feet. “Yeah,” he said, “I guess it was.”

“You know … Benny,” Cathy started, sympathy evident in her eyes. “I’ve seen you ride …”

A taxi pulled up to the curb. “Hey, Cath — “

“I’ll be right there,” she responded over her shoulder. “They’re waiting for me,” she said, motioning to the idling cab. “You can fly, Benny - I’ve seen it … you’re the King of the Road.”

“Yeah, I guess I do OK on the bike,” he said, looking down at his feet, attempting modesty. He could fly.

“You do better than OK and you know it, ” Cathy said. There was an impatient honk. “I’m coming!” she called out as she headed in that direction. “See ya, Benny … be careful out there.”

“Always,” he replied as he watched her pull away, tipped his cap at the departing tail lights and prepared for take off.


***

Benny stopped in front of Fenn’s Cycles, leaned over the fork of his bike, disengaged the quick-release lever, spun the bolt free and popped off the wheel. The day had been going so well.

“How’d you do this?” Larry Fenn asked as he was handed the warped part.

Benny shook his head and released an exasperated sigh.“ The city needs to really re-think their placement of light poles.” The pole had been the better choice over an on-coming bus, but Larry didn’t need to know that.

Larry looked at Benny, examined the damage, and smiled. “Come on, I’ll fix you up,” he said, heading into the shop. “Easier than taking on City Hall,” he added with a wink and a grin as he looked back over his shoulder at Benny.

The wheel was placed on the truing stand, a wobble obvious in its spin. Larry steadied the tire with one hand and grasped a handful of spokes with the other, noting the direction of the flex. “Done for the day?” he asked.

“Not quite.” Benny glanced out the large plate glass window. Dusk was approaching. He had one more stop to make.

“I’ll get you out of here as fast as I can,” he said. He began adjusting spoke nipples. One wrenched to the right, two to the left. He gave the wheel a spin. Hmmm.

Benny unfolded a chair that had been propped against the wall and sat where he could watch Larry work. Larry gave the wheel another spin and shook his head as a caliper arm grazed the smooth metal of the rim. “Wrong way,” he said, correcting several more spokes with a twist of the wrench.

“How do you know which ones to turn?”

“It’s more of an art than a science, really.”

“Larry …” He had been thinking about Cathy’s question. “What made you give me that first bike?”

“You looked like you needed one,” he replied as he turned the wheel slowly, examining his handiwork. Then he paused, straightened, and directed is attention toward Benny. “I’m proud of you, you know. You’ve come a long way from the mopey kid who wandered in with ballet shoes hanging around his neck.”

Benny buried his face in his hands at the thought of ballet class and tights. Arrrgh.

“What made you wander in here, anyway?”

“No idea,” he said from between muffling fingers. He remembered a shop with an open door and that’s about it … until he put his feet on pedals for the first time. That he remembered. “But I’m glad I did,” he added with a smile for the man who’s gift had changed his life.

“Well, we’ll just call it serendipity,” Larry said. “And I’ll call this done.” He lifted the repaired equipment from the stand. “Let’s get you on your way.”


***

The distant sound of horns and sirens, the steady hum of rubber buzzing over asphalt - all mingled with the crash of timpani and swell of strings emanating from his headphones. The city’s symphony, Benny-style. Flashes of neon provided patchy electric-blue illumination to a dark stage. Traffic signals rotated direction, well-intended but ignored as he improvised a path through the maze of tail lights. He sought, always, the most efficient route although he allowed too for a bit of artistry … the last-minute dodge, a choreograph-worthy swoop and dash, the screeching stops. Cabbies, truck drivers, and pedestrians provided both audience and obstacle.

The evening traffic was treacherous, aggressive. He had to be on his game once the sun went down. A black sports car, low to the ground and out of place in the sea of yellow, revved in the center lane. Benny steered wide of its menacing growl. He swung clear of a passenger  van that had stopped abruptly in front of a hotel and then swept, too close, past a drunk who stumbled off the curb. The sickly-sweet chemical smell of alcohol assaulted his nostrils.

 

 “Do you love it?”

Benny remembered gazing at the brand new ten-speed, proudly purchased with his first year’s courier route earnings. “She’s a dream … ”

Something had caught Larry’s attention. A man, about six foot, with long brown hair tied back with a rubber band at the nape of his neck was making his way toward the shop, his gait uneven. Larry rushed to him. “Where the hell have you been, Glenn? They told me you left …” he heard Larry say as he guided the intoxicated man through the door. He lead him to the beat-up sofa in the back room. A bottle clanged in the metal trash bin. “They’ve had people out looking for you.”

Ready to leave, he’d heard his name. “Benny … I can’t leave him here like this, but I need to get word back to the people who’ve been looking after him that he’s here and he’s ok.” He handed him a folded piece of paper. “There’s a hot dog vendor at 69th and 5th. Please give this to him.”

A hot dog vendor? He didn’t ask.

 

Something shifted as he made his way uptown. Some piece of vehicular flotsam broke loose and traffic flowed freely now, drivers accelerating to take advantage of the clearing. Benny grasped the handle of a passing checkered cab and hitched a ride. He free-wheeled in the draft of the taxi, purloining machine-powered propulsion for a moment before breaking  free to carve a wide turn away from the harsh glare of the city and across the threshold of Central Park.

 

The next day Larry explained that Glenn was his brother. “He’s had trouble in his life. Things haven’t gone so well for him … and when he’s down, he drinks too much. I have some friends who took him in and I thought he was doing really good there until … well, you saw him here yesterday.”

“The guy with the cart? That’s who was looking after him?”

“No. Darryl’s just a contact.”

Benny wondered at that … a contact? He worried that Larry and his brother were mixed up in something bad.

“It’s complicated, Benny,” Larry replied obviously sensing his concern. “I wish I could tell you more …” He picked up an envelope from his repair bench and handed it to him. “Would you mind delivering this back to the cart? He’s not ready to go back but he wants them to know  he feels bad about leaving and making them worry.”

“Sure,” Benny replied, taking the envelope. “Will there be a reply?” he asked.

“I’m sure he’s hoping for one.”

“I’ll check back, then.”

 

He pedaled into the park. It was dark now, but neat rows of lamp posts lit the path. He could probably make the ride blindfolded anyway. Every flaw of the city’s surface telegraphed through steel alloy tubes as he peddled daily over the asphalt veneer. He knew the feel of his routes. And this was a route he had traveled many time.

 

There was a reply to Glenn’s letter - and a second message. The additional message was to an address not far off his regular route, so he delivered it. The recipient thanked him without batting an eye. He didn’t know what he had expected, maybe a secret handshake or something. The man did ask what he owed him. Flustered, he said he didn’t owe him anything.

“What’s this all about, Larry?” he asked when he delivered Glenn’s reply. “Are you guys in some sort of trouble?”

“No, no trouble,” Larry responded. “These people … these friends of mine … what they’re doing matters and I help them when I can … a lot of people do.”

“By doing things like delivering messages ...”

“Whatever’s needed.”

“OK.” He could tell this was important to Larry and that he wanted him to help.  He owed him that ...at least that. So he kept going back and he kept delivering the messages. He was curious, though.

 

He paused as two cabs raced down the 79th Street Transverse before crossing the road, continuing north. He regained his momentum and settled into a groove, veering left, opting for a hard-packed pedestrian path over the main route through the park. Pedestrians always found the shortest routes and there isn’t anywhere they go I can’t go. He stood on the pedals in practiced balance as he bumped down a short flight of stone steps.

 

A few weeks later, Glenn returned home, wherever home was. “Will there be more messages?” he had asked Larry on learning of Glenn’s departure.

“Glenn will want to keep in touch …”

So he had gone back to them, he deduced.  “And the others?”

“The others?”

“The messages … all of the other messages. There’ve been a lot lately.” He was getting frustrated.  The volume had increased and some of the addresses were in remote parts of the city. “Who are all these people, Larry?” 

“I can’t tell you,” he replied.  “Benny … you’re helping … I can tell you what you’re doing does help them -- “

“Helps who?” he asked.  “Glenn and who else?”

Larry shook his head. “I can’t say.  I’m sorry … it’s a promise I made …”

Benny raised a hand to silence him. He didn’t want Larry to tell him something he shouldn’t. He didn’t need to know. He’d keep going back to the cart and keep delivering.

Then one day there was a note: Benny, Show this to Larry and ask him to bring you to me. We’ll explain everything. Glenn.

 

He made is way to the top of a small hill and skidded to a stop at the point where two paths converged. He could see the faint glow of the entrance ahead. He’d finish the rest of his trek on foot.  

***

Benny sat and waited. He traced patterns in the dirt floor with his fingers, forming gritty mountains and ravines. Down-time left him fidgety. He heard the sound of approaching footsteps and scrambled to his feet.

“I’m sorry to keep you waiting.”

“No apologies. I’m the one who’s late,” he said. “Have all the kids gone to bed?”

“Zach was sorry to miss tonight’s delivery, but it’s a pleasure for me to have the opportunity to see you.”

The wheel repair had put him way past schedule.  “Did you think I wouldn’t make it?” he asked.

“Not for a minute, Benny,” Vincent replied with a smile. “You never miss.”

No, he never had.

 

****** 

“A test?!?” His voice echoed off the stone walls. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He’d imagined all kinds of crazy possibilities about those messages ... who they were to and what they might be about. But … a test?

“Oh, they were real messages,” the old man said, “to Helpers, mainly. Nothing too urgent, of course.” This man, Father, was well-spoken and kind. Fatherly was a good description and Benny assumed that’s where the name came from.

“Helpers … of course.” He was feeling confused and a little annoyed.  Although ... looking around, this wasn’t what he expected, not some hole-in-the-ground hide-away harboring Glenn and a couple of his refugee buddies, but … something else.  Something big. 

“It wasn’t a game, Benny,” Glenn assured him. “They needed a reliable messenger … and we needed to be sure ...”

“So you tested me for a while,” he said. Benny noticed that while they were talking, several people wandered in and out of the room.  And there was a constant, rhythmic  tapping sound, it sounded mechanical, too regular to be random steam pipe noises.

“And you never missed,” Father said. “Not once.” He sounded impressed. “It was quite something, really.”

He heard kids, off in the distance … laughing.  There were a lot of people down here. A community.

The matronly woman, Mary, spoke up. “We were all a little surprised you continued.“ Smiling at him, warmly, she asked. “Why did you, dear?  Without knowing who we were?” 

“Because you kept giving them to me,” was all he could think of to say. “And because it was important to Larry,” he added.

“What you’re doing is important to all of us.” The gathering turned toward the source of the voice - quiet but clear … strong, deep and easy. Larry hadn’t told him much before they came down here, but he had tried to prepare him for this. For Vincent. There’s someone there who’s different, he had told him.

There was a pause as the cloaked figure joined the group, his movements powerful but fluid. He pushed the shadowing hood back from his face, revealing features unlike anything Benny had ever seen. He tried not to stare but he couldn’t not look at him. He was glad when he spoke again, giving purpose to his attention.  “Benny … this is a safe place,” Vincent said. ”Many people depend on these tunnels for warmth and shelter. This is where we live … we’ve made our home here.”

 “And we do the best we can with what we have,” said Mary. “But sometimes we need the aid of those who live Above … our Helpers.”

 “Your friend Larry has long been one of our valued helpers,” Vincent said.

“Oh yes, “ Father agreed. “Larry’s ability to fix things discarded by the world Above has been extremely beneficial. His repairs have provided us with many practical implements.“

“And sometimes the stuff of dreams,” Vincent added. Benny noticed a smile cross Larry’s lips.

“Yes …” Father said, his voice softened. 

“What do you say, Benny?” Larry asked. “Will you join us?”

He wasn’t sure if he’d be expected to deliver messages or dreams, but he nodded his agreement and so it was that he became a Helper. 

***

“So ..” Benny said as he handed a stack of messages to Vincent and accepted a bundle of outgoing messages in return. “I finally got Larry to tell me.”

“The bike ...”

“The stuff of dreams ...”

“Yes …” Vincent said.  “It was years ago … I was sixteen at the time. Winslow found a discarded bicycle Above and we persuaded Larry to make sufficient repairs to make it rideable.”

“Where did you ride? Here, in the tunnels, or out there?” he asked, motioning toward the park.

“Both.”

He could imagine the kids riding around the tunnels and, even better, zooming around Central Park. “You liked it?”

“Oh, yes. We all did. Father, however, didn’t care for this new activity. He was certain someone would get hurt. But he allowed it for a while. He assured us he did remember being a boy at one time.” Vincent chuckled at this recollection. “He made us promise to stay within the tunnels and to be careful. And we were very careful.”

“But you said you rode outside …”

Vincent smiled. “We were boys. And this was an opportunity for adventure too rare to let pass.”

“Did Father find out … about the outside part?”

“Yes. One night Winslow returned home with a gash in his forehead that required stitches. The tire had caught in an upturned piece of sidewalk, sending him over the handlebars. It wasn’t his fault,; he was being careful. But he was also where he wasn’t supposed to be,” he added. “The bike was taken away.  It was one of those pleasures certain not to last.”

“But …” Benny knew there had to be more to the story.

 “I remember …”Vincent began, lost to the memory, “the easy motion of it, foot pressed to peddle. It was a moonless night and I sliced through the darkness, unseen and unheard.” He looked up at Benny. “There’s a hill, just past the Ramble, steep on the north side and a long winding descent on the south …”

“I know it,” Benny said. “It’s a great hill.” He liked the idea he and Vincent had once traveled the same path.

“There was an instant … feet lifted free of the pedals, momentum carrying me forward, when all sensation of the bicycle under me was lost and I progressed through the night as if for a moment I’d been afforded the opportunity to take wing … ” He paused. “That was the only moment in my life, Benny, I remember feeling completely free.”

“I’m sorry, Vincent.”

“Don’t be,” he said. ”Some of us are destined to be forever grounded. But I will be grateful, always, for having experienced that moment of flight, even if only for an instant.”

“Did Father ever find out it wasn’t just Winslow … that you had been out there too?”

“I told him, years later. I was a man and what occurred a memory … nothing terrible had happened to me … the contrary, actually, and he was glad, in retrospect, that the moment had been mine.”

He flipped through the stack of messages in his hands. “This is a new one,” he said, turning up an envelope. Catherine Chandler.

“Yes … Catherine." Vincent hesitated. "Please take special care with that one”.

“Ok …” Benny said, wondering at seeing the familiar name. “Anything I should know?”

Vincent shook his head. “It’s personal.”

“No worries, Vincent.” He tucked the messages in his bag and headed for the tunnel entrance. “Remember …  I never miss.”

Once he got to the path, he got back on his bike and peddled toward home. Personal. There was something in the tone of Vincent’s voice when he mentioned Cathy’s name … Catherine’s name, that made Benny think maybe he wasn’t going to be forever grounded after all.

 

 

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