MW3Smoke rose from the cigarette in my mouth. It burned my eyes, transforming the setting sun before me from orange to a pale brown. I wasn’t a smoker, but the alcohol coursing through my veins drove me to stop and buy a pack. I stood in front of the 7-11, smoking and staring at the sun

The sun dropped below the horizon as I finished the cigarette. I lit another one, then started my motorcycle and headed home with the cigarette dangling from my lips. It bobbed in the wind, periodically releasing ash and sparks over my shoulder.

Elizabeth walked onto the porch as I pulled into the driveway. She watched me get off my bike, then said flatly, “You’re drunk.” I had not stumbled or said a word. I had only made eye contact with her and yet she knew. After fifteen years together, my wife could tell whether I had been drinking from subtle changes in my behavior that others never noticed.

I lied. “I had one beer.” Actually it was true if I ignored the bucket of liquor that accompanied that beer.

She frowned, seeing though my bullshit. “I thought you were gonna lay off?” When she realized I was not going to answer her question, she continued, “Are you coming in for dinner?”

My son Gage ran from the house on the stiff legs of a two-year-old and yelled, “Da!”

I lied again. “Not now. I want to mount that rear fender.”

“OK. It’ll be on the stove when you’re ready. Gage and I are gonna eat now.”

They went inside the house and I headed for my shop. Once inside, I grabbed the bottle of gin tucked among motorcycle parts on the shelf. I filled my mouth then sat on a stool with the bottle between my feet. I lit a new cigarette and stared at the motorcycle with no intention of working on it.

The smell of Loctite came to me. It was an odor intimately tied in my brain to working on machines. Combined with the fresh wave of alcohol from the gin, it was now relaxing me. I stared at the motorcycle on the lift before me, running my eyes over the curves of sheet metal which mirrored the wheels and engine. It was a lovely form that caused my thoughts to drift slowly. They floated here and there, eventually coming to my first motorcycle and how I had cajoled my Old Man into buying it for me.

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My wife lay on the road, her motorcycle in pieces beside her.

A taxi driver stood nearby smoking a cigarette, oblivious to how a sound had saved his life.

Elizabeth might have been pregnant, but we did not know.

I was scared.

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Russian“You’re what?” the bearded man asked with a crumpled forehead.

“A plutonium physicist,” I answered gasping.

A battle had just ended between twenty-four greasy bikers with wiffleball bats in a penis-shaped ring called the “Coctagon.” I was out of shape but won and after being handed five hundred dollars had slipped away amid the chaos. I was standing alone catching my breath under a scraggly Creosote bush when the bearded man had ambled over.

“How the heck did you become a biker?”

“I’m not a biker,” I answered, breathing heavily. “Just love to build and ride motorcycles. Started when…I was fifteen. Long before—” I took a deep breath then spoke through the exhale, “—I started collecting obscure science degrees.”

“And what possessed you to get in there?” The bearded man pointed over his shoulder at the scattered remains of the chalk lines in the dirt.

“I wrestled in college,” I said then took a deep breath. “And I’ve been drinking.”

“So you build motorcycles, have highfalutin papers, and wrestle. That’s quite a combination,” the bearded man said, rubbing his graying chin. “Never heard that one before.”

I stood up, breath returning. “It’s led to crazy stuff.”

“Like what?” the man asked.

“Grab us beers and I’ll tell you over there,” I said gesturing to a picnic table turned pale from years in the Southern California desert.

The man ambled off.

I sat at the picnic bench and felt the evening breeze wash over my skin. Sweat evaporated, leaving a chill on my skin that balanced the burning in my lungs.

The bearded man returned with beer. “Name’s Frank,” he said and shook my hand.

I returned the greeting then took a long pull of beer. Waves of relaxation passed through my chest and into my arms. “Are you sure you want to hear this?” I asked. “It’s about a run-in I had with a KGB agent in Russia. Not motorcycles.”

“There’s enough of them things around here,” Frank said, looking at the sea of bikes around us. “I wanna hear something else.” He took a seat at the picnic bench and waited.

“OK, then,” I said. “It started with a trip to a secret city in Russian called Sarov where they made nuclear weapons.” 

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Gossip_long1Ding.

A text message sat on the screen of my cell phone.

Biker A: Did u hear what Biker B did?

I replied by thumb: No.

Ding.

Biker A: He took his $ and left. U believe that crap?

I sighed. My conversation with Biker A was going to be long and having it by text message sounded exhausting. So I wrote back: Can you just call me?

Ten seconds later my phone rang, and Biker A, skipping all conversational formality, launched directly into bitching about Biker B. He screamed about how his partner was an idiot and was doing everything to destroy their business building sportbike-cruiser hybrids and café racer motorcycles. I listened, letting Biker A blow off steam. He needed it. But by the twenty-minute mark, I was getting tired and went to the fridge for a beer. As I popped the cap and leaned against the kitchen counter to take that fantastic first pull, my phone dinged through Biker A’s rant. On the screen was a text from Biker B that read: Biker A is destroying my marriage!

It was going to be a long day.

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geek2“Hold on,” Gilby said. “Let me grab the sheets.”

“Don’t rush,” I told him as he limped from his family’s guest room.

It had been one year since Gilby’s motorcycle accident. His left leg was broken when a man driving a pickup pulled in front of him, and Gilby, unable to stop his bike in time, hit the side of the truck. The man fled, and Gilby was left with a shattered tibia.

Gilby returned with a stack of linens. He dropped them on a chair and began making the bed. As I watched, the moment turned surreal, the air rarefied. Though I had known Gilby for years and slept in his house, the situation hit me – a man who played with Guns n’ Roses, who had once been lowered in a helicopter to a stadium of waiting fans, was making my bed after a day of riding.

To battle my sudden fit, I helped Gilby pull the fitted sheet over the mattress and brought up a comfortable topic. “My knucklehead’s coming along,” I said. “The springer forks and wheels are mounted on the frame. Now I gotta figure out the front brake.”

Without stopping his progress on the bed, Gilby replied, “You need a drum brake for a Harley between 1936 to 1948. Those are the years before they went to telescopic forks. The drum mounts on the star hub with five 7/16-inch bolts, and the backing plate with the brake pads anchors to the springer forks with a shackle bar. There’s also a sleeve and spacer you’ll need.” He paused to unfurl the quilt, then continued, “You can rebuild an original brake or get an aftermarket model. Either way, you’ll have to radius and trim the pads. But I’ll help you with that.”

I smiled. Gilby’s narrative of ancient motorcycle parts had broken my stupor by reminding me of the first time we spoke. And as I dropped a pillow into its case, my thoughts drifted to that day and how it was then he unknowingly put me at ease by revealing a trait most peculiar for a rock star.

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“I pooped myself,” my wife said sheepishly.

“Really?” I giggled, laying in the driveway next to my motorcycle and a pile of tools.

“It’s not funny!” She furrowed her brow in warning.

“All right. All right.”

“It happened so fast. I thought I was done, but after I left the bathroom I suddenly needed to go again and, well, I didn’t make it.”

Elizabeth’s confession was no surprise. Pregnant women have endless problems regarding the bathroom and my wife was no different. During the third trimester as the growing baby stole space from her bladder, Elizabeth would waddle to the bathroom every twenty minutes only to emerge unrelieved because she managed only a squirt. It was an unrelenting cycle for her of discomfort and disappointment. She generally kept a sense of humor, but as time passed and the pregnancy took its toll she started losing control of her functions.

“It’s just a little crap, honey,” I said. “Don’t worry about it.”

“But it’s so embarrassing.”

“We all have accidents.”

“Pooping myself?”

“It’s nothing a shower and washing machine won’t fix.”

“Easy for you to say. You didn’t just soil your pants.”

I put down my wrench and looked my wife in the eyes. “It’s time I share something with you. Something that happened during my trip to Manchester.”

The English city had been ground zero for the most foul, most heinous incident ever to beset me as a grown man. It was a dark memory that sat in my closet sharing martinis with cackling skeletons.

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The engine sputtered. Then ran. Then sputtered worse and cut out.

My motorcycle began quietly rolling down the highway, losing speed to the surrounding traffic. Some folks gave space as I worked to cross four lanes of commuter traffic, but most continued past without slowing. One man came close behind me then aggressively switched lanes to pass on the right with his horn blaring. It was horrible. Powerless. Alone.

My bike came to a halt on the shoulder of the highway a quarter mile from an exit. There was no gas station near the ramp, but it was a quiet place to work on the motorcycle, so I pushed until gravity allowed the bike to coast.

The slow jaunt gave me time to examine the debris along the highway. First came the rubber shrapnel of an exploded truck tire. Large sections of sidewall lay intermingled with fragments of tread protruding rusted steel belting. Next came the head of a shovel. It looked unused but for the jagged stump of wood where the handle had been broken off. I wove my way through these until a crumpled lady’s brassiere appeared. It was purple and I ran it over in a moment of childish enjoyment.

The exit led to a frontage road that intersected two city streets in a confused jumble. Avoiding the mess, I coasted the motorcycle onto the sidewalk and stopped under a tree. It was summer and the sun was high. If I was to be broken down, it was best done in shade.

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