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Short Story: The Things We Keep, The Things We Leave Behind


"The Things We Keep, The Things We Leave Behind" was originally published in 2012 by Straylight Literary Magazine


            Over the past few weeks of riding, Ryan had made a habit of looking over his shoulder. He wasn’t sure what he expected to see. Occasionally he thought he heard something behind him. It was all in his head, of course, but sometimes he swore he could hear a low thrum like a diesel engine in high gear. When he craned his neck, he half expected to see an eighteen-wheeler mere feet from his back tire. Other times, the sound was more primal, more malevolent. Like the rattling growl of a grizzly bear. How fast could a grizzly run when chasing down a caribou? Ryan looked over his shoulder.

            The road flowed like a river of asphalt into the horizon, completely straight, an optical illusion with no ending or beginning or memory at all. All he could see were the tips of the Rocky Mountains, poking above the horizon like clenched teeth.

            Ryan was unlike the handful of other long distance bicycle riders he had met along the way. He didn’t wear neo, polyester biking clothes. He wore jeans and T-shirts. He didn’t camp along the way to get closer to nature or to save money. He enjoyed soft hotel mattresses. He didn’t live off a steady supply of trail mix and Gatorade. He ate fast food and pizza and kept a thermos of black hotel coffee with him at all times.

            Ryan wore a small backpack where he kept a change of clothes, a few magazines, and a toothbrush. Besides a few pieces of clothing, everything Ryan had he had bought along the way. When his T-shirts got dirty, he threw them out and bought new ones at tourist shops. The only sentimental belonging he had was a crayon picture his daughter, Mallory, had made for him that he always kept in his right leg pocket. It showed two stick figures holding hands. One was tall and green and had brown hair. The other was short and pink and had yellow hair. There was a blue house behind them with a pair of bicycles, and at the bottom it said, “I Lov U Dady.” Mallory was five.

            Up ahead, Ryan saw a highway diner, and he pulled off into the parking lot. He sat at the bar and ordered coffee, toast, and a plateful of bacon. The best part about biking eight hours a day was that he didn’t have to worry about what he ate anymore.

            There was an old newspaper on the bar, and he pretended to read it while he bit into the overcooked bacon. It was a habit he had developed after eating at so many restaurants alone. Ryan thought that it made him look comfortable with his aloneness and discouraged conversation with waitresses and other nearby diners.



            He looked up from the paper for a moment, taking a sip of his coffee when he noticed a young blonde woman at a table in the corner of the diner. She was watching him, and when he saw her, she smiled and waved at him with her fingertips. She was in her early twenties, maybe five or six years younger than Ryan. She had a round face, and freckles covered her high cheekbones. When she waved at him, Ryan looked away, but not quickly enough.

            He paid the tab, added a generous tip, and left the diner. The door’s cowbell marking his departure. Ryan was unlocking his bike from the lamppost he had tethered it to when he heard someone behind him.

            “You were in Federal Heights last night, right?”

            He spun and saw the blonde behind him. Her teeth, too big for her smile, looked even brighter in the prairie sun.

            “You stayed at the Holiday Inn, didn’t you? I was there. Are you biking cross-country, too?”

            “Uh,” Ryan said.

            “My name’s Mandy.” She stuck out her hand.

            He looked down at his bike lock. He hadn’t gotten the chain off yet. If he had, he might have been able to smile, shake her hand, and then have jumped on his bike, making a clean getaway. But with the chain still locked and he didn’t see a socially graceful way to escape. So he grabbed her hand and said, “Ryan.”

            “How much farther are you planning to go today? Maybe we can ride together.” He wondered if she was smiling or if her face was just made like that – a perpetual expression of coy enjoyment.

            “Sure,” he said.

            Mandy brought her bicycle around while he finished unlocking his own. Ryan walked his bike over to the road, waited for a pickup truck tugging a horse trailer to pass, and then mounted the bike, riding east.

            The road ran straight, and they took turns taking the lead. When the shoulder widened, they rode side-by-side, and Ryan was relieved that she didn’t insist on talking while they rode. She was fit and attractive, and Ryan liked the way she looked in her biking shorts.    The shoulder tapered off again, and Ryan took the lead.

            “Why do you keep doing that?” she called from behind.

            “What?”

            “Looking behind you like that? Lots of people bike down this road. The cars are used to it.”

            “Oh,” he said.

            “Take a right up ahead.”

            There was an intersection coming up, but he couldn’t see why they should turn. “Why?”

            “Turn!” she called.

            Ryan turned, and they rode in silence for about two miles when they came upon a deep gorge. It was narrow and so deep that he couldn’t tell if there was a bottom. The rock walls were the same rust as most of New Mexico and Arizona.

            “Isn’t it beautiful?” Mandy asked. Her mouth hung open, and she looked as if this were one of her life’s great experiences – as if this gorge would change her and the way she thought of life from now on.

            Ryan leaned over the bridge, gripping the metal guardrail. He saw a crack in the ground. He hoped it was a rhetorical question.

            “How long have you been riding?” she asked.

            “Three months.”

            “Really? Wow! I’ve only been riding a couple of weeks. I started on the Golden Gate bridge and bee-lined it here. Where have you ridden?”

            Ryan shrugged but thought. He knew this wasn’t a rhetorical question. “I rode north, through Oregon and Washington but stopped at the Canadian border because I didn’t have my passport. Then I rode past San Diego and had the same problem at the Mexican border. So I rode to Yosemite and headed east since then.” Ryan realized how crazy it was when he said it aloud.

            “Wow,” she said, sounding impressed rather than skeptical of his mental wellbeing. “Are you riding for a cause?”

            Ryan pushed a pebble across the bridge until it rolled over the edge and plummeted into the oblivion. “Not really.” He waited, listening for the sound of the pebble hitting the side of the gorge, or perhaps the bottom – if there was one. But a car drove by and he couldn’t hear anything except for the grinding of tires against concrete. “Are you?”

            “I’m riding for breast cancer awareness,” she said cheerily. “I get money from sponsors for every mile I ride. My aunt was diagnosed last summer.”

            Ryan nodded. He realized this was the longest conversation he’d had in months.

            “Are you getting tired?” Mandy took out a creased map from her bike’s saddlebag and laid it out on the side of the bridge. “There’s a Quality Inn only ten miles farther.”

            Ryan nodded and hopped back on his bike while Mandy folded the map.

 

***

           

As they neared the Quality Inn, Ryan saw it was the centerpiece in a town the size and shape of a postage stamp. Bright lights dotted the town’s confines, boasting gas stations, fast food joints, and pizza cafes.

            Ryan pulled up to a red light – the first light he had come across all day – and pointed to a brick building decorated with so many neon signs that it looked like a squat Christmas tree. “Let’s stop and get a beer,” he said.

He was feeling good. It had been good to ride with someone else. The act of spending time with another person was like a vacation spot from his childhood that he had forgotten until returning by accident, standing at the intersection of the white-sand beach and the strip of tourist shops and lobster grills, fondly recalling summers long lost.

“Beer?” she said as if the word was foreign and she was testing it out for the first time.

“Yeah,” he said, and he pulled into the parking lot before she could say anything else.

They got a booth, and he ordered a pitcher. “Do you like wheat beers?”

“Umm,” she said, looking at the menu. She looked lost, as if she hadn’t understood the question.

“So what do you do?” Ryan asked when the pitcher came. “When you aren’t riding cross-country.”

“I just graduated from college in December,” she said. I have enough savings to do this until the summer, and then I’ll get a job. You?”

Ryan sipped the beer to buy some time. “I’m a website designer for a company in Silicon Valley,” he said. It wasn’t a complete lie. He had been one just a few months ago.

“Wow,” Mandy said and sipped her beer. He wondered if she was buying time, too.

The pizza came, and Ryan nodded and smiled as Mandy told him about college. She had gone to UNM and had a laundry list of ready-made stories about frat-house antics, final exams crises narrowly avoided, and an assistant field hockey coach who asked her out on dates and who she had gracefully turned down.

Her stories were a pleasant distraction. Her style of storytelling was safe and comfortable: he knew when to laugh, when to frown, and when to say, “That was nice of you,” by gauging her facial expressions. She smiled even when telling her stories, but there were nuances to her smiles. Ryan felt guilty for having wanted to escape her earlier.

The waitress came and laid their check facedown after they had finished the second pitcher and declined a third. Ryan grabbed the bill.

“Oh, let me pay,” Mandy said.

“No,” he said. “Please.” Ryan pulled out his wallet. But when he did so, Mallory’s crayon drawing fell from his pocket.

“What’s this?” Mandy asked, reaching down to pick it up before he had even known he’d dropped it.

“Wait, no,” he stammered, but it was too late. She had picked it up and unfolded it with the same care and precision as when she’d unfolded the map earlier. Grinning, she looked at the drawing.

“Who made this?”

Ryan looked at the check and pulled out a credit card. “My daughter made it for me.”

“Aw,” Mandy shrieked. Had they been outside, astronauts might have seen her smile from the space station. “Where’s your daughter?”

Ryan almost didn’t answer. He looked over his shoulder, silently cursing the waitress. Where had she gone? He looked back at Mandy. His eyes dropped. “She died.”

Mandy’s smile faltered. “Oh.”

Ryan nodded. He wondered what he should say next. He’d never talked about it before. Even when he had gone to the lawyer to collect the life insurance policy for Mallory and his wife – ex-wife really, they’d been separated for a few months – and even when he had said to the lawyer, “Why do I collect Kelly’s policy, we weren’t together,” and the lawyer had said, “Because she hadn’t gotten around to changing her will,” even then when the lawyer asked, “Are you doing okay?” he had shrugged and ignored the question, collected the checks, and left. What was the social convention when a tired trucker killed your wife and daughter? Should he tell her about the funeral, or about all of the horrible sympathy cards he had endured or about the flower arrangements that he had watched with horror as they withered and died? Should he tell her about the home he and Kelly had bought when they were Mandy’s age, about what it was like to stand in the driveway of that house, wearing the same suit he had worn for weeks without dry-cleaning it, waiting for the realtor to drive up with some young couple, grinning from ear-to-ear and saying, “We love the bay windows!” or “Does the basement leak much in the spring?” and him smiling and cringing because he knew they wouldn’t buy the house? What about the perverse elation he had felt when the house finally had sold? Maybe he could tell her about how immediately afterward, he had cancelled the lease for his apartment, sold all of his furniture, DVDs, and golf clubs in a yard sale, and whatever hadn’t sold, he had illegally dumped in a green dumpster behind a Trader Joe’s? Maybe the most rational thing to say would be about how the only thing he had kept was the picture and the bicycle. And the only time he had cried had been when, at the yard sale, he had sold Mallory’s bicycle, which matched his own except for the training wheels, the bicycle that she had loved and had ridden with him every Sunday afternoon.

“She died in a car accident,” he said.

“I’m so sorry,” she said.

Ryan nodded. It was the worst thing she could have said.

At the Quality Inn, they learned that there was a basket weaving festival in town over the weekend, and every room was full except one.

“We can split the cost and save money,” Mandy said.

Mandy laid her saddlebags on the bed closest to the window and took out a T-shirt and clean shorts. Ryan flipped through channels while she took the first shower.

Ryan lay in bed that night, staring at the ceiling. The digital clock’s crimson digits ticked by far too slowly. He tossed and turned, and when the clock said it was midnight, he sat up and rubbed his eyes. He looked over at Mandy. Moonlight slipped in through the heavy shades and he could see that in sleep, Mandy did not smile. Her mouth was open. She looked pretty as she slept.

Very quietly, Ryan grabbed his small backpack and slung it over his shoulder. His night vision could just barely see the lines in Mallory’s drawing. At night, he could not tell the difference between the colored crayons. Pink looked the same as green. In the drawing, the two people looked identical except that one was taller and one had long hair. Ryan smoothed out the drawing’s deep-set creases and placed it on the dresser drawers between the TV and the little booklet filled with delivery food menus.

Ryan had lied when he told Mandy he was going cross-country. He wasn’t riding toward the east – he was riding away from the west. As his fingers left the wrinkled paper for the last time, he realized he had been holding his breath. He was too far gone to stop now. It was another habit.

He looked back one last time at Mandy. He wondered if she would keep the drawing or if she would leave it for the maids. He hoped that she would keep it and remember him, but he couldn’t say why.

It was difficult to ride alongside the highway at night. Once or twice, he nearly rode off the shoulder and into the ditch that followed the road. At this hour, there was little traffic. Most of the eighteen-wheelers kept to the interstate. In Ryan’s head, he heard a whirring sound. It reminded him of the thrushing sound of a boat’s inboard propeller. It terrified him. Every minute or two, he looked over his shoulder, scared so much that his hands gripped the handlebars, trembling, scared at the thought that he would look behind him and see Mandy pedaling after him.

 





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