His favorite term was steel horse. At the very mention his mind started racing with thoughts of some cowboy from the old west mounting his ride and racing off into the desert like Clint Eastwood. He always thought that was the most romantic part of it and he was a romantic at heart, but it was also the most fun. It is one thing to travel somewhere by car, but quite another travelling the same road by motorcycle. He read once that riding a location via motorcycle is akin to a walk at speed. That resonated with him. Everytime he heard the sound of pipes from a Harley Davidson, he knew he was home. That sound took him to a place where he knew he belonged. When he met other riders on his travels, they were not interested in what he did for a living or what he was wearing because they all shared one common trait…they rode motorcycles. There were no expectations, no duties to perform, just the road that patiently awaited. It did not matter the road, as long as it was going to take him somewhere. Often, he would catch himself laughing out loud as he rode his bike, especially on the open roads where farmland or tree stuffed mountains were rolling by. He really did not know why he laughed, but he understood that it was a laugh of joy, of being on that bike at that time and place, wherever it was. That is where his bike took him every time he climbed aboard. His steel horse was ready to answer the call and go someplace…different. Any place would do, as long as he could ride there. Some thought he was crazy to go it alone. He thought it normal. Some would try and dampen his enthusiasm with stories of bike tragedies. “I used to ride until I heard my third cousin on my mother’s side…” He never paid much attention to that as he knew the dangers involved, but he also knew that they would never understand the joy of riding and what it meant. He knew instinctively that the moment he lost respect for his steel horse, his horse would lose respect for him and bad things would occur. He made sure this didn’t happen. As he pulled on his favorite faded jeans, tied his black bandana around his head so he would not get sun-burned, and slung his patched vest around his shoulders, he could feel the excitement building. His boots, black and scuffed from significant wear, still felt as comfortable as the day he got them. He had them repaired once already because they were just as much a part of his riding as anything else. They were beat up but he loved them just the same. He had two rings that he always wore, one on each hand. One, a simple stainless steel ring that said “biker” on it, and the other with three celtic crosses. The “biker” ring always went on the right ring finger and the cross ring on the left. He also wore bracelets, but alternated between leather and stainless steel, depending on the mood. No one asked why he wore those things, and he didn’t volunteer. He just did.
His bike. His bike was a 1975 Harley Davidson Electra Glide. As he did not see the need, he never upgraded his mount, preferring to keep the vintage shovelhead he named Lucy, in as good a condition as possible. Lucy was painted metallic blue emblazoned with white flames outlined in red on the front fender. The handlebars were of the swept version, with custom exhaust sporting fishtail ends. The seat was a black single saddle with a studded passenger black pillion sitting on the rear fender. The worn, brown saddle bags were faded leather, indicating a significant amount of use over the years. The headlight in the center was round, but the two smaller lights on each side of the main lamp had attached visors with Harley Davidson etched on them, making his bike distinctive. The entire machine was immaculate, and Rod wanted to keep it that way. Lucy had belonged to Rod’s father. When Rod was a small boy, his father simply stopped riding, for reasons known only to him. His father put the bike away, having covered it in the corner of the garage. He would uncover it on occasion, rolling it out onto the dirt/gravel driveway to clean it and start it up but he always put it right back into the shed behind the house. His father had always kept the bike in good running condition even though he did not ride. Sometimes, he would go into the shed drunk, stay there for a while, and then go back into the house. As Rod got older, he approached his father on more than one occasion about taking the bike out or even buying it from him, but his father resisted in a terse way. Inevitably, Rod’s father would mutter something about Rod not needing it. Rod had ridden many bikes, but the Electra Glide was his holy grail. Something about the bike spoke to him the very first day he sat on it. Someday, it would be his. As it happened, when he was about twenty-one years old, Rod was tinkering with his beat up old Chevy, when his father strode from the house and said, “The bike is yours. Take care of it.” Then, he simply turned and walked back. Rod did not understand, and he did not even try. All he knew was that the Electra Glide was his.
Rod’s relationship with his father was strained. Both of them knew it but neither was willing to address it. Rod tried at various times, but his attempts amounted to little more than a simple, “Are you ok?” to which his father would reply, “Fine.” Rod never pursued it and his father never acknowledged the issue. Rod assumed things could get that way with fathers and sons sometimes, especially without the influence of a woman around to smooth the edges. Rod’s father was a machinist. His rough features and ice blue eyes were striking in their contrast to each other. He had a lean, defined musculature, but it was his hands that Rod always noticed. They were beaten with fingernails that were torn and uneven, the mark of a man who worked with those hands on a daily basis. A hard working man whose hours spent on the job that were in direct correlation to his drinking habits. He was not a mean drunk, but a man who grew up hard and worked hard. They had seen rough times as jobs came and went, and from Rod’s perspective, that hardscrabble life in rural Tennessee resulted in Rod’s father turning in on himself, burying his disappointment over his life and over the years withdrawing from his family. Rod’s mother must have loved him and his ways early on, but as with some couples, they eventually grew apart, not helped with the distance that Rod’s father put between himself and his wife. At least, that is what Rod thought. Rod remembered his mother as a beautiful woman whose chestnut hair dropped to her shoulders and parted just enough to frame her face as a portrait. Her light green eyes and gentle smile betrayed her Irish roots, but her slender yet proportioned stature reminded one of her English heritage. He remembered that she was quiet, but thought that was likely the result of a woman not emotionally fed by her husband. What was there to say to anyone when the soul is not nurtured? Eventually, she must have had enough and simply left her family. The rumor was that she left for another man, but Rod never believed it. Life with Rod’s father was tough, like an emotional desert. A woman, any woman, can only tolerate so much of that life, and when they feel that there is nothing more they can do, they leave. For her, Rod thought it must have been more survival than anything else. He had always felt it was a matter of self preservation, although he had never found out the truth and his memories of his mother were vague. Once she was gone, he did not have contact with her again. He lived with his father for reasons that he still does not understand. He keeps hoping that he will, and he tells that to himself every time another disappointment hits, but understanding never comes.
No matter what was going on with his life, things always came back to Lucy, his bike. Every time he looked at her the predominant feeling that stirred within could only be described as excitement. He would mount Lucy and go. Just go. As the wind rushed past his head and into his ears, and the smells assaulted his nose, he could feel nothing but pure joy.
This day would be different. Rod did not know why, but he just knew. Sometimes a man rises in the morning with clear intentions but the direction that day’s currents take him are not what he anticipates. This was such a day. By all indications, it was going to be a lovely day for a ride. The sunlight was bright, along with a moist chill in the air. Rod loved the feeling of the morning. As he backed the Electra Glide out from under its driveway shelter, he could feel the humid morning air on his skin, leaving a slightly sticky feeling on his arms. Each time he breathed, his nostrils filled with the damp, oaky air. He loved that smell for it reminded him where he was, which was away from the city stench of spent engine oil, car exhaust, and noise. City life…something Rob abhorred. The Electra Glide started up as it always did, and the beautiful sound of “potato-potato-potato” emanated from the tail pipes, filling his ears. He was on the back of his ride, and Lucy was urging him forward. Although he knew better, he sometimes wondered if Lucy was alive, waiting for him to get on her back and ride. A silly thought, he knew, but one that always brought a smile to his face. As he tapped her into gear with his left foot, and eased the clutch out with his left hand, Lucy started forward. This was his favorite part: the beginning. Leaving behind where he was and going wherever the road took him. Anticipation. He loved it. With a slight twist of his right wrist, Lucy’s engine came alive and Rod was gone down the road.
He entered the mountain roadway and thought, “Damn! I love this,” his voice echoing inside of his head. A smile crept over his face as he wound around the smooth-as-glass mountain roads. Rod always took care to follow the “outside-inside-outside” rule for it made navigating the twists and turns he enjoyed safer and less radical. For Rod, riding a bike was not only a beautiful experience, but an exercise in discipline. There are a thousand things to be aware of and losing focus could easily result in disaster. This challenge was another of the joys of riding that he loved so passionately. Packaging the beauty of where he rode along with the trials of navigation and concentration gave him a thrill that he could get nowhere else. His senses were on overload, but it is a sensation that is manageable for someone that hasbeen riding for any length of time. As he guided Lucy up to and through the mountain road, the punch of the evergreen scented air along with the rumble of his engine and the increasingly warm temperatures caused his mind to race. It was always like that, resulting in an almost out of body experience. He was on autopilot now, with Lucy knowing the way to go and Rod along for the ride. Rod found a suitable location and pulled off the road to enjoy the scene. Near the top of the mountain, it was not one of the designated tourist locations but one that he felt was just right. The sight line ran perfectly through two groups of trees that gave the impression of having parted specifically for him, forming the letter “V” so that he could look between them. He took his helmet off and contemplated the view. He saw the humps of the mountains in the distance like some enormous camels leading an ancient North African caravan. Clouds sat atop them with some having been punctured by the mountain top, and sliding down along each side, creating a ringlike effect around them. The distant formations looked out of focus from the cloud cover and bluish haze, but the slowly brightening sunlight penetrated the atmosphere which caused the entire scene to glow. It was beautiful. As his gaze moved closer to his location, the plant life came more into focus. He noticed the evergreens nearer the top of the mountains were light green in color, while the hardwood trees were much darker and brownish color while being lower on the horizon. The air was thicker now than when he started even though his elevation was greater. It was approaching mid-morning and getting warmer. Once Lucy was shut down he was able to hear the birds. He did not know what kind of birds they were, just that the chorus of them combined with the sights and smells seemed to create an outdoor concert held in the mountains of Tennessee. The combination of sight and sound all fit together as God intended. Life, he thought, has a purpose and a meaning. At that moment, Rod felt that the entire package he was witnessing was a harmony of existence. After a few minutes, he began thinking about his life and…his father. He looked at Lucy, her paint and chrome in perfect symmetry with the scene. That bike was the only real connection that he had with his father. Why, then, did they not fit? There had to be more. There had to be. He was going to find out.
As Rod made his way home, the pit in his stomach began to tighten. He had never confronted his father as he was going to do now, but his mind was made up. He had to summon the courage to have this conversation. And although he knew it was not going to be easy, in his soul he knew that the time had come. Each mile that he rode Lucy home was one mile closer to a reckoning. He forgot about the ride he was enjoying and thought about nothing else but what he was going to say to his father and how he was going to say it. If he approached him in a combative way then the talk would degenerate into a fight, or worse, his father would simply disengage. If his words were too calculated, his father would dismiss what he was saying as drivel, wave him off and move on. It was a fine line that he had to walk and he knew it. As Rod guided Lucy around the last corner, he saw the house from the distance. The pit in his stomach turned to palpable pain, and he felt his palms sweat and his heart quicken. He pulled into the driveway, guiding Lucy under the canopy. With her motor shut down, he jammed the key into his pocket and eyed the door. He knew what was behind it; all of the parts of his life he had questions about, with the most important one being his father. He was about to find the answers.
It was almost midday as Rod entered the house, the screen door announcing his presence as it squeaked open. He found his father in his usual spot, sitting on the old beige couch staring at the television while holding a Coors beer in his left hand. Rod walked in and took a seat in the well worn recliner nearest the couch.
“Pop…got a minute?” he said. His father, staring at the television, looked over. He had three day stubble on his face, unkempt hair, no shirt and wore a pair of old, washed out jeans. He had a fading tattoo of a single scorpion on his forearm. It was the only tattoo he had.
“Seems so. Just sittin’ here. Whaddaya need?” His gaze returning to the television.
“I just wanted to talk a bit, that’s all.” Rod could feel the tension in the room ratchet up on that statement.
“Uh oh” his father said not bothering to look in his direction. “Did you wreck the bike?” Rod thought it interesting that his father would think this was about the bike.
“No” he said. “I didn’t wreck the bike. I wanted to ask you a few questions…things that’ve been on my mind for a while.” His father looked at him, then looked at the beer and took a sip. He resumed staring at the TV after he did so.
“Goddamned warm beer,” he muttered. This phrase made Rod’s resolve all the more plain. He was going to go right for the throat. All of the thought about his approach went out the window.
“Pop, what’s wrong with us? I need to know what’s wrong…with you.” Rod’s father did not look over, but continued staring straight ahead, watching the television, but not watching it. His father’s response was slow in coming, and when it did, it was understated.
“What the hell does that mean?” he said. This was the moment that Rod was waiting for. An opening. A small crack in the line that he could exploit.
“You know what it means, dammit.” Rod’s voice was gaining a bit of strength. He was escalating the encounter, thinking he had the high ground. “You barely talk to me, and when you do, it’s like you only do it because you have to. What did I do wrong?” Rod was now advancing his position, leaving an opening for his father to bring this encounter to a close, but knowing that this was going to be a sustained effort. His father would not relinquish his position so easily, but as a merciful commander in battle, Rod left an opportunity for his opponent to exit gracefully. Rod’s father looked over at him, this time with eyes that indicated he was going to join the fight.
“What the fuck kind of question is that?” he said sharply. “Who the hell do you think you are asking me something like that?” It was a full frontal assault that Rod did not expect. He responded in kind.
“I’m your kid, that’s who! I’m the one still here, remember?” Rod’s voice grew louder, the battle was at hand. “I’m the one that lives with you, that’s who!”
“So” his father said, “that entitles you to come at me like this? ‘Cause you LIVE here?”
“No, Pop, because for as long as I can remember, my relationship with you stinks. I wanna know why!” Both men were staring at each other, Rod, leaning forward on the recliner, Rod’s father rocked back on the couch, beer still in hand, but focused intensely on Rod.
“Whaddya mean it stinks?” Rod’s father shot back. “Ya got a place to live, dontcha? If it stinks so much why are you still here? Seems to me you could save yourself a some shit if you left.”
“Because maybe that’s what you want me to do. It’s what you want everyone to do.” Rod said. “I’m not stupid. Maybe I should have taken a page from Mom’s book and left too, but that would be too easy.” With that suggestion, things turned. Rod’s father dropped the beer and what was left in the can leaked onto the worn shag carpeting. Both men shot up, matching each other’s eye level.
“Don’t bring her up. Do. not. bring. her. up.” Rod noticed his father’s stature for the first time. He seemed slight to the eye, but once aroused, his muscles tightened and it became clear that he was not a man to be trifled with. Rod remained defiant. There was a clear opening that presented itself.
“Why Pop? ‘Cause she left?” Rod’s voice softened just a bit. He saw in his father’s eyes that he had struck a blow, but was not sure that kind of offensive is what he wanted. She was a sensitive subject for both of them. As he stared at his father, he saw something that he had never seen before. Small tears welled up in his father’s eyes.
“You have no idea. I made sure that you had no idea why she left. It was between your mother and me, not you.”
“Maybe so,” Rod pressed, “but don’t you think that I’m old enough to deal with it now? I mean, for God’s sake, Pop, I’m twenty-five years old. We don’t talk, we don’t discuss, we don’t anything. I want to know why. If it has something to do with Mom, let me know. Maybe I can help.” Rod’s father looked around the room, a quick wipe of a stray tear, and said,
“Follow me.” Rod followed his father out of the house to where Lucy was stationed under the carport. Both men approached the motorcycle, with Rod’s father taking the lead. Rod wondered to himself why they were going to see Lucy. It did not make much sense to him. After a minute or so, Rod’s father began to circle Lucy, as though he was eyeing her purchase. His eyes glanced at every part of her, and a small smile made its way across his mouth.
“We bought this bike back in ‘75,” he said. “We talked about it a for a time, but she was insistent that we get it. She loved the road,” Rod’s father now turned and looked at Rod, “like you do. Seems every time we had open spaces of time, she wanted to be riding. It got so much that she wanted to learn how to ride herself.” Rod’s father resumed looking over the bike. “In those days, it just wasn’t something that women did, so she didn’t learn.” There was a short pause in his story. He stopped walking around the bike and stood on the other side of Lucy, facing Rod. “Your mother was a restless soul. We loved each other, but after you were born, it was pretty plain that she had other plans. We were young. She wanted to travel, wanted to go places. I was working, trying to be the family man, but it wasn’t enough. I thought that by working harder I would be able to keep her, but…,” his voice trailed off.
“So, she left,” Rod said.
“It was more than that,” his father said. “I kept moving from job to job, never anything steady enough, but at least we had money. It wasn’t great money, but it was still a living. It wasn’t enough. Then, you came along.” Rod’s father looked away for a moment, then re-met Rod’s eyes. “She loved you. I think she loved me. We started to argue about money, about life…about us. I think we just stopped talking to each other.” His father looked down and his voice dropped to a whisper as he said, “We were so young.” Rod was becoming more uncomfortable with each sentence. Now, he wanted to end the conversation like his father had ended so many before. Rod’s father looked at him again. “I decided that it was better to avoid talking to her for a while ‘cause I hoped things would get better over time. I got a better job and picked up more hours at work. I came home tired, started to have some beers to relax. That few became every day beers.” The picture started to clear just a bit for Rod, and rather than maintain the anger he had, a bud of sympathy began to germinate inside of him for both of them.
“So,” he said. “She just decided to leave?” Rod’s voice losing a bit of its force, sounding more like inquiry. Rod’s father walked around the bike and sat in the old brown metal chair that was placed just under the canopy. He put his hands between his legs and sat back. He looked tired.
“Things just didn’t get better. My silence turned into ignoring her. She was always home, with a small kid. I forgot about her. Eventually, it got to the point that I thought it was just better for me to disconnect from the whole thing, so I just clammed up, thinking it would all go back to normal, whatever that was.” At this point, Rod’s father sat straight in the chair, looked directly into Rod’s eyes and said, “After she left, I disconnected from you. I was thinking that if I kept silent, I could keep my relationship with you whole.” He looked past Rod, at Lucy and said, “Then, you found that bike. I kept that bike away from you for as long as I could because I knew you loved it, like I loved her. That bike was my reminder of her…of us…and I wanted to hurt.” It all began to make sense to Rod. The silence, the drinking, it all began to make sense. Rod walked over to his father and stood over him. He didn’t know whether to feel anger, sadness, or pity. His father looked broken. Rod decided that the best course of action was to ask directly.
“Why didn’t you just tell me, talk to me? Why all the crap all these years?” Rod’s voice had an edge to it at that last statement. He could not help himself.
“What the hell was I gonna say, huh? That I got quiet to try and save my life and wife and lost her because I was weak?” His father became indignant. “Well, I’m not gonna say that!” His father stood up, forcing Rod to take a step back and started toward the house entrance. As he got to the screen door, he stopped. Turning toward Rod, he took a step forward and his eyes narrowed. “It takes two and she didn’t try hard either. She quit as much as I did. We were both spent, but I’m to blame. I told her that I was who I was, and she could either take it or leave it. She left and that’s that.”
“That’s it? Nothing more?”
His father laughed a condescending laugh.
“What do you want Rodney? A storybook ending? Doesn’t happen that way, kid. She left, you stayed here, I kept the bike and sat around feeling sorry for myself. Sometimes, it’s about survival. We both had to survive.” He took two steps toward Rod and said bitterly, “You grew up and I gave you the bike ‘cause I’d had enough…of everything. I knew you’d get a lot more use out of it than I did, or wanted to. You’re like her, a restless soul.” At this Rod looked at Lucy. He immediately got that feeling again. This did not go unnoticed by Rod’s father. Rod wore that feeling on his person like a tight fitting jacket. “I’m going in to get a beer,” his father said.
“Did you ever see her again?“ Rod asked. His father paused and thought a moment, looking down as he did.
“Once. I saw her at a stoplight. We saw each other.” His father turned to walk through the screen door. He opened it, stopped, and looked back at Rod. As he entered the house he said, “She was on the back of a bike.”