The Exercise Bicycle – a short story

Fourteen months ago, when I went for my annual physical, the doctor’s office insisted, even though I have been a patient with them for years, that I fill out a new patient profile so that they could enter it into their new on-line electronic records system. I was annoyed that they had asked, since they already have all my medical records, and became quite irate as I filled out the same information multiple times. My anger turned to pain as I completed the page about the health of my parents and siblings. I came to a complete standstill when I wrote in ‘Stephen, brother, five, drowned.’ I was aroused from my moody reverie when a nurse emerged from a side door and called my name.

I suppose that the physical went as well as could be expected, although, looking back, I deem it to have been a total waste of time, as I came out with the instructions that I already knew, ‘Loose fifteen pounds and to start an exercise program.’ The doctor’s little pep talk, about life expectancy and so on, made, at least, a temporary impression on me. I thought about it overnight and, the next day, went to Craig’s list to look for a stationary exercise bicycle. As I had expected there were several to choose from. I selected the one whose seller was located closest to my house.

An elderly lady answered the door and quickly took me to her garage to see the bicycle. I mounted it and began to pedal. As I rode and tested the gears I looked around. The garage was a veritable workshop of bicycle parts and strange-looking machines. The old lady saw my questioning glance and spoke, “This workshop was my late husband’s. He liked to tinker. He always said that the one that you are sitting on was his masterpiece.”

After this comment I decided to pay her full asking-price and soon had the thing loaded into my station-wagon. As I pulled out of the drive she came bustling out carrying a helmet and goggles. “I almost forgot,” she said, “these go with the bicycle. There are some instructions about the electronics tucked inside the helmet.” When I got home I set the bicycle up in my spare bedroom and began my exercise routine. The helmet and so called ‘instructions’ were thrust into a corner of the room unused. After all who needs a helmet on a stationary bicycle? As for instructions, I handle these poorly at the best of times, and now I decided that I didn’t need to be told the obvious; how to plug-in the machine, how to mount it, or how to pedal.

At first things went well enough but after a couple of months my enthusiasm and dedication began to wane. Soon I was able to rationalize about the doctor’s instructions and, kindly told myself that I was not a hamster, and that I was wasting good intellectual time sitting on a stationary bicycle. Twenty minutes a day deteriorated into every other day and then twice a week. If anything I gained some more weight which always seems to happen when I attempt to lose. Then one day the tip of my flip-flop got caught in the pedals and I began to pedal backwards. Immediately the monitor between the handlebars changed color. ‘WARNING,’ it said, in bright red flashing letters, ‘FOR PROPER OPERATION IN THIS MODE, PLUG-IN AND WEAR THE HELMET AND GLASSES.’ The message sparked my curiosity and so I dismounted and took up the helmet.

The ‘instructions’ fell onto the floor and so I picked them up and, begrudgingly, began to read. They described an extraordinary operation which implied that if the helmet and goggles were worn and properly plugged into the machine then the reverse pedaling mode would take the rider back in time to any place which could be conjured up by his or her memory. It went on to describe the new monitor set-up. In the right-hand corner was a date which promised to give the time that the reverse pedaling had reached. Along the bottom were the new designations for the gears: Y, M, W, D, H, M, and S. These translated into: Years, Months, Weeks, Days, Hours, Minutes, and Seconds. In the center was an estimate of speed and time lapsed, both in “real-time’ and ‘memory-time.’

I was skeptical but, for some reason, I put on the helmet and glasses, mounted the bicycle and plugged in. I gently began to pedal backwards. I set the gears at ‘H,’ ‘Hours’ and happily watched the reverse counter in the upper right count down through the last thirty-six hours. Then I slowed it down to ‘M’ and finally ‘S’. At the ‘Seconds” setting I was still pedaling pretty fast but gradually I began to see myself sitting in the barber’s chair having the haircut that I’d had thirty-six hours earlier. It was fantastic! Over the next few weeks I perfected my timing and was able to go to any date that I wished. Here was my whole life in instant recall and perfect technicolor. I found that I could go back to times and dates that were no longer present in my consciousness but that the machine could find and then, in the ecstasy of recall, I remembered. I now had an entirely different approach to my exercise and fanatically looked forward to longer and longer periods on the bicycle. I lost weight and began to look like one of those ‘Tour de France” athletes.

The first time that I made it back fifty years to my childhood I was amazed at the clarity of my memories. It was a snowy January morning, my ninth birthday. The snow glistened white in the sun shine. It looked as though it were festooned with gems. I wondered if my nine-year-old self had noticed this beauty but there it was, so I assume that my subconscious must have recorded it. I watched myself and my younger two brothers playing in the snow; snowball fights and snowmen. The next time I went back I selected a few days later and enjoyed watching my brothers and I playing in the barn amongst the hay bales. We created an elaborate system of tunnels. They terminated in an inside chamber which we set up as our ‘den’. At one time I put my hand through a gap in the hay to the cat’s nest. Sitting on my bicycle I felt the tabby claw me. I yelled, and watched myself pull out a tiny kitten.

Another cold spring day I watched the siblings playing ‘travel’ in an abandoned car. It was cold outside but inside the car it was warm. The boys and I took turns sitting in the driver’s seat behind the steering wheel. Several days later I moved my voyeurism to summer and watched myself running bare-foot in the farmyard competing with a gaggle of geese their incessant honks to mingle with my war shouts, for I was an Indian with bow and arrow.

I always had fond memories of my youth, that is, up to the day of the accident. It was hard work going back fifty years but I was addicted and tried to do it at least every other day. At first I only selected dates which I knew would bring pleasure, always skirting around that black day when Stephen died even though I knew that I’d eventually have to go there. When, at last, I made it I was surprised that it was such a glorious early summer day. It had obviously been a wet spring and the crops were green and stock pond glimmered in the sun. Stephen was playing ball by himself while Mark and I kicked another ball back and forth. On the day of the accident I hadn’t realized that he had gone in to the stock pond following a ball, I’d assumed that he was practicing swimming as Mark and I had the previous summer. You walk in until it is too deep and then you dog-paddle to the shore. That’s how we learned to swim. That was the assumption that our parent’s made when his body was found. But, now, watching from my bicycle I saw him chasing a ball not wading.

I began to wonder whether there was any way that I could intervene. The ‘instructions’ which came tucked in the helmet were clear that the rider could not descend into his memory and that communication was impossible. The temptation to test the validity of this was overwhelming. I went back to the moment and tried calling to Stephen “No, Stevie, don’t go in the water,” but my voice was sucked into the air and, although he was quite close he obviously didn’t hear anything. I wondered whether a bell or a whistle giving a different audio might work but neither made any difference. I decided to see if I could insert something, like a life-saver, into my memory. At first I tried to do it mentally with no avail although I thought that I saw a shadow of one in my vision. Throwing one off the bicycle had no effect and when I returned to my room there it was lying on the floor.

I wondered if I could erase the memory and whether erasing the moment of the event from my memory would obliterate it from our lives. Try as I might I couldn’t come up with a way to selectively erase even the tiniest part of the memory. But then I came back to that shadow that I’d imagined or seen when I attempted to insert the life-saver. I began to experiment and found that if I concentrated very hard I could accomplish minor changes to the memory. Over the next month I painstakingly revisited the scene each time moving the trajectory of Stephen’s ball until one day I managed to prevent it from going into the stock pond sending it instead into the weeds on the perimeter. Now, obviously I didn’t actually see Stephen enter the water, and so it wasn’t part of my memory; for if I’d seen him I’d have saved him all those years ago. Thus I didn’t know if I had managed to change anything. I do recall that a few seconds later I had a most terrible headache and only just managed to return to the present before I was violently sick. When I removed the helmet it was smoking and I could see that the electronics were shot.

That evening Stephen came over to accompany me to the gym. Apparently we go every other day which accounts for our fitness. I wonder whether the episode of the exercise bicycle was my imagination although one odd thing did happen. When I returned for my next physical the nurse asked me to review my records on line to make sure that they had transcribed everything correctly. “What’s this?” I said” You have got this all wrong. My brother, Stephen, didn’t drown when he was five, he is very much alive. He and I go to the gym together every other day.”

©Copyright, Jane Stansfeld 8/14/14

8 thoughts on “The Exercise Bicycle – a short story

  1. Now how can anything be too Bradbury? And why am I hearing the theme to “The Twilight Zone” ? Your stories are always gripping to the end, but I think what I enjoy most are the little “rest areas”, the jewels embedded along the way….your devil is certainly in the details…. 🙂

    • Aren’t you the best critic ever? As always thank you for your visit and for talking the time to comment. I ALWAYS look forward to your visit and comments.

  2. Loved it! From now on when I climb onto a bicycle I’ll imagine I’m a hamster! 🙂 When I did my studies on creative writing after retirement I noted that over time real memories merge with the imagined so it would be nice to go back and recheck what I hold as truth about my past. Some of my past does need sanitizing. lol.

    • I think that all your stories blend the right amount of fact and fiction. The fact is obvious as you give so much interesting back ground detail and the fiction, well that’s often where a good story begins or a good one is enhanced – isn’t it? Of course then there is the cow and the golf ball which I still enjoy with wonder, I’d love to see that one from an exercise bicycle, I bet that you would also!
      Cheerio, Jane

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