It wasn’t as if I couldn’t do it. In fact, I already knew I’d practiced enough riding about the neighborhood to point my new-to-me bike out over the highway interchange and down the twisted switchback to Crown Point and my repair guy, Chris. I’d dropped Betty, the name I’d given the ’95 Sportster, that I’d swapped out for the old Cushman I’d blown the engine on. As a new rider of a ‘real’ motorbike and not a lawnmower powered scooter, I now had the coordination of clutch and gears, throttles and brakes – two of them – to worry about as I kept the nearly 500 lb. bike upright. And this was considered a ‘girl’s bike’ by some snide bikers I’d told about her.
So, my trepidation in learning how to ride in the safety of my lakeside home and venturing out into the who-knows-what traffic was a challenge when I had to drop Betty off with Chris. He was too busy to pick up and trailer the 1200cc beast to his shop.
It was on me to deliver.
“Ride it over and I’ll check it out,” he said once I finally got him on the phone. His custom shop dealt almost exclusively with Harley’s and the reviews online had been mostly good. Even green as I was, I knew that I’d do better working with a local gearhead than making the trip out to Michigan City and the dealership there. He’d done the service on Betty when I got her in the winter and had trailered her back to my house once the snow started to melt. After all my practicing, if I couldn’t make the eight miles to him, I’d never make the thirty to the dealer. Plus, let’s face it, dealers are always looking to sell bikes and the last thing I wanted to be was suckered into financing a new ride before I’d learned how to handle the one I already had.
“I think it’s probably just a broken bulb,” I said, mentally preparing as best I could to explain to Chris what had happened. Eager to get started, I’d stayed in first gear for the first week, not even considering shifting up through neutral and wobbled into the hilly and mostly empty streets around my house. I wore my helmet, proper boots and sported a new armored leather jacket with yellow reflective strips feeling pretty proud of myself as I weaved and bounced my way to the local neighborhood café.
I fell of my bike as another car pulled up across from me when I coasted to a stop uphill. Betty smashed into the ground, tagging the matte black gas tank with a healthy dimple from the left-hand indicator lamp as I rolled onto the asphalt in front of the now very concerned driver across from me. I hauled Betty up, my face red as both the car driver and his lady, bikers themselves it turns out, commiserated with me on my fall.
“Everyone’s done it,” the woman said who smiled, her eyes soft in understanding.
“Glad you had a helmet on,” her guy remarked as he stood back understanding my need to lift my bike by myself. I backed into Betty, clutched the front brake and pushed back with my legs and got my girl upright.
I assured my would-be saviors the only thing hurt was my pride as they rode off and I made my way back home. For the next two weeks, I took Betty out every day, using hand-signals to indicate all of my left-turns as I learned how to change gears, counter steer and get faster and more comfortable with my new obsession.
“Bring her over early and we’ll get ‘er done,” said Chris as I hung up on him determined to conquer my fear. “I open at ten.”
“Eight miles, I got this,” I said as I wiped my slick hands on my jeans, my heart already hammering in anticipation. I found myself muttering prayers under my breath as I headed out to the garage. In a car, eight miles is nothing. As a new rider with limited skills, no working left-indicator and an open highway interchange with multiple exits to navigate, the next fifteen minutes in traffic would be my first real test on roads where I was convinced every single cager, car drivers, were determined to kill me.
They say that most bike accidents happen fifteen minutes from home. Exactly the distance to Chris’. It figured. I was okay with the first five minutes winding through my local streets and even turning onto the sideroad that lead out to HWY-20, the busy four-lane that that used to be the main highway before the big interstates were built. There’s a ton of big rigs here and many of them don’t signal themselves as they high-ball through orange and red lights. I had only two objectives as I sat at the light scanning the traffic both ways. To go fast and not die. Simple.
“Don’t stall…don’t stall,” I chanted to myself as I prepared to pull out left once I was good to go. I could have continued straight, instead of turning, taking the pothole-laden access road that would cut off a full minute on my time but that was tempting fate. The road cut between HWY-20 and Ripley, the southbound heading I’d take all the way to the shop. But it would be three minutes of unassumed road risk with nothing but fields of weeds already sprouting, dumped tires and soiled mattresses. If I went down there, it would be a long walk out or a helluva place to wipe out with no visual for AAA or an ambulance. Bike riders have to think about things like this all the time.
I made it through the first hurdle, I didn’t stall as I turned out on 20 and kept my breathing slow and easy as I slipped around the pools of oil and debris coating the right-hand lane. Drivers on 20 do double the speed limit because cop enforcement out here is pretty low. The truckers know this and I did too. And they dump a lot of gunk on the road.
What I hadn’t counted on was the large puddle spread across both lanes. I mirror-checked myself, seeing both lanes behind me full of oncoming vehicles, beat-to-shit repo wrecks and two dumpsters all hauling. I had two choices – pull over or drive on. Based on the inky water ahead, someone somewhere had a serious plumbing problem. In the seconds I had before committing to riding on, I was running out of room. Puddles like this can be cool in a car, a wash of water, dirty grey, sprays up in a rainbow of oil-tinged wash that my dog loves. On a bike, it’s a roll of the dice as potholes can loom in the depths and it only takes one big bastard to brute me out into the neighboring lane or off the bike. If it’s deep enough, I could high-side over the handlebars, flipping over onto the asphalt as the bike bounced behind me on a collision course with my head.
I gritted my teeth, loosened my hands slightly on the grips to adjust to any torque as I lifted my butt off the seat to give my shocks maximum room to bounce.
And like that, I was through. A spray of water washed up both sides of me and I now got what my dog saw in this. For two seconds, I was surfing, Betty sluicing through as I held my breath in anticipation of anything. When I cleared the water, I was beaming as the road ahead prepared for the traffic light and my time to turn. I’d made it through and Betty hadn’t bogged down or even shown any hesitation as we floated through the hazard.
I turned right on Ripley and cranked it, shifting up and up and up as the smell of diesel and the sound of the traffic ahead that roared in welcome. Now it was all about matching speed with other vehicles on the road as I raced past the Flying J truck stop and up and over the 80/90 interchange. I’d done this route hundreds of times in my car, basically on auto-pilot barely noticing the eighteen wheelers that careened out of the lot intent on making up for the time they’d lost eating or filling up. I pulled ahead, kicking it into fourth for the first time in my biking journey. From twenty-five to fifty-five in less than thirty seconds, the wind whipping through my helmet as I flexed my hands determined not to clench up as my speed increased. I breathed slow and easy through my mouth determined not to fog my visor. I’d bought my helmet used online to replace the beanie I’d used with my old scooter. I had learned early that I’d need a full-face helmet as the greater speed with the bike increased wind shear and chill on my face. And a plastic visor was a must to avoid bugs and grit hitting my eyes or face. I loved the tatty fire decal that the old owner had slapped on the helmet but the visor screen would mist over if I started breathing too heavy through my nose. Hitting sixty, I knew a fogged visor and limited visibility with trucks pulling out and merging would be a horrible combo.
So, I relaxed, pursing my lips, gently pushing air out through my mouth as I scanned the left-side of the road watching the trucks that wouldn’t see me despite the reflective stripes on my gear and my always-on headlight. I was so intent on the left side of the road, I nearly missed trouble swerving out in front of me from the access road I had decided to avoid because of the potholes.
Have I told you I hate pickup trucks?
I understand their value, of course. My stepson uses one for his work. But out here in Indiana, more often than not, it’s a status symbol with a Punisher logo proudly displayed on the back window along with an ALM sticker or Confederate flag decal. I slowed down, applying slow and steady pressure to the front brake as my foot dusted the rear brake. It was if the driver could smell my libtard four weeks in the saddle and knew how skittish I was. He swung out in front of me even though I had the right of way. When I talked to some of the guy’s at Chris’ asking them for any advice they had for new riders, they all told me the same thing.
“Don’t let your dick do the thinking.”
It’s easy to do though. A quick upshift to fifth (Fifth!) and I’d throttle up and around the asshole as I dusted the asshole before he knew it. I slowed down, he hauled ahead of me as I clocked his tail lights. I wished him ‘Happy Trails’ as he shot off down the onramp to the highway heading to Detroit as I approached the overpass. I had other things on my mind. I wasn’t letting the little head lead the big.
It was here the wind caught me good. I hadn’t noticed it before that much, running directly into it, and when I turned onto Ripley and avoided the cock-measuring contest with Mr. Truck You, I’d had my head on the ride and was still surrounded by trees. As I rose up over the ten lanes of high-ballers going East and West, I’d lost the cover of trees as the first squall hit me. It felt like a slap, shoving me over hard into the next lane. The only place I had to go was up onto the medium or into incoming traffic racing across from me in the other lanes.
I dropped back again, dropping the clutch as I geared down and feathered the front wheel brake cutting my speed by ten and then twenty as I kept moving forward in control of Betty. Big Cruisers and Touring bikes laugh at this kind of wind – but for a nimble girl like mine, it was as if she’d been strong-armed by a drunk football quarterback at the Prom. I checked my six, slipped over to the right lane and kept on keeping on as I cleared the overpass as I kept a wary eye on the cars spilling off to join me on the road.
Traffic from Chicago was pretty light at this time of day. I’d picked after breakfast and before lunch to go up to Chris’ to minimize the run-and-gun madness (plus that was close to his opening time and he was always busy) that was the morning rush. No way I was going to go head-to-head with the Dunkin’ crowd eager to load up on carbs and coffee. At this time of the morning, traffic pulling off the highway as just Moms and retirees looking for home. I tracked the cars pacing me and kept myself in the pocket making sure I had an escape route always as I glanced over to the donut joint on the left and then the gas station on the right. I made it all the way up to Walgreens on the corner and blazed through the intersection with my head on a swivel.
Dairy Queen has one of their old pocket kiosks on the left as your clear the intersection. It’s the kind of hut I remembered as a kid with a constant stream of traffic right up to Christmas time when it shuts down until January. Right in front of them, two lanes merge to one on my side so I checked my mirrors, did a blind spot check and thought about eating ice cream on a bike. I’d seen it before, hell, I’d seen people on their cellphones on a bike, because we have a no-helmet, no-problem law here that boggles the mind. Me, I’m ‘all the gear, all the time’ knowing that road rash or a broken head would not only cut short my ride time, it could end my life.
I merged, geared up again as I gunned by “Ream Girls”, the “D” missing for ever from the sign advertising the gentleman’s club as I got ready for the twisties ahead. Ripley weaves back and forth before it finally straightens and as the light dappled through the forest blanketing the covered bridge, I knew that special moment all bikers live for. Full and complete freedom, the light scattering through the evergreens as I leaned into my first and then second turn. The poet Walt Whitman goes on endlessly about the joy of nature and he’s not wrong. Feeling the trees flash by at forty, fifty, and sixty as Ripley undulated beneath me is that moment of transcendence you gotta ride to know.
Reeling in the moment, a white piece-of-shit Chrysler decided to break my reverie as it jumped the lane approaching me swinging wide into my path as the driver tip-tapped away on their phone now watching the road. Whitman didn’t say anything about moments like this.
Instinct is earned, minute by minute riding and the new biker hasn’t had enough experience to know what to do when life-or-death head-on horror decides to pay a visit. I slid right, into the safety run off as the idiot on his phone hauled himself back into his own lane without even acknowledging me. I was kicking up gravel on the shoulder, mouth-breathing again as the hammers in my chest started up again. If I’d slammed on the brakes or frozen, I’d be dead. No question. Taking a high-side into the front of a car with both of us at speed is a hundred mile an hour funeral for me. The dickwad on his phone would have a busted windshield after they pulled me out of it and maybe bruised ribs from his airbag going off. Me, dead or crippled.
I kept Betty level, my arms shaking as the cold steel tang of adrenaline leaked away. I should have pulled over, but I’d already made it more than halfway by my reckoning and I wasn’t stopping now. Fear’s tried to beat me down before and I won’t let her win. If I do, I know I won’t come back. And despite everything, I loved riding Betty. I tucked my knees into her gas tank as pushed back into our lane while I whispered softly to her in thanks. She’d performed beautifully, following my lead as we danced around the wayward Chrysler. For the very first time, it felt like I was riding her rather than barely keeping her under control. It was at that instance, I knew Betty was my girl and would be forever. She’d look after me always.
We zipped down Ripley, strip malls popping up on both sides like the Spring buds now appearing as I got ready for Ridge Road. Lanes were opening up ahead on both sides as I reminded myself I’d have to signal with my left hand my turn. I owed Betty the repair, feeling no longer stupid for dropping her but a sense of pride knowing that she’d be all good soon. Chris would take care of here and she’d be happy. I know I would be. It was my responsibility to make her right.
I pointed left, my arm out slow and easy like an old-timer I’d seen forever ago as a kid. I’d been going with my folks somewhere and this saddle tramp on a Chopper cruised pass us with no electrics visible. The guy would slowly point where he’d be going and then effortlessly shift lanes. There was something beautiful in his economy of motion, a simple gesture reinvented like a gunslinger pulling iron and laying down the law. He pointed, he went. I did the same with my own practiced draw echoing him in tribute.
By the time I hit the red light, I was still lost a little in memory as I prepared to turn left. I had a block and a half to go on Ridge, another left into Chris’s – and I had pole position at the light. I was first in line and by proximity alone in the left-hand lane, it was obvious to all that was the only place I was going. Traffic was light on Ridge, minivans and cagers of all size but none of the big rigs I’d braved earlier. They weren’t allowed this far into town. I’d left Betty in first, my left hand on the clutch, keeping her in gear and not slipping into the bad habit of kicking up to neutral for a break on my hands. I hadn’t taken the safety course yet, I still had my learner’s permit but I was due in April just a few weeks away and I was ready. I knew that staying in gear at a light was a good way to make sure you weren’t creamed from behind by someone oblivious to the fact you are there. In the case of an emergency, I could pull forward out of harms way. Too many riders had been tagged or creamed by unobservant drivers slurping their drinks or, more often than not, texting and rode right up on you.
For me, it was a Mom, talking, talking, talking on her phone with it on speaker as she juggled the wheel, her frothy drink and the not-so-handsfree phone. I clocked her having some kind of meltdown as she raced up on me. School? Her kids? Maybe some kind of bake sale PTA emergency? Either way, it was not going to end well for me. I flicked a look at the light (orange for the other guys, last-minute speedsters beating the red) as I anticipated. I had to. Bikes disappear from view head-on and with a heavily caffeinated soccer momma raging, I had two options again. Stay and take the hit – or I could blast the tail end of the other guys light competing with the exiting traffic.
Just before Karen (all of these mini-van Moms are Karen, you know?) tagged me, I opened up and blasted into the intersection hooking a left as she slammed on the brake’s half a car’s length out into the intersection. Right where I’d been and then some.
Now it was my time to have my hands full as I missed the UPS truck that had snuck through and bopped over a lane in front of another pickup truck. I’d cut him off, no question, as I notched up out of redline into second and swung back over once I cleared the first block and slowed down hard for Chris’ turnoff a half block away. Go fast, don’t die. Go fast, don’t die pounded in my head as I slid into the left-hand turn off and geared down.
“Breathe, breathe, you’re here…you’re here…”
Oncoming traffic was heavy, two full lanes of everything. So, I eyeballed the moment and waited. I could see Chris’ orange-fronted shop (the Harley color, of course) buried deep behind the now-closed discount gym and knew that all would be good once I landed. He’d fix the indicator as I went over to Taco Bell or Arby’s for a bite. By the time I’d finished my late breakfast, Betty would be back in business with both turn signals working. I didn’t have anything to worry about.
I was still deciding on a breakfast burrito or a steak Crunchwrap (the Bell had won out) when I saw my opening. I had a good five second window to turn into the lot and get started on my delayed brekkie. My stomach actually growled at the prospect. Releasing the clutch, a little too quick, I revved up – and stalled Betty as I was making the turn.
Cursing myself and checking the traffic, I still had four seconds. Plenty of time. I hit AutoStart again willing myself not to panic as the oncoming traffic bared down on me.
And I stalled again.
Breakfast was forgotten as the oncoming cars confirmed my time was running out. Nobody slowed down because none of them rode. They didn’t know I stalled. All they saw was some idiot biker blocking their path. He’d move, right?
Three seconds. I hit Auto again. Praying Betty to carry me on as I slowly throttled up and left out my clutch so gently. A mother cradling their newborns skull. An egg in my hand. Gentle. So gentle. I would either make it to Chris’ or I’d be creamed. There was nowhere to bail.
Betty held me and carried me forth. We hit the driveway doing 30 as the cars raced past oblivious to me. Sour sweat coated me as the rank taste of pennies filled my mouth. I’d bitten into my lip in fear of the inevitable impact. Betty slid pasted the deserted workout center (Only $10 for a month, no wonder they went broke), as my ragged breath filled my so-tight helmet. I didn’t even realize I’d been holding it. My vision fogged but I popped the visor open clearing it instantly. I turned into the shop’s garage bay and backed up neatly into a spot. I kicked down the stand and shut down praising Betty for her service. I’d ask her every ride to carry me home safe. It was a ritual for us both and I know she appreciated my kind words.
Stretching as I got off her, I pulled off my helmet and gloves, sticking my lid onto the sissy bar off the back. I stuffed the gloves away (Chris joked about the steel knuckles making me look like a tough guy). The shop always looked closed, even when it was open, with stickers and steel coating the front windows and door. A leering death’s head with ‘Enter at Your Own Risk’ was splattered across the metal facing naturally. Bikers dig skulls.
I tugged on the front door finding it locked. I snapped a glance at my watch and it was after ten. Where’s Chris? Today, there were a couple additions to the janky wrought-iron door that secured the place. A stained 4×6 index card and some kind of notice. The card said – Closed for Business. Death in the Family with a handwritten note on the bottom ‘Ride Safe.’ Chris’ handwriting was all spikes and capitals but the last note, ‘Ride Safe’ was written in a softer, feminine hand. I recognized the handwriting.
‘Ride Safe’, the bike rider’s credo, the exultation to every conversation when rider’s meet. An acknowledgement of the inherent risks of riding from one believer to another. It transcended age, race, religion, sex – everything. We were all in this together. Adding this spelled it out clear. The death was bike-related.
The second card, a death notice for a funeral, made it very clear who had gone down. I loved that photo. My wife had taken it when I got Betty and I was sitting on her in my new jacket, excited to finally be part of the club. It was like one of those Christmas pictures from long ago. You remember? When you got that one thing you’d been asking for? I didn’t even know it but I’d been waiting for Betty all my life.
I sat down on the curb and looked at my bike cooling in the sharp, cool day. I thought maybe I’d go still get that breakfast – but there was no rush. Maybe Betty and I could do another run now? Somewhere further, somewhere longer?
I could always come back tomorrow and see Chris.
Go fast, don’t die.
Julian Grant is a filmmaker, educator, and author of strange short stories, outlaw poetry, full-length novels/ non-fiction texts and outsider comix. A tenured Associate Professor at Columbia College Chicago, his work has been published by Dark Fire UK, Quail Bell, Avalon Literary Review, Crepe & Penn, Alternative History Magazine, Granfalloon, Altered Reality, The Chamber Magazine, Dark Lane Books, Clever Magazine, Peeking Cat Literary Journal, Danse Macabre, Fiction on the Web, Night Picnic, CafeLit, Horla, Bond Street Review, Piker Press, Retreats from Oblivion, Free Bundle, Filth Literary Magazine, Horror Sleaze Trash, The Mythic Circle, Murderous Ink Press, Superlative Literary Journal & The Adelaide Literary Magazine.
Find out more about him at www.juliangrant.com.