by Thomas Healy
“Will you take five dollars for this?” a gangly woman in a Grateful Dead sweatshirt asked Galen.
He turned around and looked at the vintage leather bicycle helmet she held in her left hand. A blue price tag hung from one of the wrinkled straps.
“I would but the lady in charge of the sale probably won’t.”
“Where is she?”
“Inside the house.”
“I guess I’ll go check with her then.”
“Good luck.” Galen smiled. If it were up to him, he would have sold the helmet to the woman since her offer was only two dollars less than the asking price. But not Helen. He was pretty sure Helen would not budge on the price. She had hired him to work for her on quite a few estate sales and she was adamant that the first day of the sale the listed prices were not negotiable. It was only on the second or third day when everything under fifty dollars sold at half price.
Galen had met Helen the winter before last when they worked together on the serving staff in the dining room of the Ferrall Hotel. She had been there before him and was the first to leave when she got her realtor’s license. He was still waiting tables so she knew he could use the extra income and he was usually available to work during the day. He seldom turned her down. The wages were meager but the work wasn’t hard. All he had to do was to be polite and make change.
This morning he was stationed in the garage because it was crammed with so many items for sale, Helen wanted someone there to keep an eye out for shoplifters. He didn’t mind, though. The air was surprisingly mild for this late in October. Besides, he had brought along a heavy wool sweater and a thermos of amaretto-flavored coffee.
A bearded man approached him with a saddlebag tucked under his left arm. “Can I pay you for this?”
“You sure can.”
Carefully he counted out the money. “Whoever owned this place sure was interested in bicycles,” the man remarked, glancing around the spacious garage at all the bicycle accessories stored on the shelves and hanging on the walls.
“I didn’t know the owner. But I understand, in his spare time, he did a lot of repair work for friends and people in the neighborhood.”
“I’ve been in some bike shops downtown that didn’t have half the inventory in here.”
“I guess working on bikes was a real passion for him.”
Galen, sipping coffee, sat back in his camp chair and glanced over at all the tools and spare parts and chains scattered across the work bench in the corner. From some of the other estate sales he had worked he believed he could discover a lot about people based on their possessions. Obviously the owner of this estate was a cycling enthusiast, not only a rider, but someone who enjoyed working on two-wheelers. Galen figured the man was probably someone who had liked being on his own whether tinkering in his garage or riding along a street or trail. He bet he was not the sort of person who engaged in much small talk but immediately got to the point and then went about his business. Courteous, perhaps, but not cordial. People as serious about sprockets and cranks and gear shifts, he knew, preferred their own company.
A few months ago, Helen hired him to work an estate sale on the east side of town. The widow who had lived in the modest limestone house where the sale was conducted was very fond of cats and, not surprisingly, possessed numerous drawings, paintings, ceramics and sculptures of them. Right away, he assumed she was a quiet person who preferred to be left alone, yet kind and considerate toward her neighbors, and his assumption proved to be pretty accurate based on the subsequent conversations he had with people at the sale who had known her.
You are what you own, he discovered time and again, and possessions are definitely one of the clearest expressions of anyone’s identity.
“You a relative of Mr. Kleiner?” a customer asked Galen after he bought a claw hammer and a crescent wrench.
“No. I’ m not.”
“I thought maybe you were a nephew of his,” the man said as he shoved his purchases into a book bag slung over his left shoulder. “You bear some resemblance to him around the mouth and eyes.”
Galen smiled. “Sorry, but I never met the gentleman.”
“Well, he was a hard person to get to know. I’ve lived in this neighborhood almost eight years and hardly exchanged a word with him. I guess you had to be interested in bicycles to get him to open up.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” another customer chimed in as he handed Galen three dollars for some reflectors. “I’ve never known anyone so crazy about bicycles. You couldn’t get him to shut up sometimes once he got started.”
The woman beside him smiled broadly. “The first thing that comes to mind when I think of Mr. Kleiner is how he used to bicycle kids around the neighborhood on his big blue beach cruiser. They’d fit right between him and the handlebars.”
“Remember how he’d let them ring that damn bell practically the whole time?”
“How could I forget? It was as loud as an ice cream truck.”
Someone beside the cruiser, overhearing her, rang the bell on the handlebars, and the woman immediately cupped her ears.
“Yeah,” her companion muttered, also smiling, “he was kind of the uncle of the neighborhood. Good old Uncle Lloyd.”
“You’d never have said that to his face, though.”
“Lord, no. He would’ve thought you were making fun of him and stared right through you.”
“He was a curious person. That’s for sure.”
Galen looked at the clunky beach bike braced against the furnace, trying to remember when he was small enough to have sat on the handlebars. He was sure he would have rung that bell as incessantly as any of the kids Mr. Kleiner had given rides to, making believe he was perched in the cab of a fire engine racing through the neighborhood in response to a four-alarm blaze.
“Personally, I never had much contact with him,” an older man with bushy eyebrows remarked as he sorted through a cigar box of toe clips. “He always seemed pretty distant to me.”
The woman snickered. “Definitely took a while to melt a square of butter in his mouth.”
“I don’t know. I just never felt comfortable around the man. It was as if the last thing he wanted to do was talk with a grown person. Unless it was about bicycles. With kids, I understand, he was a real chatterbox, but not with people his own age.”
Around ten o’clock Helen came out to the garage and brought him a maple bar and asked if he needed to take a break.
“No. I’m fine, thanks.”
“You making much money?”
“Some, but not much. Mostly nickels and quarters.”
Faintly her shoulders swayed to the reggae music that blared from the boombox in the kitchen. “We’re doing pretty well inside,” she declared. “We’ve sold the fridge and stove and we’ve got quite a few bids on the credenza and dining room set.”
“Yeah, I’m pleased with the way things are going so far.”
“Have you had any problems?”
“A pewter salt and pepper shaker set went missing,” Helen said. so I assume someone must’ve taken it
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Yeah, well that happens at these sales, as you know,” she said. “But it really wasn’t worth all that much.”
She swerved to the music and surveyed the garage. “I’m surprised you haven’t sold any of the bikes yet.”
“I’m surprised, too, especially the blue one over there,” he said, “the beach cruiser. I’ve had quite a few people tell me Mr. Kleiner gave kids rides on it around the neighborhood.”
“Is that so?”
He nodded, jangling the change in his waist pack. “Several people remember him. Figured it might have some nostalgic value.”
“Any of the kids he used to give rides to talk to you?”
Galen thought a moment. “No. Now that you mention it, I don’t believe so.”
“That figures,” she said, suddenly becoming still even though the music continued to blare. “I’ve spoken to a couple people here who’ve told me they wouldn’t let their children get anywhere near him.”
“Why’s that?” he asked, startled.
“Apparently the parents of some little girl accused him of touching her inappropriately a few years ago. Nothing came of it, as I understand, but after that he was seldom seen riding with any children. Only by himself.”
“But before that had there been any complaints?”
“Not that anyone has told me about.”
“I’m amazed no one said anything to me about this.”
“I suppose it’s not the kind of thing people discuss with people they don’t know.”
“They spoke to you about it, though.”
“Lots of good buys here and inside the house,” Galen announced as two heavy women wobbled up the driveway. “Hurry before everything’s sold.”
They smiled and moseyed over to the shelves stacked with garden equipment. He had made the sales pitch so many times he doubted if he would ever get it out of his head, suspected it would linger there like a lyric from a popular song long after it had stopped being popular. Business had slowed considerably since the initial couple hours of the sale so he didn’t have to make the pitch as often, which he was grateful for, though he knew Helen was annoyed about the decline in activity.
Occasionally, as he waited for customers, he caught himself staring at the beach bike, finding it hard to comprehend something so plain could be involved in something so dreadful. It appeared safe, sturdy and secure. As harmless as a sand pail. He tried to picture its owner mounted on it, riding out of the garage with a youngster tucked in front of him, pedaling down the street like “a great blue cloud,” as Helen said someone had recalled. It all seemed so innocent. Small wonder so few people in the neighborhood were aware of what was really happening.
Most of the people he questioned about Mr. Kleiner that afternoon acted as if they had scarcely known him, despite the fact that the man had resided in this house for nearly thirty-two years. He suspected many he spoke to really didn’t know about the dark rumors that circled around the retired chemist, but he also could tell from the guarded responses of others that some did know. Their silence was deafening, their seeming ignorance not entirely credible.
The closest anyone came to admitting he knew of the stories was a burly guy in a John Deere cap who, after purchasing a set of thin cone wrenches, remarked to Galen, “I’m surprised that beach bike hasn’t gone yet.”
He shrugged one of his massive shoulders. “Maybe to bury the goddamn thing, I suppose.”
“Why would anyone do that?”
He started to walk away then paused. “To get rid of it and everything associated with it.”
“I don’t understand.”
Silent, the burly man shambled away, sticking the wrenches into his back pocket.
By the end of the sale most of the items in the garage had been sold, including several of Mr. Kleiner’s bicycles. The only ones that remained were a rusted old Raleigh and the beach cruiser. As always, Helen instructed Galen to pack up what was left in boxes to be picked up later by the Salvation Army. He managed to fill one and a half boxes with tools and bicycle gear before he wheeled the rusted Raleigh between the boxes and printed DONATION on a piece of cardboard and set it on the bicycle seat.
Galen then turned his attention to the beach cruiser, looking around the nearly vacant garage. From the kitchen the sounds of the Caribbean continued to play, and he smiled, imagining Helen’s narrow hips bouncing to the pulsating rhythm. Out of the half full box he found a screwdriver, got down on one knee, and began to remove the handlebars. Then he pried loose the seat, deciding to disassemble the bike piece by piece.
Thomas Healy welcomes your comments on “Up to Speed” at laurel462001[at]yahoo.com.
photo by dno1967b.