I entered Barna’s and made my way to the bar.
“What’ll you have?” the middle-aged, overweight, cigar-chomping bartender asked.
“Budweiser and a menu.”
A moment or so later, a waitress approached.
“Ready to order?” she asked.
I glanced at the menu and looked back at her.
I took a sip of beer. “I’ll have the blackened catfish, hushpuppies and coleslaw, please.”
She jotted down my order on her pad, and then headed toward the kitchen.
The bar resembled the inside of a race shop. Autographed dented car parts, “Welcome Race Fans” banners, and NASCAR sponsor banners hung from the ceiling and walls. Trophies stood along side bottles of liquor and the beer taps resembled race cars.
The waitress served dinner and the bartender offered to re-fill my beer mug. With a fresh mug of beer I ate what turned out to be a most excellent meal. The waitress returned to take my plate.
“Excuse me,” I asked. “The cat fish – farm or caught?”
“I caught it,” the bartender stated, quite proudly.
“Outstanding,” I said. “It hit the spot.”
The bartender and waitress took the exchange as an invitation to a conversation.
“Where you headed? By the way, my name is Hilary and this here is Bill. We own the place.”
“I’m Steve,” I said, while reaching to shake their hands. “I’ll bet you get a lot of teasing about that.”
“Not so much any more, but we got our fair share a few years ago”
“Care to hear a Bill, Hilary and Monica story?” I asked.
“Sure.” Bill said while he smiled at Hilary.
“In my former life my boss whose name had been Bill, and married to a woman named Hilary, and I had to interview a woman named Monica. Her last name had been close to Lewinsky. Anyway, she shows up for the interview wearing a blue dress. My boss and I look at each other and start laughing. So much so we had to sip coffee to keep from revealing it. We asked her why she left her former job and she comes out with something like it didn’t work out. I felt a bit sad because it occurred to me that she might have suffered abuse. We offered her a job and she turned out to be a very dedicated worker. Fate can sometimes be cruel.”
“We got our share too,” Hilary said.
“To answer your question, I’m headed for Florida.” I decided at that moment that I’d try to make a new life in the Sunshine State.
“Did you find work down there, or are you one of those snowbird people?” Hilary asked.
“No, I don’t have a job waiting for me and the last thing someone would call me is a snowbird.”
“Do you have a trade?” Bill asked.
“No, not really. I spin a wrench on occasion.”
“If it doesn’t work out down there, come back up here. The race and repair shops are always looking for a wrench.”
“I’ll keep that in mind. Listen, thanks for the great meal. I’d better get going so I can get an early start.”
I paid the bill, and then headed out the door.
Back in the room I went to sleep wondering if Bill and Hilary had found the way. Had he found it in the quiet moment of meditative fishing? Had Hilary found it with in the preparation and presentation of meals? Had they been drawn closer to one another due to accompanying fallout of sharing the same first names as infamous people?
I awoke to a clear dry day. Some of the distance that had been lost because of the rain could be regained. It would be un-eventful riding with the exception of the Atlanta traffic. Residual anger lingered, but counter thoughts of the natural flow of a stream replaced them.
With Atlanta behind me, and Leesburg, Florida, in front of me, it would be a six hundred-plus mile day. Keeping my stops brief, it could be attainable. With my feet positioned on the passenger pegs and my chest resting on the tank bag, I streamlined myself to take pressure off my spine and to cut down on the wind buffeting — sport bike style.
I arrived in Leesburg after just two short stops along the way. After checking in and showering, I made my way toward the restaurants. Given the choice between a belly bomb from McDonald’s and allegedly well-cooked food, the Cracker Barrel won out. The service, as usual, was courteous and prompt, and the food good; however, I felt guilty about eating in a place that at one time had been charged with racial discrimination.
I headed back to the motel room intent on rewarding myself for riding six hundred-plus miles, with an evening stroll en femme.
With under-garments and make-up in place, the freshly ironed floral-print dress raised over my head, I reveled in the joy of having it cascade down and around me. My wallet and room key safe within the clutch bag, the dimly lit motel parking lot lay ahead. After sitting on the bike for almost thirteen hours it felt good to be walking in the temperate night air of central Florida wearing a favorite dress and heels.
Despite the reward, sleep escaped me as thoughts of the argument with my wife came to mind. I allowed the taking by giving. If it had gone on any longer it would’ve consumed me. The thoughts of the past drove me onward to change my life’s way.
The following day I poked along through the Everglades on the Tamiami trail. Air boats, shallow watercraft powered by high mounted automobile engines connected to enclosed airplane propellers, displayed signs advertising discounted swamp and backwater tours dotted the landscape. After traveling nearly one hundred-twenty miles, a gas stop loomed.
With the bike refueled, I headed inside to pay. The day had grown hot and my fluid level had become a priority so I purchased two bottles of water.
“Sir,” I said to the proprietor while placing a twenty dollar bill on the counter . “May I use your water hose to wet my shirt and bandana?”
“Sure thing, help yourself. Where you headed?”
“You better get a move on if you expect to get there today.”
“Tomorrow is soon enough. I may spend the night in Largo or make the run over the bridges under the stars.”
After waving off his attempt to hand back the change, I headed toward the bike and the wooden benches to have a seat, wiped my face with the wet bandana, and savored one of the bottles of cold water.
With my mind clear of thoughts of the argument and filled with my new life’s way, I noticed a twenty-something, dark-eyed, raven-haired, bronzed beauty dressed in well-worn riding gear, approaching from the gas pumps.
“Excuse me,” she said. “You wouldn’t happen to have a cigarette?”
She and her BMW “air head” boxer twin looked road weary.
“Did you ride here from Minnesota?” I asked, as I noticed the bike’s tags.
“Good for you,” I said, as I looked in her glazed-over eyes, caused by too many miles and lack of sleep.
“I have enough money for gas to get me to Key West, but I haven’t sufficient funds to buy cigarettes,” she said, expressing embarrassment.
I handed her my half-smoked pack.
“Care for some water,” I asked, pointing to the unopened bottle. “By the way, my name is Steve, Steve Barnes.”
“Sorry,” she said after accepting the water and swallowing a mouthful of it. “Mine’s Stacey, Stacey Reynolds.”
“So, Stacey Reynolds, what has you headed toward Key West?”
“I’m a musician; and I’m down for the season. I’ve six months of gigs booked.”
I glanced over at the bike. “I don’t see a musical instrument.”
“I’m a pianist and a singer.”
“What type of music do you play?”
“Blues, jazz, pop, standards, and classical.”
“I’ll have to look you up and listen to your music.”
She looked startled. “Are you headed to Key West?”
“Are you a musician?”
“No, I have all I can do to play the radio, let alone an instrument. I’m headed there to play Ernest Hemingway.”
“Are you a writer?” she asked with great interest in her voice.
“No, I don’t write,” I sighed. “Key West is a place to go when there’s no place else to go.”
“That sounds sad.”
“Not really, I’m intent on changing things around; and Key West will be the jump off point.
“Where are you staying?” she asked
“I don’t have a place. I’ll look for an apartment when I get there, but you may have to stay here.” She looked puzzled, as I gestured to her bike. “Your rear tire is flat.”
We walked over to her bike, and then I lifted it onto its center stand. The tire had become worn to the cords and it appeared to be leaking through them.
“I can’t afford a tire. What am I going to do?” Her emotions bridged anger and sadness.
“I’ll front you the cost of the tire.” It occurred to me as I spoke that it sounded like a search for the same approval that permeated my marriage instead of the way. Could helping her and the way be one and the same?
“No you can’t give me the money for a tire. I’ll not have it.”
“What do you intend to do? You won’t get far on that. Pay me back when your gigs start.”
“That’s fair,” she relented.
I walked back to my bike, pulled out my touring handbook, two cans of fix-a-flat, and then headed back into the store and its pay phone.
She had tagged along.
“Why are you calling a Harley dealer when I own a BMW.”
“It’s the closest dealer.”
“How are we going to get there? The tire’s still flat,” she asked in a slightly panicked voice.
“Let’s see if the fix-a-flat will buy us an additional fifty miles,” I said, while emptying both cans into the tire.
We mounted up and headed toward Hialeah at a reduced speed. As we approached the city limits, the dealer’s billboard advertised that it would be two miles away. I pulled into the drive of the first available motel.
“Don’t say it,” I said during my dismount. “You look like you could use a shower, a meal, and probably a good night’s sleep. Plus this is about as far as I intend to travel today anyway.”
“I am going to say it, I’m paying you back.”
While she showered, I removed the rear tire from her bike. Once again, thoughts of seeking her or anyone else’s approval for my deeds flooded me. Escape from that syndrome, haunted me, but despite the anxiety of sliding back into its clutches, leaving a fellow motorcyclist broken down by the side of the road seemed heartless.
Stacey emerged from the shower wearing a towel — looking and probably feeling a lot better than she had earlier in the day. She looked at her bike in shock.
“What did you do?” she asked, seemingly agitated.
“Saving you some money by doing the grunt work. We’ll ride to the dealership tomorrow, they’ll mount and balance the tire, I’ll put it back on the bike and then we’ll be on our way.”
“You’re crazy. You’re doing all of this for someone you just met. How do you know I won’t rip you off while you’re asleep?”
“You could, but I’m guessing that you won’t.” She lit a cigarette, shook her head, and walked back into the room.
“I’ll run across the street and get us a pizza and a couple of beers,” I shouted into the room.
As I waited for our meal, the belief that my actions had been honorable absorbed me. Giving with feeling, and not from obligation, seemed to be life’s way.
Back in the room, I watched her devour five of the eight slices.
“Thank you,” she said sounding very relieved and satisfied.
“When did you last eat?”
“Two days ago.”
“Listen,” I said. “I’m going to take my shower and turn in. It’s been a long hot day.
I’m not into sex with strangers,” she said, “no matter how generous they are.”
I consider discussing my philosophies with her, but merely said, “You’re good-looking, but I just dumped a load of trouble and I’m not looking to replace her.”
I reached into my bag and removed my toiletries and my nightgown. The thought had crossed my mind to forego sleeping in it, but then I thought, “It’s natural for me to wear it.”
My appearance momentarily startled her.
“Sexy,” she said. “Very sexy.”
She pulled the sheet over her head and attempted sleep. I opened the door, checked the bikes, and then called it a day.
After a restful night, I dressed in my riding gear in anticipation of repairing Stacey’s bike, and then heading for the Keys, but first, coffee. A stop at an ATM machine to check the balance in the account that had been funding my trip would be the second order of business. It had been amassed over years and had been always referred to it as my “screw you” fund.
I headed back to the room with coffee for Stacey and the knowledge that there would be sufficient funds to draw against for up to six months.
She’d awakened and dressed.
“Here’s a cup of coffee for you. It’s black. I hope that it’s okay.”
Thoughts of seeking approval flooded me. That would have to stop and I’d have to continue to learn to do things because they’d be natural and not attached to a reward.
“Thanks,” she said accepting the coffee. “How long do you think it’ll take to fix my bike and get to Key West.” I sensed an urgency in her voice.
“Well, if the tire’s there when they said it would be, and they mount and balance it right away, we should be there no later than four o’clock.”
“I have to meet with the manager of one of the clubs at six o’clock. It’s important that I do so. It may mean additional work.” The urgency had become laced with concern.
“The parts guy said ten o’clock, so let’s get going. Keep your fingers crossed.”
After a short ride to the dealership we learned that the tire had arrived and their personnel would perform the service while we waited. While they took care of the tire, I roamed the dealership to learn that it too fit the Harley Davidson corporate look–sterile, no personality, and no local flavor. Stacey helped herself to an additional cup of coffee. I glanced at the various magazines located in the service area’s waiting room and noticed a real estate flyer. I leafed through it, and then headed for the pay phone.
I rejoined Stacey, and then we both headed outside to smoke a cigarette.
“What was that all about?” she asked.
“I made a call to a real estate agent to try to line up an apartment.”
“The club manager told me that he may have a room for me. I’d have to share it with two other musicians.”
“Sounds good, but if it doesn’t work out and mine does. . . .”
“No. Absolutely not. You’re nice and I’m very thankful for all that you’ve done, but I’m determined to do this on my own.”
Something lurked within her, to have fired off such a defensive comment. I decided not to pursue it.
We finished our cigarettes, and then went back to the service department to pay for the mounted tire. With Stacey seated on the passenger seat of my bike, I handed her the tire which she placed on her lap. I mounted, and then we headed back to the motel to install it.
With the tire back on her bike and both bikes loaded down with our luggage, we headed for Key West. As we headed out over the bridges, I again thought of the natural cycle of stream, river, ocean, evaporation, and rain. Over and over the cycle played out. Would the ocean help me to evaporate to rain, and then start my life again?
Stacey and I took turns leading. I watched how she rode. It seemed mechanical and lacking in a flow. The Zen analogy of the horseman becoming one with the horse came to mind. Thoughts of her music came to mind as well. Did she merely play notes and sing words, or did it come from her heart and soul. We exchanged places mid-way over the seven-mile bridge. Who was I to comment on her riding and possibly her music? Her style was her style and natural — for her.
We arrived within our respective time frames and pulled into a motel parking lot to make a proper separation. With helmet in hand, she gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek.
“Good luck,” I said. “Maybe I’ll catch you in one of the clubs”
“You better show up. I haven’t forgotten that I owe you money.”
“You’ve got a deal.”
Stacey headed off to the club manager while I headed to the real estate office.
The agent greeted me and the two of us went to the apartment. She explained that the building had been a converted motel and that all of the rooms had sufficiently outfitted kitchenettes, tables, chairs, bathrooms, and beds. Linen would be furnished, but it would be my responsibility to launder. Utilities would be included. I accepted it, and then we headed back to the office to sign a lease, write checks, and exchange idle chitchat.
With the short ride to the room behind me and a new life in front of me, I drew a glass of over chlorinated tap water, and then sipped it while savoring my surroundings. My first order of business would be to unpack, shower, dress, and take a stroll. It would be a hike to “Old Town” and night life, but the ocean would be in sight and that’s what mattered most.