Now, I don’t expect you to believe me. Hell, if I was in your shoes I wouldn’t. But I don’t have a choice. I have to tell you. It was part of the deal.
Millie didn’t have the same experience, so she isn’t the one to ask. She was there through all of it, though, so her part is important. Mainly, I just want to get the story right, start to finish, like I promised. And you bear with me if I ramble. I’m a rambling sort.
We were on my bike, Millie and me, heading down the freeway, not speeding especially, just loving life—the wind pushing us around, road humming under our feet, her arms under mine, tight around my chest.
A heavy helmet stuck up on a delicate neck like Millie’s is a hard thing to control; every time I’d shift or brake, her helmet hit mine from behind, making us clack together like giant balls on a pool table. Me, I liked making her do it, knowing she got embarrassed, turning beet red up under that pink roadrunner helmet of hers. I had that helmet done up special. The day I gave it to her she made me take her riding right then to show it off. We’d been together a couple of months by that time and were getting along pretty good. I was beginning to think maybe she was The One. Of course, I’d been down that road before. Millie was nothing like my first two wives, though, and something about us fit together pretty good. Maybe you know that comfortable feeling a man gets when he’s got a woman who understands him and isn’t out to make him over into something else. Well, Old Millie was just that way. She looked fine on the back of a Harley, too—all long legs and leather and dark hair streaming out behind her down the road. I used to wonder what she saw in a crusty old biker like me. When I asked her, she’d just say, “Shut up and drive, fool!” and slap me on the helmet.
When I think back on it, and I do, lots, I can’t even say what we were doing out that day. Probably just riding for riding’s sake, nothing more. That was the great thing about Millie. She was always one to go along for the ride.
There’s no way to talk on a bike, moving down the interstate. Between the roar of the Hog, the helmet up close around your ears and the whistle of concrete under the tires there’s plenty enough noise to make talking impossible. If you try, the wind just blows your words off down the road someplace.
Anyway, she hadn’t said anything since the stoplight before the freeway, so I had no way of knowing what Millie was thinking at the time. I can’t even be sure if she screamed when we went down. To tell you the truth, I was too busy watching that big semi swerve and cross the median. It came bouncing over the grass like it was on springs, right between the highways, and I remember thinking, why, that poor fella’s gonna jackknife. It seemed like it took me forever to figure out that he was headed straight at me. When I saw that trucker’s eyes I knew it though. They filled up the whole cab, big and white and shiny, like headlights burning in the light of day.
That’s the last thing I remember seeing for sure—those big, white, eyes. After that it was My Life the Movie, played on fast forward. It sounds corny, sure, but the whole damn thing was right there. And my life was hard enough to sit through first time around, let alone a repeat showing. I was reliving all the stupid, really bonehead shit I’d pulled over the years. Mostly stuff I’d take back if I could. It was a painful thing to see, too—my life’s mistakes at a time when I was thinking I’d never get the chance to fix them.
I guess you’re wondering what it feels like to get hit by a truck. Well, it might make it easier for you to know I didn’t feel a thing at the time. No physical pain at all. Death don’t hurt. It’s the living that cuts you up.
Now I don’t remember the actual crash, the moment when my skull hit pavement at fifty-five miles per hour. But what I do remember is that one minute I was riding down the road, and the next minute I wasn’t. Just two different people in two different worlds.
Instead of being in that first world with Millie and the bike, all of the sudden I was above it, looking down.
Used to be, when I’d tell this story, I’d get squirmy at this part, and have to force every word out. Now I hear myself telling it sometimes, and I feel like I’m talking about someone else. You know, in a way, I guess I am.
Well, I could see everything from up there. I saw the mountains all blue and smoky like a movie. I saw the ugliness of the wreck. Black skid marks, white smoke like steam all around the scene, people on the ground. One guy was standing there running his fingers over and over through his hair and jumping around like he was stepping on hot rocks. Another guy was lying on the side of the road, really messed up, looking bad, if you know what I mean. Not moving. It got my attention, you might say. And then I figured out who he was. He was me down there, flat out, bloody on the side of the road.
Ambulance came pretty quick; people started in on him—me. And I was coaching them along, rooting for him to make it like I didn’t even know the guy. There was yelling and hurrying. I remember that. A road crew doing construction across the highway came to watch, and rubber-neckers in their cars craned their heads out their windows to see me all busted up. I can’t blame them. I’d of done the same.
Then I remembered Millie.
Millie had hit the ground about a hundred yards from where I was. She had people all around her, too. Something about her legs didn’t look right—the angles of her body didn’t make sense. All of a sudden I didn’t want to be floating way up there. I wanted to help. I looked over at myself, disgusted, wondering why the hell I wasn’t helping. Then the guy who had been working on me quit pumping and slid what was left of my jacket over my face. He stood up, and walked away.
I yelled at the little prick, “Don’t give up!” but the sun got extra bright and white, blinding me. Except, it wasn’t the sun, and instead of looking at the wreck I was seeing my grandpa coming towards me. It was him all right. My grandpa was about the only person in the world I respected. He was the man I always wanted to be. We’d had a connection, him and me, right up until he died. He left me his ranch. Said I’d know what to do with it. Except I’d let it go to pot. I figured he was going to give me What For.
But he held his arms out. He had the saddest expression on his face, tears streaming all down into his beard. Well sir, that started me crying. My heart was busting, regretting messing up his ranch and all the other crap in my life, happy to see my grandpa again, sad from worrying over Millie, pissed because I couldn’t get down there to help.
Grandpa reached out from all that brightness, and touched me. As soon as he did, the worry and sadness and bad feelings disappeared. He kept touching me and said I had to listen to him—closer than I ever had before. What he had to say was important and he needed me to get it right. He said I was going back. I didn’t have to ask, “Back where?” He said it wasn’t my time. He said I had a lot of lessons to learn, and even more to teach.
I know how crazy this all sounds, but it wasn’t crazy at the time. It was like looking down into the swimming hole on Grandpa’s land and seeing straight through to the bottom.
Well, I told him I wanted to stay with him, and I meant it, too. But part of me was rooting to go back. Back to Millie.
Anyway, he said my life was going to change—that instead of living selfish and self-destructive, I would help people. He said my story would help others learn how to live. He said be sure to tell it, just like this.
I had about a million things I wanted to say, and even more to ask, but he pulled away and the light came between us, blinding me again. That’s when I hit something—or something hit me. Hard, like being slammed up against a wall.
Right about here my memory gets foggy again, but when I felt that wall slam into me, all I can tell you is that my feet were moving. I hit the ground running.
The EMT came chasing after me yelling, “Hey! Lay down! You’re dead!” But I was getting to Millie.
She was cut up bad. Her legs were wrong, somehow, and her helmet turned to the side so I could only see just the one eye, but that eye looked right at me. “You look like shit,” she said.
The ambulance guys pulled me off, then made me lie down and put oxygen on. The mask didn’t seal up at first; didn’t fit till I quit smiling.
After we got out of the hospital, Millie and me, we made everything official. We tied the knot, her in a white leather dress, me in black leather pants and a white tuxedo shirt, my hair all tied back in a ponytail. Just for pure fun our friends put a veil on Millie’s helmet. They tied cans to the back of my new shiny black road-hugging Harley, and we took off, clanging down the road.
Millie’s wedding present to me was a belt buckle with a picture cut into the silver showing a big old Harley driving down a dirt road kicking up a cloud of dust. It turns out she got the idea from some poem where a man had two roads to choose and after thinking it over he took the road nobody else took just to see what would happen. Millie said that reminded her of me.
I guess Old Millie’s pretty happy with the road I took. She’s right there when I need her. She’s my partner in the ranch. I tell her she’s got the hardest job of all.
My grandpa was right, too, which I should have known he would be. It’s just hard to take on faith something you don’t know if you believe yourself. But the upshot of it all is, I’ve got a passel of teenage boys living under my roof now. I take in those who’ve got themselves in so much trouble they’ve got no place else to go. They get sent to Millie and me here on my grandpa’s ranch, and God bless Millie, she loves ‘em like her own. I put ‘em to work and try to set them straight, but they’re free to go any time they like. Most stay. They know there’s no place else that will have them. We’re the Last Chance Ranch. There’s ten or so other hands that live and work here, too—mostly reformed junkies and ex-cons trying to turn their lives around. Folks like me.
Folks with a story to tell.
Mary Akers' work has appeared or is forthcoming in Southern Hum, Xavier Review, Literary Mama, The Fiddlehead, and other journals. She is a graduate of the Queens University of Charlotte MFA program in creative writing and a three-time Bread Loaf work-study scholar.