The Physics of Regret

travelers-tales

By Lance Mason

A suicide memoir, disrupted.

While any high-speed “get-off” from a motorcycle is a brush with death, each one is unique. So here you are, zipping over the asphalt at sixty miles per, and the next moment your machine’s wheels depart the ground. Its normal exhaust note, a throaty, twin-cylinder rumble-and-thump, vanishes, immediately replaced by the alarming, metallic whine of a combustion engine freed from resistance. In this blink-of-an-eye example of Newtonian physics, you are also airborne, floating, momentarily weightless, like an astronaut above the moon, and semi-nauseated by the gratuitous excitement. In this mystical moment of confusion, in your state of high levitation, you begin in earnest to consider your options. The clock of life has stopped.

You’ve heard of these episodes, how, just as the physical world flings at us a wild and dangerous threat, our perception shifts the speed of that incoming harm to a crawl. The tiger leaps! but time freezes—or near enough—and the ETA stretches out. The brain’s calculations on the imminent risk proceed unabated, even accelerate, but the perilous, suddenly-unstable slice of a moving universe intent on delivering us a heinous injury decelerates in the lens of one’s mind to a glacial pace. Though it’s all perception, perception is reality.

Married to the limits of your experience, though, you view such tales askance—until now. Now, like the astronaut, you are weightless, swinging free of gravity in some ineffable bubble of time in which the second hand has become the minute hand. Events unfold in your mind like the blossoming petals of a flower, unhurried and graceful. Still—and this is the thing—it won’t last. These critical seconds when it all slows down, like a collection of shiny droplets in the air—it’s all going to end, and it’s going to end badly. You know this, and you ask yourself when it will end, this quiet creep of fate through these elongated particles of time. To you, awash in this Einsteinian distortion, this is the existential question, because when it quits, when time shifts back from this quiet, unreal relativity to the daily, concrete world into which all of us were born, you—hapless, ill-fated, and unprepared—are going to be in a God-damned world of hurt.

Eighteen months ago, you sold a different bike, your first one, a venerable old Norton you’d ridden around Europe and across the States twenty years before. Now Cyril, the road-equipment guy to whom you sold it, has restored it. Actually, he’s re-restored it, because you first rescued it as a battered orphan, unridden since 1953, out of a West Wales hay-shed that June after the Isle of Man races. You’d spent the summer in Wootton Bassett stripping it down to piston rings, valve springs, and push-rod tubes, befriending every greasy garage and vintage bike nut within a two-hour drive, including that one-legged Spitfire pilot off the high street in Lyneham. But when you’d finally got the Norton together again, whole and newly painted gleaming black, you’d had the timing wrong and tore the heel off your boot and ripped shit out of your knee just trying to kick over the old beast’s water-bucket piston.

Eventually, though, you got it running properly, using a cigarette paper between the points, like Brendon showed you, measuring top-dead-center with a bent piece of coat-hanger down the sparkplug hole. Then the bike was sparkling, and you’d toured around England a bit, then Holland, Luxembourg, and the Rhineland, while it drew stares and even applause from a few devotees on street corners and filling-station forecourts.  Then September came, time to ship out.

Back to Holland you both went, and you loaded the Norton onto a cargo ship bound for Florida. It was a difficult separation. Somewhere along the line, in a canter over the Marlborough Downs on a dewy Sunday morning, or breaking for hot muffins and blueberry yoghurt on a bypass at the edge of Köln, the attachment had gone beyond the mechanical and the practical, and become something of a romance. You rode together, slept side by side, woke together, and rescued each other from snarled roundabouts, Germanic headwinds, and gloomy fog. And now, for many weeks, that black beauty, a vintage one-lunger with constant oil leaks but inconstant electrics, was going to be denied the freedom of those open-throttle, country highways. It would be locked in the hold of a rusting Dutch steamer, crossing over to Jacksonville on the open sea, then roughly off-loaded into some dank, humid, port-city warehouse.

And you’d done that. On a sad, sunny morning, you’d signed the papers, left the bike on the Rotterdam docks, and caught the train to Frankfurt to visit Karl and Monique, then to Walter and Hella’s in Hohenheim. Back by rail to Belgium, you rescued the sexy Lieve from the bolshy attention of those gawky German soldiers. You played the grateful guest of her family, while the two of you, sneaking around, made a mess of each other’s hand-washables in the moon shadows behind the Flemish pub, all well-fed, naughty bliss until your own departure day arrived. Then off you went from Antwerp, bound for Venezuela on the Czaszki, a Polish concrete-and-lumber freighter that made the pathetic Dutch vessel in Rotterdam look like a pocket Queen Mary. Down Europe’s western seaboard you’d coasted, through Lisbon, and then sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to the tiny port of Gaunta, west of Trinidad.

There are so many stories, so many particulars, from those two weeks at seathe half-mad, quasi-English-speaking signalman shouting the ship’s call-sign, “Alpha!  Papa!  Tango!  Zulu!” into his radio mic, you dredging up your university German during meals and social hours to avoid depressive isolation, and the captain, smoking Gitanes in his tattered, black-and-gold-braid jacket, banning you from the crew’s weight room on the poop-deck. You had a birthday onboard, shared with the family immigrating from the Mosel to Venezuela with forty cases of wine. The First Mate spun yarns of coastal trade in West Africa, the Guanta harbormaster angled for bribes to land the Czaszki, and you took a butt-busting bus ride through the hills to Caracas. Threads of memories, strings of stories.

Escaping Venezuela, you’d island-hopped up from Grenada to Martinique to a layover in Haiti, where you read in the newspaper of an American tourist who’d died that week and, delayed by paperwork, lay in his casket for two days in the tropical heat of the airport tarmac—until the expanding gases from his decomposition were ignited by a passing cigarette, exploding the entire package—corpse, coffin, the lot—across the runway at Port-au-Prince.

Pre-Miami Vice Miami, your first sight of the States in two years, had swayed with gentle rednecks, sweaty New Yorkers, and good Latin citizens. With your backpack and lug-soled boots and Swiss-Army-knife haircut, that’s how you had sensed the vibe. You hadn’t stuck around for the proof, though, because you were girded for a rendezvous, haunted by the sense of a clumsy reunion with a lover you’d ditched via some chickenshit alibi.  So you were hitching up to Jacksonville to buy her freedom, oil her up, and run off with her to the opposite coast.

It’s been the habit of men to refer to their machines in the feminine and, while no reasoning for this will placate the politically correct, it’s not due to a lack of respect for the vehicles. To the contrary. This rugged lady was nearly your age, given life in 1950 by the Norton factory in Birmingham. She was the ES2 model, a powerful, reliable 500cc push-rod single, with telescoping forks and sprung rear suspension. She was first cousin to the Manx Norton, world champion many times over, and the fastest, most nimble, and most respected bike of its era. Its ancestors and descendants are legend, as are its victories. This was no creampuff you were going to ride across America.

Three weeks later, worn down by Dixie rains, dusty plains, and Arizona badlands, the two of you pulled into a Union 76 station on a Sunday morning in Redlands, California, looking like a two-wheeled hobo camp. It was November, and Jimmy Carter had just been elected President. While you were gassing up, a bearded stranger sold you a nine-inch Bowie knife for the five dollars he needed to buy a half-pint cure for his hangover. You strapped the knife to your toolbox, threw your leg over your tired, dirty companion, and pointed the pair of you north. She was taking you home.

That afternoon, you shook your father’s hand for the first time in two years. The ES2 went into your parents’ garage, and the two of you never again chased the far horizon. You bought a house and brought the bike with you, but, even after a tear-down and a rebuild, she was just a curiosity, something for local bikers to smile at and for old guys to remember. No one had tasted and tested the road with her like you had, and the un-British population had little feel for Norton traditions, for the soldiers saved and lost by dispatches her ancestors had carried in the Great War and the next one, or for the famous wins of Geoff Duke and Mike Hailwood. So, she languished in the cobwebs and the dust, and you bought another bike, a later-model BMW, that you rode instead.

More years passed and you emigrated to New Zealand, packing along the Norton and the Beemer, this twin-cylinder Teutonic with the electric start, no oil leaks, and lights that always worked, a boring piece of iron that, at this very moment in your story, is gauchely defying gravity, flying horizontal at a mile a minute into the path of an oncoming car. It’s the “defying gravity” that makes you feel weightless, and, compared to the vehicle you’re about to collide with, you may as well be.

Yes, you’d left America again, this time eastward across the Pacific, and gone to work. The bikes arrived at Auckland’s Waitemata Harbor a few weeks later. You uncrated them and never kicked over the Norton again, never even sent flowers. The chrome- and nickel-plated fittings kept their luster; the luxurious curves of the fuel tank never lost their allure. But the long, slow, messy road to reconciliation was too daunting, too much of a commitment to renew, especially with the shiny German trollop ready to run with the flick of a key.  Eventually, you stopped the empty ritual of checking the old one’s oil, stopped even sitting astride her welcoming flanks. But you went to the historic races and unashamedly cheered for the Nortons, spun yarns about yours, and basked in the brotherhood. Still, it was the BMW you rode to the track, parking it in a distant corner, hidden from the unsuspecting, respectable knot of vintage-bike faithful.

These race meetings brought back other memories, from before the Norton. In 1976 you’d crossed the Irish Sea with Margaret to the Isle of Man T.T. races, camped with her in the paddock on the outskirts of Kirk Michael, and drank in the roars of the AJ and Manx and Matchless singles as they all stormed away toward Ballaugh Bridge. This had led you, a few weeks later, to Aberystwyth and, so, to all the adventures you and the Norton had carved out for yourselves.

But, once back in California, your eye had wandered, first to a ’72 Bonneville, and, later, a much younger Triumph Special, recently separated from its third owner. There was that fling with the Czech—a CZ 400 you’d taken in lieu of a debt—but you never were a dirt-bike man. There was the Hurricane, with the Rocket-3 Roadracer motor and flared pipes, and then the short-stroke Manx—middle-aged, but with a great pair of overhead cams. You even went completely mid-life crisis with the canary-yellow, three cylinder 955 RS, but only did 4000 miles on it in six years. Fitted in somewhere, you’d bought the Beemer: torquey, strong, dependable. It has always started, kept its cool, and braked politely, but it would never have the spark, the joie de vive of those dangerous, loopy, British tarts that might take you out forty miles on a morning ride and leave you stranded in the boonies.

Moreover, none of these pretenders had taught you what she had, about post-war fuel petcocks and Amal carbs, about hand-changing tires or how to use a compression release. These memories were indelible, branded into you like scars on your heart, so on weekends in New Zealand, without words for these emotions, you hung around the racing pits with those other Norton people, keeping the connection warm and a little bit vital.

Yet the gray, joyless day finally did come, and you sold the comatose Norton to Cyril. He found you in Auto-Trader, brought his trailer down from Warkworth, and paid you the money. He tried to get all her books and papers, too, important things to you, and stuff he didn’t really need. You let him have a couple generic paperbacks, but not the things with memories, not the manuals or the photographs or the British registration papers that proved there’d been only one owner before you. You kept those things that were part of your first years together, the diagrams, the parts lists, the factory-approved, illustrated publications that took you through the myriad delicate steps of restoring life to the noble warhorse you’d found cast away in a drafty Welsh barn.

Now a year and a half has passed since you sold her to Cyril, and it’s late spring. A week ago you rang him up and asked how he was. How was the project? Yes, he said, he had finished the restoration and you’d be welcome to come up and see her, best on a Saturday when he was home from work. So, up you had come on the BMW, the rumbling, easy mistress that had tried to fill the empty spot in your memory’s trophy case.  Coated lightly in your own shame, you’d parked the big twin cylinder at the far end of Cyril’s drive, where it couldn’t be seen or smelled from the vehicle shed where he said he kept the Norton. You slipped off your helmet and gloves and crunched over the oyster-shell gravel to the open garage door.

In times to come, you’ll try to forget how the old girl looked and sounded, how every part gleamed in the light that cascaded through the windows of Cyril’s shed, the scalpel-sharp gold-on-black pin-striping and chrome trim and nickel-plated spokes showing a devotion to loving detail you had long ago forsaken. It was as though, after so long a time, and the difficult trials you’d endured together, she wanted to show you her best in front of others, but, in doing so, nearly broke your heart.

She fired first kick for Cyril, and then stood there rocking, rhythmic as a metronome, firm puffs of exhaust escaping with every other stroke. You couldn’t stand another glance. You paid your damp-eyed compliments and gave your thanks and walked away. Cyril called after you. “They’ve opened up the new section of road out Henderson way.” He paused, but you kept walking. “You might want to give it a go. Come back into Auckland from there, rather than the motorway.” Another pause. “Head north to Wellsford and swing a left at the Caltex station.” Rather than look back, you waved your thanks again over your shoulder. You did as he said, and this had led to this imminent conundrum rapidly imposing itself on your life.

Leaving Cyril to his glory, you mounted the BMW and motored up Highway 1, trying to recover your composure at seeing your former dance-partner so chipper and strong. Compared to her trim elegance and high breeding, this beefy, two-wheeled, German appliance is an even-swinging, plodding road goat. Maybe this acrid realization throws you off your game.

You’d made the left in Wellsford, and now, six or eight kilometers along, you meet a series of “S” bends cut into the hillsides, high banks up on the left, ravines and canyons down on the right. You’re still on the old two-laner and, speeding along, loping and swerving through the turns, you see loose rock and dirt in the roadway and gouges from heavy equipment. Do you get too loose with the throttle, too slow on the brake? Is your helmet’s visor misting up with emotion? Does your mind falter for a moment, mentally putting you on the right-hand, American side of the road, rather than the New Zealand left side?

Coming into a tight-ish left-hand bender, you’re on the correct side of the road, doing (we agree) sixty plus, when some potholes appear in front of you, just in the center of your lane. You upright a little to adjust your line into the turn, aiming for clear pavement between the potholes and the center, double yellow line. Too late, your vision and your logic coincide, and you see that patches of heavy gravel, like clusters of ball-bearings, have been pushed out of the potholes and onto that pavement you’re aiming for. Not a problem for cars. A problem for motorcycles.

There’s a high hill on the left, in the elbow of the turn, blocking your view of any on-coming traffic. Just as you’re thinking you have to ease off the throttle . . . not really thinking, just doing . . . in time . . . you hope, but . . . you’re wrong. The Beemer starts to skitter like a cockroach on a hotplate.

Gravel, slide, gravel, slide—Ping-clank! The chrome bar that curves out side-ways to protect the cylinders has just hit the pavement, causing several things to happen in the flick of a sphincter. Acting as a fulcrum, the bar turns the bike into a see-saw, lifting the rear tire off the asphalt and—Presto!—no more traction, therefore no more resistance for the motor, therefore (as mentioned earlier) the high-speed, anxiety-igniting engine whine.  As you attempt to crawl off this flailing, self-destructing contraption, it hits another pothole and stands up. This creates a version of what, in the pits and among racing types, is sometimes called “hooking up.”

This hooking-up is not what happens in bars and rave parties; it’s when traction that was lost at high speed is quickly regained. Too quickly. With velocity comes volatility, and, even if one were a world road-racing champion (i.e. not you), traction that comes back so unpredictably can’t be controlled. And as fast as it’s regained—alas!—it’s lost again when the bike, beset by manic instability, levitates. Think of yourself as a cowboy astride a six-legged rodeo bull abruptly overcome by a gran mal epileptic seizure. Add steel and gasoline.

You have no idea how, but sometime between the first instant of the slide and the present moment you have, via successive bolts of fortune, evaded death-via-impact with two cars coming at you. That, however, is now irrelevant because a third car is about to arrive, and you’re not going to miss it. You are, in Nature’s perfect justice, about to pay the ultimate price for abandoning the bike you truly loved—and the bike that loved you—in exchange for this hurtling mass of rubber and painted iron that is about to crush you to death against—what is it?—a red Honda Prelude.

Over the next immeasurable scintilla of time you have somehow successfully, though undeservedly, maneuvered yourself into a position in mid-air where you may leave this collision as a double amputee rather than a cadaver. The look on the face of the young man driving the Prelude, very close to you now, is a mixture of utter fascination, innocence, and terror. He is asking himself why you chose to commit suicide using his car, which you are now inspecting at extremely close quarters. You see that it is about eight years old, a heavily-oxidized burgundy, with what you take to be a stone chip in the upper right corner of the windshield.

When it comes, the concussion is something like being inside the barrel of a Howitzer on D-Day (it’s a sound your brain will replay in your head every night for weeks just at the moment sleep tries to overtake you). Like lightning, the violence hits its crescendo and passes in the same instant. Then everything is still. Completely disoriented, yet perceiving the stillness, you open your eyes.

The sky above appears through the oval shape of your helmet’s visored porthole. Evidently, you still have your head.  You’re lying on your back, on top of the small day-pack you were wearing when your previous world came detached from this one. Both your arms seem connected to your torso and, when you try wiggling your feet before looking down, you can hear your boots crackling over the gravel. Cool. Your feet are attached, so, more than likely, your legs are, too, and not broken. You rock your head to the right. It works. To the left. That works, too. Your neck is not broken, and you don’t seem to be paralyzed. God must be joking.

Using one hand to lever against the pavement, you slowly turn onto your side. So far, so good. You bend your right leg. Okay. You finally look down. You’re all there—improbably so, but so, nonetheless. You get onto your hands and knees. You hear voices inside your helmet, but you can’t tell what they’re saying. They are human voices, not the voices of Hell’s henchmen. You have escaped alive and evidently unharmed, so complete justice has been unfairly averted.

You rise up and remove your helmet. You’re standing in the same traffic lane you started in, the correct one, just a few yards up the road, facing back to the Prelude driver and two more equally astonished motorists who have stopped and, staring at you, stand as if bolted to the ground. It was their voices you heard, but you don’t take it all in just yet, because you hear a growling behind you. Turning, you see that you have been left behind by the BMW that has, incompatible with physics, mechanics, predictable fortune, or the odds from any bookie, landed upright on the left-hand side of the road, leaning against the cut-away bank thirty feet away, with its motor running. You walk slowly over and shut it off. You ass hurts like hell. But that’s all. Yes, your brain hurts, trying to comprehend how you survived what’s just happened, but other than that, and your inconceivably lucky bone-bruised ass, nothing else hurts. You’re not bleeding. You’re walking. All your limbs work. You can see. Can you talk?

“Hello.” You’ve turned around again and say this to the Prelude driver, a guy of about eighteen who looks as though he’s watching Jesus come out from behind The Rock on Easter Sunday. Your voice sounds a little high-pitched, a little elated. The Prelude kid just looks at you, waiting for you to disappear in a puff of smoke or turn into an alien. You don’t.

“I’m really sorry about your car,” you say. After the BMW shat its brains in the pothole gravel and flew through the air like a 500-lb Frisbee high on crack cocaine—and just as you miraculously cleared your valuables out of the path of destruction while hurtling through the lower atmosphere—the sharp, hard bits of the bike smacked into the driver’s side of the Prelude and opened up the sheet metal like a claw hammer through a beer can. The gaping, ragged incision down the length of the car exposes various window parts and steel supports inside.

The kid asks in a cartoon-like stutter, “Uh, are you, uh, all right?” His eyes strain out of his skull like lacquered ping-pong balls.

“Seems like it,” you say, at least as stunned by the evidence as he is, and a hundred times happier. Happier, that is, until you remember your old Norton back in Cyril’s garage.

As the kid drives you back to the Caltex station, where you’ll ring Cyril, explain what happened, and beg a ride to Auckland with his motorcycle trailer, you think about the answer to the questions you were asking yourself at the beginning of this petrol-headed cluster fuck: How long did it all last, from lift-off to impact to landing?  How long did you hang there suspended, cogitating over your fate?  How long did it take you to recognize that you’d left the dance with the wrong sweetheart?

To the memory of Dan Secord, M.D., who always swung for the fences.


Lance Mason was raised by working parents, products of the Great Depression. His first job was in his brother-in-law’s gas station in Oxnard, California. During school vacations, he picked lemons, packed lima beans, laid fiberglass, sold hot-dogs, and spliced cable for the local phone company where his mother worked. He has taught at UCLA, the National University in Natal, Brazil, and Otago University, Dunedin, New Zealand. In addition to overseas teaching, Mason has lived, worked, or traveled in more than 60 countries during a dozen trips around the world. His first publication was a piece in Voices of Survival, appearing alongside writers as diverse as William F. Buckley, Jr., Joan Baez, Indira Gandhi, Arthur C. Clarke, and Carl Sagan. His work has appeared in upstreet, City Works, Sea Spray, The Packing House Review, New Borders, Askew, The Santa Barbara Independent, and Solo Novo, as well as several professional journals. Pintsize Publications’ 2016 release of A Proficiency in Billiards, Mason’s first nonfiction collection, met with strong sales and great acclaim. He is nearing completion of his fifth novel, a saga of wealth, power, and perversion in modern China. His writing won four awards, including two golds, in the Tenth Annual Solas Awards.

2017-04-24T02:31:55+00:00