Short Story Of the Day (flash fiction), Backpack by Bill Chance

“The world says: “You have needs — satisfy them. You have as much right as the rich and the mighty. Don’t hesitate to satisfy your needs; indeed, expand your needs and demand more.” This is the worldly doctrine of today. And they believe that this is freedom. The result for the rich is isolation and suicide, for the poor, envy and murder.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov


I have been feeling in a deep hopeless rut lately, and I’m sure a lot of you have too. After writing another Sunday Snippet I decided to set an ambitious goal for myself. I’ll write a short piece of fiction every day and put it up here. Obviously, quality will vary – you get what you get. Length too – I’ll have to write something short on busy days. They will be raw first drafts and full of errors.

I’m not sure how long I can keep it up… I do write quickly, but coming up with an idea every day will be a difficult challenge. So far so good. Maybe a hundred in a row might be a good, achievable, and tough goal.

Here’s another one for today (#44). What do you think? Any comments, criticism, insults, ideas, prompts, abuse … anything is welcome. Feel free to comment or contact me.

Thanks for reading.


The Backpack


For ten years, Ricardo Zenon rode the train to work every day. He knew every foot of that track like the inside of his eyelids.

The elevated tracks ran above a shady stretch of sad squalor and forlorn misery – rundown store strips and cracked asphalt. He would look out on that world like it was served up for his own amusement.

It was not unusual to see police lights or hear the faint echo of a siren through the thick train window glass, but one morning went beyond that. The grimy parking lot of a building housing a grimy Chinese Restaurant, a Cellphone store, and a place that sold discount cigarettes was filled with cop cars and an angry looking clump of police. They were all focused on a couple of scared looking teenagers being cuffed.

Zenon only had a quick look at this drama as the train sped by. He marked the details in his memory as best he could. He figured it was a drug bust. It must have been a big one to draw that many police and all those vehicles.

So if it was a drug bust, it didn’t look like the cops had what they wanted. Even in the split second he could see their faces, the police didn’t look happy, didn’t look satisfied, even though they had caught the two kids. They looked more frustrated than angry. They hadn’t found what they were after.

And there was something else. He had looked at that same scene for so long, even a tiny anomaly would stick out. There, on the roof, next to a dingy air conditioner, was a backpack. It was a standard backpack, black, up on the roof, not too far from the edge where the cops were cuffing the two scofflaws.

He was certain that it wasn’t there before.

Zenon started to tell the folks at work about the backpack, but he choked off his talk. He realized he was keeping it a secret because he wanted it to himself.

It was obvious, he thought. The bag had to be full of either drugs, cash… or probably both. The kids must have thrown it up there at the last second, when they realized the jig was up but before the police closed in. That’s why the cops had seemed so frustrated.

“But why haven’t the kids come back to get the bag?” Zenon asked himself in the evening when he was thinking about what to do.

“Because they are still in jail,” he replied to himself.

They won’t be there forever. They’ll make bail. If he wanted to get the thing, he had better do it soon.

He looked for some way to get up onto the roof. He spotted a utility pole, a fence, and a piece of conduit high up in the air that he could use. He could climb the fence, work over on the conduit, and fall down onto the roof.

He was so excited he couldn’t think of anything else. He could pull it off.  He planned, bought supplies, and that night, after the stores all closed, he was ready.

He knew it would be dark, but he hadn’t realized that it would be this dark… pitch dark. But he was prepared – he had brought light sticks. He gave one a twist and a shake and the green glow popped out. The fence looked ugly and intimidating up close – but he knew he would be able to climb it.

Now, with his eyes used to the darkness and the light stick illuminating the darker corners, Zenon moved over to where the fence ran between the building and the pole. His feet slipped on something and he looked down at a layer of cigar wrappers. People had been buying those cheap cigars at the tobacco store and unwrapping and pulling the tobacco out of them here and leaving the trash piled on the ground.

It disgusted him.

The fence looked rustier and dirtier up close than it did from the train. Again, he was prepared – he had put on a pair of tight-fitting leather gloves to protect his hands. He took a deep breath to bolster his courage, grabbed the wire firmly, and began to climb.

He began to climb slowly, trying to brace himself against the splintery wooden pole. He hadn’t climbed anything other than a mall escalator in thirty years and it was harder than he thought it would be.

His fingers, arms, and legs were screaming in pain and his lungs burning with effort and stress as he reached the conduit that ran from the pole onto a structure over the roof.

Wrapping one hand into the wire for strength, he pulled out two more light sticks. Cracking and shaking one, he threw it out onto the roof of the store, giving him a goal to shoot for. The second he threw harder and farther, hoping to illuminate the object he was going after. He was lucky, it fell right in the correct spot, and he was able to see the backpack.

And now there he was, in the darkness, holding on to the conduit, ready to shimmy his way across to the roof.

He could feel his heart pounding in his chest as he began to slowly work his way over to the roof, hanging from the rough steel conduit. It began to sag but despite a hideous creaking, it held his weight. Zenon was about halfway across when he felt a tug from the direction he had come like someone was trying to pull him back.

He let out a cry of panic. It was hard to see in the dark. Had someone caught and grabbed him? He tried to yank free, but the pull was strong and in his hysteria one of his hands slipped off the pipe.

Zenon thought he was going to fall. It was a long way down to the trash-strewn concrete behind the store. But his remaining hand clenched with a desperate unwavering grip and he stayed attached, swaying back and forth. When he thought he couldn’t stand any more he heard a sudden metallic sound like a spring rebounding, and he was free. He realized that a loose piece of the fence must have been stuck in his jacket, pulling him back. His swinging jarred it loose.

He regained some strength and moved without thought across the gap and then dropped down onto the roof. He collapsed into a quivering heap on the rough gravel, crying softly as he recovered, realizing that he was not going to fall onto the cruel concrete below.

Finally, he calmed down. He tested his legs and found he was able to walk. Slowly, he moved toward the fading green glow next to the backpack.

Zenon stood staring down at it. It looked different up close.

Finally, he took a deep breath and pulled the last light stick out. Kneeling, he carefully found the zipper, pulled it around, and started to remove the objects within.

There was a newspaper, old and moldy, but still in its flimsy plastic bag. A ziplock with what may have been a sandwich, but now was reduced to a formless lump. Three cans of beer. A ragged T shirt and a pair of wet socks.

And that was it.

He felt like the had been struck in the head. He began to shiver with a renewed panic on top of desperation. It had never crossed his mind that the backpack would not contain anything of value, but also, Zenon realized that in all his careful planning, he had left out one critical step.

He had never thought about how to get down off of the roof.

Upping My Bicycle Commuting Game – Part 4, A New Backpack

“I’ve got my full rucksack pack and it’s spring, I’m going to go Southwest to the dry land, to the long lone land of Texas and Chihuahua and the gay streets of Mexico night, music coming out of doors, girls, wine, weed, wild hats, viva! What does it matter? Like the ants that have nothing to do but dig all day, I have nothing to do but what I want and be kind and remain nevertheless uninfluenced by imaginary judgments and pray for the light.”

Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums

Osprey Talon 22, in red

I have never liked wearing a pack while I ride my bike. In the summer I sweat too much anyway and a pack makes that so much worse. Plus, they are uncomfortable – I rode home from work one day with my laptop in the backpack the company gave me to carry it and by the time I made it home my shoulders were killing me. I had to stop every hundred yards or so, get off, remove the pack, and stretch – the pain was unbearable.

But commuting every day without a pack proved impossible. I have panniers on my bike but they don’t always cut it. I have to carry my stuff from my bike to my office. Plus, it’s not only about capacity, it’s about organization, and a backpack can be kept loaded… simply grab and go.

I began to realize my problem wasn’t with small backpacks per se – but with the shitty packs that I had. There was the pack the company gave me – which was designed to carry a laptop from a car to a desk. The other packs I had (and I had more than a few) were all giveaways from various conferences or cheap sacks I found at Goodwill. I had some Christmas money left over after I bought my hi-viz cycling jacket – so I started to research small backpacks/daypacks.

And research I did. I started online with searches like “best backpacks for bike commuters” or “best cycling daypacks.” I made lists, winnowed them down then bulked them up. I wrote down pros and cons and quoted review after review. I watched youtube videos until I was sick.

Actually the selection narrowed down pretty quickly. The most popular pack was the Osprey Radial – which was specifically designed for bike commuters. I talked to a cyclist friend that worked at REI and carried an Osprey Tempest 20 with her everywhere she went. She explained the philosophy between different types of packs (hiking, biking, travel,etc.), the importance of proper compression straps,  and where each type would be found in the store.  So I went down to REI and poured over the wide and deep selection that they offered.

I did look at pack brands other than Osprey – but it didn’t take me long to figure out that they seemed to know what they were doing. I liked the Radial – it was designed for the exact purpose that I needed a pack for. But it was very technical – it was complicated with a lot of bells and whistles. It had a laptop sleeve but no slot for a hydration bladder. It seemed perfect for what I wanted, but wouldn’t be very useful for anything else.

But over in the hiking section I found the Osprey Talon 22 and realized that it was exactly what I wanted.

For me, the biggest thing was comfort. I didn’t want a pack that caused me pain like that horrible laptop bag.

The Osprey Talon (and the Radial) had an innovative design with mesh suspension and die-cut foam back panel and curved straps. Plus the Talon had a wide, contoured hipbelt – and I know from years of backpacking that suspending a load on your hips feels a lot better than hanging it off your shoulders. Though it does have a few do-dads (water bottle pockets, large front stretch pocket, trekking pole attachment, ice ax loop, helmet keeper thing, external hydration bladder sleeve, slots for blinking light) basically, the pack itself is one big panel-loading compartment – which is what I wanted. The helmet keeper might even be useful sometime.

So it was the Osprey Talon 20. I chose one in red (for road visibility).

And I love the damn thing. I don’t know if I’ve ever been this happy with a purchase, especially one that I researched and agonized over so much.

The suspension actually works. No matter how heavy it’s loaded I can barely feel it on my back. We’ll see how cool it is when summer gets here – but they obviously put a lot of thought into the way it fits. It is customizable (there’s this weird Velcro panel inside the back that goes up and down to adjust to how long your back is) and after some fiddling I have it fitting me perfectly.

I was a little worried that at 20 liters it would be too small but since it is one big flexible space – it holds more than it looks like it does (I’ve even been able to fit a full-size photo tripod in there -which won’t go in anything else). I really have no negative thoughts about it at all. I take it to work every day – rode to the grocery store today and filled it along with both panniers. I even dug out an old hydration bladder and on one not-so-cold day rode around sipping water (it worked great).

I never thought I’d be so tickled pink over something as simple as a day pack – but it makes me very happy.



Cyclist With Backpack on Royal

New Orleans – an Alternative

Pre-Katrina I biked around New Orleans many times. The city is pretty flat, which makes it easy on the knees. On one trip I discovered a bike path along the top of some of the earthen lebees. It was delightful; one could see the river on one side and the city spread out on the other.

Here there are few of the usual interstates that divide and wound cities. There’s mostly just I-10, on its massive concrete pilings, which snakes into the center of town, desperately trying to stay above most of the funk and humanity below. New Orleans was, and I suspect still is, one of a few large cities across the U.S.A. with character and personality, with its own food, culture, language, and music. It never fails to inspire, though it has clearly flourished despite much neglect and years of abuse that were revealed to the world when the hurricane struck.

I bike along Magazine Street and then on St. Charles where what at first glance appears to be Spanish moss in the trees turns out to be Mardi Gras beads, hanging from the weird branches, block after block – and it’s not even Mardi Gras season.
—- David Byrne, Bicycle Diaries

Royal Street, French Quarter, New Orleans