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Vivian Wagner

Kickback

I rode my Harley-Davidson Sportster, alone, from my Appalachian Ohio village down to Daytona. On a motorcycle, you feel the rise and fall of land, the heft and weight of mountains, the reach and stretch of curves. I rode past rushing streams and redbud trees just starting to bloom.

On the ride, my dad kept calling my cell phone. I’d see his number through the polyurethane pouch of my tank bag.

I kept not answering.

***

Motorcycles and guns were my dad’s two passions. I have pictures of him as a child in rural Alabama, a Hungarian Jewish immigrant fresh from the Holocaust. In one he’s in a leather jacket on a 1949 Indian, hair slicked back, looking like James Dean. In another he’s pointing a rifle to the sky.

***

My dad taught me how to ride motorcycles the summer I turned 15 on a 1971 Hodaka in the California mountains. He taught me how to kickstart it, how to shift, how to lean, how to anticipate curves. He also taught me how to fall. How to get the bike up after a crash. 

***

In Virginia, I stopped for lunch and called my sister.

“Why is dad calling me so much?” I asked her. 

She said he’d been doing this. Calling her, worried about everything, forgetting everything. Gunning out of control.

***

My dad also taught me to shoot guns. We’d go up the hill, among the junipers and pines, set up targets on bales of hay.

He taught me how to zero in, how to aim slightly higher because of the bullet’s arcing trajectory. How to hit the center, how to hit the head. How to squeeze, not pull, the trigger.

***

When I returned to Ohio, I had all these voicemails from dad. I didn’t want to hear them, but my daughter did. She listened for a long time.

After a while, she put the phone down. “Well?” I asked.

“I think he just misses you,” she said.

***

A few weeks later, my father shot himself. My sister sent me a message overnight, and I called her early the next morning.

We stayed on the phone together for long silent minutes that stretched across the country like held breath.

***

Kickback happens when the momentum pushing the bullet forward comes back at the shooter. Your body absorbs the waves, and you have to steady and ground yourself.

My dad taught me how to handle kickback, how to absorb that force, how to be flexible, how to keep it from affecting my aim.

***

I drove into the desert after dad’s funeral. Clouds brewed over volcanic hills in the distance. I parked and walked out onto the white sand, feeling the stray spit of rain.

I tore off a piece of sagebrush, releasing a pungent perfume that smelled like a secret. I think I started crying. My dad was in the ground.

***

When my turn came at the suicide survivor’s support group, I tried to tell my story, but all that came out were tears as hot and quick as desert rain, and a few details, a disjointed narrative of a father and daughter, of unanswered calls, of motorcycles and guns, of things forgotten, of things learned.

***

I was scared only once on the Florida trip. It happened where the interstate climbs over the Appalachian Ridge at Fancy Gap and then drops down, precipitously, into North Carolina’s Piedmont region.

The Appalachians were once much larger than any other North American mountains. Though over eons they’ve eroded, they still have depth and danger. Semis barreled past, the wind buffeting me. I had to push back, hard, just to stay upright, but I held my own, leaning my small bike into the curves.

 


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