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Mathieu Cailler


8 min
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Love For Fifty Bucks

The sound of freedom and the stall of despair

by Mathieu Cailler

Maybe that’s where I belonged after all. Oh, how this journey had fallen apart. A night that had once sparkled, and now, here I was, sliding into the backseat of a squad car.

Love For Fifty Bucks | The sound of freedom and the stall of despair

My first love wasn’t a girl, but a two-horsepower moped from 1974 that I purchased from my neighbor. He was getting rid of it, and I asked how much he wanted.

He thought about it for a second, presumably thinking he had to charge me something and also taking into account that a broke, 14-year-old kid stood in front of him. “How does 50 bucks sound?” he asked.

“Perfect,” I said. My grandma had given me some ‘walking around’ money earlier in the month, and I had some dough saved up and stashed in a wingtip in my closet. “Be right back,” I said, tearing off.

“Oh,” my neighbor said. “We’re gonna do this now?”

“Yup,” I called out. I didn’t want him to change his mind or risk the crimson moped finding another suitor. Moments later, I emerged from my home, and we exchanged money for motor. He went back into his garage, and I wheeled my tangible dream onto my driveway, savoring the ticking sounds the wheels made as they rotated across the brick.

The moped was made by a company named Puch. I’d never heard of them, but I didn’t care. They’d made a masterpiece — one cushy seat, a chrome tailpipe, and a yellow headlight — who was I to question such perfection?

With my parents at the grocery store, I decided to take it for a ride. My senses were seized: a buzzing engine, vibrating handlebars, a bright punch of gas, and the open road. There was only one gauge — a speedometer that topped out at 30 mph — but it felt fast. I yanked the throttle back and felt wind assail my face and watched the houses on the right and left side of the street blur into a long, distorted stretch of colors. Bugs flew into my smile, and I licked them off and swallowed the little bodies that tasted of freedom.

I didn’t push my luck, though, knowing that my parents would be home soon. I knew how Act II would play out: my father wouldn’t care; in fact, he would like it. He is French and a former race car driver, and in Europe, 14-year-olds are allowed to ride motorcycles under 50ccs. But my mom — by far the most intelligent person in my family — wouldn’t have it. She would be mad at me, at my neighbor, at the engineer who designed the moped.

I tucked the bike under a heavy blanket near the back of the garage, checking every so often to see if it was okay, if it was safe, if it missed me. When I realized that my Puch would be fine, I headed inside to make myself some lunch.

Now would come the hard part: the acting. I would have to act as everything was normal, as if I hadn’t just tasted the most delicious feeling in the world. My parents would soon return, and I would have to feign normalcy: go out to the car, fetch groceries, and bring them in. I would have to pretend that life was as it was hours ago — before my purchase — even though the world now shone in a totally different hue.

While eating my grilled cheese, an idea took shape and gained strength in my mind. Instead of pushing the thought aside, I allowed it to breathe… Sure, L.A. was “disconnected” and a “sprawling mess” and “public transportation was a joke,” but now I didn’t need public transportation. I just needed a leather jacket and time.

Then and there, I decided on a voyage. I would venture out after my parents had turned in and head downtown to The Pantry, a 24/7/365 diner. There, I would read a book and eat some pancakes. I would pay in cash and return home. No one would know except for the stars, moon, and maybe my waiter.

When night fell, I slinked outside. I fastened my helmet, an old one from my father’s rally racing days that looked more astronaut than Evel Knievel. I pushed the Puch down the street as to not wake my folks or neighbors and finally met the main road, where I gave my bike a kick and treasured the motor’s song.

I was familiar with L.A.’s geography, so I knew taking Figueroa was my best bet: one, it was a straight shot to The Pantry, and two, I could go 30 mph the whole way without any trouble. And so it began, heading north, at midnight, the bike straddled between my legs, the yellowish headlight leading the way. The more the odometer clicked, the more I never wanted the journey to end. I wished The Pantry was farther away — in Phoenix, or Tennessee, or Timbuktu.

I loved how aware I had to be while on the motorcycle. My mind could only focus on riding — there was no radio, no cruise control, no time for multi-tasking. It took everything from me in the best possible way. With my helmet on and visor lowered, I was invisible to the outside world. Seen for a blip, and then whoosh.

At stoplights, I listened to the engine and smiled at the decal that read 2 HORSEPOWER in bold font. I pictured myself being dragged downtown in a carriage by two horses, as though it was 1915 — not 1999 — and L.A. was still mostly covered in farms and dirt. With each mile, I closed in on downtown, a downtown that was far different from the sexy one that exists today; no, this downtown didn’t sparkle with five-star restaurants and the L.A. Live Plaza, it reeked of urine and regret.

I pulled into The Pantry’s lot and paid the fare, careful to keep my helmet fastened, fearing that my pubescent face, not to mention my Velcro wallet from which I pulled a five spot, would prompt the parking attendant to alert the authorities, but he didn’t seem to flinch.

Taking a seat near the windows inside the restaurant, I scanned the patchwork of lights in various buildings while the clamor of the diner played in the background: an order of eggs for table 19, another plate of extra crispy hash browns for booth 12, and a large cup of black coffee for the gentleman at the counter. My Puch beamed under a tall lamppost, stars of shine sparkling across its waxed body. I ordered a milkshake and a stack of pancakes and opened up Lenny Bruce’s autobiographical How to Talk Dirty and Influence People. My plan was coming together like Frida’s eyebrows.

Even though I’d pined to eat at The Pantry, I rushed through my meal so that I could get back on the bike. Sure, the destination was worthy and smothered in syrup, but the moped beckoned, teased, and called for me to grab it by the handlebars and careen the nighttime streets once again, and so, not more than 30 minutes after I’d arrived, I paid the tab and headed over to my bike. This time, I would enjoy the same route and see everything the southbound course had to offer.

The bike seemed to run better and faster on the trip home. The RPMs flew up and the gears changed more quickly, as if the machine was thanking me for putting it to use after all these years of hiding in a dusty corner. I caught mostly green lights and lifted the visor on my helmet to relish the warm air on my face. At a red light about 10 miles south of The Pantry, the Puch idled, and I decided that instead of gradually accelerating from the stoplight — like I had been doing — this time, I would jerk the throttle all the way back when the light said go.

I watched the cross-street’s signal change from green to yellow and got ready for takeoff.

3… 2… 1!

The bike exploded off the line. Sure, a couple of horsepower was nothing, but the weight of the moped and me (even with pancakes) was no more than 300 pounds. Laundromats, banks, boarded-up businesses, bus benches, parked cars — they all flew by faster than childhood.

Then a gurgling overtook the motor, draining its whir, followed by the grind of metal against metal and a hollow thud. Finally, a long, heavy silence. The speedometer chattered to zero, and I pulled the bike over to the side of the road.

I knew the outcome before I tried, but still I attempted to start the Puch up once again. Zip. Nada. Nothing. Thinking that possibly the bike had run out of fuel, I jostled the frame, but the splash of gas and oil was audible. No, something major had happened, and it wasn’t something I was prepared to deal with, especially near the seedy corner of Figueroa and Anaheim St.

I propped the bike up against a bench, placed my helmet on the saddle, and sat on the curb. What was I to do? Call my Mom and Dad? Knock on someone’s door and explain that I needed to use the phone? Call a friend and, most certainly, wake his or her parents? What about the bike? How could I still manage to keep my prized Puch?

As ideas circled my head like a mobile, a police car turned the corner at low speed and directed its spotlight my way. I stood, plunging my hand into my pockets. The driver’s side window lowered, and the harsh light turned off. Still, though, little flickers of color played on my pupils, and I blinked rapidly.

“What are you doing, kid?” the officer asked, turning a light on inside the car.

“You okay?” the other officer in the passenger seat added.

I couldn’t tell them the truth. Whoever said, “The truth will set you free” never drove a two-horsepower moped to get pancakes in downtown L.A. at age 14. They would quickly discover I didn’t have a license; hell, I didn’t even possess an ID. “I’m fine,” I said. “Just walking home.”

“Walking home?”

“Yes… ”

“From where?”

I begged my brain for something, anything. “Uh, my girlfriend and I got in a big fight, so she made me get out of her car.”

“Here?”

“A little ways down the road. I’ve just been walking home. Didn’t know what else to do.”

“Got an ID?”

“Just a school one,” I said.

“Let me see it.”

I opened my wallet. The Velcro sound made the officers — and someone in the backseat, it seemed — laugh. “Here you go.”

“Look at that moped,” the passenger’s side officer said. His eyebrows were almost as thick as his mustache.

“Oh, yeah! Wow. Old one,” the first officer said. He scanned my ID as though he suspected it fraudulent, holding it up to the light inside the car. “Ninth grade?”

“Yeah.”

“You should get something like that for your step-son… didn’t you say it was his birthday next week?” the passenger-side officer asked.

“Yeah,” the officer replied. “I think Lloyd would love that.”

Lloyd, I thought. A guy named Lloyd is going to ride my bike? My heart clipped, and blood rushed through my arms and fingers.

“Looks like it’s been abandoned. Why would it be parked here?” The mustachioed officer got out of the car, walked over to the Puch, and inspected it. “Nothing. No VIN, no plates. Hmm,” he said. “If it’s still here in the morning, maybe I can help you bring it home in my truck.”

“Sure thing,” the officer said. Finally, he passed back my “ID” and told me to get in the backseat.

“The backseat?” I said.

“Yup,” he answered.

Maybe that’s where I belonged after all. Oh, how this journey had fallen apart. A night that had once sparkled, and now, here I was, sliding into the backseat of a squad car.

The man next to me had his hands cuffed behind him and couldn’t seem to move anything but his head. “What a crap night,” he said. His breath was strong with whiskey, and he scratched the side of his face with his shoulder, causing his long locks to thrash.

“Quiet, Dale,” the officer said, starting the car up.

“I hear you,” I mumbled, placing my hands on my lap.

We waited for the officer to get back in the car. Then we sped off.

The whole way home, the officers exchanged ideas about what to do with the moped — should the body be modified, the yellow headlight replaced with a clear one, perhaps some decals of flames or dragons, maybe a custom sticker that read Lloyd?

“Just leave it original,” I said.

“I agree,” Dale said.

The two officers were quiet. “We’ll see,” one of them said, turning up the CB radio.

My face grew warm, and I wanted to put the window down, but the backseat didn’t allow for comfort or air, just the whiskey breath of my neighbor whenever he sighed in disgust.

It wasn’t long before my town came into view. The last time I’d traced these roads, I’d been on the saddle, hands tight on the handlebars, wind strong on my face. Familiar sights whipped by and teased. I closed my eyes and leaned back against the hard, plastic seat. Tomorrow it would be business as usual: breakfast, Grandma’s Sunday supper, and homework.

The officers asked me which street to turn on, accelerated around the corner, and stopped in front of my home. I feared they were going to get out and tell my parents where they’d found me, but thankfully they had to tend to my backseat buddy.

“Have a good one,” the officers said in unison.

“Thanks for the ride,” I said.

I waited for one of the officers to open my door, as it wouldn’t open from the inside. When he did, I thanked them both again.

“Don’t let love get you down,” Dale said. “It can be an ass, but sometimes it’s worth it.”

“Thanks, man,” I said.

“Be good,” he said, grunting.

I hurried up my driveway, opened the front door, and tiptoed past my parents’ bedroom. I made it to my room, lolled on my bed and, for the first time in at least an hour, allowed my body to decompress. Sliding into the sheets, I clicked off the bedside lamp, and felt my eyelids seal. The Puch was out there, balanced against the bus bench, impending daybreak coming its way. I was sure I would never see the bike again, but maybe real love wasn’t meant to be measured in odometer miles — but in late-night, unbridled joy.

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