It’s Saturday afternoon and I’m sitting here in my wheelchair at the 86th Street entrance to Central Park, waiting for Hercules to show up. There’s another guy here too: Alan. He’s also in a wheelchair, and he heard the same thing I did. Supposedly the people at the Hercules Club have these special hand-crank bikes that they lend or maybe even give to disabled guys. If you’re in a chair, you come across these groups sometimes, people who want to help.
“You think they’ll let us ride today?” Alan asks. He’s wheeling his chair back and forth, and I wish he’d quit it.
I shrug. The less you say to people, the more they tend to stop talking. Anyway, all I know is a rumor about special bikes for disabled guys, and the name: Hercules.
“Why do you think they call it Hercules?” Alan asks. He sounds like a little kid, even though I’m pretty sure he’s around my age, and I’m 26.
Alan waits a second, then lets out a breath and announces, “I’m going to take a piss.” He wheels off into some bushes.
I’m surprised at that. I just assumed he had a catheter like I do. And that makes me wonder about his disability. But what’s the point in wondering? So what if he’s a little less disabled than I am?
While he’s gone, I’m thinking about Hercules. I saw a movie a few months back. In it, Hercules had a good life. He was the protector of Athens; beloved by the people. He had a family too, a wife and three kids. But then a god drugged him, and in that weird state, he killed his own wife and kids. After that, when he was sane again, nothing much mattered to him anymore.
People keep coming into the park off 5th Avenue. Alan’s back, and he’s got a constant scan of the entrance going, just in case someone from Hercules materializes. He takes out a cigarette and offers it to me. I swat at his hand.
“Yo, dude,” I tell him. “You can’t do that here. At least go over where the Hercules people won’t be able to see you!”
He’s a little surprised, but he regroups. “Right.” He puts the cigarettes away. But then he can’t sit still again. He takes the brake off his chair and starts rolling forward and backward. Then he pops a wheelie. Wheelies aren’t that hard; you just lean back and then quickly roll forward, but I have to admit Alan looks pretty comfortable up there, like he could sit there all day.
“Not bad,” I tell him.
“I used to hoop,” he says, and he looks at me, like he thinks I might call him a liar.
“High school?” I ask.
He nods, then he starts in on his story. In high school, Alan says, he not only played, but he was a star player; and looking at him I realize that even sitting, he’s extra tall, way taller than me and I’m six-one. His arms are really long too. Stupid long, spidery things. His elbows make these sharp angles when he holds the wheels. It’s like the chair fits him, but not his arms. That’s how it would be on the basketball court too.
“What’d you like about it?” I ask. Back when I used to roller-skate, it was the roll I liked, the feel of the ground sliding away under my wheels. So I’m wondering if there was something like that for Alan, maybe the dribble, maybe the crossover.
But Alan goes sphinx-like. “Ball is ball,” he says. He tells me he always used to have a basketball with him. He’d dribble up and down 231st St., Laconia, wherever he went. Even on dates.
That catches me by surprise and I laugh. “On dates?”
He shrugs, “If the girl had a problem with it, I knew she wasn’t for me.”
Smart. My girl, the one I had before, she never liked me roller-skating. She only came out once. Said she wanted to try it, to feel what I felt. On the way to the park, I already had it all mapped out, how she’d train up, and become my new skate partner. What actually happened was that she fell backwards the whole time on her crappy rentals. I told her to bend her knees, but she wouldn’t. Some people are like that: they get scared, they get stiff. She was one of those people. After that, she started clocking my time in the park. You going there again? Stuff like that. It was a major problem. The problem. But sometimes, after she fell asleep, I’d imagine skating with her. I mean, really skating: stepping her back into a turn, whisking her around. Or else slow-skating backwards over the asphalt with my hand around her waist.
“That game was my life,” Alan says, and then he stops talking and cocks his head towards the street. A double amputee on a hand-crank bike is pushing into the park. The guy’s arms are cannons and they move in slow, sure strokes, working that crank. We keep the guy in our sights. His bike too. His bike is nice. Bright blue, low to the ground and long. It’s a trike, and near the front wheel there are leg rests where Alan’s or my legs would go. The amputee doesn’t need those rests. If I were him, I’d take them off. It’s like with my skates. Back when I got my Riedell Gold Stars, the first thing I did was take the toe-stopper off the plate. To me, it was just added weight, making me a little slower, a little less airborne. It’s the same for this amputee with those leg rests.
The guy sees us and heads over. When he brakes, Alan drops down off his wheelie. Despite not having legs, the new guy looks healthy. He looks like someone who’s had his Wheaties this morning, an amputated Olympian. Next to him, Alan seems pale or sick or something. I probably don’t look too hot myself. But it’s more than how the guy looks. He’s got an attitude. Like he thinks the sun came out today just to see him.
“You waiting for Tommy?” the guy asks. I tell him we’re waiting for Hercules.
The new guy’s damned self-assured. He nods slowly. You can see he’s sizing us up. He tells us his name is Frankie. It turns out he knows all about Hercules, about Tommy—whoever that is—and he thinks he knows about us too. He was us, he says, a couple of years ago. I guess he means when he first came to Hercules. That’s hard to imagine. Frankie looks like he could wrestle a lion down, just like old Hercules himself. No matter how many miles Alan and I ride, we’re never gonna look like him. To me, the dude’s false advertising.
“You guys’ll be fine,” Frankie tells us, which is exactly what they all say, from doctors to do-gooders. It makes me want to knock him off his bike.
Alan’s taking things differently though. He’s got his eyes fixed on Frankie’s face, like he wants to ask him a question but can’t get up the nerve. Almost as if the dude’s some kind of celebrity. I guess he’s taken in by Frankie’s glow. He’s just about humming with wholesome energy. When Frankie rolls off, Alan whispers, “I can be that guy.” And this idea is burning him from the inside, smoldering. He’s got a newfound hope. I guess he thinks he’s gonna be reborn as some kind of disabled superhero.
“That’s us—The Dis-Avengers,” I say under my breath. From his look, I can tell Alan doesn’t quite hear me. He doesn’t ask for a repeat either.
There’s steady traffic on the park road now: bikers, joggers and even one girl on rollerskates. She comes up fast with nice long legs and tons of wavy hair flowing down her back. As she reaches the top of the hill, she pushes out with her left foot. Right then, I get the feeling of one of the moves I used to do on skates. My left foot would push out wide, and my arms would become wings. I’d turn slowly at first, and then, all of a sudden, I’d be on my toe, spinning. Up there, it’s like there’s no weight anymore; you’re just floating. The girl disappears, and I land back in my chair.
Alan pulls out his cigarettes again, then puts them back in his pocket. He’s dying for a smoke. And so am I, for that matter. I haven’t had one since I left home in the morning and I’ve got a nasty headache sliding across the back of my skull.
“So, what else about B-ball?” I ask Alan. I figure we gotta talk about something.
“Ballin’?” He cocks the chair back, like he can only talk about basketball while balanced in a wheelie.
The game had treated him well, he says. Real well. They gave him a scholarship to U-Conn. He thought he’d really made it. He quickly got knocked down a peg though. On the very first day of practice, he was kind of stunned by the level of the play. He felt like he’d landed in the NBA. He felt like he’d never even played the game of basketball before.
“I have to thank my girl,” he says, like he’s at the Academy Awards.
Still, girl or no girl, he couldn’t play with those guys. No way he could play with them. He was like a helpless babe watching them. But in the end that’s what saved him. He watched the hell out of them. At first it was a blur, but little by little he could actually see what they were doing. After that, he was doing it. He was one of them. And then, it happened: He made the starting line-up. He was point guard, so he was the playmaker. And suddenly, he was a hero. Everyone knew him. It was just like high school all over again, but better. He couldn’t believe it. He was living his dream.
“What happened then, Alan?”
“Then. . . nothing.” He drops down off his wheelie.
Alan studies the road, and I look off towards the reservoir running track. It’s summertime, but some of the green leaves are floating down from the trees and settling in clumps on the gravel.
Right about then is when Tommy shows up. Tommy’s dressed in fatigues. He’s missing one arm and one leg. I picture him reaching down towards his foot where a grenade landed. He should’ve run, he might’ve saved his arm. Shoulda, coulda, woulda.
When Tommy gets off his wheelchair and stands on his leg, he somehow stays erect, and I guess that’s because of the opposite arm working as a counter balance. Tommy’s got a presence. And I reckon he’s former army. Not just because of the fatigues, and the nature of his injuries. There’s something else there too, a quality. He looks young, just a few years older than Alan and me. But he has a commanding way that makes him seem like he’s been around the block.
“Billy!” he yells, and holds up three fingers. A guy over near the van nods and gives a thumbs up.
Tommy’s running things. That’s clear. People scurry around doing what he says, and Tommy almost falls over pointing here and there, but he steadies himself against a park bench, and keeps on commanding. It’s funny, but I didn’t really expect Tommy to be disabled. I mean the guy was blown to bits and here he is, acting like he’s too busy to notice.
We wheel over to him and introduce ourselves, and I’m feeling nervous now, like Tommy might not think me worthy of a bike. He might want guys like Alan, real gung-ho types who think Hercules will change their lives. He probably wants to hear something about how I used to be a skater, and how I’m trying to regain my lost self, or maybe something about joining a team. These do-gooders always like team talk. But all I want is to take a bike ride, and Hercules has the bikes.
It turns out Tommy’s not interested in our philosophy of life. He barely even looks at us. He just asks us to wait by the bench for a few minutes while he organizes things. Guys in wheelchairs come and volunteers bring them hand-crank bikes from the van parked over on Fifth Avenue. The disabled guys make the switch from chairs to bikes and they’re off down the hill. Gone. No one seems as fit as the first guy, Frankie. They’re mostly normal paraplegic guys like me and Alan, skinny dudes, though a couple have some pretty big guns.
Tommy’s back to us in a few. He says there aren’t any more bikes in the van and we’ll have to wait for some people to come back from their rides. We nod and stay nearby. Alan’s gone quiet. He’s still rocking his chair backward and forward, but only slightly now. I can tell he feels like he’s close, and he doesn’t want this to slip through his fingers.
People keep coming up to Tommy, mostly just to say hello. He sits on a park bench, now, holding court. He smiles and shakes people’s hands. All around him are the abandoned wheelchairs from the guys off riding. It looks like the scene of a miracle, where the disabled people just got up and walked away, leaving their chairs behind.
One guy in a track suit comes up with his son. The kid looks like he’s a teenager. He’s twisted in his chair with cerebral palsy, I guess. The father chats with Tommy, smiling and laughing. The whole time the kid’s looking around with his head cocked back and his mouth open. You can’t really tell if the kid’s here with us and the trees, or if he’s lost in his own world. When I look over at Alan, I can see that he’s wondering the same thing, or at least the kid’s having some kind of effect on him.
“I’d wanna die,” Alan says under his breath so Tommy can’t hear.
I’m surprised. Maybe Alan forgot for a second that he’s disabled too. I used to think I’d rather be dead than in a chair. And then one day I woke up in a hospital bed and I couldn’t move my legs. They had told me it might happen before the surgery, but you really can’t get your mind around something like that until you’re lying in bed trying to move your legs with your mind. I might as well have tried using my thoughts to pick up the doctor and throw him against the wall.
The father and Tommy wrap it up, and it turns out the kid’s not going to ride a hand-crank. Instead, the father comes up behind his son’s wheelchair and grabs the handles. He starts running, pushing the chair up the road, and the kid has his head cocked into the wind, like a dog’s head out a car window. That seems kind of pathetic, until I think about it a little more. Dogs like it. I guess the kid likes it too. That’s how he gets his enjoyment. Hell, I used to like to stick my head out the window when I was young, we all did. That’s why our parents were always telling us to stop and keep all our parts inside the car before we lost one of them.
“Sebastian and Joey are going to do a 15-K this weekend,” Tommy says. He’s talking about the father and son who just left.
We nod. I’m impressed, and I wonder if Alan has a newfound respect for the kid. I mean it’s gotta take a lot out of him just to sit in the chair for 12 odd miles. We’re talking about three hours at least. And the way the kid’s positioned, kind of sinking into the corner of the seat — that can’t be too comfortable after a while.
A bunch of guys come up the hill on hand-cranks. They’ve finished their loop of the park and they’re heading for another. Frankie is among them. He nods at us as he rides by. Alan leans forward in his wheelchair, as if he were following them over the crest of the hill in spirit.
Right then, this girl is next to Alan. She bends down, and kisses him on the mouth. Then he introduces her to me. “This is Johanna.” You can tell he’s proud, the way he says it. She’s got these long, tan legs. A sporty type, in shorts and a tank top. The straps of her turquoise bikini come out from under the tank and tie around her neck. A real hottie.
“It’s very nice to meet you,” I say, suddenly self-conscious, and Alan gives me a look.
“You know, I wouldn’t even have come here if it weren’t for Johanna,” Alan says. “She’s stayed with me through everything. Thick and thin.” He gives a crooked smile.
Why’d she do that? I wonder.
She wraps her arms around him from behind and he turns up to kiss her. Then all of a sudden, I’m thinking about my ex. She was beautiful too, kind of perfect like Johanna. She was way too beautiful to be with a guy in a chair. But if that’s right, then how the hell did Alan keep Johanna?
I guess she’s been with him since before he got disabled, the way he talked about thick and thin. But I’m not going to ask. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. Either your girl can handle it, or she can’t. Mine couldn’t. She visited me in the hospital a few times. Then she said she couldn’t stand to see me this way. I told her I couldn’t stand it either, but she was too upset to get the pun. You don’t have to see me, I told her. You can just go. Right away, she started up with another skater. She probably got pissed at him skating all the time, the same way she used to get pissed at me. That was the kind of problem she could handle.
One of the guys comes back with a hand-crank. He rides right up to Tommy. He stands and leans heavily on the handle bars, so he’s got to be some kind of disabled, just not as messed up as me and Alan. That kind of shocks me. I look at Alan to see if he feels the same, but he’s staring at the bike. Long and yellow with black writing.
Tommy glances in our direction and we wheel over to him. He says one of us can use the bike to take a loop, at least get a feel for it. I know Alan’s jumping out of his skin to get on the bike. Maybe that’s what makes me want it too. “Take it,” Tommy tells me, and I’m relieved. “You can ride as soon as someone comes back,” Tommy says, and Alan nods. What else can he do?
Then I’m on the bike, and that’s it. Alan and his girl can wait. I pump the crank a few times and I’m coasting down the hill. The gears make this ticking sound just like every other bike I’ve ever ridden, and right away that’s soothing. The sound, and the feel of the wheels on the road, takes me back to my childhood, round and round The South Bronx with Billy G. and Roge.
I soar down the hill past joggers and walkers. I’m low and steady, down by the curb, close to the grass.
It’s all arms with this bike, and as I push the crank, it feels like a rope is tugging the frame forward. The uphill needs more muscle work. I’m part of the traffic now, mixed in with cyclists, scooters and joggers. We’re all sluggish, feeling the gravity of the hill. I know that holding a steady rhythm is my best bet, so I keep pushing, ignoring the ache in my upper arms, and soon I’ve got some momentum. As I crest the hill, skyscrapers leap up over the distant trees. After that, it’s all about the wind on my face.
I’m back to the start, and there’s Alan, just getting on a red bike. Tommy yells for me to go ahead and take another loop. It’s casual, like I’m already part of the regular crew at Hercules. Alan and I ride side by side, flying around that course, neither one letting the other get ahead.
We catch up to some other guys on hand-cranks, a group of four dudes around our age or a little older. Three paraplegic guys, and one guy who lost a leg.
“Hey! How’s it going?” they yell to us, and we settle in with their pack. They tell us they’re doing several loops, so they’re pacing themselves. We ride along taking it easy for a while, while they give us training tips, like riding long one day and short the next.
“Also, don’t just push the crank out,” one guy with a Spanish accent tells us. “You need to pull it back too.”
I try it and feel the difference right away. “Using two sets of muscles,” I say, and the guy points at me and nods.
As we ride along, they fill us in on what goes on at Hercules. For one thing, they’re all signed up to do the marathon in the fall.
“You should talk to Tommy about it.”
“I will,” Alan says.
“The marathon?” I ask.
The guys laugh. “Yeah! The marathon!” one of them says. “Last year I did it in under three hours.”
“Frankie did it in two and a quarter!”
“Frankie!” a couple guys say, like he bothers and impresses them, with his amputated perfection. Alan, of course, perks up at the name, but I’m thinking about the logistics of the race.
“You’re in with all those runners? Isn’t that like riding through Grand Central at rush hour?”
“Nah, we hand-cranks have the first start time. So we’re off before the runners, even before the elites.”
That’s when I know I want to do the marathon. I can picture us, a pack of hand-cranks flying through that course, like bobsledders pressed against the road, outrunning the runners.
The guys also tell us that Tommy’s here in Central Park every Tuesday as well as Saturdays, and if we keep riding with Hercules, he’ll probably even give us bikes, like he did for all of them. I take a closer look at their trikes: blue, red, yellow, green; long and low to the ground, built for speed. They’re gonna be riding those suckers home. Forget about waiting for MTA buses.
“That’s why you have the flags,” Alan says. Three of them have high flag poles with orange triangle flags. The guy with the Spanish accent is flying Dominican colors.
“Lets the cars know we’re there,” one says.
“Like they give a crap!”
While they talk, my arms start to hurt just above the elbows, but none of the other guys are slowing down, so there’s no way I am either. I concentrate on pulling the crank back for a few strokes, like the guy said, and it helps.
As we ride past trees in full bloom, Alan asks again, “Why do they call it Hercules?”
“Hercules was strong,” someone says, and I guess that’s all he’s got on the subject.
“It’s not about strength,” I tell them. “Hercules was drugged.”
A couple guys laugh at that.
“And when he came down off the stuff, he’d messed up his whole world. That was when he really proved himself with his twelve labours.”
“This is my drug!” one of the guys says, tapping his crank. “It’s all the drug I need.”
We laugh at that. But Alan disagrees. “This is no drug,” he says. “It’s the truth!”
We hit the downhill and it’s like diving into a lake. The roar of the wind comes up to meet our ears, and the group splits around a couple of skateboarders, then reconnects beyond them. We hit bumps and potholes. We fly, then bounce around till we’re back on firm ground, dodging everything coming at us: joggers, kids, trucks beeping in reverse. Outside the park, an ambulance howls. We hightail it away from that sound, shifting gears one after another.
We’re a squadron now, taking over this park, destroying the road. This must be how pilots feel when they bomb a whole way of life into ash.
Jennafer D’Alvia holds a B.A. in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College and an M.A. in Applied Linguistics from Columbia University. Her stories have been published in 34th Parallel, Epiphany and Hanging Loose. Jennafer was named as a finalist in Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She teaches poetry and fiction for The Writers Studio and she lives in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY, where she’s currently at work on a collection of stories.