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. The most we’re doing together is enduring a lockdown, separately. We’re only together in the sense that we live on the same fouled planet and we are threatened by the same natural process of selection which we admire and love as if we invented it ourselves while ignoring the fact that we constantly, scientifically, defy what it does to not extinct us. It’s in our brains.
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 with Felix in the moment, which she does by sniping at him 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 or get out of it when he’s on his own. So he only rides when he’s with me. Last time was about six months ago.
He rides to my house on his Bagger, 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, too slow, almost too heavy. He focuses, leans and gooses it just enough to smooths 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 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, knowing something and tells me he misses that bike. I ask to sit on his Bagger and I three-point-turn it to face the street. I feel the weight of it, ponderous.
The weather was so perfect that day, 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 as they pass down stream before they get to the shore. He tosses another stone further upstream. It bounces off a log and lands in the grass, lost forever. We sit for a long time. There are families and little kids around. The slow water in the creek makes 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 left it. 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.
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 little voice. A cloud of mud smoke narrows at it passes us.
Felix says “I was born on Flag Day.”
Under healthier circumstances we would have had a discussion about what the flag means. Felix is 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. Felix has always taken pride in his birthday. It gives him a sense of dignity and responsibility to something greater than himself as if it is an honor bestowed on him, the day of 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 was dying he made stupid comments that were meant to be jokes.
“Gloria didn’t seem to know who I was when I got to the place yesterday.”
“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 in it were just things I needed to get through with humor and pluck, like a bad hangover or divorce or jail. 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 park.
Tired, back on Route Sixty-Four, the Bagger probably heavier than ever, he 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 at every stop light. He tried to tell me where to turn a couple of times like he used to do, but 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.’
Felix invited me to watch the Bears game at his house a few weeks before last Christmas. It was about thirty degrees outside and cloudy. Choana spoke loud and fast from the moment I stepped 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. Pent up energy, stress, worry, anger, duty, loss, 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 highly pressured voice, shrill and hard, bounced off the large front window and the hardwood floors against the programmed crying-baby sounds of the television 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 continued to talk with a softened voice as she retreated to the kitchen. I followed. When the pizza was ready, she scissored it up without resting her lips, announced to Felix that the pizza was ready, picked up her purse, said she was going to Target, and instructed Felix, through the air of the kitchen and living room, over the sound of football, to offer me things to drink and to be a good host.
“Felix, did you hear me?”
She leaves, slipping into her coat as she close 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 asked me if I wanted anything to drink and unscrewed the lid off a square plastic jar full of Peanut M&Ms. He offered them to me enough times that I took a handful and ate them just to satisfy him. He screwed 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 unscrewed the lid and told me to have some M&Ms. Whether I took M&Ms or told him I already had them didn’t alter his rhythm or change the pattern. I realized that if I told him I already had some M&Ms it might trigger I-have-Alzhiemer’s anxiety in him. So, I ate way too many M&Ms.
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 sport, speculative 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 Muppet-men in their fine suits, 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 part of reality. I envied his ability to tune the bullshit out. He saw what was there, only that. In that moment, he couldn’t process the oddness of M&Ms on my plate next to a slice of pizza, but if one of them moved, he would have seen it.
“Have some M&Ms!”
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. 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 usually tells me they stopped making cars in colors because they want us all to be the same, like robots.
A Lexus commercial shows a family of 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 so many years ago I’d nearly forgotten the idea. He mentions that he has a copy of the Anarchist’s Cookbook, matter of fact, reaching back beyond the shadow, comforted like he has a special weapon to fight it with.
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?”
He tells me that it’s sad that the world has come to this. I agree with him.