Goldfinger, his nickname, comes from both the color of his bike and the title of a James Bond movie. His leathers are red, white, and black, but his helmet shines the same gold tint as his motorcycle’s flash of speed crossing the checkpoints. If this were a Bond film, he’d jump off before an explosion, pull a Walther PPK, and nab the villain with plenty of time to flirt with a gorgeous—and double-entendre designated—Bond girl. But from the sidelines, you don’t need your father to be James Bond. You pray only that he’ll stay safe. Watching, you think, please don’t fall off on one of those turns where your knees almost touch the ground and please don’t die.

You only witness death at the track once, and even then, you see it from afar, but it seems an ever-present possibility with the way these men handle their bikes. These aren’t the guys you see on TV, professionals sponsored by corporations. These are men with nine-to-five jobs who wear suits and ties Monday through Friday; these are men who toil in hot factories in the midday heat or slug their way through nightshifts, waking at ungodly hours to make ends meet; these are men with families to support with jobs they don’t enjoy, with concerns of a mundane nature like water bills and second mortgages.

Your father’s a welder with child-support payments to make, and he comes here on weekends to get his thrills. You tag along, not because you like motorcycles, but because he’s a part-time parent. Saturdays are your day together, and if he decides to take a trip to West Virginia or the Poconos to race, he arranges with your mom to get you Sundays too. In truth, these events don’t excite you much. They’re more a duty you won’t have the heart to talk your way out of until you hit thirteen next year and enter a self-centered stretch where his disappointment doesn’t matter. For now, you’re trapped—a polite kid, respectful of your father’s wishes.

Still, if you’re honest, you’ll admit to enjoying certain aspects of these excursions—zoning out while listening to mixtapes on your Walkman, reading for hours uninterrupted to finish the latest Stephen King novel, stowing your guitar in the back of his van and practicing Black Sabbath or Metallica riffs. But your anxiety about high-speed highway travel and the prospect of a crash outweighs these pleasures.

Every time your mom calls you in from hanging out with friends and tells you he’s on the phone, you’re nervous he’s calling to invite you to the track, anticipating the anxiety that racks you daily until he deposits you safely on your doorstep Sunday night. Each time you speak to him, you understand there will come a day when you’ll have to tell him that you can’t come to the track, that one day you’ll have to say you can’t spend every Saturday with him, but you don’t have the heart to disappoint him yet.

Most of your anxiety derives from the way he drives, as if he can’t discriminate between appropriate track behavior and street etiquette. Here you are, on the highway heading toward the track, and you’re hemmed in by a triumvirate of tractor trailers, in the middle lane with your father tailgating one while pushing his van right up between the other two. The collective weight of hazardous materials converges on your car, threating to collapse inward and bury you, and if this thrills your dad—which it seems to—you wonder why, since it terrifies you.

Your fingers dig into the dashboard. The rattling cargo and jostling metal sends deep vibrations through the car. You’re sure a single mistake would be fatal—one of the drivers slamming his breaks. But right when you think, this is it: impact imminent, sudden death, the Mack truck’s back bumper smashing the windshield and slicing you in two—a space opens between the truck to your left and the one in front that’s just wide enough for your dad to sliver through, and he does so with ease.

 “Yee-haw!” he yells, as he slices the gap. He turns toward you with eyebrows raised, mouth open in a gesture of mock surprise.

Your mother never talks about him, who he is or how he was when they dated. She never explains why she wouldn’t marry him, but you’re beginning to get inklings, and this is one of those moments. Your father thinks this is fun: the speed, the danger. It gives him a rush. But your mother wouldn’t find this fun, and you don’t either. It’s tempting fate—foolhardy, dangerous, and you’re just happy when he pulls up to the race track’s entrance and you’re still in one piece.

Life involves elements of risk. There’s an element of risk in leaving the house each day, in running for the bus, in crossing the street. Without risk, there wouldn’t be flight or space travel. But there’s also calculation in risk, odds, physical laws that not only experts but laypersons can use to gauge the likelihood of specified outcomes. There are things that will happen, things that may happen, and things that are less than likely.

You start each visit to the track by setting up camp. There’s a level of risk involved in this. A wasp hiding in the grass could sting the soles of your feet, so you wear sneakers. Hammering in the pegs of the tarp, you could hit your hand, so you take short, measured strokes, sacrificing power for stability. It isn’t likely a bear will venture close to a dense populace, but you keep the food in containers, trash removed from the site, since the effort to ensure this safety isn’t much compared to the risk.

You and your father work together to set up the tent, take the bike off the trailer. He smiles. He likes working with you, bonding. You smile as well, though you’re smiling for a different reason. You’re thinking logistics. You arrived at ten in the morning and plan on leaving at four tomorrow afternoon. This gives you thirty hours before getting back in the car—an inmate’s reprieve, a leveling off of stress, an elongated sigh. You have thirty hours to gauge the likelihood of a crash. You’re only twelve, but you look into such things, read books, hunt for facts.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation Driver’s Manual—give or take minor fluctuations each year—most fatalities occur because of drunkenness or lack of sleep. Given you’ll be leaving by daylight and you believe most drinkers ply their craft in the evening, the statistical probability of a fatal accident drops. Yet, you haven’t remained untouched by the American penchant to stereotype, and you worry that, since this track is in the hills of West Virginia, you could run into bootleggers or any manner of redneck slurping homemade concoctions at any hour of the day, so that’s out the window.

On the track, the likelihood of an alcohol-related accident seems negligible. Most of these men respect the race and their fellow racers and refrain from libations beforehand. On the road, however, you’ve noticed a level of recklessness among the average driver that indicates an ignorance of the most fundamental laws of physics. People wielding two tons of metal while trying to shave or put on makeup, the lack of common courtesies like turn-signal use. It’s as if drivers don’t understand what happens when metal hits metal at high speed. As if they don’t quite fathom that metal impacting on flesh will demolish flesh, abrade the tissue, shatter not just that life but others around it, the people they cared for, who cared for them.

You finish setting up and relax in foldout chairs with canned sodas, novels, sporadic conversation. You’re always the first to arrive, you and your dad, earlier than his friends, and you can’t decide if it’s intentional, speeding along to ensure he beats them, or if it’s just how he drives. Right now, you don’t care. Excepting an object falling from the sky and conking you on the head, you’re safe beneath the blue canvas shade, and you’ll enjoy the moment.

The campground fills quickly. By noon, most of the racers have arrived. The fields where you’ve set up camp are full of the sounds of throttling bikes firing, men getting ready for Saturday practice runs. Loud noises bother you, but here, beneath the clear blue sky, they’re dispersed and you shrug them off. It’s what men do: shrug off things that bother them, endure, and you’re doing your best at twelve to emulate a man.

The practice runs last most of the day with different classes of bike slotted for different times based on engine size and power. Your dad rides a Yamaha RZ350, though you’re not a motorcycle enthusiast and don’t understand what that means. His friends ride bikes of a different class, and one of them, either Paul or Lee or others whose names you don’t recall, will lead you to checkpoints to watch your father ride.

The best checkpoints provide visibility of a quarter mile, but they’re crowded, bristling with activity, and you can’t always climb the wooden towers to see him. The lesser points offer only two hundred yards, but there, you can catch his golden bike grinding by on the gray asphalt. You press a button on a stopwatch, clutching a clipboard and pen. Your dad has asked you to record his times, and you do it with diligence, your penmanship impeccable:

Lap 1: 1:40

Lap 2: 1:38

Lap 3: 1:35

This seems to be his top speed—the next lap is another 1:35, then 1:36, then back to 1:35.

You’re glad to have some kind of task, even if the bikes’ engines remind you why you don’t trust him anymore. It wasn’t his fault, you know. It was an accident, an unexpected eventuality he hadn’t planned on. He didn’t wake that morning, decide to prune a tree, and in the process, hit his son’s arm with a chainsaw. He was asking you to help, including you, hoping to have an activity you could share, to show his love as best he knew how.

The tree was small, new growth, six or seven years old, and the job didn’t seem hard—hold a rope, pull the branch in the opposite direction once he’d severed it from the trunk. Yet, something had gone wrong. The torque as the branch gave caused your dad to wrench the saw. He lost control of his footing, and the blade brushed the flesh of your forearm. Its revving blazed in your ears as you leapt back, clutching the wound, shaking.

You don’t recall what happened next, but the cut was minor, the blade dull. You’d like to think your dad rushed into action, wrapped your arm in a compress. But actually, your grandpa, with whom he lived, took you inside, cleaned you up with antiseptic. It’s likely your dad was shaken up, but you’d like to think he bit back the fear, pressed on, so you do the same. You resist flinching each time a bike goes by, watch for him, record his times.

Still, he’d assured you you’d be safe, and you weren’t. He hadn’t lied, but you’d trusted his judgment and he’d been wrong. He hadn’t foreseen the risk. And though you forgave him then, as you’ll forgive him time and again over the years, fear crept in, uncertainty. You now understand your parents can’t protect you, that bad things happen in spite of their presence, their reassurances, that the possibility of harm lurks around every corner, with every decision you make.

Forgiveness isn’t easy, and that night you’ll learn to hate him in ways that aren’t easy to forgive. Though you don’t know it yet, this is the last time you’ll come to the track, the last time you’ll agree out of deference, the last time you can’t find an excuse to put him off. You’ll learn things later that help you forgive: that it took years for him to recover from your mother’s refusal to marry him, that he always wanted a family and felt he’d missed his chance and was angry with her and himself. You’ll realize he wasn’t sure how to be a weekend dad. He loved you, but like many weekend dads, he had trouble showing it and compensated with cash, buying you expensive guitars and amplifiers for your birthdays, selling one of his beloved bikes to help you finance a semester abroad in college. You don’t know much about his life outside the weekends you spend with him, so that night you stay up in the tent after he’s sent you to bed and listen to him talk with his friends.

You’ve weighed the pros and cons of physical risk, but you haven’t entertained the idea there’s emotional risk, too—that some words you shouldn’t hear; that once these words reach the aural cavity, firing the synapses that lead to understanding, they can’t be rescinded, repealed. You haven’t learned that some words etch themselves in memory, and only the conscious choice to forgive, regardless of whether an apology is offered, will let you release your resentment.

You unzip the tent while your father and his friends sit around the grill, drinking beer, talking of the day’s trial runs. The warm smell of nylon greets you, the fabric having roasted in the sun all day. You open your sleeping bag to its flannel innards and lie on top, look out the mesh screen at the sky. All these stars can’t be seen back home in Philadelphia. You’re tired, but there’s contentment in your fatigue. You’ve watched your dad practice, helped keep his times, and now you’re ready for sleep. You’d like to sit up and read, but you don’t have the endurance, so you lie there and think. Yet, your ears can’t help but catch your name drifting in on your father’s voice. It’s been a half-hour since you turned in, and he expects you to be sleeping and speaks freely.

“But I have Jason,” he says. “He’s a great kid. Helps me out when I need him, gets good grades in school.”

You feel a swell of pride in hearing this, affirmation of your dad’s respect. He’s not verbally affectionate or forthcoming with compliments, but he seems happy when you’re around, and though you could have stopped listening here, shut your eyes and drifted off, your thirst for more makes you lie still, so that he doesn’t know you’re awake and won’t stop speaking.

“His mom’s cool, too,” he continues. “And man, I mean, she was a fox. Now she’s upward of two hundred pounds, but back then, she was a fox.”

For a moment, you feel betrayed. It’s true that your mother was beautiful when you were born and got fat later, but you don’t want him saying this to strangers. These are his friends, but you don’t know them, not really. Lee and Paul are nice enough guys, but you only see them once or twice a year. You don’t want them hearing how your mother blew up, how she had a third child with your stepfather and never lost the weight and doesn’t seem to have any interest in losing it. Fat’s an insult. Fat implies she’s unattractive, and she’s not. She’s still beautiful. She’s your mother, and you love her. Your face flushes with anger.

You should have stopped when you had the chance. Now you have no choice. Your curiosity is piqued, and you can’t turn it off, go to sleep. You have to hear how far he’ll go, and his next words bring you to a place where, when leaving his lips and drifting across the night air, you think you’ll never forgive him. He’s gone too far, and you’d like to disavow kinship, sever the ties.

“Her sister was smokin’, too,” he says. “She used to tell me her problems, and I’m thinking, ‘Man, I’d slip it to you so fast.’ And here it seems like she’s having problems with her boyfriend, but she’s a dyke, and she’s been talking about her girlfriend the whole time!”

You feel sucker-punched. You didn’t know any of this and wish you could go back to before you heard him talk this way. No wonder your mother didn’t marry him. You’re tense to the point of trembling but know you have to hide it. He’ll be coming in to sleep soon, and he can’t see that you’ve been awake all this time. He’s hurt you again, but now there’s no wound, no action to take to cure it, no grandfather to pull you into the house and bandage you up, no antiseptic to make the pain go away. The sound of someone else speaking shifts the group’s attention, but it’s too late. The damage is done.

The next day you wake sullen, peevish. You don’t speak as the men make breakfast. Your father comments on it—wrong side of the bed—but you shrug him off, murmuring about the lumpy ground. You wish you had the courage to confront him, to call him out on what he said, but you sit in silence, twisting the words, tasting them. You try to read, but you’re nauseated. As the day moves from morning to noon, your anger transforms to sadness, an irrepressible sense that you’ve lost something greater than respect for your dad. Perhaps your idea of manhood has been tarnished, the idea of nobility, chivalry, respect. Perhaps the motorcycle he rides is compensating for some characteristic he lacks, a characteristic they all lack, since no one spoke up and told him he shouldn’t talk that way. And you fear this is where you’re headed as you grow and become a man.

You look at Lee and Paul as your father suits up, puts on his golden helmet, gets ready to ride. You can’t speak to them either. You feel alone, and your anger flares once more. Your dad’s words have marked you as separate. He’s given you secrets, and you feel unclean keeping them. It’s almost as if you’re left with the choice of accepting what he said and rejoining the group or internalizing your anger and keeping yourself apart. Hard as it is, you choose the latter. You promise yourself you won’t forget what he said, that you’ll do your best to never talk like that, to never become him.

When he finishes suiting up, your dad revs the bike. You look at him, and he gives you the thumbs up. You return a halfhearted nod and hope this will suffice, but you know you’ll have to head to the track to watch. There’s not a man among them who’d let you sit and read while he’s racing. So, you stand and head to the starting line with Paul and Lee, all the while steeling yourself against the bombast of fifty-some bikes, wishing you were far from here, home already, back in Philly where you aren’t submitted to this incessant machismo, to this metallic Flight of the Valkyries, rip-roaring their way to minimal glory, an amateur weekend contest where they risk more than they’ll ever gain.

The whole thing strikes you as juvenile, a latent childhood dream these full-grown men have never relinquished. Yet, as you stand on the grassy hill that overlooks the starting line and the bikes rev and throttle and fire, your pulse quickens. You try to resist, but your heart beats hard. There’s something primordial in these machines that your father’s feeling right now as he sits astride his golden bike and waits for the flag to wave and start the race. The ground shakes beneath your feet. Heat ripples from the concrete. The men’s images shimmer as the roaring bikes rise to crescendo. Despite your fear, anticipation overwhelms you. Your body hums with the bikes’ vibrations.

Love and hate vie within you. Part of you harbors last night’s resentment while the rest stands in awe, and the only way you can think to resist is to curse below the roar, call him all the mean words you can, murmuring, “asshole” beneath your breath, over and over. “Asshole…asshole,” as the race starts and the bikes jockey for position and speed off in a puff of white smoke.

You can see a quarter-mile expanse of the two-mile course from this vantage—last corner to first turn—and as the bikes disappear, you know it will take upward of a minute for them to get back. You keep time with this curse in your head, profane seconds ticking by, an insulting mantra, jinxing the odds. Your dad has never won a race, at best placing fourth or fifth, so you’re surprised when the bikes appear and he’s out in front.

You almost jump for joy before you remember you’re angry with him. There’s a cluster of bikes nearby, twenty to thirty feet back, but he keeps on a streak, accelerating, a blaze of golden heat. You redouble your efforts to stay angry, substituting “dickhead” for “asshole” with hopes that the sharper word might help, but your mantra weakens with the thought of “Win this one, dad!” Your legs strain as you jog a few steps, tracking his progress, questions invading. Can he keep out in front? Can he hold off the other bikes?

By the fourth lap, the bikes have bunched up around him. There are four or five others who could take the lead, but you father keeps it. Your ill will evaporates. You give in. You want him to win. Your pride swells at the idea he might be good at something, more than a welder, more than a weekend dad. His win would give you something to brag about. He wouldn’t just be some guy who talks shit in front of his friends. His win, in your eyes, could redeem him, make him more than he is.

 But then it happens.

Your father’s bike has passed just thirty seconds before when you hear the skid, the shouts, the sounds of twisting metal. At the turn, you see them: men lying on the track. A black pool spreads across the roadway causing others to slide into a void, obscured by the first turn. Your heart beats hard in your chest. You want to run out onto the course, but your dad’s friends restrain you. The worst has happened. You know it as the red flags are thrown, warning riders the race has ended, there’s been an accident.

For all your ruminating on accidents and the dangers and risks involved in driving, the reality comes as a shock. You’re hardly paying attention as you rush back to camp. There’s a rapid processing of thoughts set against the slow-motion unreality of it all. There’s a tender fragile levity to your skin as you float forward. You hardly hear the sirens, the track’s emergency medical team rushing into action. Even the strains of conversation going on right next to you are distant. Please, you think, please let him be okay. You think this with greater urgency than you’ve ever thought anything else. The practicalities haven’t sunk in. How will you get home? It’s got to be two hundred miles back to Philly. But that’s not important now. Please, just let him be okay.

There are moments when tiny resentments fall away, moments of crisis when harsh words or failings don’t matter, when anger is instantaneously discarded, and this is one of those moments. As you cut past the parked cars and trailers and fire pits and tents of other campsites, gaining a lead on your dad’s friends, you recognize how much you love him in spite of his flaws, in spite of his callous misplaced masculinity. And though it may take years to put into words, you feel it now, your ties.

You’ll learn later that two men died in the crash. You’ll learn that one of the riders went down and his oil tank ruptured and slicked the track. But right then, as you turn a corner and see your dad standing there—unscathed, helmet off, bike parked to the side—you’re relieved he’s alive. You haven’t forgotten his words from the night before. You’ll never forget. Nor will this be the last time you vow you’ll never be like him. When you see him alive, however, you allow him his faults—his loose lips and pride and wanting to seem like a big man in front of his friends. As you get close, you open your arms. You release your resentments and anger. He’s there and you’re there, and that’s all that matters. The hate falls away. You embrace him.