He would barrel down the side streets, racing home from Middleton Junior High School on his hand-me-down ten-speed, pumping his legs so hard, imagining he was being chased by his classmates. When he tired of imagining outsmarting bad guys and evading cops, he embraced an actual goal: He would race city school bus 9. He remembered its route from when his mother had forced him to ride it right when they moved into the district. That was before he had gotten his bike.
For the first two weeks of school, the bus beat him because he wasn’t allowed to cross the train tracks and had to take the long way full of crosswalks and four-way stops. On the second Friday, a late August torrent poured down. Paused at the busiest intersection, he balanced himself on the bike, one foot on the pedal, and the other supporting him on the wet pavement. Behind the strip mall parallel to his right, he spotted an alley and headed toward it.
When he reached it, he found it just as he suspected it: empty, all the way to Warner Street, which was only two blocks from his house. Huge puddles of an unknowable depth had formed in forgotten potholes, and because he was already soaked through anyway, he charged each one, equally driven by that demoniac spirit of boys his age who force themselves to confront uncomfortable and dangerous situations—like jumping into defunct quarries, taking first puffs of cigarettes, and kissing classmates. He had cleared the first two miniature lakes when he realized the alleyway wasn’t so deserted as he’d thought.
He pedaled toward a tall, thin man whose white beard rested nearer to his belly button than to his chest. The subsiding rain drizzled on him, but did not seem to soak into his clothes as he walked. Still possessed by the savage speed racing, the boy targeted the old man, noticing that they would be hitting his next puddle at about the same time, if only he could push himself a little harder.
A tremendous splash of muddy water zipped off his tires and onto his victim’s long black robe at thigh height.
“Watch it, old man!” he screamed.
The little extra push got him home just before the number nine rounded the corner and put out its stop sign. From September to mid-October, he followed the same course after school, timing himself with his wristwatch. His times were still improving when he burst through the crowded doors of the front of the school to rush to the bike rack only to find his bicycle missing. He could have retreated, fought through the second wave of students to the front desk to ask the secretary if he could call his mother to pick him up, but he chose to walk home.
Out of habit, he turned right at the busy intersection to follow his bike path but found himself feeling unexpectedly wary of passing through the deserted back side of the strip of stores without his bike. The back of every store was painted the color of peach ice cream, and no one was coming out to drive home for dinner. This he found odd until he put together that schools dismiss students nearly two hours before most grown-ups get off work. On the opposite side of the alley, the dry splintered wood of the high fences separating the adjacent neighborhood from the commercial district in town left only slivers of light into backyards. Brown dogs slobbered and raged against their fences when they heard him approaching. Just when he thought he’d cleared one guarded yard and was trying to ignore his nerves, a loose board rattled from another oversized canine pawing to get him.
He quickened his pace to a girlish speed walk, his jeans rubbing and bunching up into an undeniable chafe on his thighs. At first, he focused above the fence line, watching the power lines dip and cross with the spindly, already-bare branches of the trees; he saw the exhaust of the jets make crisscrosses into the sun until it burned his eyes. He cursed it while fixing his stare on the different colors of tiny stones ground into the blacktop tar until, out of the periphery of his eye, he saw not only tar but the hem of a black wool robe brushing the ground.
“Oh, God,” he said.
“Oh, no,” the old man laughed.
The boy raised his eyes to behold the same creepy man he’d drenched a month and a half ago.
“I’m not God, but thanks for the compliment. You can call me Isaac.”