Today, April 23rd, 2010, is my father’s birthday. He would have been sixty-eight, if he had made it. I’ll need to call Susan, his wife, in a little while, just because. It will be a tough call, I know, lonely and sad for both of us. And Susan will ask me, again, what things of my dad’s do I want. Do I want any of his shirts? What about his trumpet, his electric bass guitar? And mostly, do I want the motorcycles? I really don’t want to even think about all that now. It’s just too soon, and it all seems so vicious and predatory. I do understand Susan’s need though. It’s all part of the sad, but necessary tidying up that needs to be done after a death.
My father loved motorcycles, just adored them in the same boyish way he did many of the world’s loud and potentially threatening items. Like fighter jets, and Jimi Hendrix. (Other things he loved: black licorice, Miles Davis, dogs, truly horrible horror movies). Dad rode motorcycles to the bitter end, when the cigarettes had finally done his lungs in and the oxygen tanks were on him. This is true, I know, because his friend Dick Waterman told me he’d seen dad on his big blue bike about week before he passed, on the Oxford Square. Dick said dad had on his shades and bomber jacket, and that he had that damn oxygen rig strapped right to his back. I’m sure he was smoking, too.
When I lived with dad in Oxford during my college days at Ole Miss, he had a couple of bikes—a Harley Sportster, and a beautiful old Triumph Bonneville. Though I had ridden a couple of bikes before, I really learned on that Triumph. It was a beauty, jet black with chrome straight pipes, loud, and would just shake the hell out you if you got it over 55 or so. I remember taking that thing out into traffic before I really should have. I just wasn’t road worthy, but man, I was ready to roll. So I decked myself out Brando style, blue jeans and plain white tee, kick-started that old bike, and cruised on out. I headed down Johnson Avenue, and then bore left towards the serious traffic of University. A stoplight caught me, and I eased to a stop, right next to a couple of boys in a pickup truck. I sat there under that light just idling, wrenching the throttle and making all kinds of racket. About the time the light changed, and I prepared to fire ahead of those pickup boys, to just leave them utterly in the dust to wallow in their shame and abject failure as men, I dropped the bike. Fell flat over, right in the intersection, pinned to pavement. Not sure how long the pickup boys dwelled at the light to guffaw. But I am sure they have continued to laugh throughout their adult lives, and have no doubt recalled this absurd vignette to countless friends and kin.
I got better, though, and Dad and I began to ride together quite a bit. One of our favorite treks was out Old Taylor Road, a hilly, winding snake of pavement that started near Rowan Oak, Faulkner’s home, and ran down into Taylor, Mississippi. Taylor was a tiny burg that had a little grocery-catfish joint, a fire station and more than a few rambling old manses. Jane Rule Burdine, a fine photographer, and just a beautifully eccentric, completely gracious southern woman, lived in one of those big old places all alone, mostly. Once, at a neighbor’s party, Jane Rule just grabbed me out of the blue and kissed me right on the cheek. After the party, I laughingly told my then college flame, Gigi, what that crazy-ass woman had done. Well, Gigi, didn’t laugh. She gave me a puzzled, angry look and then just slapped me. Hard. I was confused. The kiss, the slap, all so out of nowhere. Love and hate, so quickly together. Beauty and pain. Complexities of the female psyche. Okay, I’m a liar. I thought nothing so profound at the time. This is what I am thinking now. At the time, probably just that my face hurt, and what the hell was wrong with Gigi.
Catty-cornered to Jane Rule’s place, in another huge, aging wreck of a home, lived Bill Beckwith, a sculptor and other lover of motorcycles. Beckwith had an old 40’s Harley that he’d put his vision on and just re-made into a rolling piece of art. That thing was just so beautiful and ancient, and it had an old stick gearshift like a car, instead of the usual foot pedal shifter. Suicide Clutch, I think is what they call that rig.
Dad and I would want Bill to ride with us so we’d pry him away from his work, away from the dusty morass of steel, plywood, canvases, motorcycle parts, etc., that was his studio. Then, we’d all three hop on our bikes and light out of Taylor, thundering back toward Oxford, or perhaps south to Water Valley. And I’d just be drunk with it all—the wind-blown face, the rolling beauty of the country, my beloved dad, our pal Bill, and just damn happy and proud to be caught up in some loud, potentially threatening business.
Just now, I am in Knoxville, Tennessee, my home, and I’m looking out the window of the little studio where I teach guitar. It is a gorgeous day, and of course I can’t help thinking how nice it would be, on a day such as this, to haul out the old bikes, Dad and I, and set out for the Smoky Mountains maybe, or perhaps cruise along the Holston River out east of town. For sure, there is nothing like the thrill of it, speeding through the loveliness on your machine. But, you know, riding with Dad was always held so much more for me than just the sensory rush. It was during those moments, those glorious excursions, that I most felt like Dad belonged to me, and that he was just my dad. Not the champion of the sentence, the boozy Captain, the hero, the idolized. I never knew a man of more tenderness, plain and simple. Crazy, drunk, heroic, bad ass, all of these, yes, but also a father who would often stroke the hair off my forehead, look at me and just say, “My son.” It is just as I do now with my own son Ike, when I am utterly overcome with his impossible beauty and the radiance of his little boy soul.
After my father died, I saw Bill Beckwith at the memorial service. It had been long—twenty years?—since I’d seen him last, and I was glad he was there. He had actually come by Dad’s place earlier in the week, and brought a bucket of KFC. I’d missed him then though. I think I was at the cemetery, helping pick out a burial plot for Dad. You know, Bill never wore anything but his artist outfit. Dirty Levi’s, blue work shirt, and scuffed workman boots. But that night, I noticed, he had slung an old sport coat over his regular garb, and I was just so taken by the grace of this man, of his respect for Dad, his respect for the dead. Bill told me he was having trouble with his own son, that his boy, eighteen, was a skateboarder, and that he had broken almost every bone in his body just doing crazy stunts. “He walks like an old man,” Bill said. “And he drinks too much.” I hated that, hated any pain in my gentle friend’s life. I hated everybody’s pain that night. No one had much to say. Dad was just so utterly gone, and that just ripped a hole right through all of us. Right through Oxford. Right through the world.
I did ask Bill if he still had his old bike. He said yeah, but that it wasn’t running right now. Too bad, but I’m glad it’s not gone.
So I will go to Oxford, probably Memorial Day weekend, and I will pick up some of Dad’s things, and yes, I will pick up the motorcycles. Those bikes are surely not the old beauties Dad and I rode back in the day, back when Oxford was still small and sleepy. They’re a couple of new, shiny Japanese bikes Dad bought a couple of years ago. And just as the shiny new Oxford, with its condos, Wal-Marts, and upscale eateries holds no piece of my heart, those new bikes won’t really seem like pieces of Dad. I guess taking them will just help Susan say goodbye. And God knows, we all need help with that.