On the cusp of the morning, Josh rode his motorcycle east and into the sunrise. The long flat highway was night quiet, lone cars and heavy trucks rushing ahead into the new day. Damp air on his skin raised up goose bumps like dew. The rank coffee sat harsh on his stomach but he hadn’t had time for breakfast. It would be so much better to eat after his workout, his tigers would really be growling by then. Tigers, Mama always called them, tigers that made your tummy rumble when they were hungry.
He smiled to himself and turned up the radio. Something country that he couldn’t quite place, but nice. A girl’s voice and a twanging guitar. Josh hummed to himself, looking for the melody. Such a pretty voice. He thought of Amber and sighed. Why did things never work out the way you planned? Amber used to sing in the shower. He would listen at the door, stealthy; she hated to be spied on, as she called it. But he loved to listen, loved to watch her. He remembered the scent of her hair on the pillow as she slept, not knowing he was watching. Scent of flowers in those loose tresses. How did she do that?
Maybe he could talk to her when he got back from Phoenix, maybe he’d have something to say. It was always so hard to find the words, so much easier just to look, to drink her in but how to say that, how to make sense of the feelings? He had never been good with the words. He had a sinking feeling that he never would be, either. Words were so…difficult.
His cousin Sunshine, she was good with words, too good. She never stopped talking, never stopped moving, her small hands punctuating her words in the air. Was it something you could learn? Josh didn’t think so, didn’t think he’d ever have words the way Sunshine did, words like magic that made concrete shapes of the feelings. He needed words like that for Amber. Words dripping like saliva from the mouth, hungry and unmistakable. Words heavy with the smell of love.
Josh’s words weren’t like that. He was far better with his hands. Better with his motorcycle. Better even still in the saddle, thighs clenched to the animal and sweat pouring down his face. Those feelings were so intense, there had to be words for them, had to be ways to place them in an order that would show them up in the sunlight, clear and distinct. The smell of dust in his nostrils and the hot scent of angry bull. Fear wrapped around joy so tightly that it took his breath away. There had to be words for all those things, if only Josh could find them.
Bull riding! Mama had been so afraid when he’d wanted to do it, when he’d sent in the registration fee that first time. Talking at him, talking him out of it, talking him into it with her maternal concerns. He wasn’t a boy any longer, she shouldn’t hover, she shouldn’t worry. Josh had done it anyhow. And he’d won, again and again.
And Amber had loved his wild cowboying, had loved his sharp-toed snakeskin boots and winner’s belt. The smell of tooled leather, the heft of the latest trophy saddle. Grandpa had been so proud, had shot pictures until Josh begged off. But he was secretly pleased. Grandpa didn’t have words either but when he got out the camera, Josh always knew. He knew.
Josh smiled at the memory and looked ahead into the breaking clouds, warm colors coming in to soften the night sky. The song was different now, a man’s sweet tenor in the morning air, singing of chances lost and not forgotten. Josh sat up straighter, trying to ignore his empty stomach. Better to work out first, he knew. Eggs afterward, over easy. Hot biscuits with gravy. A whole pot of fresh black coffee. The chill air made him shiver. What was it that Mama always said? Someone walking over your grave, that was it. A tremble of awareness. The footstep on your grave.
Ahead of him, the colors were pinks and golds that blossomed against the horizon like jungle flowers. Josh sucked in his breath, tasting the sunrise. Tang of morning on his tongue, so distinct from smooth night. It would be so good to work out, pitting himself against the weights until his muscles ached and burned. If it doesn’t hurt, you aren’t doing it right, the older men said, so many of them rippling with years of hard won strength. Don’t expect too much at once, they’d say, you’re only nineteen.
Only! Josh felt so constrained when people said that, why was nineteen years ‘only’? In the old days, Grandpa told him, you were a man at nineteen, so when did that change? Josh wanted to shape his body into an unassailable manhood, to force from it an acknowledgement from others. Don’t look at me and see a boy. I’m not a boy. If I ever was one, it was a long time ago, when Mama scolded those little tummy tigers that begged for breakfast when she was tired.
Looking into the sunrise, Josh inhaled the new day, testing it on his tongue. He would call Amber today. He would find the words. And soon he’d have enough money to go home and see her. He’d kneel and give her the words on a satin pillow. Maybe. If he could find them. Words went through him, a frisson of feelings in their wake, but none stayed in his head, none kept any shape that would make sense. Well, he would ask Mama. She must know about girls and what kind of words they liked.
But Mama didn’t have words either, not really. She was the one who long ago taught him to take apart the old motorcycle that had sat rusting in the garage, had showed him the tools and demonstrated, patient when he made mistakes, always silent. Josh loved those memories, quiet afternoons with engine parts spread around him and the Texas sun hot on his back.
No, Mama didn’t have the words either. But he knew what she felt. Usually, he felt it, too. Like Grandpa and his camera, the secret smiles as they worked together on the model trains. Grandpa’s black eyes full of things that brushed against Josh’s heart. But no words, no, never. Uncle Joe must have words, he was always writing, but Josh had never heard them, never even read them. Were spoken words so hard to find, so hard to pull together? Or were they just too powerful to say aloud, like a magical spell that would break the world and crack a heart like ice?
Facing east, the morning spread out before him, an altar glowing with sacred candles and giving off the incense of dawn. Josh loved watching the morning as it stole up on the night, creeping across the sky and brightening the highway with hushed blue light. He loved riding so early to the gym, stomach empty and growling for food, growling for the toughness of the workout and hungry for the day.
There were more cars now as people scurried to early hour jobs or home after late shifts, headlights still on despite the weak and newborn sun. Fewer trucks but still plenty, packed full of unknown things bound for far-off places, caffeine surely racing through the drivers’ veins the way it did his. Morning, glorious! Josh sucked in his breath, breathing in the new tomorrow, and smiled into the wind.
As he crested the hill, he saw the sun begin to break from the earth’s edge, a softened gold brightness that filled his heart. The pinks and golds were halfway across the sky now, crowning the air above him with promise and waking up the world. On the radio was a song that he’d heard before but couldn’t place, the words running under his thoughts and teasing his memory. A gentle soprano, soft with regret, that made him think again of Amber. Smiling, tears stinging the back of his eyelids, he took the bike down the hill. Ahead, cars. Something was wrong; the motion had stopped. He blinked, looking harder. Too many cars, too close, something wrong…
Twisting the handlebar, Josh veered to the left, fast as a fallen cat. Distant sounds of metal against metal; smell of gasoline. He gunned the motor, straining to pull the bike away, away, away. So heavy, so hard. He heard his own tires squealing, felt the pavement pulling at him, the mass of the motorcycle fighting him. Like a bull between his taut legs, the bike struggled against his weight and wishes. Wind shrieked in his ears, stuffing them with white sound. Light, dark, warring in his eyes, headlights blinding him as he forced the bull beneath him to obey. Away, away, turn away. Sound in his ears like a rodeo crowd, wind like sighing. He was a winner, he wasn’t afraid.
He won and the motorcycle turned but not enough, the impact closed his eyes against his will. The shock shot through his body as the back of the bull lifted up, lifting him up with it, to throw him down into the ring. His thighs tensed, cowboy reflex, but his hands were wrenched from the grips and he met the air. Eyes tight, he twisted, knowing in his bones how to take a fall and walk. Screaming sky in his ears as he and the bike flew free. He saw Amber’s face against his closed eyelids but it was his mother’s voice he heard, her words lost in the wind.
His eyes opened and he saw the semi, a monster big as the world and filling his vision. Fear clutched through him like a cramp, the breath hurting in his chest. Suddenly, flying towards the east, he knew the words, so many words. Words, words powerful and strong filled him up to overflowing as, finally, Josh had the words. The magical words. He opened his mouth to speak them, the sound of his mother’s voice in his ears, Grandpa Tommy’s dark eyes lighting up the model trains, Amber’s pretty face in his heart. His blood sang with the words. Fear left him as he reached out to them all, wanting them all, at last, have his words.
The cowboy hit the semi but the semi didn’t notice. When the behemoth passed, the back wheel of the motorcycle spun in the air, bull and rider brought down together in the dust. The hushed sound of the crowd sounded loud in the ring, awed at so much sudden destruction. The sun sprang free of the horizon and begat the day, stroking rosy light across the mangled chrome of the cowboy’s last rodeo. Blood in the dirt.
Off in the distance, a siren called.
[Joshua Cherry, d. 4-5-05. Requiescat in pace.]