“It’s important to know your limits,” she told me while hoisting her jeans over thin hips. She had clearly considered this idea at length because it rolled off her tongue fluidly and with no hesitation. “Those bikes,” she continued, gesturing to the circle of tricycles with her chin, “remind me of my limits.” I looked into her dark eyes – eyes like deep liquid onyx set in pale, delicately lined skin.
She didn’t know me from Adam. I had only moments before approached her from across the street when I noticed her standing on the overgrown grass in front of the bikes. I had been running by the tricycle display for months – years actually, and was intrigued… what did it mean? Why were they lined up day after day, in a very particular order and sequencing… I looked every time I passed, hoping to see the person who prepared it just so… And then, there she was – the homeowner, I guessed. A long and narrow woman with dark hair that ran loose and flowing down her back, wearing what very much appeared to be men’s jeans and a man’s flannel shirt rolled up to her elbows. But she was lovely nonetheless. The kind of woman you could imagine sitting in the dirt caring for her bulbs and vegetables. The kind of woman you could imagine walking the hardwood floors barefoot while humming and following her old chicken noodle soup recipe.
She had recoiled when I approached her, clearly not expecting my interruption, but the words were already coming out of my mouth, breathless (from running) unplanned, and overly eager. “What do the bikes mean?”
Millie Ann Foster was the type of kid who much preferred playing in the dim light of her living room window to the buckled pavement of the neighborhood sidewalks. She set up her plastic horses and dolls in the sill while constructing elaborate impromptu story lines of lands she devised in her endless imagination. In between her own games, she watched as the neighborhood kids cartwheeled and played tag on their lawns… She watched as they hollered and hid and rode by on their bikes. Most of her body would be concealed, but from time to time if she was certain nobody would spot her, she would peer over the edge of the window, exposing her face from the nose up. Her dark eyes would follow the kids with interest, and sometimes she would find herself singing their songs, or incorporating their games into her own with her toys on the window sill.
It wasn’t always like this. True, she had always been shy. But it wasn’t so long ago when her mother would take her out to draw chalk pictures and hopscotch courts on the driveway. They would eat cherry popsicles and blow glassy oblong bubbles into the hot summer air.
Kate Wilson was cruel even back then. She lived directly across the street from the Fosters. One afternoon when Millie’s mother went in to answer the phone, Kate had rolled over on her tricycle. She smelled of strawberry shampoo and fresh laundry that had recently line dried in the sun.
“I know why you don’t have a bike.” Kate told her imperiously. “Everybody knows your Daddy can’t afford to get you one.”
Kate had ridden off on her shiny red tricycle, long pigtails and glittering streamers trailing behind her.
“I want a tricycle.” Millie told her father that evening over the meatloaf. It was rare for her to speak at dinner. And even more rare for her to make a request.
“You know we can’t afford a goddamn bike, Millie.” Her father told her unapologetically.
“He’s not a mean man,” Millie’s mom had told her time and again. “He just has his own way.” Millie knew that. To her, he was all sinewy muscle, deep forehead wrinkles, and big flat working hands, connected to a powerful thundering voice. But every so often, if she was very still, he sat with her before bed and sang her old country songs he had learned from his grandma when he was a child. Millie knew he wasn’t mean… he only needed a job.
Millie’s mother had cleared the dishes and was washing them in scalding hot water. Millie watched her silently plunge her hands in the steaming soapy water. When she was finished, she put her to sleep.
The next day, there was a new bike on the front porch. Well, new to Millie anyway. She wasn’t sure who had gotten it for her – her mother or her father, but she knew immediately she loved it.
“Take it for a spin.” Her mother said, as she wheeled it out to the driveway.
The bike wasn’t new, that was evident. There were scratches and the blue paint was dull and peeling in places. The seat was cracked and most of the streamers had been pulled off – or weathered off… it was hard to tell. But it was fast and fun and Millie found herself laughing as she navigated it around the driveway in circles and zig-zagging lines. She crunched over twigs and leaves and bumbled up and over the cracks from the uplifted tree roots. Everything felt right with the world as Millie’s legs pumped the pedals in furious circles, propelling her faster and faster and faster.
When Kate saw her she rode over. With what appeared to be great concentration she scrutinized Millie’s new bike. And Millie, her face rosy and filled with pride, smiled. She was ready to take to the sidewalks with Kate. But before she could get her feet back on the pedals, Kate spoke.
“That is the ugliest bike I’ve ever seen, Millie Ann.” And without so much as another glance in Millie’s direction, she rode off down the sunscrubbed sidewalk.
Millie wheeled her bike to the garage and left it in there. She played the rest of the summer afternoon in the living room window, watching as the sun slanted across the sky making dusty shadows on the floor which eventually began to turn deep bluish black.
When her mother was washing dinner dishes, Millie walked carefully and deliberately out into the cooling twilight evening. She went directly to the side of Kate’s house where she kept her bike, got on it and rode it down the street. When she reached the end of the road, though it was much more challenging, she kept riding down the gravelly dirt path that ran into the woods. When it became too hard to ride, she got off and pushed the bike… up a hill, through a thicket of brambleberry bushes, and over a steep edge. She watched as the bike careened down the dirt edge, bouncing over rocks, and crashing through low bushes, and finally settling far below. Only the back wheel poked through, almost completely unnoticeable. Then she walked home.
A few weeks later, when Kate got a new tricycle, Millie did the same thing. She quietly walked over, and rode the bike off the steep edge of the rocky trail. And it was then she began playing inside, by herself.
Though she lived only a few streets away, she hadn’t thought of those bikes in years. Not until she was leaving her husband for good. Not until she looked in her bathroom mirror and realized she couldn’t – wouldn’t be hit again.
The first time he struck her was 3 weeks before the wedding. It was an accident – Millie was sure of it. The back of his hand had come across her cheek swiftly like icy hot thunder, leaving a mottled purple welt. He hadn’t said a word. He didn’t apologize. Millie knew he was sorry though, and she also knew he didn’t mean it. And she knew, unequivocally, he would never do it again. But she was wrong — the hitting continued. In fact, it grew in frequency and before she knew what was happening, she was spending her first year wedding anniversary nursing a broken rib and split lip.
The night she left him once and for all she thought of those tricycles. She remembered the feeling of determination she had as she pumped her legs as fast as she could down the street with the stolen bikes. She remembered the feeling of elation as she dropped them down down down into the darkening night. She found herself driving to the trail. She realized she wanted nothing more than to stand on the edge of that brambleberry thicket and see what she had the courage to do – even as a small child.
She walked right to it – the place where she had pushed the bikes over. When she looked down where she believed they would be, she couldn’t see a thing. And though dusk was settling on the steep edge of the trail, she began carefully navigating her way down the crumbly slope.
They were there. She found them. They were turned upside down, rusted, and covered in mud and overgrowth. She pulled back the branches and sat down next to the tricycles and cried. Cried from the bottom of her guts for what her life had become… for the pain she had endured… and for the strength she wasn’t sure she had.
When she was finished it was dark. She stood up, dusted herself off, and began navigating her way back up the edge… when she realized, she must take the bikes with her.
It was a thankless endeavor. The first one pitched and fell, and nearly killed her as she slowly crept up the side of the dark slope wheeling it awkwardly in front of her. By the time she went back down for the second one, the crickets were going at full volume and a few lone toads were croaking. But she made it, eventually. She put both rusty bikes in the back of her car, and went directly to her parent’s house to retrieve her old tricycle as well. It was packed into the corner of the garage, and looked quite similar to the day she had discovered it on the porch.
“The ugliest bike in the world,” Kate had deemed it. It was hers though. She would never again let somebody else take so much away from her. These bikes would always be a reminder.
When she packed up her rented moving truck, the bikes went in. When she unloaded her belongings in front of her new home, 718 miles away, the bikes were the first to come out. She lined them up on the grass, intending to come back for them after she finished all the unpacking and put them neatly in her shed. But she found she really enjoyed seeing them there, lined up on the grass each and every time she passed. She let them stay there for the week. The week stretched into a month and then she realized and humbly admitted to herself, she was never going to move those bikes.
Millie shared the story with a few of her neighbors. The woman on the property next to her was battling stage four ovarian cancer, and asked if she could put a bike out, too. For strength. For courage. And Millie couldn’t have been happier. Over the years, a few more bikes appeared – markers of the death of a husband, a divorce, and a sick mother. All placed along Millie’s bikes as symbols of courage, hope, and in some cases, the desire to know one’s limits.
This story is entirely fictitious