The $420,000 price tag on the rusty bicycle fluttered wildly every time the air conditioner kicked on, swirling around in the display window of the old junk store. I couldn’t see the whole of the pitiful machine since much of it was washed out in the bright white reflection cast by the high-noon sunshine, but the cracked and flattened tires, punctuated through with dozens of sharp and gnarled spokes, begged for a mercy killing for the entire contraption.
The temperature inside the store calmed itself long enough for the fluttering tag to come to rest inside its noose, swinging like a convict from the rusted bell that still hugged the curved handle bar. I confirmed it. $420,000 for the bicycle.
The pricing error amused me for just a moment as I gawked at the hideous thing. Surely this was some joke, some ploy on the part of the store owner to engage passersby, enticing them inside his store in their haste to point out someone’s mistake. I took the bait and entered the store through the wooden chipped paint door with one small cracked window pane.
No bell announced my entrance, but the proprietor still greeted me with a loud hallo, his head popping up from between sideways stacks of moldy books and LP records in their sleeves. “Over this way,” he called.
I stepped around a horrifying carousel horse whose face and mane had been scorched in a fire, trying not to imagine a carousel full of children erupting in flames that lick at their tiny legs as the horses go around. “I came to ask about the bicycle,” I began.
“Well, get in line. It’s just not a week day without someone wanting to buy that ridiculous old bike,” he groused.
I was dumbstruck by the thought that prospective buyers are so plentiful as to annoy the owner. “Oh, I don’t know that I want to buy the bicycle, but I wondered if you are aware that the price tag reads almost half a million dollars.”
“I am,” he gruffed without stopping his compulsive dusting of a set of used dentures. I waited for him to elaborate, but nothing came.
“Not to be rude, but may I ask why the bicycle is so expensive?” I pressed.
“Read the sign,” he mumbled wearily, gesturing with his feather duster in a jerking motion towards a framed, hand-lettered sign propped against a dented tin percolater coffee pot next to an old brass cash register. He returned to flicking the years off of his relics while I was left to puzzle over the sign:
All Inquiries About The Bicycle Will Cost $5
I wasn’t certain that I wanted to know the history of the decrepit device badly enough to pay for the information, not now that I was sure it was just a gimmick to make people browse the stacks of useless junk. I shrugged to myself and turned towards the door, but couldn’t bring myself to be so close to the answer only to abandon the minor riddle over a few dollars. I fished in my wallet and came up with enough money, then placed it on the smudged glass countertop and waited.
The old man stopped his work, put down his feather duster with an exaggerated sigh, and came around behind the countertop to lean his elbows on it wearily.
“So? Which version do you want? The one where I tell you this bike was ridden in the first-ever Tour du France? Or how Teddy Roosevelt used to ride it on the White House lawn? Or maybe how Bonnie and Clyde stole it from a kid at gunpoint when their car broke down? What’s it gonna be?”
“Which version is the truth?” I demanded.
“Depends on who’s listening,” he muttered, turning towards his file cabinet to pitch some invoices into the mostly empty top drawer, slamming it shut with a bang and reaching for a cleaning rag.
“Well, I’m listening and I paid fairly for the privilege. Will you tell me the truth? Or am I going to hear some fantastic mumbo-jumbo about how the bicycle is possessed by the soul of your mother or some other nonsense?” I snapped, more angry at myself for walking into his dupe than at the man.
“Now don’t be ridiculous! That bicycle? Possessed by my mother? That’s just insulting! My mother’s been dead for fifty years!”
I mumbled my apologies and turned towards the door, but not before I heard him say to himself, “That’s my wife’s soul in that bike.”
“I said, that’s my wife’s soul in that bike. She loved that bike. She died several years ago and now she’s in the bike.” He continued the mindless singular cleaning and straightening while I stared, mouth open. To be taken in by a swindler was one thing, but to be cheated out of a few dollars by someone who was no longer in his right mind left a sour taste in my mouth. I turned to go.
“That’s right, hon,” he crooned lovingly as I quietly tiptoed past a teetering stack of moth-eaten ladies’ hats, “I won’t let you go for any old price.”
As the door shut behind me, I heard the shrill tinkle of a bell.