Saturday, September 13, 2008

Los Angeles, Part Two

Los Angeles, Part Two

The embodiment of biker culture is striding toward us across the parking lot, only fifteen feet away now, with an eager smile on his face. We barely say yes before he launches into the task, giving tips, asking about what’s wrong with the battery, insisting it’s the battery, not the alternator, clipping cables and wiping things, and so forth.

I look him over as he works. Forty-ish, unshaved but not quite bearded, freckled and sun-soaked skin, bandana, denim vest with a logo nearly the size of his broad back celebrating his membership of a Christian biker group (Riding for Jesus, or something to that effect), ragged tee shirt, worn, worn jeans and genuine biker boots that look like they’ve kissed asphalt a time or three. Everything about him is used. Grizzly. But not dirty, really. I love it.

I wonder aloud how I should go about replacing the battery if it’s not going to hold a charge, musing about where the next big city will be on our path.

He turns to me and asks which way we’re headed. For the first time I make full eye contact with this Good Samaritan and the sight takes my breath. His irises are like green ice – sharp, jagged crystals of color, and an intensity of intelligence and kindness that strikes me briefly dumb. I’m not sure what I say, but it must be something semi-coherent and accurate, because my mother doesn’t interrupt to correct me. He nods wisely, and I’m staring at his eyes, unable to look away, even after he does.

“Then what I would suggest is staying on this road,” he gestures, “and heading about twelve miles down.” He gives us directions to two auto parts stores, one of which he recommends more highly, where they will replace the battery for us. In the middle of his directions, which I’m concentrating on remembering, easing over my shock now, he makes eye contact with my mom. I see his smile, and I see her expression, eyes briefly startled, blinking, blinking, not breaking eye contact.

Soon enough the car is running, though without enough energy to run the air conditioner. I have to turn off all other electrical systems to roll up the windows. I remember thanking him two or three times, and we’re on the road again.

The kids at the auto parts store are heavily pierced, and girls outnumber guys two-to-one, which briefly surprises me since we’re in the rural Carolinas. But they handle the battery replacement smoothly, even trying to help me reset my radio, which no longer functions without a dealer code because the battery ran too low.

Many hours later, we’ve stopped for food just outside Pennsylvania, somewhere around two a.m. and maybe three or four hours from Buffalo. At this point, we’ve put air in the tire three more times, and I’m praying (metaphorically) it will last just a few hundred more miles. We’re talking about the car troubles and expressing thanks that it wasn’t worse – despite the lost time – when my mom mentions again how fortunate it was the group of young men happened to be outside the hotel.

“Angels were watching over us,” she says idly. “If you hadn’t forgotten the pillow and the car had died somewhere else, like a rest stop, we might not have gotten help so easily.”

I have to admit that she’s right about that, though internally I’m not thinking the young men were particularly angelic. Yet the second she said the word, the first thing I thought of was the biker’s eyes. Knowing the answer, I ask if she noticed.

She nods, and I suspect we’re wearing identical expressions of stupefaction as we try to describe – to each other – how intense they were, how compelling.

“Did you notice he just sort of, disappeared?” I ask. “I turned to make sure you knew which way we were going, then turned back to thank him one more time and wish him a good weekend—”

She’s nodding and nodding. “And he was gone. I noticed it, too. He was there over your shoulder, and then he wasn’t anywhere.”

“The parking lot wasn’t that full either. And I didn’t see any bikes…” I’m realizing this as I say it, becoming more unsettled by the second, but in a strangely serene way. Bothered by the strangeness yet unable to be truly concerned about it despite myself.

Our food arrives and we dig in. Stomachs beginning to be sated, we start talking again, and my mom turns the conversation back to the biker, glad he came along, but remarking on the oddness of his disappearance.

“You know, that happened to me again tonight.”

I wrinkle my nose. “Meaning?”

“When we stopped so you could air the tire, but we didn’t need gas yet? A guy came up to the truck and got my attention through the passenger window. He was a Black man, very dark, but he was wearing a white shirt, and white pants, too, I think, maybe painter’s pants. He asked me for a light, but it was like he was really going to ask if I needed help, someone to help me drive, until he saw the boxes in the passenger seat and changed his mind.”

I’m surprised at this. “I didn’t see anybody.”

She shrugs again. “He was there at the window, and I passed him a lighter out the window and he asked if I was alone. I pointed to you and explained. When he looked at you, I walked around the front of the cab to smoke with him, but he was gone.”

I tilt my head as I swallow my coffee. “There wasn’t anywhere to go,” I remember. Where we had stopped was a gas station with the air pump and vacuum more than seventy-five feet from the station, at the base of an undeveloped slope on the edge of the property.

“I know,” she admits. “I thought you’d think I was crazy if I asked if you saw him.”


I tell my husband all this as we fall asleep in bed the next night, and he expresses aloud his gratitude that we seemed to have someone watching over us, whoever it was. I fall asleep wishing I could paint or draw, because I can’t get those green eyes out of my head – so pale – and I normally can’t picture faces, even my family’s with much accuracy.

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