John Tang

Everything You have is Lights

Posted in Short Stories and Excerpts by Jt's Item Roster on June 10, 2011

For an exercise the story took too long to finish.  My goal was to find the character’s flaw, find an opportunity where he needs to confront it; the trouble, however, is the ending doesn’t deal with the issue directly and rather sounds didactic. I might not know Sylvio well enough, and for now, too focused on the narrator’s thoughts.

Everything you have is Lights

Over lunch, Stephen said I was too nice. He was alluding to an experience from my work at Macy’s; (so we could understand the determination to share his wisdom, we need remember Stephen was once the master of retail): “Man, you’re giving discounts left and right. I’d bet if someone punked you, you would give him eighty-percent off.”

“I don’t mind manipulating the system for a customer.” I said. “You want an associate do that for you when shop, right?”

Stephen paused, eating a spoonful of curry with white rice. The sweet, spice aroma brushed my nose as I pushed plate aside.

“The problem is you will always have the same customer coming back to you,” said Stephen. “There was one woman who’d always look for me back at Banana. Worse is she told her friends about me.” Stephen parodied the friend in a soft, childish voice: “Oh, you helped Keri. Can you give me the same discount? They wanted to use discounts on damaged merchandise on top of clearance—I couldn’t take it anymore.”

“What did you do?”

“I was stressed, man,” said Stephen. “I called my manager. Asked her: Does this look damaged?”

“What happened?”

“Didn’t give her the discount. Hell no. It wasn’t damaged.” He said. “Do you want the same people coming back to you?”

 

Later that day I woke up on Stephen’s carpet after a cup of warm tonic we chased down our heavy meals with, a slow roasted mocha made through a drip method and tea-spoon measurements of sugar to a perfect blend. My thoughts amidst a fog, I remembered I needed a bike; Stephen and I discussed this before—perhaps one time we’d bike three miles on the Golden Gate Bridge which has a bike trail that spirals down to the coast. Stephen was already on his computer, and he checked two websites he had saved as his favorites: Ebay and Craigslists. For a road bike, the kind you saw on the streets of San Francisco, the average price on Ebay was five-hundred dollars. Too expensive. On Craigslist, Stephen seemed to have more faith in its offers as he carefully pared down the selections to include mountain bikes in the search, and only searched for sellers who were selling bikes a hundred and fifty dollars or below.  While so, he was schooling me how to properly buy something from Craigslist, a bike especially. You want, for example, to only look through ads with photos (“There is why they don’t post any pictures,” Stephen warned me. “They don’t want you to see a rusty break, for example”). There was a bike and the buyer was from South City, San Francisco, close to my house.

“How about you buy this one?” Stephen asked.

“I don’t know.”

“You’ve been talking about it for months.” Stephen reasoned. “You’re never going to do it if you don’t do it now.”

I paused and said to myself: “Am I being impulsive?”

“What are you worried about?” He was genuine in solving my problem. “Money, that’s the issue.”

“Do I have any plans for the summer?” I questioned myself. “Are there any events happening?”

“Most of the places you go are in the city.” Stephen said. “Think how easy it would be, how much money you’d save from driving, if you biked around.”

“I would…” I’d like to buy the bike. It was a speed-bike I remembered a friend of mine bought for five hundred dollars before, and now it was available for a hundred. “My head is just foggy. It feels better if my head was clear and I wanted it. I hate being wishy-washy.”

“What is there to worry about?” Stephen repeated. I felt Stephen was annoyed, that he could see I was now making excuses. I knew logically nothing could prevent me from buying the bike. It was close to home, and I had a car; I could visit the coffee chop on the beach without driving;

“Let me withdraw money, first, then I’ll call him.”

“Don’t forget to ask if he’s flexible with the price.” Stephen added. “Maybe you could get it cheaper. Just ask: Are you flexible with the price? Tell him you are student, working, and need something to help reduce the cost and to get around.”

I withdrew the odd amount of a hundred and thirty-seven dollars from the bank. I called the owner of the bike, Sylvio, yet I had left a message. He didn’t call me that night, either. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to have the bike.

 

Ten o’clock this morning was foggy when Sylio called my cell phone, interested in selling the bike. He said he was looking out the window, that the weather was “beautiful” down there: “It’s the perfect time to come now.” I was alone in bed, just woken up, and I tried to buy an hour by reasoning I had work at two o’clock. I also needed directions.

“You know,” said Sylvio, “Just research the direction online, now.”

“My internet is down.” I said. “It’s been happening every morning for the past month.”

“That’s okay.” He said. “The directions are easy: You drive…you’re from Holloway, that means you take Nineteen. It turns into 280; take 280 to 380 until you hit 101. You take 101, then you will drive down and you will see Oyster Point Boulevard. It splits into three streets when you reach Gull Street—but you don’t take Gull Street. There will be a Y at Oyster, and you want to turn onto Marina Ave. Go all the way down Marina Ave. and stop at Suite B where I’ll be with the bike outside. I know it sounds complicated, but it’s real easy, you know; it’s a fifteen minutes drive.”

I managed to scratch down the main streets like they were talking points in a debate. How long was the drive? I wondered, for I needed a bolster of time if I got lost. If we were still in south city, it’d take, I could imagine, ten to twenty minutes.

“So you come down?” He asked.

“I have work at two o’clock.”

“Two o’clock? I can meet you at two o’clock.” He misheard me. He had a German accent, bright and loud, enthused as if I was removing thorns from his hands.

“Okay. How about at twelve?” I offered. It was the first number that came into mind; I planned last night I’d take an hour nap before work.

“So you’ll be here now?”

“Give me like thirty minutes, sir.” I said.

“I will see you in thirty minutes.”

“Okay.”

 

I decided there wasn’t enough time for a shower. I put on a yellow, dull hoodie and sweatpants; brushed my teeth and spread a lather of deodorant under my arms. I was as if prepared to exercise at the gym— a self-consciousness shadowed me closely as I searched for my body for odors in the silence of my room. In what seems like gym-clothes, and keeping my breath and arms concealed in freshness, I found a comfort to be in the public—maybe I would jog later in the park today, I thought. Who’d know?

280 to 380 was easy to find, since I passed by the exits driving to work. I had just passed under the overpass. I saw 101 in the distance—however, the freeway seemed to split into north and south. Did Sylivio say north? I searched in our conversation from earlier. I couldn’t find the answer, hence I searched into the confinement of my knowledge that was logic: Did south city include Daly City and Millibrae (I knew San Jose was absolutely too far to be a part of a twenty-minute drive)?

I was looking for the card where I wrote Sylvio’s address and notes for the road, but it fell on the side of the car seat. The tip of the card stuck out by the car door. Each glance I made, I reached for the card. I swerved several times on the road, grew afraid and focused on the overpass coming up when a yellow bus sped on the right side to exit 101 South, forcing me to take 101 north.

Shit. I said in the car. I was driving down now, could see a plane fly over me. There were industrial buildings off the side, like design corporations, delivery trucks, pharmacy plants, sitting quietly by the violet ocean. I knew this road would take me to the airport somehow or back to Sacramento (to be safe).  Shit. I knew should’ve reasoned more with Stephen. I’d imagine moments when Stephen made excellent talking points yesterday, from one stone, leap, step to another: The weather would be clear in the next week; if I didn’t buy the bike now I would never have bought one; you could go anywhere and save gas; you’ve been talking about buying bike since you moved to the city three months ago, if you didn’t buy a bike now you would never buy one—the last of his bullet point could only be resolved by me, that was the issue there.

 

My head was drained as yesterday. I didn’t have breakfast yet and drank only a glass of water to keep the metabolism up. I couldn’t reason why 101 North was the right exit in this state of mind. I was more familiar with the south exit; I have friends who resided in Daly City and Millibrae, there was Stanford University in the valley, and my brother who lived in San Jose. I wanted that kind of familiarity with the northern road.

I told Stephen having a clear mind was important. If my head was clear, I’d be open to choices rather than having conditions shape my answers. There were better questions I should’ve asked Stephen. Thinking about the quality of the bike now, I should’ve asked Sylvio more specifics about the bike: The size (How about for someone who five feet nine inches), the year (Can the bike shift gears), and if it was even a road bike (How light was the frame?). I tried to remember yesterday, and all I could see in my mind was the photo on the computer—and I based my decision on the image of a brown bike with curved handles that justified a road-bike.

I wanted to call the Slyvio, but the turn under the bridge was too sharp and the overpass was too steep. I was looking for the next exit as I heard another airplane tore the sky above me.

 

I passed abandoned buildings, their symbols crooked on three nails. I was afraid I’d find myself in the heart of the city where I’d drive in the against the said-direction on the one-way street, never anticipating where I want to be on the grid, even after making squares; then I imagined Hunter’s point on the map of San Francisco sat on the lower east coast somewhere by the ocean. One midnight my friend rode the Muni there because he fell asleep and missed his stop fifteen block ago. A dark man sat by him in a green pea coat with a blade innocent on his lap. He kindly asked for my friend’s cell phone and wallet. I was searching for boards which read Fourth Street, Fifth Street, and Hunter’s Point (Didn’t know if exits shared the same name as the districts).

I didn’t recognize the name of the first exit but I took it. I was relieved cars slowed to a stop at the street light. This street (the one paralleled to the freeway) had to guide me to an overpass, I reasoned. Now west or east, which direction should I drive in? Just then I saw in the corner of my Oyster over the freeway in plain, white lettering. It said about a mile and three-fourths further. I saw you could make a u-turn at the stoplight.

 

Exiting on Oyster into a neighborhood of industrial buildings, quiet, still, enormous, heavily fenced in, all the way down the stretch of cement road and healthy grass, I followed the path to Gull street where a Y split down the slope which Sylvio said was there; further down there was a harbor with boats laying softly on the ocean by the Yacht Club and the Bait Store. There were old couples walking on the dirt path, older men on mountain bikes riding on the edge of the sandy causeway. Where were the houses? I wondered. Why did he draw me to the remote side of the city? If there weren’t people around, I would’ve thought there was plot in the scene.

In the empty lot I parked beside the trailers. After a while of slowing my thoughts into breathing fresh air in the car, I called Sylvio on my cell phone.

“Do you know where Bait store is?” Sylvio asked. “Go there, please. I will be there with the bike, sir.”

“I know where it is.”

“Go there, sir.”

The street dipped into the ocean where a paunchy woman in a plum blouse waved at me. I asked if people lived here? When she said yes, I thought I’d further ask if she knew a man named Sylvio. She said yes: “He’s on his phone right now. I saw him this morning. Wait for him.” She pointed to a wooden gate with blue tortoise-shell eave. It had metal bars and had an electric security pad.  There, a tall man was coming down with a bike by his side (I couldn’t see him clearly because of the bars). The gates opened. He brought the bike down the handicap slope, and I got a clearer look at him: His red hair was out of control, he had a handle-bar mustache, glasses sitting crookedly on his aquiline nose which had a wart on the upper corner by the drip of his lower eyelid. He was still on the cell phone scheduling a time to meet with “Bill.”

We met at the dip behind the Bait store. While I waited for him to finish his conversation, I saw the bike by his hips. It was a road bike, like what I saw in the photograph. If you stared long enough into the golden flakes on the frame, you’d know the bike was once a Schwinn. The spokes and rims had a touch of rust on the bolts and wires. By the shine on the nose the leather seat seemed to be hard. The only thing that visually seemed fit was the steel chain and the gear-shifter. Could I ask for a lower price? If I only knew more about a road bike, I thought.

“Nice to meet you.” Sylvio hung up the phone. “Sorry, I have to see another man tomorrow.”

I shook my hand and introduced myself.

“Do you like to bike?”

“It has been a while since I rode.” I said. “I usually ride mountain bikes.”

“This bike you will usually see in the city people ride on.”

“Oh.”  I knew that already; that was why I considered a bike outside of my knowledge. The air was cool, thin. The land dry and made for a quiet run for you and your footsteps and breathing. I couldn’t hear any trucks for miles, nor people talking, nor the boats floats on the ocean. I didn’t want to think about the bike anymore. Rather I wanted to ride against the wind. At the moment I further chased my wonderment, asking myself how a man lived in this kind of solitude. What did this man find so appealing when he said today was “beautiful” when there was overcast and a slit of orange light peeling from under the earth? Somewhere in me I knew the answers but somehow I asked him: “So you live here?”

“It’s the only way to live, sir.” He said. “I come out and the air is clean.”

“We’ve been having showers lately.”

“Yes.” He said. “Are they your first out here.”

“My first, yes.” I said, thinking he could probably warn me for hours about the weather, and so I asked something interesting. “How often do you visit the city?”

“Never.” He said. “It will be there when I want to go.”

“As long as it’s there,” I finished his thought in English, “you don’t worry about it, right?”

It’s too long since we talked about the bike, and I was here under compressed time and for business.

“So the rust,” I said, considerate this was a used-bike. “Can I just clean it?”

“You can buy a…not wool…a sponge, one’s with the rough layer, some soap, and clean it; the rust will come right off.”

“May I ride it first?”

That’d give me the real answer we’ve been looking for. Leaning the bike to its side, I spun the petal to the top, and rested my leg on the petal. The first push was then easy on the stony street, and it helped me find bStephence as I turned the handles left, then right, grinding the rubber tires. It has been eight years since I rode a bike and felt this was my only means of traveling; there was a bus, but it was hot in the day from body sweat after being under the dry sun for fifteen minutes. Also, you might see a trail or a garden you might want to walk through, but couldn’t because you were secured in the velvet seats. I knew my home city on a bike, the street by the penitentiary where people raced their cars, the playground where children drank and had sex in the warm nights, all my friends’ homes that traced the rim of the yellow valley.

I rode behind the Bait store, and coming around the wooden stairs there was the dip again. I rode down the fall. Following the curve of the street, fighting through the influence of gravel on a slit of rubber, I inhaled some of the rush until I rolled for a while. I stopped and parked the bike between me and Sylvio in the shadow of the Bait store.

“Are you from here?”

“Came here from Vacaville for school at SF State.”

“Welcome, sir.” He said. “How long have you been here?”

“One semester. You’re looking at three months.”

He didn’t seem interested in school as if heard it for the first time, and plus, every state has its own college. I understood his common knowledge would take care of his curiosity about me.

“You’re from Vacaville, you said?” He smiled. “We had our puppet tours at the Onion Festival.”

“I heard it used to be called Onion city or something with Onions.” I said. “So what, you had a theater company? When did this happen?”

“My God, place your mind in the 60’s. I will die in the next five years.” He laughed. “Our last stop was always in Vacaville, our tour usually for children.”

As he explained, I imagined his golden stage, violet curtains closing on a moral note; the Czech craft in the silver strings hovering and eclipsing one another, with the paint flaking off the deadwood—he said he shaved the paint with a box-cutter. “Why doesn’t your generation have a sense of intuition for the things they buy,” he said. “You’re generation doesn’t have that kind of entertainment anymore, to listen to someone. Everything you have is lights, you know. If it flashes, like a silver spoon on sand dunes, you would reach for it.”

I didn’t want to steer too far away from business, so I clarified the features of a road-bike or a bike in general: How to remove the wheels and tighten the breaks.

“Can this fit in the car?” I asked.

“Yes, sir.”

He followed me to my car. Sylvio removed the front-wheel as I opened the trunk and set the backseats down on their faces. The car neatly fit inside, with the wheels by the window and on the frame of the bike the chains faced upward. I closed the trunk, and we leaned against the car waiting the brush of wind to fallback, which I knew was marker of the last exchange of words.

“Can I have it for a hundred dollars?”

“I cannot sell it to you for that, sir.”

“It’s in the car, already.” I said. “There was rust on the bolt, the name was coming off, the breaks were loose.” Some of the details I said outside what I’ve seen must’ve been true, for he seemed to ignore them. By the look of his hard face, he didn’t seem to be upset but in thought. I further fed him the other conditions of my life: “I’m a student, working in retail to pay for college. And all I have on me is a hundred dollars.” I opened my wallet in his line of gaze. Aside from a hundred dollar bill I showed him the depth and space inside the leather casing.

“It is in the car; that is true, you know. It is all there like your reasons.” His eyebrows furrowed to the street. “The message you left seemed like you wanted the bike. You were so detailed in your thoughts, sir, with the frail pitch in your voice.  I know, sir, you have the thirty-seven dollars—that is the problem there. But I will not ask you to complete the payment. No, no.” He paused. “I could do about anything to compensate thirty seven dollars; dent your car, use this box-cutter I have in my pocket and slash your tiers, ask my neighbors to close off the parking lot. But, no, I won’t have that fall on you. You just stole from me and you’re leaving freely with a good bike. I can’t have ill fall on you. You’re a college student, you know. They teach you well how to justify everything, including your own self in the world. I won’t stop you from you discovery.”

With my justifications in mind, the rust, the conditions of school and all, I thought he acted absurdly as if I didn’t pay anything (a hundred dollars was more than sixty percent of what he was asking for). He just didn’t understand my conditions were true. Turning away from me, he said many more wise things under his breath, his hands holding each behind his back. This conversation we’re having, I wanted to tell him, was going pass by next week. The threats, the guilt, the fear, were only passing stones in my head. A couple nights of sleep wash them away; I knew some of the conclusions would be, the bike was something from the 60’s, it wasn’t a mountain bike, the tracks on the tires were worn. So what I did was fine. Also if I could remember clear as the air I breathed in, Sylio would die in five years—he said that! I was trapped in a short gaze when I thought these things needed to be said, yet Sylvio has passed the gate and his thin body floated down the harbor.

The wind blew hard as the overcast approached the coast. A drizzle sprayed on my face, a fog was veiling into the industrial buildings in the eastern distance. Perhaps this why people cleared from the sandy pathway. I got into my car when the rain began, and remembered I forgot to ask how to out of neighborhood and back onto the freeway. The truth was, I said to myself, he was the one who’d have to deal with the storm. I felt a little better.

 

 

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