My father, a bank vice-president in Little Rock, Ark., was in Dallas for two weeks for a conference so I decided to tell him about my motorcycle.
Recently out of graduate school, I had a real job and a steady income for the first time. The rent for my apartment was cheap, and because I had lived for years on student loans, so were my tastes; saving money was a snap. After a few months I splurged and wrote the biggest check of my life to buy the one thing—maybe the only thing—my parents would never have bought for me: a motorcycle.
Late at night, returning along spooky, deserted freeways from a party or visiting friends, I would accelerate to 90 or 100 mph on the straightaways, my torso low over the gas tank. I rocked in and out of curves, pleased and amazed, like a child with a gyroscope, by the conjunction of balance and speed.
I met my father at his hotel room and said, "Come on down to the parking lot. I want to show you something." He followed me to the parking space where my black 1981 Honda CX500 was leaning nonchalantly on its kickstand. My father put his hands on his hips, looked at the bike and then at me.
March 27, 1989
"Give me the key," he said, and for a moment, although I was 25 years old and financially independent of him, I felt like a teenager again, being grounded. I dug into my jeans pocket and produced the key.
My father put it in the ignition and slung his right leg over the saddle. He looked down at the foot pegs and gearshift, gripped and released the clutch with his left hand and the brake with his right. "One down, four up?" he asked.
"Yeah," I said, surprised he knew anything about the gearing pattern of a motorcycle.
"Is there a helmet law in Texas?" he asked.
He pressed the starter and the engine turned over crisply. He clicked the gear into neutral with the toe of his black, wing-tipped shoe and backstepped the bike out of the parking place.
"Uh, where are you going?" I asked.
"Just around the block," he said, and throttled up, lurching a little as he rolled out of the parking lot and onto the street. He went around the corner and out of sight. The image of his business shirt rippling across his back remained in my mind for a moment. Of the many reactions I had anticipated from him, hopping on my bike and riding off was not even in the ballpark. After what seemed an eternity, my father appeared around the corner and pulled smoothly into the parking place.
He then told me about a motorcycle he had owned when he was 18. "When I was in the service at the Jacksonville air base, I had an old Harley-Davidson Flathead 74, not the kind with the overhead valves," he said. "It had a shift on the side. I was cruising along on the old Jacksonville highway, going about 45 or 50 miles an hour, when I saw a block of wood on the road. I had on hard-toe military safety shoes and decided to see what would happen if I kicked that block of wood." He started to smile. "I thought I would never get the feeling back in my leg. It was numb for about 30 minutes." He laughed. "Don't ever do anything like that."
Toward the end of that summer, a friend and I rode our bikes to Hot Springs, Ark., to visit my parents at their vacation condo. I knew that my mother now was going to find out about my purchase. As we rode up to their apartment complex, she happened to be standing on the balcony. I took my helmet off, expecting her to be upset, but she showed no emotion. After my friend left and my mother and I were alone, I asked her what she thought of the motorcycle.
"You're old enough to do what you want," she said. "Does your father know about this?"
"Did he ride it?" This was a question I hadn't expected.
"Yes, he did."
"Did you lose sight of him?" she asked. Another unexpected question.
"Were you nervous?"
I thought back. "Yeah, a little."
"See, now you know how I feel," she said.
I moved to New York a few years later, and my cousin agreed to keep the bike for me in Arkansas. During visits back there, I still ride it occasionally, but now I think of my mother and her comment. I don't want to make her nervous. The bike has become mere transportation.
My father goes over and starts it up every now and then, just to make sure it still runs.