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Stranded in West Virginia

My motorcycle has died.

It is Sunday, and for the last five hours, I have been sitting at a tollbooth in West Virginia. Locating a tow truck able to deal with a motorcycle is a pain, but eventually the answering service tells me someone is on the way. The folks at the tollbooth are kind, giving me coffee and water and offering to help any way they can. Several travelers also offer help, but without a tow truck, there is nothing anyone can do.

The bike makes an odd noise, but I rule out the battery — it is new — and the starter. My best guess is the voltage regulator has fizzled out, which is not something I can fix. There is nothing to do but sit here and watch cars stop and go at the tollbooth. Most people throw coins into a rectangular container attached to the wall. Sometimes they miss, but with so many cars waiting to get through, the agent waves them on anyway. I wonder if they miss deliberately if they do not have enough change. Since I do not have anything better to do, I keep track of the hits and misses, thinking it might be an interesting statistic for someone. But, before long, here comes the tow truck.

Once loaded and tied down with bright yellow straps, my bike sits on the back of the tow truck. I’m astonished by how much stuff is stacked on the rear fender. It is higher than the windshield. My bags do not look so imposing when the bike is parked on the ground, and it makes me wonder how some men travel with only a blanket rolled up near the windshield of their motorcycle.

As it turns out, the Harley dealership is closed on Sundays, which means I will have to hire another truck in the morning to tow it over to their service department. In the meantime, we have been dropped off at a motel. Since I previously purchased an extended warranty in case of a breakdown, this forced delay is actually an unplanned-for luxury.

If I’m more than a hundred miles from home, my warranty will pay for my room for three days and for a rental car. I pass on the car because I want to rest for a few days, and I enjoy walking for a change. This is great—a real bed, a hot shower, and a TV.

Life does not get any better than this.

* * *

On Monday, I arrange to have the bike towed to the shop later in the day.

I have extra time, want to color my hair, and decide to walk down to a small store about a half mile away. It is only seven in the morning, but already the weather is warm and pleasant outside. I slick my hair into a ponytail, slip on a pair of tights and a baggy sweatshirt, grab my sunglasses, and head out. There is no reason to wear my heavy leather coat, so I leave it hanging in the closet.

It never occurs to me to take my gun.

The walk to the store is uneventful. I follow a narrow, potholed street with repair equipment sitting on both sides of the road. No workmen are around and I’m the only one on this quiet and peaceful road. I buy my hair coloring and head back toward the motel.

I’m about halfway back to the motel when I hear a car approach from the rear. The car is scarcely moving, the tires thumping softly into the potholes. As the car creeps past me, I briefly look at the driver, a young man, maybe thirty, with disheveled bleached-blond hair. He is driving an older black GTO and deliberately sits so low in the seat, I’m surprised he can see over the dashboard. Neither of us acknowledges the other as he passes; this is not a friendly encounter. Instantly, my nerves tingle and I’m on guard. I have seen his type before in my law office. This man has the look of a predator.

The man drives slowly toward the end of the road, and I can tell by the way his head is tilted he is watching me in the rearview mirror. I straighten up and continue walking, but I do not run. It is important not to show fear, but the hairs on the back of my neck prickle.

The road is narrow, and with the heavy equipment in the way, he cannot turn around on this narrow street. Cement barriers obstruct the end. He has no choice but to drive to the barriers, turn left, go around the block, and come up from behind me again. I see the motel in the distance and start walking faster.

Shit. I hear the car slowly start up the street again. I glance around for a rock or something threatening, but there is only hard dirt. I have the small package in my hand, but it is not a weapon. I take several deep breaths to calm myself.

He is methodically closing the gap between us.

Once, when Steve and I were sitting in a booth at a bar, a guy standing somewhere behind us started yelling at Steve. Steve gently pushed me into the corner of the booth and told me to stay there. He got up and turned to face the man. I could tell by the look on Steve’s face there was going to be trouble. I expected Steve to take a fighting stance, put his hands up, double his fists, and get ready to fight.

Instead, I watched the most amazing transformation take place. Steve slowly positioned himself with his legs slightly apart. His shoulders relaxed and dropped, his arms hanging loose at his sides. This happened in one smooth movement as he leaned slightly forward. There was no tension revealed by his body language. The astounding result was one very dangerous-looking and frightening individual.

For the first time since Steve and I had been going together, I saw the man that my father had warned me about.

Steve gradually lifted his right hand, tipped his head slightly, cupped his ear, and never took his eyes off the other guy.

“What’s that?” His voice was soft; his two words low and menacing.

The stranger froze and started apologizing. He thought Steve was someone else, or at least that is what he said. That image of Steve’s physical conversion has always stayed with me.

This time the predator creeps up and stops his car beside me. He does not move from his slumped position, only his head turns toward me. I stop, straighten up, and turn and square myself to face him while relaxing my shoulders and arms. Slowly I reach up with one hand and push my sunglasses onto my head.

I want him to see my eyes.

He needs to understand this is not going to go down easily for either of us. Neither of us moves, speaks, nor blinks. It seems like forever as we stare at one another, then almost imperceptibly, the car begins to edge forward. I watch him drive to the barrier and turn the corner.

When he is out of sight, I take off at a dead run toward the motel. I know I will not get away with stares a second time. I reach the motel, run up the stairs, and lock the door to my room. My heart is racing as I crack the curtain and watch his black car pull into the motel parking lot. He circles the motel a couple of times and then leaves.

Later, when I have time to think about it, I decide he must have seen me at the store. Otherwise, it does not make sense why someone would be on that deserted road this early in the morning, unless they worked there. I probably looked younger than I am, with my sunglasses on and my hair in a ponytail.

That dangerous encounter ends my relaxing three days. Now I check every black car I see.

And my gun is always with me.

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