Kyle From Kabyle

A building bank of clouds hover over the Mediterranean’s eastern horizon casting the sky in daylight darkness. After weeks of relentless riding the cool air’s refreshing but causes Kyle to hurriedly finish his croissant and coffee, break camp, and pack his panniers to best keep things dry, particularly his journal chronicling everything that’s happen since Barcelona. He effortlessly puts Nice behind him and crosses Monaco without changing gears. That abruptly ends in Italy though as the terrain turns suddenly steep adding to his disquieted sense those clouds racing toward him are certain trouble.

The narrow road to Genoa hugs the Rivera, rising then falling from rocky ridges to smooth sand beaches with the same intensity as the wild waves pounding the shore. Most days this would be a beautiful but challenging ride, today’s strong headwinds married to escalating energy pierces the soul with a somber unsettledness that causes any reasonable rider to abandon the road in lieu of shelter. Kyle would too, but only has two days to make Milan, two days of hard mountain climbing, which means he has to press on irrespective of consequence.

At the top of a high ridge, he leans his bike against the rock guardrail and stares down the cliff to the beach below where powerful waves pound rocks, shooting geysers high in the air. He looks across the Mediterranean toward Algiers while donning his raincoat remembering a novel he read about Barbary Coast Pirates from a region called Kabyle. He imagines what he’d be like as a pirate; “Kyle the Pirate from Kabyle,” he tells himself. “Rebel for adventure, rescuing peasants from a wretched life at the hands of maniacal monarchs and oppressive rulers. Living on the high sea where yesterday goes unasked, tomorrow unwritten, with today about the possibilities for undiscovered treasure.” He pushes toward the storm chastising himself; you can’t outrun your past and you can’t save the world, you’re barely able to save yourself, and that’s on a good day. Isn’t that the point of this journey? This bike ride from Barcelona to Milan, to prove you can move forward, that life is constant motion and to be frozen in the past or locked in a future that must be fulfilled is as meaningless as pretending to be Kyle from Kabyle.

Just outside Genoa, the storm moving west collides with the Kyle moving east, and by the time he finds the longshoreman’s bar in the rough part of town, he’s bone wrenching wet. He knows before stepping inside this is a place filled with men used to hard life here for an after-shift drink or one last shot of espresso before hitting the docks. Kyle doesn’t care how he’ll be perceived; he needs a place to ride out this storm and is ready to defend his right to sit at that small table near the back kitchen. No sooner does he slip off his bright yellow raincoat, lean his panniers against the wall, and settle in than a burly fellow with 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.” Kyle stares at this stranger who’s more a homeless bum than hard-living longshoreman. “Name’s Jeffreys,” he says extending his hand, “but most these blokes call me Father J.”

“You’re a priest?” Kyle asks in disbelief.

“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 become the Pope, we all got goals, right? Somewhere along my journey to Rome though, God calls on me to minister to these sinners, and that’s a full-time job. This might very well 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, what’s your deal? 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.”

“Oh, there’s a story, otherwise you wouldn’t be alone. People aren’t built to be alone. Let’s start with your name?”

“Kyle.”

“Nice to meet you Kyle, where you from?”

“Kabyle.” Kyle’s not sure why he says that, he doesn’t mean to, but then again, it’s not anyone’s business where he’s from.

“Kyle from Kabyle, I like it! Sort of just rolls off your tongue. Lots of Kabyles come 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 so well for you.” 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 on these docks, everyone’s allowed to be whoever 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, Kyle comes clean. “I’m from Kansas.”

“I’ll be damned, Kyle from Kansas. Phonically appropriate, but poetically empty I’d have to say. I’ll be staying with Kyle from Kabyle, far more gravitas.” He mops up egg yolk with bread. “Pirates are a hardy lot. They think they’re pursuing a life of adventure, but what they’re really doing is running from something they hope never finds them. I’m betting whatever set you on your adventure is huge.”

“You don’t talk much like a Priest,” Kyle deflects.

“I know,” Father J answers with contrition. “I’m a sinner for sure. I try, and given I spend all my time around these rascals with their foul language, I do okay. I’ll never be Pope, 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 at Kyle with a grin, “no one wants to get to the gates and find them locked.” As they finish their 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 are you gonna do next?”

“Figure to hunker down here til 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 in two days and there’s a whole lot of mountains between here and there.”

“Then take a bus, only option ya got.”

“No, this journey needs to be by bike.”

“Spoken like a true Yank, ya set some arbitrary goal then die making it. Ya best be moving then before this storm really kicks loose. The road to Milan goes North so who knows, maybe you outflank it. But then, maybe ya don’t.” He leans in. “If it rains in those mountains, keep to high ground cause water rises fast in canyons.” Kyle gets up to leave, slipping his still wet raincoat over his still soaked clothes. “We both know you could change your flight,” Father J asserts. “Something in you though, needs to suffer, it’s calling you out. So go foolish man, climb your mountain in the rain, suffer so as to get at whatever “it” is. I’ll pray you get there.”

Kyle stares at this oddly out of place Priest. “Thanks, I think.” He semi-smiles before heading to the door. The last thing he hears before barroom noise is subsumed by the pounding storm is Father J shouting, “Which of you sinners is gonna buy a drink for your favorite Padre!”

Through the clear-top, waterproof phone case attached to his handlebars, Kyle’s barely able to read directions as he makes his way from the loading docks up narrow side streets to the only road leading to Milan. What he doesn’t expect to find at the northern edge of town is a customs and immigration control center maned by serious soldiers armed with automatic weapons. He’s guided to the end terminal of the multiplex reserved for commercial trucks where the guard delivers Kyle’s tragic news in fluent English.

“Bicycles are not allowed on the M4.”

“But it’s the only road to Milan”

“There is another, it’s a level two so bicycles are permitted.”

“So how do I get there?”

“It is five kilometers up this road.”

“That I’m not allowed on?”

“So, you understand the tragedy of your situation? Tomorrow you can take a bus to that other road.”

“I have to be in Milan in two days.”

“I am sorry, no more busses today.”

Kyle pleads and argues with the patiently apologetic guard, but to no avail. He considers camping in this spot until the guard relents, but truckers queued up behind him are growing impatient. Finally, out of desperation, he makes one last plea. “What if I just take off, will you shoot me?”

“Our instructions today are not to shoot anyone. I will call to that office building over there and they’ll send a chase car to arrest you.”

“How far you think I’d get before getting caught?”

The guard smiles, “They’d have you within 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 process all these truckers you made to wait first, at least I think that is what the regulations say.” He leans out his window to better look down the line of trucks. “That end truck’s my cousin, he’d take you to Milan for very low cost.”

“No, I have to get there on my own.”

“In that case, I am almost certain there’s something fishy with his paperwork that will take fifteen, maybe even twenty minutes to clear. How fast can you peddle?

“Fast enough to try.”

“Stay to the far side of the road, there is no shoulder.” He hands Kyle back his passport. “Buona fortuna, amico mio, peddle hard and be mindful of the canyons.”

“Thanks,” Kyle says stuffing his passport into its waterproof bag, “you’re a saint.”

“Don’t tell that to my boss when you get caught.” The control guard smiles proudly watching Kyle disappear into the rain-drenched fog. “Fifteen minutes, amico mio, perhaps twenty.” He flips the traffic switch from red to green to call the next trucker in.

Kyle quickly calculates that in fifteen minutes he’ll go three kilometers at best. If it takes four minutes for the chase crew to start their pursuit, and five minutes to catch up, he’ll be another kilometer or so up the road. That puts him more than a kilometer from the exit, which means one thing, he’d better pedal harder. Almost on schedule, twenty-four minutes into his rain-drenched dash up the mountain, he hears the distant sound of an approaching siren. As if by fate, it’s then he sees a sign for his exit, two kilometers away. It’s been a hard climb made even harder by mountain winds and pulsating rain. His legs are mush, his lungs are lapsing, and there’s little energy left in reserve. The rain’s soaked through his cloths and panniers adding weight to the eighty pounds of gear he’s already packing. The siren draws nearer, and he knows he won’t make it. He looks around for a place to hide, but the road’s been carved into the mountain leaving bare rock on both sides. He considers hiding in the thick fog but it’s not really an option.

With one-and-a-half-kilometers to go, the siren’s practically inside Kyle’s water-logged ear, a penetrating sound that taunts him like a wounded animal being poked by a sadistic hunter. But wait, the chase crew’s stuck behind a semi struggling to climb the hill because there’s nowhere to pull over and the fog’s too thick to attempt to pass. Kyle feels his pedals soften as he summits and starts downhill. He drops below the peak listening one last time for the loud howl of the straining diesel in front of an anxious siren. So now there’s hope; it’s going to be close, but there is hope.

While the ascent was long and steep, the decent is significantly shorter with a straight but dangerous drop. At least he hopes it’s straight because in this fog who can know. He has to risk it, he has to turn his touring bike lose and take his chances. Isn’t that what this journey is about? Traveling alone, carrying everything he needs, camping in the woods at night, is that not his metaphor? Still though, setting gravity free on a fog-encased wet and windy road with a chase crew in hot pursuit is pushing the risk envelope. Yet he does, and his bike ladened with eight pounds of survival gear and what water he’s soaked up, boosts gravity’s ability to build speed to the point his tires hydroplane and the stiff bike frame vibrates at the edge of control. But there is hope, and hope demands risk. Behind him the semi-driver downshifts causing a high-pitched whine to echo off rock cut walls before being absorbed by fog; his pursuers have reached the summit and can now close in.

Kyle pushes his water soaked-body into his waterlogged bike setting aside his fear of hydroplaning. With the jake-braking truck drawing near, he ratchets up to his highest gear, peddling without consequence. When it seems the truck’s engine is about to devour him in both sound and fury, when the reality of his foolish foray is reaching its inevitable conclusion, a bright blue sign emerges from the fog. Kyle doesn’t need to know Italian to understand the arrow pointing down means he’s reached the exit, his goal, his precious gateway to Milan. Veering sharply onto the ramp and pushing stronger into his pedals, he vanishes in the fog bank just as the semi passes with the chase crew in frustrated pursuit.

Kyle coasts down the ramp exhausted but exonerated, he finds a parking lot in what appears to be a tile manufacturing plant closed for the day. Taking refuge in a covered portico connecting two buildings, finally he can catch his breath. The rain’s increased steadily since leaving Genoa and water’s starting to collect in low spots and fill drainage ditches that seem to run everywhere in this valley like veins in a body, like the life blood of the mountains. He remains under the portico eating an energy bar and drinking water naively clinging to the belief this storm will pass. He digs through his panniers for dry clothes, but everything’s soaked, except his passport and journal secured in their waterproof bags.

Fog hovers low over the valley floor keeping the interstate bridge hidden so the returning chase car, with its siren still blaring, can’t peer into his sanctuary. The wind has all but disappeared causing Kyle to concede the Priest was right, this storm’s not going anywhere. His optimistic plan was to make it halfway to Milan where a reasonable-sized town has a hotel to hole up in for the night. With his delay in Genoa, and the difficulty of riding in rain, he’s still six to seven hours out. That must be his goal, otherwise, he’ll have to camp in the mountains and given his clothes and gear are wet, it’d be pretty miserable.

He starts up the canyon passing a small village with houses lining the road because the looming mountains don’t allow for a wider expanse. Either nature or engineers have dug a drainage ditch along the road that’s filled with water gushing down the canyon. If rains don’t ease, the ditch will soon overflow onto the road. With the fog hanging fifty feet off the valley floor, visibility would be fine, only rain splashing against his glasses makes seeing a spotted challenge. He’s staying warm for now because he’s still close to the sea, but with each peddle north into the mountains, he feels the air draw decidedly colder.

Between here and his first shot at a hotel lies fifty miles of mountains having three ten-percent climbs. In the world of cycling, one ten-percenter is considered a challenge, but three in succession is a brutal excess only the Alps could conjure. Water now skims the road so each passing car showers Kyle in road vapors. The climbs are hard, and the descents must be managed slow, not only because of all the switchbacks, but because debris has started to wash across the road creating hazards that can only be spotted when right on them. Each time he climbs, he leaves the clear valley floor and peddles into the hovering cloud bank. Each time he descends, he finds himself traveling beside the nature or man-made ditch that is now overflowing onto the road. When he reaches the top of the first ten-percent summit, Kyle looks down to gauge the rate the storm’s intensifying.

It’s strange being above a storm and watching lightening below knowing that on your decent you’ll pass through those very same clouds. But what choice does he have, his plane departs in two days, he’s forty miles from the nearest hotel, and all his gear’s soaking wet. But really, he could change his reservation, he could have holed up in Genoa, or better yet never left Nice. Something told him to go, a whisper on the wind, a part of him that knew when he first assessed the encroaching storm that fate wants him in it. That he’s somehow meant to be subsumed by clouds and suffer through nature on her terms. The Priest knew it, as did the border patrol guard, why else would he let him pass? Why would he hold back the chase crew? Kyle accepts that fate needs him out here, and soon enough, that reason, in fact the entire purpose of his journey, will be revealed.

On his second long climb, Kyle’s body betrays him. After weeks on the road, he’s learned to read the signs and when the mind starts negotiating, you’re close to all in. But he can’t stop, the mountain won’t let him. The mountain demands more. The more he peddles the more it demands, and whatever you give is never enough. Weather’s your tormentor, teasing you with caches of calm before rain roars back with laughter and wind bullies you with pulsating pricks as increasing large drops bounce off your body like baseballs. Cold is your enemy, slowly sucking out life, first your toes get numb, then your fingers find it hard to grip the wet handlebars, and the brakes. Cold creeps all the way into your bones and once core body temperature drops, it’s hard to rebound.

On the second long decent, a strange twist in ongoing negotiations occurs as Kyle’s soul steps up having something to say, only his mind refuses to listen. Hasn’t that been his pattern? His mind running such a tight ship since everything that’s happened, happened, leaving his soul in suffocating silence. Wasn’t that the real reason he undertook this journey, to find a way to breathe again? Isn’t that the reason he’s out here in this storm when he could have stayed in Nice or taken a bus? His soul wants its say, and somehow in this decent when his mind’s distracted by negotiations, his soul finds a way.

As he coasts into the small valley village, the ditch has overflowed onto to the entire road and his bike’s riding in water that’s over the rims and into the spokes creating a contrail of vapors in his wake. While the valley is warmer than the mountains, a bone chill’s set in so hard Kyle knows he can’t continue. He needs some sort of shelter to try and get warm. He could just knock on someone’s door, but all the houses lining the road seem abandoned, or at least so buttoned-down strangers are not welcome. He considers breaking into a shed or garage, but even his befuddled mind’s able to overrule that. He spots a small church beside the road and decides to take shelter there, after all, who would deny a weary traveler refuge in a church?

Kyle leans his bike along the side wall as high above the encroaching water as his can. He unstraps his panniers and starts for the covered portico convinced he’ll be allowed to spread his clothes and camping gear along the pews while both he and his stuff dry out. Even though he’s chilled to the bone and still has one more ten percent climb to conquer, the thought of taking shelter in a church provides a sense of contentment, a feeling that this is where fate feels he should be. Water racing down the valley has spread to the bottom step of the portico but since his shoes are already soaked and his feet long ago numb, he slogs through the water unhindered.

The church is small and unassuming and is 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. A five-foot covered portico spans the entire front wall. 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 security gates are closed. Kyle steps onto the portico and peers through the gates to the church inside. There’s ten rows of pews with a wide isle down the center. The back wall is mostly stained glass behind a simple alter. Kyle’s already laying out a strategy for how he’ll spread his cloths and gear when he reaches to open the gate, only to find to is profound disappointment, it’s locked.

He calls inside but there’s no response. He walks around the church hoping to find another door or perhaps a rectory in the rear. Finding nothing, he returns to the portico. Cold, wet, numb from riding in through bone chilling rain, his mind races for solutions even as a part of him comes to terms with the consequences of his decisions. He could define his entire life in terms of consequence. That’s what he’s telling himself as he stares through the locked gate to the crucifix hanging on the back wall. It’s at that moment, his soul to finally get its say. With numb fingers clutching the cold gate to keep from falling, Kyle from Kansas collapses.

No one can say for sure; not Kyle, not the villagers, perhaps not even fate itself, how long he cowled in the corner of the portico shivering like a wet rat and crying for reasons he refuses to know. Word spreads though the abandoned houses of an American in distress and it falls on 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 to find Kyle huddled in the corner; his body curled in a ball looking like a frightened child who’s just seen a ghost. “Hello,” she says in thick Italian English. When Kyle doesn’t respond, she kicks him, “You awake?”

Kyle stares at this woman unsure if she’s human or an avatar of death. She’s a frail eighty-something wearing a black scarf over her 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 glove covered hand. “You are American, yes?” she asks. “Only Americans are senseless enough to be out in weather like this.”

Kyle tries to stand but can’t. “I have to be Milan in two days.”

“Should have taken the bus.”

“Seems to be the consensus opinion.” Kyle uses the floor and wall to push himself up with great 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 she reaches the high spot in the center of the road and only then turns back. “What are you waiting for, I can’t carry you.”

Hesitantly, Kyle steps off the portico and into the very rain responsible for everything that’s happened. He’s not sure if he’s allowed to leave the church but decides it’s best to follow this strange woman to wherever they’re going. He doesn’t remember much about where she lives or how they got there, but sometime later he awakens in a warm dry bed and either the storm’s severely intensified, or it’s well past dark. A small light across the bedroom shows his clothes dried and neatly folded on a chair. His sleeping bag’s been laid out on the floor beside his tent. With sudden concern, he lifts the blankets to find himself completely naked. Uncertain where he’s at, how he got here, or who his benefactor is, Kyle gets up and though wobbly at first, manages to put on his non-biking clothes and make his way down the hallway toward where light and sounds emanate. He tentatively steps 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 freshly made bread.’”

Kyle sits down as ordered, still trying to piece together the string of events that brought him here. There were the mountain climbs and harrowing descents, the cold rain and bone chilling numbness, the episode at the church – although he can’t pinpoint the cause. It’s as if his brain’s moved on and now blocks all memories of how or why.

“You eat now,” she instructs, “then we talk about what happened. But first say grace.”

“That’s not really my thing.”

“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.”

Kyle is about to counter but the woman’s already bowed her head. Not knowing what else to do, he bows his and is still sorting through what to do, even how to pray if that became his choice when-

“So, Kyle for Kabyle,” she interrupts, “what were you doing in my church?”

Kyle looks up stunned, “what did you say?”

The woman ladles two bowls of soup and slices the bread, she then gestures for Kyle 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.”

Kyle is momentarily lost for words, “I- ah-, misspoke. I’m from Kansas.” The woman again gestures for him to eat. “Kabyle’s just a place I read about.”

“What kind of place?”

Kyle takes a moment to consider the 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 church crying like a lost child?”

“Crying?”

“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, Kyle changes 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 base. 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 Americans, you quickly discard what you no longer need.”

“Sometimes,” Kyle returns, “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,” Kyle struggles 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 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 should be my 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.” Kyle drinks back his grappa that 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 knowing it’s 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.” He takes another shot. “That’s when I had my episode.”

The woman refills his glass. “You didn’t cry because of a stuck gate.”

Kyle gathers himself. “No.” He draws downs another round staring blankly at the woman, unsure his brain’s ready to open that dark door. “I had a son once. 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 she was pregnant. Then one morning she starts having pains that get so bad I rush her to the hospital. They do all kinds of this and thats, but in the end tell us the baby has been 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, on this journey from Barcelona to Milan.”

“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.” Kyle downs 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.” Kyle has 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 Kyle before sitting back down and refilling his glass. “It was him on that mountain,” Kyle continues. “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 a bike ride.”

“And what was it he said that so devastated you?”

Kyle stares at her in a way that suggests she could never understand even while accepting she already does. “Nothing.” He drinks his grappa. “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 there, 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. He pulls his blanket tighter and uses his napkin to wipe away tears.

“Then you show up, I thought you were death. As I left the church, I realized that he is a part of me, that he will always be a part of me.” Kyle takes one last shot of grappa. He stares at the old woman. “Am I dead? Did you come to collect me?”

The old woman stares back at Kyle with the unwavering sternness of an Italian mother 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.”