Faith in Life

We stayed close to a lone biker, tailgaiting him on the drive into Sturgis. His Harley floated around the long curves of shining blacktop, and up and down the slopes. The rocky pine-covered Black Hills were clear of clouds, the sky breaking open blue after an earlier rain. We were the only SUV in the long, long, procession of rumbling motorcycles, and we did not talk, transfixed by the constant, fast moving parade.

Bikers moved in and out, but mostly they stayed in good order. Soon we were nearing the town, still caught up in the line of bikes that stretched for miles without break. We finally made it to a green space and ball diamond, right at the edge of the small town. I pulled the SUV over and parked there. The biker we’d followed waved and kept going.

Marliss and I got out and started walking up the street right away. She took my hand. “I don’t want to lose you, Jack,” she said, looking at me, smiling. I don’t love Marliss, in a romantic way. She’s an old friend—and was a life-long friend of my late wife. She needed a break from her life, she’d told me, and suggested a trip to the Sturgis bike rally, though neither of us owned a motorcycle. I could hardly say no.

Right away there were vendors along the street and the smell of cooking food. One booth had pork chops the size of books roasting behind glass. We passed a big, open-air saloon surrounded by a high, linked metal fence. Bikers, mostly males, sat at tables drinking. Then we were into the deeper flow of the streets swarming with walkers, mostly dressed in biker garb.

The tented vendors were set up in every parking lot, space, and storefront, selling belts, jackets, vests, chaps, hats, knives, Zippos, jewelry, silver and gold, biker art, decals, carvings and crafts, and there were more food vendors and lemonade stands, their signs painted in bright colours: Italian Sausage, Pheasant, Corn Dogs, Greek Gyros, Quesadillas. We stopped along the way to look at it all. The smell of leather, grill smoke, and bike exhaust hung in the air. And every street curb was lined with parked, shining motorcycles, mostly Harley-Davidsons, in neat, ordered rows, most of them custom painted and outfitted.

We went into a saloon, a Quonset-like building on a side street, with picnic tables, and a stage for a band. A Stars and Stripes banner read: Roadhouse. Pretty young woman in two-piece bathing suits stood behind booths selling bottled beer. We found a table, and then I went back to the street for food. I found a row of busy grills piled with chicken, shaved beef, large glistening sausages, and peppers and onions. I bought two hot steak-in-a-sacks and took them back to the table. Marliss had bought beer. The beer was very cooling after the heat of the busy streets. The steak sacks were fat and hot, and hard to eat neatly.

The heat of the day had blown up a new storm cloud. By the time we were done eating, rain was falling on the crowded town, the large diamond drops soaking the whole smoking show. Marliss and I watched the bikers coming in, their leathers dripping wet. We looked out of place in our street clothes. I threw out the food wrappers and stood by an open entrance and watched the silver rain break loudly on the hot asphalt.

Marliss came over, holding her beer. “Rain seems to follow us. We must be under a cloud. Or a rainbow, is the other way of looking at it.” She linked her arm with mine. “This is something, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, it’s crowded.”

“I mean us—you and me. It’s strange, to see you outside our usual world. Not so long ago I wasn’t sure I’d ever see you again. Let alone so soon and on a holiday adventure.”

“I guess my plans aren’t real solid.”

God mine neither. Life is new, Jack, not old and running out, is how I’m looking at it these days. I want to develop a positive attitude. Sweep that old dust under the rug. Enough sadness.” She tapped my chest with her finger. “We’ve known each other a long time. You’re my oldest living friend.”

“Almost twenty years,” I said.

“This conversation sounds familiar.”

“Yeah, I guess it does,” I agreed, and smiled. We had, it seemed, always gotten our signals crossed at some point whenever we were together. I was never the most intuitive man.

Marliss looked me in the eye. “You won’t know me as who I was pretty soon.”

“I won’t?”

“It’s true. I’m changing my name. I always hated mine. To something new and interesting. Lots of people do it.” She crossed her arms now, looking out at the rain. “Decided last week. No, really, I’m going to do it.”

“Have you picked one yet?” I asked, surprised.

“No. But I’m down to a short list. I finally know I can do whatever I want. I finally figured that out. I hope you like the new me.” She smiled my way and pushed me a little with her shoulder. “Same old skin, though—just a few new wrinkles.” She took my arm again. “Let’s go shopping after this rain. I need a jacket. You do too.”

We stood and drank the cold, green-bottled beer. More blue smoke drifted over the corrugated metal roof. The wet bikes glinted in the street. In a few minutes the cool shower let up enough to go out.

It was slow going. Thousands of bikers milled around the sidewalk vendors. Sometimes we couldn’t move at all in the crush. “Stay close. I don’t want to have to go into the wilderness looking for you if you get yourself lost,” Marliss said. She took my hand again and squeezed it.

We went into the Hudson Leather outlet. Long rows of leather packed the walls and aisles of the open-floored leather-smelling building. Marliss pulled vests and jackets from racks and tables and held them up. She picked out a small black leather vest, a black zippered jacket, and shining black leather pants. Then she tried on a short-peaked black leather cap with a silver chain at the base of the peak. “Do I look like somebody’s mama bitch,” she joked, modeling. She bought the goods, stuffed the pants and vest in her backpack, and put on the jacket and cap.

She said I needed a jacket too. We found one that she liked so I bought it and a peaked black ball cap with Harley-Davidson 1903 in orange stitching on it.

We walked around more and Marliss looked at jewelry and liked some of the silver. When she wasn’t looking, I bought a small silver bracelet and gave it to her. She seemed surprised, looking at it, then at me. “Really? For moi?” She slipped it on, smiling brightly, her eyes sparkling. Then she hugged me.

As we came around a corner we looked down Main Street. It was all bikes, lined up side by side in neat chrome-glinting rows. A haze hung over everything but the sky was clear and blue above the town. The sudden storm had drifted on.

Marliss complained that her feet were sore, so we looked for a place to sit out of the afternoon sun. We found a saloon in a large building with an upper deck where patrons stood drinking and looking out at the swarming streets. The crowd was loud, almost raucous. “You can let it all hang out here, can’t you?” Marliss said, gawking at the scene. We took a table and ordered beers. The sun was fully out and hot now. We took off our new jackets. The beer bottles dripped with condensation in the sun.

The sky over Sturgis stayed blue and clear as dusk came. We could see some of the street from our table. We watched the crowds, and the machines passing endlessly.

Then Marliss excused herself. When she came back she wasn’t wearing her T-shirt and had put on the leather vest and pants. “Well?” she asked, modeling for me. The bottom button of the small vest was undone so that her flat belly showed. The deep V of the neckline exposed some of her small breasts. The slim scars on her bare, beautiful, tattoo-free forearms were bright white flecks, and her shiny silver bracelet dangled from her thin wrist.

“Wow … I hardly recognized you,” I said.

“The new me. I’m opening up my once narrow perspective. I’m looking for a pay-off. Life is short, haven’t you heard?” Marliss said.

Yes, I know, I thought, but did not say it. “Okay,” I said instead, and laughed, but not fully.

Marliss was getting drunk by now, and having a good time, and I was happy for her, but worried, too, in a way.

We walked back to The Roadhouse. It had fully filled with bikers and was getting louder and raucous and smoky. Booted bikers in leather stood in groups drinking. Most of them had logos on the backs of their jackets and vests, and had ragged beards, large mustaches, tattoos, and weathered faces from biking in the heat and wind. Most had on faded or torn denim, and leather, and many wore bright bandanas. They had things like crosses, eagles, flags, motorcycles, or words printed on their vests and T-shirts. The women were mostly dressed in let-it-all-hang-out-get-ups that most mothers where I’m from would not approve of. The saloon smelled of spilled beer, cigarette, cigar, and marijuana smoke. A band was preparing to play.

We lined up at a beer stand. Marliss linked her arm in mine again, very close to me, and I could feel her warmth. Then we found an open picnic table and watched the ever-growing crowd. I’d let off on the drinking, knowing I’d have to drive back to the lodge in the dark.

Then the band was introduced to a roar from the crowd and started playing in a crash. They were thundering loud, with pounding drums, and heavy, harsh metal guitars. The music roared out into the crowded saloon and streets.

The floor quickly filled with dancers. Marliss smiled, moving to the music, staring at the crowd. Then she grabbed my hand and pulled me up. The floor got more crowded and close so that the dancing was a jumbled mess. People thudded into one another, but no one cared.

Marliss danced closer to me, moving to the pounding music. She looked at me, and yelled, “This is fun.” She took my hands, moving me, laughing.

The night was warm and humid from the recent rain, and the air wasn’t flowing too well through the saloon. The dancing stayed close and hot. After a long spell the band took a break. Even without the music it was loud.

Marliss fanned herself with her open hand. Her dark hairline was sweat-wet. “It’s a brother and sisterhood,” she yelled, an unlit cigarette dangling now from her lips. “Maybe I will buy one of those fucking Harley-Davidson machines and join up.”

I hadn’t heard her f-bomb often, even when drinking, and I thought she’d quit smoking a long time ago. But I hadn’t been out with her and her friends often, in recent years. I really knew little about her private life, anymore—I really didn’t know her well at all. I only nodded and smiled, thinking she would not hear anything I said in the din anyway. She lit the cigarette with a lighter from her purse, took a long drag, and blew out the smoke.

We danced again when the band started, going back to the table once in a while for beer. The band played a song about Sturgis. The crowd seemed to know it, and they all cheered in a chanting uproar. After the song Marliss went to find a bathroom.

I stood outside away from the din, getting some night air. Smoke drifted up from large barrel barbecues in the alley where attendants were cooking beef brisket.

Marliss found me and stood close. “Do you remember last night?” she said. Up on her toes she squeezed my biceps. She pulled closer then, and kissed me on the mouth. Her lips were very warm and wet. She let off, and was smiling, looking up at me. She started to kiss me again, but I turned away, and laughed.

“You okay?” she asked, after a second, still close.

I nodded. “You?”

“I’m happy. I’m having fun.” I could feel her shivering through her leather.

“Maybe we better go,” I said. “It could take a while to drive back.”

“I know,” she agreed. “Okay. I guess we better, if you want to.”

We walked out hand in hand. The crowd had spilled into the street. The band started again as we walked away.

The sound of the party slowly faded. Marliss was drunk and leaned on me, as we walked back to the SUV not saying anything. It was much quieter where we’d parked.

We stood alongside the SUV in the dark. Marliss lit another cigarette. She was having a hard time holding fully steady. I opened the door to let her in, holding her elbow. “Gracioso, Garcon,” she said, and dropped her just-lit cigarette.

“Take me home, Rosschild,” she said, as we got underway. A moth had gotten in and was batting helplessly against the windshield. “Did you know that a moth can smell its mate from over two miles away?” Marliss said then, leaning my way. “But they still go to that flame and get burned every fucking time. Every fucking time. Explain that to me.”

I looked at her, feeling concerned, but could not see her face well in the dash lights.

It took a minute to hit a break in the traffic. Once we did, the line of bikes flowed along steadily; but good luck reversing if you had to.

“Mind?” Marliss asked, taking out another cigarette.

I said I didn’t, but I hated cigarette smoke, and she knew it.

Well touché,” she said, and laughed. She lit the cigarette and opened her window to let the smoke tail out. “Having fun, my Jack?”

“Sure. But I guess it’s not really my thing. You need a motorcycle to really fit in.” I’d never liked her calling me Jack, a nickname only she used.

“I think I know what you mean. This is not you. But still.” She took another drag. “It’s fun. Fun to just do it. You know?”

“I’m having a good time.”

“Me too. But I was always easy to please, wasn’t I.”

We hit a backup of bikes, their red taillights like a long winding string of red jewels on the dark highway.

“You’re quiet as the preverbal cucumber,” she said, looking at me now. “You always were, though.”

“And deaf from that band.”

“It was really loud, hey?” She flicked her cigarette out the window. “Thanks for the dance, Jackie. I loved it. I felt like I was under a lucky star for a while.”

“You’re welcome,” I said, and looked at her. “Thank you.”

“There’s a lot of water under our old bridge. And we’re not getting any younger, are we?”

“No, last time I looked in the mirror.”

“Oh … you look in mirrors?” She laughed, and then waved her hand. “Let’s agree—you and me—not to look back anymore. A pact. Nothing but good new things from now on. The future, not the past.”

“That’s a good plan. I hope I can live up to it.” But my heart was not really into what I was saying, it was more for her sake.

Okay, deal.”

We passed the Full Throttle Saloon with hundreds of cars parked in the open field, and thousands of bikes surrounded the building. The traffic flow increased as we got through the intersection and I turned toward Bear Butte. Streams of bike lights moved along the dark highway now in the countryside beyond the town. Finally, we were at the turn to the lodge, out in the bare grasslands where it was fully dark.

The lodge house was down a dark approach. I helped Marliss out after we pulled in near it. There was only a single yard light. “Merci,” she said, stumbling a little. “Don’t drop me, or I might fall. Look,” she said, pointing up. “Angels.”

The night sky was wall-to-wall stars, and the quiet was sudden and obvious. Marliss started to laugh for no obvious reason, but subdued at the same time, then stumbled again as we walked to the lodge veranda.

I reached out and held her arm and we got up the stairs together, and we went inside right away.

The ranch-style log lodge was poorly lit. Marliss held my hand and she pulled close as we made our way along the hallway. We stopped by her room door. “Don’t go,” she whispered, then. She leaned against me, her hand in mine along my thigh. She still had on her leather cap, tilted slightly to the side. “Let me take care of you tonight, Jack. It’ll take about ten minutes of nursing and you’ll get your strength back. Bull in a China shop. No stopping you, she whispered. She squeezed my hand harder. “Stay with me.” She was shivering again. I could feel her warm breath on my face, with the smell of tobacco and alcohol. “You know you can trust me. I can be trusted. Like a patron saint. I know you don’t trust easy. Please—stay with me.”

I didn’t respond for a moment, and we stayed close, and I closed my eyes. Then I told her, finally, “I can’t, Marliss. I’m sorry.”

She pressed her pelvis against my thighs. “You like me—I can feel it.”

“We’re both drunk. I’m sorry Marliss. I should’ve told you a long time ago. It’s my fault. I should’ve let you know.”

She sighed then, and rested her head on my chest. Her body relaxed after a while, and she looked up at me. “You’ll live to regret it,” she said, trying to sound lighthearted now, and smiling.

“I know. I will.”

“Yeah. I guess you know.” She sighed again and patted my chest. “Goodnight.” She went in her room, and quickly, but quietly, closed the door.

I went to my room and lay down in the dark with my boots on. I didn’t like the moving, drunken feeling. I got up quietly and returned to the veranda and stepped off into the grassy field where it was dark. Lights glowed in the cottonwoods way over at the biker campground under Baldy Mountain, and you could just make out the outline of the lone mountain, darker than the night sky that was glittering and ablaze with stars. And motorcycle lights moved like satellites way off on the highway. You could hear the muffled rumbling, but otherwise it was quiet and the night air was warm. I tried not to think of Marliss, or worry about her, and looked out at the mountain and sky. Finally, I went in to bed.

I woke up once to a hard wind gust that was startling and had my heart going. The sudden wind was known to come around the mountain, from across the Black Hills, I’d heard. The room window rattled. I could hear the leaves of the few cottonwoods near the lodge, and always, the faraway clattering of motorcycles accelerating, somewhere out on the highways.

When I woke up, I lay there for a full hour in the morning light. Then got up and took a long shower, knowing Marliss was likely to sleep in.

On the way to the veranda I paused at her door, my concern from last night returning, and lightly tapped on the door. I stood there a while but she did not respond.

I went out to the veranda. The morning sun shone full on the mountain and the mile or so of yellow and green grasslands in-between. The grass still had a dewy morning sparkle. Little white moths hovered over a strip of green uncut alfalfa out past a barbwire fence. The air was quickly warming.

I went back in and Marliss’s door was open a crack now. I opened it more and stepped inside. Her bathroom door was ajar too. I saw her in the mirror, standing naked, drying her short dark hair with a towel. Light from the window lit her body. Her nipples were small, and areola dark like pennies.

I quietly left and returned to veranda and stood along the rail again. Birds sang in the scattered cottonwoods.

In a minute Marliss came out in a red bathrobe and a towel wrap for her hair. She stood beside me. “Hi,” she said, shyly, sounding more like the sober woman I’d always known.

“Good morning,” I said back.

“Very funny.” She looked tired, her facial skin bluish and tight. “A girl needs to sleep late once in a while,” she said, leaning on the rail. “We are on holidays.”

“I slept late too. You must be hungry?”

“God, no. But I’m thirsty. I think I’m dehydrated.”

I offered to get her a glass of water, but she shook her head. She wrapped her arms around herself to keep the robe close. “I feel out of sorts this morning.” She looked at the mountain. “Hung over I guess.” After a short pause, she said, “I probably hurt your feelings last night?”

I shrugged. “No, not really.”

“Well, I’m sorry, anyway.” She looked at me now. “I drink too much, don’t I?”

I didn’t want to make her feel bad again, like I had just before leaving on the trip. I didn’t answer. I looked at the mountain too.

She laughed a little. “I feel unsettled about everything these days. I’ve been trying to force things too much. And sometimes I feel like I need someone to blame, and blame for my invented problems. I won’t do it again.”

“No worries, it happens,” I said, but was not at all certain what she meant, and only wanted her to feel okay.

“Yeah, well, nothing just happens. There’s a reason for everything. Anyway, I’m sorry.”

“Me too, Marliss. I’m sorry too.”

“Yeah, I know. But I don’t think you really know what for.” She pulled her robe tighter again, and turned away a little, but I could tell she had tears in her eyes. “I’m still tired,” she said. “Haven’t woke up yet.” She took a breath, sniffled, and wiped her eyes with her sleeve. “I’ve made a few big screw-ups lately I haven’t told you about. I lost my life savings in a dumb investment. Like a gambler would. Mom started a fund for me when I was a kid. I was topping it up every month the last fifteen years. Then I just blew it. It wasn’t all that much, really,” she shrugged. “But still. Like I wanted to get rid of everything once and for all. I still have my teacher’s pension of course.”

“Oh,” is all I said, hoping it sounded empathetic.

“We’re invisible people, you and me,” she said then. “You live in a town of only fifteen-hundred people, and almost nobody knows you. You’re invisible.”

I didn’t think that was fully true. My daughter had grown up in that town, and you get to know people, or they know who you are, at least to look at you. My job did keep me away from people, but I did not ever mind that, it was true.

“I’ve been teaching grade six kids in the same city for fifteen years. But nobody knows me. I’m invisible too,” she said.

“I think you probably just feel that way. But it isn’t true,” I told her, without time to deeply think about it.

“Well—I am invisible. You know what I mean.”

I nodded. “Okay, yeah, I think I do, understand.”

“Yeah?” She looked at me. “Reality sets in when you finally know certain things aren’t going to happen in your life. I guess I’m on the rebound from that. From waiting for what’s not coming. Don’t you want something more out of life, Jack?”

I didn’t know what to say right away, but then said, “I guess I’ve never looked at it that way. But I’m stuck in my ways, that’s for sure. I know that.”

“Oh yeah … I’m talking about you too, you asshole,” she said, trying to laugh a little now.

“But I always managed to get by,” I said, smiling a little too.

“Yeah you do. But I also think you’re partly lying.”

“You can get used to anything.”

She looked at me and laughed quietly. “That’s ridiculous. But I’m happy for you.” Then she looked away, not smiling anymore. “I don’t want to do this anymore. Shouldn’t we have given ourselves over to something for real by now?”

“You have, more than me. You’re a great teacher, Marliss. Everybody loves you.” She didn’t seem to hear me. I remembered her telling me she was going to change her name. And her pledge from last night to keep a positive attitude.

“Who knows what we might stumble onto, if we get busy.” She stood quietly then, looking at the mountain again. Then said, “We were just scared, if we’d only admit it. But I want to live my life now, not worry about it all, anymore. Or about what people think. I have some faith left. Faith in life. I hope you do too, Jack?”

“I think I do,” I said, though was not certain I understood. Faith in life. Then it dawned on me, that maybe she’d had thoughts of harming herself again, after so many years, and it shocked me in the moment, and I almost began to cry. “I need to make changes too,” I said, quickly refocusing. “But I haven’t been able to,” I admitted.

“I know …. ” she started to say, but tears welled-up in her eyes again. “I’m sorry for you. And for me.” She turned, put her arms around my neck and squeezed, and laid her toweled head on my chest.

I put my arms around her and squeezed her. I held my breath and shut my eyes. When I opened them and took a breath, I saw two nighthawks hovering above the cottonwoods. Their wings sounded like paper tearing as they dived after morning insects.

Marliss let go a little, and I felt her relax. “I’m getting homesick for Mom; I haven’t visited her in a while. I don’t know how much more time she has, you know, she’s getting so frail.” She pulled away. “Maybe I’ll go to church with her on Sunday. She’d like that. Can we start back today?”

“Yes, of course,” I said. The rooms were paid for; we could leave right away.

“I’ll pack. I’ll phone her on the way home. We can grab coffee and a bite on the road.” She turned quickly then and went in, without looking at me again. She was not wearing her new bracelet.

I packed my things and took them to the SUV. Then I waited for Marliss on the veranda, still worried and wondering about her, the sun becoming warmer now, and the constant, distant motorcycle rumble that I had not noticed for a while.

She soon came out, dressed in her regular clothes, her hair shining, and fully dry. She looked past me and seemed determined. “Okay. I’m ready now,” she said.

About the Author

Michael Hetherton

Michael Hetherton’s short story collection, Grasslands, was an Independent Publisher Book Awards finalist, Danuta Gleed Award nominee, and winner of a Saskatchewan Book Award. In recent months his stories have appeared in the UK in Confluence Magazine, Honest Ulsterman, and Litro Magazine, and in Adelaide Literary Magazine, NY. A novella expert is upcoming in Los Galesburg. He lives in Canada.