A SACRED TRADITION
by Paul Kivelson
Ricky was tall, and not just for his age. He could fit on his old bike only by bending his back up tight and pulling his hands in close. The faded red paint along the bike’s body was in the process of flaking away to nothing. The wheels made a whine when Ricky pushed the bike too hard. His dad had promised to buy him a new one three months ago, but that hardly seemed likely now.
His balance on the bike might be precarious, made worse by a heavy backpack, but he’d gotten better at dealing with the wobbles over the years. The road was rough too, asphalt – badly worn. Just about everything seemed to be slowly falling apart. His backpack at least hadn’t sprouted any holes – yet.
He needed the pack in one piece; it was Ricky’s job to bring the bandages and gauze to the meeting. A well cleaned scrape and something to cover it with were important if you didn’t want to draw unwanted attention.
Ricky didn’t need to turn his head to see who’d spoken. There was only one person who stretched the two short syllables of his name into a long-winded three. Keeping his body forward and eyes peeled for cars, Ricky replied, “Nathan, I’m glad you decided to man up and come.” Ricky let his bike slow and it wasn’t long before Nathan’s thin and pale wisp of a face bobbed into view.
Nathan was a year older, though you won’t know it to look at him. “Hey buddy, can I ask a question?” Nathan said, breathing heavily.
“Fine, what do you want to know?”
“This is my first time doing anything like this,” Nathan panted out, “Does it hurt? It seems like it would.”
Ricky hated talking while pedaling, but you had to give newcomers some extra consideration. Ricky had been going for two years now; he had experience. He’d been there since the very beginning.
Pedaling around the corner of Marshal and Branson, Ricky pulled out his best reassuring tone, saying, “You’ll probably fall, and if you do, just try to hit the ground rolling. At worst you’ll scrape yourself up a bit. The main thing you have to watch out for is the pole. You do that and you’ll be fine.” Ricky’s back was starting to ache; it always did after pedaling too long.
“It’s the pole I’m worried about. Though, to be fair, falling has me pretty stressed, too,” Nathan said with a gasping breath. His bike rattled, letting out a metallic thunk as it lurched heavily over a bump in the road.
“Look Nathan, it’ll be fine. You’ll be fine.” At least Ricky hoped Nathan would be fine. They all knew in the back of their head that it was just a matter of time until somebody messed up and ran home crying. A broken bone, a cut that really got the blood pouring and it would all come crashing down. The parents would come, like a pack of dogs – they’d bark on and on about somebody getting themselves killed. With his dad gone, Ricky’s mom already had to do the parenting of two and Ricky certainly didn’t need to add to that by giving her more to lay into him about.
“Will the others already be there?” Nathan asked.
They would, but Ricky felt he’d done his duty to the group, so he simply nodded. Nathan, for all his flaws, was an accommodating sort. He took Ricky’s silence in stride, letting them ride with only the sounds of heavy breathing.
They rode on, past two more street corners and down the snow-sprinkled bike path that curled through the park. The ride wasn’t long; in fact Ricky always wished it was longer.
The meeting place was a circular cul-de-sac lined with condos. The condos were notable in that they seemed to be in a state of perpetual construction. Every year it seemed a new set of empty wooden frames arose from the overgrown lots and every year a new developer took over, bringing them down again.
The construction crews came only on Mondays and Thursdays, showing up early and leaving late. He’d seen them driving away once, on his way back from Rodney’s house, their cars pulling away one after another, emptying quickly from the circular drive like air from a breath held in too long.
Biking into the circle, Ricky saw that all the regulars were waiting. Jeff was talking to Sandra while Rodney watched from his section of the curb. Vince and Kendra had taken the only bench.
Rodney turned, waving as they approached – mostly to Ricky – but Nathan got some of the greeting by proxy. Rodney raised his voice, calling out to the others, “Okay. Everyone, gather round.”
Rodney had a quiet intensity about him. His eyes were always sharp and focused, contrasting with his mousy blonde hair and doughy soft features.
Rodney liked to think he was the boss – he sort of was. He’d been the one to come up with the rules. Still, Ricky didn’t think that should mean he had any right to lord it over everyone. Ricky would have said something, but he had a reputation of disinterest to maintain.
Ricky hopped off his bike, laying it gently down on the ground, Nathan followed his lead. Jeff waved to Ricky as he slipped the straps of his backpack from his shoulders. There wasn’t much to say about Jeff; he’d been coming for years and Ricky still didn’t have much of a sense of him. Now Sandra, who waved too. Ricky knew her very well.
Sandra was tall, shorter than Ricky, but tall nonetheless. She was thin with sharp pointed features, her hair short and dark, jagged at the edges. Of all her features, the sharpest were her eyes – they never let a thing pass them by.
“Alright,” Rodney declared, walking to the center of the circle, “Honored members, we are here to carry on this ancient and sacred tradition.”
“He does this every time,” Kendra whispered to Nathan. Kendra was dating Vince; she always brought him along. Vince never competed. He mostly just sat on the bench. He was always hunched over so far that it seemed his hair was a drooping curtain that blanketed his face.
Rodney powered on, saying, “We have some new blood here so I’ll take this opportunity to remind you all of the rules. I am sure that nobody here wants to deal with any more calls of cheating. I don’t need to remind any of you what happened last month, do I?” He didn’t. Ricky remembered. “Everybody needs to keep in mind why we’re doing this. It’s serious business. So, first things first, as always – two people per bike.”
Ricky stared at Rodney’s face as he gave his speech. It was basically the same talk every time, and every time he made the same face. Many people didn’t even try to put up with Rodney. Ricky could understand that, but there was something endearing about Rodney’s bluster. It was rare to find someone so full of their own brand of conviction.
Nathan was beginning to look a little pale as Rodney continued on. “One will be the Pole Bearer, the other the Peddler. The Peddler … Peddles. The Pole Bearer, uses one of these.” Reaching down, Rodney picked up one of the four long bamboo poles laying at his feet. Each one was around five and a half feet in length and of a dull brown color touched with shoots of green throughout. Sandra had found the poles; she’d taken them from her dad’s garden.
Sandra’s dad – Hindrick – was enthusiastic about his garden, more than might be considered strictly normal. Ricky’s dad had liked Hindrick. The two used to sit and share drinks while Ricky and Sandra played in Hindrick’s backyard. Ricky and Sandra chased the little rollie pollies that lived below the leaves, snatching them up to populate their freshly made cities of mud and grass. The two fathers watched and made quiet small-talk, interspersed with the occasional grumbled fatherly-noises.
“The Pole Bearer has one job, to strike the end of their pole into the bicycle of their competitors. Remember to aim low; I don’t want any accidental body shots. If both bikes go down, the losers are the team that are knocked farther from their bike. I’ll be over by the backpacks, keeping an eye out for any foul play. Ricky and Jeff, you’re up first as Pole Bearers. Sandra and Nathan, will be our Peddlers.”
“Fine,” Kendra said, “But I’d better get to be a Pole Bearer in the next pass.”
Nathan tried to pair up with Ricky, walking over with his hands shaking, but Ricky would have none of it. Ricky moved quickly to stand by Sandra and after getting a nod from her, he perched himself on the back of her bike.
Sitting with his butt half on and half off the seat wasn’t particularly comfortable. The position did have some favorable aspects to it, or so Ricky admitted to himself as Sandra turned to smile encouragingly over her shoulder.
She wasted no time wheeling her bike around to bring it onto one of the starting positions marked by a stretch of duct tape across the concrete. Nathan was gripping the handle bars so tightly it seemed his knuckles would burst out from his hands. Jeff had a loose smile and a relaxed grip on his pole. They were squared off, thirty short feet apart.
Before the seconds could stretch out too much, Rodney began the countdown, “One. Two. And …” he said, pausing for dramatic effect, “my personal favorite, three!”
No sooner was the final number spoken, then from between Sandra’s open lips emerged a loud, completely unintelligible battle cry. Her legs shot up and down, knees slamming the empty air.
Ricky gripped the poll closely in his hands as it waved through the air, the motion of the bike shaking his arm about.
The front wheel of Jeff’s bike spun closer and closer. The wheel was all Ricky could see in the dim light of the fading evening. Sandra’s head was bent low, her hair whipping around under her helmet like a lazy susan at a table of hungry diners.
Ricky forced the pole down, the tip trembling as it moved through the air. The bikes were only seven feet apart now and if Ricky hadn’t been so focused on the ever-approaching wheel, he might have seen the fear spreading across Nathan’s wide eyes and Jeff’s concentrated half squint stretching into an oblong frown.
The final gap closed and Jeff’s pole flew up into view. Ricky could feel he was off in his aim, his pole a touch too far to the right. He needed to bring the pole around and quickly. Ricky screamed, his voice matching Sandra’s as he forced his lance down and to the left.
The front of Ricky’s poll splintered, shattering as the wheel of Nathan’s bike cracked against it. Ricky’s leg collided with Sandra’s helmet, his body flipping around. A loose piece of gravel met his cheek, biting small cuts into his face. The two bikes fell to the ground, tangled together, wheel to wheel.
Sandra hit the ground rolling, while Jeff landed sharply. Ricky flailed his arms all about, like a bird that had forgotten how to fly. Nathan for his part fell on his back and bounced, driven an inch into the air from the force of the impact.
Ricky had done his best to shield himself with his arms from the ground, but everything hurt or ached in equal measure.
As Ricky lay on the cold gravel of the street, he looked to his fellow competitors. They each had their own reasons for going to the joust. Some were obvious: Nathan was still shaking – eyes wet with tears, but he had made it through his first ride. The bruise on his cheek was proof enough of that.
Sandra was already up and on her feet; she never stayed down for long. Ricky knew he needed to get up too. A small smattering of blood marked his sleeve. His arms hurt, a throbbing pain that ran from hand to elbow. He wondered if he and Sandra had won. It didn’t really matter to him all that much, but a win would put a smile on her face.
Pulling himself to his feet, Ricky rolled his shoulders back, stretching out the ache that had taken root. There was something special about working out an ache that had wormed its way in deep. It might be that the condos around him would never be finished, but in a moment like this he imagined that the construction crews were happy with the work of building them up, even if it meant tearing them down in the end.
About the Author:
Paul Kivelson has a degree in English with a focus on Creative Writing from Stanford University, where his adviser was Adam Johnson, author of The Orphan Master’s Son. He is a fervent devotee of all nerdy hobbies.