Master Sergeant Michael Thomas O’Malley scuffed the toe of his boot in the sand. At his feet sat the puke green duffle bag that contained pretty much his whole life. Not much to show for over four decades upon the face of the earth. But then again, Master Sergeant as he had been called, though he let civilians get away with simply Sergeant Mike. What did they know after all? But after more than two decades in the US Marine Corps, he was starting over as simply Mike. He was hanging up his uniform and beginning a new life as a civilian.
Mike checked the time once more on his phone. “That damned cab should have been here by now.”
It had taken much too long to complete the paperwork that signaled the end to the life he had known for over half his years upon his earth. The manila envelope that held his honorable discharge papers was tucked safely into the duffle bag along with a couple of pairs of jeans, some sweat pants, and a few t-shirts. After more than his share of tours of duty, Mike had learned to pack light. And this new life was no exception.
Mike turned and looked once more at the large red and gold sign that boasted ‘Welcome to Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton.’ How many times had he seen this sign? How often had he overlooked it? How many of his friends and colleagues would never have this chance to say a proper goodbye to this place?
‘Enough of that shit, old boy.’ But increasingly, over the past couple of years, he had felt his age. Many of the men and women that had served with him in Afghanistan and Iraq had not even been born when he first saw this sign. Like them, he had been nothing more than a kid himself that day. He smiled at the memory of the bus that had picked him up from the Greyhound station that hot August day in nineteen-eighty-nine.
This August day was just as hot. Hotter maybe. Despite the late afternoon breeze that was beginning to stir off the Pacific Ocean less than a mile from this place, sweat beaded and ran down the sides of his face. Here was not the stagnant dry heat of the desert where Mike had spent much of the past decade. There were no smells of pungent meat cooking upon open fires, human waste, or gunpowder. But those smells seemed stuck in his nostrils and mind, even after two weeks back in this place.
Mike jump at the sound of the car horn. “Hey Mister, you call a taxi?” the brown-faced man called from the yellow-checkered car.
He nodded and bent to pick up the bag. Racing over to the vehicle, Mike opened the door and threw it on the floorboard. Folding his six-foot two-inch frame into the back seat, he gave the man the address that he had stored in his phone for almost a year now.
“That the motorcycle place on the Pacific Coast Highway?” the driver asked in his accented English that Mike was almost sure originated from the Southeast region of Pakistan.
“Yeah, that’s the one.”
“You going to buy one of those things?”
“Bought,” Mike replied with a smile. “I’m going to pick it up now.”
“Why you want one of those things? They dangerous. You should get a nice solid car. An American model like this Ford. If you get an accident, they keep you safe.”
Mike wanted to argue that safety was just an illusion. That cars or guns or any other machine could never really protect the frail human body from the dangers of life that lurked around every corner. But instead, he simply looked in the rear-view mirror at Camp Pendleton, as a way of life, disappeared forever.
His hand came up to touch his brow as he saluted the place that had been his home for so long, one of the few ‘homes’ he had ever known. His salute was not for the place but instead meant for the men and women that had entered those gates, too many of whom had never returned.
Mike was quiet for most of the drive, answering the cabbie’s questions with only yes or no until the man finally gave up trying to make conversation and focused upon the crowded Southern California freeway at rush hour.
Mike rechecked the time on his phone. It was after five already. They would never make it in time. He punched a number into speed dial and waited as it rang.
“Yes, this is Master Sergeant,” he began but caught himself. “This is Mike O’Malley. I am supposed to pick up my bike today. It’s a customized Road King. I’m running a bit late. So, I wanted to let you know I will pick it up first thing tomorrow morning.”
” Please, hold on a minute, Master Sergeant O’Malley.”
Mike frowned at this change of plans. He knew he could ring up a couple of his buddies and have a lovely couch for the night, but he had wanted to make it to East LA tonight. Stop in and pay his respects to the Hernandezes before the funeral tomorrow. With this change, he would barely have time to pick up the bike, travel the short distance to Los Angeles, and change before the service at thirteen-hundred tomorrow.
He sighed as a rock anthem played through his phone. He supposed there was nothing to be done about it. But still, he hated to let his men down like this.
The music stopped, and a gruff voice came on the line this time. “Master Sergeant, come on over as soon as you can. We’ll keep the shop open ’til you get here. Just come around to the side door, and I’ll have my son let you in.”
“Thank you, sir.” Mike wanted to argue that it was not necessary, that he did not want to keep them. But the need to make it to East LA outweighed politeness at the moment.
“No problem, Top,” as the line went dead.
Mike sighed with relief at this turn of luck. It might not seem important, but keeping to his schedule meant that he would have the chance to speak with Manny’s parents before just showing up at the funeral. The last thing he wanted was for his presence to cause the family any distress now.
Corporal Manuel Hernandez was the last of the men under his command to die while serving their country. Except that was not entirely accurate for Manny, who was not a United States citizen. The young man had been brought into this country as a toddler when his parents came illegally.
His two younger sisters were citizens by birth, and his parents had been lucky enough to get their status normalized when Manny was a senior in high school. That new immigration status allowed the young man to fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming a Marine.
A couple of months ago, Manny had begun the process for military personnel that would make him a citizen. He had smiled broadly the day he showed Mike and his other friends the sealed envelope that contained the completed papers.
But Manny did not live to take the oath that would make this country his own. He had been killed when insurgents ambushed the patrol they were on. Giving his life for a country that was the only home he could ever remember, but did not claim him as its own.
Mike fumbled with his phone, pulling up photographs of friends and colleagues until he came to the one he was looking for. The ever-smiling Manny stared back at him. The kid had been a riot, always laughing and joking about everything.
Staring out the window, Mike wondered how many of the people in the cars around him cared or even understood this war that he and his friends had spent almost a decade fighting. The ‘war on terror’ might have seemed glorious and justified after September eleventh, but now it rarely made the news.
Damned meaningless elections of politicians who did not know shit about how the world really worked and cared even less. The world’s economy, civil wars in the Middle East, hell, even that dumb celebrity girl who married and divorced in the space of a breath made more headlines than the men and women that were still giving their lives to keep America safe. America and the world might have moved on, but it was a hard thing for him to do.
Mike watched as the driver exited the freeway. He checked the time yet again. It was after five-thirty, which meant it would be almost six before he picked up his motorcycle. He had no idea how long that would take either. He assumed it would not be a quick in-and-out, though. He had organized all the paperwork into an envelope tucked inside his jacket pocket. Driver’s license, proof of insurance, and the printed bill of sale were all ready to go. Hopefully, that would move things along nicely.
Of course, one good thing about a motorcycle in Southern California was its ability to weave in and out of the traffic jams that were the hallmark of this region. Given the time, he could reasonably expect another two to three hours of bumper to bumper cars as people fought to get home from work. Interstate Five would be the worst. Stop-and-go almost all the way from here to East Los Angeles.
Smog, heat rising off the concrete, and horns screeching at one another was not how Mike wanted to enjoy the first ride on his new bike. Pacific Coast Highway would be a better option, even if it did take slightly longer to make the trip. He could enjoy the sun setting over the ocean, smell the fresh sea air, and hear the waves hitting the sand. A much better option.
“Hey, mister. This is it,” hailed the taxi driver.
Mike smiled at the white-washed façade with its large front display window. Chrome glinted in the glass from half a dozen new motorcycles on display there. He smiled as he counted out the fare and added a generous tip. Handing the money to the driver, Mike opened the door and grabbed his bag.
As the cab drove off, Mike stood for a moment staring at a vintage Ironhead Sportster. It was painted red, white, and blue. He could almost picture Nicholson astride it, clad in leather, and with that snarky grin that had made him famous. Mike remembered another motorcycle. One that had begun his passion for Harleys.
He was in eighth grade, a brash man-child, abandoned to the tender care of another foster family. This one was decent enough. There was plenty of food, clean clothes, and no beatings. For a kid of thirteen, it seemed the best he could hope for. In an attempt to fit in, Mike had fallen in with a rough crowd at school, though. They were not a gang exactly, just a half dozen young boys with too much anger and not enough adult supervision.
That day, they were on their way home from school when they saw it. Bright red and silver chrome with yellow flames on its fuel tank. They had all stopped on the sidewalk. Just staring at it, like people from Beacon Hill might stare at the Museum of Fine Art. To them, this was art. Fast, loud, and powerful.
First, one of the boys had walked over, running his hands down the leather seat. Then another had boldly perched his jean-clad bottom on it. His hands gripped the handlebars, revving the engine in their imaginations. But that had not been enough for Mike.
His crew had stolen more than one car. Taking them for joy rides before abandoning them in seedy neighborhoods where they lived. Once or twice they had even taken newer models to a garage where they knew the owner would give them money, then cut the automobiles up for parts.
But they had never seen anything like this. It was a beacon to Mike. One thought raced through his young mind: “I have to have it.”
He had taken out the small pocket knife that he always carried in his shoe. Pushing the other boy aside, he had started to fiddle with the exposed wires. The only good thing about his father had been his knack for anything mechanical. It was a gift that Mike had inherited.
Although he was unfamiliar with the specifics of motorcycles, it did not take him long to figure it out. A couple of wires disconnected and re-connected, and that powerful engine boomed to life between his scrawny legs.
Mike shook his head at the memory. What had that kid been thinking? How had he thought he could manage a metal monster that weighed more than he did? The truth was that he had not. Barely fifty feet down that road, he had lost what little control he had. The bike flipped onto its side and skidded another hundred feet, taking Mike along with it.
He had torn his best jeans and had a nasty road burn to show for his misdeed. His friends had scattered quickly at his blight, no one even bothering to check that he was still alive. Mike had crawled from beneath the machine. He had half limped, half run back to the foster home.
Luckily, the foster ‘mom’ was busy preparing dinner, and her husband had not come home from work yet. Mike had managed to sneak up the stairs to the bathroom, where he cleaned the wounds as best he could. He had shoved his torn pants under his bed, to dispose of later, when he took out the trash.
He had thought he had made a clean escape until the foster family’s ‘real daughter’ had snickered in the doorway. At ten, the girl had made his life there, hell. She took great pleasure in tattling. All his misdeeds were promptly reported to her father. At first, Mike had dreaded it, afraid of another beating.
But he soon learned that there were other forms of punishment. Long lectures on right and wrong, choices and being a man, extra chores, or restrictions on television were their weapons. Mike soon came to dread those ‘talks’ with the man almost more than the blows he had taken from his old man or the string of nearly a dozen other ‘foster fathers.’ The sound of disappointment in his voice hurt Mike worse than any bruise.
So, Mike had taken to acquiescing to whatever demands the girl made just to avoid those chats. Looking into her sparkling grey eyes, Mike knew that this one was going to be a doozy. And she had not disappointed him. He had spent the next months jumping through her hoops, doing all her chores, and living in fear that she would let something slip about what happened to those jeans. But in the end, it had not mattered, the ‘mom’ had gotten pregnant, and Social Services had moved Mike to a group home. There were just no foster homes that wanted a man-child.
But Mike had never forgotten those few seconds of glory and the feeling of freedom with the wind in his face. He had sworn that one day he would have a machine like that. No matter what he had to do.
Thankfully, the Marines had been a better path than the one he had been on back then. He shuddered at the thought of where that boy might have ended up without the blessing of an old-fashioned judge, who at seventeen had given him a choice – Marines or jail.
Mike touched the glass and smiled. He had definitely made the right choice all those long, long years ago. Turning, he walked around to the side of the building. Just as the man had said, there was a door open. Mike knocked on it. A young man with dirty blond hair looked up from shining a bike.
“Master Sergeant O’Malley?”
Mike nodded and extended his hand. “Thanks for this. Staying open late and all.”
“No problem, sir. Just let me get my Dad.” He disappeared through a doorway, and Mike was left standing alone in a room full of Harley-Davidsons. He chuckled at the irony, wondering what that boy would have thought. Probably about which one to hotwire first.
Mike looked around the room, but he could not spot the one thing he was looking for. His Harley. It had taken months to pick her out. From the moment, almost a year ago, when he had decided not to re-enlist, he had begun planning this. He was lucky to have quite a little savings. Even though the Marines was not the highest paying job, it offered room and board. With no wives, even ex’s, or children, Mike had not had much to spend his monthly salary on.
A Harley-Davidson Road King was his first choice. It would be the fulfillment of a life-long dream. It would also offer him the freedom to fulfill his other dream: to travel the country, seeing the people and places that he had spent over half a lifetime defending.
Men talking roused Mike from his reverie. Turning back to the doorway, Mike choked back laughter. The massive bear of a man with long, stringy, thinning hair pulled backed into a ponytail and the black t-shirt stretched taut over a beer belly was a living, breathing epitome of every bad biker movie there ever was.
The man extended a slightly greasy hand towards him, “Master Sergeant.”
Mike took the hand in a firm grip.
“Ooh-Rah,” said the bear by way of greeting. His booming voice filled the room and echoed off the walls.
Mike’s face puckered in confusion. The man before him was the opposite of the clean-cut and discipline that he expected in a Marine. But looking closer, he could see the dark grey-blue lines of a tattoo peeking from the man’s sleeve. The lower half of a Marine Corps emblem was recognizable.
“I know. But after six years in the heat and humidity of that God-forsaken jungle, I just wanted to shake it all off,” the man explained as if reading Mike’s mind. “Vietnam.”
Mike only nodded.
“Name’s Luke Davidson. Get the irony? This is my son.” He motioned to the younger man. “Folks call him Caleb.” Mike shook his hand, as well.
“Your bike is out back. I was just checking her out myself. Making a few adjustments. Can’t let a fellow Leatherneck down.” He clapped one of those mammoth arms about Mike’s shoulders and steered him through the corridor and out another door.
Mike smiled as the sun hit the shining chrome, almost winking at him. He fought back the urge to push the man aside and run to her like that kid once had. But this time, she was all his. Earned honestly with blood, sweat, and tears too. The sweat and tears were his own, genuine enough. But it was the blood of his men that haunted his dreams and stole his soul.
“So, what you gonna name her?”
“Yeah. Like a ship. I always name my bikes. It’s a tradition. Of course, I’m stupid about it. I always named mine after whatever woman I was with at the time.” Laughter boomed from the man’s gut. “My bikes lasted longer than my marriages. All except Little Kim, of course.”
Mike gave the man another quizzical stare as he walked over to the motorcycle that had been his only passion for so long. Well, almost. “Esther.” He whispered the name with almost reverence.
“Esther, she is then. Sounds like quite a lady, Master Sergeant. Your wife?”
“Never married. Well, except for the Corps, that is.”
The man chuckled again. “Oh, you one of those. Well, I suppose after five marriages, what can a guy like me say about that?”
“Yeah, I told you my bikes lasted longer than my marriages. You want to take her for a spin. Make sure that she feels right to you?”
“Actually, I was hoping to get on the road soon. I have somewhere I need to be tonight.”
“Sure, no problem. Well, you have our number. If anything ain’t right, you give me a call or bring Esther in, and I’ll fix it.” The man yelled over his shoulder, “Caleb.”
“Yeah, Dad?” replied the younger man appearing out of the shop door.
“Master Sergeant O’Malley needs to get going. Can you finish the paperwork?”
“Sure, no problem,” the man replied as he held out his hand, motioning for Mike to follow him into the building.
The bear held out his greasy hand once more. “I’ll leave you to the boy. He’s much better at this paperwork shit than me. I just want to wish you luck and say thank you. For all, you have done. For me. My family. And this country. You won’t hear that very much, I’m afraid, but we got to stick together, son.”
Mike squeezed the man’s paw and nodded. He could not force a single word past the knot in his throat. He might not have met this man before…or ever meet him again. But they were brothers. Members of an elite band, bound by honor and duty. A duty for which some paid with their very lives. While others like them paid with their souls.
Without a word, he turned and followed the younger man into an office. The desk was stacked high with papers as a computer screen glistened in the corner. Because he had everything organized, the paperwork was dispatched quickly. The forms they completed would transfer the title and license to Mike’s name. It took less than half an hour to finish the whole business.
As they walked back to his bike, Esther, he corrected himself, Mike looked around for the older man. But he was nowhere to be seen.
“I wanted to say good-bye to your father. Where can I find him?”
“At home, probably. Kim Lee keeps him on a tight leash these days. Never seen Dad so…” The young man paused and blushed. “Never saw him so pussy whipped. But then again, I suppose marrying a woman that you loved for almost forty years but never thought you could have. Well, I guess that might do strange things to a man.”
The idea of loving a woman that you could never have hit a chord with Mike. He was tempted to stay and learn more about the odd Marine and his impossible love story, but he knew that it was almost seven already. It would take him over an hour and a half, if traffic were good, to get to East LA. He did not have time, if he wanted to speak to the Hernandezes tonight.
So, he held out his hand and offered the man thanks. Then throwing the duffle bag that contained his life into one of the compartments on his bike, he straddled her for the first time. She felt good between his thighs. He ran his hand down the bright red fuel tank.
“Esther,” he whispered, as the image of the woman smiling back from the photograph filled his mind. Mocha skin. Thick, dark curls framing her face as she beamed at her son on his graduation day. The son, whose blood stained Mike’s hands. The photograph hidden in his wallet was his only connection to the woman who had captured his heart, even though he had never met her.
Oh, he could definitely understand loving a woman you could never have, he thought as he turned the ignition. And the motorcycle roared to life. He smiled and waved to the young man before he raised the kickstand and took off down the alleyway on the one dream of a lifetime that he could make come true.