And the Bike Went NowhereAnd the Bike Went Nowhere
Jul 17, 2021
The story of Tyler Chen, who wakes up one morning to a priest at his door with a purple bike, and a humble request
It was fifteen past six in the morning when Father James Feldman knocked at his door. Tyler wasn’t surprised by the fact that the priest had come to visit him at six in the morning, not at all. He was surprised it hadn’t happened sooner, and that Father James had with him a purple bicycle.
“Good morning Mr. Chen,” said Father James. He offered a wide smile and pushed his thick-rimmed glasses up his nose. He was a short man, and the light of the rising sun glimmered on the bald spot on his head. “I have a humble request.”
“Morning,” Tyler replied. “What’s with the bike?”
It was a small bicycle, even next to Father James. The glittery purple body contrasted sharply with Father James’ black robes, but Tyler thought that overall, it was not the strangest thing he had seen the priest haul with him.
Father James looked at the bike, then at Tyler. “It’s for you, of course.”
“That’s right. You don’t have a car, so I figured this was the next best thing.” He patted the bike. “This will do the job well enough.”
It was common knowledge that Father James often chose congregants to do special tasks for him, and Tyler had a feeling he was about to become such a person. It was not something he expected, really, because he wasn’t the sort of person people ask for favors. So he let Father James inside, because he was curious.
“You’ve got a lovely place,” Father James said. “But you need some plants other than succulents.”
“I like succulents,” Tyler said. And he did, because they were easy to take care of—their leaves would not wilt and fall if he messed up. “Do you want tea?”
“I’ll take earl grey,” Father James said, and for the first time this morning Tyler was not surprised. Their very first conversation had been about tea, which was not what Tyler had expected from a priest. Father James preferred darker blends and to steep them for a long time—only to douse it with milk and sugar. Tyler had a more respectable preference: chamomile, or peppermint when he felt festive. Tyler prepared Father James’ tea first, then worked on his own. But it never came out the same as when his mother would make it. Tyler suspected it was because he didn’t steep it long enough, but he didn’t want to run the risk of it turning bitter.
When both cups were ready, Tyler brought them over to where Father James had sat down. He was staring at the red lanterns on the ceiling that Tyler’s mom had made him put up for Chinese New Year. He never bothered taking them down, and besides, it was a reminder of his roots. Father James took a sip from his cup and grinned at Tyler when he sat. “We missed you at the barbecue last week. We were afraid the Buddhists had bagged you for themselves.”
Tyler shrugged. “What if the Buddhists gave me a better offer?”
“Somehow I doubt it. They’re not as lively as we are. From my experience, anyways.” Tyler laughed at that, and a moment passed as they drank their tea. “I’m sorry for not attending,” Tyler said.
“Not forgiven,” Father James said. “I’m sorry to say Tyler, but you’re going to hell.”
“Of course,” Tyler said. He sipped his chamomile, which came out better this time than last.
“But if you help an old fellow out with a small favor, I’m sure heaven will have some leniency.”
Tyler wanted to point out that Father James’ hair, those on his beard anyway, had yet to grey, but he knew the priest enjoyed the performance of himself. “How can I help?”
“Well, I wouldn’t want to impose on your time. I’m sure you’re a busy young man. Are you sure you can do me this favor? It’s quite all right if you can’t.”
Tyler looked at his succulents and empty driveway. “I mean, you did tell me I’d go to hell otherwise.”
“Wonderful! Well, I need you to deliver a package to a dying friend of mine.” Tyler’s eyes widened. “Jesus Christ.”
“Exactly, Tyler! Jesus.”
“Isn’t this something you should be doing yourself? Why me?”
“Unfortunately, I have many responsibilities. And unlike Padre Pio, I cannot be in two places at once.”
Tyler stood up and collected the tea mugs, moving them to the kitchen. Father James followed and handed him a brown package.
“Is this how you usually do things?” Tyler said.
“You’re asking me if I delegate tasks to people who would feel too guilty to say no? Maybe. But really, Tyler, I’ve always believed that God speaks in sign language.”
An hour later, Tyler found himself riding the purple bike to the hospital by the beach. It was a scenic journey, but uncomfortable—the bike was a bit too short for him. He imagined Father James looked even more foolish riding it from the church to his house earlier that morning, and he took some comfort in that. Tyler had asked about the size of the bike before Father James left and said he’d look like an idiot. The priest chuckled. "Ah but Tyler, don't you know the price of wisdom is to have been a fool first?"
He walked into the hospital and asked for Rio Martinez. The guard pointed him to the urgent care wing after checking his ID. "202," he said. "Up the stairs to your left." When he was a kid, his parents owned a pharmacy business that had the fortune of being next door to a Cuban cafe. Tyler was reminded of it as he walked up to room 202. The smell of Cuban bread overpowered the smell of hand sanitizer by a slim margin.
He felt nervous now that the moment had arrived. He felt anxious about lots of things often, but he wasn't sure why he felt nervous now. He didn't really like hospitals. Still, he approached the bed on the far end of the room, by the window. It was the kind of view that was reserved for dying people. It was eight in the morning, and sunlight filtered through the curtain, spilling into the room. One of the nurses must have left the window open because the ocean breeze played at the curtain’s fabric.
There was a man in the bed, and he was made of wrinkles and blood spots. He was sleeping, and Tyler stared. He did not want to disturb him. The old man looked so still, and he drew in short and quiet breaths. Tyler felt like he was holding still, as he would when playing freeze tag, or hide-and-go-seek, in those critical moments as he waited to be found. He never lost when it was time to hide, but was very poor at seeking. He never knew where to start.
But the old man, Rio Martinez, coughed himself awake, and Tyler was embarrassed to be caught staring. Rio was not shocked to see him. "Hello," he said. His accent was thick with the traces of his native language. "Have you come to deliver me?"
Tyler was confused for a moment but pieced it together. "Oh, uh... Yes I have a delivery for you from Father Feldman."
He nodded as Tyler reached into his pocket and got the package. "Father Feldman is a man of good. He blessed me last night."
Tyler reached out and put the parcel in the old man's hands. He waited as Rio opened it. He wasn’t sure why. Maybe he hoped it would contain something important, a revelation, a truth, a call to action that Tyler could follow. He watched as the old man’s shaky hands opened the package.
A rosary fell onto Rio’s lap, and he smiled. "Ah. Good," he said.
"A rosary?" Tyler asked.
Rio nodded. "Si, rosary. Thank you for delivery young man."
"You're welcome," Tyler replied. "I should get going."
"Wait," the old man said. "Come here."
Tyler stepped forward, uncertain.
"What is your name?" the old man asked.
"Ahhhh. Ty-ler." The old man said it the same way the staff at the Cuban cafeteria had said it when Tyler was a boy. "I am Rio. Like river. You know?"
"Can you deliver for me something?" the old man asked.
Tyler could not say no.
The old man reached over to the table by his side. Struggling, he grasped a collection of leather journals before Tyler could move to help. Rio handed them to him. "What do I do with these?" Tyler asked.
The old man raised his hand a moment as he caught his breath, but it turned into a wet cough. Tyler watched helplessly as he fought for air. When he got it again, his accent and the hoarseness of his voice made it hard to understand.
"Do whatever. These are mine. My life. But I have lived it, and no one will live it again." He paused for a moment to see if Tyler was following. Tyler was confused but nodded him on. "I have lived good life. Strong. Like rio. Don't you think?"
"Yes," Tyler said, though the old man did not look strong now.
"Strong like river. Strong rivers end at oceans, no? Sad rivers die in land. I was born in mountains. Cuba—it's beautiful." He looked out at the beach through his window and pointed at the water. "Deliver there."
Tyler followed his gaze. It was a glorious day, the last of summer. "Okay," he said. The old man leaned back into the bed, and he seemed satisfied. "Gracias." He closed his eyes and thumbed the rosary in his hands.
Tyler said goodbye and left with the journals in hand.
There was a slight breeze as he biked, and he realized it had been a long time since he left his apartment. He was moving towards the beach, but he wasn’t completely sure of his route. He wasn’t the best bicyclist as a kid, despite the best efforts of his mother. She’d tell him it was because he was too worried about falling and that’s why he fell.
Tyler parked his bike in front of an ice cream parlor that sat between a nursery and an Asian pawn shop. Soon, he found himself at the edge of the water. The ocean ebbed at his feet, wetting his shoes. Tyler did not mind because he was busy flipping through Rio’s journal. He tried reading it, but he couldn’t quite grasp the rushed penmanship nor the language. But he found various sketches throughout the small journals. Some in pencil, some in ink. Portraits of people who Tyler would never know, but that Rio had clearly known very well. Laugh lines and wrinkles and dimples were detailed with familiar care on various portraits. Some sketches were of animals. Others were tulips and roses and orchids. There were mountains, rivers, things. Kites, trains, motorcycles, and gondolas. And words, of course, words he could not understand. Though he doubted he could understand even if they were in English, for Rio had lived a life so unlike his own.
One page was a drawing of Chinese lanterns. Hundreds and hundreds of them reaching into the expanse of the sky until they were little ink blots on the page. Tyler had never seen that, and he was Chinese. He imagined that if he had his own journal, it would be empty. Tyler fought the urge to turn around and take the journals with him, to take it back home and put it on the shelf under his TV, next to his succulents. Instead, he walked waist deep into the water and threw the journals out to sea beyond the reach of the currents that would wash them ashore, and he hoped that maybe they’d find their way to Cuba.
When he walked back to the ice cream shop his shoes and socks and pants were wet, and every step reminded him of the fact. People stared at him, but he did not care. He was relieved to find that his backpack and bike were still there. He hadn’t brought a lock for them, so he was pleasantly surprised.
He plopped down at one of the tables outside the ice cream shop and stared out at the ocean. He was thinking of maybe ordering an ice cream when a little girl popped her head out from behind the entrance to the plant shops.
"Pst," she whispered, though she was very loud.
Tyler looked at her, and tilted his head forward. "I took care of your stuff, I have a bike like it. I got it from Walmart," she said.
"Thank you," Tyler said. "That was very kind."
The girl smiled at that and then came out from the door frame. She looked around and then ran up to him. She placed a small plant from the nursery into his shirt pocket with lightning speed.
"Can you take care of my plant? He's dying."
Tyler furrowed his eyebrows and looked down at his own shirt. The flower tickled his chin. "It looks fine to me. Why do you think it's dying?"
She shrugged. "It stopped growing, and my mom said all plants should grow."
"Well," Tyler started to say, but she ran off before he could finish. He wanted to tell her that wasn’t technically true. But it didn’t matter much, really. He sat there, staring down at his own shirt for a few minutes, then got up to order ice cream.
When he arrived at Father James’ church, the mid-afternoon sun was blazing and the priest was washing an old, retired SUV. He saw Tyler approaching and called out "Who knew there were so many spiritual benefits to washing a car?"
"I did it," Tyler said. He was mindful of the plant in his shirt pocket as he dismounted the bike and leaned it against the property's fence.
"Ah, that's good," Father James said. He was covered in soap and he smelled like oranges. "I like your plant."
"It was a gift," Tyler said. "But I have a question.”
“I was wondering why you sent me to Rio. Did you know I would have to take the journal to the ocean?”
“Ah, the journals!” Father James said. “He loves those journals. Did you have a read?”
“No. It was in Spanish.”
“But why did you send me? Did it mean something? What was I supposed to get out of it?”
Father James offered a grin. “Really, Tyler, I just needed some help. And besides, you got a bike out of it! For your troubles.” He pointed at the purple bike, which leaned against the church’s fence.
“You want me to keep the bike?” Tyler asked.
“It’s a gift,” Father James said. “So, you have no excuses not to come to the church barbecues. But you can always sell it, if you prefer.”
Tyler stared at the bike for a moment and shook his head. "No, I think I'll keep it. It's a nice gift. Thank you."
Father James smiled. "That's great to hear."
Tyler pointed at the bucket and sponge. "Need help?"
"I won't say no."
Tyler picked up a sponge and started washing the car with Father James. "So, does this mean you'll convert to Catholicism?" the priest asked.
"Hell no," Tyler said. "But what do you know about Taoism?"
"Nothing in the world is softer than water, yet nothing is better at overcoming the hard and strong," Father James quoted. "Daodejing."
Then he took the hose and doused Tyler in water, laughing.
When Tyler arrived home that night, he placed his plant on the shelf under the TV, and went to sleep. When he woke up in the morning, he thought that it might have grown.