Originally appeared in the New York Times Magazine, “About Men” column. Artwork courtesy of Peter Kuper/New York Times.
I ride an old motorcycle. It breaks down regularly, and the guy who used to do the repair work went bankrupt and left town. I called around, and the only place willing to do the work now is a chopper shop about an hour away where the local motorcycle gangs get their bikes fixed.
The inside of the shop is black. Everything is black — tires, grease, the owner’s beard. The windows are painted over, and the light comes from flickering florescents. Old glass cases that might once have displayed candy in a general store now hold metal objects for sale: oversized pistons, knives, heavy belt buckles. Calendars hang on every dark wall. Anywhere you look you can see what day it is, and at the same time see a girl in a bikini bent over a chopper, looking back at you.
The owner is behind a display case. With my eyes still adjusting to the dim light, it’s hard to make him out clearly. He asks me what I want, as if I’m in there by mistake, and I tell him I called earlier and explain what I need. As I talk to him, a strange thing happens: my voice falls inexorably lower, becomes tight and flat, some version of manly. My usual syntax changes as I bend my sentences away from complex construction, and in the bending, make them even more awkward than they might have been without the effort behind them. I swear liberally, and drop the “g’s” in my “ing’s,” and when I stop talking I keep my molars pressed together and grind them, almost as if I’m chewing gum. I don’t try to do this. I just do; I can’t help myself. Standing in the darkened room, I feel like a male dog, seemingly nonchalant, indicating my capacity for aggressiveness while consciously containing it.
In fact, the shop has a dog that has been moving slowly toward me as I talk. It’s a bitch and that’s what the owner calls her. “That’s her name,” he says. She’s a sad-looking cocker spaniel, made mean by meanness, and moves as if to snap at me. I step sideways. “Get back, Bitch!” says the owner, and the dog retreats to her greasy sleeping pad.
A shaft of light cuts into the shop when the outside door opens and my wife and two-year-old daughter appear — they’re tired of playing outside. I am stunned by their incongruity in this room. I pick my daughter up off the black floor. “Hi, Sweetie,” I say. The word “sweetie” and my tone of voice are suddenly not at all gruff. They sound together like piano notes..
Just as my voice assumes a life of its own while talking to the owner of the motorcycle shop, it will not obey me in talking to my daughter — I can only be tender with her. For a moment I have dropped my persona; it’s as though I’ve been found out, or have found myself out. Amid the choppers, with their airbrush paint jobs, gas tanks shaped like women’s bodies, flashy chrome, straight pipes, extended front ends, hardtail rears — I am holding my little girl.
I hand her back to my wife. I have to wheel my motorcycle into the garage out back, and the owner and I walk together. He flings his Budweiser can into a pile of cans in the dirt and yells at the dog some more. I notice tattoos on the pale flesh of his arm: a knife in a skull, a panther, and the double-winged Harley-Davidson insignia. The sight of it takes me back.
About fifteen years ago and fifty miles from here I was walking on the beach with some friends when we were caught in a sudden and violent storm. The surf was breaking hard from a hundred yards offshore, and right in the middle was a little pleasure boat rolling from side to side like a toy. We could see three heavyset guys in the stern, holding on. In the slow motion that sudden events appear to take, the boat heaved hard in one direction and then capsized smoothly in the other when a big wave pushed it over. The men in the stern went into the ocean.
The first thing I did was take off my shoes. I shouldn’t have — the barnacled rocks would cut up my feet — but I was only twenty-three years old and that’s what I’d heard you should do. Without thinking about it, I ran into the water, scrambled out over the rocks and swam through the surf toward the men. I saw my friend off to the right doing the same thing. The girls we were with waited on the beach and watched.
The first guy we reached was dead. We didn’t realize it right off; I didn’t know someone could drown so fast. We dragged him out onto the shore and began mouth-to-mouth on him. His face was blue and his mouth was foamy; his eyes were empty and he stank of beer and he was dead. Leaving him on the beach, I turned back into the ocean to go for another guy who was clinging to a rock sixty yards out. By the time I reached him, he was losing his grip. He was twenty years older than I, outweighed me by seventy-five pounds and was almost unconscious from drink and shock. I pulled him into my arms and carried him through the surf, bullying his body over the rocks. His big bearded face was pale and helpless. On his upper arm was a tattoo: “Harley-Davidson.”
Dragging him along, both of us bleeding and exhausted, I spoke to him constantly. I heard myself saying to him over and over, “It’s OK, Baby. It’s gonna be OK. You’re gonna be alright, my Baby.” I kept calling him “baby.” I don’t know why, it just came out like that, tenderly, over and over, until we stumbled together onto the shore and the girls took him from me.
“So, when you gonna pick this up?” I’m jerked back into the moment; I’ve let my guard down and the owner of the chopper shop is looking at me sideways. I answer him: “Just call me when it’s ready. That’ll be fine.” My words come out plainly and without an edge. I nod at him, for no particular reason, and having nothing else to say, I leave.
When I get back out front, I pull my daughter up into my arms. Holding her high in the air, I shake her a little and she laughs. I do too. Together, our voices sound sweet and intense. Effortless. Immaculate.