We have this virus to deal with, still, mysterious and terrible. The media, our culture, sound like they are trying to make it seem like this is something that we are fighting as a species when they say “We’re in this together,” but it’s an Easter bunny, a beard, toadeatery, to make it seem like humans are somehow in control because we’re a team. Yep, a team of humans. What could go wrong?
Felix thinks the media is a reflection of what it’s collective, corporate leadership wants the culture to become. He tells me that it’s like the rear tire is trying to turn the engine, that none of what you see and hear is free and unfettered anymore. He is convinced that the auto manufacturers control the colors of the cars we drive by subliminal conditioning through TV commercials. From his point of view, Ford, Chevrolet and Chrysler are trying to cause consumers to conform to a limited color palette so they can save millions of dollars by not offering new cars in expensive colors like reds, yellows, greens and blues. We talk about that often.
Sometimes, he asks me if he can come to my place to get away from ‘old girl.’ That’s because his wife, Choana, has a lot of stress and she isn’t always able to not share the strain of it, which she does by sniping at Felix before he has a chance to do anything wrong or forget to do something right.
She works in an office at home. He’s always there. Underfoot. She’s calm most of the time when I’m around. But she worries about him having enough freedom to get into trouble without having enough presence of mind to avoid it. So, he only rides when he’s with me. The last time was about six months ago.
He rides to my house, skinny as a rail, wasting. When he gets here, he looks like a little kid on a giant Big Wheel. He pulls up the grade of my driveway from the street. The front wheel wobbles a little because he’s moving too slow and because the bike is almost too heavy. He focuses, leans and gooses it just enough to smooth it out and glides to a stop midway between my house and garage, trapped. I understand in that moment why he usually parks in the street and that he had forgot to do that until it was too late.
I had the Dyna out and ready to go. I bought the bike from him three years ago. He had installed ornate aftermarket covers and mirrors, dice valve stem caps, and the loudest pipes he could find. I replaced all that with plain covers and reasonable baffles in the pipes. I also added thirty-inch leather streamers to the handle grips. I left the ape hangars and the bell on it.
He admires the bike and tells me he bought a Dyna brand-new. It was the first new vehicle he ever bought. I just say that I’m happy with this one. He stares at it, vaguely, like he knows he has forgotten something about it and tells me he misses that bike. I ask to sit on his Bagger and three-point-turn it to face the street. I feel the weight of it, ponderous. I’m amazed that he can rock it off the kickstand by himself.
The weather was so perfect we didn’t even notice it was there, like having good tires or fresh fuel. We rode to Leroy Oaks Forest Preserve, where Felix used to deal and party long before we met. I had to lead. We walked to the usual spot at the edge of Ferson Creek and sat on the grass bank with our legs dangling above our shadows on the creek’s stony bottom.
“I used to come here when nobody came here,” he says, “It became a constant party, like a free swap meet. You could find anything, parts, cars, girls, mushrooms, acid, weed, anything you wanted.”
“I sold my Beezer and all of my British parts to a guy from Canada.”
“A guy you met here.”
Felix tosses a stone into the water. The ripples fade out before they get to shore as they pass downstream He tosses another stone further upstream. It bounces off a log and lands in the grass, an instant lost forever. We sit for a long time. There are families and little kids around. The slow water in the creek seems to make everyone mellow. The children play joyfully, peacefully, skipping stones. So many ripples floating and colliding, disappearing.
“You know,” he says, “my memory hasn’t been very good lately.”
“Yeah, It’s okay, mine isn’t either.”
“My mom didn’t know who I was when she died. I walked in the house one day and she said ‘Who are you?’”
I say, “That must have been tough.”
“Yeah. I should go the cemetery and pay my respects. I’m not sure I can remember where the hell it is.” We laugh a little for different reasons.
We used to visit the cemetery every Mothers Day. He had his Iron Head and I had my Bonneville. So long ago. I went along because it was as good an excuse to ride as any. We just stood there and stared at the flowers he laid on the grave of the woman who bore him into the world, gave him a name and didn’t know who he was when she faded out. He’d say a few unsentimental compliments about her, like she was good at math and knew how to play chess, liked Irish whiskey. Then we’d take off and ride all day. After his Dad went to join her, we stopped the Mother’s Day ride. He had met Choana by then. She had a kid. There were other things for them to do on Sundays.
A boy wearing camouflage pants and a Harley Davidson t-shirt with an American flag stitched to the shoulder stomps in a puddle on the mud beach upstream “Bam,” he yells in his most explosive voice. A cloud of mud-smoke narrows at it passes us.
Felix says “I was born on Flag Day.”
I say “Yeah” because I know that he doesn’t know that I know that he should know that he has already told me this many times. I think he thinks I’m saying it to confirm that it’s a valid memory. So I confirm what he says as long as what he thinks he knows for the moment won’t hurt him.
Under better circumstances we would have had a discussion about the flag. Felix was a fountain of American semiotic knowledge. He’d share a little history about our flag or tell me about an obscure flag rule, like you can’t let it touch the ground in battle unless you’re wounded. it gives him a sense of dignity and responsibility to something greater than himself, as if it is an honor bestowed on him to be committed to the flag.
We both used to fly the flag all day every day. I’ve taken my flag down but I don’t mention it to Felix because I’m afraid it would set his memory on fire trying to remember why he knows he should question me about it. I don’t want to hurt him. Not that he would filter his thoughts for me. When my girl, Gloria’s brain was being strangled by a tumor, he made stupid comments that were meant to be jokes.
I’d say, “Gloria didn’t seem to know who I was when I got to the home yesterday.”
He’d say, “Well, then she won’t miss you if you go riding all day today.”
To Felix, the slow death of the brain and soft disappearance of the person I loved were just things I needed to get through with humor and pluck like a bad hangover or divorce or jail time. Easy. I didn’t talk to him after that conversation until six months later at Gloria’s wake. He was all there back then, but useless.
On the way to Leroy Oaks, he road with me like he meant it, wheel-to-wheel, hard and free like we did during the shrinking window of years he can clearly remember, back when we would have called everything about that day “tits.” The weather was tits. The roads were tits. The ride. It was a tits day until we left the preserve to go home.
Tired, riding back on Route Sixty-Four, the way we came, the Bagger probably heavier than ever, Felix began to hang too-far back as if he wasn’t sure where we were going–or maybe who I was. I slowed to catch him up. He was just riding. There was nothing else, just that. He tried to tell me where to turn a couple of times like he used to do. I kept telling him we were going to somewhere he wasn’t likely to remember, like Pumper’s house or the Barn. He said “I’ll follow you.” I led him to his house and Choana.
Felix invited me to watch the Bears game a few weeks before last Christmas. It was about thirty degrees outside and cloudy. Choana spoke loud and fast from the moment I stepped in out of the cold, asking questions about my job and my mom and my dog, my ex. Then she switched to telling me things about her kid and her grandbaby, then she talked about nothing I can remember in a long string of words, the way she might talk to an Uber driver or the dog groomer while digging in her purse for a credit card or tip money she knew wasn’t there. Pent up energy, stress, worry, anger, duty, loss. She’s trapped.
Felix sat on the couch, knees splayed under his hands, leaning slightly, ready to get up or sit back as soon as he could pick up a que, looking at the TV, then me, back to the TV. Listening for key words from Choana.
Each time I began to turn away from her, Choana asked a new set of questions, her high voice was shrill and hard and the sound of it bounced off the large front window and the hardwood floors and mixed with sounds of television commercials compressing the living room’s sonic saturation to a high temperature. My ears began to hurt. My cheeks burned a little.
I thought it would be best for me to just listen to Choana, so I stood facing her, ears cupped away from the TV, advancing slowly toward her. Choana talked with a softened voice as she retreated to the kitchen. I followed. When the pizza was ready, she scissored it, announced to Felix that the pizza was ready, picked up her purse, said she was going to Target, and instructed Felix, with her outdoor voice, over the sound of football, to offer me things to drink and to be a good host.
Three times she says, “Felix, did you hear me?”
She looked at me, raised her eyebrows and left, slipping into her coat as she closed the door behind her, an escapee.
He says, “Okay Honey.”
I sit in the recliner. Felix sits back on the couch and surveys the food and bottles on the coffee table. He blinks and looks at the TV.
“Did she leave?”
“Went to Target.”
Felix asks me if I want anything to drink and unscrews the lid off a square plastic jar full of Peanut M&Ms. He offers them to me enough times that I take a handful and eat them just to satisfy him. He screws the lid back on the jar every time. About every five minutes after that, as if he had just remembered Choana’s last instruction or read a hidden note, he unscrews the lid and tells me to have some M&Ms. Whether I take M&Ms or tell him I already had them doesn’t alter his rhythm or change the pattern. I realize that if I told him I already had some M&Ms it might trigger I-have-Alzhiemer’s anxiety in him. I wouldn’t want to cause that so, I eat M&Ms. Peanut.
The football game was terrible. The two worst teams in the division were out to prove what they were worth, and they did. Detroit scored more points, but I thought it was a suck-tie. The game was so bad that the Muppet-voiced announcers couldn’t find anything good to say about it. Tony Romo would have been stumped for something interesting to say, and he’s about the best there is.
So, Bert and Earnie focused on the second most popular American sports gossip. They rattled on about what each player thought, what his wants and needs were, where his dad went to school and who with, all the trivial shit that is meaningless but more entertaining than a shitty football game. But they still had to try to talk about the game.
‘Well, Dale,’ says they guy who sounds like Burt, ‘they have a dilemma here, the Bears do, uh, if they want to make the, uh, playoffs because, unless they can convert on this down they’ll have to give the ball back to, uh, the, uh, Lions and with five minutes left on the, uh, clock, well they really want to win this game, the, uh, Bears do. I talked to Coach Hildebrand and he told his guys that they want to win every game they play this year and I think he meant it, Coach Hildebrand did…’
I bitched constantly at the TV, telling the not-Tonys to shut the fuck up through most of the game. Felix focused on what was happening on the screen, ignoring my Choana-sounds. He only talked when he saw something important happen on TV. In that game only the personal fouls were interesting. Felix enjoyed the replays but he never missed the events as they happened. Focus.
It was like he didn’t even hear the announcers, standing in an empty broadcast box at a stadium with empty seats, pretending the crowd noise that was recorded live at a game in the past was perfectly natural to hear when everyone is fully aware of the fact that nobody is in the fucking stands. He saw what was happening on the field, only that. He saw all the small details of every play.
“Have some M&Ms!”
“Don’t mind if I do.”
At halftime, he says: “I think I may be getting what my mother died of,” which he has.
He tells me they retired him early from work, because things weren’t getting done, which they did. I know this but I don’t want to tell him that I know it or remind him that it was true. I know he’ll never hold me to anything I say, like if I told him they fired him because he fell down the stairs drunk and hit his head. He’d think it was cool that he had such a great drunk story. An hour later, if it came up I could tell him the truth. It’s all news.
Noting a car commercial on tv, he points out that in the last four years he has noticed that almost all the cars on the road are either black, white or gray, a discussion he has started with increasing frequency over the last three years. It seems like a new revelation to Felix every time he brings it up. He tells me they stopped making cars in colors because they want us all to be the same.
A Lexus commercial shows bright red Lexus models with silver bows on a paver driveway admired by beautiful, happy people. He doesn’t see the red.
“Big government, big business, the Jews and the Chinese are all in it together, controlling us all,” he says. A rant from many years ago.
He mentions that he has a copy of the Anarchist’s Cookbook, matter of fact. Reaching back to something he knew once.
He says, “They’re coming for our guns” as he screws the top off the M&Ms.
“Well” I tell him as I swallow more chocolaty peanut goodness, “They don’t have them yet, do they?”
“No…I don’t think so.”
He tells me that it’s sad that the world has come to this. I agree with him.
3 Replies to “Conspiracy”
So effing good, Ken! I’ve said it before and I will damn say it again (there’s clearly lots and lots of hours here, that much is obvious – and I respect that), you’re a natural. Full of proper laughs and rock n roll and grown-up shit without being preachy or decoration. Sad, too. It’s been a wait, but so well worth it. I could read this shit all day, my friend (in fact, I know I will). Well done!
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Haha! Mind yourself on that doorframe, Ace!
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No worries. It shrinks way down as soon as I see the next blank page…
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