On Throwback Thursdays we at Literary Labors will feature reprints of previously published blog posts and creative work. This short story first appeared in issue 47.2 of The Wisconsin Review (Spring 2014).
The Boy on the Powder Blue Bicycle
Dolores Bradshaw needed an oatmeal raisin cookie with her tea. She got up, hurried into the kitchen and pulled down the battered tin box from the shelf next to the refrigerator. A minute later, she returned to her chair by the window and slowly chewed until half of the cookie was gone. A porcelain vase on the sill held four pink roses, the outer petals drooping in the warm sunlight. She looked at the dainty chinaware clock on the mantel, and seeing that it had just struck three, she gazed back out the window. He would be coming any minute now. She took another small bite and then sipped her tea.
Oatmeal raisin had been her favorite since childhood, when sugar was in short supply during the war. As she looked down at the last morsel and popped it into her mouth, she remembered the time her mother hadn’t been able to cobble enough butter and sugar together for a cake on her tenth birthday. Her mother was more upset about it than she was, but Dolores had lied and said she was never very keen on cake anyway. That afternoon, when she came home from school, a small bundle wrapped in white paper and tied up with a blue ribbon was waiting on the hall table. When Dolores opened it, she found six perfectly shaped oatmeal cookies, each studded with a good quantity of raisins. Even though her mother didn’t have enough butter and sugar for an entire cake, she had found just enough for a half dozen cookies. The next day word came that her father was dead, killed in an explosion on a transport ship in the Pacific. Oatmeal raisin had been his favorite, too.
Looking out the window, Dolores wondered what kind of cookies the little boy would like. Surely he liked cookies. Everyone liked cookies, especially little boys. Her own son had always gobbled up any kind of cookie she put in front of him when he was young, but now he was grown and married with his own children and living out west and she was lucky if she got to see them once a year. She looked at the telephone and thought about calling Jim and the kids. Maybe she would give them a ring later, after the boy rode by, and see if the twins had received the birthday card she sent last week. Yes, she would call them later, after watching her programs on the television and after she had fixed herself some supper. She would fry up one of the chicken thighs she got on sale down at the corner grocery and have it with a small baked potato and some of the leftover broccoli from last night’s meal. She tried to eat broccoli three or four times a week since reading that article in the nutrition magazine at the doctor’s office last year.
Her husband Randall had always hated broccoli. One time she tried to trick him by baking it into a casserole with rice and sour cream, but after one mouthful he put the fork down and pushed the plate away and went into his den and wouldn’t come out for the next three hours, not until Dolores took him an extra large piece of apple pie a la mode and promised not to bake broccoli into any more casseroles. Maybe he wouldn’t have had that heart attack and died if he had eaten more broccoli. Randall was only 67 years old when he went, but Dolores planned on living a long time yet. At least ten more years, she hoped.
Would she still be around when the little boy graduated high school? Dolores wondered. He couldn’t be more than eight or nine right now. Did he have brothers and sisters? Where was his family from? Maybe he lived over in that fancy new subdivision where all the houses had circular driveways and nice patio decks out back. His father probably had a decent job and worked late at night. She studied the clock on the mantel and leaned forward in her armchair. Out in the street, a car passed, but other than that, there was no activity. On the sidewalk, a sudden streak of orange shot by as the neighbor’s tabby cat sprang from the bushes and chased a squirrel to the base of the old oak tree. While the squirrel scampered away to the higher branches, the cat sat back on its haunches and stared up. After a moment, it lost interest and slunk away to its hiding spot in the lilac bushes. Yesterday the fat cat lay in the grass next to the sidewalk and the little boy had almost run over its bushy tail as it flounced back and forth.
When she was a girl, Dolores had a pet, a small gray cat that used to figure eight around her ankles every morning on the way to the bathroom. One day not too long after her sixteenth birthday, she woke up and found its lifeless body on the little braided rug in the corner of the room, peacefully curled up as if it had just gone to sleep. She wanted to get a housecat after their wedding, but Randall was allergic to them and refused to have one in the house. That’s when she started leaving a spare dish of food for the neighborhood cats out on the back porch. Maybe she would get a cat now that she was alone and didn’t have to worry about Randall sneezing and coughing all the time. Another gray cat might be nice, but the color didn’t really matter.
Dolores reached for her tea, looked down and saw that the cup was empty. She debated getting up and refilling it in the kitchen, but was afraid of missing the little boy if she left for even a minute. She’d wait till after he rode by and then get a refill. She should have made a whole pot and carried it to the little tea table by the windowsill with the roses. The cup was her mother’s, a dainty thing with porcelain as thin as eggshells and once there had been a whole dozen of them, each with a matching saucer of the same cobalt blue rimmed in gold. One she had broken while washing up after the tea she had hosted for the women’s auxiliary club at church and then she had dropped a tray with four of them one Thanksgiving as she doled out coffee and pumpkin pie. She was so mad at herself after that, but what could she do? That left just the one cup intact, and five of the saucers, and since then she had tried to be extra careful with the cup she used for her afternoon tea. The other six had all been broken long before by her stepfather, the preacher her mother had married two years after Dolores’s father died. The people who attended the small church on Mulberry Street thought the preacher was a nice man, but none of them saw it when he pulled out the bottle of vodka hidden under the kitchen sink and started drinking. Not on Sundays, though.
Dolores never told her mother about the time he had cornered her in the laundry and forced his hand up under her skirt. Her mother would have believed her and kicked him out of the house, but her father’s death had been so hard on them, Dolores didn’t want to make it any worse. The first chance she got after that, Dolores was out of the house. Barely 17 years old, she accepted Randall’s proposal for marriage and soon they had their own little house on the other side of town. The school was only two blocks away and there was a bakery right around the corner, next to the old gas station. Not too long after she left home, her stepfather got his, though. A milk truck struck him one day while crossing the street in front of the church and they had to amputate one of his legs and a hand. Dolores wasn’t sure, but she suspected it was the same hand that had groped her that day in the laundry. She wasn’t surprised that her mother took such good care of the man after the accident. Her mother wasn’t one to complain.
Randall had been a good husband, in that respect. He never hit his wife once, although that one time they came home from their fifth anniversary dinner at the chop suey palace, he confronted her for looking too long at the good-looking waiter who kept bringing her extra fortune cookies long after the check had been paid. Dolores had denied it, but Randall said he knew better, his reddened face shaking as he jabbed a finger at her chest. In a week, Randall was back to normal but they never went out for chop suey again.
Dolores always wondered what would have happened if she had returned and flirted a bit more with that handsome waiter with the strong legs. Randall had been older than she was, and some nights she dreamed of a different life, one with a strapping young husband and frequent trips to the beauty salon and Friday night cocktail parties where they all drank too many martinis.
That following spring Dolores found out she was pregnant for the first time. But a month later, as she sat cramped and moaning over the toilet, she lost the baby and it would take three more tries before one finally stuck. Every time it happened, Randall would pat her hand and go to the kitchen to empty out a can of soup or fruit cocktail. Then he’d scoop out the little mess floating in the blood-stained water of the toilet bowl, bury the tin cylinder in a corner of the yard, and fix a cup of tea for them both. The first time it happened, Dolores wasn’t quite sure if she liked the soup can burial, but she was so overcome with grief and nausea that she could only lay motionless on the bed while her tears leaked into the pillow. In the end she decided that it was better than simply flushing the toilet and washing it all away.
After each miscarriage she made Randall plant a rosebush over each makeshift grave, and now they all stood tall and full and in terrible need of pruning. Dolores hadn’t done any gardening in years, though, so who knew if the roses would ever be pruned again. At least the blossoms were plucked off on a regular basis. When they were in full bloom, like this week, she’d go out in the morning with the kitchen shears and remove the choicest flower from each of the plants and gently place the stems in the vase on the windowsill. Her mother had given her that vase not long after deciding to sell the house and moving into a retirement village with her brother down in Florida. Her second husband, the preacher, had died after accidentally rolling his wheelchair too close to the basement steps and Dolores’ mother didn’t want to live in the house by herself, especially with the winters the way they were up here. At the funeral, the woman hadn’t shed a single tear, instead talking obsessively about a ring of birds she had seen in the sky the morning her husband had died, and Dolores wondered if her mother wasn’t secretly glad to finally be rid of the lout. Funny how things worked out sometimes. Even though he only had one good arm, the old preacher had never had problems navigating his wheelchair before.
Dolores studied the four roses in the vase and gazed out the window. Where was the little boy today? Where was he coming from? He never had any books with him, so it surely wasn’t from school. Maybe he took the bus home from the big school out by the highway and when he got home he dropped off his stuff and went out for a bike ride. Did he have a grandmother nearby and was he going to visit her every day after school? That was a nice thought, one that made Dolores smile. But it was summer, so he couldn’t be in school, unless it was summer school. She sighed and felt a sudden urge to yawn, but when she raised a hand to her mouth, it went away and left her feeling unsatisfied. Somewhere down the street, she could hear children playing, their high-pitched voices filled with excitement, and then suddenly the yawn was back and Dolores opened her mouth and let it come without raising a hand to stifle it.
She wondered if she would be able to sleep tonight. Did the little boy ever have trouble falling asleep? Most likely not. Did his mother let him stay up late and watch shows on the television? Sometimes, when Dolores couldn’t sleep, she liked to get up in the dark and go out to the back yard. With her slippers dampened from the dew on the grass, she would sit at the old picnic table next to the garage and listen to the silence, punctuated occasionally by the sound of a distant train or something rustling in the lilies along the fence. In the calming darkness, only a vague outline of each of the rose bushes could be seen, each one anchoring its own separate corner of the yard. After an hour or two or three, Dolores would shuffle back to the house and in the time before the sun came up she would fix herself something hot to drink and sip it while she baked a batch of cookies for the coming week. When the birds started chirping, she would stand with her cup at the back window as the light rose on the horizon and illuminated the rose bushes.
Yes, she had lost the others, but thank goodness she had her Jim. He was their only child, and he turned out pretty good, even if he did get into trouble a lot during his last year or two of high school. Smoking those marijuana cigarettes and then getting caught out by the reservoir that night doing god only knows what with the long-haired boy who lived down the street with those hippies in the old schoolhouse they turned into apartments. Randall had actually slapped his son hard across the face the night the police cruiser brought him home and dropped him off at the front door. Dolores had never seen her husband so much as raise a finger to him in all the years before that. Tears welled up in the boy’s eyes and he threatened to steal a van and go to Mexico, but in the end he just ran into his bedroom and slammed the door so hard the cookie tin fell from its shelf in the kitchen. Then before they knew it, Jim had graduated and not half a year later he had been drafted and sent off to fight and that really straightened him out. The whole time her son was over there fighting, Dolores wished she had convinced him to run off to Canada and just stay away, but when Jim finally returned, safe and sound, she was glad about not doing it after all.
A sudden blur of movement jolted her back to the present and when Dolores looked up, the little boy was rounding the corner. There he was, in blue jeans and a yellow tee shirt with a pocket on the front. She looked at the clock and saw that he was only a couple of minutes later than usual. His feet pedaled at a leisurely pace as he straightened his course and rode past the house. His dark bangs fluttered in the wind and one of his knees looked like it had a grass stain. She had always hated trying to get the stains out of Jim’s pants after he and his friends ran around the neighborhood. It seemed like they must have spent the whole afternoons rolling in the grass and mud. She wondered if the little boy had been playing in the grass. But where was he riding every day? Could he be going to a friend’s house or did he have afterschool lessons? There was that heavy-set girl over on Smith Avenue who taught piano so maybe he was going to her house. Her Jim had taken violin lessons for two years, but he never kept up with it. Dolores wondered if the little boy knew how to play an instrument like the violin or the trombone.
Would he wave at her today? Dolores waited a moment and saw that the little boy wasn’t looking in her direction. He was looking across the street, where a beat-up old pickup truck was backing into the neighbors’ driveway. There were always lots of comings and goings at that house and she didn’t much care for the young couple who lived there. Dolores thought the truck was probably there to repossess that big new television set they had bought at the store a couple weeks back. Soon, the little boy reached the end of the block and turned right on Gilbert, like he always did, and then he was gone. His bicycle was the prettiest shade of blue Dolores had ever seen. Back when she was a girl, you never saw bikes in that color. Maybe a red racer every now and then, but most were solid black or brown, or sometimes plain green. Or dark blue. Hers was green and she had it for at least five years before someone stole it from the side of the house one night.
Frowning, Dolores studied the empty teacup on its saucer and yawned again. Then her eyes returned to the window. The driver of the pickup truck had alighted and was unloading an old table from the back. The woman who lived in the house held the front door open for the man as he jostled through with the piece of furniture. The woman, a skinny thing in a faded sundress with her hair up in a kerchief, closed the screen door and said something before laughing. Then all was still on her street. Dolores looked at the lilac bushes and wondered if the cat was still hidden away inside. Or had it slunk off to the backyard to nibble at the kibble in the little dish on the porch? She waited and saw that nothing was happening. She decided to return to the kitchen and get one more cookie from the old tin and while she was at it, she would make that second cup of tea. Next time she would make a whole pot, though, and take two or three cookies on a little plate. But today she would make just one more cup of tea. Then she’d return to her post at the window and sit a while longer. Maybe the little boy would ride by again, coming from the opposite direction this time. In the three months she had been watching, he had failed to show only two or three times. Once, it was raining to beat the band, so that made sense, but the other times the weather was perfectly nice, slightly breezy even, which for her seemed to be ideal weather for riding a bike. Maybe he had been sick those other days, or maybe he had done something to displease his parents and they had punished him by making him stay home for the afternoon. But he looked like such a good boy, so that certainly wasn’t it.
Yes, he was a nice boy, and he usually waved if he happened to look up and see Dolores in the window. Last Monday he was carrying a brown paper bag as he rode by, one that was bigger than a lunch bag but not quite as big as the biggest kind they gave you down at the corner grocery. She wondered what it had held. Dolores sighed. One of these days she would invite the little boy inside for cookies and milk, but it meant that she would probably have to make a batch of chocolate chip cookies because that’s all the kids liked nowadays, even if they were the store-bought kind with not very many chocolate pieces. It had to be those chewy kinds with lots of sugar and chocolate or else they weren’t interested anymore. Forget about her favorite oatmeal with raisin, or a good old molasses cookie or a simple sugar cookie like the ones her grandmother had always made using the old rolling pin that was now in the top drawer in the kitchen. As Dolores reached down and picked up the empty teacup, she remembered the unopened jar of peanut butter in the pantry, and she smiled. Peanut butter, now that was something the kids still seemed to like.
— David Dominé