Stripped of her self-worth.
Can she regain her life through bicycle racing?
Joanne Brick’s thirty years as an elementary school music teacher evaporated into the rising sea of layoffs. A lifetime of dedication gone. At forty-nine, single with an ailing mother and bitter, divorced sister, the future looked bleak. Then one day, while cleaning out the garage for a yard sale, inspiration struck as she dusted off an old, forgotten bicycle. And when she took her first ride she knew it was time to sink or pedal.
Pedal is an inspirational journey. It is a contemporary story that deal not only with family relationships, but with life’s turning points and how ordinary people deal with them.
|Publisher:||IFWG Publishing International|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.57(d)|
About the Author
Louis K. Lowy’s stories and writings have appeared in numerous publications including Coral Living Magazine, New Plains Review, The Florida Book Review, Ethereal Tales, Bête Noire Magazine, Pushing Out the Boat, The Chaffey Review, and The MacGuffin Magazine. He is a recipient of the Florida Individual Artist Fellowship. His humor poem “Poetry Workshop” was the second place winner of the 2009 Winning Writers Wergle Flomp Contest. Louis moved from Pittsburgh, PA to South Florida at the age of seven and has lived there ever since. Before becoming a full-time writer, Louis was a professional firefighter. He also played bass guitar in original bands, including Hemlock, whose recordings for Warner Brothers Records included the dance hits “Disco Break” and “Body Rhythm.” Google Hemlock Disco Break for info and YouTube clips. Louis has said, “I always loved writing. In the many bands I played in, I composed nearly all the lyrics. It was a natural progression to move into story writing. Notice I didn’t say ‘easy’. It’s a struggle everyday to find the right words to match the right thoughts. Most of the time – to my disappointment – I fail, but every once in a while I get it right. When I do, I get nearly the same thrill I did when I heard “Disco Break” on American Bandstand, or when I was on the fire department and we helped to jolt a heart into beating again. He resides in Miami Lakes, FL with his wife, daughter, and their two cocker-terriers, Huey and Dewey. They have a son studying Asian Literature in Tokyo.
Read an Excerpt
The yard sale went well. Joanne and Ellie sat their elderly mother on the porch swing. She watched the activity and occasionally barked out orders.
Nearly everything sold. Ellie, fifty-one and two years older than Joanne, sold her childhood bike for a surprising forty dollars. Afterward, the man who had bought it said it was a collector's item.
As she counted the cash, Ellie said to him, "My sister has a bike nearly identical to it. Are you interested?"
"Sure," the man replied.
"Jo, when you take Mr. Dunbar to the garage, can you get it?"
Joanne nodded as she handed a blouse from the clothes table to a woman who was inquiring about it.
Mr. Dunbar lived across the street and two houses down. He had earlier purchased their father's Basketball 'N Beautiful Babes pinball machine. He and his son-in-law, Jerry, had come by to haul it away. Joanne motioned for them to follow her. They made their way to the side of the house and slightly downward to the detached garage.
Like most garages in the neighborhood, it wasn't used for cars anymore.
Joanne lifted the overhead door and plucked the chain dangling from the ceiling bulb. The room smelled of oil and lawn. Hanging on nails to her right were the garden tools: a shovel, hedge clippers, and an electric weed whacker. The floor was scattered with plastic storage bins marked Photos, J's School Papers, and Misc. One cardboard box contained Ellie's high school trophies: softball, track, swimming, and even bowling. Stuffed in the far left corner was the pinball machine, which their father had purchased from the Rexall when it changed ownership. It saddened Joanne to have to put the machine up for sale because he had loved it so much. Worse, she felt like it was her fault that they had to get rid of it. She took a deep breath and said to Mr. Dunbar, "It's all yours."
The men lifted it a few feet, then Mr. Dunbar stopped. "Something on the floor there, Joanne."
Joanne peeked down to where the machine had been resting. There was a vintage El Producto cigar box, the brand her father had smoked. She opened it. Inside was a neatly folded garrison cap. She brought it to her chest. "This was my father's from the Korean War."
Mr. Dunbar said, "Good man, your dad." He motioned to Jerry. They resumed lugging the pinball machine. "Got a few wounds in that war, didn't he?"
Joanne nodded. She thought of her father and mother, and how they had met while he was in Germany recovering from shrapnel to the chest. Her mother was a medical student from Spain who was studying in Munich. It must have been love at first sight, Joanne thought, because they were married by the time his stay was over. When he was discharged from the army they settled back in his home state of Pennsylvania.
She brought her father's wool cap to her cheek. She thought of his wavy shock of salt and pepper hair, his stocky body and thick lips upturned in a wide grin that made his bold, dark eyes gleam. She always thought her own lips, on the plump side, were like his.
"I'll take good care of the pinball, Joanne," Mr. Dunbar said.
Joanne returned her father's cap to the cigar box and watched the men trundle the bulky machine away from her. She studied the empty space in the garage where the machine had stood. Despite herself, her thoughts drifted back two weeks, to when she sat at her box piano looking over her fourth grade class. They were divided into two sections in the classroom. She remembered counting twelve kids sitting on each side of the middle aisle and saying, "Okay, everybody takes the chorus. The left side takes the verses and the right side takes the background. Have we got it?"
The students nodded.
"What? I can't hear you."
"Yes, Ms. Brick!"
"On my count." She banged a C chord on the piano for two beats, followed by an F for two beats, a G for two beats, then back to the F for two more. She repeated this pattern again and shouted, "One ... two ... three ... four ...; one, two, ready go!"
The kids sang the opening lines of "Hang On, Sloopy" in tune and with feeling. Joanne smiled. She loved that oldie-goldie song. The children were too young to know about the kind of love in the song, but somehow they had understood it was supposed to sound like something special.
In her mind, she glanced again at her rag-tag collection of children in their T-shirts, polos, jeans, and skirts. The way their eyes brightened as the chorus kicked back in. She had played the final chords, happy that she could give them pleasant memories of their childhood. "Okay, class, that was beautiful. Give yourselves a hand!" As the applause died down a voice had come over the two-way speaker system. "Ms. Brick, Principal Haley would like to see you after your final class."
A few evocative oohs and ahhs came from the kids. Joanne shot them the look. It consisted of lowering her glasses, tightening her jaw, and grimacing at her objects of discipline through squinted eyes. She had developed the look over the past few decades. As she got older it seemed to grow in effectiveness. As unflattering as it was, she attributed it to the crow's feet that had developed around her eyes, the paunch in her cheeks, and the subtle sagging of her jaw.
In any event, the kids instantly quieted down. "I'll be there immediately, Mrs. Martinez." She turned back to the class. The bell rang. "Enjoy your summer, everyone. I'll miss you." The kids were already scrambling, but a few stopped to give her a hug before leaving.
"See ya in September, Ms. Brick," a thin girl with a wide smile said.
"Stay out of trouble, Dee Dee. And keep practicing your scales." Joanne waited a few minutes after the students had left. She took a deep breath and drew in the odor of the classroom: the chewing-gum-lined seats, the musty yellow walls, the oak shelf stacked with tambourines and music books. She smiled, but thought as she closed the cover of the old piano, God, I can't wait to take a breather.
Joanne pinched back tears and tried to force her mind to the present, but as she had done so many times, she dwelled on the meeting with Principal Haley. She recalled how the hall bell had clanged as she entered his office and how she stared out his window at the long row of bicycles shimmering in the afternoon sun. She remembered watching the children spring from their classrooms to the metal racks, unlocking their bikes to race home for the summer.
She relived the moment when she glanced up at the large GE wall clock marking time as Principal Haley swept into his office and motioned for her to sit in the chair facing his desk.
"Ms. Brick," he said while he took his place.
The dark-haired, hefty man dressed in his no-nonsense white cotton shirt, red tie, and gray pinstriped suit settled into his leather swivel chair. He stared briefly at her, she recalled, before saying, "This has been a very difficult year for us, Ms. Brick. The school board has cut our budget twenty percent."
"Yes, sir, I'm aware of that. I was thinking if need be, we can stretch the music books out another year." Joanne folded her hands on her floral skirt and waited.
He took a long breath. "I've had to make some hard choices."
"But we really need to get the piano tuned, Principal Haley. I've put in two requests already, and —"
He raised a hand. "You don't understand."
Joanne remembered twirling a strand of hair from the side of her head as she studied Principal Haley's brown eyes.
"Next year there will be no more music classes. I'm afraid we're going to have to let you go."
Her stomach tightened. Involuntarily, her hand went to her chest.
"Surely, you must have heard there'd be cutbacks?"
She nodded, but never in a million moons did she think anyone with her seniority would be fired.
"The board has already reviewed the budget and approved the necessary cuts. I'm terribly sorry." Still the principal's eyes had remained on hers. "You have a month's worth of sick leave coming to you."
Joanne remembered thinking that he should have at least had the dignity to lower his gaze in something resembling shame.
"You can't do this," she had replied. "I'm contracted."
"You're right. I can't, but the school board can. They control the budget and they left it up to me to determine how to live within it. I've already sent my recommendations, and they've been approved. I don't mean to sound uncompassionate, but any appeal would have to go before the board." Principal Haley stood and held out his hand. "The town of Forest Creek — hell, the whole state of Pennsylvania — owes you a debt of gratitude for your service to its youth."
Joanne studied the hand, a hand nearly fifteen years her junior, a hand that never taught a child to wave a baton or to press the air holes of an ocarina, a hand that had never tucked a xylophone mallet into an eager child's fist. It was a fleshy, puffy, bureaucrat's hand.
"I'll sue," she said.
"That's certainly your prerogative."
Joanne could tell by his condescending tone that he knew she didn't have a prayer of it standing up in court. Contracted teachers had been let go before in Forest Creek. She remembered Mr. Steck, the gay science teacher, and Miss Ginsberg, who tried to start a teacher's union. Both were dismissed and never heard from again.
Then Principal Haley's phone had rung. He had picked up the receiver, hesitated, and said to Joanne, "I'm sorry, I've got to take this," before turning aside.
Numb, Joanne barely remembered walking out of the brick school building to the bike rack and rubbing her hand along the metal frame. She had thought of her life, and for the first time it felt as hollow as the rack's tubular steel pipes.
Joanne wiped her eyes and willed herself back to the present. She glanced at her old three-speed propped against the garage wall. The red Schwinn Breeze with its chrome fenders and rear carrier was scratched up but still in decent shape. As she went to retrieve it, she spotted a hand pump lying in the corner. Joanne inflated the front and rear tires. Though the rubber looked dry, she was surprised to find the tires still held air.
When she was little, the bike seemed humongous. Now, it seemed about the right size. She pressed down on the red-and-white saddle. Her father had taught her to do that, to determine if the air pressure was correct. When it felt right, she flipped back the kickstand and started to roll it. She smiled, hearing the familiar rhythmic rub from a portion of the front wheel rim scraping against the rubber brake pad. She was ten again, and her father was holding on to the seat and rear carrier as she pedaled down the sidewalk, struggling to stay up.
Joanne pushed the kickstand down, rested the bike, and cleared space on the floor. She glanced around to make sure no one was watching, then swung her leg over the slanted top bar. Sheepishly, she mounted the seat and lifted the kickstand with her foot. She pushed on the pedal and tried to keep her balance, then wobbled the thin-tube bike in an erratic circle and crashed into a pile of containers.
Joanne laughed. In her head, she pictured her father smiling and saying, "Try it again. You're doing great, little fawn." She got up and again sat on the bicycle. She leaned forward, pressed her foot down harder on the pedal, and rode in a small oval inside the garage. She could almost feel her father's beefy hands steadying the handlebars like he used to do when he taught her to ride. She wished he were here to tell of her emptiness, to feel his arm on her shoulder as she tried to make sense of her pain.
"What in the hell's going on?"
Startled, Joanne crashed the bike into the wall where the tools hung. The shovel fell and nearly hit Ellie, who stood at the entrance.
Joanne rose and dusted herself off. "I was testing out the bike."
Ellie eyed her skeptically, picked up the bike, and started to walk it outside.
"I'm keeping it." Joanne gripped the handlebars.
Ellie looked at her like she was nuts. "What for?"
She wasn't sure why she wanted it, but Joanne grabbed the paunch on her stomach. "It's good exercise. It'll help me lose weight. I can ride it to the grocery and back."
"You're being ridiculous." Ellie again reached for the bike. "We can use the money."
"I don't care." Joanne pulled it back. "You don't get to decide that."
"Fine." Ellie flung her hands in the air and left the garage.
* * *
Joanne leaned over Ellie's shoulder. "What's the take?"
Ellie raised a finger: hold on. She was seated at the kitchen table punching out numbers on her printing calculator. Their mother was in her room napping.
A late afternoon thunderclap boomed overhead. The dishes in the walnut veneer cabinets rattled. Joanne went to the cabinet below the sink and pulled out a large aluminum pot.
"We took in exactly two-hundred twelve-dollars and eighty-seven cents," Ellie said. "Not including the extra forty dollars we could have had."
"Is that supposed to be funny?" Joanne placed the pot on the kitchen counter over a spot marked with a penciled X.
"Quit being so sensitive."
"I'm trying not to be," Joanne said, "but you act like we're in dire straits."
"You tell me," Ellie replied. "Our monthly income is —"
"I already know," Joanne said. "My take home is twenty-four hundred, your alimony is fourteen hundred, and Mum's social security is twelve hundred a month. That gives us five-thousand dollars a month."
"That is, until your salary ends in two weeks."
"I've ..." Her cheeks flushed from embarrassment. "I've filed for unemployment."
"How much does that pay?"
Joanne cringed. "Around a thousand dollars."
"Now we're down to thirty-six hundred a month." Ellie slipped a folded computer printout from her pocket. "Here's our monthly expenses." She handed Joanne the sheet.
Joanne knew they weren't flush with money, but when she started adding the figures up, they felt like blows to the chest: equity loan twelve hundred, their mother's medicals six-fifty, electric two hundred, groceries five hundred, homeowner's insurance one-fifty, and on and on: telephone, TV, Internet, sewer, water, gas, and car insurance.
"As you can see, the grand total is thirty-eight hundred dollars a month. That's two hundred less than what we'll be bringing in," Ellie said. "Have you considered you'll no longer have health insurance?" Of course she had. It was one of the financial stones piled in the imaginary backpack she lugged on her back and shoulders since losing her job. The biggest being the near total loss of her 401k. She had withdrawn from it four years ago to keep their mother from losing the house after she had gotten into back tax problems. Other weights — just as heavy — included the fist-in-the-gut that came from having your life ripped from you. Joanne tossed those thoughts aside. She was determined not to feel sorry for herself.
"My insurance," Ellie said, "is part of my divorce settlement. It's not the best, but it's decent. It runs around three hundred a month."
"I'll think about it." She barely had three thousand left in her savings. Three hundred a month was a lot of money.
"God forbid something should happen to you. How would we carry that kind of debt?"
"You make it sound like I'm a freeloader," Joanne said. "I'll get the insurance."
Ellie stood and faced Joanne. "I'm sorry if I offended you. Mum and I are just trying to get you out of your slump."
The first drops of rain hit the roof like a cluster of fingertips tapping on wood. They quickly turned into a downpour.
"Mum and I?" Joanne raised the volume of her voice to match the noise of the drops. "When did you two become a tag team?"
Another thunderclap exploded. Raindrops trickled into the aluminum pot.
"All I'm saying is we're a family. We stick together through thick and thin," Ellie replied. "We're all on the same team."
"Yes. But whose team is it?" Joanne asked.
* * *
Joanne sat in her room that evening playing her keyboard, an old Korg PA80. She toyed with her favorite chord progression: F to C to D-minor to B-flat. Depending on how she timed the changes, she could make the progression sound hopeful, or full of yearning. She had achieved the former when she was cut short by her cell's ringtone, "A Horse With No Name." It was Kaye DeZayus, a fellow teacher and her closest friend from the school. Kaye called, "Just to say hi," but Joanne could tell that she was feeling her out to see how she was doing.
"Fine," Joanne lied after Kaye asked how her job search was going.
Kaye recommended two Internet sites. Kaye had a good heart, but when she gave Joanne the latest gossip regarding the other teachers at Forest Creek Elementary and told her to keep her chin up, Joanne's heart sank. Before hanging up, they promised to get the teaching gang together for drinks.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Pedal"
Copyright © 2017 Louis K. Lowy.
Excerpted by permission of IFWG Publishing International.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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