Howdy! Grab a chair an’ a beer! It’s been a while since I threw a little story your way, so sit back, sip yer beer, an’ enjoy!
Bitter gusts of December wind blew down West 6th Street, driving sheets of torrential rain before it. Ray pulled the collar of his leather jacket up in a futile attempt to stop the icy drops that stung his exposed skin, and trickled down to soak the black Harley-Davidson T-shirt covering his broad chest and back. He bent into the wind, its ferocity working against his forward progress. “Damned miserable California winters,” he mumbled, his complaint lost in the howling wind. “Snow I can handle, but these damn rain storms are startin’ to get me down.”
His huge hand swallowed the brass doorknob, and with a grunt, he pulled the door of Murphy’s Tavern open against the force of the wind. He stepped inside, wind driven rain swirling around him, forming a puddle at his feet.
Murphy stopped wiping the bar and dropped the damp towel on the scarred and cigarette-burned surface. “Damn, Ray. I didn’t expect to see you out on a night like this.”
He brought a bottle of Jack Daniel’s up from below the bar and slid it toward Ray, along with a shot glass. Before Ray had slid his six-foot-three, 260-pound frame onto a creaking stool, Murphy had a mug of beer before him as a chaser.
“Shit, Murph. I guess I’m just feelin’ kinda lonesome, what with the weather and all.”
Murphy nodded. “Being so close to Christmas doesn’t help, either.”
Ray shook his head sadly, “Yeah. I never shoulda left my stompin’ grounds back east. My folks are all there, an’ it makes things kinda tough this time of year. My ex-wife was from California, so when she got homesick, I pulled up stakes an’ moved her back out here. Biggest damn mistake of my life.”
Murphy drew himself a draft and took a sip. “If you don’t mind me asking, why don’t you just pack up and go back home?”
“I’ve asked myself that question a dozen times, Murph. I guess because I can ride most of the year out here, and back there, the old Shovel just sits for four months out of the year.”
“I used to have that problem in Detroit.”
The slurred voice from the shadows startled Ray, almost bringing him to his feet. He turned, staring into the darkness of the corner booth. He turned back to Murphy, his voice barely above a whisper. “Who the hell is that?”
“Don’t know, Ray,” Murphy shrugged, “ He’s been here most of the day, drinking Coronas. Never seen him before.”
The brittle vinyl upholstery creaked as the stranger slid from the booth and walked unsteadily toward the bar. Skinny and slightly bent, he was wearing Levis, a faded sweatshirt, and a battered nylon ski parka. A shock of unkempt gray hair protruded from under a black wool watch cap.
He took a seat next to Ray, and set a half-full bottle of Corona down on the bar. He extended his hand, cold and damp from condensation on the bottle. “Charlie Stevens.” He picked up the bottle and drained the contents in one long swallow.
“Had the same problem back in Detroit. Seemed like my ol’ Panhead sat more’n she got rode. That’s one reason I came out here myself. That, an’ the warmer climate. My lungs was about ta give up back there.”
Ray nodded, and poured himself another shot of Jack Black. “Got family out here, Charlie?” he asked. He halfway hoped the old man wouldn’t answer, but after a few seconds, he turned rheumy eyes toward Ray.
“Got a sister in Spokane, up in Washington. She’s all I got left. I used to ride the Pan out to visit once a year or so, but I had ta quit ridin’ because of my health, ya know, an’ I haven’t seen her in almost 10 years now.”
“You had a Pan, huh?” Ray asked, hoping to change the subject. Seems like every old drunk in the world had a Harley at one time or another, he thought.
“Yep.” Charlie signaled Murphy for another Corona. “A ’56. Bought her brand-spankin’ new. Full-dress FLH, with studded bags, mud flaps, an’ the whole nine yards. Sure do miss ridin’ her.”
Ray swirled the amber whisky in his glass, then downed it. “Yeah, I can imagine.”
The next few hours passed quickly; the feeling of loneliness during the holiday season that had taken its toll on the conversation earlier had all but vanished. Charlie had many interesting tales to tell of his years of traveling the country on two wheels after his return from the Korean War, and Ray had listened with rapt attention. He was surprised when Murphy interrupted.
“Sorry to tell you this, boys,” Murphy yawned, looking down at his watch. “But it’s closing time.”
The rain and wind outside had still not abated, and Charlie rubbed at the fogged corner of a window with the edge of a gnarled hand. “Say, Ray… ” He turned back toward the bar where Ray was sliding off his stool. “Can I ask a favor of ya?”
“Uh… I guess so, Charlie. What do ya’ need?” He started to dig in the pocket of his jeans for the handful of loose bills and change it contained in anticipation of Charlie’s question.
The old man laughed, holding up a hand, palm forward. “I don’t want your money, Ray. I just need a ride down to the rescue mission.”
“Rescue mission?” Ray asked. “Is that where you’re staying?”
“Yeah. It ain’t so bad. I’d like ta go visit my sister one last time, but it don’t look like it’s gonna happen, so I just listen to a little preachin’, an’ get my two meals a day. My Social Security lasts me if I’m careful, but it looks like I’m stuck here for the duration.”
Ray looked the old man over once more, then shrugged. “Hell, it’s almost Christmas, Charlie. Why don’t ya just come back to my place. You can sack out on the couch.”
“I… Uh… The old man stammered. “That’s awful nice of ya, Ray. Are ya sure?”
“Yeah. Why not? Maybe you can remember a few more stories.”
“Guess I can at that, Ray,” Charlie chuckled, as they started toward the door, and the storm outside.
Charlie’s coughing woke Ray early the next morning. He pulled on his pants and rushed into the living room in time to see Charlie doubled over on his knees, his forehead almost touching the floor.
“Hey, Charlie. Are you OK?” he asked, looking down into the old man’s pale, drawn face.
“Naw, Ray. I think this emphysema is about ta do me in. The doc over at Veterans Hospital said I prob’ly don’t have very long. Got congestive heart failure too. This rain an’ cold is really raisin’ hell with me.”
“Why don’t you head up to your sister’s place for Christmas, and see if she’ll take care of you while you recover?” Ray asked. He helped Charlie onto the worn sofa, and brought him a cup of steaming coffee from the pot on the kitchen counter.
“Costs money, boy,” Charlie wheezed. “Money I ain’t got. Even takin’ the bus is outta my reach.” A sad smile played across the old man’s wrinkled face as he raised the coffee cup to his lips with a trembling hand. “So here I sit.”
A few hours later, Ray’s old truck sat at the curb in front of the bus station.
“Here’s my address, Charlie. Drop me a card to let me know you got there OK.”
“The old man’s eyes were wet as he gripped Ray’s hand. “I don’t know how to thank ya Ray,” he said, his foot finding the bottom step on the big Greyhound bus. “You’re a real-life Santa Claus.”
“You just have a merry Christmas, and tell your sister hello for me,” Ray laughed. He turned away as the old man boarded the bus, and dropped wearily into his seat.
The letter came a few days into the new year, and Ray stood by the mailbox with it hanging from his hand for a long time, his head bowed.
Written in a shaky, but feminine, hand, the letter was polite, and to the point:
This is to inform you that my brother, Charlie Stevens, passed away three days after Christmas. I would like to extend my gratitude for your generosity in allowing us these last few days together.
His Harley-Davidson motorcycle has been stored in my garage for the past 10 years, and Charlie wanted me to tell you that it is now yours if you want it.
With sincere thanks, Sara Stevens-White.
Ray stood in silence for long moments, thoughts of his own family, so far away, running through his mind. The sound of his own voice was strange in his ears as he turned his face toward the gray, cloudy sky. “Thanks, Charlie. I’ll pick up your Pan on my way back home.”