BY BRENT FISK
The first time Scotty and his younger brother Theo saw the man, they were pedaling hard on two bicycles they’d just stolen from a driveway on Walnut Street. Someone banged out the front door after them, but they put distance between themselves and the young boy with la juice mustache who gave chase. Now they coasted toward safety behind the Piggly Wiggly where a trailhead for the greenbelt connected all the city’s parks together. They were pumping down the last section of sidewalk before the turn-in when a police officer in his cruiser eyeballed them as he drove in the opposite direction. When he slowed to swing around, they whipped behind the grocery and rolled the bikes into the overgrown drainage ditch before jumping into the trash dumpster. They hoped the cop would assume they made the trailhead and roll on past.
Once they clambered into the big metal container they smelled the man before they saw him. His body odor was powerful, both peppery and musky. He never said a word, just lifted a dirty finger to his lips to quiet them, grabbed a mesh bag of mold-fuzzed oranges and blemished apples, and hoisted himself up so that he straddled the lip of the dumpster. The boys didn’t move a muscle as they heard the squad car slow, its engine ticking in the heat.
“You seen two boys on bikes pass through here just now?” the cop asked.
The man nodded toward the trailhead.
The boys couldn’t hear if the cop was close to the dumpster over the engine noise, so they crouched there in the stink of rotten produce and sour milk waiting for what would happen next.
“I’ve seen you before. Your name’s Twitchell, right?” the cop asked. “You stayin’ out of trouble?”
The man did not reply.
“Does the manager know you’re back here going through his garbage?” he asked, but before the man could answer any of the questions, the police radio squawked to life and the boys heard footsteps and a door slam closed as the car sped off.
They looked up at the man in the opening, the bright blue sky behind him, his hair wild and thick and black with one odd streak of gray dangling in front of his eyes. Twitchell as he’d been called, though he’d not answered to it, watched the cop go and then peered down into the dumpster where the boys were still squatting in the refuse. He looked at them intently for several seconds, then his mouth broke into a toothy smile and he slipped his other leg out of the lip of the dumpster and extended a hand toward Theo. He hoisted him out of the dumpster with ease and then, seeming to sense the older boy would not accept his help, he dropped to the ground himself. By the time Scotty scrambled out behind him, Twitchell had disappeared. Scotty looked off into the woods, searching for movement, and saw nothing but a bird or two dipping between the tree branches.
He picked a lettuce leaf off Theo’s shoulder and flung it to the ground.
“We should leave the bikes, maybe come back for them later,” Scotty said.
“The guy had all of his teeth,” his brother said.
“Yeah, so what did you expect, Theo, snaggledy fangs or gold teeth?”
“The way he smelled, yeah,” said Theo.
The two boys were ripe themselves, but they headed home to their mother nonetheless, trying on different excuses for why they smelled as they did, and wondering if they would be whipped with a switch or the usual belt. It was a thick white leather belt, the only thing of their father’s their mother had kept.
A week passed before they saw Twitchell again. They were burning through the summer, but school was far enough on the other side of it that it could only be sensed, not seen. That old dread of homework and early rising had not yet set in. They spent hours beating each other with cattails they cut free of the mucky ditches, and they took apart a lawn mower they could not put together again, and they shoplifted Playboys and Slim Jims from the Kwikie-Mart. They were settling in to a steady routine since their father had left them—with their mother working third shift, midnight to 7 a.m., while they slept, then coming home to sleep in the recliner all day. The boys spent as little time in the house as possible particularly since they only cooled the house with fans and it was just about as hot outside as in.
The bikes they’d made off with were gone when they returned for them, so they were still on foot, Scotty always out front setting a good pace nowhere in particular. Sometimes the older boy would try to leave his younger brother behind, scaling tall fences, or cutting across yards where he knew there were dogs his brother was afraid of, but Theo always caught up to him, and at least once when Scotty thought he’d actually lost him in a wealthy neighborhood, he’d circled back and pretended to remove a rock from his shoe until his brother found him again.
This morning they were taking turns spitting from the Eustas Whaley Bridge when they saw Twitchell step out of a patch of cottonwoods and remove his shirt. The boys watched him with curiosity, without malice. Unlike many things they came across, this man was something they didn’t even think about trying to destroy. The man was thickly muscular, with a dark brown face and neck, and his arms, too, were tanned and leathery. When he took off his shirt, his torso was a shocking white compared to the rest of him.
Twitchell lay his shirt on a rock and strode out into the river. He was still wearing his shoes and a pair of baggy green pants as he waded several feet from shore before taking a deep breath and slipping beneath the surface. They could follow him swimming because his torso was visible even a few feet beneath the water. He stayed under what seemed a remarkable time, but the boys did not worry because his movement was controlled and methodical. Finally he rose, and wrung the water from his hair with his hands and gathered it at his left shoulder. He had several dark tattoos but the boys could not see them clearly enough to make out what they were. Twitchell wiped the water from his eyes and pushed off so that he floated on his back. When he saw the boys standing on the bridge above him, he stood and raised a hand to shade his eyes. Theo raised a hand to wave at him, and Scotty hissed softly as if he thought Theo would scare Twitchell away, but instead Twitchell motioned them to the far end of the bridge and down, and so they moved as he’d told them and found a hole in the fence where a steep, trashy path led to the riverbank.
When they came through the river oats, Twitchell’s shirt was on again and he’d pulled his hair into a rough knot he secured with a rubber band he wore around his wrist. They all stood looking at each other, Theo with his hands stuffed in his jeans pockets, Scotty with arms folded low across his chest.
“You got our bikes, didn’t you?” asked Scotty.
Twitchell noticed his shirt was getting wet where it touched his pants, so he pulled his arms in through the sleeves and wore the shirt around his neck. He had a dragon tattooed on one arm, and a mermaid on the other. A dagger was centered on his breastbone with the blade tapering to a stop just above his navel. He also had many scars, large and small. Some bore the ghosts of old sutures, but others looked rougher, jagged and white like a lightning strike.
“Your bikes, huh?” asked Twitchell.
Theo looked back up at the bridge. Two mockingbirds were chasing a crow through the sky.
“Keep up,” he said, and moved back along the trail the boys followed down, and near the top, he moved a dead tree branch, exposing a narrower trail that lead beneath the bridge. The earth there was dry and packed so hard it had a metallic sheen. Bits of broken glass were embedded in it, a mosaic green, brown and clear. An old mattress lay near a concrete column, some fragments of cement blocks rung a fire pit, and four others, still intact, served as crude seats. The bikes the boys had stolen were off to one side next to a shopping cart with its wheels bent at odd angles.
“You live here?” asked Theo.
Twitchell looked around and grinned. He had these big, blocky teeth, but it was still a good smile.
“As much as any place I guess.”
“Can we have our bikes back?” asked Scotty.
“Soon as you tell me what sticker is under the blue bike’s seat,” Twitchell said. “If they’re your bikes, one of you put the sticker there, and you’ll know what it is.”
“Maybe one of our friends put a sticker there we don’t know about,” Scotty said.
“Maybe the cop who was chasing after you put the sticker there,” said Twitchell, and for the first time there was a little flash of anger in his eyes when he spoke, though his voice remained steady.
“What do you care,” asked Scotty, and Theo looked at his brother, then at Twitchell, and back again.
“You brought that cop to me,” said Twitchell, pointing his middle finger at Scotty, and he went over to a concrete ledge where several candles and other items were stored, and he came back with a little penknife and began digging at the dirt beneath his fingernails with its small blade.
“Nothing happened. I’ve been stopped by that cop before,” he said. “But you never know how a thing like that can go.”
He looked at each boy, but seemed to be someplace else as well.
“He might catch me doing something I ought not be doing, but maybe he looks the other way. And sometimes I might be living right, but he takes a notion to crack my skull.”
Twitchell closed his pen knife and returned it to the concrete ledge.
“He might even carry a hard-on for the two of you since you got away from him. Made him feel small. And maybe he puts a few things together—like there weren’t too many places you could go, that maybe I sat right there stealing stuff nobody would ever want, and in addition lied right to his face. And now I got a beating coming, or a night in jail. If not me, someone else.”
“We didn’t mean nothing by it,” Theo said.
“What do you think it means to the kids who owned those bikes?”
“They’ll get other bikes,” Scotty said, his face flushing in the heat.
“Nah. Not the kids in these neighborhoods,” Twitchell said, but he didn’t look at either of us. He was somewhere else again.
Scotty looked at the scars up and down Twitchell’s arms and chest, some in the crook of his elbow, cuts on the inside of his wrists. He looked at his tattoos, inhaled deeply and caught the ripe scent again of body odor and excrement and the sweet smell of woodsmoke and soil.
“I bet you stole a bike or two in your lifetime, or worse,” said Scotty.
Twitchell gave a half smile.
“Or worse,” he said.
“So you’re one of those ‘do as I say, not as I do’ kinda persons,” said Scotty.
“It’s just that simple, isn’t it? That cop comes by and finds those bikes here with me, things would be simple for him, too. Haul me in, take my fingerprints, know my God-given name, and all they say I done in the world.”
He sat down on one of the concrete blocks and probed the ashes of his fire with a snapped off car antenna.
“I spent years fighting who my mother wanted me to be. I spent even more trying not to be my daddy. And that’s how I ended up enlisting—trying to make something of myself and get away from them at the same time. And now I eat what’s thrown away, I bathe in a river, I wear what finds me, but at least I figured one thing out—you don’t have to go around being the worst thing you ever done.”
“We didn’t mean nothing by it,” Theo said again, and he took hold of Scotty’s sleeve and pulled it sharply.
“You take those bikes and keep them for yourselves, it means something,” he said, pointing the antenna at Scotty. “You take those bikes and you walk them home in the darkness so the boys they belong to wake and find them, that’s not nothing. Or you leave them here with me so I can test myself against the need to sell them. That’s not nothing either. A man with cash in his pocket can be a dangerous thing.”
Theo tugged on Scotty’s sleeve again, but Scotty’s eyes narrowed. He pulled away from his brother and walked over to the bikes, flipping first one over, then the other. There were no stickers beneath the seats.
“I guess we’ll leave them here with you and see what happens,” he said. And then he was tearing up the hill back toward the road, Theo trying to keep up.
“Why’d you leave the bikes?” Theo asked. “We could take them back.”
“He’s a god-damned drunkard like our father,” Scotty said. “Maybe a junkie, nothing more.”
Scotty sat on the couch, where he never sat, next to his mother. She smoked a few cigarettes and sipped on her half empty beer, and then she began to study him. The evening news was just getting started.
“What are you up to?” she asked. “What have you been into?”
“Nothing, Ma,” said Scotty. He pulled her beer toward him, but she smacked the back of his hand with the remote control. The battery fell out and rolled beneath the couch. No one retrieved it.
Theo sat in the kitchen listening, waiting until it wouldn’t look odd for him to go to bed.
“I’m thinking about asking your grandmother to move in with us so she can help keep an eye on the two of you.”
Scotty rolled his eyes toward the ceiling as his mother rose, tossed her cigarettes into her purse and jangled her car keys at him.
“Off to work,” she said, and out the door she went leaving it ajar behind her.
Late that night Theo opened Scotty’s bedroom door. Scotty was still dressed lying on top of his covers.
“Scotty, I want to go get the bikes and take them back where we got them,” he said.
“I know you do,” Scotty said. “I know.”
“Theo, what do you think is the worst thing Twitchell ever done,” he asked.
“I think he killed a dog,” he said.
“Let’s go get the bikes,” Scotty said.
He grabbed the flashlight out of the drawer by the fridge, but it didn’t work, and when he unscrewed the top, the batteries were fuzzed with acid, so he took a lighter off the coffee table and they stuck close together as they moved down the street together, crossing whenever they could to the darker side of the road. They walked for twenty minutes, an occasional car slowing as it passed the two boys headed toward the river.
When they reached the place where Twitchell slept, it took some time for their eyes to adjust.
“Twitchell,” Scotty called out.
He flicked his mother’s lighter on, and it cast their shadows on the ground and against the walls. The mattress was turned on its side. The shopping cart was gone. So were the bikes.
“Do you think the police came and got him?” Theo asked.
“Who knows,” said Scotty.
“Let’s go home,” said Theo.
Scotty nodded and they started to move back toward the road, but Scotty stopped and turned back.
“Wait a minute,” he said to Theo.
He took the lighter to the concrete ledge and looked around. There was one tuna fish can with something beneath it. He flipped it over with his thumbnail and saw Twitchell’s penknife there. He made his way back up the trail to Theo, and handed him the knife.
“He left this for you,” he said.
“Maybe he forgot it,” Theo said.
“He made a choice,” said Scotty.
“What do you think he did with those bikes?” Theo asked.
“He left you the penknife,” he said again.
“Now let’s go home before Mom knows we’re missing,” he added.
He knew full well she would not.