The accident happened not long after he left the city limits, and it was certainly not his fault; the vehicle that forced his bicycle from the road had to be moving at well over a hundred and fifty miles an hour.
Norman had been traveling at perhaps twenty miles an hour himself on the straightaway, enjoying the easy motion of the pedals beneath his feet, the warm May sunshine loosening the muscles in his back, so when the vehicle passed him so very closely — he only got a fleeting glimpse of it, a streamlined fiberglass body set upon a low-framed chassis equipped with an enormous engine rising like a chromed mountain from an aperture in the hood — he immediately oversteered the bicycle and turned directly onto the rocky shoulder. As the bicycle seat ratcheted beneath him he tried desperately to apply the brakes to avoid a painful fall, but despite his efforts he found himself flying freely from the road and onto the thick grass bordering the rocky shoulder.
Upon examining himself after he stood, and realizing he wasn’t injured, just decorated by grass stains and hayseed, he dusted his short trousers and walked to where his bicycle had come to rest. The vehicle that ran him off the road was long out of sight, having left only a cloud of dust as an artifact of its passing. He sighed, reserving his ire for another time, and lifted the bicycle to see if it had suffered any damage.
The bicycle was in perfect condition, save for a pitifully flat front tire.
Of course, he carried patches for just such an occasion, but when he bent to examine the puncture he discovered the tread to be quite shredded, and the tube beneath irreparably torn.
Now how will I finish my circuit? he thought, quite annoyed that some careless joy-rider had so blithely forced him into this predicament. Like so many others, his life was filled with unavoidable responsibilities that kept him from the truly important pursuits in life; and for Norman, this meant the one day of the weekend he could roll his traveling companion from its stand in the garage and embark on another wonderful open-road adventure.
Some people devoted their free time to collecting stamps; others, to baking exotic cookies. Norman devoted his free time to turning pedals with his feet. And he was a serious devotee.
He stood for a moment, gazing from one terminus of the road to the other, hoping to see a vehicle passing his way that might ferry him to a repair shop, but the road was empty. Its grand isolation was the reason why he wanted to cycle over it in the first place; now it seemed to represent the source of endless difficulty.
Undaunted, and still determined to finish his circuit, he gripped the handlebars and began walking the bicycle down the shoulder of the road. Surely some friendly motorist would be along to offer him a ride.
Unfortunately, after an hour of walking he failed to see anyone else passing on either side of the road.
He secretly began hoping for a reappearance of the rocket-car that had caused the accident; perhaps its driver would realize the extent of the damage he’d inflicted and offer to drive him — at an extreme rate of speed — to an appropriate place of repair.
After a while, thirsty and weary of pushing the bicycle, he happened to see a strange sight in the field to his right.
A lone figure sat on a chair in the grass before an unknown wooden shape. A table stood at his right hand bearing a tall pitcher and a glass.
He guided the bicycle from the rocky shoulder and walked it toward the solitary figure, which was no easy feat through the tall grass. When he was near enough he realized the man, much older than himself and adorned with a grizzled white beard and dusty top hat, was sitting before an open coffin. Since there were no graveyards to be seen anywhere in the vicinity, it struck him as a little odd that a man should be sitting in a grassy field minding a coffin.
“Hello,” he said in the way of an introduction, “my name is Norman, and I’m in need of a new front tire and tube.”
The grizzled man in the top hat stared at him wordlessly. Thin and pale, even in the sun, he held his thin arms across himself, one leg thrown over the other, as if embracing a body that was slowly vanishing from starvation.
The man finally said, “My name is Hervovich.” He glanced at the damaged front tire. “I’m afraid I’m not very good at repairs, my young friend.”
“I thought not. But you seem well-positioned, so I thought you might know of someone who could be of assistance.”
“Perhaps the old farmer who lives a couple of miles down the road can assist you.”
“Does he repair bicycles?”
“Perhaps. I’ve never had to ask him to repair one, but I do know he’s quite an inventor. He’s produced any number of marvelous contraptions.”
“I’ll seek him out, then. Thank you for the suggestion.”
He was about to turn back toward the road, but then reconsidered.
“Would it be asking too much if I had a drink of water from your pitcher?” he asked. “It would certainly assist me on my journey.”
“Of course,” Hervovich said, “help yourself.”
He did, and was grateful. But as he set the glass back on the table he couldn’t help appraising the coffin behind the man named Hervovich.
“I see you admiring my coffin.”
“I wasn’t so much admiring it as noticing it. But it’s no business of mine, so I’ll take my leave.”
“You’re not curious as to why I’m sitting next to a coffin?”
“I wouldn’t want to be rude.”
“It wouldn’t be rude to ask about it. Indicative of a curious nature, but hardly rude.”
“Well, sir, why are you sitting beside a coffin?”
“This is my home.”
“You live in a coffin?”
“But aren’t coffins only for the dead?”
“I would say that coffins are primarily for the dead, but not exclusively.”
“It seems a small space in which to live.”
“Indeed. And yet, it satisfies my needs, such as they are.”
“Such as they are,” Norman repeated, though he wondered what these needs might really be.
“And when the time comes for me to die, I certainly won’t have to travel far.”
“I wouldn’t imagine you would.”
“But I see by the expression on your face that you disagree.”
“I don’t disagree, exactly. I just find it difficult to believe you’re really comfortable living in a coffin.”
“You’re disturbed by the symbolism of the act, my son. You needn’t be. I’m perfectly happy. Would you care to sit with me for a moment to discuss cosmogony?”
“No, thank you. I really must seek repairs.”
“I’d love to share my experiences with you. I’ve been around the world, you know, I’ve spoken to kings and princes, and a couple of popes. I’ve dined with Communists and Industrialists. Everyone, it seems, has a unique interpretation of life.”
“Thank you all the same.”
“Every person is a mystery.”
Norman nodded, realizing that some mysteries were never meant to be solved. More to the point, he was anxious to find the old farmer to see if he could provide a new tire and tube so Norman could continue his circuit through the country. He was a man of definitive priorities.
He turned away from Hervovich, and Hervovich’s coffin, and walked back to the shoulder of the road.
After pushing the bicycle another couple of miles he saw a distant farmhouse on the other side of the road.
After carefully scanning both horizons — no vehicles had yet to pass — he pushed the bicycle across the asphalt toward the dwelling.
This was no ordinary farmhouse; an odd, spiraling metal tower rose from behind a barn, and several bizarre metal sculptures stood rusting in the grass bordering the pathway to the house. On the porch stood a myriad of devices, some machines standing on spindly legs, some simply taking up space as ugly, squat boxes. A few of these devices hummed hypnotically, a mystical mechanical language that wasn’t altogether unpleasant. But he had business to attend to, so he set the kickstand of his bicycle and knocked loudly on the door.
An old man answered his entreaty — undoubtedly the old man of Hervovich’s account — but so bent and feeble-appearing Norman thought this caricature might topple of its own accord. But the old man remained upright. He stared at Norman with clear, gray eyes, wiped his hairless head with a cloth and asked his business.
“My name is Norman,” he said, “and I’m in need of a new front tire and tube.”
The old man closed one eye and regarded the bicycle with the other. Then he regarded Norman.
“Gently is my name,” he said in a papery voice, “and inventing is my raison d’etre. But I didn’t invent the bicycle, you know.”
Simply by appearances Norman considered this a decided possibility, though he made no cynical remark to that end.
Instead he said, “You seem to have acquired a great variety of materials. Perhaps you have a spare tire lying around?”
The old man waved his cloth at Norman, grinning without teeth. Ordinarily such a display might seem unnerving, but as an expression from Mr. Gently it seemed strangely comforting.
“I have accumulated a great many materials,” he said, “and I’ve probably forgotten more of them than I remember having. It’s entirely possible I may have a spare bicycle tire on the premises.”
Hearing this, Norman was filled with elation, and hopeful that his circuit might continue in short order.
The old man led him to the barn which, upon opening its doors, he revealed as a repository for a remarkable array of items, spools of wire, tubing, sheet metal, rubber gaskets, nuts, bolts and tools hung on hooks above several work tables. In the gloomy light that fell from the spaces between the slats the old man began searching through the piles of material. But after nearly an hour he failed to find anything even resembling a bicycle tire or inner tube.
Gently turned to Norman and shrugged.
“I’m afraid I don’t have what you’re searching for,” he said, wiping his forehead with the cloth.
Norman, emotionally deflated, nodded his understanding.
“I thank you for looking, anyway,” he said. “Do you happen to know of anyone else along the road that might be able to help?”
As they reached the door the old man paused to ponder the question.
“I believe there’s a small general store some five miles down,” he said, “to the north as the birds fly. A man named Sal owns the place. He might have what you need.”
Norman, his spirits lifted by this news, patted the old man’s shoulder in thanks. But as he turned he noticed a strange device to the left of the door, a whirring cabinet on beautifully carved mahogany legs bearing a blackish mirror above a set of glassine controls. He studied this device for a moment, then asked, “What is this machine?”
The old man smiled and hurried to the console.
“I’m so happy you noticed,” he said, slowly turning a dial between aged fingers. “Not many people have been privileged to see this wonderful invention.”
Norman, anxious to be on his way, reluctantly stepped toward the console and asked, “What does it do?”
The old man said, “It is a device that translates the music of the stars.”
“I beg your pardon?”
The old man rotated another dial, and a thin spectrographic stream of colors shone, dancing on the blackish mirror.
“You see, each star produces its own energetic field. Our own sun is the loudest of these voices in our skies, but the stars, too, produce enough unique energy for this device to translate it into music.”
“How is that possible?”
“It does seem magical, doesn’t it?”
“Yes, but what does the music of the stars sound like?”
The old man closed his eyes, perhaps recalling the experience in his memories. “It is the most beautiful sound you may ever hear,” he said, “or ever hope to hear. It is so beautiful a sound that I can only imagine it’s the voices of angels that I hear, and not the energetic pulses of the heavenly bodies. Listen to this recording I made.”
Gently opened his eyes and turned another dial and the barn filled with a strange, low, melodic thrumming that seemed more a chant of perfect voices than an electromagnetic pulse. Norman was struck by the esthetic intensity of the sound, and watched the same band of colors dance wildly on the mirror. The music seemed to fill his very soul with an incredible peace and serenity. Then the old man turned a dial and silenced the extraordinary melody.
“Is it not the most beautiful sound you’ve ever heard? And this was only Alpha Centauri. Betelgeuse is ten times lovelier still!”
“It is exceptional,” he said, turning away. “I congratulate you on your ingenuity. But I really must be going.”
“Wouldn’t you like to stay the evening?” the old man asked. “Once the stars emerge in full, you would be audience to the greatest performance in nature.”
“I thank you for the offer, but I’m afraid I have more important things to accomplish today.”
And so he retrieved his bicycle, assumed his position on the rocky shoulder and began walking toward the promised general store, leaving the old man to enjoy the fruits of his remarkable invention.
The next five miles were long and tiring, as the birds fly — and they actually did fly above him, incredibly large, monstrous black birds with fiery gimlet eyes, perhaps watching for signs of a debilitating fatigue — but he managed the entire way without flagging. He still failed to see any traffic in either direction, which would have made for splendid cycling, but which did little else but encourage a lonely feeling to blossom inside his heart. It was surely a waste of good asphalt, he decided.
Sal’s General Store appeared as a sanctuary on the horizon, a beautifully rustic building with dusty windows and splintering gray posts supporting a slanted shingled overhang. Though not very modern, it did possess a unique charm that invited him to brace his bicycle against the skirt of the porch and enter through the front door as if he were a friend, nay, a beloved relation come a very long way to visit.
The store was unoccupied by people, though overcrowded with shelves veritably dripping with a wondrous array of commercial articles for purchase. He tried to find bicycle repair equipment in the mass of items, but was so overwhelmed by the number of shelves, boxes and unmarked containers that he reconsidered and decided to wait for assistance.
“Hello?” he called loudly, hoping he wasn’t disturbing a family meal or some other ritual practice. “Is anyone here?”
The shadows of the room now seemed less welcoming and more ominous. He waited, listening to odd, muted sounds ticking about the hidden recesses of the store’s goods. It was then he heard a low, rumbling growl, as if something — some large entity — had voiced its disapproval. For some reason he shivered, though he was certain the sound must only be a cantankerous air pocket in the plumbing.
Presently a stout, grinning man in coveralls emerged from the shadows, wiping his hands with a cloth and appraising Norman with an indecipherable expression. His short stature and long, black beard gave him the appearance of a woodland gnome. Well-muscled, he walked toward Norman flexing his biceps as he pocketed the cloth.
“Well, hello,” the man said in a booming, basso voice. “Have you come to see the beast?”
Norman blinked several times before recovering his senses; something in the statement, combined with the terrible vocalization he’d heard, threw all purpose from his thoughts.
“No,” he said, “I don’t know anything about a beast. Are you Sal?”
“I am indeed. I was just feeding the monster. A terrible chore, that. It’s a messy eater.”
“I’m sure. Mr. Gently suggested I visit your store as I might find the items for which I’m searching.”
“And what items are you searching for?”
“I had an accident a few miles down the road and ruined my front bicycle tire and tube. Would you happen to have any cycling gear for sale?”
“Run off the road, I’ll wager. Were you a victim of the speedster?”
“It’s rumored that he — or she — installed an aircraft engine onto an experimental dragster and speeds down the road as part of some vehicle-centered religious ritual. I’ve never seen it myself, but have spoken to many victims of his — or her — exuberance. They, too, were searching for items of repair.”
“Then you have such items?”
“Absolutely,” Sal replied, gesturing toward the overloaded shelves. “I have most anything you could imagine. What’s the model of your bicycle?”
To his great relief, Sal was able to locate the very items for which Norman was in need. He paid the merchant with the money from his sock — always be prepared for every eventuality, was his personal motto — and retreated outside to begin repairing his suffering racer.
In a few minutes the old tire and tube were lying in the grass, and the new tube and tire were firmly affixed to the rim.
As Norman knelt next to the bicycle, vigorously working his air pump, the stout man walked down the steps of the porch and studied his efforts.
“You must really love cycling,” Sal said, his hands crowning his hips. He stared up at the sun, which was now falling lower to the horizon, then again on Norman. “To risk so much. Is it a great thrill?”
Norman gazed up, smiling. “It is the most exhilarating experience I know,” he said. “Nothing compares.”
“Nothing at all?”
“Absolutely nothing.” Norman ceased pumping, believing the tire was full up. He meditated on the notion a moment, then added, “I can honestly say that there’s nothing in this universe I find more fulfilling than mounting this bicycle and pedaling down the open road, mile after mile in reverie. The world and all its concerns vanish and I’m alone with only one purpose, one focus, one thought. I am the machine itself, acquiring the miles and nothing else. It’s the one thing I have that gives my life meaning.”
“Doesn’t that become a bit monotonous after a while?”
Norman frowned. “While there is a quality of monotony about it, I find that very monotony to be part of its glory.”
“Well, of course by nature it’s experiential.”
“Well, I don’t have to think about anything else but that single exercise of body in motion. Except,” he said, grinning, “when something horrendous interrupts the journey.”
“It’s a beautiful experience.”
Sal nodded, though his expression remained impenetrable.
“While you’re here, though,” the gnomish man said, “would you like to see the beast? Most people do. It’s a spectacular sight, and there’s no charge.”
Norman stood, dusting his trousers.
“This is no normal beast?”
Sal laughed. “I should say not.”
“Where did it come from?”
“It surely came from some dark cavern of the Earth, or perhaps even another dimension! Its head bears two faces, its claws are black and glistening as onyx, its snouts each possess three rows of teeth, all jagged and spiked. During the day it growls with a human vitriol, but at night it sings a siren song that would lull you to its jaws if it weren’t locked in a special pen of my own construction. Occasionally it rises on two legs and paces the pen, watching the landscape like a demon awaiting escape. And its hide is replete with hairs that glow with a hypnotizing light, a sheen that creates dazzling images across its body when it flexes or turns. And if you stare into its eyes a moment too long it will read your thoughts and sing to you in your own voice, recalling every lovely memory you own in an attempt to lure you near its unforgiving jaws. It is a most remarkable sight, one you may never see again in your life!”
“I believe that it well may be,” Norman said as he guided a leg over the bicycle’s frame and took his seat. “But I’m afraid I have very little time left to complete my circuit. Perhaps I’ll be back along this road one day.”
“Are you certain?” Sal said. “It would only take a few minutes.”
“I’ll have to decline the invitation. But thank you for your assistance in getting me back on the road.”
“Are you absolutely certain? It’s quite a sight.”
“Thank you, no.”
Norman, his hands gripping the handlebars of the bicycle excitedly, latched his shoes to the pedals and turned toward the road.
When he was riding again, the air rushing past him, he let out a delighted laugh. From time to time he couldn’t help pedaling as fast as possible, soaring down the straightaway with abandon. Fortunately, the phantom rocket-car did not pass him again. He rode for a another hour before turning and retracing his path, past Sal’s General Store, past Gently’s farm house, past Hervovich and his coffin — who was now ostensibly inside, as dusk had fallen — though he didn’t see them again, or even remember they were present, such was the intensity of his focus.
Before he realized it, he was back in the city.
And despite the obstacles Norman had to endure along the way — and the terrible waste of time they produced — it had actually been a splendid ride.
LAWRENCE BUENTELLO has published more than sixty short stories in a variety of genres. He is the author of the short story collections, The Cube Root of the Universe and Other Stories and A Miracle for Every Occasion, and the novel, The Bridge of a Thousand Leagues. He lives in San Antonio, Texas.