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.

Anthony Schneider


She Was Not

She was not to stare, not even at helicopters or albinos. She was not to yawn in public or cough loudly or chew a chicken bone or break a pencil with her teeth.

She saw a car on fire at the side of the road. She could tell it had not been burning long. There was no smell. A few people watched the blaze. She rode away on her bicycle, and the explosion that she expected did not come.

She was not to smile with any teeth showing. She was not to drop anything, she was not to turn on a light switch without holding her breath to the count of three. She was not to turn off a light switch without first untying a shoe, then immediately afterwards stepping through a doorway and retying the same shoe, or if she was wearing a slip-on, taking the shoe off and then putting it back on. She was not to wear miniskirts or plunging necklines or flip-flops. She was not to show her toes.

She was not to use the word nice. Or hate. She was not to eat rice and broccoli, not even rice pudding, in the same seating.

She was not to cry in public, or remember things that might make her cry, not in the company of others. She was not to talk about the mess we’re in or how bad things had gotten, or divulge when last she spoke to her father. She wondered what she had to learn from whales, trees, small children. She wondered what she wanted. And whether she would recognize change.

She was not to be the loudest, or the last to leave, or the first to speak. She was not to point, she was not to linger, she was not to eat with her mouth open, or burp or fart audibly or sneeze more than twice in a row. She was not to drive over railroad tracks without both feet raised, even when she was driving. She was not to be visibly sweaty, she was not to be dirty or have newspaper ink on her fingers.

She kissed a boy. He bit her tongue. She made an excuse the next time he asked her out.

She spoke to her father on the phone. But when he came to town she said she hadn’t been feeling well and suggested she visit him instead, the next month maybe, or the month after that.

She was not to ask too many questions. She was not to look at anyone askance, especially not men. She was not to braid her hair. Or sing in the shower. There were no roads leading home. There would be no Armageddon.

She was to talk to him, to be civil. She was to comport herself if she saw him. She was not to set fire to anything, no matter how small. She was not to let herself wonder, even for an instant, if she might be better off if she had stabbed him with a steak knife, rather than let those things happen. She was not to bite her fingernails until they bled.

Anthony Schneider has been published in McSweeney’s, BoldType, Driftwood Press, Details, The Believer and other magazines as well as several fiction anthologies. His novel, Repercussions, is published by Penguin South Africa and Permanent Press in the US. He divides his time between New York and London.

Robert Garner McBrearty

The Story of Your Life

The fellow sitting next to me at the bar said, “I went through some rough times. You ought to write the story of my life.”

“I will, John,” I said, ‘I’ll do it right now.”

In those days, I always carried pen and paper with me, and as John told me his story, I wrote: John Springer was born in a small town in Ohio. His father passed away when he was fifteen, and his mother shortly after, and nobody figured out that John was living in the old house alone. He ate what was left in the fridge, and then he turned to cannibalism. He first took down his neighbor, Joe, across the street…

John leaned in. “What do you got so far?”

I read what I’d written and his eyes widened. “This is all wrong. I wasn’t born in Ohio. A cannibal!”

“It’s interpretive, John. This is the descent part. You need the descent before the redemption.”

“You son of a bitch! You’ve made a mockery of my life!” He threw his drink in my face and struck me. We grappled at the bar as I tried to ward him off. The bartenders forced us out on the street. He went off howling down the block. “You’ve ruined my life!” he shouted.

“Come back, John,” I cried. “I love you. I love your life!”

But he went on, bellowing in outrage. Since then, I can’t stand to be alone. I want to tell your story.

Robert Garner McBrearty’s short stories have been published in The Pushcart Prize, Missouri Review, North American Review, New England Review, and many other places, including flash fictions in Opium, Eclectica, Flashfiction.net, and Lowestoft Chronicle. As well, Robert has published three collections of short stories and most recently a novel, The Western Lonesome Society. He’s worked at many different jobs, from dishwasher to college teacher. For more information about Robert’s writing, please see www.robertgamermcbrearty.com.

Zeke Jarvis

Las Vegas

The bum approaching the businessman is covered with grime. He’s wearing an awful lot of clothes for this heat, but everyone knows that bums like to layer. The bum smells terrible. It could be sweat or puke or garbage, knowing the bums here. The businessman that the bum’s approaching looks towards this wretch with his eyes only, keeping his face turned towards the other side of the intersection. The bum mumbles something about spare change, and the businessman shoots back, “Get a job!”

The bum straightens himself. “Look Buddy, I’m a Viet Nam vet. I fought for my country and now they fucking spit on me. You all fucking spit on me! Spit on me and shit on me and leave me to die.” The bum whirls around, pointing at nobody in particular. “I can’t get a job, they won’t let me get myself together. What am I supposed to do?” His voice breaks and he falls to the ground.

There’s silence. Then the businessman laughs and a family a little way down the sidewalk applauds. “Shit is a word you shouldn’t say,” the mother says to her son, but she smiles and gives his shoulder a little squeeze.

The bum rises, smiling, and bows to the family. The businessman hands the bum some money and the family sends their child over with a dollar for him. The bum thanks them both and wobbles a little bit for the child. He belches, softly, and the boy laughs.

“That was good,” says the businessman. “Were you really in Viet Nam?”

The bum folds up the money and stuffs it into a pocket of his innermost shirt. “Nah, it was a little before my time, but I did have an uncle who fought there. Terrible business.”

The businessman nods. “You pulled it off well. Do you have any cards?”

“Cards?”

Just then, the mother from the family interrupts. “Excuse me. Do you think our son could get his picture taken with you?”

“Sure,” the bum says, smiling. “Do you want me to look defeated or menacing?”

“I have to go,” says the businessman, “but I enjoyed your work. If you had a card… or a website, even, I could hook you up with some clients or coworkers who are in town at conventions.”

The man smiles again. “Vegas is a wonderful town for that. I don’t have a card, but I generally work around this casino.”

The businessman nods. “Good luck.”

“Thank you, Sir. Now was that menacing or defeated?”

“Oh,” says the mother, “menacing, please.”

The bum leans in over the child and glowers. The child begins to moan and whimper. The bum relaxes a bit. He points to his shoes, from which his big toes stick out. He wiggles the toes and the child smiles. “Sorry,” says the mother, “We’re from Wisconsin; he’s not used to this.”

“That’s fine,” says the bum, looking now only slightly threatening as the mother takes the picture. “That’s just fine.”

Zeke Jarvis is an Associate Professor at Eureka College. His work has appeared in 4 Chambers, Petrichor Machine and Moon City Review, among other places. His books, So Anyway… and In A Family Way were published by Robocup Press and Fomite Press.