The bony, crooked fingers of the witch, reaching across the dark ground toward him, still gave Julian an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. Since he was a boy, that's what he thought the shadows of the moonlight, filtered through the cypress trees and Spanish moss, looked like. As an adult, they didn't really frighten him anymore but the illusion was still a powerful reminder of a childhood growing up in the swamps of Lake Bistineau. Situated about a half-hour southwest of Shreveport in northwest Louisiana, the lake's name was an Indian word that meant ‘big broth’. Probably a reference to the lake's dark water or the salt domes that were once mined at its north end. It had served as a detour for steamships around the massive log jam known as The Great Raft that had clogged the Red River in the 1800's. The jam was eventually cleared by Shreveport's namesake, Capt. Henry Miller Shreve. Once the Red was navigable again, the ports, brothels and gambling halls of Bistineau had all but vanished but the lake's haunting beauty remained and recreation there flourished. Weekends were brimming with fishermen, water sports enthusiasts, birdwatchers and patrons of the lake's half dozen or so rustic old bars.
Sitting on the back porch of the Cross family home, Julian felt the ice cold Abita beer slip down the back of his throat as he listened to the evening sounds of the swamp come to life. Each night was a symphony of frogs, crickets, night birds and an unimaginable variety of insects. It was a sound that lulled him to sleep every night as a child and when he moved away in his twenties he had great difficulty falling asleep without all the ambient noise. He liked hearing it again. He noticed the paint on the porch railing was peeling and the floor boards of the patio could use a new coat of stain but then he thought, maybe not. He liked it existing at some indeterminate way point somewhere between order and chaos. He saw the artistic hand of entropy and admired her work. Maybe it was because the swamp was a hostile host, always trying to reclaim anything built by the hands of man. Nothing remained shiny and new for long - not the porch railing, or the floorboards, or the people for that matter. The swamp always managed to tarnish it all in much the same way that years of living can tarnish the wide-eyed enthusiasm and exuberance of youth. It is not necessarily a bad thing, it just is.
The sound of a wood duck caught his attention and he glanced to his right. The bird had managed to perch on the hand grip of his motorcycle parked on the dirt driveway. He thought it made perfect sense. The duck would never have situated itself atop a bike that was all flash and chrome and neither would he. The bike had been his Uncle Dave's singular distraction and pleasure - until it nearly killed him. A late-night ride home from a Bistineau watering hole had ended in a slalom course through roadside pine trees. The Harley sustained some damage. Dave sustained a helluva lot more. He still walked with a limp, a cane on cold days, and was deaf in his right ear. He had tried to make his peace with the bike for some time after the accident but the fear was always there, a grim reminder perched on his shoulder. He could never shake it so the bike languished in the shed for the next 15 years.
Julian had been under its spell since the first time he had seen it and Dave knew it. He figured as soon as Julian was old enough he would give it to him. He couldn't count the times he had found the boy in the shed staring at the deteriorating cycle or sitting on it. He suspected the two were meant to be together. Once Julian had taken possession of the bike, he had set about restoring it to running condition but had forgone all the chrome and flash of the new cycles in the Harley store. He loved what all those years in the shed had done to the bike. He thought nature had managed to customize it perfectly. Pitting, patina, a dusting of light rust, oxidation, all the things the new bike guys combatted endlessly, he found beautiful. Most folks didn't understand it but he did and that's all that mattered.
It had been 3 years since he had been back to the old house. Last time was for a short, weekend visit. This time, it was death that had sent the invitation. His beloved grandmother had passed away after losing a hard-fought battle with cancer. Her loss crushed him. He wished that every child on earth could have had her as a grandmother and thought it tragic that they had not. Now, with the funeral over and the vultures dressed as relatives all headed back to their roosts in cities he'd never visited and most likely never would, he just wanted to sit on his porch, listen to the swamp, sip his beer, and contemplate his future.
Just as he settled in he heard the crackle of tires as they transitioned from the gravel road to the dirt drive that led up to the house. He wasn't expecting anyone so he lifted himself from the old rocking chair and headed around the creaky porch to the front of the house. An old, copper colored Jeep CJ5, sans top, pulled up and parked under the large black willow tree in the front yard. Only folks who were familiar with the place ever parked under that tree so he suspected it must be someone he knew. She stepped down from the Jeep and with the sun setting directly behind her, he could only see her silhouette. The pale, yellow sun dress danced without effort in the dusk breeze and her old brown cowboy boots stirred up the soft dirt of the driveway making it look like some magical golden aura surrounding her. "Hi, Julian,” she said. “been awhile."
He recognized Maggie's voice immediately even though it had been more than 10 years since he had last seen her. As she moved closer he saw that she was even lovelier than he remembered. Her long, strawberry blond hair, perfectly sculpted features, and impossible curves were as magnificent as ever. He wondered if perhaps the time had faded his memory of her or if she had simply become more beautiful since he left. Either way, it didn't matter. She was here now.
"Hello Maggie, how are you?" said Julian.
"I'm good. I heard you were in town and wanted to come tell you how sorry I am for your loss. Your grandmother was probably the sweetest person I ever knew. I really loved her, everybody did.”
"That’s very kind," he said. “I'm sure she's in heaven right now teaching the angels how to make seafood gumbo and mule-ear fried pies."
"I think you're probably right," Maggie said. "So how long are you in town?"
"Not sure yet. Not in a big hurry to decide either. There’s plenty around here needs to be done and I still have to deal with the lawyers, the will, all that stuff so I'm just seeing what happens for now."
Julian had known Maggie Chadwick since they were kids. She had grown up on the lake too and they had gone to the same grade school though she was three years younger. Her older brother, Michael, was Julian's closest friend growing up. They had been closer than most brothers and had raised so much hell together it was not a small miracle that one or both hadn't ended up incarcerated or dead. But Michael had let the party go on a little too long and it turned into a nightmare. An addiction to painkillers had ripped him apart, destroyed his marriage, cost him his home, custody of his daughter and all but wiped away his friendship with Julian. Calls went unanswered and unreturned, plans always fell through, and lies were heaped on top of more lies until Julian no longer even recognized his old friend. He wanted to ask Maggie about Michael but he knew there'd be time for that and right now wasn't it.
"So how about you come have a sit with me on the back porch," Julian said. "I've got a cold Abita in the ice chest with your name on it and as soon as the sun sets, the fireflies are going to light it up. You in?"
"Yes, I am most definitely in," Maggie said. Julian put his arm around her waist and led her back around the porch of the old wood-frame house. They each grabbed a beer from the ice chest and sank into the 50-year old rocking chairs facing the cypress swamp. Just then, right below a barely legible old wooden sign that read “Cross' Camp Bistineau”, the first firefly ignited in the gathering darkness.
Mornings on the lake were as magical as the evenings. The November air was still crisp and clean and carried that nostalgic smell that makes you feel like somehow the night had managed to scrub away any stains left on both space and time – like the world was as new as a just minted shiny penny. Julian waited on the fresh cup of chicory coffee to finish brewing in the old tin percolator that had belonged to his grandmother. He had owned numerous newfangled brewing contraptions but none seemed to understand the spirit of the chicory like that old percolator. Probably just another nod to his ever growing belief that older things were perhaps better or more pure. He stepped out onto the back porch with his coffee and thought about what he needed to do that day. He knew the probate lawyers wanted to see him. He also knew they would wait. He was in no particular hurry to assist them in their grab for a piece of his grandmother's meager estate. He descended the 4 wooden steps from the patio and headed for the old shed out back.
His grandfather had built the shed himself, along with the house, in 1948. Both were still standing in steadfast defiance of time, weather, and the possessive swamp. They had outlasted a handful of wars, a larger handful of Presidents and they would most certainly outlast him. That's how grandfathers built things. Folks didn't move every few years back then just to keep up with pretentious, fair weather friends. If a house was solid and strong, there was simply no reason to move.
Julian pulled open the two large wooden doors of the shed. The rays of sunlight streamed in creating a ballet of dust particles in the beams. Two raccoons that had sheltered there for the night beat a hasty retreat through the hole they had dug under the back wall. In years past, he likely would have tracked them down with his hunting dog and dispatched them both with a 12-gauge shotgun reasoning that varmints had no business in the shed. But he had long since given up hunting. As he grew older he had inexplicably become increasingly disturbed at the thought of taking the life of a living creature. He had had recurring nightmares since childhood of the first bird he’d ever killed with his bb gun. It was a blackbird perched in a small hickory tree on the property. He had taken careful aim and pulled the trigger. The bb found its mark and the bird fell to the ground. He went to retrieve it and found it still alive, bleeding from its mouth, its eyes pleading. He picked it up wishing more than anything in the world that it might somehow recover and fly away and redeem him somehow. But it didn't. The bird drew its last labored breaths and died in his small hands. He continued hunting over the years. He was, after all, a Louisiana boy from generations of hunters, but in his early twenties he had laid down his hunting rifle for good. Even so, the memory of that blackbird still occasionally haunted his dreams. He felt a sense of comfort that the raccoons had slept in his shed last night and hoped they might sleep there again - anytime they wanted to.
He had put his motorcycle in the shed the night before after walking Maggie to her Jeep and watching her disappear down the gravel road. Now he thought a morning ride might help him sort out all the entanglements swimming in his head. The bike had always done that for him, helped him get some clarity when clarity was scarce. He grabbed the handlebars, stood the old Harley upright, pushed up the kickstand with his boot and rolled her outside. A quick trip back into the house for gloves and helmet then he threw his leg over the bike, twisted the throttle three times, and kicked the big V-Twin engine to life. To him, there was no sound like it on earth. It was a beautiful, menacing growl that seemed to send some kind of secret signal to every synapse in his brain and cell in his body. He didn't really understand it but that kind of thing doesn't need to be understood intellectually. It only needs to be appreciated – and it was.
There were two kinds of rides. The kind where you are headed somewhere specific, like to meet a friend for lunch and the kind where you didn't know if you were more likely to turn left or right at the end of the driveway. This was the latter. It has been said that young riders pick a destination and go, old riders pick a direction and go. Julian felt, even in his thirties, he was an old rider. And he was, in more ways than he yet understood. He navigated the bike through the tricky soft dirt of the driveway and paused at the gravel road. He looked to his left, and then his right. Left seemed better for no particular reason. He eased out the clutch, rolled on the throttle and was gone.
He rode past ramshackle houses, their front yards filled with old cars, older appliances and a menagerie of goats, chickens and shirtless children. He rode past wide open pastures with cattle grazing in the morning sun, the dew still reflecting a thousand tiny suns off the glistening alfalfa grass. He crossed old, rickety wooden bridges that liberally dispensed abject terror. He crossed over lazy bayous and under interstate highways filled with people in rolling cages that never realized the beauty that unfolded right beneath them. He thought about the people in the cars and felt pity for them. He knew they couldn't sense the way the temperature would vary slightly with changes in road elevation and vegetation. He knew they couldn't smell the farms, or the bayous, or the flowers. He likened experiencing the world from an automobile to experiencing it on a television - through a piece of glass that stripped away most of the sensory input that made it all so immediate. He did own a truck as a matter of necessity but it only got used for hauling things and for impossibly bad weather.
The Harley sailed onto a long, straight open stretch of road and he opened up the throttle to let her stretch her legs a bit. The cool morning wind in his face caused his eyes to water. The tears streaking down his face must have triggered something in him and he began sobbing uncontrollably thinking about his grandmother and how much he would miss her face, her smile, her hugs, and her vibrant being. It was a good ten minutes before he gathered himself but he felt better for it. He once again twisted the throttle and just as the old bike hit her stride, something cut loose. He heard the sickening sound of metal on metal in the engine and instinctively knew to hit the kill switch to prevent further irreversible damage. He guided the bike to the shoulder of the road, coasted to a stop, reached for his phone and found only an empty pocket. Damn! he thought. He realized the phone was sitting on the breakfast table back at the house. He pulled off his gloves, removed his helmet, pulled a smoke from his tank pouch, sparked his grandfather's old Zippo to life and lit the Marlboro. Nothing to do now but wait.
Halfway through his second smoke an old, primer gray pickup pulled onto the shoulder of the road and eased in behind his crippled bike. The engine sputtered to a halt and a grizzled man who looked to be in his sixties with shoulder length gray hair climbed out of the truck’s cab. He wore a pair of faded blue jeans, a cotton flannel shirt and black, lace-up boots that looked a lot like combat boots. His shirt sleeves were rolled halfway up his forearms revealing a tattoo on each. One his left arm was the word LOVE, on his right, FEAR. As the man walked closer to Julian he could make out a necklace the man was wearing that had the Harley-Davidson bar and shield logo on it. He knew he was in luck. “Morning,” said the man.
“Morning,” Julian said.
“I’m going to venture a guess here. That scooter ain’t runnin’ or you’d be ridin’ it and not sittin’ here on the side of this road?” the man said.
“And you would be correct in that guess,” Julian said.
“I figured. So what you want to do? I can drop the tailgate and back up to that ditch and we can roll her right up into the bed of the truck. Got tie downs too,” the man said.
“I’d sure appreciate it!” Julian said.
“Where we taking her?” the man asked.
“Well, I’m only in town visiting so none of my tools are here with me. I guess I need to get her to a cycle shop. I haven’t been back here in years so I don’t really know who’s good anymore, any suggestions?”
“Well, anytime I needed wrenchin’ I couldn’t do myself, I used Bobby over at Two Wolves Cycles but about this time last year he ran a red light on Youree Dr. in Shreveport and got run over by a dump truck. Damn shame, he was a helluva mechanic. Anyhow, some new fella showed up at the shop a few weeks after that looking for a mechanic job. Jimmy, the shop owner, told him no, didn’t figure he could wrench much given the way he looked and talked. So this fella says to Jimmy, “Tell you what, point me at all the bikes you got here that your guys haven’t been able to fix. I’ll fix all of ‘em no charge. If I can manage it, you give me the job.”
‘Hell,’ Jimmy said, “have at it son. Some of them bikes been here for years, ain’t no fixin’ ‘em, that’s for damn sure!” The new guy just smiles at Jimmy and says,
“Just point me.” Closing time rolled around and the new guy is still wrenchin’ on the bikes. He manages to convince Jimmy to lock him in the shop all night. Next morning they got to the shop and every last one of them bikes was running. Damndest thing anybody ever saw. Should have been impossible but sure as shit, there they were, purring like kittens. Jimmy hired him on the spot. So, I guess he’d be my recommendation.”
“Sounds like my guy,” said Julian. The two men loaded up the bike, cinched it down and headed over the Jimmy Davis Bridge for Shreveport and Two Wolves Cycles.
Julian Cross had been a star pupil at Jesuit High School, and popular. He was a good looking kid with a personality that naturally put people at ease. He had shown an early aptitude toward creative writing and English. An avid reader, he had managed to consume many of the classics by his senior year. Short stories were his favorite, probably owing to a short attention span. In today’s world, he would probably have been diagnosed ADD and medicated as such. But back then that wasn’t done. Careful attention and discipline seemed to work in most cases before lazy parents and profiteering pharmaceutical companies decided that doping kids was both easy and lucrative. He immersed himself in the works of William Faulkner, Henry David Thoreau, Oscar Wilde, Flannery O’Connor, D.H. Lawrence, and James Joyce. Once in college at LSU, his studies had taken a back seat to the girls and parties. He bounced out his sophomore year and was forced to take a job to support himself. Given his penchant for motorcycles, working at a cycle dealership seemed like a good fit so he packed up his truck and headed to the sunshine of Florida. He spent the next year leveraging his natural people skills to sell bikes to the sailors who, coming back from months at sea to the nearby Naval Air Station, had pockets full of money and were looking for the freedom of a bike. After work, he socialized with mostly the mechanics that worked in the service department. He liked them better than the schmoozing sales types up front. Weekends were spent riding, hanging out at the beach, and indulging his passion for local live music. After a year of slacking in Florida, Julian decided that heading back to college was a prudent idea.
The old truck turned off Market Street in the southern shadow of downtown Shreveport and pulled into Two Wolves Cycles. A skinny young man of maybe 15, dressed in a greasy blue jumpsuit with a name tag that read “Monkey”, appeared from around the back. He quickly assessed the situation, disappeared then returned with an aluminum ramp to help remove Julian’s bike from the bed of the pickup. Once safely on terra-firma, the boy said, “I’ll push it around back. Go on in and talk to the service manager and tell him what’s wrong with it.” With that, Julian turned to the man who had rescued him and said,
“I can’t thank you enough for saving my ass out there. What do I owe you?”
“Not a thing,” the man said. Julian tried insisting with no effect.
“I know you’ve probably got things to do and I sure don’t want to hold you up so, thanks again!” Julian said.
“I ain’t in no particular hurry, son and you don’t know how long it’s going take to get your bike squared away. My guess is it won’t be today so I reckon you’re going to need a ride back home. Let’s just go in and see what’s what first.” Julian agreed and the two men headed into the shop. Once inside, Julian’s jaw just about hit the floor. He couldn’t believe his eyes. The shop was filled with every kind of vintage motorcycle he could think of. Bike brands and models he hadn’t seen in years - Bultacos, Nortons, BSAs, a Vincent Black Shadow, a Penton, an Ariel Square Four, three old Triumph café racers, and some early Honda CBs. The floor was a black and white tile that you could have eaten from and the walls were covered with vintage racing posters of every kind. There was even one of Steve McQueen at Baja on his Husqvarna. A man stepped from around a counter at the back of the shop sensing Julian’s dismay. “Pretty cool, huh?” the man said.
“I’d say pretty cool doesn’t get you halfway there,” Julian said.
“Yeah, we get that a lot. So you actually know what you’re looking at huh?”
“Sure do,” Julian replied.
“That’s great, a lot of guys come in here with their brand new crotch rockets or their Lazy Boy touring bikes and ain’t got no clue about these bikes. Kinda feel sorry for them really. Anyhow, I’m Jimmy, this is my place. I saw your Shovel-Head headed around back with Monkey. He’s gonna get Luke to have a look at it. We oughta know something in just a few minutes. Anyway, there’s coffee over there and sodas in that ice chest. Ya’ll make yourselves at home.”
A few short minutes later a man appeared through the double hinged swinging doors leading in from the shop in the back. He was dressed in a blue work shirt that said: “Two Wolves” embroidered on a white rectangular patch on one side of the chest and “Luke” on the other. Both his pants and shirt were neatly pressed He walked straight over to Julian and said, “Hi, I’m Luke” extending his hand.
Julian shook his hand and said, “ Hi Luke, I’m Julian.”
“Good the meet you then, Julian. That’s an awfully nice ’68 Shovel you got.”
“Thanks, lots of folks just think she’s an old mess but I like her.”
“I like her too,” said Luke. “Seems comfortable in her own skin.”
Huh? Julian thought. What kind of bike mechanic says that, or even thinks like that? It was the kind of thing Julian thought about his bike for years but it had never occurred to him that someone else might think it too, much less say it out loud.
“So, what’s the problem with her?” Julian asked.
“Swallowed a valve. No worries, I’ll have her square by tomorrow afternoon. Got a couple of bikes in front of you is all.”
“Much appreciated. I hear you’re the best around” said Julian.
“I’ll take as good a care of her you would, I promise,” he said. The two men shook hands and Julian noticed there wasn’t a trace of grease on Luke’s hands, his uniform, or anywhere else on him for that matter. He seemed kind, soft spoken, reassuring and something else – something that Julian couldn’t quite put his finger on. Perhaps it was that he seemed somehow familiar but Julian was sure he’d never met him. The Good Samaritan with the truck said,
“Well, looks like you need a ride back home so let’s saddle up.”
“Thanks again,” Julian said to Luke and the two men climbed back into the cab of the primer gray Chevy step-side. The engine protested the surge of the starter but eventually capitulated, fired up, and the old truck moved out of the parking lot and toward the swamps of Bistineau.