The unfamiliar townscape rolls past, a glare of light and bleached-bone stone under weedy mesquite. I don’t know where I am. The whole town is low-slung and the same, framed by raw mountains on every side, and the sun is always hard.
I roll down a big road. At the side of the road stands a bike.
It’s nestled in bright silk flowers. Every inch of it, pure white.
What are those bikes, I say, to a local friend who knows better. I keep seeing these abandoned bikes that’ve been spray-painted.
Ah, says my friend. Those are the ghost bikes.
For people on bikes who get killed by cars? I ask.
She smiles. She says, Sometimes.
* * *
In early November, my friend carefully paints my face in black greasepaint and bone-bright makeup. It’s the All Souls Procession, she tells me. You’ll love it. Everyone paints their faces like skulls, and we all dress up, and at sunset, we march through town and think about all the people who have died over the past year.
I wear black. I think about the dead, as instructed. My friend wears her wedding dress and a sky-blue wig, rhinestones in the black-painted sockets of her eyes, like stars. She is well-versed in the ways loss can be beautiful.
On the edges of our silent procession, I glimpse the bikes. They wobble slowly. I can’t see who rides them because night has fallen, and the solemn-faced crowd is thick with skulls and bones and ghosts.
The ghost bikes used to be full-sized, says my friend, but people would steal them to ride. So now, all you see are the bikes of children.
A bike rolls past. The training wheels rattle like teeth. I see an empty seat, and I assume that the bike is pushed by a hand I cannot see.
* * *
Near my new house, there is an accident. A boy has snuck into the back of a FedEx delivery truck, and when the truck backs up, he falls out. The rear tire crushes his skull. His death is instantaneous.
For weeks, his family conducts a fruitless vigil at the roadside. Neighbors bring out threadbare recliners and folding chairs. The desert at their feet collects empty bags of Taquis and glass bottles of tamarind soda. The police leave them alone. It’s nice of the cops to let them mourn at their own pace, I say, and my friend says, This is the south side. You think the police even come here?
By February, the furniture is gone. The empty bottles have crumbled into a million stars, and in the place of the family stands a bike.
* * *
On a cold night with a lean, bright moon, I see a ghost bike rolling. Just rolling along the never-used sidewalk, like me, out for a head-clearing stroll.
Hello, I say to the bike, but of course, bikes don’t talk. It rolls on past me, stiffly, in non-acknowledgment.
I see it again when I pass the old shrine for the dead boy. The bike is poised on its bed of glass stars. Is this what you do? I ask it. You just go out at night and…?
When I ask my friend, she only says, Shhh.
* * *
Next year, I do my own make-up. I tell my friend that I’ll meet her there, but we both know there are too many people and we’ll never find each other.
The All Souls Procession begins. I’m near a group of people holding signs for victims of school shootings when I see a flash, the slow-rolling tires glimmering with fragments of star. I push through the mourners, but the bike keeps dancing away, so I ease off, and we walk side by side across a great, human, breathing distance, content to let things go.
* * *
The next morning, I start to tell this story to my friend. She asks for the name of the boy whose skull got crushed, those many months back, but to my embarrassment, I can’t remember.
It was–I say. It was–it was–
* * *
The next time I walk past the old shrine, the bike is gone.
There’s nothing there at all, now. Nothing but stars.