A Distinction without a Difference

Six of One....Half a Dozen of Another....

The rental car pulled up silently the front curb of her destination. She was several hours early to her original and official Thanksgiving arrival time so she still enjoyed a few more moments of stealth. As she walked in the door, a wave of warm air saturated with the smells of home cooking, old wood and the uniquely musty smell of her family wafted into her nostrils. The house, well worn by generations of family ingress and egress, affectionately and quietly met her before anyone could say a word.

Marnie Lundberg was a thirty-one year old copyright assistant from New York on her semi-annual visit back to the old homestead. Adorned in black wool and freakishly uncomfortable shoes, she found some last moments of solace as she walked through the front door of her childhood. In many ways, time had stood still and this comfort grew as she hung her coat on the same rung that she had used ten thousand times before.

“You’re home!” screamed her mother from the kitchen. A dull clattering of utensils hit the counter and she came speed walking around the corner into the hallway. Her mother aggressively embraced her and literally picked her up off the ground. Having lived in New York for almost ten years, Marnie was always shocked back into the literal hands-on homespun reality: confronted with a familiar social structure than not only demanded physical displays of affection but an odd practice of close conversations with loud and demonstrative faces, she realized to herself that this was going to be a long and energy-sapping trip.

She hugged everyone as quickly as she could and declared she was going to her room to unpack. After a quick spin and corresponding embrace with all, she grabbed her valise and headed up the stairs to her room as fast as she could go. The upstairs smells began to also welcome her and once she turned the familiar doorknob and experienced the comforting sound of her constantly creaking door, she knew she was home.

The first thing was to unpack and get out of the garb that screamed outsider. She quickly hung up her clothes, quietly embarrassed at their costs, and changed into a comfortable outfit that also allowed her to gently dull her fashion sense and not confuse her family.

She bounded down the stairs and had every intention to head into the kitchen to drink weak, warm coffee and fall without struggle into the family envelope of sincere but finite support. At the base of the stairs her mind changed and she wandered down the hallway and peer into the garage. She looked around and mentally inventoried a few of her treasures. As the inventory continued, she was startled by the prominent position of her old bicycle; hanging from the ceiling on two large crate hooks. The monstrous pearl white bike was above the usual earthly traffic and appeared to hover above both of the family sedans.

The bike’s unique lines were only surpassed by its origins. It was a summer assembly project using a wide variety of disparate parts donated by several caring neighbors and a creative fire station crew. Her original bike was stolen on the first day of school as a seventh grader with only a snipped chain remaining in its spot. Walking home from school heartbroken and disconsolate, she was crying uncontrollably as she walked by the stationhouse. Alerted by the wail of all things unfair, several firefighters came out to the front entrance to the problem. Between gulps of air and involuntary spasms of anguish, Marnie told the story of the brand new bike, her careful positioning of her new bike in the rack, the secure lock, the horrific discovery at three o’clock in the afternoon and the subsequent collapse of her world one minute after three.

The firemen huddled around her, got her to identify herself in case she emotionally imploded and told her to come back to tomorrow. They tried to raise her sprits but by all accounts, she was completely and totally inconsolable. One of the younger firemen called Marnie’s house and quickly gave her mother the lowlights of her daughter’s day to prepare her for the child who was at that time, being given a ride home from the station house in a fire truck with no abatement or reduction in tear output.

Marnie momentarily slowed her crying and welcomed the unique chance to have a ride in a fire truck, petting the world’s largest and most docile Dalmatian. Significantly higher than all other vehicles, she enjoyed the brief respite of watching her familiar world pass by from an unfamiliar perspective of a large red truck. However, the moment she saw her house appear as the fire truck took the corner, her wail returned in a more full-throated and piercing manner that was actually heard inside the house well before Marnie arrived.

The mother, fully prepared to accommodate her daughter, met the fire truck out in the driveway. She waved at the dog and driver and patiently waited for Marnie to climb down from the vehicle and retrieve her cut chain.  The rest of the day was quiet; Marnie still had schoolwork and chores to complete so the discussion of the mid-afternoon’s tragedy had to wait until bedtime. Although it was a horrible experience for their child, the parents knew the importance of keeping the matter in perspective. Instead of agreeing wholeheartedly with their distraught child, they had to provide support but have it subtlety qualified due to the fact that life is periodically cruel to everyone and if they spent all their resources on a stolen bike, they would have little else to give when a broken heart or broken bone showed up.

Marnie was old enough to know how much things cost and was aware that the new bicycle bordered on the extravagant so a simple replacement was out of the question. She also felt that another new bicycle was a likely for other thieves so she proposed to her mother an idea while sitting in bed.

“I want a new bike but I want to figure out how to do it.”

The mother, still concentrating on tucking her in only daughter, said, “How do you propose to do that?”

“I don’t know but let me deal with this myself.”

Faced with the most mature comment ever made by a seventh grader since the start of the planet, the mother smiled and said, “Of course I will. If you need us, both your father and I are willing to help.”

“Thanks, Mom. But I want to take care of this. I don’t like how this whole thing made me feel and I realize it is up to me to figure it out.”

Right there and then, the mother knew her daughter was going to be all right. She kissed her goodnight and wandered down the hall to her husband, who was waiting in the wings with a variety of bicycle replacement options.

“She is going to be all right,” said the wife to her husband. “She has this under control.”

After school the next day as she reluctantly walked home, Marnie stopped off at the firehouse to thank the crew for their collective kindness. They were all relieved to see the little girl had rebounded quite nicely from her ordeal and they welcomed her into the station. The large Dalmatian recognized her as well and bounded over to reconnect their new friendship.

“What can we do for you?” asked the Captain.

“Nothing,” said Marnie while petting the dog. “I wanted to come over and thank you all for being so nice to me yesterday.”

“Did you find your bike?”

“Nope but I am trying to get over it.”

“That’s good.”

“But I would like your help,” said Marnie and she waved her arms to let the whole fire station know that they all were included.”

“What can we do for you?” asked the Captain again.

“Well, I want to build a bike and I figure you have all the parts to do it. I know you rebuild and clean up bikes but there must be parts that aren’t used. I don’t want to take a bike from some kid that deserves on, I want to try to make something out of nothing.”

The first lieutenant, the unofficial master of all bike renovation and reclamation, smiled at Marnie and said, “I think I can help you.” The avuncular tone of his voice reassured Marnie that her idea made many of sense. They shook hands and the two of them walked into the bicycle bone yard to survey their options. The place was full of mismatched wheels, seats, frames and accessories. When free time was available, a few of the mechanically inclined firemen would try to make a bike out of the current inventory of parts. The selection of bikes included ones that had been abandoned, illegally chained to fire hydrants (and quickly confiscated), passively dropped off by empty nesters trying to de-clutter their garages.

For the most part, the fire station refurbished bikes and got them to orphanages, shelters and other needy groups for their immediate use. However, over the years, odd parts began to accumulate and until Marnie showed up, the thought of concocting a bicycle out of the random pieces never crossed anyone’s mind.

Marine poked around and picked out an oddly sized frame: it appeared to have been built to accommodate wheels somewhere between twenty-four and twenty-six inches. Further searching came up with a large sprocket and a wide variety of seats and handlebars. Encouraged by the lieutenant, Marnie spent a half-hour piecing together available parts and presented the concept to the group. The bike, if made, would be an odd combination of a trail bike and a classic Sting-Ray™. The odd combination of colors guaranteed new paint but Marnie told them to use anything that was lying around: she wanted no special favors and the station respected the situation without argument.

The lieutenant was making dinner for the crew when Marnie came around the corner to give him an update.

“I have to go home now. May I come back tomorrow and continue to work on my project?”

“Certainly, sweetie. Please have your mother call us sometime this evening so we can let her know that you are welcome here.”

“Okay, and tomorrow I want to work out a payment schedule for the bike?”

“A payment schedule? There is no need for a schedule; you are using items that have no value. Feel free to use what you want.”

“I appreciate the offer but I am going to get a bike out of this deal so there will be a cost.”

The lieutenant saw where the discussion was heading so he decided that there was no use in arguing with this little girl. Her maturity and resourcefulness was charming but her desire to accomplish a project was even more impressive.

“Okay, we will discuss a schedule.” The lieutenant wiped his hands with a kitchen towel and shook her hand. “Don’t forget to have your mother call us.”

Marnie nodded and smiled and left the station.

About an hour later, the phone rang and the lieutenant picked it up.

“Station Five.”

“Excuse me,” said a woman’s voice. “But I am calling about my daughter.”

“You must be Marnie’s mother. I am Lieutenant Adam Steele and I wanted Marnie to tell you about her plans.”

“You are correct, I am her mother,” said the woman. “My name is Gina Lundberg.  I appreciate you and the station lending a hand.”

They talked for fifteen minutes and the Lieutenant assured her that Marnie was an amazing young girl, her project was no trouble at all and that the loss of her new bicycle was certainly a tragedy and the station was more than happy to help make it right. The lieutenant assured Gina that they would keep her apprised of all her activities and they would send her home no later than five o’clock each evening. If it happened to be dark, they would escort her home but he couldn’t promise a fire truck escort every time.

Over the next three days, Marnie assembled bike parts and worked with most of the station in assembling the pieces, as the frame needed some spot welding, the brakes needed bearings and grease and the entire bike had to pass a safety inspection before she was going to be issued a license. The city clerk had be inundated with calls from the station so she felt is was worthwhile to visit the station house in person when it was time to issue the license.

The bike was a mishmash of colors but in spite of its challenging aerodynamic construction, had impressive speed due to the unique gear ratio from the diverse difference between the front and back sprockets. When Marnie took it around the block for its maiden voyage, she was surprised how fast she was moving. Easily twice as fast as she had every traveled before, the adrenaline from the brief trip was soaring through her veins when she skidded to a stop in front of the station.

“That didn’t take long,” said the lieutenant.

“No kidding,” agreed Marnie. “I have never ridden that fast before in my life.”

“That huge sprocket is the reason. The gear ratio is so high that once you get going, you must be flying.”

“Flying is definitely the word. I have never felt so free.”

The lieutenant wheeled the bike back to her unofficial area in the rear of the station. She had helped clean and organized the station within an inch of its collective life as her payment for the bike. All the parts were inventoried and organized, all the floors were swept and everything was put away. She also assisted in the organization of most of the station’s maintenance inventory as well ranging from snow shovels, lawn mowers, rakes, the outdoor barbeque, garden hoses, sprinklers and dozen of miscellaneous hand tools. The entire station was impressed with her efforts and encouraged her to stop by anytime.

“One more inspection and the bike will be yours.”

“What inspection? I got my license.”

“I don’t know,” lied the lieutenant. “I got a call from the city clerk’s office. They need to check the serial numbers or something but that should be done by tomorrow.”

“Serial numbers? There isn’t a single number, much less a series of numbers on this bike.”

“I know, Marnie. Just leave the bike here tonight and by the time you are done with school tomorrow, it will be yours.”

A bit confused, Marnie left the bike and thanked the stationhouse for their hospitality. She walked home for the last time and told her mother that the bike was ready to come home. The mother, fully aware of the station’s mysterious plans, acted like all bikes needed some one final secret inspection and quickly served supper to the family.

Immediately after school, Marnie went directly to the station and saw her bike, freshly painted a pearl white, sitting in the front of the main pumper truck. It was professionally done and freshly cleaned; looking like a futuristic visitor, gleaming ivory metal and built for speed. Marnie immediately saw through yesterday’s subterfuge and realized they needed one more day to complete the vision. She hugged the entire station and got on her new bike and flew home.

The next six years the image of a young girl flying through the local streets on an oddly camel-silhouetted bike was a common one. The bright white color contrasted nicely with her usually multi-colored apparel and the sight was pleasantly startling because at times, the bike’s paint was blending into the scenery that occasionally a too-brief look at Marnie resulted in an airborne, optical illusion. Marnie enjoyed her freedom and whether it was a chore and just a desire to feel the air rush through her hair, relied on her bike to deliver the feeling on a daily basis.

When she went to college, the bike stayed home and was placed on the front hooks of the garage for easy access whenever she was back for semester breaks and an occasional summer respite. As she became immersed in her studies, the bike saw less and less activity but her mother dutifully shined it in a respectful tribute to the object that initially propelled her daughter to local greatness. After college, Marnie took a job in Manhattan for a publishing company as a copyrighter and the exposure to the New York City was her second extended adrenaline jolt. The city was electric and as a single woman with adventurous friends, Marnie immersed herself into the lifestyle without qualification.

One night at a friend’s apartment, she saw a canoe hanging from the ceiling. The beauty of the canoe brought back memories of her old bicycle and she made a mental note to reacquaint herself with it when she next visited home. 

However, discretionary visits home were becoming fewer and fewer as the city continued to offer Marnie cultural, intellectual and personal adventures that she never thought possible. She loved her job but loved the opportunity to go out at night to either downtown for outstanding restaurants in all the ethnic neighborhoods, to midtown to Broadway and all the way to uptown to events ranging from the east side and to the Apollo.

She was also looking the part: gone were the dowdy clothes of an undergraduate as she began to take an interest in both traditional fashion and the evolution of her own personal style. Her hair was now being styled and her closet began to evolve to the monochromatic with primarily blacks, deep tans and whites. The simplicity of the color combinations meshed well with her upbringing but she loved the idea of the growth of both the inner and outer aspects of her personality. Youth, being what it is, remains a basically fleeting feeling but each day in Manhattan , Marnie felt that she was on the cusp of being self-actualized and that energy was infectious, as she became the living embodiment of looking and feeling wonderful.

She was at a perfect time of her life: freedom combined with choices combined with adventurous friends and spending money. Walking out of her building, whether it be where she lived or where she worked, the city lay in front of her like a pristine blank canvas, a tabula raza, awaiting her decision to advance with boldness and confidence. This feeling was only felt once before, as a seventh grader, where she felt that she was given a set of wings to go in any direction and now, the city was doing the same thing. Every day she was in New York , she became more convinced that she found her new home; the folks would broach the subject passively as they chose to live with the illusion that she was eventually coming home and living down the street.

The trip home for Thanksgiving was good for all parties; Manhattan was particularly unforgiving for Marnie recently. Job pressures and the general urban compression of the city was causing Marnie to lose her energy and only an occasional happy accident reminded of why she lived there in the first place. Manhattan is a tough town in which the true inhabitants were either very rich or very poor and the daily demands were compounded by the sheer internal momentums of eight million other people. Tasks such as commuting into work, buying coffee, fighting through crowds and trying to take care of life’s necessities began to wear her down. The trip home to recharge was coming at the perfect time; an opportunity to eat wholesome food, wear comfortable shoes and decompress made this trip a steps towards the right direction.

Usually she would try to minimize the actual time at home whenever possible. This trip was extended without superfluous discussion and once her mother saw the extended itinerary, she knew her daughter needed some time to recharge the big city batteries. The day before she arrived, she had instructed her husband to clean up the bike and get it road ready. The weather was brisk but manageable and Marnie’s mother was wise enough to prepare for any eventuality and felt the bike might be the time machine Marnie needed to get her groove back.

The time at home was peaceful and warm; not many questions about big city life or potential husbands came Marnie’s way. The novelty of her new hometown had passed and the family got back into a normal social balance without guilt or agenda. The evening’s meal was definitely home cooked and a precursor to the next day’s feast. Several versions of the side dishes were available for dinner, as all knew they were technically successful versions of tomorrow’s menu but not the cook’s best work. The night fell easily on the family and at an oddly early hour, the single gal from Manhattan went to bed.

Marnie fell asleep immediately; she tried to stay up to dissect for the tenth time issues that had no conclusion but fatigue overcame her. The next morning, even with the time change, she was the last one up as chores were being completed and the home had taken on a new smell: one of warm food and pure humanity. She came down stairs in clothes she found in her closet, as there was no need to put on something that was better geared for midtown and grabbed a cup of coffee. She sat at the kitchen table and just looked at her mother.

“There seems to be all kinds of food,” said Marnie.

“No one is going hungry,” said her mother. “People will know that they ate.”

“Do you need help?”

“No, Dear. Things are well in hand.”

“What should I do? Should I help Dad or Scott?”

“No, he has only two things to do. Why don’t you read the paper and we can come up with an idea for you once you get settled?”

“Good idea, Mom.”

Gina Lundberg had a talent of dealing with things at the appropriate time. She was an advocate of adjusting time to accommodate either a good idea that is not ready or a bad idea that needs time to die. When faced with the ongoing challenge of entertainment for her children, she would give them interim tasks when she didn’t have a plan.

About thirty minutes later, Marnie came into the kitchen and filled up her coffee cup. She had been sitting in the bay window, reading the papers and sipping coffee. The bay window was one of her favorite spots and the window allowed her to look down the main street that ran in front of the house. It was a nice, brisk sunny day and Marnie still had some energy to burn.

“I have an idea,” said her mother.

“What is it? Am I going to help you cook something?”

“No, dear. There is no reason to frighten your father again. I had an idea that might be more complimentary of your talents.”

“What is that?”

“Go to Miller’s grocery, they are open for another hour, and get some more butter and a vanilla bean.”

Miller’s Grocery was a mile away and was the retailer of choice when the shopper had no time for failure. Although the store was tiny, all requested items lay within. There was no discussion of contingencies in case Miller’s did not have the goods; it always had the goods.

“Sure. Where are the car keys?”

“I don’t know, dear. It is a nice day, just take your bike.”

The bike was the perfect solution. Marnie jumped up and ran down the hall. Moment’s later, Gina saw her grown daughter flying by the kitchen window riding the oddest and prettiest bike ever built. Within fifteen minutes, Marnie came home with a small bag and rosy cheeks. The ride had exhilarated her and Gina knew that she would be spending more time on the bike before she headed back. Marnie went upstairs to make some calls and her mother quietly remained in the kitchen, putting away the butter (behind several other surplus boxes) and wondering what the hell she was going to do with a vanilla bean.

The metaphor of the bike is there to allow readers to remember their first feeling of freedom when they finally mastered how to ride a bicycle. This one is coming along nicely.

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