Holding

The heater made the room too hot. Waking with a glow of sweat he cracked the window too far and slipped back into bed.  Better cold than hot.  The morning was pleasant cold; in the hills, trees and water the cold wasn’t as hard.  Shocking cold was gone, this cold simply woke you and promised the sun would change everything for the better if you could get to it.  Camping cold, that sleeping bag/tent moment full of dread but pregnant with promise.  The water sang as he peed into the bowl.  How many billions of men had listened to that sound this very morning.  Who was peeing on trees, or in the shower or God knows where.  He liked a man doing an average, everyday thing.

Putting on his pants he hops on one foot, off balance.  Change and keys jingle and clink, there’s a moment of fear he may fall. It’s another day and he only has two things on his mind, breakfast and a ride upstream.  Sitting on the bed he sniffs one of yesterday’s sock.  Good enough, but laundry day was here.  He needs to stop at a laundromat and buy a packet of soap so he can stomp on his clothes clean in the shower tonight.  It was time to play Maytag man.  For the first time in a long time he looked forward to the day and forward to returning to the town and the room.  Usually he gets itchy fast and wants to be off, or returns only because it’s where he knows there’s a berth. This feeling was warmer, familiar.  For some reason this place was safe harbor.  Home base in a game of tag.  Feeling like he wanted to stay close enough he could hurry back he finishes dressing and steps out the door; which won’t stay closed as he steps out.  He closes it.  It pops open.  Closed.  Open.  Pull.  Soft scrape of metal on wood.  Pop. Swings inward. Open.  Mumbling.  “Now you’re just trying to piss me off.”  A hard, sharp pull and slam.  The door stays.  He jingles the knob.  Things seem tight.  To the bike.  Quick check.  Leg over.  Helmet on.  Clean start up and with the chunk of first gear he’s gone.

The ride to the Riverside is quick.  The blue Corolla is on the far edge of the lot.  The bulging full lot.  What the fuck day is it?  It must be Saturday or Sunday, the place is packed out.  He’d park in the employee’s area and sit at the counter but there isn’t one.  Yesterday he had walked in and been lost without chrome and red leather stools with a long counter and a pie case.  It was some kind of converted building that didn’t start as a diner and no one had ever stuck one in.  A tree without a trunk is a bush and a diner without a counter is a restaurant.   Perhaps it was that lack of a diner’s heart that give the different vibe he had liked. A parking lot full of people liked it as well.  The majority of plates were local; which he liked.  Not a lot of tourists is a good sign.

Where to wait?  Not feeling like standing around waiting for a senior citizen to finish gumming a waffle to death he turns the bike around and heads back to the motel.  Hustling a little bit as he makes the turn into the motel lot he sees his room’s door standing open but no housekeeping cart.  Rolling up hot he skids the rear wheel a bit as he stops then flicks down the side stand, parks up and dismounts.  With one hand on the door he carefully pushes it open, making sure he isn’t leading with his head.  The room is empty.  He checks behind the bed.  Nothing.  Closet empty.  A sound from the bathroom.  A rustling behind the cracked door.  Softly turning to face the door he listen.  Sound like someone is shaking out a towel.  Maybe it is housekeeping.

“Hello?”

Shaking stops.  Motion.  Soft rustling again.  Step toward the door.  One hand with a gentle push. Rustling stops.

A small dog holding one of his socks sticks it’s head around the door.

=

A Soft Bump

“Dani, say thank you to the nice man.”  Mother said.  Dani doesn’t want to.  She doesn’t want to speak.  The man is hairy.  He might be a Bigfoot.  Shaking her head she tries to slip behind her mother.  She can barely see over the top of the table. Huge and hairy the Bigfoot man stares at her.  She is just eyes and soft freckles to him.  Scaring little girls is not his habit or hope.  It hurts to see the little person cower.  Connection.  He hasn’t make a connection in a long time.  Human touch had been so fleeting the last year.  There had been bumping, a little grinding, a touch of punching but he had not been this close to a true child in all that time. This child was cowering.  A frightened animal not an inquisitive pup.

“It’s OK,” he says.

“She needs to show her manners.”  Mom twists and with one hand on Dani’s back tries to move her back to the table. Her eyes harden. “Say ‘Thank You’ to the nice man.”  Firmness and threat edge her voice.  He doesn’t look like a nice man to Dani.  He looks like a Bigfoot or one of those bad soldiers in the movies that Todd “treat-him-like-he’s-your-father” likes to watch.  Food probably gets stuck in his beard or he has bad breath.  ICK.  She squirms against her mother’s shepherding hand.  The man is leaning around the table towards her.

“It’s OK,” he says and sticks a fist out.  “How about you give me some knuckles and we’ll call it even?”  He smiles.  His voice is gentle like Mr. Burton’s at school. Mr. Burton could make you feel bad when you didn’t throw your garbage away and really good when you did.  She’s never seen, talked to or touched a Bigfoot before. Bigfoot man isn’t that scary, not here with Mom.  It is like feeding the giraffe.  The giraffe is her favorite animal but once she was eye to eye with one and saw that icky blue tongue…  Wishing she had fed the giraffe she looks at the Bigfoot tentatively holds out her fist.  Both lean forward and there’s a gentle bump.  Their knuckles don’t match and she thinks how big his fist is and that maybe he’s really a bear.  As he smiles she see’s straight white teeth and blue eyes for the first time and they smile at her just like Mr. Burton.  Pulling back resets and she double bumps him.

“Thank you.” She mumbles. A tiny voice. Almost a mumble.  A faint bee buzzing.

“An honor.” He replies and keeps his eyes locked on hers.  Everything he had done for the last year had been alone. Ride and sleep alone.  Fever and sick alone.  Hurt and heal alone. Loneliness had started as freedom when Mom died Then he had the backstop safety of his father who never fixed it, only pointed the way out of the mess. No hands on doctoring, just pointing out the cure.  There is no romance in being alone, just the eternal safety of not losing anyone or thing. The safety of having nothing and no one to lose; nobody got disappointed and nobody gets hurt.  People who don’t exist had no expectations and people you don’t know are easy to please.  Riding across southern Utah he had seen a sign that read “No Services Next 100 Miles”.  Next 100 miles, maybe an hour and a quarter.  Next 100 miles, if you pee it’s on the side of the road.  If you decide to try for some privacy and step off down the bank you risk tripping and falling in a place where a broken leg means hoping someone stops to check on your lonely bike.  He had just stood on the road and sprinkled a rock.  Nobody drove by.  If you broke down either you fixed it or you hoped something kind that way came.  There was solitary magnificence in the landscape.  Reds, orange, yellow and grey, so complex and empty.  A recurring fantasy nightmare was simply turning down a dirt road and riding until you reached whatever was there or simply ran out of gas and died, swallowed into the terrible beauty.  It had been a long hundred miles and now he looks back and wonders if any of it was real.

When mother died it left him alone with Pop.  Mom had been the driving thing, the push, the glowing coal that boiled them into action.  Like any roiling pot she brought chaos with her and they had bounced around like hard boiled eggs, banging off each other and sides of the pot they couldn’t get out of.  You wanted out but you had no idea what life would be without the mayhem of scalding, surging water. There is no oil that could smooth that surface. With the fire out the water stilled and the oil became a pliable thing without the continuous battering.  Laying on the bottom of a cooling container they had no motion to click them together.  The catalyst was gone. The currents and turbulence left them alone together with a film distorted view of the world outside.

The little girl stops at the door and waves at him.  A kid wave.  A child’s wave.  He holds up a palm to her and all his fingers bow twice. TTFN!

Cinnamon roll gone and the bacon wiped off his fingers he swirls the ice in his glass and then throws the last gulp of soda down his throat.  Arranging his silverware on the plate at 10 to 4 he sloppily refolds a napkin and crowns his setting.  The graying ponytail comes out and puts the check on the table and starts to straighten things.  “Anything else I can get for you today?” Habit drives her end of the conversation. This is how she says, “Goodbye, hit the road” without force or annoyance.

“Yes,” he says to her surprise.  “Where can I get a haircut around here?”

Smile.  “You looking to keep all that,” a finger points at his head and draws a circle twice in the air.  The red nail seems to leave a blur behind it that catches up as the finger stops.

“Some.”

“Then head into town and look for Bobbi’s on the right side.  About half mile down.”  She picks up his plate.

“What if I want to lose it all?”  He asks, curious. Playful.  Flirting?

“Then you go to LeRoy’s about a quarter mile beyond that.  Then, once he’s made a mess of things come back here and we’ll shave you bald for a fresh start.”  Both hold a straight face before smiling.  The head their different ways.  She to the kitchen and he to his bike.  Holding up a couple of bills he puts them next to the register and pins them with the shot glass that doubles as toothpick dispenser.  “That’ll take care of it,” booms a little too loud out of his mouth.  Door bells tinkling he opens it and heads out.

Weekly Rental

Looking out he could see the water.  He liked that.  Water and hills. Earth and water.  Water and air.  Sunrise over the hill.  Fire over water.  The clerk was happy to give him a room with the patio on the east side.  There was no second floor.  It’s OK, the clerk said, if he wanted to pull the bike into the room overnight, just let it cool before rolling it in.  Helped keep the smell down and the oil from leaking, not that his bike was a leaker or anything, just that some guys bikes did.  You know. Other guys.  Not him.  Sure they had a weekly rate!  Monthly too!  Linen daily, unless you don’t want it.  The “Do Not Disturb” really works. One over night guest is okay.  Same person 2 nights and you need to pay an extra 20.  It’s a quite place though.  Honest.

He took the room for a week.

Apple & Oranges

Inside the Walmart. Being a sell-out, he tells himself. But it was a quick and dirty run required by the suburban sprawl. Ain’t no fruit stands in the metropolis and who knows what has sneezed on a apple in the gas station. Looking around he could be anywhere in the US. Or China for that matter. There was a homey feel to being there with the pallet stacks in the aisles and cubes of Disney movies by the checkouts. God it must be ugly to stand in a long line with a cart full of Lucky Charms and diapers as a three year old stomps her foot demanding the latest big-eyed, small waist-ed princess. Looking around he sees the little children are thin and the big children aren’t. Most people don’t look happy. Shopping is a chore. In the big box good smells mixed with other good smells and somehow became bad smells. Chemicals mixed with boxes musty from long sea voyages. Boxes spent a lot of time in containers and had that weird, wet cardboard smell. Throw in sweat, fried food and dirty diapers and you had a stew that no one’s nose really wanted. If you were lucky the place might smell like bleach and antibiotics. If you were unlucky it smelled like the woman in front of him. Not good, there was no standout odor, she was like the building–a collage of aroma that just didn’t work.

Walmart, the new central marketplace of humanity. You’ll find it all and them all here.

From behind him comes the bickering of teenage boys arguing about who’s driving the car home. Curious to see why Mom sent them to the store he half turns and looks. Two young men in white shirts and ties are behind him. One holds a box of tissues, a gallon of milk, and a cake mix. The other holds three bags of Nacho Doritos. Nacho Boy has some nasty acne at his hairline. Milk Boy is the older of the two but still looks like a puppy. He looks at them, noting their high and tight haircuts and matching uniforms. They look at him uneasily. Nacho’s shirt is rumpled, Milk’s not quite so much. Both have a small name tag perched on their breast pocket like company ID. According to the tags Milk Boy is Elder Rooch and Nacho is Elder Kilham. He looks at them and they look at him. The feeling is very much awkward. Neither knows what to say. The context was wrong for both sides, neither expected to see each other so neither had a plan.

Nods. He nods. They nod. Everybody nods to say, “I have no idea what to do.”

The air clears. Turning back the woman in front finishes digging in her purse and has lifted a too big arm in a too small t shirt and is now swiping a card to pay. The flesh under her arm jiggles as she punches in a PIN. The checker looks at him as he puts 2 oranges, an apple, a bag of trial mix and a zero calorie energy drink down. She looks pleased to see under 20 items actually hit the Formica. Wobbly arms had simply brought her cart into port and unloaded as fast as the checker could clear the dock. The drink is swiped and in a bag, followed by the oranges and the apple. Before she can tell him a price he pivots to the left and says, “I’ll pay for these guys stuff too”, beckoning with his left hand he waves the boys up to the little counter.

As the chips are swiped he says, “You sure you don’t want a Pepsi so you can make it a meal?”

Elder Kilham with the erupting hair line says, “We don’t drink colas.” Dead serious. “Well, I don’t at least.” Turnint to his companion, “Elder Rooch, do you drink colas?”

Elder Rooch looks put out, panicked and pissed off all at once. Secretly he and all the other missionaries refer to Elder Kilham as Elder “Kill’im” because that’s what they all want to do. Elder Rooch tried to give Elder Kill’im an eat shit and die look. It bounced off. Elder Kill’im wasn’t done yet. “We’re missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints!” He said cheerily and, hands now free of chips, stuck out a hand. Elder Rooch looked both terrified and hopeful. It would be fun to see his companion ground into some kind of pulp. Difficult to explain to the Mission President but fun nonetheless.

It was a child’s hand. Small, soft, hopeful and weak. The kid tried to squeeze, you had to give him that.

“I see by the way you eat that you’re concerned about your health,” said Elder Kilham. Nodding to the bag with the apples and oranges in it. He continued, “Did you know the Lord has given us a Word of Wisdom about what we eat and put in our bodies and wants to bless us for following his instructions?”

The older Elder looked like he was going to crap himself. The color had gone from his fate. Part of him was terrified that Elder Kill’im was going to get killed and part of him was thrilled it might happen. Embarrassed, panicked and hopeful he had no idea what to do. Kill’im was an idiot.

The apples and stuff was road food, daylight food. Daylight food was light stuff–apples, oranges, fresh fruit, nuts–stuff that didn’t sit in your gut and make you sick. Never start a day’s ride with a lump in your gut. Sounded wimpy but yogurt was a money day starter. Waking up in a motel it was always fun to grab a yogurt and juice and watch the old fogeys look confused. Night food was when you could get a little nutty and go big. You had overnight to sleep it off.

“So, I take it you don’t follow the Word of Wisdom?” He says pointing with his chin at the bags of chips. Turning away he starts for the door. “Enjoy your lunch boys.” He throws the words over his shoulder.

High School

Listening to the steady thump of seams on the interstate he thought, you have to hand it to President Eisenhower he invaded Europe, ended fascism, and built one hell of a highway system. The song the tires sang changed with the surface. Sometimes they were whiny, sometimes rough and sometimes they almost sounded sticky like Velcro being pulled apart. Even with the roar of wind and engine he could hear the road. The road that Dwight D. built. And boy, did you have to hoof it to keep up. The engine wasn’t mad but it wasn’t happy either. It had to turn pretty fast in order to hold a clean 90. Anything less and he started getting swallowed by traffic from behind, pulled back into the pack of travelers. His preference was to get between the clumps of cars. Cars and trucks bunched up by class like a high school hallway.

Trucks ran in pods or three or four, they are the jocks or maybe the linemen; big, lumbering and impervious. The surprise was how aware of their surroundings they are. Truckers knew where their corners were and where you began. There was a hawkish awareness that had truckers changing lanes well before they needed to and being ready when that exit came up. They knew when to speed and when to slow down. Communications he could not hear passed between them. They flashed their headlights and blinkers and they behaved like brothers. Passing through the hallway they just didn’t want to get bumped or bothered. Most cars seemed to have at least a wingman if not a flock. There was the odd kid with an older WRX that would buzz by alone thinking they were really getting it done; the hyper kid who touched everything and ran away careless and flighty. The trucks didn’t like that sort of ADD driver.

Mostly there were cars. Cars of every type. Brand new cars. Beater pieces of shit. Working Dads driving Soccer Mom’s crossovers full of kids and luggage. There was the guy who overstuffed the trunk with an easy chair and tied the lid down with orange baling twine. Don’t follow that guy. Get some distance. People moving were easy to spot; college kids always stacked it to the roof with stuff in the back seat like a stuffed Laundromat washing machine. Mom and Dad rented a U-Haul box van and if they had lots of kids there was a trailer and a van in tow. A mini-van with anything tied to the roof was a sign that purchase of a full-size SUV wasn’t far away. It was an age thing. Mini-vans had kids under 10, full size SUVs had tweens and teens.
RVs were generally dreadful. The roamed the road like a poor ballet dancer who gained 100 pounds and still tried to dance; clumsy made clumsier. Switching bodies from whatever they had driven to something large and wallowing they couldn’t understand the physics of their motion anymore. Trapped in a newly bloated body they pinballed around in their lanes startled by wind and weather. His rule of thumb was simple: stay away from the rentals and the new ones, a beater RV usually meant that the driver and machine had experience.

Other bikes seemed rare. Sometimes the road was as lonely as high school and when you did see that other bike, regardless of flavor, they were a friend. He felt stupid if he waved and like a jerk if he didn’t.