The Walking Wounded
Chapter 1

He blew into town on a Harley chopper in the fall of 2005. Bikers aren't rare, and neither are choppers, and no one noticed him when he arrived.

But people did notice him the next Sunday, when he pulled his machine into the parking lot of a church he'd found in the phone book. And they really noticed when he walked into the auditorium, in oil-stained jeans over a pair of scarred engineer boots, a grimy t-shirt, and a black leather vest with the colors of a motorcycle gang on the back. His dark hair was graying and hung down to his shoulder blades, and he'd put a rubber band around his pony tail to hold it in place. His beard, also dark and also graying, hung down on his chest, twisted from the wind of his riding. Incongruous in his hand was a Bible, so new it still smelled of printer's ink.

He found an empty seat and sat down – and noted how the men in their business suits and the women in their sharp dresses managed not to sit anywhere near him. He shook his head slightly, and smiled – a little bitterly – and prayed when it was time to pray, sang when it was time to sing, and followed the sermon with an intentness that many in the congregation lacked.

At the end of the service he stood around the door for a few minutes, but no one offered a hand or a word. Finally he went out to the parking lot, put his Bible in a saddlebag, and kicked the Hog into snorting life. Perhaps he gave the throttle a little extra power as he pulled into traffic, but the people were just glad to see him go.

On his second Sunday he tried another church, with much the same results. And the third Sunday was about the same. The fourth Sunday was no improvement. But at least on that fourth Sunday someone in the congregation mentioned that there was a church in town where even a biker in his leathers could feel at home.

It was the last Sunday in November when he pulled his bike into the parking lot of MJT Christian Fellowship. It looked to him like the building hadn't always been religious – church architects don't usually design buildings to look like they house some sort of business. There was no steeple, no stained glass in front, nothing except the sign by the street and the name above the doors to show that it was a church's meeting place. "Maybe," he growled as he lowered the Hog's kickstand, "this won't be so bad."

He fished his Bible out of the saddlebag – by now the cover had some smudges on it, and the new smell was wearing off – and headed for the door. It was a chilly day, and no one was handing out bulletins outside, but as he approached the door opened and a woman stood there ... and he caught his breath. She was almost as tall as he was – which meant she must have been 5'9" or thereabouts, maybe even six feet – and what some would call statuesque, though the thick sweater she wore masked that somewhat. But you can't entirely hide a woman who resembles a Norse Valkyrie. She belongs on a Harley, he thought, as she separated a bulletin from the stack she held in her left hand.

"Welcome to MJT," she said, her voice pleasantly low, pleasantly soft, with a hint of pleasant power in it. "I'm Karin Seguín."

He took the bulletin and transferred it to his left hand, the hand that held the Bible. He took her extended right hand and said, "I'm Kevin Farley – Kev, they call me. How ya doin'?"

She smiled – genuinely, he thought. "I'm just fine, Kev. We'll be starting the service in just a few minutes. If you've got a cell phone we ask that you turn it off, or at least set it to vibrate, so that it doesn't disturb others. You ought to be able to find a seat most anywhere – this is our early service and it doesn't have the crowd that the second service does, and not everyone's here yet anyway."

"Hey, thanks, Karin. I 'preciate it." And he went on inside, and found a seat. He looked over the bulletin, noting that this church had a group of five elders, with a guy named Tyrone Jackman as "Leading Elder." The bulletin included a memory verse, and a list of prayer requests, and several notices of opportunities for the people to serve the Lord in practical ways. It wasn't an unusual bulletin, but he remembered the greeting he'd received at the door. That was unusual, at least in his experience thus far in Albuquerque.

He noted the text for the morning's sermon, and looked it up in his Bible. He was still learning where the books were, and didn't know whether Habakkuk was in the New Testament or the Old. He was glad that the preacher in Chowchilla, California had given him a Bible which included a list of the books in alphabetical order – all he had to do was find Habakkuk in the list, and then note the page number. He turned to the page, and then found the chapter and verse, and read the text: "I will stand on my guard post/And station myself on the rampart;/And I will keep watch to see what He will speak to me, /And how I may reply when I am reproved."

Habakkuk 2:1, he thought. That's a verse worth remembering. Just then Kevin felt a presence beside him – he was sitting on the end of the pew – and looked up. He saw a large black man – not tall especially, but big around, mostly at the waist. The man had on a black suit, white shirt, and boldly colored tie, and his hair was almost entirely gray. His goatee was equally gray, and as Kevin stood to take the offered hand he realized that the fingers showed the twisting of arthritis.

"I'm Tyrone Jackman," the man said. "I'm one of the elders here at MJT."

"Kevin Farley. I just saw your name in the bulletin. What's a leading elder?"

Tyrone laughed. "It's what they call the man who founded the church and used to be the sole pastor, when he's trying to get out of carrying it all by himself."

"So really you're just one of the elders?"

"That's what I think, but the church is taking a little longer to come to my way of thinking."

"Elders ... I'm not familiar with that."

"Maybe we can talk about it some time – if not today, then whenever you find it convenient."

Kevin thought for a moment. "I don't know when, but I'd like that, Mr. Jackman. I'll have to let you know ... the phone number's in the bulletin, right?"

"Yes, and the e-mail address too. But I'm just Tyrone – or, if you've got to be formal, Brother Jackman. We like to keep it Biblically simple around here." The smile showed that Tyrone wasn't being judgmental, just explaining things.

"Sure thing, Tyrone." Just then the sound of a piano came through the speakers, and Kevin looked around to see the song leader taking his place behind the pulpit. "Hey, I'll let you get on with it. Nice to meet ya."

"My pleasure, Brother Kevin." And Tyrone made his way to the platform, shaking hands as he went.

There was an opening song, and then Tyrone went through the announcements. Kevin had already read the bulletin, so he looked around during the announcements. He saw the big blonde woman sitting toward the front, to his right, and nodded at her when she caught his eye. She smiled and nodded back. The people had on a mixture – some wore suits or elegant dresses, some wore jeans and western shirts. He was the only biker as far as he could tell, but at least he wasn't completely out of place. And a few pews ahead of him was a couple that had gotten his attention when they walked past on the way to their seat. He was a white man, with a heavy walrus mustache, who dressed like a cowboy just off the range ... though his shirt was perhaps a bit too nice for punching cattle. The woman was a rail thin black, her hair pulled back severely into a gold clip. Her clothing was outside all easy categories – a brightly colored blouse in various geometrical shapes, and as he'd seen when the couple walked down the aisle behind Tyrone, a white skirt with embroidery that looked to Kevin like Chinese characters, a skirt which reached the floor and offered just glimpses of what looked like moccasins. They had a child with them – 10 or 12 years old she looked – who was wearing a pink dress that swept the carpet while the puffed sleeves reached midway between her elbows and wrists. It seemed that this was a church with a wide diversity of clothing – even within its families. That was a good thing – it meant that even though he was the only biker, at least this morning, he wouldn't be too much of an oddity. And probably the people wouldn't mind the way Kevin looked.

The announcements were over, and the singing resumed. The church used a hymnal that Kevin wasn't familiar with – not that he was familiar with any hymnal, having never yet been in the same church two weeks in a row – but as the singing continued he realized he liked it. They sang a couple of metrical psalms, something he'd not encountered before, and he realized that singing the words of Scripture was just as good as reading them or hearing someone read them. He nodded to himself as they sang the last song and the preacher for the day approached the pulpit. It was one of the elders, a man named William Fuentes according to the bulletin, and Kevin settled down to hear what he had to say.

After the last prayer, Kevin prepared to take his stand by the door, but he didn't have to. Before he could ease out of the pew an old lady – Kevin wasn't very good at politically correct terms like "senior citizen," and to him "senior" meant someone in the last year of high school – took his hand and told him how glad she was to see him. When she left a boy, no more than 14, shook his hand and invited him to come back. As Kevin worked his way toward the doors it seemed like everyone in the building was making it a point to meet and greet him. Even though he'd managed, he thought, to get into the aisle before the "odd couple" who'd sat in front of him, there they were at the door, all three of them – white cowboy, elegant black stick woman, and the girl who, Kevin saw, was tall and broad, not fat but certainly chunky. They introduced themselves, the girl too, and mentioned they were glad he'd chosen to visit that day.

It took Kevin 15 or 20 minutes to get out into the parking lot and put his Bible in the saddlebag. He roared off down Menaul toward the river, for his apartment was that way, thinking as he went.

Karin got involved in her own meet-and-greet knot after the service, but managed to keep an eye on the graying long-haired head as it moved toward the doors. Kevin Farley was about the tallest person in the congregation, certainly the biggest, and wasn't hard to spot. And just why do you want to spot him anyway? she asked herself. He's just a visiting biker – exotic, but nothing more. But she did want to spot him – and made it a point to do so. Chiding herself did no good – her eyes had minds of their own, it seemed.

In fact, one of the women of the church teased her gently about it. "I do believe, Karin, that you're not paying attention to me!" she said with a laugh.

"I'm sorry, Miriam. I guess I'm just distracted this morning."

"Oh, that's all right." This came with a gentle pat on the arm. "It happens to all of us from time to time."

"That it does." And her eyes went again to that graying head, which just wouldn't leave her alone.

When Kevin pulled his bike into the Wal-Mart parking lot Monday morning, it made him grin – as it had for the past three years. He'd first began working for Wal-Mart in Fresno, and now that he was in Albuquerque he was a baker at the store at Louisiana and Candelaria. It was the longest he'd ever had a job with the same employer, and it was the only job he'd ever had that didn't have something to do with motorcycles. But on his 42nd birthday he'd realized that he wasn't a kid anymore, and while he really did like bikes and leathers and the smells of grease and gasoline, and the sounds of air compressors and big pipes, the fact was that ape hanger handlebars wouldn't support him when he was old. He'd sold two extra bikes, and worked overtime at the Harley dealership, and put enough money together to go to school and learn baking. And Wal-Mart had hired him right out of school – although what he'd learned was a bit more than Wal-Mart's procedures required him to know.

He walked into the store, chuckling at how things had worked out. If anyone had told him when he was in his teens, leaving home and growing his hair and getting grease under his fingernails, that he'd be a cog in a corporate machine, he'd have laughed. If someone had told him that when he was in his 20s, he might have pulled out a switchblade and done some carving. But in his 40s he enjoyed it. He had regular hours, he had a regular paycheck, and if his biker pals laughed, let 'em – he'd be the one laughing when he had money to live on when he couldn't work, and they had to bum their food and smokes off their buddies.

He put his lunch in the cooler that sat against the wall of the break room, and then walked back to the time clock. At the clock he pulled his badge out of his pocket and swiped it. The clock accepted his badge, and he turned to walk across the store to the bakery. On the way he noticed the Thanksgiving displays – and even a few for Christmas. I used to laugh at these goobers, he thought, but they've got the big bucks, don't they? Not that he was out to get the "big bucks." Wal-Mart's pay scale might not be the highest in the world, but it beat fixing bikes for what he could get – sometimes he couldn't get anything, and there'd been times when he'd had to beat his pay out of someone. And it hadn't been much better working for someone else. Somehow, though he was one of the best bike mechanics in Fresno, someone else wound up with the money. Maybe it's 'cause they owned the shop, he thought. I know workin' for 'em never helped me none.

Putting bread in the oven, he didn't have to beat anything out of anyone. It actually was pretty easy – the dough came frozen in boxes, and he just had to thaw it, let it rise, and bake it off. Just think how many of me there'd have to be if we made it all from scratch, he thought as he stuffed his pony tail under a hairnet. And just think how much room we'd need. Yeah, it wasn't a bad life at all. And that church hadn't been bad either. He might go back again ... yeah, he just might.

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Story tagged with:
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