May Short Story Winner

CBCondez, Pasig City, Philippines

The Rickety Bike

The sun was already setting, and the residents of San Marcelino, a little town in the outskirts of Manila, were settling down for a nice warm evening.  But not Jim.  He rode on his trusty old bike, hesitant, deciding whether to hurry home or to take his time.  He was supposed to go on another extra shift at the 24-hour store tonight – Mr. Lam trusted him, you see, “a model employee,” the boss had remarked once or twice.  But today, the big man told him to, well, get some rest, saying he – Jim – had been “overdoing it.”  Rest, indeed!  Bah… Mr. Lam might as well have declared to everyone that he believed those things his co-workers had been whispering behind his back.  As if he didn’t know.  Those weren’t his fault!  Surely not.  Not really.  And as though they were a big deal anyway… 

Oh well, he might as well enjoy the evening.  It would be fun to spend some time with Johnny and Little Billy and Tanya and Dorothy.  He missed his brothers and sisters, but either they were asleep when he got home, or he was too tired to even talk.  He and Johnny used to take the younger ones to the river to swim and go fishing.  Or they would go to the fields and fly kites.  Gosh, it seemed such a long time ago.  Really, at his age, he shouldn’t really want to “play” anymore – he was nineteen, for heaven’s sake – but inside, he did want to enjoy himself.  He simply wanted to laze around and not bother. He wanted to get a better bike, for one thing, one of those mountain bikes that had a sturdy built, not like this junk.  Although… he paused for a second… he wouldn’t – couldn’t – really throw this one away even IF he could get another one, could he?  Nah, his rickety bike was like… an old pet.  Or family.  Or an extension of himself.  He had a lot of good times on this bike.  He hadn’t had much fun lately, of course, because he had to work during the weekends, too.  Hell, working 2 shifts 7 days a week was not fun, not when he could think of a hundred other ways to spend his hours, especially Saturday and Sunday.  A few drinks at the pub would be welcomed but… nah, he could never really hold down his drink – it always went to his head or onto the pavement.  Besides, he couldn’t afford it.  He simply didn’t have money to spare nor to spend.  It always annoyed him that no matter how much he worked, he never had enough – they never had enough.  He remembered how, at one point, they had survived on nothing but a few pieces of dried fish and some rice everyday – for a whole two weeks.  Yes, they got through that, alright, but it wasn’t something he would want to go through again.  So he worked.  And worked.  It pained him sometimes to see the sad look in his sibling’s faces whenever he had to leave early each morning, especially little Billy’s, but that’s just the way it was.  It shouldn’t have been, but it was.  Oh, Billy would be ecstatic to see him tonight.  They all would.  There’d be screaming and running and pillow fights… 

It would be nice to have dinner with them, too.  He missed those meals his mum cooked.  She made the best meals, especially when she could get hold of all the proper ingredients.  She loved feasts and grand dinners and barbeques and parties and nice things.  She hosted a lot of those in the old days.  Old days… like they were all far away.  He liked them, too, but for several months now, since he’d started going on extra shifts, he’d been eating breakfast, lunch and dinner at work.  Not very enjoyable, if truth be told, especially when the soup’s grown cold.  Mum would be really pleased to have him at the table for a change.  Except… 

Well, Jim couldn’t quite bear that look on his mother’s face.  From the jolly woman he’d known all his life, she had turned somber and bleak lately.  It’s not that she didn’t smile – of course, she did! – but her smile was no longer as bright as it used to be.  It sort of, well, it… it didn’t seem to reach her eyes anymore.  Perhaps, if Jim earned enough money, they’d be able to get his dad some proper medication or a transplant or whatever it was that he needed. In two months, Johnny would finish high school and he could get a job, too.  Perhaps, if Dad got well, if his dad got up and about again, his mother would be happy once more.  They all would. She’d always believed that the old man would get better, and she always dreamed of comfortable days like the ones they used to have.  She never lost hope – even when everyone else had.  Hope that even his ailing father had already given up on.  Or perhaps, Mum knew there wasn’t any hope but she refused to let go anyway. 

Uhmnn… no, perhaps he’d drop by at Sally’s first.  She was always pleasant company.  Always smiling, always tender.  Lately, however, it had been very difficult trying to figure her out.  Nippy in the least, cranky at most.  For the life of him, Jim couldn’t understand what’s bugging her.  For the past couple of years, she’d been the sweetest, most understanding girl in the world.  She had encouraged him immensely when his father was diagnosed with kidney failure.  She was there when his mother went into depression after they had sold much about everything they owned to pay for hospital bills and medications and dialysis.  Sally helped him prepare for job applications after he quit college on his first year.  She tutored his siblings.  She even gave financial help or food every now and then.  She loved him dearly, he knew.  He simply couldn’t imagine what he’d do without her.  But now, well, now, she’d been acting… stupid.  Last time, when Jim was able to get off a few hours early from the store, he and Sally took a stroll into town and she started ogling at that white dress at the wedding shop window.  It’s not like they’d be married anytime soon.  That’s plain stupid.  And she knew it.  To his surprise, she called him “insensitive” and she stomped off fuming mad.  He didn’t do anything, as far as he knew.  All he remembered saying was, “Oh hell, that’s expensive!  And it’s meant to be worn for, what, an hour? I’d rather buy a bike than spend money on that.” 

Yes, he’d just drop by her place, maybe bring her a small bag of cookies or something.  A kind of peace offering.  That would probably make her happy. Maybe, she’d even forget about that silly dress – it had been there for a long time anyway and it would still be there for an even longer time.  Then he could tell her about the problems at work, about people blaming him for missing money and customers being short-changed and such.  As though a few coins was a big deal.  Mr. Lam was a rich man, he owned several general merchandise stores and grocery shops in nearby towns, and he wouldn’t – shouldn’t – miss a few coins a day.  Or a bit of candy now and again.  She’s a great listener, his Sally.  She’d of course understand.  She had always been on his side, even when her friends called him “a total loser.”  Nope, she’d never let him down.  She was Mr. Lam’s favorite niece, after all, so things ought to be alright. 

On second thought, he might as well go home now… no candies for Little Billy tonight, though.  Jim would just see Sally over the weekend.  She’s very patient.  She could wait.  She would wait.  Yes, of course. 

Then the chain on his bike broke.  He muttered and cursed, as if that would help.  He sighed.  He’d just have to find one at the store – Mr. Lam wouldn’t miss one chain, surely.  So he trudged on the asphalt streets in town, and as he passed by the wedding store pushing his rickety bike along beside him, Jim saw the storekeeper taking down the white gown from the display window.