Sometimes memories of people long gone from my life arise and linger for a time. Maybe they are visiting me, checking in on my life here on earth. Jani has been on my mind for a couple of days.
I first met Jani when she hitchhiked into town from California. Her story was that she had left home in Columbia, Missouri at the age of 15 for the open road. As far as I know, that is the truth. I never knew her to do a single dishonest thing. Illegal yes, dishonest no. Though she most certainly had her own moral compass, she was not a liar. In fact, she was probably one of the most honest human beings I have ever known. Brutal honesty gets people in a lot of trouble, and that is a fact.
She lived a rather hard life on the road, but it was her conscious choice and she was no victim. Absolutely fearless, smart, and street wise, she was also beautiful. She was a natural blonde, fairly tall, and graceful. She wore her jeans and boots as if she were royalty. When I met her, she had been on the road for over a week, coming in from Fresno, California, but she was as fresh and clean as if she just stepped out of the shower. She was a presence, a force, comfortable wherever she found herself. A blonde shining star.
If something had caused her to leave home at such a tender age, it was never discussed - never a hint of anything dark or troubling. It seemed simply that she was destined to be a gypsy, too large for life in one place, or ever for very long.
While she was in Kansas, we had some adventures together. When one of her boyfriends was languishing in a very small town jail, the inmates devised a "fishing pole" long enough to reach through the barred windows and past the chain link security fence so Jani could tie a baggie of pot to the end. She kept them all high while they were waiting for their respective trials. When I look back on this, of which I was absolutely an accessory to a major crime by driving her in my car, I can only think the Sheriff had to have known something. Maybe he turned a blind eye, knowing that all of us would grow up and be respectable tax payers if given the chance. Maybe we were all just unbelievably lucky. Maybe it was Jani's in-your-face courage to live and act according to her own dictates that kept us all safe. No one would dare such a blatant and willful disregard of the law right at the very jailhouse.
For a couple of years Jani and I ran with a rough crowd of older people - artists, musicians, hippies, assorted counter-culture types, and yeah, there were a few drug dealers in the mix. At one point we both rented apartments in the same house and that is when we became good friends. (Those stories must be reserved for the book my kids must never read!)
At one point she had taken up with a business man who had a bad reputation for cheating and mistreating employees, customers, and his girlfriends. It began when she worked in his store. The last time I saw Jani during that time frame, she came to my door with her back pack, ready to hit the road. She was deeply angry at her boss and told me he had cheated her out of a lot of money. She kicked in the window to the apartment they were sharing, took what she felt he owed her, and left town. Later, the man was cussing her to anyone who would listen, claiming Jani had stolen hundreds of dollars of Navajo jewelery from him. All of us who knew both parties were of the unanimous opinion that Jani had merely evened the score and made a fool of him. I know this much: Jani would have never stolen a single penny from anyone. Being a thief was not her style. I always suspected the business man had become violent or otherwise abusive to her, though she never said that was so. He was lucky all he got was a broken window.
After that I did not hear from her for a few years, but she always found me, calling me out of the blue to tell me where she was living, what she was doing, and most importantly where she was going. If I lost track of her, I would call her mother's house for an address or a phone number. We stayed in touch fairly regularly over the years considering her far-ranging gypsy travels.
About 1985, she made a special trip to Topeka to visit me. She was no longer a young girl, but a young woman and doing very well for herself. She had settled in the Tuscon area and was dancing for a living - a quite lucrative living, I might add. Jani would simply never fit into a "normal" lifestyle. From that visit I have photos of us standing by my Harley, having a beer together at the local watering hole. We took a day trip to our old stomping grounds and she made me laugh when I tried to throw my cigarette butt out the window. "Hey! Don't throw that out!" No one was going to litter the earth in Jani's presence.
She was impressed that I had my own Harley, happy that I had a career. She was happy to see my daughter who had been toddler the last time Jani had seen her. We had a great several days together, and then she returned to Tuscon. She was studying and training to be a helicopter pilot and had the final testing coming up.
It was some time later when she called me with exciting news - she had just bought her own Harley and she was coming to Kansas in August. Whether I wanted to or not, we were riding to Sturgis. My son's birthday falls in Sturgis week, not to mention I have never wanted to go to the big biker gathering in Sturgis, South Dakota. Too many people and too wild for me. I did not want to rain on her enthusiasm, so I simply told her I would see how it went. At the least, I thought I could meet her in western Kansas and ride across Nebraska with her. I knew she would not be riding alone, anyway. There would be plenty of men willing to ride across the world with Jani.
I never heard from Jani again. When the summer came with no word from her, there was a tiny trickle of worry because it was not like her. If she said she was riding to Sturgis, that is exactly what would happen. I was a bit relieved, too, because saying no to her always took a lot of energy. I honestly wanted to stay home with my son and my family. I tried calling her at Christmas but her number had been disconnected which meant she had moved on. I knew she would call me sooner or later with her updated address. But she did not call that winter. In the early spring, I called her mother's home. A college student staying in the home answered. He quietly told me that Jani had been killed in a traffic accident about a year past. I was devastated and so shocked I did not ask questions.
When I could manage it, I wrote to Jani's mother. I shared with her the best of the Jani I had known and told her how deeply sorry I was. Her mother wrote in reply and that letter broke my heart. She said of all the people Jani had known all over the country, (and there were literally hundreds of people) only me and one other person had ever contacted Jani's family. She told me Jani had been riding on the back of her own motorcycle, some man driving, when they had been hit by a semi tractor-trailer. The authorities would not let her see Jani's body. I thought then of that beautiful, graceful body destroyed so violently in death and I have never been able to get it out of my mind. I thought of that brave and willful spirit gone from this world, and grieved.
With the dates in her mother's letter, I realized Jani had called me about the Sturgis trip the last day she was alive. She called me to say hello and goodbye. Of all the people she had known in her short 30 years, she had called me. I never thought I deserved to have a friend who burned as brilliantly as Jani, but she must have thought otherwise.
Until we meet again, Golden Girl.