“Damn-it,” I mumble while working my way out of the campground bakery, past the still sleeping RV’s, to that flat patch in back where those not needing utilities are permitted to pitch tents. That building bank of clouds hovering over my Mediterranean morning looks lost, like love tearfully being told it’s over. But is it? Is anything ever really over, or do far off horizons just cast the sky in daylight darkness to confirm those weeks on the road were nothing more than a prelude for what’s to come? We all know the answer, just as certainly as we know the last time we see someone isn’t really the last time we see them, not when our mind’s stuck in grooves. This is why I muscle through my coffee and croissant and wait impatiently for the office to finally open so I can get my passport. If it were up to me, I’d have broken camp at dawn to get ahead of this storm. But French campgrounds operate on their own metric, they demand your passport on check-in, then don’t open their dumb-ass office until after nine. I really oughta have another coffee and for sure another croissant, today’s ride is gonna be hard, the mountains to Milan are likely just as intense as that storm steadily rolling over from Africa.
I repack my panniers optimistically believing I can keep things dry, particularly my journal, the only thing of real value that remains. I can’t explain how I know, I just do, something on the whispers of last night’s wind foretold today will be more than a hard wet ride. But that’s not new, the ride through Arles, and Van Gogh’s flat sunflower fields, took me beyond the boundaries of my sanity; hot driving wind that Pushed, and PUSHED! . . . and pushed, to the point where it had to be personal. Today will be different, the mountains of Milan will be hard for sure, especially the three ten percent climbs that must be conquered, but nothing can be harder than the hot hard winds of Arles.
It’s well after ten when I finally put Nice behind me and manage to cross Monaco without changing gears. My legs are fresh, the saddle’s soft, winds remain calm, and mid-morning vacationers have yet to cram the roads; the glass half full part of me’s beginning to believe I can skirt this storm. Once past Monaco, the smoothness of my terrain abruptly ends. “So, this is Italy,” I mumble between breaths all the way up the first major climb. To stay optimistic I not looking, but how can you not witness the vastness of the Mediterranean marrying with the dark looming clouds in a way that’s impossible to tell where salt waves end, and freshwater rain begins. There’s a disquieting realization that I’ve become the only traveler on this coastal highway, and when I allow myself to be honest, it’s a tad unnerving. I mean, what the hell do the Italians know they’re not sharing with the rest of us?
The narrow road to Genoa hugs the rocky Rivera like danger clinging to risk, rising then falling from wind carved ridges down to smooth sand beaches where wild waves pound the shore in erratic crescendos. Most days this would all be beautiful, today though, headwinds displace the calm in a way that pierces remnants of my soul with a somber unsettledness that would cause any reasonable rider to abandon the ride. I would too, only I must make Milan by tomorrow, two days of hard mountain climbing, which means I have no choice but to press on irrespective of consequence. Initially I padded my journey with three buffer days, but broken spokes in the Spanish Pyrenees cost me a day, then one night at Cassis turned into two because I lacked the stamina for that hard climb out. And of course, there was the lost day in Arles, but I don’t want to think about that, I don’t want to consider what can happen when the mind loses its footing.
Atop a barren ridge overlooking the sea, I lean my touring bike against the rock guardrail and stare down at the beach where powerful waves pound against isolated rocks, shooting geysers high into the air. I’m mostly a land-locked guy and readily admit I don’t understand the sea, so much emotion and anger, the embodiment of everything I strive to avoid. I look deep into the storm moving in from Algiers while donning my raincoat. The chaos I was rushing to outrun is here, and for whatever reason, it reminds me of a novel I read about Barbary Coast Pirates from a region called Kabyle. I would have liked to be a pirate; “Kyle the Pirate from Kabyle,” I shout to the sea. “Rebel for adventure, rescuing peasants from a wretched life at the hands of maniacal monarchs and oppressive rulers. Living high on the sea where yesterday goes unasked, tomorrow unwritten, and today filled with the possibilities of adventure.”
“Pirates would weather, weather like this,” I convince myself while settling back in the saddle and pushing into the menacing storm. “Even they can’t outrun their past, they can’t save the world cause they’re barely able to save themselves, and that’s on a good day.” There, I said it. I promised I wouldn’t, but I did; the reason wretched from me by the emotional interrogation of a pirate’s code. Isn’t that the point of a journey, this bike ride from Barcelona to Milan, to prove I can move forward, that life is constant motion, and to be frozen in the past or locked in a future is as meaningless as pretending to be Kyle from Kabyle?
I make the outskirts of Genoa just as the storm heading north collides with the me moving south, and by the time I find the longshoreman’s bar in the unrestricted part of town, I’m cold, bone weary wet, and know the storm’s not about to abate, which means some serious decisions need to be made. Before stepping fully inside, it’s painfully clear this joint is for serious men used to hard living who come here for an after-work drink, or one last shot of espresso before hitting the docks. Normally I’d avoid such a dangerous looking place and care about how I’d be perceived, but not in this storm. I need a place to hole up and I’m damn ready to defend my right to be here.
Every scorn-filled eye watches me make my way back to the small table near the kitchen, and no sooner do I slip off my bright yellow rain suit and lean my soaked panniers against the wall, than this burly fellow with bright red hair in a combed over mess, plops down across the table. “By a bloke a drink?” he asks, “too damn cold to drink alone.” I stare at the stranger, who’s more a homeless bum than hard-living longshoreman, uncertain if I should respond. “Name’s Jeffreys,” he says extending a hand, “but most these bastard blokes call me Father J.”
“You’re a priest?” I blurt out.
“We don’t all wear fancy robes ya know.”
“You’re the last person I’d expect in a place like this.”
“You and me both.” He leans in. “I started out to be Pope, we all got goals, right? Somewhere along my journey to Rome though, God calls me over to this miserable hellhole to minister to these unrepentant sinners.” He twiddles idly with the grimy saltshaker. “This could be as close to the Vatican as I get.” He slaps both hands on the table to get the waiter’s attention. “But we’re not here to talk about me, a bloke like you blows into a place like this on day like today, there’s gotta be a story.”
“No story, just on a bike tour and got caught in the storm.”
“Oh, there’s a story, otherwise you wouldn’t be alone. People aren’t built to be alone. Let’s start with your name?”
“Nice to meet you Kyle, where you from?”
“Kabyle.” I’m not sure why I say that I don’t mean to, but then again, it’s not anyone’s business where I’m from and besides, being from Kabyle gives me street cred.
“Kyle from Kabyle, I like it! Sort of just rolls off the tongue. We do get our share of Kabyle’s coming through here, damn good sailors.” He leans in again. “Nobody messes with em, not even the Mafia, you get crosswise with a Berber and things don’t end well for ya.”
The waiter who’s just as unwashed and rugged as the men he serves, brings two coffees and two Longshoremen Specials: eggs, chucks of sausage, crispy couscous, and baguettes. Three bites in, the inquisition resumes. “You’re not really from Kabyle. I mean for starters, you’re a Yank, accent gave you up straight away. But no worries, on these docks, everyone’s allowed to be whomever they want.”
“That mean you’re not a Priest?”
“Oh, that I am, and I can prove it.” Turning around, he faces the full room, “Guys! Who the hell am I?”
In a loud chorus, the hard-living longshoremen respond in unison, “Father J!”
“Ya see, as advertised.”
After a few more bites, I decide to come clean. “I’m from Kansas.”
“I’ll be damned, Kyle from Kansas. Phonetically appropriate, but poetically empty I’d say. I’ll be staying with Kyle from Kabyle, far more gravitas, which in place like this can become a matter of life and death.” He mops up egg yolk with his bread. “Pirates are a hardy but foolish lot. They believe they’re out there pursuing a life of adventure, but what they’re really doing is running from something they hope pursues at a slower pace. I’m betting whatever’s set you about is something you’re desperately hoping to outrun. But ya can’t, be as foolish as believing you can outrun this storm or escape it’s freaking consequences.”
“You don’t talk much like a Priest.”
“I know,” Father J answers with contrition. “I’m a sinner for sure. But given I spend all my time around these rapscallions with their foul language, I do okay. I’ll never be Pope.” He mops up the last of his couscous. “But ya know, if I was in France, I’d speak French. If I was in Germany, I’d preach in German. But I’m here on these docks, so I minister in longshoremen. At least that’s the argument I’ll be making to Saint Peter at the gates.” He looks up with a grin, “no one wants to get to the gates and find them locked.” Just as we finish our breakfast, the waiter brings two fresh cups of espresso. “So, Kyle from Kabyle, you’re not going to tell me the deep dark reason for your journey, and that’s fine, but what’s next?”
“Figure to hunker down here till the storm passes.”
“Not much for coastal weather, are you?” Father J laughs. “This storm ain’t going nowhere, hell it ain’t even started raining, not like it’s gonna. Ya oughta find a nice hotel and hole up for a couple days.”
“Can’t, have to be in Milan tomorrow and there’s a whole lot of mountains between here and there.”
“Then take a bus, only option ya got.”
“This journey started on my bike, and that’s how it has to end.”
“Spoken like a true Yank. Ya set some stupid-ass goal then die trying to make it. Ya best be moving then, before this storm really kicks loose. The road to Milan goes east before turning a tad south so who knows, maybe you outflank it. But then again,” he adds with a sardonic grin, “maybe ya don’t.” He leans in as serious as can be. “Once it gets to raining in those mountains, keep to high ground, water rises fast in the canyons.”
He’s right about outflanking the storm and once you know something must be done, wasting even a second is a sin. So, I slip my still wet rain suit over still soaked clothes and am just about to leave when-
“We both know you could change your flight,” Father J looks at me evaporating any doubt he’s a priest. “Something in you needs to suffer, it covers you like stink on shit. So go foolish man, climb your mountain in the rain, suffer to get at whatever “it” is. I’ll be praying you survive.”
I stare at this oddly out of place Priest. “Thanks, I think.” He semi-smiles as I leave and last thing I hear before barroom noise is subsumed by the pounding storm is Father J shouting, “Which of ya sinners is gonna buy your favorite Padre a drink!”
Even though I continually wipe the waterproof phone case clipped to my handlebars, I’m barely able to read directions taking me from the loading docks up slippery cobblestone side streets to the only road leading to Milan. What I don’t expect is a customs and toll center maned by serious soldiers armed with automatic weapons. I skirt along the side of the long row of backed up semi-trucks certain pedestrians can pass without paying a toll. As I attempt to peddle past the guard gate, I’m abruptly stopped by an uncharacteristically pleasant guard delivering my tragic news in flawless English.
“Bicycles are not allowed on the M4,” the guard patiently repeats one more time.
“But it’s the only road to Milan.”
“There is another,” he offers, “it’s a level two so bikes are permitted.”
“How do I get there?”
“It is five kilometers up this road.”
“That I’m not allowed on?”
“So, you do understand the tragedy of your situation? Tomorrow you can take a bus to the other road.”
“I have to be in Milan tomorrow.”
“I am so sorry, no more busses today.”
I plead and argue with the apologetic guard, but to no avail. I consider launching an American style protest and petulantly park in this very spot until he relents, but truckers queued up behind me are growing impatient. As a last act of desperation, I make one final pitch. “What if I just take off, will you shoot me?”
“Our instructions today are not to shoot anyone,” the guard replies. “I will simply call to that office building over there and they’ll send a chase car to arrest you.”
“How far you think I’d get?”
The guard smiles, “They’d have you in three, maybe four minutes of when I call, hardly enough time to peddle uphill five kilometers.” He looks down the long line of impatient truckers. “Of course, regulations require I first process all these truckers you made to wait, at least I think that is what regulations say.” He leans out his window to better look down the line. “That end truck’s my cousin, he’d take you to Milan.”
“No, I have to get there on my own.”
“In that case I am almost certain there’s something fishy with my poor cousin’s paperwork that will take fifteen, maybe even twenty minutes to clear. How fast can you peddle?
“Fast enough to try.”
“Stay to the far edge of the road, there is no shoulder, and these trucks can suck you into their eddies, especially on such a sloppy day.” He hands me back my passport, which I quickly tuck into the waterproof phone case. “Buona fortuna, amico mio, peddle hard and be mindful of the canyons.”
“Grazie,” I say hoping out of respect I pronounced it properly. “The priest I met this morning would say you’ll find the gates to heaven unlocked.”
“Just don’t tell my boss what I have done when you get caught.” I nod before slipping into the mist covered mountain like a probable casino payday, “fifteen minutes amico mio,” the guard shouts, “perhaps twenty.”
I quickly calculate that at best, I’ll go three kilometers in fifteen minutes. If it takes four minutes for the chase crew to start their pursuit, and five minutes to catch up, I’ll be another kilometer up the road. That leaves more than a kilometer to the exit, which means one thing, I’d better pedal harder. And so, I do, as if my existence depends on making that exit, I don’t know what drives me, but know if I don’t make that exit, all will be lost. With that as my back story, twenty-four minutes into my rain-drenched dash, I hear the distant sound of the approaching siren. It is there fate decides to tease me with my exit sign – two kilometers out. It’s been a hard climb made even harder by mountain winds and pulsating rain. My legs are mush, my lungs rasping, and there’s nothing left in reserve. The rain’s soaked through my cloths and panniers adding weight to the eighty pounds I’m already packing.
The siren draws near, bouncing echoes off the shear cut walls amplifying my inescapable doom. I frantically look for hiding places, but the deeply carved mountain leaves little refuge. One-and-one-half-kilometers out and the siren’s practically inside my water-logged ears, a penetrating sound that taunts me with the same evil as a wounded animal being poked by a sadistic hunter. Midway through calculating the length of my fleeting freedom, I realize, the chase crew’s stuck behind a semi grinding up the climb. There’s nowhere for the trucker to pull over and the fog’s too thick to attempt to pass, so the chase car has to stay where it is. I dig deep for whatever I have left, and suddenly feel the pedals soften, which has to mean I’ve reached the summit.
There is hope, it’ll be close, but even a sliver of hope, is hope. The ascent was long and steep, but already I sense the decent is significantly shorter with a dangerous drop. At least I hope it’s straight because in this fog who can know. I must risk it, I must turn this touring bike lose because when a pirate says he’ll take his chances, chances must be taken. Isn’t that what this journey’s about? Isn’t this moment my metaphor? Still though, setting gravity free on a fog-encrusted wet windy road with a posse in pursuit is pushing the envelope even for Kyle from Kabyle. Yet I do, and my bike, ladened with eighty pounds of gear and what water I’ve soaked up, boosts gravity’s ability to build speed to the point my tires hydroplane and the stiff bike frame vibrates at the edge of control. But there is hope, and that demands that consequences be damned.
The high-pitched whine of the semi’s jake-brake reverberates along the cut rock walls in the same piercing way the eerie sound of a chain-gang cuts to your core; my pursuers have started their descent. I lean my water-soaked body hard into my waterlogged bike setting aside the science of hydroplaning. With the truck bearing down, I ratchet up to the highest gear and peddle toward escape velocity. When it seems the truck’s about to consume me with an angry fury earlier reserved for rock pounded beaches, when the reality of my foolish foray reaches its inevitable crescendo, a bright blue sign jumps from the fog with an arrow pointing downward; I’ve made my exit, my precious gateway to Milan. Veering sharply onto the ramp while pushing even harder on the pedals, I vanish into the fog just as the semi passes with the chase crew in frustrated pursuit.
I coast down the exit ramp exhausted but exonerated, with each waning cycle of the fading siren allowing my muscles to fade further into much need relaxation. The parking lot of a tile manufacturing plant closed for the day has a covered portico connecting two buildings where I take refuge. The rain’s intensity continues to grow as water collects in low spots and fills drainage ditches that seem to run everywhere in this valley like veins in a body. I hurriedly devour an energy bar naively clinging to the belief that soon the storm will pass. I dig through my panniers for dry clothes, but every thing’s soaked, except my journal resting contently in its waterproof bag.
Fog hovers low over the valley floor keeping the interstate bridge hidden so the returning chase car, with its siren still blaring, can’t penetrate my sanctuary. The wind has all but dissipated causing me to concede Father J was right, this storm’s not going anywhere. My optimistic plan to make it halfway to Milan where a reasonable-sized town has a hotel to hole up in for the night remains intact, but with my delay in Genoa, and the difficulty of riding in rain, I’m still six hours out. Camping in the mountains is not an option, not with my clothes and gear soaking wet.
I take one last look at the topological profile of the three ten percent climbs, then start up the canyon. Either nature or engineers dug a drainage ditch along the road that’s filled with gushing water and if rains don’t ease, the ditch will soon spill onto the road. Fog hovers at one-hundred feet making visibility fine, even if rain splashing against my glasses makes seeing a spotted challenge. Though relatively warm right now, with each peddle up the canyon, winds flowing down the mountains draw decidedly colder.
Between here and my first shot at a hotel is fifty miles of rugged mountains. In cycling, one ten-percent climb is considered a challenge, but three in succession is a brutal excess only the Alps could conjure. Water now skims the road with a sheen that allows each passing car to shower me in grimy vapors. I begin to speculate that the custom’s guard let me pass on purpose, that right now those bastards are making wagers about my surviving to Milan, a centuries old game of Roman gladiator where the thrill of the sport is the drama contained in a wretched death. And I get I might die, isn’t that the point, isn’t that why I didn’t hole up in a hotel in Genoa or take the bus to Milan?
But who has time to debate the when’s and why’s, when there are mountains to climb, so before long, the climbs consume me almost as much as the descents, which must be managed carefully, not only because of the slippery switchbacks, but because debris has started to wash across the road creating hazards that can only be spotted when right on them. Each climb elevates me into the hovering cloud bank before dropping back down, each summit just a little bit higher, building toward the first brutal ten percent ascent. And then, I’m back on the valley floor, back to the drainage ditch that’s lost containment, back to where I started with the next ten percenter patiently waiting.
The summit of the first ten-percenter puts me oddly above the storm that’s pushed and punished me all damn day. Poking my head above the clouds feels like bursting through the surface of a lake just as your submerged lungs begin to inhale after holding your breath longer than you thought possible. Lightening telegraphs warnings between the very clouds I’ll soon drop through, but what choice do I have, my plane departs in two days, I’m forty miles from the nearest hotel, and my gear’s too wet to bivouac. I could change my reservation, I could have holed up in Genoa, or better yet never left Nice. Yes, I could take the bus, or let the trucker haul me to Milan. But we’ve dug that sod enough already. The Priest knew I had to be here, as did the customs agent? Sometimes you just have to accept fate without rational.
My body, which I’d been abusing all day, betrays me on the second summit. After weeks on the road, I’ve learned to read the signs and when the mind starts negotiating, you’re close to all in. But I can’t stop, not now, the mountain won’t let me. The mountain demands more, and the more I peddle the more it demands, and whatever I give is never enough. Weather has become my tormentor, teasing me with caches of calm before roaring back with a laughter that makes circus clowns seem normal. Wind bullies me with pulsating pricks as increasing large drops begin to batter my body like baseballs. Cold is my enemy, slowly extinguishing life, first my toes go numb, then my fingers find it hard to grip the wet handlebars and squeeze the brakes. Cold creeps all the way into my bones and once core body temperature drops, that’s it, there’s no coming back.
Midway through the second decent, a strange twist in ongoing negotiations occurs as my soul steps up with something to say, only my mind refuses to yield. That’s been the pattern of late, my mind in tight control, leaving my soul to suffocate in silence. That’s the subconscious reason for this journey, to find a way to breathe again. I can convincingly couch things in words like adventure and expedition, but they always ring hollow. That’s why I didn’t stay in Nice, or take a bus, or change my reservation. My soul wants its say, but I needed to create an opening.
I coast into a small valley village, where the overflowed ditch now covers the entire road and my bike’s riding in water buried past my spokes creating a contrail of vapors in its wake. While the valley is warmer than the mountains, a bone chill’s set in so hard even I know I need to shelter. I consider knocking on someone’s door, but all the houses seem buttoned-down. I consider breaking into a shed or garage, but even my befuddled mind’s able to recognize the absurdity in that. I’m nearly through town when I spot a small church and know, that’s my refuge, who would deny a weary traveler shelter in a church?
Leaning my bike against the side wall as high above the encroaching water as possible, I unstrap my panniers and head for the covered portico convinced once inside I can spread my clothes and gear along the pews while curling up in a dry blanket. Even though I’m chilled to the bone and have one more ten percenter to conquer, taking shelter in a church is a necessary delay. Water racing down the valley has spread to the bottom step of the portico but since my shoes are already soaked and my feet long ago numb, I slog through the water and up the steps.
The church is small and simple and perhaps more accurately described as a chapel. The walls are bright white stucco and there’s a bell tower in front with a wooden cross on top. The five-foot covered portico spans the entire front wall and is only about ten feet from the road. Two white marble steps rise to reach the portico that also has a white marble floor. Heavy wooden doors leading into the church are opened wide, but the metal bar security gates are closed. I step onto the portico and peer through the gates to the church inside. Ten rows of pews are split with a wide isle down the center, and the back wall’s mostly stained glass behind a simple alter. I’m laying out a strategy for spreading my cloths and gear as I reach to open the gate, only, it’s locked.
In growing desperation, I call inside but there’s no response. I step back into the storm and slog around the church hoping to find another door or perhaps a rectory in the rear. Finding nothing, I make my way back to the portico. Cold, wet, numb from riding through bone chilling rain, my mind races for solutions even as a part of me comes to terms with the cascading consequences of my decisions. I could easily define my entire life in terms of consequence, which is exactly what I’m doing as I stare through the locked gates to the crucifix hanging on the back wall. It is in that moment that my soul finally steps up to have its say. But before the opening salvo has even begun, arthritically numb fingers clutch the cold metal gate to keep from falling as I collapse on to the stone-cold white marble floor.
No one can say for sure; not me, not the villagers, perhaps not even fate itself, how long I cowled in the corner of the portico shivering like a wet rat crying for reasons I refuse to know. Word spreads through the abandoned homes of the American in distress and it falls upon Rosina to provide assistance since she’s the only one who speaks English. Of course, she’ll go, she doesn’t want to, who’d want to be out in a storm like this? She arrives at the church finding my body curled in a ball like a frightened child who’s just seen a ghost.
“Hello,” Rosina says in thick Italian English. When I don’t respond, she kicks me, “Wake up.”
I stare at this woman unsure if she’s human or an avatar of death. She’s a frail eighty-something wearing a black scarf over gray hair. She has black knee-high rain boots, a black dress under a black raincoat, and is holding a black umbrella in her black gloved hand. “You are American, yes?” she asks. “Only an American would be out in weather like this.”
I try to stand but can’t. “I need to be Milan in two days.”
“Should have taken the bus.”
“Seems to be the national consensus.” I use the floor and wall to push himself upright with considerable effort.
“You come with me, rest and get warm.” With that the old woman steps off the portico and into the gushing water that’s now risen to the top step. Slowly, but with great determination, she pushes against the forceful water until reaching the high spot in the center of the road and only then turns back. “I hope you’re not waiting for me to carry you.”
I stumble off the portico and into the very storm responsible for everything that’s happened, not completely sure I’m allowed to leave, but deciding it’s best to follow this strange woman to wherever she’s going. I don’t remember much about where she lives or how we get there, but sometime later I awaken in a warm dry bed and either the storm’s severely intensified, or it’s well past dark. A dim light casts across the bedroom from the hallway highlighting my clothes dried and neatly folded on a chair. My sleeping bag’s been laid out on the floor beside my tent. With sudden concern, I lift the blankets to find myself completely naked. Uncertain where I’m at, how I got here, or who my benefactor is, I get up, and though wobbly at first, manage to put on my non-cycling clothes and make my way down the hallway toward where light and sounds emanate. I tentatively step into the kitchen where the old woman, still dressed in black, is busy at the stove.
“Ah, the American is awake,” she says without turning around.
“How long have I been out?”
“Long enough to do laundry and make minestrone.” She carries a large cast iron pot to the center of the table. “Sit,” she orders while returning to pull a loaf of bread from the oven. “My late husband used to say, ‘nothing takes the chill off bones like hot soup and fresh bread.’”
I sit down as ordered, still trying to piece together the string of events that brought me here. There were the mountain climbs and harrowing descents, the cold rain and bone chilling numbness, the episode at the church-. It’s as if my brain’s moved on and now blocks all memories of what happened.
“You eat now,” she instructs, “then we talk. But first say grace.”
“That’s not really my deal.”
“Strong defiance for a man who takes refuge in a church, but fine, we’ll just sit here while you reflect on things you should be grateful for.”
I’m about to counter, but the woman’s already bowed her head. Not knowing what else to do, I bow mine and am still sorting through what to do, even how to pray, when-
“So, Kyle for Kabyle,” she interrupts, “what were you doing in my church?”
I look up stunned, “what did you say?”
The woman ladles two bowls of soup and slices the bread, she then gestures for me to eat. “When we got here, I tried getting you out of your wet cloths, but you wouldn’t let me, so sure I’d be shocked by whatever I saw. So, I stood over there with my back turned while you undressed. I asked your name, and you kept mumbling ‘Kyle from Kabyle.’ Is that in California? I have seen many movies from there.”
“I- ah-, misspoke. I’m from Kansas.” The woman again gestures for me to eat. “Kabyle’s just a place I read about.”
“What kind of place?”
I take a moment to consider her question. “One where your past is abandoned to the well-worn hands of fate.”
“My late husband used to say, ‘fate is the god of those who won’t see God.’ But I think you see just fine, otherwise why would you be in my church crying like a lost child?”
“Eat your soup and think about why you went there, as you convince yourself it’s because of fate.”
Rather than wait for her interrogation to resume, I change the subject. “This is very good and the bread’s amazing.”
“My mother’s recipes. My late husband used to say his Mom’s was better, but his bowl was always empty and bread was never stale.”
“Your English is so good, was he American?”
“NO, No, no, we’re both from here, but lived several years on an American airbase. He was a skilled machinist and the Americans valued him very much.” She pauses for a moment staring at her soup. “Until they didn’t. That’s the thing about you Americans, you quickly discard what you no longer need.”
“Sometimes,” I return, “you have to just move on.”
“And sometimes that leaves things unsettled, only to cause problems later on, like cowering in a church. Have you thought about why your fate did that?”
“It’s kind of a blur,” I struggle to recall. “I reached the summit of the second peak and stopped. As I’m catching my breath a chill moves over me. Yes, it’s cold, but this chill, it’s different, like-, well-, like death or something even more profound. It’s so unsettling that I start down the mountain faster than I should thinking I can out ride it. I convince myself I’m being irrational because I’m alone in the clouds on an isolated road. But still I race faster than anyone oughta with rain beating against me like a thousand darts, like death’s decided a thousand cuts isn’t a just enough punishment. So, I push even faster, barely able to control the switchbacks. This sense though, it’s all around and growing, the faster I go the more it seems-, seems to push me. Where I don’t know, why I don’t understand.”
The old woman gets up and quickly returns with a bottle of grappa and two glasses that she pours full. “My plan was to climb the next mountain before stopping.” I drink back my grappa and she immediately refills. “But this feeling chasing, or pushing me, what I choose to call fate, tells me to stop at that church. I rationalize it’s to find shelter from the storm, even while accepting it might be something else.” The woman clears the table, leaving only their bottle and two shot glasses. “I try to go inside, but the gates are locked.” I take another brace realizing, “Father J said they’d be.”
The woman refills my glass. “You didn’t cry because of a stuck gate.”
“No,” I answer, stiffening myself with another drink before staring blankly at her, unsure my brain’s ready to open that dark door. But then, as if willed on its own, I do, and everything that’s been bottled up inside me since before this journey began, comes out. “I had a son once,” I blurt out. “At least I was supposed to. He died. Well not really. I mean he died, but he really wasn’t ever alive. He was only eight weeks old when my wife miscarried. The doctors said she’d never get pregnant, but then she did.” He pauses. “And then she wasn’t.”
“We were so young and far from family. So excited about having a child. Then one morning she’s awakened by pains that get so bad I rush her to the hospital. They do all kinds of this and that’s, but in the end, the baby was lost. We’re devastated, unsure how to process what’s happened. I try to be there for her but fall short. Instead, we each grieve in our own private way. I start taking bike rides that each day grow longer. I convince myself he didn’t die because he was never alive. That’s what we’re told right? But my rides keep getting longer and longer until here I am.”
“And her?” the old woman asks.
“Her solace was in the arms of another. That’s how our marriage ended, me alone on a bike and her with someone who doesn’t remind her of what happened.”
“I buried him on my rides. He never existed but still the same I buried him so deep there’s no memory, no pain, no loss. How could there be for something that never existed? I tell myself that fate brought him through my life because my wife and I weren’t meant to last.” I down another shot. “It’s good I got out. She got fat and bitter. Angry and ugly, inside and out. I can’t imagine what my hell would be like if I was still with her.” I help myself to more grappa. “In that sense he saved my life.” The woman gets up and goes to the next room, returning with a dark wool blanket she drapes over me before sitting back down and refilling my glass. “It was him on that mountain, I know it as sure as I sit here. He was the one pushing me, driving me to that church. He had things to say, things that could no longer be buried on bike rides.”
“And what was it he said that so devastated you?”
I stare at her in a way that suggests she could never understand even while accepting she already does. “Nothing.” I answer while taking one last shot. “Only that he’s with me. That it’s time to stop running-, hiding from a pain that can’t be buried. I’m standing in that portico, cold, wet, exhausted; mourning my loss for the first time, wanting to be comforted by God, only the gates to his house are locked. And I-, just broke down. A broken man crying for the son I will never know, a piece of me that never got to live. Crying for my soul too, so lost and alone.” I pull my blanket tighter and uses the corner to wipe away tears.
“Then you show up, looking like death. As we leave the church, I realize that he is a part of me, that he will always be a part of me.” I stare blankly at the old woman. “Am I dead? Did you come to collect me?”
The old woman stares back with the unwavering sternness of an Italian Mom who knows exactly when and how to kick someone in the ass. “I can assure you Kyle from Kabyle, you are not dead, but you are not lost anymore either. Tomorrow I will take you back to church so you can see the gates are not locked, they just sometimes get a little stuck.”