Decisive Moments

I had sex with a woman who was twenty years older than me after my first divorce—Jacquie. She was the first woman I ever French-kissed the way I will always think it should be done. In fact she set the standard for kissing that I keep to this day and probably always will. It was unbelievable. Our tongues moved around in our mouths slowly, softly caressing each other back and forth like warm, mating worms. Her lips were hot and soft, so soft. It felt like our faces had melted together. That affair didn’t end the way it was supposed to—for Jacquie.

I had only been with one woman before her, my first wife. She said she was a virgin before we married. I hadn’t had sex with another person myself yet, so I wouldn’t have known the difference if she was or wasn’t. Come to think of it she was the only woman I ever made it with who claimed to be,unsullied,” as the nuns put it, so I probably still wouldn’t know the difference. But, now that I’ve been around, I think she probably wasn’t a virgin. Even now I don’t want to think she lied to me. Maybe she believed it herself. Maybe it was immaculate misconception.

The virgin and I dated for three years and married a year after she graduated from high school. She was blonde, petite, pretty. Friday nights we stayed up to watch TV, Midnight Special usually. We made out in her parents’ living room after the rest of the family went to bed. I liked making out with her. Though, to me, it didn’t feel as good as it looks like it feels in the movies. But we weren’t actors either. I was full of hope and anticipation, barely able to wait for our wedding night so I could put my penis where only my finger had been and so I could see her fully naked. I knew it was going to be great.

We stayed married for sixteen years, bad sex and all. That virgin was smart, and she earned a pretty good living with a high school diploma, which was a good thing for me because I was immature and kind of a bust-out back then. Way more testosterone than brains. There was good sex between us when we partied—if she got drunk enough—especially if we had some weed and wine. At the time, as far as I was concerned, that was as good as it got. I thought sex was like all the advertising for cheap paint jobs, used cars, and TV shows, mostly hype to make people want it or buy it because they can’t not afford it: “Any car any color for nineteen ninety-five.”

We were great friends. Sometimes we finished each other’s sentences. I thought I was the only one who wasn’t quite happy. I was willing to settle for what I had. Plus, I didn’t make enough money to support myself. It was familiar, even if it wasn’t very good. She wasn’t, as it turned out, happy or willing to settle. She was smart. But that’s not what this story is about.

Jacquie and I first started fooling around in the parking lot after work one night. This  was about two years after my first divorce. We got very hot and were going at each other like we were on a mission. We had our hands on each other in places that I’d have thought were impossible to reach with our clothes on. After about half an hour of that we couldn’t be considered strangers in any significant way. Jacquie pulled herself away, pushed me back, and lit a cigarette. She smoked Kool longs.

She put her hand on my leg way above the knee. “If we’re going to do this,” she said, “there needs to be an understanding.”

I would have agreed to almost anything but murder to finish what we had started. I was more excited that night than I had been for the three years I was engaged to the virgin. I think it was because I knew this woman was no virgin at all. Plus, I could tell that she knew, really knew what she was doing. I was amazed at what I had learned from her in that car in half an hour. I lit a smoke of my own, a Marlboro from a box, and said, “Okay.”

She said, “We have to agree that either one of us can break it off at any time for any reason and the other can’t be mad or argue. It has to be that way, or we can’t do this. I mean we can’t do any more than we already have.”

I wondered why she wanted to make a deal like that. She was married. She had told me her husband didn’t do anything for her in the sack but that she loved him and wouldn’t leave him. They had a kid still living at home too. So, I never had the idea that we would get married or anything. I hadn’t thought things through beyond making out and feeling her lips and tongue on mine and filling my hands with her flesh. I was in heaven just from that. This, I thought to myself, is probably what I missed out on with Cathy.

I met Cathy through the boss I had in the first body shop I worked at after high school but before I married the virgin. Eugene tried to tell me that I shouldn’t get married to a woman I haven’t had sex with. He said you can’t buy a lock without knowing the key fits—or something like that. He tried to set me up with one of his customers. She was the wife of an over-the-road truck driver. Cathy something—Harold or Ronald or Roland. Eugene sent me to her house to deliver her car, which I had just painted.

I don’t remember the car, but the address was 2269 Frontage Road. It was adjacent to the parking lot of Beckwith Moving and Storage, which had once been a trailer park, along Route 83. They were an agent for Road One Van Lines. It was in a half-industrial, half-residential area on the outskirts of Elmhurst. The house was small and brown from dinge and age and sat on a city lot surrounded by business parking and storage lots. She asked me in and sat me at the kitchen table. The kitchen was small and claustrophobic. There was a bottle of vodka on the table and dishes peeking over the top of the sink.

“Eugene said you would give me a ride back to the shop,” I said, thinking she must not have understood the arrangement. She wore tight jeans and a long-sleeve pull-over shirt with the buttons undone in the front, so her cleavage was visible when she bent down, which she did for reasons I didn’t quite understand at the time. Dumbass that I was.

“You’re not in a hurry to get back to work, are you?” She said.

I wasn’t exactly in a hurry, but that’s where I was supposed to be—at work. I watched her move slowly around the kitchen staring at me with big brown eyes.

“Sit,” she said, “you can relax for a little while.” She picked up a glass and sipped.

“Want a drink?”

I sat down on a chair at the table and politely declined. I wasn’t twenty-one yet. I only drank with people I knew.

“You know I get a little lonely around here. Asshole spends most of his time on the road. Then he comes home and doesn’t do a damn thing to take care of me.”

“Oh” was all I could manage to say. I thought, Asshole must be her husband. Why am I sitting in this woman’s kitchen? Why doesn’t she drive me back to the shop? She’s not bad looking. Is she tanned or is her skin that sexy olive color all over? I wish I wasn’t engaged. I was aroused and I was glad for the baggy coveralls I wore at work.

It was the first opportunity for my biker-trash self to come out. He was in there, scared and excited almost to the point of cumming in my shorts. But the loyal Catholic Boy Scout won out. I didn’t take a drink or play the game she invited me to play. I didn’t know it was a game. I didn’t know the rules. This was long before Pete Rose got kicked out of baseball and Monica Lewinski’s dress got stained. This was before I learned that there are no rules.

Eugene was trying to do me a huge favor. I was too insulated to see that this woman was a gift, a door opened for me. I sat in her dingy kitchen, looking at the tops of her breasts as she leaned over to talk to me about how “Asshole” didn’t take care of her, even when he was around, wondering what they looked like naked, comparing them to my fiancé’s breasts, the size, the texture of her skin. I was squirming in my chair with a raging boner, wishing I could just go back to work and not have to try to understand anything more than how to rough out a fender and block sand a hood, wishing I could make an adjustment, sitting in that tiny kitchen on that squeaky old chair without Cathy noticing.

When I walked into the shop after half-drunk Cathy dropped me off, Eugene was all smiles and kept asking me how it went. It was like he wanted a reason to be proud of me and thought he was about to get one. He said something about me getting back sooner than he expected. I didn’t know what to tell him. The smell of peroxide hardener and lacquer thinner became the smell of erotic confusion. I didn’t understand why he sent me there or what was supposed to happen or how long I should have been gone. I didn’t understand why he was so interested or why Cathy was so friendly at first but cold and pissed off later.

Now I know that he was hoping I got laid, hoping that I knew the secret that every young man and woman should know before they get too serious. Now I know that he arranged for me to go to Cathy’s house, that she wanted me to come to her and fuck her. Now I know. Now I wish I had known then. But I was determined to be faithful. I wouldn’t have done it even if I had figured out that the encounter was an opportunity. I had been taught by my mother, the nuns in school, and the Boy Scouts about the importance of the virtues of loyalty, honesty, selflessness, obedience, reverence. What would God think, or the Pope, or President Kennedy?

Now I know to never turn down a woman who isn’t related to me and who isn’t revolting. Now that I don’t get the opportunities I got when I was young, I know how rare and precious it is, even if the woman isn’t beautiful and young. Now I know that a young woman with a perfect body, cute hair, and a pretty smile is like a motorcycle with extra headlights and a radio. What the world sees when you go by isn’t nearly as important as the ride. It’s the ride that matters. It’s the only thing that matters. That’s what I know now.

I doubt that Cathy remembers me if she’s still alive. But I remember her. She’s the rat bike I didn’t ride because I had my own unridden Sportster waiting for me, brand new, I thought, and fresh as its first day out the factory door—sleek, pretty, new, safe, unbroken, unworn. Now I know that Cathy was probably the better ride. Even if I just took her for a spin, I would have had a way to compare the first ride on the bike I had bought unridden—I mean the virgin. Even if she wasn’t half as good a ride as the girl I was betrothed to, I’d know what it was like to mount up and go through the gears, even if they were a little sloppy.  I’d have something to gauge others by, a baseline.

Two years after I passed on a quick spin with Cathy, I was still into cars and painting them. But I always liked motorcycles. I liked the sound of most of them. They seemed to make their riders free, like they didn’t care what anybody thought. I wanted to be like that. I didn’t know any bikers, though. They weren’t in the auto shop classes at school. They didn’t work in gas stations. They didn’t live in my neighborhood. They were not Boy Scouts. They didn’t build models in the basement and they would never have married virgins. Most of them were veterans with the special patina that Viet Nam put on their souls. They were cool. I was sure they got laid. That’s almost all they talked about. But that’s not what this story is about.

I missed out on the chance I had with Cathy and I wasn’t going to let that happen again. I agreed to Jacquie’s terms. I didn’t even think about it. And that started an affair that lasted for about a year and a half. We both worked second shift at the hospital. On Friday nights I went home to my apartment from work and Jacquie showed up about ten minutes later and we had the best sex, ever. We got to know each other and had verbal sparring matches about questions like “How does God keep track of the bad things everybody does?” and “If you were on a desert island and had three wishes but you didn’t know it, how long would it take for you to wish for something and have it come true?” It was good and safe and fun. There was no commitment for either of us. And we had that agreement, so we were free to be honest. That worked great for Jacquie and me, until I met Beth.

Beth also worked second shift at the hospital, and smoked, which is how we met in the smoking lounge. Beth was younger than me and prettier than Jacquie. She looked sexier when she turned on all her charms. I was tempted beyond my limits and decided that I had to break things off with Jacquie before I fooled around too much with Beth—to be honorable. I figured that since it was a rule Jacquie made up, she would understand, and we could be friends and things would be fine.

Before Jacquie and I started fooling around the Friday night after I met Beth, I asked her if she remembered the agreement we made in the car the first day we got together. She said, “Sure I remember. Why?”

“Well, I need to invoke that rule or whatever we’re supposed to do, you know, sort of break it off and just be friends.”

She didn’t take it well. She said, “Ohhhh?” Like nobody ever did that to her before. That’s when I realized that when she made that rule it was for her to invoke, not for me. But since that wasn’t the agreement, she was stuck. She knew from our sparring matches that I was too smart for her to back up and change the rules. She didn’t go off on me or anything, but she got very quiet. She was shocked. It was very awkward, which, of course, I didn’t expect.

We talked for a while, but it wasn’t the same. She talked about odd things, like she was dissociative. She told me that Phil was not just a Viet Nam vet but that he was a killer, that he had nightmares and kept a gun under the bed and freaked out if there were sudden noises when he was asleep. Weird violent things like that. I just let her talk. We didn’t make out or have sex. She left early and we didn’t kiss goodbye or anything. Work was awkward as hell for a few weeks until she hooked up with a guy named Frank who worked with my new friend Beth and who also smoked Kool cigarettes. But that’s not what this story is about either.

After my second divorce, I bought the house I live in now. It was a wreck. A handyman special. The neighborhood wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great. There was seediness around, which I felt comfortable in most of the time because it was easy to fit in. But there was an element of danger there. Not enough to think I was going to be assaulted or robbed, mostly because it wasn’t the kind of neighborhood where there was likely to be anything worth robbing, but enough to give me a safer feeling with a gun in the house than with just a knife and a baseball bat. So, I kept a .357 handgun between my mattress and box spring, a .38 Special in the pocket of my sport coat in the closet and a 12 gauge shotgun hanging by a pull-cord chain through the sling hole on the end of the barrel looped over a screw on the clothes rod behind some old belts and a couple of ties. I felt safe enough.

It had been six years since I had lived alone when I moved into this place. So, it was a little strange for a while. It takes time to get used to the noises in a house and in a neighborhood. By this time, I didn’t work in hospitals anymore. I was a truck mechanic and for most of the time I worked on second shift. That worked out okay for me. Second shift paid a little better and it was generally quieter with fewer bosses around. But I never got home before dark and it usually took me a while to fall asleep after I got tired of whatever was on TV.

I was lonely and often thought about the women I’ve known and the things that were good about them. Which meant that I wasn’t thinking about my second wife at all and that I wasn’t thinking much about the virgin. But I was thinking about Jacquie, who, it turned out, was a much better lover than Beth was and a lot smarter and more fun to talk to. I thought about some of our conversations about philosophical subjects involving God and then about our last conversation when she told me about her husband, Phil, being a killer. I went back to thinking about our first encounter in the car and had almost fallen asleep when something woke me all the way back up.

I heard a noise that seemed like it was in the house but could have been a car door slamming down the street. It was fall. The windows were closed, but they were old and drafty, and a lot of outside noise came in with the air. I froze, listening with my head off the pillow and my chin pinned to my chest. I heard it again, only this time it sounded like a footstep. There were two bumps—heel toe. Then there was another and another and they were getting closer. I started to panic. Nobody, I think, ever really believes that that they’ll actually shoot someone with their home defense weapons. I reached between the mattress and box spring for the .357, but I couldn’t find it.

I know now that I couldn’t find it because I stashed it there while I was crouched next to the bed and never actually tried to get it out while I was lying on the bed. Kind of stupid. Then I heard the unmistakable sound of a floorboard creaking which only happened in the hallway to the bedroom. I got out of bed and started to thrash around in my closet to find my sport coat in the dark. I felt the revolver in the pocket, but I was too shaky and panicked to figure out how to get it out. I reached into the corner and grabbed the shotgun. I jerked it off the hook which sent little silver balls from the pull chain all over the floor and made a racket. I racked a round into the chamber and, as a figure appeared in the bedroom doorway, I pulled the trigger.

The recoil knocked me backward. My bare feet were unsteady with the little balls under them and I fell against the bed, then onto the floor. I racked in another round but didn’t fire again. My heart was pounding so hard I could hear my pulse over the ringing in my ears. I got to my feet and pulled the shotgun up firmly to my shoulder which hurt like hell because I fired the gun without setting the stock. I had never fired the shotgun before. It was loaded with a slug, not buckshot. I know now that I had bought hunting ammo. It kicked like six motherfuckers because it’s one big solid chunk of lead. Not a round to shoot standing barefoot in your underwear. The doc at the emergency room said it was a good thing I didn’t shoot that gun again or I might have done damage to my shoulder that wouldn’t heal without surgery.

I listened intently through the ringing in my ears and didn’t hear anything. No footsteps, no breathing, no sign of another person. I thought I must have dreamed the whole thing up and that I had just discharged my shotgun in the house and damaged who knows what in the process because I was half dreaming that there was an intruder, a killer named Phil, in my house. It turned out that I wasn’t dreaming. But it wasn’t Phil either.

I stood up, moved slowly, and turned on the bedroom light and peered through the doorway into the hall where I saw Rodney Sterling III of Lafayette, Michigan, lying flat on his back in a pool of blood, still as Christmas Day on Pluto. The first thing I did was throw up. Then the pain in my shoulder caught up with the shock and I dropped the shotgun on my bare right foot and broke two toes. I leaned back against the door jamb and lowered myself until I could squeeze my foot to try to stop the pain as the police sirens began to penetrate my still-ringing ears. Fuck!

The deceased had a .45 caliber Colt 1911 in his right hand which was charged. The cops found a slip of paper in the dead man’s pocket which was wrapped around nine thousand seven hundred fifty-six dollars cash. On it was scribbled an address: 5483 Yonder Street. I live at 5483 Yolanda Street, three blocks away. I learned from a friend who has a relative that works in law enforcement that the guy was from Milwaukee and had been charged in a murder-for-hire sting a year before I killed him for free. The coroner handed me a business card before they carted the body away. It was from Crime Sloppers, a crime scene cleaning agency. Certified * Bonded * Insured: Yes, We Clean Windows!

After my house was cleaned up and I moved back home from the Motel Hell, I checked out the house at 5483 Yonder Street, where Rodney Sterling III was supposed to commit home invasion and murder. There was furniture in the rooms and garbage scattered around like someone left in a hurry. An eviction notice was plastered on the front door over a crime scene release form. The house was dirty. There were saplings growing in the gutters and the dented white siding looked dingy gray. There were car parts strewn on the driveway in front of the garage and broken toys, a cracked water gun, a dump truck without wheels, and a tricycle with an extended fork which was kind of cool.

I felt the irony of it. I went to the right address and found the right person when I met Cathy, but I was too stupid to see the opportunity for what it was. Rodney recognized that he had an opportunity to get something he wanted, money, but he was too stupid to read the street signs, went to the wrong house, and found the wrong person. I missed a life-changing opportunity. He made a life-ending mistake. Dead Rodney had almost ten thousand dollars cash in his pocket. I learned that movie shotguns are toys. Since then I found more convenient places to stash the revolvers and I sold the shotgun. My shoulder will probably never be the same. There was a lesson learned there. But that’s not what this is story is about.

Jacquie asked me one night after a second round of sex, “Do you think Adam ever ate another apple?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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