Dedicated to Glenys Tarlow
In memory of her son, Andy Tarlow
No mist hung in vaporous layers around Ron’s home as Steve had expected. He halted on the walkway and squinted against the early morning California sun. Velvet green grass surrounded the Victorian house that rose three stories high into the powder blue sky. A far cry from his vision of cobblestone streets lined with narrow brick homes, separated here and there by dank alleyways.
“Too many ghost stories,” he laughed, then repeated in a murmur, “Ghost stories” as memory surfaced of that first time him and Ron camped out in Ron’s backyard in upstate New York. How many years had passed since they’d rummaged a flashlight from the garage and, with nothing but that tiny light illuminating the pup tent, had told ghost stories late into the night?
Each claimed the chill in the air was why they’d buried their heads in the down sleeping bags when they finally turned off the light. Sure, May in upstate New York could be cool, but both knew the ghostly figures conjured in their imaginations had mingled with nightlife sounds beyond their tent to bring on that chill.
Steve breathed deep. A chill hung in the northern California air. Not surprising. It was, after all, May again. The memory faded and the home in front of him shimmered back into focus.
“You and Peg have come a long way from that two room apartment in San Francisco.” He laughed. “Hell you’ve come a long way since the days we shared that one bedroom with those two surfer bums.” He grimaced. Four guys in one room with a single bathroom had been a bit much even for him.
He strode up the walkway to the house, then halted, a foot on the first porch step. Narrow panels of beveled glass ran along the outer edges of the oak door straight ahead. Where brass accents should have been, custom chrome plating had been installed instead. But the door and all its trimmings only acted as a frame for the pale yellow Plymouth Road Runner that, etched and painted to perfection into the glass, spanned the width of the door. He took the remaining three steps in one leap and reached the door in two paces.
“Nineteen sixty-eight.” Steve whistled through his teeth, tracing the trim lines of the car with his gaze. “You always had style, Ron.”
Steve leaned forward and squinted to make out the tiny figure of a roadrunner painted on the side of the car. “Remember when Plymouth tried to make the horn sound like the roadrunner?” He laughed. “Those were the days, weren’t they, buddy?”
He shifted his attention to the Plymouth’s hood. “Stock three eighty-three, could do the quarter mile in fifteen seconds at ninety-six miles per hour. I’m surprised you didn’t have the engine painted in.” He reached out intending to touch the glass, but stopped. “Yeah, those were the days,” he whispered, then stepped inside the house.
In the foyer, Steve glanced left at the stairs, then turned right and passed through an arched doorway into the living room. As if he had entered the twilight zone, the furnishings melted away and his mind centered on the lone object sitting in the far right hand corner of the room.
He stared, rooted to the spot. “Jesus, I wouldn’t have—didn’t—believe it.”
He forced his legs into motion and crossed the carpet to the ‘77 Harley Davidson XR750.
Hours might have passed before he finally reached toward the bike. His fingers nearly touched the gas tank when he jerked back as though the Harley had snapped at him.
“Get a grip,” he muttered, and again stretched his hand forward. This time, he forced his fingers along a slow, illusionary line down the glassy smooth gas tank. A memory prompted and he squatted eye level with the tangle of chrome exhaust pipes to look for nicks in the metal he knew couldn’t possibly be there.
“Nineteen eighty-one,” he murmured. “I took one helluva spill on High Mountain Crest road.” Steve grimaced. “Not a great place to lose it on a bike.” He hadn’t thought of that in how long?
Steve broke from the memory, startled by the realization that none of it—not the wonder of birth, the pain of living, the shock of death—nothing had prepared him for this, for what Ron had done.
“That’s the power of love, baby,” his mind replied.
He jerked and would have knocked the bike over if not for his hand going straight through the metal. Steve regained his balance, then loosened his fingers only to work them into a fist as he slowed the breathing that was nothing more than a figment of his imagination. Why the refusal to let go? He laughed, this time without mirth.
“Yeah, that’s right, let go.” Only where should what was left of him go? “Damn, you’re doing it to me again, Ron. You’re not in the room—hell, not even on the same dimension—yet you’ve got me philosophizing.”
Somewhere on the second floor a door shut. Steve glanced toward the ceiling. Apparently the occupants of the house had roused.
“Dammit, Peg,” Ron’s voice echoed from the upstairs hallway.
Still squatting, Steve stared through the archway at the stairs. An instant later, Ron’s checked pajama-clad legs came into view, then his body as he took the steps two at a time. Peggy hurried along behind, her petite form wrapped in a white terrycloth robe.
“Don’t tell me it’s just a dream,” Ron said.
“Honey,” Peggy began, but Ron already stood in the archway, looking directly at Steve—or the bike, Steve amended. Ron couldn’t see him.
Peggy came up alongside Ron and placed a hand on his arm. “See, he’s not here.”
“You don’t dream when you’re awake.” Ron shrugged her off and started toward the bike.
Steve rose, taking an instinctual step back before remembering Ron couldn’t have tripped over him if he’d tried.
“I’m telling you, I heard something,” Ron circled the motorcycle.
Peggy sighed, her worried gaze following him. “There’s nothing here,” she said as he ran a finger along the seat much in the same way Steve had tried to. “There never is.”
Ron’s head riveted in her direction. “Today’s different.” He gave her a look that vacillated between a please believe me and a don’t bother if you don’t believe me look. “I’m not going crazy,” he muttered.
Steve couldn’t help a smile. The don’t bother if you don’t believe me look had obviously won out.
“I know,” Peggy replied. “But it’s probably just because you’re remembering. You’ve never once forgotten the anniversary.”
Steve staggered back, not because of the raw pain that appeared on his friend’s face, but because he had forgotten. He looked around in a wild and ridiculous attempt to locate anything that would tell him what today’s date was, but Peggy answered the question. “It’s been twelve years, honey. Twelve years to the day.”
Steve’s gaze hooked on Peg as if she was a hypnotist and he was helpless under her spell. May 23rd, twelve years to the day. How had he forgotten?
Maybe because being in a coma five months made Swiss cheese of a person’s brain? What was with the month of May anyway? They’d had that first campout in May, he’d made his final checkout in May, and here he was, back to settle up. All-in-May.
When April showers bring May flowers. The words to the old song played in his mind. Steve shoved at air as if able to push the music from him in the same way he might push aside a low hanging branch that barred his way along some winding path. He swung his gaze back to Ron, who still stared at the bike.
“How’d you do it, Ron?” he asked. “How did you track down the bike?”
It had been sixteen years between the time Steve had sold the Harley and Ron had searched for it. Searched for it, and found it. Found it, and set it up as a shrine. For how long, twelve years?
“It was a noble gesture, Ron, damn noble, but you shouldn’t have done it. Let me go.”
“You’ve got to let him go,” Peggy said.
Steve froze, then relaxed. “I always said you were a bright one.” He looked at Ron. “Listen to her. Don’t waste anymore time on a man you can’t help.”
“You’re not helping him by holding on,” Peggy said.
“Jesus, you-are-good.” Steve circled Peggy. “You sure you’re not connected to my brainwaves?” He gave her an appraising look. “You got lucky here, Ron.”
But he’d been just as lucky with Jen. Only seeing her every day in the hospital room when he’d been sick had been even harder than facing Ron. A wobbly smile spread across his face. Life, death, nothing got easier as you went along.
Peggy started to open her mouth, but Ron wasn’t paying attention, he was examining the bike, and she closed her mouth.
Steve swung his fist through the air at nothing, spinning halfway around on one foot. “Ah, babe, so close. You know you want to tell him. You know he needs to hear the truth. Tell him, Peg, go on. Tell him it’s time to retire the bike.”
“Is this what you think he’d want?” she asked.
Ron hesitated, then slowly faced her. “Yes.”
“I knew him better than anyone did,” he cut her off. “The Harley was a part of him, and he was—is—a part of me.” Ron looked again at the motorcycle. “It was the first bike he bought when we moved out here from New York. A real vintage bike, you know. Gave us plenty of prestige. Steve knew it would. People were ready to dole out the money for a detail shop when one of the owners owned a genuine World’s Best Evil Knievel replica.” Ron grinned. “A pretty good babe magnet, too.”
Steve smiled, remembering that first day he’d seen Jen and the look on her face when he’d driven up to the shop. She had been ordered by good old dad to get the family car detailed by the best in the valley.
“That’s right, baby,” he told her when she asked if they were the best. “We’re the best.” He had purposely smiled at that point. “I’m the best.” The look on her face wasn’t quite what he’d hoped for, but she had smiled back, and the rest, as they say, was history.
“He’ll always be a part of me,” Ron broke into Steve’s reverie.
“And you’ll always be a part of me,” Steve said. “But it’s time to let go—let me go.”
“He’s here,” Ron said. “I can’t turn my back on him.”
“Jesus.” An unexpected rush of warmth filled Steve. His chest tightened. “You’re still too damn close.”
Peggy stepped closer to Ron. “He’s here because you keep him here.”
Something inside Steve tugged hard. He shifted his gaze in wild confusion for the source of the unknown feeling until he’d come round full circle as Ron said, “I said good-bye to him.” Ron raised his hand when it was obvious she would rebut. “I did. Despite how hard it was watching him waste away with that goddamn brain tumor. But I said good-bye. I had plenty of time while he was in the coma.” Ron’s gaze dropped to the bike, his mouth set hard.
“At least he didn’t know anything,” she offered.
Ron’s head snapped up. “He knew.”
Another tug. This time, Steve felt as if a rope tied to something inside him had been given a vicious pull by the man behind the curtain.
“He knew everything.” Ron said, his mouth tightening even harder. “He responded to me.”
Peggy placed a hand on his arm. “We don’t know that for sure.”
Ron shot her a belligerent look.
“Don’t you prefer to believe he wasn’t in pain?” she asked.
“Hell, yeah,” Ron burst out. “But it isn’t the truth, and to ignore it would be to abandon the best friend I ever had.”
The blood drained from her face.
“Oh, Peg,” he said, his expression typical of a man who’d hurt a woman, but didn’t know how to change the words any more than he knew not to say them in the first place. “You know what I mean,” he mumbled.
“I think sometimes I do,” she replied slowly. “What matters now—”
“What matters now,” Ron interrupted, but Steve didn’t hear. Another tug on the imaginary rope yanked him forward.
He had been aware.
Memories surfaced, a flood from deep within his being. The hospital room, the visits, friends, family, Jen…Ron. Long vigils in the night, Jen…Ron. Jen had cried. How many nights had she lain her head on his shoulder and cried? And he’d never once been able to reach up and stroke that strawberry blond hair. Strawberry blond. Where did they come up with a color like that? It wasn’t strawberry color, and it wasn’t blond. More like the color of honey, and just as soft as honey was sweet. Not once in five months had he been able to touch her.
And Ron had always been there. Mom was there, Ron was there. Peg was there. Ron, always there. Jen. Ron always left when Jen came, but he saw her cry. Tear for tear he’d matched her, standing outside the private room looking in through the window, he’d watched, and he’d grieved.
Another brutal tug. Steve was breathing hard now. Not the shallow breathing he always imagined he felt, but bona fide, pedal-to-the-metal, lung-searing breaths.
Ron hadn’t grieved just for himself. He’d grieved for everyone.
Another tug, this one so hard Steve felt as though his heart would rip out through his chest.
Jesus—Jesus—God. Ron had grieved for everyone. Everyone. Especially him. Steve looked at Ron. For him. Ron was doing his grieving for him. Doing what Steve had been unable to do himself. And he was still doing it.
Steve bent forward, hands braced on his knees, and looked upwards, his mind’s eye seeing past the ceiling, the blue skies, into the nothingness beyond. “And you,” he tried to yell, but the words were strangled as if his heart had constricted, twisting a body he didn’t have anymore. Still, he kept his gaze steady. “You knew all along it was me who needed—goddamn you! God—damn—you!”
Steve fell to his knees, his head hung low, swinging from side to side like a bull elephant who had just lost his mate and was gearing up to charge the great white hunter. Suddenly he stopped, and laughed a low laugh, just harsh enough to cause an echo of pain along the path of an illusionary throat.
“But I can’t even say that, can I? You made even that impossible.
“Goddamn you,” he ground out. “Goddamn God.” His head tilted from left to right, right to left as he chanted, “Goddamn you—Goddamn God,” the rhythm taking on a mesmerizing beat until the litany choked him, and he slumped in on himself.
“Goddamn,” he repeated, the word reduced to nothing but a whisper. “I haven’t come so Ron can say good-bye to me.” A chill raced past what should have been his body, past his soul—to him. “It’s me.” The words barely found form. “It’s me,” he whispered. “Me who hasn’t said good-bye.”
A tear trickled down his cheek. After learning he was dying, he’d had nearly a year to say good-bye. But he hadn’t been able to cast—exorcise—from his life those people who meant everything to him. How was he supposed to do it now, in a single day? Not even a day, but a morning, an hour…a moment.
Steve looked at Ron. Ron had done it. He’d done it by keeping the bike. He’d let go, but what had Peggy said? Ron had never forgotten. A wave of something as indefinable as love, yet as tangible as the sigh Jen used to give when he kissed her, rushed through Steve. Ron wouldn’t—couldn’t—didn’t want to forget. But Steve had wanted to forget, or thought he had to.
“When I know he’s ok, then I’ll be ok.” Ron’s voice yanked Steve back as if Ron had been the one holding that imaginary rope and, in that instant, Steve couldn’t regret loving them. Yet, that was exactly what he had done.
How much easier was it to die alone, than to face the fact everyone went on without you…or that you had to go on without them?
Steve rose onto shaky legs and walked slowly to Ron. He passed a hand across Ron’s shoulder as he continued toward the bike. His friend shivered, looking straight at Steve as if he could see him.
“No man can ever fully master memory, Ron.” Steve swung a leg over the motorcycle. “But maybe, just maybe, he can learn to live with it. Even be glad for it.”
Steve settled his body onto the seat, wrapped fingers around the handles, and drew in a slow breath.
That’s the power of love, baby. An engine sputter broke the silence and the Harley sprang to life.
Peggy shrieked and jumped back, grabbing Ron’s arm. Ron stood motionless, eyes glued to the motorcycle.
Steve smiled. “That’s right, Ron. It’s just me. Come to say, so long.” He raised a hand and gave a two-fingered salute. “It’s not good-bye. Good friends never say good-bye. Just; later.”
He squeezed the clutch and pushed forward with his feet, a reflection of the bike slowly separating from the mother image.
“Good God in heaven,” Ron whispered, eyes still on the now quiet bike.
Steve stopped a few feet from them. “I’ll keep this part.” He patted the belly of his bike. “You keep that part. One of these days we’ll bring them back together. Right now I’m going to need it for another trip. Cross country this time of year is great.”
Peggy broke away from staring at the bike. “Ron,” she whispered in a trembling voice, “we’ve got to call Jenny. It’s barely four o’clock in New York, but…” She went silent.
Steve gave a single nod. “Damn, you are a smart girl. You call her.” He pressed the gear shift with his foot, clicking down until it stopped in first gear. “Tell her I’m on my way.”