by Sophie Guan
Art by Coby Chuang
Issue: Solivagant (Winter 2018)
It was an early afternoon when Travis first met the old man with his tinted sunglasses sitting in front of the garage. The ‘Garage Sale’ sign was hung low on the edge of the table by thin tape, and the wind that sent it gently fluttering in the air was warm in the heat. A single bead of sweat made its way down Travis’s face, soaking into the straps of the green bike helmet as he pedaled slowly past.
Beside him on his familiar black bike, his older brother Jay glanced back. “Hey, that bike on sale looks cool. Wanna stop and ask about it?”
It wasn’t because of the bike, or the small plastic Christmas tree they end up buying, or the neat black suitcase on the grass, or the abundance of time, that made him agree—but rather the lone old man under the blares of the sun with his hands clasped on the table. He wasn’t sure why he agreed, but some part of him knew it was the ‘right’ thing to do. Whatever ‘right’ meant.
On the other hand, his brother’s intentions were clear as daylight. He’d always had an affection for cars, bikes, and the likes of them, for reasons that Travis couldn’t explain. Perhaps it was all just intrinsic, some sort of biological pointer that determines who they were, what they were—their thoughts, their words, their actions.
The old man slowly got up from his chair, his pale skin moving as his mouth formed a quiet greeting. They got off their bikes and leaned them by the driveway against the gleaming kickstands.
The bike for sale parked on the grass was old. The gear shifter looked broken and cracked, and the wires running along the bike were stained with rust and grime. The tinges of blue beneath the brown patina hesitantly shone through lighter coats of dust.
“That’s my old bike,” the man said as they neared. Jay went over and tested the brakes of both sides. “It’s in good condition, I’d say. Many people these days, they pay a lot for bikes. A few hundred, thousand, but I tell you, this is a good bike.”
A single piece of binder paper, taped to the handle, fluttered in the wind for attention. Seventeen dollars, it read in crude writing. Upon closer inspection, the back tire was flat, and the whole bike sagged heavily on the kickstand. The chains had fallen off the ring and were drooping like a tired sunrise, devoided of energy but perhaps just needing something a little more. Jay lifted it inches off the ground, and slowly lifted the chain back on with a few pedals.
Mechanics was something that his brother loved.
The old man returned with a bike pump when Jay asked if he had one. Travis thought the flat tire was a result of holes, but they were just empty from years of negligence. Inserting the clip onto the bike, Jay began to work. Travis didn’t understand how bikes work, nor did he understand what his brother did, but the chain slid back to place, and the tire straightened itself in seconds. The bike was up and running like it was never asleep. Jay took it for a quick spin in the spare meters in front of the house.
This was the fourth garage sale they had seen, but the only one they had stopped for. The house standing behind the garage was large—and strangely empty. Devoid of life, of laughter, of color. Pressed by houses on both side, gray against gray and white against white, it looked strangely lonely.
Travis watched Jay slowly pedaling past them. The old man followed his gaze softly. They were side by side, facing the same direction, but they were watching two different things: Travis his brother, and the man his bike—or so Travis thought. When the old man turned, the blue eyes beneath the yellow-tinted sunglasses of the old man were hazy and tired and unfocused.
Travis asked, “Do you live by yourself?”
“Yeah,” shakily and slowly, like he had been since they first met, the man answered. “I’ve lived here by myself for years now. My sons, they’re off somewhere. Married. College.” The bike began making its third circle, its gears clanking as Jay turned. “My wife, she passed away a few years ago.”
He wanted to say that he was sorry, but was it the appropriate response? The words didn’t make their way past his throat, and he bit his lips, his eyes flickering in silent sincerity. What he hoped, at least, because he knew what he wanted to express was sorrow but he might just end up expressing a look of fake interest. Emotions were hard to express sometimes. Words were so much easier. Would the man appreciate an ‘I’m sorry’? What good would it do? Words were sometimes as empty as emotions. Easy to form, easy to fake.
“It’s always worse at night,” the man continued. His eyes had wandered off, but Travis held his. “In the day? I struggle through it. At night? It’s bad. It hits me hard. I’m by myself. It’s just, the house is just so quiet. Without, without somebody here.”
It slipped out without meaning. “I’m sorry.”
Travis didn’t think the man heard him, because he continued in his soft gentle tone like he hadn’t heard. Perhaps he really didn’t, but the moment was lost. “I’m old now. Eighty years, and I, I don’t think I will be here long. That’s why I’m trying to get rid of these things.”
Travis’s eyes followed the floundering ones and flickered to the walking sticks leaning against the silver-grey walkers, to the black suitcases against the green fading grass, to the stacks of thick books on the table, and fell on the bike Jay was riding back to them.
“I fixed it. It’s good to go now,” Jay said, hopping off. Something else in the air broke. “It’s a really good bike, actually.”
The old man chuckled softly. He patted softly the handles as if he were gathering the old lost memories the bike had been collecting over the long silent years. “I was just saying that, telling your brother that, my wife passed away a few years back.”
Jay’s response was immediate. “I’m sorry.” Somehow, the words held more weight than Travis’s from moments ago.
“And, I don’t have a lot to offer you except experiences.” The old man didn’t spare a second for the empty words Jay offered. “You two are, you are brothers, right? I…you, you need to know that, in the end, it doesn’t matter who you are.”
Blue eyes shifted from brown to brown.
“My wife was all I got for a long while now. It made my life so much brighter than it is now. We’d, we’d go to vineyards.” He chuckled softly. “Libraries, parks, and all sorts of places.”
Was there somebody in Travis’s life whom he valued just as much? Maybe in the future, when he have shared enough memories and moments. Maybe one day, he would feel the same stones wedging themselves bitterly in his throat at the thought of losing that somebody.
Hard silence fell like mismatched pizzle between them as memories swept the man off his feet for a few long moments. Blue eyes pulsed and faded and pulsed when the man found himself again, struggling for the right words to describe what couldn’t be described.
“Don’t ever lose each other. That’s the best thing you can ever have.”
They didn’t end up buying the bike despite the old man offered for free; they already had five bikes. They end up buying the tiny two-feet Christmas tree for six dollars. It was offered for free as well, a token of gratitude perhaps for granting the old man a final moment of peace. The man didn’t even seem to register the payment when Travis gently pressed it into his old weathered hands. They curled around the bills like Travis’s hands would around a crumpled piece of binder paper.
How much would it cost to get a new tree? Couldn’t be more than ten, or twelve. He should’ve paid more for it, done more, done something more.
“Come back if you change your mind about the bike.”
Travis bought the tree, but when they set off, it was Jay who, with one hand, pulled it close while the other gripped the handlebar tightly to maintain his balance. Moments later, the driveway they left behind was nothing more than pieces of memory lingering under the warm afternoon sun.
“Let’s go home.”