Cross Country Motorcycle Novel Continues: Chapters 13 and 14. Monk’s working and maybe romance is building.

Chapter Thirteen

Sometimes I wondered if it even mattered whether our communion cups were filled with consecrated wine or draft beer, as long as we bent over them long enough to recognize each other as kin.

Taylor, Barbara Brown

When I came outside of the bar it felt like leaving a movie theatre in the afternoon. I was disoriented. I looked around and saw fast food places and three motels. I couldn’t for the life of me remember where I was staying. I saw a Super 8 motel and started walking toward it.

“Hey, Monk!” I heard a voice yell from a car that had Lancelot Diner written on the side of it. I stopped while the person rolled the window down further.

It was a woman I recognized from somewhere. She shielded her eyes from the sun and said: “I’m heading over to Larry’s to deliver some food. Want a ride?”

That was it. Larry’s. I looked around and spotted it behind me.

“That’s okay. Thanks. I need a bit of a walk.”

“Okay, see you soon!”

I went back to the motel, found my room and collapsed on the bed. About an hour later I heard a knock.

“Ready to go Monk?” A voice shouted through the door. It was Catherine.

“Hold on a minute?” I walked to the bathroom and splashed water on my face but most of it dripped down onto my trousers. I rubbed them with a towel but that didn’t help. I pulled my shirt tail out to try and cover the spots.

I opened the door. Catherine sized me up. “A little accident?”

“Yep, I spilled water all over myself.”

“It’ll dry. Look, I’ve got the address of the babysitter and she’s agreed to talk with us. Ready?”

I nodded.

The babysitter wasn’t much help, or maybe she was. It was clear that she was too distracted by the allures of high school and boyfriends to have done the injuries. Allures like these tend if at all, to result in neglect, not abuse. Also, the picture she painted of the family was of two parents who absolutely loved their child.

“So what do you think?” Catherine asked as we were sitting in her car afterwards.

“I think you have to keep the doctors running tests. There are conditions other than brittle bone disease that can cause these injuries.”

“Like what?”

“Like I forget! Give me some time and it’ll come to me. It’s been a while. The doctor should be ruling out all possibilities. They should know this stuff. They don’t need me. Anyway, there’s no great hurry. The infant will be in the hospital for a while.”

She looked away. “I know but I’m worried. My director has been putting pressure on me to file an ex parte petition and get the child into state custody.”

“Why? She’s not going anywhere. You said the family agreed to not take her out of the hospital. What’s the rush?”

“It’s political. He doesn’t want it to look bad, like we’re not doing our job.”

“Idiot.” Then I thought about that. “Sorry, that wasn’t very compassionate of me. Idiotic. That’s better.”

“You are a strange monk!” She laughed and shook her head. Then she turned toward me and put her hand on my shoulder. “But hey, thanks. I really appreciate all your help today.” She pushed her hair off her forehead.

Was that another preening gesture? I thought I’d seen her make one before. Naw, sure it was just the dreams of an old man. Regardless, I still felt the tug of the old machinery cranking inside, those magical, wonderful, torque full urges that God gave us. She looked at me with a smile that was tired but full of warmth. I let out a sigh as long as Africa.

She dropped me off back at Larry’s Hide a While and after we made plans to meet the next morning I walked down to the 7-11 shop and bought a bottle of Corona and went next door for a Chinese takeout. I went back to the room and tuned into a baseball game, the Braves were playing against the Phillies. I ate the chicken and cashew nuts, sipped the cerveza, watched the Braves and fell asleep, dreaming of late-inning rallies.

 

Chapter Fourteen

Day 7 – Osceola, Iowa

Life is a series of
natural and spontaneous changes.
Don’t resist them –
that only creates sorrow.
Let reality be reality.
Let things flow naturally forward
in whatever way they like.

Lao-tzu

Next morning, after a few text messages to arrange it, Catherine picked me up and we headed for that restaurant named after the knight, Sir Lancelot. Polly was there all smiling and welcoming and I could see Shorty in the kitchen slinging hash. I heard him shout at a waitress: “If you got time to lean, you got time to clean”, followed by “order up”.

Polly had her back to Catherine and said to me: “How are you doing this fine morning Monk?”

Catherine cleared her throat loudly and Polly turned slightly in her direction. “We’re just fine dear. Thank you so much for asking.”

She put two menus down on the table. “What would you like to drink?”

“Coffee.”

“Coffee.”

“Okay, I’ll be right back with them.”

After she left I looked at Catherine. “So are you originally from around here?’

She smiled. “No, I’m originally from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.”

“Really? You have a bit of an accent.”

“My parents were from Hong Kong. They mainly spoke Mandarin while I was growing up.”

“How’d you get here, Osceola?”

“Met a guy from here in college in Fond du Lac, fell in love and well…”

“Bob’s your uncle.”

“What? Bob? I don’t have an uncle…”

“Sorry,” I laughed, “It’s an Irish expression. It means sort of …one thing led to another and now I’m here.”

“Ireland again? You’ll have to tell me more about that.”

“Not much to tell.”

“Did you live there long?”

“For a few years.”

Polly suddenly appeared with Victor mugs and a carafe. “Here you go.” She said as she poured the coffee into the mugs.

I smelt the aroma and watched the steam rise from the cups. The beauty and holiness of the smallest acts which we so take for granted.

“You guys ready to order?”

We ordered up a mess of scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, and buttermilk biscuits.

I stared at Catherine who was busy glancing around the place. “So what happened to this boy you fell in love with?”

“Oh!” She folded her hands in front of her on the table. “We were married for about ten years. The first few were happy and then he lost his job, started drinking too much, became abusive and then, well,” she searched for the right words, “Bob’s your uncle.”

I laughed.

“Handy expression for when you don’t want to say anymore, isn’t it?”

“I reckon.”

“Better than ‘yada, yada, yada’.”

“I reckon.”

“Have you ever been married?”

How to answer that without complicating things any more than I have to, or want to?

“I was married twice. My first wife, I met in Ireland. I met my second wife there too.”

“Divorced?”

I took a deep sigh and prayed my tears would stay on some island far off tonight’s coast.

“Actually, they’ve both passed.”

She folded her lips inward. “I’m sorry.”

“Me too.” I managed a smile that reneged as soon as it flashed.

“How long has it been since the last wife passed?”

“About three years now. She had cancer.”

“Any kids?”

“Two, Colin in Savannah and Hannah in LA. I’m on my way to see her.”

She looked away and tilted her head at an angle. “By way of Iowa?”

“Seems so. I’m letting the road tell me which way to go.”

“Hate to break it to you Monk,” she replied and then whispered, “but I think the road’s been lying to you.”

I laughed.

“That’s good. When you laugh I can see your dimples.”

I was starting to like this woman. “What about you? Any kids?”

“Hundreds of them. But they’re either in foster care or been adopted.”

I smiled. “Hard not to love these kids, what with all they’ve been through.”

“Do you mind if I ask a personal question?”

I stared at her. “No, as long as I get to ask one back.”

“How old are you?”

“Whew, I thought it was going to be more personal than that! I’m 65. How about you?”

“48, and go ahead and tell me I don’t look it.” She twirled a lock of her shiny black hair.

I leaned back and studied her from different angles. “Nah, you look it, actually maybe 49.”

She slapped my arm. “Smart ass.”

“I get that a lot.”

“I bet you do.”

“Seriously though, you’re in great shape for being 48.”

“Thanks, and you’re in great shape for, what was it? 70?”

“That’s right.”

She put her arms on the table but kept them close to herself. She opened her hands, flipping her palms up. “So Monk, why are you on this motorcycle trip?”

I shook my head. “I’m not sure. It’s just something I have to do one last time.”

“Why one last time? You’re not dying are you?”

“No.” I smiled. “Not yet.”

“So why the trip?”

“There’s something about being on the road. You get to leave your past behind you. Don’t need to remember things anymore. Show up anywhere, anytime. You have no history with anyone you meet. No expectations. No attachments. You can be anyone you want to be.”

“But you can do this in a car too.”

“Yeah, but it’s harder. You’ve got too many distractions: radio, music, phone calls, drinks, snacks. You can go through a drive-through. You don’t have to put your foot down at a traffic light, balance the bike as you do. Instead, you’re in a nice temperature controlled cage that you can hide in. Sealed up, moving through places, protected from them, from chance encounters with people.  On a motorcycle you’re in those places, can’t escape from them, and somehow those places are in you. Moment by moment. Everywhere you go, there you are. You’re protected from nothing. It’s easier for God or the Universe to reach you when you’re protected by nothing.”

She shook her head. “Are you trying to escape the past? Some bad memories?”

My head sort of wobbled. “Not really. You can’t outrun or outride bad memories. They’ll go with you anywhere. The only solution is to find a way to make peace with them. Own them. I figure that if I hadn’t had those bad experiences I wouldn’t be here, now, this moment in time and place.”

She reached over and put her hand on mine. “I’m glad you’re in this moment in time and place.”

“Me too. Thanks.” I smiled at her and I swear I didn’t know my wink was coming.

“Monk! Are you flirting with me? Oops, now you’re going all red.”

I cranked up a smile on the left side of my face. “So what if I am? Sorry, I’m just an old man having breakfast with a beautiful woman.”

She pushed some hair off her forehead and looked around. “Thanks. It’s okay. I like it. I like you.”

I shuddered a little and deep inside felt the stirring of the old hydraulics again. Maybe Elvis hadn’t left the building after all.

Chapters 11 and 12 of my motorcycle novel: Achilles Soul: Monk Chuck gets in over his head.

Chapter Eleven

Day 6

Our whole business then, Brethren, in this life is to heal this eye of the heart whereby God may be seen.

St. Augustine

 

I woke up the next morning when I heard my phone ringing. I checked the area code and it was a local call.

“Yep.”

“Is this Monk?”

“Sure is.”

“This is Bernard from the Harley shop.”

“Yes sir, how are you?”

“I’m good but your bike’s not too healthy.”

“Probably a couple of aspirin will fix it.”

“’Fraid it’s gonna be more than that.”

“So what did you find?”

“I think I told you yesterday that you need a new front engine mount.”

“You did. Anything else?”

“You have a primary leak. Did you know that?”

“Yeah, I’ve been keeping my eye on it.”

“How’s that working for you?”

I laughed. “I’m here aren’t I?”

“Just barely.”

“Is that it?”

“No, I’m just getting started.” I heard him laugh. “When did you last have a full service on this baby?”

I let out a sigh. “I’d say about 40 thousand miles ago.”

“That figures.”

“What else you got?

“You’ve got a base O ring leak, an intake leak and a leak from your shift shaft seal.”

“What was that last one?”

“Your shift shaft seal?”

I imagined trying to say that fast five times. “Yep. What’s the shift shaft seal leak about?”

“Well, it leaks oil which can get on your chain or your tire and cause you to have a bad accident. It’s not safe.”

“What else you got?”

“You have a stripped shifter shaft lever and stripped shifter shaft.”

“Of course I do!” I laughed. “Let me get this straight: I have a problem with the shifter shaft seal, a stripped shifter shaft lever, and a stripped shifter shaft.”

“You got it.”

“I don’t even know what in the hell I’m saying!” I laughed.

“What?”

“So can you fix all of this?”

“Sure, but it’s going to take some time and some money.”

“The money I can handle but how much time are we talking about?”

“If I order all the parts tomorrow I’d say I could have it finished in about a week, maybe sooner. That’s if I don’t run into any other problems.”

“Damn.”

“You in a hurry to get somewhere?”

“Not really.”

“Your call.”

“That’s fine. Thanks. Go ahead and get started.”

 

I got dressed and walked back down to the Lancelot Diner.  Breakfast was still being served and I took a seat in a red vinyl booth this time. The table had a mini jukebox on it and a fake flower in a vase. I scanned the place but didn’t recognize anyone from the night before. A young waitress brought me some water, silverware and a menu. Unfortunately, grits weren’t on the menu. I settled for scrambled eggs, bacon, hash browns, biscuit, and coffee. I took out my journal and wrote down some notes and a few of the events from the last few days. The waitress came and filled my coffee cup and set down a silver carafe on the table.

I heard a bell tingle as the door opened and I spotted Betty, the waitress from the night before, coming in. She walked around behind the counter and was talking to the cook. I couldn’t hear what he was saying but he was talking loudly and gesticulating wildly with his hands. I saw her raise just one hand toward him and flap it like she was saying: go away. She walked over to the cash register, opened it, took out an envelope, squinted at it and put it in her purse. She looked up and glanced in my direction, spotted me, paused and waved excitedly. Then I saw her grab the arm of another waitress passing by. She stopped her, whispered something in her ear and the other woman grinned, took a look in my direction and smiled, whispered something back and they both giggled. The other waitress had mahogany red hair and was wearing a black baseball cap that said: “Lancelot”. And for some reason, I was sure her eyes were green.

Betty came over to me: “Monk Chuck. Good to see you again!” She flashed a big grin while  chewing blue gum.

“Nice to see you again too,” I said. If I’m trying to lay low and not use my real name I might as well go with Monk Chuck. I’ll only be here a week. What harm could it do?

She crossed her arms. “You must be staying near here being back for breakfast and all. Unless you got a girlfriend!” She winked at me and then her face took on a serious expression.

“Oh, I’m sorry honey. You’re not one of those priests that can’t have sex are you?”

“No, I’m not. I can have all the sex I want.”

Her face turned red and she shied back a step.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean I can have all the sex, what I meant was that I’m not celibate.”

“Well, that’s good to hear. So you’re staying around here?”

“Yep, over at Larry’s Layawhile.”

“Those are good people over there. They’re Jains, but American just like you or me.”

“Jains? You mean they practice Jainism? Never met any Jains before.”

“Funny people, but nice. You know that expression: ‘Wouldn’t harm a flea?’”

I nodded.

“That’s them. Completely nonviolent. Even try not to step on insects.”

“Huh,” I replied. “By the way, are you okay? The cook seemed to be yelling at you.”

“Pshaw.” She flapped her hand at me. “Shorty. He owns the place. He blows up all the time. It don’t make no nevermind. I just ignore him. He’s angry because Arnie walked off the job and he just hired a new cook who’s taking a while to get the hang of things. Do you need a job? Can you cook?”

“A little.”

“Want me to say something to Shorty?”

“Nah, that’s all right. Thanks.”

“What about being a pearl diver?”

“A what?”

She laughed. “A pearl diver. That’s what we call a dishwasher.”

I laughed.

“Oh, I need to put a bug in your ear about something.”

“What’s that?”

“I don’t know if you done anything wrong or not but those two policemen you were talking with came back in later last night and they were asking questions about you. I hope you’re not in any trouble.”

“None that I know of.” I lied. Had the South Carolina folks already tracked me up to Iowa? How could they have?

“Well, they’re looking for you. I got to go hon. Picking up the grandchildren and taking them to the park.”

“Bye Betty. Thanks.”

She smiled, moved her shoulders in a perky way and left. The bell rang when she walked out.

“Here’s your food Reverend Chuck.” The waitress Betty had been speaking to said as she put my plate on the table.

“It’s Monk. Thanks.”

“All right Monk Chuck.  My name’s Polly.” She said with a cute puckered smile. “Can I get you anything else? Ketchup, jam?”

“No, I’m fine. Thanks. What were y’all giggling about over by the cash register?”

She flashed a broad, crunched smile. “Nothing.”

Damn, she was pretty, and her eyes were green like Maeve’s were. The shade of peridot.  I felt the wheels of the old dormant hydraulics shifting again in me. The tug of belts, pulleys and the coiling of springs. The feeling of wonder at the site of a beautiful woman in a baseball cap.

“Polly!” I heard someone yell. It was Shorty. “Go unthaw that hamburger meat.”

“You got it boss,” She replied. Then she turned and winked at me saying; “If you need anything, let me know.”

I nodded and thought about river birch trees in snow, the bark unpeeling and my own heart unthawing.

 

I was halfway through my breakfast and a forkful of sausage was heading toward my mouth when the bell rang and one of the cops from last night came into the place. I dropped my head but he spotted me and made a beeline for my table.

“There you are, padre. We’ve been looking for you.”

“What for?”

“You were right about that child Mary Ellen. She had been abused. When we confronted the foster mother about the pattern of burns she confessed. Said she was punishing the child for spilling stuff on her white carpet. How’d you know all that?”

“I used to be a social worker. Child protection.”

“Well, I’ll be damned. See neither me nor Stokes has had any training in that yet. We’re both just a year into the job and they figured we didn’t need it because the social workers knew it all. But then the supervisor Jane Rellic left and Miss Sims had to take over. She used to work in Adoption and doesn’t have any experience in Child Protection. All the other staff are brand spanking new.”

“Always a lot of turnover in child protection. Their salaries should be doubled and the number of cases they have limited. Any politician who tells you they support children and families but won’t support that are liars.”

“Pretty strong words there padre.”

“That’s why I ain’t a social worker anymore. I said those same words at a luncheon of state government officials. Told them to spell out whether they supported these two things or to shut up about strengthening families.”

“What kind of reception did you get in Des Moines when you said that?”

“It wasn’t Des Moines. I was, uh, working in another state at the time.”

“Where was that?”

“Well look, let me ask you this first. What happened to Mary Ellen?” I needed to change the subject.

“Miss Sims put her into foster care. Into an emergency shelter that we have. But the child’s not speaking.”

“Make sure she gets some trauma counseling as soon as you can. She’s gonna need it.”

“Well, that’s another problem we have. Our trauma counselor is on vacation. Won’t be back for a week and a half.”

“Come on. Surely you have someone.”

“Nope. Nobody trained and certified. She’ll just have to wait.”

“Bless her heart.”

“Hey,  padre. You could talk with her. Just give her some religious support. I don’t think she’s got any. Probably could use some.”

“Well, uh, I don’t think I would be of much help to her.”

“Are you kidding? The girl needs help and you’re a preacher and a social worker. That’s probably exactly what she needs. Look, I’ll make the arrangements, okay?”

This was absolutely the last thing I wanted to do. I’ll probably take one look at her and burst into tears. I let out a deep sigh. But I am supposed to be trusting my journey. You can’t pick and choose what God/Universe throws at you. “Sure. Yep. Glad to help. But run it by that Miss Sims before you arrange it. I don’t want to step on her toes.”

“Good idea.” He patted me on the shoulder and headed toward the door. He stopped before going out and turned back. “I forgot to ask where you’re staying?”

“Larry’s Layaround.”

He smiled, gave me a thumbs up, and went through the door.

What in the hell have I gotten myself into now?

 

After Miss Sims approved of it Stokes picked me up at the motel and we went to the mental health center where I met Mary Ellen. He introduced me in the hallway and took us to a room with a window in the door and where there were toys and play activities. The room had a two-way mirror. As he was leaving I said to Stokes to make sure that someone was watching in the other room. He assured me he would be there.

She sat in a little chair by a little desk and wouldn’t look at me. Sadness hung in the air like old chalk dust. From what I could see of her tiny face she wore a blank expression. Poor girl has probably been interviewed by so many people already that surely I’m the last thing that she needs now. And the worst thing would be to try and get her to open up to another person who then disappears from her life. She needed someone, something, that she could keep, hold on to. I walked around the room and looked at the toys, games, crayons, and markers, the Victorian style dollhouse and the hand puppets. “Wow! These look like so much fun!” I said picking up one of the puppets. I glanced back and caught her eyes following me. She quickly looked away. The puppet was purple and fluffy; its eyes were opened wide in either wonder or vigilance.  Maybe both. I put it on my right hand.

“Who are you?” I said to the puppet.

“I’m Merlin.” I made the puppet say. “Who are you?”

“My name is Monk.”

“What do you want from me?”

“Nothing. I just want to tell you something.”

“What is that?”

“That you are loved.”

“I’m not loved. I hate me.”

“Do you really? Or do you hate the people that hurt you?”

“I don’t want to talk.”

“Me neither. Let’s just sit down and relax.” I carried the puppet over to the table, making sure I was giving Mary Ellen plenty of space, and I sat in one of the tiny chairs. I looked at the puppet. “Do you want a hug?” I asked.

“No.”

“Me neither.” I let out a sigh. “I just want to sit somewhere and feel safe.”

“I don’t feel safe either.” The puppet continued.

“I heard that. I’m so sorry. I know how that feels.”

“You do?”

“Yep, I’ve been hurt before. I felt scared.”

“What did you do?”

“I cried.” And as I spoke I felt the tears building inside but I wasn’t going to let them out. Not here. Not now. “People who love us shouldn’t hurt us.”

“I know. I don’t know who to trust.” The puppet replied.

“Well, you just be that way. Make people prove to you that you can trust them. You just take your sweet time.”

“Thanks. But I need someone I can trust now.”

“Do you want to try and trust me?”

“No thanks. I don’t want to talk.”

“Good. Don’t talk until you’re ready.”

“Really?”

“Yes. Really.”

“Can I hug you?” The puppet asked.

“Okay.”

The puppet hugged my head.

“You are loved,” I said. “Remember that no matter what, you are loved.”

The puppet nodded. I nodded.

I put the puppet down on the table between us. Moments later out of the corner of my eye I noticed Mary Ellen picking up the puppet and mouthing words to it. As she was talking I went to the door and as I opened it I was met by Stokes.

“Wow. That was pretty powerful. You looked so emotional in there I almost thought it was real.”

“Yeah, how ‘bout that. Do me a favor.”

“Sure.”

“Go check with someone and make sure that she can take that puppet home with her. I don’t want to have to tell her ‘no’ if she asks.”

“Sure thing.”

I walked back over to the little desk, Mary Ellen was still mouthing words to the puppet and every once in a while she hugged it, or it hugged her. Stokes stuck his head into the doorway and gave me a thumbs up. I sat down in a little chair at the little table, closed my eyes and just listened and prayed.

“Can I keep him?” I heard a high pitched broken voice utter.

“Yes. He’s yours. He can stay with you.”

She stood up, sensing our meeting was over and walked over to me. “I’m sorry that you hurt too.”

“Thank you,” I said and I watched as she walked over to the door. When she reached it Stokes appeared, waved solemnly to me and escorted her out. I just sat there, smelling the sadness of the chalkdust.

 

Chapter Twelve

The Ride is the metaphor I use…for how we move through our life…For me, the Ride is best played out on a motorcycle. It speaks to every aspect of how I see life in that poetic way – the need for balance, confronting your mortality, accelerating, breaking, refueling, tune-ups, repairs, accidents, accepting passengers and so forth. The bike becomes a mirror that reflects the whole of my life.

Garri Garripoli

 

A few moments later the door opened again and a woman entered. She appeared to be Chinese, about 45-50 years old, five foot nothing, long black hair, riddled with grey. She looked harried, suspicious, worried, yet confident. She had to be a social worker.  She walked over and stood in front of me.

“Where the hell did you come from?”

I stood up, catching myself in the tiny chair as I did, which made me bend at a funny, almost 90-degree angle. “Officer Stokes brought me here.” I tried but failed to get the dang chair off me. I offered her my hand. “I’m Monk.”

“Catherine Sims.” We shook on the deal of who we would be.

“Here’s my card.” She handed me a card with her name and number on it. “And I didn’t mean how’d you get here, I meant where did somebody that had those skills come from? You’re definitely not from around here.”

“I used to be a social worker,” I said, finally getting the chair off me and putting it down.

“Buddy, you still are.”

“I’m retired.”

“You look too young to be retired.”

“You look too young to have vision that bad.”

She flashed a beautiful warm smile. “Seriously, I was trying to figure out who I was going to get to talk with her. Our therapist is on vacation. Stokes asked me if you could. He said you were some kind of a preacher. I stopped by the room to see how it was going.”

“I hope I did all right.”

“You did just great. She was anxious, fearful and not talking to anyone. By using the puppet you were able to create a symbolic client, which removed the focus from her and gave her the safe emotional distance she needed. You responded with empathy to the puppet’s feelings in a non-threatening way, and Mary Ellen felt that. You didn’t promise her safety – thank God – who can guarantee that anymore? But the puppet that you gave her is now a safety object for her. And you told her she was loved.”

“She is.”

“I wasn’t sure about the part where you shed a few tears though.”

“I’m afraid it’s part of the package you get with me these days.”

She stared at me and nodded. “You don’t want a job do you?”

“No ma’am, I’m retired.”

The corners of her mouth turned up and she smiled. “Well, we’ll see about that.”

“Suit yourself.” I watched her play with her hair. Was that a preening gesture? No way. Just an old man’s hope-driven imagination.

“Can I buy you a cup of coffee?” She asked.

“Sure, can’t go anywhere anyway. My motorcycle’s in the shop and Stokes took off.”

“You one of those biker preachers? Who did they say you were?” She fished a slip of paper from her purse and squinted at it. “Reverend Chuck?”

I laughed and shook my head. “Just call me Monk”

 

She had a grey Toyota that looked about eight years old. It was poorly parked, head first into a space; the driver’s side rear tire hung over the white line. The car should have been parked in the getaway position, facing out. In case a meeting with some clients suddenly turns dangerous you don’t want to have to take the time to back your car up. Just jump in and high tail it out of there. The backseat of her car was filled with different sized child seats and the floor was littered with trash from fast food places. I stood by the passenger door. The seat was covered with papers, a laptop, a clipboard, breath mints, a half-drunk plastic bottle of Diet Coke, a crumpled pack of potato chips, pens, a bottle of perfume, disinfectant, hand lotion,  a black cardigan and a hairbrush. Might as well just have a sign saying: a social worker lives here.

“Help me with these.” She said as she loaded the stuff from the passenger seat onto my outstretched arms. I followed her around to the trunk and waited while she opened it. Inside were two small empty suitcases. She signaled me to put the papers into one of the suitcases.

“You know what the suitcases are for, don’t you?”

“Yep, I had bags in my trunk too. Worst thing you can do during an emergency removal of children is to throw the child’s stuff into a black garbage bag.”

She nodded grimly.

“And the car seats?”

“I had to transport three kids for a supervised meeting with their parents today. Where are you staying?”

“Larry’s Layover.”

“Great!” She said flashing a pretty smile, “I know a nice retro diner near there. Sir Lancelot’s.

Have you heard of it?”

“Yeah, I have.” I climbed into the car. I watched as she flipped the overhead visor over and pulled out a folded sheet that had been rubber banded to it.

“I need to write my mileage down.”

Moments later she cranked the car up and it lurched backward suddenly. I grabbed the hand holder above the door. With her head swishing left and right she pulled out onto the road. Her phone rang and she answered it.

“This is Catherine. Yes, Maggie. Yes. Well Maggie how do you think the family’s going to get to court if you don’t take them? Yes, I know you were the one who removed the children.”

She leaned sideways, put her hand vertically to the side of her mouth and whispered to me: “New worker.”

I nodded.

“Yes, I know you have to stand up and testify against them. And guess what? You get to drive them home.”

She whispered to me again: “Love to hear that conversation.”

“No, you can’t transfer the case. You have to work with the family to get the child back home. Yes, I know they hate you. I’m not fond of you either. What? No, that was just a joke.” She shook her head at me and mouthed: No it’s not!

The car swerved and I grabbed the handle with both hands. She turned into the parking lot and pulled into a space.

We walked inside and were met by a familiar face, Betty, the waitress from last night. “Welcome back Monk! You can sit anywhere you like.”

That earned me an endearingly suspicious smile from Catherine. I hunched up my shoulders.

Almost as soon as we sat down the waitress from this morning Polly came by the table carrying rolled up silverware, two glasses of water and some menus.

“Reverend Chuck, good to have you back again!” She had her back turned to Catherine and flashed me a grin. “What can I get you?”

“Coffee, for now, thanks, Polly.”

“Uh, I’ll have coffee too.” A voice from behind Polly’s back uttered.

“I’ll get them.”

“How long have you been in town?” Catherine asked.

“About 24 hours.”

“Wow, and people already know you. That one was even flirting with you.”

“Nah, she wasn’t”.

“Yeah, whatever.” She said and turned the menu over to look at the other side.

So it wasn’t imagining it. I’ll be damned.

Polly brought us our coffee and stood in a neutral position at the table. “Anything else you two want?”

“No thanks,” Catherine replied.

Then I noticed Polly turning towards me. “The apple pie is to die for.” She said excitedly, as she bounced up and down on her toes.

“Maybe later.” I smiled at her.

Polly stepped back and Catherine caught me still smiling.

“A minister’s not supposed to act that way. Hey, what kind of minister are you anyway?’

“A Taoist-Buddhist-Christian.”

“That figures.” She rolled her eyes.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing. Hey, I’ve got another case I’d like some help with.”

“I’m retired. I told you that.”

“You’re also waiting for your motorcycle to be fixed so you have some free time. I promise it won’t cut much into your proselytizing, or your apple pie.” She added with a smirk and then looked at Polly. “Though I think you could do better.”

“What about respecting the dignity and worth of all individuals?”

“I’m sure she has her dignity but I’m not sure how much she’s worth. You’ll have to negotiate that between the two of you!” She laughed.

“That’s cold!”

“I know. I’m feeling ashamed of myself.”

“Are you really?”

“No, not really. Okay, maybe a little.”

“That’s better.”

“Confession is good for the soul, huh father?”

“I’m not one of those kind of ministers.”

“I’m starting to see that. What kind are you?”

I leaned back. “The kind that likes to ride a motorcycle, who enjoys a good beer and a cigar.

And the company of women.”

“Are you celibate?”

“Why does everyone keep asking me that?”

“Everyone keeps asking you that? You’ve only been in town for 24 hours.”

“Okay, one person has asked me that.”

“I bet it was that waitress Polly.”

“Actually, it was a different waitress. Weird huh?”

“I’ve got to ask you – does this happen often to you?”

“Would you believe me if I said it never has?”

She leaned back. “Nah. I don’t believe much that comes out of people’s mouths.”

“I remember being that way.”

“Occupational hazard.”

“Reckon so.”

“So, I forgot where you said you’re from?”

“That’s because I didn’t.”

“Can’t trick you on that one. But how am I supposed to employ you if I can’t verify your identity.”

“You can’t.”

“Oh, we’ll figure something out.”

“Look, Catherine. I’m flattered with the offer but I really am retired.”

“Can’t I appeal to your sense of duty, your code of ethics, whatever religion that was that you mentioned?”

“You can but it won’t work.”

“You don’t believe in helping others?

Okay, that did it. My Achilles soul. That was one of my rules for the trip. Help people until they don’t need you anymore. Ironically, also the job of a social worker – to get fired by the client- that you did such a good job they don’t need you anymore.

I took a deep breath. “Okay.”

“You’ll do it?”

“Yeah, I will, but just until my bike is fixed.”

“Wow, that’s great. Let me tell you about this family I’ve got.” She paused while Polly filled our coffee cups back up.

“Thanks,” I said.

“Anytime.” She said with a wink.

“Unbelievable.” Catherine opined as she shook her head. “Anyway, it’s all confidential until I hire you.” She reached into her handbag and foraged around. She pulled out a dollar and put it on the table. “Here’s an advance.”

“A dollar. That’s the best you can do.”

“You know the government only says it cares about kids. They don’t put any money where their mouth is.” She pointed at the dollar bill.  “Don’t spend it all in one place.”

I picked it up and folded it and stuck it in my pocket. “I’ll try not to.”

“Okay. Here’s the situation.  Mom checks on the baby in the morning and notices that one of her legs is swollen. Babies don’t usually have swollen legs. She takes the child to the hospital and the doctor does an x-ray which reveals multiple fractures in various stages of healing throughout the child’s body. We’re called and go to speak with the parents.”

“How did they act?”

“Double – shock. Shocked about the child’s injuries and shocked that we were called and asking them questions about their daughter.”

“I bet.”

“Yeah, they weren’t hostile or anything, in fact, surprisingly, they showed an understanding of why we had to be there.”

“I imagine that didn’t last long.”

She nodded. “Especially when the doctor came out with his diagnosis that the injuries were non-accidental. He’s ready to swear it was abuse. The new caseworker wants to file a petition to get custody. I met with the parents and, well, I’ve got a gut feeling that they’re telling the truth. I got them to agree that they wouldn’t try to remove the child from the hospital so that gives us more time.”

“What’s this gut feeling about?”

“I don’t know.”

“Were they concerned?”

“Absolutely. And they sought help immediately.”

“Was the child in good shape otherwise?”

“You mean other than the history of multiple fractures?”

“I know.”

“It’s hard to tell.”

“How did they describe the child?”

“In positive ways. They did say that she cried a good deal.”

“Now we know why.”

“But that they loved her. They were able to tell me in detail how they tried to soothe her when she cried. The dad said that she liked gentle rocking and that sometimes he’d put her in her car seat and sit her on the top of the clothes dryer and turn it on. Sometimes the motion would put her back to sleep.”

“Parents remind you of anyone?

“No, why?”

“You might have some positive feelings about someone like them and be projecting them onto them. Countertransference.”

“I know what countertransference is, and no I’m not.”

“Middle or upper class?”

“Nope, poor as Job’s turkey.”

I smiled. “Haven’t heard that in a while. We’re other medical causes ruled out?”

“The doctor checked for osteogenesis imperfecta by running a collagen analysis and it was negative.”

“So no brittle bone.”

“That’s right. They also did a skin fibroblast study on the parents and it didn’t show any collagen abnormalities.”

I felt a sense of dread deep in my body. Here we go again. “Okay, I’ll go with you to see them.”

“Do you need anything from your motel?”

“What?”

“Your motel. Do you need to go back there for anything?”

“It’s Larry’s Layaway.”

“Larry’s Layawhile.” She corrected me. “You already told me, remember?”

“Oh yeah. I forget things easily. A little short-term memory loss.”

“That’s not such a bad thing.”

“Combine it with having low expectations and I’m one happy biker.”

She laughed. “And Monk.”

“Yes?”

“What’s your last name anyway?”

“Chuck.”

“I thought that was your first name.”

“You thought wrong.”

“So what’s your first name?”

“Monk.”

She eyed me suspiciously. “So your parents named you Monk?”

“What can I say? They were very devout.”

“Sure. Whatever. Finish your coffee and let’s go.”

 

On the way to the hospital she again took some calls. I held on tight to the handle.

“Yes, Mrs. Johnson. You’ve got a child at school with bruises. Does he say how he got the bruises? He won’t huh? How old is he? 15. What kind of bruises are they? Right. Where are they located? Okay, so nothing on the face or head. What size bruises are we talking about? That’s pretty large. How many are there? What color are they? Okay, I know they’re bruise-colored but what I mean is are they purple, brown, yellow? Okay. Is he afraid to go home? No, well let him go home then. Tell him that if he’s afraid he’s going to get hurt to go to a friend’s house. Give him my number. I’ll send someone as soon as I can. Thanks for calling me.”

She looked at me and shook her head. “I’m going to have to relieve that worker at the hospital and send them out on this.”

He phone rang again. “Yeah, Joanie what do you need? The car seats are in my car. If you meet me at the hospital we can swap them over. We’re all out of diapers and formula? Pick some up at Walgreens and get a receipt and we’ll pay you back. No, really we will. I know you haven’t been paid for the last one yet but it’s on the way.”

She leaned toward me and whispered: “It’s not really.”

“Okay, I’ll meet you there.”

I shook my head. It all sounded familiar. Let’s see one of those high paid bankers deal with issues like these. They wouldn’t last a day.

“You know in Ireland it’s against the law to talk on the phone while you drive.”

She stared at me. “What a random thing to say. Where’d that come from?”

“I used to live in Ireland.”

“In the monastery, Monk?” She laughed.

“No, just lived there.”

Ten minutes later we were at the hospital parking lot and a woman was waving us down.

“Hey, Joanie!” Catherine shouted. She parked the car, introduced me and we began swapping the car seats into Joanie’s car.

“Catherine, I don’t have any money to buy baby things.”

“Here’s a twenty. I want a receipt and change.” She yelled as Joanie drove away.

I saw her switch gears, from harried to helpful, as we entered the room where the parents were sitting. “Mr. and Mrs. Faulkner, I want to introduce you to Reverend Chuck. He has a background in social work and wants to help but I need your informed consent.”

“For what?”

“For me to share your personal information with him.”

“How can he help?” Mr. Faulkner said glaring at me. Maybe I should have taken my Harley vest off.

“Well if it’s accidental he might be able to support that.”

“And if he thinks we did it like the doctor does?”

“He could testify against you.”

They looked at each other, earnestly searching each other’s face and both nodded. He grabbed his wife’s hand. “We don’t have anything to hide.”

“Well, I have to get you to sign this release. She balanced her briefcase on her knee, took out a pen and stuck it in her mouth and grabbed a piece of paper from inside. She closed her briefcase, walked around to the side of them and pointed at the paper. “Let me write his name in here.” She scribbled something. “This says you agree that I can share information with him. And he too is bound by the rules of confidentiality I discussed with you earlier. Is that okay?”

They glanced at each other again, nodded in unison and signed.

I went through the usual questions with them about their background, their views of the child, worries, and fears.  They lived in a double-wide trailer in a decent area of town. Mom and dad both worked full time but different shifts so they could take care of the infant; good childcare plan until you need a witness for the times you’re alone with the child. What parent could ever provide that? I couldn’t find anything implausible or suspicious about their story, and believe me, I tried.

“They seem like pretty good parents to me,” I said to Catherine when we met outside the hospital room.

“That’s what I thought.” She said earnestly. “They’re cooperative and concerned and understand why we need to do what we do. They seem to want to find out what’s causing the child’s injuries as much as we do.”

“Yep, they’re not getting their knickers in a twist, which is a good sign. It’s the parents that get indignant and protest the most that usually did it.”

“Knickers in a twist?”

“Irish saying.”

She smiled.

“Still, this is going to be challenging.”

She nodded.

“Well in most legal cases somebody’s got to prove we did something to injure someone else. In the case of child abuse, the parents have to prove that they didn’t. Hard to prove a negative.”

“They’re guilty unless we can prove them innocent.”

I nodded. “Last time I checked there were over 50 medical conditions that could mimic child abuse. It’s not easy or cheap to check for all of them either. And it can take time. What does the child do during this time? They either stay in the hospital or go into foster care, neither of which is good for them or the family.  They’re not going to stay in the hospital for long without a good medical reason and because it costs too much. So they’ll end up in foster care which if the parents are innocent is horrible for them and for the child.”

“You’re preaching to the converted Monk.” Then she smiled. “Hey, get it?”

“What?”

“You’re a monk preaching! Ha ha!”

 

We were nearing my motel when we passed a bar called Dan’s Roadside Inn. “Can we stop there? I need a drink.”

She eyed me suspiciously. “Do you usually have a drink before 5 pm?”

“Nope can’t remember the last time I did but it’s been a while since I’ve had a day like this.”

We sat at the bar. Next to me was a thin, grizzled man wearing a Harley shirt. It said: I Tamed the Dragon, referring to an especially curvy road up in North Carolina. I smiled and nodded at the man and he nodded back. I ordered a Yuengling and the bartender brought it.

“So what do you think?” Catherine asked.

“I agree with your gut feeling. I don’t think they did it. But we do have bruises that are unaccounted for. They do have a young, occasional babysitter that watches the child for them sometimes. We need to rule her out.” I took a sip of the beer. It was ice cold and beautiful.

Catherine put her elbows on the table, rested her head in her palms and stared sideways at me. “I’m going to head there later after I run over to the school to check on this boy they called me about. James was going to do it but just got an emergency referral on a sexual abuse case. So it’s just me.”

“Muggins.”

“What?”

“Nevermind. An Irish saying.”

She smiled and shook her head. “You keep surprising me, Monk Chuck! Anyway, I’ll pick you up back at the motel around 2:30. Okay?”

“I’ll be there.” I watched as she walked out of the place. She looked cute.

“Hey, Monk?” The man next to me said.

I took a deep breath and turned toward him. “Yep.”

I watched as he looked around to see if anyone was listening. I looked around too. Besides the bartender, we were the only two in the place. He leaned in closer to me.

“I’m having a problem with the Mrs. and I need some advice.”

“I’m not very good with advice. Hate giving it and hate taking it.”

“Are you married, father?”

“Was. Twice.”

He stared, taking the full measure of me. I’m not sure he liked what he saw but that didn’t stop him.

“What happened?”

“Both died.”

“Man, I’m, sorry.”

“I’m not. Best years of my life. You’ve got to appreciate what you had, not dwell on what you’ve lost.”

“I’m not sure I agree with that father.” He pointed a finger at me. “No disrespect meant.”

“None taken.”

“Sorry, but it’s different for me, father. My wife and I have been married for 23 years and she just started acting strange.”

“Just now, after 23 years? Consider yourself lucky.”

“What?”

“Sorry, go on.”

“She started going through the menopause and got real cold toward me. Wouldn’t let me touch her. They should call it the men o stop, if you get my meaning. It’s hard to sleep with someone that you can’t touch after 23 years of touching them. It’s like sleeping and waking up next to a dead sea otter.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. “Sorry.”

“Then she started imagining all these things about me, like, like, well I can’t say it. It would be disrespectful.”  He looked down and shook his head.

“It’s okay man.” I put my hand on his shoulder.

“Honestly reverend I have never done the things she accused me of in all the 23 years we were married and I never would.” He started to weep and I pulled him closer to me and his shoulder touched mine. “I don’t know what to do.”

“Sounds like she has a delusional disorder of some kind. Will she go see a psychiatrist?”

He shook his head. “I tried to get her to go. The kids did too. She won’t. I just love her but she treats me like a stranger.” He really started crying now. Old tears, from that reservoir of sadness that lies on the hill above hope. It would have to be emptied before he could hope again. But memories of their former love were flooding the reservoir so that the tears almost seemed endless.

“I’m so sorry man. So sorry.”  I put my arm around him and he leaned into me again. I wasn’t going to tell him it would be all right because without her getting treatment it probably wouldn’t be. “You know there’s this thing called, anosognosia. It’s not denial, it’s more that, mentally, the person is unable to recognize that there’s anything wrong with them.”

He leaned up and gently slapped my chest with his hand. “That’s it! It’s not really her fault, but it is.” He went sullen and looked around him like he had misplaced something. “But still she’s the only one who can do anything about it.” He looked away and mouthed a few words silently, then spoke. “I still love her.”

I nodded and felt some tears welling up in me. “You always will. Bless you, man. Bless you. I’ll pray for you.” I believe in the priesthood of all believers and the raw sanctity of any and all of the blessings we give and receive from others.

“Thanks, father.” His eyes were wet and his nose snotty. I grabbed a couple of drink napkins and gave them to him.

We spent the next hour talking. I had one more beer. I couldn’t do much more for him other than say how sorry I was, that I knew he hurt and to keep blessing him, over and over again, hoping the prayers would help build for him some kind of rickety bridge to a safe haven.

Chapter Nine and Ten of my Motorcycle Novel: Things Start Getting Strange

Chapter Nine

Day 4 – Memphis

 

You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this.

Henry David Thoreau

 

Last night my sleep was filled with dreams. Maeve was there in one scene, Clare, my second wife, in another. In each dream, there was a recurring set of numbers. In the first, I was telling Maeve how much I loved her and had missed her. I remember kissing her hand and the taste of her skin on my lips, even the scent of Anais Anais that she used to wear. There was a knock on the door and a man was there with a telegram. The telegram had a number on it: 6412918227. I read the message, said goodbye and left immediately. For the life of me, I can’t remember anything the message said. Then I was with Clare and we were at Tybee walking on the beach. A plane flew over dragging a sign with the same number on it:  6412918227. I woke up, scribbled the number down in my notebook by my bed, and fell back asleep.

In the morning I was all packed and ready to leave when I spotted my notebook on the desk. It was still opened and the number was written there. It had the same sequence as a phone number. Since I was leaving everything to fate on this trip, what the hell, I called it.

“Lancelot Diner, what can I get you?”

“I, uh, just found this number and wanted to find out what it went to.”

“Well, now you know. I gotta go. Things are crazy here.”

“Uh, you have some kind of problem there?”

“Yeah, Arnie my short order cook didn’t show up this morning. Probably drunk over at Candace’s house. So I’ve got to fill in. Hey, can you cook?”

“What? No. I mean, yes.”

“Doesn’t matter, I’ll train you. I’ve got to have somebody. Just show up and you’ve got the job. Just ask for Shorty.”

“Thanks. Hey, wait a minute.”

“Yeah?”

“Where are you?”

“In Osceola.” And he hung up. I was going to ask “Osceola where?” but I didn’t want to seem even more like an idiot. I had no clue where Osceola was so I took out my phone and searched the internet by typing in the area code. Turned out it was in central Iowa. I took out my Harley atlas and found it on the map. I had planned to head north today. I could still do that and then cut west and get to Osceola. Well, why not? When you abandon yourself to fate you can’t pick and choose your destinations.

The phone rang again and I checked the number. It wasn’t familiar so I didn’t answer.  I’d wait and see if they left me a voicemail. No voicemail. Then the phone rang again and it was the same number. I turned the sound down on the phone put it away and picked up the atlas to check my roads again.

I couldn’t find any other way over the Mississippi River except for using the interstate. So I’d ride that until I was across and then pick up the blue highways again. I wrote my highway numbers down, I 40 and Highway 61 on the yellow sheet, and put them in the see-through pouch. I grabbed a quick breakfast at Burger King and then headed out. It was the right road but I headed in the wrong direction. I turned around, found I-40 W and rode it over the great Mississippi River. Tugboats with barges were plying the green-brown water. A sign announced:  Welcome to Arkansas. Shortly after crossing the river I took the exit to Highway 61. I rode this for miles until I got to I-55 and 61 suddenly disappeared. There was another road heading in the direction of the river and so I took it. Nice road, flat, hardly any traffic, which made sense when after 15 miles I came to a dead end sign. I turned around. On the way back I decided to test the Road King’s speed and my courage. I got her up to 105 miles per hour before the front end began to wobble. She still had plenty of throttle left in her but I backed her down to 60. A road named A appeared that looked paved and trustworthy.  I took it and it came back out on I-55.  Okay, I figured I’d take it until I saw signs of 61 again. I hopped on it and soon realized that instead of I-55 I was on I-155 and heading back over the Mississippi River again. Before I knew it I was back in Tennessee. I pulled over to the shoulder, stopped the bike and pulled out my Harley atlas. Within two minutes a car pulled over.

“You all right?”

“Yep. Just stopped to check my map.”

“Where are you heading?”

“Wanted to get on highway 61 and take it up to Hannibal.”

He stared at me and then briefly glanced back toward the way I had just come. “Highway 61 is back that way.” He said throwing his thumb over his shoulder. “If you don’t mind me asking, why 61?”

“I heard it was beautiful. Somebody suggested it to me.”

He nodded his head a few times and looked away.

“Do you have another suggestion?”

“Yep, if it were me…” he signaled for me to let him hold the atlas, “see you’re right here?”

I leaned in closer to look. His right forefinger fingernail was split halfway in two and it looked heart shaped.  “Yep”.

“Well, this next road up ahead is 181. Take that until it dead ends at 79 and go right. Then when you hit 78 go left and take that all the way to Hickman, Kentucky and you can take a ferry boat back across the Mississippi and pick up 61 again. It’s a much more beautiful ride. Course I’m from Tennessee so I’m a bit biased.”

“How far is it to Hickman?”

“‘Bout an hour.”

“Let me write this down.” I took the directions and scribbled them down on a yellow sticky note.

We said goodbye and I headed out. It was a beautiful ride. Small towns, lush verdant fields, wetlands and bottomland forests. Gum, oak, and bald cypress trees. By the time I got to just outside Hickman, Kentucky I was low on gas. I could either follow the signs pointing to the left to the ferry or the right into Hickman. I remembered the guide for the road I’d written. When confronted with choices of equal value take the one on the left. So, I headed toward the ferry. Surely, there would be a town on the other side and a gas station.

I parked the bike just off the ramp to where the ferry “the Dorena” was tied up. The Mississippi was flowing gray-green and the sunlight was flickering off the currents. I leaned against the bike and waited to be signaled to drive on.  A man came out, opened the gate and waved me on. The parking surface was military grey with yellow traffic lines. I pulled up to the front, parked the bike, took off my jacket and felt the heat pouring down on me. It felt good. The Captain wandered over, collected my $5 and said we’d be waiting a few minutes to see if anyone else showed.

“I’m Monk,” I said, extending a hand.

“Luke, I’m the pilot.” He was a tall guy, skinny with brown hair and a beard. I’d guess around 35 years old.

We shook hands.

“Is there a gas station on the other side of the river?” I asked.

“Sure is. But it’s 18 miles away, in East Prairie. You low on gas?”

“Yeah. Maybe I should go back to Hickman.”

“Hold on.” He said and walked away, returning a few moments later with a red five-gallon plastic container. “There should be enough gas in here to get you to that station.”

“Thanks man.” I poured about a gallon into the tank and checked the gauge. “How much do I owe you?”

He put up his hand. “Don’t worry about it. Where you heading?”

“California.”

“From Georgia?” He said, pointing to my license plate.

“Yep.”

He nodded. “Never been to either one.”

“You been doing this long?”

“About twelve years. Used to pilot boats up and down the river. Was good pay but I was gone a lot and missed the kids growing up. So I switched to this job. Pay isn’t as good but I can be home every night.”

“This is probably not as exciting either.”

“Shoot. You’d be surprised the crazy things that have happened on this boat.” He shook his head.

“Like what?”

“There was this one time,” he laughed, “I got a load of young women over from the college. This tiny little blond with a pixie face comes up to me, blushing, says ‘Captain, this is really weird but to join this sorority I need to run around naked on your boat. I’ll do it really fast, I promise.’ Hell, I told her to take her sweet time. She asked whether I’d report it to the police. I told her that on the river the only law was the Coast Guard and that I wouldn’t say a word. Later, I saw her and another girl running around the boat buck naked!”

He patted me on the back, put his gloves on and went off to run the ferry. I walked over to Big Red and made sure she wouldn’t tump over under the movements of the ship. Moments later we were swinging around and heading across the Mississippi. There was a slight breeze on the water and to the west, the sky was steel blue with black clouds.

Fifteen minutes later I was riding down the ramp into Missouri. I soon became glad that I had gotten the extra gas on the Dorena because for eighteen miles there was nowhere to stop. I finally drifted into East Prairie and spotted a gas station where I could fill up. Just as I pulled in under the canopy, a huge thunderstorm broke.  I gassed her up and then found a place to park, still undercover though it had a lot of leaks. I went inside the shop to wait things out. It was your typical southern convenience store: hot dogs rolling on a grill, boiled peanuts cooking in a crock pot, various types of coffees and cold fountain drinks, Krispy Kreme doughnuts, rows of beef jerky.  Another section had fishing lures, hip waders, flashlights, camouflage paint and clothing –both ‘real tree’ and ‘mossy oak’- and Dead Down-Wind antiperspirant for the deer hunters. A woman in a glass-windowed room was sorting through the containers of live bait. Attached to the gas station was a fast food restaurant. I grabbed some coffee, nodded at some customers and sat down at a table. Nearby, two men, even older than I was, were in earnest conversation discussing the whereabouts and running operation of heaven.

I waited an hour until the wind died down, the rain had passed and I had learned all I wanted to know about the logistics of the resurrection. It was far more complicated than I had imagined, especially in the case of any man or woman who had been married twice. I went out to check on Big Red and noticed a small wet spot under the bike. It was just a few drops and appeared to be coming from under the primary cover. I ran my finger along there and it was oily. I’d need to keep an eye on that. I cleaned my windscreen and my visor and wiped the front of Big Red down; otherwise, I’d get water thrown at me when I took off down the highway. There were puddles with oily rainbows in them but for the most part, the rain had given a good wash to the streets. I cranked her up and took off toward Hannibal. I wanted to get there before dark so I could scout out a place to do some stealth camping by the Mississippi River. The air was filled with that wonderful aroma you get after a hard rain: petrichor.   Eventually, I reached highway 61 again and headed north toward St Louis. I had a pretty good run at it until I got to the environs of Saint Louis and when I wasn’t thinking, I turned down Route 66, the road I’d taken a few years back. A sign at the intersection announced the “rock and roll crossroads of America”. I eventually did a U-turn, found 61 again and headed north through the stop and go traffic of strip malls and fast food restaurants. I had to stop and look at my map a few times and to keep calm I recited the mantra: Breathing in I calm myself, breathing out I smile. Only, I didn’t feel a lot like smiling. The traffic was heavy: people texting on their phones, cars cutting in front of me, rut and potholes everywhere and folks racing to get nowhere. I’ve made a lot of trips to nowhere in my life and its reputation is overrated. Better to turn off the phones and the stereos, let go of the feeling that you need to be somewhere else, that somewhere else is better. Be here now. Traffic can be holy too. Eventually, I reached I-70 and then I headed east to O’Fallon and Hwy 79 where I soon began following the Mississippi River again. About 30 minutes before dusk I finally made it to just south of Hannibal and began looking for a place by the river where I might be able to camp undetected. I found a small path where it looked like fishermen parked frequently and which had, a few yards ahead, a dog leg to the left further into some bushes that looked pretty secluded. I jotted down a description of the place so I could find it after dark and then headed into town.

After wandering around the town of Hannibal, I got a steak and some mashed potatoes to eat outside in a beer garden and washed it down with a couple of Leinenkugel Summer Shandys.  While I was sitting there I watched as three tall guys in full biker gear parked their BMWs across the street. They came wandering in after a while and sat at a nearby table and spoke German. I couldn’t understand what they were saying but I overheard one word a few times and I wrote it down: Augenblicksgott or something like that. I headed back to the river.

I found my spot and pulled Big Red down the darkened path. At the end, I reversed her around so she’d be pointing toward the way out in case I had to leave in a hurry. I put a small piece of wood that I carry in my saddlebag underneath the side stand to make sure the bike didn’t sink into the soft ground. The river was less than a stone’s throw away.  I took out my LED headlamp, put it on and began pulling out the stuff I was going to need for the night: my foam pad, sleeping bag, a rain tarp to cover the bike and me, my camp stove and some duct tape to cover any reflective surfaces of the bike, in case lights were shone down this way.

The bike looked pretty safe and so I wandered down to the river bank, sat on a log and watched it flow by. It was cold and a breeze was blowing off the dark water. A log went floating by. Rivers are rivers. To treat them as metaphors is to suck the life out of them, out of this precious moment of encountering one. I sat in silence, watched and listened.

Later, when I was getting ready to lie down, I glanced at the underbelly of the bike and again noticed some oil leaking near the primary. I don’t know much about motorcycle maintenance but I know that ain’t good. For years Harleys were known for marking their spots, but not anymore. The machines are rugged but this was a 2004 model and had over 80,000 miles.

The problem with oil around the primary cover is that you can’t be sure where the oil is coming from. It could be coming from any number of places under the bike and traveling to that spot as its one of the lowest points, especially when the bike is leaning over on its stand. I got some brake cleaner out of the saddlebag as well as some Gold Bond Foot Powder.  I cleaned the area out with the brake fluid and then threw powder all over the metal. In the morning I should be able to tell where the oil’s coming from.

I hung my leather jacket over the windscreen to block out any reflection and patted my trousers to make sure I still had my wallet and my phone on me. They were there. I took out my phone to check for any voice messages and, hell, there were six of them, all from Colin, Hannah and Joe. Dang it, I’m in trouble. How did I miss hearing them? I checked the volume and for some reason, it was turned down. The last voice message was from Hannah.

“Daddy? Why aren’t you answering my calls? Where are you? We had a deal that you would call Colin or me every night and you didn’t call him last night and you haven’t called me tonight. Where are you? I’m getting mad at you dad! I worry about you. Please phone!”

I loved hearing her voice. I felt something tugging from deep inside my chest and a tear built slowly under my left eye. I played the recording again just to hear her voice. The tear fell. I’d better phone her.

“Hi, Hannah!”

“Daddy. Why haven’t you been answering your phone?” She nearly shouted. Hannah was a small young woman, about five foot nothing, but she had a powerful voice.

“Sorry, darling. I must have accidentally turned the sound down.”

“And you’re just checking it now? You didn’t phone Colin yesterday.”

I chortled a little. “I know you won’t believe it but I forgot.”

“That’s not funny daddy.”

“Sorry, sweetheart. Lots of things happen when you’re on the road. It’s easy to forget things.”

“Even with our name and numbers tattooed on your arms?”
“Colin, told you, huh?”

“Let’s not worry about that now.” The phone went silent. I could picture what she was doing. Whenever she wanted to wipe the slate clean, start over, she did arm gestures that she had learned from me over the years from watching my Tai Chi: a move called parting the wild horse’s mane. I heard her sigh, the out-breath that always signaled that she had finished. “Okay, Daddy, we’ll start over. Can you make sure that you call us once a day?”

“I will.”

“It’s probably me you’ll be calling since I’m guessing you’re on this side of the Mississippi now.”

“How’d you know that?”

“You called Colin from Memphis, remember. It’s right on the river.”

“That’s right.”

“What road did you take across?”

“The interstate.” I forgot its number. I’ve never been able to remember highway numbers.

“That’s good.”

And then I remembered something. “I also took the ferry across. Had a good chat with the captain of the ship.”

“Dad?”

“Yep!”

“Why did you cross the Mississippi River twice?”

Aw hell. “Actually darling it was three times. I was trying to take a shortcut and accidentally went back over it again.”

“Dad, not another shortcut. You’ve never been good with shortcuts.”

“You’re right. Never been good with them. Remember that so you don’t see it as another sign that something’s wrong with me now.” Felt kinda proud of myself after that comeback.

“I love you daddy.”

“I love you too darling.”

“So where are you now dad?”

“I’m in Hannibal Missouri.”

There was an extended silence. “Hannibal? Isn’t that north of St. Louis?”

“Sure is. Nice river road though.”

“Why are you way up there? It’s the wrong way to LA!”

“There ain’t no right way to LA Hannah. Folks can get there any way they want. Why they would want to go there is a whole ‘nother question.”

“Dad, you’re trying to be funny so you can distract me. You always do this.”

“I’m sorry sweetheart. I don’t have any set route out there to LA. I’m just seeing where I’m led to.”

“By God, daddy? Again?”

“You got anyone better in mind?”

“You’re looking for omens and signs and portents. This is the Universe, God and the Tao thing all over again, isn’t it?”

“Not so fast young lady.”

“Daddy, you remember you did this last year? You were heading up to Atlanta to see Uncle Jeff and you ended up in Key West Florida?”

“Got a hankering for some oysters. I wanted to see the clear blue water of the keys. Wanted to have a drink at Sloppy Joe’s where Hemmingway used to write.”

“Okay dad. Okay.” When she moved from calling me daddy to dad I could always tell her patience was running thin. “So you use these signs to help you decide which way to go?”

“And yuanfen.” I surprised myself remembering that word.

“What’s that?”

“Chinese word for synchronicity.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s kind of like fate, with an attitude. The Chinese have a saying for yuanfen which means that ten years of good deeds or meditation bring two people to cross a river in the same ferry, and a hundred years of these bring two people to rest their heads on the same pillow.”

“How is it dad that you remember all of these things when you forget what you had for lunch?”

“Yuanfen.”

“Whatever daddy.” She’d switched back to daddy. She was starting to like me again.

“I miss you darling and I can’t wait to see you!”

“Well then hurry up and get here daddy! I love you!” And then we said goodbye. Oh God. Those feelings of love and longing we have for our children. I went to put my phone in my pocket and a piece of paper fell out. It was the German word I’d written down earlier. I typed it into the search engine on my phone. Augenblicksgott. “A minor god that passes through in the blink of an eye and has a positive, momentary effect on events.” Kind of like a guardian angel, but of a lower rank, who has good intentions, but only works part time. My kind of angel.

I drifted off to sleep with the sounds of the Mississippi River flowing into my dreams.

 

Chapter Ten

Day Five – Hannibal, Missouri

 

When we are driving, we tend to think of arriving, and we sacrifice the journey for the sake of the arrival. But life is to be found in the present moment, not in the future. In fact, we may suffer more and more after we arrive at our destination. If we have to talk of a destination, what about our final destination, the graveyard? We do not want to go in the direction of death; we want to go in the direction of life. But where is life? Life can only be found in the present moment. Therefore, each mile we drive, each step we take, has to bring us into the present moment. This is the practice of mindfulness.

Thich Nhat Hanh
As soon as I saw light’s shadow creeping in under the tarp I got up. Lord, I was cold and stiff. I did some Chinese exercises to limber up a bit and I walked back down to the river, sat on a log on a high bluff and watched the river flowing.

Later I went back to my bike, fired up my old Optimus 8 stove and had a cup of coffee and some beef jerky from my saddlebag. I watched the steam rise off the coffee.

I began packing my stuff up and came upon a can of Gold Bond foot powder sitting on the ground. What the hell did I have this out for? My feet are all right. Then I remembered the oil leak and got down on the ground and climbed back under the bike. I could see a tiny rivulet of oil running just from the primary cover. So that’s where the leak is. That can be dangerous. Oil can blow from there onto the chain or the tire and cause me to have an accident. That cinches it. I’ve got to get that fixed as soon as I can.

With the atlas spread out on the Harley seat I was able to locate Osceola, Iowa. I had no reason to go there other than the number that came to me the other night in a dream and then the phone call to the diner, but that was good enough for me. Sometimes, to get your attention, the Universe hits you over the head with a frying pan; other times it speaks in whispers and wrong numbers. I figured Osceola was about 212 miles away. I’ll head in that direction unless Divine Providence or yuanfen intervene and take me somewhere else. Even when nothing’s happening something’s happening.

I wrote down my notes in my journal, finished packing, cranked up Big Red, let her warm up for a while and then headed out. The ride along the river was beautiful. The Mississippi played hide and seek with me ducking behind the levee, the bluffs, the cottonwoods and maples and the alluvial floodplains. When no one was around I let out a few “yee hi’s” and “thank you God’s”. I stopped at a gas station, cleaned up and got some orange juice to drink. Back on the bike I came to a junction and wasn’t sure which way to go. I remembered my backup plan. When in doubt, go left first and the next time, go right. I vaguely remembered doing this once already on the trip so I headed right this time. It was a good road, well maintained and soon I came upon another huge bridge. It was over a big river too, just like the Mississippi which, as soon as I entered Illinois, I realized it was.

I laughed, turned Big Red around and headed back over the Mississippi for the fifth time. I rode till I hit Highway 61 again and headed north. The air was crisp, cool and the sky was azure with a few oyster colored clouds in the west. I could smell a wood fire burning and heard the sound of a train horn in the distance. I crested one hill and the road began jogging beside a train track. Moments later I heard a loud horn and watched as a Norfolk Southern train appeared and trudged its way south. I kept looking for an open boxcar. I remember someone saying that people loved trains so much because they represented our two most primal urges – ‘I want to go home’ and ‘Get me the hell out of here’.

Just outside Burlington, Iowa I hit Highway 34 and headed west. It was a two-lane road, which I never mind except at night when deer are around and in the daytime when the trucks whizzed past. A few miles down the road I stopped at a gas station, filled up and then parked the bike on the side so I could take a break for a while. I got some coffee and a pecan roll and sat outside on the curb. I watched the maneuvers of a tanker, skillfully going forward and reversing, weaving its way into the parking area.

“Damn,” I said as he climbed out of his cab. “Takes some skill to back that thing in here.”

“This one’s easy compared to some.” He walked toward the back of the tanker, put on his work gloves and began pulling out a refueling hose.

“Where you heading?” He asked, throwing the question over his shoulder as he began hooking things up.

“LA.”

“Where you coming from?”

“Georgia.”

He cocked his head and stared at me. “Most people don’t go from Georgia to California by way of Iowa.”

“Reckon not. Just doing a bit of sightseeing.”

“Married?” He pulled a lever and the fuel started flowing into the underground tank.

“Not anymore. Was for 28 years. Wife passed from cancer about three years ago.”

“Mine died about two years ago. Cancer too.”

I shook my head. “It’s hard man.”

He stared at me, briefly nodded and looked away. Then he glanced back. “I’ve been going out with this woman who’s been divorced for 12 years. One day her husband just up and announced that he was gay.”

“Well, I’ll be doggone.”

“Yep. I like her a lot but it’s hard to let go of the old memories.”

“Who says you have to?”

He sat down beside me. “Oh you have to all right or it gets too crowded. Not enough room for anything new.”

“Reckon so.”

He stood up and I did as well and we introduced ourselves and he walked back over to his tanker. A few moments later a sheriff’s car pulled up and the driver rolled his window down. Damn, how did those South Carolina cops find me so quickly?

He pulled his sunglasses down a bit on his nose and glared at me. “Hell, you can always tell when it’s May.”

“Why’s that?”

He leaned his elbow on the door. “All you old retired farts are out on your Harleys while the rest of us are working.”

“Somebody’s got to do it.”

“Where you from?”

“Georgia

“Went to Atlanta once. Worked with the GBI. A man from here, he was a bastard, killed his girlfriend and fled. The only lead I could find was a piece of paper in his home with an Atlanta address on it. I called the GBI there and give them his description and the address and by the time I landed there they already had him in custody. Good people.”

I nodded.

“Where you heading?”

“LA.”

“Don’t know why anyone would want to go there. It’s a cesspool out there. All of them are assholes.”

“My daughter and her husband live out there. I’ve met some nice people there.”

He leaned back, pushed his sunglasses back up on his nose and sized me up. “Well, you must be an asshole too.”

I nodded. “I am that.”

He laughed. “Be safe”. He rolled his window back up and tore off.

I walked back to the bike and noticed a wet stain on the concrete under the primary. It looked like she was leaking more. I needed to get this looked at soon.

 

The wind started to pick up as I got back on Highway 34 and headed west. A thunderstorm was building in the south, charcoal blue and nacreous colored clouds scudded across the sky. Thank God I wasn’t going that way. The old biker saying is that the only good view of a thunderstorm is in your rearview mirror. The winds were coming from the south-east at I’d guess 20-25 mph but fairly constant. Usually I could just lean a little toward the wind to compensate. All bets were off though when the 18 wheelers started passing me me on this two-lane road. The usual forces of physics seemed suspended. Sometimes when the trucks passed, the wind in their wake was calm, other times it was like being hit by a wave at high tide.  Still, the road was straight and ‘God willing and the creek don’t rise’ I should make it to Osceola before dark.

About an hour and a half from Osceola I started seeing signs saying: detour ahead.  I let out a deep breath. Trust the road. Enjoy the ride. Soon though I came upon another sign announcing the detour was a mile ahead. As long as it wasn’t left, south toward the building thunderstorm I’d be all right. A mile later, the detour had us heading south.  At least the wind problem was gone as I was heading directly into it. The sky was dark and ominous now and I could see a curtain of rain falling on the horizon. Should I stop and put on my rain suit or keep going? The detour’s probably only a mile or two and then I’ll be heading north again.

Fifteen miles later the rain began slashing down. I pulled over to put my rain suit on but I was soaked before I was finished. The wind was gusting and the bike teetered slightly on its stand. I went to crank her up and the starter stuttered and then stopped. The electrical display went dark. I figured that it must be a loose battery cable. Unfortunately, the battery compartment was underneath the seat and not easy to get too. I un-bungeed all my gear and set the stuff on the wet ground. I took off the backrest and the screw holding the seat on and I pulled it off. My hair was soaked and rain was pouring down my face. The cable to the negative was loose and I tightened it. I tried the starter again and the bike roared. I put everything back into place and headed off again. The rain was lashing. My windshield was pockmarked and beaded drops clung onto my helmet visor. The left side of my face began to hurt. It’s a problem I’ve had for years called Trigeminal Neuralgia. My head doesn’t like barometric pressure changes. The pain moves around popping up in my forehead, my ear, and my jaw. It felt like someone was playing ‘whack a mole’ in my head.

A couple of miles further down the road and the detour signs pointed north. The rain wasn’t as bad but I was battling the winds again and their strange currency when the trucks passed. I rode past two dead deer lying on the side of the road. A few miles further and I was signaled to head north. I turned and was on 34 again, heading west toward Osceola. I desperately needed coffee and a chance to dry out and soon there appeared ahead of me glowing brightly, one of the physical and spiritual oases of the highway, a Love’s truck stop. I pulled in. Thank you God.

I got a cup of coffee and huddled in a booth, my hands warming around the cup. Some medicine I carry in my leather jacket helped calm the thunderstorm in my head. I looked around. There were four men in baseball caps sitting near me conversing loudly. One was talking about cooking brisket. Another spoke about his vertigo and how he had fallen the other day but managed to hold onto the mail. A small triumph he celebrated by raising his arm. Another spoke about his recent colonoscopy. The fourth talked about his brother.

“Son of a bitch is 66 years old and he’s getting married.”

“Why?”

“Says he’s in love. For the first time in his life. Soulmate.”

I watched as they all shook their heads in unison.

“Hey.” One of the men said staring at me. “Not a great day to be on a bike.”

I mumbled something halfheartedly about any day you get to ride being a good day and continued to warm myself with my hands on my coffee cup.

“Where’re you heading?”

“LA.”

“Whooee, you got a long way to go. Where’re you staying tonight?”

“Osceola.”

“Well, at least that’s not too far.” Another said.

“Know a good place to stay there?” I asked.

They all looked at each other, shoulders hunched or dropped.

“Larry’s Layawhile is pretty nice I hear. Run by an Indian family.” One suggested as the others nodded.

“Thanks.”

The men left and we said goodbye and they wished me a safe trip. I watched through the window as they walked past the bike and took the measure of her. One leaned in close and started laughing, and pointing. I think he noticed the hula girl.

By the time I left the café the rain had stopped and the sky to the west wore a honey apricot glow.  I looked at hula girl and shivered. Somehow between the rain and the winds, her grass skirt had blown off and she was naked. I looked in my saddlebags and on the ground for something to cover up with. I found a piece of Styrofoam from a cup and folded it to make it skirt-like. Then I attached it onto her with a pipe cleaner. That should keep her decent for a while.

About an hour later I pulled into Osceola and spotted Larry’s Layawhile.  I parked the bike by the registration entrance and went inside. The woman behind the desk looked Indian and startled when she saw me. Her left hand flew to her chest. I wasn’t sure if she startled because she didn’t see me coming, or, after I glanced at my scary countenance in the mirror, whether it was because she saw me coming. Regardless, she regained her composure and smiled.

I booked a room for the night and headed back out but not before passing a sign that read. “May all beings be filled with kindness and compassion for one another.”  Amen. Why don’t we ever see those words posted on billboards around the country?

 

I dropped my stuff off in the room and checked my Harley atlas for the nearest dealer. It looked like it wasn’t much more than a mile away. On the way there, coincidentally I rode past the Lancelot Diner, the restaurant I had phoned the other day. It had a black and white neon sign showing a knight with a jousting pole. I pulled over to the side of the road to check it out better.  The building looked like an old railroad dining car, a design that was based on the old Burlington Zephyr. The place looked busy. I headed off again. By the time I reached the Harley shop it was beginning to close. They were riding all the bikes that had been outside on display back into the shop. The roll-up garage door was halfway down. I parked Big Red outside it, climbed under and found the service deck.

“What do you need? We’re getting ready to close.” Said a man with hair like a tonsured monk. He was wearing a Harley shirt with the name Bernard. He also spoke with an accent that sounded German.

“I’m on my way to California. I think I got a primary leak, but there’s probably some other things wrong with her too.”

He grabbed a clipboard, climbed under the door and I followed him. He bent down near the primary cover and ran his finger along the base of it. A coating of oil was on his finger.

“Looks like it. But it could be coming from somewhere else.” He jotted some words down on the sheet on the clipboard. Then he examined the bike moving his head sideways and then squatted near the front. “Front engine mount’s gone too.” He wrote that down. Then he fiddled with the gear shifter. “This is awfully loose.” He jotted it down. “Come on in.”

I followed him back into the service area and he pressed a button to make the door rise.  He went around behind the counter and started tapping on his computer while I looked around the place. There were the usual things in the area: bikes with tags on them fixed or being fixed, new items for touring bikes on shelves or hooks, and parked in the corner was a beautiful black sidecar with the name Formula II on it.

He saw me admiring it. “That’s one of those Motorvation sidecars.” The Harley man said. “They are made right here in Iowa, up in Sibley. Make you a very good deal on it. Want me to hook it up to your bike? Would only take an hour.”

I turned and stared at him. “No thanks. If I had one of those someone might want to ride with me.”

“Well, that’s the point.”

“That’s why I don’t want one. I’m making this trip solo.”

“What’s your name?”

“Monk.”

“Legal name?”

“Rory Connor.”

He stared at the monitor. “Are you in our system?”

“Nope. Just passing through.”

“Where are you staying?”

“Larry’s Layawhile.”

He looked over at me. “I’ll have to check the bike out in the morning. You got a number where I can reach you?”

I paused to think but couldn’t remember. I pulled up my sleeve and read the word “Me” and gave him the number underneath. He finished writing out the work order and had me sign it.

“We’ll get you back on the road as soon as we can.” He said. “I’ll call you in the morning.” He extended his hand. “Name’s Bernard.”

“Monk.” I shook his hand.

“I know.” He smiled.

“Where’s that accent from?”

He stared at me blankly. “I don’t have an accent, you do.”

I laughed. “I get it. You probably get asked that ten times a day.  I lived in Ireland for a while and I used to always get asked about my accent.”

His right eyebrow rose slightly. “I have always wanted to visit Ireland. It looks beautiful.”

“It was, I mean is.”

He turned away and looked at the bike and then back at me, still with little expression on his angular face. In Ireland, they used to say a person like this had a face as long as a Lurgan spade. “Don’t worry about her. I’ll call you when I know something.”

“Thanks man.”

 

On the way back to the motel I walked past the diner. I was tempted to go in but I remembered the expression on the face of the woman at the motel when she saw me and figured I’d better shower first.

 

When I got back to the motel I went into my room and checked my phone. Three calls from Joe. I fell back onto the bed and pressed the call return button.

“Where the hell you been man?”

“Sorry Joe. I had the volume turned down on the phone.”

“Where are you?”

I walked over to dresser and saw a business card for the motel. “I’m at Larry’s Layawhile in Osceola, Iowa.”

“I’ll be damned. Not exactly due west Monk.”

“I’m having a good time Joe.”

“Well hells bells, that’s all that matters, except for this little problem in South Carolina.”

“What’s happening now?”

“Well, the Internal Affairs guys aren’t happy that I won’t give them your phone number. They’re trying to get some kind of warrant for my phone records. Hell, they’re probably tapping this call. The cops I’ve spoken with over there are being really cagey. I can’t get anything out of them. But by the questions they’re asking I think they’re looking for you too and that they’re not going through IA.”

“Like what kind of questions?”

“Like – ‘do you know where the hell he is?’”

“That’ll work.”

“Anything you’re not telling me buddy?”

“Nothing important.” It’s still better that he doesn’t know that I know who the shooter was. In a way, it doesn’t really matter who the actual shooter was. By standing by they’re all shooters, just as much as if they’d pulled the trigger themselves. Silence is a form of consent. Bystanders do it all the time.

“All right buddy. I don’t believe you but I know you’ve got your reasons. I’d be expecting a call from IA soon.”

“I won’t be answering.”

“Well, then they’ll come looking for you. Them and some of those cops. I think if I were you I’d keep my name under wraps for a while and use cash, while I try and take care of things on this end.”

“I will. Thanks Joe.”

“I owe you. You kept me out of prison when we were gallivanting all over China. I love you buddy.”

“I love you too.”

 

I took a shower and felt better. I sprayed some deodorant on me that Colin had given me. I’ll confess that this was the best the Monk had smelled in years. I checked the label and it said: Phoenix. I think my old brand was just called: Broken Old Man scent. I dressed and put on my Harley vest. It’s got two patches on it; one shows a cross and the other is the yin-yang symbol. I grabbed my black Indiana Jones hat and ambled on down to the diner. It was beautiful. An old diner from the past. All silver on the outside with purple and green neon trim. It looked like something out of an Edward Hopper painting. The knight was lit up as well and this time I noticed his jousting pole was pointing toward the parking lot.

Inside, the floor had black and white checkerboard tiles, the counter was silver and there were bright red stools and chairs, and white tables. Ceiling fans spun the old stories overhead. The place was packed and the only room I spotted was at the counter next to two young uniformed cops.  I took a seat. One of the cops turned toward me, sniffed a few times and raised his eyebrows. Must like my deodorant. I smiled at him. He looked worried and turned away.

“What can I get you to drink hon?” A waitress said, suddenly appearing in front of me.

“Coffee please?”

She smiled, turned and left. I spun around on my stool so I could look at everyone. Young couples, old couples, A few men sitting at the counter. Single moms with kids. Black, white and Latino. Nice mix. By the time I had completed my slow spin the waitress was back in front of me pouring coffee into one of those old bone white Victor mugs. Last time I had coffee in one of those cups was in the Majestic Diner on Ponce de Leon in Atlanta in…well, it was a while back.

“You’re Chuck aren’t you?” She said to me with a smile and a wink. “I remember you.”

“Chuck? No my name’s Monk.”

She seemed confused and looked me up and down. She stared at the patch with the cross on it. “That’s right. Monk Chuck! I remember now. What can I get for you?”

“No. It’s not Monk Chuck it’s…”

“Hold on there a second I’ll be back.” She moved beside me to the cash register to take someone’s money.

The cop beside me leaned over and said: “You one of them biker preachers, Monk Chuck?”  I turned and he was smiling at me and extending his hand. “Sorry, I just overheard Betty. I’m Stokes. Nice to meet you.”

I smiled and shook it. “No, she got my name wrong. It’s not Chuck.”

“I heard that. It’s Monk Chuck. Betty’s always getting names mixed up.”

I watched as he elbowed the cop beside him who was staring at what looked like crime photos. “Gunther,” The cop said. “This here is Preacher Chuck.”

“Monk Chuck,” I said without thinking. “I mean Monk…”

Gunther and I shook hands. “Are you one of those motorcycle preachers? I had an uncle that rode with the Christian Motorcycle Association out of Dubuque. But he wasn’t a preacher like you.”

“Well, I’m not a …”

“You decided hon?” I heard the waitress say.

“No ma’am, I’m sorry.”

“Well, you just take your time reverend. We still have some of them specials left up there on the board.” She pointed over her shoulder to a whiteboard with “specials” written at the top.  A few items were crossed out.  She left and went beside me to the cash register and talked to two customers.

“So are you here for a while or just passing through?” Gunther asked.

“Just passing through. Had some problems with my bike and it’s getting fixed. I’m on my way to California.”

“Where you coming from?”

“Georgia.”

“Holy Toledo! You’re going to California from Georgia by way of Iowa?”

“I got lost a few times.”

I watched as he shook his head and then I heard the waitress yell: “Shorty, two naked dogs, and two cows, run them through the garden, walking.”

I heard one of the customers ask her: “Does the hamburger come with onions?”

“No that’s extra. Want them?”

“Yes ma’am.”

She tilted her head and shouted over her shoulder: “Make them cows cry.” She took the order slip and stuck it dangling onto the rail over the kitchen counter.

“Okay hon, you figured it out now?”  She asked me.

I didn’t want to keep her waiting any longer and over her head, on the sign, I saw one of the specials: Hamburger steak. “Hamburger Steak.”

“Blue plate special.” She yelled. She leaned onto the counter toward me, wrote on her pad and said: “How you want that cooked?”

“Medium.” I watched as she stood up and went to yell. I wanted to see what she was going to say now. She caught me looking and managed a worried expression while she yelled: “Medium.”

I smiled at her and she smiled back. “Anything else hon?”

“No thank you, ma’am.”

 

I took the nice warm Victor mug in my two hands and took a sip. The coffee was good. Monk Chuck? I laughed. That was the same name as that mysterious Buddhist monk that helped Joe and I out when we were on the lam in the wilds of China. I shook my head. Whatever happened to him? The two cops beside me, hell, I’d already forgotten their names, their heads were bent in some silent meditation over the crime photos. I peeked and saw a glimpse of the lower legs of a child. On both legs from the foot to about halfway up to the knee, there were symmetrical red burn marks, with even lines at the top of the burn.

“Jesus have mercy.” I uttered.

One of the cops looked at me, smiled and put an arm around my shoulder. “Thanks for the prayer father.” He said. “She’s doing okay.”

“How old is she?”

“Just going on three.”

I felt the tears welling up in my eyes. That’s one of the reasons I had to retire from being a social worker. I was crying too much. Couldn’t dam up the grief up anymore. What good is a social worker who cries all the time? When you get older, or wiser, your body just says: why even try to hold the tears back? Whoever said that that was a good thing to do? I glanced at the photos again and the tears began to fall. I took up my napkin and wiped my eyes.

The cop smiled at me and patted me on the back. “It’s all right father. She got out of the hospital today and she’s back with her foster parents now. She’ll be okay.”

I felt myself stiffen. “Did you say she was back with them? Had she been returned home or something?”

“Nah, she’s been with the foster parents for about six months now. She got this burn from stepping into the tub when the water was too hot. It was an accident. Her foster momma blames herself for not keeping the bathroom door shut until the water cooled. You know how kids are around water. She heard a scream and went running into the bathroom and found her in the tub. She called 911 right away. The child’s gonna be all right, don’t you worry.”

“No,” my voice sounded choked by the tears. I coughed to clear my throat.  “No, she isn’t.”

I felt him recoil slightly away from me. When I raised my head he was staring at me.

“Padre, what in the hell are you talking about?”

“Let me see the photos,” I replied. The other cop handed them to me and leaned over to listen.

“You see how there’s an even line at the top of both burns?” I pointed out.

“Yeah.” They replied in unison.

“You don’t get that with accidental burns. With accidental burns, you get splash marks, a more random pattern of burns.”

“What?” One said.

“You also don’t get them on both legs.”

“What do you mean?”

“Who gets into a tub with both feet at the same time? You’d have to hop into the tub to do that. When you get into a tub you only put one foot in at a time. If you put one foot into hot water as soon as you feel it burn, no matter how old you are,  you’re gonna yank it back out, leaving a burn and splash marks on one leg, maybe some small splash burns on the other as well.”

“So what are you saying?”

“Those burns weren’t accidental. The only way a child gets burns like those is when their legs are held down in burning water.”

They both let out deep breaths as if they had been holding them for years. Their bodies came erect, stiffened and they stared at each other. One said: “Let’s go.” They stood up and rushed out.

“I tell you those boys are always rushing somewhere!” The waitress said as she put my plate of food down in front of me.

I managed half a smile and said: “Thanks.”

 

I stared at the food for a while. One plate with a meat and two vegetables, all separated into their own sections. If only life could be that way. Keep things from touching each other. I shook my head. After staring at the food for about five minutes I knew I couldn’t eat anything. I grabbed my bill and stood up by the cash register.

“Honey, you didn’t touch it. You feeling all right? Nothing wrong with it is there?”

“No, ma’am. Sorry, I’m just having problems with my stomach.”

“Well here. Let me at least put it in a container for you to take home.”

“That would be kind of you.”

“It’s no problem at all Reverend Chuck.”

Once I left the place I dropped the bag into the trash can. I walked over to a convenience store and bought two 32 ounce bottles of Corona Familiar, went back to the motel, drank the beer and fell asleep.

I woke up feeling like I had to pee and hurried to the bathroom. Afterwards, I checked my phone. It was midnight and I had missed a call from Hannah. Out in LA, she’d be about two hours behind our time. I turned on the light and saw the motel business card. I phoned her. The phone went to her voice mail. “Hi, Hannah!  Daddio here! I’m in” I glanced at the card, “Osceola Iowa, staying at a place called Larry’s Layawhile. See, how’s that for remembering! Anyway, might be here a few days cause the bike needs some work on it and I was fortunate to find a Harley dealer about a mile away. So, anyway, I’m fine and I hope you are too. I love you darling. Give my love to Bob.”

I went outside for a few moments. The sky was cobalt and a few stars were trickling in light from long ago. There was a chill in the air, a sense of one last frost before winter surrendered.

Next Two Chapters, Seven and Eight, of My Motorcycle Novel – Hope Bats Last; Relax with a nice cross-country murder mystery! Check out the previous chapters!

Chapter Seven

 Here’s a message for the faithful.
What is it that you cherish?
To find the Way to see your nature?
Your nature is naturally so.
What Heaven bestows is perfect.
Looking for proof leads you astray
Leaving the trunk to search among the twigs
All you get is stupid.

Hanshan (Cold Mountain)

 

I slept for about an hour and woke up hot and sweaty. Checked my phone and saw it was 6:10 pm. Time to get something to eat. I made the short walk across the stream and up to the porch which was filled with bikers rocking, smoking, drinking and talking on their cell phones. I found Skunk.

“Ready to eat?”

“Yep.” We walked into the restaurant, checked the menu that was scribbled in various colors onto the whiteboard and hemmed and hawed a bit. Finally, we gave our order to the waitress, some cute young high school girl wearing an expression of innocence, confidence and tender forbearance toward old men and their foibles.

“It’ll be about ten minutes sweetie pie.” She said. “What’s the name?”

“Monk.” She wrote it down.

We found a couple of seats back on the porch and reminisced how the place had changed over the years.

“Remember that tiered garden they used to have over there? The flowers were beautiful.”

I shook my head. “Can’t really recall that but I do remember that inside they had those stuffed animals on the wall and motorcycle shirts hanging from the ceiling.”

He nodded and we rocked and overheard bits of chatter from the other bikers.

One guy was pointing to his BMW: “It’s got dual plugs. When you roll on it there’s no hesitation.”

Two other men were speaking. One was scratching the back of his head and said: “He has to pull the choke and give it half throttle just to get the damn thing started.”

The other replied:  “Needs to adjust the carburetor. It’s not a big job. By doing what he’s doing he’s advancing the timing. Could hurt the engine.”

Other snippets of conversation drifted to my ears

     “Almost rolled into a bear up at Woody Gap. Just past the overlook, over the guardrail.”

     “I like that road over Fort Mountain. Tight going up and sweepers going down.”

     “Watch out for that blind hill. There are three curves you can’t see on. It’s tight but safe.”      

     Men were bent over, tipping this way and that with their phones, trying to check for satellite images of the weather. In the distance, I heard the clunk of a Harley going into first gear, turned and watched a guy ride off and then my eyes followed a couple in full leathers as they started climbing the stairs.

At the top, the man pats the woman on the back, shakes his head and says: “Honey, you need to learn how to pee out in the woods.”

“I just can’t do it.” She replies. “But you know what, when I was little and rode with my grandpaw he wouldn’t stop the car and so I had to pee into a Styrofoam cup in the back seat.”

“So you can pee into a Styrofoam cup but not out in the woods?” He replied. “Tell you what how about next time you go in the woods I’ll give you a Styrofoam cup to use!”

She gave him a little slug on the arm, they laughed and wandered past us into the diner.

“Monk!” Yelled a woman carrying a tray of food.

I raised my hand and signaled toward a picnic bench. We followed her over to the table and sat down.

“So Monk where are you heading to?”

“Out to California, to see my daughter Hannah.”

“I remember her. Cute as a button. You gonna take Interstate 40?

“No, I’m keeping to the back roads.”

He shook his head. “I understand that but you know that’ll double your time to the coast?”

“That’s okay. I’m retired now. I’m in no hurry. Might even head up to Sturgis.”

He rubbed his forehead and squinted. “Monk, not many people would go to California by way of Sturgis, South Dakota. You sure you’re all right to be riding?”

“I’m fine Skunk, thanks for asking.”

He glanced in the direction of my bike. “You got a GPS on that thing?”

“Nope, but I’ve got my Harley atlas.”

He glanced back at the bike again, leaning his head to the left and right. “I see you ain’t got no tank bag either to put a map in so you could look at it whilst you was riding.”

“Always thought those tank bags got in the way. Also, they spoil the look of Big Red.” I smiled.

He turned his head slightly sideways and stared at me. “Monk that’s a hellavu lot of blue highways to California for you to be a negotiating without a GPS or a map in a tank bag.”

“I’ll be all right. It’s a big state. Even I can’t miss it.” I laughed.

“Ha! What road you thinking of taking next?”

“Not sure. I’m open for suggestions.”

“I’ll tell you now that Highway 61 – they call it the Great Mississippi River Road- is a nice ride. Levee’s high in most places but you can catch glimpses of the old river. Road runs all the way from Louisiana to Wisconsin. Purt near 3000 miles. You could pick it up anywhere, maybe over at Memphis.”

“Sounds good to me,” I said as I forked some coleslaw into my mouth.

We finished eating and as the sun drifted down we just sat on the porch rocking and talking with other bikers. Biking is a fellowship and everyone coming up the stairs felt undefensive, eager to say hello, shoot the bull and talk bikes and trips.

We sat there until it was bordering on dusk and a veil of coolness had descended upon the mountains and trees. The dinner bell rang last call for supper. I said goodnight to Skunk and wandered across the road to the waterfall. The reflection of the moon was flickering in the water.  I heard a hoarse, cawing sound, looked up and spotted a murder of crows in the twilight. Though my short-term memory was pretty shot I somehow remembered an old Chinese poem from the time my buddy Joe and I were in China, wandering around in the mountains hiding from the law.

     While I watch the moon go down, a crow caws through the frost;
Under the shadows of maple-trees a fisherman moves with his torch;
And I hear, from beyond Su-chou, from the temple on Cold Mountain,
Ringing for me, here in my boat, the midnight bell.

Well, at least some of my long-term memory was still intact. I walked back across the road, across the bridge, over the stream and headed for my tent. About 50 yards ahead of me there was a gathering of folks near a blazing fire ring. I unzipped the outer cover of the tent and then heard a voice.

“Hey, mister. Come on and join us”. It came from the fire ring. I couldn’t see who had said it but I saw faces smiling and a bottle being lifted in the flickering light.

“Sure”, I replied and ambled over.

There were seven other bikers, including a married couple around the fire ring. We introduced ourselves, said where we were from and where we were heading. Jokes and stories were told, favorite routes and campgrounds were shared and then one of the bikers, a veteran, launched into the soul-wrenching song: “I’m still in Saigon”.

     All the sounds of long ago

Will be forever in my head

Mingled with the wounded cries

And the silence of the dead.

We were in awed silence as he finished, thinking of his war, our own little wars, the lost and still missing from our lives. Someone passed around a bottle of fireball whiskey and the jokes began flowing again.

I felt happy as I stumbled back to the tent, guided only by the moonlight, the whiskey and my old Duck Dynasty flashlight. I climbed inside and got my stuff out so I could go and brush my teeth. Then I remembered: I’d forgotten to phone Colin. I fished out from my bag the structure sheets I had prepared for my phone calls. I had written down the questions and left space for my answers. I took out my pencil and jotted down the answers.

“Where are you?” Answer and say something specific about the place.

Suches, Two wheels campground. You remember that place. Ran into old Skunk and we had a good chat. Place has changed a lot. Flowerbeds are gone and so are the dead animals on the wall. Came up here once with Clare on the old BMW.

     “How’s the ride been?”

Give the same answer always. Good, no problems. Bike’s holding up well.

     “Where are you going to next?”

Not sure. Have to consult my map. Thinking about Highway 61, the great Mississippi River road.

    “Feeling okay? How’s the memory?”

What? I forgot about my memory. Just joking. It’s good. I remembered all of a Chinese poem from when your uncle Joe and I were dressed as Buddhist monks in China, hiding out from the police.

The call went amazingly well. I was thrown off by a few questions I hadn’t anticipated but I think I pulled it off.  One was: “Dad, I know you have my number tattooed on your arm but do you even remember your own phone number?”

“Of course I do”, I checked my other arm where I had tattooed the number and “me” above it and casually read it out.  “017 4517”

I finished up by asking about his work and about Siobhan and Stephen.

“Everything okay Colly?”

“Yep, yep, yep.”

“I love and miss you son.”

“Me too dad.”

  

Chapter 8

Day 3 – Suches, Georgia

 The world about us is full of ghostly doings. Every moment of our lives is trying to tell us something, but we do not care to listen to this spirit voice. When we are alone and still we’re afraid that something will be whispered in our ears, and so we hate the stillness and anesthetize ourselves through sociability.

Nietzsche

The morning was fresh and crispy when I woke up. My neck and back were stiff but just needed a little stretching and would be all right. I unzipped the tent entrance and climbed out. There was the stream I had listened to all night. Mist was rising from the water and from the hillocks in the distance. The trees smelled new, fresh. Across the bridge, folks were already gathering on the deck, some smoking, some consulting maps. I wandered over to the bathroom and then came back to the tent. I leaned on Big Red and took in the beauty of the place.

I remembered another Chinese poem.

In spring hundreds of flowers,

In summer, refreshing breeze.

In autumn, harvest moon,

In winter, snowflakes accompany you.

Every season is a good season.

If useless things do not linger in your mind.

A memory of my first wife Maeve brushed through my mind and I felt a flutter of longing in my gut. We were standing outside Dunluce Castle… Monk! I said to myself. Let go of the past. Stay in the present. I moved to an open area and started doing my Tai Chi movements. After about ten minutes I heard Skunk’s voice.

“You still doing them Chinese exercises?”

“It’s Tai Chi. It’s an exercise and a martial art.”

“Ha. Martial art. You move too damn slow to fight somebody. What are you going to do, bore your opponent to death?”

I laughed and kept going through the movements: balance, breathing, empty the mind, come to the senses. “Each move has a meaning behind it for defense and health.”

“What’s that move there called?”

“Embrace tiger, return to mountain.”

“What’s that about?”

I kept slowly going through my moves while explaining. “Embracing the tiger is embracing your fear or any difficult situation you’re facing, and return to the mountain means feeling your strength, feeling grounded.”

Skunk watched, tilted his head left and right and then shook it. “I gotta head out Monk.”

I stopped, walked over to him and gave him a long hug. “See you down the road Skunk.”

“Keep the shiny side up Monk.”

I watched as he walked away.

I packed up my gear and loaded it onto the bike. I cleaned the windshield and my helmet visor, grabbed a cup of coffee and the Harley atlas, sat out on the porch and stared at the waterfall across the road. I took a few deep breaths and thanked God for another day.

I jotted some route numbers down on a yellow sticky sheet and stuck it into the see-through part of the little tank pouch.

Hwy 60 to Dahlonega

52 to Ellijay

76 to Dalton

Cut across mountain on old route

136 to LaFayette

136 – 71 Flat Rock, Alabama

71- 117

117 -72 to Memphis.

Piece of cake. As they would say in Ireland, I was on the pig’s back. What could go wrong?

 

The sun had burnt the mist away and the sky was now azure and cloudless. I headed north on Highway 60, a mountain forest road filled with tight turns, switchbacks, gentle rolling hills, sweepers, and twisties. Big Red slalomed through the curves gracefully. There’s an art and joy to riding in the mountains. The pleasure of matching your speed and gear to the curve, smooth clutching, downshifting, picking your line, leaning into the curve, trusting that you’ll come out safely on the other side, and when you do then accelerating and upshifting.  When you do it right you feel at one with the bike and with the countryside you’re riding through.

I rode through the Chattahoochee National Forest, into Ellijay, across Fort Mountain, into Dalton and over into Alabama. After initially riding in the lush mountainside I now descended into rural areas with closed and decaying stores and passed old clapboard houses and shotgun cottages. Cars for sale were parked out by driveways and the frayed shopping centers were filled with gun shops, hairdressers, and title pawns. A scent of sadness and desperation hung in the air like a mist the sun couldn’t burn through.

But beauty was also always there if you looked for it. I passed blooming magnolias with their creamy blossoms, gnarled live oaks with Resurrection Ferns and Spanish moss. There were tall sugar pines and mimosas with their silky pink blossoms. Purple wildflowers, daisies, and Mexican primroses graced some of the roads. You just had to be willing to see the beautiful and then look. What was that old saying? Some things need to be believed to be seen. A wave of thankfulness swept over me as I rode.

As the afternoon wore on, clouds, some bruised, some gunmetal gray, started filling the sky. Hula girl was still dancing happily but the fuel warning light had come on for the third time that day. Time for another gas station stop. I was about two miles out of town when the rain began bucketing down and sideways at me. The temperature dropped dramatically and a chill shivered through me. I lowered my visor and kept riding. I was half soaked by the time I spotted a station, pulled in and parked under the canopy.

I felt tired and a bit sullen. I took some clothes out of my bag and went in and changed. I looked in the mirror. My hair was stringy and almost down to my shoulders, wet from sweat and rain. I had about a three days growth on my beard. My buddy Joe used to say to me: When you were born you were so ugly your momma had to tie a pork chop around your neck to get the dogs to play with you. I laughed. If I saw myself on the street I’d be tempted to give myself a wide berth. I managed a smile and gave myself a talking to. Loving kindness Monk. Towards yourself first, then others. No matter how you look, no matter what you feel, that’s what you show.

I went inside to the restaurant and ordered some hot coffee to help me thaw and dry out. There was a couple in the booth across the aisle from me. The man reached across the table to hold the woman’s  hands but she pulled them back quickly, holding her palms toward him like a warning, and for some reason, I thought of a hurricane. The body language wasn’t looking good.

“But honey,” he said in a pleading, country western tone, “When you gets to be our age you’re gonna have some baggage.”

“Cletus. Cletus darling.” She replied sternly. “Listen to me carefully.”

He leaned his left ear in her direction.

“Cletus, everybody does have some baggage. I’ve been putting up with yours for a long time now. But you ain’t just carrying baggage, you’re carrying garbage. Crap that should have been thrown out years ago.”

He sat upright. “Aw honey, that’s cold.” He cocked his head and put on his best sad face.

She stood up and shook her head. “Goodbye Cletus.” She said and then walked away.

His head bent down over his scrambled eggs, he mumbled a private threnody of loss and put his hands in his hair like he was going to pull it out.

I debated for a few moments and then said: “You all right man?”

He tightened his jaw and nodded grimly. “I ain’t gonna give my heart to no woman ever again.”

“Sorry, buddy,” I replied. “It’s tough.”

“Freaking right it is. Breaking up hurts more when you’re older.” He glanced away. “You’d think that it’d get easier but it don’t.”

“Never gets easier.” Memories of loss and grief were careening all over my insides. The great goblin of grief. It’s the country we all discover from whose visit no traveler ever wants to return. But no matter how far you paddle away every new wave of grief throws you back onto that forlorn shore.  “I remember…”

His phone rang and he picked it up, putting up a finger to signal me to wait. “Uh huh. Yep, I can do that. Happy to. Bye.”

He grabbed his coat, slid out of the booth and stood up. A grin broke out over his face. “She needs me to drive her home.” I watched as he hurried out.

 

It was dusk by the time I reached Memphis. The bumps and potholes of Highway 72 had bounced me around a fair bit and I’d hit a ton of traffic lights heading into the city so I was beat. I drove all the way up to the Mississippi River and parked the bike at Tom Lee Park. As soon as I climbed off I realized how tired I was. I had been in the transcendental state of riding and hadn’t noticed.  I took some deep breaths and stretches and walked over to look at the river. My phone rang.

“Hey Joe.”

“How’s the ride Monk?”

“Great. Just made it to the Mississippi River a few minutes ago. I’m looking at it. It’s beautiful. How’s Bobbie Lee?” She was his Chinese wife and she taught physics at South East Georgia University. What was the name of that town in China she was from?

“She’s doing great. She’s still working on that Stressinger Apostrophe thing. That idea that our universe is just an apostrophe to the real world.”

“Bless her heart.”

“Hey, how’s uh, that memory thing going?”

“What memory thing?”

“Ha ha! Good joke.”

I really had forgotten what he was talking about but when I realized it I played along. “You set me up for it.”

“I did that.”

“So it’s all right?”

“Yep. Didn’t get lost once today. Sort of disappointing.”

“There’s always tomorrow.” He chuckled. “Look brother, what the hell kind of trouble did you get into in South Carolina and why did you give the troopers my number?”

“You’re still my attorney aren’t you?”

“Hell, you know I am.”

“I’m on my trip. You can handle it.”

“I could if it were straightforward but something’s happened over there you might not know about. You did a video interview right?”

“Yeah, so what’s the problem?”

“Problem is that they lost the DVD.”

“They could just cut another.”

“They could if the hard drive hadn’t somehow been erased.”

“Oh hell.”

“Yeah. The police are okay with it because they have so many eyewitness accounts from troopers that were there and they’re all singing the same tune.”

“Naturally.”

“But their Internal Affairs guys want to talk with you.”

“Well, they can’t. I’m retired and on holiday.”

“So you gave them my number thinking they might try and contact you?”

“Yep.”

“Well, can I give the IA folks your number so they can talk with you? Might clear this thing right up. It was a righteous shooting wasn’t it?”

“I don’t like those words ‘righteous shooting’. Makes it sound like killing a person, even if it was justified, is somehow a moral thing to do when it’s always immoral, maybe necessary at times, but always immoral.”

“You know what I mean! I mean that it was a good shooting.”

“Hold on for a second Joe.” I took a deep breath and thought about things. How much should I tell him? If he knew I had a copy of the interview DVD it could put him in danger. Only Smitty and I know I have a copy and I’m damn sure he’s not going to say anything about it. Joe doesn’t need to know about the DVD but he does need to know what happened. They’ll think he does regardless of whether I tell him or not. I lifted up the phone.

“Joe, one of the cops killed a disarmed man in the act of surrendering. It was cold-blooded murder.”

“Aw damn.” A silence ensued.

“You still there Joe?”

“I’m still here. I’m just thinking. You saw this?”

“Yeah.”

“And testified to it on the recording?”

“Yep.”

“On the tape, did you identify the shooter?”

“No, I didn’t.”

“But you think you know who it was?”

“I didn’t say that. Let’s just leave it at the fact that I didn’t identify anyone on the tape as having pulled the trigger.”

“So that’s why the police don’t care about talking with you but Internal Affairs does.”

“That’s how I see it.”

“Aw hell, Monk. We’re gonna have to just see how this plays out. I won’t give the IA folks or anyone your cell number but you know they could get a subpoena for you to testify.”

“Let them try and serve it. Hell, I don’t even know where I am, least of all where I’m going.”

We said goodbye and I leaned against Big Red and felt a zephyr of coolness blowing off the river. I felt relaxed and happy. I looked up at the sky, the indeterminable stars in our galaxy and wondered: Do we have a soul? If so, where does it come from and where does it go? I’ve always felt I had a soul, some connection with God; a conduit between the eternal and the finite, which contained all the holy lost and found parts of ourselves.

Scanning the sky for a sign of a motel I noticed the Econolodge, the Super 8 and the Hudson. Which one? The guidelines for the road I came up with said that when I couldn’t decide on things I was to pick the choice which came alphabetically earlier.

I pulled into the parking area for the Econolodge and got a room. I parked Big Red and then carried my gear across the long parking lot and to the elevator. I was sweating up a storm under the weight of all my stuff.  The elevator door opened and a woman started to walk out, saw me, checked the floor number and stepped back inside.

“Hello, ma’am,” I said. “It’s hot out there.”

“Don’t you have air conditioning?”

“Pardon me?”

“Air conditioning. On your bike.”

I smiled and stared at her thinking she was going to laugh but she didn’t. “No ma’am, I guess I never got around to that.”

“You should check it out.” The elevator stopped and she walked out.

 

I dumped my stuff in the room, took a shower, got a little map of the downtown area and walked the few blocks into the city center. I got lost a few times, normal enough, but finally made my way to Charley Vergos Rendezvous restaurant for ribs and brisket. Damn, they were good! Then I walked down to Beale Street to listen to the music and check out the bikes since it was biker night. Saw some magnificent old Indians, Harleys, and BMW’s. Then I went back to the motel and fell asleep.

 

Next Two Chapters, Five and Six, of My Motorcycle Novel- Hope Bats Last; Light the Fire, Get a Cup a Tae, Bring the Wee Dog in, an Relax.

Chapter Five

Day 2 – Somewhere in South Carolina

 

We are significant, precious, and needed, not just for the choices we make and the actions we take, but for our very presence. The scriptures of every major religion attest to it: the love in which we exist loves us for our very being. These words from Isaiah are one example: “I have called you by name and you are mine. You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”

Gerald May

 

I answered the phone early the next morning.

“Dad, how’s the trip going so far?” Colin asked.

“Fine son. No problems. How are you?”

“Good, good, good. Where are you?”

I honestly couldn’t remember. I looked out the window and could make out part of a number in the flashing neon motel sign. There was a restaurant across the street with a sombrero and a cactus painted on the window. “I’m at some motel with a number in its name and there’s a Mexican place across the street.”

“Well, that narrows it down quite a bit.” He laughed.

“How are Siobhan and Stephen?” I asked.

“Good. Siobhan is on Skype with her mother back in Ireland. Stephen’s online playing some internet game with his buddies.”

“Well, I’m doing fine here son. Things okay with you?”

“Yep, yep yep.”

“Well look son. I want to hit the road so I’ll give you a call later.”

“That’s fine dad. Just wanted to make sure you were okay. I heard there were two shootings over in South Carolina yesterday.”

“I heard that too.”

“Well, you be careful.”

“I will son. I love you.”

“I love you too dad.”

 

Last night I drank five Coronas at the Mexican restaurant hoping in vain that each one might help dull the memory of yesterday’s horror. It didn’t work. Alcohol and age seem only to take away the good memories. Why can’t we choose which memories we lose?

Before taking off this morning I did some mindfulness exercises to get my mind back into the present, to let go of what had happened yesterday as well as some painful memories from the past that had been stirred up. Violence begets memories of violence. To ride safely your mind has to be in the here and now. You have to let go of thoughts about the past and worries about the future. You can’t ride with a bunch of ruminations like mental billboards distracting you from the road. Each day is a gift in the cosmic raffle of things and you have to be present to win.

Heading west I cut back into Georgia and rode the old blue highways. On the ancient Rand McNally atlases, the back roads were drawn in blue. These were the tiny roads, the now almost forgotten roads that once stitched the USA together in the early motoring years. Now it’s all interstates. Generally, roads that have even numbers go east and west; odd numbers usually signify a north and south route. So as long as I’m on an even-numbered road and following the sun I’m heading west. That’s all I need to know for now.

I rode for about an hour, came into a small town and stopped for breakfast at a place called the FWW Cafe. It was about half filled. I nodded to folks as I entered, sat at the counter, ordered up some coffee, took off my gloves and jacket and scanned the menu. Grits. You know everything’s gonna be all right if they’ve got grits on the menu. I ordered, “The Widowmaker” which consisted of three eggs, bacon, and sausage, red-eye gravy, a biscuit, pancakes and grits. I closed the menu, handed it to the waitress and glanced around. There was a skinny old man a couple of chairs down from me who saluted me with a forkful of pancake.

“Howdy.” He said.

“Howdy to you too,” I replied and glanced around the place. Old Georgia license plates adorned the walls like trophies celebrating a better time. There were farm and tractor calendars and high school yearbook photos in black and white.

“Where you headed to?”

“California.”

“You couldn’t have started out anywhere closer?”

I smiled. “Nope. Had to start in Savannah.”

“How long do you think it’s gonna take you to get out there?”

“Not sure. I’m not in any hurry. Just want to take my time. Why’s this place called the FWW cafe?”

“Stands for farmers, workers, and widows. Those are the main customers. Get a biker or two like you in now and again. He slid over a chair. My name’s Mike. Mike Crawford.” He offered his hand.

I took it. “Monk.”

“That’s an usual name. Monk what?”

“Just Monk.”

“You a Catholic monk or one of them Buddhist monks?”

“Yep.”

“Well, which one?”

“Both.”

“You can’t be both.”

“Who says I can’t?”

“It’s in the rules somewhere.”

“What rules?”

“The monk rules.”

“I’ve never seen the monk rules.”

“Well, I’ll be damned.” He shook his head and looked away but then glanced back. “But why ‘Monk’ anyway?”

“A friend thought I acted like a monk. He called me that and it stuck.”

“You married.”

“I was. Twice.”

“Divorced?”

“Nope. Both wives are dead.”

“That’s bad luck.”

“Yep. You?”

“One wife. Just made it to our 50th wedding anniversary last week.”

“Congratulations.”

“Thanks. She’s a hoot. Said to her last week: ‘I’m proud of you.’ She pretended not to hear me and said: ‘I’m tired of you too.’ Ha! Great sense of humor.”

“You hope so.”

“What? Oh, ha! I get that!”

I grinned at him and then my food came.

We chatted off and on between bites and he told me that he had a daughter and a grandson but that his daughter was married to a “no good peckerwood son of a bitch”.

“That’s rough man. Do you get to see your daughter and grandson much?”

“Yep. She drops him off and we babysit while they’re working.”

“At least you’ve got that.”

“Yep, could be worse.” He looked away and warmed his hands on his coffee mug.

 

Chapter Six

 

We must overturn so many idols, the idol of self first of all, so that we can be humble, and only from our humility can we learn to be redeemers, can learn to work together in the way the world really needs.

Oscar A. Romero

 

I couldn’t finish the pancakes but the rest of the meal was great and soothing. Especially the grits. Nothing like connecting with a memory from your childhood, unless your childhood had been awful. Having said that, grits alone, usually made by a kind grandma, have redeemed many a bad childhood. When I lived in Ireland, every once in a while I’d start jonesing for grits and I’d have my sister send some over. For Colin, she’d throw in a couple of bags of candy corn, another delicacy and southern staple you couldn’t find over there.

I paid my bill, left a tip, said goodbye to Mike and got some recommendations of his for back roads to take.

The clouds to the north and east were gunmetal gray, the wind was stirring and it was decidedly colder. My boots crunched on the gravel as I walked over to the bike and circled it to make sure everything was okay. I pulled on my helmet and gloves, cranked Big Red up and headed out the blue highway that Mike had recommended. I figure that the more I left things to chance the more easily God, Fate or the Universe could intervene.

I hit Dahlonega late in the afternoon and hopped onto GA 60. I leaned into the curves and tight turns and felt a strong connectedness with Big Red and the road. Curvy roads challenge you and bring out the best or worst in your riding skills. I passed the rock pile grave of a Cherokee princess and a place called Woody Gap where the Appalachian Trail crosses the road. Colin and I used to do some hiking on that trail years ago. The bike managed the curves almost effortlessly, which is, of course, the secret to good riding.

Daoism has a concept called wu wei which can apply to motorcycle riding. Wu wei happens when you use your natural abilities and intuition to flow with the environment. Its actual translation is “no doing” but it’s better understood as a kind of effortless action. Applying this to motorcycle riding means finding the flow, going with it and then taking no action or thinking beyond what’s needed. You learn to position yourself in the lane correctly for the curve, trust your intuitions, look where you want to go, relax and just lean into the curve. Inexperienced riders think too much, panic, focus on the obstacles ahead instead of the path, tighten up, overreact and manhandle the bike, often resulting in a crash. If you find a metaphor in there for life you’re welcome to it. I’m too old for metaphors.

Here’s the place I was looking for. I pulled off the road into the parking area of Two Wheels of Suches, a rustic wooden lodge and motorcycle campground I had visited off and on over the years. It had a long porch filled with rocking chairs and picnic benches. The gravel crunched as I rode over it. I backed my bike into a parking area. I put the stand down, switched off the engine and the lights, tapped the tank with my knuckles, thanking God for my safety and climbed off the bike. Next, I pulled my helmet and gloves off, stuck the gloves in my saddlebag and put the helmet on top of my handlebar mirror.

“That you Monk?” A voice hailed me from the porch.

“It’s me.” I headed up the path to the steps. “Who’s that?” I said toward a grizzled, bearded man in a leather vest heading toward me.

“It’s me, Skunk. I ain’t seen you in years.”

“Monk,” I said extending my hand while at the same time recognizing the redundancy of my introduction.

“Don’t you remember me, Monk?”

“Skunk, my memory ain’t what it used to be. Never was actually.”

His eyes narrowed and a worried expression swept over his face like the shadow from a Sunday cloud. “You got that Alltimers Monk?”

“The doctor thinks I do but I think I have something else.”

“What’s that?”

“Buddhism.”

“What the difference?”

“Not much from what I can tell. Both say ‘Live in the present’. With Alzheimer’s you can’t remember the past very well; with Buddhism, you want to let go of it.”

He took a step back. “This Buddhism, is it contagious?”

“No, not really, unless you want it to be.”

He waved his hands. “No thanks Monk. I’ve got that shingles and that’s enough for me.”

I smiled, sucked in and let go a deep breath. The air was fresh, smelling like fir trees and the aroma released by freshly dug soil. There was the sound of a nearby waterfall and the tinkling tabulations of a stream.

We sat down in the rockers. “It’s so beautiful up here Skunk. Why don’t we just live here?”

“Dang Monk you say that every time we meet up here. We’d start to lose our ‘preciation of it if we lived here all the time.  All things wear out. Even good things.”

“Especially good things. Where are you staying?”

“I got me a room upstairs. Too old to be camping out anymore. You?”

“I’m in the tent.” I pointed to the little bridge. “Gonna pitch it over there by the stream. This is my last trip.”

“Tent huh? Wait, what do you mean it’s your last trip?”

“Well, uh,” I stuttered, not wanting to say much. “I’m getting old. Not sure how many bike trips I still have ahead of me.” I raised my shoulders. “It’s just a feeling.”

“Huh.” He sat back in his rocker and got a faraway look. “Remember that time when my wife and I met y’all up here? You had that old BMW. Your wife was on the back. Was it Clare?” He leaned toward me and stared.

“Yep, you got a good memory Skunk. That was Clare. Hell, that was a long time ago I had that BMW. It was a black 1966 R60/2. I’d forgotten that. Thanks.”

“No problem Monk.”

“Hey, what did you ever do with that thing?”

I paused and searched my mind but couldn’t remember. “Can’t remember Skunk.”

“And how is Clare?”

“I’m afraid she’s passed. About three years now. Cancer.”

“I’m real sorry to hear that Monk.”  He was shaking his head and I felt like crying.

“What about you? You were married, weren’t you? Sorry, I can’t remember her name.”

“April. Her name was April. She’s fine Monk.”

“I remember her now. She was pretty.”

“Pretty as a speckled puppy under a shiny red wagon. That’s what I used to say.”

I laughed.

“Where’s she now?”

“Busy babysitting the grandkids. We got five. You got any grandkids?”

“Just one, Colin’s boy. Name’s Stephen. Smart as a whip. My daughter Hannah’s married but they don’t have any kids yet.”

“What are your kids up to?”

“Colin works at the public defender’s office in Savannah. Hannah is living out in LA. She’s studying to be an elementary school teacher and is trying to get into some modeling, last I heard tell.”

He smiled, sat back, looked into the distance, rocked a few times and shook his head slowly.

“We’re lucky our kids turned out well Monk. Thank you, Lord.”

“Amen to that brother.” I sighed and looked around. The Lord thanking mood had come and gone off me over the last few years. A steady diet of loss and grief can do that to you. It’s a sad but tireless companion, which you can quickly grow accustomed to having around. And it’s hard to let it go when you don’t have anything to replace it with.  But this trip was about letting go of the siren sadness of the past, and instead riding in the present, where things reveal themselves, and being thankful.

“Well, look Skunk, I’m going to go set up my tent and everything, take a shower and then I’ll be back up here later for dinner.”

“Sounds good. But if you want a steak, let me know. They sell out fast.”

“Nah, I’m okay, thanks.”

I walked down the steps to the bike, took the bungee cords off my gear and carried it over toward the tent area. I clomped across the little bridge over the stream and onto some grass and pitched it right there. Thank God the instructions for setting up the tent were still attached to the tent bag because I had poles and pegs heading every which away until I spotted them. After it was up, I threw in my gear, sleeping bag and opened the self-inflating foam pad. I am too old to sleep on the hard ground. I glanced over at the stream and watched it burble and roll. The sound of the water was soothing. You can’t step into the same river twice. The river changes but so do I, moment by moment. Each time I step in I’m a different person. I climbed into the tent.

Chapter Three and Four of my Motorcycle Novel (See Chapters One and Two!): Hope Bats Last

Continuing my motorcycle novel…

Chapter Three

    

A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.
Lao Tzu

 

I’ve never really taken a trip like this before where I didn’t know exactly where I was going. I tell a lie, as they say in Ireland. I did do it once before, it was the first time I quit the police force. Back then, after the death of the social worker, nothing I tried would help me feel better; not counseling, not medication, not confession. I decided to leave Savannah and leave my destination up to fate. I packed my bag, went to the airport, up to the Delta desk and asked for a plane ticket to their furthest destination. I ended up in Ireland, where I met my first wife, who later died, and my second wife.

Since then though on my travels, I’ve always liked to plan ahead, book a room somewhere, make a beeline for it and hightail it there. The problem with that method is that you don’t leave much room for chance, fate. Getting to the destination starts to take priority and influence all your decisions. You go past things that maybe you should have stopped for. Much of life is just going past things because we didn’t think they had any value, we weren’t looking anyway. But how can God, Fate, or the Universe reach us if we always try to control things?  Sometimes the only way to find out where you need to go is to let yourself get lost. And trust that things will work out. That’s what I’m going to do: not plan things; get lost; trust the road and enjoy the ride.

This trip is going to be different.

A few nights before I left I was sitting on the screened porch at my house on Tybee beach. The breeze was crackling the palm fronds. I was drinking a Mexican beer, smoking my pipe and trying and failing to make those grey-blue smoke rings. I jotted down ideas to help me on the road. Here’s the list I came up with:

Reminders for the road

Look upon everything with reverence.

Check the bike each morning and see if everything’s tight and nothing’s leaking.

Check the same on myself.

Call or text the kids every evening to let them know where I am.

Before I call, find out where I am.

Never mention any dangerous incidents to the kids.

Stay in the present.

The only past I want to look at is the one in my rear view mirror.

Don’t plan ahead.

Trust that the people I meet have something to give me or I have something to give them.

To remember that I am a sovereign wayfarer.

At every moment I have everything I need to be happy.

I am a spiritual being in a physical body.

But don’t let that physical body get hurt.

Trust my soul.

Stop when I feel like it.

Go when I feel like it.

Say “hello” to everyone.

Talk with anyone who wants to talk

Bless them in my mind.

If someone asks for help, help them.

Don’t ride past anyone in need.

Show lovingkindness to everyone I meet, unless they’re stealing my stuff.

Always head away from bad weather, unless some omen tells me otherwise.

When I don’t know which way to go, go left and then right the next time and then left…

Remember which way I went the last time.

If I have to choose between two things and I can’t, choose the one that starts with the earliest letter in the alphabet.

When it comes to sizes, if I don’t have any better reason, pick the smallest.

Give money to every street musician I see.

Trust the journey

 

Chapter 4

 

The important thing is not to think much, but to love much, and so do that which best stirs to love.

Teresa de Avila

 

I pass a biker and we flash the salute to each other. Ordinarily, it’s the left arm outstretched and down and the hand extended. It’s a way of saying “hello”, “ride safe” and on another level, “I honor your spirit”. Kinda like the Hindu greeting Namaste, but for bikers.  Another biker passes me a few minutes later and starts patting the very top of his helmet. That means that a cop is up ahead somewhere. Sure enough, when I go around the curve there are blue lights flashing and two cars on the left side of the road. A police cruiser and an old 1970’s Delta 88 Oldsmobile with a white guy in it. The cop caught him heading towards Savannah and he’s writing out what I’d guess is one of those fast driving awards. I give a salute to the state trooper who’s busy talking to the lucky motorist. Then I hear a loud bang, a backfire, or gunshot and look in the mirror and see the trooper’s been shot. He’s down but returning fire. I slam on both brakes and the tires squeal, the rubber burns spewing grey-black smoke as I spin the bike around. I give it full throttle and the rear end swings into line and I scurry the bike up behind the police car, park it, reach in my saddlebag and pull out my Taurus and an extra clip of ammo. I run to his side. He’s been hit in the thigh. It’s a through and through.

“Have you called it in?”

He nods. The man in the car is still firing. I don’t know why he hasn’t driven away. I pull off my leather jacket, take my shirt off and wrap it around his thigh to stop the bleeding.

I wish to hell the guy would just drive off. But the way he’s heading is a one-way road to Savannah. The police would block it off and he’d be caught easily, which may be what he’s thinking. His only chance of escape is to turn around and pass us and get lost in the low country backroads.

The driver’s door is flung open. He jumps out and runs around behind it. He fires. A shot hits the outside mirror of the police cruiser smashing it and shattering the glass. The cop starts to return fire, somehow not realizing he’s in the direct path of it now. I grab the back of his flak jacket and drag him around to the back of the car. He’s waving his gun erratically and fires an errant shot which cuts across the road to the opposite side and hits a palm tree. A chunk of the husk goes flying. The trooper’s safe behind the patrol car but he’s still losing blood. I take his gun from him and he doesn’t notice. I tighten up my shirt on him but there’s so much blood everywhere that I can’t tell if I’ve stopped it.

I grab his face and stare at him. “When you called dispatch about this they rogered you, didn’t they?”

His eyes are beginning to float. “They 10-4’d you didn’t they?” He can’t seem to understand. His face alternates from an eerie pleasant smile to an expression of surprise and sudden agony. I don’t hear any sirens. I pull up his communicator and relay the message to dispatch and our location.

“10-4, we’re on the way.” The crackly response cuts through the air like verbal lightning. I want the perp to leave. I’ve seen enough killing in my life, done enough. I hate it.

I peek over the trunk and shout: “He’s down. Leave!” The driver fires back. He’s flanked me, crossed across the road and is hiding behind that same palm tree. Maybe the officer was trying to hit him with his shot. I’m thinking of my options. I can shoot out a tire or into the gas tank but that would only make the driver stuck. I want him to think he has options, but of course, by now he has none. He’s shot an officer and even if he tries to surrender to them I fear he’ll just be shot in retaliation. I just want to keep the officer and me alive, and him.

“Lay down your gun. You know they’ll kill you as sure as you’re standing there.”

“What?” He shouts.

Now I can hear the Doppler wailing of sirens coming from both directions.

“Look,” I shout. “Give your gun to me. I’ll protect you.”

I see his head spinning left and right as if imagining he really had anywhere to run. I put my gun next to the officer who’s looking more remote second by second, like a small oarless boat heading for some distant island.

I stand, put my hands up and shout “Look, no gun.” I wave my hands and start to walk toward him. “Give me your gun and you can stand behind me. I’ll be your shield when they come. It’s your only chance.” He looks like he’s thinking about it. Maybe he’s on meth, but at the very least he’s on adrenaline and testosterone. I inch closer as the police cars start to appear and begin flanking the road.

“Look, I’m going to run over to you and get your gun or it’ll be too late.”

He nods and drops the gun by his side. I run up to him, take a pencil from my pocket, stick it in the barrel of his gun and hold it high. I stand in front of him and shout: “I’ve got his gun! There’s an officer down behind the car.” I look at the man behind me and mentally, I can see he’s somewhere else. He has a smug look on his face and he’s turning his head left and right and nodding like he’s waiting for a job interview he’s confident he’ll get. The cops are out of their cars behind their flung open doors. I spot a few police issue assault AR 15’s and shotguns. I watch as one trooper while holding his hat on, scrambles over to the downed officer and checks on him. He stands and shakes his head somberly. “He’s dead.” He shouts.

I look at the man behind me. His head is turned away and moving slowly like he’s calculating sums that don’t add up, his eyes are unfocused, lost in the haunts of inwardness. A smile is trying to fight its way onto his face. He stutters, spit comes out of his mouth. “You do love me, Jesus.” He mutters.  A shot rings out and I hit the ground. I turn and look at the man. He has a bullet hole in his forehead, is still nodding confidently, and then slowly crumbles to the ground.

 

So much for trying to get out of town, to get some peace and quiet, away from the violence that has always dogged my life. My throat was tight, my eyes wet and my mind flashed through the wretched deaths I had witnessed over the years. Those last words the man had uttered. They kept tugging at some vague memory of mine. Then it came to me, the words from a Flannery O’Connor story: he would have been a good man if there had been somebody there to shoot him every minute of his life. I let out a deep sigh and shook my head. Wouldn’t we all?

I was questioned for about two hours and the officers were not happy with my report. I testified that the man was not holding a gun, was, in fact, surrendering, when he was shot. My statement was recorded on camera before I was finally allowed to leave the station. On my way out I ran into an old friend.

“Hey Monk, is that you?”

I looked at the guy. Old like me, skinny as a rail, wearing a uniform. “Yeah, it’s me. Who are you again?”

“Monk, it’s me, Smitty. We worked out of Liberty Street station together.”

I smiled. “I do remember you, Smitty. Hot damn. It’s been a few years.”

“Sure has.” He said shaking his head in an expression of marvel.

“So you’re working here now?”

“Yep, after the shooting, I couldn’t go back out on the street. I got retrained in computers and digital recording systems. That’s all I do now.” He pointed down the hall. “That was me behind the one-way glass recording your statement.”

I glanced down the hall and looked back at him. “You were recording it?”

“Yep.”

“Don’t suppose I could ask a favor of you?”

“Are you kidding? After you pulled me out of that drug house?”

I had a flashback of walking hunched over in a dark, dilapidated building, with debris all over the floor. There was the stench of ammonia and cat urine, a smell like a burnt shower curtain – all signs of a place where people were making and using meth. I saw sudden flashes of orange/white light and heard the sharp, deafening, cracking booms of a 38. Then there was a low voice saying “Monk, I’m dying.” I remember squatting, feeling scared to death, crying and then somehow managing to get over to Smitty, lifting him and throwing him over my shoulder. His blood was running all over me. I scrambled through the building with him and then felt the sharp sting of a slug being sucked into my right leg. I fell through the front door to the outside, dropped Smitty and hit the ground face first in the dirt.

I nodded to Smitty. “I remember.” I could feel the tears damming up, ready to fall.

His face was red and his eyes were moist. He looked away briefly and gained some composure and a smile from somewhere. “What do you need?”

“I want a copy of my recorded interview?”

His eyes scanned left and right and he let out a slow deep breath. “I can do that.” He nodded.

“May take an hour or so. Have to find that right time to do it when no one’s around the machines.”

I put my hand on his shoulder. “Thanks, Smitty. I’m in no hurry. I’ll be out front by my bike.” I started walking down the hall and passed officers who smiled and nodded as they went by. Then I saw one in the distance heading my way who was averting his eyes. He looked like one of the officers from the scene of the shooting who had been pointing an AR 15 at us.

As he approached, before I could stop myself I said to him: “Nice shot.”

Without thinking he smiled and replied, “Thanks.” Then I saw the blood drain from the face of Officer Falcone.

I smiled and walked out.

 

Two hours later Smitty appeared carrying a small shopping bag.

He scanned the place and didn’t see anyone watching. “Here”. He handed me the bag. I peeked inside and saw a DVD in a sealed case. It had an official evidence tag with a label on it, with my name, the date, and Smitty’s signature.

“Keep it closed.” He added. “Only open the case if you need to and make sure your attorney’s there when you do.”

I nodded. “Thanks, buddy.”

“God bless you, Monk. Be safe.”

“You too Smitty.”

I hopped back on the Road King, put my kickstand up and headed out. I tried to recover that peaceful Zen feeling that usually comes to me almost automatically as soon as I start to ride, but my heart wasn’t in it. Maeve, my first wife, always told me I was good under stress. Now, I felt sick to my stomach. I pulled over to the side of the road, threw up, put my head down on the motorcycle and started crying.

First two chapters of my novel; Hope Bats Last – a motorcycle mystery, among other things.

Hope you enjoy this. If you do let me know and I’ll keep posting chapters! It’s available on Amazon.

Hope Bats Last

 

By Gene Powers

 

Your soul knows the geography of your destiny. Your soul alone has the map of your future, therefore you can trust this indirect, oblique side of yourself. If you do, it will take you where you need to go, but more important it will teach you a kindness of rhythm in your journey.
 John O’Donohue

 

You start the game with a full pot of luck and an empty pot of experience. The objective is to fill the pot of experience before you empty the pot of luck.

Anonymous

 

Disclaimer

This is a work of fiction. In the summer of 2014, I did take a cross- country motorcycle trip along the route described in this novel and I kept a diary of the experience. I wanted the story you’re   about to read to feel as real as possible and so much of what happens is inspired by events from that ride and other motorcycle trips I’ve taken. I’ve had a great deal of fun writing the book and I hope that you feel like you’re riding along with me. However, I want to make it clear that the key events that are described as occurring in Chadron and O’Neil, Nebraska and Osceola, Iowa are entirely fictional. For example, I understand there is a Harley Davidson dealer in Osceola but I’ve never had any contact with it. Similarly, there’s a social services agency in Osceola but the events described did not occur there and are instead inspired by my previous work as a social worker. Sadly, there is also no Lancelot dinner, but I really wish there was. I hope you enjoy the ride and the story. Kickstands up.

 

Explanation of the Title: Hope Bats Last

One of my favorite writers, Anne Lamott, uses the expression “Grace Bats Last”. I modified this, for reasons which I hope will become apparent to you as you read the story. The expression “bats last” comes from the American sport baseball. In a baseball match, each team gets a chance to bat and to drive in runs, which are like goals in soccer. The home team always gets to bat last, thus having the opportunity to score and rise from impending defeat. Grace does get us to our most difficult struggles in life, but it is through moving forward in hope that we get through them.

 

 Chapter One

Day 1

 

Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.

Oscar Wilde.

 

The soft rays of dawn drift and dip in the wake of the tugboat chugging up the Savannah River while I wait for my son to try one last time to talk me out of riding my Harley across the country. He’s always been a bit overprotective. Can’t say I blame him. He’s had three mothers of his die. Two of them were my wives. His heart has been broken so many times that I’d swear I can sometimes hear God whispering: now where does this piece go? My son has a wife and a child, and a sister, my daughter Hannah, in California but it’s still hard for him to let me go. Hard for me to leave. But I’m retired now and may not have that many trips left in me. And when that tiny voice inside you insists you leave then it’s time to pack the saddlebags and put the kickstand up. Still, though I know I have to go, I’ve got enough tears welling up in me that could cause this river to flood its banks. Folks say that growing old isn’t for sissies. Lemme tell you, growing old is easy, it’s grief that ain’t for sissies.

My son pulls up on River Street, parks his car and walks over to me. “Dad you aren’t supposed to ride your bike out onto the plaza here. It’s for pedestrians.”

“I know that. I just wanted to see the river one more time before I left.”

He glanced out over the brown-green water and a smile broke across his face. “What was it that old friend of yours in Ireland used to say? Can’t step into the same river twice?”

I laughed. “That was Kevin. Rascal’s still alive over there. Actually it was originally

Heraclitus that said that.”

“I thought it was Pocahontas.”

“I let you watch too many Disney films while growing up. Corrupted what could have been a fine mind.”

He laughed.

“Actually,” I continued, “it was another philosopher Cratylus who bettered him and said you can’t step into the same river even once.”

He smiled and nodded. “Yep, yep yep.” He replied in his customary way. “Nothing wrong with your long-term memory, at least.”

“Secret to happiness son. Short-term memory loss combined with low expectations. I forget who said that.”

“Well, you know I didn’t ask to meet you to talk philosophy.”

I nodded.

“I don’t want you to go, dad. Now wait!” He held up his hands. “Hear me out. I know you can handle the trip physically. You’ve done it enough times in the past. It’s more your mind I’m worried about. You’re not remembering things that well.”

“That’s why the road is the best place for me. I don’t have to remember anything other than gas and oil. And Big Red will let me know if I forget them. I’ll just live in the here and now.”

He cleared his throat. “But dad you have Alzheimer’s.”

“No, I don’t. What I’ve got is called Buddhism! Be here now. Live in the present. Don’t worry about the past and the future.”

“This is not about worrying about them dad, you can’t remember them.”

“Memory’s overrated, always has been. Besides, how do they know I’m losing my memory? It was never very good. They’d need to have a baseline to know I’m losing it. What did my memory used to be like?”

“Okay dad, tell me what you had for lunch yesterday.”

“Who cares about that?” I replied as I slowly opened my left hand where I’d written the answers. He always asks me stuff about yesterday.

“See you don’t know, do you?”

“Okay, if you must know I had a turkey sandwich and a bowl of fruit: watermelon, honeydew, and cantaloupe. Washed it down with some sweet iced tea.”

He tilted his head sideways a few times, grabbed my hand and flipped my palm up. “Wrote it on your hand again didn’t you? And what’s this?” He pulled up the arm sleeve of my shirt. “You’ve got my name and phone number tattooed on your arm.” He dropped and signaled with his fingers; “Let me see the other arm.”

I held it out for him and looked away as he rolled it up. “What’s this?”

“My PIN numbers.”

“On your arm dad? Right where everybody could see it?”

“Best place to hide things. A crook would have to be really stupid to think I’d write my PIN number on my arm.”

“And Hannah’s name and number. What’s all this for? If you get lost?”

“Actually, son, it’s for if I get found.”

He paused and stared at me. “Daaad,” he whined, just like when he was a little boy.

I put my arm on his shoulder and pulled him close for a hug. I held him until he pulled away. That’s the way we always did it. A dad should never end hugs first.

He stepped back a few steps and let out a deep breath. “Are you packing dad?”

“I shore am.”

“You got the old Taurus PT?”

“Nope. I got the Bible, the Tao Te Ching, and Metta, the Lovingkindness Sutra with me. They should be able to handle most things that come up.”

“Daaad” He whined again.

“Naw. Just joking with you. I mean I do have them but I’m carrying the Taurus PT 24/7 and ammo with me in the saddlebag.” I patted one of the black leather bags just to reassure him. At least I think it was in that one.

He put his hands in his pocket and stared down at the bike. “You don’t have your GPS with you.”

“That’s right.”

“You got a map?”

“Yep. It’s folded up in the saddlebag.”

“That’s not gonna help much while you’re riding. Where you heading to tonight, dad?”

“Don’t know. Just heading northwest.”

“You taking the interstates?”

“Nope, I’m doing the back roads, the old blue highways. All the way across this fine country of ours.”

“Yeah, but where are you aiming for today?”

“Not really aiming for anywhere.”

He flashed a curt smile and shook his head in disbelief. “So dad, you don’t even know where you’re going today! You’re gonna get lost.”

I smiled back. “Well if you don’t know where you’re going you can’t really get lost.”

He sighed loudly. “Okay, but remember our deal is that you’ll phone me when you’re east of the Mississippi and you’ll phone Hannah when you’re west of it. I mean, you can still phone me too.”

“Let me hug you, son, one more time before I go,” I said, and we embraced. This time I wouldn’t let go when he tried to pull away. “I’ll be all right son. You take care of Siobhan and Stephen.” The tears started flooding out. “I love you, Colin.” I blubbered. “God protect and bless you and your family.” There’s never any more to say after you’ve said that. I squeezed him hard and let go.

 

Chapter Two

 

Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it.
Flannery O’ Connor

 

I watched as Colin walked away and drove off. I shook my head. He was a great son, a good brother to his younger sister Hannah and, from what I could reckon, a loving husband and father. He just worried too much. If he didn’t have enough of his own he’d borrow worry from others. His shoulders were slightly curved, a feature he’d had since childhood. It somehow helped him bear the pain he’d experienced in those early years, the psychic weight of all the emotions, the hurt and sadness, which when we spoke of them we just called “hadness”. The curved shoulders were like body armor, a somatic and psychic defense against the lifelong family traumas he believed would continue to strike him. He wasn’t far from wrong on that.

A policeman came walking up the cobblestone street and signaled for me to move the bike. I waved at him, checked the neutral light and cranked up the Harley. He came over to the bike and tilted his head side-wise at me.

“Connor isn’t it?”

“Yeah, it is. Who are you?”

He took off his hat as if thinking that would somehow help me remember him, but I didn’t. I just stared.

“McMillan. You trained me. Must be about twenty years ago.”

I did sort of remember a McMillan from my years on the force before I left to become a child protection worker.

He continued: “We worked the case of that dead crack prostitute, Mary something or whatever.”

“Fitzpatrick,” I said in a harsh tone and stared at him. “And she wasn’t a prostitute. And she had been clean for two years.”

He scanned the area. “Whatever.” He said dismissively and tapped the bike handle. “You be careful out there. Keep the shiny side up!” He added as he walked away.

Mary Fitzpatrick. I shook my head and let out a long sigh. God almighty, what can I say about her? When I was a rookie about forty years ago and she was a child I removed her from her abusive mother and put her in foster care. Years later, when she was grown, had kids of her own and was addicted to crack I end up removing her kids. That removal hadn’t gone well. My job that day had only been to protect Karen, the social worker, ensure her safety and that of the kids. But I hadn’t been observant enough. Mary’s paramour suddenly appeared with a gun and shot and killed Karen. I remember her last scream, her mouth contorted like the one in Munch’s painting. Echoes of her scream are still there inside of me, in a quieter place, but I can still hear them. I tackled Mary’s boyfriend and ended up throwing us both off the third-floor balcony. He grasped my shirt as we dropped. I remember us hitting the ground, his body arched unnaturally beneath me, having broken my fall. He was dead; his eyes wide in fear, his arms around me like a scared little brother’s. Before I passed out I heard the sudden peaceful silence and the siren song of a distant ice cream truck.

I quit the force then, the first time, left Savannah and ended up somehow in Ireland for a few years, again working for the police. Then I moved home here and worked as a detective again. I used to go around and see Mary and her family every week but she never stopped hating me, blaming me for removing her from her mother, from removing her own children from her, somehow landing her in the dismal life she was now in. There was some justice in that. The last time I saw Mary was about 20 years ago when I had been working as a detective again for a while. It was a rainy, overcast and muddy night and I stumbled upon her body in a ditch just across the river over there on Hutchinson’s Island. She was half covered in moss and mud with her face caved in, unrecognizable except for the silver necklace with the word “Hope” on it I had given to her sometime earlier. I couldn’t take it anymore. After that night I quit the force again and wandered like a lost Ishmael around the country for a while until a buddy convinced me to try child protection work. I did that until I retired. And thank God not a child died on my shift.

“We ain’t got all day!” I heard someone shout. It was McMillan about a hundred yards away.

I waved, put the kickstand up and rode across the brick and onto the old cobblestone of River Street. It was an act of penance to ride this bumpy road. If life hadn’t shaken the hell out of you by this point in your existence, then this road would do it. I climbed a branch of the road up to Bay Street and headed west toward the bridge to South Carolina.

     As I rode across the high bridge I felt the wind on my face, carrying the scent of the ocean which was just a few miles away. It’s May here, and Savannah is blooming with camellias, hibiscus, and magnolias. A rich, earthy scent pervades and promises hope, renewal. Below me now was the copper-colored Savannah River, tugboats pulling foreign named container ships, and the swishing avocado green, ochre, and golden marsh grass. If you ask me there have been too many metaphors with bridges in them. Bridges are just ways of getting you from one place to another. They’re nothing magical. When you cross a bridge you’re still the same person you always were. Sure, you’re in a new place, sometimes a better place. Not that I’m saying South Carolina is a better place, not saying it isn’t. But it doesn’t matter because the old self is still there, just a stowaway which you’ve trundled along into the new world.  There are no bridges, no shortcuts, to anywhere worth going. There’s only the road.

I rode onto Hutchinson’s island, a small interstice between the Savannah River and the Back River.  Once there were rice plantations here, built and managed on the backs of slaves. But the place was always cursed. Two hurricanes flooded the island killing slaves and pilling boats up on the foot of the bluff. Then yellow fever swept through the area. While Sherman was marching into Savannah during the American Civil War, Confederate General Hardee under the cover of darkness was escaping through here with his men. Later, Hutchison Island became a dumping ground for waste and murder victims. Now it carries a fancy hotel, convention center, and golf course. Life moves on.

Riding farther I passed bottomland hardwoods, marshes, swamps, and wetlands where gators roam and the remnants of the old levees and dikes are still visible.

My bike is called “Big Red”. She’s a 2004 Harley Davidson Road King Classic with a 95 cubic inch engine and she weighs about 750 pounds naked, right out of the shower.  But she’s also loaded up with my tent, sleeping bag, and ground pad and her black leather saddlebags carry my supplies and tools. Behind me, velcroed to my seat I’ve got a big charcoal colored bag carrying my clothes, medicines and sundry items. The whole shebang is strapped down with bungee cords. Even with all this weight, she can easily cruise at 80 mph with still plenty of throttle left in her.  I once got her up to 102 mph on a back road in Missouri before the front end began to shimmy.   We were both younger then.

Also attached to the bike are a few items to help keep my mind and my soul in the right place as I ride. Hooked onto one of my windscreen bags I’ve got a green Connemara marble penal rosary. An Paidrin Beag. It’s a small eleven bead rosary with a cross at one end and a ring for your finger at the other. Catholicism was banned for a while in Ireland and praying the rosary could get you thrown in jail or worse. This rosary was so small that it could be easily hidden in a pocket or under some clothing, so the person could pray without being detected. The rosary is there to remind me to be openly reverent on the trip.

Wrapped around the handlebar I’ve got a leather bracelet with a pewter Yin Yang symbol from Taoism on it. Stay in the here and now. Trust your journey, it says to me. Stay balanced.

Finally, I’ve got a hula girl where my clock used to be. She dances around and reminds me to be silly, to not take myself too seriously.

My road name is “Monk”. There’s a long story behind that but we’ll leave it for another time. Right now, I’ve got to concentrate on the road. It’s a two-lane highway that doesn’t get much use. There are plenty of road gators, bits of tire and metal, cowering mostly on the edge of the road, and a few potholes and tar snakes. The wind’s beginning to gust, blowing out of the northeast. Grayish-purple thunderclouds are gathering in the distance toward Bluffton, a veil of rain filling the sky. A good enough omen to cause me to head due west.

Porches on Country Roads; A Ride-by View.

Folks from the southern part of the USA love their porches. If you find a home in the south that was built without a porch the odds are 10-1 it was constructed by a northerner. Maybe we love them so much because they’re hallowed remnants from the long hot summers we had before air conditioning and television came along. Or, maybe they’re from our love of hospitality, good company and storytelling.

Riding my old 1973 BMW through northwest Georgia these last few weeks I decided to concentrate on porches, just porches. The first thing I noticed is that folks are not out on them as much as they used to be. Only twice did I see people sitting out on their porches. Maybe they’re lured inside by the attraction of air-conditioning and taped episodes of shows like Game of Thrones. It is still hot here in Georgia in these waning days of August, so I can understand this decision. But even so, you can’t beat the feeling of a cool breeze under a shady porch, maybe with a whiff of jasmine in the air. Out on the porch it’s easier to let go of your worries and connect with the simplicity of the past.

So while I rode, when I could take my eyes of the road, I perused what was perched on porches.

There were the typical porches with swinging benches, rocking chairs and gliders. Others had stiff plastic chairs that folks had probably gotten from a dollar store within walking distance away. I remember riding past one house a few times that contained a solitary chair on the porch. What must have happened to someone that resulted in their choosing to have only one chair on the porch? A variety of existential possibilities came to mind and none of them were happy ones. Some porches had old sofas and reclining chairs. Most had coffee tables. Many had blooming plants in clay pots, others had hanging baskets. A few had wind chimes. Some had overhead ceiling fans just in case mother nature needed a boost. Many had flags proclaiming loyalty to some college, country or cause. Other porches had expanded beyond their original functions and contained barbecue grills, refrigerators and personal gyms. One had multicolored clothes drying on a line and children’s toys, scattered around like old memories. Twice I saw small statues of St Francis of Assisi.

I remember two quotes attributed to him:

Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.

I have been all things unholy. If God can work through me, He can work through anyone.

Great words to keep in mind in these divisive times. But it won’t do any good just sitting inside chewing on them.

Go on out on the porch, drag out another chair, fix some iced tea and invite someone to sit down and have a chat. Then, just feel that healing breeze.

Stolen! My BMW 1973 R60/5

I’m trying to keep all Zen about this but my BMW was stolen this morning. From the McDonald’s parking lot here in Rome, Georgia! Anyway, it’s a very unusual looking bike so it can be easily identified. Not that I expect my viewers in Brazil, Myanmar, or the UK to be on the lookout. (But do keep an eye open!)

I’m just glad I still have my Harley, Big Red.

Traveling mercies to you.

 

 

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