Big Bike Man
by Stephen A. Geller
Harry’s office door is closed when he’s talking to a patient. If it’s slightly ajar, he’s at his desk, music in the background, reading medical journals or writing a scientific paper.
Today, Harry was standing at the window, just staring out.
Harry and I founded our multispecialty internal medicine group two decades ago. Always first to arrive in the morning, he’s the model worker, propelling himself through the day with intense energy until lunchtime, usually only a cup of tea and a fiber bar.
Caring for patients, reviewing lab reports, keeping up with the literature, or finding some precious moments for clinical research––not so easy in a busy practice––means Harry is always productive. Being productive is the most important thing for him.
Harry doesn’t like fluorescents and relies on desk lamps. The blinds are open enough for light to slant in but not enough for distractions.
Today the blinds are wide open.
“Harry!” I said, a little louder than needed.
“Good morning, Charlie, how are you?” He walked over and shook my hand.
We see each other almost every day, but Harry and I haven’t actually shaken hands since he wished me mazel tov at my daughter’s bat mitzvah five years ago.
“Good, I’m good, Harry. What about you?”
“I’m not sure, Charlie.” He added, probably to reassure me, “But, no, really, I’m good. I’m okay.” Harry half smiled. “Truly.” Pursing his lips. he nodded for more than a few seconds. Did I miss early Parkinson’s? I decided he was just thinking of what to say next. Rubbing his hands together, he asked, “In a hurry?”
“No, no hurry,” I replied, forgetting Mrs. Davidson, who was always on time and always impatient. “What’s up?”
He pointed down the street. “Ever notice the jacaranda trees? They’re beautiful. They’re very common in Brisbane and also Pretoria. I just read that. I didn’t know it.”
In early spring, the street is a spectacular, magic canopy of lavender blossoms. I’ve been meaning to plant a couple of those trees at my house.
Harry’s radio was on. I guessed one of the Beethoven piano sonatas—his favorites—but I wasn’t sure. Harry knows a lot about music.
“I may plant one or two at the house,” Harry said.
Did I say that aloud or just think it?
“I haven’t always appreciated them,” he added.
“Harry.” I checked my watch. “I actually have a patient to see. What about break time?”
“Yes, definitely.” He ran his hand through his hair. “Here or your office? I need to discuss something.”
“Here, let’s meet here,” I said, headed off for the formidable Mrs. Davidson.
Harry was back at the window. He turned his head and smiled, maybe a little sheepishly, as I closed the door behind me.
“Charlie, something funny happened to me yesterday.” He poured me a cup of coffee. “You know Mrs. Andernach? The nice lady with amyloid?”
“Of course.” I periodically evaluate her cardiac function.
“She was in mild heart failure. Our ER was full and they took her to St. Bart’s. MacLeish saw her and called me at about eleven o’clock. No, closer to eleven thirty. He planned to keep her a day or two. Marci worked my schedule so I could go over and see her. She was fine and ready for discharge. This is about driving there.”
Harry talks the same way he writes up his cases, with as much detail as possible. “Charlie, I was just coming up to the 405 North on-ramp.” He paused. “No, actually, it was the block before, where the showroom for that new sports car is. Anyway, this young guy, mid-twenties, pops up in my rearview mirror, pedaling along on one of those really high circus-type bikes. The ones with the really big front wheel and the tiny back wheel? I barely saw the bottom of his face in my mirror, not even his nose. His ankles are at the level of my head when the light changes, and he cruises past me, right under the 405.”
The intercom buzzed, but Harry didn’t move.
“He’s wearing a yellow- and blue-striped, sparkling clean, ironed shirt with the number forty-two. Tan tennis shorts. Regular mid-thigh shorts, not the droopy below-the-knees kind. White sneakers, no socks. He’s lean, sturdy, but not muscular-looking. Joe College look. Blond hair cut short, but not a crew. No glasses.”
I nodded, but he didn’t wait for my response. “I catch up with him and then I pass him. The light ahead turns red. He’s in my rearview mirror six or seven cars back, and I wonder what he’s going to do. Is he going to stop and fall over, or will he try and wriggle his way through traffic without stopping? He slowly glides past me to a streetlamp pole and leans against it. He doesn’t get off. The light changes and he’s off. I pass him and watch in the mirror as he falls farther and farther behind until he turns off on some street, I’m not sure where.” Almost without taking a breath, Harry continued. “And they’re not really called ‘circus bikes,’ although that’s how I think of them. ‘Circus bike’ is the name for those teeny bikes clowns use. These are called ‘high-wheel bicycles.’ They were developed in the late nineteenth century when metallurgy became advanced. You bought one whose wheel diameter matched your leg length. Being so high you might tumble off and land on your head if something got in the way. The term ‘taking a header’ started with those bikes.”
I wasn’t sure if he wanted me to say something. If he did, I had no idea what. I was getting weary listening. The intercom buzzed again.
“The thing is, Charlie, I wanted to turn and follow him instead of visiting Adrianne Andernach. Who is this guy? Why on earth is he on that big bike in this heavy traffic? Is he in the circus? I checked. It’s not in town.” He stopped and stared, eyes wide open. “Why not a regular bike? What if it rains? How does he get up there to get started? How does he get off? A dozen questions whizzed through my mind.”
I started to ask why this was such a big deal, but Harry didn’t let me finish.
“There’s more, Charlie.”
Peggy, one of the nurses, knocked on the door and—as usual for Peggy, not the most patient person in the world—she didn’t wait for a response. Opening the door just wide enough to stick her head in, she said, “Fellas, what’s up? Patients are waiting.”
Harry just kept looking at me.
“I’m further down Santa Monica when there is a second bike rider.”
My mouth opened a little. Is Harry losing it? Harry laughed and briefly turned his eyes to the ceiling, clapped his hands, and said, “Ha. No, not another big bike man. Wow, that would really be something, wouldn’t it? No, this guy, early thirties I would guess. A regular bike. A little pudgy, he needed a shave. A rack on the back with a package. He’s a messenger.” He stopped and took a deep breath. “I know this doesn’t make sense yet, but it will.” He chuckled and then said, “Or maybe not.”
“Harry.” I held my watch up.
“Okay. Let me finish while I still have the image strong in my mind.” A breeze outside made the purple top branches sway back and forth. “This fella’s wearing jeans, a little worn but clean. A T-shirt with some punk rock design. A tattoo on his biceps. The thing is, his jeans were way down on his hips. Way down. You could see his entire hairy ass down to almost the entire crack of his buttocks. It was so close,” he held up his thumb and forefinger an inch or so apart, “to seeing the goddamn anal orifice.”
He stopped abruptly, his brow wrinkled. I still didn’t know what this was about.
“Charlie, you know what I realized?” He leaned on the desk. “I realized I couldn’t be either of those guys. My whole life has been so structured, so ordered, so planned. College to medical school to life. Why haven’t I ridden a big-wheel bike? Or a motorcycle? Or gone skydiving. Christ, Charlie. I’ve missed something, haven’t I?”
“Harry, we need to see patients.”
“Not just low-slung pants. His goddamn entire hairy, pimply ass was showing. I could never––in a zillion years––ride down the avenue with my ass half showing. I feel undressed when I don’t wear a tie, for god’s sake. Why, Charlie?” Breathing a little faster now, he smiled. “I had to tell someone, Charlie. It really affected me.” He put his hand on my elbow, squeezing gently. “Thanks for listening. Really.”
“Let’s talk about it some more.”
But we didn’t. The next day Harry was focused, concentrated, driven.
Blinds mostly shut.
He was Harry again.
I decided he was not permanently wacko. And he didn’t have Parkinson’s disease. I thought about his story when, for one reason or other, I was on Santa Monica Boulevard, but we didn’t discuss it again.
And I never came across a big bike man or some scruffy guy’s backside.
In July Harry went to Italy for a liver meeting with his wife, Arlene. A few weeks after, Harry stopped at my office to ask if I had time for lunch.
“Sure, what’s up?” I was peering at x-rays of one of my first patients––now ninety-three years old, with early pneumonia––and I didn’t turn around right away. “My office or yours?”
“I still want Italian food. Marci said you have time. How about Paolo’s?”
Harry drove, not saying much. I was trying to figure out the reason for this tête-à-tête. Was Harry sick? Not likely, since I was his physician and I was sure I would know if something were amiss. Still I glanced at him. He looked fine. His hair was a little thinner than last year; otherwise, he looked the same. Were he and Arlene having a problem? I figured Arlene would have discussed it with Linda, my wife. They’re best of friends, play tennis twice a week, or go museum hopping or visit the malls.
Linda hadn’t said anything.
Harry ordered a small carafe of the house red wine. Wine at lunch, any alcohol, was unusual for him. He stared into my eyes, sipped some water, and cleared his throat, clearly getting into what I sometimes call “Harry’s lecture mode.”
He described, in considerable detail, the people he saw in a Siena restaurant. A middle-aged couple with two teenage boys. Another couple, no children. He described what each of them was wearing.
“The next night we went to a really tiny restaurant with delicious family-style food, and we were seated next to the same couple. We chatted with them. They were from the UK. She wore the same top she wore the night before.”
Our waiter brought bread and olive oil, but Harry just took a quick sip of wine and kept talking. He described the paintings on the wall. A Diana Krall record playing. Arlene’s delicious goose pâté. His bruschetta. Arlene had sole and he had turbot or maybe the reverse. I lost track of all the details.
“Harry, we need to head back soon.”
The waiter asked about coffee, but we just waved him off.
“Charlie, this young woman was clearing tables. Hardly spoke English.” He described what she was wearing in detail. “When she walked by, she smiled right at me. She looked a little sad. A little ponytail and two dangly earrings on each side. I wasn’t crazy about the earrings, but she was a pretty girl, you know?”
I didn’t know, but Harry was so intense, leaning halfway across the table, I didn’t interrupt him.
“The thing is, I mean, Charlie, the thing is…”
He took a quick gulp of water.
“I don’t know if it was the wine or the paintings. The night air. I don’t know.”
Harry put his hand on my forearm and squeezed a little.
“Charlie, here’s the thing. I knew that smile wasn’t really for me and I was just another customer, but every time she walked by, I wanted to see her naked. I didn’t want to do anything. I didn’t feel like attacking her or anything. I couldn’t even visualize anything in my head. I just knew I wanted to see her naked.”
As we waited for the valet to bring the car, he said, “Do you think I should take time off, Charlie? I’ve been thinking about it. What do you say?”
I leaned against the pink stucco wall at the restaurant front and didn’t speak until we were in the car.
“Harry, do you think this has anything to do with the big bike man?”
Harry’s head spun around, his jaw dropped, and eyes were open wide and bulging as if he was hyperthyroid.
“Damn, Charlie, I was thinking the same thing.”
“Hey. Let’s watch the traffic.”
Charlie slowed and fixed his eyes to the road.
In the elevator, I suggested talking with the psychiatrist whose office was next to ours.
“Actually, I started seeing a clinical psychologist a couple of months after the big bike man episode. I’m learning a lot. She’s a Jungian, but I’m starting to understand some things about myself.”
The elevator door opened and Harry walked out. I stood there for a moment, sorting my thoughts: Harry has a shrink?
Now I was the one who wanted to talk more, but the office was bustling and we were late.
Months went by. Twice I asked Harry about his therapy. He said it was going well. We didn’t talk much until our office Christmas party.
Everyone was gone, but Harry wanted to chat. He had eggnog, keeping with tradition as he always did. I nursed a scotch and water.
“Charlie, a funny thing, sort of strange, happened in New York.”
Isn’t this the way Harry began the story of the big bike man?
“The van Gogh exhibit at MOMA. Not too big, but wonderful.”
I girded myself for one of Harry’s long commentaries.
“I’m before the postman portrait when, almost without realizing, I’m noticing the women around me.” He took a sip of the eggnog. “I noticed everything. Their eyes, blue, brown, or whatever. Noses, lips, hair. Skinny, heavy. Tall, thin. It wasn’t so much sexual,” another sip, “as seeing a wondrous display. Panoply, right? An amazing panoply. All different. Snowflakes. You know?” He stared into the distance. “Like I was seeing a new species. And then I noticed the men. Short, tall. Beards, no beards. Middle-aged guys, in suits and ties, ready to take on the world. You know what I mean?” I just nodded. “That take-charge look. Captains of industry.”
The cleaning lady was picking up the last traces of the party, and the sound of the vacuum cleaner was just outside. We leaned close to hear better.
“You know, Charlie, I wonder if the world may have discarded Freud too soon.” I had seen the big Freud biography on Harry’s desk. Harry reads so many things, I hadn’t thought much of it. “He couldn’t have been that far off, could he?”
I had no idea what Harry meant, but I had patients to see the next morning and I left before hearing about Freud.
A few days later Harry came into my office. “Charlie, I want some time off.” He wanted to write music. “You know I started at Julliard and then switched to Columbia to become pre-med.” A gifted pianist, Harry played Beethoven, cabaret music, ragtime. Whatever. “I know someone at Julliard. She was a classmate. She’s second violin in the New York Phil and teaches music theory. She’s willing to take me on as a student.”
“What kind of music?”
“I’m up at four and have some things started. But there’s just never enough time. I want to give it a real shot.” He squinted down at the floor, chewed at his lower lip, and then looked directly into my eyes. “I need to give it a real shot.”
“When do you do this?” He was still at the gym two mornings a week. He still made rounds twice a day. He was at his desk when I went home in the evening. “What have you written?”
“Not much. Outlines for a couple of operas. Sketches for two short piano pieces.”
“What kind of operas?”
“Just beginning. A little of the music and outlines of librettos.”
“A couple?” I’m not sure why I was asking these questions. I guess I was astounded by it all.
“Yes. Crime and Punishment is one, but it’s probably too complicated, and I’m also playing around with The White Hotel.”
“The White Hotel?” I nodded. “An old novel from thirty years ago. I read it in med school. It has a lot about Freud. About the Holocaust. An amazing, great book.”
“Where are you going to live?” I knew it was a silly question as soon as I said it.
“I haven’t thought that far ahead yet. The folks at the school can help.”
“Arlene going with you?”
“She wants me to concentrate on what I want to do, without interruptions. She wants me to be like a student again.”
I had nothing to say.
“But no girlfriends.” He had a half smile on his face, the corners of his mouth just slightly turned up. “She says I should go and have a good time, but not that good a time. I should think of it as a sabbatical, like going away to do research.” He looked sad, but I didn’t know what to say.
“You know, I’ve never had an affair.” It was almost a question. “Arlene’s the only one since we married. There was only one woman before her, a girl really, at Juilliard. Helen something. I met Arlene before I started med school. We married at the end of my second year.” He paused, and then went on. “I’m not doing this to have an affair.” The furrows in his brow were quite deep and he sighed. “At least I don’t think so.”
Harry was more open after returning from Juilliard, more cheerful, less driven, less obsessed with being productive. He turned down invitations to write textbook chapters and resigned from hospital committees he had been on for years. He started playing tennis on Wednesday afternoons as well as on the weekends and went to the health club three weekdays instead of two.
One day after everyone left the office, he told me, “I write from ten at night to one in the morning, and then sleep fifteen minutes later each morning, except on gym days. I may get help with the libretto. And the orchestration.” He took a quick breath, just barely interrupting the flow of his words. “I haven’t even begun to look into copyright issues. For a while I tried changing it to a Broadway show type piece. But I’m no Bernstein. I’ll tell you, though, I’m mostly satisfied with it. It still needs work, but it’s not bad. I started a piece for piano and strings also.” Shallow furrows formed in his brow. “This composing business doesn’t go quickly.” He chuckled. “It’s really hard work, you know.”
“Harry, you’re different.”
“Yes? How? What do you mean?”
“You’re enjoying life more. You have room for more things. You’re more relaxed.”
He smiled, his shallow right-cheek dimple just beginning to show. “I guess. I mean, sure, I know I’m doing things differently. I guess I’m even thinking differently. For example, I was standing at my window the other day, when it was so windy out there, and some branches were coming down and I was remembering the jacaranda. I guess I never did that in the past. Not with patients waiting.”
Is that all? I wanted to ask him. Don’t you see all the other changes?
Was it because he was writing music, something he always wanted to do? Or was it the time in New York? Harry loved New York. Was it the time away from the office, away from the hospital, away from the patients? As far as I could tell, he was still practicing medicine better than almost anybody. I wondered why he couldn’t use the Internet instead of flying back and forth, but I guess I don’t know much about composing music. Was there a romance? Was his teacher more than just a former classmate? Was she the reason he needed to go back? Or some other woman? Someone at a museum or in the library? I wouldn’t be the first to point a finger if Harry was having an affair, as long as it was good for him and nobody got hurt. Hell, I love my wife but I’d be jealous, truth be known.
Was it therapy? He went twice a week now when he was in town and Skyped once a week when he was away. I suppose that’s part of it.
What about the big bike man? Did that lead to this huge change in Harry’s life? Is change like this as easy as that? I don’t know.
He and I need to go to some quiet place for dinner one night, with plenty of time to talk.
I should know what happened to Harry.
I really want to know.
I need to know.
Stephen A. Geller is an internationally known pathologist who now devotes himself entirely to creative writing. He received an M.F.A. in writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2018. His first novel, “A Little Piece of Me,” received many laudatory reviews and his short stories have been published in GNU Journal, The MacGuffin and other magazines. His blog page is at www.stephenageller.com. Born in Brooklyn, he now lives in Manhattan and Beverly Hills.
Photo: Howard Bouchevereau/Unsplash