I left the college radio station to find that my bike was gone. My jacket was pulled closed, my head swimming with preoccupations, and my chest was strung tight with anxiety after a week of little stressors building and seething. The evening sun had just dipped below the clouds, turning the sky into a sliced open peach. The clouds were eye-feasting-orange.
I like to think that DJing my radio show every week relaxes me, but this week it was yet another task to weigh me down and prevent me from getting to all those little nagging things I had to do. The community DJ, Jacob, who had a show after mine, was always friendly. I felt bad, flitting my eyes down to my watch as he told me about Bob Dylan’s cover of the song I had just played. I wanted to be nicer, but some days are just those kind of days.
Jacob’s father always accompanied him to the station. It was an unspoken fact that Jacob needed an adult to accompany him. He was a little, “different,” but that made him no less of a DJ. His diverse musical tastes and extensive knowledge consistently baffled me. But today, Jacob’s speech was just a bit too slow and sticky for me to listen to. I rushed out after my radio slot with a mumbled, “have a good show,” only to find that my bike was not where I had chained it.
Slowly I remembered, Jacob’s father had offered to fix it. He heard me riding it home after my show last week, and offered to bring his tools to the station and see if he could find the problem. My father had looked at it, wiped his hands on his pants, and opened his palms to the sky with a sigh of, “I have no idea.” It was one of those moments when you have to weigh your options—do I let the middle-aged man who I’ve only met four times take a wrench to my bike? Or do I politely decline, and ride my bike home, squeaking and whistling down the pavement? I decided to take the offer.
I found Jacob’s father unpacked his tools outside the station. He had my bike alright, and he was preparing to work on it.
“I’d ask how your show was today,” he said, “but Jacob and I listened in the car, like we do every week. You got one hell of a show. Never ever change. I know I keep sayin’ that, but I really love your show. You don’t get variety like that with most radio shows. It’s like Jacob’s. He can’t stick to one genre, and I love that about him. I took him to about a hundred different concerts this summer.”
He began unscrewing something on my bike that looked like it should not be unscrewed. I held my breath.
“He loves doing it. He DJs at Lehigh too, you know. But he loves doing his show here. But sometimes it’s hard for him. The way he talks, you know. Someone blew their top cursing about him last week.”
“They called in and was yelling because he said their name wrong. He was giving away concert tickets, and the guy who won had a weird name, and gave a strange e-mail address, and Jacob got a little muddled and messed it up, and the guy called in and was screaming about him.”
“About him? You mean at him?”
“Oh no, I took the call. He kept on yelling at me to put the DJ on the phone. I said I’d be happy to help him if he was willing to be civil about it. I told the guy he couldn’t talk to Jacob like that.” He turned the front wheel a few times. It squeaked.
“And it turned out the guy was just having a tough day.”
I wondered how he possibly could have learned that from a brief and aggressive phone conversation.
“Yeah, he was a business man or something, and he’d been having a hard time. But we talked for a little and he apologized. He didn’t mean anything by the cursing.”
“Wow. I’ve never had a call like that.”
When people called the station, they either said they liked what you were playing, or they were trying to mess with you. I jammed my white knuckles into my pockets.
“Well, I usually take Jacob’s calls. You never know who’s gonna be on the phone. And anyway, you know how he speaks and everything. He’s, you know, not like everybody else, but he sure loves music.”
“I think I can guess where his passion comes from.” I tried to give him a smile. He kept his eyes on the back wheel.
“Oh yeah. He’s a little music genius. He didn’t get it from me, I’ll tell you that. His mother’s the musician.”
“I thought you said you took him to all those concerts?”
“Oh sure. But I can’t play anything.”
“That doesn’t matter.”
“I don’t know.”
He squeezed the handbrake. The football team did pushups on the field behind us.
“What about you, where’d your music taste come from? You must have amazing parents.”
I laughed, “I do. But my taste is a little different from theirs. My dad likes a lot of rock and punk. My mom likes folk music. They played me a lot of Neil Young, Simon and Garfunkel, The Clash, The Beatles, all that, as a kid.”
“So, you’ve been a real music person from the beginning?”
“Oh, I don’t know. My music taste didn’t really start to become what it is now until high school.”
“I wouldn’t have guessed that. Jacob’s been a music lover since the beginning. We did the playing music to the womb thing, his mother and I. He’s a good kid. Even though he’s, you know, different from other people.”
He looked me in the eye. I didn’t know what to say. I nodded.
“The first time Jacob came to the station, Mark showed him the library of music. He just stood there and looked at all the shelves, and in 5 minutes Jacob had memorized where over a thousand CDs belonged. You can ask him for any CD and he can pull it from the shelf with barely a glance. But, ya know, then this afternoon he forgot to burn his CDs and had to do it in the car. Funny how that is.”
“Sometimes I can be like that too. I’ll put my sweater on backwards and tie my shoes together, and then out of nowhere I’ll do something that makes my parents really proud.”
He turned the wheel a few times. It still squeaked. He found the spot that was rubbing against the brake and started in on it.
“I wouldn’t change a thing though. No matter how many times he drives me up the wall, that’s what makes him my son. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
“I can understand that.”
He paused over the wheel for a moment then turned it. The squeak was gone.
“You gotta find what you’re good at, you know? You can’t teach a fish to ride a bicycle. I’m glad the college lets him DJ here. It makes him so happy.”
Gloria Steinem and Albert Einstein would probably be up in arms about their quotes being butchered and combined. I didn’t feel the need to correct him.
“This is a great bike, you know. Really nice. It’s got character.”
“That’s a nice way of putting it.”
“No, I really do think it’s a great model. Even with the squeaking.”
He stopped for a moment before he added, “Just needs a little work.”
I peeked at my watch, then shoved my hands back into the warmth of my pockets.
“I won’t keep you out in the cold too much longer. But let me pump your tires okay? They’re pretty flat.”
He took out a heavy-duty pump. “It’s really good of you, being so friendly. Jacob loves your show.”
“I really like his too. He always plays something I like as I’m leaving. Last week he played one of my favorite Avett Brothers songs.”
“Oh yeah? We saw ‘em last month actually.”
“I saw them this summer.”
“Oh yeah? Did you? Where?”
“Newport Folk Festival. It was packed. But really great.”
“I bet. They’ve become pretty popular. Shows like that get a little crazy. But we go anyway. We love ‘em.”
He finished the tires and gave the wheel a final spin while changing each gear.
“That should do it for you. Let me know if it doesn’t run smooth or anything.”
“Oh, gosh, thank you so, so much. I can’t tell you how much this means to me.”
“Not at all…not at all. But if anything isn’t working for you, you let me know, alright? It’s no trouble.”
He lifted the bike off the stand and set it on the ground next to us.
“Well,” I paused as I mounted the seat. “Tell Jacob to have a great show today. I’ll see you next week.”
“Sure, sure. See you next week.”
I pedaled past the football field, past the post office, and toward home. As I rode, I felt a strange sensation—like something was wrong. I biked toward my house, all the way to the end of my street, and then it hit me—my bicycle was perfectly silent.