About two years after my fiancé, Llu, 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. 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, as if I asked.
“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.
“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 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. Llu 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 in Illinois and early morning on her end in Lampeter. As we talked, we realized that we could both see the moon. That made it like we were almost touching. Since we could both see the moon; 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 Llu, 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 and 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 DW Glide. I had a spill on Route 83 a week earlier. I filled up with gas at the Canard truck stop. I ate one of the painkiller Woody gave me, then 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.
“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.
“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.”
“Yeah,” she said, “he sort of skipped town and left me on my own.”
“Sort of skipped?”
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. He calls himself the Notell Express.
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, 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 at home. 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 Llu 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, gravel-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 the trees. 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 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 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. 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. Lock up before you leave. L. I washed up and shut the main breaker off at the electrical box. I took a pain killer and fired up my bike. Potato-potato-potato echoed around the clearing as I idled out to the road.
Woody, rustled in his jacket, mumbling to himself. I was zoned out. The moon looked like Lela’s face, then Llu’s. 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. I snaped out of it and took the joint.
“Where’ve you been?” he asked.
“Pontiac,” I said.
“What’s in Pontiac?”
“Do I look like a Jethro to you?”
“Jethro? What do you mean, man? Like the band or the hillbilly?”
“Never mind. What was it you said about rainwater off a tire?”