Hot Bikes

 Martin walked up the street back to the flea market place he had seen earlier. It was a beleaguered storefront with boarded up windows and people milling about outside, eyeing items arranged in haphazard fashion on the sidewalk. There was an odd assortment of things—toys, watches, mirrors, and at least two fire extinguishers.

The bikes lured him back. There were four of them out when he walked by the first time. Two had kickstands and the other two were pitched against opposite sides of a fire hydrant. He needed a bike. The day before, he missed a job interview after baking in a polyester suit waiting for a bus that never came.

As he walked, Martin kneaded a wad of cash in his pocket. The sweat from his hands made it soft and more ball-like with each step. Without thinking, he started squeezing it like a stress ball, feeling the paper sink and expand. There was a feeling, a fear that he would drop it. It was eighty dollars, his weekly earnings from clearing brush from the five vacant city lots that John insisted on calling a farm.

When he reached the storefront, he saw there were fewer people outside than when he first passed, and a lot of the items were gone. An old man leaned against the doorway of the storefront. His hair was gray, thinning and combed straight back into thin ripples over his scalp. He wore a dark brown T-shirt that almost matched his skin tone; the shirt hung loose around him.

There was a thin woman in shorts pacing near the fire hydrant moving her hands as if in conversation. As Martin drew closer, he saw that she was, in fact, talking to herself. He hesitated in front of the store, glancing quickly through the items for a bike.

The bikes were gone. He felt the gaze of the man in the door, but didn’t look up. There was nothing there that he wanted. Martin turned and started walking away when the man called to him.

“Ay, you ain’t seen nothin’ you like?”

Martin looked back and didn’t speak. He gripped the money in his pocket, thinking. The woman had stopped pacing and was looking at him now, too.

The man motioned him back. He had a cigarette in his hand now, unlit.

“What you need?”

“Any more bikes?” Martin asked, but it seemed like his voice was swallowed in the space between the abandoned buildings.

The man held up his finger in a gesture for Martin to wait and went into the cavernous doorway of the decaying storefront. Martin walked back towards the store taking time between steps. There was a stench in the air as a breeze picked up but it cooled the sweaty skin around his neck and face.

A car, loud and sputtering, and slowed down at the store. The driver shouted out the window at the woman. The woman walked up to the window of the car, and after a quick exchange, got in. The car sputtered up the street, still at a slow pace, and turned into an overgrown alley between two rows of abandoned houses before the engine cut off and all retuned to the vacuum-like silence.

Martin was still standing there looking towards the alley when the man reappeared in the doorway with two bikes. He set them out against the building in the light.

“What you think?”

They were both fairly new and had sleek, light frames, unlike the mountain bikes Martin was used to riding on the country roads.

“How much for the red one?” he asked.

“A hunnit’.”

Martin squeezed his money again and looked from one bike to the other. “And the other one?”

“That one, well, I’d take a hunnit for that one, too.” His voice was gravelly and hollow.

The sputtering turn of the car engine in the alley broke the silence. Martin took the kneaded wad of cash from his palm and started un-balling it with jittery, slick fingers.

The man ushered him closer to the building. “Ay, man, you ain’t gotta let the world know…” His voice trailed off into a mumble as he went in close to the wall of the store and Martin followed.

“Eighty.” Martin counted the bills out loud, uneasy with the man looking over his shoulder. “It’s all I got.”

“Shiiiit.” The man turned and walked away from the wall muttering to himself. “Broke ass niggas…”

A hot wave of air hit Martin as the car chugged off and the young woman re-appeared from the alley, still in a conversation with herself.

The man turned back to Martin, “Ai’ght.”

Martin parted with the whole damp wad, which the man re-counted.

“You spit on this or some shit?” Then the man suddenly stopped, as if an urgent idea stuck him. “You a cop?”

Martin didn’t reply. He got on the red bike, despite the seat being set too low for his long legs, and pedaled back down the route he came. He couldn’t help but notice the ease of the petals as they worked under his feet; the way the bike propelled him forward faster and faster until he felt weightless on the frame, the only sound was the wind as it rushed past his ear.

He was moving so fast, by the time he got back onto his street, he didn’t see Silas out on the porch, only heard a voice calling him back.

He had to crunch the brakes and skid to a halt almost three houses down. He circled back and dropped the bike on the front lawn before starting up the steps. He missed having a kickstand.

“Man, when you start ridin’ them white kid bikes.” Silas was leaning over the railing picking his teeth with a toothpick. He was a little older than Martin, somewhere in his mid-30s. He had a thick well trimmed beard and his hair breaded back into neat rows. He wore a bright plain white T-shirt and jeans shorts that fell just below his knees.

Martin did notice that there was something different about the bike, something he couldn’t put a finger on just yet. He wasn’t even out of breath for the speed he was going.

“Never had a bike like that before!” he blurted, overtaken by a rush of enthusiasm. “Did you see how fast I was going? It moves like a damn car.”

Silas came down to get a closer look. Examining the bike, he rubbed his chin and his brow creased. A half smile spread over his face. “Martin, where you get this thing, man?”

“Just down the way, by the store front on the corner,” Martin said. “It was this guy, he had a bunch of stuff out there; said it was a hundred but I only paid eighty. That a deal or what?”

Silas broke out laughing. He laughed so hard he turned and took three breathless steps away then turned back. Martin stood there looking at him.

“That bike hot as fuck dawg, you better put that shit up before they come lookin’ for yo black ass.” Still laughing, he leaned over and looked under crawl space under his porch.

“Look, I just paid a man cash for this bike,” Martin said, but even as the words left his mouth they seemed thin in the air.

By now everyone there—Blogo and Swish, even Silas’s grandmother—was out looking at the bike.

Silas shook his head controlling his laughter for a moment. “Dawg, I knew you was country but damn, I ain’t know how bad it was.”

He picked the bike off the grass and pushed it under the crawl space so it was hidden from sight in the yard.

For a moment, no one said anything. They all went up on the porch and Martin followed, finding a seat on an overturned bucket. Blogo started split a cigarillo with his long fingernails and dumped its contents over the railing.

A warm breeze blew up again and Martin could see it moving through the grass in the abandoned lots on the far side of the house. In the distance he heard the whistle of the freight train, then, much closer, he heard the hollow call of a pheasant.

Blogo passed the blunt and when it came to Martin, he declined.

“I can’t smoke, it’s for work,” he told them.

“Martin, you ain’t got no job!” Silas said, and they all laughed at something Martin could tell was a reference he didn’t recognize. He smiled to fain familiarity.

After some coercion, Martin inhaled and after a few minutes, everything seemed clearer, sounds and colors. He’d smoked once before with Daniel back in Otton. They were in the barn and Mason was away at a cattle-branding conference. It didn’t have much effect then so he decided it was overrated. But this time was different. He seemed to be picked up and carried further into his brain while simultaneously seeing everything outside clearer than ever.

It took him by surprise when he saw Cheeto, the young bleach blonde guy from Brooklyn, walking up the sidewalk. Martin didn’t know him well, except for rumors from John’s circle. Apparently Cheeto bid on a vacant lot in the city land auction last summer. The lot in question was one that John was cultivating chickpeas on when Cheeto won the bid. Cheeto got the lot, chickpeas and all, which Martin learned was an especially sore spot for John.

Cheeto called from the sidewalk. “Martin! Is that you?”

Martin jumped up and looked around calling back, a little bit too loudly, “Cheeto, how the hell are ya?”

Cheeto came up the steps, his jeans cut off at an awkward place between his knees and his ankles. He wore a second hand cap with a pheasant feather in it and a weathered t-shirt that read, “Got scrapbooks?” He was wiry and thin, medium height, his blonde hair cut asymmetrically with the left side longer than the right.

“Smells good up here that’s for sure,” he said, stopping just at the edge of the porch. “Mind if I partake?”

There was an awkward pause in conversation. “It’s cool, it’s just that white boy that stay down the street.” Silas mumbled to Blogo who was making a direct move to go inside.

Cheeto was more jerky and nervy than usual: Hands in and out of pockets, weight shifting from one foot to another in irregular movements.

“Sorry to crash like this,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe it but my bike was stolen this morning. We went into the park at sunrise to forage for mushrooms and when we came out, my bike was gone.

Martin and Silas exchanged glances.

“It was a Look Cycle. I painted it red ’cause I’m not a walking billboard. I mean that thing is worth more than some cars.”

Martin looked at the ground, thinking, hoping it was a coincidence. “What color was it again?”

“It had a red frame, it has a Brewmasters sticker on it.” Cheeto dragged his hand over his face in distress. Silas offered him the blunt.

“I think I remember it,” Martin said. He put his hands in his pocket. “I bought a bi—-“

He was interrupted by a crash behind him and it was Blogo knocking over some bottles that didn’t seem necessarily in the way.

“Tell him look at the place on the corner,” Silas said, smashing out the blunt. “They sell hot bikes there.”

“Oh, that place by the burnt store front with all those people out all the time?” Cheeto asked.

“That’s the one,” Martin said, almost too quickly. He suffered the silence that followed for a few seconds before breaking it. “So, did you find any mushrooms?”

The topic seemed to ignite something inside of Cheeto. His eyes widened and his posture straightened.

“We found a morel, but not a big one,” he said. “ Anyway, I think Drew got some chicory root he’s gonna to cook up later for the potluck.”

He hesitated as if contemplating something before continuing with enthusiasm. “You should come over, bring a dish. It’s a wild nature theme. All weeds. We went on a foraging medicine walk and came back with some great stuff. I mean, right now I could show you some great edibles growing right in your yard, wanna take a look with me?”

Silas looked at his front yard and then slowly back at Cheeto. “I’m good,” he said.

Cheeto continued like he didn’t hear. “We’ve got some representatives from the Kroft Foundation coming for dinner. We’re trying to get a grant to do some education around foraging for low income families.”

It got so quiet that when Blogo coughed, it seemed like thunder.

“Well…I guess I’ll let you guys get back to …” Cheeto backed up a step. “But if you do decide to come, there’s one thing missing for the dinner and it’s a wild meat. There’s no wild game around here is there?”

“Well this place is crawling with pheasants,” Martin said. “I could catch one right now if I tried.”

“Catch?” Cheeto eyes got wider and he leaned in lowering his voice. “How much? I mean, what could I do to make this worth your while?”

It almost seemed like insult to injury, Martin thought. Here was this guy, oblivious that his stolen bike lay under the porch and here Martin was, about to charge him for something he could get for free. He shrugged, trying to think of the appropriate response.

Cheeto took it for hard ball. “Look, I’ll give you fifty bucks if you can get one of those in my hands before three o’clock today.”

Something occurred to Martin. “I’ll do it for eighty,” he said. “Not dressed or nothin’ like that.”

“Deal,” Cheeto said, almost before the words were out. “So, should I meet you back here at three?”

Martin nodded, his brain still spinning from the smoke; the bright fields seemed to shine around the house like endless summer.

Cheeto took his leave with an ill-timed fist bump to Silas and a hearty handshake to Martin. He disappeared up the street by the lot behind John’s.

Silas leaned back in the plastic yard chair on the porch and chuckled in amusement. “Dawg, you gone need that country magic or whateva it is y’all be doin’ ‘cause dem birds move quick and last time I checked you ain’t had no gun.”

Runaway-Chapter II

The air hung thick and still, an invisible curtain between the world and me. Voices from pickers in nearby rows looped in and out: laughter, cussing, echoes of a life I used to live before I realized I was trapped in a nowhere town full of rusty machines, drowsy streets, and haunted by the smell of livestock.

Endless flats of peaches, red and orange in the sun, sat like two-toned marbles waiting to be scattered. I wanted to overturn all the crates and then whip Jacques to the ground.

The farm truck chugged up. Mason backed in to hitch up the trailer and cart it off to the packing plant. Then I saw it: Mason was wearing my missing long sleeve shirt.

A lightness fizzed in my blood. I was overcome by a feeling of superpower, of limitless ability. What happened next melts into a multicolored blur: I see the farm truck backing up to the trailer full of peaches. Then Mason, a plaid streak, dashing behind the truck and cranking down the trailer hitch; a flash of Jacques stepping backwards, his round eyes bulging.

With a speed and agility I never knew I possessed, I dashed across the row and lunged into the open truck. The keys dangled motionless from the ignition, a still frame lodged in a nauseating rush. Without so much as a slam of the door, I yanked the truck into drive and crashed forward, granite foot to the gas. Rising voices, confused and angry, clamored in the growing distance.

 

My eyes rolled over to the cloudless sky, down the long row, past the ladders and brown-skinned pickers as they flickered by. The truck, a rusted 1996 Ford Bronco, creaked at the ill-connected trailer hitch. It felt like the weight of the peaches was tugging the truck back. For some time I felt like I was moving but getting nowhere, or that the orchard suddenly expanded for miles. The truck hit an uneven patch and rocked violently from side to side slamming the door shut. It began wheezing louder with the growing speed. Just then the gravel driveway, opening like a mouth into the road, jumped out of nowhere. I jerked the steering wheel to the left to follow it. The turn dislodged the hitch on the trailer and the truck veered followed by an awful metallic screech raking over my eardrums.

Before I realized what had happened, the truck kicked forward like its namesake. With the weight of the trailer torn off, the engine power lurched the truck to jump forward so hard it nearly pitched my body through the back of the cab then in the next instant towards the windshield. The bumps and dips of the uneven orchard floor launched Mason’s water jug over the center console towards the back. Loose change ran along the bottom on the cup holders and a loose peach shot from the dashboard to the passenger seat.

I looked in the rearview mirror for the first time. The torque sent the trailer spinning off the truck and onto its side. A warm explosion of peaches blossomed over grass and gravel. I was at the edge of the orchard and Mason, a long-sleeved speck waving his arms like a broken windmill, was running forward as fast as his stiff legs would allow. I couldn’t hear him, but I almost felt the stream of damnation gushing from his lungs.

I turned the wheel, this time to the right, and zoomed out onto the rolling country road that ran through Otton like an artery.

It was Semwick Road; the road Mason told me Mother died on in a car crash. I was four. I don’t remember much about her except what Mason told me and the little, random clips that sometimes flashed into my mind. For instance, I remember her hands. Long fingers, dark skin, soft. I thought about that a lot. No one I knew had soft hands except the guy Mason invited over around come tax season.

My mother’s name was Philipa and she was from Jamaica. She worked as a farm hand until she and Mason got married. I’d wrestled that much out of him. She was the only topic that was off limits, aside from new farm equipment. I’d bring her up and he’d damn near hurl something at me. How she ended up in Otton is a mystery to me. How she ended up with Mason must just be tougher than the mystery of life.

The scene I saw in the rearview is an image I’d store in my head forever: the scramble of peaches, the splintered creates, the wooden trailer leaning broken and helpless on its side. At the time it seemed surreal, like it was happening to someone else. It never occurred to me to stop or to turn back. I felt I could go anywhere. A primal part of my brain told me to keep moving, and fast, toward the expressway.

The town was a four-mile stretch and it was even longer to the nearest interstate. Four miles of Otton, four miles of Mason, of familiar faces and mailboxes, welcome mats and tractors; four miles, too, of local police.

The peach-inflicted burning was now a distant throb behind a roar in my head and slushiness in my stomach. As I drove, I saw plumes of dust billowing from the grain fields in harvest; amber clouds rising from combines back ends. I could smell the seasonal sweetness in the air like fresh-cut grass. The whirr of farm equipment buzzed by; Cornfields fanned out before me, each row ticking past like the second hand on a watch. I couldn’t outdrive them; they seemed to run tirelessly alongside the truck.

The closer I got to the highway, the traffic thickened and at the sight of a state trooper two cars ahead I started sweating to the point were I had to blink the salty stuff out of my eyes. Heat waves tadpoled upward from the road, rhythmic wiggles of the air. I inched forward until the traffic had me hovering right up behind the state trooper. In a nervous flare my eyes started dashing about. How fast would Mason call me in? How long would it take this trooper to find out I was committing grand theft auto? The trooper turned her head towards me. She was a frowning woman with small eyes. For a flash, our eyes met. I quickly looked at the passenger seat.

She knows, I thought. The lonely peach resting on the seat suddenly became interesting. I noticed there was a scar on it scabbed over with a clear dried sap. We never got every worm with the pesticide.

I stared at that peach until a blast from a truck’s horn made me look up. The traffic had moved on, more than a football field ahead.

 

Runaway-Chapter 1

(7/14/14) - (Quicksburg) ----- Turkey Knob Grower's employees Jabet Rivera, (top) and Luis Cepeda, harvest peaches at an orchard near Quicksburg, Va. in Shenandoah County Monday July 14, 2014. A late frost in May has reduced yeilds at some area orchards in the Shenandaoh Valley but spared the blooms at Turkey Knob. ({Michael Reilly/Daily News-Record})

I remember the morning I lost my mind. I sat in the cluttered kitchen of the farmhouse engulfed by a feeling of bleakness; the dirty dishes piled in the sink, the sound of the truck sputtering outside—it was so familiar that it was desolate.

A thought nagged from the bleak: Where was my long sleeve shirt? I hung it on the back of the kitchen chair last night, now it was gone. It was the only one that was remotely clean.

That’s how I ended up in the middle of peach harvest in a T-shirt, arms ablaze from the fuzzy chafe of peaches. A coating of sweat slicked over my arms and reminded me of the time when I was a little kid and I crawled through a patch of stinging nettles in the rain, chasing after a chicken.

Part of the problem was that Mason, my stepfather, refused to update the farm equipment. Sometimes, when the creaky old combine was leaned up in the field waiting on repairs, he’d strut into the rows with the walk-behind corn picker he won at a small farm expo. just to prove a point.

When August peach harvest came around, he had the same mentality: Pick ‘em the old fashioned way. That meant climbing a ladder and getting the fruit into the basket and then personally emptying that basket into a crate.

Once, I spent all night poring over farm catalogs, circling tools and modest machines that had the power to ease our summer days. Our thirty-acre sliver of Otton farmland barely passed as a proper farm compared to the Lasky’s ocean of corn, yet somehow we were working harder than them to keep the land producing.

I left my selections on the table next to Mason’s newspaper and every time the catalogue ended up in the black plastic bin by the door.

“You wanna spend all our cash so you can plop our ass in an air conditioned hole and call it a harvest?” He said. His squinted glare sent wrinkles through the skin around his blue eyes. His cheeks sunk in further than usual and I could almost see the contours of his skull. “You ain’t no farm boy.”

I agreed with him.

“You’re right,” I said. “I was meant to be a professional.” I sat up straight at the kitchen table. For the first time realized I was actually taller than him.

Mason got to his feet.

“’The hell you think this is, some kinda fuckin’ doodle?” His voice was hoarse and his fist fell to the table like a gavel. “You’re a farmer, you’re a goddamn professional. An’ if for some horseshit reason you don’t think you are, then I don’t know what the hell you’ve been doin’ all your life.”

The room got quiet and he returned to his seat with the slow jerkiness of an old man, still fixing his glare on my face. I turned my head and stared at the wall.

“I don’t understand what the hell’s wrong with you, Martin. Would’ya rather be stuck in some dipshit college in the cornfields with your thumb up you ass waiting for someone to tell you how to wipe it?”

There was stillness before he tore into his egg sandwich.

There were other roadblocks to my daydreams. When my high school counselor asked me what I wanted be when I grew up, she didn’t wait to hear my reply.

“Farmer Martin,” she said smiling.

Otton, a speck of a Midwestern town, was only significant for the amount of grain it produced on an annual basis.

It was when my best friend Daniel took off to college that I felt the full stagnancy of my life. He got a football scholarship to Boise State University and I got a reality check—I looked around as all my daydreams vaporized: there I was standing in a mucky chicken coop ankle deep in ripe shit.

Here’s the gist of my summertime life in Otton: Bent over from the first peep of spring until the last stand of fall, lifting, stinking, and grunting through each day sunup, sundown.

With no time to cook, Mason and I lived on cold lunchmeat slapped on white bread that was on sale at Wal-Mart. Or sometimes, if Mason was in a good mood, we’d mix hot dogs with canned chili and eat it with corn chips mashed up in it, topped with maybe some grade B sour cream from Lasky’s Dairy. As long as it wasn’t a peach or another egg looking back at me I was happy, and it kept me full.

My favorite, though, was Chinese. Sometimes I would sneak downtown to the China Buffet with ten dollars pocketed from the farm stand and gulp down all the sweet n’ sour goodness I could fit in before wobbling home, top heavy.

Mason never approved of spending money on food unless it was on the ten-for-ten rack at Wal-Mart or Meijer, Grade B dairy products, or the better part of a large animal. The rest we got from our farm.

In the summer we mostly ate crap out of a can because we were just too tired to cook. Actually, it didn’t bother me. Even on the slowest days in the middle of winter Mason and I had a very limited idea of cooking and it involved throwing a chunk of meat in a pot with water and onions and boiling the shit out of it. Come March I would kill for a slice of cold ten-for-ten lunchmeat.

So there I stood, sleeveless and baking in the orchard. It was a Friday and I was sure that I hated my stepfather, roommate, boss–Mason Specter.

On a midmorning break, Jacques, the sporadic and unpaid university intern, propped his picker stick against a tree and eyed me up and down. A bee buzzed by. There was a stiff silence. He jutted his chin at my arms.

“Should’ve worn long sleeves,” he said. His words broke something inside of me.

First, I felt a fiery lump expanding inside of my chest. Then I felt my muscles tightening and my jaw gripped down on itself like a vice.

I’d felt these anger spells boil up before; sudden volcanic fury that hit the nearest person on the way out. After an unfortunate incident involving a sheep shearer, I dedicated myself to learning to contain them: I’d seal up, Tupperware style. But that day, there was no sealing.