Place: Sudha Balagopal

Saguaro Cacti Hold up Their Arms

I ride the 120 miles of desert road―Phoenix to Tucson―on Amy’s bike. Pink tassels hang from the handlebars of her woman’s bike. My palms rest where hers had.

If she saw me now, she’d hiss, “You’re a spectacle, Dad. Get yourself a guy’s bike!”

I want to tell her, “I won’t pedal any other.”

At the thirty mile mark from home, my legs push through cement, my quadriceps are on fire. A highway sign indicates ninety more miles.

Yesterday, Roberto called from Tucson. Talking to him involved silence from my side, a flurry of words from his.

“I’m going to monitor your progress,” he said. “I’ll wait for you at the finish line.”

I shivered; it was ninety degrees outside.

“I’m looking forward to meeting you,” he said. “Video chatting isn’t the same, right?”

Roberto is Amy’s age, frail, with narrow shoulders and pale complexion. “Amy and I didn’t know each other at university,” he said. “I’m a history major, and she, you know, math.”

I can’t respond. Some days, I want to befriend Roberto; other days, I want to slam the computer shut so I don’t have to see his gaunt face. His shirt sleeves flap over thin arms; his cheeks have hollow indentations. Even his hair is listless, lank, in need of nourishment.

As a five-year-old, Amy asked me to braid her unruly mass of hair. She squealed as I struggled with the de-tangling, the brushing and the tying. My hugs comforted her until, at twelve, she slid away from me. When she turned sixteen, she preferred to enrol with a driving school. I paid the fees without complaint, the ache in my chest lingering for months.

My throat as dry as sandpaper, I gulp water from Amy’s pink plastic container. Past Casa Grande, a text pings from the pack strapped to the bike. I know who it is.

Roberto mails me cards with flowers and hearts. He writes poetry on custom stationery. He’s had treats delivered to my address―apples and strawberries dipped in chocolate. 

Amy rode this bike on two of her triathlons, and that last one hundred and twenty mile ride she didn’t complete.

The desert is not kind; it’s searing, it’s blinding, it’s arid. At Picacho Peak, my legs have gone as soft as cooked noodles. I clutch the handlebars, repeat the mantra, “Amy did this route. I can, too.”

On either side of me, saguaro cacti hold up their arms, cheer me on. When I see fast-food restaurants and gas stations on the outskirts, a blip of energy erupts. Tucson is near.

But am I ready?

The last mile to the hospital is agony.

Roberto rises from his wheel chair, an ethereal ghost floating toward me. He opens his arms.

“I’m so grateful . . .” His voice cracks.

Until they found Amy’s driver’s license, I didn’t know.

Hot, sweaty, exhausted, I place an ear on Roberto’s chest, listen to the steady thump, thump, thump of my daughter’s heart.   

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Sudha Balagopal’s recent short fiction appears in JMWW Journal, Meniscus, Bending Genres, Jellyfish Review and The Nottingham Review among other journals. She is the author of a novel, “A New Dawn.” Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fictions and is listed in the Wigleaf Top 50. 2019. More at www.sudhabalagopal.com

Fiction & Features Editor – Steven John