My parents must be trying to kill me. The car windows are closed, and Dad is smoking a pipe, the tobacco is cherry scented, and Mom puffs away on her L&Ms. The smoke makes me sick and I want to throw up. They won’t crack the windows because they’re afraid dirt will get in the car. Dirt? The smell is worse.
We are on the way to Lake Chautauqua. They call it a vacation, but it’s just an excuse to buy more antiques. The drive from Pittsburgh takes five hours instead of three because we stop at every antique shop. I press my face against the glass and imagine I’m somewhere else, not in the car and not sitting next to Tommy. My brother doesn’t care about the smoke because he smokes too. Marlboro Reds. Dad even buys them for him. At dinner the three of them sit there and smoke. They look at me and shake their heads, like I’m the one that’s not normal.
Tommy is an asshole, bully, and world-class liar. He sneaks in my room, wrecks my stuff, and steals my money but accuses me of lying. He’s a famous athlete at school. but his best sport is turning the house upside down with temper tantrums and screaming matches. Mom and Dad just shrug, as if his behavior is no worse than bad weather that comes and goes. Tommy tells me I’m adopted. I like to pretend this is true, not a joke, and someday my real parents—nice, good, and kind people—will come get me. It’s amazing what you tell yourself if you want to survive.
We’re not at Chautauqua yet and the station wagon is already filled with bureaus, card tables, paintings, bronzes, chairs, marble busts, and rugs, and by the end of the vacation, they’ll find room for more. But I’ve learned to make good use of the time we spend antiquing. I hunt for Buffalo nickels. I started collecting to give me something to do on those long trips, but then I really got into it. I thought my parents would be pleased that I was collecting too, but they acted like my finds were no big deal. Nothing I do is a big deal to them, not getting straight As, being treasurer of the seventh grade, or hanging out with the smart kids because I am not, and will never be, anything like my sixteen-year-old brother, Tommy. Praise the Lord, as our maid, Johnnie Mae, says.
Each year we stay in the same old, white hotel, in the same rooms; have dinner at the same hour every night; and have the same conversation about how great Tommy is, how many great antiques they found, and who from Pittsburgh is staying at our hotel. Dad makes sure he, Dr. Shore, is seen. His practice has taken off, and he wants everyone to know he can afford a vacation on Lake Chautauqua and not Lake Erie, where we used to go when I was little. I hated Lake Erie but mostly because of the time I nearly drowned. My dad said he was sick and tired of my not being able to swim, and I was going to learn, or else. I remember a little voice in my head telling me to beware of the deep end. We were on the float, and he threw me in the lake, beyond the swimming ropes. I started sinking. My feet touched the muddy bottom, filled with rotten sticks and leaves. I thought I was going to die. I hated myself for not being able to swim, but I hated my dad more and managed to claw my way up to the surface. My dad pulled me back on the float but never said he was sorry.
On our vacation Mom and Dad take off in the station wagon to go “hunting,” as they call it, and Tommy goes off with kids his age. I usually read or ride around on a rental bike. But this year it’s going to be a very different story. After much begging and pleading, my dad let me bring my new ten-speed, shiny green Schwinn racer.
I had come home after school one day, and no one was there, which meant I could do whatever I wanted to without being bothered. I went upstairs to watch TV, a small black-and-white Zenith they kept in a back room. To watch, I had to lie on the floor because my parents refused to buy a TV stand, like the kind at my friends’ houses, with metal legs and fake wood shelves, or any piece of furniture that wasn’t an antique. I was flipping through the channels, looking for Perry Mason reruns when an image of mountains and a winding road caught my eye. A foreign-sounding announcer was breathing hard with excitement.
“Bonjour, mesdames et messieurs, aujourd’hui nous sommes arrivés près de Lyon,”
Another announcer, speaking English, translated. “Good day, ladies and gents, today we find ourselves near Lyon watching the next-to-final stage of the Tour de France. Jacques Anquetil is still wearing the yellow jersey and now is starting to make a break from the peloton.”
On the screen I watched as dozens of cyclists, legs pumping, swerved around steep curves, riding a kind of bike I had never seen before. The handlebars dropped down low, to the length of the rider’s arms, and the frames looked thin and fragile, like they were made of toothpicks, nothing like my Stingray. I mean I loved my Stingray, but it could not compare to shape and speed of racing bikes. The sportscaster’s enthusiastic voice repeated, peloton, peloton, a word I learned meant the tightly packed group of riders. It turned out I was watching a rebroadcast of the 1962 Tour de France, one of the most famous bike races in the world. I got excited too.
One rider began to pull away. The muscles in his arms and legs bulged out of his tight-fitting shirt and pants; he looked like a rocket about to take off. The rim on his cap was bent back. I could see the sweat on his face and his dark eyes, which had a look as if nothing could stop him. The crowds standing on the side of the road waved flags, shouting and clapping. For a moment I wasn’t in Squirrel Hill but in the crowd, cheering with them. I marveled how the riders even looked like me. They were very thin, with dark hair and eyes and long faces, and most of them with big long noses too. The idea came to me if I looked like them, I could be one of them too.
After lots of phone calls I finally found a store in West Liberty that said yes, it had a ten-speed with curved handlebars, or “drop” handlebars they corrected me. I could afford it too because of the money I had made buying and trading my Buffalo nickels. The bike came in parts, in a box, which I managed to get home in a cab. I couldn’t wait to go for my first ride. As I was putting it together, like the guys in the bike shop had showed me, Dad took one look and said I had wasted my money. If Tommy didn’t have a bike like that, it couldn’t be any good.
I was nervous. My dad made me think he was right, but as soon as I got on the bike and went up and down Negley Hill a few times I felt like Superman. I kept going until my legs were too sore to ride anymore, but I couldn’t wait to get back on. I rode every day after school, attacking all the steepest hills in the city. People stopped and stared. They might have been staring at the bike, not me, but I didn’t mind. I pretended I was in the Tour de France, and the crowds were urging me on. My muscles grew stronger and stronger. Each time I went farther and farther, all the way to Greensburg, which was more than thirty miles away. Riding my bike was like flying high above the clouds, where no one could touch or hurt me. It was hard getting my dad to agree to bring the bike with us. I had to promise all kinds of things, like cleaning out the car and taking the trash out every day, but he finally relented. If not, I wouldn’t have been able to execute my plan and show my parents I am not who they think I am. Tommy is annoyed because my bike is taking up so much space in our room, but I tell him to fuck off. My secret plan has given me secret powers too. I can’t wait.
I’m going to ride my bike the entire fifty-mile loop around Lake Chautauqua. It wasn’t something I could do before on a cheap rental, and I was also scared of cars on the road, but now I’m much more experienced. I got a map of the route from the front desk. South on Route 430 to Bemus Point; to Greenhurst; around the bend at Celoron; north on 394 to Lakewood, Chautauqua, and Mayville; round the top of the lake; and turn south again on 430 to Dewittville, which is the post office for Maple Springs.
The first nice day I wait until Mom and Dad and Tommy leave, and then I get on the road. There’s some traffic but I stay close to the shoulder, and drivers slow down for me. It takes me less time than I thought to go the full fifty miles, including stops. When I get back to the hotel, it’s lunchtime. My legs hurt but my hard work paid off, and I could have easily gone around a second time. I have a celebratory lunch and read my new Agatha Christie until dinnertime. I’m going to make at least five more loops around the lake to be sure before I surprise my parents and Tommy. That little voice that warned me about the deep end talks to me again. They won’t believe you. Don’t worry, I answer back. I’ll have undeniable and indisputable proof.
On the big day it rains, and I’m really bummed out. I stay in my room and read all morning. At noon I go down to the restaurant to pick up my bag lunch. A girl, about my age, in jeans and a white shirt is there picking up hers too. She has blond hair and really nice blue eyes. She stares at me.
“Are you Tommy’s brother?”
Oh no, I think. Girls are always looking for Tommy, but she keeps talking.
“I’m only asking because I think he’s hanging out with my jerky brothers.” She looks at me and laughs. “What, do you think your brother is a jerk too?”
“How did you know?” I ask.
She shrugs her shoulders.
“I just guessed. From that look on your face.”
There aren’t many kids at Maple Springs my age. And a girl is a first, let alone one who shares my sentiments about siblings.
“Sally Cunningham,” she smiles, pointing to her name on the bag.
“Timmy Shore,” I smile back, holding up my lunch.
“Want to eat in the game room?” Sally asks.
I notice she’s holding a copy of Agatha Christie’s, Ten Little Indians. Wow, a reader too.
“Sure,” I say, turning away so she won’t see my cheeks going red.
We sit at a card table near the window, watching the rain, and eat our lunches. We play board games and cards, and I think it’s great to have a friend to be with. Around four she tells me she needs to go get ready for dinner but first pulls out several postcards from her shirt pocket. She puts them on the table, picture side up.
“Yesterday my parents and I drove around the lake. I got postcards from each town. Which one do you like?”
“Can you keep a secret?” I whisper.
“I guess so.”
“Tomorrow I’m going to bike the fifty-mile loop around the lake. My parents have no idea. It’s going to be a big surprise.”
Her blue eyes get wider and wider.
“Fifty miles? For real? That’s so cool. I ride my bike to school in Oil City, but I’ve never done that many miles.”
“No big deal,” I shrug. “I’ve been practicing, you know, like the cyclists do for the Tour de France.” I hope I don’t sound like I’m trying to be a smarty-pants, but she doesn’t seem to think so.
“Tour of what?”
I tell her the whole story and especially about the undeniable proof part.
“There’s a post office in each town. I’m going to get a postcard stamped and dated by each post office. They can’t deny I was there.”
Sally looks at me hesitantly.
“You mean they will? Like not believe you?”
I felt so embarrassed, like Sally was seeing this other side of me, not the Superman side but the little kid who’s afraid of the water and can’t swim.
“I wish I could help,” she says, like she understands. “Hey, you need a postcard, don’t you? Take one of mine. Maybe it will give you good luck.”
She hands me a postcard of Lake Chautauqua on a sunny day, a water-skier glides through the white sprays of a boat wake, white clouds float in a perfect blue sky. I want to tell her how much I like her, how nice she is, how I was picturing the two of us riding bikes together, the wind on our faces.
Sally gets up to leave.
“I’m sorry. I’d like to hang out more with you but tonight’s our last night. My Uncle Paul is here and we have to go out to dinner with him and his family. He’s a big doctor, from New York,” she adds, like an apology.
I really wished she didn’t have to go. This has been the best summer of my life so far.
“It was nice meeting you, Timmy. I hope you’ll be back next summer.”
“Me too, Sally.”
I follow her to the lobby, and we wave goodbye. It has stopped raining and the sky’s clearing into a pale sunset. I promise myself right then and there that I am not going to let anything, or anyone, take away my good feeling. I put the postcard in my pocket, next to my heart, and give it a little pat.
The next day greets me with bright skies. There’s no wind and the lake is calm. I wheel my bike out the back door of the hotel and onto the street. I decide to take my time and spend the whole day to make the loop. I stop and have lunch at one of the towns, making sure to go to each post office. By the end of the day, I have the postcard, with nine postmarks, nine bright red circles, dated and stamped, like a prize.
I get back to the hotel around five, go to the room, shower, and change. Tommy is not there. Each night he’s been sneaking out the window after dinner. He told me if I rat on him, he’ll punch my lights out. I wear my best plaid button-down with the front pocket for the postcard. I go downstairs and they are all sitting in the dining room, reading menus, talking, and smoking and don’t even notice when I sit down. I barely eat anything, feeling like if I open my mouth all my emotions will spill out. I want to laugh, cry, yell, and scream, all at the same time, but I know I need to wait and be patient. I need to be clever. Like Detective Poirot.
Mom and Dad are going on and on about some dumb dealer who didn’t know what he had, a story I’ve heard a million times. Tommy’s describing how great he was at handling a friend’s motorboat, and some girls he met from across the lake. Dad and Mom always want to hear about Tommy and girls because they think he’s a real ladies’ man. Little do they know about his farting and burping and disgusting habits. I’m trying to ignore everything they’re saying until I hear the dreaded word: muskie. It’s like someone stabbed my hand with fork. Tommy is telling the story, yet again, about the famous, disastrous fishing trip a few years ago.
“And then, how funny, right? Dad and I catch nothing, and there’s little Timmy, gripping a pole with both hands, with a giant muskie on the end of his line. He looks as scared as shit, like he’s caught Godzilla, not some stupid fish. What does he do? Drops the whole fucking pole in the water! Dad, you were furious, right? All that expensive equipment. Swoosh.” Tommy sweeps his hand through the air, demonstrating the disappearing pole. “All the way to the bottom of the lake. Pole and fish. Gone.”
The dining room is filled with big, open windows, but I can’t breathe, like I’m sitting in the back seat of the car. Dad laughs so hard his square black glasses fall down his nose. The whole table is shaking. I am shaking. My heart is beating so hard I think it’s going to push the postcard right out of my pocket. I forget all about being smart.
“Go ahead,” I yell. “Tell the stupid story. Like we’ve never heard it before. I’ve got one that’s better than yours.”
They are silent. Their faces stare back at me in one giant frown.
I feel myself sinking. I feel my dad’s sharp jab knocking me into the water; I hear him say learn to swim or else. I feel the soft, muddy bottom, covered with rotten leaves and slimy sticks. Maybe I should drown. Maybe giving up is better than living. I think I should run out of the hotel, cross the street and the beach, dive into the lake, and never come back.
“Excuse me, but are you Timmy? My niece Sally asked me to look for you.”
A tall man is standing next to me and has his hand on the back of my chair. He looks important, with thick silver hair and blue eyes, like Sally’s.
“Yes,” I reply, a little nervously.
“I understand congratulations are in order,” he says jovially. He claps a large hand on my shoulder and turns toward my father.
“Sorry to interrupt. I’m Paul Cunningham. You must be very, very proud of your son. Biking the entire fifty-mile loop around the lake is quite an accomplishment. Most kids waste their time, like idiots, racing up and down the lake on motorboats. The smart ones ride bikes.” He winks at me. “Believe me, there are many times in my day when I wish I could have been a cyclist, like you, Timmy, instead of a doctor.”
My father doesn’t look himself. He seems confused, like his legs and arms aren’t working in a coordinated way when he stands up to shake hands. My mother is trying to smile, but it looks pasted on. Tommy has turned into a puddle on the floor, or so I imagine. And I have crossed the finish line. Crowds are cheering.
Louise Turan’s fiction and creative nonfiction has appeared in Bluestem Magazine, The MacGuffin, Superstition Review, Forge Journal, and Carbon Culture Review and Existere, among others. Born in Ankara, Turkey, she is a former singer/song writer, prep cook and nonprofit executive. She is currently working on a memoir about her family and growing up overseas. Louise lives and writes in Owls Head, Maine. Read more of her published works at: www.louiseturan.com, or on Instagram: @louiseturan.