Bicycle Bill sternly but quietly pedals his trusted 10-speed bike toward the hospital entrance.
The gears of the 10-speed are bust, so he can’t go fast, he says with a smile. The left-hand mirror of the second-hand bike is bent awkwardly; giving more an image of himself than that of the road behind him, one supposes. Or maybe he moved the mirror when he placed the bag on the left side of the handle-bar. It is semi-transparent — the bag. The Crest toothpaste box stands out.
I’m standing outside the hospital entrance, puffing my third cigarette as Bill pulls up. I’ve seen him mornings at the hospital cafeteria. Good price, good food, he figures.
Bicycle Bill is ruddy of face; missing his lower teeth. He has a ready smile — a smile part pain, part inner glow. He talks frankly and evenly; unprepossessing, unimpressed by the theatrics of life, it seems.
He’s wearing a baseball cap under the hood of his vinyl jacket. It’s been a drizzly day.
Bicycle Bill has lived in the Oldie for years. He says he left the old hotel tonight. It was time, he says. “I’ve got a place for tomorrow,” he says confidently, simply.
“So you’re out under the stars tonight?”
He smiles. “All you’ve got is your health,” he says, adding he hopes to live until he’s 105. “I know some of what I say is dreaming. But my job in life is to be healthy.”
He tells me he once walked 100 kilometres in a round-trip from his hometown to another town he felt like visiting. It was his way of answering the call to sobriety. “I used to drink 24 beers a day. And I smoked lots, too,” he says plainly.
Bicycle Bill says he’s worked a few jobs in his time. In his twenties, he worked potash mines in Saskatchewan. “I want to start my own business,” he says wistfully. “I’m an electrician.”
He says he was stressed out somewhere along the skein of his life — he doesn’t say when. He says he accepts full responsibility.
“And I never realized I wasn’t one for marriage,” he says without further explanation.
“Good to talk to you,” I say, having decided a fourth smoke is out of the question.
“Take care,” he says, as he pushes off on his bike, gliding into the gathering night.
Bicycle Bill is one of those ephemeral characters who drifts into your life occasionally. Normally, you wouldn’t give him the time of day. But, at those moments when you are down or troubled, people like Bill arrive with their irony and simple wisdom.
Usually, there’s no one within earshot. They idle up, unheard, as you contemplate the desperations of your life. Self-centered and self-involved, you’re morosely pondering your afflictions and pains, as Bills and Janes silently motor from the periphery and into your sight — full-blown and esoteric.
Years back, I met Jane the Angel. I was waiting for a fare, reading a calculus textbook on a warm summer’s day. I noticed a tall woman standing beside my cab. I rolled down the window.
“You can’t see them,” she says plainly, pointing skyward. “But they are coming.”
The clouds billow large in the sun-filled sky. I look at her face; her expression is angelic. I stare up at the sky, clouds roiling.
“Who’s coming?” I ask.
She smiles oddly, perhaps bothered by my lack of insight. Her eyes are a deep, strangely unsettling blue. They shine with an inner serenity. Her affect is decidedly out of place.
I look down at her feet. Sandalled, her toes are bloodied.
“Can I help you?” I ask pointedly. She winces contemplatively. I cajole her to take a drive with me.
“Just a short drive around the corner,” I assure her.
When we pull into the lot beside the hospital psychiatric wing, she seems restless. I ask her to stay in the cab as I go into the low-slung building beside the hospital. A woman at the front desk shakes her head when I tell her about my passenger. “We’ve been looking for Angel for hours,” the receptionist says laconically. She and an intern join me in the walk outside.
Angel is unperturbed as she is assisted out of the cab. I watch as the three walk up the path. As it had been with Bill, I wonder at the lesson I should have learned.
Each came unannounced, unadorned, fleetingly into my life. Each left an impression I cannot fully explain. We meet people, now and then, who make an impression. We usually meet them in structured situations — the office, a public meeting, church. We have a ‘meeting’ of the minds. We feel we’ve learned something, shared something.
Then we go on with our lives, leaving unexamined that night we met that person we’ve not seen again.
The chance meetings with the Bills and Janes of life are somehow different in kind and impact. They seem to arrive with purpose, then leave without any sense of completion.
One thing is clear, if not fully examined. Such chance meetings have a deep, personal meaning.