I don't remember now where I was going nor why; knowing me, I was either running away from one thing or running to another. The only thing for sure is that it was somewhere I wasn't or hadn't been, and that was good enough for me.
The old gray Wing was still running then, and it gobbled up the miles like a hungry brother-in-law on a steak sandwich with mushroom gravy. The windshield guided the wind away from my ears, which made for a quiet ride, and the weight of the machine made for a smooth one. It must have been about three in the morning on a dark, moonless night. The trees hung over the narrow, two-lane, farm-to-market road, somewhere among the hills of eastern Oklahoma, and my headlight bore a tunnel right down the middle. I have to admit I was about half asleep.
Jim, bringing up the rear on his chopper, was somewhere off to my right, his headlight keeping mine company.
Suddenly a small, furry creature darted across the road in front of me, causing me to brake vigorously, which is just as well, because a barn owl, huge in the glare of the headlight, was right on his ass. It took me a moment to catalog the interruption; I had almost hit a cow one night, and this apparition brought memories to my hands and feet, as well as my bowels and bladder. For a moment I had way too much motorcycle between my legs. I was so shook I forgot to put my feet down when the bike stopped, and I wound up on the bottom of a pile of machinery. Jim stopped next to me and stalled his engine.
"Christ on a crutch, Ralph, you're supposed to ride it, not it ride you." Jim's droopy black mustach quivered with indignation or suppressed laughter, or something. But it always had led a life of its own, so there's no telling what was agitating it this time.
It might have been the daunting task ahead of him of restarting the Harley. Many miles had passed since the last tuneup, and it was hard to start, especially after it got hot. It was kickstart only, natch. Jim started kicking bike.
Because of the way the Wing stopped, when I got it back on its wheels it was facing what the predator had been trying to catch. There on the gravel shoulder was a small, black and white kitten. Its eyes glowed bright green in the headlight, and he bared tiny fangs as he hissed at me. He was staring first at me and then at the sky where the big owl probably lurked. Behind me I could hear Jim kicking his starter.
Now, I'm not too crazy about pets, and cats rate way down the scale of desirable companions. You can't just pet one and leave it to fend for itself. It needs regular trips to the vet, who doesn't treat animals just because he likes them, and its crap smells worse than Jim's mustache after a night out with the girls.
A cat will cross the Sahara desert with his legs crossed, and his eyes, too, for all I know, looking for a litter box (unless there happens to be one right at hand, in which case he'll piss on the carpet), he'll shred your clothes, drapes, and furniture trying to get his claws even sharper before he tackles your hide, and he'll ignore you within an inch of your life, unless it happens to be feeding time. A dog is at least glad to see you when you come home, and he can be taught to fetch your slippers, pipe, and newspaper, as well as to eat a burglar on command.
Neither of them has any shame, though, and you can count on either to sit and lick his balls while the ladies from the missionary society are visiting.
Jim cursed and kicked his bike. It hitched and spat and kicked back; Jim went straight up and back down into the saddle. "It'll start next time. Forgot to retard the spark," he said sheepishly. The Harley roared, shook, and settled down to its usual galloping idle. Even when it was running right it sounded like an antique John Deere tractor with water in the gas.
"Toughie toenails, Kid. Life's a bitch, ain't it? Then you marry one. Haw, haw, haw." The unscathed Gold Wing spurted gravel on the tiny fugitive as I spun around and continued down the road. I could plainly hear the engine noise change from a loud, belching hiccup to a teacup-rattling roar when Jim remembered to advance the spark on his machine. For a moment he shot past me, turned and grinned, then fell back behind again. I wouldn't let him run in front of me because his old Harley sometimes belched sparks out of the pipes.
My life had always been like that; eager to avoid commitment, running from something while running from something else while running. . . wheels within wheels, all turning in different directions, the road before me the closest thing to a straight line I'd ever followed anywhere, unable to see where I was going or where I'd been, or why. . . and at that moment my karma or whatever took over as I realized that little kitten could mark a turning point, and for the second time in as many minutes I slid the Wing to a stop, only keeping it upright this time, and rushed back to where I'd left the kitten, hoping to beat the owl. I passed Jim again, going in the opposite direction, and heard his monster bike sputter to a halt. The sudden silence told me he'd stalled it again.
The kitten was where we'd left him, growling fiercely at the night sky. Behind me Jim started kicking bike.
I pulled over to the opposite shoulder to keep from scaring the wee tyke, then just sat there and looked at him for a minute or so. He looked back. I put the side stand down, threw a leg over the bike so I could sit more comfortably, and lit a cigarette. I thought I knew what I was going to do, but I hesitated. My life had been full of broken commitments, and I thought how cruel it would be to take him in, then dump him when I got bored. On the other hand, maybe this was the start I needed in the right direction.
Jim kicked again.
Then again, maybe I was just fooling myself. Besides, how do you carry a kitten on a motorcycle? "Fuck it," I muttered, threw my leg back over the bike, kicked up the stand, and started to flip a U.
"Meow!!" the kitten screamed ("Shit!" Jim yelled in the background, as the Harley tried once again to launch him into orbit), loud enough to be heard over the engine noise and ran toward me, tail in the air, mouth open for another screech, and behind me Jim kicked the Harley into life. Apparently he finally remembered to retard the spark. Startled and confused by the conflicting noises, I popped the clutch and stalled the Wing. When I hit the starter again, the headlight went out, and for a moment we were in darkness. The motor started, the light came on, and there was the kitten at my foot, looking up at me with those big, bright-green eyes.
"Meow," he said softly, and I swear there was a question in the sound. "Meow?" I reached down to pick him up, and he ran up the sleeve of my heavy denim jacket, leaving a trail of the first of many claw marks on that and subsequent coats. He perched his head on my left shoulder, dug in his claws, and purred loudly enough to drown out the sound of the Wing.
Gingerly, I accelerated to highway speed. He purred louder.
The look on Jim's face as I went by told me I'd probably made the right decision; anything that could make him look that disgusted was bound to be the proper thing to do. His mustache quivered with indignation.