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Steed

Short Story by Joshua Weber

My neighbor, Toni, goes everywhere on her bike. You know the kind, a little girlís bike, pink and white with a banana seat. Toniís knees come up around her chest when she rides it because itís so small. Ten years ago when she was twelve it would have fit her. I see her coming down the sidewalk sometimes when Iím looking out my window and there she is, pedaling along and swerving for the signs and the telephone poles and the Mexican women who push strollers past the building. It freaks me out because all day and night I hear tires screeching in the intersection in front of my building. I always tighten up and close my eyes, waiting to hear an impact at the end. I tell Toni that sheís going to have an accident someday riding that little bike around town. People on bikes get hit all the time. This afternoon I look out through the peephole and I see her in the hallway, so I open the door and say Hi Toni. Iím only wearing my shorts because I havenít been up long but Toni just smiles at me and says Hi Sal Iím going to go to my friendís houseyo she just got an African water beetle with four eyes. Toni says yo a lot, almost in every sentence. Sheís walking that bike down the hall toward the stairs in the back of the building and itís pretty funny to see because it only comes up to her knees. She has big hair, somewhere between red and brown, or maybe both, and she hasnít washed it in three months hoping it will turn into dreads. Dreadsyo. Thatís super I tell her. Why four eyes? Cause itís a waterbeetleyo. As though that explains it. My neighbor, Toni, goes everywhere on her bike. You know the kind, a little girlís bike, pink and white with a banana seat. Toniís knees come up around her chest when she rides it because itís so small. Ten years ago when she was twelve it would have fit her. I see her coming down the sidewalk sometimes when Iím looking out my window and there she is, pedaling along and swerving for the signs and the telephone poles and the Mexican women who push strollers past the building. It freaks me out because all day and night I hear tires screeching in the intersection in front of my building. I always tighten up and close my eyes, waiting to hear an impact at the end. I tell Toni that sheís going to have an accident someday riding that little bike around town. People on bikes get hit all the time. This afternoon I look out through the peephole and I see her in the hallway, so I open the door and say Hi Toni. Iím only wearing my shorts because I havenít been up long but Toni just smiles at me and says Hi Sal Iím going to go to my friendís houseyo she just got an African water beetle with four eyes. Toni says yo a lot, almost in every sentence. Sheís walking that bike down the hall toward the stairs in the back of the building and itís pretty funny to see because it only comes up to her knees. She has big hair, somewhere between red and brown, or maybe both, and she hasnít washed it in three months hoping it will turn into dreads. Dreadsyo. Thatís super I tell her. Why four eyes? Cause itís a waterbeetleyo. As though that explains it.

I live at 348 West McDowell Street, Phoenix, Arizona, USA, Apartment 7. My neighbor Toni lives in the last apartment, number 8. Itís next door to mine. I hear her unlocking the door downstairs, and I look out the window and there she goes. She climbs on the bike and pedals away west on the sidewalk, going past the blue restaurant. It used to be an A&W but now itís called Mariscos Mazatlan. I canít see but I know there are men watching her, probably older men in their forties watching from inside the restaurant. She never wears a bra. She wears baggy shorts and a tank top and she looks real sexy. If I put her in a comic book I would call her Steed and I would draw her big messy hair like a mane, rippling out behind her. I watch her cross through the traffic and turn up third, past the new art gallery and the DMV and the Shamrock Bar and the pawnshop with the neon sign that says Dinero a Mexico. Sheís a fantastic rider because she does it every day, all day it seems like, especially since she quit her job. I donít know how she pays the rent now, but she couldnít go on at the Shamrock. Itís a real dive. Not the kind of place for her. She has something whole and special about her. Nature. The way sheíll ride across town in the heat just to see a waterbeetle. The way that she can ride that bike all over town, barefoot. Anyone else would have burned soles, the pavement is so hot, but I think Toni just never puts her feet down. Thatís how she is. Never on the ground.

My landlady Mabel bangs on the door so I leave the window and pull on some pants. Mabel keeps the place pretty nice because itís historic. It was built in 1924, right downtown. From my window when Iím up at night working I can see the lights of the big buildings downtown. Bank One, Bank of America, Wells Fargo. Mabel put an expensive carpet in the hall and a big wooden dresser with books on top. She runs an antique store on Seventh Avenue and when she canít fit something in her little shop she brings it here and puts it in the hall or knocks on my door. I open up and she smiles and sniffs the air. She worries that her tenants smoke pot. Sal, she tells me, do you have an armoire? No. Here, why donít you use this one for a while, you can put your things in it. Which things? Your art and books and stuff. So I help her drag this big maple armoire up the back steps and down the hall toward my place. Itís not bad. The varnish is coming off the doors on the front but there is some neat carving, scrolls and swishes around the top and on the legs. Counting the armoire I have seven pieces of antique furniture, all on loan from Mabel. I push the armoire against the right side of the apartment, directly across from the ratty Queen Anne armchair with its high back and wooden legs that end in lionís feet and the ottoman. Those are on the left side by my sleeping bag. The front wall, opposite the door, is where I keep the cafť patio table and the matching metal-legged chair so I can look down on McDowell Avenue while sitting at the table. Thatís where I work at night, looking out at the buildings. The lamp is on that table too, itís a real Scheaffer, but the original shade is missing and so is the original pen so Mabel couldnít sell it. I keep my best pen, a Trimline refillable that I do all my lettering with, in the little holder thingy on the lampís base. I say to Mabel Thanks for the armoire. Iíll put my stuff in it. She says no problem, but sheís looking around the apartment to see if Iím keeping it clean enough. Why donít you dust off those cobwebs, Sal? Theyíre in every corner. Sure thing I tell her. Get right on it.

I put on some coffee in the kitchenette and open the doors of the big chest radio that Mabel brought in last month. It didnít work so it was just for show. Itís taller than me, made of dark wood and shaped like the Chrysler Building in New York, the one with the gothic arches that a lot of comics base their skyscrapers off of. I messed around with the radio and found an old repair manual in one of the used bookstores on Seventh. Itís for a different brand, but radios were all the same back then, and it works now. I play KOY on it, which a lot of people donít know aboutóthe swing and oldies station. And I turn it off when Mabel is around because sheíll sell it now that it works. While I wait for the coffee I start some sketches. Most people who donít read comics think that Marvel publishes them all. Thatís not so. I work for a company in Wyoming that has nothing to do with Marvel. Weíre not mainstream. Weíre different, fresh. The company started as four kids at the university drawing in their dorm. Once a month I pack up my storyboards and my sketches and send them all off to Cheyenne in a big FedEx box. My comicís called McDowell because I named the main character after my street. Heís this tall architect with a square jaw who is also a master of a secret martial-arts tradition that is only taught and practiced in an ancient temple in Thailand. He commutes. But this afternoon I sketch the frame of that little kidís bike and then I start on Toniís hair billowing behind her head. I try her breasts a few times but I canít get them quite right. Theyíre different from the breasts I usually draw. Lower, fuller on the bottom than on the top. Teardrops. Iím used to drawing breasts that are squeezed into spandex bodysuits. I give up and try a four-eyed African water beetle but thatís not working either. It keeps coming out like a fat cockroach because I donít know what itís supposed to look like. Then I think to shape the body like a Zulu war mask. The coffee starts to bubble on the stove. Coming, dear, I tell it.

Itís late afternoon and I see this girl pedaling up the street. Traffic is mad heavy on McDowell this time of day and you can barely look out the window for all the sun shining off peopleís cars. The street has three lanes going east, two going west, and a big turn lane right in the middle. These people fly by at fifty, and this is right downtown. One day Iím going to see someone get hit, Iím sure of it. Itíll be right down in front of my apartment. Itís dangerous as hell down there. I walk into the kitchen because that window opens. The heat rushes in at me as soon as I crack it open. I want to ask Toni out. I always have wanted to ask her out but I canít. I get weak in my hands when I think about it, and if I think about it when sheís nearby I get weak everywhere. Itís been that way with girls and me. I have a new idea, though. Iíll ask Toni in. Thereís plenty to talk about here in my apartment, even if she doesnít care about my work. Thereís the new armoire, for instance. And I can make coffee on my stovetop. Iíll sit her down at the cafť table with the view and Iíll pull the old-fashioned box grinder off the top shelf in the kitchen and Iíll put some coffee beans in it and spin the handle and the beans will funnel in and crackle and growl through the mechanism. Thatís my latest piece, Iíll tell her. Classic. Do you know much about armoires? How about radios? I rebuilt this one myself but donít tell Mabel, Iím afraid sheíll sell it. And Iíll pull out the little drawer of ground coffee and scoop it into the basket filter and fill the bottom chamber with water before I drop the filter in place. But I donít know what sheíll say. I canít even imagine it, which worries me because I can imagine practically anything. You donít last long in the comic business unless you can imagine just about anything. But I canít imagine what sheíll say (though I know sheíll say yo in the middle of it) and I think thatís why Iím so afraid. Itís a terrible thing not to know what someone is going to say. So Iím actually relieved when I stick my head out the window into the blistering afternoon and the girl on the bike is Carla, not Toni. Carlaís just a hooker. The only one who hasnít left the neighborhood and moved south to Van Buren. Carlaís breasts are easy to draw. Last time she was up she stayed for an extra hour and napped in the Queen Anne. She was wearing one of those push up bras and I did ten pages of sketches. She didnít charge extra. She said it was enough knowing that kids across America would be gaping at the boobs of a worn-out old whore from Phoenix when they bought comic books. That made me mad and I rushed her out. It was so perverted. I havenít talked to her since. I wouldnít do that to kids.

Still my neighbor Toni hasnít come home, riding her little girlís bike up the sidewalk. Itís almost dark, and the longer she takes the less courage I have to invite her for coffee. Iíve gone over it all in my mind a hundred times. I set the top on the coffee pot and carefully screw the two pieces together. Not too tight, of course. That damages the seal. Light the gas on the stove and turn the flame down to approximately three eighths of an inch while I entertain her with conversation. Have you heard this one? Itís Benny Goodman. KOY doesnít play him enough. Itís always Dean Martin and Glenn Miller. The bottom of the pot heats up, condensation forms all around it, and still Toni says nothing. I try not to look at her legs or at her tank top but I canít help but sneak a tiny peek and I turn red. Of course Iíve seen right down her shirt tons of times, when Iím looking down from my window and sheís on the sidewalk below standing astride the bar of that little pink bike. But thatís different. Whatís your favorite comic? I ask, trying not to look at her skin when sheís so near. Thatís what I really donít want to do. Bring up comics. There are a lot of reclusive, perverted comic book freaks out there. I would die if she thought of me like that.

The streetlights are on even thought the sun hasnít set and there is one right outside my building that buzzes pretty awful. Another girl on a bike bumping along the sidewalk on the other side of the street and I know it has to be her. Thereís no missing the way her knees stick out to the sides like wings on a baby bird. She passes the Shamrock and the pawnshop and the DMV. She pauses at the big windows of the art gallery because one of her friends is a partner there. She likes his art. Iíve heard her standing on the street below my window talking to her friends about what a great artist he is. She palms the glass and keeps her feet up on the pedals. Sheís yelling in the window at her friend. On my paper there is another cockroach. This one is wearing an African war mask and Iím trying to decide where to place the eyes. Four of them. When I look back out Toni is darting across the street. She doesnít wait for a hole in the traffic, she just pedals like mad until she hits the median then lays back on the banana to glide across. People hit the brakes for Toni. Sheís carrying a brown paper bag in one hand, gripped along with the pink rubber handlebar grip. I scramble to the kitchen window and open it. Hi Toni whatís up I say. Síupyo she says, from behind her sunglasses. Nothing. Itís time to ask her up, but what if she doesnít like coffee? I hadnít thought of that. Toniís the kind that would like herbal tea. I donít have that. Not one leaf in my entire apartment. How was the waterbeetle I say instead. So awesome dude. I thought the eyes were maybe like high-beams you know, switchíem on. But itís like theyíre all open at once to see underwater for the fish and above water for the birds. Itís like a superpower, I say. Stupid move. You wanna see ityo? She says. You have it? My friend is going to see her boyfriend in Tucson. Iíve got the beetle. Bring it up I tell her.

My neighbor Toni is coming by to visit and my hands are shaking. I can hear her working the lock on the front door of the building, right below my apartment. I slam my papers together. No time to put them in a portfolio. The door downstairs just closed. I kick my sleeping bag into a ball in the corner and I open the front door of the armoire and throw my drawings and my books in there. Dirty clothes on the floor. Why didnít I clean them up? I scoop them in my arms and dump them beside the sleeping bag. Second thought. I pull the sleeping bag over the pile and shove it all in the corner. I feel my head catch on a low-strung cobweb. Broom closet. Right by the bathroom. I attack the cobwebs with the broom. I hit each corner fast. Sticky grey. Smears on the wall. Toni bangs on my door. Open upyo she says. I got the beetle.

So I answer the door out of breath even though Toni was the one who dragged her bike up the stairs in the back. She leans on the doorjamb and so do Ióthe other one. I canít feel my hands shaking because Iím panting. Toni opens the brown bag. Itís like a lunch bag from junior high. Itís right here she tells me, check it out. Why donít you come in, I say, letís look at it on the table. She peeks into my apartment like a Neanderthal has just invited her into a cave, but she says coolyo. I lead her to the table and lean the broom against the wall by the window and she says you got some cool shityo wheredya gettitall? Coffee, I say? I donít listen for her answer because my extremities are going numb having her right here in my apartment. I do the things like I planned, pouring the beans into the old grinder. Go ahead and make some for yourself she says, from the table. Nice chair. Itís very comfortable, I tell her, try it out. I listen to the machine chewing up the coffee beans while I crank the handle. Hopefully sheís not looking at my pile of clothes or the grey streaks of cobwebs pointing at the corners of the room. So what do you do in here all the time, she says? I work at home I say, dropping the coffee filter into the base. I screw the top on tight. I fixed this radio, I say. Have you ever seen one this old?

I turn the burner on. I am about to tell her about KOY and Benny Goodman, but from the other room I hear her. Great armoireyo. Did you get it from Mabel? Can I look inside? I say yes, to the first question because Iím concentrating and donít hear the other in time. Do you like sugar? I say. Nice drawings, she calls back. Why are you drawing cockroaches? I rush around the corner to take the drawings from her but I hear the squeal of tires out the window and a loud noise. The sound is like crumpling an old drawing, only squeakier because thereís metal involved. I rush to the window and look out and sure enough, thereís a bike and a person all mangled in the center of McDowell. Theyíre lying in the middle of the street in front of some SUV. Cars are stopping both directions and someone has leapt out of the big truck. I turn back around and thereís Toni holding a picture of herself, hair all billowed out behind. Dude, she says. Is this me? How many pictures do you draw of my titsyo? Someone was hit, I say, someone was hit on a bike just now. Dude. You creep me out. Toni backs up toward the door. Come on I say, someone just got hit. Stay away, she says, slipping out into the hallway.

Itís Carla the hooker, but sheís not dead. Busted up pretty good. Probably a dozen broken bones, one of the cops said, itís not going to be pretty. Sheíll be down at County: they take cases like hers. And I get back up to my apartment when itís all over to find the burner still on and my coffee maker all melted down. The handle, the seal, all burned up because I forgot to put water in and then I left it on when I went down to the accident. My drawings of the beetle and Toni and Carla are all gone, and so is the first half of next monthís McDowell. Toni walked out with them but she left the empty beetle bag on my table. Iíll look in the dumpster tomorrow for my work after Toni rides off. I turn off the gas and use a rag to put the coffee pot back on the counter. It should go in the trash. I flick on the old radio and sure enough itís the Glenn Miller Orchestra. I sit at the table and push the old brown bag aside. Itís dark now and the lights of the yellow Wells Fargo sign atop its skyscraper and the blue Bank One sign atop its building shine through my window, as peaceful as the moment before a villain takes out a skyscraper. The trombone section takes off, with only a pulsing drum for accompaniment. Glenn himself played trombone. He starts a solo and I see a shape in the corner, down below the cobwebs, and in one fluid motion I reach for the broom and swing. Itís an instinct you develop living downtown. There are roaches everywhere. I hear the crunch, like a bicycle folding up on the grill of an SUV. I cringe. I roll the broomstick over in my hand and itís gruesome. I canít make out any of the four eyes.



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After working variously as a cook, lumberjack, tutor, emergency fire fighter, and coffee barista, Joshua returned to school and is now an MFA candidate at Oregon State University. He resides in Corvallis, Oregon, with his wife and child.

Reprinted from Ink Pot #6, available now

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