Five Simple Dollars
Todd didn’t have high hopes for the afternoon, only what he would consider reasonable expectations.
A simple matter of fixing up his unremarkable bicycle. Not doing anything that would make it more aesthetically pleasing – it was a functioning bicycle and that was good enough for him – but rather more useful. A rat trap was going to be installed over the back wheel, and atop of that, affixed with zip lines, would be a milk crate. Within which he could stuff all the wonders of the world he could get his hands upon, from groceries to library books.
With advice from a friend on suitable independent bike stores that would carry such accessories, Todd found as he crisscrossed his city that all these stores were closed on this brisk but sunny Saturday afternoon. And in their independent fashion, only hand scrawled notes taped to the shuttered and locked doors gave an explanation. A bike show down at the fairgrounds was taking up all of their stock and manpower.
Discounts of all sorts were promised. An end of season sale to end all seasons. Come by and save, save, save.
Todd was not rolling in the proverbial dough. Good deals on great things were his milk and honey. Not a miser by choice but rather by default, he proudly displayed his half-dented and secondhand purchases to his friends and acquaintances. This event would be a fine feather in his penny-pinching cap, and off he went.
Upon arrival at the fairgrounds, Todd found that the bike sale might not be as auspicious as originally trumpeted. For starters, it was clearly not the only event taking place at this location with its many buildings, both old and new. There was a ski and snowboard show, and two professional sports teams – one minor league hockey, the other some level of soccer Todd couldn’t put his finger on – brought throngs of commoners like himself to the mostly paved and occasionally grassed fairgrounds. He was lost among a sea of people who seemed to know exactly where they were going.
After asking for assistance from a security guard that couldn’t help him pinpoint the location – and after relying on a sign taped to a lamppost that directed him to the main convention centre – Todd found himself walking through a mostly empty atrium of a building that trumpeted a million square feet of space, yet not a bicycle in sight. It was everything you could want in an impressive bit of modern antiseptic architecture. Bright endless hallways and rooms stretching beyond all reason.
After countless steps and sheepish peaks into doorways, Todd found that seven massive rooms made up this convention centre, and it was particularly disheartening to find that not only were most of them locked, but that the few that were open were manned by security guards not really sure of what he was talking about when he mentioned a bike sale.
Finally exiting the warm but bloodless bosom of the convention centre and circling the building Todd found his Xanadu. In what would best be described at the convention centre’s backyard shed – although still a considerable and massive building – there were two open doors with attendee’s bicycles locked up to every post or fence available. Two ticket booths were set up in front of the doors, signs announcing that admission was only five dollars.
Todd was not pleased with this new piece of information. While he did not doubt that the money was not going to be hoarded by the greedy independent bike dealers and was probably just going to go to the rental of the building, it seemed rather disingenuous to have people buy tickets in order for them to gain access to a room where they can buy actual items. Sears didn’t demand cover. Why should those that sell to cycle enthusiasts do so?
But beside the ticket sign was another, flashier sign promising great deals and unbeatable prices, along with the guarantee of haggling. He wasn’t sure how much rat traps cost, but he was certain he could save more than the five-dollar entrance fee upon purchase.
Todd checked his wallet. He had two dollars and some meager pocket change. He had planned to use his bankcard for the rat trap purchase. Cycling back through the fairgrounds with a slightly furrowed brow he found an ATM at one end of the massive and useless convention centre. To increase its irrelevancy in Todd’s life, the machine accepted Todd’s card swipe, Todd’s personal identification number, Todd’s choice of account, the monetary amount, the confirmation first of a two dollar service fee and the printing of a receipt, then announced that a communications failure would force the entire transaction to be aborted. This building hated him because he had a beating heart. He was sure of it.
Todd tried the hockey arena, and after waiting in line behind some drunken yahoos who were smart enough to drink before going into the game and spending ten dollars for a pint of beer, got his precious bills.
The ride back to the bike sale was fraught with tension within Todd’s soul. These small mindless setbacks and slowdowns were adding up to something akin to a complete waste of an afternoon. Perhaps the sale too would be a let down. And more than that, a pissing away of five dollars.
But the promises of bargains and low, low prices convinced him. He would have to buy these products eventually, may as well do it at a place where almost everything was already marked down.
Todd asked the clearly disinterested ticket seller if he could get a refund if he didn’t buy anything. She said she didn’t know but doubted it.
He moved to entrance doors, and the he overly cheerful fat woman took his ticket, made a small tear in it, gave it back and welcomed him to the momentous occasion. The bike sale room was much smaller than any of the convention centre rooms, but was still set up the same. Desks and booths and open-ended tents provided a market atmosphere. Bikes and tight fitting exercise shirts as far as the eye could see.
Falling for perhaps the golden rule of advertising, Todd immediately went to the brightest and most impressive looking store setup. All the employees were wearing matching shirts. They were united in spirit for the love of the selling of bikes.
He asked them how much they were selling rat traps for. At first the employee – a head full of random piercings – wasn’t sure what he was referring to, but after a brief explanation that it was a device affixed above the back wheel for storage purposes, the employee apologetically explained that they were only selling bikes and clothing here today, having left all their accessories back under lock and key at their store.
Todd’s stomach tied into a knot. It was always tragic when the mild fears dancing in your head become white hot and true.
He tried a smaller booth that had bike seats and saddles hanging from a makeshift wall below the sign that bellowed the store’s name.
No dice. What Todd saw hanging up was all they had, it was explained, and Todd did not see anything resembling a rat trap.
Asking yet another helpful attendant – apparently bike store employees enjoyed talking to bike aficionados, who were the type of people that were willing to spend five dollars looking over discounted bikes they may or may not buy – he was shot down yet again with an apologetic shrug. No esoteric accessories. Just bikes, bike shirts, and bike seats.
Todd was by nature not an angry person. He was at this moment a frustrated person, however. He stomped past the other booths, glancing at merchandise and hoping to find a discount bin that might have a rat trap or something similar within it, but he was running out of new booths and patience. Suddenly having his early fears confirmed was just as welcome an outcome as finding a rat trap. He would either find what he was looking for, or be right all along about how much of a mistake this turned out to be.
Yet the five dollar fee hung low in mind. That was a punishment for what was not exactly folly. It was just hopeful naivety, which was something should whose crushing should not be taken lightly.
Approaching the fat woman who took his ticket, he pleaded his case. He came here to buy a rat-trap. No one was selling them. He understood the capitalist system, that the buyer must beware, and that he himself was not ‘too big to fail’, but would still be very appreciative if she would understand his position and give him a refund of five dollars.
Snake eyes. With a stretched and superficial smile, the lady who Todd could never imagine sitting on a bike without toppling over said that just wouldn’t be fair, that once you bought a ticket, that was it.
Todd wasn’t the type of person to rant and rave. It was a quality he wished he suddenly possessed. He didn’t bottle it up, but allowed the discontentment to roll off his body and pool in invisible puddles around him. The difficulty of finding the sale. Gone. Discovering the five dollar fee and the fact that it was more than he had at the moment. Forgotten. The ATM search. Dead and buried. The creeping realization as he stomped through this hole of a bike sale that it could not help him at all. Poof. Over and out.
Outside the building Todd held himself to his handlebars. He held the raffle ticket that was the source of all his misery in his hand, willing it to burst into flames. When that didn’t work he tore it into pieces and made it rain shredded paper for three seconds.
The rationalizing instinct should have kicked in by now. The diplomat deep within in was to explain in an apologetic and understanding tone that hey, it was only five dollars and…
But that was just it. There was no more after that. There was nothing else to acknowledge. What further reassurance could there be? That he wasn’t mugged inside the bike sale? That the roof didn’t collapse killing all attendees? That he wasn’t charged another five to leave?
Only five dollars.
Trying to rationalize it away was only making it worse.
Todd wondered if there was an email address or phone number he could complain to. Something told him that the people he had already talked to were most likely responsible for the bike sale in its totality.
The thought of the fat woman taking his call and explaining once again that there was nothing she could do and that his five dollars went to her lunch consisting of ten glazed donuts did not sit well with him.
Todd didn’t notice that he was biking in circles, through the side streets and gardens of the festival grounds. He wondered if the ski and snowboard show dared to charge admission.
Todd stopped pedaling and let the anger and frustration that was slowly beginning to burn in every cell and molecule in his body whisper horrible things in his ear. He was a cog in a machine that had woken up and didn’t like its place. He was becoming more than himself and damn it, it was about time.
Todd took a deep, violent breath, as if his lungs could push all these jagged thoughts and dirty memories out.
But then it all changed. These sensations were no longer coming from within him. Around him things were becoming clearer. No, fuzzier. In and out. Back and forth. He thought it was like watching reality breath in and out. It was a peek at something he was pretty sure he shouldn’t see.
But it didn’t go away and only became a stronger force. It was something in the air. It was careening out of control. It was the normal sliding into something more audacious and sinister.
Todd’s naked and brittle acknowledgment of the helplessness of the human condition was, if you were a religious man, summoning angels and demons to battle overhead, or, if you were a scientist, forcing space-time fold upon itself and spew forth an additional dimension.
Sometimes people get exactly what they want.
Todd played the bystander and lead role. The child forced to put away childish things – at least for a moment – and address a more adult form of existence.
Hence, his first words of observation were suitably adult:
‘What the fuck…’
He noticed he was speaking slowly. The world was shifting into a more plodding pace.
Todd swiveled his suddenly heavy head left and right, looking for a person to connect with in some way, but the closest were in the background, in the distance, extras in a mystery play that chosen Todd as the hyper-protagonist.
And like a play that had prepared its proper setting and was ready to commence, something happened. A cloud did not descend around him, nor did some device pluck him out of the sky. A black hole had nothing to do with this ever-evolving wonder.
Instead the three dimensional world folded into a two dimensional artwork, like a drawing in elaborately illustrated children’s book, and Todd himself realize how limiting the reality where he spent everyday truly was. The trees, road, birds, grass and the ski and snowboard sale building pinned themselves against the horizon. New three-dimensional shapes emerged, pulsating and morphing in front of his eyes, but Todd knew that they weren’t three dimensional but something more complex.
He was moving in slow motion in a new form of space but was relieved to see that his body seemed to remain intact. The slow motion effect was both soothing and alarming. He was forced to go with the molasses-like flow and had time to make sense of the strange things happening around him, but at the same time he would be helpless if something dangerous or unseemly came his way.
Alien abduction. Marian apparitions. Hyper-dimensional space elves. Todd saw all of these forms of experience beyond understanding as symptoms of crazy people, pointless masks placed over the true rulers of reality.
It all became quite clear but the words he had to think the thoughts with were insufficient. He experienced six-dimensional concepts, space and beyond-space, atoms and the grey glue-stuff that truly held them together, gravity be damned. But he couldn’t think any of this, couldn’t hold it in his brain, which was chained to human thoughts made of human language. It all passed by him slowly, but not slow enough for him to create and learn and new language to teach and enlighten the folks back home.
But ideas did come, dribbling out of his cerebellum like drip coffee. Quite simply, Todd’s brain had deduced that this wasn’t about bicycles anymore.
This disturbed him. Certainly he could come up with something better. But then, even shame and embarrassment came at deadening crawl.
And in the midst of trying to feel that, something came towards Todd. A woman. No, something that was made to look like a woman, to soothe Todd and make sure his heart and mind didn’t explode with fear. He could tell this. He could feel it. Yes, that was the better term. He was feeling everything, and thinking nothing, because thought was made of obsolete fragments that were ill-suited to the moment.
She had a kind smile. No robe or shimmering light radiating from her. Just jeans and a yellow t-shirt, with the confidence of a supreme being. While three dimensional Todd was stuck in four through seven dimensional space and moved like a sports replay, she floated gracefully towards him, lighter than an uber-feather.
Todd was smitten in a transcendental way.
She handed him a ticket and it was obviously more than just a ticket. Todd had a hard time bending his fingers to grasp it, so it just sat motionless on his hand.
Todd wanted to say something. It was another feeling. Nothing revelatory. ‘Thank you’, ‘What’, ‘Help me’, or ‘You’re so goddamn incredible’ were all possibilities. His jaw lowered at a snail’s pace. His vocal chords rumbled, but she was already receding like a wave, back to nowhere in particular.
Todd felt his fingers tighten around the ticket. It was all changing again, changing back. The woman and the multi-dimensional shapes, were expanding and fading away. Into the eternal super-background. The buildings, trees, and distant people were plumping up, becoming possible again, shaking off their sentence of momentary irrelevance. Todd could move again, and as soon as he outstretched the arm in the predictable fashion towards the disappearing woman and uttered the clichéd phrase, ‘Don’t go’, she was gone.
A single deep breath to get the oxygen flowing again and it was all whittling away. Todd was coming back to a place he barely even left. Back to whatever people agreed on was ‘real’.
The ticket crumpled as he made an unconscious fist. It was something. A reminder. But they had it all backwards. They showed him the secrets to the universe, and then gave him the decoder key.
Todd wasn’t sure if that meant the keepers of the secrets of everything were teasing jerks or just extremely incompetent. Neither was a particularly enticing theory.
But Todd felt he should make the most of his new found… what? What did he have that was different? A ticket that could have helped him five minutes earlier, before he was transport to the exact same place but in an entirely different state of affairs. The world was reorienting itself and Todd just wanted to remember this thing or the other, but then it all disappeared in a flash, down a swirling hole that Todd knew meant that it was all finished, all over, that any chance for cleansing and reconciliation and redemption was closing up shop once and for all.
Todd looked over himself as he lay on the side of an empty road in the fairgrounds. He felt the cold October wind remind him where he was. The ticket in his hand was just a raffle ticket. Making any more of it would land him on a psychiatrist’s couch, possibly heavily sedated.
As he casually glanced to one side, he noticed a crumpled five-dollar bill resting against the curb. He quietly reached out, flattened in slightly, and stuffed it in his pocket.
The bike ride home yielded no further complications.
'If there must
be madness, something may
be said for having it on a heroic scale'
- John Kenneth Galbraith