Down the Street by Nikki Mayeux
Devonne opened his door and stepped out into the afternoon sun, bouncing a little on the soft soles of his Nikes. A few blocks down the street, he could see Bettie working on a bicycle in front of her house. Devonne saw Bettie every Friday, because on Friday he walked across St. Claude Avenue to get a sno-ball from the stand at the end of Spain Street where it met the river, on the side of St. Claude where all the white people lived. He liked it when Bettie was already outside working and he didn’t have to knock on her door. He thought it was nicer to sit on her porch with his sno-ball and watch her build bicycles. Bettie said he was much better than the radio at keeping her company, and she liked to tell Devonne stories about her crazy artist friends and about growing up on a ranch in Arizona. Devonne always ate his sno-ball very slowly.
Bettie looked up from her work and spotted Devonne as she wiped the back of her greasy hand across her forehead. “Hey!” she greeted him, pointing to the bicycle. “Check it out!”
Devonne looked. The bike rested upside-down with its handlebars on the sidewalk and its wheels in the air. The wheels were higher than they should have been, though. The bike was nearly as tall as Bettie, and the whole thing was spray painted a shiny gold color. Bettie reached over and gave the front wheel a spin. “What do you think?”
“Why’d you make it so tall?” Devonne asked. Immediately, he wished he would have said something nicer first, something like “the wheel works good” or “I like the color you painted it.” He always liked it when Mr. Calvin told him he had done a good job washing dishes at the end of the night, and he wanted to make Bettie feel like that about her bike.
Bettie smiled. “Don’t worry,” she said, “that’s how it’s supposed to look. It’s two bicycle frames joined together.” She pointed to a rough place on the frame where two metal rods met. “See? I did the welding myself out in the backyard. Pretty sweet, huh?” Bettie nodded like she was agreeing with herself, and her big glass earrings sparkled a little, like shiny quarters. When she bent down to scrape a bit of rust off of the handlebars, Devonne could see rings of dirt around the back of her neck, underneath her blue bandana. “Heading down to the sno-ball stand?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Devonne answered. He pulled his money out of his pocket and re-counted it–$1.30 for a large. A dollar, a quarter, and a nickel. Last week, Devonne dropped the quarter on the way to the stand without realizing it, and Mr. Ron had already given him his large spearmint sno-ball when he put the money on the counter and realized his mistake. Mr. Ron told him not to worry about it because he was such a faithful customer, but it had made Devonne feel bad and so now he had a new habit of counting his sno-ball money twice. Habits like checking the front door lock seven times each morning and always tying his shoes right lace over left were what allowed Devonne to have a job and live by himself. They made him feel calm and safe. As long as he kept doing his habits and earning money from his job and not bothering Aunt Rita, she had promised not to send him to the hospital in Baton Rouge.
“It’s pretty,” Devonne said as he looked back at the bike. “But how’re you gonna ride it?”
“Just a little running start. Here, I’ll show you.”
Devonne watched as Bettie moved her toolbox out of the way and turned the bicycle right side up. She dropped the wrench she was holding into the big front pocket on her overalls. That was one of the reasons Devonne liked Bettie so much. She had habits just like him. Devonne couldn’t remember the last time he saw her wearing something other than brown overalls, a gray or white tank top, and her blue bandana. Bettie liked to be barefoot whenever she could, so that was a habit too. Once, when she visited Café Thai with some of her friends, he even saw her kick off her flip-flops as soon as her legs were under the table.
Bettie was always barefoot when he saw her at her house on Fridays, and Devonne was a little worried when she walked into the middle of the street with the bike. When he was little, his mother had told him never to walk into the street barefoot because there were all sorts of nails and sharp things that could cut him. He didn’t like to see Bettie do it, but he also couldn’t imagine anything ever really hurting her.
“It’s easy,” she said. “Watch me.” She held onto the handlebars of the bike and jogged next to it for a few steps before jumping up and swinging her leg over the seat like it was a horse. She rode halfway down the street and then turned around, jumping back off when she reached the porch. Devonne liked how she looked up on the bike, like she was sailing safely over all the rusty nails of Spain Street. “Want to try it?”
He shook his head. Devonne knew he wasn’t brave enough to do the things Bettie did. Then he remembered that he did have something nice he could tell Bettie, something that would make her happy. “I had a dream last night,” he said.
“Oh yeah? A good one?” She leaned the bicycle against the porch and then sat down next to him on the steps.
Bettie had trouble sleeping a lot because she dreams of dead children. In her dreams, she told Devonne, she wakes up in the morning to find little bodies scattered all over her house. Babies in the flower boxes. Toddlers on the coffee table. Their bellies were always bloated and the shape of their bones showed through their skin. They died because she forgot to feed them, she said. So she didn’t trust herself to own anything that would depend on her, not even a pet dog or a house plant.
“Yeah,” Devonne said, “a real good one.” He tried to keep still. It made him uncomfortable when people sat that close to him. He didn’t like being touched. Bettie smelled like sweat and something else, something like warm metal, or like the air right before it rains. “I was at the café and Mr. Calvin said I was doing such a good job washing dishes that he was going to let me wait tables. So I started waiting tables, and I was real good at it. Didn’t drop no plates or glasses or nothing. And the new dishwashers weren’t good—they didn’t stack the dishes in rows like you’re supposed to—but I was so happy getting to wait tables that I didn’t even mind. I wasn’t even bothered.”
Bettie smiled. “That sounds real nice, Dev.” Then she reached over and patted the top of his knee—one, two times.
Devonne jerked his leg away. He felt very strange, kind of like he wanted to throw up but also kind of like Bettie sailing high and smooth on the tall bike.
“You okay?” she asked.
“Uh-huh,” he said. And he was okay, he thought. “You know, I was thinking. I was thinking maybe if I keep telling you all my good dreams, and maybe if you think about them right before you go to sleep, it’ll make the children go away. Then maybe you could get some plants for your flower box, or maybe even a dog.”
She laughed, but not a mean laugh like some people do. A nice one. “It’s worth a try, right?”
They sat on the porch and talked about their favorite kinds of desserts and what Bettie should name the new bike until two men walked up to them with instrument cases on their backs. One had his head shaved with a bunch of tattoos on it, and the other wore a pair of shiny silver pants that looked to Devonne like ladies’ pantyhose. “Heading to the river,” the one with the shaved head said. “You coming?” The one with the pantyhose lit a cigarette.
“Sure,” Bettie told them. “I’ll catch up to you.”
The men nodded and rode off. Bettie took a set of keys out of her pocket and locked her front door. She walked the tall bike out into the street again. “Thanks for the dream, Dev,” she said. “See you next Friday?”
“Okay,” Devonne answered. He watched her ride all the way down the street before walking the rest of the way to the sno-ball stand.
On his walk down Spain Street next week, Devonne wanted to see Bettie even more than usual. The night before, Aunt Rita had come over to bring him his prescription refills and to take his paychecks for that month. Devonne wasn’t very good at math, so Aunt Rita had to keep his bank account for him and pay his bills. Aunt Rita acted like it was a whole lot of trouble and she hated doing it, but Devonne didn’t like it any more than she did. Seeing Aunt Rita always made him miss his mama because she never made him feel bad for the way he was.
As he crossed St. Claude, he started thinking that he might tell Bettie about Aunt Rita. Maybe if he could help her feel better about her bad dreams, she could help him feel better about being bad at math and needing Aunt Rita to help him do things. Maybe Bettie would even offer to help him with his money so he wouldn’t have to see Aunt Rita anymore. Devonne thought he would like that best of all.
Bettie wasn’t outside when he passed her house, so he went and got his spearmint sno-ball from Mr. Ron first. When she still wasn’t outside on his way back, he stepped onto the porch and knocked on the wood frame of her screen door. The real door behind it was open, and Devonne could see Bettie laying on the sofa through a big rip in the screen. Her head turned around sharply when she heard the knock. “Oh, hey, Dev,” she said, but she sounded confused. “It’s okay, you can come in.”
He could barely see once he stepped into the room out of the bright daylight. There were sheets hung over both of the side windows, and the room smelled like weed cigarettes, the kind that his mama and her boyfriend used to smoke out in the backyard sometimes. Bettie sat up on the sofa and turned on a small lamp that sat on the floor by her feet. Devonne sat on one of the striped lawn chairs across from her. He knew that this was strange, that sleeping in a dark room in the middle of the day was not one of Bettie’s habits, but he didn’t know what was wrong. Her hair looked even dirtier than usual and was all stuck to one side of her head, and she wasn’t wearing her overalls. In fact, Devonne wasn’t sure she was wearing anything underneath the big red blanket that she had wrapped around her. She looked cold.
“Don’t mind me today,” she said. “I’m a hot mess.”
Devonne wanted to tell her that he didn’t think she was a mess at all, that he thought she was brave and strong and pretty, but instead he just asked, “How come you’re not working on your bike?”
Bettie flopped back down onto the sofa, dangling one leg off the side and looking up at the ceiling. “It got stolen last night,” she said. “Outside of Dragon’s Den, while I was at a show. Some asshole cut the lock off.”
Devonne didn’t know what to say. He thought about when he lost his Superman action figure at the park when he was little, and about when the other dishwashers at the café make him go wrap silverware during a rush because he works too slow. “I’m sorry, Bettie.”
She kept her eyes on the ceiling. “I can’t hold on to anything, you know? Everything just keeps slipping right through my fingers.” She stretched her arm up toward the ceiling and turned her hand over, like she was looking for something on it. Suddenly she turned back towards Devonne. “I did have a nice dream last night, though. I think your idea is working.”
Devonne smiled at that. He was about to ask Bettie to tell another story about the ranch in Arizona when he heard footsteps on the porch and saw the screen door swing open. The shaved head man from last week stepped inside. He looked first at Devonne and then at Bettie, or maybe it was just at Bettie’s leg sticking out from under the blanket. “What’s he doing here?” the man asked.
Bettie sat up again, wrapping the blanket even tighter around her shoulders. “We’re starting a bridge club. What do you care?”
“Whatever,” he said as he flicked the light switch up on the wall. Devonne and Bettie squinted. “Are you ready to go?”
“I told you, I’m not going.”
“Unbelievable,” he said. “You’re really going to sit home and pout because of something you can’t do a damn thing about.”
“Just drop it, okay? I don’t feel like going out. I worked for weeks on that bike.”
The shaved head man flung his hand in Devonne’s direction. “How do you know Rainman here didn’t steal it? I hear retards like shiny objects.”
Bettie jumped off the couch so quickly that Devonne flinched. She walked over to the shaved head man and shoved him hard in the chest with one hand, trying to keep the blanket around her with the other. “That’s it,” she said. “Get the fuck out of my house, Z. I’m serious.”
The man grabbed Bettie’s wrist and yanked the blanket out of her hands, and suddenly she was naked in front of both of them in the middle of the room. Devonne wanted to scream, but his throat was closed off. He wanted to jump up and hit the man, hit him hard enough to make him go away forever, but his feet wouldn’t move. He had no habits to help him in this situation. All he could do was close his eyes to avoid seeing the parts of Bettie that he knew he shouldn’t and rock himself back and forth in the chair to keep from crying.
“There’s something wrong with you,” he heard the man say. After that, the screen door slammed shut. Devonne opened his eyes as Bettie bent down to pick the blanket off the floor. Her back was to him, and he noticed the lines by her shoulders where her arms were darker from always wearing tank tops. She turned and looked at Devonne for a second—her eyes were red—and then she laid back down on the sofa, facing the wall.
“I’m kind of tired, Dev,” she said. Devonne could barely hear her from where he sat. “See you next Friday, okay?”
Devonne stood up and began to walk to the door. Then he thought of something and turned around. He looked over at the shape of Bettie’s shoulder underneath the red blanket and before he knew exactly what he was doing, reached over and patted her on it—one, two times. Then he left.
The next night at the café, Devonne asked Anthony, one of the other dishwashers, who The Rain Man was. He already knew what a retard was, that it was a mean name for people like Devonne who had special needs. The kids at school called him that sometimes when he was little, and once a server in the café yelled it at him after he dropped a tray of dishes on accident, and Mr. Calvin cut the server’s shift and sent him home early. Anthony slammed the big metal flap of the Auto-Chlor machine down into its slot to start the wash cycle. He looked at Devonne like he was trying to decide something. “It’s just some dude from a movie, man,” he said. “Just keep your mind on those dishes, y’heard? Rush about to start.”
Devonne tried to concentrate, but he couldn’t stop thinking about Bettie. It was like when something forced him to break a habit, and all he can think about for the rest of the day is putting all the coffee mugs in a straight row or tying his shoes left over right instead of right over left. In his mind, he saw the shaved head man grabbing Bettie’s wrist over and over, until it didn’t even feel real anymore. Devonne must have been working slower than usual, because Mr. Calvin told him to wrap silverware before it even got busy.
At the end of the night, Anthony surprised him by slapping him on the back as he was hanging up his apron. Devonne jumped back. “Hey!” he heard himself say.
“Oh sorry, man. I forgot you ain’t cool with all that. I just wanted to see if you was alright. Nobody been messing with you or anything, right?”
“No,” Devonne replied. Then he added, “I’m just kind of tired.”
“Cause you know if somebody’s messing with you, they messing with me, right?”
Devonne smiled and nodded his head. He knew Anthony was trying to be nice to him, that in some ways he cared about Devonne like Bettie did, or like his mama did when she was alive. “Right.”
Outside, the air felt sticky as Devonne started his walk down Frenchmen Street. He made sure to touch each light post that he passed, a habit that helped him feel safe while walking home in the dark. He liked how it felt to walk from the glow of one light to the next, like you were playing leapfrog almost. He was so busy thinking that he almost didn’t notice that the next light post he touched had a huge bicycle chained to it. It was the shiny gold paint reflecting under the lamp that made him turn his head. Devonne couldn’t believe it. Here was Bettie’s bike, right there in front of him like it was just waiting for him to finish working at the café and walk past. He ran his hand over the rough place on the frame that she said she had welded.
Before he could think of what to do next, a short man wearing all black walked out of the bar on the corner and started walking towards him. Devonne recognized him from around Bettie’s neighborhood, but he wasn’t one of her artist friends that came and visited on her porch. “Got a problem, brother?” he asked.
“This is Bettie’s bike,” Devonne said. He thought his voice sounded strange, like he was trying hard to keep up with where his words were going.
“This is my friend Bettie’s bike,” he repeated. “And I think you need to give it back.”
The man took a step closer. “And I think you better mind your own goddamn business.” He reached out and yanked Devonne’s hand off the bike, but instead of flinching, Devonne lunged. He closed his eyes and swung both his fists at the man, and although he wasn’t trying to, all of a sudden he was screaming. He felt bad pain in his stomach, and he punched harder, screamed louder. His fist hit something sharp and wet, and still he kept swinging his arms. He didn’t stop until he felt himself being lifted up and then dragged into the street. Devonne finally opened his eyes to see the man bent over a few feet away, right under the light post—he made a coughing sound and then spit something bloody onto the sidewalk. Devonne was still screaming.
It was very confusing after that. Things got all bright and wavy, like what you see in the darkness when you rub your eyes too hard. Devonne felt someone digging in his pocket for his wallet, but he couldn’t get away. He couldn’t do anything. A little while later he saw Aunt Rita’s face and heard her voice loud and angry, but he didn’t understand the words. He knew he was inside somewhere, not on the street near the cafe anymore, and that made him feel a hundred ways at once. He was glad to be away from the man, but even more than that he was angry that someone had dragged him away from Bettie’s bike. No one but him knew that it belonged to her. Did the bicycle thief still have it? How could Devonne ever find it again if he did? A feeling worse than every test he ever failed in school sat in the bottom of his stomach. He should have saved Bettie’s bike. He should have saved her from the bald man. But he just messed everything up like a retard and now he would never be able to fix it. Devonne felt his body start rocking back and forth, back and forth, but this time it couldn’t keep him from crying.
Aunt Rita told Devonne that he could cut his hospital bracelet off when she dropped him off the next day, but now it was a week later and it was still on his wrist. Devonne found himself bending the little plastic tab back and forth whenever he was nervous, and every time he tried to pick up the scissors out of the kitchen drawer to get rid of it, his heart started beating super fast like it did with the bike thief and he had to put the scissors away and go check the locks on the door again. The bracelet made him think of Bettie, which was happy and sad at the same time and sometimes made Devonne cry, although he never let Anthony or anyone at work see.
That morning, Devonne slept through the night for the first time since the hospital, but he had a very bad dream. In it, he found Bettie’s bicycle stuck high up in the branches of a tree. Bettie was under the tree, and her arms were all scraped up and bleeding from trying to climb and sliding down the bark. Devonne started to climb the tree, and to his surprise, it was easy. He was so strong. But when he got a few branches away from the bike, the tree grew ten more feet and the bike was even higher. Devonne kept climbing, but when he got close it happened again. Pretty soon Devonne was so high in the tree that it made him dizzy and scared to look down, and he didn’t know what to do. Then he saw Bettie’s friends, the bald man and the one with the silver pants, at the bottom of the tree. They were smoking cigarettes, and after they lit them they set the tree on fire. Devonne could hear them laughing as the flames climbed up after him and the smoke stung his eyes. Soon he would have to decide whether to keep climbing or jump. But no matter what he did the bicycle would be destroyed.
Devonne didn’t know what to think of his dream as he laced up his trainers by the front door, but he thought he understood a little better now what it was like for Bettie. Nothing was real in nightmares, but you feel guilty when you wake up just the same.
That night at work, Anthony pulled Devonne to the side of the Auto-Chlor machine as he was about to start washing dishes. “Hey man, don’t you think it’s time you cut that thing off?” He pointed to Devonne’s wrist. “Or are you planning on starting some bar fights and thinking you might need it again?”
Devonne knew Anthony was trying to joke about the bracelet, but Devonne couldn’t make himself laugh. “It’s fine,” he said, and started to turn around. Before he could take a step, though, he felt Anthony’s hand on his shoulder.
When he spoke again, his voice was much softer: “Look, man. Mr. Calvin said that thing’s gotta go. It’s all dirty and stained-looking and shit…it’s a health code thing, man. We can’t be having the customers see that.”
Devonne’s heart was beating, beating. He twisted the tab of the bracelet and tried to look Anthony in the eye even though that was very hard for him to do. He didn’t know what to say.
“…I know it’s stupid, D,” Anthony continued, “but you see they got me wearing this stupid hairnet, so you know it ain’t just you. They just like that about stuff. But you gotta pull it together if you wanna keep your job, man…”
Devonne thought he could hear Anthony still talking, but his voice went away with the noise of the dishwasher as Devonne pushed open the swinging doors that led out of the kitchen and into the alley.
Devonne knew someone was knocking at the door, and that he should get up and answer it, but his legs didn’t move. After a few minutes, the door opened and Bettie stepped inside. She was wearing her overalls and bandana.
“Dev!” she said when she saw him. “Why wouldn’t you answer the door? I knocked a hundred times.”
Devonne wanted very much to answer her, but nothing he wanted to do seemed to work now. It took all his energy just to keep rocking, rocking, rocking.
Bettie came over and sat on the floor in front of him with her legs crossed under. “Mr. Calvin says you haven’t shown up for work the past two days. He’s worried about you.” She stopped. Then, “I heard it was you that found my bike. I know you tried to get it back for me. I wanted to thank you.”
He hadn’t seen her for a long time, although it might not have been that long because he didn’t do much besides sit in his apartment now. Devonne watched as Bettie picked at a splinter in the floor boards. Her hands were greasy again. “You know,” she continued. “I’m really not good at this, Dev, but you really need to go to work, okay? Mr. Calvin told me about your Aunt Rita, about how she wants to ship you off to some psych ward in Baton Rouge. You…you can’t let her do that, okay?” She looked up into Devonne’s eyes, just for a second, and then looked back down at the floor. “You’ve got to just…stick it out, you know? Keep trying.”
They sat like that for a few moments, across from each other on the living room floor. Devonne wondered if Bettie would pat his knee again, and what he would do if she did.
“I’m glad you’re here, Bettie,” Devonne heard himself say. And he was glad. He wanted to ask Bettie all sorts of things–how her garden was, if she was still having bad dreams. If the bald man was still her friend. He noticed that her eyes were red like they were the day she was wrapped in the blanket, and there was a bruise on the inside of her arm. Instead he asked, “What were you going to name the bike?”
Bettie smiled. “Goldilocks. It’s stupid.”
“Because it’s gold,” Devonne said. “I like that.” Outside, he heard the crickets getting loud, so he knew it must be getting dark. Something had happened to him, Devonne knew that much. He wasn’t sure if it was good or bad. It felt like both. It felt like falling off a bike–painful and hard but also kind of happy because you had been scared of it for so long, and here it was out of the way at least. He thought Bettie would get up and leave then, but to Devonne’s surprise she uncrossed her legs and scooted over next to him, looking where he looked at the pattern on the wall from the window blinds.
“I don’t have any good dreams to tell,” he said.
“That’s okay,” Bettie answered as Devonne rocked back and forth. “We’ll just have to make some up.”
Nikki Mayeux teaches creative writing to children and teens at Centre for the Arts in New Roads, Louisiana and is currently pursuing her M.F.A. in Fiction Writing at the University of New Orleans. Her work has been featured in Relief: A Quarterly Christian Expression and an upcoming anthology from Main Street Rag Press. When she isn’t obnoxiously taking up tables at local coffee shops to write, Nikki enjoys doing old-lady crafts, taking photographs, and biking around the French Quarter.