There are moments when Grampa’s eyes are pulled towards a memory. As if it’s physically over there, on the couch, sitting legs crossed with a cup of tea, visiting. Or forward, elbows on knees, reshaping the space. It’s almost always a person. A conversation. And he’ll either smile as if listening to a good story, or suck his teeth and shake his head with regret.
Refusing the walker tucked in the corner, Grampa waddles over to the couch, shuffling his stub feet a dozen times until his back is to its worn cushions and dark green corduroy seams. He collapses into it, releasing the brace of age, closing his eyes as he goes. I smile. He’s probably falling onto the thick quilt of his parents’ bed right now, heels digging into the mattress springs, grinning into his mother’s vanity mirror as he bounces back up, weightless.
“Did you bike here?”
“Have you bought a car yet?”
He’s so worried I’ll become weak. He asks me every time, just to be sure.
“Never do. Music bounces around in there, killing your ears. Forget the engine sounds, V8 power and muscle cars. Forget all that.” It’s his mission to ensure I remain competent.
“How about a record, Grampa? While I make you a sandwich.” Copland’s Greatest Hits has been on the turntable for weeks now.
I turn it on, gently placing the needle on the vinyl.
“You haven’t brought me any records in a while.”
“Good vinyl is hard to come by these days.”
I’ve been bringing him VHS movies instead. I convinced my boss to let me keep them as he upgrades. Grampa has the films politely stacked beside his television.
I ease the stereo’s wooden lid down. My fingers leave prints in the dust.
“Ride along St. Patrick Street, in Saint-Henri. Drop in on all those antique stores. They’ll have stacks hidden somewhere. You remember.”
Saturdays. On Grampa’s royal blue Raleigh, sitting on the seat he rigged up on the crossbar between his saddle and the handlebars, a grand paternal crash cage. We’d go antiquing after riding along the Lachine Canal in the morning, mostly to look for bicycling memorabilia. Nothing else was worth the space in his shop. I would nap against his stomach in the sun, pretending to be asleep on the long, late afternoon climb home.
“I remember,” I say from the kitchenette.
“You still have the milk crate?”
Milk crates just happen to be the ideal size for about twenty albums, angled slightly.
“Watch for pickpockets. They’ll lift whatever’s in there while you’re stopped at a red light. Wrap it with rope, and secure it with a clove hitch.”
When you ride, you’ve got to be ready for anything.
The sound begins as a liquid scratch until the needle finds its groove. Grampa lets the music take him. I place his tomato sandwich on the table beside him, then a glass milk. He opens his eyes.
“I love Copland. I love mid-twentieth century American composers. So much hope in this music. So desperately needed back then.” He takes a bite.
“Music is atemporal.”
Grampa looks at me as he chews. His cheeks are eighty-eight years old, and are practically translucent. His eyeballs have sunk inside their sockets, irises shaking inside the whites, as if they could just slip down, so he’d be staring at the bottom of his mind. But he’s holding on to them, and his stare cuts because of it.
I’m rarely so forthcoming with him. I just like to listen. I just like to experience him. He finishes his bite, takes a long sip of milk. My uncle Colin always said that lighting up a pipe was the ultimate dramatic pause. For Grampa, it is his glass of cold milk. He looks like a sad clown with that milk mustache.
“Music, for me, brings me back to a place and time. A song would come on the radio that I knew your Grandma loved,” he says, as if he was back in their old kitchen, watching her cook. “She would smile without looking at me because she knew I was about to ask her to dance. Or,” he says, shaking a finger, “or if I put something entirely modern and unheard of on the turntable in the studio, and Ralph would give me his producer’s glare and pray enough calls would flood the switchboard to finally kick me off the air.”
He retreats to the moment of defiance, snarling at Ralph behind the glass.
Copland’s notes scratch through the speakers.
“Copland’s Rodeo Ballet,” he says, wiping mayo from the side of his mouth, “the third dance. So much truth, and power, in those notes.” He nods, letting the memory of the music, and the music itself, combine. “Copland was always decompression time for me. I used to sit in my chair after racing home and listen to him, try to get my heart rate down.” He looks around him, at his tiny apartment, and snickers.
Decompression. “Kind of like meditating.”
He stares at me again.
“In Spike Lee’s film He Got Game,” I say, “kids leap across the basketball court, through the air in slow motion, the projects monumental behind them, slam-dunking basketballs, beautifully timed to Copland.” The movie is at the top of the pile, collecting dust.
I rarely talk. And I’m saying weird shit.
“I’m stuck, Grampa.” It just comes out.
He notes at my untouched sandwich. “How do you mean?”
“I’m all…cloudy.” I rap my knuckles against my temple. “In the noggin.’”
“Who isn’t, my boy?”
The vinyl tiles are cracked along the floor, across the tiny two-and-a-half. I can’t meet his eyes. He wipes the other side of his mouth, because he has a tendency to drool, and says it slowly.
“Even on the bike?”
Staring at the cracks, I nod.
Grampa used to have a bike shop in the garage in the guesthouse, thirty years ago. Eventually he moved in, when I was nine, and slept on the bunk bed upstairs. It was freezing inside, but he insisted the electric heaters were enough. He had three going all winter long, for the couriers and other diehard clients.
He had two record players, one in the shop, and the other upstairs in his room, thousands of albums in crates, which he transferred up and down that steep staircase, or fastened onto his rear saddle for the ride across the city to the CBC.
The shop was the biggest mess you could imagine. Everything blended together because of the grease. He’d turn around, ratchets sticking out from his apron pockets, and there I’d be. His hello was to say “Pass me that Philip’s Head,” – or container of grease, chain key, those wire cutters. His fingers were always blackened. He’d slip on special gloves to handle the records. Mum insisted he attack his hands with the scrub brush before supper. My father, whenever he was home for dinner, would comment on all the low-life losers who rode in and out of the garage. Most would stick around for Grampa’s ranting, listening to him talk about music. I’d take my place on the stool, and watch. The shop’s walls were covered in wheels, cogs and chains, like a strange mechanical clock, an epic timepiece for cyclists.
Then there was the treadmill.
It was in the middle of the shop, adjustable for any dimension of bicycle and varying degrees of tension. He’d carefully place a bike onto it, ensuring the wheels were snug in the rollers. Then, at the spry age of sixty-six, he’d leap on and start pedaling. He’d pick up speed, testing out the work, making sure gear transition was fluid, the drive train oil-tight.
On Saturday mornings he’d adjust it to my BMX, and would lift me onto my banana seat. When I was balanced, pedaling and in control, he’d press the generator to it, roll over the TV stand, and I would power up Johnny Quest, or Dungeons and Dragons.
I could slow down time on that treadmill. Be in my own little temporal bubble. Cyclists would flutter in and out of the shop. I could only see them in my peripheral vision. When I tried to lock onto them, they’d be blurry. I’d have to bring my eyes back to the screen, to Land of the Lost.
And when I was playing with my cars in the sand box, or with my Adventure People in the laneway, sometimes I’d feel a wind gusting past me, and I’d see a blurry trail leading to the street, vanishing a second later.
Grampa’s lost in a memory, too.
“Thinking too much,” he says, looking at the floor. “Makes you old, fast.”
We both stare at the same point. Memories are strong for Grampa. They are anchors. And to return there, to the past, you have to sacrifice something.
Grampa’s been happy to just be himself, content to just remember, and pass on his wisdom at his own rhythm. Since he’s moved into this apartment, he’s been letting himself go. I’m forcing him to navigate his stream of consciousness again. Grampa focuses, taking it in a direction it hasn’t experienced in years.
“Tell me more.”
I take a sip of milk. Copland helps me fill the space.
Grampa sits up, forgetting his pain. He is changed: grand and paternal in a different way. “What have you lost?”
Dead end job at minimum wage, my father’s voice reminds me.
“I don’t know.”
Grampa leans back and studies me. Realization creeps onto his face.
It was a few weeks after Grandma died when Grampa moved into the guesthouse. He forgot my birthday, which was completely understandable. But when you’re a kid, rituals define space and time. Grampa savoured them, and would prepare something out of the ordinary for me in celebration, something I would always remember. That anticipation was with me as I watched him frozen at the gate next to his bike, a small stack of records and some supplies in his crate. He stared at the half-eaten hot dogs, the small bits of chocolate, cake-covered wax paper emptied of pennies, the Cheesies and barbecue chips and cans of Fanta and cream soda. Kids with sun-bleached hair and darkened skin, pool passes pinned to the corners of the towels draped around our necks, wearing bathing suits, sneakers and nothing else, watching us saddle up and roll out of the driveway in formation to our destination, eight of us on BMX bikes, some with crash pads, none of them, like my one-of-a-kind vehicle, modified with a banana seat.
I stopped and smiled brightly at him, to let him know that it didn’t matter one bit. But it was too late. He had already followed his guilt into his shop and closed the door.
Something changed that day. As my friends and I rode to the pool, jumping off the highest sidewalks, standing on cross bars, riding with no hands, I knew something was different. But when you’re a kid, you don’t let that kind of thing show. Something had changed and I was the catalyst for it. Maybe that’s why I find myself with him so often. Maybe that’s why I stayed in Montreal when my parents abandoned him and moved to Toronto.
Maybe this change would have happened anyway.
After Grandma died, his health began to fail. The first to go were his feet. Infected hangnails went gangrenous because of the biking, and his toes had to go. He could only shuffle after that, carefully, sliding with tiny steps. He could have rigged up a special kind of pedal, but he never got on a bike again. He aged ruthlessly. Mum thought that it was because he missed Grandma, and was letting himself go, to be with her.
But his client list was expanding. I’d see them come and go like flashes at the edge of my vision, catching only glimpses of their wake. And sometimes, early on Saturday mornings, I’d see a flash of royal blue, a ghost trail of something familiar.
I’ve never asked him about it. I never wanted him to know that I knew. I was worried that if I did, it would stop. He’d somehow stop me from seeing them, to protect me, or my knowing would affect it.
“When you become a mechanic, you’ll live a life of poverty. Week to week, you’ll hope someone snaps a cable, or rides over a shattering of glass. Usually you start out in someone else’s shop. But you already have The Knowledge. You’ll stay open all year round, just in case.”
I’m scared. Almost enough to tell him that I didn’t really need to, that I’m working full time, that I’m happy. But I know it’s not about a job. It’s what will happen, at the end. He’s just telling me how it will be afterwards. After we do this.
“You’ll want to fine-tune machines so they glide with only the air’s friction against them, so you have nothing else to think about, to distract you.” He gestures beyond me. “Pass me that key, up on the shelf.”
The key is small, round and hollow, the kind for a Kryptonite lock, with a black rubber casing. The veins in Grampa’s fingers are dried purple. The cracks in his skin look like white marble. Copland is still playing, Theme for a Common Man.
I remember, last year, listening to this music on the radio, when CBC listeners were voting for the best song of the millennium. I think it came in second after Jupiter. I remember cranking it, touching my forehead to the speaker, skin tingling the way it does when you’re flooded with truth.
“But then you’ll begin to notice the people who come,” Grampa says. “Really notice. People who are lost, who’ll have come a long way, who need something extra.” He’s staring at the wall, identifying something I can’t see. “You’ll give up a lot to help them. But it’ll be worth it.” Grampa twists, roars, and manages to get to his feet. “And make sure you ride for you, to the places you’ve been, and need to return to. Saturday morning is the best time to go.”
I stare at the key. “It’s all still there?”
“Of course it is.”
“How?” I’m panicking.
He shuffles over to me. “I own it, my boy.”
“Who lives there now?” I meant the house, not the shop.
Pinched in his fingers, Grampa holds out the key.
“You do,” he says. He gently pushes it into my palm, then lets go.
I’m riding west along Sherbrooke Street, away from Grampa’s. My back tire is a tread-less slick, my front a knobby. I hacksawed three inches off the ends of my handlebars to close the grips together ― less chance of snagging side mirrors. Pieces of strategically placed plasticized cardboard keep my pants clean on drizzly days. The milk crate is secured so tightly it doesn’t affect my balance in any way.
I keep it in eighth gear; easy enough for a hill climb, but taut enough to get some downhill speed. I hate changing gears. I’ll climb the steepest hills as high as I can until my legs are moving through molasses, like I have something to prove.
Traffic ties up both lanes, so I hop up onto the sidewalk, old ladies cursing, mommies protecting toddlers. I zip between mailboxes and phone booths, benches and concrete plant pots, launching off corners as lights turns green, gunning it in front of cars and buses in the middle of the lane.
I push the most surreal movies onto my friends, slipping a print-up of my review into the sleeve, with explanations of the least accessible parts. I’ve amassed four hundred so far. Most hate my choices. But some friends of friends have begun calling me, urging me to print up a film zine and leave stacks of them at video stores, that I’d get a serious following if I did.
“I’ll give it some thought,” I say, and then get off the telephone as fast as possible.
Mum used to say the CBC wasn’t the right place for Grampa. He wanted to share his love of music, but as a radio host, he was criticized for forcing his ideals onto the listener. But I thought differently. He was nourishing them, guiding them to a better understanding, a deeper experience. It was the same with bikes. He’d respect the rider’s preferences, enhance them: he would perfect brake tension, seat height and handlebar position. Bicycles were an extension of a rider’s personality, retooled by Grampa for transcendence.
I launch off another sidewalk and land inside traffic. Motorists curse me. I pick up speed out of spite, slipping between buses, through an intersection, a red light, cutting just in front of cars as they brake to a halt, honking. They didn’t have to stop.
I’m sprinting west along the de Maisonneuve bike path, up to its plateau, passing cars on the downhill. I know that once the cars get past all the stop signs, the drivers will try and overtake me on the last stretch. Can’t let that happen. The race is on.
When you bike there are imperatives, universal laws.
I flow onto my childhood street. The sprint’s momentum is still with me as I roll into my old backyard. The sensation is like listening to your favourite teenage band after a decade: so deeply part of you, filling the new spaces time has given you.
I stop at the garage, straddling my bike, staring at the doors.
On the night I turned nine, Grampa brought me into the shop. He made me promise to close my eyes. He set me onto my bike and held me while I pedalled, until I was balanced.
“Open your eyes.”
The wheels across the wall were spinning. He’d rigged up the cog system to the treadmill with old chains, threading the wheels with glow sticks and sparklers. At the velocity I was spinning, they formed galaxies.
I pedalled as fast as I could.
I insert the key into the Kryptonite lock.
A banana seat BMX pulls up beside me on my left, its rider shirtless, tanned and fearless.
I turn the key, and the U detaches.
A second bike, a blue Raleigh racer, stops on my right, its rider older, none-the-wiser, movies in his milk crate, angry and content, pulling images through the air in his wake. He’s always been ready.
I listen for a moment. The treadmill inside is thrumming.
I remove the lock and pull open the door.