The Marks on Your Back
by Brent van Staalduinen
“Scaffold Detrius”, Copyright © Devin McCawley, 2015
You’re going so fast. My shouts aren’t fast enough to catch you.
It’s always been like this, people chasing and yelling three breaths behind. You needing to stay ahead, like their voices have enough weight to batter you. Even when you were strongest, when you’d bash the pedals to bending and warp the drop bars, give the frame guys conniptions. There’s no such thing as unbreakable, you said then, laughing. There are shapes that take the abuse better than others. The strength of geometry. Threadbare yellow jersey in every upright step. New shape, same frame as everyone else. And now you’re off the bike, but still no one gets close.
I don’t miss it at all, you say often. I don’t believe it, like everyone, even twenty years later. There’s a magic in that kind of denial, which is why I’m chasing after, always chasing. A story there, somewhere, though the invitation is token. Sure, come on out if you want. We’ll just be hitting a pub or two, low key.
We turns out to be you and me.
— Yeah, they bailed at the last minute again, you say.
My shoes feel too small already.
— A blister in waiting, I say.
— Journos live in their feet. You look like you forgot how to walk.
I think maybe there’ll never be a last interview. You said that to me once, early on, when you came into your lungs and wouldn’t let the team doctors treat a single rash. The mantra was, Go forever, on your own, and there’s no danger of the wrong test result. That changed, everyone was in on it, but they couldn’t pin down what they couldn’t prove.
The bouncer smiles. I’ve never been smiled at by a bouncer before. It’s not a pub, more a hyper-mélange of flashing lights and air so dense you could use it as a paperweight, to weigh those old depositions to the table, maybe. Bodies, of course. Music. Loud. There’ll be no questions in here, but that wasn’t intentional—you love to talk as much as everyone else loves to listen. God help me if we have to cross the dance floor. But I don’t need to worry—the crowd parts and I’m led across the sweating seafloor by Moses himself.
You stop, lean in.
— Gotta get right to the back! I have a booth!
We shouldn’t have stopped. Momentum interrupted in the middle of bouncing bodies, surreal in the strobe lights, and assaulted by the music. I should be deaf, but the surround sound in this place isn’t like sound at all, it’s more like vapour driven into the pores from every direction. Think about physics, where sound waves cancel themselves out at the precise distance from opposite sources, the centre of sound. It must be a pinprick here. And everyone is looking, nudging each other, cell phones up and filming, black, silver, white teeth suspended in the strobe lights.
— Fucking fraud!
You see the frown and the biceps at the same instant I do, but his speed is blinding, his size deceptive. I would have taken it full strength in the jaw. You sidestep easily, laugh, and let the horrified crowd take care of the attacker, a dozen hands gripping and holding back those gargantuan arms that move like strange sinews. There’s horror in the potential for the celeb—no matter who it is—to be punched out in this place. Clubs have been shuttered for less.
We push through to a metal staircase that sweeps upward to a balcony. In the booth, the music bleeds through the sliding glass doors like a headache. You sit. I stand.
— I usually leave them open, you say.
— Why not tonight, I ask.
— Sometimes all the noise gets to me.
The bartender, a lithe brunette painted in black leather, steps in from the rear. There’s a private bar back there, all chrome and shine.
— The usual?
You glance at me and shift in the lounge chair.
— Uh, no, darling. Just a bottle of something crisp and clear.
She moves away, frowning. Worried about her tip, maybe.
— What’s the usual?
— Maybe I’ll open the door after all.
A young-looking guy appears from somewhere and slides open the big sheets of glass. Music roars in. Then he disappears. You don’t look surprised about the extra attention though the words suggested you might have done it yourself. I wonder if it’s a cue the staff here has come to know well, yet you always wondered at how people would literally do anything for you.
— Sit down. You’re making me tired.
— I’ll stand, thanks.
You did well, better than most of the magazines and other journos predicted. You were gushed over. Hardened correspondents were getting a little starstruck towards the end, as though there was anything dignified about getting out the autograph book after lights out. Cries of Prophet and the Second Coming, the One to inject the life back into a sport that refused to jump the Atlantic. And now, twenty years later, laid way back with one leg draped over the side of the chair, a little bit of shin exposed and hairy, you’re not looking that far any more. Is it harder to see past the deepening shadows under your eyes? Harder to maintain that speed of yours when the stubble grows, catches the wind?
My turn to lean in.
— Do you think they’ll stick this time?
You cringe but recover quickly, wave dismissively through the blasting sound.
— Not a chance! The lawyer’s—
You stop, mid-yell, to consider. The server is back, her hairy swooshing to one side as she passes out the champagne flutes, her movements a divided vista of perfect cleavage. The bottle’s already open. Krug something. For me, a perfect pour, the bubbles rushing over themselves to suspend at the cut lip of crystal, the verge of tumbling out before settling. For you, a more perfect pour, a duplicate of the bubble performance plus a raised eyebrow and a pouty lip bite. You meet her eyes, serious, the barest of head shake and she’s sent away. Not about the tip, then.
— It’s all a big, unfortunate misunderstanding! It’ll be good when we can put it behind us!
— That sounds like a line, boss, I say. C’mon, give me something real.
Nothing but a smile and a shake of the head.
What is it about champagne and premier liquor that tells the world you’ve made it? You used to shun the stuff, keep your mouth closed when they popped bottles on the dais. Now, though, eyes still closed, you throw it back as if the electrolyte imbalance between ago and to come can be fixed, rediscovered at the bottom of those long crystal flutes. Forever! was what you used to scream on the downhills as your heart rate slowed to its impossible thirty-four beats per minute. And now it isn’t forever, just a declining parade of dingy clubs and underage girls who tend to take more than they give. And that head movement, the denial of it all. I’m sorry, my friend, we’ll go at your own pace, no worries, a nicer person might think, but I’m tired.
— You owe me, you ungrateful fuck, I say instead.
Can’t quite pin down the look you give me when you finally open your eyes. Did I just cross a line? Maybe. On the first tour, I was going to go with that other guy, the little Frenchman you later eviscerated on the final important climb en les gros montagnes, but you begged a little. Even your begging was cocky—Don’t you want to be the first to interview immortality? But then, you were still asking, after all. Perhaps you saw how dim the light could become when a man’s star burns out before its light reaches our eyes. And I did it. A couple thousand words there, a few hundred there, the wires burning up with work for me after you took the whole fucking thing at the age of twenty four and said I had exclusive access.
You look at me, hard, a long moment before leaping to your feet and throwing the glass off our balcony and onto the dance floor. It shivers into uncountable shards between the dancers. I see pairs of bare feet there, dancing on crystal. Dancing on what cuts them. Security looks studiously away. A bottle is forced into my hand. Glass dark, foil gold.
— Go ahead, Ron. Throw it!
You’re behind me, pushing me forward, your hand around mine. A faint oval of perpetually tanned skin laid across the tendons, the prominent veins, sun-scars from uncountable hours wearing the old school mesh cycling gloves you favoured. Hemp and cotton and leather, like you feared what the synthetics could leach into the porous, hairless skin there. Everything else lycra and spandex and space age protection, though, a paradox of necessity. The smell of your expensive aftershave and yeasty champagne breath envelops me as my stomach is pressed against the railing.
I shake my head and push back.
— Good call! Bouncers’d fuck you up! You’re not me!
You scream this into my ear, then you’re ranting and pacing, little bright flecks of spittle skipping from the corner of your mouth. Words, indistinct against the house music. How you own all of this, about who owes who.
And I abandon every last shred of objectivity as I grab your collar and half lift you from the greasy concrete floor. You’re still a little guy, after all, not so powerful when your legs can’t push against anything, bike or ground or flesh. Can this fallen star know how badly I want to love him again, how desperately we all wanted him to slip away again, not entirely clean but not so dirty as to demand a thorough lavage? How perfection has to be carried by the immortal, lest the rest of us learn how flawed we truly are? You carried the fucking torch in one hand and the world in your other, and that included us, those who cheered the loudest after the arc lights dimmed and we could be starstruck again.
— She was thirteen! You did it, didn’t you?
Then I’m blinded by a blaze of perfect white pain. You defied physics again, pistoned a foot into my balls from your suspended position above me. I drop you. Don’t see where you land. There is a fireball in my lower stomach, waves of nausea at one hundred and thirty four beats per minute, mixed into the DJ’s set. I pass out to thoughts of diamond-tipped styli moving through five hundred metres of black vinyl groove.
* * * *
The doors have been closed again. Everyone is gone except you and me. Everything, too—the champagne flutes, the sticky spilled drink rings. Scrubbed clean. Empty apart from the chairs, us, and two pristine glasses of clear liquid that thrum in time with the dulled bass notes.
— You don’t get to do that, you say from your chair.
I’m still on the floor, more or less at your feet. The pain is still there, but has receded to a dull mountain echo of its former self. Still nauseous.
How long have I—
— An hour or so.
You hold up your arm and pull back the sleeve, as though you need to prove there’s no watch there, that the time is indeed impossible to gauge. I push myself up—slowly, slowly—and move into the other chair.
— You don’t get to do that, you say again.
My anger comes back, faster than a breath, but there’s not much to be done with it. The sheer irrationality of a testicle shot is that it takes everything over. Plus, I lost control before you kicked me. You’re still here, but I wonder how many of our plaited years I’ve just unravelled. There were always fights on the tours, of course, the sports guys needing to purge the booze and the frustration of watching younger men win everything they couldn’t. Even with the jocks, especially when we needed to burn a bridge or two. Never you and me, though. We made each other.
— I’m sorry, I say.
You make a dismissive wave of the hand, but your eyes give away that something has changed. The last time I saw that look was when the first of the old teammates turned, swore everything under oath—even the domestiques testified that clean wasn’t always clean. The tightest of mates peeled away after that, one at a time, followed by the sponsors, the press, the loyal fans. I might be the last believer.
You hand me one of the glasses, impossibly clean apart from your fingerprints. The water is just cool enough to feel coursing down my esophagus and into my stomach.
— One more stop, my friend.
You leap up again in a blur, your quads flexing in hard lines beneath the fabric of your jeans. Is it a sign of weakness that I’m still surprised by the speed of those sudden movements? Mine are much slower, but I manage to follow you out through a rear entrance, staring at your back the whole time. Later, when it became clear no one could touch you, you’d write messages there to the other riders, in black marker, all in capital letters, taunting them. You always gave the team stage jerseys away but kept the winning stage jerseys for yourself and framed them.
— Why didn’t we use this entrance on the way in? Could’ve saved ourselves the drama, I say. Sounds pouty.
Another question you don’t answer.
We trace our way through a few back alleys. I worry about garbage cans and other unidentified things we might skin our shins into, but your speed doesn’t let up. The pain in my groin fades as the blood gets moving but I start making plans to pee with the lights on, just in case there’s more there than just urine. You tap a tattoo onto an unmarked door that has a single unshaded light bulb hanging drunkenly above it. I have to shake my head in disbelief when a little slider pulls to the side, revealing a pair of dark eyes, like we’re in a bad movie about bad people. I begin to laugh but you give me a look, a sober look I don’t recognize. The door swings inwards. There’s a lot of dim red light.
I’ve slurred my question a little, a delayed reaction to the champagne slushing up the consonants. I place my hand on the steel door frame to steady myself. The doorkeeper, another swarthy guy whose t-shirt is as ill-fitting as his eyes are dark, asks you if I’m all right, says something about the house rules and how guests are discouraged.
You grab my upper arm, leading me past the guy.
— Ron’s an old soul. He’ll behave.
Into how many strange places have you led me, my friend? Tents and gyms, warehouses with ranked armies of bikes, opulent villas and chalets, endless parades of hotel rooms. You can’t imagine the things they throw at you, you said. But there the common theme was always brightness and shine, neons and synthetic clothing, loud advertising banners and screaming sponsors. Clubs and bars seemed to turn the lights up for you, as though you didn’t make your own. But I’m stumbling now through the darkest redness ever, so dim and greasy you can’t help but hide, led down an empty corridor to a room with a number seven on the door and two chaise lounges facing each other.
— I think I might be sick again, I say, fighting the motion sickness.
You lower me onto the chaise lounge closest to the door. There’s a small table nearby with more golden champagne and a plate of quivering molluscs on razor-edged half shells.
— No, you’ll be fine. It doesn’t work that way. Have an oyster, old friend.
I don’t have much time to ponder the strangeness of that statement before another door opens, this one on the far side of the room. It’s blurry, but I see a mirror and a lot of tile. Ah, I think, an ensuite. Then three figures emerge, moving almost as quickly as you do, holding tubes and strange shapes. There are light female voices directed at you, making small talk, gentle, lilting, teasing. One of the figures comes close enough for me to see, asking if she should ride first or if I would like to. Accented. Asian, maybe. She is holding a bicycle frame without any wheels or pedals or handlebar. She is naked. Hairless. Breastless.
— Oh my God.
I want to leave, but my arms and legs aren’t listening. You’re close enough to see fairly clearly, and you begin to remove your clothing, right down to the truth, and lay on the other chaise lounge. As the two girls begin to move on you and the bike frames and moan, I call your name. You giggle.
— Well, you said wanted something real, Ron.
— You did it.
— Yes. No. Not quite like they say. I can’t. Too many hours in the saddle.
You’re touching and kissing, but I can see you aren’t responding in the expected way. Flaccid. Small. Slow. I feel like I’m sinking, everything below my neck alien, gone. A mickey in the water you gave me, I suppose. Yet I am responding, though I can’t feel a thing. The strength of my own geometry, like I could break frames and warp bars. Fast, like I could outrun sound. Deadened, someone else’s body, another twenty years of reading the marker on your back while I try to keep pace. UG
Brent van Staalduinen lives and writes in Hamilton, Canada. His novel Saints, Unexpected will be released in April 2016 from Invisible Publishing, and his short prose has found success in such notable publications as Prairie Fire, The New Quarterly, The Dalhousie Review, EVENT Magazine, Litro, The New Guard Literary Review, and The Prairie Journal. He is the winner of the 2015 Bristol Short Story Prize and the 2015 Short Works Prize in Fiction, and has been longlisted twice for the CBC Literary Awards. He holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia, and teaches creative writing at Redeemer University College.