By Brian Coughlan
Last night I dreamt of a child’s heart-shaped face floating in the mirrored visor of his motorcycle helmet. Despite his snakelike soothing noises and the calming gestures of menacingly gloved hands her hysteria threatens to jeopardize his mission. The reflected terror when snatched by a leather clad stranger and forced onto the back of his motorbike is nothing compared to the moment when he slides up the visor to reveal a pitch-black void, her screams muffled by the engine roar. Abundant joy and relief are evident on her family’s faces when finally reunited with the rescued child, they embrace her joyfully, then turn to express their deepest gratitude, only to discover their hero trudging back to his idling chariot, concealed by a billowing cloud of blackest exhaust fumes, tersely refusing their offers of money, casting them in the undesirable role of faceless extras.
Then this morning I receive a phone call, which is in itself, something to remark upon, since nobody ever phones me anymore. The woman’s voice sounded distraught. Motorcycle Man was lying comatose on her couch. His bike had spun out of control just outside Virginia town and he was thrown clean off. Skidded fifty feet along the hard shoulder before coming to rest on the side of the road, unable to move. This woman (Claire) then called an ambulance, traveled with him to the hospital, answered all the questions, and was witness to the moment when they tried to take off his helmet, his berserk trashing of the triage screens. The only sensible thing she could get out of him was a phone number. He’s in excruciating pain but she can’t be sure of exactly what nature because he won’t talk to her unless it’s to ask her if I’m there yet.
My first reaction is a rapid onset of ice-cold reluctance to get involved. I’m an old man. I live with my daughter as a guest in her house. I’m like a fish that has hung around too long – I stink – and I can see it on the faces of the grandkids and that once obsequious son-in-law. They don’t want me here. I know that. On the other hand, it’s very comfortable in this room, I have my own television. I can watch whatever I want, whenever I want, so long as I keep the volume down low. On the cold winter nights I wonder what would have happened to me if I had stayed out there, sleeping rough, abusing myself the way I did for all those years; would I still be alive and if so just how pathetic and degrading would my existence have become were it not for the intervention of my friend and his chrome covered steed. He dragged me out of the gutter and brought me here. He saved my life.
I told Claire, in no uncertain terms, that Motorcycle Man was entirely her responsibility, as much as it pained me to say so, there was nothing I could do to help her. The phone returning arthritically to its cradle was a proper jab to the heart. I erupted into overflowing tears. I couldn’t stop myself from blubbering, blubbering like a very tired old man. I wasn’t crying for him (I thought): I was crying for myself. Here was the day. Here was the day of reckoning and I was too weak, too pathetic, to do anything. I turned up the volume on my antiques show as high as it would go; I wiped the tears from my eyes with a pocket handkerchief and blew my nose; I considered the build-up of moisture on the bedroom window as a sign of how cold it was outside; I opened/closed my pocket-knife multiple times; and I did a thousand other inconsequential things before I finally called Claire back to beg for her forgiveness, explaining my initial reaction as mere shock, and offering her my full and undivided assistance.
Motorcycle Man refuses a proper name. It remains buried somewhere in the past. He has nothing by way of possessions, just his motorbike, the leathers on his back, the helmet on his head, and those two ancient monolithic motorcycle boots. They comprise his armor, as he careers along our motorways and back roads and dirt tracks to the wild primal roar of his antiquated mongrel machine (a composite of every bike conceived since the beginning of creation) as a modern-day knight errant. Always at breakneck speed, always pushing to the ultimate his ability to expect the unexpected. Does he have a buried death wish? I’ve often wondered about that. Is Motorcycle Man empty on the inside? Is there really a beating heart inside those tarnished leathers? All the myths and rumors that enshroud his stick-insect frame lend an air of dark menace, stories that engorge an already prurient desire for gossip about his origins, when nobody knows a thing about his backstory, and never will.
It most certainly will not come from him, since he barely speaks a word, unless it’s unavoidable, and when he does speak, listen very carefully because he only ever elucidates in a rasping whisper and never repeats himself. If you miss something he said it’s entirely your own fault. His motives and ideals are entirely his own and have never been adequately described or written down anywhere. Pure moralist idealism fuels him, I suppose, although I don’t claim to be any expert with respect to his behavior or his beliefs. All I can say with any degree of certainty is that his past, whoever he was before the helmet and bike no longer exists and that his conduct and on what authority he acts has always remained clouded in mystery.
“You’re not going to Cavan!” my daughter screamed.
Arms crossed. A vein throbbing in the centre of her forehead. Of course, I could see her point of view. How responsible would it be to give money to an old man like me, an old man threatening to go half-way across the country, when undoubtedly he would end up in the nearest bar, piss it all away, and then slope back to the house with some cock and bull story about getting set-upon by teenagers! It was familiar territory for her. I had put her through so much already. Would it be likely that I would take-off with no money in my pocket on a cold November night for a distant part of the country. Hardly. Therefore, my request for funding was emphatically denied. Regardless, I headed for the door with a shrug of shoulder and a bag of rags thrown over my back.
“If you leave this house don’t think you can just…”
I walked for two miles and then slid down a steep grassy bank on my heels to the main road. My thumb pumped itself up, at the end of an outstretched and trembling arm. My first lift was with a lorry-driver who had to get out and help me climb up into the cab seeing as it was easily six feet up off the ground. A push to my bony backside and I was able to drag myself inside and close the door behind me. Once we got to rolling, he asked me my business, and was tickled pink to hear me talk freely about my old friend, and how for once he needed me. It felt good to be treated like an adult for a change. To be given the respect of a listening ear and to smoke my first cigarette in many years. How long it had been, since anyone had listened to me, and not with that distracted air, as if some wrinkled old piece of skin wrapped around a skeleton was moving its jaw up and down, like a turtle.
“Good for you, old timer.”
Yes, the lorry-driver applauded my zest for life, the condescending cunt.
My second lift was with a middle-aged woman and her teenage son. She was eager to know what a man of my age was doing out so late at night. I didn’t tell her much. She would have pulled over and insisted on calling my daughter. She reminded me a lot of my daughter, that same self-righteous tone, ‘it’s for your own good’ her way to quieten my protests. I told her I was on my way to blessed adoration in the chapel. Every hour of every day required someone to be present with the host. She went out of her way to deliver me to the church, and from there I hitched a ride with a priest, and then a barman, after that a butcher’s apprentice, a used car-salesman, a van load of stoned boys in a covers band whose name escapes me, and then a factory worker on the way home from a twelve-hour shift.
This puny old body and sparse grey hair no doubt helped ferry me from one side of the country to the other. A harmless old man. It took six hours without sleep, water, or food but I made it to the home of the woman I’d talked to on the phone. To Claire’s house. Right to her doorstep; a modest house in a decent housing estate on the outskirts of the town. She answered the door to a stinking, weary, old man, and invited me, without a moment’s hesitation inside her home. What struck me first was the lack of room in the hallway. I had to shimmy past piles of newspapers and disused furniture and black bin liners of unidentifiable ‘stuff’. A hoarder. I ignored her offer of tea and the possible effects it would have on me to ask for directions to the injured party.
There he is, lying hunched-up on the couch, still in his leathers and with his helmet and visor pulled down to cover his eyes. The only concession he’s made to being injured is to have removed his Motorcycle boots. They stand neatly to attention beside the couch. Neat beside each other and stinking to high heaven. The insides are like the rotting entrails of some kind of roadkill so far gone with putrefaction that you cannot tell what animal it was to begin with. I have need to stagger backwards from the smell and as I do there’s a bag of rubbish that gets kicked all over the floor and it wakes him up so that he beckons to me with a gloved hand to come close.
He needs to tell me something but there’s no way of gathering what he’s saying because his voice has dropped to no more than a faint sibilance. When I suggest taking off his helmet, to hear him better, his entire body convulses. With some difficulty he pulls back his helmet, using both his hands, so that I can see his putrid mouth; at which point he begins to whine and whimper about not wanting to die. "Cut that shit out!” I tell him.
It’s behavior unworthy of a man of his stature. A man who’s seen the kind of things he’s seen. A man who has witnessed every kind of depravity and made it his business to clean up the mess. The stench of his whimpering acts like smelling salts. My tiredness and hunger slink away into the shadows of the room. Adrenaline seeps out of my pores. My silent fury prompts him to sit up in his sick bed, to hack up a large dollop of garish green phlegm. I’ve developed a crick in my neck from staring at him in this awkward position.
Claire describes where the bike is hidden (she pulled it off the road and covered it in a blanket) and informs me that we need to leave as soon as we are ready, which means now: her partner is returning from the Middle East where he works in some capacity on the construction of tower blocks. No offence but we present an unusual sight: two withered old crones, one wearing a helmet and the other a wretched long face. She’ll drive us to the place where the bike is concealed and after that we will have to look after ourselves. I watch her change Motorcycle Man’s incontinence nappy and clean his arse, while the tiny white skinned body writhes in agony, its withered penis ejecting a thin drizzle of dark orange piss into an old pot.
Soon I will be wholly responsible for the care of this defenseless mewling creature who still refuses to remove his motorcycle helmet. Soon he will be wholly dependent on me for his survival. With no time to think, Claire talks me through the activities I’ll need to perform to keep his wound from becoming infected: hands me a plastic bag with all the medical items I’ll need and even offers me the lend of a wheelchair. ‘Jesus, the time!’ and she ferries her aged cargo in silence to the blackspot on the road where the accident took place. She hands me a flashlight, wishes us luck, says her goodbyes in a faraway voice and drives off.
I heave him across my back in a fireman’s lift, his arms and legs dangling and wonder at where this strength has come from.
Mechanically there’s nothing wrong with the bike and I get it started on just a fourth attempt. Roaring into life it strains beneath me to gun straight out of there, in a spray of loose chippings. I let it take control and catapult the pair of us into the darkness. Motorcycle Man clings onto my back. He sways with the movement of the bike around every dip and turn of the road as I open her up. Two helmeted old men contorting the space between time and death; moving into the future. I begin to appreciate just how truly miserable I was in my daughter’s prison room as we overtake a forty-foot articulated lorry and are lauded by its driver with an elephantine bellowing of its twin mounted trumpet air horn, lauded like the gods that we are, on this darkest night of near zero visibility and constant searing sleet, tearing its way through my clothes and into my bones. A touch from Motorcycle Man on my shoulder alerts me to the exit he wants us to take and I feel him move an envelope inside my jacket, deposited in the inside breast pocket.
After the slip road we make the acquaintance of a deliciously desolate winding route through a cavalcade of darkly nodding trees. The bike slides and slaloms through the gathering surface water before I hit a nasty pothole obscured by the sheen and sending the bike into a wearied sway that kicks Motorcycle Man off the back, his grip having loosened entirely – sending him skidding across the road into a waterlogged ditch. I stop the bike with an inelegant skid and lumber through the darkness, armed with a flashlight, to fish his body out of the ditch. I wrench at his helmet with every ounce of my strength but it will not detach from his head. For the briefest moment I question whether or not he is still present. I pull with every remaining ounce of puny strength until I can see those two baby blue eyes staring lifelessly at his trembling acolyte.
His faded leathers fit just fine. That is to say that they are skintight all over my body but that will change. I’ll shrink to fit them. His boots too will fit me – I insist on that. It doesn’t matter what size they are. I’ll stretch them out to meet mine. To have stripped his body in such a manner and left his remains in a ditch might seem cold or indifferent but it’s what he would have wanted; these fleshy appendages and sagging frames are nothing more than a transport mechanism – once the spirit has departed there is no other course of action but to pick the bones clean, to tear away the leather and let the creatures of the earth take away the flesh, as the microbial growth eat us from inside out. Besides, he would also have known that I couldn’t afford to bury him, having at my disposal, no funds whatsoever.
A naked little body in tattered underwear sinking under brackish water.
Everything thus far seems like a dress rehearsal for this moment of coronation. The moment when I pull on his helmet and feel his fetid stench become my fetid stench. The visor through which I now view the world smears everything with a bleak streaky grey. The envelope and inside it a brief letter of instruction. His barely decipherable scribble describing the next case, their last known address, hair color, height, eyes, nickname; a very brief bio of a troubled teenager with head placed inside the jaws of temptation. And so now I assume those responsibilities, the awful burden, and of course the endless hardships that go hand in hand with this position, as none too subtle anxieties are ignited by the sound of my panicky breathing inside this over-sized motorcycle helmet: I want to go home… I need to lie down and rest… I can’t do this…
The leathers respond by constricting around my calves, thighs, across either gluteus maximus, all up along the back and shoulders and across the chest, to become as tight as a new layer of skin. The old skin remember discarded in a ditch. The new skin holds me together, as the motorcycle boots fasten my feet tighter to the bike, and as if trying to focus my attention, the visor of the helmet turns opaque so that my field of vision is reduced down to a tiny corona, and with that a breathless whispering in my ear – I willingly submit to these same strident instructions with screams muffled by engine’s roar.
Brian Coughlan lives in Galway City, Ireland. His first collection of short stories Wattle & daub was published by Etruscan Press in 2018 and was a Foreword Indies Finalist. He has published work with Litro NY, Storgy, The Galway Review, Bohemyth, Litbreak Magazine, Lunaris Review, Fictive Dream, ChangeSeven Magazine, and Crack the Spine, among others.