Thaddeus Rutkowski

“Get A Life”

While riding my bicycle, I see a man step into the street in front of me. I swing around him—I don’t slow so he can pass. He sees me roll close, and when he is within earshot he says, “Get a light.” Either that, or he says, “Get a life.”

I’m in a hurry. I have a twenty-minute ride before I get to the bridge. It’s dark already, but my red taillight is on. I can’t see it, but it must be blinking in a steady strobe pattern, warning drivers to stay back.

The man couldn’t have seen my taillight—he’s wrong that I need one. As for a life, maybe I need to get one. Maybe I should find a way not to have to ride my bike everywhere, in daylight and darkness, in good weather and bad. Maybe that’s what this ticked-off man was trying to tell me.

I come to an intersection where the avenue forks. I want to go straight, but doing so would mean cutting in front of any vehicle behind me. The traffic lights don’t work in concert here: The green shows on one side of the street before it signals “Go” on the other side. I roll ahead anyway, but when I reach the median, I can’t go any farther. Traffic passes in front of me, so I end up in the middle of the street, in a traffic lane. A package-delivery truck comes up beside me, and the driver yells out his open door, “Red light, man!”

A woman rolls toward me, ringing her bell. She’s working her handlebar button frantically. “Get out of my way!” she yells.

A man on a bicycle passes me from behind and heads toward the woman. When he gets next to her, he reaches out and says, “Wrong way!”

“Don’t touch me!” she says.

Minutes later, I hear the squawk of a siren behind me, then see the blue and red lights of a police car. I hear through a loudspeaker, “Pull over,” but I don’t think it means me—there are plenty of other vehicles on the street.

I make it about a block before the police car comes to a stop ahead of me.

I ride my bicycle around the cruiser, and it quickly gives chase. “Stop right there,” the driver says through his open window.

I park on the street as the officer approaches. “You went through a red light,” he says. “Why did you do that?”

I have no doubt I ran the light, but I don’t know why. Maybe I was looking for oncoming traffic, not at the light. But I don’t want to start a conversation. Any exchange might seem rude, and rudeness would lead to arrest, detainment, and penalty.

“I didn’t realize I went through until you told me,” I say.

“Do you have ID?” the officer asks.

I must not be responding quickly enough, so he says sharply, “ID! Ten hut!”

I come to attention and give him my driver’s license and a card with a photo.

“Do you have two licenses? Is one of these fake?”

“No, one is not a license.”

“Wait here,” he says as he gets back into his car.

Rain is falling as I step onto the sidewalk. My bike balances on its kickstand. Cars pass the police car obediently.

I’m sure I’ll get a ticket, not only for running a red light, but for responding to an order too slowly. I’m guessing the fine will be hundreds of dollars. I could appeal, but I would have to go to court. Which court would that be? Does the local traffic court have a bicycle division? Will the judge be on my side? The cops won’t change their story, and the judge might think that everything a cop says is true.

The arresting officer returns and says, “Your record is clean, so I’m letting you go.”

I stop at every red light on the route to the bridge. I have to cover about three miles before I reach the ramp. The traffic lights slow me down, though I’m still in a hurry.

On the bridge, there are no intersections. I cannot be stopped for proceeding illegally. But the hill is steep. I pedal slowly as I approach the first platform. I almost cannot move forward, but I don’t stop. Near the top of the ramp someone has painted graffiti on the pavement: “Sarah2, Marry Me,” with a superscript “2.” I don’t know what the “2” means. Is this the second Sarah to receive a proposal? Or is she Sarah Squared? Maybe she is a super Sarah. On the other side of the peak, sadder words are spaced at even intervals: “Entropy,” “Self-Obsession,” “Mediocrity,” “Boredom,” “Conflict,” “Revolution.”

I’m coasting fast as I approach the exit, faster than the cars in their lane beside me. I squeeze the brake handles, then release them. I do not use the “death grip”—the motion that would engage the brakes at the risk of my life. The path narrows as I come to the street. I have to get through a space in a wall and ease over a bump. When I pass through the last obstacle, I will be more or less home.

Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of seven books, most recently Tricks of Light, a poetry collection. His novel Haywire won the Asian American Writers’ Workshop’s members’ choice award, and his memoir Guess and Check won the Electronic Literature bronze award for multicultural fiction. He teaches at Medgar Evers College and the West Side YMCA in New York. He received a fiction writing fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts.

Luke Whisnant

In the Debris Field

We found it in the debris field while looking for my mother: a 1921 A-4 style sunburst mandolin, half-hidden in blue mud. Somehow it had sunk to the bottom of a heap of sodden instruments—warped guitars, fiddles, swollen banjos, an electric mandocello, a broken requinto made from an armadillo shell—but the mandolin was still intact, unscathed, double duct-taped inside a dry plastic bag. Look at this, I called to my grandmother, but she had gone on ahead, trudging through puddles with a broken aluminum crutch over her shoulder and a headless doll under her arm, and I ran to catch up. We found a cookie tin full of quarters and a pair of wire-rim glasses and a waterlogged black-and-white abacus and on the other side of the field a warped cello bow and a big sheet metal sign that read THIBODEAUX’S STRINGED INSTRUMENT REPAIR, and nearby, next to a burst cardboard box labeled GIDEON USA / POCKET NEW TEST. / 4 GROSS NFS, we saw two white shapes we thought were drowned Dalmatians but turned out to be dead and rotting goats. We stood a moment at the far edge of the field, eyes watering in the hot sharp stench. Then we left, lugging our loot back to the FEMA trailer where we’d been living since the previous hurricane. Sitting on the steps my grandmother examined the mandolin while I washed up with the garden hose; she held it to her ear and plucked the strings and announced that Good Dogs Are Evil; to my damp questioning face she explained It’s tuned in fifths, like a violin, and I said How do you know, and she said Don’t ask stupid questions, just tune it and play this, and she wrote out from memory the opening bars of a Czerny étude on the back of the Missing Person poster we’d made from a snapshot of my mother blowing out all 38 candles of last May’s birthday cake.

My grandmother told me later that jazz was invented in 1865 by freed slaves wielding abandoned trumpets and tubas and drums and coronets they’d found in the debris fields following the fighting around New Orleans. She said that not a one of them had electricity or sheet music or a grandmother who’d gone on full scholarship to Julliard, and that if Ignorant Negros could teach themselves, then by God, I, with all my advantages, could have no excuse.

I played Puccini and Bach and Chopin nocturnes and Villa-Lobos tremolo studies every day and listened to Bill Monroe and Jethro Burns and David Grisman every night for the next eight-and-a-half years and I slept cradling the sunburst mandolin in my arms and eventually, no matter how rapid or rococo the passage, if I could hear it in my head I could produce it on the instrument. At my Merle Fest debut they billed me as the Yngwie Malmsteen Of The Mandolin; when I started in on a theme from Paganini the crowd rioted, Old School people booing me and the NewGrass people booing them and cursing and throwing bottles, and I turned my back and kept playing. On the second day they put me head to head with a famous old man who had worked with everybody from Bill to Doc to Del to Ralph, and he slashed a few furious phrases at me, throwing down the gauntlet, but I took it right back to him, ripping into some Brandenburg-style counterpoint and some Baroque scales but adding my own thing to the mix, and just as it had been from the day I’d started playing, in my music was the anguished song of a headless doll and the rubato stagger of a cripple’s broken crutch and the smeared red words of a slaughtered lamb, and the old man closed his eyes and smiled and inclined his head. When I left that place the day after the festival, I struck my tent and carted my cooler and fold-up camp chair across a field strewn with every manner of dross: fastfood Styrofoam and wet pizza boxes, condoms and tampons and a backpack of disposable diapers, a shredded blue tarp torn by the wind, white and black bags of spilled trash, clumps of dogshit, about a thousand crumpled cans. Dark men moved through the debris, stabbing it with sticks. I picked up a sun-bleached Polaroid from a clump of weeds and stared at the image: a woman neither young nor old, hair falling over her fading face.

Luke Whisnant’s novel Watching TV With the Red Chinese was made into an independent film in 2011; he is also the author of the story collection Down in the Flood, and two poetry chapbooks, Street and Above Floodstage: A Narrative Poem. His work been published in Esquire, Arts & Letters, Poetry East, American Short Fiction, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, and many others, and three of his stories have been reprinted in New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best. He teaches creative writing at East Carolina University, where he also edits Tar River Poetry.