Scared means knowing your name is written
in a book somewhere, knowing the wasps
will return next summer for another round,
that the feeling you get on a cliff’s edge is not the fear
of falling but jumping—of taking one step
and not even leaving a crumpled excuse.
My mother said to be scared was ever to know
you are alive. You can imagine what it was my father said.
Every time I sit on a motorcycle I know before
I crank the motor something terrible is going to happen.
Such easy things to lead in the wrong direction.
Such easy things on which to wave and say
Goodbye and I’m not coming back.
What I wanted was a cold pillow. What I got
was one memory after another, lining up at the front door
of my head and asking Do you have time to talk?
In 1922 my great-grandfather and his brother rode double
on an Indian Scout from the southeastern corner of Missouri
to the center of New York city. One month of that engine’s buzz
on gravel and dirt roads that wound around the country
like a loose-fitting belt. I wanted to see what America was
he said. I wanted to see the tallest buildings in the world.
For three days they looked up, ate steaks each night,
and then decided to come home. You can grow to love moving
he said to me one night, after we’d finished dessert.
You can also grow to love standing still.
I saw him only once in the hospital before he died,
held his small purple hand and stared at a dinner roll
torn in half. Tell me again about the trip to the city, I asked.
He looked out the window, hacked on his napkin and said
On such a long trip the hardest thing was holding on.
The photograph of a man falling from the sky
is the same photograph of the same man flying.
The picture of me on a two-bit Kawasaki is exactly the same thing, too,
regardless of what happens when I leave the frame’s edge.
Before my brother died he could park a truck between
two hills and jump it with his dirt bike on every try.
Jumping between two places is the same as flying
or falling to whatever comes next.
A two-stroke engine’s whine is meaner
than any other engine ever made.
In the picture I had grit in my teeth.
Wearing a helmet was the same as wearing a seatbelt.
Not wearing one the same as wearing old black leather.
Every Sunday in a small town not far from my home
the bikers roll in and eat hot wings and fried livers in mustard.
A gang is like a family without table manners.
The heart of the Midwest thumps like a bible on an empty pew
but no one can afford to rest on the Sabbath.
What we keep holy are engines and afternoon drives.
What we believe in is not so different from a journey.
Any story of loss must begin with a disaster
like Uncle Charles who lost three teeth crashing into a street light,
two fingers when he was working on the chain.
Before the first time I wrecked a bike I believed
that I was becoming what I’d always envisioned
I would. After I crashed I believed my arm wasn’t right
and that blood was coming from a warm and unknown place.
To give up is ever to say you were always defeated.
To turn your back means you’re of the yellow brand.
My brother could ride a wheelie for three blocks
and not even use his hands.
In some places not using hands is the opposite of magic.
Here it’s the same as making things disappear.
Common sense is the same as saying find a better way.
History the same as saying stand up and get back on.
Both are caught somewhere between being ridden
and handing over the keys and growling: Ride.
Great-grandpa would eat a mint chocolate and say think about it.
My brother would stand back and say Let ‘er rip.
I would say I’ve been down this road, and it looks like I’m going again.
In the end the clutch will grow soft and slip, the gas tank
will take in the tall grass and give it back.
In the end there will be the brake and the throttle,
and the steady moan of the engine will make you numb.