Never ask an old man if he recalls his youth. Some wounds,
some windows never close. Scooter Johnson
August 1953 - Fillmore California
The throaty bass rumble of asbestos-wrapped pipes, the growling, grew closer, then stopped. The right sound, one of theirs. Connor and a few others in the bar looked up when Stamper walked into Gutter’s, his entry announced by the wood-framed screen door clapping shut, the tortured screech of rusty closure springs released from the stretch. From behind the bar, Bambo’s head came up, swiveled on his bull neck, throwing an icy glare at Stamper as he dusted off his jacket and his jeans, stomped his feet, released the dust from his ride south. Eddie Fisher’s latest song whispered low from the dented jukebox in the corner. The women liked Eddie Fisher, dropped dimes on him. It’s his eyes, they said. To the men, Fisher was too clean-cut: no guts, no soul.
Connor’s scuffed railroad boot pushed out a chair, offering Stamper a place at the table, as warm a welcome home as he would get, as friendly as he could expect or need in this company of nods and gestures. Stamper shucked off his black leather jacket, leaving a sweat-soaked tee-shirt stuck to his body, stretched out the three-hundred-mile road kinks, then looked over his shoulder toward the bar. Waved at Bambo for a beer, received a fuck you finger in return. Sitting next to Connor, Gilmore grunted acknowledgment of his return to the nest, back to the club.
“Man, it’s good to be back. Fucking hot out there,” said Stamper.
“About time,” Connor said to his young friend.
A wilted waitress placed a cold bottle on the table in front of Stamper, scooped up a loose dollar next to the ashtray, not caring whose, retreated to her place near the fan at the end of the bar, keeping the forty cents change without asking, without receiving a nod or chin lift of permission.
Stamper raised his bottle, took a long first swallow. “Got new swing arms, and a new air filter cover; beauties, triple chromed.”
Gilmore hacked, cleared his throat. “Too flashy. Might as well get your forks pushed out, get ape hanger handlebars too. Hell, go all the way, paint your bike candy-ass red.” He was an old hand, one of the first Road Dogs, bringing his thousand-mile stare, his cracked leather-skinned face, too soon old at thirty-five. Gilmore sat with his right leg extended, favoring it: the wounded one, a souvenir from Europe’s war. With his last word, he tilted his chair back, knocking it against the scar-scraped wall, folded his arms as if cross holstering a pair of six-shooters.
“Nah,” said Stamper, “extended forks are a fad. Makes the front end too light, too unstable.” Pausing, he downshifted to a new topic, one suiting his more immediate plans, his needs. “Any new babes around?”
Connor searched Stamper’s face for changes since he’d last seen him, curious about his lengthy absence, sensed a new nervousness. “New to you or to us? Big difference, you know. Whatcha been up to in Modesto all this time?”
“Just earning some sit-back money so I can lie low, sample the sweet life for a few months. Came back to find a gal to shack up with. One with her own place, a job. A car would be nice, too.” Beer bottle met wind-parched lips. He took another long draw. Drops of water slid down the amber glass, falling to the table.
Connor noticed Stamper’s knuckles were scraped raw, wondered what trouble trailed behind Stamper. What he was trying to outrun. “Lay low from what? Did you get your ass in trouble up there?” It’s always the young ones, those who missed the war draft. Too young, untested, but Stamper had been Connor’s friend long before he joined the Dogs.
Stamper shifted in his seat, not getting his feet settled, not meeting Connor’s eyes. Another over-the-shoulder look at Bambo. Turning back, he said, “Naw, just an expression. Who’s cooking these days? Mama Rosa still here?”
Gilmore raised his chin, scratched the stubble on his neck. “Yeah, still serving up Tex-Mex.” He leaned forward, landing his chair on all four legs. Wood on wood. “Hey, if you’re gonna order, get me some chili with crackers, lots of crackers . . . the chili with meat . . . and tortillas.”
“Connor?” asked Stamper as he stood.
“Not for me. Jenette’s got supper waiting at home.”
The waitress wasn’t interested in moving away from the fan. In the afternoon heat, even the flies walked slowly. Stamper returned with two large bowls, crackers, and grave-digger spoons; three beers thrusting from his road-dirty jeans like fused mortar shells. He pushed a bowl toward Gilmore.
“I need a place to crash tonight, get a shower, get my bearings.” He looked at Connor, asked, “Got any room at your place?”
Connor’s stare tightened. “Not a chance. Not since the last time you showed up drunk on your ass at three in the morning. Jenette is still pissed about that.” He tilted his head to the west. “Johnson’s got some empties.” The flat words faded in the space between the two men. He knew Stamper wanted at least a temporary shack tonight, not some cheap, by-the-hour motel room.
Stamper looked over his shoulder again, canvassing the bar. “Still early. I’m gonna wait for the gals to show, all painted up, engines hot. What’s with the new sign over the bar?”
“Brawl last Saturday night,” said Connor, pointing to a new plywood patch on the ceiling. “Bambo used his shotgun to keep the place from being torn apart. Didn’t see it myself.”
“No knives, no bottles, no pool cues,” Stamper read from the hand-painted slanted sign. “Musta been a big one. Anyone hurt bad?”
“Nothin’ we couldn’t patch up ourselves,” said Gilmore, crumbling a fist full of crackers into his bowl, spoon-mashing them into the dark red beans, his other hand adding splashes of hot sauce, emptying half the sticky bottle.
Stamper looked again at the sign behind the bar, protecting the top shelf whiskey, tequila, and vodka from whatever became airborne in fun or anger. “Looks like Bambo forgot to put ‘no guns’ on the sign.”
“Didn’t need to,” said Connor. “We got our fill of guns in the war, dragging our asses, trying to find people who wanted to kill us. Find ’em before they found us.” Connor waited, sipped his beer while the other two men ate.
Gilmore finished in quick scoops, dipping in rolled tortillas, teeth ripping them, using the last one to wipe his bowl. “Eat fast, sleep deep, ride hard,” he told those interested in his personal philosophy; most weren’t. He didn’t care much for theirs either.
Stamper kept his head down, chewed the greasy beans and meat—one bite, one sip, his way. Without looking, he raised his arm, waved an empty beer bottle toward the bar for another. “Anything new from LA or Frisco?”
Gilmore pulled out his bandana, wiped his mouth, coughed into it, then wrist-flicked open his lighter to fire up a Lucky Strike. Eight paper-wrapped tobacco stubs lay dead in the ashtray on the table. In two minutes, this one would be put to rest with the others. He folded over the butts, pressed them into the ashtray, a single act, not a dabbing motion, not rattling the shallow, tar stained metal bowl. He didn’t like things that rattled, not in the quiet, not on his motorcycle.
“Still gettin’ shit in the papers like about the Hollister rally in ‘47. It’s been six years—six goddamn years! They’re still tellin’ lies and makin’ up new shit. Riot, they said. Hell, I was there. Weren’t no riot. A few drunks got thrown in the can, couple guys broke arms when they dumped their bikes. That was it.” Gilmore exhausted a cloud of blue-gray smoke, refreshing the layered haze in the bar, picked a loose shred of tobacco from his lip, examined it, flicked it to the floor. “Some clubs in Frisco and LA are livin’ up to the bad press, just to give ’em the finger, ya know? Hangin’ on to the one-percenter outlaw tag all proud-like.” Gilmore coughed again, leaned to the side, spat in the corner. “I’m glad I don’t haveta live in those anthills. Damn good chili.” Gilmore claimed his persistent hack resulted from being gassed near Bastogne, the spot on the map of Europe where he’d been wounded, leaving behind blood, muscle, and skin. Everyone knew his affliction came from the three decks a day he sucked into his lungs. Everyone knew the Germans didn’t use gas in the war, not on battlefields.
Stamper chewed the last of his beans, let the spoon chime in the bowl, absorbed the news. “Yeah, saw some of that up in Modesto.” He pushed his bowl to the center of the table, pulled at his still damp tee-shirt, sniffed his armpits. “I’m gonna clean up at the storeroom sink, grab my bedroll for a snooze out back in the shade, get ready for tonight.” The waitress’s sleepy eyes followed Stamper as he walked to the front door, as did another pair with more than a casual interest.
Connor tapped the table lightly, caught Gilmore’s attention, ran his fingers along the knuckles of his right hand.
“Yeah. I saw it,” said Gilmore.
When Stamper disappeared into the storeroom, the farmhand left. Connor hadn’t noticed his boots—like his, they were too heavy for fieldwork.
After a whore’s bath, a shave, and a change of clothes, Stamper settled in under the metal awning for a siesta. Drifting off, he wondered if any of the young Mexican women he’d known before were still around, free to latch. They were all good cooks.
Night fell. Stamper rose.
Riders came from other places, lured by California’s imagined promises, falling like raindrops, soon absorbed in the California dust. Most were combat veterans of the Second World War, or from the just-ended Korean War. Sometimes both. Soldiers who never stopped being soldiers, who missed the beat, the tight comradeship, the struggle to survive—at the same time hating it—riding grinding road machines to drown out the reverberating echoes and chaos of shell fire and the screams of their comrades. They came to wash their ghosts away in the sun.
In the postwar American spring, they found this new season was not meant for them. Some came by Gutter’s in the small town of Fillmore, in the long river valley of Ventura County, where they formed new squads, new platoons. In the club’s closed-in world, everything felt right, or at least reasonably right enough to continue without laying down, without quitting, taking life one step at a time, not counting them, and not looking back.
Like the new sign, everything was slanted at Gutter’s, presented askew; nothing came at you straight on. Check your flanks. Never look up at the scorching blue or occasionally slate gray sky that reminds you how insignificant you are. After closing time, the dark of night became a blanket to huddle under, a time of nightmares for the afflicted veterans. A motorcycle meant freedom to appear or disappear: no perimeters, no front lines, no morning musters. The smell of engine oil preferred to gun lubricant. Similar scenes played out in dozens of places along the West Coast and other survivor islands in the East and Midwest. The gravity of the motorcycle clubs pulled them in one by one, linking arms, refusing to let anyone slip under. The shouldered burdens they carried home labeled them as losers in the society they’d fought for. Now shunned, the veterans were feared by those who held no understanding of the war still being waged inside them. Many had been dumped, dispersed at discharge depots. No parades for them. They walked in soldiers, were processed out as civilians. Pushed into the sunlight, they cast shadows they didn’t recognize as their own.
These men held no hunger to join the flood tide into postwar suburbs, manufactured towns of cardboard cutout houses: every third one the same, set too close together, no front porches. They had no appetite for lifelong loyalty to work, to a company, leashed to one place in a numbing job to pay the mortgage, buy a new car, burn charcoal in the backyard. No stomach for standing alongside driveway acquaintances, jangling keys and coins in their pockets, eyeing other men’s wives who drank rum and coke. Not for them. The walls were too high, the effort not worth it, the ground not solid under their feet. For these riders, the past—even before the wars—had not been kind. Even as children, they’d sensed a bright future was a mirage meant for someone else. Nothing mattered except today. Tomorrow, if a club ride was scheduled.
Saturday morning. Gutter’s cinder block restroom was still locked, so Sonny went out back to take a piss before going inside to complain. As he let out his stream, a low moan drew his gaze to a pile of caked blood-rusty clothes, to a battered body, lying in the scrub ten feet from the building: a bruised and beaten Stamper, his jacket knife-sliced, his club patches missing. Scalped for trophies.