Stationary Bike
written by Stephen King and narrated by Ron McLarty


VI. Not Quite the Ending Everyone Expected


And still, he got one more chance.

That was the night he heard the revving engine behind him clearly for the first time, and just before the alarm clock went off, the Raleigh he was riding suddenly grew an elongated shadow on the road ahead of him—the sort of shadow that could only have been created by headlights.

Then the alarm did go off, not a bray but a distant purring sound that was almost melodic.

The truck was closing in. He didn’t need to turn his head to see it (nor does one ever want to turn and see the frightful fiend that close behind him treads, Sifkitz supposed later that night, lying awake in his bed and still wrapped in the cold-yet-hot sensation of disaster avoided by mere inches or seconds). He could see the shadow, growing longer and darker.

Hurry up, please, gentlemen, it’s time, he thought, and squeezed his eyes closed. He could still hear the alarm, but it was still no more than that almost soothing purr, it was certainly no louder; what was louder was the engine, the one inside Freddy’s truck. It was almost on him, and suppose they didn’t want to waste so much as a New York minute in conversation? Suppose the one currently behind the wheel just mashed the pedal to the metal and ran him down? Turned him into roadkill?

He didn’t bother to open his eyes, didn’t waste time confirming that it was still the deserted road instead of the basement alcove. Instead he squeezed them even more tightly shut, focused all his attention on the sound of the alarm, and this time turned the polite voice of the barman into an impatient bellow:


And suddenly, thankfully, it was the sound of the engine that was fading and the sound of the Brookstone alarm that was swelling, taking on its old familiar rough get-up-get-up-get-up bray. And this time when he opened his eyes, he saw the projection of the road instead of the road itself.

But now the sky was black, its organic redness hidden by nightfall. The road was brilliantly lit, the shadow of the bike—a Raleigh—a clear black on the leaf-littered hardpack. He could tell himself he had dismounted the stationary bike and painted those changes while in his nightly trance, but he knew better, and not only because there was no paint on his hands.

This is my last chance, he thought. My last chance to avoid the ending everyone expects in stories like this.

But he was simply too tired, too shaky, to take care of the stationary bike now. He would take care of it tomorrow. Tomorrow morning, in fact, first thing. Right now all he wanted was to get out of this awful place where reality had worn so thin. And with that firmly in mind, Sifkitz staggered to the Pomona crate beside the doorway (rubber-legged, covered with a thin slime of sweat—the smelly kind that comes from fear rather than exertion) and shut the alarm off. Then he went upstairs and lay down on his bed. Some very long time later, sleep came.

The next morning he went down the cellar stairs, eschewing the elevator and walking firmly, with his head up and his lips pressed tightly together, A Man On A Mission. He went directly to the stationary bike, ignoring the alarm clock on the crate, dropped to one knee, picked up the screwdriver. He slipped it once more into the slot of a screw, one of the four that held the left-hand pedal…

…and the next thing he knew, he was speeding giddily along the road again, with the headlights brightening around him until he felt like a man on a stage that’s dark save for one single spotlight. The truck’s engine was too loud (something wrong with the muffler or the exhaust system), and it was out of tune, as well. He doubted if old Freddy had bothered with the last maintenance go-round. No, not with house-payments to make, groceries to buy, the kiddies still needing braces, and no weekly paycheck coming in.

He thought: I had my chance. I had my chance last night and I didn’t take it.

He thought: Why did I do this? Why, when I knew better?

He thought: Because they made me, somehow. They made me.

He thought: They’re going to run me down and I’ll die in the woods.

But the truck did not run him down. It hurtled past him on the right instead, left-side wheels rumbling in the leaf-choked ditch, and then it swung across the road in front of him, blocking the way.

Panicked, Sifkitz forgot the first thing his father had taught him when he brought the three-speed home: When you stop, Richie, reverse the pedals. Brake the bike’s rear wheel at the same time you squeeze the handbrake that controls the front wheel. Otherwise—

This was otherwise. In his panic he turned both hands into fists, squeezing the handbrake on the left, locking the front wheel. The bike bucked him off and sent him flying at the truck with LIPID COMPANY printed on the driver’s-side door. He threw his hands out and they struck the top of the truck’s bed hard enough to numb them. Then he collapsed in a heap, wondering how many bones were broken.

The doors opened above him and he heard the crackle of leaves as men in workboots got out. He didn’t look up. He waited for them to grab him and make him get up, but no one did. The smell of the leaves was like old dry cinnamon. The footsteps passed him on either side, and then the crackle abruptly stopped.

Sifkitz sat up and looked at his hands. The palm of the right one was bleeding and the wrist of the left one was already swelling, but he didn’t think it was broken. He looked around and the first thing he saw—red in the glow of the Dodge’s taillights—was his Raleigh. It had been beautiful when his Dad brought it home from the bike-shop, but it wasn’t beautiful any longer. The front wheel was warped out of true, and the rear tire had come partly off the rim. For the first time he felt something other than fear. This new emotion was anger.

He got shakily to his feet. Beyond the Raleigh, back the way he’d come, was a hole in reality. It was strangely organic, as if he were looking through the hole at the end of some duct in his own body. The edges wavered and bulged and flexed. Beyond it, three men were standing around the stationary bike in the basement alcove, standing in postures he recognized from every work-crew he’d ever seen in his life. These were men with a job to do. They were deciding how to do it.

And suddenly he knew why he’d named them as he had. It was really idiotically simple. The one in the Lipid cap, Berkowitz, was David Berkowitz, the so-called Son of Sam and a New York Post staple the year Sifkitz had come to Manhattan. Freddy was Freddy Albemarle, this kid he’d known in high school—they’d been in a band together, and had become friends for a simple enough reason: they both hated school. And Whelan? An artist he’d met at a conference somewhere. Michael Whelan? Mitchell Whelan? Sifkitz couldn’t quite remember, but he knew the guy specialized in fantasy art, dragons and such. They had spent a night in the hotel bar, telling stories about the comic-horrible world of movie-poster art.

Then there was Carlos, who’d committed suicide in his garage. Why, he had been a version of Carlos Delgado, also known as the Big Cat. For years Sifkitz had followed the fortunes of the Toronto Blue Jays, simply because he didn’t want to be like every other American League baseball fan in New York and root for the Yankees. The Cat had been one of Toronto’s very few stars.

“I made you all,” he said in a voice that was little more than a croak. “I created you out of memories and spare parts.” Of course he had. Nor had it been for the first time. The boys on the Norman Rockwell pitcher’s mound in the Fritos ad, for instance—the ad agency had, at his request, provided him with photographs of four boys of the correct age, and Sifkitz had simply painted them in. Their mothers had signed the necessary waivers; it had been business as usual.

If they heard him speak, Berkowitz, Freddy, and Whelan gave no sign. They spoke a few words among themselves that Sifkitz could hear but not make out; they seemed to come from a great distance. Whatever they were, they got Whelan moving out of the alcove while Berkowitz knelt by the stationary bike, just as Sifkitz himself had done. Berkowitz picked up the screwdriver and in no time at all the left-hand pedal dropped off onto the concrete—clunk. Sifkitz, still on the deserted road, watched through the queer organic hole as Berkowitz handed the screwdriver to Freddy Albemarle—who, with Richard Sifkitz, had played lousy trumpet in the equally lousy high school band. They had played a hell of a lot better when they were rocking. Somewhere in the Canadian woods an owl hooted, the sound inexpressibly lonely. Freddy went to work unscrewing the other pedal. Whelan, meanwhile, returned with the adjustable wrench in his hand. Sifkitz felt a pang at the sight of it.

Watching them, the thought that went through Sifkitz’s mind was: If you want something done right, hire a professional. Certainly Berkowitz and his boys wasted no time. In less than four minutes the stationary bike was nothing but two wheels and three disconnected sections of frame laid on the concrete, and so neatly that the parts looked like one of those diagrams called “exploded schematics.”

Berkowitz himself dropped the screws and bolts into the front pockets of his Dickies, where they bulged like handfuls of spare change. He gave Sifkitz a meaningful look as he did this, one that made Sifkitz angry all over again. By the time the work-crew came back through the odd, ductlike hole (dropping their heads as they did so, like men passing through a low doorway), Sifkitz’s fists were clenched again, even though doing that made the wrist of the left one throb like hell.

“You know what?” he asked Berkowitz. “I don’t think you can hurt me. I don’t think you can hurt me, because then what happens to you? You’re nothing but a…a sub-contractor!”

Berkowitz looked at him levelly from beneath the bent bill of his LIPID cap.

“I made you up!” Sifkitz said, and counted them off, poking the index finger out of his right fist and pointing it at each one in turn like the barrel of a gun. “You’re the Son of Sam! You’re nothing but a grown-up version of this kid I played the horn with at Sisters of Mercy High! You couldn’t play E-flat to save your life! And you’re an artist specializing in dragons and enchanted maidens!”

The remaining members of The Lipid Company were singularly unimpressed.

“What does that make you?” Berkowitz asked. “Did you ever think of that? Are you going to tell me there might not be a larger world out there someplace? For all you know, you’re nothing but a random thought going through some unemployed Certified Public Accountant’s head while he sits on the jakes, reading the paper and taking his morning dump.”

Sifkitz opened his mouth to say that was ridiculous, but something in Berkowitz’s eyes made him shut it again. Go on, his eyes said. Ask a question. I’ll tell you more than you ever wanted to know.

What Sifkitz said instead was, “Who are you to tell me I can’t get fit? Do you want me to die at fifty? Jesus Christ, what’s wrong with you?”

Freddy said, “I ain’t no philosopher, Mac. All I know is that my truck needs a tune-up I can’t afford.”

“And I’ve got one kid who needs orthopedic shoes and another one who needs speech therapy,” Whelan added.

“The guys working on the Big Dig in Boston have got a saying,” Berkowitz said. “‘Don’t kill the job, let it die on its own.’ That’s all we’re asking, Sifkitz. Let us dip our beaks. Let us earn our living.”

“This is crazy,” Sifkitz muttered. “Totally—”

“I don’t give a shit how you feel about it, you motherfucker!” Freddy shouted, and Sifkitz realized the man was almost crying. This confrontation was as stressful for them as it was for him. Somehow realizing that was the worst shock of all. “I don’t give a shit about you, you ain’t nothing, you don’t work, you just piddle around and make your little pitchers, but don’t you take the bread out of my kids’ mouths, you hear? Don’t you do it!”

He started forward, hands rolling into fists and coming up in front of his face: an absurd John L. Sullivan boxing pose. Berkowitz put a hand on Freddy’s arm and pulled him back.

“Don’t be a hardass about it, man,” Whelan said. “Live and let live, all right?”

“Let us dip our beaks,” Berkowitz repeated, and of course Sifkitz recognized the phrase; he’d read The Godfather and seen all the movies. Could any of these guys use a word or a slang phrase that wasn’t in his own vocabulary? He doubted it. “Let us keep our dignity, man. You think we can go to work drawing pictures, like you?” He laughed. “Yeah, right. If I draw a cat, I gotta write CAT underneath so people know what it is.”

“You killed Carlos,” Whelan said, and if there had been accusation in his voice, Sifkitz had an idea he might have been angry all over again. But all he heard was sorrow. “We told him, ‘Hold on, man, it’ll get better,’ but he wasn’t strong. He could never, you know, look ahead. He lost all his hope.” Whelan paused, looked up at the dark sky. Not far off, Freddy’s Dodge rumbled roughly. “He never had much to start with. Some people don’t, you know.”

Sifkitz turned to Berkowitz. “Let me get this straight. What you want—”

“Just don’t kill the job,” Berkowitz said. “That’s all we want. Let the job die on its own.”

Sifkitz realized he could probably do as this man was asking. It might even be easy. Some people, if they ate one Krispy Kreme, they had to go and finish the whole box. If he’d been that type of man, they would have a serious problem here…but he wasn’t.

“Okay,” he said. “Why don’t we give it a try.” And then an idea struck him. “Do you think I could have a company hat?” He pointed to the one Berkowitz was wearing.

Berkowitz gave a smile. It was brief, but more genuine than the laugh when he’d said he couldn’t draw a cat without having to write the word under it. “That could be arranged.”

Sifkitz had an idea Berkowitz would stick out his hand then, but Berkowitz didn’t. He just gave Sifkitz a final measuring glance from beneath the bill of his cap and then started toward the cab of the truck. The other two followed.

“How long before I decide none of this happened?” Sifkitz asked. “That I took the stationary bike apart myself because I just…I don’t know…just got tired of it?”

Berkowitz paused, hand on the doorhandle, and looked back. “How long do you want it to be?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” Sifkitz said. “Hey, it’s beautiful out here, isn’t it?”

“It always was,” Berkowitz said. “We always kept it nice.” There was an undertone of defensiveness in his voice that Sifkitz chose to ignore. It occurred to him that even a figment of one’s imagination could have its pride.

For a few moments they stood there on the road, which Sifkitz had lately come to think of as The Great Trans-Canadian Lost Highway, a pretty grand name for a no-name dirt track through the woods, but also pretty nice. None of them said anything. Somewhere the owl hooted again.

“Indoors, outdoors, it’s all the same to us,” Berkowitz said. Then he opened the door and swung up behind the wheel.

“Take care of yourself,” Freddy said.

“But not too much,” Whelan added.

Sifkitz stood there while the truck made an artful three-point turn on the narrow road and started back the way it came. The ductlike opening was gone, but Sifkitz didn’t worry about that. He didn’t think he’d have any trouble getting back when the time came. Berkowitz made no effort to avoid the Raleigh but ran directly over it, finishing a job that was already finished. There were sproinks and goinks as the spokes in the wheels broke. The taillights dwindled, then disappeared around a curve. Sifkitz could hear the thump of the motor for quite awhile, but that faded, too.

He sat down on the road, then lay down on his back, cradling his throbbing left wrist against his chest. There were no stars in the sky. He was very tired. Better not go to sleep, he advised himself, something’s likely to come out of the woods—a bear, maybe—and eat you. Then he fell asleep anyway.

When he woke up, he was on the cement floor of the alcove. The dismantled pieces of the stationary bike, now screwless and boltless, lay all around him. The Brookstone alarm clock on the crate read 8:43 P.M. One of them had apparently turned off the alarm.

I took this thing apart myself, he thought. That’s my story, and if I stick to it I’ll believe it soon enough.

He climbed the stairs to the building’s lobby and decided he was hungry. He thought maybe he’d go out to Dugan’s and get a piece of apple pie. Apple pie wasn’t the world’s most unhealthy snack, was it? And when he got there, he decided to have it a la mode.

“What the hell,” he told the waitress. “You only live once, don’t you?”

“Well,” she replied, “that’s not what the Hindus say, but whatever floats your boat.”

Two months later, Sifkitz got a package.

It was waiting for him in the lobby of his building when he got back from having dinner with his agent (Sifkitz had fish and steamed vegetables, but followed it with a crème brûlée). There was no postage on it, no Federal Express, Airborne Express, or UPS logo, no stamps. Just his name, printed in ragged block letters: RICHARD SIFKITZ. That’s a man who’d have to print CAT underneath his drawing of one, he thought, and had no idea at all why he’d thought it. He took the box upstairs and used an X-Acto knife from his work-table to slice it open. Inside, beneath a big wad of tissue paper, was a brand-new gimme cap, the kind with the plastic adjustable band in back. The tag inside read Made In Bangladesh. Printed above the bill in a dark red that made him think of arterial blood was one word: LIPID.

“What’s that?” he asked the empty studio, turning the cap over and over in his hands. “Some kind of blood component, isn’t it?”

He tried the hat on. At first it was too small, but when he adjusted the band at the back, the fit was perfect. He looked at it in his bedroom mirror and still didn’t quite like it. He took it off, bent the bill into a curve, and tried it again. Now it was almost right. It would look better still when he got out of his going-to-lunch clothes and into a pair of paint-splattered jeans. He’d look like a real working stiff…which he was, in spite of what some people might think.

Wearing the LIPID cap while he painted eventually became a habit with him, like allowing himself seconds on days of the week that started with S, and having pie a la mode at Dugan’s on Thursday nights. Despite whatever the Hindu philosophy might be, Richard Sifkitz believed you only went around once. That being the case, maybe you should allow yourself a little bit of everything.

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