When I dream of him he is almost always on a Harley. The black and chrome machine weaves in and out of the highways I travel in my sleep.
"He loved the sense of freedom he felt on that thing," Mama told me. She was barefoot, peeling potatoes on the back porch.
"Did you ever ride with him?" I asked.
"A few times. He always said he was more careful when I was on the back."
I wanted to ask her more, but her mouth tightened and I knew she was all out of words.
She has his picture in a silver locket. She used to wear it around her neck--until she started going out with Dusty Malone. Dusty is history now, and she has a new steady man, but the locket containing my daddy's photo is in a jewelry box on her dresser, along with some other keepsakes.
I have a photograph of him on my bedroom wall. He is in his Army uniform and looking at the camera.
"He would always look you straight in the eye when he spoke to you," Mama said once. "That was one of the first things I noticed about him."
Ever since she told me that, I have tried to do the same thing when I talk to someone, even though it's sometimes hard to do.
I wanted more pictures of him, but Mama said his family didn't take many pictures. He was raised by his aunt and uncle, on a farm across the mountains in Tennessee. I have never met them. Mama said my daddy's mama "got strung out on drugs" and left town when my daddy was a boy. "As near as I can tell, no one ever heard from her again."
"What about his daddy?" I asked.
"Honey, Tommy didn't know who his daddy was."
But I know who my daddy was, I thought. His name was Thomas Earl Reeves. He served in the first Iraq War, and the Army gave him a Purple Heart for getting hit by shrapnel in his back and legs. After he was discharged, he worked as a mechanic. Mama said he could "fix anything that was broke." He was five feet eleven inches tall and he weighed 170 pounds. That's according to his driver's license, which I keep in a fireproof safe under my bed, along with the Purple Heart. At sixteen, I am not quite as tall as he was, but Mama says he didn't get his full growth until he was nineteen. She says I might pass him by, but I only want to be his same height. He liked to play baseball and he liked to listen to country music, especially songs by Merle Haggard. She said his favorite song by Merle was, "I Always Get Lucky With You." I have his baseball glove in my closet, along with all of his record albums. I have one of his shirts, too, and a pair of his boots, which are too big for me. I asked Mama what became of his other things. She said "he liked to travel light," and that his other belongings slipped away from her.
I have listened to Merle's song so much it has become a permanent part of me. When I listen to that song, I think of Thomas Earl Reeves riding his Harley on a country road, my mama holding on behind. The sun is shining and the sky is blue and daisies and dandelions are blooming in the fields.
I was only eighteen months old that day he took me with him on his Harley. I was in a canvas carrier strapped around his chest and back.
"He liked to feel you close to him," Mama said.
That day he saw some other motorcycle riders he knew on Turtle Creek Road, just south of town, and for some reason, they pulled off onto the railroad tracks that run by the road. I don't know what they were talking about. One of the riders had a battery operated stereo, and it was playing so loud none of them heard the train coming.
When my daddy looked up and saw the train, he tried to start his Harley but it wouldn't crank. Maybe it flooded out. He only had time to throw me away from him before the train hit him.
I landed in some weeds. Had a busted finger and some fractured ribs. Mama said when they picked me up I didn't make a sound.
This past July, I rode my bicycle out to that place. It's just past an abandoned Phillips 66 station. There is a ditch between the road and the tracks, but the tracks cross an old logging road that connects with the main road. That was how the riders got down there.
There was a stand of pines beyond the tracks and past the pines a field of rye in need of rain. I could smell the creosote on the railroad ties. The metal tracks were shiny in the noon sun.
I lay on the ground and thought how he had made it all the way through Iraq, the assassins and bombs and bullets, and come back home to North Carolina, to his wife and baby, figuring the worst danger was behind him.
I closed my eyes, thinking about the man in my dream. I wondered what he thought in that last instant, when I was already airborne. I wondered if there was something he wished he could have told me when he realized that all of his luck had run out.