Day Eighteen: Springfield, Missouri to Hayti, Missouri – 253 Miles; Rain; The People You Meet; The Roads You Ride.

Things looked ominous when I finally dragged myself downstairs at the motel for breakfast today. It wasn’t the food choices I saw; it was the pouring rain. I ran into some bikers who were heading out toward St Louis. “Somehow, she got my bottoms [rain suit] and I got hers.” One woman biker was saying to the other. We wished each other a safe ride. They went out toward the bikes and I went for breakfast. Since the rain was falling, I had no other choice but to go up to my room and go back to sleep. Ha ha! Any excuse. When I woke up an hour later the rain had stopped.

Folks are always stopping to talk to me about my motorcycle. Some reminisce about their old bikes and experiences. I stopped at McDonalds yesterday and a 75-year-old man just came up and sat down and started talking about his days riding motorcycles. He asked me about my bike and my trips and believe me, you don’t want to get me started on that. He was surprised that I had ridden from Georgia to Alaska. (See this blog.) He always wanted to visit there – but with some buddies in a motor home. He had a friend up in Anchorage. We talked for a good half an hour. When he was leaving, he told me to ride safely. I said – see you in Alaska.

Another man today came up to me when I was sitting on my bike. He used to have a shovelhead (a Harley made from 1966-1983) and he loved it. Then, for some reason he started talking about his ex-wife who divorced him and “took everything”. “Came one day with a truck and took two of my motorcycles – brought the grandkids to make sure I wouldn’t act up. She met some guy on the internet. 28 years we were married, and I never saw it coming. I guess the cardboard boxes around the house should have tipped me off.”

“Yeah, I reckon.”

I took backroads again today. Highway 60 was my main road, but I was much happier when I was able to turn on a two lane – Hwy 53 -for the last part of my journey. The corn in the fields were the highest I had seen anywhere. “Knee high by the 4th of July” my old pappy used to say. These stalks were easily five feet high. Black-eyed Susan’s, Queen Anne’s lace and wild orange day lilies dotted the roadside. This was my kind of road: small towns – churches, convenience stores, signs for bail bonds.

I treated myself to a stay at Drury’s Hotel tonight and a phone call to my daughter and grandson. Goodnight. Ride safely.

Day Seventeen: Chillicothe, Missouri to Springfield, Missouri – 239 Miles Plus 89 Miles Trying to Get Over a Flooded River; The Whims of Divine Providence.

Yesterday, the Weather Channel showed a wall of rain and thunderstorms blocking my way east. No problem, I thought, I’ll just head south. Hwy 65 south looked good, so I headed out on it from Chillicothe. I managed about 20 miles before there was a barricade and a sign saying: road closed due to flooding. The Missouri River had overflowed its banks. I checked my map and figured there was another road across to the east. Took that road for 10 miles until I saw the road closed ahead sign. I checked my map. If I went back to where I had just been and headed west, I could catch another route across the river. I stopped at a McDonalds and took a break. When I was leaving an older woman offered suggestions as to how I could get across. It involved going to the town square and taking highway E, then to make a left on W and a right on K – she had already lost me. Then she added the fateful, dooming words: “You can’t miss it.” I’m guaranteed to not find something when anyone says those words to me. But I tried it anyway. This is what I ran into.

thumbnail_WP_20190616_14_40_54_Rich

Every time I started to get frustrated, I remembered that I had turned my route over to Divine Providence and so maybe I was supposed to go this way. True or not, it calmed me down and helped me just enjoy the journey without expectations.

Finally, I headed north and then west and found my road which I took across the swollen Missouri. I set my sights on Springfield, Missouri where I spent the evening catching up on the sports news and contemplating the whims of Divine Providence.

Day Sixteen: Beatrice, Nebraska to Chillicothe, Missouri – 200 miles; Happy Father’s Day to all Fathers, and to the Mentors of Young Men; Nebraska – Missouri Backroads; Divine Providence; Traveling Mercies.

Yesterday, the Harley and I road lonely Highway 36 as it made its ways through the Midwest. Little towns, some under 100 population, where people have tried to make them look pretty and inviting, despite the difficulties of dwindling populations and closed businesses. God bless them. From a distance, a water tower usually signals you’re coming up to one. When you get to the prettified town you have the grain silos and elevators, seed and feed stores, maybe a gas station, along with a few churches competing for your attention. The fields were rich and verdant, but the roads were empty. I love it.

I started late yesterday morning, having stayed up a little too late watching the England women win a world cup match. I was at a sports bar connected to the motel and the excitement was palpable! (That’s just a joke because I was the only one watching.) But folks were friendly, and a few came up and told me their life stories. As today wore on, I found myself growing wearier and finally set my sights on Chillicothe. I wasn’t getting any nudges from Divine Providence (DP) otherwise.

Shortly after I arrived, the heavens let loose and the storm I had been trying to outrun finally struck. The winds started gusting and old Zeus was throwing his lightning bolts.

Today, Big Red and I plan to continue heading east, since I’ve had no course change suggestions from DP. Unfortunately, there’s a whole wall of bad weather ahead of me.

But it being Father’s Day, I want to give a shout out to all the dad’s out there. Love your children. Don’t hurt them. Teach them to respect women. The shout out also goes out to the many men who are not fathers but who serve as role models or mentors. Men like these unselfishly played a huge role in my upbringing.

So Big Red and I are heading out now. Wish us luck. Traveling mercies to us all.

Days Fourteen and Fifteen – Total Trip Miles 4549; Steamboat Springs, Colorado to Beatrice , Nebraska; Crossing the Rockies.

Day Fourteen: Steamboat Springs, Colorado to Sterling, Co. – 279 miles; Amazing Ride -Beautiful Highway 14 Across the Rocky Mountains; Bad Luck -Lost Vest; Subaru – State Car of Mountainous Colorado.

My free day in Steamboat Springs was primarily spent sleeping. Later I wandered around the town and walked by the fast-flowing river. I could live here.

The scenery on Day Fourteen was incredible! I took highway 14 and cut through the Rockies, crossing Cameron Pass at 10, 276 feet. Snow was still on the ground and the road was lined with conifers, pines and quaking aspen. A rushing, whitewater river ran alongside the highway. This was hands down my favorite ride so far. I found myself shaking my head in disbelief over the beauty of the countryside, and feeling immense gratitude. The road was challenging as well, with lots of sharp curves and switchbacks.

Somewhere along the way I lost my nice Harley vest. It was a present from my old riding partner, El Jefe. Called the restaurant I had stopped at and the place I topped up the air on the tires but no luck.

Subaru appears to the state car of the Colorado mountains. Jeep seemed to come a distant second.

Day Fifteen: Sterling, Co to Beatrice, Nebraska – 402 miles; Fate vs. Destiny

I took Hwy 6 out of Sterling and eventually switched to 34. I’m still trying to avoid the interstates. With rare exceptions, interstates are just soul-less roads to help you get through places quickly with meeting as few people as possible. Sometimes that’s what you want. But you’re not really ‘there’; you don’t get a feel for the place. The goal seems always to want to ‘be’ somewhere else, as if this place isn’t good enough for us. Often, it seems we do this with our lives as well.

I’m not great at staying in the present. I focus on the smells – lilacs, cattle, sheep, roadkill, water from a long armed irrigation rig (reminds me of drinking out of a green hose when I was little), something cooking (BBQ!). The meandering streams, the flat prairies, the way the deep cloud shadows drift across the rolling hills. The colors! But I can only do this for so long before I drift into the past or the future,  into praying and giving thanks, into just thinking about things.

Yesterday, it was fate vs destiny. What do you think?

The Challenges of Winter Motorcycling: Part Three – Freezing Weather, Frozen Humor.

As much as I love riding my motorcycle throughout the year, when it dips below 40 degrees F. (4 Celsius) my Harley and I have to have a “come to Jesus talk”. If I’m only tootling around town then I’ll hop on the bike. But if I’m doing the 50 miles (80 k) one way to work the story is different. First, I have to make sure the bike will start. If the temp goes below freezing at night the bike might just want to sleep in a bit more. One day it wouldn’t start, and I had to use my 1973 BMW bike, which ironically, cranked immediately. You have to love those Germans! I finally managed to get one of those portable jump starters so the 2004 Road King will always start now; one way or the other.

Then, I have to look at my cold riding gear. I can’t afford the expensive stuff, so I’ve gathered a mix of things over the years. I do have battery operated heated gloves, but they only last an hour and don’t heat the top of my hands. (I have to have a spare battery pack for the way home.) I have long underwear, my regular trousers and then my rain trousers on top of them. Then, I have a long sleeve shirt, a sweater, my leather vest and a rain jacket on top. Because I’m short, stuffed up I look a lot like the Pillsbury Doughboy. Then I bought some incredibly warm socks that I wear. I have a full-face helmet and a black (Snoopy?) aviator’s silk scarf to wrap around my neck. That will keep me from being frozen for about 25 miles which is roughly the distance to a Starbucks, my stopping place on the way.

The rest of the way is interstate and high speed. At 70 mph and 40 degrees the windchill makes it feel like 23.8 F (-4.6 C), according to the internet. At 34 degrees F, the coldest I’ve ridden these days, it feels like 15F (-9.4C). The other day it was so cold I had to break frozen smoke off my exhaust pipe; so cold that the trees I passed were chopping themselves into firewood. You get the idea. At least it wasn’t snowing, as it was when I was riding in Canada a few years ago, or when I was crossing the Rocky Mountains once in Colorado. (Stories on this blog)

I go back to work in three days and it’s supposed to be 38 degrees when I leave. I’m just going to forget about that for now.

If you’ve got any cold riding tips, other than “don’t”, please let me know. Otherwise, if you see a guy next week on a motorcycle with icicles on his helmet that would be me. Don’t forget to wave. I’ll met you at the next Starbucks.

The Challenges of Winter Motorcycling: Part Two – Autumn Rides

I tried to capture the beauty of an Autumn ride and made these notes a few months ago.

A rustic, weatherworn, gray shack

With a bright red door.

A sun-glistening brown horse

Plays with the buttercups

Pink and charcoal clouds float

In a haint blue sky,

Looking like their arms are crossed.

 

Later, riding home

The sky, honey-apricot.

Black clouds scud like ravens,  

Over the orange-scarlet colors of the sumac leaves.

Savannah, Georgia, 1790 Inn, Ghosts, Sauntering through History, Craic, and Mindfulness on a Motorcycle Sojourn, Pascal.

I had a couple of days off for Fall break and so I decided to head to Savannah. Savannah is featured in my last two and latest book – The Adventures of Sid- novels and I wanted to make the scene locations as accurate and vivid as possible. You can check out all of my novels here: https://www.genepowers.org/ . The biggest anticipatory problem with driving to Savannah from Rome, Georgia is that it’s pretty much 330 miles and you have to go through downtown Atlanta. But it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Big Red, my 2004 Harley Road King cruised along beautifully, except for the red warning light about my battery that appeared and disappeared at random. I figured it was the regulator. I also figured that on a Sunday morning there wasn’t much I could do about it other than keep riding. After meeting with my buddy Joe and his family at Starbucks in Macon the battery light went to sleep for the rest of the trip.

I decided to stay at the 1790 Inn again because it’s in the center of town, where I can walk everywhere and because part of it was built by my great grandfather who lived there with his family for years. Supposedly there are ghosts there, but there’s no extra charge for that. The hospitality is always wonderful at the Inn which is probably why the ghosts like to hang around.

Not much I can say about Savannah that hasn’t been said before. My favorite bar is Kevin Barry’s Irish Pub and I have been visiting there for over thirty years. Irish beer on tap, Irish music seven night a week and no televisions or gaming machines. In 2016 it was voted the Most Authentic Irish Pub in the World, even beating out entries from Ireland, which is bizarre when you think about it. Some of my favorite places to eat are the Crystal Beer Parlor, Hilliards, the Pink House, and the Pirate’s House, which even gets a mention in the book Treasure Island!

But what I love most is simply walking around the historic district, through the squares filled with majestic live oak trees and swaying Spanish moss. And traipsing down the cobblestone ramps to River Street.

The historic area is not a great place to ride a motorcycle in, because of all of the stop and go traffic, the blind spots, pedestrian walkways, and the cobblestone roads down to River Street. Better to park the bike and walk. Save your riding for the beautiful trip along the marsh, palm trees and oleanders down to Tybee Island.

Before I headed home I spent a couple of hours in the Inn’s bar. Nice comfy place with a lot of folks I could tell were regulars. However, every 15 minutes or so a wave of people flooded the place, having been dropped off for a drink by one of the Ghost Tour Operators. It was fun talking with some of them and hearing their thoughts on Savannah and on whether they’d seen any ghosts. None had so far and they didn’t seem to care. They were just enjoying the craic, as they would say in Ireland, the fun of it all.

I spent about six hours each way on the bike and although it was all interstate I enjoyed it. Personally, I don’t listen to music. One of my favorite philosophers, Pascal, once said: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” I just enjoy thinking and meditating, riding with awareness, mindfulness and gratitude, especially gratitude. Pascal also said: “In difficult carry something beautiful in your heart.”

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.

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.