Read The Outlaw Preacher’s First Nine Chapters Online For Free
“Man, it’s cold,” James uttered to himself as he braced against another biting gust. Poetic justice for the many occasions he had called friends and family back in Detroit to tell them how nice the weather was in California. The last call was three years ago and right now it might as well have been another lifetime. January in Sacramento could get your attention, especially morning and morning it most certainly was. Still dark kind of morning, his best guess was somewhere close to five, five-fifteen maybe.
He’d been walking about an hour and if not for the lights of the approaching diner he might have just hidden out under the overpass until the morning light brought a measure of warmth. But he was too close now and the thought of some hot coffee, some “real” coffee, kept his aching legs moving forward. It’s not just the cold, he thought, it’s the freaking wind. A very distant memory trekking across the frozen tundra, which was the campus of Michigan State University in January, triggered the thought that he had gotten soft over the years. Fat chance, he laughed to himself. Maybe soft in the head but thanks to his recent situation, his physical condition was excellent. He trudged onward for another several minutes, the aches born of many poor decisions resonating through his fifty-year-old frame. He arrived at the diner and pushed the horizontal handle on the glass door, which opened faster than he anticipated and he stumbled inside.
“Good morning,” came a voice from somewhere as he entered the brightly lit coffee shop.
“Good morning to you, wherever you are.” James looked around as he shielded his eyes from the intrusive fluorescent light hanging just over the front door threshold. The friendly laugh suggested that the sound originated from a corner table. The voice belonged to a plus-size strikingly beautiful thirty-something waitress.
“Have a seat; you look like a deer in the headlights,” she said, still laughing.
“Aren’t these lights illegal in this state?” he asked with a smile.
“Probably, there ain’t nothin they haven’t legislated ’round here,” she responded without hesitation. James liked her right away. There is nothing better than a witty waitress at zero-dark-thirty in the morning on a bitter cold day. “You want some …” she asked.
“Yes, please,” was out of his mouth before she said coffee. They both laughed at that.
“I just made the first pot of the day and you may have the honor of the first cup,” she giggled.
James caught a glimpse of her name tag. “Awesome; thanks, Janice,” was all he could think to say as he picked up several pages of yesterday’s Sacramento Bee and slid into the closest booth. He smiled and began to laugh quietly as he read.
“What’s so funny?” Janice asked.
“Oh, I haven’t been around in a while and I still can’t get over the fact that Jerry Brown is governor again. Maybe that’s how Rip Van Winkle felt when he woke up, I don’t know, I just think weird things.”
“Did you just get out?” she asked, handing him the steaming cup.
James stared at his coffee, “Why’d you ask me that; do ex-cons get a discount?”
“Sorry,” she turned away, giggling. “Sometimes I say stuff without thinking, I didn’t mean anything by it.”
He was a bit put off by her abruptness but quite taken with her charm and said, “What’s so funny?”
Janice spun around, refilled his cup and said, “Well, maybe it’s the state-issued jacket and the gray shirt or the institutional quality ink on your forearm, or maybe you just look like you might have recently spent some time at that scary old castle down the road!” They both laughed again.
“You had me with institutional quality ink! Okay, guilty as charged. Not to change the subject, but have you any food worth eating or do I just pay the cover charge for the comedy?”
“Food’s actually pretty good,” she said, tossing a laminated menu at his head like a Frisbee.
Janice returned a couple of minutes later after tending to new arrivals. “Decide on anything?” she asked.
“Yeah, just some scrambled eggs, English muffin, and biscuits and gravy, thank you very much. I apologize for snapping at you earlier.”
“No worries, convict, I’ll just poison your breakfast, but you have yourself a nice day.
“Ex-convict,” replied James. “I’ll have you address me in a proper manner if this is my last meal.”
“Whatever.” she strolled back to the kitchen to submit his order.
It had been a long time since he’d had a casual conversation with a citizen and it was refreshing. It almost made him feel like a normal person. While he waited, he enjoyed reading the newspaper and sipping hot coffee. Simple pleasures, but appreciated by a very grateful man. When the plates arrived, James found the breakfast to be amazingly good, though the rave review possibly attributed to fifteen hours without any kind of meal, not to mention three years of highly suspect fare. His compliments were conveyed to the chef, a Mexican gentleman in his sixties who reacted with a smile and a nod of the head.
“So, where you headed; where’s home?” Her voice came out of nowhere again, something to which he was becoming accustomed.
“So Cal,” he replied.
“Ooohh, Hollywood,” she smirked.
“Not quite,” he joked.
“How you getting there? I didn’t see your Mercedes in the parking lot,” Janice quipped.
“Must have been stolen while I ate breakfast; this is a bad neighborhood,” James deadpanned as his half-century old eyes adjusted to the growing glow of the morning light through the surprisingly clean windows.
“Want me to call the cops?” she raised her eyebrows.
“Nah, I didn’t like that car anyhow,” he threw out.
“What you gonna’ do for money; you got a job?” she asked.
“You writin’ a book?”
“I don’t know, maybe I’ll build bikes again … or become a televangelist; those guys seem to make a lot of money,” he offered.
“Oh, please; you a preacher? I don’t think even Southern California is ready for that,” she laughed and walked to the latest arrivals across the room.
Why did I tell her that? he thought. His faith was growing stronger; while locked up, he finished Bible courses and had been licensed and ordained and had certainly considered preaching or teaching in some capacity. What God had in store for him upon his release remained a mystery but to blurt that out to a complete stranger, well … what was that about?
His introspective wallow was interrupted by a loud voice from across the room. “Tell him to fix it!” the man’s voice bellowed at Janice as she hurried back to the kitchen. James bristled at the tone of the guy’s voice. It reminded him of some of the guards. Tough guys who wanted everyone to know that the world revolved around them.
“Tell him I’ll fix it for him,” James told Janice as she brought him his check. “What was that all about anyway?” he asked.
“Oh, that’s Earl; he’s a regular here,” she answered.
“A regular jerk it sounds like,” James retorted.
“Pastor, that’s no way to talk about one of God’s children,” she teased.
“Yeah, maybe but he’s got no right to yell at you about anything. And it’s preacher, not pastor,” he offered with a grin. “I don’t have the patience to be a pastor. All those people whining and complaining about the same problems day after day. Sounds more like a babysitter; no thanks!” James answered in a rehearsed diatribe.
He had formulated some semblance of a philosophy surrounding this and many other topics. Five months into his sentence James had a run-in with some inmates who had taken issue with James’ refusal to ‘clique up’ in an official capacity. Fellow Caucasians saw fit to beat him into the infirmary, but not without significant casualties absorbed by all involved. Two of his attackers joined him, albeit requiring a shorter stay. For his participation, James received three broken ribs, a bruised kidney, and a broken nose. The broken nose was arguably an improvement as it seemed to straighten a previous adjustment he’d received courtesy of some bikers in San Bernardino years back.
Three weeks in bed and bandages allowed for some introspection and philosophizing. A chaplain’s visit during his recovery sparked a philosophical debate, which led to several subsequent visits and a thorough thrashing of the prisoner’s firmly held — but substantially flawed — convictions. His subsequent commitment to the Lord was facilitated by a man whose slight physical stature and soft voice should have been crushed and silenced by the rage and violence in that place. Seemingly oblivious to the degree of hate coursing through these walls, this little man moved with a quiet confidence and courage that intrigued and impressed James, who had reached a point in his life where coincidence could no longer explain his continued existence. In spite of his best efforts to ignore the calling in his life, there was still a nagging deep in his spirit against which his rage could not prevail.
I have nowhere to go but I’m sure in a hurry to get there, thought James. His whole life was like that, at least before his three-year forced compliance. What a waste. Then again, the scripture says, ‘All things work to the good for those who love God and are called according to His purposes,’ and he was determined to let God lead no matter how many times he released his grip.
Had James testified against those guys back then the penalty would have been far greater than three years. At least now the debt to society is paid. Technically not his debt, but someone had to pay it. James made his decision and in the process became a legend in a world to which he owed no allegiance, a dark underpinning of society of which most people have no knowledge or appreciation. Wrong place, wrong time, but then again ‘all things work to the good.’
James remembered a prison chaplain who laughingly explained that the scripture did not mean all things were good, only that they worked out to the good. Important distinction, that! One could take a grim view of things with the wrong interpretation. False promises beget false faith or something like that. God was faithful, this much James was learning.
“Hello, earth to convict,” Janice’s voice pierced his daydream. “I don’t even know your name,” she continued.
“Huh, oh, my bad; name’s James,” as he reached his tattooed arm toward her firm but gentle grip. She held his hand for maybe three seconds but a female touch felt good.
“Did that hurt much?” she asked, examining his scarred up hand.
“Ha, you should see the other guys!” James shot back and changed the subject, asking about a nearby truck stop. Janice explained that the West Sacramento Truck stop was just up the highway and then excused herself to handle the increase in morning business. After calculating his current net worth at five-hundred sixty-seven dollars, James tossed a twenty down on his $12.80 breakfast invoice, gathered his coat and black knit beanie.
“Hey wait,” she yelled and walked briskly toward a startled James. “I got you a ride to the truck stop. That guy over there is a parts runner for the Kenworth dealer and he said he would take you if you need a lift.”
“Well, since my ’Benz is missing, I’ll take you up on that, thank you very much.”
She smiled and wrapped her pale arms around his muscular frame and squeezed hard. “Take care of yourself there, Outlaw … Outlaw Preacher!” She chuckled. “It’s got a ring to it. James, the Outlaw Preacher; who was that masked man?” she continued to tease him.
“Alright there, Janice, way too much fun for first thing in the morning, but thanks for your kindness and may God bless you,” he said as he moved toward the door. James motioned to his ride that he’d be outside whenever he was ready. This time the morning air was invigorating and fresh, the kind of air you can taste. Northern California could produce some good air, he thought to himself. Although it was the same air a few miles down the road, free air tasted a whole lot better than state air.
“Dear Lord in heaven, thank you for this day, this new life and thank you for your son Jesus Christ,” James uttered, barely audible, as he sat on a boulder with a great flat spot and a little vertical cut that fit the small of his back perfectly. He thanked God for the rock, too.
The ride to the truck stop was uneventful once the men exhausted the obligatory, “Where you from,” and “Where you headed,” and “It sure is cold this morning,” niceties. It couldn’t really be called a conversation; men don’t really have conversations. They mumble one-word questions and answers. A most economical if not enlightened method of communication. Studies show that women use twenty-five thousand words per day in conversation while men are a distant second with ten thousand.
James said “Thanks for the lift,” and the driver nodded and said, “No problem,” but did suggest that James, “have a nice day,” which is about as useless a saying as “I’ll pray for you,” if there was never an intent to do so. James had just served three years for a crime he didn’t commit, but “have a nice day,” would make everything just fine!
James thought, This freedom thing will be short-lived if I keep projecting this brand of hostility into a simple non-conversation. Did he really just think all of that at seven in the morning? He’d gotten used to looking over his shoulder the past ten years or so both in prison and as an outlaw biker. It might take a minute to accept that he was actually free. This felt strangely reminiscent of his release from rehab twenty years ago when he, quoting from the brochure, had his whole ‘new’ life in front of him but after twenty minutes outside the safety of confinement, terror struck! Thoughts of I’ll never make it came flooding at him straight from the pit of hell. In the middle of the attack it was difficult to recognize the origin of those desperate thoughts. They seemed remarkably accurate but that is just how the enemy the devil operates. He’s been at this a lot longer than we have; read the book of Job sometime.
“Lord, I thank you that I am free to think and plan and live again but I can’t, nor do I want to do this without your hand upon everything. Please lead me, guide me and give me ministry, let your will be done, amen.” James let out an audible, if anyone was there to hear it, sigh. If a tree falls deep within a forest with nobody there, does it make a sound? James laughed out loud and thought, This is no time for an acid flashback, and headed in the direction of a trucker who was yelling at a late 90s Freightliner with its hood up.
The owner of the truck was a giant of a man with a matching voice and nothing that projected from his mouth at this moment was pleasant. James thought, He ain’t havin’ a nice day, and laughed to himself as he walked toward the man. “What’s the problem, brother?” asked James.
“I ain’t got no brother and if I did he wouldn’t be a tore up piece of biker trash like you,” barked the giant.
James shrugged, resisting the urge to crush the big man’s throat and said, “Sorry I asked.”
“Yeah, well this thing has cost me twice what I paid for it in repairs and right now I’m running late for a customer who don’t care much about my problems. Sorry I jumped on you; I’ve just had enough already today,” he said with his hand to his forehead.
James stuck out his arm and said, “Name’s James,” to which the giant said, ‘Gary.’ “So what’s it doin’, or should I say not doin’? These Detroits are great most of the time,” James asked.
“It ain’t buildin’ air and without air, I ain’t goin’ nowhere,” replied Gary as he lit a Swisher Sweet cigar.
James made a mental note to buy a good cigar sometime soon. “So, where you heading?” asked James.
“South,” Gary replied. “Just east of Pomona.”
“Well, if I can get this to build air, would you drop me off down there?” James asked.
Gary, laughing and coughing smoke said, “Sure, pal, sure thing. I’m gonna call a mobile guy and he’s gonna bend me over for four or five hundred bucks or worse to replace the governor or the compressor and this stinking load’s only payin’ six hundred and fifty bucks so sure, knock yourself out. I’m going inside to get a coffee.”
James responded, “Me, too; I’ll need a big coffee to fix this thing.”
“You’ll need more than that,” Gary mumbled.
“Lord, this is one of those times. Please let this work,” James prayed as he walked to the counter with the biggest coffee the aging truck stop offered.
“We’ve got fresher coffee coming up in about a minute if you care to wait,” the woman behind the counter suggested.
Glancing at the crooked plastic handwritten name tag, he answered, “No thanks, Maria, this will work.”
“Have a blessed day,” she added, handing James change from a five.
“I plan on it, Maria. God bless you, too,” he answered. It’s always nice to exchange pleasantries with another believer. Some Christians pepper their conversations with words like ‘blessing’ and ‘prayer’ as verbal trial balloons. Other Christians jump on those words like storm shelters in a tornado. It’s code for ‘we’re in this together,’ and it’s comforting. Non-believers just ignore them completely, which gives them away every time. A true evangelist will forge ahead in the face of such adversity, but a closet Christian will take it as a signal to retreat. James inwardly rejoiced as his mind was returning! What a nice bonus on a sunny morning.
James headed out the door to the waiting rig. Gary was already at the truck without his coffee, which prompted James to ask him if he’d changed his mind.
“Yeah, I can’t wait around drinking coffee. Either you can get this to build air, which I gotta’ see to believe, or I hafta’ call a mobile guy. I got some numbers from the tire shop over there.” He nodded toward an open structure with a metal roof filled with old and new tires stacked head high for a good twenty rows.
“Okay, big strapper, start this thing up and let’s see if we can get some air flowing,” James instructed.
Gary lumbered his way up and into the driver’s seat like he was climbing a rock wall. James felt for the guy. It’s a hard life and when it’s your truck every day is like Russian roulette with disastrous possibilities. Breakdowns, accidents, lousy drivers, inclement weather, blown tires, nasty shippers and receivers, and the constant race against an impossible schedule and like Gary said, a nine hundred dollar repair and there goes the week!
“Hey,” Gary yelled over the roar of the engine. “You ain’t got any tools. Is this some kinda’ joke, dude, cause I ain’t laughin’ and the air gauge ain’t moving.”
“Hang on just a second,” yelled James. “Well, Lord, here we go,” he said out loud as he began slowly pouring the hot coffee over the missile-shaped air governor above the starter.
“What the heck are you doing?” Gary stuck his head out of the window to observe how this vagrant with no tools was “fixing” his truck. “That does it; I’m kicking your butt!” and he started out of the truck.
James yelled, “Look at the air gauge first; is it moving?”
“No, it ain’t … wait … well, I’ll be switched; it’s building air!” howled Gary. “How the … what the heck did you do you freak, you poured coffee on …”
“The air governor cylinder expands under the heat of the liquid and the plunger releases and voila, you have air,” James beamed. “Thank you, Jesus!” he yelled.
“Yeah, sure I’ll thank Jesus, whatever, I’m just … wow; it’s working and the air is building all the way up.”
“Let’s do this then.” James moved to the front of the truck and began to lower the hood. Gary met him at the driver side step and shook his hand as James finished securing the hood’s rubber side latch.
“Guess I owe you a ride south, biker boy; you ready to roll?” asked Gary, mood noticeably improved.
James’ outward appearance—messy shoulder length hair and graying beard topping a tattooed muscular frame — disguised his intelligent nature. Able to move from a locker room to a bar room to a board room and assimilate immediately into each, he knew something about everything but not everything about anything. Mesmerizing green eyes compensated for the surgically repaired nose, which James was almost convinced added character. After all, like his mother used to say, it would be unfair if he had all that charm, intelligence, and good looks!
“Let’s go!” James answered as he walked around and hopped up into the passenger’s seat.
What Gary lacked in grace on the ground he more than compensated for behind the wheel. His thirty-year skill set was evidenced by his effortless coaxing of the tractor trailer onto Highway 80. His courage and skill needed to negotiate almost seventy linear feet of rolling iron down the highway was breathtaking. It occurred to James that truckers are the unsung heroes of the world’s supply chain, especially when their eighty thousand pound missiles are making their way through an Atlanta or Houston or Los Angeles freeway system. Why these things aren’t wrapped around ten thousand SUVs a day is one of the wonders of the world. The fact that most people should not be on the roads is never more evident than when sitting in a big rig in heavy traffic.
“Man, people are crazy,” James said as two idiots in a tweaked-out Honda civic snaked around the truck at over eighty miles per hour, only to display their brake lights moments later.
“Uh huh, and if they live they’ll be there twenty minutes before we are. I hope it makes a difference,” Gary offered. James reflected on how this was the same guy who wanted to kill him an hour ago.
Once settled into his executive office behind the wheel, Gary became the CEO of his little empire. He fired off instructions via blue tooth to his bookkeeping and permit service and directed his insurance company to “get busy” faxing an updated certificate to a broker’s home office in Modesto. Gary was in the groove now and strangely peaceful. He looked like a rock and roll drummer with all of his equipment at arm’s length. Drummers can play blindfolded if the equipment is at the right height, angle and distance from the stool. Gary had his seat just right, the mirrors were perfect, CB radio microphone on a makeshift bungee cord hanging from the headliner just above his right hand. All he needed was a high hat cymbal and he could join the band.
“Hey man, how’d you know to pour that coffee? That was pretty cool. I was ready to bust you up and then …” Gary laughed and broke the silence.
“I wondered if you were gonna ask me that or just go on thinking I was a genius,” smiled James.
“Oh, I didn’t think that for a minute,” Gary joked with a friendly laugh.
James replied, “I knew a guy in Tulare — a mechanic — though that term doesn’t do this guy any justice. Dude could diagnose stuff over the phone. Craziest thing you’ve ever seen. I had a couple of trucks a few years back, ’96 Freightliners like this one, same kind of engines so I was somewhat familiar. I can do alternators, u-joints, water pumps, and of course, coffee tricks!” That got a laugh. “The truck whisperer,” he added. They laughed again.
“Why’d you get out of trucking?” asked Gary.
“Aw, it’s complicated.”
“It usually is,” Gary answered with an understanding tone. “Forget I asked.”
James wadded up his duffel bag against the surprisingly cold passenger’s window and leaned his head against it. “You can turn up the music if you want,” he said, and they drove on with the sound of southern rock and the steady roar of the diesel engine. The vibration of the window against his head must have induced an alpha state in James because he was out like a light. They drove on about forty-five minutes before the potholes on the southbound 5 freeway proved too much for his attempt at a decent nap. After several direct hits to the passenger side suspension, and rather than face repeated blunt force trauma to the right side of his head, he reluctantly straightened in his seat.
James thought about the statewide budget deficit newspaper story he’d briefly entertained at breakfast and quickly deduced that no highway repairs would be undertaken any time soon. He thought about the second law of thermodynamics and how nothing stays the same and everything moves toward decay and that the 5 freeway was concrete (pun intended) evidence of that. You think too much, he said to himself. About nothing, he added, and smiled. A quick glance at his captain indicated that Gary had not moved an inch nor changed expression since his last check over an hour ago.
“How you doin’?” James asked.
“Fine as wine, we’re making good time so far.” he replied. “’Bout six hours to go, give or take.”
James thought how another six hours of driving would appeal to the average person but how Gary just dismissed it like a trip to the neighborhood Seven Eleven. “I called the warehouse while you were getting your much-needed beauty sleep. They’ll stay open for us so we can deliver this today. Guess they need this product for production.”
“Cool,” James answered. He hadn’t given much thought to when they would arrive or what his plan would be after he got to Southern California. You’d think that with three years to plan his life he would have this dialed in but such was not the case. James had made a decision to rely on God and to avail himself to the will of God and just let things unfold in a different manner than the frantic planning which goes into most people’s lives. Not total abandon; nobody has that much faith! There should be some direction, he thought.
The initial “plan” was to find the parking structure in San Bernardino where his motorcycle was stored, and then most likely, it would involve a visit to the bank where his sister Diane had set up his account and seeded it with the seventeen thousand eight hundred dollars that remained from his portion of their mother’s estate. Diane wasn’t a big fan, as his story didn’t work well with her financial planner husband, their circle of friends, and the life she strived to maintain. James didn’t care much; the last thing he would ever do was force a relationship. He appreciated the fact that she took the time to set up his account and he left it at that.
He figured he’d deposit much of the cash he was holding and look for a small and inexpensive storefront/warehouse in the Inland Empire. The IE was a vast territory of flophouses, bars, pawnshops, street churches, malls, fast food, fine dining, apartments, communities, and mansions. The place had it all and it could change dramatically from one block to the next. The elegant foothill region of Claremont was two miles from Pomona but might as well be a separate world, such was the contrast. Every ethnicity was represented. Crime and addiction was everywhere from the missions to the mansions. The only variables were the quality of cars, clothes, crimes, and the choices of addiction. It was the perfect place to start.
The weather in Southern California is arguably the best in the world. It’s almost ridiculous with eighty degree Januarys and oil painting sunsets from any number of breathtaking mountain and shoreline vistas. Regional climatic variances allow an enterprising individual the opportunity to surf in the morning and snowboard in the evening by merely driving a couple of hours. It’s an intoxicating locale to be sure.
Yet, the entire state was careening toward the cliff and doomed to a catastrophic landing without a philosophical or spiritual awakening. A spiritual awakening, or what James’ earthly father would term, a ‘come to Jesus’ meeting, was surely needed.
Inside the prison walls, James had an epiphany of sorts. It was evident that his plans and methods were abysmally inadequate. In a moment of clarity, he had arrived at a level of awareness that ‘his best thinking had got him there,’ and that to trust God as entirely as possible meant casting off earthly attire. The pursuit of such an endeavor necessarily exposes the degree of expanding or diminishing trust in one’s God or world view.
At some point in our individual and collective sojourns through life we all arrive at this realization. Some do willingly, some do it in prison, some on their death beds, but we all get there. We spend our lives under the delusion that we have control, yet we live in a constant state of panic reaction to life. Seriously, if we control everything, should we not examine our current station and ask ourselves, “Is this the best we can do?” Such introspection and self analysis will, if treated with integrity, drive us to our knees. If not to God, then to despair for the viability of our world view is laid bare.
Jeez, he thought, My mind is a scary place.
It must be the coffee. His mind continued with an uncharted foray into the subject of racism, learning quickly that prison is the most racist environment ever foisted on humankind. James had resisted all recruitment efforts into any of the white only gangs inside, preferring to do his time in the most anonymous manner possible under the circumstances. He remained segregated as this was a necessity for survival, but beyond hanging with ‘his kind’ at meal time and most certainly yard time, the rest was of little interest. It cost him some stitches and some bruises and, of course, the broken bones and re-adjusted beak, but after all was said and done he was left basically to himself, especially after word got out that he was a Jesus freak and began preaching to all who would listen and some who would not. He took the call to ‘tell people about me,’ very seriously.
James understood that there are only two types of people in the world, lost and saved, or as he called them, the ‘lost and found.’ This allowed him to remain impervious to racism, as it is not a logical position. A non-sequitur, as his philosophy professor routinely reminded him thirty years earlier. Latin for, ‘it does not follow.’ If you subscribe to lost and found, then color has no basis and is nothing other than a distraction and a tool for politicians to divide and conquer. Not to mention a substantial implement to be employed by the devil himself as a constant source of societal conflict. When your goal is to confuse and animate a society’s members in an effort to distance them from any serious spiritual ascension and maturity, any excuse is good enough. Racial animosity is repackaged and resold to each generation, yielding ever larger dividends to the master antagonist. Keep the populace enraged and violent and they will never rise high enough above the battleground to be astounded by the circle in which they’ve been traveling for decades!
James’ mind wandered further to the story of Moses leading his people to the Promised Land, which should have been something like a two-week trip but due to their pettiness, infighting, and cyclical insanity, some forty years elapsed with none of them ever making it to the Land of Promise. It was madness. We are all mad. You certainly are, he thought.
He feared his head would explode if he didn’t get out of the truck pretty soon. How did a guy like him not go completely insane in prison? He regularly wondered how it would be outside those walls. The fear was upon him again and he was fighting internally with scripture that commands us not to fear and ‘to be anxious for nothing’ and sometimes it was so terrifyingly overwhelming that he wanted to scream and run but he had resolved to stop running.
Wasn’t he running right now? Isn’t there a disconnect from reality during any relocation or road trip with no accountability except to the journey? Isn’t that why people run, stop, and then run some more? The constant planning, packing, driving, and unpacking excuses us from dealing with everyday problems. Is this spiritual warfare or what? Does this ever end?Then there is the question of degree. To what degree is spiritual warfare the prevailing assault on a believer and how much can be attributed to the worldly adage, ‘life sucks, then you die?’
Wow, you are a deeply philosophical bag of wind, aren’t you? James shook his head. He focused on the cracked lens of the digital clock that was velcro’d onto the dash of the rig, one of those small black rectangular things you can buy at a dollar store. It was nearing two p.m. One forty-seven to be exact, as if the word exact and that cheap clock could exist in the same sentence. “That clock right?” James asked.
“Oh yeah, it’s synchronized with the U.S. Naval Observatory master clock,” Gary laughed. “I calibrate it twice a day, Greenwich mean time minus eight.”
James just looked at him and shook his head. Ask a stupid question, he thought. James liked Gary. A cantankerous old grouch straight out of central casting, but he was a sharp guy. Not book smart but ‘this ain’t my first rodeo,’ kind of smart. James liked that in people. He also liked that he could impart a neat coffee trick that would no doubt be replayed at truck stops all over the west coast for years to come with absolutely no credit paid to him. James smiled. “Figure what, maybe another couple of hours?” he asked, changing the subject slightly.
“’Bout that,” replied Gary, “You in a hurry?”
“Yeah, that’s why I picked a broken down truck to get me from Sacramento to Pomona,” which had them both laughing.
“Well, we might lose a minute or twenty ’cause I’m stopping at Frazier Park for fuel at the Flying J,” added Gary.
“There goes my schedule,” quipped James, who was actually relieved to be stopping. He could use a stretch and a visit to the men’s room. There was only so much bouncing around he could take after the morning’s coffee.
He also wanted to investigate the latest in prepaid cell phone technology, since James had no delusions about AT&T or Verizon soliciting his business, at least not right away. He’d read about it in a magazine in the prison library and made a mental note to look into it. This would allow him to begin his long journey toward citizenry. Not technically — of course he was a citizen — but in the ‘I have a phone number,’ sense. He had a vague plan, which included a small apartment or room somewhere, and a phone number.
James felt the truck slowing as they leveled off near the Frazier Park exit. This was one of James’ favorite gas stops back when he would ride his Harley up to Bakersfield and then over to the coast on weekends or on club business. He had always liked the weather up here. It was always twenty degrees cooler at this elevation than in the L.A. basin, which could be thirty degrees less than Bakersfield, which could be a hellish place to ride in the summer. Frazier Park could be snowed in one day and sixty degrees and sunny the next, part of the romance of the place. It was also a boneyard for big rigs. The ‘Grapevine,’ as it’s known by most who travel, is an almost forty-mile stretch of gently winding and steep grades on either side of Frazier Park and if something is going to break on these trucks it invariably happens through here. It can get scary, and expensive.
Gary jockeyed for position among the dozens of rigs pulling in and out of the Flying J Truck stop. He settled in behind a Promised Land Express Truck that was just topping off his tanks along with his refrigerated unit, so they wouldn’t have too long to wait. Gary explained that a simple fuel stop could stretch into forty-five minutes if you got behind the wrong trucks. There are as many different personalities on the road as there are trucks. Some guys are in and out of a fuel stop like a NASCAR driver and others seem to want to talk to anyone who will listen. Every driver has a thousand stories and they grow longer on down the line. Sewing circles could learn a few things about gossip from these guys. It’s an amazing network. James had always thought that if he could organize independent truckers he could be the wealthiest, most powerful man in America. The trick is the communication, and with the strides in technology, that day could arrive. Alas, he thought, that, too, would have to wait.
How could one guy have this much energy for enterprise but at the age of fifty have nothing thus far to show? Knock it off, he told himself. It’s only halftime and you’re tied in a game they gave you no chance of winning. God is in control, remember? Anything can and most likely will happen. You just have to keep at it. Perseverance alone is omnipotent. He’d read that somewhere … Calvin Coolidge said it but it was later attributed to Ray Kroc of McDonald’s fame:
Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.
The slogan, ‘press on’ has solved, and always will solve the problems of the human race. James believed this philosophy even in the darkest loneliest days in Folsom prison and now he had the opportunity to prove these words true.
Proverbs 24:16 says, ‘For a righteous man falls seven times, and rises again.’ This must be the one trait that separates great from average. James was growing in grace and had begun his journey to the mastery of the greatest human accomplishment, trusting God. The biggest demon plaguing him was regret. There were too many times lately when he tortured himself with the ‘what ifs’ and the coulda-woulda-shoulda confusion that confound a person. This must be defeated as soon as it enters your head, but it has to be recognized and identified before you can defeat it. The devil can have you cosigning that nonsense before you know it. Tricky business, this spiritual warfare.
“You want anything from in there?” James asked as he pointed to the store.
“I’ll take the biggest Pepsi they got,” Gary answered.
James marveled at how this guy, a very big guy at that, could function on Little Debbie chocolate peanut butter bars and Pepsi because so far that’s all he’d seen the man eat. James was no nutritionist but he tried, when he wasn’t behind bars, to drink only water or iced tea or black coffee and eat as much raw or minimally processed food as possible. An occasional Double-Double at In-N-Out was acceptable; in fact, he had already planned to visit the one on Indian Hill Boulevard in Pomona for dinner. He did hit the gym regularly and attempt to eat decent food, but a man has to live a little. Conversely, Gary was a marvelous example of complete disregard for health. He smoked cigars, ate chocolate peanut butter wafers, and drank nothing but Pepsi, and it showed! A quick survey of the patrons of the truck stop indicated that this was epidemic in nature. The junk food purveyors were making a killing, literally.
James made his way to the technical section of the trucker store, looking like a tourist in a foreign land. There were headsets from the size of a pack of matches up to NASCAR headsets by Motorola for a hundred bucks. These weren’t even the phones! When he went to prison, flip phones were the big deal and now the phones looked like video games. This was a truck stop, for crying out loud; he could only imagine what a Radio Shack must look like now. It was fascinating but all he wanted was a darn phone. He was able to flag down an employee and asked about the possibility of a prepaid phone. He was given two choices and grabbed the first one he saw: $39.95 loaded with one thousand minutes. He could add minutes when he needed them. James could not imagine anyone talking for a thousand minutes a month but he took what they suggested. He had a phone number and that was an accomplishment. The clerk told him he’d be able to purchase the phone at the register when he had finished his shopping. Shopping? James thought. This is a Flying J bro, not Macy’s. He grabbed a bag of trail mix and filled what seemed like a gallon of Pepsi into the BIG THIRST plastic cup and made his way to the cashier; he had ‘finished his shopping.’
As he walked outside Gary was slowly making his way toward the store, his labored gait even more noticeable than earlier in the day. James wondered how old the trucker was and what his health and life would be like without the self-induced abuse. His mind wandered to the untold thousands of other men and women in this industry who were just going through the motions, dying a slow death of poor health and bankrupt ideologies. One does not have to be on the road too long to hear the hopelessness in their voices. When the most popular answer to “How’s it going?” is “Same stuff, different day,” defeat cannot be too far behind. Poverty of spirit, he thought.
“I got your Pepsi,” James said before Gary looked up to see him heading his way.
“Yeah, thanks; just put it in the tractor. I’ll be out in a minute.”
“I got a phone,” James said for some unknown reason.
“Congratulations; give me the number and I’ll write it on the wall in there,” Gary grinned.
“I’m good,” James said as he continued toward the truck. His immediate plan was to read the brochure about the phone and determine how the minutes worked. He was quite enamored by the prospect of a phone with no contracts. The less paperwork in his life the happier he was. He was a wary man and prison life did little to alter that. James believed in honor and integrity. A man’s word should suffice. He knew the world did not reflect his values but he was uninterested in compromising his methods of operation. He knew the truth had to be unwavering in order to function as truth. James not only loved God, he respected Him. God was constant and holy and James was becoming quite comfortable in that knowledge.
Through the bug-splattered windshield James watched Gary ambling slowly toward the rig. He was carrying a paper bag rolled up at the top. James figured it was more Little Debbie wafers. He smiled and slowly shook his head. Then he jumped from the truck and grabbed the long-handled window squeegee and cleaned the big man’s windows before he arrived.
Gary was surprised by the gesture. “Thanks, Easy Money; worried I couldn’t see?”
“Yeah, well, it’s the only thing I’m gonna clean, so enjoy it,” James laughed.
“You ready to roll?” Gary asked.
“You’re in charge, driver.” Both men were invigorated from the break and ready to make the final two and-a-half-hour push to the delivery point.
“Mind if I charge my phone?” James asked.
“Be my guest,” Gary replied, pointing to the cigarette lighter socket. Gary ran through the first eight gears in effortless succession and after about a mile Interstate 5 freeway leveled off to where the last two gears could be employed.
They had made the fourteen-mile climb and were now on the several-mile flat portion of the highway that would become a hair-raising 6 percent downgrade where many an inexperienced trucker has lost control, resulting in mayhem. Countless people have died over the years running the Grapevine. Passenger cars and big rigs, motorcycles and motor homes have all been claimed by this monster of a hill. The Grapevine plays no favorites and is an equal-opportunity thrill ride. The irony is that it bottoms out at the Magic Mountain amusement park. The southbound down grade is the most insidious as it lulls you with its gradual pull and then you see a warning sign that says 6 percent grade! James likened it to snow skiing where you can be cruising along enjoying an invigorating run and all of a sudden the Black Diamond Expert sign looms ahead and you can’t turn around because you’re already picking up speed and heading downhill. You either sit and slide and cry or ski it. Such was the ride to Santa Clarita from Frazier Park. Have a nice day indeed! James was thankful that his captain was a seasoned veteran; according to Gary, he makes this trip every day Monday through Friday, twelve months a year. James figured he’d sit back and enjoy the ride as much as anyone could. This is where slow and steady wins the race.
Gary kept the rig in the far right lane and crawled down the grade, allowing the dat-dat-dat of the engine’s ‘Jake’ brake to slow the eighteen wheeler, thus minimizing the use of the tractor and trailer brakes. There’s nothing like the metallic smell of a hundred pounds of brake shoes incinerated by a frantic trucker. Gary joked that he should open a tire and brake shop at the bottom of the hill. James suggested he include a shower and laundry, which Gary found extremely funny. “Wash the fear off of you,” he said. It’s always funny when it’s someone else.
Southern California! At last James had officially negotiated the gauntlet which had oppressed him for most of the trip. It was that feeling that he was never really free and the urge to glance over his shoulder was relentless. It was sad that Northern California’s surreal beauty would always remind him of fear and dread and confinement. Maybe someday it would diminish and he could remember the great times riding up there but right now he knew he was being sent to Southern California and he was happy to be there. James could be dropped here blindfolded and recognize Southern California just by the incessant traffic noise. For those who have never had the pleasure of the combination of NASCAR and the ‘Twenty-four hours of Le Mans,’ which is the daily commute anywhere in Southern California, it is something to behold. Where else would otherwise intelligent humans voluntarily donate up to three hours each way on a violent and unforgiving cluster of freeways just to spend another eight hours in a cubicle surrounded by people who would crawl over you for another dollar an hour.
It is not unusual for a person to labor eight hours at a job and five hours driving to and from. James had priors for that behavior and was determined not to put himself in that position again. A man’s life must be more than the commute where talk radio personalities become intimate friends and thoughts and passions are controlled by news, weather, and sports. It’s insanity and it’s voluntary. The blank or angry faces of thousands of clones pushing their way in a hopeless race against the clock and each other were everywhere. Man’s inhumanity to man!
James shook the latest philosophical rant from his mind. You need your meds, he laughed to himself. This mental departure was not unusual; he was accustomed to these sojourns. He had always felt sorry for anyone who dared to share intimacy, as his constant mental meltdowns were worthy adversaries to normal conversation. The GPS voice, announcing the approaching destination in ‘point two miles on the right,’ jarred him back to reality, today’s reality. They were going to a tortilla plant of all places.
Gary’s load consisted of raw materials necessary for ongoing production. It seemed that the west coast had an insatiable appetite for tortillas. Gary downshifted once again as they reached the guard shack surrounded by freshly painted bright yellow vertical concrete protection posts. The age of the facility and the condition of the guard shack suggested this wasn’t the first fresh coat of paint these things had seen. Gary presented the bills of lading to the guard and waited while he walked around the truck, checking the door seal for compromise. The guard conversed with someone over the hand-held radio and awarded Gary door #3 when he returned the delivery documents. Gary grumbled his appreciation and pushed the gear shift forward and released the clutch. He guided the huge rig around an alley that led to the unloading dock. “Figures,” Gary spat. “These idiots stuck us in door three between two other trucks and there are seven other doors wide open.”
“Lazy and stupid,” James muttered. “Great combination.” Gary nailed the backing and James could tell he enjoyed the success. It was a tight spot but the big guy just wheeled the rig using his mirrors and steering wheel for the thousandth time. James noticed the other drivers up on the dock watching Gary’s work. James quickly jotted his new phone number on an old Detroit Diesel business card and placed it in the empty cup holder on his side. “You gonna need help unloading?” James offered.
“No way; they will unload it or they can pay an unloading service, ’cause I ain’t touchin’ it. It’s all pallets and should roll right off, but thanks for the offer.”
“No problem. I’m gonna get going; thanks for the ride. I left my number in the cup holder; hit me up sometime.” He reached across the cab and shook the big trucker’s hand.
“Appreciate the coffee trick. You take care now, biker boy.”
James gathered his backpack and jacket, took a quick glance at the digital clock, which indicated 4:53 p.m., and climbed out of the truck. He had a couple of miles to walk to get to Indian Hill Avenue. He figured thirty minutes and he’d be enjoying a Double-Double at the In-N-Out burger, which was a small but quite attainable goal. He took some satisfaction in making the four hundred mile trip for the cost of a phone and a couple of dollars in Pepsi and coffee but he was feeling hunger pangs and that burger would taste great. The weather was warmer down here during the day. He could see the wind picking up by movement at the tops of the palm trees and figured “Santa Ana’s” were beginning, which meant at least a few days of above average temperatures and decent nights. James was already thinking of saving the fifty bucks he’d budgeted for the night’s motel, depending on the weather. He had a sleeping bag on his bike but that was a good twenty miles away.Burger first, he thought, and headed east.
This walk was decidedly more enjoyable than the one twelve hours earlier as it represented progress. The first step of the journey of freedom had been lonely and cold, but now after four hundred miles and arriving at his destination in warmer conditions and an impending Double-Double, things were looking up. James figured another ten minutes or so and he’d arrive at the old familiar red and white sign with the yellow arrow indicating in his humble opinion the best darn cheeseburgers on the planet. He laughed at himself for being so excited about a cheeseburger but he figured he’d earned this one. As he walked he considered where he might stay the night, whether he could hitch a ride and pick up his bike first. Would it fire? Did his club brother maintain it and start it occasionally, which was the deal? Of course everything would be good. One thing any Doomsayers MC patch holder could do was maintain a Harley. It would be exactly where it should be, full tank, and clean; there would be no questioning that, he could be sure. Three years inside for not rolling over on several other club members had enshrined James in the DMC hall of fame. It meant little to him now but back then it meant everything.
A major condition of his parole was no association with the Doomsayers MC for one year. This was state stuff, non-negotiable. He would have to figure out how to live outside of a lifestyle which had consumed a decade. Ten years ago, after the death of his father and six months later his wife, both from cancer, James had reached the point where there was no point. He’d always ridden motorcycles and the helpless and hopeless existence pushed him further from normalcy or what most people consider normal. A family, job, house payment, birthdays and anniversaries, turkey dinners, and stockings hung on the mantle. Nothing wrong with those things — in fact, much is right about them — but after the endless sickness and eventual suffering and death he’d witnessed, nothing mattered anymore. He found himself in bars and with people he never would have spent time with before. Gravitational pull; misery loves company. The desperate and forgotten create their own orbit like a parallel universe sharing the same time-space continuum with the regular folks, but little else. James found himself frequenting a rustic biker bar just off the freeway on the outskirts of San Bernardino mastering their pool tables on a nightly basis, finding solace in classic rock and cold beer.
He had struggled to stay sober when his wife was alive, and he had made a promise to her that meant nothing to him after her death. He felt abandoned by her and by God. The pain was never satisfied but could at least be placed on hold in that environment. It wasn’t until years later in the despair of prison that he learned onto whom he could unload that pain but oh, the damage done in the meantime! Each night disappearing into the next transcended weeks and then months and would have slowly consumed him had he not opted for a more expedient method of disaster.
The Doomsayers Motorcycle Club —or DMC to which they were notoriously referred by the police — and others of more dubious association fancied the Badlands Bar and Grill the perfect location for a local hang out. The bartenders, reconnaissance agents all, had good things to report when asked about the guy shooting pool every night. He kept to himself, tipped well, and said very little. He rode a Harley but nothing about him looked like a R.U.B. (rich urban biker). He wore jeans, boots, and a plain black t-shirt most nights and nothing advertising the famous Milwaukee, Wisconsin motorcycle company. He loved the bikes, not the “bling.” The DMC liked that about him. James kept his distance, bought a few rounds and purposely lost a few games of pool during the first few months of 2001. He gained the DMC’s acceptance by his steadfast show of respect. What happened on a hot Tuesday night in July would cement that trust.
The sex appeal of a biker bar or any good bar is the atmosphere. A good tavern can be expected to maintain a pitch, an environment of consistency, while offering the feeling that things could explode at any moment, some nights more than others. Like an airport walkway geared to move faster than normal pace, a good watering hole should feel like you’ve stepped from the pedestrian pace of everyday life onto the moving walkway of Margaritaville. Reality is still reality, but it’s out there and it will be waiting for you when you return. Inside it’s community, a family, and although we can talk smack among ourselves, God forbid an outsider dare advance without authorization. These establishments have eyes like the neighborhood watch. Bartenders, doormen, waitresses, and ‘regulars’ habitually monitor crowd movement and behavior and the seasoned among them can spot a potential problem a mile away.
The Badlands’ layout was favorable for brawls with the pool tables separated from the main room only by a waist-high railing of varnished wood with high stools planted for viewing and waiting for an open table. The long similarly lacquered wood bar faced a large room with a dozen high tables and chairs that bordered a large dance floor and amplified juke box brimming with classic rock and blues from The Allman Brothers to ZZ Top.
Visibility was excellent from anywhere in the place. The young lady behind the bar had two doorbell type buttons on either end of the underside of the bar which, when pushed, lit red lights that alerted the bouncer and the manager to a potential situation. The fight on July 18th, 2001, was half over before she could hit either button.
At 7 p.m. James was holding court in the pool area with two DMC patch holders. Two more patch holders were at the end of the bar chatting up a couple of local lovelies. A couple of regulars populated the bar, but only six tables of other patrons were drinking and eating. Maybe it was the time of evening, or that it was still very bright outside on that hot summer night, but nobody thought it strange that two of the six tables each contained four men that nobody knew. Easier to judge after the fact, but these were not details which should have been missed, at least by the mix of employees and regular customers unlucky enough to be at the Badlands that early evening.
Four of the men began a clumsy game of doubles pool at the table adjacent to James and ‘Scratch.’ Sun Tzu would have recognized that the combatants then divided, flanked and positioned themselves behind their intended targets. Eight on four were great odds. On paper this would be an obvious mismatch, but these potential victims had been to other rodeos; they were outlaw bikers, after all. A fair fight would have ended badly for the attackers, but an orchestrated surprise caught the victims unaware and ill prepared. The eight attacked the four with everything available. Beer bottles, cue sticks, and fists. It’s one thing when two guys are, ‘oh yeahing,’ each other and tempers and awareness escalate, but quite another when it comes immediately and seemingly without provocation. All four DMC members were bloody and down with Scratch slumped against a tall chair, the pool table separating him from James, struggling to regain his faculties. The attackers were already moving toward the door when the first ball hit and downed the tallest guy, two more balls, a thud and a loud crack dropped the two men who had turned to see what had felled their lead man. James drew his leg up and snapped his cue stick in half, grabbed another ball and ran directly at the five men, cracking the slowest guy in the face with his stick. He stood over him and hit him three more times directly in the nose and then came straight up and clothes-lined the next slowest guy across the neck with the stick end. He then smashed the nine ball into the man’s teeth, breaking as many as he could as fast as he could.
This sent the remaining attackers running out the door. James yelled a deep guttural scream and ran after all of them, tackling the closest of the sprinters. According to the doorman, who had grabbed another of the guys as two of the recovering patch holders came running out, James tackled the guy and then lifted him by his long hair and began repeatedly smashing the guy’s face into his knee until the crowd came out and pulled him off. His victim collapsed in the gravel. The other two guys jumped into a waiting pickup truck and sped off, filling the summer evening with gravel and dust. The bouncer tossed his Jeep keys to the two DMCs and they sped off after the pickup truck. Somebody called 911— not the cops but an ambulance — as two of the attackers and one DMC were in pretty bad shape and there was some fear that one or more of them might die on the spot. That would be bad for the insurance rates.
Just as fire brings smoke, an ambulance comes with cops, especially at the Badlands. And they showed up fast! Seven San Bernardino Sheriff’s units converged on the parking lot with guns drawn and ordered everyone on the ground. James resisted their requests and was taken down by two officers in spite of the bouncer’s insistence that he did nothing but defend himself and others. After several minutes of discussion and the testimony of several customers, the deputies released James who brushed the dirt from his shirt and jeans and ran his fingers through his tangled, sweaty hair. He had a way of looking at you that could chill your blood. Not menacing, necessarily, just a focused gaze with sharp eyes. It was the look of a man who had forgotten how to feel anything but rage. The deputies kept a close eye on him as they assessed the damage and injuries. One cop asked James if he needed to go to the hospital.
“I’m fine,” he shot back.
The paramedics emerged from the bar with three gurneys bouncing in the gravel and dirt, which makes up most of the parking lot.
“Hey! Take it easy,” James barked. “This guy don’t need your freaking help if you’re gonna bounce him to the hospital,” as he pointed to ‘Hammer,’ the DMC in the horizontal carrier.
“Shut up,” shot a deputy.
“Screw you,” James hissed in a tone that made even the deputy leave it alone. There had been an amazing fight and he didn’t seem to care one bit if it went on for a few more minutes with some cops. “Can I go now?” he asked.
“Yeah, just don’t leave town anytime soon; we’ll have some more questions,” one cop said. James just shrugged and headed back inside.
The Doomsayers MC Treasurer, Scratch, was sitting on a bar stool staring at the jukebox when James walked in. Several people in the doorway moved aside as he entered. Some were muttering their admiration as James beelined to Scratch, who turned on his stool to face James. “You alright, man?” James asked the biker.
“Man, that was freaking nuts what you did back there, bro; ain’t nobody gonna forget that craziness.” He raised his arm and clasped James’ hand and hugged him.
James tilted his head and looked at Scratch’s badly cut left temple and and bruised upper cheek and asked if he was okay or if he should go with his brother, Hammer, to the hospital.
“No, man, I’m okay, just a head wound; anyplace else woulda killed me!” They both thought that was funny.
“Who were those idiots; you have any idea?” James asked.
“No clue, bro, but they ain’t gonna get away from Offramp and Panhead. Those two will chase those fools into the night and leave ’em out there. No doubt somebody don’t like us, maybe another club, I don’t know, but we will find out and we will even this up. But I’m tellin’ you, bro, that stunt you pulled was righteous; you are down! There’s gonna be some brothers gonna want to pay respects. Snake already called and said he was coming down.”
James just nodded; he neither needed nor wanted recognition. He had a life once, a wife with whom he had planned a family, a good job, all the ingredients, but that was all gone now and with it went his concern for approval. He was just going through the motions trying to stay reasonably sane in a messed-up world. His sobriety meant something once. Not so much now. He ordered a beer but when he pushed a five-spot over the bar he was informed his money was no good there that night.
“Well, then, Samantha, I’ll take the lobster as well,” to which she replied with a wink, “You don’t want the seafood here.”
He took the cold beer and headed back to the solace of the pool table. If Snake (the Mother Chapter President or “the P”) was heading over, James knew he’d be staying late. He could already hear the sound of several motorcycles pulling into the parking lot. Word travels fast and his legend was quickly forged by the many witnesses. By virtue of his participation, James had just entered into a world of violent drama and intensity the likes of which he’d never imagined. There would be no turning back.
“Hi, can I take your order?” a voice so sweet and innocent it shattered his flashback. He couldn’t even remember the last half mile or so but he had obviously arrived at his intended destination.
“Yeah, just a number one with grilled onions and light sauce, add mustard and pickles; for here, please,” was his automatic response. He chuckled inside — some things never change — paid his six dollars and change and took his receipt — number eighty four — as number fifty-one was being called over the loudspeaker. He knew from experience that the normal wait was about seven minutes, but with thirty-three orders in front of him and many of them drive thru, it might stretch into the nine-minute range. He wondered how many people had calculated their average burger preparation time. He reasoned that since they noted the order time on the receipt it was perfectly within his purview to note the stop time as well and then commit it to memory to be retrieved each time he ordered a burger and thus arrive at an average cook time. Whatever, he was fifty for Pete’s sake; he determined the chances of his changing this strange behavior were poor and ultimately unimportant.
Eight minutes and forty seconds later he was marveling over a wonderfully presented double cheeseburger with fries and a very cold coke with a lemon slice. It looked awesome. In-N-Out enthusiasts will agree that it takes approximately half the time to eat these things as it does to prepare them. Oh well, he thought, it’s worth every minute! The dinner gave him ample time to relax and regroup as he prepared his mind for the coming day. He used his new phone to make contact with his old friends Marc, not affiliated with DMC so a safe call, and his wife, Robin, both overjoyed to hear his voice. They insisted that he at least spend the night and would be there to pick him up in forty-five minutes. James loved his friends and thought that Marc was crazier than any DMC, but the state knew best. Some guys just never get caught, he thought as he headed back to the cashier.
“Vanilla shake, please; no lid, no straw.” It was the perfect dessert. James always ordered the milkshakes with no lid and no straw because he considered it ridiculous to work while eating dessert and trying to draw an In-N-Out milkshake through a straw was freaking work! He much preferred to gulp the frozen bliss and enjoy massive globs of icy vanilla rather than the aerobic exhaustion of coaxing cubic centimeters from the cup regardless of the extended time the straw provided. Yes, he’d thought about this before. He discovered that In-N-Out had seen fit to print Bible scripture addresses on the inside bottom ring of every cup. His milkshake cup rocked Proverbs 3:6. He’d never noticed this before and the revelation made him smile. No wonder you never see a boarded-up In-N-Out.
James considered another milkshake but only for a fleeting moment. He thought better of it as he remembered the only other time he opted for two milkshakes. He was on a run with the DMC and it was crazy hot through San Fernando Valley and after the second shake he was in agony for twenty miles. Never mind, he thought, never again. His thoughts ran to Gary, his new trucker buddy and how, why, James never found a moment during their almost eight hour association to mention God. He likened this reflection to a sports team that after a loss — or victory for that matter — spent time breaking down film. What could he have done better? How would he react the next time? James knew that in the Bible, Jesus instructed his disciples to tell people about me; it’s referred to as the Great Commission and its message is to all believers, not just the disciples. It is the heart and soul of evangelism. James remembered another scripture: If you are ashamed of me, my Father in heaven will be ashamed of you. There is a world of difference between the conviction from God and the condemnation from the enemy. The Bible also says, There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. Romans 8:1.
Feeling bad that he had not taken an opportunity to share the gospel with Gary, James needed to discern the difference, learn from it, move on, and not wallow in the feeling of failure, which was the enemy’s goal. God says, I love you, let’s keep going, and the enemy says, You suck; quit. Did he feel ill-equipped to share this belief that had changed a raging violent man into a patient and peaceful ambassador for Christ? If so, why? Was he afraid of Gary’s reaction? If a salesman is supremely confident in his product, he will share its opportunity to anyone and everyone. Did James lack this confidence? Shake it off, James thought. Move on. You’ll have other opportunities to avail yourself to the Lord. You are forgiven; you are not doomed.
“Jaammes.” Marc’s voice was unmistakable. Forty years removed from Chicago had no effect on that Midwest accent. Marc’s arm quickly head-locked James before he could exit the restaurant booth. Robin was thrilled to see him, but then Robin was always thrilled … about everything. She was the joy that balanced Marc’s manic moods. She was Yang or Yin and he was the other guy. Better friends could not be had. Loyal and down, no matter how crazy things got and years ago, the crazier the better. They never shrank from backing a brother’s play. As crazy as Marc was in his earlier years, he was the voice of reason that James ignored when the DMC came courting that fateful summer. He always told James that when you patch in a club you inherit every problem the club has, every public or private issue haunting every member becomes your problem. What you don’t know can hurt you. To Marc’s credit, he never said, ‘I told you so,’ and he certainly had opportunity for that.
“You just couldn’t wait to eat here, could you?” Robin said kiddingly. James smiled and shrugged that ‘you know’ shrug she loved. Much about him was loveable in a stray dog kind of way. The ride to their home was filled with laughter and stories about old friends and acquaintances.
James was glad to be with friends again, the past three years having been spent on constant alert. In prison there was never any real peace and deep down James was a peaceful man. “I found the Lord in prison and I got licensed and ordained,” James blurted out.
“Why was the Lord in prison?” Marc blurted out, and they all had a good laugh. “Everyone gets religion in prison, bro,” he added.
“Yeah, I know, but something happened to me in there, bro; this is real.”
Robin broke the tension, “Well, I think it’s great; you’ll make a great preacher.”
“Thanks, Mom,” Marc teased.
“Shut up, Marc; I’m serious. If this is what he wants, then good for him.”
James thought they had forgotten he was in the minivan with them as they argued back and forth. He knew that Marc was a devout pagan dog who had been raised Catholic but associated God with a mean guy sporting a white beard just tapping his foot waiting for us to sin so he could blast us with his cosmic ruler across the hands. James knew this would be a sore subject, but he was determined to get it out in the open and not shrink from the discussion. Marc loved James regardless of his beliefs but as with many people, he was so invested in his agnostic philosophy that his pride would not let him entertain anything else. James had thought long and hard about this pride-versus-faith struggle and had determined that this struggle caused most problems in the world. Pride and faith — it was always too much of one and not enough of the other. Wars, family feuds, broken relationships, estranged friendships everything can be traced back to pride and faith.
James changed the subject. “Hey, bro, can we swing by Berdoo real quick? I’d like to pick up my bike. It’s at a parking structure up the 215 north off of 2nd street; it won’t take long.”
“You still have the bike?” Robin asked.
“Of course he still has the bike, Robin; he’d sell off everything else but not the black beauty!” Marc snapped.
James again felt like he wasn’t in the vehicle, only this time it was uncomfortable. He sensed some strain in Marc’s voice. “Dude, seriously, if it’s out of your way, just shine it; I’ll get it tomorrow.”
“Not at all, man. I’m just messing with you; of course we can get your bike. I’m sure after three years it needs to be ridden! You’re still comin to the house, right?” Marc added.
James realized that Marc’s manic swing might be attributed to the thought that James was just using them for a ride and responded, teasing, “Of course, if you’ll still have me!”
“I’ll think about it. The dogs might attack you … they hate Christians!” Marc chuckled, amused at his own comments.
“O.M.G., Marc! You are so rude.”
“That’s part of his charm and that’s why you love him so much,” James said. He was relieved that the conversation had returned, the ice of three years removed, and the associated bad memories were thawing a bit. James reached in his pockets for his bike keys once again, needing the peace that the unmistakable feel of the barrel key brought him. He thought about what Marc had said about riding the bike again and it filled him with the urge to feel that beast under him.
He’d ridden over forty thousand miles on that bike. Miles that at times were serene and effortless, and others, at terrifyingly high speed insanity on the outer fringes of the laws of physics. His Harley was his only real possession and he’d sleep on a wet bank under a bridge before he’d sell it. James was holding the vision of his bike as the ‘pinch me’ moment of his trip back to Southern California. He had no reason to think that the bike was not there; his former club owed him that much for sure, but he needed to see it with his own eyes and most importantly, touch it before he’d finally relax and trust that he was indeed free again.
Sure, there was parole and he’d need to check in with his agent but that was only for one year, some special dispensation from the Pope, or the D.A.; he wasn’t sure, but his slick attorney had insisted that it was a great deal and to show some respect and appreciation to the district attorney for the easy parole. Screw them, James thought. That political hack had jammed him up at the trial, trying to introduce RICO statutes, organized crime connections— you name it — he was more interested in his rising career than the facts of the case. James had forgiven him but he wasn’t about to buy him lunch and thank him for the great deal. I ain’t that saved, James laughed to himself. “Yeah, bro, off here and hang a right; it’s by the Carousel Mall. I can’t believe that dump is still open.”
“They put it at the mall?” Marc asked incredulously.
“No, it’s in a city ramp across from the mall right behind that congressman’s office at 2nd and E Street. One of the brothers works there and told his bosses it was his bike … whatever. As long as it’s there, I’m cool.” replied James.
Marc rolled the black minivan slowly to the lowering red and white striped barrier. He pushed the lighted green button and retrieved the parking ticket and placed it on his dash. As James stuck a five dollar bill over the front seat he was met with stinging slap to the top of his hand. “Owww,” he said.
“That’s what you get. Don’t you insult me with that; don’t bring that up here, James Walters!” Robin scolded.
“Dang, sorry; okay,” he answered.
“Screw that; give me the money,” Marc said, laughing.
“Maybe later, brother, when she goes to bed … that freaking hurt,” James whined.
“Oh, man up. I’m sure by the looks of you, it was tougher inside than a little hand slap,” Robin teased.
“Thanks a lot,” he pouted.
“Is that it up there on the right side next to that yellow pole?” Marc asked.
“Freaking bike better not have any yellow on it,” James voice tailed off. There was a somewhat undersized dusty cover draped over the bike that left the rear hard bags exposed. Black and shiny but exposed, which led James to think that it had recently been cleaned. As emotionally distant as James was from the outlaw world he recognized and appreciated that show of respect, but was a bit put off by the downsized sized bike cover on his Street Glide. At least it was somewhat covered. James climbed out the sliding side door and verified the license plate and the current tags. “That’s what I’m talking about,” James said. “This is righteous.”
“It’s the least they could do after …” Marc stopped as James shot him a look that said no further comment was necessary.
James carefully pulled the cover back like he was unveiling a delicate statue. The echo of approaching footsteps caused James to look down the ramp at three guys heading their way. “Get away from that bike,” one of them yelled.
“Screw you!” Marc yelled back.
James quietly instructed Marc, “Tell them “Nine Ball is picking up his bike.”
Marc looked toward the men whose pace had quickened and noted one had a chain and the others had ’chuks and he declared, “Nine Ball is picking up his bike!”
All three men stopped mid-stride. One of them called out, “No disrespect but I have to ask; do you know what time it is?”
James whispered to Marc, ‘Tulsa time,’ whereby Marc yelled, “Tulsa time!”
The men turned without a word and walked away. “Tulsa time?” Marc laughed and shook his head.
“It’s not that long of a story, bro, we just needed a password and I can’t be anywhere near any DMC for a year. We settled on ‘Tulsa time,’ so thanks for interpreting for us.” Marc just slowly shook his head.
The massive motorcycle rumbled like only a 103 cubic inch V twin with upgraded cams can rumble. James smiled to himself as he unfolded and read the note taken from between the seat and gas tank. He sat and listened to his bike. The Doomsayers MC had taken some time and a considerable amount of money to make some modifications to the engine and exhaust and it sounded like a symphony. In this parking structure, the noise wasn’t just loud, it was thunderous. He was quite moved by the gesture and couldn’t wait to get this thing on the highway.
“I’d say follow us home but you won’t and you already know the way!” Marc laughed.
“The key’s in the usual place if you’re really late,” Robin added.
“I’ll be there shortly after you guys. No worries, bro; thanks again.”
Marc knew it might be much later that evening when his old buddy would roll up to his front door, but he was happy to be a part of this reunion. He didn’t know anyone who loved to ride more than J.W. and figured that three years in the joint might cause him to roll for quite awhile before he found Moreno Valley some twelve miles south. James could roll to Palm Desert to buy a cigar and ride back again later for a lighter. He was that nuts! And that’s why Marc loved him; heck, that’s why everyone loved him. He did what most people only think of doing. And truth be told, he did some things most people wouldn’t believe anyone could do. At least he used to. Who knew what this Jesus trip was all about; maybe he was done with crazy. Yeah, sure he was.
James watched as Marc and Robin slowly drove out of the parking structure. They were good friends for sure and he appreciated the ride. In the thirty years that he and Marc were friends, James had never seen Marc on a bike. He was more of a Detroit muscle car guy; he had a big long yellow Mustang when they first met, a 429, he thought it was. That car got both of them in plenty of trouble. Marc was still paying their attorney ten years after he shook those charges. Greenberg was a great lawyer; James should stop by and say hello now that he was out. He had a payment plan with him, too! He smiled. They used to joke that together they were making Greenberg’s Ferrari payments. Probably were.
James thought he might ride east on the 10 freeway just to get out to Yucaipa and up through Cherry Valley. He’d be careful not to exit at Live Oak Boulevard this time. Maybe just roll out to Beaumont, tag up, take the split and ride back on the 60 freeway through the pass down to Moreno Valley. Forty-five miles that route or twelve miles down the 215 freeway. Take the long way home.
He smiled to himself as he opened his hard plastic saddle bags to locate his leather and his gloves. It had to be in the fifties still, but it sure as heck would get crazy cold through the pass. James laughed as he remembered riding through that very canyon with only a leather vest freezing his butt off a few years ago. No thanks, he thought. I am older and wiser now, praise God. He uttered a little prayer in his head. A prayer of thanks for his freedom and his bike and whatever the Lord had in store.
He pulled a leg over the seat, taking care as always not to scuff the bags with his boots.There’s nothing like this, he thought and smiled as he noticed the red needle pegged to the “F” position in the lighted fuel gauge. James nodded to himself in a salute to his club. He let out the clutch and set off every car alarm in the place.
The combination of the engine work and the three-year hiatus produced a wide smile, the kind that stays for awhile. The motorcycle’s power and noticeably improved acceleration was glorious! James’ only concern now was getting to the freeway before the cops heard that bike. He had never been pulled over on the freeway. For some reason the various west coast Highway Patrol had always given him a wide berth, even when flying the notorious Doomsayers MC colors at high speeds throughout their four-state stomping grounds. When James was sentenced, the DMC was active in Oregon, California, Nevada, and Arizona. Local cops and sheriffs were a different story, as he and his brothers had been repeatedly harassed by several jurisdictions for loud pipes and other violations involving exhibitions of speed and assorted recklessness. Greenberg had been largely successful in defending him against these annoyances, but it never stopped the locals from pulling him over and playing twenty questions.
He entered the southbound 215 freeway redlining second, third, and fourth gear before backing off and settling into fifth at eighty-five mph, weaving his way through the light-to-medium southbound traffic. James knew to back her down to seventy or so as he made the transition to Interstate 10 freeway eastbound, where he wound the bike back to one hundred, gliding over the three lanes necessary to gain entrance to the carpool lane, which was sparsely traveled this evening. James laughed out loud as he settled in at eighty where this new engine seemed to thrive. It was fantastic! The bike moved better than he remembered and James reasoned that the club must have altered the handling characteristics as well as the engine. It was appreciated.
His initial thought was to ride to Phoenix but he quickly remembered that unauthorized crossing of state lines would be a parole violation and thought better of it. He laughed to himself that his earlier thirty-five mph over the posted limit might give pause to his parole officer, but some things were unavoidable. Without sounding like a Harley commercial, suffice it to say the bike effortlessly made the Redlands to Yucaipa grade in fifth gear. James glanced periodically in his mirror only to see pavement pouring out from behind him in the headlights of the cars as he passed them one after another along the dark highway. This was freedom.
His past, like those headlights, was all behind him and only God’s best lay ahead for him. He felt his spirit soar as the digital odometer racked up miles like a pinball machine scoreboard. He would have to get some word of appreciation to DMC for this great welcome home present.
James negotiated the big bike off the highway at Beaumont Avenue and made both lights before another high speed entrance to the 10 freeway, westbound this time. As he always made the fast lane his home; the transition to the westbound 60 was gentle even at eighty miles per hour. Ahead of him was about a fifteen mile run through some great canyon highway, but he had to keep an eye out for the occasional slow movers. This stretch was significantly less forgiving than the westbound Interstate 10 with only half the navigable lanes on which to ride. No street lights for miles, just the moonlight, which was ample in its last quarter this time of the month. James and his bike settled in between seventy and eighty through the pass, enjoying the long sweeping curves and mile-long straightaways before the long straight between Pigeon Pass and Day Street where he would reluctantly exit and rejoin civilization in the struggling middle class expanse known as Moreno Valley.
James opened the bike up completely in the last two miles, then had to shut it down at one hundred and fifteen as he was nearing his exit. It had much more to offer but he’d let her run again in a day or so when he planned to ride to Palm Desert. There was a wonderful cigar lounge at ‘The River,’ a ritzy shopping and restaurant area built with a manmade waterway coursing through its center. He reasoned that he couldn’t do everything in one night and he was exhausted after a very long first day.
He rolled as quietly as possible up the neighborhood street, passing dozens of duplicate houses, each with three or four cars in the driveways and overflowing to the street. To get to Marc and Robin’s house it was necessary to negotiate a veritable maze of streets and there was no quick exit. Michelle would have called this neighborhood an ant farm. He really missed her sense of humor. James thought that Marc must have softened his legendary paranoia to have chosen such a place. Outlaw housing should always be situated in an isolated but highly accessible location, with excellent visibility. This place reflected none of those characteristics, but there were some nice rose bushes and neatly manicured shrubs leading to the front door.
James managed a wry smile thinking that he might never quite fit into society, but that didn’t necessarily bother him. He considered walking right in but the barking of several large-sounding dogs made him rethink that plan. He knocked. Robin, surrounded by dogs, answered the door. “Well, come on in. We didn’t think you’d show till much later,” she laughed and hugged him again like it had been nine years, not ninety minutes since they last spoke. “Marc’s in back with Demon.”
“With who?” asked James.
“Demon; he’s seventy percent wolf and he’s awesome. Marc is crazy about him.”
“He’s crazy, all right,” answered James, shaking his head.
“Come on you sissy, you’ll love him; you love dogs.”
“Dogs, yes, wolves, not so much,” he muttered. “Nice roses by the way,” he said.
“Screw you, James,” she said looking straight ahead as she led the way through the kitchen. “Marc!” she yelled. “Your Christian friend is here.”
“Touché,” he joked.
“I don’t have any Christian friends; get rid of him,” Marc yelled back.
“He’s really happy you’re out,” Robin whispered to James.
“I can tell,” he said and they both smiled.
James stood at the sliding glass door gazing out to the patio where his friend was entertaining what looked very much like a wolf. Marc motioned for James to come outside.Why me, James thought as he slowly slid the door open and just as slowly stepped out. It was a beautiful night with a light warm breeze, which James would have appreciated had his gaze not been locked on the wolf dog. Demon was breathtakingly beautiful in a Call of the Wild sort of way. He was wildly magnificent, athletic and very strong. He pulled Marc’s two hundred pound frame like a child’s little red wagon and it was quite clear that Demon wanted to smell or eat James’ leather jacket. Marc was as excited as a child about this animal. Evidently Robin, in her inimitable fashion, talked the breeder out of this monster after Marc had expressed a maniacal interest the first time he laid eyes on the then shoebox-sized pup. They had five other dogs and at least seven cats and a Burmese Python somewhere, presumably in an aquarium upstairs.
“Aren’t you worried he will eat the cats?” James asked.
“They’re Robin’s cats,” Marc laughed, feigning indifference. “Nah, we keep him out here most of time and I built him a big house next to the garage. He loves it over there. Bro, you should hear him howl; it’s freaking awesome!” Marc continued.
“I can’t wait … is he going to eat my arm?” James asked nervously as the wolf gnawed on his right forearm.
“Maybe. I’ve never seen him do that,” offered Marc.
James was hoping the human chew toy game was not one of those bluffs gone awry.
“Where’s your faith?” Marc taunted.
“Oh, my prayer life has gotten stronger the last few minutes, I’ll tell you that!” James threw back.
“Seriously, bro, do you think God’s gonna save you from Demon?” Marc looked up from his kneeling position, hugging the wolf.
James responded, “Maybe … the Bible says we have an appointed time to die. If this is it, then no, but if it’s not, I’ll walk out of here.
“Hmmm, so however you end up dying, you think God kills you?” Marc continued.
“I think God will allow something to end my life when it’s His time. It ain’t gonna catch Him by surprise but I don’t think He goes around killing people. Jeez, brother, I don’t know,” James laughed. “He’s God, man, He can do whatever He wants. I trust Him, though; that’s the big difference for me now, I guess,” he added.
“That’s cool, bro; whatever works for you,” Marc said.
James saw a slight opening. “Nah, bro, it’s not whatever works for me, it’s truth and if it’s truth then it has to be truth for everyone. I don’t believe for one minute in relative truth. I think the ‘whatever works for you’ crap is a copout; I don’t believe the Lord left that as a viable option.
“Ah, you think your way is the only way?” Marc challenged.
“It’s not my way, it’s His way. Jesus himself said that He was the way, the truth and the life and that no one can come to the Father but by the son, so it’s God’s way.”
Marc answered, “Well, I don’t like that your way or whatever you just said is the only way; it’s too exclusive a club. I don’t subscribe to that.”
“Yeah, a lot of people feel the same way. I used to as well.”
“What changed?” Marc wondered.
“I started to figure that by thinking that way I was dictating how God had to do things, and by acting like that I was telling ‘God’ what to do and how to do it and I realized that I had screwed my life up by my decisions, so if I was acting like a little god and messing everything up, who was I to tell God anything?” James finished and they both laughed.
“Good point; you are a first-class screw up!” Marc added loudly.
“Word,” James said.
“You guys want a beer or anything?” Robin yelled from the kitchen.
“Great idea,” Marc yelled back.
“Not for me; I’ll take a glass of water or something,” James replied.
“Oh, jeez, here we go,” Marc said to no one in particular. “Are you on the wagon again? I thought for sure you’d want a cold keg of Bass Ale the day you got out.”
“Yeah, I really haven’t given it much thought. I just don’t have the desire anymore,” James said.
“Really?” Marc asked, and it sounded like “reeeelly.”
James just smiled at his buddy and said, “Reeeelly,” and they both laughed. Marc put his arm around his friend and led him from the patio to the kitchen.
“No beer for you?” Robin asked.
“It’s a miracle from God!” Marc blurted out. Everyone laughed and James was relieved that the harassment appeared to be minimal and at least for the night, ended.
“Did you get out this morning?” Robin asked, changing the subject as she handed James a tall ice water.
“Yeah, like 3:45 this morning. It was hard to believe that it was finally over, that I was actually done, but I was a little nervous until I cleared that old gate!” James said.
“It went by fast … for us!” Marc added, laughing again.
“Well, I’m glad to hear that you had such an easy time of it,” James responded jovially.
Unwilling to let it go, Marc replied, “Me, too!”
They moved to the living room where the conversation lightened with Marc sharing how much he hated his job as an operations manager with a large trucking company and how someday they’d have an internet business that would allow him to quit. It was a dream he’d had for years and no amount of, ‘You should be happy you have a job in this economy,’ type of talk would satisfy his burning desire for something better, or more importantly, different.
James was struggling to stay awake at this hour. It was nearing eleven and he’d covered a lot of miles, and with the help of Gary and these two friends, accomplished a great deal in one day. As Robin talked about her recent volunteer work at a local animal rescue shelter, she noticed that their house guest was nodding off and offered the spare bedroom down the hall, which James enthusiastically accepted.
Then, to his surprise, Marc indicated that he’d like to continue their earlier conversation if James was up to more questioning the next evening. Robin was curious, too, so James invited both of them to dinner. A deal was struck and James headed down the hall to a soft bed and visions of his first uninterrupted night’s sleep in three years. He prayed a thankful prayer and asked God to give him the words needed for the next day’s discussion.
James figured he would take some time in the morning and ride to the bank where his sister had set up his account and then cruise around looking at potential industrial property to rent where he could re-establish a motorcycle shop with decent exposure. He had until the end of next week to establish contact with his parole officer so no need to rush that meeting. He was quite sure he could kill most of the day following those simple pursuits. Oh, and find a good gym; he’d need a place to pump some iron, otherwise the In-N-Out’s would in time erode his chiseled physique. He took a deep breath. This had been a great day.
James awoke to the joyous sound of song birds outside his window that was open just enough for the warm breeze to fill the room. It took him a good five seconds to realize where he was and what day it was, such was his early degree of confusion. It wasn’t euphoria, but it was close. One doesn’t appreciate the taste of freedom quite like the person to whom such freedom has been denied. He lay there for several minutes in prayer and appreciation before heading down the hall to the first non-regulated shower in three years.
After washing off the grime of the previous day, James visited the kitchen where a pot of coffee had just brewed, courtesy of a timer. There was a note on the counter from Robin wishing him a great second day of freedom and her anticipation of dinner plans. James jotted his new phone number on the note and invited a call later in the day to firm up a time and choice of restaurant. He helped himself to the bag of steel cut oatmeal and located the brown sugar in the cabinet above the coffee maker. This oatmeal was a far cry from the watered-down gruel he had eaten every morning for the past three years. The addition of brown sugar was pure bliss; the third teaspoon might have bordered on decadent but he couldn’t think of a better way to start the day. He considered eating outside but the possibility of facing the wolf alone was more adventure than he needed this early in the day. He sat at the counter and ate every last bit of that bowl before he washed and dried his morning dishes. No prints, no evidence, he said to himself.
Already midday warm by eight forty-five, James rolled his jacket and gloves into a ball and stuffed them into his hard plastic saddle bags. He slid his Ray Bans into place, then quickly clicked the chin strap on his ‘not quite’ D.O.T. approved helmet and quickly patted his jeans to ensure his wallet and cell phone were secure. As the bike thundered to life, James determined a route that would eventually lead to the Bank of America in Colton where his sister had opened his account. He had the manager’s business card crammed into his wallet … somewhere. No matter, really; he was sure a quick check of his identification would yield the account information. The real reason he was riding to the Colton address instead of a closer branch was that his sister had mentioned that the bank manager was beautiful … and single … and he wanted a closer look. You’re quite a catch,he laughed to himself.
City riding was the worst. It was something to be tolerated enroute to the highway where a guy could ask some things of his bike. Highways in California at 9:00 a.m., however, were another story altogether. Most mornings are like scenes from Mad Max. Cars, trucks, rigs, all jockey for position during the earlier part of the day, but after nine conditions morph into higher speeds and missed appointments. In the early hours people are zombies with greasy fast food breakfasts and precariously balanced scalding coffee, but the nine-to-noon crowd is cell phones and car seats, a more dangerous animal indeed from a biker viewpoint. Early morning drivers are psychotic, but they are highly skilled; mid-morning soccer moms and inattentive sales reps are pure evil.
James hit the 60 freeway west at fifty miles an hour and began the slalom course through Moreno Valley and Riverside before the transition to the death race up the 215 north to Interstate 10 west. Traffic moved fairly well, the radio guys call it ‘Friday light,’ as for some strange reason fewer people seem to work on Fridays in Southern California than the other four days. James had upgraded the stereo system on his motorcycle, as music was the backdrop to everything in his life. An amplifier was stuffed into the fairing, which fed the intricate speaker system — all leading to an FM/CD/MP3 deck and the morning’s selection, “Tales of Great Ulysses” by Cream. Prison with a great stereo system would have been almost tolerable, but there was very little in the way of quality music in that place. It was 9:20 a.m. and he was singing along at the top of his lungs. He must have looked like a complete idiot white-lining through traffic twenty miles per hour faster than anyone else and singing “while his naked ears were tortured,” loudly out of tune, but he never gave it a second thought. The dude was in his element.
James was encouraged to see several dozen ‘For Lease’ signs on what appeared to be excellent candidates for the type of building he had in mind. Fifteen hundred or so square feet with a small office and larger warehouse/shop space in back with a roll-up door. Three years ago rents were considerably higher, so there was something to say for a depressed economy when shopping for space. He quickly figured he’d be able to secure suitable accommodations in any one of a dozen or more areas for somewhere around fifty cents a square foot, which was a considerable savings over what he’d previously paid. His mood was upbeat as he rolled west and daydreamed about a thriving motorcycle shop with a pool table and some classic rock playing in the background. No hip hop; he had paid his debt to society.
He hadn’t thought much about it the night before, but it dawned on him right away that morning that he felt naked without his colors. As a DMC patch holder and the Mother Chapter’s Road Captain, he had never ridden without his ‘cut,’ but as a condition of his parole, any outward sign of his former affiliation — his vest (cut) with the ‘rocker’ patch that read ‘West Shore’ identifying the DMC’s territory, his colors, which is a high honor and members have and will continue to die to protect — were off limits for the time being.
He had risen quickly in the ranks that summer’s night, basically bypassing the two levels of protocol of all outlaw motorcycle clubs. But no Mother Chapter member had any objections to the monumental move of patching him in after James’ participation that night, knowing him from the frequent pool games, and his uncanny ability to diagnose and fix Harleys. He was not given ‘hang around’ status, the initial and unofficial starting point — an unglorified gopher expected to serve the club and say nothing until a club determines you’re not a complete moron and you may have what it takes to be a full member some day. Having already proven his value, the club didn’t even bother giving him the title of ‘prospect,’ or glorified gopher, which bordered on indentured servitude, the only thing worse being a ‘hang around.’ Nor did James have to wait the minimum six months to become, on the sponsorship of a full patch and a subsequent unanimous vote, a full Patch Holder.
James held DMC’s Road Captain position in charge of all movement once “kickstands were up,” along with maintenance of bikes and all navigation to and from club runs. Even the ‘P’ followed the Road Captain’s instructions once the kickstands were up. Having spent his formative years in Michigan where his father had taught him boating and seamanship came in handy as club navigator and resident meteorologist.
James was riding his bike now stripped of that status and affiliation. It felt weird. He looked like any other motorcycle enthusiast out for a morning ride. No matter now that he was patched up by none other than Snake, the DMC “P” on the night after the Badlands’ fight. James had never given them reason to pause, even refusing to “rat out” other members, which had earned him three years in Folsom prison for his silence. He was an outlaw legend on the West Coast. A whirlwind had vacuumed him in before he had a moment to consider, and in basking in the glory of his new fame, he had made a decision that forever labeled him an outlaw. Yet James never blamed anything that happened to him on anyone but himself. He believed strongly in something his father had taught him as a boy: ‘The height of maturity is taking full responsibility for one’s actions.’
Now, after a string of questionable decisions, he found himself climbing from his motorcycle at a bank in Colton, California, and walking inside to claim an inheritance left to him by the only person he’d ever call a saint. Starting right then, he intended to embark on a life that she would be proud to watch unfold. He knew he’d been called by God and even in prison was spared much pain that was meant for him. There were too many close calls to attribute to coincidence. He had seen God’s hand at work and now this man would avail himself to that same God.
James entered the busy bank, helmet in one hand as the other fumbled through his wallet for Linda Stevenson’s business card. Nobody acknowledged him, so he took a seat with several other customers around a short round worthless little table, the surface of which held several carvings courtesy, apparently, of past disgruntled visitors. He nervously handled the dog-eared business card like it was a ticket to an event. You look like a psychotic homeless guy, he thought. No wonder they won’t talk to you.
He sat for a few minutes in silence, nodding and smiling to the other customers and then rose up from his chair and approached a twenty-something female employee with costume makeup wearing a black dress and brown shoes. Even James knew that was a fashion faux pas, but he figured she was doing the best that she could. Her name tag read, ‘Hello, can I help you?’ so calling her by name would be tough. “I need to check the status of my account, but I don’t know the number,” he said.
“Actually, any of our tellers would be happy to help you, sir,” she answered.
“Is Linda here today?” he asked.
“Actually she is in a meeting right now,” she said.
James thought it was idiotic to use ‘actually’ in every sentence, but he let it slide. “Okay, cool, I’ll see a teller,” he answered as politely as he could and took his place in line. Seven people in front of him, five tellers — make that four tellers — the large lady with the same makeup artist as “Hello, can I help you?” just closed her window. Amazing, he thought. James observed everyone in the bank all at once and determined that the fall of western civilization was at hand. He knew he should not judge, but dang, there were some ignorant people walking around. He then realized that if someone walked in and surveyed the clientele, he would appear as torn up as anyone in there. That was a humbling thought. My day is going to crap, he laughed to himself.
“I can help you,” came the voice from the far left window.
He headed in that direction. “Clare, is it? How you doing today, Clare?” he asked.
“I’m fine. How can I help you?” she asked.
“My sister opened an account for me while I was … I was out of town for a time. I don’t have the account number, but I was told that if I showed you this, you could figure it out.” He slipped the driver’s license up through the little stainless steel half pipe and waited as she examined his license.
“This is you?” she asked.
“No, it’s my sister … Yes, it’s me,” he replied, trying for a little levity. His charm wasn’t working today.
“I show several accounts under James Walters. Do you have an address that I can reference?”
“I think it’s a P.O. Box in Chino Hills,” he answered. “There should be like seventeen-eight or so in the account, give or take some service charges,” he offered.
“What are the last four numbers of your social?”
“Nine-one-three-four,” he said.
“I show the account, a savings account opened a year ago last November. It’s not the amount you mentioned, but I can print out your balance if you like.”
“Yes, thank you.” He wondered what she meant by ‘not the amount you mentioned,’ but that question was answered almost immediately when the printed slip was handed back to him along with his license. “This can’t be right,” he said, stunned by the amount: twenty-three forty-four and change. “There was almost eighteen grand in here,” his voice trailed off.
“I see there was an opening balance of seventeen thousand eight hundred thirty-three dollars, but it looks like there was a deduction here in December for fifteen thousand six hundred sixty-seven and sixteen cents. There was some interest paid last December as well, but I don’t know what to tell you except … hold on a second, there’s a code here … it looks like the IRS levied the account for that money. I’m sorry, but we can’t do anything when they do that,” she explained.
“Is there anyone I can speak with?” he asked.
Clare looked nervously through the thick glass partition over his shoulder. “The manager is over there, the tall lady with the reddish hair; she can help you,” she said.
James grabbed his license and balance slip and made his way across the room to plead his hopeless case. Having been in prison, he was quite versed in disappointment and heartache but this almost made him physically ill. Almost everything was gone, and although Linda was stunningly beautiful, James was suddenly disgusted with everything and everyone who had anything to do with his missing inheritance. “Do you have a minute for me?” he asked.
“Sure, Linda Stevenson; I’m the manager, and you are?”
“James Walters. My sister opened an account for me in this bank with you a little over a year ago,” he said a bit more aggressively than intended. “I had almost eighteen grand in here up until the IRS levied the account in December according to Clare over there.”
“Oh … Oh, I remember your sister; you were in … I mean …”
“Yeah, prison. Don’t worry, I didn’t rob a bank. I don’t work for the IRS,” he said, the edge off of his voice now.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean …”
“No worries, I understand; none of this is your fault. I’m just … pissed; not at you, but …”
“I understand,” she said. “I can give you a number to call at the IRS,” she offered.
“I’m sure they’ll see the error of their ways and give me my money back,” James said, dripping sarcasm. “Sure, go ahead,” he added.
“Wait just a minute and I’ll get it.”
He just nodded. He was against the ropes emotionally, but he knew he had to hold it together at least until he could get outside. His mind was racing; should he close out the account and take the cash? How would he rent a building? How would he live? Hold on, cowboy, he said to himself. There’s some cash in there. You’ll make it. God is in control. He tried to cheer himself up, but it was not taking root. He was mad, he was hurt, this was his mother’s money they stole from him; it wasn’t right. His mind was in a bad place right then and he was filled with rage and unimaginable thoughts that he tried to shake quickly. This was not a guy who needed much fuel for rage; a wounded outlaw is a very dangerous person. He struggled against insane thoughts, trying to reason with himself that these thoughts weren’t his but that of the enemy; that this was spiritual warfare and God was in control and He wouldn’t give him more than he could handle and all of that.
“Here’s the number. I’m sorry this happened to you, hopefully they …”
“They are the IRS, Linda; they got me for something and that’s how they roll,” James said. “I appreciate your professionalism and your help, but I am not harboring any delusions about ever seeing that money,” he added. “I’ll be back in a day or so to open a checking account, but I better get out of here now. No offense, but I’ve had enough banking for one day.”
Linda smiled at that, thinking she should be more nervous about this potentially volatile ex-convict, but something about him was calmly reassuring. Maybe it was his very green eyes. He wasn’t a loose cannon, but she imagined that if he did explode it would not be pleasant. “Well, try and have a good day. You’re riding, so it can’t be all bad,” she smiled.
He smiled back, appreciating the courage it took for her to make that comment. “Good point,” he said and walked away shaking his head.
The sun felt good on his face as he exited the bank. He was still reeling from the realization that most of the money his mother had left him had been unceremoniously extracted from his account by an out-of-control central government. James was a patriot who had served four years in the United States Army back in the late seventies, which was a terrible time to serve. On the heels of an unpopular war for a largely ungrateful nation and a Commander in Chief who seemed more at home in front of a fireplace than inspiring the troops, morale was horrible and direction was nonexistent. A warrior needs purpose and James felt that his efforts were wasted and he rarely spoke of those years. A patriot with a deep distrust for government, he was at odds with much of the overspending, which in his opinion was a thinly veiled effort to create a dependency class that would ensure votes and weaken the nation. He’d seen nothing to sway his thinking another direction and much to further cement his own ideology. James was cynical and jaded and he trusted only a handful of people; this episode did nothing to modify his outlook. It was time to ride and think and pray, and not necessarily in that order.
Inside the bank, Linda watched as the rugged biker mounted his machine and sat with his head bowed, his hand resting at the bridge of his nose for a long minute, before he fired the ignition and buckled his chinstrap. He glanced in her direction but only saw his shining black and chrome reflection in the tinted bank windows, then eased out of the parking lot and exploded down the city street, accelerating through the amber signal light toward the freeway. He had no idea where he was going, his plans were dashed, he was alone and defeated and for a few minutes his life made no sense at all.
He screamed and yelled as long and loud as he could and headed west on the 10 freeway. This would be a very fast ride to the ocean. The music was by a Florida band named “Savatage” and its rage reflected his. He recalled a paper he wrote in college on the power of music and whether one’s mood determined the type of music to which one listened or the music determined the mood. He couldn’t remember the outcome and at the moment he did not care. He was tired of his own brain. He hated the way he thought, the constant banter between his ears. The loneliness and the fear was coming for him and he was ill prepared to fight. He just rode faster.
He tore through Fontana, Ontario, and Pomona and he rode like he wanted to die on the road that day. He took the ramp to the 57 Freeway too fast and felt the bike start to hop to the right as it struggled to hold its grip. James’ mind raced as he rode through the panic, rear brake only, just a bit, downshift once, twice. He braced as the concrete wall came at him, shoulder debris now flying all around him; he could taste the dust and dirt, but the bike never hit the wall. He rode the shoulder, inertia still pulling him to the right, but as the high banking left turn straightened out, he managed to guide the big bike back onto the highway and like a sling shot came out of the turn unscathed. His blood felt cold and he began to cry, then broke down like a man at an untimely funeral. His tears splashed against the inside of his Ray Bans and he thought about pulling over, but continued down the highway yelling and crying for a couple of miles before he found his peace and it flooded over him like nothing he’d ever felt. The Bible speaks of a ‘peace that passes all understanding’ and James believed that the Lord had taken him through that valley of death in order to reach that place. A surreal peace filled him and everything was very quiet; even the normally loud and steady pulse of the exhaust sounded far off, his vision tunneled like he was looking through a telescope. A strange perspective manifested itself, like a video game he’d mastered that was coming at him in slow motion.
He rode like this for several minutes and found himself south of the 91 nearing the Big A, where the Angels played baseball. He thought about attending a game, then remembered it was January and laughed at his mental breakdown; then he laughed some more that he didn’t care. Scripture was filling his head faster than he could think: I will never leave you nor forsake you; I will be with you even unto the end of the age, and he was glorifying God and thanking Him for his life, the same life he almost just ended in fit of selfish rage. His faith had failed him but the Lord was comforting him, not condemning him, like the Lord knew who and what He was dealing with. James remembered telling Marc the night before that nothing takes God by surprise and he knew right then that God was with him. God had kept the bike from going over the concrete wall to a certain death on the highway almost a hundred feet below.
James decided to pull over at the next exit and grab a cold drink and collect his wits, or what remained. He ran south as the 57 freeway became Interstate 5 and took the first exit, pulling into the first gas station he saw. After topping off his fuel tank he parked in the shade provided by a twenty foot high willow tree. He thought it was the greatest gas station tree he’d ever seen and laughed to himself for noticing the darn thing. He walked to the store and bought an iced tea and a bag of smokehouse almonds instead of the cookies he was eyeing. Good move, he thought.
The familiar rumble of several Harley Davidson motorcycles was getting louder as he walked to his bike. He turned his head to watch seven bikes roar up to the pumps, two abreast, with one last bike opting out on the fuel. He could tell this was an organized club but couldn’t quite make out the patch and didn’t want to appear too anxious to learn their identity. Whoever they were they sure joked a lot, a noticeable departure from the focused intensity of the DMC on a run. There were some good times for sure, some great long weekend runs, but these guys were enjoying themselves and it was the middle of a weekday. James found himself watching their antics and realized how he missed the camaraderie of the MC. He hadn’t enjoyed much freedom yet, but already realized that he was very alone. He had resigned himself to that life, at least for a time, especially since his parole conditions prohibited any affiliation with the only people with whom he’d associated in the past several years.
James noticed that two of the bikers were walking toward him, so he stood up from his picnic to deal with whatever was coming his way. His arm unconsciously moved toward his chest only to realize that the old familiar “cut” was at a clubhouse in Yucaipa along with his knife and Remington model 1911 pistol. This would be interesting. The guys looked menacing as hell.
“How you doin, bro? Kit, Prophets MC Mother Chapter,” the gruff voice matched his white beard and barrel chest.
James chose to remain anonymous as far as his club affiliation; “James,” was all he said as he answered Kit’s extended hand with his own. The other Prophet was Tio, a quiet Sergeant at Arms who just observed everything around him. Kit was the chapter president and Tio had his back. James could tell the guy was measuring everything; it was his job. Nice enough guy, just quiet. Kit was affable and talkative. He asked James all of the normal questions, complimented his bike, and then informed James that the Prophets was a Christian club and invited James to attend a Bible study on Wednesday night at 7 p.m. In Colton of all places.
“Christians? You guys look like outlaws,” James replied.
“Some of us were, bro. We left that world. Now we’re outlaw Christians, I guess,” Kit said laughing. The two men handed James their calling cards with their phone numbers and told him to call if he needed anything. James thanked them and indicated that he just might take them up on the Bible study.
“I could use one,” he said.
Kit replied, “It’s not a normal Bible study, bro. We have a big charcoal grill and eat like pigs, and then our chaplain gives us the word. It’s pretty cool; you should come by.” As the men talked, Tio yelled for the others to come over. One by one these ‘outlaw Christians’ introduced themselves to the stranger extending handshakes and laughs.
These guys laugh all the time, James said to himself. “You guys seem to enjoy what you’re doing,” he said.
Kit looked at him and said, “We get to serve the Lord and ride Harleys; what’s not to enjoy?” and he laughed a great loud laugh. James found himself laughing with them. Old habits die hard, so James, noticing that Kit had introduced himself as the Mother Chapter P, inquired about other chapters. “This chapter and a Nomad chapter,” Kit answered. “We have … Gambino, how many patch holders do we have?”
The road captain replied, laughing, “twenty-eight, no, twenty-seven now.
“Yeah, twenty-seven,” laughed Kit in what appeared to be an inside joke. “We don’t worry about numbers, man; the power is in the message. Jesus only had twelve knuckleheads in his crew, bro, and they changed the world.”
“Amen,” said James.
Kit explained that they were on their way to scout a location for a homeless benefit run the Prophets were planning, and asked the chaplain to ‘pray them out.’ They formed a circle around James and each man held his hand on James’ shoulders as the chaplain offered a prayer thanking the Lord for their new friend and requesting ‘traveling mercies’ be extended to them until they met again. The Prophets bid James farewell as they roared out of the gas station in a tight pack. By the sound of it, they had little regard for the speed limit. James liked them already.