‘… which we’ve been trying to do ever since,’ Eli said. ‘Clyde can’t make up his mind.’
‘I’ll know it when I hear it,’ Clyde said, hardly bothered. ‘Until then, it’s fine if everyone calls it the Bike Shop. Because that’s what it is. Right?’
A phone rang behind him then, and he turned to grab it. As he stepped outside, the receiver pressed to his ear, Eli turned to look at me. ‘What did I tell you?’ he said. ‘Pretty good, huh?’
‘It is,’ I agreed. ‘And you’re right. I never would have found this place in a million years.’
‘Nope,’ he said.
We sat there for a minute, eating. On the other side of the wall, I could hear a load bumping through a drying cycle, thump thump thump. My watch said two fifteen. ‘So,’ I said. ‘What else you got?’
I’d thought I was pretty good at both staying up and staying productive. But Eli was the master.
After the Laundromat, we got back into his car – an old Toyota truck with a cab on it, the back of which was filled with bike parts that clanked and rattled with every turn – then headed fifteen miles west, to the twenty-four-hour Park Mart. There you could, at three A.M., not only buy groceries, linens, and small appliances, but also get your tires rotated, if you so desired. As we walked the aisles, a cart between us, we talked. Not about Abe. But about almost everything else.
‘So, Defriese,’ he said as he compared brands of microwave popcorn. ‘Isn’t that where Maggie’s going?’
‘I think so,’ I said as he pulled down a box, examining it.
‘Must be a really good school, then. That girl’s brilliant.’ I didn’t say anything, and a moment later he added, ‘So I guess that makes you brilliant, too, huh?’
‘Yep,’ I said. ‘Pretty much.’
He raised an eyebrow at me, sticking the popcorn in our cart. ‘If you’re such a brain, though,’ he said, ‘how come you didn’t know not to flirt with another girl’s boyfriend in her own kitchen?’
‘I’m book smart,’ I said. ‘Not street smart.’
Eli made a face. ‘I wouldn’t exactly call Belissa street. She gets her jeans dry-cleaned.’
We walked down the aisle a bit. He didn’t seem to have a list and yet still knew exactly what he wanted. ‘Seriously, though,’ I said. ‘You’re right. I was kind of…’
I trailed off, and he didn’t jump in, pushing me to finish. I was finding that I liked that.
‘I guess,’ I said, ‘that I just missed a lot in high school. Like, socially.’
‘I doubt it,’ he replied, stopping to throw a roll of paper towels in the cart. ‘A lot of that stuff is overrated.’
‘You can say that because you were popular, though.’
He glanced at me as we turned the corner, to the soup aisle. Halfway down, a guy in a long coat was muttering to himself. That was the one thing about being out so late, or early. The crazies were, too. Watching Eli, I saw he had the same attitude about it that I did, which was three pronged: don’t stare, keep a wide berth, and act normal. ‘What makes you think I was popular?’
‘Oh, come on,’ I said. ‘You were a bike pro. You had to be.’
‘For all you know,’ he replied, ‘I was a nerdy bike pro.’
I just looked at him.
‘Okay, fine. I wasn’t exactly a wallflower.’ He grabbed a can of tomato rice soup off the shelf, then another. ‘But big deal. It’s not like it makes a difference in the long run.’
‘I think maybe it does.’ I leaned over the cart, looking down into it. ‘I mean, I did all the academic stuff. But I never had that many friends. So there’s a lot I don’t know.’
‘Like not to talk to a girl’s boyfriend in her own kitchen.’
We moved out of the aisle away from the guy in the coat, who was still muttering, and headed to the dairy section, passing a sleepy-looking employee restocking cold cuts along the way. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘nothing like almost getting your ass kicked to hammer a lesson home. You’re not likely to forget it now.’
‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘But what about everything else?’
I shrugged, leaning over the cart as he pulled out some milk, checking the expiration date. Watching him, I thought, not for the first time that night, that maybe it should have felt strange to be with him, here, now. And yet it didn’t, at all. That was one of the things about the night. Stuff that would be weird in the bright light of day just wasn’t so much once you passed a certain hour. It was like the dark just evened it all out somehow. I said, ‘I just think that it’s too late, maybe. All the things I should have been doing over the last eighteen years, like going to slumber parties, or breaking curfew on Friday night, or –’
‘Riding a bike,’ he said.
I stopped pushing the cart. ‘What is it,’ I said, ‘with you and the whole bike thing?’
‘Well, I am in the business. Plus, it’s a big part of growing up,’ he replied, moving down to the cheese display. ‘And it’s not too late.’
I didn’t say anything as we headed toward the registers, where one girl was standing by the only one that was open, examining her split ends.
‘Of course,’ Eli said as he began unloading the cart onto the belt, ‘it’s not too late for slumber parties or any of that other stuff either. But breaking curfew I think you can go ahead and knock off your list.’
‘Because it’s past four A.M. and you’re at the Park Mart,’ he said as the girl began to scan the groceries. ‘It counts, I think.’
I considered this as I watched some apples roll down the belt. ‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘Maybe you’re right, and all that stuff I think I missed is overrated. Why should I even bother? What’s the point, really?’
He thought for a moment. ‘Who says there has to be a point?’ he asked. ‘Or a reason. Maybe it’s just something you have to do.’
He moved down to start bagging while I just stood there, letting this sink in. Just something you have to do. No excuse or rationale necessary. I kind of liked that.