All The Hard Ways

It’s always strange to walk down the street with your ex-girlfriend, and her new boyfriend, and also some guy who thinks you stole his bicycle.

“I’m telling you, goddammit, my bike was right there on the same rack as yours,” the guy said. “What happened to it, huh? Hey! Fine then. Fine, I’ll follow you.”

The tension — the sexual tension, I mean — still hummed loudly between Marisol and me. We were both drinking at the Double Down Saloon, first time I’d seen her in a while. You know that thing where ex-lovers spot each other across a room, and while one of them tries to make eye contact, the other sort of dances with the attention? Performs a little bit of her happiness with a new man? They seemed like a new couple. I could tell by Mari’s painted on smile, her sneaky side-glances, that she battled boredom and distraction. Worked painfully hard to show enthusiasm for whatever common ground they’d found in conversation. With her generously endowed nose, and her hair — those curls that sprigged out in wild rebellion — she looked more than pretty. I interrupted, and Mari lit up like the Luxor. I swear you could’ve seen her from space.

“You are very drunk,” Mari told the guy who thought we stole his bicycle. The three of us — me, Mari, her new boyfriend — were en route to a nearby casino. Now we were a party of four.

“I know your kind — every bike thief in town just a Snapchat away. Who handled the blowtorch?” The guy paced side-to-side on the sidewalk behind us. “That was a fucking Cannondale. But I guess you know that. Show me your cell phones.”

We crossed into a drab part of Vegas’s tourist fringe. It was about as close to the Strip as I liked to get. Shop windows framed with neon lights showed off rusty security gates. The guy’s heavy breathing, his huffing and puffing and snorting (my god, was he keying coke?) grew louder.

“Call him. Call whoever’s holding my bike and get him over here. Now,” he said.

Marisol’s new boyfriend, Cameron, shouted back, “We didn’t steal your bicycle!” Cameron had attracted this problem so I was set on letting him defuse it. I mean, by pushing one of those sleek, fixed-gear bicycles he was making us all look affiliated with some sort of hardcore cycling gang. “As you can see, I already have this beautiful fixey,” he said. “And them,” Cameron referred to me and Mari now, “do they even look like they ride?”

I took offense to that. How could Mari date such a grandiose prick? A guy who didn’t even know how to play craps! Apparently he worked for some website destined to “change paradigms,” which figured — you know that ilk. Yes he was good looking. Tall with a V-shaped torso. A pair of thighs flattered by spandex instead of insulted like mine. He had Owen Wilson’s butterscotch blond hair, another feature I envied as someone who disliked his own dark hair and eyes. But those gloves! Cameron wore the leather cycling mitts with air holes for knuckles, the fingertips cut off. He pushed his bike with one hand and held Mari’s little palm in the other. It was too much to see her accept his greasy, leather lingerie grip. I cringed.

“Why aren’t you people listening!” the guy shouted. His footsteps quickened behind us. “I want answers because there are three of you and only one bike. And what’s wrong with that? I’ll tell you: You need two more. So where’d you stash mine?”

We passed a check-cashing place, an African incense shop, a Mexican notary. The street would give us two more rundown shopping centers and a dirt lot before we’d reach Koval, where we’d turn right to find my favorite casino housed inside a Super 8.

Mari wasn’t sure we’d make it. “Cam, what should we do?” she said. His answer was, “Ignore him, babe.” I thought to myself, Babe? It seems a little soon for that sort of thing. Mari looked past her boyfriend then, to me, like maybe I should take a stand. I was a man of action too.

“You know,” I said, “when I hear that nickname, Cam, I can’t help but think of a cheap, plastic, amateur pornographer’s gadget of choice. Were you named after your parents’ favorite toy?”

Cameron said, “Why are we hanging out with this person?”

“You must think I’m a real loser, escorting you to our old casino,” I said. ”You see me as some kind of third wheel. But we’re about to hit a little road by the name of Memory Lane. A place with dice and drinks and Mari and I winning together at craps where you won’t even exist.”

“Technically,” Cameron said, “you’re the fifth wheel. Sixth if we count the guy behind us.”

“Ah yes, I’d forgotten about your ‘beautifully organic’ bicycle. No clunky brake system. Single speed. Got the free range, grass fed aluminum body. Gluten-free tires for an all-natural ride.”

“You bastards!” the guy said. “I’m not joking about this, who took the bike? I will go to town on you hipsters — you have no idea!”

We strode past an empty lot where an actual tumbleweed came bouncing onto the sidewalk. One of those prostitute pamphlets whipped into the air from the gutter. Bobbing and weaving, it flapped past our heads in a blur of nipples and hips that might also have advertised an impending brawl.

Mari said, “Jerry, I thought you were over things. You said it was all water under the bridge. That’s what you said.”

Before I could respond. Before I could remind her that there are no bridges in Las Vegas, no water either. Before I could admit that I’d lied, the guy darted between us. Holding out his arms and smiling a psychotic grin that showed his incisors, he said: “Someone’s getting fucked up over this!”

“Take my bike,” Cameron told Mari. “Ride ahead. I’ll catch up.” The crazy guy peeled off his T-shirt. “Mari can’t ride that thing! It’s dangerous,” I said. And indeed, she struggled to get away, large as it was, plus the fact that the pedals rotate automatically.

Also the lack of brakes on those damn things.

Cameron crouched in a wrestler’s position. “Jerry,” he said from his fight stance. “About what you said earlier, I don’t think you or this guy or anyone is a loser. Confidence, that’s my metric for success.” I was going to say something very confident then about how wrong he was for Mari when suddenly the guy issued a terrifying roar. He charged forward, spearing me to the dirt. Frothing and slurring, he shouted in my face, “I love that bicycle!”

I kind of knew where the maniac was coming from. The natural response to losing what you love is to go on the attack. Fuck filing a police report. Screw living well: Vigilante justice is the best revenge. I wanted to tell the guy, Go for Cameron! He’s the thief! I was ready to announce that we were on the same side but the guy knelt into my groin. I couldn’t speak or breathe.

Now flash forward twenty minutes. Past the violence to what’s important: Mari’s reaction. She waited for us in a pink-hued slot machine aisle. Cameron’s bike rested against a Wheel of Fortune unit, its jingling jackpot ditty providing an odd soundtrack for the couple’s tearful reunion.

I received a less emotional response. I was used to being snubbed by Mari in casinos, where she preferred we make safe wagers while I liked to bet all the hard ways. This time, though, it was because I only showed a few scratches. Literally, I had three fingernail marks on my forehead from where the guy palmed my face. But Cameron! He looked as if someone had smacked him in the face with a cherry pie.

“How could you date this person?” he cried out. While pinching a cocktail napkin to his nose, he explained how, at the final moment before the guy laid into me, right as the maniac cocked his fist, he — Cameron the Incredible — whacked the guy in the face with a Kryptonite U-lock. The guy’s jaw or nose or something broke, it sounded like a golf club hit a pumpkin. We assumed the ruckus was over, but no. The guy staggered to his feet. “My bicycle,” he said. Cameron swung the lock again, whiffing this time as the guy ducked. Suddenly they were grappling, grunting like animals and kicking up dirt as they locked arms and spun in circles. Cameron was flung into a patch of weeds and the maniac dove on top of him. He started hammering into Cameron. He didn’t just go to town, he got dinner then ordered dessert. Raising his fist skyward, he summoned gravity’s support for each vicious blow.

“Your ex,” Cameron said, “took his precious time offering me assistance. I saw you brushing dirt off your jeans while that guy wailed on me!”

I worried he was also going to mention my search for a missing shirt button. Cameron must have missed that part, yelping and writhing as he was under the flurry of punches. He skipped to what happened next.

“Hardly put much effort into that choke, now did you? Jerry, here, put his hands around that maniac’s neck, and then didn’t even squeeze! That psycho kept pounding into me. While this, this miserable punk pretended to strangle him, all for show.”

So maybe I did. Perhaps it’s true that I took my time stepping in. Maybe it’s also the case that when I put my hands around the madman’s throat, I hardly squeezed. It was a halfhearted grip, but I couldn’t help that. Whether this communicated some message — Go ahead. Hit him. I’m with you — well that was incidental.

In the end, I did rescue Cameron. Because there was a moment when the maniac paused from bloodying Cameron’s bulls-eye of a face to notice that I’d collared his neck. He recognized our kinship, yet wanted no part of it. That’s when he stood up, backed away, scanned the scene in confused fright. How did he get into this mess? He sure didn’t know. At that point, I yelled, “Get out of here! Leave or I’ll call the cops!” and the guy bolted into the darkness.

When I helped Cameron to his feet, he grumbled something about how “very generous” I was. We walked the rest of the way to the casino in silence, quiet except for Cameron’s occasional groan or wince.

“Jerry?” Mari said when the story was finished. I supposed she was offering me a chance to confirm or deny what her boyfriend had just said. Rather than do either, I merely shrugged. “Honey,” Mari said to Cameron. “I’m sure Jerry tried his best, but he’s not as strong as you are. Jerry is not a fighter.”

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“. . . it’s those shoes that you keep thinking about because you have never seen anything like them before and they had to cost a lot of money, and Kimmie R makes money and you want to make some, too.”