Day 4 – Memphis
You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this.
Henry David Thoreau
Last night my sleep was filled with dreams. Maeve was there in one scene, Clare, my second wife, in another. In each dream, there was a recurring set of numbers. In the first, I was telling Maeve how much I loved her and had missed her. I remember kissing her hand and the taste of her skin on my lips, even the scent of Anais Anais that she used to wear. There was a knock on the door and a man was there with a telegram. The telegram had a number on it: 6412918227. I read the message, said goodbye and left immediately. For the life of me, I can’t remember anything the message said. Then I was with Clare and we were at Tybee walking on the beach. A plane flew over dragging a sign with the same number on it: 6412918227. I woke up, scribbled the number down in my notebook by my bed, and fell back asleep.
In the morning I was all packed and ready to leave when I spotted my notebook on the desk. It was still opened and the number was written there. It had the same sequence as a phone number. Since I was leaving everything to fate on this trip, what the hell, I called it.
“Lancelot Diner, what can I get you?”
“I, uh, just found this number and wanted to find out what it went to.”
“Well, now you know. I gotta go. Things are crazy here.”
“Uh, you have some kind of problem there?”
“Yeah, Arnie my short order cook didn’t show up this morning. Probably drunk over at Candace’s house. So I’ve got to fill in. Hey, can you cook?”
“What? No. I mean, yes.”
“Doesn’t matter, I’ll train you. I’ve got to have somebody. Just show up and you’ve got the job. Just ask for Shorty.”
“Thanks. Hey, wait a minute.”
“Where are you?”
“In Osceola.” And he hung up. I was going to ask “Osceola where?” but I didn’t want to seem even more like an idiot. I had no clue where Osceola was so I took out my phone and searched the internet by typing in the area code. Turned out it was in central Iowa. I took out my Harley atlas and found it on the map. I had planned to head north today. I could still do that and then cut west and get to Osceola. Well, why not? When you abandon yourself to fate you can’t pick and choose your destinations.
The phone rang again and I checked the number. It wasn’t familiar so I didn’t answer. I’d wait and see if they left me a voicemail. No voicemail. Then the phone rang again and it was the same number. I turned the sound down on the phone put it away and picked up the atlas to check my roads again.
I couldn’t find any other way over the Mississippi River except for using the interstate. So I’d ride that until I was across and then pick up the blue highways again. I wrote my highway numbers down, I 40 and Highway 61 on the yellow sheet, and put them in the see-through pouch. I grabbed a quick breakfast at Burger King and then headed out. It was the right road but I headed in the wrong direction. I turned around, found I-40 W and rode it over the great Mississippi River. Tugboats with barges were plying the green-brown water. A sign announced: Welcome to Arkansas. Shortly after crossing the river I took the exit to Highway 61. I rode this for miles until I got to I-55 and 61 suddenly disappeared. There was another road heading in the direction of the river and so I took it. Nice road, flat, hardly any traffic, which made sense when after 15 miles I came to a dead end sign. I turned around. On the way back I decided to test the Road King’s speed and my courage. I got her up to 105 miles per hour before the front end began to wobble. She still had plenty of throttle left in her but I backed her down to 60. A road named A appeared that looked paved and trustworthy. I took it and it came back out on I-55. Okay, I figured I’d take it until I saw signs of 61 again. I hopped on it and soon realized that instead of I-55 I was on I-155 and heading back over the Mississippi River again. Before I knew it I was back in Tennessee. I pulled over to the shoulder, stopped the bike and pulled out my Harley atlas. Within two minutes a car pulled over.
“You all right?”
“Yep. Just stopped to check my map.”
“Where are you heading?”
“Wanted to get on highway 61 and take it up to Hannibal.”
He stared at me and then briefly glanced back toward the way I had just come. “Highway 61 is back that way.” He said throwing his thumb over his shoulder. “If you don’t mind me asking, why 61?”
“I heard it was beautiful. Somebody suggested it to me.”
He nodded his head a few times and looked away.
“Do you have another suggestion?”
“Yep, if it were me…” he signaled for me to let him hold the atlas, “see you’re right here?”
I leaned in closer to look. His right forefinger fingernail was split halfway in two and it looked heart shaped. “Yep”.
“Well, this next road up ahead is 181. Take that until it dead ends at 79 and go right. Then when you hit 78 go left and take that all the way to Hickman, Kentucky and you can take a ferry boat back across the Mississippi and pick up 61 again. It’s a much more beautiful ride. Course I’m from Tennessee so I’m a bit biased.”
“How far is it to Hickman?”
“‘Bout an hour.”
“Let me write this down.” I took the directions and scribbled them down on a yellow sticky note.
We said goodbye and I headed out. It was a beautiful ride. Small towns, lush verdant fields, wetlands and bottomland forests. Gum, oak, and bald cypress trees. By the time I got to just outside Hickman, Kentucky I was low on gas. I could either follow the signs pointing to the left to the ferry or the right into Hickman. I remembered the guide for the road I’d written. When confronted with choices of equal value take the one on the left. So, I headed toward the ferry. Surely, there would be a town on the other side and a gas station.
I parked the bike just off the ramp to where the ferry “the Dorena” was tied up. The Mississippi was flowing gray-green and the sunlight was flickering off the currents. I leaned against the bike and waited to be signaled to drive on. A man came out, opened the gate and waved me on. The parking surface was military grey with yellow traffic lines. I pulled up to the front, parked the bike, took off my jacket and felt the heat pouring down on me. It felt good. The Captain wandered over, collected my $5 and said we’d be waiting a few minutes to see if anyone else showed.
“I’m Monk,” I said, extending a hand.
“Luke, I’m the pilot.” He was a tall guy, skinny with brown hair and a beard. I’d guess around 35 years old.
We shook hands.
“Is there a gas station on the other side of the river?” I asked.
“Sure is. But it’s 18 miles away, in East Prairie. You low on gas?”
“Yeah. Maybe I should go back to Hickman.”
“Hold on.” He said and walked away, returning a few moments later with a red five-gallon plastic container. “There should be enough gas in here to get you to that station.”
“Thanks man.” I poured about a gallon into the tank and checked the gauge. “How much do I owe you?”
He put up his hand. “Don’t worry about it. Where you heading?”
“From Georgia?” He said, pointing to my license plate.
He nodded. “Never been to either one.”
“You been doing this long?”
“About twelve years. Used to pilot boats up and down the river. Was good pay but I was gone a lot and missed the kids growing up. So I switched to this job. Pay isn’t as good but I can be home every night.”
“This is probably not as exciting either.”
“Shoot. You’d be surprised the crazy things that have happened on this boat.” He shook his head.
“There was this one time,” he laughed, “I got a load of young women over from the college. This tiny little blond with a pixie face comes up to me, blushing, says ‘Captain, this is really weird but to join this sorority I need to run around naked on your boat. I’ll do it really fast, I promise.’ Hell, I told her to take her sweet time. She asked whether I’d report it to the police. I told her that on the river the only law was the Coast Guard and that I wouldn’t say a word. Later, I saw her and another girl running around the boat buck naked!”
He patted me on the back, put his gloves on and went off to run the ferry. I walked over to Big Red and made sure she wouldn’t tump over under the movements of the ship. Moments later we were swinging around and heading across the Mississippi. There was a slight breeze on the water and to the west, the sky was steel blue with black clouds.
Fifteen minutes later I was riding down the ramp into Missouri. I soon became glad that I had gotten the extra gas on the Dorena because for eighteen miles there was nowhere to stop. I finally drifted into East Prairie and spotted a gas station where I could fill up. Just as I pulled in under the canopy, a huge thunderstorm broke. I gassed her up and then found a place to park, still undercover though it had a lot of leaks. I went inside the shop to wait things out. It was your typical southern convenience store: hot dogs rolling on a grill, boiled peanuts cooking in a crock pot, various types of coffees and cold fountain drinks, Krispy Kreme doughnuts, rows of beef jerky. Another section had fishing lures, hip waders, flashlights, camouflage paint and clothing –both ‘real tree’ and ‘mossy oak’- and Dead Down-Wind antiperspirant for the deer hunters. A woman in a glass-windowed room was sorting through the containers of live bait. Attached to the gas station was a fast food restaurant. I grabbed some coffee, nodded at some customers and sat down at a table. Nearby, two men, even older than I was, were in earnest conversation discussing the whereabouts and running operation of heaven.
I waited an hour until the wind died down, the rain had passed and I had learned all I wanted to know about the logistics of the resurrection. It was far more complicated than I had imagined, especially in the case of any man or woman who had been married twice. I went out to check on Big Red and noticed a small wet spot under the bike. It was just a few drops and appeared to be coming from under the primary cover. I ran my finger along there and it was oily. I’d need to keep an eye on that. I cleaned my windscreen and my visor and wiped the front of Big Red down; otherwise, I’d get water thrown at me when I took off down the highway. There were puddles with oily rainbows in them but for the most part, the rain had given a good wash to the streets. I cranked her up and took off toward Hannibal. I wanted to get there before dark so I could scout out a place to do some stealth camping by the Mississippi River. The air was filled with that wonderful aroma you get after a hard rain: petrichor. Eventually, I reached highway 61 again and headed north toward St Louis. I had a pretty good run at it until I got to the environs of Saint Louis and when I wasn’t thinking, I turned down Route 66, the road I’d taken a few years back. A sign at the intersection announced the “rock and roll crossroads of America”. I eventually did a U-turn, found 61 again and headed north through the stop and go traffic of strip malls and fast food restaurants. I had to stop and look at my map a few times and to keep calm I recited the mantra: Breathing in I calm myself, breathing out I smile. Only, I didn’t feel a lot like smiling. The traffic was heavy: people texting on their phones, cars cutting in front of me, rut and potholes everywhere and folks racing to get nowhere. I’ve made a lot of trips to nowhere in my life and its reputation is overrated. Better to turn off the phones and the stereos, let go of the feeling that you need to be somewhere else, that somewhere else is better. Be here now. Traffic can be holy too. Eventually, I reached I-70 and then I headed east to O’Fallon and Hwy 79 where I soon began following the Mississippi River again. About 30 minutes before dusk I finally made it to just south of Hannibal and began looking for a place by the river where I might be able to camp undetected. I found a small path where it looked like fishermen parked frequently and which had, a few yards ahead, a dog leg to the left further into some bushes that looked pretty secluded. I jotted down a description of the place so I could find it after dark and then headed into town.
After wandering around the town of Hannibal, I got a steak and some mashed potatoes to eat outside in a beer garden and washed it down with a couple of Leinenkugel Summer Shandys. While I was sitting there I watched as three tall guys in full biker gear parked their BMWs across the street. They came wandering in after a while and sat at a nearby table and spoke German. I couldn’t understand what they were saying but I overheard one word a few times and I wrote it down: Augenblicksgott or something like that. I headed back to the river.
I found my spot and pulled Big Red down the darkened path. At the end, I reversed her around so she’d be pointing toward the way out in case I had to leave in a hurry. I put a small piece of wood that I carry in my saddlebag underneath the side stand to make sure the bike didn’t sink into the soft ground. The river was less than a stone’s throw away. I took out my LED headlamp, put it on and began pulling out the stuff I was going to need for the night: my foam pad, sleeping bag, a rain tarp to cover the bike and me, my camp stove and some duct tape to cover any reflective surfaces of the bike, in case lights were shone down this way.
The bike looked pretty safe and so I wandered down to the river bank, sat on a log and watched it flow by. It was cold and a breeze was blowing off the dark water. A log went floating by. Rivers are rivers. To treat them as metaphors is to suck the life out of them, out of this precious moment of encountering one. I sat in silence, watched and listened.
Later, when I was getting ready to lie down, I glanced at the underbelly of the bike and again noticed some oil leaking near the primary. I don’t know much about motorcycle maintenance but I know that ain’t good. For years Harleys were known for marking their spots, but not anymore. The machines are rugged but this was a 2004 model and had over 80,000 miles.
The problem with oil around the primary cover is that you can’t be sure where the oil is coming from. It could be coming from any number of places under the bike and traveling to that spot as its one of the lowest points, especially when the bike is leaning over on its stand. I got some brake cleaner out of the saddlebag as well as some Gold Bond Foot Powder. I cleaned the area out with the brake fluid and then threw powder all over the metal. In the morning I should be able to tell where the oil’s coming from.
I hung my leather jacket over the windscreen to block out any reflection and patted my trousers to make sure I still had my wallet and my phone on me. They were there. I took out my phone to check for any voice messages and, hell, there were six of them, all from Colin, Hannah and Joe. Dang it, I’m in trouble. How did I miss hearing them? I checked the volume and for some reason, it was turned down. The last voice message was from Hannah.
“Daddy? Why aren’t you answering my calls? Where are you? We had a deal that you would call Colin or me every night and you didn’t call him last night and you haven’t called me tonight. Where are you? I’m getting mad at you dad! I worry about you. Please phone!”
I loved hearing her voice. I felt something tugging from deep inside my chest and a tear built slowly under my left eye. I played the recording again just to hear her voice. The tear fell. I’d better phone her.
“Daddy. Why haven’t you been answering your phone?” She nearly shouted. Hannah was a small young woman, about five foot nothing, but she had a powerful voice.
“Sorry, darling. I must have accidentally turned the sound down.”
“And you’re just checking it now? You didn’t phone Colin yesterday.”
I chortled a little. “I know you won’t believe it but I forgot.”
“That’s not funny daddy.”
“Sorry, sweetheart. Lots of things happen when you’re on the road. It’s easy to forget things.”
“Even with our name and numbers tattooed on your arms?”
“Colin, told you, huh?”
“Let’s not worry about that now.” The phone went silent. I could picture what she was doing. Whenever she wanted to wipe the slate clean, start over, she did arm gestures that she had learned from me over the years from watching my Tai Chi: a move called parting the wild horse’s mane. I heard her sigh, the out-breath that always signaled that she had finished. “Okay, Daddy, we’ll start over. Can you make sure that you call us once a day?”
“It’s probably me you’ll be calling since I’m guessing you’re on this side of the Mississippi now.”
“How’d you know that?”
“You called Colin from Memphis, remember. It’s right on the river.”
“What road did you take across?”
“The interstate.” I forgot its number. I’ve never been able to remember highway numbers.
And then I remembered something. “I also took the ferry across. Had a good chat with the captain of the ship.”
“Why did you cross the Mississippi River twice?”
Aw hell. “Actually darling it was three times. I was trying to take a shortcut and accidentally went back over it again.”
“Dad, not another shortcut. You’ve never been good with shortcuts.”
“You’re right. Never been good with them. Remember that so you don’t see it as another sign that something’s wrong with me now.” Felt kinda proud of myself after that comeback.
“I love you daddy.”
“I love you too darling.”
“So where are you now dad?”
“I’m in Hannibal Missouri.”
There was an extended silence. “Hannibal? Isn’t that north of St. Louis?”
“Sure is. Nice river road though.”
“Why are you way up there? It’s the wrong way to LA!”
“There ain’t no right way to LA Hannah. Folks can get there any way they want. Why they would want to go there is a whole ‘nother question.”
“Dad, you’re trying to be funny so you can distract me. You always do this.”
“I’m sorry sweetheart. I don’t have any set route out there to LA. I’m just seeing where I’m led to.”
“By God, daddy? Again?”
“You got anyone better in mind?”
“You’re looking for omens and signs and portents. This is the Universe, God and the Tao thing all over again, isn’t it?”
“Not so fast young lady.”
“Daddy, you remember you did this last year? You were heading up to Atlanta to see Uncle Jeff and you ended up in Key West Florida?”
“Got a hankering for some oysters. I wanted to see the clear blue water of the keys. Wanted to have a drink at Sloppy Joe’s where Hemmingway used to write.”
“Okay dad. Okay.” When she moved from calling me daddy to dad I could always tell her patience was running thin. “So you use these signs to help you decide which way to go?”
“And yuanfen.” I surprised myself remembering that word.
“Chinese word for synchronicity.”
“It’s kind of like fate, with an attitude. The Chinese have a saying for yuanfen which means that ten years of good deeds or meditation bring two people to cross a river in the same ferry, and a hundred years of these bring two people to rest their heads on the same pillow.”
“How is it dad that you remember all of these things when you forget what you had for lunch?”
“Whatever daddy.” She’d switched back to daddy. She was starting to like me again.
“I miss you darling and I can’t wait to see you!”
“Well then hurry up and get here daddy! I love you!” And then we said goodbye. Oh God. Those feelings of love and longing we have for our children. I went to put my phone in my pocket and a piece of paper fell out. It was the German word I’d written down earlier. I typed it into the search engine on my phone. Augenblicksgott. “A minor god that passes through in the blink of an eye and has a positive, momentary effect on events.” Kind of like a guardian angel, but of a lower rank, who has good intentions, but only works part time. My kind of angel.
I drifted off to sleep with the sounds of the Mississippi River flowing into my dreams.
Day Five – Hannibal, Missouri
When we are driving, we tend to think of arriving, and we sacrifice the journey for the sake of the arrival. But life is to be found in the present moment, not in the future. In fact, we may suffer more and more after we arrive at our destination. If we have to talk of a destination, what about our final destination, the graveyard? We do not want to go in the direction of death; we want to go in the direction of life. But where is life? Life can only be found in the present moment. Therefore, each mile we drive, each step we take, has to bring us into the present moment. This is the practice of mindfulness.
Thich Nhat Hanh
As soon as I saw light’s shadow creeping in under the tarp I got up. Lord, I was cold and stiff. I did some Chinese exercises to limber up a bit and I walked back down to the river, sat on a log on a high bluff and watched the river flowing.
Later I went back to my bike, fired up my old Optimus 8 stove and had a cup of coffee and some beef jerky from my saddlebag. I watched the steam rise off the coffee.
I began packing my stuff up and came upon a can of Gold Bond foot powder sitting on the ground. What the hell did I have this out for? My feet are all right. Then I remembered the oil leak and got down on the ground and climbed back under the bike. I could see a tiny rivulet of oil running just from the primary cover. So that’s where the leak is. That can be dangerous. Oil can blow from there onto the chain or the tire and cause me to have an accident. That cinches it. I’ve got to get that fixed as soon as I can.
With the atlas spread out on the Harley seat I was able to locate Osceola, Iowa. I had no reason to go there other than the number that came to me the other night in a dream and then the phone call to the diner, but that was good enough for me. Sometimes, to get your attention, the Universe hits you over the head with a frying pan; other times it speaks in whispers and wrong numbers. I figured Osceola was about 212 miles away. I’ll head in that direction unless Divine Providence or yuanfen intervene and take me somewhere else. Even when nothing’s happening something’s happening.
I wrote down my notes in my journal, finished packing, cranked up Big Red, let her warm up for a while and then headed out. The ride along the river was beautiful. The Mississippi played hide and seek with me ducking behind the levee, the bluffs, the cottonwoods and maples and the alluvial floodplains. When no one was around I let out a few “yee hi’s” and “thank you God’s”. I stopped at a gas station, cleaned up and got some orange juice to drink. Back on the bike I came to a junction and wasn’t sure which way to go. I remembered my backup plan. When in doubt, go left first and the next time, go right. I vaguely remembered doing this once already on the trip so I headed right this time. It was a good road, well maintained and soon I came upon another huge bridge. It was over a big river too, just like the Mississippi which, as soon as I entered Illinois, I realized it was.
I laughed, turned Big Red around and headed back over the Mississippi for the fifth time. I rode till I hit Highway 61 again and headed north. The air was crisp, cool and the sky was azure with a few oyster colored clouds in the west. I could smell a wood fire burning and heard the sound of a train horn in the distance. I crested one hill and the road began jogging beside a train track. Moments later I heard a loud horn and watched as a Norfolk Southern train appeared and trudged its way south. I kept looking for an open boxcar. I remember someone saying that people loved trains so much because they represented our two most primal urges – ‘I want to go home’ and ‘Get me the hell out of here’.
Just outside Burlington, Iowa I hit Highway 34 and headed west. It was a two-lane road, which I never mind except at night when deer are around and in the daytime when the trucks whizzed past. A few miles down the road I stopped at a gas station, filled up and then parked the bike on the side so I could take a break for a while. I got some coffee and a pecan roll and sat outside on the curb. I watched the maneuvers of a tanker, skillfully going forward and reversing, weaving its way into the parking area.
“Damn,” I said as he climbed out of his cab. “Takes some skill to back that thing in here.”
“This one’s easy compared to some.” He walked toward the back of the tanker, put on his work gloves and began pulling out a refueling hose.
“Where you heading?” He asked, throwing the question over his shoulder as he began hooking things up.
“Where you coming from?”
He cocked his head and stared at me. “Most people don’t go from Georgia to California by way of Iowa.”
“Reckon not. Just doing a bit of sightseeing.”
“Married?” He pulled a lever and the fuel started flowing into the underground tank.
“Not anymore. Was for 28 years. Wife passed from cancer about three years ago.”
“Mine died about two years ago. Cancer too.”
I shook my head. “It’s hard man.”
He stared at me, briefly nodded and looked away. Then he glanced back. “I’ve been going out with this woman who’s been divorced for 12 years. One day her husband just up and announced that he was gay.”
“Well, I’ll be doggone.”
“Yep. I like her a lot but it’s hard to let go of the old memories.”
“Who says you have to?”
He sat down beside me. “Oh you have to all right or it gets too crowded. Not enough room for anything new.”
He stood up and I did as well and we introduced ourselves and he walked back over to his tanker. A few moments later a sheriff’s car pulled up and the driver rolled his window down. Damn, how did those South Carolina cops find me so quickly?
He pulled his sunglasses down a bit on his nose and glared at me. “Hell, you can always tell when it’s May.”
He leaned his elbow on the door. “All you old retired farts are out on your Harleys while the rest of us are working.”
“Somebody’s got to do it.”
“Where you from?”
“Went to Atlanta once. Worked with the GBI. A man from here, he was a bastard, killed his girlfriend and fled. The only lead I could find was a piece of paper in his home with an Atlanta address on it. I called the GBI there and give them his description and the address and by the time I landed there they already had him in custody. Good people.”
“Where you heading?”
“Don’t know why anyone would want to go there. It’s a cesspool out there. All of them are assholes.”
“My daughter and her husband live out there. I’ve met some nice people there.”
He leaned back, pushed his sunglasses back up on his nose and sized me up. “Well, you must be an asshole too.”
I nodded. “I am that.”
He laughed. “Be safe”. He rolled his window back up and tore off.
I walked back to the bike and noticed a wet stain on the concrete under the primary. It looked like she was leaking more. I needed to get this looked at soon.
The wind started to pick up as I got back on Highway 34 and headed west. A thunderstorm was building in the south, charcoal blue and nacreous colored clouds scudded across the sky. Thank God I wasn’t going that way. The old biker saying is that the only good view of a thunderstorm is in your rearview mirror. The winds were coming from the south-east at I’d guess 20-25 mph but fairly constant. Usually I could just lean a little toward the wind to compensate. All bets were off though when the 18 wheelers started passing me me on this two-lane road. The usual forces of physics seemed suspended. Sometimes when the trucks passed, the wind in their wake was calm, other times it was like being hit by a wave at high tide. Still, the road was straight and ‘God willing and the creek don’t rise’ I should make it to Osceola before dark.
About an hour and a half from Osceola I started seeing signs saying: detour ahead. I let out a deep breath. Trust the road. Enjoy the ride. Soon though I came upon another sign announcing the detour was a mile ahead. As long as it wasn’t left, south toward the building thunderstorm I’d be all right. A mile later, the detour had us heading south. At least the wind problem was gone as I was heading directly into it. The sky was dark and ominous now and I could see a curtain of rain falling on the horizon. Should I stop and put on my rain suit or keep going? The detour’s probably only a mile or two and then I’ll be heading north again.
Fifteen miles later the rain began slashing down. I pulled over to put my rain suit on but I was soaked before I was finished. The wind was gusting and the bike teetered slightly on its stand. I went to crank her up and the starter stuttered and then stopped. The electrical display went dark. I figured that it must be a loose battery cable. Unfortunately, the battery compartment was underneath the seat and not easy to get too. I un-bungeed all my gear and set the stuff on the wet ground. I took off the backrest and the screw holding the seat on and I pulled it off. My hair was soaked and rain was pouring down my face. The cable to the negative was loose and I tightened it. I tried the starter again and the bike roared. I put everything back into place and headed off again. The rain was lashing. My windshield was pockmarked and beaded drops clung onto my helmet visor. The left side of my face began to hurt. It’s a problem I’ve had for years called Trigeminal Neuralgia. My head doesn’t like barometric pressure changes. The pain moves around popping up in my forehead, my ear, and my jaw. It felt like someone was playing ‘whack a mole’ in my head.
A couple of miles further down the road and the detour signs pointed north. The rain wasn’t as bad but I was battling the winds again and their strange currency when the trucks passed. I rode past two dead deer lying on the side of the road. A few miles further and I was signaled to head north. I turned and was on 34 again, heading west toward Osceola. I desperately needed coffee and a chance to dry out and soon there appeared ahead of me glowing brightly, one of the physical and spiritual oases of the highway, a Love’s truck stop. I pulled in. Thank you God.
I got a cup of coffee and huddled in a booth, my hands warming around the cup. Some medicine I carry in my leather jacket helped calm the thunderstorm in my head. I looked around. There were four men in baseball caps sitting near me conversing loudly. One was talking about cooking brisket. Another spoke about his vertigo and how he had fallen the other day but managed to hold onto the mail. A small triumph he celebrated by raising his arm. Another spoke about his recent colonoscopy. The fourth talked about his brother.
“Son of a bitch is 66 years old and he’s getting married.”
“Says he’s in love. For the first time in his life. Soulmate.”
I watched as they all shook their heads in unison.
“Hey.” One of the men said staring at me. “Not a great day to be on a bike.”
I mumbled something halfheartedly about any day you get to ride being a good day and continued to warm myself with my hands on my coffee cup.
“Where’re you heading?”
“Whooee, you got a long way to go. Where’re you staying tonight?”
“Well, at least that’s not too far.” Another said.
“Know a good place to stay there?” I asked.
They all looked at each other, shoulders hunched or dropped.
“Larry’s Layawhile is pretty nice I hear. Run by an Indian family.” One suggested as the others nodded.
The men left and we said goodbye and they wished me a safe trip. I watched through the window as they walked past the bike and took the measure of her. One leaned in close and started laughing, and pointing. I think he noticed the hula girl.
By the time I left the café the rain had stopped and the sky to the west wore a honey apricot glow. I looked at hula girl and shivered. Somehow between the rain and the winds, her grass skirt had blown off and she was naked. I looked in my saddlebags and on the ground for something to cover up with. I found a piece of Styrofoam from a cup and folded it to make it skirt-like. Then I attached it onto her with a pipe cleaner. That should keep her decent for a while.
About an hour later I pulled into Osceola and spotted Larry’s Layawhile. I parked the bike by the registration entrance and went inside. The woman behind the desk looked Indian and startled when she saw me. Her left hand flew to her chest. I wasn’t sure if she startled because she didn’t see me coming, or, after I glanced at my scary countenance in the mirror, whether it was because she saw me coming. Regardless, she regained her composure and smiled.
I booked a room for the night and headed back out but not before passing a sign that read. “May all beings be filled with kindness and compassion for one another.” Amen. Why don’t we ever see those words posted on billboards around the country?
I dropped my stuff off in the room and checked my Harley atlas for the nearest dealer. It looked like it wasn’t much more than a mile away. On the way there, coincidentally I rode past the Lancelot Diner, the restaurant I had phoned the other day. It had a black and white neon sign showing a knight with a jousting pole. I pulled over to the side of the road to check it out better. The building looked like an old railroad dining car, a design that was based on the old Burlington Zephyr. The place looked busy. I headed off again. By the time I reached the Harley shop it was beginning to close. They were riding all the bikes that had been outside on display back into the shop. The roll-up garage door was halfway down. I parked Big Red outside it, climbed under and found the service deck.
“What do you need? We’re getting ready to close.” Said a man with hair like a tonsured monk. He was wearing a Harley shirt with the name Bernard. He also spoke with an accent that sounded German.
“I’m on my way to California. I think I got a primary leak, but there’s probably some other things wrong with her too.”
He grabbed a clipboard, climbed under the door and I followed him. He bent down near the primary cover and ran his finger along the base of it. A coating of oil was on his finger.
“Looks like it. But it could be coming from somewhere else.” He jotted some words down on the sheet on the clipboard. Then he examined the bike moving his head sideways and then squatted near the front. “Front engine mount’s gone too.” He wrote that down. Then he fiddled with the gear shifter. “This is awfully loose.” He jotted it down. “Come on in.”
I followed him back into the service area and he pressed a button to make the door rise. He went around behind the counter and started tapping on his computer while I looked around the place. There were the usual things in the area: bikes with tags on them fixed or being fixed, new items for touring bikes on shelves or hooks, and parked in the corner was a beautiful black sidecar with the name Formula II on it.
He saw me admiring it. “That’s one of those Motorvation sidecars.” The Harley man said. “They are made right here in Iowa, up in Sibley. Make you a very good deal on it. Want me to hook it up to your bike? Would only take an hour.”
I turned and stared at him. “No thanks. If I had one of those someone might want to ride with me.”
“Well, that’s the point.”
“That’s why I don’t want one. I’m making this trip solo.”
“What’s your name?”
He stared at the monitor. “Are you in our system?”
“Nope. Just passing through.”
“Where are you staying?”
He looked over at me. “I’ll have to check the bike out in the morning. You got a number where I can reach you?”
I paused to think but couldn’t remember. I pulled up my sleeve and read the word “Me” and gave him the number underneath. He finished writing out the work order and had me sign it.
“We’ll get you back on the road as soon as we can.” He said. “I’ll call you in the morning.” He extended his hand. “Name’s Bernard.”
“Monk.” I shook his hand.
“I know.” He smiled.
“Where’s that accent from?”
He stared at me blankly. “I don’t have an accent, you do.”
I laughed. “I get it. You probably get asked that ten times a day. I lived in Ireland for a while and I used to always get asked about my accent.”
His right eyebrow rose slightly. “I have always wanted to visit Ireland. It looks beautiful.”
“It was, I mean is.”
He turned away and looked at the bike and then back at me, still with little expression on his angular face. In Ireland, they used to say a person like this had a face as long as a Lurgan spade. “Don’t worry about her. I’ll call you when I know something.”
On the way back to the motel I walked past the diner. I was tempted to go in but I remembered the expression on the face of the woman at the motel when she saw me and figured I’d better shower first.
When I got back to the motel I went into my room and checked my phone. Three calls from Joe. I fell back onto the bed and pressed the call return button.
“Where the hell you been man?”
“Sorry Joe. I had the volume turned down on the phone.”
“Where are you?”
I walked over to dresser and saw a business card for the motel. “I’m at Larry’s Layawhile in Osceola, Iowa.”
“I’ll be damned. Not exactly due west Monk.”
“I’m having a good time Joe.”
“Well hells bells, that’s all that matters, except for this little problem in South Carolina.”
“What’s happening now?”
“Well, the Internal Affairs guys aren’t happy that I won’t give them your phone number. They’re trying to get some kind of warrant for my phone records. Hell, they’re probably tapping this call. The cops I’ve spoken with over there are being really cagey. I can’t get anything out of them. But by the questions they’re asking I think they’re looking for you too and that they’re not going through IA.”
“Like what kind of questions?”
“Like – ‘do you know where the hell he is?’”
“Anything you’re not telling me buddy?”
“Nothing important.” It’s still better that he doesn’t know that I know who the shooter was. In a way, it doesn’t really matter who the actual shooter was. By standing by they’re all shooters, just as much as if they’d pulled the trigger themselves. Silence is a form of consent. Bystanders do it all the time.
“All right buddy. I don’t believe you but I know you’ve got your reasons. I’d be expecting a call from IA soon.”
“I won’t be answering.”
“Well, then they’ll come looking for you. Them and some of those cops. I think if I were you I’d keep my name under wraps for a while and use cash, while I try and take care of things on this end.”
“I will. Thanks Joe.”
“I owe you. You kept me out of prison when we were gallivanting all over China. I love you buddy.”
“I love you too.”
I took a shower and felt better. I sprayed some deodorant on me that Colin had given me. I’ll confess that this was the best the Monk had smelled in years. I checked the label and it said: Phoenix. I think my old brand was just called: Broken Old Man scent. I dressed and put on my Harley vest. It’s got two patches on it; one shows a cross and the other is the yin-yang symbol. I grabbed my black Indiana Jones hat and ambled on down to the diner. It was beautiful. An old diner from the past. All silver on the outside with purple and green neon trim. It looked like something out of an Edward Hopper painting. The knight was lit up as well and this time I noticed his jousting pole was pointing toward the parking lot.
Inside, the floor had black and white checkerboard tiles, the counter was silver and there were bright red stools and chairs, and white tables. Ceiling fans spun the old stories overhead. The place was packed and the only room I spotted was at the counter next to two young uniformed cops. I took a seat. One of the cops turned toward me, sniffed a few times and raised his eyebrows. Must like my deodorant. I smiled at him. He looked worried and turned away.
“What can I get you to drink hon?” A waitress said, suddenly appearing in front of me.
She smiled, turned and left. I spun around on my stool so I could look at everyone. Young couples, old couples, A few men sitting at the counter. Single moms with kids. Black, white and Latino. Nice mix. By the time I had completed my slow spin the waitress was back in front of me pouring coffee into one of those old bone white Victor mugs. Last time I had coffee in one of those cups was in the Majestic Diner on Ponce de Leon in Atlanta in…well, it was a while back.
“You’re Chuck aren’t you?” She said to me with a smile and a wink. “I remember you.”
“Chuck? No my name’s Monk.”
She seemed confused and looked me up and down. She stared at the patch with the cross on it. “That’s right. Monk Chuck! I remember now. What can I get for you?”
“No. It’s not Monk Chuck it’s…”
“Hold on there a second I’ll be back.” She moved beside me to the cash register to take someone’s money.
The cop beside me leaned over and said: “You one of them biker preachers, Monk Chuck?” I turned and he was smiling at me and extending his hand. “Sorry, I just overheard Betty. I’m Stokes. Nice to meet you.”
I smiled and shook it. “No, she got my name wrong. It’s not Chuck.”
“I heard that. It’s Monk Chuck. Betty’s always getting names mixed up.”
I watched as he elbowed the cop beside him who was staring at what looked like crime photos. “Gunther,” The cop said. “This here is Preacher Chuck.”
“Monk Chuck,” I said without thinking. “I mean Monk…”
Gunther and I shook hands. “Are you one of those motorcycle preachers? I had an uncle that rode with the Christian Motorcycle Association out of Dubuque. But he wasn’t a preacher like you.”
“Well, I’m not a …”
“You decided hon?” I heard the waitress say.
“No ma’am, I’m sorry.”
“Well, you just take your time reverend. We still have some of them specials left up there on the board.” She pointed over her shoulder to a whiteboard with “specials” written at the top. A few items were crossed out. She left and went beside me to the cash register and talked to two customers.
“So are you here for a while or just passing through?” Gunther asked.
“Just passing through. Had some problems with my bike and it’s getting fixed. I’m on my way to California.”
“Where you coming from?”
“Holy Toledo! You’re going to California from Georgia by way of Iowa?”
“I got lost a few times.”
I watched as he shook his head and then I heard the waitress yell: “Shorty, two naked dogs, and two cows, run them through the garden, walking.”
I heard one of the customers ask her: “Does the hamburger come with onions?”
“No that’s extra. Want them?”
She tilted her head and shouted over her shoulder: “Make them cows cry.” She took the order slip and stuck it dangling onto the rail over the kitchen counter.
“Okay hon, you figured it out now?” She asked me.
I didn’t want to keep her waiting any longer and over her head, on the sign, I saw one of the specials: Hamburger steak. “Hamburger Steak.”
“Blue plate special.” She yelled. She leaned onto the counter toward me, wrote on her pad and said: “How you want that cooked?”
“Medium.” I watched as she stood up and went to yell. I wanted to see what she was going to say now. She caught me looking and managed a worried expression while she yelled: “Medium.”
I smiled at her and she smiled back. “Anything else hon?”
“No thank you, ma’am.”
I took the nice warm Victor mug in my two hands and took a sip. The coffee was good. Monk Chuck? I laughed. That was the same name as that mysterious Buddhist monk that helped Joe and I out when we were on the lam in the wilds of China. I shook my head. Whatever happened to him? The two cops beside me, hell, I’d already forgotten their names, their heads were bent in some silent meditation over the crime photos. I peeked and saw a glimpse of the lower legs of a child. On both legs from the foot to about halfway up to the knee, there were symmetrical red burn marks, with even lines at the top of the burn.
“Jesus have mercy.” I uttered.
One of the cops looked at me, smiled and put an arm around my shoulder. “Thanks for the prayer father.” He said. “She’s doing okay.”
“How old is she?”
“Just going on three.”
I felt the tears welling up in my eyes. That’s one of the reasons I had to retire from being a social worker. I was crying too much. Couldn’t dam up the grief up anymore. What good is a social worker who cries all the time? When you get older, or wiser, your body just says: why even try to hold the tears back? Whoever said that that was a good thing to do? I glanced at the photos again and the tears began to fall. I took up my napkin and wiped my eyes.
The cop smiled at me and patted me on the back. “It’s all right father. She got out of the hospital today and she’s back with her foster parents now. She’ll be okay.”
I felt myself stiffen. “Did you say she was back with them? Had she been returned home or something?”
“Nah, she’s been with the foster parents for about six months now. She got this burn from stepping into the tub when the water was too hot. It was an accident. Her foster momma blames herself for not keeping the bathroom door shut until the water cooled. You know how kids are around water. She heard a scream and went running into the bathroom and found her in the tub. She called 911 right away. The child’s gonna be all right, don’t you worry.”
“No,” my voice sounded choked by the tears. I coughed to clear my throat. “No, she isn’t.”
I felt him recoil slightly away from me. When I raised my head he was staring at me.
“Padre, what in the hell are you talking about?”
“Let me see the photos,” I replied. The other cop handed them to me and leaned over to listen.
“You see how there’s an even line at the top of both burns?” I pointed out.
“Yeah.” They replied in unison.
“You don’t get that with accidental burns. With accidental burns, you get splash marks, a more random pattern of burns.”
“What?” One said.
“You also don’t get them on both legs.”
“What do you mean?”
“Who gets into a tub with both feet at the same time? You’d have to hop into the tub to do that. When you get into a tub you only put one foot in at a time. If you put one foot into hot water as soon as you feel it burn, no matter how old you are, you’re gonna yank it back out, leaving a burn and splash marks on one leg, maybe some small splash burns on the other as well.”
“So what are you saying?”
“Those burns weren’t accidental. The only way a child gets burns like those is when their legs are held down in burning water.”
They both let out deep breaths as if they had been holding them for years. Their bodies came erect, stiffened and they stared at each other. One said: “Let’s go.” They stood up and rushed out.
“I tell you those boys are always rushing somewhere!” The waitress said as she put my plate of food down in front of me.
I managed half a smile and said: “Thanks.”
I stared at the food for a while. One plate with a meat and two vegetables, all separated into their own sections. If only life could be that way. Keep things from touching each other. I shook my head. After staring at the food for about five minutes I knew I couldn’t eat anything. I grabbed my bill and stood up by the cash register.
“Honey, you didn’t touch it. You feeling all right? Nothing wrong with it is there?”
“No, ma’am. Sorry, I’m just having problems with my stomach.”
“Well here. Let me at least put it in a container for you to take home.”
“That would be kind of you.”
“It’s no problem at all Reverend Chuck.”
Once I left the place I dropped the bag into the trash can. I walked over to a convenience store and bought two 32 ounce bottles of Corona Familiar, went back to the motel, drank the beer and fell asleep.
I woke up feeling like I had to pee and hurried to the bathroom. Afterwards, I checked my phone. It was midnight and I had missed a call from Hannah. Out in LA, she’d be about two hours behind our time. I turned on the light and saw the motel business card. I phoned her. The phone went to her voice mail. “Hi, Hannah! Daddio here! I’m in” I glanced at the card, “Osceola Iowa, staying at a place called Larry’s Layawhile. See, how’s that for remembering! Anyway, might be here a few days cause the bike needs some work on it and I was fortunate to find a Harley dealer about a mile away. So, anyway, I’m fine and I hope you are too. I love you darling. Give my love to Bob.”
I went outside for a few moments. The sky was cobalt and a few stars were trickling in light from long ago. There was a chill in the air, a sense of one last frost before winter surrendered.