We hope you enjoy The Motorcycle, a runner up in last year’s Voice writing contest. This year’s contest is now open, and the deadline has been extended to the end of January, 2006. Send in your fiction and/or non-fiction submission today!
Aunt Barb had a motorcycle-riding boyfriend the spring I turned thirteen. She bought herself a bright, metallic red helmet so she could go riding with him. I first saw them together on the motorcycle at the annual family gathering for Dad’s birthday BBQ early in June. She and Luke roared into the park just as the briquettes were grey enough to start cooking the burgers.
The motorcycle was black and chrome. The whole thing, even the black part, was so shiny it flashed in the sun. Its black leather seat had a high back so Aunt Barb could lean back a little if she wanted to when they went riding. To me the motorcycle looked exciting, but also a little dangerous. I thought Aunt Barb must be very daring to go riding around on it, even if she was just a passenger.
The instant she got off the motorcycle, Aunt Barb was mobbed by kids, all the offspring of the eight-stringer Landsman family. I think there were 19 of us that year, and the family was by no means done. After all, Aunt Barb hadn’t married yet. She grinned at me from the middle of that pack of kids, her thin blonde hair all over the place from being inside the helmet.
Between the burgers and the traditional trip to the ice cream shop up the road, Aunt Barb said she’d take the kids for a walk along the stream at the edge of the park. “Come help me, Alice, won’t you?” she said. I was pleased she didn’t think of me any more as one of the little ones.
After making sure Luke was comfortably in conversation with Uncle Hank, who had driven a motorcycle in Holland, off we went, each with younger ones attached to our fingers. We made a good-looking group in our spotless outfits. Even 4-year old Jennifer’s ketchup stain was barely visible, her shirt having been sponged and sponged until it was almost gone. We all knew better than to dirty ourselves at a picnic.
Once underneath the huge elms and willows growing along the creek, Aunt Barb had us all come close in a huddle. We were going to have a mud fight, she told us conspiratorially. She was going to college in the fall, and she didn’t want us to forget her. There were scared giggles and snickers. A mud fight! I don’t think any of us had ever participated in a mud fight in our whole lives, but if Aunt Barb suggested it, we were game. At first we didn’t know what to do, but we learned quickly when Aunt Barb started flinging handfuls of mud at us with little concern for where the mud landed. Soon we had wet mud sliding down our necks, all over our arms and legs, even in our hair. It was deliciously cool after the walk in the hot sun. For awhile we shrieked, my voice as loud as the others, like we’d never shrieked before. During a lull, I experimented with my toes, exploring the mud oozing up between them in little curly patterns. Here I was thirteen, and up until now had missed out on something that struck me as vital to living.
We flung our last gob of mud at last. Aunt Barb sloshed us down with the pail she had brought and made us dry in the sun before going back to the picnic. She knew what her older sister, my mother, was like. Miraculously, she got away with it.
The day held another wonder for me. As the clan made preparations to go to the ice cream shop, Aunt Barb turned to me.
“You’ve never had a motorcycle ride, have you, Alice?” she asked. Of course I hadn’t.
“Barb,” cautioned my mother.
“Oh, come on, Catherine, she’s not going to get hurt. Luke’s had his license a long time.”
I looked over at Luke. He was smoking a thin cigar and staring disinterestedly at a distant pavilion. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go on a motorcycle with him.
“Come on, Alice,” said Aunt Barb. “I’ll help you put the helmet on. Luke, give Alice a ride, will you?”
“Oh, sure,” said Luke, coming slightly to life. I didn’t know if he was glad at any chance to ride his bike, or if he was relieved that the picnic was almost over.
To my surprise, I loved it, even though I clutched Luke’s jacket with both hands. Then I relaxed a little and surrendered myself to the experience, feeling the sudden accelerations, the vibrant engine rumblings and the swift changes in direction with my whole being. It was like a dance. I was completely, totally exhilarated. I was grateful Luke couldn’t see my face, because I knew I had the look of rapture that still kept me a child to those who watched for such things.
That night I wrote in my personal diary: “Aunt Barb is so alive!” Then I wrote: “When I’m eighteen, I’m going to have a boyfriend who rides a motorcycle”. I clapped my diary shut, then, as if Mom’s eyes could somehow see what I’d written if I left it open too long.
Aunt Barb’s alive-ness stirred longings in me, yearnings to grow up and be free of the tight restrictions of our rigid, religious community. She had a way of pushing the rules without ever actually breaking them. Like the time she wore her motorcycle helmet to church.
During the personal pastoral interview at the end of catechism classes, Aunt Barb was informed of the rule-for-women: Once she made confession of faith, she was a member, and female members wore hats to services. Aunt Barb jumped at the opportunity.
That first Sunday after her confession of faith she wore the helmet to church, without the visor. There she sat, her helmet big, red and metallic against the pale pastel hues of the other hats. She was so tall, and sat so straight, it was impossible to miss it. The ushers didn’t know how to handle her. Technically, Aunt Barb was wearing a hat: I felt the deep-down delight that comes when a bully has been put in his place. She wore it just the once, but she made her point. Before I was old enough to make public confession of faith, the rule had changed to a ‘suggestion’. I figured Aunt Barb was as brave as Daniel in the lion’s den. She wasn’t scared of anything or anybody.
A few weeks after the helmet-in-church incident, just after Aunt Barb’s high school graduation, Mom told Dad it was all over between Aunt Barb and Luke. She said it grimly. Later that evening, I heard Mom talking to Aunt Barb on the phone.
“I’m making chocolate chip cookies tomorrow,” said Mom. “You should come over.”
The chocolate chip cookies were about the only thing that kept me from hating my mom. She made them whenever we were feeling particularly blue, the only way she knew how to comfort us. Lately, though, I had been feeling that I was getting too old for chocolate chip cookies, that there had to be more grown-up reasons for liking someone. But maybe not. Aunt Barb seemed to think it was a good enough reason for spending time with Mom, because there she was when I came home from school the next day. There she was in the kitchen, a chocolate chip cookie in her hand, and a large purple bruise over one eye. Standing there with Mom, she could have been my younger sister recovering from a bad spill off her new bicycle.
“Did you fall off the motorcycle?” I asked in my kindest voice.
“Yes,” she said, relief on both her and Mom’s face. I was almost angry with her then. Certainly I was old enough to know what was going on, wasn’t I?
A month later Aunt Barb moved to the States. She had gotten a job in an insurance office in Virginia. College was no longer mentioned. I didn’t see her for a whole miserable year. The mud fight seemed years ago.
I saw Luke once, though.
One day that fall I heard the motorcycle come up behind me as I walked the mile home from the Christian school. He stopped beside me. I was delighted, hoping he would offer me a ride.
“Where’s your aunt?” he asked harshly. I just stared at him, delight draining out everywhere. He grabbed my arm so hard it hurt.
“Where is she!” he demanded. I had quit breathing. Then I got mad and said the first dumb thing that came into my head.
“Why don’t you go stare at a pavilion or something?” I yelled.
He glared a moment, then dropped my arm. With a loud ‘nnng’ he was gone. My mom never heard about it; I could keep secrets, too.
In the spring we got a call from grandma. Aunt Barb was getting married. She had met someone in Virginia, was bringing him home and they would get married here.
My imagination took flight. Her husband-to-be would have dark eyes with twinkles in them. He would love travelling, and be almost-rich. He would have had lots of adventures and would always be telling stories about them. Most of all, he would adore Aunt Barb. They would have a honeymoon in the Caribbean:
“She’s marrying a Presbyterian minister,” my mom told my dad.
“What!?” I almost yelled. Mom looked oddly at me.
“What do you mean, ‘what’?”
“How can she marry a minister?” I said, close to tears.
Mom was perplexed. “What’s wrong with that?”
There was nothing wrong with ministers. I even liked our minister. They were just… boring.
Feeling confused and betrayed, I whirled and left the livingroom. Mom didn’t understand at all. She didn’t understand how I needed an aunt like Aunt Barb.
When I saw Aunt Barb after she came back, she was different. She talked the same”?a little irreverently sometimes, even though she was going to be a minister’s wife. But the boldness was gone, had been bumped off when she’d had her last motorcycle ride. I couldn’t imagine her having a mud fight with anyone.
I had been so sure the wedding would be called off at the last minute that I was out of sorts the whole day. Thankfully, I was too young to be a bridesmaid and too old to be a flower girl. I wasn’t too old to burst into tears, though, once I had a moment to myself. That night I wrote in my diary: “Aunt Barb isn’t alive anymore.” Then, a little defiantly: “When I’m eighteen, I’m going to get my own motorcycle.”