Empty Pockets

SHORT STORY by Dale Herd

The three rides before Jack Cutler bought the bicycle had all been different, but each one came down to the same thing. Each of the drivers wanted sex. The first approach was with photographs.

“I’ve got some pictures in the glove box you might like,” this man said. “Take them out and tell me what you think.”

The pictures were in a thick stack in the glove box. Lifting them out, Jack began looking.
First, different naked women standing facing the camera. Then, naked women bending over, their asses to the camera, their legs spread. Next, naked women kissing half-dressed men. Then, naked women and naked men screwing. Then women with women. Then different naked men with erections facing the camera. Then men with men.

Jack Cutler slid them all back together.

The man, a sallow-faced, thirty-five-year old in a brown suit and a bolo string tie said, “I know it’s evil, but I can’t help myself. You can’t help me, can you? Tell me how I can stop,” yet excited-looking as he spoke.

Jack put them back in the glove box.

The next man had an old Cadillac without air conditioning and a real sheriff’s badge which kept him from getting speeding tickets, he said, and a plea, after Jack said, “It’s not for me,” that he shouldn’t think he usually wanted to do this, this was a special circumstance that he knew he would pay for later, that just to have these thoughts was a sin.

The feeling off this man was slightly different than off the previous man. This man was genuinely upset. It was as hot inside the car as it was outside, and Jack thought how can people stand this heat? His T-shirt was soaked in sweat.

The third ride was into Pensacola, this driver saying his mother was dying of cancer and he was only driving up and down the highway as he didn’t know what else to do. She was hospitalized right now, and he would drive Jack as far as Mobile, he had nothing better to do, if Jack would. Then he got mad and said, “I could kill you. I could strangle you in your own spit, you know that?” They were already into the industrial section on the outskirts of Pensacola.

Jack looked at the gray stubble under the dyed black mustache, the broken vein in the man’s right eye. The man’s hair was coal black and shiny like it had been painted. Jack didn’t know what to say, so he said, “You think your mother would like that?”

“You’re getting your scrawny ass out here,” the man said, then softened his voice and warned Jack to watch out for the niggers, that he was likely to get his head broke if he tried sleeping off the road and wasn’t careful, that every year some unknown white boy was found dead along these roads, usually a northern white boy, dead with a fractured skull, that this country had no place for people that didn’t belong here. “You hear what I’m sayin’ to you?”

“Sure,” Jack said, getting out. “Thanks. I’ll remember that.”

It was a long walk into the heat-drenched town carrying the duffle. Jack bought some grilled chicken on a stick from some kind of Cuban street vendor and then saw a pawnshop and went inside.

There was a big silver floor fan set up on the glass counter blowing warm air toward the doorway. The air was really warm. It took a moment for Jack’s eyes to adjust. He tried on a pair of snakeskin cowboy boots that fit him like they had been custom made. They were six dollars. He thought very carefully about them. He only had thirteen dollars left. What was six dollars? In L.A. they would cost two hundred. If he could find them. How far would seven dollars take him? How far would thirteen? The bicycle was five dollars. Jack was sick of homos and rides from homos. The bike was an old fashioned American standard, large balloon tires, single speed sprocket, a black rubber pedal on the left, only a shiny steel peg on the right. The pawnbroker didn’t have another pedal.

“It’s still a good deal,” he said, over his toothpick.

It was dusk by the time Jack made his way through Pensacola.

He knew he couldn’t sleep under the city pier, not knowing what the tides were doing, but it felt good to be moving in the humid air on the old road to Mobile. He pedaled easily for some time, the canvas duffle strapped across the thick handlebars, glad he’d spent the money for the bike, with all the landscape laying out quietly and clearly in front of him, detailing exactly how everything was so he didn’t miss any of it.

He was well out of the city by now, and he rode across a concrete bridge raised some thirty feet over a wide lush delta and a shallow, meandering river. He stopped and got off and stood there for a while. The evening star was out and the sky was rose colored and reflected off the surface of the water. Swallows were flying out from under the arches of the bridge, working in long, then quick turning curves and slashes in the darkening air above the river grasses.

Jack wondered what they were feeding on.

His legs felt good and he felt good, but about ten miles farther out a truck came by and almost hit him, honking its horn as it swerved out of the way, and he began to worry about riding in the dark.

It was almost an hour later when he came into Magnolia Springs.

Across the road was a hardware store with its lights on. The building was old and painted yellow. He rode across and rested the bike against the wall. There was a veranda and a bell jangled as he crossed the threshold.

From the backroom a woman’s voice called: “Be right there.” A short gray-haired woman with her hair tied back in a bun, wiping her hands on an apron, came out.

“I was pouring out some old coffee,” she said. “What can I do for you?”

He told her, and she left and brought back a box of reflectors. He took a big round red one and asked if she had some scrap wire. The reflector was sixty-five cents, and she brought the wire when he was outside trying to figure out where to tie it on.

“Why don’t y’all tie it under the seat?” She sat down on the steps. “Hang it from the coils.”

“That’s a good idea,” Jack said, already starting to wire it into place.

“Where y’all coming from?”


“Lord, that’s a long way. You mean you rode that bicycle from Pensacola?”

“Yes, ma’am,’ he said. “It’s not that far.”

“Let me fix us some coffee,” she said.

Jack sat down on the steps. She came out with the coffee and sat down again. Across the road the streetlight was swarming with bugs. Her oldest boy was dead in Vietnam, she said, he’d been about Jack’s age.

“His name was William, but we always called him Beau. Were you in the war?”

“No,” Jack said, “I got out of it.”

“Let me get you some more coffee,” she said, then said, “I’m glad.”

“I don’t want to bother you. I should get going.”

“It’s no bother,” she said. “Where are you going to sleep?”

“Somewhere down the road,” Jack said.

She reached out her hand and touched his, held on to it for a moment, and he thanked her again, giving her the coffee cup, and walked off the porch and got on the bike and waved goodbye to her.

For the next few blocks a dog began chasing and barking at him and then fell back. It was quiet for a while, and then he was moving up alongside a wide waterway with the road running empty of cars. Lights came from houseboats moored on the far shore. Voices sounded across the water, and he saw the silhouettes of a man and woman standing inside a lit doorway of a houseboat facing each other, the air smelling of brine and oil and mud. And then it was dark and he pedaled until much later, swarms of mosquitoes attacking him as he rode, and slept on the floor of a tiny laundromat on the outskirts of Mobile that luckily had screens on the windows. Some of the mosquitoes had been biting right through his jeans. He never knew they could do that. He’d always hated mosquitoes, and now he hated them even more.

He was really glad to be off the road.

“It’s the cold,” the pawnbroker had said. “I think the cold keeps it repressed and they get down here in the heat and just let go. They drive down from Chicago, all them Northern boys. What they do is rent an entire motel, like that Windjammer down in the Keys, that’s got all the rooms facing an inner corridor, n’ once everybody’s checked in, unlock all the inside doors to every room, n’ then go around and lock all the outside doors so’s no one else can get in.

“About a hundred of them boys all through the holidays, never go outside once; not even to eat, bring all their own food with ‘em, see.

“Them are the boys that musta been picking you up.”

In the morning Jack’s body was stiff, his thighs swollen, and his right foot sore from the steel peg. There were bites all over his body, and blood on his lower back and the side of his neck that came off in smears on his fingers.

When he went out the air was already muggy and, following the road inland along a bayou, a warm wind rippling the brown water, Jack went by a series of fishing shacks on posts in the low tide mud, then along the tree-shaded road past a mile of abandoned-looking, tin-sided warehouses, and on out into the real countryside with the wind dying as the heat increased.

Everything was pedaling, pedaling, pedaling.

Purple and red flowers wildly lined the road. A farmhouse cleanly white in the distance was surrounded in thick waves of elms. The bicycling grew harder, and he was standing, counting the strokes, going up another hill, then he was coasting, the wind blowing the heat off his face. Far ahead the road had water on it. The tires ran silently. There were fields and fields and fields. The trees were spread far apart, stilled, growing, looming up. The spokes caught the wind and howled. Birds curved leftward above the trees. The road leveled off. The heat was pulling sweat from him in warm rivulets. His T-shirt was soaked. Everything was dreamlike. He needed something to eat. He let the bike coast on out and fade to a halt. He got off and walked. The trees were in closer, growing right to the edges of the road. You could only see a little ways in. He pushed the bike, ate an orange, and got back on again and started slowly moving his legs, not trying to do anything but quietly ride.

He rode all morning, drinking water as he went, rarely seeing any cars, the landscape heavily wooded now, more pine than deciduous, desolate, the heat seeming to change in density with each mile he went. The arch of his right foot was beginning to ache and he thought, I should get some pieces of wood and tie them together on the peg.
His foot really began to hurt and, coming to an abandoned watermelon stand, he stopped to rest and find some wood to tie onto the peg.

He rested the bike against a corner of the stand and looked around, maybe there would be a well with some water to refill his bottle. All around him the landscape was perfectly quiet.

There was nothing and going inside he lay down on a bench under the broken roof and looked up at the sky. Towering cathedrals of clouds, sun-filled in their centers, drifted across the broken opening. The air was so hot it was palpable.

The pawnbroker said the woods were full of snakes; that snakes would be on the move looking for water because of the heat.

Jack leaned over and looked under the bench.

“If you smell cucumbers,” he’d said, “that’s a copperhead. My momma got bit by one. She was picking peaches and jumped down by a fence and got bit on her ankle. Every year at the same time her ankle’ll turn the color of copper, with purple patches on it. You don’t wanta to go off the road and camp in the woods. Hope is your best shot with a cottonmouth. There ain’t nothin’ else you can do. Just make sure you don’t step nowhere near one.”

Outside he could see the road glistening, the surface of the asphalt a slick black as the heat brought up the tar. The tires of the bike were already heavy with the tar.
How much hotter could it get?

Wiping sweat off his face he lay back down, grateful for the shade.

Another enormous cloud drifted across the edge of the roofing.

When Jack awoke he realized he hadn’t even known he’d fallen asleep and, sitting up, saw that his thighs were even more swollen. He had to walk around for several minutes to get them loose enough to get on the bicycle again. He had cooled down some, but the air seemed even heavier than when he fell asleep, and within three minutes of riding he was again drenched in sweat.

He hadn’t fixed the pedal and every time he pushed, pain shot through the arch. He pedaled on his toes, but after awhile that began to hurt. On the flats he would pedal mostly one-legged. When he came to the slightest grade he got off and walked, pushing the bike. He drank the last of the water. The bottle was empty.

The sky was almost clouded over now, and coming down a long hill he saw a small crossroads store painted a thin dark brown. Two yellow gas pumps stood out front on concrete biscuits in the dirt driveway. The roof was tin that extended out as a canopy for the pumps.

He bumped off the pavement and rolled onto the dirt, seeing a large Jax Beer, a large Nehi and a smaller red Coca-Cola sign nailed along the open door, and a long wood bench against the wall. He was really thirsty. He got off the bike and walked it over to the store, then leaned it up against the wall. There was an outhouse against the stand of pines behind the store, and at the side of the steps a thin black hose coming out from a spigot.

He ran the water for a moment, then started to drink. The water was warm and had a rubbery, bitter taste, and he spat it out and then ran the water over his head and neck, letting it soak into his T-shirt.

He could hear voices coming from inside the store and he turned the water off, coiled the hose, and set it back down on the dirt.
The store was dark inside and the floor creaked as he walked in and the voices stopped.
An old man was sitting on a stool behind the counter and two other men were sitting in chairs by the ice cooler. Jack walked over to the cooler, slid open the door and reached down in the cold water and fished out a glass bottle Coke. He popped the cap in the bottle opener, then picked out four yellow apples from a peach basket full, and carried them to the counter.

“That’s a dollar n’ two bits,” the old man said, “less’n you’re not drinking the Coke here.”

“No, I’ll drink it here,” Jack said. “I’ll drink it out on the bench.”

The old man didn’t have any teeth in his mouth. They were in a water glass by the cash register. An open tin of Copenhagen was next to the glass. He obviously chewed the tobacco without his teeth. There was a small barefoot boy with close-cropped blonde hair in blue coveralls standing next to one of the men in the chairs, staring at Jack.

“Y’all’s a Yankee,” the old man said as Jack put the apples on the counter.

“No sir,” Jack said.

“Yes’n, you are.”

“Y’all ain’t stirrin’ up trouble, are ya?” came a voice from the corner.

This was the skinny little man in the farmer coveralls whose eyes Jack had felt on him when he took out the Coke.

“What trouble?”

“Niggra trouble,” the little man said.

“No sir,” Jack said.

“Tha’s good,” the old man said. “Tha’s good. Where y’all from?”

“California,” Jack answered.

“California,” said the little man, looking over at the old man behind the counter. “A
Californian is the one that’s shot Medgar Evers.”

He looked at Jack. “You know that?”

“Who’s Medgar Evers?”

The old man behind the counter laughed, “One of them uppity niggras that lived in Jackson.”

“California’s full ’a queers,” the little man said, “you know that?”

“I don’t know that,” Jack said.

“You go to school?” Jack said to the boy.

“I ain’t big enough,” the boy said.

“How old are you?”


“Lemme explain it to you,” the storekeeper said. “People like you don’t know the history of the South. After the war them niggras, or colored folk, whatever you want to call ‘em, was as bad as could be. Hell, they was rapin’ n’ lootin’ n’ killin’, getting all big-headed, causing the worst of their own troubles. Now that’s how the Klu Klux Klan rose up. Keep ‘em from taking everything, see.”

Jack glanced over at the little boy, who was staring back at him. The other man, sitting back in the shadows, said, “Why you lookin’ at my boy?”

“I’m not,” Jack said.

He took out five quarters and laid them on the counter, pushing them to the old man.
“You know why niggras have big nostrils?” the little man said.

Jack didn’t answer.

“Cause they got big fingers,” he said, laughing.

Jack took the apples and the Coke, glanced back at the two men and the little boy, and walked outside.

Far off across the road rain was slashing down into a hillside of trees. The rain was blue-gray with sunlight at the edges. Jack sat down on the bench and watched it lashing the trees in marching columns of shifting smoke, then move off, leaving everything behind a bright gleaming green. He put the apples on the bench. The Coke bottle was cold from being in the icy water of the metal cooler and he pressed it against his temples and cheeks, then the sides of his neck before drinking it.

He could hear the same voices coming from inside, but he wasn’t listening to what they were saying. He didn’t care what they were saying. He took the Coke down in several long, smooth swallows, feeling the burn in his nostrils and throat.

There was an open wood box by the doorway half-filled with empty pop bottles and he got up and put the bottle in one of the slots, then walked back and picked up the apples, taking them with him out into the heat, tucking them inside the duffle. He opened the spigot, letting the water run out of the hose for a bit, then filled up his bottle, thinking how quickly the sky had clouded over.

Getting on the bike he pedaled out onto the roadway, going up a slight hill along a split-log pine fence. Ahead a band of horses stood side-by-side in the dry part of the hillside, not moving, nose to tail, tail to nose, heads drooped to the ground, not feeding, the heat too heavy for their bones.

As Jack came closer, the air extremely heavy now, he expected them to move or to look up, but they did neither, just stayed as they were. And suddenly the rain broke, thick showers

in hundred yard long sheets drenching everything, Jack could barely see, three days and nights of steadily numbing heat all gone in an instant, everything gone immediately cool, all the horses suddenly whirling, two sprinting off in the sheer joy of the rain, the bay revealing itself as a thoroughbred racing full out rapidly away down along the fence line, a brown blur washing out in the silver.

And just as suddenly the rain was gone, the heat coming down as heavily as before, and Jack rode and rode until dusk, sometimes walking, sometimes coasting, riding again, drinking water, walking again, then riding, suffering the heat, drinking more water, seeing nothing save the second growth pine mixed with the deciduous trees and the thick tangles of brush. The pine was often patched with blister rust, and once Jack thought he saw a snake vanishing into a clump of dry grasses and he didn’t like the feeling it gave him.

That night in an empty farmhouse he slept on top of a broken kitchen table, hanging the duffle up on a nail so nothing could crawl into it, then taking his jeans off and folding them into a pillow. For a time he sat up in the dark, eating an apple, stretching his legs out, trying to get comfortable.

Jack lay down on his side. He was really, really tired. His foot really ached.

He wondered who it was that had once lived in the house. The woods were thick right at the doorstep. It wasn’t what was called a shotgun shack, one room with two doors, the front and back, so small that you could shoot a shotgun straight across it and not hit anything inside. There was still a faint dusty smell of kerosene, or was it coal oil? It had three rooms, the kitchen, the larger room and a small room that must have been where they all slept. Since it had a kitchen, probably there were women and children that lived here as well as men.

A night bird called from somewhere, and then another and, closing his eyes, there weren’t any mosquitoes, and in the morning when Jack woke he saw he hadn’t turned at all. He was still on his left side, his legs bent under him, but they were so cramped he had to pound his thighs with his fists before he could straighten them out. Then he found he couldn’t get his jeans on.

He took his jackknife out and cut slits along the inseams, then slid his legs in.
He put his boots on and ate an apple and studied the map, seeing the road would take him almost into Meridian before veering off past the big highway into Jackson. He measured the distance he had come, it was already over a hundred miles, and then drank the last of his water and went outside with the bicycle and the duffle, finding a piece of shingle on the ground.

He broke it with his hands and went back inside, looking for a coat hanger or a bit of wire.

There wasn’t anything in the front room, and as he walked back into the kitchen he saw a gray-and-black rattlesnake silently moving along the base of the kicked-in cabinets under the sink. It wasn’t big, maybe a foot and a half in length, but thick and ugly looking.

Jack watched it for a moment.

It was going up into the cabinets.

He turned and went back outside. It wasn’t rational, but he didn’t want to fix the pedal now and, strapping the duffle onto the handlebars, he took the bike and pushed on out toward the road, going down the dirt track, watching carefully ahead into the grass at the side of the ruts. There hadn’t been any water in back in the well. The rusted pump handle hadn’t worked. He’d dropped a rock inside the welling, but only a stone sound came back. The snake was only trying to do what he had to do: get more water.
This idea of bicycling the back roads to Arkansas was really dumb. If it were cooler it wouldn’t be. Well, it wasn’t cooler. He’d wanted to see the South. He was seeing it, all right, going about it as stupidly as he possibly could.

Calm down, he told himself. Just calm down.

Back on the bike, the air already warm, the sky everywhere a soft blue, once his legs warmed up he felt a lot better, his foot not hurting that much. He took out an apple and began to eat it, but within a few miles heat lines began to rise off the asphalt, hovering in the distance, the sky beginning to turn white. Everything was completely dry, as if there had been no rain.

It was already hill country now, and he began walking the bike up each hill, then getting on and coasting the down slopes, the front wheel of the bike going into a wobble that threatened to wreck the bearings, not seeing anything, just feeling the heat and his own sweat, hearing the tires making the swishing sound.

He knew if he stopped his legs would again cramp, but he had one more apple left and he could eat it and for a while he’d be okay.

If the bicycle itself lasted.

Well, let it wreck itself, he thought. To keep on with the bicycle would be even dumber. He knew he couldn’t take much more. He’d go until he heard a car coming, then he was going to quit and start hitchhiking again. He didn’t care who was coming down the road.
Then he heard a car coming and pulled over and got off and waited. He couldn’t see anything at first, then saw a black car coming down around the long curve of trees.
As it approached it slowed and went past, and then slowed again and began to stop, the taillights coming on, pulling over just below the start of the next hill, dust coming up and powdering the car as it finally stopped and sat there, the engine pinging.

Heat lines shimmied off the hood.

Jack waited, holding on to the bike.

Behind the heat lines a large man in a white shirt and black slacks got out and stood by the door and called something out.

The man was hatless, and Jack called back, “Can’t hear you.”

He started wheeling the bike down toward the man. Half-shielded by the car door, there was something wrong about the way the man stood there waiting.

“What did you say?” Jack called, closer to the car now, the engine still making that pinging sound.

“Don’t make me say it again,” the man said, moving out from behind the car door.

“Say what again?”

“Ten bucks, boy.”

“Ten bucks, boy?” Jack said, pushing the bike closer, seeing the man clearly now, a large man with gray hair combed sideways over a sweaty head, one brown eye that cast inward toward the nose, a silver crucifix dangling on a chain around a sweaty, double-chinned neck.

“Is that what you said? I thought you said something else.”

The man hesitated, “I said…I said I want to suck your cock.”

“You want to suck my cock?”

“Twenty dollars. I’ll give you twenty dollars.”

“Sure,” Jack said, letting the bike drop, doubling up his fists, moving fast toward the car. “You can suck it after I bust your goddamn cross-eyed face!”

The man’s eyes blinked and his face twisted and he turned and bolted, hurrying himself to get back in the car, hitting into the door, the door not closing, grinding the starter after the engine caught, the door closing, looking out at Jack, the gears crashing, a stream of dirty blue smoke spreading from under the bumper as the car u-turned and sped off back the way it came.

Jack watched it go.

Cicadas were whirring from everywhere in the woods.

It was weird that he hadn’t noticed them before.

Jesus Christ, Jack thought, it’s so goddamn hot. This fucking heat is going to kill me.

Walking back to the bike, he picked it up.

The droning mixed with the heat was starting to make him feel sick.

Slowly, he got back on the bike, starting to pedal up the long, gradual slope of the hill, every several seconds thinking, How much farther can I go, and, halfway up, had to get off and walk, unable to pump any longer. He took out the apple, eating all of it, sucking on the seeds to keep moisture in his mouth, thinking, I’ll sit and rest, but there was no shade anywhere save off in the tangled thickets under the thousands of motionless trees.

Cicadas were whirring from everywhere.

No way was he going in there.

No other cars passed him at all, either coming or going.

All that existed was heat, the road, the thousands of trees, the thickets, the cicadas, the seeds in his mouth gone dry. He spat them out and just walked in the layers of heat, his body drenched in sweat.

He would need water soon.

He reached the top of the slope and got back on the bike and began coasting downhill, not braking, letting the bike go, the front wheel starting into its wobble, threatening to fly off as he hit the flat where he began furiously pedaling again to reach as much speed as he could to gain height onto this next hill coming up before getting off and walking again.

Funny how it was water you wanted. Nothing else.

He attacked three hills before he quit.

Going down this last long dry grade in the now crackling heat, the trees rushing by, he knew his legs were finished. There was no way he could turn around. He’d gone too far to go back. He’d just push the bike off to the side and just keep walking, but then it was easier to let the bike carry the duffle. What did he need the duffle for anyway? What was it carrying: two T-shirts, a jacket, some socks, underwear, the map, the empty water bottle, some raisins?

The raisins. He’d forgotten about the raisins.

Jack stopped and took the duffle off, unclipping the snap from the brass eyelet, the metal singeing his fingers. He found the raisins and unwrapped them, the raisins half-melted together.

He heard another car coming and looking up first saw a narrow red clay road going up into the woods and then a black-and-orange pickup truck appearing between some trees and then vanishing again, the engine growing louder all the time.

After a moment it came out along the road and turned onto the highway.

He stuck his thumb out.

It went by, dusty-looking, three white men inside.

He ate the raisins and picked up the bike again, strapping the duffle back on.

Jack walked along, wheeling the bike.

Around the curve was another hill.

Okay, he thought, this is it, the very last one. I’ll do it. Walk up, coast the slope, then dump the bike. No one will pick me up if I have the bike.

Goddamn, Jack thought, I’m goddamn burning to death!

There were millions of cicadas sawing away as he walked. He didn’t remember hearing them before. Of course he’d heard them before, heard that one long constant, unrelenting, endless drone. It was the heat. The goddamn heat was screwing up his head. His skin was burning. Now that he was listening he thought there were so many of them that the trees would begin lifting off the ground. He wiped his face. What was that thought? That their wings would lift up the trees?

Whose thoughts are these? Are these even your own thoughts? These aren’t even your own thoughts. Just dump the bike.

Why don’t you?

Jack kept moving, sweating dripping off his face, pacing slowly along the trees, not looking at anything.

Just before the crest of the hill, where the trees came in over the road, he saw another diamondback, a monster one, this one run over just before it had reached the centerline, dead, crushed just behind the head, blood puddled out on the asphalt.

He stopped and looked, the unrelenting droning of the cicadas going on.

The rattler was over four feet long, thick as a forearm, all gray-and-black, deadly looking, bits of mangled pinkish flesh sticking out from under the thin layer of yellowish top skin over the pattern of diamonds.

That pickup must have got him. That orange-and black one. He’s on this side of the road. He must have just come out of the woods.

Two bottle flies were walking in the blood by the head, their bodies iridescent green. The snake’s eyes were brightly dark under the hood. The blood was still wet.
Jack was afraid to touch him.

The ride you didn’t get, he thought.

What makes you think it’s a him?

Good Christ, he thought, listen to yourself.

You need water, he thought. You really, really need water.

Jack turned and began pushing the bike again. It hurt now to step on his right foot. His mouth was chalky, his tongue fat and sticking against the roof of his mouth. He never should have sucked on those seeds. Maybe it was the raisins. He really wanted to drink. He’d drink anything that was wet. It didn’t have to be water.

Listen to that, he thought. You’ve got to get some water.

He reached the crest and got on the bicycle, looking far down the slope, seeing that even in this heat how beautiful the woods looked, the dark road curving out of view around the trees on the right, and then he pushed off only to find he couldn’t put any kind of pressure on his foot.

He began pedaling with his left leg only, holding his right leg out free from the turning crank.

The slope was gradual in descent, and he slowly picked up speed, finally having not to pedal and, though hot, there was wind, the flow of it over his face and neck a relief, the speed picking up, and then down and around the long curve he went, almost leaning over, the road plunging now into a long straight toward the floor of what was a little valley with the front wheel gone into its furious wobble and the treed landscape rushing by, and suddenly he felt good and thought, Hell, one more hill. I can do that. I’ll do just one more.

The flat was like the bottom curve of a large round bowl and, though the woods ran close on the left, on the right lay a long yellowing field of waist-high weeds and grasses that ran half a hundred yards back to a small, empty-looking, bare-boarded house with a shaded front porch, the house up on blocks set back against a hillside heavy with trees.
Two small black kids came running out from the house just as Jack entered the flat, and began racing through the tall weeds toward the road. They were waving their arms, yelling as they came, two little whips of a black boy and girl, their shirts a royal blue, their shouts lost in the wind.

Going as fast as he’d ever gone, the front wheel shaking, taking him almost out of control, flying past the kids, Jack began pedaling again, not feeling any pain at all, pushing himself even harder. Let’s see how far you can go, he thought. You can go farther. Maybe you’re not done at all.

Going past the end of the field, heading up the grade, the bike already slowing, the front wheel no longer wobbling, Jack continued hard, gaining more distance, then his left leg seized up, a knifing pain burning down his thigh right through the knee and into his foot. He tried to pedal once more, and again the pain seared through him, and he totally and completely quit. He just couldn’t do it. That was it. He was completely done. It was over.

The bike slowed, Jack letting it, and then slowly stopped, the droning of the cicadas just maniacal, sweat pouring off him.

Looking back, he saw the children standing halfway up the slope to the road, silently looking at him.

Okay, he thought, and slowly got off, turning with the bike, and walked back toward them, thinking, Maybe they have some water in the house. If I can get some water and take a rest I can go on with the bike.

The children were motionless as Jack approached, the boy standing in the weeds slightly in front of the girl, both thin as string, skin so pure a black that in the direct sunlight it had a gunmetal bluish sheen, with close-cropped heads that seemed too large for their bodies.

“Hello,” Jack said.

They didn’t answer, the darkness of their large eyes completely watching him.

“Do you know where I can get a drink of water?”

Suddenly the boy dipped his head, turned, and then both of them began running flat out through the tall grasses back toward the house.

Jack watched them go, both moving fast across the field.

Just a stride ahead of the girl, the boy reached the house and was up the steps and inside, the little girl following.

The dirt track from the road up to the house looked as if only people walking had made it. The narrow porch fronting the house was dark and empty.

Jack stood still, holding on to the bike.

Save for the cicadas, everything was silent. Then a woman came out onto the porch. She was a very big black woman, as big as a big man, in a brilliant maroon housedress, a red bandana capping her head. She stopped at the top of the steps and stared out at Jack. Then the little boy stepped out, his arm raised and pointing, excitedly talking, looking back into the shadowed doorway.

Then more women came out: one, two, three, four of them, each nearly as large as the big woman, each deeply black, each wearing a different colored bandana tied about her head: blue, green, purple, white; each in a differently colored floral print dress: turquoise, purple, magenta, yellow…

Then the big woman waved, motioning Jack to come to them, all of the women staring out at him.

Jack got back on the bike and pushed off, coasting back down the road to the dirt track, then turned in and bumped down the slope and let go, letting the bike fall into the weeds, un-strapping the duffle off the handlebars.

He counted five women as he walked with the duffle toward the house, along with the little boy and now the little girl appearing again. Then three other women came out on the porch, the first two small and thin, the third one tall and light-skinned, each dressed in bright floral print housedresses, each in a head scarf of a brilliant blue or orange or black, all eight of them standing there with the children, watching as he approached up the path.

The big woman wore tennis shoes; all the others were barefoot. The thinnest one had her hands on the little girl’s shoulders, an older woman. The big woman had the boy, holding his narrow arm by the bicep, the boy gone silent now, his eyes wide as he watched Jack.

Jack reached the steps and stopped, tiny dark spots floating across his eyes.
He and the big woman looked at each other for a moment. She had a strong broad face with smooth, rounded-looking cheekbones, a wide, flat nose, and almost black, impossible to read eyes.

Jack suddenly felt dizzy.

“Hello,” she said.

“Hello,” Jack answered, glancing at the boy, then back at her. “Could I trouble you for a drink of water?

“I’m very thirsty.”

“Of course, child,” the big woman said, reaching her hand out toward him. “Com’on up here,” and she turned to the woman holding the little girl and said, “Momma.”

This woman turned and went inside the doorway.

“May the children look at your bicycle?”

The boy’s eyes were moving on Jack’s eyes, the big woman’s still holding him close.

“Sure,” Jack said, wiping his face, trying to clear his vision. “They can have it.”

The little boy’s eyes went wider, his face turning to the big woman for confirmation.

“They can have it?’”

“It’s yours,” he said to the boy. “Yours and your sister’s.”

“Oh, Hallelujah!” the big woman said, letting the boy go, and down the steps he flew, his sister right behind him, racing out past Jack, the little girl yelling, “Me first! Me first!”

“Oh, praise Jesus!” the big woman said, “Oh, thank you, Jesus!

“You mean it?” she said, looking down at Jack.

“Absolutely,” Jack said. “I’m finished. I can’t pedal it any farther.”

“Oh, Jesus be praised!” she said, and suddenly all the other women began echoing her: “Oh, Jesus be praised! Oh, Jesus be praised!” Each saying over and over, “Oh, thank you, Jesus! Oh, Jesus be praised! Oh, dear sweet Jesus! Oh, thank you, Jesus…”

“Now y’all comes on up here n’ gets out of the sun,” the big woman said, all of the women now smiling at him, their voices all crossing in a chorus, all saying, “Oh, yes, oh, my yes, oh, thank you, Jesus, oh, thank you, dear sweet Jesus, oh, thank you, oh, thank you, Jesus,” and as Jack started up the steps somehow a chair was produced, and the big woman was telling him she would invite him in, but there was only one room, and Gram’momma was down sick, and she was sorry, “Oh, praise Jesus,” her face very happy-looking, all the other women continuing, “Oh, thank you, Lord, oh, praise be to Jesus,” then the woman called Momma came out with a large blue glass, handing it to Jack, the glass very cold to the touch, of a fluted, translucent, deep aqua-blue, as large as a milkshake container, holding, as he lifted it to his mouth and drank, the coldest, cleanest, most pure water he had ever tasted.

He couldn’t believe it.

Dropping the duffle, Jack drank and drank and drank, all the women continuing to thank Jesus, telling him they all had been praying since before last Christmas for a bicycle for the children and had been telling them to trust that Jesus would not disappoint them and when they saw him coming down the hill they knew he was coming with their bicycle.
“No way coulds I keep ‘em back from runnin’ out to meets you,” the big woman said.

The water was absolute bliss.

They got him another glassful, and a third, and a cold washrag, and Jack cooled his face and the back of his neck, and the whole time the women kept saying, “Oh, praise, Jesus,” and finally, cooled down, he got up, handing the beautiful blue glass back to the big woman, thanked them all, nodding to the older woman called Momma, looked into the house, a hot, musty smell coming from inside the small dark room, then turned, taking up his duffel, and stiffly walked back down the steps out into the strength sapping heat and sunlight, and out onto the dusty track going by the little girl up on the seat of the bicycle being pushed by the boy, both very happy, and on past the yellowing grasses and finally up onto the heated road where almost before he had time to turn and wave to the women, all standing on the porch watching, he was picked up by a middle-aged white guy with a truck driver’s belly and red sideburns with a yellow, plastic snap-tabbed baseball hat driving a blue-and-white Colonial Bread step-van who, when they were passed by two blacks in an old Chevrolet a few miles further on, floored the van and raced after them flat out at fifty-five miles an hour, the van actually shuddering the whole time, not even for a second coming within sight of the Chevy, the speedometer needle quivering right around the fifty-five mark, completely pissed off that two blacks had had the nerve to pass him, saying, “That’s what that fuckin’ cocksucker John Kennedy n’ his brother Bobby did to this country. Lettin’ all them niggras think they can run everybody, them cocksuckers are takin’ over everything!”

“Morrison,” he said his name was, racing the van like that all the way into Meridian, spilling most of the bread off the side shelves in the process, in between offering Jack drinks of J.T.S. Brown from a glass bottle.

“The best bourbon,” he said, “in the whole entire goddamn United States of America.”