By Karrie Waarala
Angelo is having the dream again. He is in the grid, the edge of one eye latched to the flag, willing it to drop. The bikes around him are a swarm of angry wasps, engines straining to fly on the first straightaway. As he opens the throttle and lets the voice of his beloved and battered Suzuki join in the chorus around him, some small corner of his mind whispers, Don’t. You know what’s waiting out there. He could hang at the back of the pack, or even feign some sort of malfunction, could sacrifice this one race, this one time, see if he can undo the events of that day. But she’s waiting out there too, and there is no altering the course of the dream.
In his more honest waking moments, he can admit to himself that even if he’d known what was waiting out there that day, he wouldn’t have been able to help himself.
The bike beneath him is a coiled, savage thing, singing in a pitch that makes his own nerves twitch to be gone, and it is a song he has never been able to say no to. The flag drops and seventeen men on motorcycles surge forward, a mass of screaming engines and exhaust. Angelo is nowhere near the back of the pack.
As he does every time the dream assaults his sleep and then yanks him out of it, Angelo lies still with his eyes closed for as long as he can as the sound of phantom sirens gives way to birdsong. He wills the final image of the dream to stay cemented in his brain, again studying the face he hasn’t seen in his waking life in far too long. He doesn’t know if his eyes actually met hers for a nanosecond in the tumult of that day, a scrap of memory surfacing in his sleep, or if it is nothing but wishful thinking. Wishful dreaming, really. But for now it is there, that curve of cheek that always seemed made for his palm, that expressive forehead wrinkled with worry, those hazel eyes somehow not quite mirroring the concern above them. He’s dreamt them enough now to know for sure: they are eyes in the process of disconnecting from the scene in front of them, of making a final decision.
“Lois,” he whispers, not able to help himself. The small sound, filled with far too much ache for its size, is enough to jar the last shreds of the dream loose, and he is left staring at the blank screen of his ceiling. He lies still a few moments longer, taking stock of the collage of aches that are always with him now. Finally he sighs, gropes for the cane hooked onto his nightstand, and begins the arduous process of getting himself upright.
He pauses once he is sitting on the edge of the bed and slowly runs his right hand through the mess of peppery curls his hair has become. He has finally learned not to try this with his formerly dominant left hand after too many mornings of blazing pain howling him into full wakefulness and cold sweats. He idly wonders how long it’s been since he’s had a haircut, wonders if he cares. No need anymore, really. No more helmet.
No more Lois.
It’s during the eleventh lap that it happens. Angelo has been riding well, a fusion of crouched body and hot metal, throwing himself against the physics of curves. His eleventh trip through the chicane, leaning first one direction, seamlessly pivoting to the other, finding the ideal line, then powering up the incline where he knows he’ll catch air and need to brake midflight. It goes against every instinct to do so, to grant a man reprieve against gravity, then demand that he choke it back, to ask him to begin stop when his body and the machine in which he keeps his soul both say soar. He’s ridden this course so many times, knows exactly what to do, and yet even now, having experienced this moment again and again behind closed eyes, he’s still no closer to knowing why or how it happened. Instead he’s only granted the sick foreboding that it is coming.
“One more, just one more, again with the ‘just one more’!” Lois exploded at him finally. “How many ‘one more races’ do I need to wait through, Ang? Huh? We said two years ago that we were ready to finally settle down and start a family, and here we are, traipsing off to the goddamn track again.”
“You used to love it at the track, loved to watch me race,” was Angelo’s reply, and he immediately knew it was the wrong thing to say. Even to his distracted ears it sounded plaintive and whiny. He shouldn’t need an audience after all these years.
“Yeah, and SueAnn used to love to watch Kyle race, and now where is she? Widowed at 28 with two young kids. I am not gonna do that, I am not gonna be her, especially at my age,” Lois stormed back. Then the fight seemed to deflate out of her and she sighed, rubbing her forehead.
“I can’t keep doing this, Ang. You promised. I just… can’t…” she trailed off.
Relieved to hear her easing up, Angleo returned his focus to his gear bag, rechecking the rechecking he’d already done last night and earlier this morning. Logically he knew that everything was there, but he also knew he was incapable of pulling himself out of the grooves that superstition had worn into the pattern of race day.
But then her jaw set in that new, hard way of hers and she continued, “I’m done, Angelo. Done. I refuse to scrape you up off the pavement anymore, and I’ll be damned if I keep on waiting forever.”
“Okay, babe,” he said, startled into abandoning his gear momentarily to cup her cheek and the hard line of her jaw in his hand. “Okay. I mean it this time. I’m done. You’re more important to me, our future is more important to me.” He kissed her forehead. He meant it. He really did. Some part of him really did.
“Just this one more. After today, I’m really done.”
As he stares out the kitchen window waiting for the coffee to brew, Angelo replays the morning of the race in his head for the hundredth time, wishing he’d known then what he knows now. Wishing he’d felt just an ounce of the dream’s foreboding. He doesn’t bother replaying the race itself in waking hours anymore; he knows that sleep will take care of that. But he can’t keep his mind away from that morning, that same old argument, probing at it the way a tongue can’t keep away from a gap where a tooth once was.
“Angelo.” There it is, the moment he now wishes he’d paid more attention to at the time. His full name in her mouth should have been all the tell he needed. Angelo closes his eyes and leans his forehead against the cool wood of the kitchen cabinet. “Idiot,” he whispers to himself for the hundredth time.
Like the hundred times he has dreamed this already, like the day his life pivoted on some small unseen glitch – an ounce too much pressure from right hand or right foot, a few degrees off of the ideal angle, a bit of debris on the track – the second the bike touches down, he instantly knows something is wrong.
Knows it before the slight wobble of the rear tire, knows it before the wobble turns to quake, the quake to the thrashing of the motorcycle like some immense fish angry at being snatched out of its element.
There is a moment – he is sure it is just a fraction of a moment, really, and yet his thoughts hang clear and still, as if suspended in amber above the chaos that his bike and body have become – that he thinks calmly, It had to be a high side. A low side would have been fine, the Suz would have a few new scratches, I’d bruise my ass and my ego, Lo could say, “I told you so,” and this could all be done. But a goddamn high side. This is going to hurt.
Angelo leans against the dining room doorway, eyes closed, trembling and sweating. It occurs to him in between shards of pain exploding through his shoulder and hip that this is how he spends an awful lot of his time now. Eyes closed, leaning against things. It also occurs to him that his physical therapist is a sadist.
He knows that it is partially his fault, that there have been too many days that he’s simply hunkered in the dark cave of his head and convinced himself not to care. But today there is no comfort in his cave so he has chosen what he deemed to be the lesser of two evils and returned to his prescribed exercises and stretches, hooking the curled fingers of his left hand onto the doorframe and stretching the stitched muscle and titanium that now make up his shoulder until it screams.
He opens his eyes and notices that the sweat-darkened patch of wood from his grip is slightly higher than the last inked hash mark there. Good. He fumbles a pen with his right hand and adds a new mark to the doorframe.
“Gee, what a big boy you are,” he mutters as he tosses the pen onto the table.
Angelo knows the dervish machine that was an essential extension of his own body just seconds ago will hit a gyroscopic point in its flailing that will toss him off over the front end. His best bet will be to bail at the right moment and hope that the other riders can avoid the roiling confusion of bike and body. But somehow when his reflexes sing now! his leg muscles are not the concerted effort he needs. As if clutching wildly at him in a panic of abandonment, the Suzuki does not let him leap, and as the rest of his body begins its arc over the handlebars, his left foot remains trapped in the peg. Angelo feels his hip pop in some sickening new way, but his spinning brain has no time to process the meaning of this, only to try in vain to separate himself from this roaring metal beast that has forsaken him, that is now hauling him with it to the tarmac like a vengeful suicide. He hits shoulder first and now the bike rides him, grinding him into the track. Angelo is grateful when his brain decides that it’s had enough and blacks out before the tangled mess of broken that was once a man and his motorcycle slides to a halt.
Angelo sat back, pleasantly drunk, watching their friends mill around the living room. Someone had put on some Springsteen, which was momentarily competing with the blender someone else was running in the kitchen, and the homemade “Congrats Angelo & Lois!” banner was waving lazily in the breeze from the ceiling fan. His teammate Jimmy sat down in the other chair, passing over one of the two beers he was carrying by the neck in one hand, and started in on the piece of cake he was carrying in the other.
“Hell of a party,” he said between bites. “Hell of a couple. You found a good one.”
“Don’t I know it,” Angelo replied, taking a swig of beer. “Hey, do you know if SueAnn is coming?”
Jimmy frowned at his cake at the mention of his sister-in-law. “I don’t think so, no.”
“Is she doing okay?” Angelo asked. “I mean, considering?”
“Yeah, considering. I just… I think she felt like she’d bring down the celebration, you know?”
“How about you? You okay? Considering?”
“How do you think I am, man? I’m the big brother he followed into this stupid racket. I’m fucked up is how I am.” Jimmy cleared his throat. “But hey, let’s not get into this stuff now, alright? Today’s about you two. And you’ve,” he pointed his fork at Angelo, “got to stay focused. I know I’ve been riding for shit the last couple of races, and I don’t want any bad juju messing with the rest of your season. Alright?”
Before Angelo could answer, Jimmy got to his feet, swung his beer bottle into the air, and called out, “A toast!” Others followed suit, and someone turned The Boss down a few notches.
“Every once in a while a miracle happens,” Jimmy began, “and in this case, it’s a miracle that this guy” – here he nudged Angelo’s leg with his foot – “found someone willing to put up with him for the rest of his life.” He nodded across the room to where Lois was leaning against the wall, and she made a half-hearted face at him and flipped him off as she crossed the room to sit on the arm of Angelo’s chair.
“To Angelo and Lois – no, Angelois!” Jimmy said, cracking himself up, along with most of everyone else, and “To Angelois” started echoing around the room amid the clink of bottles and glasses.
Lois lowered her face to Angelo’s, and that curtain of dark hair hid away the rest of the room. “Angelois, huh?” she said, trying to sound skeptical despite the smile in her voice. He looked up her and thought, My god, she’s gorgeous. Look at her. She’s practically glowing. Whatever I did to deserve her, I better keep doing it. And then she kissed him, and he didn’t even hear the hoots and applause of all their friends.
Angelo can feel the glow of the afternoon sun through his closed eyelids – he must have dozed off on the couch again – but refuses to let it in, hanging tightly to the blessed blackness while his pulse skitters wildly. It is not reliving the crash itself that makes his heart ricochet against his ribs like this, nor the fresh burst of pain this causes. The pain he has learned to live with, and some part of him relishes the penance of the relentless replay.
No, as always the dream ended on that final image of Lois, but this time as he clings to it he intently searches that cheek, that forehead, those eyes, that sweep of long dark hair. Dark. No hints of the silver that had been threading its way through her hair as well as his by that time. He sifts through all the last glimpses of her that his subconscious has gifted him night after night after night and realizes with a jolt that it’s true, that he’s been dimly aware of it for some time. Every time he dreams her, Lois is growing younger.
She is aging away from him in a backward arc through their years together. This afternoon, she is a glowing mirror of the day of their engagement party, the day that they were collectively dubbed “Angelois” amid a chorus of laughter and raised beer bottles. The moniker had stuck, and he realizes around the sob starting to build in his throat just how long it has been since he has heard it.
But the sob doesn’t reach its full potential, doesn’t pour out of his dry mouth and now open eyes. It doesn’t back down, either. It just sits there, lodged in his throat, waiting.
“Jesus, what are you waiting for, get him out of this goddamn mess!” Jimmy, the voice that again and again hauls him out of the blackness. This part is always a blur, a mangled and jumping kaleidoscope of images and sounds hammering away at him as he wades in and out of consciousness. His senses have scrambled somehow, and he sees the burbling of voices, tastes scraps of turquoise sky flitting between hurrying legs, hears the blood sliding over his tongue informing him in a sibilant murmur that he’s most likely knocked out teeth again. He catches a whiff of something hazel under the true smells of gasoline and burnt rubber, and even now he wills himself into the false waking of the dream, leaning toward the moment that makes this agonizing eternal loop worthwhile.
The sight of her knocks his senses back into proper alignment as his eyes catch hers amidst the confusion. Again he sees them disconnect, sees them decide. As the sirens drown out everything else and he begins surfacing to true waking, he realizes with a lurch that Lois looks exactly as she did the day they met.
Angelo coasted back into the paddock amid whoops and pats on the back from his teammates and crew. He just nodded, killed the engine, methodically pulled off his gloves and laid them on the tank in front of him, then eased off his helmet. It wasn’t until he peeled off the balaclava underneath that they saw he was grinning just as big as any of them. He grabbed Kyle’s outstretched hand to haul him in for a rough hug and smacks on the back as he dismounted, then started all of the unzipping to pry himself out of the top half of his leathers.
“Man, you nailed that!” crowed Jimmy. “That last overtake was beautiful. Another win like that today and your points are gonna put you out on top and heading toward the next class.”
“I think you impressed the peanut gallery, too,” said Kyle, waggling his eyebrows and indicating the group of people – mostly women – gathered around their trailer site with a grin and a jerk of his chin. Angelo just shook his head and clapped him on the shoulder.
“Kyle, my young, hormonal friend, I’ve told you. Not interested. I don’t need the distraction.”
“Well, tell that to SueAnn. She finally dragged along that friend of hers she was telling you about. But don’t worry, I don’t think she’s interested, either.”
Angelo was serious, and he braced himself as they eased through the clutch of racing fans he privately thought of as The Blonde Brigade. He was still bracing himself as Kyle’s wife hugged him around the swell of her belly and whispered into his ear, “Now play nice, you,” and then pulled back to introduce her friend Lois.
And then he found himself distracted.
“Uh, hi,” he finally managed once he hauled himself back out of those hazel eyes and held out his hand for her to shake. “Nice to meet you.”
And it was. They spent the next hour and a half wandering the paddock talking, Angelo pointing and explaining as Lois asked questions, and then managing to ask a few of his own. No, she’d never been to a race before. Yes, she worked with SueAnn. Yes, she’d ridden two-up a couple of times, no, she wasn’t crazy about motorcycles – and yet she had so many good questions, not the usual breathless “Ooh, how fast do you go?” from the Brigade. He liked the way her brain worked, picking out the intricacies of the scoring and strategy, more interested in the sport than the riders. No, she wasn’t seeing anyone.
They wound their way back to the trailer, and he grabbed a beer for her and a water for himself out of the cooler as she sat down in a lawn chair. He started back to the pit and then turned around, calling to her as he walked backwards a few steps.
“You didn’t expect to like it, did you?” he asked. She squinted up at him, shading her eyes against the sun.
“Nope. I didn’t expect to like you, either.” And then she smiled at him, and the sun seemed momentarily dimmer. “Now, don’t you have another race to go win?”
Angelo sits in a lawn chair in the side yard, sipping his coffee in the morning sun, squinting at the garage out back and trying to decide. It used to be his haven, so many comfortable hours spent out there tinkering with his bikes, the ancient transistor radio doing its best to crank out classic rock or oldies. He hasn’t been in it since the crash, despite knowing what’s in there, despite Jimmy’s urging that he needs to.
“It’s like how people need to see the body at a funeral, you know?” Jimmy says. “Like, they can’t really accept that their loved one is gone until they see the evidence. Trust me, you’ll feel better if you do.”
Angelo knows he should probably listen; not only has Jimmy been there before in too many ways, he’s also been Angelo’s best support throughout the past year. It was Jimmy in the ambulance with him, Jimmy waiting outside surgery, Jimmy breaking the bad news, his words swimming through the pain meds to hit Angelo square in the broken ribs in his hospital bed.
“I haven’t seen her since the day of the race. No one has. I’m so sorry, man.”
Jimmy, the voice that again and again hauls him out of the blackness. This part is always a blur, a mangled and jumping kaleidoscope of images and sounds hammering away at him as he wades in and out of consciousness. His senses have scrambled somehow, and he sees the burbling of voices, tastes scraps of turquoise sky flitting between hurrying legs, hears the blood sliding over his tongue, informing him in a sibilant murmur that he has most likely knocked out teeth again. He smells gasoline and burnt rubber, and even now he wills himself into the false waking of the dream, leaning toward the moment that makes this agonizing eternal loop worthwhile.
It doesn’t come. He strains toward the place where she always is, and it’s just one more scrap of turquoise sky. She’s gone. As the sirens drown out everything else and he begins surfacing to true waking, the sob that has been lodged in his throat for weeks finally rips free.
Despite the warm sun, the doorknob feels icy in his hand, and Angelo realizes that it’s him, he feels cold all over. The door sticks; he has to brace himself with his cane and shove his right shoulder into it to get it open. It is dim and cool inside, and the smell of old oil soaked into concrete is soothing. Enough dusty light filters through the single window for him to see the lumpy shape in the middle of the garage resting under a rumpled sheet. He limps over to it and pauses with his hand clutching the fabric, his heart thumping almost painfully. He wishes that he could do this with a dramatic flourish despite it being only him to see, but with a cane and one good arm the best he can do is pluck and yank at the sheet until it finally slides to the floor in an awkward tangle.
The Suzuki is even worse than he expected, a crumpled and folded hunk of metal and plastic and rubber that only resembles its former self in a few disparate places, more like a modern sculptor’s interpretation of “the idea of motorcycle” than the finely tuned machine he loved. He stands with his hand on the tank for a long time, listening for the vibrations of potential speed that would always travel up his arm from this bike, even when it was parked, that thrill that called him to the track over and over again. But the bike is silent now, its siren song finally still, and he struggles to remember exactly what it sounded like and why it was always louder than anything else, louder than love, than reason, than survival. Angelo closes his eyes and leans forward to rest his forehead on the dented tank and murmurs a word that could be “Suz” but just as easily “Lois.”
He is surprised, with his face so close to the bike, at the familiar sharp scent that jabs at his nostrils from the twisted steel corpse. He opens the tank and peers in; yes, no one bothered to drain it after the crash, and gasoline still sloshes in there, blood with no heart left to pump it. His eyes travel the garage, taking in the empty spaces where his other bikes used to stand, the red gas cans, the sheet, the ashtray, the snapshot of Angelois thumbtacked to the corkboard. So many long-throated red cans. His eyes drift back to the bike, that body, that evidence, that dead pile of accusation. Finally to the scrap of empty sky visible out the window. He decides, and with a calm detachment wonders if the disconnection, the finality, is as visible in his eyes as it was in hers that day, and in every replay after that, until this morning when they were finally gone for good.
Angelo makes his slow way back to the house. He is sweating, and even his good limbs are trembling from all of the exertion. It was more work than he has asked of them in ages, the plucking, yanking, pushing, draping, the pouring, lighting, the hurrying. The growing heat at his back pushes at him, urging him back inside. Once there he returns to the kitchen, the empty coffee pot, his empty routine.
As he stares out the kitchen window waiting for the coffee to brew, watching the garage and its ghosts burn to the ground, Angelo stands, not leaning against anything, and keeps his eyes open, and thinks of nothing at all.