Monday, August 25, 2014

Uneasy Rider

A guy up in Maine -- wish I knew his name -- did this and gave it to Rocky. It's very cool, right?
A few weeks ago I went to New York and visited with my brother Rocky. One night we went to the Caramoor Center to see Patti LuPone. We rode to the concert on his Harley.  Most of the time the thought of riding on the back of a motorcycle scares the hell out of me; so many things can go wrong. But on this night, I ignored that nervous Nelly voice in my head and turned myself over to my brother’s care, and to fate, which seemed friendly and encouraging on that lovely summer evening. I had recently read an essay in a Buddhist magazine about becoming one with whatever you were doing. I decided to become one with my brother, just as he becomes one with his mighty Harley when he rides. For good measure I reminded myself that Rocky, my baby brother who is now in his fifties, has been riding a motorcycle since he was five years old.
Rocky with Mom and me in pre-Harley days.
Back then he had a mini-bike. He had a trail through our yard. There were ramps and jumps on a ride that took him past the front porch, around two trees, down the driveway and into the back yard, along the edge of woods, and up a grassy hill into the front yard again. The whine of that little engine was background noise to many seasons. 

Rocky was a neighborhood phenomenon – an adorable little boy in perpetual motion. Who better to trust with my life and my limbs? And although I know fate is an arbitrary thing, on that beautiful sultry night I easily abandoned my absurd notion of having some control over it, and relaxed into the wonder of the scene around me.
Country roads where we grew up. We love them!

Rocky letting his hair down in Key West.  You're so handsome, 'Bro'!
The ride was spectacular. We roared through the country roads like a jet through the clouds, the trees on the side of the road a blur of greens. It was twilight, and it occurred to me that traveling on a motorcycle was so much more honest than riding in a car. Every curve was a revelation. Sensational.  And as I hugged my brother’s back and screamed and laughed with the sloopy joy of freedom, I knew why he loved riding so much, and why he’d ridden thousands and thousands of miles like this, through tree-lined country roads and deserts and mountains, through Indian Reservations and National parks, on steep cliffs far above ocean shores and along the reedy beds of lakes and river.
My best friends. Michael Keith and Rocky Mazza. In Tatamagouche.     
After the concert, which was in no way as exhilarating as the journey to it (LuPone did not thrust her arms toward the firmament and belt out “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina”) we climbed back onto the Harley and headed off into a much colder, darker night. 
Treen Cottage, Malagash. Another Nova Scotia summer with my boys.
I tried in vain to warm myself on Rocky’s back as we rode, huddling ever closer to him, which only made my helmet butt into his helmet until he finally asked me to please stop. I concentrated on tolerating blasts of moonless night chill waiting at the far side of every curve. No more crazy joy; no more happy memories; just a desperate need to make it back to Rocky's house and between the flannel sheets of my bed.

“I see why you love it so much,” I told him later, when my teeth stopped chattering.  “It’s wonderful! It’s thrilling!”

“It’s not as thrilling as it used to be,” he said. 

It was like hearing of a divorce, or coming close to the end of a book you were loving reading. I felt sad to hear that something so fundamental to his character had lost its thrall.

"Don't get me wrong," he said. "I  love riding. But nowadays I don’t feel safe. People are in such a hurry. You have to be on the defensive every minute. It's not like it used to be.”
 Michael, Susan Pitts (our daughter) and Uncle Rocky. They look so innocent . . . don't believe it! I can't imagine what they're up to, but clearly, they're up to something.
Last summer Rocky was riding on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, on the final leg of a cross-country trip, almost home, when a truck changed lanes and side-swiped his bike. Amazingly, Rocky stayed upright, but his foot was smashed and so was his Harley. The truck didn’t stop. Maybe, Rocky says, the driver didn’t know that he’d hit someone. An ambulance took Rocky to the hospital where the broken bones in his foot were splinted and wrapped. His Harley was towed away and repaired. It could have been far worse, everybody said. Yes, that is true. But the darker part of that wreck is what it did to his soul.  It robbed him of his innocence, a bright and shining thing, that Rocky had managed to hold onto far, far longer than most of us ever dare to. 

Monday, January 20, 2014

Scenes from a Long Good Friday

Don't mess with my cushions!
One Thursday morning our neighbor Thea woke up blind.  She was understandably freaked out, but maintained her calm as Michael drove her to the local eye doctor, where she was examined.  The doctor came into the waiting room, stood before Michael and gravely announced: “She needs to go to the emergency room at the eye clinic in Miami. Right now.” 
   Michael called me at work to say that he was heading to Miami with Thea. What else could he do? Whoa! On a busy holiday weekend? There had to be a better way! I made a dozen phone calls, to the hospital, to the ambulance company, to the helicopter people. Turns out that waking up blind, as terrible as that is, does not classify as a life-threatening condition. Therefore, the only way to get Thea to Miami was to drive, on the eve of Good Friday. I joined them, and around 2 we headed to Miami. We arrived in the city, and into the maze that is Miami’s hospital district, just after rush hour, and found our way to the clinic by nightfall.
    In the waiting room there were others with eye emergencies even worse than Thea’s.  A kid on a stretcher with one eye heavily bandaged. (A victim of the famous BB gun incident our parents warned us about?) A baby, wailing, in the arms of his horrified parents. And other, quieter catastrophies. Like Thea’s -- all of them waiting for their turn with the doctor.
    By midnight Thea had been examined, her blood tested and her body injected with steroids. She was told to return in the morning, bright and early. Which meant checking into a hotel located somewhere in the maze of dirty streets and tall buildings.
    After another day of waiting rooms and treatments, Thea was released from the clinic. The roads were a glut of 3-day-weekend traffic. The source of Thea’s sudden blindness remained a mystery, although a course of treatment had been prescribed. As we made our way out of Miami, the tension, disappointment, and Thea’s fear traveled with us, like an elephant in the back seat. There was little to say, and so we said little. Our relief, at arriving home, was profound.
    Sometimes life in Key West is more like a movie than real life, as in you can’t make this stuff up! It was one of those times. And we had one more scene to go.
      As Michael eased the car into our narrow driveway we noticed an unfamiliar bicycle propped against our house. Unlocked. Who does that? While I walked Thea home, Michael investigated. He quickly returned to the front door and said,  “Call the cops!”  The tone of his voice sent chills up my spine.
    “Why?” I asked, dialing 911.
    “There’s a body on the deck,” he said.
    “A body? You mean a dead body?”
    “It’s all wrapped up,” he said. “I can’t tell.”
    He encouraged me to not look, so I didn’t. A policeman soon arrived. He was all business. With his right hand resting on his gun, he walked through the house with Michael leading the way. He saw the mummy on the deck and agreed that the thing wrapped in a quilt beneath the schefflera tree might be dead. Or alive. 
    “Hey,” he said, poking the body with his foot. “Hey, you!” 
    He did this for a minute or two until finally, the thing moved.  It was alive. It was a man and the man wanted to be left alone.  That’s what he said.
    “Leave me alone, please,” he moaned, and as he exhaled this plea fumes of alcohol filled the air. Michael and I staggered back, but not the cop.
    “You gotta get out of here,” the cop told the man. “This is private property. You’re trespassing.”
Our friends from Up North always get a kick out of our outdoor laundry room. 

    I realized that he was wrapped in the heavy quilt we use to cover our washing machine. Beneath his head, I recognized the porch chair cushions. He’d opened the gate, come into our yard, onto the deck, and bundled himself up nice and cozy. He hadn’t been there for long, I knew. Otherwise, that bike would have been gone, like all unlocked bikes in Key West.
    “Man, I told you to fix that gate lock,” I hissed at Michael, as the man slowly rose from the floor, moaning gruffly, polluting the air with his barroom breath.
    “Can I take this shit with me?” the man asked, clutching the quilt to his chest.
    “Yes,” the cop said. “Take it and go.”
    By now we were totally punch drunk with exhaustion. The situation was suddenly hilarious.
    “Wait a minute,” Michael said. “That’s my shit!”
    What made it all the more hilarious to me is Michael swearing. Michael does not swear.
    “No, you can’t take it. That’s Mr. Keith’s shit!”
     And then the cop. More hilarious still. 
    “How about these pillows?” he asked.
    “No!” I yelled.
    The drunken man surrendered our stuff. The cop walked him around to the front of the house where he slumped on the steps, and wearily held his head in his hands. He was not a bad man, I thought, just a defeated one. The bike, he said, in response to the cop's questioning, was his. He’d been in Key West for four weeks.
    “You want me to run him in?” the policeman asked. “It’s up to you.”
    “No, we just want him out of here,” I said, talking as tough as I could muster.  “But he’d better not come back here because this is Florida and if I see somebody on my property, behind my gate, I have the right to shoot!”
    “Did you hear that?” the cop said to the man. “Mrs. Keith says if you come back here again she’ll blow your head off.”
    With that the man rose from the step, and slowly climbed onto his bike, moving as if the effort pained him greatly. 
    “Hey, he’s riding drunk!” I said, as the man headed toward Duval Street and who knew what next.
    “Yeah,” the cop said. “I’ll probably be seeing him again tonight.”
    “Just like a western," Michael said. "This is where the cowboy rides into the setting sun.”
    Then we three stood silently, watching, and waiting for the credits to roll.