Sometimes I think I'm already dead and waiting for my body to heed the clues. Today's one of those days.
I've been riding eight months, the miles turning under my Harley's tires, but here I sit in another biker bar, the same as yesterday and most of the two-hundred and forty-three days before. While the bartender pours my drink, I settle onto an ass-worn stool to check out the joint.
The sun's still high so it's nearly deserted. It's just me, the bartender, and three burly guys in Devils cuts playing pool over my shoulder.
They don't acknowledge me. I prefer it that way.
The smell of fresh-cut lumber mingles with the hops and liquor to tell me this place isn't as established as the owners want me to believe. This bar, like most, looks to have been decorated out of a dumpster. There's the beer-stained pool table, a mutilated dart board, some rusty crap on shelves, and a bunch of sign reproductions.
An outdated jukebox sits on the other side of the bar, next to the bathrooms. Nobody's fed it yet but, no doubt, it'll be stocked with old country songs and seventies rock.
As always, I promise myself if I leave before someone plays Born to be Wild I'll splurge on a room downtown. One that leaves mints on the pillows.
Haven't had a mint in eight months.
The chipped mirror behind the bar shows my reflection. I'm barely recognizable. Hidden beneath dark-brown chin-scruff, matted greasy hair, and tanned leather skin. I'd disappear against the dark walls if not for raccoon-eyes from riding goggles.
My hand smooths the scruff then trails to my protruding gut. I used to be fit. Lean, even. Months of crap food in dive bars have hatched an unhealthy potato-shape. Soon, I'll need to up-size my thrift-store wardrobe.
Life on the road isn't what I'd hoped but it's better than the wasted existence I left behind.
I once was a successful tax attorney. Years spent advising aristocratic assholes to hoard their fortunes chewed on my soul, churning it into a tasteless wad of goo.
One client's accounts were so well hidden, his widow and young children were ruined when he bequeathed his extensive fortune to a foreign mistress. The details of his--our--betrayal made the papers when his widow hanged herself.
I left her funeral on my bike and my weekend rides turned to full-time.
I dreamt of being the next Jack Kerouac, of detailing grand adventures of the road. The reality is less impressive.
Three days in, five guys pummeled me outside Reno for being too 'yuppity'. Laid me up for a week. I then traded my pressed jeans and starched shirts for an armload of Salvation Army clothes and a battered leather vest--no patches.
Lesson learned. Invisibility equals survival. I'm a ghost.
Halfway through my second drink, sunshine floods the bar. I curl over my glass as the brightness lingers.
When no one shouts for the new arrival to close it, I squint toward door. There, with a helmet under her arm, stands a tiny angel wearing a gold crown and cape--an illusion created by the sun behind her blonde, waist-length hair.
She leans in and her cheery pie-shaped face breaches the shadows. Her smile turns to a grin when our eyes meet and she beelines in my direction with the door swinging closed behind her.
I return to my drink. Whatever she's selling, I don't want any.
Ignoring my cold reception, she places her helmet on the bar next to me and makes for the jukebox. A few bills later, the Doobie's preach about 'what the people need'. Not one of my favorites, but I prefer it to the irregular crack of billiards in the quiet bar.
I feel her eyes on me as she retraces her path to the bar.
Let her look. When she sees I'm nobody she'll leave me to my disguise.
Flustered, I take a bitter, burning gulp of whiskey followed by an embarrassing coughing fit. I'm still choking when she climbs on the stool next to me. Her hair brushes against me and, as if by magic, my throat clears. I stare down at my empty glass, hoping the bartender won't press me for another.
"Angel's Delight, please."
Despite her choir-sweet voice, I cringe. Anyone can tell this bar doesn't serve sissy drinks. But, instead of laying into her, the barkeep goes to work. The final product is a martini glass filled with something pink. It matches the color of her helmet.
I sneak a peek at the girl as she takes a dainty swallow. She's young. Too young. I'd guess fifteen or sixteen. Even if--and it's a big if--she's old enough to be here, she's shouldn't be alone in a dingy biker bar. She's better suited to a library or a church. Whoever she's waiting on, he's a jackass to send her in solo.
I tighten the grip on my glass. It's not my concern.
The only thing worse than standing out is butting in. Bikers have a code--their own version of the Ten Commandments. The biker version substitutes 'thou shalt not kill' with 'mind your own business' and the Golden Rule drops to a distant thirteen or, given the right set of circumstances, falls off altogether.
"It's better than it looks."
"Wha'?" I wasn't expecting her to start conversation. I'd prefer she didn't.
The one syllable encourages her to explain.
"My drink. It looks sweet, but it's deceptively stout. Like me."
I offer a non-committal chin lift. If her old man walks in, I don't want him to think I'm moving in on his property. Coveting thy neighbors' old lady--or daughter--could qualify as the 'right circumstances'.
I'm a big guy, bigger now than eight months ago, but I'm no good at fighting. Really bad, in fact. Hence, the cloak of invisibility approach: blend in, keep quiet, leave with all your parts intact.
I should move down to put space between this girl and me. Before I act, the girl drains her glass and slides off the stool.
"I'll be right back."
She's behaving like we're together. Where's her old man? I glance around. The pool players are huddled together. Greedy eyes follow the girl until she disappears into the bathroom, then boomerang to me, sizing me up. Not good.
Turning to the bar, I pretend to nurse my drink and keep watch on them through the mirror. I could leave. By my earlier wager, I owe myself a night in a nice hotel, but the thought of abandoning her is beyond even a coward like me. Denying my survival impulse, I wait to see how this plays out.
Seven minutes later, she reappears and the Devils swarm. From the safety of my stool, I observe as they surround her at the jukebox that now plays Long As I Can See the Light. I spin on my seat but hold position, unsure how to proceed.
Even as they corral her, she smiles at them as if they're old friends. I slide off the stool, grabbing her helmet by the chin bar. It's as good a weapon as any.
The first Devil speaks. "Hey, sweet thing."
"Hello." She's oblivious.
"Cute girl like you shouldn't be alone. It's not safe," Devil number two points out.
"I'm not alone."
I freeze, expecting them to look my way--to catch me sneaking up behind them--but they're fixed on the girl. This would be a good time for her old man to show. To set these guys straight.
When he doesn't materialize, I continue to advance.
"You should be with a real man. Not a biker wannabe."
I'm insulted, but not enough to draw their attention. What does a guy have to do to earn credibility with this group?
The first guy reaches out to grab her and I quicken my pace.
Unnecessary, because, for no obvious reason, he drops to the floor screaming and waving his hand as if it were on fire.
"What the f…?" Devil number two doesn't finish his thought before he joins the first one on the floor. This guy is holding his mouth with both hands and making wounded noises in his throat.
Now I have a clear path to the girl who is still smiling the same as when they surrounded her. She's impervious to the suffering at her feet.
Confused, Devil number three pulls a five-inch blade from his hip, holding it out with intent. I raise the helmet with intent of my own, but, before I'm in range, he drops the knife to clutch his head. He falls to his knees, bawling like a lost child.
Start to finish, the entire assault lasted less than ten seconds.
I'm locked in place, the helmet in mid-swing, unable to comprehend what I'm seeing.
The girl gracefully steps over the men and relaxes my pose by taking the helmet. "Thanks. Ready to go?"
Devil number one's screaming has slowed. Whatever happened to them might wear off, and I'd rather not be here when that happens.
I nod and return to the bar to leave cash for our drinks. The bartender's eyes are wide and trained on the writhing men. I keep him in view as we hurry to the door in case he adopts loyalty to them. He doesn't move.
On our way out, the opening riffs of Born to Be Wild spill from the jukebox.
We mount up fast, without discussing where we're going. I'm not even sure why I assume we are going anywhere. When she pulls out on her blue Rebel, I follow on my black Fat Boy and she doesn't try to shake me. We ride side by side until the moon has replaced the sun and her orange turn-signal points us toward a roadside clearing.
A few-hundred yards off the highway, four boulders create natural cover and limit access to any wildlife that might want to share our camp. She gathers kindling and logs while I gather rocks for a fire pit. We work together without words, understanding what needs doing and doing it. When the fire maintains, I lay my roll nearby so I can stoke the flames and add logs during the night. She places her roll on the opposite side of the pit.
I should have questions for her, but none press to mind. The night brought a stillness I'm not eager to disturb.
Despite my reluctance to speak, I'm not upset when her musical voice breaks the silence.
"What is it you seek?"
"What makes you think I'm seeking anything?"
"You are on a quest. A quest must have a goal."
I think back over our brief exchanges. "I never told you that."
"Aren't you, though?"
"I guess I am."
"Well, then. What do you hope to achieve?"
I tilt my head to gaze at the stars. "I thought I was looking for adventure."
"I've seen things. The world isn't as I'd anticipated. I thought I'd find a purpose, but I've mostly found disappointment."
"Mmm." She reclines to her back with her knees bent.
It's the first time I've discussed anything with anyone in longer than I can remember and I need her to understand.
"People are cruel. The men at the bar are a prime example."
"Those men aren't cruel. They're misguided."
I snort. "They wanted to hurt you until… What did you do to them, anyway?"
Ignoring me, she proclaims, "Enlightenment."
I've lost track of our conversation. "Excuse me?"
"You seek enlightenment, so I will help you find it."
"Enlightenment? How do you plan to do that?" Not that I really care. I'd be content to ride with her. I'm already more content than I've been in eight months--no--make that ever. I'm more content than ever before in my life. I don't even question why, I'm simply enjoying it.
"In the morning, I'll introduce you to a friend who will guide you."
I stoke the fire. For the first time in a long time, I'm looking forward to tomorrow.
The next morning, I stumble out of our enclosure to follow the sound of trickling water to a nearby stream. I check that I'm alone before stripping for a swim. It's invigorating. There's nothing like a cool bath to start the day.
When I return to camp, the Rebel is gone. She's gone. The stream masked the quiet lawn-mower sound of the Honda when she left. Before melancholy takes hold, the sound of another motorcycle commands my attention.
When it comes into view, the denim blue paint blends into the horizon so the rider appears to be floating on air. As it nears, the oversized fenders are those of an antique.
I tuck my hands into my pockets as my guest parks. While he removes his leather aviator cap and tinted goggles, I admire his ride. The script on the tank says Indian. It's a remarkable specimen.
When the rider faces me, I try to hide my surprise. He's about five feet tall, looks to be seventy years old, and he's Native American right down to his leather wrapped braids and moccasins.
He only has three teeth in his head when he smiles. "Chief."
I put a hand out. "Nice to meet you, Chief. I'm Brian."
He looks at my hand, breaks into a raspy laugh, and slaps it away. "Not me. The bike. You were admiring my 1947 Indian Chief. I restored it myself."
My ears burn. "Oh. I'm sorry."
He sobers. "For what? I chose this motorcycle for the irony and I appreciate a good laugh after a lengthy ride. I'm Ed, your guide." He drapes his cap and goggles on the handlebar.
My guide? The conversation from last night comes back to me and I nod. "You must be a friend of…" I never caught her name.
He doesn't wait for one. "Yes. I've been on the road many hours and could use coffee to keep going." From his pack, he retrieves a small metal pot, two cups, and a metal container with a spin-off lid.
His arms are loaded so I take the pot. "She didn't come back with you?"
He cocks his head in my direction. "She will return at the end of your journey."
The word 'journey' implies a lengthy commitment. "What if I have other plans?"
He drops his things and squats next to the fire to arrange the coals. "Do you have other plans?"
He gives me a blank stare until I concede, "I suppose I can ride with you for a while."
I get a view of all three of his teeth again before he sends me to fetch water.
We share the best coffee I've ever had, then Ed follows me to rinse the dishes. We bring back one last pot of water to extinguish the coals. With that done, he returns the bulky supplies to his pack.
"They make individual packets that are easier for travel."
He keeps his back to me as he works to situate his belongings. "Did you love your mother?"
The question takes me by surprise. "Yes. Of course."
"Would you cover her with trash?"
I straighten. "Absolutely not."
Finished with his task, he faces me. "Then why cover Mother Earth with trash? She is the mother of all humankind, yet so few treat her with the respect she deserves. My coffee container, when empty, can be refilled. When I no longer enjoy coffee, it can store other things, or be melted to make another tool. Your packets, when empty, are of no use except to stain our Mother with mountains of waste."
"I meant no harm."
He offers a tight smile. "When my spirit returns to the Black Hills, the harm will be to the one who takes my place. Only Mother Earth will bear the lasting shame."
Embarrassed, I say nothing.
"And so your journey begins. Now we ride."
As we wind along the highway, the scenery is unusually vibrant. I stop to photograph colorful layers of rock in the road-cut and Ed points out bright yellow blooms on a desert cactus. All the while, clouds glide overhead, telling stories with their shapes.
Before Ed, I saw little of interest during my bar-to-bar rides, but now every turn holds something spectacular. I realize attitude is a factor, but I also believe the road Ed chose is unique in its appeal.
We pass through several small towns without stopping, except once for gas. When my stomach signals the need for food, I gesture to my riding partner. A few minutes later, he leads me down a dirt path.
I'm removing my gloves when he stoops to gather rocks. He's forming another fire pit, presumably, for lunch.
"Wouldn't it be easier to stop at a diner? We passed one a few miles back. All I have in the way of provisions are a few canteens of water."
He continues his task, ignoring me. I could hound him but something in the way he carries himself tells me it would be wasted breath. Since I've never been the type to rest on my bootheels while someone else works, I join in. When the rocks are arranged, he sits cross-legged on the ground.
"What are you doing?"
"Waiting? For what?"
"Food doesn't just fall out of the sky?"
"True. It comes from the womb of Mother Earth. Sit." With his jaw set, he motions for me to sit beside him.
With a sigh, I gaze to the clouds before I give in and sit. I wonder how long I'll have to humor him before we can go back to the diner to silence my growling stomach.
His chanting interrupts my thoughts. He lifts his arms overhead, opening them to the sky then shakes his hands at the trees. Next, he bows his head and gestures to the ground. When he's done, he starts again. I become lost in his ritual. The chanting is hypnotic.
I don't know how long it goes on before movement catches my eye. Turning toward it, I see a large jack rabbit forty feet out. Ed's chanting grows louder but, instead of being frightened by the noise, the animal hops closer. When it's a mere six feet away, Ed goes silent, and the rabbit keels over.
I'd never have believed it if I hadn't witnessed it. As if it's no big deal, Ed pushes up, grabs the bunny by the ears, and goes to work skinning the creature.
When I find my voice, I ask, "Does that happen often?"
He tips his head and shrugs. "Enough."
In short order, the animal is on the spit and Ed is humming as he rotates his prey.
"That's a lot of meat." I've never eaten rabbit, but, unless they have big bones, this one has more meat than two men can consume in one sitting.
"We will be three." He continues to turn the spit.
Dumbfounded, I turn three-hundred and sixty degrees. We're alone. Not a single car has passed since we stopped. "I count two."
"Listen. Not with your ears, but with your heart."
"What?" I feel like he's speaking a foreign language. The words I understand, but the meaning is lost on me.
He looks over his shoulder at me. "The heart cannot be heard when the mouth is open."
"Just tell me to shut up already."
He pegs me with another blank look.
"Fine." I slump against my bike with my eyes and mouth closed to listen. Before long, I can actually hear the sound of my heart, beating strong and steady. And that's not all.
I detect the soft whisper of leaves as a breeze teases their lofty reaches. Two distinctly different birds sing their praises while two others coo and chatter to each other with a series of clicks and whistles. The pit-pat-rustle through the tall grass to our east is a small creature nibbling on bugs or berries. Over the scent of the campfire and the crisping meat, I catch a faint whiff of an unpleasantly sweet aroma. The foraging animal is a skunk.
In the distance, I hear it. To an untrained ear, it might be mistaken for thunder, or a train passing miles from our location. I recognize it as another motorcycle. It's headed our way.
My eyes fly open and Ed is grinning at me with a twinkle in his eye. I don't need to announce the third rider. Ed's smug grin tells me he already knows.
When our guest arrives, I meet him at his bike. Before he unseats, he raises the visor and offers his hand with a friendly smile. "Hello, friend."
His familiarity is startling but I put my hand in his larger one. He lays his other hand on top of our clasped hands and the gesture is, somehow, more meaningful.
"Hello. I'm Brian."
"Yes. And I am Aasif."
He removes his helmet. He's tan with dark hair and appears to be of Middle Eastern descent.
"I do not wish to appear rude, but I would like to praise Allah."
My eyes search for somewhere else to look. "Oh."
"Do not be uncomfortable. My travels took longer than expected. I had hoped for more time for introductions, but we will talk after." He fills a small bowl with water from his canteen and sets it in a bush that holds it at waist level. He recites something then goes to work washing his hands, face, ears, arms, and head. When he's finished, he says something else I don't understand, covers his head with a skullcap, and lays down a bamboo mat. Then he kicks off his boots and goes to performing ritual prayers that I've only ever seen in movies.
While observing Aasif, I squat next to Ed and whisper, "Should I be watching this?"
Ed peeks over at him and shrugs. "No harm in it."
His permission eases my conscience but, even without it, I don't think I could have pulled my attention away. Ten minutes later, Aasif stands to shake out his mat and roll it up. He puts his things away and moves to my side as Ed pulls the meat from the fire.
"So, you're Muslim?"
He turns to me with a cautiously confident expression. "Yes. I am."
"Forgive my ignorance. I've never…" My curiosity may be insensitive.
"You've never met such a fine Muslim as me? I am no different from you except in the way that I worship. Just as any other man does, I have faults and talents."
"I didn't mean to pry."
"Ah. It's no wonder you are on this quest. One must be bold and inquisitive to see."
"To see what?"
"One does not see with his eyes. He sees with his heart."
This sounds much like my earlier conversation with Ed. Instead of setting myself up for another lesson, I hold my tongue. Lunch smells tasty and I'm hungry. I'll hold off on learning more until my belly is full.
"Tastes like chicken."
Ed shakes his head at me. "No. Only chicken tastes like chicken. Rabbit tastes like rabbit. Snake tastes like snake."
Aasif laughs hard and loud. "I think it tastes delicious and that is all that matters."
We've had this debate almost every night for four weeks. Regardless of the prey, I tell Ed it tastes like chicken and he argues. It started innocently, but now I only say it to rile him. It's fun. He's aware of the joke and willingly plays along.
During our time together, every meal has arrived much the same as the rabbit. If animals don't wander into our camp, then we happen upon a wild patch of fruit or vegetables. We've yet to stop for anything other than gas or to refill the coffee tin, but we've not gone one day without ample food. As a bonus, eating only what Mother Earth provides has been good for my waistline. I'm in the best shape of my life.
At long last, I'm living the adventure of the road. We've seen waterfalls, wildlife, mountains, cliffs, trees, and flowers. Our band of travelers has grown to as many as twenty, then thinned back to the three of us. We've ridden with men and women of all colors, persuasions, and religions. Each has welcomed us into their fold to share their beliefs and traditions.
Beauty is everywhere but I was blind to it. It seems the only thing truly missing from my previous life was me.
When Aasif's laughter subsides, I hear the Rebel. The girl is at least twelve miles away but I know it's her as sure as if there were a window overlooking her arrival.
In unison, we stand. Ed and Aasif take turns hugging me before they gear up and ride out. I smile after them until they disappear to the west. Turning, I watch the speck grow larger from the east.
I wait for her to dismount before I approach. She has the same ethereal smile she had the last time I saw her.
"I take it your journey has been a good one?"
I nod. "Very."
"When first we met, you sought understanding. And now?"
With the pride of a star pupil, I declare, "All senses are useless if I don't lead with my heart."
She grins. "Exactly."
I scratch shapes in the sand with my boot. "I still have questions. Someone told me being 'bold and inquisitive' are good traits."
She nods with a knowing expression. "Ask."
"Are you God?"
"What does your heart tell you?"
I chuckle. "It tells me I should have expected your answer."
She doesn't say more. Doesn't need to. I move on to my next question. "Over the last month, I've met people of different faiths. I even met an Atheist. No matter how hard I listen with my heart, I can't decide which beliefs are true. Which should I follow?"
"What's your favorite color?"
It's my turn to grin. I knew she'd answer with a question.
"My favorite color is bright green, like the tree frog."
"Ah, green. But today, my favorite color is Cardinal red. Is one color better than the other?"
"I get what you're saying, but each person seems convinced that their way is right and everyone who doesn't worship as they do is wrong."
"They are half right."
"So you're saying all religions are equal? Even the Atheist?"
"If someone doesn't love me but can find it in their heart to love others, then I will happily balance the scales with my love for them."
I nod solemnly. "Why did you help me?"
"I'm as corrupt as anybody. Maybe not as evil as the bar Devils but my inaction was as faulty as their actions. You saved me and hurt them. What was the difference?"
"I didn't hurt them."
"They were writhing on the ground. I saw it with my own eyes."
"I will explain only because you had not yet learned to see with your heart." She folds her fingers together. "I did not hurt them. I showed them. I opened their minds and exposed how they had strayed. Each was overcome by shame. The revelations were sudden and powerful to reverse years of learned behavior."
"So their writhing in pain…"
"… was from self-awareness," she finishes for me. "Each man is reformed. One leads a motorcycle ministry and the others tend to the homeless. As with any guardian, I want my charges to strive for their greatest potential while treating others well. Regarding your earlier question, religions offer structure. People need structure to succeed and the specifics are inconsequential. All are equal in my eyes."
"So I've reached the end of my quest?"
"No. Your quest never ends. It will change, but it continues as long as you continue to follow it."
"Will we ride together again?"
"Yes, but not today. Today, you will take your knowledge into the world and share it."
"I have no problem testifying to what I've seen but I'm not sure anyone will believe me."
"If you testify with your mouth, then there will be much room for doubt. Words are easy to manipulate. However, if you lead with your heart to show others what you now know, you will convince them."
As if to punctuate her words, a blue butterfly lands on my hand. She cocks her head at the butterfly and laughs. The sound reminds me of a delicate wind chime.
"Time to ride." She takes her helmet from the backrest.
As she throws her leg over the seat, a wave of anxiety strikes. I rush to ask, "What if I have more questions?"
She rolls her eyes as her fingers work the chinstrap. "Then you ask."
There. It's so simple. If I have questions, I should ask. Contentment smothers the anxiety and, again, I'm ready to take on the world.
I watch her ride into the sunset before I mount my bike. I have no destination in mind. Wherever I go, with each new experience, I'll leave better than when I arrived.
I smile to myself as I remember what she offered. Enlightenment.
I rub my stomach, then flatten my hand over my heart. I certainly feel lighter.
Born in San Antonio a month beyond her due date, Jewel Hart still prefers to do things on 'Texas time'. Unconventionally conventional, her personal Alpha-hunk, two boy children, and assorted fur-babies do what they can to keep her on a forward trajectory when her head is lost in her latest sappy romance, quirky suspense, or future urban legend. Laughter, tolerance, and chocolate are daily necessities. Puns and irony are a few of her favorite things. When not reading or writing, her other hobbies include collecting useless trivia and poking bears. Check her out at www.jewelhart.com