Henry watched the girl in her drop-waisted dress, heavy brown hair tied up in an even heavier bow, as she scrubbed molasses off the drive chain of the Black Beauty bicycle. She worked the delicate brushes through the tiny crevices, dunking them in saltwater — a necessary evil — to free them of gook. Her dress was stained, and brown water dripped over her knees.
A girl working on a bike was an odd sight, but after the molasses flood that had exploded through the streets of Boston just a few weeks prior, Henry realized normal was no longer easily defined. Thanks to the shoddy craftsmanship of the Purity Distilling Company’s holding tank, over two million gallons of molasses had devastated the North End of Boston. Normal now meant a sweet stench that clogged the lungs; brown stained streets; a block of collapsed houses where people had drowned, trapped inside the thick syrup. Henry still had nightmares about the horses and people which had been reduced to unidentifiable, caramelized, writhing lumps. It wasn’t until the fire fighters figured out saltwater was the key to removing the mess that many of the victims were identified.
A lot of bicycles had drowned, too.
Many young men just bought a new one. Or gave the sport up entirely. Once a beacon of masculinity and patriotism, they were now nothing more than a child’s toy for the working class. The war was over, and men could pour as much gas into their thirsty Model-T’s as they could afford without looking unpatriotic.
Few wanted to save the bicycles, but that’s what the girl had said. “Save it.” Not fix it. Not clean it. Not “get my money’s worth” like so many of the rich boys who had brought in similar bicycles caught in the dark tide. Save it.
The girl’s blank check was still in his hands. She’d been ready to fill it out until he told her the repair total. She’d frowned.
“You’ll have to check with daddy?” he’d asked. He was still confused why a girl was running her father’s errands. Maybe a big brother had put her up to it.
But she’d shook her head. “If I clean the molasses off, would that lower the price?”
Save the bicycle? Clean it herself? How could he not let her stay?
Clara worked the rag around the crossbar, the saltwater, sugar, and metal mixing into a familiar scent. She let herself become hypnotized by the rubbing motion. She felt, for the first time in weeks, satisfied.
She had been on her way to the North End Park Playground, her little brother Ben tugging her arm. She had resisted. Young women didn’t run, according to her mother, and twelve was close enough.
They were only a block out when a sound like rapid gunfire split the air. Then the brown wave crested over the building tops. Had she not been running so fast, she and Ben might’ve been picked up like that poor Avis boy.
Since the explosion she’d been ill at ease. Her mother thought it was due to fright, being so close to tragedy that awful afternoon. She wasn’t entirely wrong. That moment had affected Clara. Until then, she had never realized how dull life was, how restricting. Now she knew. She shouldn’t need to be running for her life to feel the wind in her hair, her heart pounding, her blood rushing. My god, she had actually sweated, in January!
Her mother’s insistence that everything go back to normal was the cause of her malaise, not the cure. Still, her mother had handed her a blank check and forced her out the door.
“Go shopping, dear. Get a new doll, a new dress.”
That’d been her intention, but then she saw the bicycle, coated in molasses, upended around a light post. Abandoned, stuck, but capable of much more. She simply couldn’t pass it by.
She’d taken it, and her blank check, to Henry’s store.
Once Henry was confident the girl knew what she was doing, he returned to the front of his store. Business was slow, as was becoming more and more usual, so Henry gazed at the line of bicycles that took up the entire right side. Parts and tools hung from the walls, more bicycles dangled vertically from the ceiling. Lost in thought, he didn’t initially see the young man knocking his bicycle through the door, coughing as he jammed the wheel into a pump.
“Can I help you?”
“What can I get for this?” He wrestled the bicycle inside. “Could you use it for parts?”
He was the fifth this week. “Give you problems?”
“Nah, I’ve just outgrown it.”
“You could use it toward a discount on–”
“No.” The young man grimaced. “I mean, I’ve outgrown bicycles.”
Henry kept his eyes down as he wrote the check and receipt. The boy rattled on about how an anarchist had blown the tank, and if Massachusetts had become a dry state a year ago, there wouldn’t have been so much molasses stored there. Henry had heard the rumor already. His eyes wandered.
These were his customers now.
He thought of the girl in the back. Maybe they didn’t have to be.
Clara was pleased with herself. The bicycle nearly gleamed. Her skirt was soaked. It was time to hand the work over. She found Henry staring.
She looked at her knees, pride draining from her. “It’s ready for you now.”
Henry shuffled his tools on the tabletop, then brought a few over. He handed her one. “You’ll need to get that chain off.”
“I’ll guide you. You’ve got to get oil on there before the saltwater takes its toll.”
Clara hesitated, feeling the heft of the tool in her hand. “Okay.”
An hour later, Henry felt a newfound lightness. Clara was beaming.
“Nothing.” Henry handed her back the check.
“Sir?” Clara’s eyes fluttered.
“You did all the work.”
“But your time. The oil…”
“You’re going to take good care of that bicycle. Which means you’ll be back for maintenance. We can talk numbers then.”
She folded the check and tucked it into her sock. “Thank you.”
“There’s one more adjustment.”
“The seat’s too high for you.” With a few quick twists, Henry adjusted it. “Now you’re set.”
“Oh, I wasn’t…” her face flushed.
“Applesauce. You found it. You fixed it. You ride it.” He handed it back to her. “It’s your bicycle.” Henry realized this only as he said it.
Clara gripped the rubber handles. Her bicycle. Then her face fell. “I don’t know how.”
Henry laughed. “I didn’t imagine something like that would stop you.” Henry flipped the sign on the door to CLOSED, then held it open. “Come on, then. I’ll show you.”
As the sun set over the sickly sweet smelling city, Clara peddled her bicycle, legs pumping, wind in her hair. Her knee bled from her first attempt, and she wobbled dangerously when she hit a hole in the street, but her face was set with determination.
Much of her city was still stuck mopping up molasses, arguing about anarchists, suffrage, and lawsuits.
But Clara had found her own way forward.
And she was never looking back.
Banner Image: Pixabay
Additional Image – BPL [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Story inspired by a real event that took place in Boston after a poorly constructed storage tank burst, releasing 2.3 million gallons of molasses, flattening nearby buildings, injuring and killing some, and leaving the harbor area in thick layer of stick