It’s still there. Still resting against the oak tree, with its front wheel curved outward, pointing at the old Shepherd house.
I’ve passed it many times. It has become so much a part of the neighborhood that it doesn’t surprise me anymore. It don’t surprise anyone, except the few tourists who come through this part of Petersburg, on their way to the better part of town. But once, when I was a lot younger, this was the better part of town.
I’m pretty sure that tourists don’t know the story of the bicycle. All of us old-timers know the story, though I can’t say we ever really believed it. And some of us thought it must surely be a joke — a practical joke — though why someone would play such a joke I can’t say. But the rest of us knew it was no joke: that it was real and a very strange story.
Nate Washington was a colored boy who lived on the edge of town. This was before the colored folk moved into the neighborhood, but in those days most of them stayed away — at least all but the ones who worked cleaning the houses of the richer white folks. But Nate was a lot more outgoing than most of his family: even when he was going into town, he would purposely go through your neighborhood, as if to show us he could. He was a caution, I’ll tell you.
It was on one of his trips through here that he met Priscilla Shepherd. She was out disporting herself around, always passing us by and showing off her newest clothes and her airs, like she was a princess. And I guess she was: at sixteen, she was the prettiest girl in town and a whole slew of boys in the high school wanted to date her. But Priscilla kept her distance, like she was waiting for the boy of her dreams to come along.
Nate had this old bicycle: I remember it well because it was so beaten up that you wondered if it could move at all. But Nate drove it, and drove it good, and as he passed by the Shepherd house he caught sight of Priscilla and he fell off the bike. Or, at least, that’s what Priscilla always said, because she was always pretty dramatic about everything, and she laughed and laughed at this colored boy and turned away.
But Nate, I guess because he didn’t like to be ridiculed, ran after her and scolded her, and treated her like no one had ever treated her before. And Priscilla, darn it, was very impressed, so they started to talk and, like people say, the rest is history. Before you knew it, Priscilla got out her bicycle, the beautiful silver one that everyone said went so well with her, and she and Nate began tooling around the town.
At first they did it once in a while and nobody noticed, but then they began to do it most every day after school and people started to talk. And once they were seen in town, having a chocolate malt together, and Priscilla’s father became very angry and told her never to see “that boy” again.
But I reckon Priscilla had become very fond of the boy and the more people protested, the more she and Nate would ride their bikes to the disgust of our polite society. And then there was that awful night when I guess Nate and Priscilla decided to run away together and maybe get married, because a policeman grabbed the two of them and brought them back to town. Priscilla was scolded and forced to stay in her room, but Nate was put in jail and charged with kidnapping or something.
What exactly happened that night I don’t rightly know — no one does, or if they do, they ain’t talkin’. But the next morning our Baptist minister found Nate strung up on the oak tree outside the Shepherds’ house. “He had it comin’,” some folks said, but it was a disgrace that the town never lived down and to make matters worse, no one was ever charged with anything.
I reckon the Shepherds thought that was that, but Priscilla never did. She cried and cried, and she wandered around town with that crazy look that we all came to know. And somewheres along the line she propped up her bicycle against the tree and she screamed that it should never be taken away. At first, people honored her wish, but as time went by and her folks said she wasn’t recovering, that silver bicycle was put away in the Shepherds’ garage. But in the morning it appeared outside, right by the tree.
So finally the police came and removed it and brought it to the pound, ‘cause it seemed like it might be of some use to someone. But the next morning, sure enough, the bicycle had found its way back to the oak tree. Like I said, some folks began to see it as a joke, but it’s a pretty sick joke if you ask me.
And people kept trying to take it away, but every time it returned. So finally folks just left it there.
Priscilla just stayed in her folks’ house and pretty much didn’t leave. She was taken care of by her parent and then by some sort of nurse, but she never improved. Her folks died but we almost never saw her out of the house, not even at her mother’s funeral. I guess she’s still in there, ‘cause I never did see an obit or nothin’.
But that silver bicycle is still outside the house — still as shiny as new, despite the heat and rain of summer and the cold and ice of winter. I reckon it’s still waiting for its mistress to ride it again, and its mistress is still waiting for her one true love to return so they can ride along together.
Like I said, it’s a really strange story. But I hope — I hope will all my heart — that one day he will get on his broken-down bike, she will get on her perfect silver bike, and they will ride away together, just like they always planned.
A longtime Princeton resident, Cheiten is the author of numerous short stories and poems, several plays, and the Princeton-based novella “The Hidden Ally.”