It was only a short bike ride between The Beech Tree Restaurant and my home; a well-worn path along quiet streets that took me past handsome Edwardian row houses and large leafy trees. The route was so well imprinted on my brain that I mindlessly followed its invisible wheel ruts and would often arrive at my door at night without having any memory of how I got there. In a single day, I might take the route several times. It was an endless circuit: back and forth, home to work, work to home. My restaurant and my home were two interchangeable spaces, my entire world, a tiny bubble; a single square kilometre for which a thousand unlikely things had come to pass and a thousand more had yet to happen.
Sometimes I took a detour to the local pizza place. Open late, with garish orange counters and florescent lighting; it was unlike my restaurant in every way. My growling stomach led me there, a somnambulistic, unthinking quest to find something edible and cram it into my mouth before I lay down to sleep. The quest was the calzone; a deep-fried pizza-like concoction folded over on itself. When there were no calzones, it could almost be guaranteed, that Chef had pinched the last one. He would often beat me to it at the end of the night, slipping out of the restaurant before me. We both had keys. Whoever was the last to leave would lock the doors. Although I was the sole owner of the Beech Tree, I considered my senior employee; my Chef, more a partner than a worker. The race for the calzone was a fair match. Sometimes he would feel generous and say “go ahead Bab, grab the last calzone. I still have a few things to mop up here. I’ll just get a slice tonight.” I felt good on nights when he was charitable and not angry, when our awkward thread-bare friendship wasn’t strained by the usual exhaustion and frustration that a restaurant so readily throws at its employees. We weren’t as close as we once were. I didn’t spend as much time in the restaurant as I used to. He had recently quit drinking, and without this bonding vice, we didn’t fraternize as we once did over pints and cookbooks late into the night. I took one for the team, soldiered forward and drank for both of us. Whether he was on the wagon or not, the race for the calzone retained the same urgency and my bicycle was the stroke of genius to ensure my victory. Chef couldn’t outpace me, and even if he got a head start, I would fly by him on two wheels.
That night I got the prize, the remains of which, wrapped in a sort of waxed paper, jettisoned to the ground as the handlebars twisted underneath me and I was ejected from the bike seat. It had happened so quickly. One moment I was riding smartly down the street on my beach cruiser, tearing off chunks of the pastry with my numb jaws and the next thing I knew, I was airborne. The front wheel must have drifted a little too close to the curb and the unavoidable laws of physics abruptly ended my ride. I braced for blunt trauma and multiple lacerations, perhaps broken bones, or worse, a broken neck. The road was old and knobbly asphalt. It was going to tear me to ribbons. There then came a moment of blackness, just before my impact with the street for which I have no memory, and suddenly I was on the road and no longer in motion. Curiously, the first thing I detected was the half-chewed food in my mouth which I immediately swallowed; a minor miracle that I hadn’t choked. Then I got up to my feet. It was apparent that my head and face were unscathed. I have no idea how that happened, but I wasn’t going to question it. I was bit shaky and glad that I was standing at all. I felt pain on the back of my arm and elbow, the one that had been holding the calzone. I discovered that it was scraped quite badly with little bits of asphalt embedded into the wound, but no worse than a playground accident. I felt down to touch my knee for which I detected another vague pain and instead of denim, I felt bare flesh. I looked down and found that my entire right pant leg had been torn free from the rest of my jeans and was gathered loosely around my ankle. I had no explanation for how that could have happened. I shook my ankle a bit and kicked off the pant leg like I was removing a leg warmer.
I could see that my bike was intact and righted it uneasily. Adrenaline had weakened the effects of the alcohol and returned a small amount of soundness to my mind, enough for me to realize that it could have been a lot worse. I saw the remains of my calzone lying on the grass by the side of the road, still wrapped in the paper. I bent down and picked it up. I took a bite and realized I’d hit rock bottom, publically drunk, eating food from the ground and wearing only half a pair of pants. I was glad that there was no one around to witness my disgrace.
“Are you okay?” A concerned voice startled me, coming from a darkened porch a few houses down from the epicentre of my fall. I cringed in shame, and with my mouth full of calzone called back,
“I’m fine, just a little fall, right as rain, ma’am.” I had no idea who it was or what they saw, but I was not about to hang around to find out. I shoved the rest of the calzone in my mouth, dropped the wrapper to the ground and very cautiously pedalled the last 150 yards to my front door. I sat on my dim front porch for a while after I locked up my bike to let my heart rate come down, and I must confess, I shed a few drunken tears sitting there with one bare leg and one panted leg. I had made a bad decision to ride my bike while drunk, a decision that could left my wife a widow and my children orphans. I could have been between a dump truck and a city bus on the main thoroughfare when I fell, but instead I was on a quiet street with no other traffic and by some strange fluke of physics when I should have bashed my brains out all over the concrete, I just scraped my arm and lost a pant leg. How had I got to this point? I wondered. I would have been in bed at such an hour a couple of years before. I recalled ruefully that a work day used to only be eight hours long. I rubbed my sore arm. The restaurant was slowly killing me. Curse it.
It suddenly occurred to me that maybe I shouldn’t go to sleep. Although there was no obvious injury to my head, I still may have hit it hard enough to cause a concussion. Dorothy’s uncle had died under similar circumstances back in the 1960’s. The story goes that he went out one night to the Croatian equivalent of a country pub and spent the night drinking heavily, likely arguing amongst the other men folk about the latest skullduggery of Marshall Tito. When the pub closed for the night, he got on his bike and rode the dark and lonely farm road home. His irate wife, awakened by his noisy fumbling at the front door, got up to confront him and a noticed a gash on his forehead. He touched the wound unconsciously and squinted at the blood on his fingers. “Shit. I just fell off my bike mum, ended up in the blessed culvert next to the road,” he slurred. “I’m fine. Now let me be so I might sleep.”
“You drunken fool,” the angry woman chided. “Clean up so you don’t get blood all over the linens, glup čovjek!” Then they both went to bed. The next morning he was dead.
Could that happen to me? I wondered. Either way, I didn’t have much choice in the matter. I was starting to doze off in the chair on the porch. So, I went to bed. Dorothy did not awaken when I got in to bed, so I didn’t tell her about the accident that night. It would just add to her laundry list of worries. I didn’t tell her about it the next morning when I woke up, hung over, but alive.
On my way back to the restaurant, I retraced my route from the previous night to find the spot where I fell. I figured the calzone wrapper and my wayward pant leg would still be there. They were nowhere to be found. I walked up and down the street and looked on an adjacent street thinking that maybe I had mixed up my routes, but still couldn’t find them. There was an empty Pepsi can nearby to the spot where the accident supposedly happened, so it was not like some do-gooder was out cleaning up garbage early in the morning and disposed of my pant leg. I never found any evidence of the fall at all, and I started to wonder if it had actually happened. The pants were definitely ruined. I had hidden the mortal remains of my jeans at the bottom of the garbage bin so Dorothy wouldn’t ask questions. But maybe in my drunkenness I had only imagined the bicycle crash and something completely different had actually taken place that resulted in a torn pant leg, something lost in the dark recesses of my inaccessible memory, something entirely worse. Having unlimited access to beer in my restaurant was proving to be a liability. I made a decision at that moment to stop drinking.
Okay, not stop drinking completely. Certainly cut back. That’s it. Cut back.