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The Man on the Bicycle Machine

ISSUE:  Autumn 1976

HENRY Ardmore felt in better and better condition. This was mainly because of his jogging, prescribed after the EKG he took in 1974, to combat a somewhat too high cholesterol count. So he had been running up and down the roads outside of Boulder, Colorado, where he taught history at the University. He jogged contentedly with a greater sense of well-being, elasticizing veins and arteries and taking off excess weight. The only thing wrong was that whereas the previous winter had been positively balmy on certain days—Mrs. Ardmore had even worn pedal pushers one February afternoon—this winter had turned hard and stormy, and he had to give up the jogging completely. He had just about decided to go ahead and buy an exercise bicycle when his wife bought it for him at Christmas.

Mrs. Ardmore was slightly amused by the spectacle of her 54-year-old husband wheezing and pumping over hill and dale in a corner of their basement. She commended herself, however, for never laughing out loud. Not that she didn’t believe exercise was good, especially for a sedentary man, and almost as important as diet. But she could not really believe that exercise had to be as consistent as a rigorously controlled menu or that it could not be skipped for a season. She made allowances for her husband’s fanaticism, that grim masculine determination she knew so well. And far from laughing out loud, she would not be suspected of a smile. Nevertheless, sometimes in those first days, she would open the basement door’and sing down.

“Isn’t your mile up, Henry? Don’t try for any records!”

He was not doing that. He had begun doing something else. The idea came upon him one day about a week after New Year’s, when he was finding it downright silly to be regularly moving nowhere at all. He was thinking that exercise without fresh air or vistas was probably not too healthy. Or if it started by being beneficial, it ended by becoming mechanical; no man with a reasonably active mind would fail to register some tensions from such prolonged automatism.

Since he had come to know very well all the quarter-, half- and full-mile markers on his route outside last year, having paced them so often along his favorite jogging roadway, he had virtually printed them on his mind. While running, he knew just when he could expect them, and his muscles and nerves held memories of countless other turnings of the road as well, quick little vistas, signs of seasonal change, the comforting look of such and such a sky, as well as a rasp of air down his throat during that second quarter of a mile on a raw day or rain on his face on a squally afternoon. He had bone-felt memories of rough and smooth sections of the road, and he remembered periods of a jog when his mind had floated over all perceptions, apart from his body completely. But here, in the basement, he had no views, no real sensations, no freed feelings or thoughts. He had become an adjunct to the machine, and that made him only more melancholically aware of himself, inside, as a skeletal structure of tubes, wires, cam shafts, and adhering musculature. Outside, you could forget your functional mortality, but in here you were closeted with it. And so, for distraction, he began to remember the outdoor route and to visualize the quarter-mile markers and the whole route and all its varying conditions. To make it less monotonous, he decided to transform the winter into a full year and thus be able to take the changing seasons into account, and he decided to vary the weather from day to day. Sometimes in his trifling secret satisfaction he could almost truly believe he was sucking in enormous draughts of genuine fresh air on his ride.

For her part, Mrs. Ardmore found her husband more cheerful after his Exo-Bike sessions, although she also sensed that he was for a short period slightly more abstracted than usual and perhaps higher-keyed. Their regular life went on as usual. They went to the campus one or two nights a week for a foreign movie or a play or concert or visiting speaker, and sometimes they went to Denver for shopping or dinner, and there was this or that to do at home or with friends, Everything was quite normal, except for that new morning interim after the children went to school, when Henry descended to his machine and then re-ascended somewhat buoyant and mysterious and also slightly taut for a spell but mostly—what?— temporarily inaccessible, that was it.

Then Mrs. Ardmore fathomed something and felt satisfied for about a whole week: her husband was pushing his infernal machine ahead of death each morning. Never mind how absurd or extravagant the threat, Henry really felt it, and that was all there was to it. She understood that he was afraid and probably ashamed of being afraid. She knew why he had not subtly joined her conspiracy of silent amusement about his truncated bicycle with simulated speedometer and mileage gauge. Each morning he was in reality keeping ahead of an old resurgent pursuer for one more lap. But, fearful and abashed, he wanted no one else to know, She should have taken the whole thing more seriously or sensitively than she had, while he fixedly whirled himself to nowhere, down there below thresholds.

But ‘Henry Ardmore was not riding to nowhere. He was cycling up and down his favorite road in various weathers, and he was changing the road more to his liking by adding certain features and taking away others—putting a grove of aspen trees on a particular knoll, relocating a low mesa for yet more open prospects at a special turn of the route he liked. As long as he was at it, he got it just right. While Mrs. Ardmore sympathetically imagined her husband fleeing a Grim Reaper who followed picturesquely behind with one hand on reins or handlebars and the other brandishing a scythe, Henry Ardmore was hurtling himself to some time utterly out of mind and to some place freed of love and death together.

The passing strangeness—brief as he always felt it—was that along the remembered and renovated road he took each day there appeared to be a bypath or lane or alley or street, screened by tall and thick caragana bushes, quite unexpected at first and impenetrable, and apparently neither a result of his own lapsed memory nor a willed creation. He came now regularly to the same point about halfway on his trip each morning and pedaled past it—twice, then, once going and once coming—perhaps a little too fast for comfort. He could hear things, and he glimpsed bulky shapes and shadows he could not really make out even if he wanted to, which he didn’t. But aside from this, everything else was well-composed by now and perfectly fine. He was pumping himself through a halcyon and private landscape, so secure and pleasant by now as to make his short abashed guilt afterwards only a minor penalty, like a slight moral headache rather than a hangover. That 30 or 40 minutes he spent each morning came to mean more than an exercise of life over death; it was a disembodiment from both necessities, the purest freedom he had ever known.

Only that byway, a more and more mysterious and therefore forbidden turn, was a sticking point, which in the nature of things became a disruptive fascination. He made up his mind to dispel it by stopping and simply peering in. But he did not do so at once. He began by slowing up and stealing sidelong looks, but he could not penetrate the intertwined thickets of caragana. He heard things—large but indistinct muffled sounds, with intermittencies of deathly silence—but he could make nothing out. Finally he accelerated the year to spring with the thick bushes in cheerful bud and the trees in pale young leaf and the day bright and propitious. Then, almost casually, he stopped by the entrance to the detour or whatever it was and, straddling the bike, he half looked and half edged in.

Upstairs, when Mrs. Ardmore first heard the noise, she doubted her hearing. But after a few more moments, she went to the basement stairwell and opened the door, She could not see her husband, who was slightly to the right behind a partition, but she called “Henry?” Before he answered, she thought she heard him panting unnaturally until he said with forced nonchalance, “I’m all right.” Of course she had not asked exactly if anything were wrong, but she let it go and closed the door and went back to her kitchen work. When she heard something similar the day after and the next day again, she asked if he were moving the bicycle machine about lately. He said no, and that was that. When she heard accentuated sounds the following day, she decided to forgive herself for deliberately taking him off-guard; she surreptitiously opened the basement door and quietly descended the stairs. When she saw her husband, she froze for an instant at the foot of the staircase.

He was whispering intensely—as if shouting under his breath—”Get—off! get off!” while he shook and flailed his outstretched leg. The dog had sprung upon him again today at the very entrance to the lane, lunging at him from behind one of the thick caragana bushes. The first time that it happened, Henry had been frightened out of his wits, but he had managed to pull back just in time and pedal off furiously. Trying again two days straight, knowing what to expect, he kept the bicycle, like a shield or screen, between him and the entrance, and the mastiff, lurking now on one side and now on the other, had charged him with a deep-rasped sudden growl, only to hit the spoked wheels each time, after which Henry left swiftly. Today, however, the cunning dog caught his trousers.

But Mrs. Ardmore detected no vicious beast anywhere in their basement. Now her husband turned all at once to see her, and he cut short his fierce whispering and forced breathing and kicking. The expression of his face changed to a practical-joking grin, without any transition whatsoever. He smiled, then laughed quietly.

“A great big damn bulldog,” he said. “Had me right by the cuff.”

Mrs. Ardmore relaxed at once, with a grateful sigh. She was always melted by his direct smile. Furthermore, he also had an undeniable if freakish sense of wit. In younger years he could set going a concealed pocket tape recorder that kept saying “This is garbage” from the wastebasket during a University Senate meeting. She saw that this new practical joke was funny, and she told it to the children later and to some friends. She told it brightly and avidly, almost as if to overcome the slightest doubt.

She would have forgotten or repressed the whole matter soon enough, except that shortly afterwards she found that Henry had locked the kitchen-staircase door. She did not take this quite as a joke now. With no actual cause for alarm, Mrs. Ardmore, though outwardly calm and self-controlled, felt afraid.

Beset by his own surprising will, Henry Ardmore at last beat off the mastiff with a club. That way he vanquished the dog and entered.

Meanwhile, up above, Mrs. Ardmore had no one to talk to. Thrown wholly on her own resources, daring not to tell her children, trusting no doctor, confiding in no friend at this moment, how or when could she do anything—and about what, what? There was an oblong little quarter-window at ground level just at the basement ceiling, not far from Henry’s corner. She decided to go out and dig winter bulbs or something, to watch Henry again.

While Mrs. Ardmore gathered her coat and hat and gloves and reasons together, Henry Ardmore poised himself. For a long instant he knew he was in two places at once. All the more, he was determined to keep one half of his mind watching the other. He would not and need not give up his documentary instincts, his investigative eye. It was not lost on him, for instance, poised there at the entrance, that for the last two days or so the blue 10-speed bicycle he had been riding was a 3-speed gear now, though the bike had the same construction as usual, with the same lift of handlebars, generator light in front and reflectors in back. This was something he could not account for yet, but he noticed, he noticed, even as other things were happening. The important point was just this saving capacity to notice, this gratifying detachment from what was occurring even as it was going on.

Now he was well past the caragana hedge, and the lane was transformed unexpectedly into a shabby city street, totally silent, unpeopled, now that he was inside. He walked his bicycle slowly down the center of the empty avenue, which was familiar to him and altogether alien. There was no movement, no sound anywhere—only the startled prolonged yelp of the clouted, fleeing dog behind him fading out. He went on, listening and looking and waiting for something to happen.

Outside the basement now Mrs. Ardmore was attacking the plot of hardened ground by the little window, feigning retrieval of one or two autumn-planted bulbs for indoor potting. Slowly, after one or two scratches at the ground with her hand cultivator and spoon shovel, she peered into the basement past her wide-eyed, even berserk, reflection in the pane.

She had to get accustomed to shadows and then focus her view and then believe what she saw. The dumb pantomime she was witnessing transfixed her. Henry stood next to the Exo-Bike; she was sure of that, at least. Perhaps he was not exactly standing still but gyrating and flailing his arms, as if struggling in the grasp of invisible men. She wanted to cry out to him, but then he seemed suddenly abruptly calm, and a few seconds later he proceeded urgently but almost delicately to take off his sweatsuit trousers. Mrs. Ardmore knelt and watched, rooted, as he took them to the opposite corner of the basement and placed them in the washer. She pulled herself up then and began running to the back door of the house.

She stopped running, bringing herself to a deliberate walk. Something indecisive but momentous was happening, and now from the cold outside or her gagged sympathy she felt numb at the door, as with slow bafflement she stepped back inside the house.

Henry Ardmore had made it to the far end of the street, which was bounded by some tracks on that end, and then turned around to come back. He had reached about half way when, out of an alley to his right, a gang of motorcycle toughs, some sporting Nazi helmets and insignia and some others wearing spiked German helmets of WWI and iron crosses and a few others crowned with replicas of horned Attilic headgear and wearing laced thongs on their legs, roared out upon him. He jumped on his bike to race ahead, feeling sure that if he could beat them to the caragana hedges they would not or could not follow him. He pumped wildly, their grinning senseless faces searing into his brain and their raucous shrieks blending with loud motors. He saw the bushes ahead and thought he might make it, and he slid his thumb over to shift the little gear knob in order to get maximum cycling speed but found that he did not have a gear box anymore. So he simply pumped as hard and fast as he was able, head down, legs working like pistons, the veins in his neck swelled to bursting. When he looked up, he was almost at the beginning of the street and he could see plainly the green mist of the new leaves and buds on the hedges. He was that near, but one of the bigger black motorcycles, with a cartoon skull-and-crossbones painted on its chassis, passed him and veered sharply in front to cut him off. The others came up like tornadoes, and he stopped just before ramming one of them, Flushed and frightened, though also strangely self-possessed, he got part-way off his bicycle by himself and was pulled the rest of the way off and pushed to the center of the excited circle. They were talking shrilly around him and gesticulating. He did not catch anything they were saying, but then their staccato argument broke off, and two of them came to him. One of them wore both a Mason’s pin and an iron cross stuck on opposite points of his leather jacket collar, and the other had no jacket at all but wore an outsized sweatshirt containing a rippling caricature of Beethoven. They both wore spiked helmets. They grabbed him and pinned his arms to his side. One of his captors then lost his helmet but kicked it away casually, and Henry saw that the fellow was less angry with the contretemps than primitively happy with what they were going to do to him. Then they gaily relieved themselves upon his trousers. Their glee came as much from having outrun his own imaginative and worst expectations as from the thing itself. They had turned his flank in more ways than one, When at last they released him, they vaulted onto their cycles—vehicles blazoned with winged horses and skulls—and disappeared in a rollicking wind of noise.

He stood dumbly for a second or two and then at once removed his sweatsuit pants. He had gotten dazedly home, he saw, and immediately, as if to rid himself of what had happened merely to his clothing, he went directly to the washer and dropped his trousers in. Halfway up the cellar stairs, he remembered how bizarre he would look to his wife Dorothy, so he returned to the washer to take off his sweatshirt and put it in, too. Coming up in his underwear would be unusual but not incomprehensible to her, not absolutely unsettling.

Mrs. Ardmore knew that any summary conversation with her husband would be destined to foregone conclusions. “First, that invisible dog last week, and now your coming up undressed like this.” “Visible or invisible—it was a shaggy dog; what’s happened to your sense of humor, Dorothy? And as for today, the suit was dirty; I noticed the washer, I dropped it in—what’s so abnormal? Why the spot quiz?” “I happened to be glancing through the little back window of the basement—” “You what?” “I was outside, yes, to see if I could get any of the bulbs from last fall—” “Bulbs? Now, with the ground frozen . . .?” “Never mind! I happened to look inside, and you were . . .you seemed to be struggling with somebody or something, and I almost cried out, I—” “Dorothy, for one thing, stop spying on me. And for another, don’t talk about how I looked through a dusty window, while I was only taking off my trousers, but you were tending bulbs in February.”

But next morning she found something conversationally off-hand and quick for him, out of some reserve of woman-wit, surprising even herself in its piquant ambiguity. He had opened the basement door and was already descending the first steps when she remarked breezily, “Going out again, dear?” Preoccupied, he either said “Uh-huh” or coughed nervously, or both, and then closed the door after him.

Once downstairs, he found a rectangular piece of cardboard on a shelf and put it against the small oblong window in the back. He wished to be as little interrupted while he was exercising himself as when he was working at his desk. Only after he had been pedaling along for a full minute or longer did his head snap up. Dorothy had said “out,” not “down.” She knew—or she guessed. He would have to be careful. Because there was a growing over-meaning, and he had to complete the course, whatever it signaled, to discover the true end of it, to find the answer that he absolutely knew, despite all risks, was forming itself in himself.

He had a ploy for re-entering the street—which he now thought of, paradoxically, as his private public domain. That made no more sense to him than the reduction of the size of his bicycle, down from a 10-speed 32 to a gearless 30 or 28, except that he understood for the first instant in his life that time was rushing faster than he and that he did not have long to know what he needed to know of secrets and meanings and answers. In any case, today he would leave his bike at ‘he head of the street, where the mastiff had been, and would circle through the surrounding stubble fields and, if the coast was clear, come in this time from the side, where the alley was. Which is exactly what he did, except that there was no alley now. He peered in upon the familiar though slightly changed avenue—more tawdry and disconsolate than before and now populated by shambling old people who strolled or milled about. Store fronts and houses were boarded up and shuttered. So were a spireless church, a theater with a blank and fractured marquee, and a small modern bank with its glass windows spattered on the sidewalks and its outside booth tipped over in the driveway. He took his long look and then stepped in.

No one seemed to notice him. The people milled and talked—though once again he could not quite overhear exact words—and they ignored him, as if he were not there. Quite soon, as he moved down to the farther end of the street, he heard some massive hubbub ahead. Now he saw something, beyond the railway tracks at the lower end of the street, a sort of vast stadium, no, it was a field, a large amphitheater-like field. He headed to it, having to cross the tracks. With no warning, a prodigious train suddenly came down upon him from his right. He caught his foot in one of the switch-rails there at the crossing. I’m done for . . .without ever knowing, he thought; and that was his most poignant regret. But he got his foot free, perhaps because the switch operated, and the short but heavy train pulsed, and he flung himself aside, and it roared down the track, a vast vibrant shock going by him.

He crossed over to the field, and what he saw was group after group of youths, in the thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, facing his way but either languishing on the swell of field and gentle hillside there or listening intently to the train noise behind him. It was as if the multitude were ranged in bleacher fashion opposite the tracks, where the train shunted more or less regularly back and forth, and all of them who were not comatose listened to the noise of rattling rails and pulsing humped cars and the screech of engine switching, amplified for them on many loudspeakers. They lay in heaped forms or a few stood up in wobbly motion or performed a weak spastic dance in simulated rhythm to the racking noises below, which were punctuated by a seething “ah-h-h!” sounded in massive unison during short pauses of echoing quiet. A haze of opiate smoke clung close to the ground, dividing tiers from tiers and obscuring whole sections from one another. And these were not old hopeless people, deafened and visionless and numbed, but the young in free and cataleptic abandon. They were a polity to themselves, a sighing city apart, a vast languorous sect, an audience of faithless actors watched in turn by the eye beam of the locomotive. Now and then he noticed that ushers with masks came to this or that group and carried off a form. Then, he saw, they took it to a hillock, a slag-heap that steamed, in the middle distance and they threw it on the dark subdued bonfire. Once, as he watched, the form was not completely still but they flung it up anyway, and a part of the surrounding throng cheered feebly. Now two masked ushers came toward where he was, bearing unmistakably for him.

He fled. His heart beat in his own ears. Taking his chances with the train, he just managed to make it between locomotive runs. Now the old people saw him racing back, and their expressions grew angry, and they gathered in knots to stop him. The sudden bitter animation of the old and their zealous fury made him stagger as he ran. He was more taken aback and terrified this side of the boundary than on the other. All at once his legs felt stapled to the ground.”But I’m not young!” he found the strength to shout, and he outran them and his own collapse, dodging free to the side exit he had come in by, and he was still suppressedly shouting “But I’m not young!” when he came back to himself on the Exo-Bike. He pedaled home, although it took him slightly longer than usual to get back on a gearless 26-incher.

Getting off the bike and standing alone and still in the quiet basement, he bent down, as much for distraction as anything else, to turn a screw just under the springs on the bicycle seat and raise the seat somewhat and tighten the screw again. He straightened up, pausing before ascending the stairs. Did he not simply need someone to confide in? Why not Dorothy? It would also be a way, if only for the few more days or weeks that he felt were needed, of keeping her on his side and safe. He mounted the stairs to enlist and at the same time coerce his wife, to confess to and simultaneously intimidate her.

He told her how it was and that it could not last much longer and that he would unlock the door and take down the cardboard from the window and, for that matter, she could come downstairs and sit somewhere else in the basement with him, only she could not tell anyone. If she did, he would deny it and, after all, no one would believe her. Besides, wasn’t she his friend, his best friend?

“Yes,” she answered, “yes!”

The untoward thing, occurring that evening, was the jocular gift his oldest, teen-age son brought home for him—a toy license plate, which Henry and Dorothy suffered with wan smiles to be hooked on the back of the Exo-Bike seat.

The next day, with the cellar door ajar, she heard disconcerting noises again. After tiptoeing down the staircase, she quickly sat on the steps, watching Henry crouch and hide behind the single wheel of his exercise bike. His eyes, she saw, were dilated but glazed; his forehead was creased intently, as in pain. Later, he reported that he had proceeded in the usual way, with no canine or sudden motorcycle gang attacks or mob groups. Everything was going all right, as everything almost always appeared all right at first, except that negotiating his 24-incher had been somewhat awkward. He started to walk his bike down the street, which this time was filled with shoppers and school children and totally normal, mixed, bustling population and sunlit ambience. He could not now remember what they were wearing, it was not clothing of an exact past but something else, and he guessed he liked them as they moved about in relaxed dress and manner, companionably and freely. Only he was tense, expecting a cyclone out of clear skies, an earthquake, epicentered in Estes Park, an eruption of Pike’s Peak, or any perverse and consummate natural disaster. That did not happen. Nonetheless, he was the first to hear and at once recognize the other thing, having a prescience which probably saved him since he flopped to the ground immediately, exempting himself, perhaps. From the railway water tower or modest skyscraper or revolving restaurant structure at the far end of the street came sudden, distinct, rapid-fire shots down into the avenue. Henry lay still, clutching the wheel rim in front of his head. A score of people were being slammed, punctured all about him. He now knelt up into a crouch, ready either to sprint or to crawl with his bike to a place behind a stone stoop nearby. Just then a child not far from where he headed was shot in its back, but when Henry reached there, after a few blurred and explosive seconds, the boy was curiously gone. Through phantasmagoric silver spokes he saw next, to his left, a housewife hit in the stomach through her clutched shopping bags and sent sprawling straight down in a pool of ketchup. In the middle of the street a policeman was shot in the throat; his shout became a gurgle as he lifted one surprised hand in a reflex to touch what was no longer there before he fell to the pavement. Then, as promptly as it began, without any sporadic transition, it was over, and the figure on the tower was dead. The survivors on the street recovered at once, picking themselves up and dusting off their clothes; the traffic rapidly returned to normal, except for the ambulances. There had not been and was not now any undue panic. For that matter, Henry had held himself under distinct control; only his back felt sore, he experienced a cramping in his gut, the roof of his mouth tasted like slate, and the saliva he swallowed was sour. “It must be the war,” Dorothy said.

No, it isn t.

“But you’re going backwards, aren’t you?”

“I know. Yes, there’s the bike. But something doesn’t work. Furthermore, I keep feeling this whole plotted fantasia isn’t mine, I’m its.”

“Henry, please don’t say things like that. It just makes me more frightened for you.”

“I don’t think you have to be. Coming back just now, I smelled something acrid, as if the whole atmosphere were going bad. Remember, we don’t happen to have any pulp mills around Boulder. The thing may be getting more and more—generalized. You see?”

“No,” she said.

At an early hour after midnight Henry went out for the first time at night. It was brief, but he came back trembling, greatly relieved, however, as after a terrifying alarm or nightmare. He had been caught in a cross-fire of hunters—no, cowboys, or were they just roving bands of gun-happy non-descripts—with automatic weapons, even mortars and light cannon, and also shotguns and old Springfields and, he thought he saw, breechloaders and blunderbusses, as if museums as well as armories had been looted. In any event, he was caught in the middle, and someone had gleefully started shouting, “There’s an Elk over there!” “And an Eagle!” “Over here: a Kiwanis!” “Get that historian!” “Fill him with grape-shot! The whites of his eyes . . .get the little dear. And his family: get them all, get ‘em!” Nothing but the last had struck him with true mortal imploded terror, and he fled. At home in the warm comfort of bed, his trembling woke up his wife, who touched him soothingly.

The next morning, after exercise, he reported to her. “Things are clearing up. I’ve come to see that some great dog might jump me, but he’ll just get my trousers, or only my clothes will be violated in something else, but I won’t lose my leg or my life. I’ll escape senseless trains, self-extermination camps, riots, matter-of-fact assassinations all around me. Today, for instance, there were no motorcycles, no trains, no guns anymore—no machines, only marauding gangs back on horses or on foot, swinging chains—tire chains, bike chains— and clubs, roving through rubble and trash rabidly after one another, but I wasn’t touched. I’m in it, but I’m out of it, too. I’m just going through it, Dorothy.”

During the morning after he left, Mrs. Ardmore looked over his checkbook to corroborate dates he’d been marking down recently, just to see. The checkbook was quite regular. Later that same day she discreetly found out also that his work at the university was altogether normal—except that some colleagues said her husband’s classes were more enthusiastically attended than usual.

In the next days Henry Ardmore was faced with alternations of quiet and alarm down the secret avenue. Either the street was preternaturally silent or it witnessed fiery paroxysms. Quiet and waste and riot and alarm, however, did not characterize any streets of Henry Ardmore’s memory, real or distorted. He said to his wife, “It isn’t where I grew up, in truth or fantasy. Still, I have to say that it’s known to me, somehow.., . And, meanwhile, the bike is a 22 now, and most of the time I’m walking it out there.”

Although her husband seemed even improved in a physical sense lately, Mrs. Ardmore felt more and more urgent misgivings. Was her husband’s mind regressing toward infancy, in accelerated fashion? Might she go down to the basement one of these mornings to find him a child crying for his mother?

Henry Ardmore went downstairs anyway. But he returned much sooner than usual, sooner even than on his first Exo-Bike days, and he was quite un-winded and clear-eyed.

“I passed the street up today,” he said momentously.

“Henry! What do you mean? Is it over?”

“Wait a minute. Almost, I think. But listen. . . . I skipped it today—I was able to skip it—because, among other things, I had an insight. From something you said once. You’re wrong but you led me to what’s right: I’m not going backwards, Dorothy, I’m going ahead.”

“You’re what?”

“You heard me. A man who’s specialized on Utopias of the past finds himself hurtling to futures—a sort of law of compensation operating. Maybe it rounds me out, making me, in a last stage of life, face opposite meanings,”

“But—the future?” His wife stayed fixed to the idea. “But, then, why the smaller and smaller bicycle, going back to the childish sizes?”

“I don’t understand that. It’s one of the last things to find out and why I have to go back down. I just came up to tell you this, and I’m going back now and over there again.”

Mrs. Ardmore kept the door open but did not go down. Sitting at the breakfast nook, with her hands clasped before her, she felt a nervous pulse in her temples as she listened hard and fearfully. The rapid throb made her skin quiver where it stretched tight over her left forehead, so that she could not control it and had to press her head with a palm to still the pulsation.

Henry had taken to his open road and then deposited a mini-bike with training wheels at the end of the street. With the slightest slipped transition, he found himself next walking the deserted avenue with a blue kiddie car under one arm. Nobody was present, as if the place—suddenly he almost recognized it clearly—had been evacuated. But then there were people, coming from holes in the ground or from caves sculpted in sod embankments, and some of them wore gas masks and moved about unconcernedly like primordial or spectral apes. Others wore simple mouth masks of bandage, and he understood that rank diseases as well as pure poisons filled the air. Typhoid and typhus fevered the wells and streams, except for one rivulet that was on fire, from the wealth of scummed oil burning steadily along its length. At the end of the street the railroad was gone, but some rails were left in twisted strands, and here and there were apocalyptic pyres of smoldering wooden ties warming a few wraiths who stood listlessly together around each mound. Telephone poles were down or bent awry, powerless lines dangling. Here and there some cooperative men, who had cut for themselves varying lengths of insulated telephone wire, were garroting a weak horse or goat; he wondered if it were for food or for pleasure. There were no children, until he saw some shapes on the hill. When he got there, irresistibly drawn to the place, all the children had bloated bellies and tottered about with great sad and empty eyes in their old faces. One of these was his grandson. And he knew now where he was,

It was not his own bike he had been riding, at least not after those first few days. The remembered blue bicycles were a succession not of his own childhood but of his son Ellery’s. And if Ellery never had a kiddie car, nor Henry, as far as he knew, that was because it was not his own and not his son’s— but his son’s son’s. He saw, therefore, in the fullest scale how he had not been regressing but projecting. Not life and death merely, but love and fear powered our imaginings—and what will actually happen did not strictly matter.

He was, then, on their own street all the time.

And that is what he explained to his wife upstairs.

There was a long breathing pause, She said, “You do feel perfectly well now finally, don’t you? . . .”

Henry understood the covert half of the question. “Yes . . . and I won’t be going out any more. That part’s over.”

They were sitting at the kitchen table. Outside, snow was falling, thickly.

“What now?” she asked.

He took her hands, held them gently.

“Now we wait,” he said.


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