Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Prince of Denmark’s Ride

Work a few hours dispatching police officers and feel the weight of the world on your shoulders. The possibility then of a half hour ride home at two in the morning, flying through the night, rising above the Earth across the narrow bridges, floating by motorcycle, carving a path like Moses between the silvery waters of the Saddlebunch Keys, is exciting enough to wake a dead man, never mind one merely exhausted by a too demanding routine. I pity my colleagues, who live within minutes of work, or worse, the ones who live their commutes boxed in their cars, delivered back and forth like endless re-gifts, between home and work all year long. “Too dangerous” they say as they watch me dress up in the police station parking lot. What they don’t see is the blood fizzling, the possibilities lined up endlessly down the highway, a few cars to pass, a couple of somewhat deep turns to make, rain, wind and moonlight: what will the highway offer this morning?

The ride through the urban mess that is Key West’s northern approaches is just a warm up. The repetitive traffic lights, stopping and starting all night, the mindless cab drivers changing lanes on a whim, the angry SUV drivers that even at two in the morning deluded by drink no doubt, still hold the belief that because they drive large insulated boxes they should own the road. Not when I am in the mood they don’t. Even at two in the morning I cut and carve my way to a quiet, empty spot on North Roosevelt, leaving the slow pokes lumbering behind, while I streak for Stock Island past Sears and MacDonald's and the Welcome Center.

The sharp curve at The Triangle is the best chance I have to scrape the toe of my boot on pavement on the ride home, and if the gods are feeling benign I can hit the light on a green and take the tight left hander just so, apex at the corner of the median, straighten up, and I’m over the hump of the Cow Key Bridge before the self important SUV has even turned the corner. Past Stock Island, past Boca Chica, past Big Coppitt, past the last damned street light, the last human illumination, the last promise of all night gas, and the Bonneville leaps forward into the night. Antoine de Saint-Exupery never had it so good on his Night Flight. At last I’ve broken free of Earth’s restraints, and with a little judicious spotting I should be able to cross the vasty depths of this dark space without conjuring up Glendower’s devils dressed in green, riding gold striped chariots armed with radar guns. The Bonneville purrs at seventy miles an hour, it flattens the bumps in the always wrecked surface of the Highway, the headlight offers a cone of protection illuminating asphalt, grass, lime stone and mangrove as we fly between the tiny islands attached by the merest thread of pavement.

There are those nights of call taking and dispatching that somehow overwhelm me and my romantic inclinations toward motorcycling immortality and leave me feeling exhausted despite possibility of a ride. Those are the nights I secretly wish I had the car and the stereo and the sounds of Miami’s overnight Caribbean beat and the soft Caribbean vowels of Jeanette Drew in my ears and in my heart instead of the sibilant shriek of the wind. Once I stopped at the park behind Baby’s Coffee and stretched out on a picnic table, fully armored, and snored into my helmet for a few refreshing minutes. Another time when the ride was unable to revive me I stopped at… well, suffice it to say I have lots of stopping places along my way, places to sleep, perchance to dream, and once I even fell asleep while riding, a momentary blink, “to die, to sleep- no more!” I learned to stop and rest on those most awful nights.

Sometimes I stop for fun. Those are the nights every cell is alive, usually in summer riding in my shirt sleeves, and as annoying as the cliché may be, the tropical night really is soft on the skin and seductive with it. I want, on those nights to prolong the contact, to feel the night air and see the stars a few minutes more. To stop and lay down on the shoulder when wide awake is to enjoy the greatest show on Earth, infinity laid out above you, horizon to horizon, pin pricks of light hinting at what’s to come when we ride to the bourne from which no traveler returns.

That night I was tired, no gainsaying it, six hours of work and I was wiped out. That night I was riding to get home, to turn my back on the immensity of creation and the hogwash that exuberance can bring and all I wanted was my bed. By the time I had reached Summerland Key it started to feel as though suicide by motorcycle was once again on the cards, and like Hamlet I worry that perhaps the grave is not the quiet and restful place fondly imagined.

To die—to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there's the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause—there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.

Clearly it was time to stop and pause and take a breath. The coke machine at the Mobil gas station sounded like the ideal spot to refresh my thoughts and get back in gear for the last few miles home.

The lights were on illuminating the bright white building as though it were day. The silence of the stillness after the engine went to sleep deafened my ears. Mine is a factory muffled motorcycle but the effect of wind and engine combine to produce a strange cocoon within which the rider rides, a cloud of noise made empty by the absence of movement. Stationary and silent the night rushed back in to fill the void. The coins chinked in the machine, noisily the can rattled through the bowels and landed in my hand. It was only then I noticed I was not alone when silence returned after all the sudden dispensing activity.
“Please,” she said motioning to the bench next to her, “don’t mind me.”
I took my seat and fizzed the can open. “I have more coins,” I said motioning the silver bullet towards her. She smiled and shook her head. “I don’t drink soda,” she said.
“Neither do I as a general rule but sometimes caffeine is the only power that will get me home safely.” The cold caramel carbon tasted like nectar, the promise of strength and vitality sold under a label that delivers gas and fat and tooth decay. I sucked it down.

“Going far?”
“Not really, I’m almost at the end of my commute. I just got hit by a wave of sleep.”
“Good idea to stop,” she said and I expected to hear the lecture on the dangerous nature inherent to two wheels.
“It’s been a long night, “I said casting the empty can to the ground at my feet. “Aren’t you going to tell me motorcycles are dangerous?”
“I am sure you know that as well as I do, else you’d not have stopped to rest and gather yourself.”
“Riding is the only way I make sense of the commute,” I said. She was not dressed for riding, long blond hair laying loose across her shoulders, what looked to me to be a rather old fashioned summer frock, tight in the white bodice and full and splayed around her legs. She was a picture.

“I’d give you a ride home but you aren’t really dressed,” I said, for I could see no car nor bicycle around to explain her presence. She laughed and looked at me, gray piercing eyes measuring me up. “Are you going far?” No, she said not far; but she said no more and we sat for a while looking out at the empty highway.
“I used to ride a Bonneville once,” she broke the companionable silence with a sentence that startled me. Many times old men come up and spontaneously reminisce about their youth and their Triumphs of yesteryear; rarely does a nymph of thirty start the same conversation.
“Really?” I said, stumped for a reply to this intelligence.

“Well,” she paused, “it was my boyfriend’s in point of fact. He went everywhere on it, a sky blue flash of sound and fury up and down and around the Keys. It was an old ride even when we rode it together, an anachronism of noise and oil. He loved it and would have no car.”
“I never had one of the old ones,” I said. “I was waiting for them to build me a boring reliable one like this.”
“He wasn’t boring, though he was reliable enough that we got engaged,” she said and I wasn’t at all sure she remembered I was there. Her words came through a curtain of introspection, so much that I feared to intrude by speaking. “We spent hours of our lives riding, we went up the Highway to Miami for the day or Big Pine for lunch, we circled Key West and circled the state; and it feels as though we spent more time in the saddle than we did in the rest of our lives combined.” She spoke like an old woman reminiscing which was disconcerting when I looked at her, young and lovely even under the harsh white lights. “The old highway was much more of a challenge than you find this new one to be, I’m sure.”
“New is a relative term, considering this one’s almost thirty years old and has the potholes to prove it.”
“True enough- but us old timers still think of this one as new.” Plastic surgery is a wonderful thing I thought as I looked at her, and made a mental note to consider it for myself on growing older.

“Had we been riding the new road perhaps we would still be alive,” she said, or I thought she said. That got my attention as it was supposed to; her timing was impeccable as she dropped heavy weights of conversation between us. She sat composed, her skirts spread out around her crossed knees like a flower in white, a summer wedding dress. She held her hands folded in her lap one squeezing the other like a reflexive massage but she waved them suddenly at me, her long slim fingers devoid of jewelry I noticed and, feeling required to I obeyed their implicit command. I returned my weight to my feet and settled back down to wait for the rest of the story.

“Not much to tell,” she went on as though reading my thoughts. “It was a hot summer night like this and we lived in Big Pine in a unit behind his parent’s house. We came and went as we pleased and that night we were returning from an evening in Key West. The road was empty, like this, and we made good time on the narrow strip of road that carried all traffic through the islands. We wore street clothes and I had my arms wrapped tight around his waist, my head on his shoulder and we talked, or rather shouted, as we flew through the night. It was here, at about this time, that the car, the only car of the night that I can recall, met us on the bridge, the old bridge where these days they fish. He came toward us across the line, not by a little but by a lot as though we were two magnets attracted to each other. We could see it coming, we stopped and hugged the side of the bridge, leaning the motorcycle out of the lane as though willing the drunk to squeeze by but there was no room, and I remember nothing else.”
She told the story matter of factly as though told many times and this was one more repetition of known facts for one more audience.
“He was dead, the bike was dead and I was dead and thus it was my life ended. I have no desire any more to ride a Bonneville, as you can see.”
“I’m glad you had the courage to come back from such a thing,” I said casting around for some bromide in the face of disaster.
“I never did. It was the death of me that ride.”

We sat there for a while longer. I was unwilling to leave her there out of some obscure sense of propriety, a woman alone carrying an immense burden, as though I could do anything at all to alleviate the ache simply by sitting next to her.
“You should go,” she once again read my mind. “You have people at home expecting you. They’ll be worried if you’re overdue.”
“What about you?”
“I’ve been carrying this weight an eternity. There is no relief for me.” She smiled as she said it, as though to ease the unease of my conscience. “Be careful though won’t you? They annoy you those who say that all the time, but from me you can take the words at face value, knowing what I know.”
I nodded. She went on: “Sometimes you just have to live your fate and that was mine. Yours may be the same, who knows, but you can still weigh the odds in your favor. Take care.”

The words were a dismissal and I rose. I hadn’t been going to put my helmet and gloves back on but after this conversation I thought twice and did right by myself. Usually chance meetings in the Keys produce conversations that center on the weather- how nice it is, how pleasant not to be shoveling snow- the boring bromides of a strange encounter and produced by a dreary fear of causing offense. I couldn’t say the same about this conversation and I turned to tell her so but I was alone again. The coke can was there on the floor next to the bench, I picked it up and dropped it in the trash, and lost to sight the last piece of evidence, if that was what it was, of the brief encounter.

Perhaps, I speculated she lived behind the gas station and I had interrupted her nocturnal walk. Perhaps she had been a dream, but if she was a dream the conversation we wraiths had had, did not leave me, much as upon wakening from a dream the emotions dreamed still live on in our heads.

I looked both ways twice as I paused before re-entering the highway. All was dark, I turned east and changed gears picking up speed, passing briefly under one last street light before launching into the darkness of the Niles Channel bridge rising up like a launch ramp before me.
The wind caught my helmet and whirled around inside my head in a cacophony of sound, a squealing as of brakes, screeching as of tires, a loud hollow thunk and momentary silence before the speed of the cycle restored the wind to its customary pitch in my ears.

All that live must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.

Better this way than many another, I thought as I turned off onto my street, glad for once to be home and not still out there on the highway that is so straight and boring and yet so full of surprises.