By today he’d cut that time way down, and anyone looking at Bill as he moved about his small world might be hard pressed to see him as a man in tremendous pain, though some, the more perceptive types who were astute enough to catch the twitching of his cheek muscles or the flexing of his jaw or gleam of sweat across his brow, might recognize any one of these as signs of a proud man suffering his lot in silence.
Bill owned a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, a 1997 Super Glide with matte black tank and fenders, leather saddle bags, and eighteen thousand miles on the clock. Before the fall Bill never thought of himself as an avid motorcyclist, like some. Back then he was purely a fair weather rider, making local journeys of less than fifty miles or so, and mostly making these only on sunny weekends. But he was proud to own an American- built machine just the same, even though he no longer used it. The bike’s domestic pedigree nicely offset his foul weather ride: a 1988 wine red Toyota 4Runner with a hundred and ninety-seven thousand miles on the clock and a hairline crack in the engine block. It too sat in the drive, leaking almost a quart of oil about once every month or so, but Bill liked the wretched thing nonetheless.
His sister Annie came by once a week with loaves of homemade bread and a small stockpile of Bill’s basic grocery needs. She shopped with his food stamp debit card and insisted on showing him the receipt that displayed at the bottom how much was left in his account. Bill would nod and smile and thank his sister for her efforts. They had a good relationship, and Bill really liked her husband, Jonah, and their two young children, Hillary and Sam. Once a month they all descended on Bill’s place for Sunday brunch, an event Bill looked forward to.
Bill rotated his back ever so gently from side to side and winced at the pain. Shortly he would make the trip back inside to begin his daily regime of exercises as prescribed by his physical therapist, Helen, a comfortably large black woman with huge breasts Bill secretly longed to fondle and kiss.
There were birds in the trees to the left of the porch and during a sudden pause in the parade of traffic, Bill could hear them singing. He didn’t know what sort of birds they were, nor did he know the names of the trees in which they sat, but such ignorance never suppressed the joy he felt at hearing their song. He was just getting to the point of telling the tunes of three specific birds apart (or so he thought), when a garbage truck rumbled by, leaving only the guttural roar of a diesel engine to be heard. This was quickly followed by a slew of rushing cars, the tinny buzz of a Japanese motorcycle, and a speeding delivery van trailing a thick plume of blue exhaust, all working in cahoots to silence the few natural sounds to be briefly enjoyed on another late afternoon in town. The traffic was back again to its near constant rhythm.
Bill sipped his coffee and drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair. Now and then he waved to car drivers or motorcycle riders passing by. The puzzled looks of the drivers always made him smile. Riders often waved back or gave quick nods in his direction. Bill believed this was because his own bike was parked in the drive beside the Toyota and clearly visible from the road. There was a camaraderie among motorcycle riders, Bill knew this firsthand from his weekend days of pleasure riding when almost every rider he met on the sunny roads waved as Bill went by. Bill always waved back, of course, even grinning a little with pride behind the tinted Perspex of his visor.
Bill took a deep breath and struggled to stand, exhaling a controlled stream of air through his mouth as he slowly ascended. There was pain, of course, flashing bursts of it twisting up and down his spine and across his shoulders. But he could move at least, and thank god for that much. During his month long stay in the hospital he’d seen plenty of other less fortunate souls. Men and women both who would see out the rest of their days propped up in a mobile chair. One other patient in particular broke Bill’s heart. A teenage girl, Carol, dropped from the back of her boyfriend’s motorcycle when he pulled a sudden wheelie while speeding down the highway. Carol, unprepared for the stunt, went straight off the small pillion seat and right under the wheels of a UPS van. The medical staff said she was lucky to be wearing a helmet at the time, but it never felt like luck to Carol, she told Bill, now that she was ruined from the neck down. Bill had to agree with her on this, nodding sagely whenever she talked about it, which was often. If it had happened to him, he knew damn well he’d want death as well. Save all the worthless guff and platitudes for her family. Total immobility was no life at all and he and Carol knew it.
Bill decided he would get himself another cup of coffee and bring it back out to the porch before he began his daily exercises. He was a disciplined man, but not one to punish himself for taking a little leeway here and there. He’d get to the exercises like he always did, just like he promised the buxom Helen he always would.
Back inside he poured a fresh cup and took another three painkillers with the first hot swallow. He thought about dinner while he was there. He hadn’t been hungry for most of the day, just snacking here and there on cashews and small pieces of dried fruit. Before resuming his early evening post out on the porch he’d spent most of his time inside, reading, and watching movies in his room. He stood at the sink and rubbed his hand along the cool metal rim, then drew the back of a forefinger across his wet brow. Carol, he thought. Whatever happened to Carol? He took another sip of coffee and shambled over to the drawer beneath the microwave oven. He opened it and dug beneath the towels and rarely used kitchen utensils until his fingers touched their quest, a folded sheet of printed paper listing contact numbers of the hospital. At the bottom of the page, scribbled faintly in pencil in Bill’s own hand, was Carol’s home phone number, as dictated to him by her nearly three years ago. The area code was not there, but he knew that was because she lived locally or did so when they first met. He drew his thumb lightly across the numbers. He felt his heart jump, but knew it was not a romantic zap of any kind. Carol was a fraction of his age. She was a tragically broken girl made to live under a rule fashioned from a twisted sense of concern. But it was not a rule she had made for herself. Was she still alive today? Bill wondered. Had she found some desire of her own to keep going? Was she living now because she wanted to?
Bill folded the sheet of paper again and clutched it between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand. He then moved at his own pace toward the telephone mounted on the wall by the kitchen door, the fingers of his right hand lightly brushing the surfaces they passed: table, counter, stovetop, sink. He had the phone in one hand and the paper in the other when he heard the explosion outside, or that’s what it sounded like to him at the time, like the shattering rip of glass and metal beneath the awning of a terrific boom.
A few minutes from this moment, during what became the last few seconds of his life, Bill would wonder why such a thing as a motorcycle crash right outside his door should sound like an explosion in the first place. Bill dropped the phone and paper both and spun around too fast. He yelped at the pain and clutched the base of his spine, kneading the thick column of bone vigorously with his knuckles as he shuffled to the front door, the phone left hanging from its twisty coil of black wire.
On the porch he could see what had happened. A motorcycle rider had hit a car pulling out of the driveway of an old man Bill had spoken to once or twice before. He couldn’t recall the old man’s name, but did remember the old man sharing the story of his wife’s death with him sometime last year. She had fallen down the stairs, the old man had said, fallen down alone while the old man was visiting a friend. When he returned she was there at the foot of the stairs, a large pool of blood drifting out like spilled paint from beneath her head, the old man told Bill. He knew she was dead, knew it without even having to touch her, he said. Bill could only shake his head at this and make soft commiserating sounds with his mouth. He wanted the old man to stop talking, wanted him to just turn around and go back home, to keep his tragedies to himself, keep them private like you would a sexual proclivity that went beyond the realm of normalcy and toward some dark and ugly place. But the old man kept talking, his gnarly hand occasionally squeezing Bill’s arm as he shared his sad and morbid tale.
Bill thought that perhaps the old man had pulled out of his drive without looking. He could tell from the twisted front of the bike that it had been a hard collision, indicating the bike had been moving fast, much too fast for this particular road and time of day. The forks were mangled and the wheel was completely bent, the tire there shredded and hanging from the metal rim in dark strips, looking to Bill like leaves of dried tobacco. Other things came to Bill’s mind in the sixty seconds or so it took for him to move quickly and painfully from his porch to the dead rider’s side (and clearly he was dead, for Bill could see a bright pool of blood spreading from beneath the rider’s unprotected head. Such near-comical irony he thought, as he shambled along, sweating and wincing more than he had in years). The first of these was the lack of any other traffic around, as if the road had been closed several hundred yards in either direction just prior to the accident, leaving the rider and old man to their volatile fate. The crisp clarity of birdsong then suddenly came unhindered to Bill’s ear. No other cars and the birds are singing again, he thought, or perhaps they never actually stop.
The motorcycle had plowed into the driver’s door of the old man’s car. Bill could see the old man slumped in his seat, his head still bobbing gently. The windshield and driver’s window were both opaque and completely webbed with tiny little cracks, like veins in a leaf. Bill made it to the car, clutching the base of his spine, sweat in his eyes and across his chest, his breath coming in short, difficult bursts, pain gripping the length of his vertebrae. He looked in through the passenger window and saw blood down the front of the old man’s shirt. He couldn’t see where it was coming from, but it was a lot. Bill tried opening the door but it was locked. He tapped on the window to get the old man’s attention. The old man turned slowly to him, blinked his gray eyes once and fell like a stone into the passenger seat. I won’t have to touch you either, old man, to know that you’re dead, thought Bill. He stood back from the car and remembered the rider. Huge clouds hid the late afternoon sun. I shouldn’t be here, thought Bill. He looked up and down the road, and still there was nothing, not so much as a single vehicle. His mind struggled with this, he had never known it so quiet at this time of day. Part of him thought it was a sick joke, some elaborate prank, like the sort he’d seen played on celebrities on late night television shows. I shouldn’t be here, he thought again. I haven’t called Carol yet, he thought. He could see the legs and feet of the motorcycle rider. One foot glistened with fluid and Bill knew it was blood. The poor dead soul was still halfway in the road. If Bill could just get him out of there, pull him back up into the old man’s drive, then he could go back home and call for help.
Bill moved around the car, dragging fingers lightly across the cool surface of glass and metal. The pain in his back was excruciating. He knew he was getting low on painkillers. He’d need Annie to make a trip to the pharmacy for him soon, maybe as early as tomorrow morning. He felt bad having her do so much for him though. She had her own life to live. A husband to care for, kids to clean and feed. A house to keep in order.
The clouds moved on and a soft gold light fell upon the tableau. Bill could see the rider was a young man, dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt. The motorcycle had fallen and trapped his left leg, pinning him to the ground. Bill noticed the bright yellow tank and fenders of the bike, a Honda. He could smell the mix of oil and gasoline and blood. He felt dizzy and weak and there were sounds now building inside his head, low mechanical rumblings, slowly gaining volume. The traffic! The traffic had finally come back. Someone could help him now. Someone could lift this machine off this poor dead boy (for Bill knew such a feat of strength was far beyond his ability alone, knew if he even tried the pain would knock him out cold, if not kill him too). There was a truck now, he could hear it. Another motorcycle even. Cars galore now. Bill didn’t look for them, he didn’t need to see who would stop first to help, he just knew someone would. There was just too much blood, too much destruction to be avoided. He kept moving around the car, closer to the face of the dead rider. Suddenly he wanted to share this awful event with Carol, perhaps death witnessed by him firsthand would give her a newfound strength to live, should she need it. Yes, he thought, I’ll call her and she’ll remember me and be so happy to know that I never forgot her, then I’ll tell her all about this amazingly sad and final event; the old gray eyes fading to lightless orbs, the young man cut down in his prime, two deaths in only a handful of seconds. Bill was thinking all these things in a rapid fire jumble of incomplete words and flashes of imagery. Whatever speed (and lack of protection) caused the young rider’s death was nothing compared to the immeasurable speed of the human mind.
When the bloodied rider’s hand then reached out and gripped Bill’s left ankle, that immeasurably fast mind of Bill’s simply went blank. For a few seconds it could process nothing of use to him at all. No more sounds or imagery. No more names or faces of familiar loved ones or previous acquaintances who can no longer move from the neck down. No feeling of warmth upon his neck from the sinking late afternoon sun. In that one unacceptable moment as the hand closed upon him (for the hand of a “dead man” cannot possibly move and therefore has to be unacceptable), Bill lacked the awareness of every infinitesimal thing that had come together to make him who and what he was on this day, Mr. William Harris, Bill to anyone who knew him, ex-carpenter, and for the last three painful years, state dependant.
The grip from the young man (who was of course, not yet dead), was strong, incredibly strong, and beyond Bill’s involuntary ability to keep the basic functions of his body continuing, this strong grip was the only clear thing that came back to Bill’s mind. He gave out a loud shriek and shook himself free from the bloody fingers (spider legs, Bill’s brain offered up, now it was getting itself back on track. Massive, hairless, goddamn fucking spider legs.). He staggered back, back into the road, with his arms spread wide, as if welcoming the embrace of a dear friend (Carol? Oh, even more irony there) or family member (Annie? Annie who does so much to help, too much), he looked and saw the fallen rider’s blood again, flowing from beneath the young man’s broken head like a cut of beautiful silk. The sounds, he thought, the sounds that were gone and now are back, the roaring, thrumming sounds of all that weight and speed and help.
Bill did not close his eyes when he fell, but the driver of the truck did.
F. X. James has had words published in Icon, Illuminations, Yawp, The Binnacle, Into the teeth of the wind, Art Times, The laughing dog, and others.