short story    

  close calls

Out of nowhere, she cuts me off, pigtails waving in the breeze, the sleeves of a fuzzy old sweater looped tightly around her neck. In her wake, all the world turns pink, like a cherry tree that's blossomed overnight. I cozy up to the curb and wait. When she zips around again, she nearly whacks my side-view mirror with her handlebar. Astonished and maybe just a little bit afraid, I slink way down in my seat, ever watchful over the dash, until she rides off into the sunset.

As soon as I get home, I call my father. He only wants to know how she is.

"Happy," I tell him, pleased to be able to report the truth.

"How could you tell?"

"Because she was fast, Dad. Pink and lovely and sure. She turned the leaves on the trees inside out."

"A beautiful woman," he says.

The next day, she's got company-a pony-tailed man on a mountain bike in hot pursuit of a comet of pink. His front tire flirts aggressively with the firm rear end of her baby pink Schwinn Classic, tailgating way too close for my comfort. I roll down the window of my gas guzzling SUV, consider elbowing him off his saddle on the next pass. They whiz on by, but I'm paralyzed. The pink lady's laughter lags behind like my best perfume. This time, I reach for my cell phone.

"I think Mom's got a boyfriend," I tell my father.

"Well, good for her," he says, miles away from meaning it. "Older or younger?"

"Somewhere between Kirk Douglas and Gregory Peck."

"Not as good lookin' as either, I hope."

"Looks a little like Rip Van Winkle."

"Hell, Maggie! That's no competition!" The emphysema turns his chuckle to a gag; I hear him reach for the oxygen. When he catches his breath and I'm sure he's OK, we hang up.

On my next visit, the streets around the hospital are mostly barren of bicycles. I race up the walkway and punch the doorbell with my fist. A new breed of doctor in khakis and sandals ushers me in. He looks me up and down, takes me in and lets me out like the tide. The absence of white has a calming effect on my nerves.

"Looking for Daisy Thoms," I say without ado or explanation. But then his nose ring catches the sunlight in the foyer, nearly knocking me down. I look around for some shade.

"It's arts and crafts time," he beams. "Perhaps you'd like to visit."

In the Rec Room, the patients are limbering up the right sides of their brains. Finger paints, construction paper, Play-Doh-all the sights and sounds of nursery school. Weaponless arts for the semi-dangerous. The sharpest tool in the room is a pair of rounded scissors, the kind that can barely cut paper, much less skin. My mother stands alone, in a corner by the window. Between the line of a surgical mask and the sweet bunch of a plastic shower cap, I find her eyes, forever green and hopeful. When I take her in my arms, a newspaper rustles beneath our feet like leaves. Mom pulls back and shakes her spray paint like a pair of maracas, wiggles her still narrow hips in red and white checked pedal pushers. She looks good and I tell her so. She holds out a can and asks if I feel like helping. I shake it a few times, hard enough to hear the ping of the color ball as it bounces around inside. We tape the Metro Section across the tires and wrap the weddings and engagements around the handlebars. Mom stripes every few inches of pink paint with masking tape, until the bike looks like a candy cane well past its prime. When we are through, she takes my arm and pulls me over to the window seat where we sit and admire our handiwork.

"Now that's a sight to behold," I say, both proud and afraid. One minute she is under my skin. And then she is gone. I have to remind myself to breathe.

"I'm racing in the Tour de France," she confides with a wink, the kind she used to give me when she needed my help to pull one over on Dad. "Be my co-conspirator!" she used to beg, laughing, irresistibly everything. I take her hand in my lap, stroke the thread of calluses that meanders down the side of her palm, just next to the lumps and bumps she got from playing tennis and planting tulip bulbs. "How'd you get these?" I ask, still fingering the line of dots beneath her pinky. "From shifting my multi-speed Rocket 88 around the hills of Provence," she says with another wink. She turns toward the window, fixes on a squirrel in a tree. I kiss her cheek and tell her I'll be back tomorrow. She smells like spring.

When I get home, the phone is ringing.

"She thinks she's competing in the Tour de France," I tell my Dad. "She's spray painted her bike all red and white and blue." His breathing is loud and raspy, like rain on sandpaper. It stops my heart for a second, inviting me to confess that I helped with the paint.

"Paris here we come!" he says.

It's scary how much he loves her.

In the basement, I haul out a box of photos and scrapbooks, curled and crinkled from the damp underground. It takes a while to find what I think I remember-a black and white snapshot of my mother on a tricycle, both done up with streamers for the Fourth of July. Upstairs in my room, I close the door and stand before the mirror. I hold her image alongside my own and wonder what this life may have in store for me.
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    Copyright © 2000 by Pam Ullman.