Gerald Marshall never learned to ride a bike. Everyone knew this because it was the very first thing he said in class. If anyone were to ask him why he couldn't ride a bike, he would simply reply, "I prefer watching my friends ride their bikes". This, of course is a downright lie because everyone knows that Gerald Marshall has no friends, and (according to him) no real family. Gerald was odd-at least odd compared to every other person in the world. He wore his collared shirts inside-out, and never wore anything but black sweat pants. His hair always looked as though it had never been introduced to water, although he usually smelled nicely of aftershave and cologne. All anyone knew about Gerald Marshall was that he wore the same pink, flowery ring on his index finger every day and that he enjoyed boxing-maybe not enjoyed it because Gerald Marshall never took pleasure in anything. If you were to ask Gerald about this ring, you might have seen some type of emotion in his eyes, but then again, it was probably just your imagination.
This is a tale about one brave girl who cared enough to ask Gerald about his story; to delve deep into that dark crevice and resurface with a memory. The very first day Gerald transferred into school, her interest was piqued. He seemed like the strong, silent type; exactly what she had been searching for. She, of course, called herself Lucy.
It started one day when Lucy, looking for a good story, went in search of Gerald Marshall. She was head of the newspaper column and thought that Gerald would be a fascinating topic. Her friends called her a nuisance, but she preferred to think of herself as 'committed'. She thought it very silly that he had never ridden a bike. It was an American past-time, for goodness sake. Every child has to learn about falling on their face after taking their training wheels off, there was no other way to face the harsh reality of life. No wonder Gerald was so… awkward.
Lucy walked into Wal-Mart where Gerald worked after school. A fluorescent light above her began to flicker as if it was hemorrhaging, and Lucy realized it was enough to cause a brain tumor in every employee. Gerald's strange tendencies suddenly became much more appropriate. Lucy ignored the light and entered the electronics section. Gerald stood at the counter in an evident trance. He looked up, not showing any sign of recognition. "Can I help you?" The word vomit Wal-Mart shoves down every employee's throat the first day tumbled from his lips. His blank stare gave the impression that he might be as helpful as a moldy pet rock.
"What're you doing right now?" She leaned forward onto the counter, staring at the new phones on display.
Raising his eyebrow questioning, Gerald replied, "Working. What else would I be doing?"
"I don't know," she murmured, trying to find the right words to start her interrogation. Lucy decided it was now or never. She had to catch him off-guard. "What's your story?" She blurted it out, cutting straight to the point like she usually did. He eyed her carefully, taking in the plaid stockings and vibrant pink go-go boots.
"I don't know what you're talking about," he murmured, picking at a crack in the glass counter.
Examining his arcane expression, she said in a steady voice, "Your story-the reason why you never talk to people."
This statement stirred something new inside Gerald. Someone had actually gone out of their way to track him down and discover the real truth. Someone actually cared. It then dawned on him that this girl would probably not be easily deterred from her mission, so he sighed heavily and whispered, "I get off work at six today. I'll meet you at," he paused nervously and shifted slightly, "my house," he concluded. Armed with Gerald's address, Lucy walked away confident and ready to dig up a juicy story.
Three hours later, she found herself standing in front of a small, one-story house, complete with green picket fence. A matching pair of bikes, one red and one metallic blue, leaned against the slightly dented garage. It didn't look like anyone was home. A slow, steady rumble in the distance signaled the possibility of a storm.
"You're early," a voice said directly behind her. Surprised, Lucy whirled around to face the placid Gerald who blended in with the quickly graying sky.
She looked behind him, searching for another bike, possibly green, but was surprised to find nothing. "Wait, did you walk home?" She asked incredulously.
"Of course," he replied. Gerald might have been a very pleasant companion with the lack of words Gerald chose to use, had Lucy been a corpse. "I walk home every day," he added, as if that clarified everything.
"Yeah, it must be good exercise," she commented vaguely. What an exciting conversation this was turning out to be. A bright flash directly to her right caused Lucy to jump, "So, want to go inside before the storm gets here?" It came out as more of an order than a request.
Gerald shrugged, "I guess." He took a slightly rusty lime green key out of his pocket and headed towards the door. "Sorry about the mess," he warned, stepping into the stale air of the house.
Wait, had Gerald Marshall actually thought about what she might think of his house? Impossible. Lucy's doubts were confirmed the moment she crossed the threshold into a seemingly perfectly sterile environment. The china cabinet in the corner seemed to blaze under the weak 50-watt bulb overhead, and every couch looked newly bought. The only hint that this was not a completely new house was the lingering smell of vanilla cigars.
A single, slightly dirty cup sat on the (clearly) freshly polished coffee table. Gerald's face seemed embarrassed as he sneakily grabbed the cup and rushed into the kitchen where the sound of hot water could be heard.
He stuck his head back into the living room and said, slightly surprisingly, "You're in my history class."
"Yeah I am," Lucy said, taken aback. He actually recognized her even though he slept every day?
Turning towards a staircase tucked in the corner, Gerald picked up a book and started walking up the stairs. "Come on then," he sighed.
Lucy followed him upstairs, extremely nervous about how she should coax the story out of him. He seemed like the overly reserved kind of guy and those kinds of people never seemed to let go.
"Here's my room." They walked through a polished door and into a dimly lit, slightly musty room. "Stay here for a second, I'll be right back." Gerald scooted out of the room, leaving Lucy time to study her surroundings. An open sliding door on her right allowed the smell of fresh rain to filter through the room.
A small bookshelf over the bed caught her attention. She passed her gaze over each title and realized that he had some kind of addiction to horror novels. Every Steven King novel sat neatly in a row (alphabetized) and next to that were R.L. Stein's Goosebumps series. Lucy shivered slightly, recalling nightmares some of those stories had given her when she was in elementary school.
The only book that didn't look remotely gruesome was a black book titled Twilight. She flipped open the cover and read the introduction on the inside. It was about vampires-misunderstood vampires to be exact. Snapping the cover closed in horror, Lucy returned the book carefully to its rightful, alphabetically correct spot.
After rummaging through his book collection, Lucy scanned the rest of the room for something-anything-insightful. She found it. A large wooden, padlocked crate sat on a bench in front of the window. On top of the crate was a pink-framed picture of a young girl with blonde pigtails and wide, green eyes.
"That's my sister," a shaky voice interrupted. Lucy turned to find Gerald standing directly behind her, eyes unfocused as though looking into the past. "Her name is….was Emily." He closed his eyes for a moment.
"Was Emily? What happened to her?" This had to be the story Lucy was looking for. Gerald seemed so caught up in the picture, his eyes seemed foggy and miserable.
His eyes snapped open, and he began to study her face intently. "She died last year in a car accident." The answer came out so bluntly that Lucy was shocked into momentary silence.
"I'm sorry," she said very quietly. Everyone always said 'sorry', but Lucy actually meant it. It was hard to believe that such a cute girl was dead so young.
"It was my fault," his voice turned into a menacing growl as though he was being slowly tortured. He inched over to the bed, sank into the covers, looked Lucy directly in the eye and began his story: "It was last year, in the middle of summer….
My friend Roy and I were hanging out down at the arcade. We were waiting for our buddy Steve to hook us up with some whiskey. It had become a ritual, us scrounging five bucks every day to pay Steve and going back to his house and getting piss drunk.
We weren't irresponsible or anything. We never drove around drunk. That's what bikes were for. Steve didn't care about driving like that though. He was the cool kid. He had an '87 mustang that he repaired with his dad. He had a nice little compartment in the undercarriage where he kept the booze.
Emily had a pink bike with banners on the handlebars that she rode around everywhere. My parents never cared where she rode it because we lived in a pretty small town. I was surprised to see her riding up the street, her little pigtails flying behind her. I figured she was heading over to Laura's house to play dolls or something, but was surprised to see her wave at me and head in my direction. "Shit my sister is coming over here." She was the kind of goodie-goodie that would run to mom and tell her what I've been doing if she saw me with a cigarette in my mouth and a beer can in my hand.
I quickly snuffed out my cigarette with my foot and tried to wave the smell away. "Hey Ger, dad's mad about something. He wants to see you." It wasn't unusual to hear about dad finding something to blame me for.
"Fine, tell him I'll be there in a few minutes." I figured I might as well get what I paid for before facing my dad. He had probably found the stash of empty cans I kept in my closet anyways.
"No. He said to come right now." She balled her fists and crossed her arms. Her nose wrinkled and I heard her inhale, knowing exactly what was coming next, "Gerald Theodore Marshall. Have you been smoking?" Her high-pitched voice sounded exactly like mom's.
I jumped off the brick ledge and threw my bag of junk in the trash. "No. I haven't, stop making stuff up." I always tried a guilt trip with her, but she'd gotten wiser over the years.
"Yes you have. I can smell it on you." Emily reached around me and rummaged through the trash can. Finally finding the bag, she tore it open and looked inside. "See! You've totally been smoking. What are you," she added, examining the entire content of the bag, "a druggie?" I tried to snatch it from her, but she was too quick. "I'm telling mom!"
Emily rushed to her bike and tore away towards the house. I jumped onto my metallic green bike and chased after her, knowing I would soon be grounded for the rest of my life if I didn't stop her.
I finally caught up to her at a stop light while she was trying to cross to the other sidewalk on the crosswalk. Not really caring what I was doing, I knocked over her bike and grabbed the bag. I heard her yell at me angrily as I hurried to find a place to dispose of my bag.
In that moment, my entire life changed. A loud squealing of rubber on metal caught my attention and I looked back to see Steven's car hurling through a red light and Emily looking straight at me. He was drunk.
"They took her to the hospital, but she died halfway there."
Gerald's eyes moistened and his face contorted as though he were having a raging battle with his emotions. After a minute of struggling, he finally let go and a steady stream of tears trailed down his cheeks and dripped onto his lap.
He touched a calloused hand to his moist face and, surprisingly, smiled. "This is the first time I've cried since…since she died." Quivers overtook his body and he leaned into his hands, bawling. "I didn't mean for it to happen. I tried to go back…." he broke off, gasping for breath.
"I just.. I didn't see any cars. I didn't know what was going to happen. I just remember thinking 'It can't be her' when I heard the brakes." Inhaling deeply, he stood up unsteadily and walked over to locked box. He withdrew the lime green key from his pocket once again and fitted it into the padlock. It sprang open loudly and fell to the floor with a metallic 'clang'.
Expecting an assortment of memories about Emily, Lucy was surprised to find that it held nothing but scraps of pink metal and a few strands of dirty pale plastic. She suddenly realized that they were from the bike. "You kept it," she gasped, amazed.
Gerald nodded slowly, staring miserably at the broken fragments. "The thing is, my parents never even punished me for it. They just," he broke off tentatively, "they just ignore me." He pulled on his hair in frustration. "I wish they had done something, you know! Like yell at me or cry. They just turned away and never spoke to me." The anger and hurt flowed out of him like a poison being sucked out of a wound. "I try as hard as I can to make them understand. I keep the house clean; I get good grades in school," he cracked a small smile, "even though it doesn't look like a do."
Lucy didn't have the nerve to return the smile. Every word he uttered seemed so forced: as though he had built a solid wall around his emotions and was finally setting them free. Any desire she had had to write a gossip column about Gerald completely evaporated. "I try to be like Emily was. I gave up everything I used to do, and I've been clean for a whole year. I never go anywhere other than work. I never take out my bike. And still, nothing is good enough. Nothing."
What could anyone say to that? Lucy's heart ached more than she had ever felt before. How could she comfort him and make him believe that he would be okay? She reached out her hand towards Gerald when suddenly he grabbed the box off the table (the picture still balanced on top), walked out onto the balcony and threw it forcefully into the driveway. Rain flattened his hair onto his skull and he walked back into the room, not caring about the puddles he was leaving on the carpet. "I'm sick of them." He brushed a wet strand of hair from his face. "They don't know what I go through every day!"
"But you," he stopped his angry rant and turned to face her, "you actually wanted to hear what happened. No one has ever asked me about it before. And for that, I thank you. You have no idea how much you've helped me today."
Two tears slipped down Lucy's cheek. "You're welcome." She stood up from the chair and crossed over to him, taking his hands in hers. "You'll be okay, I know." She gave his hands little squeeze. "It'll get better, I promise." She meant every word she spoke. Gerald's mouth trembled slightly as he nodded.
"I know it will. I trust you." He pulled loose from her hands and began twisting off the ring on his pinky finger. "I want to give this to you." The little pink ring that looked miniscule in his hands fit perfectly on her index finger. "It belonged to my sister." That was the only explanation Lucy needed and she stared admiringly at the shiny plastic flower. This tiny gesture broke the last remaining physical tie he had to his sister's memory and in that, Gerald knew that a better life awaited him; a life of freedom.
Taking his first deep breath of free air, Gerald spontaneously asked, "Do you want to get some pizza?" This question surprised Lucy greatly considering he had just told her an intensely emotional story. "It's stopped raining," he added, pointing out towards the dripping trees and the orange sun slowly melting in the horizon. He seemed quite serene.
Nothing could have stopped her from going especially given the earnestness in which he asked her, and she realized that his inside-out shirt, wet black pants and messy hair didn't seem to bother her in the least for once. "Sure. I'm starving." She smiled enthusiastically at him, heading towards the door.
"Great. I'll go get my bike."
This story was written, if you haven't already noticed, by me, Lucy-but I am not Lucy. I am simply the girl who dared to seek out the story he was hiding, because as you well know, everyone has a story to share. No one at school ever heard about the real Gerald, but it didn't matter to them because he was nobody, an outcast. Now I walk around daily with the pink ring on my finger, reminding myself of Gerald and his trials.
No one really cares why I have the ring on my finger, but if they do ever ask I'll just tell them, "I never learned to ride a bike".