Susannna’s Bicycle

As soon as the last ripple made its way to the weedy bank on the other side of the canal she knew it had not been the right thing to do. The experiment had been idle sport anyway, since Susanna, at age eight and four days, knew the results before the tests. Two marble sized rocks, dropped from the bridge, sank. Four marshmallow-roasting sized sticks floated. One big fat rock splashed her in the face and sank. One big fat chunk of a stump splashed her in the face, sank, and then bobbed back to the surface like the mallards eating watery salad nearby.

Her bike, however, did not pop back up to the surface. Its sixteen-inch rims, sparkling blue seat, and heavy white frame just slipped into the water. The splash, not as big as she expected, wasn’t even enough to startle a sunning turtle on the other side.

She felt some satisfaction in seeing the Little Mermaid decals released to the sea (as close to the sea as they would come in this city). The Mermaid could, in theory, glide through the canal to the White River. Though not navigable for barges, the river could push a Little Mermaid down to the wide Ohio River, to the great Mississippi, and south to the Gulf. The Mermaid could, in theory, land as sunken treasure at the bottom of the ocean for bright fish to swim through its spinning spokes the way pet store fish swim through a little opening and closing treasure chest. Susanna might see her old bike on the Discovery channel, or it might just rust right here.

No matter how she looked at it, Susanna could see that it hadn’t been the right thing to do. The act of pushing her first bike over the bridge didn’t abide by the Earth Day lessons at school. It wasn’t giving to those in need. And perhaps worst of all, the mere absence of this little bike did not conjure up the presence of the 20-inch Sunflower Cruiser that she felt she needed and deserved. The cruiser, with hand brakes and a flowered basket, had a clear sounding bell, bright orangey yellow paint, and sunflower reflectors on seat, handlebars and spokes. Riding it through the shiny aisles at Target had been a little bit of heaven, a vision that would not be fulfilled until she rode it on her own street, down the familiar gravel path to the neighborhood pool and locked it with her own matching chain lock. It would make her summer, if not her whole eighth year. She was sure.

Yet even as the Mermaid sank, Susanna had a sinking feeling that the Sunflower was slipping away, too. In the vanishing ripples she could see what would really happen. Her mom would come home next Saturday morning with groceries on the back seat rather than in the trunk. The trunk, instead, would be full of used bicycle. If she found a yard sale bargain, her mom might buy two beat up bikes for half the price of the Sunflower Cruiser, and that would be a bargain her mom could not resist.

So Susanna was not surprised when, two weeks later, after her parents resolved themselves to the mysterious and seemingly permanent absence of the Little Mermaid, her mom rolled into the driveway with a back seat full of brown bags and a trunk full of muddy green metal, 20-inch rims, lizard decals, and chunky tires that, when put all together, made up the Mountain Safari.

Susanna rolled her eyes, crossed her arms, and sighed as if to put out forest fires. But when her parents were busy turning those brown paper bags into supper, she took a wet cloth to the Mountain Safari and discovered that the lime green lizards perched on dark green leaves and that smaller blue ones tiptoed through flowering vines that seemed to wrap around the frame. The kickstand, she noted, kicked into place with an important thunk, and, standing at attention, the bike looked like a sculpture. The Mountain Safari had one hand brake, which was enough, after all, since what she really liked to do was skid with all her weight on the pedal brake, swerve to the right and lean like she would tip over, until dragging her foot at the last moment.

Later that summer, biking home from the pool with her mom, Susanna’s wet hair cooled her head, her towel twisted around the handlebars like a vine, and a blue chain lock coiled in the basket. Because they were not in a hurry, she was allowed to stop on the pedestrian bridge and throw bits of crumbling concrete into the canal. The afternoon sun shone smooth across the water. The concrete crumbles made perfect little plunks when dropped in one at a time, and a handful scattered all at once lit the surface with sparkles and song.

In the moment of watching those sparkles on the surface, a deeper sparkle caught Susanna’s eye. She watched it closely because sometimes big carp swirled around in the water, stirring up silt and surfacing to show a foot of shining scales. But this swirl didn’t surface. It glittered right where it was, and Susanna let her eye follow the sun’s rays down through the silty water to the swirl of glittery tentacles in a canal where no bright jellyfish live. She allowed her eyes to go, as they might to a dead cat at the side of the road, to see the full form of her Little Mermaid bicycle. It was ghostly, coated in gray-brown silt, resting on its side as if a turtle child had flung it down and run home for dinner. Only the streamers held a hint of their original rainbow of ocean blues and aquamarines. If her mother saw it, too, she said nothing.

Susanna felt a pang that she could not name. She was now eight years, two months and six days old. The Mountain Safari, it turned out, with her own custom basket and bell, had made her summer as well as any bike would. And she couldn’t decide what to do with her dreams of the Sunflower Cruiser, her heartfelt longing for what she did not need.

About the Author

Beth Lehman

Beth Lehman in 2011 moved from Indianapolis to Harrisonburg, Virginia, to become Assistant Professor of Education at Eastern Mennonite University, with teaching and research interests in literacy, methods of teaching writing and the use of narratives in school reform. In Indianapolis she worked with the National Writing Project, taught English language arts at middle school, high school and college levels, and attended First Mennonite Church. She cites J. Daniel Hess’s valuable help in completing her doctoral dissertation. Beth graduated from Goshen College in 1991, following which she earned an M.A. in English at Butler University in 2001, an M.A. in English Education at Indiana University in 2004, and a PhD in Literacy, Culture and Language Education at Indiana University in 2011. Her thesis at Butler was a collection of creative nonfiction essays. Her research writing is in the form of “storied experiences,” reflecting her interest in the “multi-vocal production of stories and the ways in which narratives of experience are dynamic and fluid.”