The car coughed and sputtered angrily, jerking and hesitating as it lost momentum. This woke me from the trance I had unwittingly fallen into, long hours on these back roads trying to get from point A to point B, I don't even remember. Surveying the dash instruments a sick feeling of dread filled my stomach while my head was filling with anger. Anger with myself, why had I not paid enough attention to the fuel gauge, but then how long had I been driving in that trance before being resuscitated by the loss of the lullaby created by the engine and tires on pavement. All this I considered as I eased onto the shoulder of a deserted highway.
The night air was cool, and without fresh circulated air from the vents the windows soon began to fog as I rest my forehead on the steering wheel. 'Idiot, now what, what are you going to do' I exclaimed audibly to a lifeless audience of gauges, numbers and needles staring at me from their cluster as if from some tiny amphitheater. I turned the ignition to 'off' and removed the key, leaning back in the seat I removed the seat belt. I could no longer see through the fogged windows, though there was not much to see. After wiping my window a little, to create a portal to check my wing mirror for oncoming traffic I swung the door open and stepped onto the shoulder. Why was I not surprised that there were no headlights where I came from or tail lights where I should be headed. I was walking.
After only just a few hundred yards I passed a sign stating that the town of Bartlet was only 30 miles away. 'Great' I greeted the sign as I approached and I continued as it passed, 'this aint my night.' Then again the sign didn't make sense, I thought as I continued to put one foot in front of the other, 30 miles to Bartlet would have to mean my last fill up was only just over 200 miles ago, I couldn't possibly have run out of gas. My mind's analysis of the situation only awoke a dread that had been waiting to pounce. The last thing I could remember was pulling back onto the highway and hitting the cruise control. Had I been out of it for two-hundred miles? Before my new realization had fully sunk in a quiet rumble found my ear.
I could see by the substantial light from the moon that the road ahead was clear so I stopped and turned around as I took an extra step backwards and further from the roadway. A single headlight coming my direction got larger very quickly, it slowed as it approached and soon the machine was parked in the roadway opposite me. A beautiful late forties pan-head with a side car carefully crafted to its side. The rider stared at me though I couldn't see his eyes behind tinted goggles, though he wore a leather coat the cool air must have been chilling as he did not have a helmet.
'Going to Bartlet' The mans voice broke the silence. The words came evenly and without an accent, though I am not sure if he was asking me where I was going or telling me where he intended to go.
'Y-Yes' I coughed, I did not realize how dry my throat had become. The rider then reached over into the side car, producing both a blanket and a set of goggles, then motioned with his gloved hand to get in.
'Ride with me' I would realize later that I lost control of my own actions at that point and seemed cradled and soothed as I climbed into that sidecar next to a man I had only known for a minute or two and had traded less than a dozen words between us.
The bike roared through the gears as we reached speed, the air passing over me made the night seem below freezing, my cheeks suffered the wrath of the wind as the rest of my body nestled even deeper into the cavern in my new transport, protected by a wool blanket. Left and right the road curved until the road climbed out of the empty valley and a light could be seen ahead. We approached quickly, paused for a moment, then gently passed another motorcyclist making his way along this quiet highway, passing through the same valley we had just exited. A sharp salute type wave was handed out by my driver as the other rider faded into the distance behind us. From my vantage point they seemed strangely connected with one another though it would be safe to presume the only thing they shared was this night and the machines carrying them home.
Bartlet arrived and my companion pulled into a dirt parking lot under a streetlight across the road from a small diner.
'The coffee's not bad, and the Sheriff should be able to point you in the right direction for help' The motor still thumped away and the rider made no move, I now assumed that he had originally asked me if I was going, since he obviously had no intention of staying, to Bartlet. I thanked him, crawled out of the side car, leaving behind the blanket and goggles. I offered to pay him for his time he declined, a cup of coffee, declined, anything. A sharp wave was offered to me as he looked ahead, down the highway, twisted the throttle and was soon gone. I waited until the tail-light had disappeared before turning towards the cafe.
The sun would soon be pushing back the night, a cup of coffee would be called for before phoning for assistance. As I opened the door to the diner I paused and turned towards another rumble and caught a wave from the rider we had passed earlier. I waved back, although there is no way the rider saw it, I felt connected.
Once seated at the counter I ordered a cup of coffee and some toast. A very tired looking waitress took my order and disappeared. Reappearing with my order she smiled and offered milk. Just as I sipped my hot saving grace a man walked through the front door. Obviously the sheriff, with a badge and a gun, he looked surprised to see a customer. The sheriff glanced in the direction of my waitress, now wiping off flatware with a dry towel, then came and sat down aside me at the counter.
'Morning' He said.
'Good morning officer' I offered and sipped my coffee some more.
'I didn't see your car out front' The sheriff sounded almost accusatory but I assumed it came with the line of work. Actually I can see how my presence in a small town diner, a stranger, with no vehicle in the vicinity would be odd.
'I ran out of gas outside of town, back in the valley, fortunate for me a generous biker stopped and gave me a lift, lucky me I guess, I was looking at a long walk' The sheriff then sat back on his stool a little and looked as if he had just experienced the loss of his favorite hound.
'Must have been a biker in the valley' he solemnly stated, the waitress interrupted,
'Would you cut it out Jeff, and leave him be, he just wants to drink his coffee and be on his way' She spoke about me but never made eye contact and I somehow didn't feel welcome for lunch.
'Yes there was, I just told you I got a ride from a biker' I offered, as the waitress disappeared again in the back.
'I better get you back to your vehicle' At that I knew lunch was out of the question. I finished my breakfast and left some cash behind for the missing waitress to collect. The sheriff was already at the front door looking at a collage of pictures on the wall nearby.
'That was it wasn't it' he asked. I looked at the picture he was referring to, and while of similar vintage, the motorcycle pictured was old and rusted, damaged and falling apart sitting on a manicured lawn.
'I'm not sure what you mean, ya that looks to be a similar model but this thing is old and beaten, how on earth do you think he could have given me a ride on that, and besides it had a sidecar' I thought my time to leave was getting more obvious.
'There wasn't enough left of that sidecar to place graveside' I froze, looked back at the picture on the wall and listened.
'That, there is Norton Longwell, he lived in the area all his life, unless he was overseas, seeing to his duty. He didn't live far from here and died a few years back. In 1957, only a year after that picture was taken Norton and his wife were on their way home from a wedding of a relative out of state. Only a few miles from his family's farm a truck driver hauling cattle fell asleep at the wheel. No-one knows what exactly happened but that truck was moving fast, it drifted into Norton's lane and he tried to swerve around the truck. He almost made it but that truck collided full speed with the side car, ripping it off the bike and sending Norton and machine careening into the dark. Norton lived but was haunted by that night for the rest of his life. For the past few years, every once in awhile I come into this diner for breakfast just as I do everyday, and I find a person just like you sitting at that counter. Drivers of cars, trucks, tractors, buses all saying the same thing. They broke down. Well I will tell you something, not one of those vehicles needed any repair, I take them back and their motors start just fine. They each say they saw a biker or two or dozen on their way into town next to old Norton here. Norton stops cars if there is a biker in the valley and makes you wait the night out here before moving on, that way no harm comes to the riders.'
'Jeff' Interrupted by the waitress again 'Please get on with it and stop with the tall tales.'
Jeff placed the straw uniform hat on his head and walked out the front door obediently. Before following I leaned in closer to the picture that the sheriff had pointed at. Except that I could now see his eyes, this was the rider that I had met, lost control to, less than two hours ago.
'I'm sorry Norton, I will be more careful' I whispered quietly to the picture before following the sheriff out the front door and into his truck. Nothing was wrong with my car.