Monday, February 27, 2012

* The Bicycle

It was a beautiful, bright Spring morning in Texas when Ben Benson, looking across the busy intersection of 7th Street and Crockett, saw it. He wasted no time crossing to get a better look. Never mind the normal way of crossing two streets at right angles to get to the opposite corner. Ben cut diagonally across this main intersection in town. He was headed straight for Elmer Manning’s City Service gas station which was opposite his own Sinclair station at the intersection.

Ben was always a simple, “direct route” kind of guy. And besides, he had grown up in his beloved Silver Springs. But, Ben’s attitude was not exactly “I own this place.” It was more like, “It doesn't really matter who owns this place. It's up to me to run it.” And he was just that intimate with his small hometown. He simply moved through his days, and the lives that attended them, in the easy comfort which comes from a perfect familiarity with your community and your neighbors.

In his confidence, Ben never met a stranger. And he didn’t have a pretentious bone in his body, nor an inhibited one. So, what you saw, was what you got - where ever that might happen to be. And most of the time the encounter was attractively colored with his perfect sense of humor. Always Ben was a bright spot in this little east Texas town that was simple and thriving in the late 1950’s.

The bicycle was sitting in front of Mr. Manning’s station office with a “For Sale” sign on the handle bars. “Mornin,’ Elmer. How ya doin’ this morning,’ came Ben’s greeting.

Doin’ fine, Ben. How ‘bout you?” came the bright return from Elmer, ten years Ben's senior, as he handed the younger man a cup of coffee.

“Ah, if I was any better, Elmer, I’d have to take a pill to get over it,” Ben said with a broad grin that revealed his gold tooth off to one side of his smile.

Though he chose not to advertise them outside his small inner circle, Ben actually did have his own tough issues, too. All this year, for example, it had been a struggle just to make ends meet. His station was new. And it was a daylight to well past dark job to make it go. And lately, the task kept this normally energetic young man drained, most all the time.

But this morning he was on a mission that entirely animated him. He was looking at this beautiful, two wheeled possibility for his son, Jimmy. It had been a constant source of sorrow in his heart for months that he was simply unable to buy his son a bicycle. But, the money just wasn’t there.

Ben and his family rented a small house in Rose Hill, the middle income neighborhood that sprawled directly behind the station. They actually only lived about five blocks from the business. And Jimmy would come every day, sometimes several times a day to see his dad, who was his best friend. At times Jim would simply walk to the station. But, as often as not, he would also show on the pumper seat of a friend’s bike.

Jimmy and his friends were just happy, uncomplicated kids. And often, Ben would join seamlessly into their silliness. On more than one afternoon, for example, a water fight had erupted using the water hoses that were located around the drive way of the station.

Ben was often the instigator of these escapades with the kids. But, in any case, he could never resist being part of them. And, whatever the nature of the fun on any given day, it usually ended up with everyone sitting around drinking soft drinks and laughing together when it was all over.

But for all of that fun, still, each time Jimmy would show up walking or riding on the back of a friends bike, it would elicit a painful reminder in Ben’s heart of his inability to buy his son the bike the boy longed for, and which he so desperately wanted him to have. And, this morning, it seemed that might all change.

Elmer Manning explained that his son, Mickey, had gotten a new bike; and this was his old one. “So, how much do you want for the bike, Elmer?” Ben asked. And with that, the negotiations were on.

“Well, I’m asking five dollars, but since it’s you, I’ll take ten,” Elmer said with a big smile, “you bein’ my direct competition right across the street n' all.” The bike actually had fifteen dollars on the for sale sign.

“Well, I was prepared to offer you twenty,” Ben shot back without missing a beat. “But since it’s you,” he said, with a wrinkled nose, “I’ll just take it off your hands for ten.”

“Sold!” Elmer said, auctioneer style. The two men shook on the accord.

"I’m gonna’ go call Jimmy right now and tell him, Elmer. We’ll be over to get it this afternoon.”

Elmer smiled, “It’ll be here.” The two friends parted; and Ben headed back across the intersection, waving to two people he knew who were stopped at the red light. He was already anticipating his son’s excitement as he picked up the phone to call home and tell him.

Then he thought, “No, maybe I’ll just wait until he gets here, later." He hung up the phone. But, then he thought, "No, I’m calling now."

Ben could not have been more excited if he, himself, had received such a wonderful gift. Nothing made Ben happier than blessing other people; and that was doubly true for his son.

He knew that Jim would know the bike, because he and Mickey were in the same class at school. And he and Jimmy paled around together a good bit. Mickey had come along late in Elmer’s marriage.

Ben grabbed the phone and called Jimmy at home. “Hello,” came the ten year old’s breathless voice, obviously having run to beat his mother and sister to the phone, as ususal.

“Hey, ‘Big Boy,’ I’ve got some good news for you,” Jimmy’s dad said happily.

“What is it?”

“I found you a bicycle!” Ben said with great happiness in his voice.

“Really!?” Jimmy yelled.

“Yeah! really!” Ben returned, smiling broadly as he talked. “Mickey’s dad had it for sale at his station this morning; and I bought it for you.”

“At the station? Is it new?”

“Well no, it’s not new. But it’s in pretty good shape; and it works fine. It’s Mickey’s old bicycle. He got a new one.”

“Oh, I thought it was new,” came the reply, in a much less excited voice.

Jimmy’s new tone was like an arrow through his dad’s heart as he realized that his son was taken away with what the bike wasn’t, instead of what it was. “Is something wrong, son?” Ben asked, trying not to let his own disappointment come through his voice.

“Well, Mickey’s fenders are pretty bent up, Daddy. And I was kinda’ wantin’ a new bike.”

Ben’s heart sank; and he flushed with anger all at the same time. His mind was telling him that his son was just a child. And he knew that the boy simply did not yet understand his own ingratitude, much less the pain that it was inflicting on the heart of his father.

But Ben's emotions were cancelling out all of that reason. He was that deeply hurt by his son’s callused response to his gesture of love. The anticipation of his son’s happiness at the news of the bicycle was now completely squashed.

Though he tried with all of his might, Ben could not keep his voice from hardening a bit. “Well son, you’ll just have to decide whether you want the bike or not. But you know that I just can’t afford a new one, right now.”

The youngster paused for a long few seconds, sensing that he had disappointed his dad.

“Well, you gotta’ tell me something, Jim, so I can tell Mr. Manning what to do.”

Still the boy hesitated. He was now deeply conflicted between his own disappointment, and what he was, indeed, beginning to understand to be a disappointment to his father. So, unable to come up with a response in his childish mind, he simply remained silent for a few more seconds.

Finally, after those few awkward seconds of emotional agony on both ends of the phone, Ben said, “Well, never mind, son. We’ll just let this one go, and see what we can do later.”

Tears had begun to flow down Jimmy’s face as he said in a weak voice, “OK, Daddy. I’ll see you later.”

“OK, son. I’ll see you,” came dad’s quiet response. Then, they hung up.

Ben immediately called Elmer and explained the situation. Elmer easily sympathized with the process that was on going. He told Ben that another man, a regular customer, had already asked about the bike. Elmer assured Ben that it was not a problem to simply sell the bike to him. And he did.

After these events, Ben began going about his day at the station, but with a much heavier heart. About thirty minutes passed. He was lubricating a car on the grease rack when the phone rang.

“Hello,” Ben said, with a feigned cheerfulness, as he answered the phone.

“I’m sorry, Daddy,” Jimmy started with a quivering voice. "I’d like to have that bike. I’m sorry for what I said a while ago.”

Dad paused for a second. Then he said, from the depths of his own remorse, “Well Jimmy, I’m sorry too, son. But Mr. Manning has already sold the bike.”

There was another pause on the other end of the line. Finally, Ben said, “Son, are you OK.”

With a slight whimper in his voice, Jimmy said, “I’m OK, Daddy. But I’m still sorry. I’m sorry I made you sorry.”

Immediately, in Dad’s heart, the disposition of the bike ceased to be the sorrowful issue that it had been only one minute before. As he realized his son’s feelings were now much more about Dad’s hurt than the loss of the bike, Ben’s heart filled with emotion. He said, “Hey, ‘Big Boy’, thanks for worrying about Dad. That means more to me than anything. But, we’re OK. And we’ll find another bike, or maybe we’ll be able to get a new one soon.”

Jimmy said, in a more sure voice now, “Next time, I won’t care if it’s new or not, Daddy, I promise.”

Tears welled in Ben’s eyes, now. “Well that is a great attitude ‘Bud.’ I’m really proud of you for that. And we’ll just do the best we can, either way. OK?”

“OK,” came Jimmy’s reply from an obviously lighter heart now.

“Say ‘Man’, I’ve got a couple of cars to wash this afternoon. You want to come and help me?” Ben asked, struggling to keep his voice from breaking with emotion.

“Yeah! Can I bring Frank with me!?”

“Bring him on, ‘Dude’. We’ll have a great time, Ben confirmed.”

And just like that, joy returned to father and son; and the binding love between them found a new width and maturity in its expression.

                                     The End

Love is seldom non-expectant. In truth, Love often holds treasured visions of response. There is such a thing as unconditional love, of course; but it only ever exists, even in God's case, in a very limited circumstance. The reality is, most days, love anticipates a response.

And to fail loves anticipations is, indeed, heart wrenching on both ends. Perhaps it is inevitable that we will occasionally do so as we move toward personal maturity. But Jimmy's innocence certainly shows us the remedy for these momentary failures: True love always "calls back."