When my mom died, my dad found himself with me in tow more often than not. I’m told I wasn’t much trouble, an insular child off in her own world. I’m sure the women who had to share dinner with their date’s eight-year-old daughter would say otherwise, but nobody asked them.
“You got your bodyguard with you today, Doc?” asked Homer, a man built like a bull. He had eyes the same faded blue as his work shirt and a dragon or maybe a wizard tattooed on his forearm.
“Sure do!” Dad said as he gave me a proud look and tucked me under his arm. I mumbled hello and pressed against his side. There was a protectiveness between us that went both ways, reinforced on my end by the words of well-meaning adults.
“You take care of your daddy, now. You’re all he’s got.”
I did have a sister. She’d gotten pregnant at seventeen and Dad had kicked her out. So there we were, the two of us, at the Harley shop.
The Harley shop and Heath Glass were two side-by-side Quonset Hut buildings that looked like a soup can had been cut down the middle and buried. A gravel driveway led to a gravel lot out back that served as my playground. I squatted in the dust looking for fossils, pocketing neat-looking rocks, rusted washers, and the occasional Pollock-like splash of cooled solder. Cubes of shattered safety glass glittered like diamonds in the weeds as I poked around with my eyes like a magpie’s and perpetually dirty hands and clothes. Dad called me Pigpen, after the Peanuts character who was always enveloped in a cloud of dust. It may have also been a reference to the Grateful Dead’s harmonica player who drank himself to death.
When I wasn’t looking for tetanus and treasures I galloped the lot in loops, circling and circling as the white-hot midday sun rippled off corrugated steel and flattened the world into a disc. I cantered and trotted, tossed my head and pawed the dirt with my sneaker. I’d rear and bolt to the other end of the lot whenever the sudden roar of aftermarket pipes scared the shit out of me. I wasn’t pretending to ride a horse. I was pretending to be a horse. And a horse would bolt at the sound of loud pipes, even if that sound had been a part of my life for as long as I could remember. Adults had been picking me up and putting me on the backs of horses and motorcycles alike since I was in diapers. To be small and light on top of something large and powerful is a hell of a high, and it altered my consciousness at a young age, pulling me up and out of fragile motherlessness and into something less breakable.
The bay doors at the back of the buildings were rolled up, and out of those cave-like depths spilled the sounds and smells of adults: cigarette smoke and Blue Oyster Cult, the stutter and squeal of air wrenches, Pink Floyd and Joe’s short singular bark of laughter. Heath Glass belonged to Joe, my dad’s best friend, who was all leanness and sharp edges to my father’s soft, bear-like bulk. Joe was an ex-Ranger turned SWAT team sergeant with black eyes that missed nothing. He was a man capable of swift, precise violence who also had Bill the Cat and Opus from the Bloom County comic strip tattooed on his chest and played the banjo. It was like having a bird of prey for a godfather. He smelled like Dr. Pepper, Marlboros, sweat, and engine grease. I adored him. He was safety and surveillance, and I would rather have died than disappoint him. Here I was, a golden child placed on a pedestal by dangerous men. I had been named after my parents’ best friend, a Bandido who died on Parchman Farm serving a sentence “for killing a man who needed killing.” They thought they were having a boy. They got a girl instead, one who would grow up with a sniper standing over her shoulder in place of a mother.
If it was cold or raining out, I’d find a corner among the racks of T-shirts emblazoned with wolves or eagles or Confederate skeletons, and read. If it had anything to do with an animal I read it, even if it was about hunting. The animals in books nearly always died anyway. So why not go out in a blaze of glory and maybe take out a human or two on the way? I loved books like Death in the Long Grass or Man Eaters of Kumaon. tales of Great White Hunters stalking and killing trophy big game. I always hoped the narrators would get squashed into a greasy spot by a Cape buffalo or mauled by a rogue tigress as she rampaged through villages eating unattended babies. But the white guys won every time, to no surprise. I learned my first forbidden word from these books: “bastard.” Which is hilarious because I’m sure I overheard much worse.
“Do you know what that word means?” asked my father gently.
I shrugged. “Isn’t it just something British people call each other?”
“Well, no. And it’s not a necessarily a bad word, either. It means somebody whose mom and dad aren’t married. Just don’t say it around your grandmother.”
It was such a good word, bastard, with the pop of “b” at the beginning, the hissing “s” in the middle and the hard finality of a “d” at the end. Such a satisfying word, even in my head, even if I never said it. I learned that technically my sister was a bastard and that was probably why it was just me and my dad now, and why she was the black sheep living with the teenaged father of her child in a trailer park out on the edge of town with my dad’s friends “keeping an eye on her.”
The Harley shop was always full of a rotating crew of grownups, so I skirted the edges of their unfathomable banter and wandered around soaking in the occult signs of the adult world: naked ladies sprawled over car hoods and Hog tanks, cartoon mascots like Rat Fink or Fritz the Cat who were in turns suggestive and grotesque. The smell of motorcycle leathers was distinctly different from horse saddles and the connotations they carried were as different as night and day. Leather chaps meant something other than protection from road rash. Leather and chain bras definitely meant something else that I couldn’t name. But I sure as hell noticed it. With the self-inflicted censure of a guilty conscience I stole peeks at the girlie calendars when I thought nobody was watching. I was sure they’d be taken down if I got caught staring. I was acutely aware of the strip club next door and tried to imagine what happened in there as I peeked through the fence at BABES scrawled huge and bubblegum pink on the side of the sunbaked building. There was the hot prickling thrill of furtive shame when my gaze snagged on every topless hula girl tattoo and Frank Frazetta poster. The actual women around me faded into the background completely except for a tiny blotched rose tattooed on cleavage here, and a dangling silver earring there.
When I was about ten the Harley shop moved to a big new building out near the highway but still within the Jackson, Mississippi zoning requirements for tattoo parlors and strip clubs. The Allan brothers bought the old building and ran their Volvo repair business out of it with few modifications made to the space, except for the additions of a pool table and an impressive display of stuffed largemouth bass. They even kept the old Coke machine until glass-bottled Cokes became impossible to find and they were forced to get a new one. I was still coming in on a pretty regular basis in high school, driving my mom’s 1982 Volvo station wagon. Until I flipped it down the interstate going eighty the summer I turned eighteen. A couple of days after the wreck, Dad took me to see my car, or what was left of it. I stood there with his arm gingerly wrapped around my shoulder as the brothers proudly pointed out the Volvo safety features that had saved my life,
“If she ain’t been driving this car, Doc, she’d be dead.”
They shook their heads and marveled at me, the dumb-luck child who didn’t have a scratch on her despite not wearing a seat belt and tumbling around the car’s interior like dice in a gambler’s palm. The girl still secured within an impenetrable bubble formed by the hands of dangerous men and the ghost of her mother. I bent and plucked a diamond of glittering safety glass from the gravel under my mangled car and pocketed it.