He calls me the Motorcycle Man. One word? Possibly. I’ve never seen it in print. Certainly never needed to scratch it on paper. The Boy knew my proper name up until last week, when he forgot. I forgive him. Besides, I like Motorcycle Man just fine. It says all it needs to.
I’m forever wearing a white jumpsuit crossed with Dixie stars. My helmet appears on my head whenever I ride, but it’s gone when I hop from my bike. When I wink at the camera and let the audience soak up my chiseled chin savoir-faire, I am the apple pie perfect ideal.
It’s what the Boy knows, so it’s who I am.
The Boy’s with me now, with the last of us as things wind down. The others just sit, biding their time, but that’s not how I roll. My hands are wrapped in fringed white leather that squeaks when I ball them into fists. I’m in the fray. Nothing and no one’s going to touch him. I’ll knock them flat and shout victory. That’s how a man does it.
I recognize this carousel with its peculiar steeds. It burned to the ground back in ‘78–close to it, or thereabouts. No horses, though the zebra is an almost. There’s a dragon, a buffalo, a lama, even an oversized chicken, all shiny and perfect and chasing each other in a forever-circle. I hold myself steady on the deck as if I were striding a catamaran through deep swells. The Boy rides next to me, daring the ostrich.
“Motorcycle Man?” The Boy bounds up and back down, his little hands tight on the bird’s skewering pole.
“I don’t think I can wake up.”
“Things like this happen. You get laid out on your back? Hey, been knocked out myself. Many times.”
“Am I knocked out?”
“Yeah, sure. In a way.”
We make another two circuits.
“Want to do a stunt on my bike?” I ask. “Gotta full tank.”
It goes without saying that it never runs empty.
“I dunno. What’ll we jump?”
“This whole merry-go-round, if you want. Bet everyone’ll be surprised and clap loud.”
“Can we drive up the roller coaster? That’ll kick ‘em in the pants.”
I can barely see the coaster through the mists. Its hump breaches the fog like a whale of white bone.
“Now that would be a hell of thing! Kiddo, like how you think.”
He grins and it warms me.
A stir of motion distracts me and I notice Photo Girl. There used to be thousands like her. She’s the only survivor so she gets the lone title. It doesn’t surprise me she’s here; she’s never been far away. She and the Boy play together sometimes. Cute little gal, but always thirsty. It’s because of all of that Polaroid sun.
Photo Girl struggles to climb the gazelle. I give her a careful boost and she settles atop with a smile. At her age she shouldn’t have such sparkly even teeth, but in the photo–the one where she’s drinking a too-big-for-her glass of ice water–you can’t see any gaps, hence the perfect string of pearls.
“Thank you,” she says.
Always be a gentleman, no matter how small they might be.
I stand between them, two paces back where I can make sure they won’t tumble. I’m still on guard, still keeping him lively. I won’t let it take him.
The carousel’s clockwork keeps time.
The Boy reaches over and she takes his hand. Neither of them is very tall. When the animals crest and trough, fingertip to fingertip is all the kids manage.
I watch the scenery spin by.
The coaster is gone. I clench my jaw tight.
Down at the outdoor tables with the others, the Dad scowls at me. He’s jealous, you see. He doesn’t understand the Boy the way I do, and never will. Despite this he has my respect. He was the one who introduced the Boy to me thirty years past. I owe him like no other and forgive him his flaws.
A slow whirl.
The Wife checks her watch. Soft brown curls and cheeks slippery with tears–that’s how she looked when the Boy closed his eyes. She’s a quite pleasant lady and sometimes we talk. The Boy knows us both well so our conversations always are vivid. The Wife brushes a curl from her face and looks about quickly. I spot it too. During the last revolution the Brother sat on the bench beside her. He’s nowhere now, gone and forgotten. According to the Boy, the Brother liked me too, just not as much.
The Twins share a sundae under a green and white umbrella. They’re too old for the Boy and a little young for myself, though I wouldn’t think twice. A gentleman’s panache has a time and a place–an expiration date, if you will. I remember when those two girls hopped off their poster, both in half-missing bikinis, each one oiling the other. At his tender age, they were a scandalous whatnot he shouldn’t have seen. Since they’re still here they must have made a powerful impression. Ponytail winks and Braids blows a kiss.
A slow spin, always back to the start.
There’s that Wolf, birthed from a cartoon, now panting in the tableshade. Back in the day it used to chase the Boy without mercy, until I showed the kid how to stand up swinging. On my bike doing sixty, we crunched over the cur and cracked its back like a pretzel stick. Though the Wolf had recovered by the following night, at the moment you wouldn’t know it. It’s forsaken walking on two legs and never speaks. Sad, in a way. I miss our old battles and the way it snapped at our heels.
The Wife buries her face in her hands and I know that I’ve failed him. I thought there’d be a chance to hold tight, a knuckle-on-bone tussle. I would have done anything, fought anyone. He’s the only reason I live.
I help Photo Girl to the wooden-planked deck. With the calliope slowing, plunking out a languid non-tune, we hop to the ground.
“Well,” the Dad says. “Just us, looks like.”
The Twins hug each other and shiver. The Wife scowls at the back of their heads.
“Don’t guess he woke,” I say.
“He sank deeper,” the Dad says. “Told him that a man’s got to pull himself up.”
I don’t disagree. The Dad and I share a few philosophies.
“This won’t last,” Photo Girl says. She pets the Wolf on the head. It smacks its lips, but seems more thirsty than hungry.
She’s right. The carousel already is peeling. Its colors snowflake upward and crumble into the mists.
“We don’t want to die,” the Twins say together.
“You won’t,” the Wife says. “You just won’t be.”
The girls weep and whisper and hold each other’s face. They’re always this way–waiting to be rescued.
The Wolf trots away at a stuttering limp.
“Huh, where’s he off to?” the Dad asks.
No one answers. We trust the Wolf’s nose and follow.
We travel empty stages of the Boy’s life, stepping lightly so they don’t collapse beneath us. Some are easy to recognize: Grandma’s house, an empty lecture hall, a restaurant where he and his parents used to go. No other actors though, just us.
There used to be a spot where the light always shone–a lush, vibrant place, where the shadows couldn’t help but fall coincidentally perfect. When the Boy was young I’d play with him there, riding my cycle alongside his own. We’d hit a plywood ramp and overlap. I needed his joy and he needed my purpose. In many ways we are the same person.
Whenever he wished it, I’d pop in to that place. I’ve been with him in boardrooms, threading in a sly witticism here and a shock of brashness there. Once, though the Wife doesn’t know it, the Boy and I were in a barroom fight. Our side won. During his preteens I even helped at a spelling bee, though that’s not my forte.
At the Boy’s wedding, when he felt up-at-the-altar jitters, I stood beside him. Best Man, naturally. It fit me to a T.
“A real guy takes charge,” I said.
Even with the Dad sulking in the pews and not approving of this–not at all, not at all, not one bit–I performed my greatest stunt. I pulled the Bride close, like a sashed Miss Idaho after my ‘67 jumbo-jet jump. With the crowd’s eyes upon us and the rocketsled smoldering and her in my arms, I could do no wrong. She gave the green light–I do. I kissed her hard, twice as long as seemed decent.
The Wife giggles.
“What is it now?” the Dad asks.
Again, she brushes away a curl, a willfully coy gesture she learned in her youth. After so many years it’s now a habit. Our practiced lies become little truths. She looks from the Dad to me yet says nothing. I was thinking too loudly, but I’m not ashamed. Even back then she knew it was me.
The Wolf steps onto a back patio, cracked stone mortared with weeds and an aluminum picnic table with a plastic pitcher upon it. It’s a hot day in June, one where the whole sky seems jaundiced and sweaty sick. I hate this place. The Boy and I never come here.
The Dad shuffles his feet. “Well?” he asks. “Let’s get a move on.” But the Wolf has lain down.
“He looks so bad,” the Twins say. They both kneel and offer comfort through petting and coos.
“Maybe he needs water,” Photo Girl says.
“He only ever wanted meat,” I say.
The Wife raises an eyebrow. “This is your fault.”
I think at first she means me. Truthfully, I’m to blame for many a fuddled scrape, but she’s glaring at the Dad.
“Me?” he says. “We used to live here. What of it?”
“You made him choose,” the Wife says. “He told me. Right here. God, I wish he’d think of something else. Anything.”
“Bah. He’s a tough kid. Isn’t that right?” The Dad looks to me.
I give a single slow nod.
A weak fist tugs the tassels along my sleeve. Photo Girl has found a waxed-paper cup. I fill it for her from the pitcher.
“Thank you,” she says and drinks deeply.
“‘Sides,” the Dad says, “court ordered it. Child’s wishes, heard of it?”
“It wasn’t right,” the Wife says.
“That’s all it was, and by the book too. Maybe it’ll please you to know he picked her.”
“Oh, I’m aware.”
“But don’t see her around.” The Dad gives a smirk. “We see who matters most, don’t we? Proved by the pudding.”
He has stated the boldest of truths. We all fall quiet. Out of an entire lifetime, an accumulated world, we’ve made it farther than any of the others. It’s a cross-continental record, a twenty-bus jump on an XR-750.
Eye meets eye and each of us wonders. The Wife watches me. The Dad grimaces at her. Even Ponytail and Braids appraise one another. They can all think what they want. They can believe they’ll be last if they find that soothing. I don’t begrudge them. But the Boy and I have been together more than any can guess. In daydreams and nightmares and hopes and desires, I’m always there.
A soft whine comes from the patio stone. The Wolf curls up tight and whimpers. He withers and twists into lintlike nothing. He’s gone.
The Twins squeak. Photo Girl drops her drink.
“Damn,” the Dad says. “Will you look at that?”
“Never seen one go,” I say.
“It means he’s not afraid anymore.” The Dad looks from each of us to the other. “He was always afraid of that mutt. You see that! My boy’s not–”
I cry out as the Dad blinks into motes.
“He’s right.” The Wife gathers herself in short order. “It won’t be long now.”
“Was hoping he wouldn’t clock out,” I say. “I once pulled out of a thirty day coma. It’s true. A man never gives in.”
“Oh, they all do, eventually,” the Twins say as one. They hug each other close and mumble last-minute apologies. They weren’t meant to be angry and can’t maintain a distance.
The Wife moves her frowning scrutiny from them to me. Of course I’m watching the gals with great interest.
Photo Girl presents her cup to me, tapping it on my sleeve. I wipe it dry and refill it.
“Got some pepper in it,” I say. “See?”
“Pretend its pepper.”
“Okay.” She drinks slowly.
Our surroundings have crumbed into a gritty vapor. We huddle in a ten-by-ten stone-pavered world.
Do they realize I’m the only guy here? Do they know what that means? They’re nurturing figures: innocence, passion, love. Wanted by the masculine in different ways at different times. I can’t be fooled. A 100% man perceives them with ease. Now look at me, the everything else. The totality of Motorcycle Man is the core of the Boy. I’m his soul.
“Shh,” I say. “Listen.”
Each of us stills. Even the wind holds its breath. Around and through us floats a delicate murmur.
“Angels?” Photo Girl asks. She sets down her cup.
“Maybe,” the Wife says. “I’m not sure.”
“Can we–somehow–” I grasp for the proper expression. “Cross? Leap the chasm? You know, with him?”
The stones feel soft, as if I’m standing on a mattress. The Wife looks amused. “Scared?”
“No, I–” I look left and right. “Where are those girls?”
“They went a moment ago.”
“You should have said!”
The Wife brushes her hair back in place. “Popped like a soap bubble, both of them at once. Smelled a bit like cocoa butter.”
“It’s all that oil,” I say. “I’ll miss them.”
“Yes, I’m sure you will.”
Photo Girl plays with the hem of her dress. The Wife watches the fuzzy sky. “I hope he’s not hurting,” she says.
“He’s tough as nails.” I rub at my eyes. “Ugh. Need a smoke.” I rifle through my pockets.
“That’s very final,” the Wife says.
“Not at all,” I answer. The Wife’s scrutiny is palpable. I know how relieved she is to outlast the Twins and I don’t blame her for sizing me up too. “Didn’t want to do it while the Boy was around.”
“He knows you do.”
“Well of course, otherwise I wouldn’t.”
I find a pack and tug a cigarette out with my lips. Photo Girl approaches the Wife and whispers at her ear. The Wife smiles softly and rests a hand on Photo Girl’s cheek.
“There’s nothing in the dark,” she says. “I promise.”
Photo Girl looks unsure. She gives me a questioning glance.
“S’true,” I say from the corner of my mouth. I find my lighter. “I always told him that. You know–” I point up at the mists. “You know he used to be worried too?”
“Sure. Know what I told him?” I inhale a slow drag. “I told him to pretend.”
“Just like that. Pretend it’s daytime and your eyes are closed, then it’s all easy. Sissy bar safe.”
“It really works?”
“Worked for him. Bet it’ll work for you too.”
The Wife smiles at me. “I see why he loves you so much.”
“He does, don’t deny it. Thank you for what you’ve done.” She leans forward, strokes my sideburns once, and pecks me on the cheek.
I’m left stunned for two missed breaths. The cigarette slips from my lips. I struggle with a response while I scoop it back up–and then I recognize a goodbye.
For a moment, I’m wounded. But I’ve broken every bone twice: no tears will fall today. I inhale another unfiltered lungful and brush the ashes from my jumpsuit. I’ve just jumped Snake Canyon–yet another ultimate stunt with me as the conquering king. I’d give a double Nixonesque vee if cameras were rolling. But against a woman? No, that’s not proper. Not what a man would do.
Instead I stand and stretch my back. Photo Girl watches me with unabashed curiosity.
“Won’t lie,” I say. “Wasn’t sure I’d outlast her. “
“Who says you did?”
The Motorcycle Man never, but never, comes in second. I mean to argue this simple truth but the words won’t come.
Photo Girl brushes a loose curl away from her eyes.
–she sits quiet and still with her knees to her chin. She watches her feet and tries not to think of the white nothing around her. The floor has melted away. She may be falling, but without landmarks to mark her descent it’s so hard to tell.
“It’s daytime,” she says.
She turns out the light.