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.

Day 24 Continued; Maggie Valley, North Carolina; Nearly Dropped the Bike; Boojum Brewery; Gratitude

I checked into a nice motel in Maggie Valley, with screen doors and rocking chairs out front. The owners were busy with other tasks and the interaction was brief and all business. Not like my earlier reaction with Dale that I wrote about in part one. I couldn’t get him out of my mind especially the gratitude he expressed for simply being alive. Despite being troubled by the relentless ghosts of his PTSD, the loss of his friends and marriage, he was still thankful, still felt blessed. He reminded me of the woman Nancy I wrote about in my Day 15 blog from Deadwood from South Dakota. 80 years old and homeless, trusting God and feeling blessed.
So anyway, it got me thinking a lot about gratitude. I decided to go get a drink a Boojum Brewery in Waynesville, North Carolina and explore this idea of gratitude. On the way there I nearly dropped the bike. It was my stupid mistake in mishandling the controls on a hill, while holding my phone in my right hand and being in neutral. The bike kept slipping back and I struggled to keep her upright. I finally got her in gear and headed out. I kept thinking: Don’t relax your guard when you’re on the home stretch. One of my best buddies had a terrible accident after a long ride when he was just pulling into the driveway of where he was staying. You have to be vigilant on a motorcycle.
Fortunately, the beer at Boojum was terrific. I decided to do an experiment on gratitude. While sitting at the bar I got to talking with some of the others there. After sharing and joking around I began to ask each one what they were grateful for. The bartender had moved here from Statesboro, Georgia to work on a graduate degree in sustainability. He was grateful for the program, his girlfriend and that he got to look at that mountain behind us as he worked. (We were on the outside deck). Another guy, from Texas, who told me he had recently turned 60 years old, tinted windows for a living. He was grateful for the drumming circles he played in and the good women he had known. An attractive middle-age nurse beside me told me that she was grateful that she can make everyone feel better. I bet she was probably a very good nurse but she didn’t seem too interested in me and that wasn’t making me feel better! Her mother, on the other side of her, added that her daughter had been nurse of the year. She was thankful for her children. She and her daughter were thinking of heading to the Elk Club that evening for karaoke. They didn’t invite me to come and, of course, that didn’t make me feel better either. Someone surprised me and asked me what I was thankful for. I said the first thing that came into my mind, which was “my children”. But I have so much more. I try and give thanks for things each day. It puts me in a better mood. What are you thankful for?
I didn’t stay long at Boojum and rode back to the motel where I sat and rocked in one of the rocking chairs, smoked a cigar and did a lot of thinking.

Day 24 Part One: Knoxville to Maggie Valley, N.C.; It Should Have Been an Easy Ride; Dale; Gratitude; Angels.

Technically, it was an easy ride. The route was clear, the sky was Carolina blue and Big Red was doing her happy thing. Then I got hungry and decided to stop at a Wendy’s this time. I pulled off the exit and saw a man walking with a sign beside the road. I passed him and went up to the restaurant. The place was crowded so it took a while before I got my food. Because Big Red’s carries my luggage bag and laptop I always sit so I can keep an eye on her. After I had just gotten my food I watched as the man with the sign sat down a short distance away from my bike. I kept glancing at him. It didn’t look like he was going to mess with the bike. When I finished I walked over to him and asked him how he was doing.
He sat there and told me a long story about his life, how he’d just gotten out of the military, had come home and his wife of 20 years had filed for divorce and wouldn’t let him in the house because she was afraid of him, because he had PTSD. He suddenly didn’t have anywhere to go. The VA (Veteran’s Hospital) would take him but all they wanted to do was put him in a bed and drug him. He was trying to get back to where he grew up in Montana. He said he had stopped at a nearby church. When the pastor came to the door he asked if there was any work he could do for a peanut butter sandwich. He claimed the pastor asked him if he was on drugs or had been drinking. He asked the pastor to show him in the Bible where Jesus had asked that question, or any question like that had been asked before help was given. He just wanted to know could he do some work for a peanut butter sandwich. The minister closed the door on him. Later, while he was walking down the road, probably just before I had seen him, the police showed up and asked him had he been at the church. He explained that he had been, that he was just trying to do some work for some food. He said a police man threw a napkin down on the ground and said: Pick that up. He did and the policeman said: Here’s a dollar. Go get yourself something and then get out of town.
So he walked over here and bought himself a can of iced tea. He said the people in the store didn’t want him panhandling so he sat way over here. (in the hot sun). Come the first of the month he’d get some money put into his account. (It was June 1oth.)
He told me that some people come up to him and say: Thanks for your service. He said why do they thank me. I’m just doing a regular 9-5 job and getting paid for it like everyone else. The people that should get thanked are the ones that died over there. And he started to cry. They were the friends I had and they’re not coming back. He mentioned the various places that he had been stationed and started to choke up. Then he showed me where he had had surgery on both of his ankles because of an explosion. He said he had been born again, quoted a Bible verse and took a card out of his wallet that had reminders of important verses. He said he took it out and looked at it often when he needed it. He said he was thankful; that he felt blessed. It could be worse. I could be lying in a ditch or been killed like those boys who are never coming back. Then he started to stutter. I don’t like talking about it. I’ve been lucky. I’m very thankful.
We talked a bit more and then it was time to leave. Though he never once asked, I gave him some money. He looked at it. Are you sure? I nodded. Thanks man. He hugged me. We shook hands and I introduced myself.
He said: “I’m Dale. Bless you. I’ll pray for you and your family.”
“Thanks, I need every prayer I can get. I’ll pray for you too.”
So, what do you think? Was he genuine or did he con me? Who knows? I don’t know and frankly I don’t care. Maybe he was one of the Lamed Vav; one of the 36 hidden and humble saints the very continuation of the world rests upon? (You can search my blog for more references I’ve made to them). Maybe he was Elijah the prophet? According to an old Hasidic story Elijah often comes to us in disguise: someone ill mannered, a poor person, a beggar. And woe to us if we judge this person harshly and withhold assistance!
Maybe he was an angel? Hebrews says: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (Heb. 13:4).
To be honest, I don’t know. I’m quick to judge others at times on very superficial things and I have to catch myself. Mother Teresa said that if we’re busy judging people we can’t be busy loving them. Which is more important?
All I know for sure is that I cried the rest of the way to Maggie Valley.

Day 23: Knoxville, Tennessee; Leak Fixed; Smokey Mountains; Thai food.

Today was a fun day, for the most part. My friend Marge followed me over to the Harley dealer where I showed the leak. Harley dealers always try to squeeze in riders who are in transit and these guys did as well. Marge and I explored the store and she found a nice Harley shirt that I bought for her to thank her for all her help. Now she’ll be ready to hang out at the biker bars! After getting my bike up on the rack the technician showed me where he thought it was leaking from. The infamous shifter shaft seal! (A part I had had fixed twice before). Apparently, it wasn’t a big leak as all the fluids were normal. I showed him another leak which I was worried about and it looked like it was coming from the primary cover. He said: “I’ll just change the gasket.” And he did so in about one minute. They offered to wash her and in about 15 minutes I was back on the road. The bill was about 56 bucks. Thank you Harley Davidson of Knoxville, Clinton Highway!
Marge then took me over to the Great Smokey Mountains and showed me some of her favorite places. We walked a little by a stream, inhaled the fresh air and the glorious scent of the fir trees. We watched fly fishermen plying the waters. The beauty of the straight-line back and forth casting.
We drove back to Knoxville and ate at an excellent Thai restaurant. Then it was back to her house for more catching up on the weird things that had happened to us since we’d last met. Tomorrow, Maggie Valley.

Day 14: Billings, Montana; Tried to Give Divine Providence the Day off; You Know Where You Ought to Go?

I planned a route towards Billings. I wrote the highway numbers on a yellow sticky sheet that I keep in the see-through bag on my gas tank. This time I would follow directions. Maybe give Divine Providence the day off. Well, I went about 20 miles and saw a road to the left and instead of going the way I had planned, I thought: That road looks interesting and so I went that way.
It turned out to be a great choice and I got to see the huge landscape of the snowy mountains in my side mirrors.
I stopped at McDonald’s in Cutbank, “Where the Rockies meet the Plains”. Going inside I found the usual group of retired people who always seem to congregate at this fast food places. Cheap food, senior coffee and conversations with people your age. It’s great. I’m looking forward to it. It cuts down on the feelings of social isolation. I overhear them talking about their medical problems – strokes and heart attacks, and laughing and joking. One calls me aside and talks to me about his years racing motocross all over the country and Canada. He talked about his wrecks and his injuries – how he broke his back twice, has had surgery on his shoulders -and can’t hold his bike up anymore. (It weighs 700 lbs, like mine.) He told me about his victories. We chatted for a while and my food came and I went to sit in the back.
A few minutes later a man came in, dark tanned skin, black hair, carrying a bag. I smiled and said hello and he asked me for a few bucks to get a hamburger. One of the principles of this trip is to give money to anyone who asks so I gave him some cash. He said “thanks’ and asked if he could sit down. I welcomed him to. And then I heard his story and here are the bits I can remember…
His wife of 22 years had a stroke and was put into the hospital. His son told him he had to pull the plug on her. He did, but he felt like he had killed her. He went and talked to his priest who told him that he had released her from suffering, but he still felt guilty sometimes and had dreams about her. He said he owned a cabin, next to a stream with trout. His grandfather told him that the end of the world was coming and technology would fail and people would try and take things from him. He said he was not worried. He had been in the Army and had lots of weapons, rifles, ammunition, grenades, C4. Besides, he said, he believed that if you treat people with respect they will respond that way. I treat people with respect.He said. You do too. I asked you and you gave to me. You will be rewarded 10 times. Then he talked about being on Highway 66 and sleeping out and that it was a ghost town. When he left he said he spread tobacco on the ground. He explained that Indians believed that if you spread tobacco on the ground it will keep the devil from the restless spirits. Where are you heading? He asked.
I said Billings and then I thought to myself: Please, please don’t suggest I go somewhere!
“You know where you ought to go?” He said.
I rubbed my head. “No.”
“Valier, it’s just down the road past the airport. Gotta nice lake. Lot’s of bikers go there.”
We talked longer and then he thanked me, wished me a safe ride and left.
What could I do but turn around and drive to Valier, Montana?
Divine Providence never takes a day off.
That trip, and the rest of the day, I’ll have to report on tomorrow. I’m too tired.
Good night.

Day 10, Part One: Total Trip Miles – 3697; Bike Mileage – 96,158 Miles; Elko to Pocatello, Idaho – 275 miles; Oil Change at Gold Dust Harley; Beautiful Blue Skies; Gratitude.

I started the morning grabbing a McDonalds takeaway and hurrying down to the Harley Davidson (HD) dealer to get an oil change. I try and change the oil about every 3-5,000 miles. The folks there were very friendly, had no one waiting, and I was out within an hour. 96 Bucks ($)! But that’s typical. Everyone knows that HD stands for ‘hundred dollars’ because you’ll spend at least that every time you walk into a Harley shop.
I continued on I-80 until I reached the town of Wells and decided to head north on Highway 93 toward Idaho. Last time I was in Idaho was in 1981. I had been staying with friends in Seattle and decided to hop a train and hitchhike home. I remember going through Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado. But that’s a story for another time.
Today, I had beautiful blue skies and more of the same terrain all the way to Wells. When I made it to Idaho the first thing I noticed was how flat it was. Almost like Kansas. Next, I noticed a succession of folks being stopped by Idaho state police. Then the land grew more fertile and verdant, with the long arm irrigation systems spraying water into the air. Then there were waterways and rivers, canyons.
I don’t try and conjure it up (that would be cheating) but always within a few short miles on the bike out in the country, a feeling of thankfulness and gratitude overcomes me. I thank God that I am alive, that I have this motorcycle, time and money and that I’m healthy enough for the ride. Then I thank God for family and friends, and pray for them, and their individual struggles. The list gets long, but hey, I’ve got a lot of time. Then I return to just looking out at the scenery as it goes past, and I find myself smiling. Even when times are tough, there is so much to be thankful for. And thank you for reading this and following along on my journey.

Day 9 Continued: Winnemucca to Elko, Nevada – 318 miles; 2004 Road King Classic; Good Time Charlies.

Surprise winds were the main thing that bothered me yesterday. You’ll be riding along, admiring the blue sky, watching the cloud shadows cover the land when – Wham! – a gust comes out of nowhere and blows you half way across the road. It pays to ride in the middle.
It was also a bit chillier in the afternoon than I expected. I like to ride with as little on as possible. Okay, let me rephrase that. I always ride with my special, thick riding trousers but I change what I wear on my chest. Today, I had a Harley tee shirt on, a long sleeve shirt over that, a leather vest and my thick gauntlet gloves. But still I found myself looking down the interstate to the places where the cloud shadows weren’t covering the road. This feeling of coldness was self-inflicted. I just didn’t want to stop for the final 120 miles to put my leather jacket on. This morning as I write it’s in the mid 30’s so I’ll be wearing the jacket today.
The terrain yesterday remained the same from my earlier report for the rest of the ride. Except, for a grass with a plum color to it that reminded me of the heather I’d seen on the mountains and grasslands in Ireland.
I had planned to head north when I got to Winnemucca but something told me to just keep going down I 80. So I did. Though I didn’t know where I was going, I was making good time. The speed limit was 80 mph and my trusty 2004 Harley Road King Classic Road beautifully. I was going to say ‘swimmingly’ but does anyone say that anymore?
I should mention a few things about my bike. If you don’t like bike talk then you might want to look away now. But come back and I’ll wrap this entry up!
2004 Harley Road King Classic FLHRCI. It’s Lava red and decked out in chrome.
Naked, just out of the shower, it weighs 710 pounds. (Which is why you never want to drop it! Nor see it naked, in a shower.)
The basic specs are:
• Engine Type: Four-stroke, 88 ci, 1442 cc, air-cooled, V-Twin
• Bore and Stroke: 3.75 inches x 4 inches
• Compression ratio: 8.9:1
• Valve Train: OHV, four valves, two valves per cylinder
• Induction: Fuel injected
• Ignition: Electric
• Transmission: Five-speed manual; Standard heel-toe shifter
• Final Drive: Belt
• Fuel Capacity: 5 gallons
• Estimated Fuel Economy: 37/46 mpg city/highway, which has been pretty accurate.
• Brakes (Front): 11.5 in. (292 mm) dual front disc
• Brakes (Rear): 11.5 in. (292 mm) disc
Chrome fender and seat emblems
Wide whitewalls
Wire laced wheels
Vibration-isolated, Black and Chrome Twin Cam 88® Engine
Air-adjustable rear touring suspension
Electronic cruise control
Finally, it has Screemin Eagle Stage 1, 2 and 3 upgrades resulting in:
Custom ported air intake, a Power Commander custom tuned on a dyno, a geared oil – pump not one that’s chain driven, non-warping lifter rods, pistons re-ringed and polished, piston pots polished, all cables changed out to stainless outers, high performance cam culminating with @90 HP at the rear wheel.
She currently has over 95, 000 miles (152500 km) on her.
To me she’s just Big Red.

So I made it to a Super 8 in Elko and got a room for $40. I had a chat with my daughter on the phone and then went to check out the night life. I had a beer at Good Time Charlie’s which was clearly very much a biker bar.
I gathered this information astutely and stealthily when a woman at the table near me said: “This place is usually filled with bikers but they’re all over in Winnemucca at the rally.” It was a nice dive with friendly folks.
Then I went down a few blocks to the Stray Dog Pub and enjoyed a beer there. I could have gone to one of the many casinos but I’m not a casino sort of guy.
I found out there’s a Harley dealer in town and I thought I’d stop by this morning and see if they could squeeze in an oil change for Big Red before we head off to…well, wherever we’re going.