The Silver Motorcycle

Friday, July 15, 2016

My grandmother was very old. Her hair was white as bone, and her bones were thin as stems of feathers. She sat in her rocking chair with the bright green window open behind her, and the dim, dusty room of varnished wood and books and photographs before her. I carried her orange pekoe tea in a china cup that rattled like teeth in its saucer. In the back, my grandfather was tending his roses. He moved very slowly, but still liked to be out in the sunlight, which glanced off his pruning shears and danced among the rose leaves like copper-colored flames.

“Years ago,” my grandmother told me, gazing off into the middle distance, “on sunny, windy days like today, I used to run off with a handsome man.”

“Grandma,” I said, astonished.

“He was so strong,” she said, “and he had long fingers, and slim hips, and his teeth were even and white and his back was straight and broad.”

Her chair creaked. She smiled.

She’d been at home one afternoon sweeping the shimmering dust from the porch, she said, when he pulled up on a silver motorcycle, then stood outside on the sidewalk with his hands on his hips, looking up at the house.

“What a beautiful machine,” she called out to the man.

“Are you coming or not?” the man called back.

She set her broom against the doorway and stepped out toward the street. “How far?”

“Two days.”

“Can you get me back by supper?”

His eyes were large and bright, and sparkled when he told her how it would be. “I can get you back by supper,” he said, “but when you walk back up the front step, you’ll be nearly two days older than you should’ve been.”

It seemed this was no ordinary motorcycle, and no ordinary man. Would it be worth two days of her life to ride one afternoon with him?

He sped so fast on that motorcycle, all the houses and stores blurred in a streak of primary colors until they gave way to pale, silvery trees, rock and dust. She pressed her open knees against the outsides of his hip bones as he rode, and wrapped her arms around him and held her face close to his clean cotton jacket, which smelled of soap and sunshine and wind. They rode way out of town, up the incline of the mesa sprayed with mineral glitter, and through the rock walls that stood like a gateway of stone, until they reached the little town of Dust—just a gas station, a little motel painted sky-blue, and an ice cream stand with picnic benches set up on a gravel parking lot that sloped down to a creek of cold, clear snowmelt. It was too chilly in the wind for ice cream, but he ordered them a vanilla scoop anyway, and she sat on his knee, and he put his jacket over her shoulders.

“He was tall and lean,” my grandmother said. “He would turn his cheek out like this, for me to kiss.”

Now, out on the street behind her, a car sped past with its windows down, its radio blaring a song I knew—one that made my heart beat way down in my belly, that made me sway my hips a little whenever I heard it as I combed my hair in front of my bedroom mirror.

My grandmother went on.

Every time he came for her—mid-morning while she was washing dishes, or just before evening, as she was preparing supper—she went with him. And every time, they rode farther and farther and farther away, forcing them to speed faster and faster and faster upon their return. Three days’ distance from home, two weeks’, a year’s, until finally he took her so far that as he sped her back down the highway over the mesa, night falling like dark velvet curtains all around them, her brown hair brightened into a lustrous silver. When she stepped back into the house and saw herself in the hall mirror, she put her hand to her mouth and giggled, and her eyes filled with tears.

“That night at dinner, your grandfather reached across the kitchen table and touched my hair, and his eyes filled with tears, too. ‘What have you done with my girl?’” he asked.

My grandmother leaned her head back in her chair and closed her eyes. I carried her teacup to the kitchen sink and went out back. There stood the stout old apple tree, and a little wooden shed. Inside the shed, my grandfather’s garden tools were lined up and hanging on black nails. All the wooden handles were darkened with age and dirt, and rubbed as smooth as polished stone. The wind rattled the door behind me, and I could hear my grandfather alone in the vegetable garden, where he grew endive and rhubarb and swiss chard. He was unrecognizable from the framed photographs inside, in which he sat smiling beside my grandmother, his hair dark and slick, his skin tanned, and his muscles taut beneath his fitted white shirt. Now his back was stooped and his shoulders narrow. In the shed, behind the old push lawnmower, a dirty gray tarp hung over an old machine. I stared at it for a long time, making out its shape, until my grandfather came up behind me.

“What is it?” I asked, though I knew. The tarp did not quite cover the tires, and back in the shadows, one of the handlebars was exposed. I wondered briefly how my grandfather had come to possess it, and whether the remains of the young man to whom it had once belonged could be found somewhere in the yard, or in his garden. It seemed to me, then, that my grandfather’s glance confirmed my suspicions.

The wind blew a thin swoop of white hair off the top of his head. His eyes were cloudy, and his chin trembled as he spoke. “Every single person you love,” he said, “you will lose.”

Friday, July 15, 2016