Jia plugged her iPod into the auxiliary jack of her Toyota Prius and listened to John Lennon sing, “Imagine,” as she drove up the hill to the back parking lot of Namaste Cafe where she worked as a waitress. Stepping outside into the blazing heat of another summer afternoon, she grabbed her thermal lunch bag and crumpled issue of Mother Jones and locked her car door.
Jia glanced up into the dark brown eyes of a young man with disheveled blond hair. He was dressed in a frayed gray top and loose khaki shorts. A broken bicycle inner tube hung over one of his shoulders; a lumpy backpack against the other. Don’t look at homeless people, her father had warned her. They only want something for nothing. Just look away, pretend they don’t exist.
When the stranger stepped closer, Jia could smell grease and dumpster trash emanating from his bronze skin. She wasn’t sure if he was homeless or drunk or just in need of help. But she could not look away. She could not pretend he did not exist.
“Can I get a ride to the Pedaler Shop?” he asked. “It’s down Mendocino on College, about a mile or two from here. I need to fix my bike.” He lifted the broken inner tube for emphasis.
Jia’s gaze wandered from the man to the bike leaning against the willow tree next to the dumpster in the parking lot. The man followed her gaze, saying, “Yep, that’s my bike. I popped a tire going through a construction site.”
In a world of Jerry Springer, date rape, and online sexual predators, it was no wonder Jia heard her father’s voice: Don’t talk to strangers. They are dangerous. You could end up dead. But Jia suspected this man was as harmless as the bird with a broken wing she nursed back to health several months ago. Twirling her keys between her fingers, she said, “I have to start work in fifteen minutes.”
“If we leave now, you’ll be back in ten.”
Jia popped the trunk, and the stranger quickly dismantled his bike. It fit perfectly.
“My name is PAL.” The stranger extended his hand. “That’s short for Paul Alexander Loreau.”
“Jia,” she said, accepting his hand. “It means beautiful in Chinese.”
PAL studied her for a moment. “Your parents named you appropriately.”
Jia felt the blood rush to her cheeks.
Without hesitating, Jia unlocked the doors. She tried to keep her eyes in front of her as she drove, not on PAL who sat beside her with his elbow leaning out the window. A warm breeze ruffled her hair. She welcomed the distraction. Pausing at a stop light, she could feel PAL’s curious gaze traveling the curves of her body before resting on the blue river of veins on the back of her yellow hand where her mother’s wedding ring circled her third finger. “You’re married,” PAL said.
Jia felt no need to correct him. She didn’t open up to anyone, not even strangers. But she struggled to focus on the road. Her thoughts kept returning to the stranger sitting beside her. She had an odd desire to tug him into her arms and kiss his tight mouth until his lips blossomed. She had been alone for so long, she could not remember the last time someone had noticed her. In her head, she heard her father say, He could be tricking you. You could get mugged. Then what would you do? No money, no car. You’d be lucky if he left you alive.
Pulling into the parking lot of the Pedaler Shop, Jia pointed to her watch. “I can’t stay.” But what she wanted to say was, I can’t go.
“I don’t expect you to be late for work on my behalf.” PAL reached into his backpack and pulled out a wadded ten dollar bill. “For gas,” he said.
Jia lifted her hand and shook her head, but PAL unzipped her purse and tucked the ten dollar bill inside.
“It’s my gift.” He waved good-bye before carrying his bike into the air-conditioned store.
My father’s wrong, she thought. He didn’t hurt me. She reached into her purse with a trembling hand and retrieved the crumpled ten dollar bill. For a moment, she stared at the rip in the center of the bill just below Hamilton’s face. She smiled with conviction. He did not want something for nothing.
The clock on the dash changed to 2:57 pm. Three minutes before her shift started.
Jia zipped up her purse and backed out of the parking lot and merged with traffic. Although PAL was gone, she could still smell him sitting beside her. She rolled down her window, hoping the warm breeze would erase the smell. But the wind acted like a whisk in a bowl, beating up and blending the mixture of grease and perspiration and desire. Jia turned around at the nearest intersection and headed back to the Pedaler Shop. She parked her car and stepped into the air-conditioned store. PAL was standing between aisles of bikes waiting for the technician to fit his tire with a new inner tube.
He glanced up, startled to see her.
“I’m not married,” Jia said. “The ring was my mother’s. I wear it to feel safe.”
A slow smile spread across PAL’s face. “What are you doing for dinner?” he asked.
“Having it with you,” she said.
If you enjoyed this short story, you will love my upcoming short story collection, The Human Act and Other Stories from All Things That Matter Press. To be notified of the release date, visit my Fan Page or post a comment below.