The Eye of the Beholder
Billy was a biker and he wanted to be sure everyone knew it. With graying locks halfway down his back, generously tattooed and yet, reasonably handsome, he looked the part of the hard man. When he spoke, his gruff voice made all words sound like commands, making anyone within earshot take immediate notice. But beneath his menacing exterior beat the heart of a lamb.
A patriotic soul, too young for ‘Nam and a bit too old for the current conflict, Billy cursed softly as he felt the first raindrops sting his cheeks. Turning toward home, he hustled his motorcycle through pot-holed streets until reaching the shelter of his carport. Within moments, the sky opened up in a torrent of wind, lightning and rain.
“Whew man, that was close”, he muttered as he stepped off the bike and prepared for the dash to his kitchen door. As he listened to the mechanical tinking sound of the cooling motor, he crouched instinctively as a sudden crack of lightning landed nearby. “Whoa man, I gotta get outta here!” he cried, as he stood under the sheet metal roof and watched a small river, now forming between his boots on the oil stained concrete. Looking further down the street at the enormous, now derelict steel edifices of another time, and feeling like the epicenter of an expanding electrical bull’s eye, he grabbed his gear and made his move.
The majority of the small aging homes that once held patron to the giant mill were now, like the mill itself, derelict and in disrepair. Frequently, Billy would see his neighbor shuffling along the sidewalk with a sack of empty cans and beer bottles pressed against his spine. He would watch from his living room window as John, with difficulty, would heave them onto his shabby front porch. Landing with a heavy metallic crash, they would join others so appointed for future delivery to the recycling center. In support of his neighbor’s scavenging enterprise, Billy had made it a point to place his recyclables nearby for John’s expedient pick up. It was neighbor helping neighbor in a most unique, and desperate sense.
hot, heavy air preceding the cloudburst was not unusual for this time of year. Although the fortunes of
“Not quite as hot as it used to be”, the old timers would counter, as to making a statement of fact. Back when the blast furnaces were running three shifts, seven days a week, they would claim it was even warmer. On many a winter’s day, a worker wouldn’t need a heavy overcoat as he trudged through soot-encrusted snow to reach the plant’s main entrance.
Except for his small cat Ernestine, Billy lived alone in the home deeded to him through family inheritance. Ernestine, lovingly named in honor of his deceased mother, wasn’t much to look at, and wore the same tired expression as most of the remaining townsfolk.
one day you and me are gonna get out of this town and we ain’t ever comin’
back”, he would affectionately confide in her.
He had left once,
With the storm passing and evening approaching, Billy gazed out from his living room window, staring at the long-silent smoke stacks of the iron smelters. On a warm summer’s evening as a child, he remembered watching in awe as these same stacks belched hot cinders into the evening air. “Millions of fireflies, millions of fireflies” he would whisper to the night. Continuing to reminisce, he also recalled the omnipresent, acrid stink that had hung in the air like a permanent fixture. “That’s the smell of money! Quit your bellyachin' boy!'” his father would declare, if Billy so chose to complain.
But that smell was gone now, replaced by the more sinister, greasy odor of decay. Decay of industry, of neighborhoods, and of lives displaced.
“Billy! Hey! How’s it goin'? Whacha’ drinkin’? The usual?”
“Yeah, the usual…”
“Jimmy! A bottle of IC for my boyfriend! I ain’t seen you for a week or two. Missed ya. I thought you forgot about me darlin’!”
“No. I ain’t forgot. Been kinda busy. Job and other stuff. You know how it goes…”
“Yeah, I sure do. And you know, I’m still waitin’ for that ride you promised me. There’s nothin’ I like more than bein’ on the back of a motorcycle, ‘specially a Harley! My last boyfriend had one of those rice burners, a Suzuki, I think it was. Wasn’t nothin’ like a Harley though.”
“Your last boyfriend? Who was that? Jake? I take it you’re not goin’ out with him anymore?”
“Yeah, that’s right. Good old Jake the Snake. He started being mean to me when he was drinkin’ so I had to break up with him. Besides, I have somebody else on my mind.”
“Well, that’s kinda personal”, Scooter replied with a giggle.
“Anybody I know?”
“Maybe I’ll tell you sometime. Listen, I gotta get back to my tables and get you your beer. Thirsty customers, ya know? I’ll be back in a minute but I want you to think about that ride you promised me, okay?”
Within moments Scooter returned with his order, and after pouring its contents into the glass, she brushed her hand against his stubbled cheek, “I’ll be back with you soon my darlin’” she purred. “Enjoy your beer…”
Scooter had always called him darlin’ but tonight there seemed to be a greater emphasis, or sense of urgency in her delivery. Of course, being friendly and on first name terms with the patrons, did have a way of putting more money in the kitty by the end of the evening. But Billy sensed there maybe something more to her message than he cared to consider.
Scooter did try hard, bless her heart. Tried hard at looking good, being friendly, and always having a steady boyfriend to lean on. But the fact of the matter was that she’d probably leaned on a few too many. She wore that weathered look of having traveled many a mile over some pretty rough terrain.
“How’s Ernestine doin’ ? You sure downed that quick! Have another?" Scooter cheerfully inquired upon her return.
“She’s okay. Yeah, I’ll have another.”
“Last time I saw her was at that party you had last summer. Boy she sure got scared when those guys started singin’! What was it?”
“Ah, Stairway to Heaven I think. Yeah, they were pretty drunk.”
“I’d sure love to stop by and see her again. She’s so pretty. I liked pettin’ on her.”
“Maybe you can do that again one of these days, when you have the time.”
“Is that an invitation Billy? If it is, I accept! I get off work in a little while…”
With a sparkle of anticipation in her pale blue eyes and before Billy could respond, a raspy croak came from behind the bar, “Scooter! Get your skinny ass over here! You’ve got customers to take care of!” Scooter, smile lost, performed a near-perfect pirouette as she spun on her heels and obediently headed in the direction of a glaring Jimmy.
“Whew, saved by the bell.” Billy thought while taking a deep breath and rising to his feet.
Upon his return from the men’s room, he saw a fresh bottle at his table, dutifully waiting. As he looked around for Scooter he spotted her, hunched over in deep discussion, with a couple of regulars in a far corner of the dingy lounge.
Seeing this as an opportunity, he rapidly chugged the bottle and leaving payment on the table, headed for the door. Zipping up his jacket as he stepped outside, he took note of the bite in the evening air. “Glad I've got my leathers”, he mumbled.
After firing up the bike and nicking it into gear, he eased away from the curb and into the night. While taking a parting glance in his mirror, he noticed a lone figure had stepped out onto the sidewalk, urgently waving in his direction. As the waving figure and neon signage rapidly melded away into the night, he started to feel a little guilty.
After all, it was Scooter, still waiting for her ride.
The balance of the evening was shaping up rather nicely, as she took a seat next to Billy on the sofa, lights dimmed.
“Clearly wearing these black pants was a brilliant idea. I knew if I wore them nobody’d notice.” Tina mused, smiling.
“Notice what?” he asked, leaning his head back while attempting to keep his eyes focused on her shapely figure.
“Well silly, if you didn’t notice anything different that proves my point.” she shot back.
“Aw, come on. You gotta help me here. If you’re hidin’ something from me…”
“Well, if I am then it’s your job to figure it out.” she teased. “I’m not going to help you!”
“Wait. I’ll tell you. You’re not gonna believe it but…”
The telephone abruptly rang, successfully throwing a gleaming monkey wrench into their playful banter.
The consoling voice on the other end softly whispered, “William dear, come over quickly. It’s your mother. She’s taken a turn for the worse. Come over right away, please.”
It was his aunt Hortense. Over the past few months she had spent nearly all her waking hours at the Pleasant View Retirement Center, near the bedside of her dear and dying sister Ernestine, Billy’s mom.
“This is it! I know it is! I feel it!” cried Billy, as he, for a moment stood frozen, having finally received the call he had been dreading for weeks.
“I’m so sorry Billy. Is there anything I can do?” Tina gently tugged at his arm as he grabbed his jacket and headed for the door.
“Yeah, there is! Would you check on Ernestine before you go? Make sure she’s got enough food and water?
“Yes Billy, ‘I’ll do it. I promise I will! I know she means so much to you; she’s such a nice little ca...”
“Thanks! I gotta go!”
“When will I see you again? Are you gonna call me?”
“Uh, yeah. I’ll call you. I gotta go!”
After riding away from The Velvet Touch, with an earnest Scooter waving goodbye in his rearview mirror, he replayed the scene again in his mind. His mother had passed on that now distant evening and that call he had promised to Tina, well, he never made it, alienating another person who may have contributed a positive force to his seemingly insignificant life.
“I shoulda called her. Shoulda done it dumb ass!” Shaking his head, Billy mumbled beneath his breath as he pointed the hog homeward. As he guided the bike through the night's cooling mists, another recurring and related thought came to mind. It was one that visited him more frequently since the passing of his mother. But for that matter, it was one that would drop in often, like an uninvited guest, for most of his adult life.
What was it? What is it? What is this terrible thing that frightens him so? Is it a fear of friendship or is it a fear of the minefields, so often hidden, that lay along the well-travelled route of human relationships? Billy felt he was not much closer to answering that question than he had been in years past.
Ignoring his fatigued state, another disappointment of a more recent vintage flowed, unchecked, into his conciousness. Her name was Theresa and the wound left by her was closing ever so slowly. Blessed with natural beauty and bathed in a scent of perfume that lingered long thereafter, she was an indelible memory not easily dismissed.
Another drama, as was the one before her and the one before her. Of these facts he was once more reminded, allowing again, vague feelings of unworthiness to envelope his thoughts, smothering in their approach, like a heavy winter overcoat on a hot summer's day.
Another story of failure? Yes. Must this one be remembered as well? Of course. And to whom shall the story be told? To the cat? To the sorry looking oak tree in the backyard? Or to anyone, or for that matter, to anything, that possessed the time, the ability or compassion to understand?
He remembered that evening of being alone after she had said goodbye. He had lain on his bed, holding close a sweater worn in her company that still carried her scent. Into his inner darkness he had again crept, tears welling at the corners of his eyes and then falling silently, painfully, unto the fabric. It was a heartbreaker. What more was there to say?
Mercifully, it had been a relatively short affair. For it was one that he had hoped, perhaps too much, might elevate his spirits to a level not experienced for such a long time. And fuelled by earlier failures, the longing to succeed, to achieve something positive, anything good, was now approaching a critical mass state.
“Someday, some way, I’m gonna slay this goddamn dragon!” Billy vowed, as he focused his eyes on the highway ahead, allowing the motorcycle's headlight to cut a return path to a waiting and lonely doorstep.
“Ernestine! I’m home! Here kitty, kit-!”
Before the second “kitty” left his mouth, from around the corner of the kitchen counter she appeared. Moving quickly in his direction, her small frame within moments was planted against his lower leg.
“Hello little girl! Did you have a good day? Let’s see what the mailman’s left for us.”
“Bripp!” was her sole reply. A good sign.
Flipping through the pile of junk mail he noticed what appeared to be a formal-looking gray envelope, personally addressed to him in very elegant longhand style.
“Hmmm. What’s this Ernestine? Been a long time since I got a letter like this.”
Not bothering to inspect the return address and with his interest piqued, he opened it.
Dear Mr. Hudson, April 19, 2011
We regret to inform you of the passing of our dear brother, John Westfield Van Dyke III on the 13th of April, in the Year of Our Lord, 2011.
The family of Mr. Van Dyke respectfully requests your presence at our upcoming event, planned as a further celebration of his life. It is scheduled to take place at 6:00pm, Saturday, the 17th of May, 2008 at the St. Albans Country Club.
Formal attire is suggested.
you wish to attend, please RSVP with the enclosed envelope by the 3rd
of May, 2011. We look forward to seeing you.
Rebecca Michelle Van Dyke-Hastings
Rachel Marie Van Dyke
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” II Timothy 4:7
“What? Westy’s dead? Unbelievable! Why didn't somebody call...” he exclaimed, deeply exhaling while at the same moment, allowing a tinge of cynicism to creep into his voice. “With notification by our friendly postman in letter form mind you. And , and , from the amazing bitch sisters to boot! Well imagine that!”
“Bripp!”, agreed Ernestine.
John Van Dyke, “Westy” for short, was dead. Fulfilling his charter, he drank frequently from the cup of life but was now and sadly, no more. Billy, as he reread the letter’s contents, was having a hard time believing it. Although it had been some time since they had last spoke, it was during a meeting that had ended on less than amicable terms.
“Man, whyja screw me on that deal Westy? Why dude? I thought we were good budd…” With his voice trailing off and shaking his head, he reached into the refrigerator for a cold one.
“Pop!”, went the bottle’s cap.
“Bripp!”, responded Ernestine.
It had been many years before and as much younger men when they had first met. Apart from sharing a common post office code, these two individuals representing opposing worlds of privilege had in reality, very little in common. However there were two objects of fascination that both men found equally alluring: pretty girls and old motorcycles. In regards to the former, there was also a profound difference; Westy simply wanted the girl. Billy wanted a girlfriend.
In relation to both subjects, Westy easily commanded the winning hand, which often created conflict within Billy. Remembering a favorite quote of his recently-deceased comrade, a “Westyism” as they were known, suddenly tumbled from his lips, “Mah good looks don’t always get the gurl but when I show ‘em mah wallet, well, it’s party time! Hah hah!”
“Yeah, you’re right old buddy. It was always party time. For you anyway…” sighed Billy.
Schooled within the halls of the best institutions of higher education, Westy was also a man of few original ideas, unless they involved mischief to one degree or another. His daily focus usually revolved around which pretty girl would be the next to share his company, or as the evening approached, what his dinner fare may be. What Westy wanted, Westy usually got; an occasional point of further agitation for Billy.
Being not particularly intelligent but of regional aristocracy and blessed with rugged good looks and charm, there was never a shortage of quarry for him from which to choose. After conquering another unsuspecting maiden and quickly hatching a scheme to cut her loose, his “Plan D” as in ditch, another Westyism, he’d provide to Billy, amongst others, a ringside account of his latest conquest. Grinning, laughing and digesting the information as if it were delicious and forbidden fruit, they would hold on to every spoken word in anticipation of his final punch line. Following Westy’s confessional and after his exit from the scene, Billy and the others would often linger to discuss in further detail, the tidbits of his triumph while at the same time, deny the envy that raged within each of them.
In the company of others Billy always played along and never openly criticized his friend’s crass behavior. In his heart however, he knew that Westy had little empathy for others, was ill mannered and in the simplest of terms, not the nicest of guys. But Westy had an aura about him, inexplicable to most, that usually led people to admire him or at the very least, stroke him a bit. Billy couldn’t figure it out and often wondered why he soared above others and always, always, landed feet first. He also knew he couldn’t help but like him.
“Hey Dorene! ‘Nother round over here, pulleeze!” was the predictable boozy request from Westy, usually initiated from a booth at Moose’s Place, strategically located within eyesight of its main competition down the street, The Velvet Touch Lounge. Moose’s Place, after all a nice, original, well-prescribed name. The establishment and its pickle-faced, rotund proprietor, Carl “Moose” Slobotnik, had been in business forever; much longer than Billy had been of age. Since its halcyon days as a working man’s bar, it had over the years matured as an establishment in the sense that it, like its owner, had experienced brighter times. Hazy, dimly lit and smelling of stale beer and cigarettes, its creature comforts, tables, and chairs had over time developed a dull, sticky veneer that no amount of elbow grease or cleaning solution could penetrate. Evidenced by these facts, one always left Moose’s a bit more soiled than when one entered.
While relaxing at Moose’s, some patrons had subconsciously developed ways and means of dealing with these unpleasant realities. One unspoken rule was to touch as few fixed surfaces as possible. It was not uncommon to see woozy patrons, sitting at the bar or at a table, hands neatly folded in their laps, in a usually vain attempt to avoid contact with such objects. Others had developed the habit of compulsively wiping hands on one’s trousers while sitting or walking about the place. Of course such behavior was usually more noticeable earlier in the evening and as the night progressed, such inhibitions often fell to the wayside.
And what of food for hungry clientele? It was a subject best to avoid, unless one was drunk. Being the astute businessman he was, Moose did not light up the kitchen grill until around 10 pm. He reasoned, and correctly so, that any earlier would be a waste of energy and expense. By that time most hardcore patrons had a few hours of drinking under their belts and were starting to consider a bite to eat before the evening waned. At about half past the hour, the infamous “Mooseburgers” would begin to sizzle on the grill, emitting a curious odor that would entice the bravest to come forward and place an inebriated order. A few wiser patrons, including Billy, had always remained disciplined enough to resist their siren call. Westy however, lacked the avoidance attribute that his friend possessed and was therefore, a frequent consumer of Moose’s signature product.
“Mooseburgers! Too many? Hmmm, I wonder if that’s what finally got him.” wondered Billy, as a trace of a smile appeared on his face. It was certainly a point that merited further consideration.
Because of its primitive ambiance, there were not many patrons of the fairer sex frequenting Moose’s Place, unless of course, they were the hired help. Considering Moose’s operational standards, it was also quite understandable. The occasional appearance of an unescorted female of unknown origins would usually be viewed with outright suspicion by Moose and clientele alike, especially if she was good looking.
Moose’s Place. The long and short of it is this is where Billy and Westy became close friends, laughed, swapped stories and made their bike deals. It’s also where their relationship fell apart. Not being one to easily forget, Billy had never again graced its funky, peeling façade with his presence.
“Hello.” The voice at the other end was a chilly one.
“Hi Rachel. Is Westy, er, John home?” Billy politely asked.
“With whom am I speaking?” It was a curt reply, tightly wrapped within an ice pack and personally delivered through the wire by Rachel, his friend’s younger sister.
“Come on Rachel. You know who it is. I was look…”
Still eyeing her caller i.d. and rudely interrupting him before he could finish his sentence, Rachel went on the offensive.
“Oh. It is you. Hello William.” Her words were spoken in a monotone that metered in somewhere between boredom and sheer disgust. “So you’re looking for my dear brother Sir John the Lazy? What’s going on now? Is he going to buy another shitty old motorcycle from you? Why didn’t you call him on his cell phone? Wha…”
Keeping his cool and knowing her technique well, he cut her short and initiated the offensive, deploying his authoritative best. “Rachel, cut the crap and listen to me for a minute okay? This isn’t about a bike and by the way, I’ve never sold him a piece of shit, all right? He told me to call him at the house because he had something really important to tell me. Is he there or not?”
Conversing with Rachel was always a game; a test of wills, a sparring match. An attractive girl but extremely snarky, she enjoyed being obnoxious and keeping people on edge, making them squirm a bit before divulging any information. Although she knew that he knew it, it added to the overall complexity and fun of the exercise.
“Yeah, okay. He’s here. Just a minute.” she coolly replied.
As the phone receiver noisily bounced off the tabletop and reverberated into his ear, Billy could still hear Rachel as she summoned her brother, “Hey lover boy! Pickup the phone! It’s William the Fuzzy! He said you have something important to tell him! Hah!”
A moment or two later and much to his relief, a far less hostile voice greeted him, “Sorry about that. She’s such a bitch. Mah man! How’s it going? Listen, you’re gonna like this! I just got a hot tip where there’s a ’65 Norton over in Prosperity that can be had. Maybe even cheap! You interested?”
“A ’65? Hell yeah I’m interested! How’d you hear about it?” Billy, immediately on board, replied.
“Well, listen to this mah man.” Westy whispered in an attempt to keep the conversation out of the earshot of Rachel, who was hovering ominously close by.
“It seems there’s an old lady who has it stashed in the back bedroom of her house. It was her husband’s. He’s dead. Been there for years man! Brian, our handyman was over there the other day doing some gutter work for her when he spotted it through a window. Since he gets around a lot I recently put him on retainer to keep an eye out for old bikes. If he finds one and I end up buying it, I’ll pay him a finder’s fee. It’s a win-win for both of us!
Anyway, he brought it up with the old girl when he spoke to her and at first she didn’t want to discuss it. Then out of the blue she called him and guess what man, she said she be interested in selling it, if and only if the buyer is a nice guy like her husband was.”
As his friend continued to divulge further details of the discovery, a minute fragment of recognition suddenly spiked within Billy’s brain. “Westy?” he quietly interrupted, “She’s in Prosperity right? What’s her name? Do you know by any chance?”
“As a matter of fact I do man. Brian told her I might be calling so she gave him her information. Umm. Let’s see. Yeah, here it is. Her name’s Wanda Mahoney. Hey Billy? Do you know her or something?”
“Yeah Westy. I think I do.”
Charlie “Knuckles” Mahoney. “If you mess with me, this is what you’re gonna get!” trumpeted Charlie, brandishing a toothy grin and pressing against Billy’s youthful cheek, his reddened massive fist. “They don’t call me Knuckles for nothin’ ya know!”
Charlie was just having some fun. He adored Billy and was a frequent visitor to the Hudson household since his former friend, Bill Sr., had flown the coop. Feeling sorry for Billy and his mother, Charlie would often stop by following his shift at the mill to roughhouse with the boy and offer support to his mother, at least in the verbal sense. His visits met a lot to Ernestine who was crushed when Billy’s father had disappeared with a girlfriend, leaving her with many unanswered questions and even worse, a cache of unpaid bills. Charlie, as everyone in town knew, was high energy, high spirits and an all around good guy.
Sometimes he’d drop by on the weekends too. Since he and Wanda had no children of their own, Charlie became in many ways and for some time, a surrogate father to Billy. Billy in turn always looked forward to his visits, anticipating what special surprises they may bring.
It was a sunny Saturday afternoon in late July 1974. The coming evening was to be the pinnacle of the annual Summit County Agricultural Fair and Festival. Being the social event of the season, Charlie had promised Billy they would be making the scene this year with special style: “Better hang on to your hat son! We’re gonna arrive fast, furious and first class!” as he had been told. Billy had no idea what this meant other than he’d be with Charlie, which in his own mind, was special enough.
As mid-afternoon approached, Billy sat in anticipation on his front porch, staring up the road in the direction of the intersection of Main and Industry Streets, waiting for his friend to arrive. As he fidgeted, expecting Charlie’s familiar brown sedan to turn the corner at any moment, he instead heard an unfamiliar sound, a noise, more like the roar of wild beasts far off in the distance. As the sound approached, becoming more ominous, he realized that for the first time in his life, the hair on his arms and his neck were standing fully erect.
on his feet, mesmerized, Billy alternately looked down to his arms then back to the street in anticipation of what might happen next. Then it came. Like a vision, from around the corner arced a man aboard a blood red motorcycle, on a
trajectory aimed pointedly in his direction. Alarmed by the cacophony,
Ernestine burst through the screen door and seeing the rapidly approaching
missile, threw her arms around Billy in a protective and motherly fashion.
Within moments the infernal machine was at the curb, a few yards short of Billy and his mother. Billy, wide-eyed and mouth agape, stood on his porch motionless as the rider dismounted, slowly removing his helmet. It was Charlie.
“Billy! Hey little buddy! Whadaya think? Like my new car? Hah! It’s a Norton Atlas! Six hundred and fifty cc's of pure power!” laughed Charlie, grinning from ear to ear. “Hey Ernestine! Whadaya th…”
Ernestine, composing herself, spoke for her son, “Charlie, have you gone crazy? There’s no way on earth my boy’s getting on that thing with you. Fair or no fair.”
Doe-eyed, Charlie made his pitch. “Ernestine, listen to me for a minnit please. I know how to ride and I’m good at it. I just picked it up last week, have rode 'im before and ain't never had an accident. I know what I’m doin’, I really do. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t even think about letting him on the back with me. You’ve gotta believe he’d be perfectly safe with me, you’ve got my word on it. Please think about it. Look, I’ve even brought a new helmet for him. See?”
Sure enough, on the back of the seat was bungied a shiny new helmet for her son. Matching red.
“I, I don’t know Charlie,” Ernestine replied.
But her hardened stance was beginning to soften as she did trust the man with her son, more than anyone she had ever known, including his father.
“Well, this is a special day I guess. Charlie, you know we love you and for all you’ve done for us,” Ernestine quietly stated. “Maybe just this once I’ll make an exception and go against my better judgment. Let’s leave it to Billy and see if he wants to ride on that thing with you.”
“Honey, would you like to take a motorcycle ride with Charlie to the fair?”
Billy, allowed to speak for the first time, remained silent, enraptured. This gleaming machine, this creation, forged by the gods of thunder and now standing silent and motionless before him, was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. “No”, he thought to himself. He wouldn’t like to go for a ride with Charlie, he’d love to.
guess by the look on your face it’s a yes then!” declared a grinning Charlie. Billy, remaining silent, simply nodded in wide-eyed agreement...
A note to the Reader: This short story will not be presented in its entirety online. Additional content will added from time to time however.