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.”


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