Thursday, June 02, 2016
Shot in Detroit: Barry Johnson
At least once a day, and certainly in bed at night, Barry Johnson reviewed the details of his final race. He knew it was a bad idea--more than one shrink had told him to recite poetry or the characters on The Sopranos instead--but it had become unavoidable. Like saying the rosary was for a devout Catholic.
His bike had been only seven months old but well conditioned from many weekend treks. He knew the bike. A dark-red Monster, it handled all terrains. He'd saved up for the bike since high school--every dime he could lay his hands on for six years.
It was his second bike but a lot more powerful than the first one, a used Honda he bought from the mechanic at the corner gas station--a junkyard purchase--but what else could he expect at that price? And not being a gear head, he had to rely on the guy's skill and say so. A sprocket here, a crank shaft there, a cam chain shiny new, then finally something resembling a bike appeared.
He'd never taken to the ersatz Honda--always seemed like the piece of junk it was. Even the paint job was second-rate.
The Ducati was awesome--he like that it wasn't a rice burner--and the chicks flocked to him when he parked it outside a bar or at a track. Stroking the bike like it was a big red dick, asking him for rides. He took it out wheneven he could find the time, raced it twice before the Enduros up near the Dunes. After six months of a Kenpo Karate class, he felt physically prepared. Calm and in command. Had a few rallies under his belt, but this would be his first time-card test.
The bike had been tuned at the dealer the day before. It wasn't necessary, but that was the way he felt about it. He also took special care since he was a novice compared to the grayheads who'd been racing for decades. Fat men, whose asses bulged over their aftermarket gel seats, looked his bike over and shook their heads.
He'd only taken up motocross two years earlier--but he's always been a demon for speed. First skateboards as a kid, then stock cars, but only briefly, Cages made him itchy, trapped. That turned out to be the final irony, didn't it? Back then, a time that seemed very long ago now, it was as if the car drove him--he never really felt one with it. So he moved on to bikes. Like leaning into a turn, feeling each shift in his stomach, vibrations in his calves. And the road beneath him, that was part of it too.
He worked a shit job that paid okay because work didn't matter. He came alive on his bike--loved riding fast. Taking off into the unknown--depopulated neighborhoods in Detroit that were quiet as cemeteries, dirt roads in the midlands, or sandy trails far up north.
Racing required a series of rapid decisions, and he was good at making them. Had the instinct somehow. Loved the sound of the motors, the smell of the oil, gas, grass, dirt, hearing the din, and finally the roar of the crowd. It was his sport.
Until it wasn't.
It'd had been completely random--what happened that day--which made it both harder and easier to take--depending on his level of despair. Someone's broken headlight scattered glass on the track--nobody even knew the fuckin' thing was broken--and his front tire caught a piece, actually several pieces, someone told him later. He'd tried to lay it down when he saw how things were, tried to bring the bike under control, but the tire shredded after a few rotations and he smashed into a wall. First the bike hit the concrete with such force it vibrated uncontrollably, and then his body smacked the wall too, catapulting above the bike--as high as ten feet maybe. A few more feet and he might have cleared the wall entirely, landing safely on the other side. The arbitrariness of it all--that was the hardest thing to keep dwelling on later.
"Don't move," someone kept telling him. No fuckin' chance of that. If he had a body after that, he didn't know it. Seemed to be floating above it all --above the track and himself--wondering why there was no pain. But they, whoever they were, kept repeating the words "don't move" for hours it seemed and he obeyed. Obeyed without trying to because he couldn't have moved if it meant his life. Not even his head or arms at first.
Helicopters, ambulances, wheelchairs--these were his new vehicles. Hospitals, rehab centers, and finally home--his new cages. His parents' house, redesigned in his absence, was a place for his chair, his medical equipment. He took over their room, their lives.
Home. Four wallks, almost all the time now--the ultimate cage. He knew the other guys had fitted vans--custom deals--but to go where? Shopping a the mall, out to Applebees, a movie, a race. No, none of it.
This is what he dreamed every night. That he climbed on the Monster, drove miles up north with his old girlfriend, Michelle, flew into the ozone or whatever lay beyond the cliffs. He could live with that. Or rather die with it. Soaring and free, his choice.
But that wasn't going to happen so he sat out on the porch or in the backyard. Once a kid going down the street had asked, "What happened to you, Mister?"
"Afghanistan," he hollered back.
He never felt the bite of the mosquito, but his thigh swelled up. His parents, then his doctor, then the hospital staff looked at it. Doctors said the insect might have bitten him ten times. never felt a bite, an itch. Nothing. Fuck.
It took a few weeks to die though and it was still the crash he visited in his head. Dying seemed related to that--not to some dumb-ass bug. In his head, he was back on his bike, Michelle holding on tight, sailing into the ether off the sandstone cliffs of Picture Rock. Wind in his face felt so good, her breath on his neck even better. Soaring above all of it.