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Sean Bailey


Look Both Ways

“The comic book section is the best! Plus the computers there have the Internet!” I thought the last part there would be the selling point.

It’s 1997 and as two kids in the working class ’burb of West Saint Paul we are not quite bathed in the Internet yet — the Internet is still a far off place that requires more money than our families have and a computer that didn’t use floppy disks.

Daniel rocks back and forth on his shiny chrome BMX bike silently. He looks in my general direction but says nothing.

“Come on man,” I plead. “I’m tired of sitting here, the stupid air conditioning doesn’t work, we don’t have any Mountain Dew left, it’s too hot to do anything. This just stinks!”

The only answer I get from Daniel is a stare and the quick glint of his chrome bike as a cloud reveals the sun under the haze for a moment.

Nothing. Traffic roaring behind us in the distance. Finally, Daniel looks away in anger, and then back at me.                             

“The library is dumb. It’s summer, why the hell would we go to the library?” Daniel is the son of a strict Christian minister. Hell is a place you go, not a word you should use in conversation. 

“Whatever, man, it’s got more than just books,” I reply. “Forget you!”

I point my wheel, my own shiny chrome BMX bike, toward the library. The summer air is thick and I need to escape. The bike and the library are quickly becoming my means of escape from all sorts of situations, people, and things I just don’t want to deal with.

After I have a block or two between Daniel and me, I look back and see nothing but haze and cracked suburban tarmac. Daniel isn’t following. Anger gathers in my throat. I swallow it silently. I pump my legs hard.

“Screw ’m!” I say to the street.

At the library I chain up my chrome ride and wander into the blast freezer of knowledge and Internet access. It is a vast, cold place. Shelves tower into the sky packed with whole worlds, time machines, blueprints, and dreams. Old folks linger around the newspaper stacks, teenagers fight with copy machines, and I wander to the Internet sign up sheet. I scribble my name for the next half hour. In awe of the vast sea of information waiting out there on the Internet I float aimlessly, taking in as much as I can.

Hours pass. Whole lives pass in the websites I devour, and then in the books I flip through. I look up at the big clock, and I realize my mom and dad would be home soon, which also means dinner, and I am the type of kid who wouldn’t miss dinner for anything in the world. It is time to mount my chrome cruiser and head home.

Just as I had traveled across the galaxy and all through cyberspace in the library, I feel like I am entering a new world when I step outside. This time though, the feelings don’t live in my imagination, they come alive on my skin. The air is still thick and grimy, and sweat beads instantly pop and roll down my forehead. My gut tells me to go back into the respite of the library, but instead I pedal a few strokes and roll through the parking lot. There is a sidewalk that snakes around the library toward my house, but two old ladies hobble along the path, and I don’t want to get in their way. Instead, I coast over to the street. I look into on-coming traffic and the mirage of a Camry putters slowly toward me a safe distance off in the haze.            

I wonder what Daniel is doing right now. I’m sure he has had sweat dripping down into his eyes, just the same as I do now, but he has now spent hours that way. I have explored whole universes in the icy comfort of my favorite public institution in West Saint Paul.

What a loser.

Then I hear it. The desperate cry of rubber on cement that screams out when a car is trying to come to a halt. I turn my head. There it is, the creature emitting the scream. A little Geo Metro. A box of a car. Crowning the little guy was a sign that exclaimed “Pizza Hut Call 488-8888.” Even with only 12 years behind me I chuckle knowing that there is a weird humor in getting killed by a pizza delivery man in the haze of a hot summer afternoon. 

The screaming Metro stops.

For a moment, silence. 

And then, ever so gently, I feel the cool chrome bumper of the Metro kiss my leg, clink against my own chrome bike, and I lose my balance and lazily fall onto the hood.

I jump off the hood. I first look at the bike. I really don’t want my parents to yell at me about the dang bike. Then I look at my leg. A little scratch, maybe a bruise welling up below the skin. I’m shaking, but right away I smile. I laugh.

The Metro’s driver flings the door open and clambers out of the car. Fear drips from the gangly teenager’s face. He can’t be much older than me. Spattered with telltale pimples, he is 16 and working his first job.

“Oh man, oh man, don’t sue me. Are you ok, oh man, oh man,” the teen almost starts to cry.

“I’m ok, my bike’s even fine,” I reply. Which is true except that I’m shaking like it’s the middle of February.

“I’ll run to the library and call 911,” the teen says.

“No, really I’m fine, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry I didn’t look both ways,” I tell the kid.

The oldest lesson in the book. Make sure to look both ways when you cross the street. After a minute I convince the shaken high schooler that I am fine. He goes on his way, and I ride the sidewalks all the way home.

The thump of the sidewalk’s seams sends a jolt through me every couple of feet. It is a surreal feeling, more of a surreal thought that bounces around my head with each mini-jolt. I got hit by a car. I was fine. I feel fine, and everything, including my bike, is in one piece. But, the nagging surreal thought of  “I just got hit by a car” mingles with the hazy thick summer sky and makes me feel like I just cheated. I just did something wrong. That guilt that always plagues me….

With elementary lessons like look both ways ignored, I wonder how my parents will react when I tell them I got hit by a car. I’m also very late for dinner. My parents are the type of people that show up to a party early enough to help the host finish laying everything out. Dinnertime is sacred to my parents. It isn’t because they are strict and expected me to follow the rules without bending them an inch. It was because they absolutely love food. All food.

My dad is a big guy in ways beyond his gut. I love the man, and he loves me, but anyone who knows him knows he has always had a strong attraction to food, hard work, and worry. All of those qualities he passed on to me. But with each thump of the sidewalk and each I got hit by a car thought I can also hear my dad’s stomach growl, while he wipes sweat from his hard day’s work off of his brow. All the while I can almost feel his worry emanate through the thick summer neighborhood air. He’s got a big heart. A big heart of worry that I’m sure pumps mostly for his children. But I wonder if even in his wildest worries he could have imagined a death defying run-in with a Geo Metro. With each thump, each seam in the sidewalk, I think of something to tell them.

I darted out into the street to help an old lady cross. I coasted out to warn a young blind man who wandered into traffic. The Pizza Hut guy was so worried about getting the pizza on time that he was going like 45 down the road, and I misjudged his speed.


I was really into this book, but I forgot the books that were already checked out at home, so I just sat there and read and lost track of time. I, ah, ran into a friend from school… and um….     

Or. Say nothing. Except, “Sorry I’m late, I was at the library.”     

A teenage boy saying “Sorry I’m late, I was at the library,” is a suspect phrase when uttered almost anywhere on the globe, but it is mostly true, and my parents know me. My love of reading isn’t so much weird to them, but rather just a bit foreign. My parents are by no means thick, dumb, or ignorant people.  Academia, scholarship, even… reading … were never words that mingled too prominently in their lives’ stories, so when they had this quiet boy who seemed to get lost in books they were happy, but couldn’t completely relate. Or at least that’s the way that I, the boy, felt.

Up ahead is a curb cut. I roll down it and look into oncoming traffic both ways and cross the street. My mind has to be made up in the next quarter mile. I could always just park my bike in the backyard, wander up the creaking deck stairs, plop down into my dinner table chair, judge the expression on their faces, and decide in the heat of the moment what to say.                      

I turn right on the street that will eventually spill onto my street. There isn’t much pedaling required from here on. My house sits at the bottom of one hill and the top of another of the many hills in our neighborhood. The white split-level house on Waterloo Ave has its own storied history.

Tonight though, the white split-level house is quietly awaiting my return. I can smell BBQ chicken in the thick haze. It is almost certainly wafting from my dad’s prized grill. I coast into the driveway, unlatch the gate, push the bike through on the thick grass, and latch the door behind me. The grill is spitting the aromatic smoke into the neighborhood. I roll the bike under the deck, and with beads of sweat forming on my forehead I begin to summit the deck’s stairs. Once I’m at the top of the stairs there are 10 long feet left between the sliding glass door and me. The glass is closed, which means that the air is back on and at least I can confess my sins in the comfort of central air.

Each step thunders in my ears. Thump. Thump. And then a huge crack. Lightning arches across the sky. And real thunder fills the thick air. It will all be over soon. The haze will be washed away by a Midwestern storm and I’ll have aired my sins.
My dad makes me jump from my meditation of the near-future. He rolls open the glass door.   

“Just in time, bud, looks like it’s gonna really pour down in a minute. I’m surprised you didn’t see them clouds and come running,” my dad says with a nonchalance that scares me.