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.
Ive 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 its evil, but I cant help myself.
You cant 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 sheriffs
badge which kept him from getting speeding tickets, he said, and a plea,
after Jack said, Its not for me, that he shouldnt
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
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 didnt
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 mans right eye. The mans hair was coal black and
shiny like it had been painted. Jack didnt know what to say, so
he said, You think your mother would like that?
Youre 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 wasnt 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 didnt
belong here. You hear what Im sayin to you?
Sure, Jack said, getting out. Thanks. Ill remember
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
Jacks 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 didnt have another pedal.
Its still a good deal, he said, over his toothpick.
It was dusk by the time Jack made his way through Pensacola.
He knew he couldnt 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 hed 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 didnt miss any
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 womans 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 dont yall tie it under the seat? She sat down
on the steps. Hang it from the coils.
Thats a good idea, Jack said, already starting to wire
it into place.
Where yall coming from?
Lord, thats a long way. You mean you rode that bicycle from
Yes, maam, he said. Its 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, hed been about Jacks age.
His name was William, but we always called him Beau. Were you in
No, Jack said, I got out of it.
Let me get you some more coffee, she said, then said, Im
I dont want to bother you. I should get going.
Its no bother, she said. Where are you going to
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. Hed always hated mosquitoes, and now he hated
them even more.
He was really glad to be off the road.
Its 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, thats
got all the rooms facing an inner corridor, n once everybodys
checked in, unlock all the inside doors to every room, n then go
around and lock all the outside doors sos 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,
Them are the boys that musta been picking you up.
In the morning Jacks 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, hed said, thats
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 anklell turn the color of copper, with purple patches on it.
You dont wanta to go off the road and camp in the woods. Hope is
your best shot with a cottonmouth. There aint nothin else
you can do. Just make sure you dont 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 hadnt even known hed 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 hadnt 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
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
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
Thats a dollar n two bits, the old man said, lessn
youre not drinking the Coke here.
No, Ill drink it here, Jack said. Ill drink
it out on the bench.
The old man didnt 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.
Yalls a Yankee, the old man said as Jack put the
apples on the counter.
No sir, Jack said.
Yesn, you are.
Yall aint 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.
Niggra trouble, the little man said.
No sir, Jack said.
Thas good, the old man said. Thas good.
Where yall from?
California, Jack answered.
California, said the little man, looking over at the old man
behind the counter. A
Californian is the one thats shot Medgar Evers.
He looked at Jack. You know that?
Whos Medgar Evers?
The old man behind the counter laughed, One of them uppity niggras
that lived in Jackson.
Californias full a queers, the little man said,
you know that?
I dont know that, Jack said.
You go to school? Jack said to the boy.
I aint big enough, the boy said.
How old are you?
Lemme explain it to you, the storekeeper said. People
like you dont 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 thats
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?
Im 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 didnt 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 wasnt listening
to what they were saying. He didnt 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
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 didnt 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
He wondered who it was that had once lived in the house. The woods were
thick right at the doorstep. It wasnt 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 werent any mosquitoes, and in the morning when Jack
woke he saw he hadnt 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 couldnt get his jeans on.
He took his jackknife out and cut slits along the inseams, then slid his
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 wasnt 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 wasnt 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 wasnt rational, but he didnt
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 hadnt been any water in back in the well. The rusted pump
handle hadnt worked. Hed 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 wouldnt be. Well, it wasnt cooler. Hed
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 hed 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 couldnt take much more. Hed go
until he heard a car coming, then he was going to quit and start hitchhiking
again. He didnt care who was coming down the road.
Then he heard a car coming and pulled over and got off and waited. He
couldnt 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, Cant 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
What did you say? Jack called, closer to the car now, the
engine still making that pinging sound.
Dont 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. Ill 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
The mans 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 hadnt noticed them before.
Jesus Christ, Jack thought, its 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, Ill 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. Hed gone too far to go back. Hed 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. Hed 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
Jack walked along, wheeling the bike.
Around the curve was another hill.
Okay, he thought, this is it, the very last one. Ill do it. Walk
up, coast the slope, then dump the bike. No one will pick me up if I have
Goddamn, Jack thought, Im goddamn burning to death!
There were millions of cicadas sawing away as he walked. He didnt
remember hearing them before. Of course hed 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 arent
even your own thoughts. Just dump the bike.
Why dont 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. Hes 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 snakes eyes were brightly dark under the hood. The blood
was still wet.
Jack was afraid to touch him.
The ride you didnt get, he thought.
What makes you think its 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. Hed drink anything
that was wet. It didnt have to be water.
Listen to that, he thought. Youve 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 couldnt 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. Ill 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 hed 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. Lets see
how far you can go, he thought. You can go farther. Maybe youre
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 couldnt 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 didnt answer, the darkness of their large eyes completely watching
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
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
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
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 big woman wore tennis shoes; all the others were barefoot. The thinnest
one had her hands on the little girls 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
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?
Im very thirsty.
Of course, child, the big woman said, reaching her hand out
toward him. Comon 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 boys eyes were moving on Jacks eyes, the big womans
still holding him close.
Sure, Jack said, wiping his face, trying to clear his vision.
They can have it.
The little boys eyes went wider, his face turning to the big woman
They can have it?
Its yours, he said to the boy. Yours and your
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,
You mean it? she said, looking down at Jack.
Absolutely, Jack said. Im finished. I cant
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 yall 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 Grammomma 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
He couldnt 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 drivers 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, Thats
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
The best bourbon, he said, in the whole entire goddamn
United States of America.