Heard the other day about a baby getting gnawed on by rats,” says the rangy woman and already the man wishes he’d just rode on. “Yeah, rats. Said they’d chewed plumb down to skull when the parents finally realized something was up. You imagine that?”
The man cannot imagine that, nor does he want to. What he wants is water. But he knows now that stopping – despite the color of his piss that morning – was a mistake.
The woman says the parents were young and wild and free and stoned. So high they let rats chew on their fifteen-day-old baby boy, a hundred and fifty bite-marks.
The man listens absently while the woman talks of the baby – saying it survived, asking what the hell kind of man will that baby boy become, asking what kind of father that rat-bitten baby will be, when Jerry cuts her off. “No, I cannot,” he says.
“No, I cannot imagine that, nor do I want to.”
“What about the murders,” says the woman.
“Slew of murders up and down this highway, too. You sleeping in a tent?”
“You got a gun?”
“No,” says the man but looks past the woman to the innards of her house, cigarette burns spotting her ragged sofa like bullet holes.
“Do you smoke?” he says.
“Not a day in my life.”
“Can I have a glass of water?”
The woman motions for him to come inside then disappears. The man stares only at the cigarette holes in the sofa. She appears again with a cup of water. The man stands beyond the threshold. The woman stares at him for a moment, studies him like maybe she’s read this thing all wrong, maybe he ain’t what he seems: an old man on a funny bicycle with a fancy mustache. No, maybe he’s the Devil himself, Death, Count Dracula – and now the way his great handlebar mustache curls at the tips and is gelled to hard points makes her squirm.
She stops a few steps from the doorway, water in hand. She’s about to lift the little plastic cup, offer it to him, when he huffs and turns away, trotting back to his funny bicycle with curly-q handle bars, funny like his mustache – and then he’s gone.
Her little dog, Traylor, a brindle mutt, runs after the man and that settles it. That dog never barks at nobody. She watches as Traylor closes on him, wishing for violence, bloodshed like the rats, but just as Traylor is about to make a diving nip at the bike’s back tire, the man produces an air horn, something you see at sporting events or attached to recreational boats. The man gives a short hard blast to Traylor’s face. The dog crumples as if shot, yipping and licking the back of his paws. The man rides on.
Jerry Tidwell is still thirsty but not that thirsty. Doing what he’s done – what he’s doing – will make a man thirsty. He’s still a grandfather, a new grandfather, and his wife, Hattie, would have never forgiven him leaving, or what came after, but she left first.
There are just some things that will ruin a man. Conversations with that old woman back there, those are the sort of things that take your life from you, draining the sustenance one pointless word at a time.
Jerry decided to bike the Trans Am – the Trans American bike trail – for the simple fact that he was tired of people. There was no one left, and they all said the same thing, anyway: “How you holding up, Jer?” But before all that, it had been his job. His job was talking to people, and like most things done repeatedly, it had nearly killed him. All those people leading him, one by one, to a slow, pitiful death.
Jerry sold paper.
He used to hold the phone out while the customer talked, thinking thoughts he left unsaid, until, eventually, they bought the paper. They always bought the paper. Afterwards, Jerry would write up the receipt, make some copies, check his watch, and an hour and thirteen minutes of his life would have disappeared.
But then Hattie got sick and her life began to actually disappear, and sometimes Jerry would remember happiness. Happiness was a blue bicycle he received one Christmas morning when he was eight. He rode that bicycle down the gravel road in front of his house until the seat jarred loose. All he wanted to do was ride that bicycle. But then came kids, and the paper company, and he spent his life earning money, money so he could retire and buy a RV and see the country with Hattie.
But then Hattie died, and it was anything but pitiful, everything taken from her, everything. She had these legs, skinny legs that stayed grape-skin tight all the way through, even into her sixties, until the cancer. Her last words: “Jer, death doesn’t scare me, but dying does.” And Jerry was there to bare witness to the rich proud cost of her outworn buried age. Death took His time with Hattie, made a masterpiece of her, and Jerry took notes.
Before he left, Trish, his daughter, had the first grandchild: a little girl with rosy fat cheeks and big blue eyes. He remembered Trish hugging him, asking him to stay, the granddaughter tight in her arms. She had cried, the baby. He knows she did, but he never looked back. Cal, Trish’s husband, had simply nodded. Cal sold insurance. He knew. And for that Jerry would pardon him future unforgiveable sins, evils that were sure to come, just as they came to all men who strap themselves tight to a place and hold on forever.
Jerry’s pointy mustache tips quiver in the wind.
He is nearly through Kentucky, and thank God for that. At one point he’d passed an old barb wire fence containing weeds and skinny cows, and sitting on the posts of that pointless fence were the heads of giant lunker catfish, rotted and stinking, deep holes where eyes had been, holes like they had seen what lay beneath and above and still everything was meaningless.
Jerry felt the holes watching him.
Those are the thoughts that come to you after a thousand miles. He studied them as he drove past, letting his mind wander to and wonder at the hands that had placed them there, and why? For what reason could any man possibly conceive of staking that many fish skulls, miles of them, on poles along the highway?
Rats. And Hattie, losing Hattie while the others remained, faceless consumers scattered about the country. The young stoned couple, their baby, and rats.
He road the Kentucky highways for miles and miles while the lunker heads lined the road, feeling their eyes on his back and wishing only for Missouri.
But with Missouri came the dogs.
And dogs led to the air horn and long grueling rides because they only get you when you stop. And then it was Kansas, and now it is Kansas. Kansas on and on forever. America is Kansas. Flat and dead, desolate. When the end times come, there will still be Kansas, and women like that rangy one back there in that tenant house living with her mutt.
Jerry is thirsty. He licks his lips, swallows.
The road does this weird thing after you’ve ridden it all day and are thirsty, so thirsty. It starts to slide out from under you. The same feeling you get when you watch a train passing, like you’ve finally started to feel the world spinning, a revolutionary kind of feeling. Jerry finally felt the world turn again after the first one. That’s the way Kansas makes you feel, but if he were to talk to Hattie tonight, Jerry’d just say, “It’s flat, Hattie. Kansas is – flat.”
“Really?” she’d say.
Jerry would wait for an explanation. It’s those hollow words, hollow like the paper company, that led him to the blue highways of America, roads on the maps that aren’t big or thick, just blue. Blue like the veins at his granddaughter’s temples, blue like Hattie turned blue, blue like every river that leads to the ocean, blue like the ocean, blue like water, but not the water from which those catfish were pulled.
“You there, Jer?” Hattie would say.
“Yes, Hattie. I’m here.”
“So Kansas flat, huh?”
Jerry would grumble, refusing to acknowledge her question, which wasn’t a question, just a restating of a thing he’s already said.
“Well, alright, Jer. Love you,” she’d say.
“Love you too, Hattie,” he’d say.
He would say that.
Jerry thinks about water, catfish water, and thinks maybe he would have told Hattie about the catfish heads. Maybe he would have told her about the rangy woman and the mutt. He might have told her the other things. He doubts it though. Hattie was one to worry.
Up ahead there’s a church.
Jerry pulls his bike off the road, thinking the church must have water, even if he has to drink it from a baptismal pool. There would be truth in that. At the front door Jerry realizes it’s not a church at all. It’s a gas station with a big cross painted on the outside wall. On the front door a sign hangs that says:
First Day: Open
Second Day: Open
Third Day: Open
Fourth Day: Open
Fifth Day: Open
Sixth Day: Open
Seventh Day: Rest
Jerry checks his watch. It’s Sunday, of course it’s Sunday. He looks through the window. There’s a sink. It’s rusted, but now he’s really thirsty. He licks the window just to make sure it’s there. A piece of paper is stuck to his tongue.
“Out for grocery, back by night. Biker people free room in back.”
Jerry had been on the road for months, only once sleeping under a roof. He paid three hundred dollars for the tent that weighed less than three pounds, poles included, and he planned to use it. But the road past the gas-station-church is long and straight and dry, and he is tired, tired because there will be more, there’s always more. You don’t watch Hattie get blown away like that and stop after just one.
Jerry decides to stay.
The door to the little room in the back of the house is unhinged and propped against the wall. Jerry walks inside and the place smells of baby powder. There’s a cot in the corner and that is all. There are no doors leading to the rest of the house. Jerry grunts and drops his pack.
He sleeps thirsty and dreams of Hattie, blue and gone forever. It’s fitful sleep, like his body is so tired – in such need – it continually jerks him awake to remind him. Jerry’s eyes are open when the man comes to the unhinged door. He blinks and the man is gone, but later in the night the man is there again. There is nothing worse than a silhouette in the darkness. Jerry closes his eyes.
The man steps forward and into the room. He stands there over Jerry, sniffing. The man begins mumbling to himself. He kneels beside Jerry, bringing his mouth close to Jerry’s forehead. He smells like hot diapers. Jerry fingers a small .22 caliber pistol in his waistband. The man pokes Jerry in the cheek and giggles.
“Yo, yo,” says the man.
Jerry doesn’t move.
The man walks his fingers up Jerry’s sternum, moonwalking the fingers back down Jerry’s belly, laughing like a baby laughs, like the granddaughter has probably just begun to do. But then the man takes it too far, walking his fingers one innocent step at a time down toward Jerry’s crotch, not all the way, but close enough for Jerry to jerk up from his cot, and touch the pistol to the man’s forehead.
The man laughs and waves his hands as if Jerry’s told some naughty joke.
“You’re him aren’t you,” says Jerry.
“Aye, aye,” says the man, “nooda, nooda.”
The man keeps waving his hands and walks backward until he is out of the room. Jerry listens to him laughing in the darkness. The man laughs until the morning light creases the doorway and then he is gone. Jerry packs his things and is on the road as the sun creeps over the horizon and follows him, going from sliver to half to whole again.
Jerry still feels the man’s fingertips on his chest and down his abdomen. He stops a ways down the road. The big painted cross on the wall of the gas station calls to him. It is clearly a church. There’s not even a pump out front. He is thirsty. He lifts his phone to his ear.
“Hattie, listen,” says Jerry.
What was it the man had said?
“I need to tell you something.”
“There are these dogs – ”
Jerry would stop. He wouldn’t tell her. He’d catch himself and say something like, “I’ve got to go before it gets too hot. I need to ride another hundred today.”
But he knows he can’t do another hundred, could barely do ten more miles. He stops pedaling and looks down the road and still there is nothing ahead of him. He looks back, and there, big and white and glowing in the morning sun that has now caught him and passed him by, is the cross.
It is something. At least it is something.
“Love you, Hattie,” says Jerry and turns his bike around.
As he walks past the single gas pump and onto the porch there is a woman knitting, of all things, in a rocking chair. Hattie never knitted. She painted, and in the end, everything was in shades of blue.
“Look thirsty,” says the woman.
Jerry studies her before answering. She’s young, in her thirties, maybe, not a drop of blue on her.
“Yes, I am thirsty.”
Jerry remembers the last dog that chased him, and how if the rangy woman hadn’t been standing there, if she hadn’t just asked him about the gun, he would have used it instead of the air horn.
Jerry scans the place for the man from the night before. There is no evidence such a creature exists. The knitting woman rises slowly from her chair. When Jerry gets close he realizes she’s well past thirty. Age has left its mark on her face. Wrinkles line her eyes like cracks in a mirror. Jerry studies the woman’s hands as she turns on the faucet. She fills a glass, dumps it out, then fills it again.
Jerry drinks and feels the water down every inch of his esophagus, feels it in his veins. He makes a satisfied sound, doesn’t speak, just pushes the glass back to the woman. She fills it again, and again he drinks.
“Eryabella,” she says and offers her hand, “but people call me Bella.”
Forty-five, thinks Jerry. Not fifty, no chance in hell she’s fifty, and she’s damn sure not sixty-six, not with legs like that. But her hand is translucent, the skin loose like a grandmother’s – always a grandmother, never Hattie, but Hattie’s hands were like that in the end – multi-colored, speckled hands of red, blue, brown and peach: sunspots, veins, moles, and skin. This woman, this Bella, her hands could be sixty-six. Hattie was, and will forever be, sixty-six.
“Jerry,” says Jerry, and shakes her hand.
“You can stay here.”
“If you can stomach the water.”
Jerry fills his bottles and the neoprene bladder he carries on the bike’s saddlebags. He drinks until he can drink no more. Bella looks past him, through him, rocking and knitting on the porch, producing thick knots and nothing more.
“There was a man last night,” says Jerry, his words loud and sudden across the silent highway.
“He came to me in my sleep. He touched me.”
“Are you sure?” says Bella, needles digging deep in the yarn.
“Yes, I’m sure. A hulking man speaking nonsense.”
“I know nothing of a man,” says Bella.
“Have you heard about the murders?”
“Yes, a whole slew of them.”
Bella looks at him for the first time, her eyes plain and brown, nothing like the catfish, nothing like Hattie’s.
“Yes,” says Bella. “I have heard of murder.”
Jerry stays on the porch with Bella the rest of the afternoon. She says nothing more, nor does Jerry. There is only the sound of the wind on the highway like waves on a shore.
Jerry sleeps again in the back room. He has to piss. The floorboards creak beneath him and he thinks of water and Eryabella’s legs – not the blubbering man, not murder or Hattie – only those long, milky-white legs. Outside his room the moon lays a pale film atop the flat of Kansas, no hills, no water, no darkness – Kansas.
The sound of his piss is dribbles and drops, but it’s enough to keep him from hearing anything else. When Jerry turns, the man is there again, down on all fours, barking like a dog.
“Yo, nooda!” barks the man.
“Get out of here. Go on, get.”
The man whimpers and licks the back of his hand.
“No. Get. I’ve got to get back to sleep.”
The man crawls toward Jerry. When he is close, Jerry sees his face and knows he is not a man. He is a child. His skin thin like an infants’, or a grandmother’s, thin skin in the beginning and the end, a thickening in the middle. Blue veins shine through at the man-child’s temples.
Jerry tenses, fingering the small-caliber pistol hanging heavy in his shorts.
The man begins to cry, baying sounds that make Jerry plug his ears. Eryabella bursts from the porch, slicing through the moonlight as if she were the light itself, her pale legs alternating like fence posts ridden past at thirteen miles per hour.
“Eryabella,” says Jerry. “It’s back, the thing is back.”
She stops running.
“The man-child, don’t you see him?”
The poor creature wriggles in the dirt now as if he’s being nibbled upon.
“No, Jerry, I don’t see anything.”
Jerry produces the pistol, leveling it out on the squirming mess.
“Is that – a gun?” says Eryabella.
“You said you couldn’t see anything?” says Jerry.
What follows is a small, shallow pop, then another and another and another, enough powder to singe the nostrils, tiny red sparkles against the darkness. Then there is nothing, no faces – nothing – just shadows where mouths and eyes should be.
Jerry leaves in the night.
He pulls onto the highway and wants to hear the wooden chair creaking on the porch. Wishes for the man-child’s babbles, “Nooda, nooda. Nooda, nooda.” The highway is blue in the moonlight, blue like it is on maps.
At daybreak, Jerry is miles away. He stops pedaling and lifts his phone to his ear.
“Hattie?” says Jerry. “They’re after me. The dogs are everywhere now.”
Jerry straddles his bike on the highway’s shoulder. Jerry keeps waiting for Hattie to tell him about their granddaughter rolling over, giggling, or crying, something, anything.
“I can hear them running,” says Jerry. “They bite the tires, nibble on them like rats. Did I tell you about the baby boy and the rats?”
Jerry puts a bottle to his mouth but it’s empty. He checks his neoprene bladders – empty. A hawk lands on a nearby fencepost. A lunker catfish head, like the ones in Kentucky, rises up from the ground and swallows the bird whole.
“Never mind the rats, Hattie. The dogs, those are the real problem. I shot three dogs in Kentucky, six in Missouri, and now two in Kansas.” The phone is pressed tight to his ear, simple silence on the other line.
Jerry mounts his bike and begins to pedal.
Up ahead there will be a line that puts an end to Kansas and lights a match to Colorado. Jerry’s been pining for the Rockies, seeing them in the night when there weren’t dogs to shoot. If he squints past the still-chewing catfish head, Jerry thinks he can see the first white peak in the distance.
He pedals faster.
The phone falls from his hand, splintering in rainbow shards against the concrete. Jerry looks down. The highway is different in the daylight. It’s black. Pavement is black. But blue is the color that calls men to it: oceans, irises, veins, skies, and bicycles on Christmas morning. And though Hattie took so many colors in the end, though she took all the blue in Jerry’s round, spinning world, the red has come. And when it comes, all the rest of one’s life must flow toward it.