Gravity

 

About two years after my fiancé, Caron, died, my friend Woody and I were on a run to Dekalb, bringing a little bag of joy to his younger cousin who was in college there. We rode along the Fox River to Route 38 then headed west across the prairie. We climbed a hill above the cornfields. The moon was right in the middle of the road ahead, big as a planet and bright as a headlight. Stunning is what it was. We parked our bikes on the shoulder and sat cross-legged in the grass at the edge of the corn field. We stared at the moon like we had never seen it before.

Woody started spewing lunar facts, or lunar legends as if I’d asked. He seemed to be missing another tooth. I couldn’t be sure. He’s always had gaps in his smile. Fucking Woody.

“It doesn’t have much gravity,” he said, “and the only reason it don’t just spin off into space is because the gravity of the Earth holds it in place. The same gravity that makes it hard for Fat Leon to climb stairs holds the moon in orbit.” We both chuckled. We love Fat Leon. Last year he was drunk and fell backwards on the steps of the courthouse and knocked his attorney and two civilians down in the process.

“And the moon is just heavy enough to stay away from the Earth because it’s spinning around Earth like rainwater off a tire.” Woody went on, “but it’s not heavy enough to break gravity and fly off into unknown space the way rainwater flies into your face ’cause you, my friend, are too stubborn to buy a front fender.”

“I like my bike with no front fender,” I said, “one less thing to rattle.”

He fell silent for a few minutes. I was hypnotized by the brilliance and the imperfectness of the moon. It reminded me of something. Caron went to Wales to visit family. We hadn’t spent a night apart in a year and a half. We talked on the phone, in the evening on my end and early morning on hers. As we talked, we realized that we could both see the moon and that made it like we were almost touching. Since we could both see the moon at the same time, it made us feel less far away.

Woody leaned into my shoulder and held out the joint we started to smoke before we left the tavern.

“Here,” he said. “This will make the moment perfect.”

I looked at him as he spoke and thought I saw his teeth trying to escape from his jaw. I pushed his hand away and looked back at the moon. I wanted to un-see the image of gravity pulling teeth out of Woody’s mouth. I tried to refocus and remember that moment with Caron, hearing her voice and seeing the moon. I began to feel pressure in my throat and behind my eyes.

“So, it’s just the perfect size to stay where it is?” I asked him.

“Yeah, just the perfect size, and the path it takes would make a perfect circle, like a wheel, except that the Earth is spinning too, like a baseball, which throws the moon off balance a little, like when you don’t put the white spot on your new tire next to the valve stem. The moon wants to go further away and closer again as it rotates with the Earth and they both spin around the sun. It wobbles, but it’s perfect”

I didn’t know if he was right or full of shit. I had that happen with a new tire before so the wobble made sense. We stared at the moon as it rose in the sky. It stayed bright as hell, but seemed to get smaller as it got higher, like it was moving away from us. I realized that Woody might be right. That freaked me out a little, partly because I didn’t think he actually paid attention to anything, but also because it seemed like everything he said was happening as we watched it.

I wondered to myself how he could smoke so much weed. It was like he just kept getting higher and higher. There was no force of gravity or sense of fear or loss of control that brought him back down. I imagined him floating away, into the moon. He held the roach out to me again. I took a hit without thinking, then saw that checkerboard smile of his and it gave me the willies.

“Fuck, Woody! Put that shit away before you float off,” I said. He grinned. “Good shit ain’t it, Jay?”

The moon looked like a perfect circle that had paint or dirt smeared across it. That reminded me of the time I met this girl named Lela who claimed she was a Gypsy. Lela had a round, perfect face except she had a sort of rash of freckles that didn’t cover her evenly. In dim light her face looked a little dirty, which is how the moon looks. It wasn’t ugly or anything, just something I noticed when I looked at her. She had dark auburn hair that looked black at night but sparked with red in the sunlight. She was hard to stop looking at and impossible to forget.

I was out on a test ride after replacing the front tire, clutch lever and gremlin bell on my FXDWG after a spill on Route 83. I filled up with gas at the Canard truck stop. I went inside to pay and buy a couple of cigars to celebrate the new tire. A young woman of about thirty stood next to the map stand by the door, looking toward the gas pumps with a coke in her hand. She had a small brown leather purse hanging from what looked like a shoelace slung over her shoulder. Her long shiny hair fell halfway to her waist. I was looking at her while Shakes counted the handfull of quarters I put on the counter to pay for the gas. She looked straight at me.

“What happened?” she asked. She pointed at my left hand which was not quite healed of road rash and partly covered with what was once a white bandage. I looked at my hand as if I had forgot about the way it still burned when I touched it or flexed my last two fingers or looked at it.

“Took a little spill.”

She made a pain face, then looked out toward the gas pump.

“On that?”

“Yeah. Just got it back on the street. I’m out for a test ride.” I held up my wounded hand. “Can’t work for a few more days, but I can still ride.” I flexed my index and middle fingers like I was pulling the clutch lever in.

“Hurt?”

“Just enough to stay away from the job,” I said. My eyes felt a little glazed and I felt noticeably warmer. I thought the instant she smiled that we were going for a ride together, like she was sending me a message with her eyes. It could have been the codeine kicking in. Either way, it felt good to look at her.

“Nice,” she said. “I love Harleys. All of my brothers have them. So does my ex-boyfriend.”

“Ex?”

“Yeah,” she said, “he sort of skipped town and left me on my own.”

“Sort of skipped?”

She told me her name, Lela, then went on to tell the story of her very short relationship with a local guy named Rick. What I remember of the story is that a guy she hooked up with had to leave town in a hurry and wouldn’t tell her where he was going or when he’d be back. “Just took off in a ratty old truck.” She was hanging around the truck stop hoping she could get a ride to Springfield to catch up with the carnival she left after falling in love with Rick.

I figured the guy was probably Dicky Catania because about that time Dicky’s wife had left him, plus, his house is only a block from the truck stop and he drives a nasty old Chevy shit-can pick up. Also, he runs spur-of-the-moment special errands for his Uncle Dominic from Cicero. Dicky owns a Western Star tractor and a fifty-three-foot dry goods trailer free and clear.

Runs for “Uncle Dominic” usually take him away for days, sometimes weeks. When Dickie gets that call, he leaves right away no matter what he’s doing. “Three can keep a secret if two are dead,” he says, when anybody asks what he’s up to. Like he’s Sonny-fucking-Barger or something.

Lela is hot, sexy-hot, but in kind of a plain way. She has nice curves. Whatever she lacks in natural beauty, she makes up for in the way she carries herself. She’s pretty, but not perfect, in a way that’s accessible.

I didn’t feel like doing the things I should have been doing, like ball joints on my truck, cutting the grass and washing things. I didn’t want to sit around watching my hand heal either. So, I offered her a ride to Springfield on the back of my scooter.

It felt like we were one person rolling down the road on the bike, joined together like we were having sex in the wind. I was glad I didn’t have a backrest as soon as she hopped on and wrapped her arms around me. Lela knew how to ride on the back of a bike, when to hang on tight and when to relax. I had to teach Caron everything about riding.

When I needed gas, Lela pointed us toward an old Phillips 66 station a few miles from the interstate, near Pontiac. I glided up to the single pump near a metal-sided building. Half the garage was converted into a store, the other half was still a repair shop. She got off the bike and walked toward the mini mart.

“I’ll be back in a minute,” she said. As I looked up, she spun her head away. Her hair lifted and sparkled ten shades of red in the sunlight as it swung around.

I filled the bike up, then went inside to pay. Lela was talking to the clerk like they were old friends. She had a twelve pack of Old Style on the counter. I walked to the register.

“Thirsty?” Lela asked.

I wasn’t especially thirsty at that moment, but I liked the idea of drinking a twelve pack of beer with Lela. That seemed like it would be even more fun than riding with her.

So, I said, “Yeah, but—”

“I know a place where we can go to hang out and crash if we want to. I’m in no hurry to get to Springfield. Unless you’re in a hurry to get back home” she said, “we could just make an evening of it.”

I wasn’t in a hurry to get home. I still didn’t want to do chores or work on the truck, and I didn’t have go to work for two days. The idea of a possible overnighter with Lela filled me with warmth. My hand started to throb a little, but I ignored it.

“No hurry,” I said.

“Great! Pay the lady, Jethro. I’ll stuff this in the saddle bag.”

The girl with red, blue and pink hair behind the counter flashed a smile and held up a pack of condoms and asked if I wanted to buy a lottery ticket while I was on a roll. I felt my face flush and we both laughed. I folded the lottery tickets into my wallet and stuffed the condoms in the pistol pocket of my jacket on my way out.

“Have a nice day. And good luck, handsome,” she said as the door closed behind me.

Lela guided us along the outskirts of Pontiac to a narrow stream she called the Little River on a smooth, two-lane road that followed the river for a mile or so, then wound away from it in a rhythmic undulating course, twisting left, right, left. There wasn’t a straight section of road that was more than fifty feet long. The road skirted around rocks, then back along the stream until we turned off and climbed a rough, semi-paved hill through woods along a bluff that rose above the river. She pointed to a driveway.

“Turn there and watch out for the gravel,” she said, “I don’t want my ass to look like your hand.”

I turned off and began to climb a right-hand curve into dense woods. The drive widened as we came to a clearing which was half in the shadow of a large house.

“Park it anywhere, Jethro,” she said, “We’re home for the night.”

I flung out the kickstand and got off, then reached into my pocket for a pain killer with my throbbing left hand and opened the saddlebag with my right hand to grab a beer. The bike dinked and popped as it cooled. The beer-burn in my throat as I swallowed the tablet took my attention away from the pain in my hand.

The house looked gray, but I suppose it was originally white. It had huge windows on either side of the front door. The porch ran the width of the house and sagged just enough in the middle to make it look like a big smile.

It was weathered and the paint was faded where the shade of the trees fell off during the day. There were blooms of mold that looked like nature’s battle scars. It looked vacant but welcoming. It seemed like I had been there before, but I get that feeling a lot. I’m never sure where it comes from. I felt like I was with an old friend. Maybe it was the beer and the pain killers.

Lela opened the house up. There was no air conditioning but when I flipped the main breaker on, there was electricity for the one light that worked in the dining room and well water to wash up and flush the toilets. We were camping in style. We each took a cold shower. It was refreshing and quick. Lela found some bandages in a closet and put a fresh dressing on my hand. I took another pain pill and the throbbing waned like retreating waves at low tide.

It was hot and humid and we were a little drunk. We began to half-dance, half-stumble on the grassy side yard amid a galaxy of fireflies. She pulled away and I pulled her back as we spun around under the stars. We laughed and got dizzy then we hugged and collapsed on the ground and caught our breath, holding hands and staring up at the night sky full of stars that can’t be seen within fifty miles of Chicago. We started making out. We undressed to the sound of crickets and tree frogs under a blanket of stars.

When I woke the next morning, there was an old blanket over me and my jacket was rolled up under my head. I felt foggy. I got up and went into the house. The windows were shut and the light was turned off. I called Lela and heard my voice bouncing off the hardwood floor and the empty walls. It was a harsh, hollow echo.

There was a note wedged between the seat and gas tank of my bike. Jethro, sorry I couldn’t stick around. Thanks for the ride. Maybe I’ll see you sometime. L. I washed up and shut the main breaker off at the electrical box. I took a pain killer and fired up my bike. The potato-potato-potato sound echoed around the clearing as I idled out to the road.

 

Woody, rustled in his jacket, mumbling to himself as I stared at the moon. It looked like Lela’s face, then Caron’s, shrinking and retreating. Woody hit me on the shoulder with a fresh joint between his fingers and held it up to me. The moon was still bright, but distant, less a part of reality than it was when we stopped.

“Hey, where you been?” he asked.

“Pontiac,” I said.

“What’s in Pontiac?”

“Nothing. Do I look like a Jethro to you?”

“Jethro? What do you mean, man? Like the band?”

“Never mind. What was it you said about rainwater off a tire?”

 

 

 

Complexities

Complexities

 

My first motorcycle was a two-cycle 1975 Honda 250cc Elsinore. One cylinder. One carburetor. No cams. No valves to adjust. No oil or filter to change. It didn’t need a charge in the battery to start. One kick and it was ring ding ding ding, click into gear, then raaaaaaaaw raaaaaaw raaaaaw through the gears like a chainsaw-driven semi. I didn’t even need a road. It had enough power to pull me along on the street and keep up. It was great on the trails and good for hopping through parks to get around the main roads. I didn’t have a motorcycle license back then. I even rode it to traffic school every week.

I had to go to traffic school because I got too many speeding tickets with my car. My license was restricted so that I could only drive to and from work. So, I rode the dirt bike to traffic school, where I sat around a table watching movies about terrible car crashes and the science of drunk driving with about twenty other people, most of which were there because they had DUI, reckless driving and fatal accident offenses of various kinds. When I told the rest of my classmates that I was there because I got three speeding tickets in a year, they all stared at me like I was a punk, even the women, until I added that all three tickets were over one hundred miles per hour, then they all sat back and sort of smirked.

That was when I first noticed that my life was getting more complex. I had to lie to make people think I did something worse than I did so we could all feel like I was as bad as they were. I realized that I would probably have to remember the lie I told to those people. I had to see them every Wednesday at the community center. The fact that I was riding the little Honda without a license never bothered me because I wasn’t speeding, and I stayed off the roads if I could avoid them. Then, a little at a time, I started riding it more often, then mostly on the streets because nobody seemed to notice, and I felt comfortable. When I flaunt the law or other social rules and get away with it a few times, I get comfortable with it. I don’t forget that it’s wrong, but when there are no consequences for more than three episodes in a row, it seems like it’s wrong but safe.

The only problem I had with riding the Elsinore to get around was that it didn’t seem to be as fast on the street as it did on the trails which made it not quite as much fun. I thought about getting a street bike, but I couldn’t afford to just go out and buy one. I was married at the time and I wasn’t completely in charge of the money, which it turned out much later was probably for the best. What I was in charge of was what I did in my garage after work and on weekends, which at that time was body work and painting cars.

I did a complete paint job on a silver Buick Regal T-Type, which was going to pay for our new kitchen table and chairs and pay off a few bills, small personal loans and fines. The guy who owned the Buick was going to Sturgis on the Electra Glide he just bought and wondered if we could make a deal that didn’t involve cash for the paint job since he was a little short. He had a ’76 Triumph Bonneville that only had a few thousand miles on it. He offered the bike and a hundred dollars to cover paint and materials in trade for the paint job.

I told my wife that the guy just found out that he was going to have a kid and asked if I’d take the bike instead of cash for the paint job. She said we could eat off the card table for a few more months because, you know, it was for a baby, but that I had better get cash on the next job, etcetera. That turned out to be a little white lie that I would regret not remembering. I rode the Triumph around for a week while I finished the paint job and decided that I just had to have it. I took the deal.

The Bonneville was much faster and smoother than the Elsinore and any of the cars I ever owned. My wife liked the Cherokee Red fuel tank and the fact that she could go where I went on the bike because it had a long seat and rear foot pegs. but it was more complicated than the little Honda.

It was a four-cycle engine with two cylinders, two carburetors, two cam shafts, adjustable valves a crankcase full of oil and all the other things a car engine has but smaller. And less forgiving when it came to maintenance. At the same time, I started to realize that being married and having a bike was not as simple as it seemed like it should have been either. I’ve formulated a theory that goes: The difficulty in maintaining happiness in life increases in direct proportion to the complexity of the things that bring happiness.

I had some trouble keeping the Triumph reliable. It nearly always started with one kick if I tickled the carbs just right and didn’t use the choke. I had to charge the battery every few weeks for some reason which nobody was ever able to figure out. I got to know Dave, the guy who traded it to me, pretty well because he seemed to know a lot about bikes in general and it turned out that he worked on my bike a lot before he bought his Harley. We got to be friends. We went to swap meets together to find parts to improve our bikes, which is where most of my side money went for about a year. Which is how the more complicated bike and the complicated way I came to own it caused my marriage to become too complicated to maintain. Things began to fall apart seriously all in one afternoon.

My wife was on the back of the bike and we were headed to the Corn Festival in Union, Illinois. I passed an old Jeep on Route 20 at about seventy five miles per hour. When I backed off the throttle, the engine acted like it was having a fit. The slide in the right carburetor jammed in the sleeve causing that throttle to be stuck wide-open which caused a lot of coughing, revving and backfiring at the same time because the other cylinder was trying to idle. I hit the kill switch and pulled over.

Luckily, the guy in the Jeep recognized the bike as a Triumph when I roared past him and decided to pull over and see if he could help. In retrospect, I think he pulled over to get a better look at my wife. He didn’t know shit about bikes. After standing around and pointing at things on the Triumph and talking about what a classic is was, mostly to her, and that it was the first year for a left hand shifted Triumph and making observations and conjectures about Amal carbs and on and on, we decided that it couldn’t be fixed on the road. So, Billy, the Jeep guy, offered to give us a ride to someplace where we could call for help.

We all agreed that it would be best if I wait with the bike and Billy would take Esther, my wife, to the nearest pay phone to call Dave. Esther talked to Dave from a bar up the road and he agreed to bring his trailer to pick us and the bike up. Which he did. And because he thought he had a carb laying around we all went to his house where we took off the old carb while Esther drank beer with Billy and watched us until Dave’s wife, Trixie came home. In her Silver T-Type Regal.

Introductions were made and the girls got a long great. Trixie brought Esther in the house to show her around like women do. Dave had just bought Trixie a new kitchen table and chairs. I still hadn’t been able to scrape up the money for ours. Esther was admiring the smooth finish and the comfortable chairs when she looked out the window and realized that the silver Regal Trixie drove up in was the Buick I painted when I got the bike in trade about a year earlier. Everything was fine until Esther asked to see the baby, like women always do. Trixie said: “What baby?”

I’ve been divorced twice since that day. And I can’t help but see that every time I get involved with things that give me greater joy, my life gets more complicated. There’s a clear pattern. Esther eventually married Billy, the Jeep guy. After Esther and I split up, I married Holly. Holly had a good job at a big trucking company. She was smart and she earned good money and owned a house. I had got a job working on a fleet of gasoline tankers, which was also good job that paid pretty well. I also bought a bigger bike to replace the Triumph which, by that time, I had been lugging around from garages to storage and back to garages in crates over the course of five years as my residence changed.

The newest bike, like the newest marriage I was in, was bigger, better, cooler and more complex than the triumph. It was a Harley Davidson Dyna Wide-Glide. It’s more reliable than the Triumph generally, but it shakes more when it idles and needs more attention to keep things tight. And because its designed for all the stock parts to be replaced by aftermarket parts to make it run as good as everybody else’s bike, there’s always something that needs to be done to it. Holly was like that too. The only way I could keep her happy was to complete one home improvement project after another until her house was in good shape.

That marriage ended when Holly kicked me out without warning or much discussion when I had finished the second bath remodel, making me number five in what is probably an increasingly long list of her ex-husbands. If she lives long enough, she’ll probably set a world record. She sold the house a month later. I got the bike and most of our friends. She bought a newer, nicer house. I still have the Harley.

Now I’m single and I have a better motorcycle yet. It’s a six-cylinder Honda which is bigger, much faster, smoother and cooler than any bike I’ve ever had. But it has twelve valves to adjust, two cam shafts, two timing belts, three sets of brakes to maintain and six carburetors to keep synchronized. There’s a more moving parts to pay attention to and more to balance. I love the bike. But now I’m almost afraid to think about dating.

sync 2

Spare Change

I save my spare change. I put quarters in a jar with a top that has a counter in the lid which registers and displays the total amount of change inserted through the slot. The display is stuck at $193.37. A blue, fist-sized rubber pig I got free at my bank is stuffed nearly full of dimes. Nickels and pennies are mixed together in a clear plastic jug.

I have these things in my kitchen, the second-most used room in the house, partly because I get a level of comfort from knowing that, as long as there are coins in those containers, especially dimes and quarters, I am not broke. I gaze at them and move them around to feel their weight. The heft causes me to lean into the movement. If I close my eyes it reminds me of dancing with Doreen, pushing and pulling against gravity, swaying in the kitchen, comfortable, reassured.

A few months ago, I took all of my coins to the bank when I needed a new rear tire. A teller poured my coins into the hopper of the coin-counting machine. I stood there with my hands in my empty pockets, wondering if I’d have enough for a Metzler ME 888. I was optimistic. I imagined what it would be like to have tread on the road and traction when the streets were cool or wet. The machine clattered for five minutes then stopped. The teller announced that I had twenty-six dollars and forty-two cents coming, then asked, “How do you want that?”

My optimism vanished. I couldn’t answer. My first impulse was to ask for my change back. I sensed the other customers snickering, like they knew I had unreal expectations. I looked through the glass wall at my bike in the parking lot with the cords peeking out of the rear tire. “Make it a twenty and a five,” I said.

I’d had this feeling before. Life was good and I had things figured. Then I didn’t. Like I was abandoned and left stupid and empty handed. I thought about that as I mounted up and rode, slowly, to the liquor store, then home. I never got past third gear. I felt pathetic. I should have walked to the bank to save myself the embarrassment of riding at parade speed all the way home. Twenty-six forty-two wouldn’t even pay for a new tag for my pick-up.

When I got home, I put a six pack of Old Style in the refrigerator and set a bottle of Old Crow on the counter. I emptied my pockets and dropped what change I had into the banks. Three quarters snapped past the counter into the bell jar and clunked on the bottom like slugs in a parking meter. The display taunted me at $193.37. Three pennies and a nickel echoed against the bottom of the nut jar like rocks in a tin bucket. The empty pig stared at me past his big blue nose waiting for dimes that were no closer to the slot in his back than a new tire was to my scooter. I’d have to wait for a new tire. That was a drag. But what was worse is the way I felt hollow every time I looked at the empty containers on the counter.

I missed the feeling those coins gave me. There was no weight to feel or dull metallic sheen to see. I focused on the bottle of bourbon. That was my spare change, most of it, all in one bottle with a mouth too small to swallow a nickel. I had a lingering feeling of loss when I looked at the banks on the counter with too few coins to cover the bottom. Like I get when I smell the air freshener Doreen hung on the rear-view mirror in my truck. She left me without explanation or warning, like she woke up from a dream and, suddenly I was a toad, or that she wasn’t one anymore.

Sometimes you think you have someone, like a girlfriend, and you get kind of bored once in a while, but you get used to her and she seems to be used to you and it’s comfortable like your old engineer’s boots that you can’t imagine that you’ll ever get rid of. They’re a little beat up but broke in and comfortable. Then, she doesn’t have time for you because her sister has a serious outbreak of some kind and needs help, and her cousin got out of jail, so she has to let him stay with her for a while, but she doesn’t trust him so she has to stay close to home. She stops calling and texting, and when she answers your texts, it’s only one word and there’s no smileys or turd piles at the end of the messages, no hearts or rosy-cheeked devil heads, just “K” or “Gr8” or “U2.” And eventually you just stop reaching out and she never tries to find out why you stopped calling.

That’s how it went with Doreen. I didn’t understand what happened. I couldn’t think of anything I did wrong. I was a ghost. A toad-ghost, to her. I missed some things about Doreen, like the smell of her hair and her smile and other things that made her nice to look at and be close to. But I didn’t feel tempted to try to hang on or get her back. I just let her go, which at the time seemed like it should have been harder to do. A feeling of loneliness slowly crept in, which I guessed was because I was alone, but never because I was missing Doreen.

I wrestled with why I felt lonely and, at the same time, didn’t miss Doreen. We had some good times and she did tell me she loves me and I told her I love her, but that was all probably because we both knew we should be in love to make love and because nobody wants to admit that they are with someone all the time just for sex and to show their friends that they are cool enough to not be alone. Like it’s better to think you have what everybody else has, than it is to show that you don’t. Even to yourself.

About halfway through the bottle of Old Crow I looked at the jars where all of my spare change used to be, and I felt that same feeling of loss like I had when Doreen dropped me. After a while, like it was with Doreen, I figured out that I didn’t really miss the spare change, I just missed what it represented. There was a sense of security, warmth, and worth that came with those coins. But it was all in my head. They weren’t worth much more than a twelve pack and a bottle of cheap whiskey and I guess I knew that deep down. Still, I liked having them around.

What Doreen and me had wasn’t what I liked to pretend it was. Just like all that spare change in the kitchen. It was nice to have it there and it made me feel good to touch it and look at it, but in the end, it was spare change that was replaced with cheap whiskey, just like Doreen. A few weeks later, I took my uncle Lester’s fat bob tank off the shelf in my living room and poured his ashes into his old Army canteen, then sold the tank for two hundred bucks. I bought a new Metzler ME 888 rear tire and had enough change to buy another bottle of Crow. And since I paid with paper money for the tire and the bottle at different stores, I had some coins to drop in the banks when I got home. Four dimes for the pig.

Since then, I’ve slowly built up my collection of spare change, like was before. With the new tire on the bike, I don’t have to crawl around corners anymore and I never slide unless I want to. I saw Doreen the other day, walking alone. She waved. I pulled over. She was on her way to the bank with a purse full of spare change.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hey. New tire I see.”

“Yeah. I got the ME 888.”

“Nice.”

“What’re you up to?”

She shook her purse. “Cashing in to pay for some new ink, a dragon on my thigh.”

“Want a ride?”

Metzler ME 888

Assumptions and Peace of Mind

When something really bad happens to someone we barely know, like unexpected death for instance, engaging in a conversation with the men I occasionally socialize with starts at the bottom of the social-correctness register and rarely rises above gallows humor which is the only thing we can hide behind in public without looking like frightened and curious little boys straining to see a hanged man over the shoulders of adults in the Old West.  We joke to keep the bite of reality at a safe distance when the cold fingers of death brush our daily lives and remind us of our mortality.

A man named Charlie, who we as a group only knew well enough to smile at and say hello to, passed away unexpectedly. Here Friday, gone Monday. That’s not unheard of. Death happens. But he was only thirty years old. At that age a man can usually get away with being out of shape or smoking and drinking too much for quite a few more years. The unusual thing in this instance was that nobody knew how Charlie died. There was no mention of the cause or manner of death in his obituary and if anyone knew how he died, they weren’t talking. That is as it should be I suppose, but the fact that none of us knew him well did not nullify our need for closure and a sense of safety from a similar end—whatever it was.

When a man that young dies suddenly and no cause of death can be added to the collective necrology of still-living men who at least knew of him, the gravity of the implications of the event must be side-stepped in favor of the false comfort of speculation. The last time someone we all barely knew died, when the cause was left out of the obituary, we found out through the rumor mill that he committed suicide. Unsettling as it was, suicide gave us some sense of the event which made it still-tragic, but less scary because, we agreed, the guy had some control over the situation. That made it seem less like sudden death–like getting fired from your job–and more of a choice–like quitting your job. Quitting is better than getting fired, though you are unemployed either way. But we didn’t know which analogy applied to Charlie; the rumor mill was mute as a brick.

Our discussion about the cause and manner of Charlie’s death went almost straight to the idea that he may have had a heart attack at the acme of sexual congress, the agreed upon fantasy-death for most of us. That would have been Aggravated Death by Heart Attack or maybe Aggravated Natural Causes. Aggravated because the death occurred in such a way that the details of it would compound the loss for the family if they were made public. But, we reasoned, if that was what happened to Charlie, the cause of death would have been reported simply enough as heart failure or natural causes. Still, the obituary, if any of us wrote it, would most likely have said he died of a heart attack for the sake of public peace of mind.

Generally, we in this group, care and feel compassion for others as much as anybody else we know. But by the time our compassion reached our social surfaces in Charlie’s case, it had passed through our layers of unconscious fears and our thoughts were filtered through our internal emotional survival mechanisms. As a by-product of that process, we dealt with the tragedy by talking it out. The conclusion we came to is that Charlie’s must have been death by Autoerotic Asphyxiation–AEA, Paraphilia, scarfing. There was no information that indicated Charlie left the world of the living in a less embarrassing (therefore more frightening) way. In the AEA scenario, there was room for us to assume it was an accident caused by risky behavior. That put the matter in a completely different arena for us. It was and still is sad, but it wasn’t his choice or a random event. It was an accidental strangulation suffered in pursuit of pleasure which we thought to be a thing we could reasonably assume the rest of us could still avoid.

We all knew of one famous person who allegedly died in the throes of AEA, David Carradine, whose death was the only reason we knew AEA is a thing. He was found in a Thai hotel with a cord around his neck in a closet amid evidence of ejaculation. David Carradine’s ex-wives claim that self-bondage was one of his sexual interests. They must have felt left out. Other fatal erotic asphyxiation practitioners, or choke-and-strokers, listed in the Wikipedia article we read, are people we had never heard of. The circumstances of their deaths are similarly embarrassing, though and mildly interesting.

Reports of death by erotic asphyxiation go back to the eighteenth century. In 1791 a Czech composer and violinist, tied a rope to a doorknob then used the other end as a ligature around his neck and proceeded to have sex with a prostitute who had, moments before the fatal event, refused to cut off his testicles. When the sex was finished, the article said, the violinist was dead. Reading about that incident prompted a discussion among us about what the advantages of having our testicles cut off just before orgasmic bliss could possibly be. We couldn’t think of any and nobody wanted to look that up.

In 1936 a geisha and prostitute in Japan erotically asphyxiated her lover to death, then cut off his penisu to teesticles, as they call them in Okinawa, and carried them around in her kimono for several days. There is a photograph of her surrounded by men in suits, all of them smiling like she had just won the lottery. She was being arrested for murder and mutilation of a corpse. We guessed that the men were smiling because they were relieved it happened to someone else. She was sentenced to six years in prison, served five of them, then wrote a book.

A few Paraphilia-ists submitted to scientific scrutiny. Scientists found that people can become addicted to the very final moment of the AEA experience because chemicals are released in the brain during asphyxiation that cause hallucinations and intense sexual arousal. That explains why some men who have been hanged for their crimes were witnessed to have sprouted erections as they struggled at the end of the rope. In some cases, the hanged men had orgasmic experiences right there in front of everybody. So, all that jerking may not have been struggling after all.

AEA related deaths in the US involve men at a rate of fifty to one versus women. I’m not sure if that means women are less likely to engage in AEA or less likely to perish in the act. I think women are generally more patient and careful than men, so it could be either, or both. Most AEA practitioners are left-handed men who tend to have more older brothers than average and long fingers. For the record, I am totally right-handed and an eldest child. I don’t think that bit about the long fingers really means anything.

I don’t know Charlie’s birth order or if he was left or right handed. I don’t remember noticing whether his fingers were long, but I do remember that he seemed friendly and smiled warmly when he said good morning, like he meant it. That makes me hope that, if our speculation is true, Charlie had a happy ending.

closet

Hummingbirds

I was told once that hummingbirds never rest. That they beat their wings constantly and that’s why they need so much sugar for energy. This was when I was a little kid. I probably misunderstood what I was told. I had never seen a hummingbird in person. So, I grew up thinking that those poor little birds never got to rest until they died. I felt bad for them. I wondered how hard it is to be constantly flying, always moving. How did their little shoulders not get tired? I assumed they didn’t have feet. I wondered how they could sleep.

Unlike other flying animals, hummingbirds don’t “flap” their wings at all. They move them real fast in a figure eight-pattern. That’s why they can perform maneuvers like alien space craft. The figure eight motion is the secret to their incredible maneuverability. That soft fluttering sound that you can hear when a hummingbird flies past you is the sound a fast figure eight makes.

Even if I could make my arms both do a figure eight at the same time and even if my legs were very, very light and even if I had feathers to lift me up in the air, you wouldn’t hear a soft fluttering sound when I flew by. You would only hear me breathing heavy, coughing and panting as I moved slowly along looking for a place to rest and a fountain of Red Bull.

I have observed with my own eyes and to my relief that hummingbirds can and do rest. They have little legs and feet which they use to perch. But that’s all their feet can do. Grab something and hold it while the little bird catches his or her breath.

I tried to make both of my arms do a figure eight at the same time. I couldn’t do it. Whichever arm I was not concentrating on just made a wobbly oval. I can only make one figure eight at a time. The best I could have done as a hummingbird would have been to skitter around in a circle until something came along and ate me just to stop the annoying one-wing fluttering, and the screaming.

Hummingbirds probably have the best (but possibly the quickest) sex life of any creature on Earth because they have no limitations on position. They practically have total immunity to gravity because the figure eight is a motion that works in any position.

I’m so glad they get to rest.

single hummer b&w