Head in a Helmet
Ivan rides a Triumph motorcycle. It is a big bike. It has a 2294cc engine and its tailpipes trumpet like an enraged bull elephant.
He's riding with Donny, as usual, and also as usual, they are riding west across the Bay Bridge from Oakland to San Francisco. They ride into the sun that is setting into the ocean from which, Ivan predicts, it will soon be seen rising above Japan, and then Vladivostok, and then across the expanse of the steppes, and on to the Middle East-the desert where Ivan once drove a tank to keep gasoline flowing freely to America, to keep gasoline coming to the Arco by the I-80 freeway where he likes to fill up. Ivan thinks of the sun rising like a conquering army across the planet.
And he and Donny-he on his Triumph and Donny on his 1978 Norton Commander-are like a conquering army. Just the two of them.
They ride west across the Bay Bridge, over the waters teeming with striped bass, and the halibut greedily eating anchovies; and bat rays sailing through the murky depths, big as tires; and fat seven-gill sharks as docile as dairy cows; and ancient hoary sturgeon, languid and long as a tall man and encrusted and ridged with hard knobs, their preternatural life-spans having afforded them memories of the conquistadors. Beneath it all lies 500 years of shipping debris. The creosote and mercury from a million ships settles in a heavy layer at the bottom of the bay, echoing with the footfalls of a navy of long-dead sailors.
Ivan and Donny ride through the tunnel on Treasure Island halfway between Oakland and San Francisco. The roof of the cement tunnel is shaped like the barrel of a gun and when they rev their engines inside it the report of their engines echoes and amplifies. It sounds like an M-80 blast. They both laugh.
Ivan always rides big bikes-not for bigness, but for defense. He always tells Donny that when you're on a bike, cars can't see you. You have to make them hear you. Ivan wears noise like a suit of armor.
Ivan pulls up next to a Volvo sedan and peers in at the driver behind the safety glass. He can plainly see that like most drivers, this one is a soft, distracted creature. This Volvo driver is chattering into the telephone headset plugged into his ear. He looks like a chimpanzee manning a rocket ship.
Ivan knows that the automobile drivers don't see him. They don't see the man in leather, the man passing them on the right. Ivan lane-splits. He rides the white line, passing cars on his left and on his right.
He rides like a big cat that has poked his head into a narrow space and, seeing that his whiskers fit inside, decides to squeeze his body in and pass through. Ivan blasts past the Volvo, eases along the white line and squeezes between a two-ton Escalade on the left and a two-ton Expedition on the right. Ivan knows that he passes them before they even know he's there. They don't see the man who is-just inches from their steel-reinforced side panels-hurtling his bare heart into the fierce wind with nothing between him and the skin-peeling pavement but a foot peg.
But they'll hear him. The roar of his engine will blister their ears. It is startling. Most people jump. The clever ones say things like, "there goes an organ donor." And then they slip back into their reverie, insulated inside their cars, as if they were at home in their living rooms.
Ivan and Donny reach the other end of the bridge. They are in San Francisco and they proceed along the highway to the exit leading to the Mission District. They take it. They ride up 14th street and stop side-by-side at the light at 14th and Valencia.
"Watch these assholes at the lights," Ivan says to Donny.
"What?" Donny says. He smiles and shakes his head. "Are you going all post-stress on me man?"
"No. Just watch them. I've got a weird feeling."
"Me too," Donny says. "I've got a weird feeling. I feel lucky."
"What?" Ivan asks.
The light changes and Ivan pulls into the intersection after looking to make sure that nobody runs the red. Donny is beside him, lighting a cigarette with one hand and accelerating with the other.
"I feel lucky," Donny yells over to Ivan.
Luck isn't always good, Ivan thinks. He doesn't say it out loud.
They turn left onto Guerrero Street and head south. Donny and Ivan take the right lane for themselves, cruising comfortably side-by-side. They don't speed. Donny hands his cigarette across to Ivan as they ride. All along the Guerrero corridor they ride past rows of Victorian houses, their former splendor replaced by the shabbiness of necessity. They are each divided into three, sometimes four separate units, and people crowd into their small tall rooms, burrowing in like beetles under a log-seeking shelter in a city where shelter comes at such a high price.
Ivan watches the cars. He has theories about cars and he is always adding to his science. He has observed that, generally, automobile drivers are not aware that they are moving. In cars, 80 mph feels a lot like 30 mph, which feels not so different from 0 mph.
Cars can offer such a comfortable ride. So relaxing. Just today-just in the stretch between the bridge and the Mission-Ivan has already observed people in cars fussing with the radio, checking their hair and picking their noses, puzzling over the mis-directions they've printed out from Mapquest, eating porridge from a bowl and gibbering on the telephone.
He and Donny pass a woman driving a Camry with a bumper sticker announcing that "The Goddess has awoken, and there's magic afoot." She takes one hand off the wheel to re-arrange the crystals and beads and talismans dangling from her rear view mirror. Like a decorator crab that scuttles along the ocean's floor in search of pieces of plastic and wool and fishing line to wear on its back, this woman has affixed random objects to her dashboard: driftwood and shells, and bobblehead dolls, and a time-released air-freshener bottle shaped like a crown.
Ivan and Donny pass a young Asian couple in a red Celica. They have maximized their blind spots by heaping stuffed animals onto the shelf behind the back seat.
An SUV passes them. A man with a glistening mullet and wrap-around Oakley sunglasses is driving it. His windows are obstructed with stickers attesting that, as an Oakland Raiders fan, he has made a commitment to excellence.
Ivan notices all of it. He is vigilant.
The sun is now behind the apartment buildings at the west side of Dolores Park. It hails red and brilliant over the tops of these buildings-these buildings that have stood witness in this spot for nearly 100 years.
The park has just been mowed and the warm autumn air smells like grass. It smells fresh and green. Donny loves that smell and he wonders how it is that you can smell a color. It occurs to him that maybe blind people smell colors.
Ivan is watching the road ahead. He sees that the light at 18th and Dolores has just turned yellow.
Ivan is good at math and he calculates quickly; he knows that he doesn't have enough time, enough space, to stop. He also knows that, as soon as the light turns, some person, some asshole, will punch it into the intersection without looking. And, as always, this asshole will be driving a mini-van.
Ivan flicks his right wrist, accelerates to 63 mph, and clears the intersection just as the light is turning red.
Donny has fallen behind Ivan. He slowed down to inspect a woman, a redhead, at the bus stop.
He approves of her. He approves of her mightily.
She is wearing white cutoffs and her legs are very long. She reminds Donny of a gazelle with those long legs. And the fact that this redheaded woman triggers an associative memory of the savannah leads Donny to think, "I should get out and get laid more instead of smoking pot in front of the Nature Channel."
Donny resolves, right then and there, to get out more.
He turns his attention to the redheaded woman's ass. It is mounted atop her exquisitely long legs. "Right where it should be," he ruminates. He admires her ass for it is exceptionally round and firm and it is set very high-so high that it's as though it were from a planet where gravity has no dominion. There's a word for it: high-ass. And Donny reckons that it is the finest example of high-ass he has ever seen.
Then the redhead, as if accommodating Donny's gaze, twirls on her clogs 190 degrees to study the schedule on the bus shelter. She twirls in what seems to be slow motion, thus affording Donny a superb view of her superb high-ass. He calculates how-with her consent, of course, and to her delight, also of course-he would handle it for her. The words bam bam bam run through his mind as the corners of his lips curl upward.
Animals in the forest can sense when they are being watched. So can redheads in cut-offs. The woman feels Donny looking at her.
She turns back toward the street so she can face him. She sees that he is handsome-ruggedly handsome in an outlaw motorcycle gang kind of way-and she sees his heavy boots and his strong thighs and she sees that the corners of his mouth have curled up in a sardonically licentious attitude.
And that smile tells her that Donny is a man who will play it anyway she wants: the neighbor borrowing a cup of sugar, the French whore on Bastille day, the lady chauffeur and the porn fluffer. She can tell that Donny is what she would call a good sport.
She thrusts her left hip out and puts her hand on it. She rubs her long naked thighs together like a praying mantis. The effect is mesmerizing.
When he worked at the patent office in Zurich as a young man in 1905, Albert Einstein would sit on a hill to eat his lunch out of a brown paper bag that he brought from home. He liked watching the railway switchyard below. From his high vantage point, he could see the trains arriving from the east.
The stationmaster could not see these trains, the ones coming in from the steppes, because his view was blocked by a grassy hill. From the stationmaster's perspective, the arrival of the westbound trains was an event destined to take place in the future. But, because Einstein was up higher, he had a different perspective. He could see the westbound trains before the stationmaster saw them. For Einstein, those trains had already arrived, they were already in his present.
Einstein realized that if you can get far enough away-way, way out in space-you transcend time. You will see the past, present, and future all at once. You will see that they are all the same. Albert Einstein was a genius. This is generally known.
If Einstein were on another hill, another high hill-actually, the hill in Dolores Park overlooking the intersection at 18th and Dolores-he would see the redheaded woman at the bus stop. Like Donny, Albert Einstein would admire the woman intensely.
Einstein would also see Ivan riding through the intersection. He would probably even commend Ivan on his quick calculations. Einstein himself would have gunned it through the intersection. It was the prudent thing to do.
Einstein would see Donny as well. He would, with mounting horror, realize that Donny was gearing down his Norton so the big bike purred and growled at the redheaded woman.
And Einstein would see what Donny could not see. He would see the mini-van jumping the green light and flooring it into the intersection.
The girl is screaming. Ivan bends down in front of her and picks up Donny's helmet. Ivan holds Donny's helmet in his hands. Donny's head is still in it.
Ivan looks at Donny's ruggedly handsome face. Donny's lips, framed by his blond Fu Manchu mustache, are still curled up at the corners. He appears to be very content. His expression is very content.
Ivan says out loud, "Oh God." But in his mind, Ivan silently repeats, "go back five minutes, just five minutes."
Because five minutes ago Donny's head was still right where it should be. It hadn't yet been sheared off by the bumper of the mini-van, rolled across the intersection, and bumped against the curb at the feet of the girl standing at the bus stop.
Ivan stared into Donny's face. Donny's eyes were closed, and he was softly smiling. He looked like he was having a good dream.
Ivan could still smell gasoline bleeding from Donny's gas tank onto the street. He could smell the acrid tinge of rubber still burning across pavement. The smoking rubber hung in the air, lingering after the event.
Ivan tried to understand how this could happen. Maybe if Donny had been hit and skidded with his bike across the intersection-that would have seemed more likely.
Or, Ivan would have expected Donny to do what he'd seen him do once before: Donny was broadsided and punched clean off his bike. He hit the concrete on his feet and he ran out the velocity. Donny was an athlete; a drinking, smoking, drugging, fucking athlete. And after Donny was knocked off his bike, he approached the Lexus that hit him. The couple in the Lexus quickly hit the buttons on their armrests to raise their windows. Donny lightly knocked on the driver's window. The driver opened it a crack.
"I need your insurance man," Donny told him, "You just hit me."
Donny walked away from that accident. He got back on his bike and rode to the nearest bar to recuperate on the nearest barstool.
More than 600 years ago Tamerlane rode out of the east, over the steppes, and into Baghdad with his horde. They were pissed off. Tamerlane ordered his men to decapitate everybody-tens of thousands of men, women, and children. The horde stacked their heads neatly into pyramids.
And then-just to clarify their point-Tamerlane's horde took a few thousand more heads and skewered them onto pikes. They planted the pikes along the roads leading into Baghdad, running for miles and miles like Burma Shave signs.
In 1401, you could get decapitated. And it wouldn't be that unusual. Unpleasant, yes. Unusual, no.
But today, what are the odds? Aside from Jayne Mansfield, who gets their head shorn off?
Ivan reflects on what happened to Donny. He reflects on it deeply and he returns to it often. He is drawn to it like a drug he can't quit or a woman he can't stop loving.
He wonders how it could have been different.
What if the redheaded woman had made some friendly, beckoning gesture-like lifting her t-shirt to expose her breasts? That would have been ideal.
Or what if Ivan and Donny hadn't stopped for gas, or if they did stop for a beer, or if Ivan hadn't been late, or if Donny didn't waste so much time brushing his hair when he was only going to put his helmet on anyway? What if anything, any slight thing, had been different? Then maybe Donny would be alive.
Donny's death happened in a single moment. The moment froze in time. It froze inside Ivan's mind.
Ivan stands weeping like a child even though he's as big as a Russian bear and the tattoo on his massive bicep says Death Before Hard Labor. The lady cop puts her arms around him, tears running black mascara down her face. Her partner-and he's almost crying too-gently pulls the head from Ivan's arms and wraps it like a newborn baby in yellow plastic. And the heavens break apart from the sonic boom caused by the screaming angels who pull their hair, and tear their clothes, and rake their nails across their breasts until they bleed.
Regret cannot hold Ivan forever. He comes to realize that space and time are not absolute. He laughs at the shallow tyranny of before and after because he knows that they are only words.
Ivan and Donny ride together down the street. They are riding through intersections with perpetually green lights. The curbsides are lined with redheads, all with fabulous high asses, running for miles, running forever, along the road like Burma Shave signs.