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                                                                            KINDLE EDITION

This novel is available on Kindle. If you can't afford five dollars you're welcome to read it here, though a dollar or two in PayPal is appreciated, and there's a button on the home page. 

                                                 Six Out Seven
                                  © 1994 - 2011 Jess Mowry

                                               For Weylen

       There's something sad about a prison bus.

       Seeing one on the road, most people only look once and then turn away; word to the mothers and fathers that life doesn't always flow like a child's summertime dreams. Young bloods hanging together or cruising in cars might snicker and joke, but they'd do the same in a graveyard at night, denying that coffins could wait in their future. A prison bus is a concept gone wrong, like worms in a Big Mac or Mickey Mouse in Ku Klux Klan robes. Maybe it's because a bus is such a harmless, friendly thing... a bright yellow one carries kids full of dreams, and a Greyhound is silver and gleaming and going somewhere.
       A prison bus goes nowhere. Its route is a side-slip in time, like a wrong turn down a dead-end road, leaving its travelers confused and angry and late for their true destinations.
       Corbitt Wainwright thought these things as he sat mostly naked in a tree. His legs were drawn up in the broad, spreading fork, his arms crossed over his knees and his chin dropped on top. His eyes were slitted against the sun, concealing what could have been anger as the prison bus rumbled past. The bus was a faded, gray, nothing kind of color, like the weather-worn asphalt of the narrow country road. The fierce sunlight glinting on massive window bars made Corbitt think of his father's ancient shotgun, the black so worn on its barrels that sometimes they seemed to be silver.
       Buses were trucks in a way, and trucks fascinated Corbitt like trains had captured the hearts of restless country boys a century before; big beasts of burden, snorting smoke, sweating heat, and smelling of the man-strength of hot iron and oil. Trucks, like trains, never seemed to rest; always moving on, and never a part of the land they passed through.
       School-day afternoons, weekends, and the long days of summer vacation usually found Corbitt at the truck stop a mile west of his home. The huge machines were familiar to him: he could tell a Freightliner from a Kenworth while it was still just a blur in the distant heat-haze; a Cummins engine from a Caterpillar when it was only a faraway moan, and was almost always right, running to wake a dozing pump-jockey as the trucks began down-shifting whenever they were going to pull in.
       Buses stopped too; the Greyhounds only for passengers because they fueled and serviced in Jackson. They seldom needed anything the truck stop could provide, never seeming to have breakdowns, and even flat tires were rare. But most of the drivers let Corbitt wash the windshields. He always did a good job, using sun-hot water from a black plastic bucket. A couple of jockeys had been fired for splashing a hot windshield with cold water and cracking it. Corbitt's formula was a dash of ammonia in the water, just enough to crinkle his nose as he balanced on one of the pump-island ladders. The jockeys let Corbitt borrow their ladders because washing a Greyhound's windshield wasn't expected of them. Corbitt had noticed a long time ago that a lot of people never did much more than what was expected of them.
       The Greyhounds' glass collected amazing yellow mosaics of splattered bugs from the trip through the valley, and it was hard work scrubbing off those sticky, sun-fried messes. Corbitt cleaned the mirrors too; carefully, because the drivers had them adjusted with scientific precision and would pitch the furies if they were moved. That the Greyhound drivers, princes of the road, trusted Corbitt to wash their mirrors was an honor of sorts. Corbitt liked the way the big buses trembled, their engines loping in that impatient idle that marked a Detroit Diesel. The drivers usually paid him a dollar, though Corbitt had to split it with the jockey whose ladder he'd used.
       That was just a business thing, and no more than expected.
       There were local buses, too, and Corbitt knew their names like he recognized the trucks: GMs, Carpenters, Waynes, Superiors, and Bluebirds. But whatever company had built the prison bus hadn't put their name on it.
       Maybe, Corbitt wondered, they'd been ashamed to?
       Now he sat hidden by the tree's lush leaves and the denser, twisting vines that were slowly strangling it to death. Earlier that morning as he'd crossed the fields, he'd thought of sitting on the roadside fence to watch the bus go by. But when he'd seen it coming, far down the shimmering ribbon of road, with sun-struck hellfire reflecting off glass and bars, he'd run back and climbed the tree instead. You didn't wave to a prison bus any more than you'd wave to a funeral car. That might make the people inside even sadder.
       Corbitt didn't want to make his father sad.
       His eyes blurred with tears. All he could see were shadowy profiles behind the bars and glass, as if nobody inside even cared to look out because they were no longer a part of the land they passed through.
       The nothing-colored bus dwindled into the greens and browns of the valley on its side-slip journey to nowhere. The moan of its
engine faded to a murmur as it slowed for the New Crossing bridge. Corbitt heard the deck planks rattle, and then the bus was gone. Blue exhaust-haze ghosting above the road, and the scents of hot iron and oil were all that remained. It was mid-morning, Sunday, the road stretched empty now, and only the sleepy drone of insects stirred the steamy silence. A crow flapped past, following the road in the hope that the bus had killed something.
       A feeling came to Corbitt, new yet strangely familiar, as if he was in a place between the future and past, alone in the tree and looking both ways. It was as if the past had ended when the bus had gone by. So, what was the next thing? It seemed for all his thirteen years Corbitt had been hearing people talk of the next thing; as if everything now was just temporary and they were waiting for the next -- and hopefully better -- thing to appear. Was that why so many never did more than what was expected of them?
       But how would it come, Corbitt wondered, and how would you recognize it? Would there be a sign, like in magic? Could you hear it in the distance like an oncoming truck, downshifting just for you?
       Corbitt listened to people a lot. It wasn't really eavesdropping because most folks acted like he wasn't there anyway. His dad always said that even a mule could pass for smart if it kept its mouth shut and its ears and eyes open. But Corbitt wasn't sure he believed that anymore. Even though he listened hard and didn't talk much -- at least to white people -- he still seemed to get treated like a jackass. Lately he'd started to wonder if all he was doing was side-slipping in time... slip-sliding away, like an old song said? Maybe there was no next thing coming for him? And, if this was as good as it got, maybe he was stupid for thinking it wasn't good enough?
       Corbitt sighed and closed his eyes. Or, maybe his next thing had already come down the road, slowed, and then gone on without him because he'd been too stupid or lazy to run out and flag it down?
       Despite the tree's shade, it was hot, even for Mississippi in July. It was wet, sticky heat like a blanket of steam and the northern truck drivers hated it. One had told Corbitt that it made you slow and lazy. Maybe it did? Northern people always seemed smarter and faster-talking. Maybe that was why a lot of southern whites didn't like them? If that was true, then it seemed unfair that he'd been born here.
       Most of the northern whites were friendly. Sometimes they told him jokes. Corbitt usually tried them out on his brothers, Lamar Sampson and Toby Barlow. Sometimes Sherry Cooper, too. Toby got them all right off; Lamar, you sometimes never knew; and, naturally, Corbitt didn't tell the really dirty ones to Sherry, not even the funny dirty ones.
       Last year, a young white lady with big pink sunglasses, who had gotten off a Greyhound to buy a Pepsi, had asked Corbitt a lot of questions about who he was and what life was like for him. She was going to college in California and studying Social Anthropology. She had seemed surprised that Corbitt knew what anthropology was, even if he'd never heard of the social kind. Anyway, he'd felt as if she was trying to be nice, but she was too serious about everything. She'd asked if he knew any folk tales, so he'd told her a joke. Not a dirty one, naturally, but a plain old little niggerboy joke, a funny one like white kids told to each other at school when they thought black kids weren't listening. A lot of white people relaxed if you did that, but the young white lady had only gotten more serious. She'd even written the joke down in a notebook. Anyhow, the lady had asked permission to take his picture and had made him stand in front of the battered row of rusty oil-drum garbage cans around back of the building to do it. Having to pose like a poor little niggerboy bothered Corbitt. He'd read that primitive people in Africa thought you captured a piece of somebody's soul when you took their picture; like something that could be used against you in Voodoo. Corbitt thought that was a lot of shit. Besides, Mrs. Griffin said that was nonsense, and she of all people should know. Then too, he got his picture taken every year at school so it was in the yearbook, and if somebody wanted to stick pins in it, nothing had jabbed Corbitt yet. Still, the thought of his picture in California being studied by Social Anthropologists -- he'd looked it up at the library -- was sort of strange. But the lady had given him a five-dollar bill and bought him a bottle of Pepsi. He'd traded the Pepsi back to the truck stop store for a Coke after the Greyhound pulled out, and buried the fiver with his other secret money in a Prince Albert can beneath the old bridge.
       Corbitt ran over the joke in his mind: Little niggerboy goes to a  sawmill, tells the man his daddy needs some two-by-fours. Man asks how long he wants them. Little niggerboy thinks for a minute, then says he's gonna want 'em a long time because they buildin’ a house.
       Funny to figure that going to college in California. Well, if the lady wanted to call it a negro folk tale, that was her problem.
       Damn it was hot! Even to him, and he lived here. Corbitt's good clothes were put away for school in the fall, and he wore only his ragged summer jeans, which were threadbare and faded sky-blue. Two seasons ago they'd been overalls, but he'd gotten too tall for the straps since then and the front flap hardly reached his chest, so now he wore them like jeans, held at his waist by a wide brown belt with a big square brass buckle that some trucker had thrown away. Both knees were ripped open, a back pocket was gone, and the cuffs were frayed to ribbons and reached only part way down his shins, while the front flap hung like an indian boy's loincloth. They rode so low on his narrow hips that a few curls of hair usually showed. Only the lady on the Greyhound had ever looked twice at them; nobody here thought  worn-out rags looked out of place on a black boy.
       Or maybe a little niggerboy joke,
       Corbitt shucked his jeans and relaxed back naked in the wide tree fork. No one could see him concealed by the curtain of leaves so he might as well be comfortable. He dug an almost empty pack of Top tobacco from his jeans' pocket and carefully rolled a cigarette. His fingers were slim and very long as if they could spin silken webs They were also quick and sure, and he didn't waste a speck of tobacco.
       Corbitt was tall for thirteen, almost six feet, and slender without being skinny, his long body tapering from wide shoulders to lean hips that made keeping his jeans on a perpetual problem. It was as if he hadn't been born to wear clothes. His bones were slim and fine beneath tightly defined muscles, like something built to crouch for hours in wait, then leap out and run for miles in chase. He might have looked fragile if he hadn't been so tall.
       And he wasn't just black; he was so amazingly black that even other black people made jokes about it... blacker than a telephone... so black you had to look twice to see him once. His smooth midnight skin seemed to absorb light instead of reflecting it. Like space.
       Corbitt Wainwright, born to live naked and run, liked to read more than just about anything else; like the joke about a greyhound -- the four-legged kind -- being a seventy-mile-an-hour couch potato. This was probably why, instead of having the washboard belly one might have expected with a build such as his, he had a little chub at his middle, sort of like the ebony ghost of a little baby's bottom that would have hung a bit over his jeans if he hadn't worn them so low. He'd probably spent half his life naked, but he didn't run much, and then almost never when it was expected. His grades in P. E. reflected that. He might have been fat if he hadn’t been poor -- the Mississippi kind of poor -- and he wouldn’t have minded, though he’d never seen a fat greyhound, even in books.
       There was a tiny library in New Crossing, a bigger one in Starkville, and the number of his dog-eared library card was stamped between the covers of an amazing amount of their books. He’d gotten some awards for reading, but he didn't give a shit. That was like getting a prize for eating. Or for taking a shit. His dad read a lot, too, and was always bringing home old paperbacks from the Starkville second-hand store. Corbitt liked best to read about starships and space and alternate universes, where side-slipping in time could get you somewhere... usually better. Often in the hot summer nights he'd lie on his back by the river reading a book by the light of a lantern and occasionally gazing up at the stars and dreaming they would be his next thing.
       His eyes were clear and black, startlingly large for his face, and as shiny as polished obsidian. He had prominent cheekbones, a nose like a small snub of nothing, and hair as bushy and wild as an ebony dandelion puff. His lips never quite met over big white teeth, and turned up at the corners, giving him a sort of V smile even when there was nothing to smile about. He didn't know it but his face was the face of a prince. His people had been warriors and rulers in a faraway land a long time ago. Because they were fierce fighters, and smart, few had ever been captured and chained. It was probably an accident or a betrayal that caused Corbitt to exist where he was today... though most people called it living. But his people had also been kind, and had had no word in their language for greed, so maybe it wasn't surprising that not many were left anywhere in the world. Those few would have recognized Corbitt in an instant, but that was a story he'd never read in a book that would never be written.
       In this time it was a nice face, and about the only part of him to reflect his true age. But it was so black that most people couldn't see the real Corbitt behind it, though almost everyone liked his smile.
       Today, Corbitt didn't feel like smiling.
       The nothing-colored bus to nowhere had been his father's next thing. Not all next-things were better. That was a new thought for Corbitt.
       Corbitt's mind didn't so much wander as flick about like something darting from tree to tree through a sun-dappled forest in search of prey. Now came an image of Sherry Cooper by the river, poised naked with the water flowing at her feet. He felt a stirring in his loins, a sensation that had become familiar in the past few seasons. He glanced down, watching his shaft rise between his legs despite his sadness... his shaft had a mind of its own.
       There was a rustle of feathers overhead; a dry sound like dead old leaves in Autumn. Corbitt looked up to see a crow land on a branch. Maybe it was the same one that had been following the prison bus. But all crows looked alike... though probably not to other crows. The bird's feathers gleamed like oiled gunmetal, and it seemed to look down at Corbitt with slyness in eyes of frozen gold. It gave a croak that sounded too much like a smart-ass chuckle to Corbitt.
       "Go to hell," Corbitt told it. His loins cooled.
       Corbitt ignored the crow and considered getting drunk. But what good would that do? He couldn't stay drunk until his father came home, so it would just be a waste of time and money. Corbitt didn't have much money, and he wasn't sure how important time was.
       He pulled a blue Bic lighter from his jeans and held it up to a sunbeam, squinting at the fluid level. Butane was a liquid under pressure; a captive liquid sort of serving time until it got released and became a free vapor once more. He'd read the term, free vapor, in a book. Somehow it had a nice sound. Besides, a vapor was almost nothing, and nobody expected anything from nothing. The lighter was almost empty. Corbitt turned the tiny valve all the way down before firing his cigarette with the briefest flicker of flame. The lighter was one of his treasures; a thousand times more meaningful than any award for book-reading. A truck driver had given it to him that spring... a white man from the north who'd bummed a hand-rolled Top cigarette from Corbitt as if white men asking for spit-licked cigarettes from thirteen-year-old Mississippi black boys was the most natural thing in the world. The gleaming blue Marmon-Herrington the man drove had OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA painted in small letters on the doors below the company name. Corbitt knew that California was technically in the west, but when you were black in the south most everywhere better was always north.
       Inside the truck stop building, behind the counter in the little room where Mrs. Rudd sold bus tickets and passengers waited, was a huge map showing all the places Greyhounds went. Corbitt had gone in and studied it. Oakland was thousands of miles away, though it might as well have been light-years.
       The white truck driver had called him son -- not boy, the way most whites except that bastard Shilo Bates were always careful not to do -- or even kid, the way most whites did... at least to his face. They had sat in the shade of the truck in the dusty back lot and talked about engines and truck stuff while smoking Corbitt's cigarettes. The man had bought Corbitt a beer, and hadn't once asked what life was like for him. Corbitt had caught a glimpse of a picture in the man’s wallet: it showed a pretty black woman and two chubby gold-colored boys in swim suits on a bright green lawn with a nice house behind them. It was only an accident that Corbitt had seen the picture, and he was happy about that. He wasn't sure why, but it wouldn't have meant as much if the man had intentionally showed it to him. Corbitt watched all the time for the shiny blue Marmon-Herrington but it never passed through again... or maybe it had but he'd missed it? The lighter was almost empty now, but Corbitt planned to keep it anyway.
       Naked in the tree, his thoughts darting through the sunlight and shadows of his mind, Corbitt smoked his cigarette with the same casual grace as he did everything. Besides, his father always said that if you were going to take the time to roll a cigarette you should also take the time to sit back and enjoy it. Corbitt never smoked and worked at the same time. Of course, Lamar Sampson never did either, but that was mostly because he got whopped if his mom or dad caught him smoking. Now, as he smoked, Corbitt's eyes gazed out through the curtain of leaves, across the shimmering road and the hazy green-and-brown fields to the faint purple hills in the west. A feeling stirred inside him, close to but different from the restlessness between his legs. A next thing was coming. He could sense it like faraway thunder or the eerie hollowness in the air just before a tornado touched down. The signs were all around, yet there was no definite one to guide him. Not all next things were good -- he knew that now -- and if you sometimes had to help them happen by doing more than just what was expected, then maybe you could also hide from a bad one just as he'd hidden from the prison bus?
       He glanced up at the crow, but it also seemed to be searching the distance. Corbitt wished that he'd asked his dad more questions. Man-questions. It was sad to realize all he should have asked now that he couldn’t. His mother didn't always understand his questions... she got the words right but sometimes not the real question behind the question. It was sort of like, if he got drunk today, so fucked-up drunk that Toby and Lamar would have to carry him home, his mom would think he'd done it because he was sad about his father. She wouldn't understand that all he really wanted to do was break the hateful continuity of these recent days. But then, getting drunk would almost be what was expected of him. Corbitt wanted to do something more than what was expected of him; especially for his mother. There were already too many problems, and most were caused by money. And now, with his father gone, there would be hardly any money.
       Maybe, he thought, that's what it was... the scary hollowness in the air he wanted to hide from. Maybe it wasn't a next thing but only the fear that he'd never be able to do any more than just what was expected of him.
       Corbitt's eyes caught a tiny movement at the edge of the road: a field mouse. He tried to imagine what that vast empty grayness ahead looked like to a mouse. Could it even see the other side? The mouse wanted to cross over, but Corbitt could sense its fear; so small to him but so huge to the mouse. Yet he could see what the mouse could not -- through sharper eyes from a higher perspective -- that the country road stretched clear for miles and was perfectly safe to cross. Corbitt's V of a smile touched his lips. He whispered, "Go for it, little brother. Just over there be your own next thing, an’ a good one, all soft an’ green with lots of good food an’ waitin’ for you.”
       The mouse hesitated, made a short darting run, but then scampered back to refuge in the roadside weeds again. Its sides were heaving in fear as it stared across to the tall grass ripe with seeds.
       “Go for it," Corbitt urged in a whisper. "Listen, I know my ownself how that ol’ empty gray be so scary to you. But it only so much of nothin’. Gonna stay hungry ‘cause you scared of some nothin? Keepin’ yourself here be just what expected of you. So, go an’ do somethin’ more than expected.”
       A smile sparked in Corbitt's eyes as the mouse hurried straight across for its next thing. Suddenly, a gunmetal blur fell from the sky and the crow caught the mouse in its beak. It beat the tiny body on the pavement then began to rip it apart. The frozen-gold eyes seemed to find Corbitt's, and the bird gave its croaking chuckle again.
       "Bastard!" yelled Corbitt. A stone would have killed the crow in an instant -- Corbitt seldom missed -- but he had nothing to throw. Dropping from the tree, he dashed to the fence. The crow glanced at him, but only chuckled again and went right on ripping at the mouse. There were stones along the fence, a whole abundance of good killing stones, but Corbitt only slumped against the wooden bars, sobbing and pounding his fists on the rail. "You bastard! You goddamn little black bastard!”
       The crow ignored him as if knowing he couldn't or wouldn't kill. After a minute, Corbitt straightened his back and wiped at his eyes. It was only a mouse. Who gave a shit what happened to a goddamn Mississippi mouse? Returning to the tree, Corbitt slipped his jeans on and began walking slowly across the field.

                                         Chapter Two

       Two boys lay together in dry yellow weeds in the skeletal shade of a dead oak tree. Both were shirtless; one clad in cutoffs, ragged and dirty, with a toe poking through a hole in Nikes worn without socks. The other boy wore faded Levis, and his Nikes were newer, though shapeless and squashed with the soles almost smooth. He was the color of old city soot or the satiny shade of new truck tires, and he wasn't just fat, he looked almost helpless flat on his back, a small-boned boy buried inside a huge rolly mass of dusky black blubber, his breasts like a pair of water-balloons, his belly pouring over his legs with a navel like a funnel-shaped cave that tunneled away into darkness. He was maybe five-foot-five but must have weighed close to five-hundred pounds. His jeans couldn't be buttoned more than halfway, and had slipped down his enormous thighs so his butt was bare in the grass. A band of sunlight striped over his middle, and another boy's dick might have stirred in its warmth, but his lay unseen beneath his vast belly.
       The second boy lay beside him with his head on the fat boy's middle, so his coffee-brown face seemed half-sunk in a huge sooty pillow. A hard-pack of Kools lay near one hand, and there was a scatter of butts in the grass. The fat boy's head was propped against the tree trunk, and he held an open paperback book between the orbs of his chest. He was reading aloud in a husky voice punctuated by occasional squeaks, while a cigarette smoldered in chubby fingers and smoke spiraled up in the hot still air. A triple chin padded his jaw, and his wide snubby nose was engulfed by his cheeks. It was a face like an African cherub's, full lips at rest in a half-open pout revealing the glitter of big white teeth. His black eyes were bright and long-lashed, and looked like the kind that could take in a lot while nobody noticed. His hair was an Afroish bush, and instead of an earring or fake gold chain he wore a '70s Pukka-shell necklace, starkly bone-white against his black skin. The book was a sci-fi novel with anthropomorphic black cats on the cover wearing space suits complete with long tails. The title was Space Panthers. He turned the last page, and an inch of ash fell from his Kool and landed upon an inverted nipple like a soft little slit and hardly darker than the rest of him. He flicked the ash away with a finger and went on reading. Four empty Coke cans lay by his side, while fifth can stood upright inside his huge navel... sort of a natural cup-holder. Picking it up, he gulped the last swallow, then tossed it among the others. His hand searched the ground in a litter of Gansito wrappers, but found only sticky cellophane. "Yo, Beamer. That all there is?"
       The other boy sat up. Near one knee was a tattered backpack and a street-scarred Steadham skateboard. The pack had to be his because its straps would never have fit the enormous fat boy. The board must have been his too because it barely looked rideable for a normal-size kid. After digging through the pack, Beamer pulled out another Gansito, single-wrapped like they came when you bought a whole box. More searching turned up a sixth can of Coke. "They yours, 'Tam. I ain't hungry."
       The fat boy studied Beamer with that knowing look of forever homies, but took the last Coke, which Beamer popped for him, and watched the Gansito being unwrapped. Beamer hesitated, looking suddenly shy, holding the cake in thin, dirty fingers. "Um... 'Tam? Member when I used to feed ya?"
       The fat boy gulped Coke and burped, sending waves and ripples through his body, then shook his head. "That was years ago, man. When we was little baby-asses."
       Beamer's face was hard to describe. Though thirteen like the fat boy and close to just as tall, he still had the innocent face of a child. His wide amber eyes held no calculation. The best word might have been unfinished. His thin, lanky frame looked the same way; chest muscles sketched but never filled out. It was basically a little boy's body, seemingly stretched instead of grown, coffee-colored and darkened by dirt. His cutoffs and sneaks were the same he'd been wearing for most of the summer, and his hair looked like dreadlocks baled in burlap. He smelled like sweat and jacking-off, though the fat boy seemed immune to his scent.
       Beamer's face turned bashful. "Yeah. But ain't nobody peepin' us."
       The fat boy smiled. "Go for it." He closed his eyes and opened his mouth, taking the cake in one messy bite from the other boy's fingers. "S'pose you been pickin' your nose," he muffed through a mouthful of cream-and-strawberry filling.
       "Well, bet you didn't wash your hands last time you pissed."
       "Um... did you, 'Tam?"
       The fat boy scanned the shabby little neighborhood park, a half-block of weeds begrudged a few trees. "Like, where?"
       "What I sayin'," said Beamer.
       "So, why you used to feed me, Beam?"
       Beamer looked even shyer and dropped his eyes.
       The fat boy smiled. "Just never no tellin' what 'barrass your ass."
       Beamer giggled and flopped down, his head plopping onto the fat boy's belly and making it ripple in waves. For a minute he only stared at the weary blue sky above the dead branches, and the fat boy shut his eyes and waited. Finally, Beamer said, "Um... I kinda figure I get you so fat you can't climb my stairs no more. Then you be with me forever."
       The fat boy laughed. "I known you all my life, man, an' I'm still surprised what come out your mouth."
       Beamer turned his head, meeting the fat boy's eyes. "Um... what I say retarded, 'Tam?"
       "Nah. You past cool, Beam. I hate climbin stairs." He patted his mammoth middle. "It gettin' to where I hate to walk, or even get up after sittin' down."
       "Then my plan 'most work, huh?"
       The fat boy laughed again. "You never had nothin' to eat anyways, so you shouldn't of wasted your food on me."
       "Shit, I not need much." Beamer patted the fat boy's belly like he was proud of it, then he tapped a finger on the dog-eared paperback. "Um, what there in that book, 'Tam... that word, void, at the end where all them space cats flew off to? What that mean?"
       The fat boy struggled a little like he wanted to sit up, but then gave up. "That time it meant space... like they all went explorin' to find a new planet for their people. But, void usually mean nothin'. " He waved a hand around. "Like this 'hood, a big void of nothin'."
       Beamer scoped around as if seeing something new. "I always figure nothin' all black."
       The fat boy killed the Coke and burped. "So, what the 'hood, man?"
       A tawny light sparked behind Beamer's eyes. "Thanks, 'Tam."
       "For what, man? Readin' to your ass?"
       Beamer ran dirty fingers through his nappy hair. "Yeah, for that. But most for bein' my homey, 'Tam." Sitting cross-legged, Beamer scratched his armpit. "Um... 'cause I a stupid retard, man."
       The fat boy frowned. "Yo! I tell ya a million times stop sayin' shit like that! It ain't your fault you a crack baby, an' it just... well, it just make it worse. I don't know how, but it does."
       Beamer dropped his chin in his hands. "I just wish I not. That all."
       The fat boy sitting up was like some old movie of a submarine surfacing. Fat seemed to cascade down his body in a blubbery wave as all his rolls rearranged themselves and his middle spread out around him like a massive truck tire tube. "Yo! Listen up! You gots two good arms, two good legs, two good eyes, an' from one straight dude to another you don't even look half bad. Fact is, most of the time you got six out seven, an' you good at smokin the suckers when you ain't."
       "No shit, 'Tam?"
       "Word, man."
       Beamer sighed. "I wish I could read, man. Even a little. An' really be cool like you. Shit, man, you the coolest dude in Oaktown! All seven! Cooler than Hobbes, even."
       The fat boy snorted. "Fuck cool, man. ...'Sides, the cool factor in this hood be directly proportional to the long of your green."
       Beamer laughed. He had a cool laugh... just like his smile he put everything into it. He studied the fat boy a moment. "Um, 'Tam? Fat good for babies, huh? What I sayin' is, fat mean they gonna live an' get strong?"
       "Well... yeah. It always sayin' in books how African people make fat healthy babies. 'Cept in Somalia an' poor-ass places."
       Beamer nodded. "What I figure."
       The fat boy shook a Kool from the pack for Beamer and then another for himself. Beamer fired both with a Bic. The fat boy blew smoke and glanced toward the street. "Talkin' 'bout Hobbes, sometime it seem he the M.C. of cool, even if he a dealer. So, how you like workin' for him?"
       Beamer's face darkened a little. "Well... it okay. He put me sellin' to little kids. Call me a natural." Beamer also glanced toward the street. "Um, I need the green, 'Tam."
       The fat boy nodded. "Your dad takin' most of it, ain't he?"
       "Yeah. 'Course, his job don't pay shit. But I keepin' some back on the under. There... um... 'portant shit I gots to buy." Beamer's face darkened further. "Hobbes straight up with me, it that fuckin' Akeem, always backstabbin'."
       The fat boy cocked his head. "Who's Akeem?"
       "Y'know? Hobbes's bodyguard."
       "Mean Sebastian? He was in two of my classes last year after he moved here."
       "Yeah," said Beamer. "'Cept now all the time he tellin' people to call him Akeem. Say, Sebastian a slave name. ...Um, so what a slave name?"
       "Somethin' you s'posed to be ashamed of... a name white people give you a way long time ago. Like Toby in Roots."
       Beamer scratched his hair again. "But I not know no white people, 'Tam." He poked a thumb to his chest. "Yo! My name Calvin Willis Brown! My dad gimme that name, an' I fuckin' for sure ain't 'shamed!" He looked down at himself and spread his arms wide. "An I am fuckin' brown!"
       The fat boy blew a perfect smoke ring. "Well, technically you black, man,"
       "What I sayin' is, you proud of it?"
       Beamer considered. "Well, I guess. Shit, only thing I not proud of bein' is a fuckin' retarded crack baby."
       The fat boy sighed. "Wasn't like you had a choice. Anyways, what I tryin' to tell you is that some brothers an' sisters take African names 'cause they proud of bein' Africans."
       Beamer scowled. "Shit, man! Sabby ain't no African! Shit, he ain't even all fuckin' black! An', anyways, he a goddamn 'merican just the same like you an' me!"
       The morning sun was climbing, stealing away the puddle of shade. The fat boy, now full in the sunlight, wiped sweat from his forehead. "Forget it, man. A name don't signify nothin' if you don't know who you are to begin with. An' you gots no probs with that."
       Beamer smiled. "So what kinda name be Lactameon, 'Tam?"
       The fat boy shrugged. "A goddamn hard one for people to spell! My mom dug it up out some ol' book."
       Beamer touched Lactameon's arm. "Um, 'Tam? Um, if you was to go an' have a kid... a boy-kid... you name him somethin' African?"
       "Well... I don't know. I think name him whatever fit... an' somethin' he be proud of. Like, a strong name for a strong little dude." Lactameon considered, crushing out his cigarette in the grass. "Funny as hell when you think about Sabby gettin' into that kinda shit."
       Beamer spit. "Not funny when he shove his motherfuckin' Uzi in your face 'cause of it, man!"
       "Mmm. Guess not, huh." Lactameon brushed more sweat from his body. Puddles of it formed in his rolls and squeezed out in trickles whenever he moved. He heaved himself back into what little shade remained by the tree. "S'pose that all the Cokes, huh?"
       "I can go to the market an' score some more."
       Lactameon gazed up through dry dusty leaves at the sky. "Nah, but thanks. Save your buck, man. You shouldn't of wasted it on them Gansitos an' Cokes anyways."
       "But you like 'em, 'Tam."
       Lactameon shook his head. "I gots a real lunch comin', you don't. ...An', that buck you keepin' back from your dad? You usin' it for food, right? What I sayin' is, you ain't wastin' it on somethin' stupid like a gold earring or some other dumb-ass showtime shit like most them other dealer dudes do?"
       "No, 'Tam. I total careful with it, man. ...I gots to be now."
       "Well, good. Like I sayin', you gots it down six."
       Beamer watched Lactameon wipe more sweat from his face. "Gots some milk here. 'Tam. You can have one, but they ain't cold."
       Lactameon watched as Beamer dug a small can from his pack. "The fuck you doin' with condensed milk, man? That's kinda like baby food."
       "...Well, it good for your ass, huh? Make you strong?"
       Lactameon smiled. "Yeah it does. An' you keep on drinkin' it." He glanced at the sun. "Come home with me, man. I make us up some Beefaroni."
       Beamer looked sad. "Gots no time. Gots to work. I workin' right now 'cause it Sunday an' little kids be comin' soon."
       Lactameon blew out a sigh. "Shit, Beamer, you know what
you doin' to them, don't you? What I sayin' is, you know what it like with a fucked-up brain. Don't it make you sad to see 'em burnin' out theirs?"
       Beamer pulled up his legs and hugged them to his chest. "'Course it make me sad! Figure I not feel shit like that? But, how the fuck else I make money, man? Shit, all them goddamn kid-project things gots probs scorin' work for regular kids! Gots no time for retarded crack babies! Shit, man, there just too many black kids, an' nobody want none of 'em! I used to wonder why people make babies they not gots no fuckin' time for!" Beamer dropped his face on his knees. "Shit!"
       Lactameon heaved his mass over to the boy and patted his back. "Don't cry, Beam, it ain't fuckin' cool."
       "Don't give a fuck! An' you don't care 'bout goddamn cool!"
       Lactameon stroked the other boy's back. "I hear ya, Beam, just chill a little."
       Beamer wiped his face. "Um, 'Tam? I hear it say on TV where you gots to read to your kids. It make 'em smart. Um, you teach me some readin', man?" Beamer picked up the book. "Listen, 'Tam! I already read some of them words!" He pointed. "Space Panthers. There a S, an' a P, an' ..."
       Lactameon smiled. "I been readin' to your ass all week. Sure you just don't 'member from that?"
       "Nuh-uh, 'Tam! Listen up! This here a S, an' it make a ssss sound. All them letters make different sounds... like in your head. You figure out that, your ass be readin'!"
       "Got that right, Beam. I think you gettin' better, man. Maybe it that milk."
       "Well... I tryin' to get better. But... guess you gots no time for learnin' me readin', huh?"
       Lactameon considered that. Truth was, he seemed to have nothing but time, especially now that Beamer had a job. Up to this year he'd spent most of his summers at the old public pool, practically living in the water, not so much swimming as just floating peacefully in the deep corner away from the diving board or stretched out on sun-warm cement with a book. He'd had a lot of friends there; mostly other fat boys. Of course, he'd been the fattest and that got respect... the best of anything always did. Every year there'd be a few new fat dudes, some so ashamed of their bodies that they wore shirts in the water. He gave them all seven on that: it looked pussy lame and just let the other kids know where to stick the knife. Not even the big, hard-bodied dudes dissed Lactameon because he had pride. Sometimes the big dudes would stuff him with hot dogs and bet on how many he could eat. And then there were always the dudes who'd pay him to do a cannonball and splash their girlfriends. Shit, how could summers be better than that... no hassles, free food, friends, and respect. And even protection the few times he'd needed it.
       One of the Collectors had been a self-conscious fat boy two summers ago. Really, he wasn't much more than extreme chubby, but had big bouncy boobs and wouldn't lose his shirt with his crew. Lactameon had handled that, and Stacy had graduated to in-your-face fat, and these days in summer you wouldn't even think he owned a shirt. The Collectors had made Lactameon their mascot, and that was as good as a Gold Card. Being a mascot wasn't much work; sometimes he went to a meet, but mostly it meant he could hang with the dudes whenever he wanted and otherwise people left him alone. Most gang mascots weren't fighters -- though they were targets just the same -- and occasionally got kidnapped or traded. The Leopards had a white boy named Winfield, skinny and small with long blond hair. He wasn't good for much besides being a white boy, but there seemed to be no straight word on what mascots were supposed to be for. Maybe they were just to prove that a gang was rich enough to afford something useless? Winfield had spent a lot of time hanging at the pool last year with Lactameon. He was always hungry and seldom had smokes, but Lactameon fed him and they had gotten to be homies in sort of a way. Winfield talked like a normal brother, and probably got more respect as a curiosity than as a gang member.
       But that had been last summer, and now the goddamn pool was closed. The paper had talked about too many drugs and too much gang activity, but that was total bullshit. The pool was just in a poor black 'hood so the white world took it away. If anything, the drugs and violence and gang-banging shit had increased because the kids had nothing to do. Were white people really that stupid? Lactameon didn't think so.
       Anyway, this summer there hadn't been a goddamn thing for Lactameon to do. His mom had customers all day long in the tiny apartment, so he couldn't kick back on the couch and watch daytime TV. His own little room turned into a furnace when the sun beat the building's backside. He could sprawl naked on his bed and sweat and listen to his blaster while snacking, or sweat and read a book while snacking. Opening the window for air also brought in b'zillions of flies and sometimes a curious rat. He could hang at the Collectors' clubhouse, but that meant a three-story stair-climb through an abandoned building and then up a ladder in the elevator shaft to the machinery shed on the roof. The Collectors weren't rich, they didn't deal drugs, and despite what the papers and TV said, there wasn't much chance of black kids stealing anything outside the ghetto, and there wasn't a lot worth stealing inside it. Whatever was stashed in the clubhouse for eating and drinking had to be replaced by whatever dude whose belly it filled. This also applied to batteries for their blaster. Lactameon wouldn't have minded some sort of job, but there weren't even any for older kids, much less for him or burned-out Beamer.
       Except what Beamer was doing now.
       "Well," said Lactameon. "Come over tonight when it cool. Shit, come sleep over an' take a bath. I can teach you some readin' then."
       "Um... but I work nights, 'Tam."
       "I didn't know any little kids with money stayed out late."
       Beamer stared at the grass. "I... gots other shit to handle at night."
       "Well, maybe we could go to that kid-center place? They gots lots of books an' magazines."
       Beamer looked miserable. "I can't go there no more. Word go 'round I a dealer now. Shit, Hobbes the only one ever gimme a chance at somethin'!" Beamer yanked up a handful of grass and tore it to pieces. Finally he looked up again and searched Lactameon's face. "Um... I gots this... well... it sorta a secret, what it is, man. Even from you. It kinda like a wrong thing... no, maybe a right thing I done an' it go wrong ...Shit! I wish I could think, man!"
       Little-kid voices carried from the street. Beamer's head jerked up, alert, as four small boys, all shirtless in jeans and huge high-tops, came pushing through the scraggly bushes instead of using the pathway... a kid thing to do. The youngest was maybe six, the oldest probably eight. The three smaller boys were all shades of black, and had that sway-backed, round-tummied look of fairly well fed and healthy kids. But the oldest was miserably thin and looked fragile as a feather; not really that sickening skin-over-bone look like TV pictures of kids in Somalia, but maybe kids starved better in America. His body was a brassy color the shade of polished water pipes that almost looked metallic. Lactameon thought of a little toy robot, worn-out and thrown out but somehow still going. His hair was amazing; a woolly-wild jungle of yellow-brown dreadlocks that hung to his waist.
       Beamer got to his feet. Lactameon sighed and began his own struggle to stand with Beamer puffing and panting to help. Finally vertical, though his back was drastically swayed by the huge hanging mass of his belly, he watched with Beamer as the little boys headed across the grass toward a tiny mud-colored pond... spitting at ducks was an old summer favorite. Sometimes a kid, crazy in the heat, would try to cool off in the water... until he discovered the bottom-was all broken beer and wine bottle glass.
       Beamer looked like a predator scenting the wind, but then relaxed. "None of 'em do nothin'." he murmured.
       Lactameon was still puffing from the effort of getting up. "That little half-white kid don't even look like he do food."
       Beamer's eyes saddened. "I know him, 'Tam. Live in my buildin'. He got done a real wrong thing. Sometimes I give him money or somethin' to eat."
       "To help you?"
       Beamer frowned slightly. "No, to help him."
       Lactameon touched Beamer's arm. "You a way cool dude, man. Even if you don't know it."
       Beamer's eyes tracked the brass-colored kid. "He gonna die soon. Um... I can always tell. Maybe like your mom with her fortune-tellin' Voodoo stuff."
       Lactameon studied Beamer. "Mom never tell people them kinda things. She say the future should always be somethin' people can look forward to."
       "Sometime you tell my future, 'Tam?"
       Lactameon looked away. "I ain't really no good at it, man."
       Something rustled the air overhead, and Lactameon looked up to see a big black bird land on a branch. "Yo, Beamer! Check it out. There somethin' you don't see every day."
       Beamer stared upward. "Huh? It just a crow. Or some people call 'em ravens."
       "Yeah, but check what it gots in its beak!"
       "...Fuck yeah, man! That somebody's gold chain!"
       Lactameon squinted into the sun. "Ravens an' crows like to steal shiny shit."
       "Why, 'Tam?"
       "The fuck I know. But, that chain's worth a lot if it real!"
       "Fuck yeah, 'Tam! ...But, how we gonna get it?"
       Lactameon laughed. "You would gotta ask that, huh?"
       "Yo, Tam! I climb on your shoulders! Maybe I can grab its foot."
       The bird cocked its head and made a sound like a smart-ass snicker, then flew away. Lactameon sighed. "Dream on, homey-mine." He watched the bird's shape disappear in the distance. "Little black bastard!"
       Beamer touched Lactameon's shoulder. "Please don't say that, man."

                                        Chapter Three

       The row of eight little board-and-bat cabins looked like ancient slave quarters, and the friendly white family, lost down Bridge-end Road that spring in their new stationwagon with California plates, probably thought, after asking Mrs. Griffin's permission, that that's what they were taking pictures of. There were enough naked little kids running around -- and nearly naked bigger ones, since Corbitt, Toby, and Lamar had been there -- to fill a whole album with Old South shots. Corbitt could have sworn they expected to find a souvenir shop, maybe stocked with bullwhips and leg irons made in Taiwan like the bogus Indian junk sold at the Starkville dime store. He hadn't missed how the girl, fourteen or so, had gone all gooey at the sight of Lamar in nothing but cutoffs. Toby had said later that she'd have probably bought him to take home and cuddle if they could still do that. Toby himself seemed to confuse the whole family, though they were too polite to stare.
       Really, the sag-roofed row of weather-warped wood and cracked, curling tarpaper had been built in the 1920s when the narrow strip of concrete along the river had been the main highway and motels were a new invention called motor courts. If you looked hard at the rusted tin sign on a tall iron post in front of the first cabin you could still make out the words MAGNOLIA MOTOR COURT. The road hadn't been tended since the 1950s, after the new highway was cut through from Starkville straight across the fields. Corbitt always figured the new road had been laid like that because modern people no longer had time to wander slow beside a cool, tree-lined river in cars with no tops. Most of the old highway's paving had buckled and cracked into a mosaic of cockeyed slabs, and there were many places where it had crumbled completely away. These were mud when it rained and dust when it didn't. It no longer had a name, and wasn't on the truck stop's Sinclair maps, but everybody called it Bridge-end Road.
       Just beyond the last cabin it dead-ended at the rust-scabbed skeleton of an iron truss bridge that had been a one-laner even back when American cars were as skinny as today's Subarus. The bridge had been built to last, with huge round-headed rivets and old-fashioned detail, and its massive lattice-box beams still stood straight, though they cried and creaked during flood season. Whoever had designed the bridge had planned for the future, but they couldn't have known it would just be bypassed and forgotten. The wooden deck planks were rotted soft as mush, and more than a few were missing. The road on the opposite bank still showed in places, broken and bone-white through fields downriver, but where it hugged the shoreline on the far side of the bridge new trees and overgrowth were burying it from sight. A heavy board blocked the entrance on Corbitt's side. The word CONDEMNED could still be seen, faded as faint as the small letters on the motor court sign that said KITCHENETTES AND MODERN FACILITIES.
       “Kitchenettes" meant a stove, sink and refrigerator, while "Modern Facilities" were inside bathrooms. The toilets still worked in five of the cabins, and the showers in six. Corbitt's cabin, at the end of the row closest the bridge, wasn't one of either. Water would still come from the shower head, and fill the toilet tank, but it wouldn't go anywhere except on the floor if you expected anything else. The motor court builders may have planned for the future, because there was an older kind of facility in a little shed behind Number One cabin. On its door was a chipped enamel sign that said COLORED WASHROOM. The white family had clucked their tongues and looked shamefaced while taking a picture of it, but it was just one of Mrs. Griffin's jokes. She had another sign on her chicken coop that said COLORED WAITING ROOM.
       Both Corbitt's father and Lucas Sampson, Lamar's dad, had tried to fix the bathrooms, but the pipes were full of roots and new ones were too expensive. Corbitt sometimes kept catfish in the toilet tank until they were needed for supper.
       In summer, Corbitt swam in the river to keep clean and in winter he washed at the kitchenette sink in the warmth of the cabin's wood-burning stove. His dad had run the sink drain out through the wall with PVC pipe and dug a little ditch so the water went down the riverbank. It was a nigger-rig. Only Number One cabin, the biggest because it had once been the office, boasted a working water heater, but the lights and most of the electric plugs still worked in all. Corbitt's parents had a radio and a TV... a little black-and-white Sony that pulled in two snowy channels. Corbitt knew about satellite dishes -- the truck-stop had one -- but figured his mom would have liked an inside toilet better than a clear picture of the Cosby Show.
       Two Bridge-end families had cars... trucks, actually. A truck was a useful thing, while a car would have been like a satellite dish. The Coopers in Number Three owned a 1957 International pickup, and Lucas Sampson had a 1963 White Compact three-ton cabover with a steel-plated stake-bed for hauling scrap iron. Corbitt loved to ride in it. Sometimes Lucas would let him drive along deserted backroads. Corbitt's long legs easily reached the pedals, and his natural grace never showed itself more than when he was handling and double-clutching the big old truck, though there were times when Corbitt wished for some of Lamar's muscle to wrestle the steering wheel over ruts. Lamar, Lucas's oldest son, was fourteen and strong as a mule, but not tall enough for comfortable driving.
       Lamar and his father worked hard hauling scrap, but they didn't make enough money to pay Corbitt. Corbitt often went with them anyway, partly for a chance to drive but mostly because Lamar was one of his two best brothers. Once in a great while Lucas would get a good load and have some extra money. Then he'd take Corbitt, along with Lamar and his two younger sons, for a movie and a pizza in Starkville. Of course, Toby Barlow, Corbitt's other best brother, would come, too, but he paid his own way with money he made from his chores at home.
       The White mounted a huge winch behind the cab, and Lucas had a cutting torch. He often eyed the old bridge. Corbitt's dad had said that Lucas wrote to the state about every six months but they wouldn't let him take down the condemned bridge.
       Lucas would mutter about it being a wasteful shame... all that fine heavy iron right there and rusting to dust. Corbitt's dad had said that the government would just as soon forget that the bridge had ever belonged to them and, while they didn't have a notion what to do with it, they hated to be reminded it still existed. But they weren't about to give it away, especially to niggers. Corbitt never said so to Lucas but he was glad of that: the forgotten old bridge to nowhere had a lot of uses for the Bridge-end kids.
       Now, Corbitt stopped under the leaning motor court sign and studied the bridge, wondering why he didn't feel differently about it today... if it hadn't still been spanning the river, his dad wouldn't have been on that sad gray bus.
       The stark white sun was climbing toward noon, and the fields across from the cabin row shimmered and steamed beneath it. But the cabins were shaded by the big river trees, and a friendly coolness came up from the slow green water. The shouts and laughter of children at play carried from behind the cabins, along with an occasional splash when one of the kids dove off the bridge. None of their parents worried; the older kids watched the younger with a lot more care than might have been expected of them, and all could swim like fish by the time they could toddle down the riverbank. No Bridge-end child in Corbitt's memory had ever been hurt beyond the normal bumps and bruises of kid-life... except for what Shilo Bates had done.
       The sounds of the children meant that all the families were home from church. Corbitt's mom still went, but he had stopped going the year before. Corbitt's dad had only gone on special days like Easter and Christmas, maintaining that if God wasn't everywhere He wasn't anywhere. He often told a joke about an old cowboy out West who had gone to church for the first time in his life at seventy years of age. After the service the preacher had taken the cowboy aside and asked if he thought his dusty old clothes were appropriate for the house of God. The old cowboy had ridden off into the desert and had met God sitting at a campfire. He'd asked God if He thought his clothes were appropriate for the church. God had replied that He didn't know because He'd never set foot in the place.
       Corbitt's mother might have been sad when Corbitt stopped going, but she never tried to force him. Until these last few weeks, he could have easily believed that God rested between Sundays at Bridge-end.
       Sundays were long, do-nothing days, and today seemed no different. Saturday's washing, fresh-smelling and clean, even if faded and patched, hung from lines between the cabins to be taken in that evening. There were scents of Sunday dinners cooking that made Corbitt's stomach growl, especially since he hadn't had breakfast. Somebody had their radio tuned to a baseball game.
       Lamar Sampson, who had to go to church whether he wanted to or not -- because it was "healthy" for him, according to his mom -- was gleaming with sweat out on the sun-baked road with his old skateboard. Toby Barlow, who'd probably never been to a church in his life but who was healthy as hell anyway, stood by the battered BMX that he rode almost daily the two miles from town. He was encouraging Lamar's moves with taunting and shouts. Corbitt skated the board, too, as did most of the Bridge-end kids, but there was only one solid strip of roadway left, and even that was buckled and rough. Toby could have afforded a board of his own, but the village of New Crossing wasn't much more than the Barlows' gas station and general store, a garage, a farm and feed supply, and a few other shops among a cluster of houses, and boasted no sidewalks, so Toby shared the Bridge-end board.
       Lamar had a faded Transworld Skateboarding magazine his father had fetched back for him from Jackson last year. It had pictures of ramps like kids in California busted moves on. Corbitt, Lamar, and Toby had built one from scrap wood. It was a nigger-rig, but it worked.
       Corbitt's mind flicked from shadow to sunlight as Lamar caught air off the ramp but landed on his butt in the road. The board skittered away while Toby snickered.
       “Bastard!" bawled Lamar.
       "Say it loud an proud, jack," prompted Toby.
       From the cool vine-covered shade of Number One's little railed porch came a stern voice. "Lamar Sampson! I'll wash out that filthy mouth of yours with my yellow soap! Yes I will!”
       Toby snickered again behind his hand until the voice added. "’Spect you 'bout due for another taste yourself, Toby Barlow.”
       Toby changed his snicker into a cough.
       Lamar scrambled up, rubbing his butt and grinning at Corbitt, who'd snagged the runaway skateboard. Then Lamar turned to face Number One. "I sorry, Miz Griffin." He gave Toby a jab in the side and Toby echoed him.
       Behind the row of flowers in coffee cans a big round face nodded solemnly from the shade. "I should say. Such talk on a Sunday!" But Corbitt sensed a smile in the old woman's words. "Not even your daddy talk like that when he drop a hunk of iron on his foot.”
       "Hell he don't!" Lamar whispered to the other boys. "Ain't none of us here ain't heard him bust out with a whole lot more'n one little ol’ bastard!”
       "I hear that, brother," agreed Toby. "An’ y'all sure heard my own daddy cuss!”
       “Got that right!” Then Lamar considered. "Best us be careful just the same. I ain't wantin’ Miz Griffin mad at me!”
       Toby grinned. "Yeah, she might Voodoo you into a big green toad-frog.”
       Lamar's eyes widened. "Shut your mouth, fool! She gots enough spooky ol’ notions already, out you givin’ her new ones!" He cast an uneasy glance toward Number One, then turned to Corbitt again. "Um, she couldn't really do that, huh?”
       Corbitt dropped the ancient flat Variflex and decked, his long toes gripping the splintery rails. He walked the board expertly end for end, and grinned. "Y'all wanna find out? Just be doin’ some more of that loud cussin’ an’ we all see what happen.”
       "Uh-uh! Ain't gonna catch me messin’ with none of Miz Griffin’s Voodoo!”
       Corbitt frowned slightly while cutting tight eights across the road's dim white centerline. "Miz Griffin's magic ain't the bad kind. Figure a bad Voodoo lady play the organ in church? Or get to be a real certified midwife with official state birthin’ papers? Hell, Lamar, she slap your black butt on your bornin’ day. She wanna turn you into somethin’ unnatural, she already had a 'bundance of time for doin’ it.”
       "Well, I never say she could," said Lamar. "But she do bake up unnaturally good cookies. Sides, she slap your black ass, too, boy. An’ my own dad's for that matter. Guess we all turn out fine without no Voodoo."
       Corbitt tailed the board and balanced that way. "I s'pose. Hell, she probably slap half the asses in this county, black an' white. Likely whack Toby's too, he been here for it. All's I sayin' is, use your brains to figure out stuff you don't understand. There be more logic to magic an' Voodoo than you ever dream."
       "There he go again," said Toby. "Bein' logical." He grinned at Lamar. "Don't you hate when that happen?"
       Lamar shrugged. "Logic gets confusin'."
       The skateboard's wheels, first-series Santa Cruz Bullets worn half away, rattled over the rough concrete as Corbitt took a run at the ramp, aired with a graceful three-sixty, and lightly touched down. Toby raised a thumb. "Corbitt skate logical enough, don't he, Lamar?"
       Lamar dropped his hands to his hips and frowned. "Logic my ass!" he muttered, flicking his eyes toward Number One. "Ain't nothin' to them moves but a few goddamn tricks, an' I gonna learn 'em or kill myself tryin'!"
       "Anyways," said Toby. "What Corbitt do is magic sometimes. He a genuine Voodoo chile. Borned under a black moon. Miz Griffin tell me that."
       "Well," said Lamar. "It best to be careful, so's you don't go callin' up somethin' out the ground, not knowin'."
       Toby grinned again. "Wish I could call up a pizza right now!"
       Corbitt came rolling back. "Voodoo ain't nothin' to be messin' with, not knowin'. A lot of spells be just simple words an' doin's an' you could call up somethin' powerful just by accident." He tailed again, then pointed. "But the onliest trick to skate moves be practice. 'Sides, you overdressed yourselfs... what they call poser-gear in California, like it say in Lamar's magazine. Try ridin' on your own natural feet 'stead of smotherin' 'em in foot-coffins."
       The other boys looked down; Lamar at his big battered Pumas, sliced and scarred from kicking scrap iron, and Toby at his black-and-white B.K.s, almost new but scuffed and dirty. Lamar wore sun-bleached cutoffs, streaked with rust and grease, while Toby was clad in ragged gym shorts.
       Lamar had just turned fourteen. Corbitt had read a lot of books in which characters were called solid muscle, but words on paper could never describe the reality that was Lamar Sampson. His shoulders were massive, his upper arms huge, and his chest muscles jutted like a small pair of bricks, as stark and squared as if they'd been chiseled from honey-brown bronze. His washboard belly looked hard enough to bark your knuckles on. The only softness about him was his eyes, deep coffee-colored and tending to shyness in a wide, flat-nosed face that turned serious only when he had to think. Lamar didn't have the slightest notion how strong he was, and often broke things without meaning to... toys, tape players, and Toby's arm the summer before when they'd been wrestling on the riverbank. He was always sorry  about it, and he'd spent a month in misery while Toby wore a cast. Once, when they'd been drinking, Corbitt and Toby bad wrapped Lamar's chest with clothes-line rope to test his strength. They hadn't noticed the wire core inside the cotton. Lamar had snapped it on the second try, but he still bore the stripes on his skin. Though outweighing Corbitt once over, Lamar stood just shoulder-high to him. Toby said he looked clumsy alongside Corbitt, like a lion cub next to a cheetah.
    Thirteen, Toby Barlow was about as tall as Lamar, and was rolly chubby with bobby breasts and a belly that wobbled over his shorts. His hair was pale blond -- or would have been but for the dust -- and was sweat-shaded now to a creamed-coffee color. He wore it long and shaggy so he reminded Corbitt of a page boy in King Arthur's court. He had an open, friendly face, a perpetual buck-toothed grin, and eyes of a deep smoky blue like the sky before a thunderstorm. The summer sun tanned him each year to almost the tone of a Bridge-end kid. His parents had moved down from Wisconsin five years before, when his father had bought the old Citgo gas station in New Crossing. They'd converted it into a mini-mart and branch post office. Toby and Corbitt had become instant friends at school, like the most natural thing in the world... as if they had met in a previous life, as Mrs. Griffin put it. Lamar had stayed shy of Toby awhile before deciding to be friends -- could lions and tigers be brothers? -- but when Lamar decided something, it was final, full-throttle, and forever. Corbitt still caught himself sometimes trying to imagine what Bridge-end looked like through Toby's blue eyes.
       "Aw," said Lamar. "Ain't nobody skate barefoot in California. Wouldn't be cool. Y'all never seen none of them kids doin' it in that magazine."
       "Sho' 'nuff," agreed Toby. "'Sides, I 'member them city streets from when I was little bein' full of dogshit an' busted glass."
       Corbitt stomped the board's tail, flipping it up into his hand. "Couldn't be no worse than cowflops an' scrap iron. Anyways, that magazine be over a whole year old. Things change fast in cities. Everybody know cities be where black cool come from."
       Toby laughed. "Hear that boy, Lamar? Like he gots any more idea what California cool than you an' me!"
       Corbitt's mind darted back into shadow. He crossed his arms over his chest and looked sulky. "The day might come soon when I be checkin' that out my ownself."
       Lamar frowned, studied Toby's face to see what he thought, then chuckled and dropped a massive arm over the blond boy's shoulders. "Sho', my man. An' I s'pose y'all gonna fly your ass out there on one of them seven-fo'-sevens?"
       "Nah," snickered Toby. "What it is, he gonna get Miz Griffin to magic him right through the air with ass-travel."
       "Astral," muttered Corbitt, still looking sulky.
       Lamar's eyes softened. "Well, like my daddy always sayin', dream real pretty dreams, boy, 'cause them's all you gonna get in this world."
       Toby nodded and slid his arm over Lamar's. "Sho' 'nuff!"
       Corbitt frowned. "Ain't you a fine pair for cheerin' folks up."
       Toby slapped his forehead. "Oh, shit, Corbitt, I forgot about your dad. We sorry, brother."
       Lamar nodded hard. "We real sorry, man."
       Corbitt's smile relighted. He suddenly wanted to hug his brothers. Instead, he said, "I know that. Never 'spected y'all to go walkin' on eggs for me."
       Lamar suddenly grabbed Corbitt and crushed him in a Sampson-style hug. Corbitt's rib cage creaked. Lamar grinned. "Hey, man, we gots you a present."
       "Damn your ass, Lamar!" cried Toby. "It was s'posed to be a surprise!"
       "Sorry, I forgot."
       Toby shook his head. "'Times I wonder y'all gots both oars in the water, boy. ...Well, it still a present anyways. Hey, Corbitt, c'mon down to the bridge an' we give it to ya."
       Corbitt's eyes shifted past the other boys as there came a happy yell and a small glistening shadow burst from between Number Six and Seven and ran toward them. It was Trevor Sampson, Lamar's littlest brother, nicknamed Guppy. He was eight, naked and dripping just out of the river, still with a prominent little kid's tummy though muscle was showing most everywhere else. Corbitt noted that the boy's bruises were almost gone.
       "My turn!" panted Guppy, running up. "I gets to ride it now!"
       Lamar glanced at Corbitt and Toby. "S'pose there ain't no better time for givin' Corbitt his present."
       Toby nodded, "Yeah. Even if it ain't a surprise no more, thanks to you." He whacked Lamar's back. "Ow! Shit!"
       "Shut up, man!" hissed Lamar. "Miz Griffin hear you!"
       Corbitt gave Toby a grin. "Ain't you got it through that skull of yours by now that Lamar can be hazardous to your health?"
       "Gots this big ol' bitch of a splinter off that goddamn ramp an' just now ram it a mile up my fuckin' finger!"
       Guppy's eyes went wide with delight. "Hear that boy cussin'! I gonna tell Miz Griffin! She wash out that dirty ol' mouth of yours with her yellow soap, Toby Barlow!"
       "Yeah? Well, y'all just do that an' best believe you ain't gonna be ridin' my BMX no more, boy."
       "Boy your ownself!" Guppy retorted. "I rubber, you glue, bounce off me an' stick to your ass!"
       "Shush!" said Corbitt. "'Fore we all end up gettin' our mouths washed! ...Here, take this goddamn board an' ride your little ass off!" Corbitt took Toby's hand and spread the fingers. "Mmm. That be a mean little bastard in there. Suck it awhile, then I take it out."
       Lamar peered at Toby's finger, and winced. "That gonna hurt like a bitch, Tobe."
       "Thanks for cheerin' me up," said Toby. "Anyways, c'mon, brothers, we gots stuff to do."
       "Yeah?" piped Guppy. "An' I knows what! Y'all goin' down 'neath the bridge an' smoke! I tellin' mom, Lamar!"
       "Listen, boy," growled Lamar. "You do that, you ain't gonna be ridin' my skateboard no more this side of your grave!"
       "So, who die an' make it your board?" said Guppy. "Gimme a smoke an' I won't tell. Done deal, dude?"
       Lamar frowned. "Where you be gettin' that dealin' talk lately."
       "Probably from school," said Corbitt. "All kinds of dealin' goin' on there last year. Even for the little ones."
       Toby nodded. "Yeah, but Guppy be way too smart to fall for none of that drug shit. Hey, Gup-man, y'all be cool an' I give you a smoke tomorrow. Okay?"
       "What I look like, a fool? You play, you pay!"
       Toby spread his arms. "See any smokes on me, Gup?"
       "S'pose them's square balls in your rag-ass shorts."
       "Aw, just give him one, Tobe," said Lamar. "Else he be pesterin' us all day."
       Guppy grinned. "An' that a fact an' a half, homes!"
       Corbitt snapped, "Stop that stupid-ass niggerboy shit! Make you sound like a ignorant fool!"
       "Yeah," agreed Toby. "You been raised better." He pulled a Kool pack from the crotch of his shorts.
       The other boys clustered around him so Mrs. Griffin wouldn't see, though Corbitt suspected she knew anyway. Then they left Guppy with the skateboard and walked toward the bridge. Corbitt saw that both the Sampsons' flatbed and the Coopers' pickup were gone. Lamar noted his look. "Daddy be over the truck stop gettin' new generator bearin's for the White. ...Oh, an' he pay you five dollars for puttin' 'em in. You as good with tools as your dad. Your mom gone shoppin' in Starkville with Mr. an' Miz Cooper."
       Toby gave Corbitt a nudge. "An' po' little Sherry gots to ride in back, man. All alone." He heaved a huge sigh and rolled his eyes.
       Corbitt ignored that. "Sho' I do your generator, Lamar." Then he sighed. "Don't know what my mom be shoppin' with. She tell me last night that most our food stamps be already spent. Social office gettin' tighter an' tighter with 'em. Always talkin' 'bout government cutbacks in spendin'."
       "So?" asked Toby. "Then how come it sayin' on TV that we gonna be sendin' billions of dollars to help hungry people in Russia?"
       Corbitt shrugged. "Damn if I know, man. Seem like, more I learn about the world, the less I understand it. But, weren't for Miz Griffin bakin' bread, Lamar's mom makin' us soup, an' your folks findin' that whole mess of cans lost their labels, what we done for suppers this week I don't know."
       Toby grinned. "Good thing you like Beefaroni, huh?"
       Corbitt raised an eyebrow. "Now how you know them cans Beefaronis? You tole me your mom throwed 'em out 'cause she didn't know what they was." He smiled. "Y'all oughta know you can't lie to your brothers."
       Toby laughed. "Just like Lamar can't keep secrets from us neither."
       They stopped at Corbitt's cabin so Toby and Lamar could take off their shoes. One of Lamar's was solidly double-knotted. Toby watched the big boy struggle with the laces, then knelt and slapped his hands away. "Stop that, Lion-bro, you gonna bust 'em! Use your mind 'stead of your goddamn muscles!"
       Corbitt nudged Toby in the butt with his toe. "An' you stop thinkin' with your dick, Tiger-bro. Don't be teasin' me with Sherry Cooper stuff when I needin' all my mind right now. Got no time for thinkin' 'bout girls."
       Lamar laughed, "Sho' you don't, Cheetah-bro. You just now tell Toby he can't lie to his brothers, yet you standin' right there tryin' to say it don't matter to you when Sherry go swimmin' an' her T-shirt get all wet an' tight over her... you-knows."
       "Breasts," sighed Toby, cupping his own and looking dreamy.  "Sherry be givin' a whole world of meanin' to that word!"
       Corbitt started to frown but then laughed. "Like, the pair of you don't go 'round half the time like y'all gots hydraulic jacks in your jeans!"
       Lamar and Toby exchanged glances. "Shit," said Toby. "You figure she notice stuff like that, Corbitt?"
       "Gots herself two good eyes, don't she?"
       "Um?" asked Lamar, resting his hands on Toby's head as the blond boy fought with the shoelaces. "She tell you stuff, Corbitt?"
       "Stuff like what?"
       Toby got the laces undone and stood up, sucking his finger. "Stuff like what you just now sayin'... girl feelin's 'bout boys."
       "You gots a tongue, ask her yourself."
       "Did you?"
       "'Course not!"
       Lamar set the two pairs of shoes on the porch rail. "Then how y'all know what Sherry Cooper feelin' 'bout us?"
       Seeing Corbitt hesitate, Toby grinned again. "Aw, know what, Lamar? I bet she tell him on that day we was playin' the slave game."
       Corbitt scowled. "You shut up your mouth, Toby! An' you too, Lamar! I know 'cause... 'cause, I read it in a book. That how!"
    Toby nudged Lamar. "Uh-huh. Well, we gots a bunch of magazines at the store that show what girls be showin', but don't never tell what they be thinkin'."
       "Yeah?" said Corbitt. "An' I'm surprised your folks can sell 'em after you got the pages all sticky! ...Anyways, I don't wanna be talkin' 'bout that stuff today. Gots 'portant things on my mind!"
       Toby and Lamar exchanged glances again, then shrugged. The boys started for the bridge. Corbitt jammed his hands in his pockets and shuffled along through the dust. "Wish I be ol' enough for a real job. Doin' somethin' what make a difference."
       "Well," said Lamar. "My daddy say it don't matter how ol' you be 'round here, jobs be scarce as hen's teeth. That why he run his own business. Say he gonna starve, it be by his own hand."
       Toby nodded. "Sho' 'nuff, brother. My own daddy say, this a repressed area."
       "De-pressed," said Corbitt.
       "Oh. I thought that was somethin' what happen to people."
       Corbitt sighed. "It does. Might say, you be repressed, you get depressed."
       They reached the bridge. Corbitt cocked his head toward the laughter and splashing. "Shit! Them goddamn kids gonna scare all the fish from here to hell's kitchen!"
       "Mmm," said Toby. "Guess when you be repressed, an' get depressed, it don't take much to piss you off, huh?"
       "S'pose it don't."
       "Well," said Lamar. "You gots that good idea 'bout startin' up your own business, Corbitt. Y'all still thinkin' on it, ain't you?"
       Corbitt nodded. "Sho' I am. Fact is, that one of the main things I be tryin' to get straight in my mind."
       "Sound logical to me," said Toby. "Be your own man just like Mr. Sampson. What I sayin' is, look at how hard your daddy try an' find a job since he come home." Toby thought for a moment. "How come he never start up his own mechanic shop?"
       "Take capital," said Corbitt. "Gots to have money 'fore you can make money. Why you figure I savin' back every dime of my own this summer 'stead of smokin' pack cigarettes an' buyin' beer?"
       Lamar muttered, "Seem a goddamn shame when bein' smart can't get you nowhere."
       Corbitt raised his eyes to the bridge. "That 'zactly what bein a smart nigger get you 'round here, man... nowhere." He glanced across the shimmering fields to the distant road. "All 'spenses paid on a goddamn bus to nowhere!"
       "How come he just not stay in the Army?" asked Toby. "He was sendin' money home regular."
       "Say he done enough fightin' for other people after that ol' Gulf War. Say he wanna be home an' fight for me an' my mom."
       The other boys laid hands on Corbitt's shoulders. "We help you fish tonight," said Lamar. "Catch us a whole mess of cats for your mom."
       "Sho' 'nuff, man," said Toby. "Hey, Corbitt, can I spend the night?"
       "Since when you gotta ask? Long's it okay by my mom, 'course."
       "I already ask her, 'fore she leave with the Coopers. I even brung my toothbrush this time so's I don't gotta use yours again."
       Corbitt smiled. "Make me no nevermind, man, even you do gots a dirty mouth. ...Um, Toby? How my mom look to you? What I askin' is, she seem sad?"
       "...Well... it gotta be natural for her bein' sad. But she kiss me, an'..." Toby smiled. "She say I a fine young man an' a good friend to you."
       "You are, Tiger-bro. But don't go gettin' all high-toned over it."
       They descended the steep-sloping bank to the cool shaded flat of summer-dry mud beneath the bridge. Something big, round and golden brown dropped the fifteen feet from the bridge deck out over the midstream pier and made a huge splash in the deep pool below. Corbitt's hands clenched to fists. "Goddammit to hell! Them fuckin' fish never come back by tonight!"
       Scowling, Lamar ran the few steps to the water's edge. He cupped his hands to his mouth as a grinning face surfaced under a sparkling bush of hair. "Hayes!" bellowed Lamar. "Get your little ass out there this minute!" Dropping his hands to his hips, Lamar glared up at the faces of a small boy and girl who were peering down through gaps in the planking. "You! Get your butts off that goddamn bride! Ain't gonna be no more divin' today. We be fishin' here come sundown, so's y'all go an' do your playin' upstream."
       Hayes Sampson, Lamar's middle brother, came wading up onto the mudflat, plowing through the water like a little tank wrapped in foam rubber. He was ten, and huge, though his fat was backed by Sampson muscle and he carried his big round belly out-thrust and proud. Like all the younger children he was naked, and seemed as at home between the green and brown riverbanks as any rightful water creature. "See my cannonball?" he asked.
       "Onliest cannonball I see be the one on your shoulders!" growled Lamar. "Corbitt gotta go fishin' to try an' help his mom, an' you little burrheads spookin' 'em away. Y'all go keep them other kids upriver. You the biggest by half so's that make you 'sponsible. Go get one of them ol' truck tubes, that keep the little ones 'mused."
       Hayes stood dripping beside his big brother. "S'pose I could do that... cept then they all wantin' to be towed around like I they tugboat or somethin'."
       Lamar hefted the fat boy under the arms and held him effortlessly in the air... something it would have taken both Corbitt and Toby to do. "Why you figure God make you strong if not for helpin' little ones?"
       Hayes flexed an arm to make a muscle after Lamar set him down. "S'pose I is strong, huh?" Then he looked at Corbitt and his round happy face turned serious. "We all sorry 'bout your dad."
       "Thanks, Hayes, I know you be."
       "So," said Lamar. "That why we all gots to be helpin' Corbitt."
       The little boy nodded solemnly. "Sho'. ...Hey, Lamar, why not we 'vite Corbitt for supper tonight? Mom be cookin' special anyways 'cause of Toby 'comin'. She not mind settin' a extra special place."
       Toby frowned. "Oh shit, Lamar. You mean your mom settin' me a goddamn special place again? How many times I gotta tell ya I don't want no special place?"
       Lamar shrugged. "Well, damn if I be seein' why she fuss over you all the time. Best believe I gots my say, y'all be eatin' right out on the porch with Hayes an' Guppy an' me."
       "That what I sayin'," said Toby. "You an' your brothers always eat on the porch... 'cept when I come, 'an then you an' me gotta sit at the goddamn table inside, wear our shirts, an' can't even talk normal. So, this time I wanna eat on the porch. Okay?"
       "Well, you can't."
       "Why the hell not?"
       "How the hell I know? 'Cause... 'cause, you be our guest, I s'pose."
       "Listen to this shit! Five years ago I was your goddamn guest, but now I your goddamn brother!"
       "An' don't I know it! Only a real brother be such a piss-makin'  pain in the ass! Hey, Tiger-breath, y'all figure it some sorta treat for me? Sittin' at the table. gotta say please pass the gravy an' thank-you, goddammit like butter won't melt in my goddamn mouth! ...'Sides, y'all eat at the table at Corbitt's."
       "Corbitt ain't gots two other brothers takin' up room, all that mean. 'Sides, him an' me, we eat on the goddamn porch whenever we goddamn please!"
       Lamar crossed his arms in a gesture of finality. "Well, my mom wanna go an' treat your dumb-ass like a guest, she gots that right, ain't she? So just shut up your mouth an' be my goddamn guest! ...'Sides which, she be bakin' up peach pie all special on account of your goddamn ass."
       Toby spread his hands helplessly at Corbitt. "Ain't I said a b'zillion times I like sweet-potato pie? Corbitt, you knowin' for a fact Miz Sampson bake the best goddamn sweet-potato pie in all creation. So, what she make for dessert when I come? Goddamn peach! What you think of this shit, Corbitt?"
       Corbitt grinned. "Ask me, I think y'all both makin more noise than a couple skeletons pitchin' a fit on a tin roof."
       Hayes had been swiveling his head back and forth as the older boys argued. Now he piped, "Well, Tobe, I take your goddamn piece of pie, y'all ain't wantin' it."
       "Shush, you," said Lamar. "An' don't you go tellin' mom none of this. Hear me?" He spun Hayes around and slapped his bottom. "Daddy gonna be bringin' home Twinkies like he do every Sunday. Y'all go mind them little ones. Tow 'em around like a big mighty tugboat an' I give you mine. Okay?"
       "Sho' 'nuff!" Then Hayes considered. "'Course... if Toby ain't gonna be eatin' his pie..."
       "'Course Toby gonna eat his goddamn pie!"
       "'Course Toby gonna eat his goddamn pie!" Toby echoed. He made a face at Lamar, then turned again to Corbitt. "I didn't ask 'bout havin supper with you, 'cause... well, 'cause of your troubles."
       Corbitt smiled. "An' y'all hates Beefaroni."
      "Stick that finger back in your mouth an' suck it."
       Toby grinned. "Even better, I get your present!" He dashed off around the shoreward pier.
       Lamar sat down and Corbitt settled beside him, their backs against the pier's stone base. Lamar studied Corbitt a moment, then spoke carefully. "I, um, ain't wantin' to make y'all no sadder, Corbitt, but I hear my folks talkin' last night, wonderin' how you an' your mom gonna manage."
       Toby returned, one hand hidden behind his back. His grin faded when he heard Lamar's words. He sat next to Corbitt.
       "Yeah, brother, my own folks been talkin' 'bout that."
       Corbitt was silent a time because this was a next thing he'd been wondering about himself. He looked up at the rotted planking where sunlight stabbed down through the gaps. Finally, he said, "Maybe it was a foolish thing my daddy done."
       Lamar's wide face went thoughtful. Toby pulled the Kool pack from his shorts and passed out cigarettes. Corbitt fired his and Toby's with his Bic, then Toby took the lighter and leaned over to Lamar so there wouldn't be three on a flame. All the boys blew out gray clouds that drifted in the sunbeams like lazy little ghosts. Lamar's big voice came gentle:
       "My daddy say it were a good an' rightful thing, Corbitt. Say, if he knowed what happen then an' there, he'd laid Bates out cold stone dead with his own bare hands. Y'all know my daddy 'most never get mad, but when he do the whole goddamn world better run. Could be your daddy save mine, Corbitt... 'cause he knowed what my dad woulda done."
       Corbitt sighed smoke and slowly nodded. "I never think on it like that, Lamar. ...Well, your daddy weren't home, an' somebody had to do somethin'. S'pose it weren't no more'n what 'spected."
       "The hell you sayin'?" said Toby. "It was a lot more than what was 'spected! My mom say she'd a gone after Bates with a gun!"
       Lamar nodded. "Toby right, man. Was a whole hell of a lot more than 'spected. Weren't nobody 'round that day but the women an' little ones. My mom be scared of Bates like he Lucifer up from hell. An' the law wouldn't done a goddamn thing... not bein' just Guppy's word 'gainst Bates."
       Corbitt gazed at the gentle green water flowing past. "Well, y'all seen what the goddamn law up an' done. Nobody take my daddy's word 'gainst Bates neither."
       Lamar's face hardened. "Well, Guppy don't lie. No Sampson lie, not even to whitefolks! Hell, you brothers figure I makin' it up when I tole y'all 'bout that time when I 'round Hayes's age an' Bates call me over 'cross the bridge 'bout sundown? Swear to God that ol' bastard feel me ever which way just like he buyin' side-meat!"
       "'Course we believe you, man," said Toby.
       "Well, I know for a fact that Bates try that selfsame dirt on Guppy! Then, when the boy try an' holler for help, Bates beat him up!"
       "My mom say Bates a sick ol' man, said Toby. "An' oughta be put away. She tell some of the townfolks that. ...Maybe it why they wouldn't let her or my dad on the jury."
       Corbitt blew smoke. "My mom say even the jury they got probably think the same. But the truth don't always seem to matter. Maybe Bates ain't all that rich an' powerful no more, but he the last of a ol'-time family what settle the land round here, an' I s'pose some folks figure ol' things best not be messed with. 'Sides, Bates swear up an' down on a whole stack of Bibles he catch Guppy trespassin' his land for fishin' his pool."
       "Goddamn liar!" spat Toby.
       "Got that right, brother," said Lamar. "Everybody know there ain't nothin' on Bates's land worth trespassin' for." He paused to look downstream for a moment. "An' you ain't gonna catch no Sampson goin' anywhere's near that riverbend pool... not after we raise up that spooky ol' bone-cage last summer!"
       "Aw shit, Lamar," said Toby. "That weren't nothin but some ol' drowned-dog ribs. Only a ignorant fool be scared of the ghost of a dog. ...Huh, Corbitt?"
       Corbitt shrugged. "Look more 'bout the size of a sheep's ribs to me. 'Course, the fishline busted 'fore we could get a good look at it."
       Lamar seemed to shiver. "An' I be goddamn glad of that! Just seein' that spooky thing risin' up out the dark make me feel like somebody walk over my grave!"
       Toby snorted. "Shit, man. The ghost of a sheep be even more no-count!"
       Lamar sucked a deep breath of smoke. "Best leave any ol' bones sleep in peace, say my mom. Anyways, Bates gots nothin' else on that busted-down farm 'cept weeds. All that good bottom-land growin' nothin'. Daddy say that lower field down by the pool ain't even been plowed for 'most thirty year."
       Toby flipped away his Kool. "Well, ain't no secret my folks don't like the dirty ol' bastard. He used to buy gas an' come in our store when we first move here, but one day he got in some kinda big argument with my dad an' never come back no more."
       "'Bout what?" asked Lamar.
       Toby shrugged. "Don't know. I was only 'bout Guppy's age then. But, my daddy cuss Bates up and down... call him everything but a white man! ...I think it was Bates who try makin' trouble for us gettin' the post office after that."
       Lamar flipped his cigarette into the river, then pulled up his knees and rested his chin on top. "Bates gots himself a long history of makin' trouble for us, brother. ...An' now Corbitt's daddy be gettin' a prison year 'cause of him! I like to kill that ol' son of a bitch!"
       Corbitt put a hand on Lamar's shoulder. "Judge say maybe my dad only serve six months if he be a good man in prison... pay his debt to society." He frowned and flicked his cigarette far out on the water. "I always wonder why they call it that. What I sayin' is, man pay his debt at the truck stop or Toby's store, it only be 'membered as a good thing. Mr. Rudd or Mr. Barlow smile an' say, he a good man, give him credit. Debt my daddy be payin' ain't like that. Piece of goddamn paper gonna be followin' him the rest of his life. They put him in a 'puter too, so's any cop in the country can call up his ol' debt at the speed of light. 'Stead of givin' him credit, debt he payin' make him a bad man! Deserve no credit! Mom tell me it probably not go so hard on him if he been workin' steady. But, he gots himself no job, even if he out lookin' every day, law figure he just another lazy nigger goin' wild. Now his name be in some goddamn 'puter sayin' he a bad lazy nigger! Ain't true, but nobody argue with 'puters!"
       Corbitt snatched up a pebble and flung it across the river. There was a startled croak from a crow that had probably been sleeping on a branch. Corbitt watched it take wing. For an instant it seemed to give him an accusing look, but then it swooped low across Bates's field, calling or cursing ... it was hard to tell with crows. Several more suddenly rose from the weeds to join it, then all disappeared in the hazy distance.
       "Little black bastards," said Toby. "I had one of 'em chase me the other day, 'bout sundown, when I was ridin' home. Swear it try an' peck my ass."
       Corbitt smiled. "'Spect it just after that reflector you gots on back of your bike seat. Crows be always tryin' to steal pretty shiny things."
       "Why?" asked Toby.
       "Maybe 'cause they only come in black themselfs."
       Lamar looked thoughtful. "Didn't Miz Griffin tell us a story a long time ago 'bout a silver crow?"
       "That be just one of them sayin's," said Corbitt. "'Silver crow.' Like, think about all the polishin' you gots to do till a crow shine like silver."
       Toby brightened. Reaching behind him, he pulled out what he'd been hiding. "Hell, 'most forgot! Here be your present, Cheetah-bro."
       "Lord, look at that!" said Corbitt. "A whole goddamn quart of Jack D!"
       Lamar grinned. "Me an' Toby figure it might help polish off some of your sad."
       Corbitt took the bottle and held it reverently up to a sunbeam. "Well, here be a lion an' a tiger bro for sharin' it with."
       "Thought you never ask," said Toby. "Maybe we drink it tonight when we fishin'?"
       "'Course," added Lamar. "We could take us a little taste now."
       Corbitt laughed. "Sho' we have us a sip, but not too much. I still be thinkin' out my business idea." He twisted off the cap, took a swallow and passed it to Lamar. The big boy drank then handed it to Toby.
       Toby gulped and smacked his lips. "That throw a little polish on your crow! ...My daddy done a lot of readin' up on runnin' a business 'fore we move down here... 'bout capital 'an all that other stuff Corbitt was talkin'."
       Lamar fingered his jaw. "Um, Corbitt? Y'all ever figure you might be doin' a little too much readin? I mean, it piss off the teacher last year when you went readin' ahead of the rest of us in your books an' knowed every next thing 'fore anybody else. Mr. Rudd tell me one time that havin' too much in your head ain't necessarily good for you. Ruin your peace of mind, he say."
       Toby gave the bottle to Corbitt. "Hey, dodo! Corbitt gots himself a whole
goddamn mind, not just a little ol' piece! 'Sides, I never hear Mr. Rudd sayin' no such thing."
       Lamar frowned. "Well, he sho' 'nuff say it to me."
       Corbitt took a small sip of whiskey and shrugged. "Just 'cause I like readin' don't mean I tryin' to high-tone my head." He laughed. "Like I was tryin' to polish a crow." He passed the bottle to Lamar, then his eyes narrowed toward the far side of the bridge. "'Times I wonder if my dad read a little too much. ...'Course, maybe him bein' in the Army put more stuff in his mind. One time I hear mom tellin' Miz Griffin that he got too used to bein' a regular person in the Army. ...Like, it give him ideas he can be more than just what 'spected of him. She say maybe it was wrong for him tryin' to settle back here after that."
       Corbitt considered, his eyes on the slow-moving water. "There be times when I think he think that too... inside-like, I mean. I'd hear him talkin' to Mom sometimes in the night when they thought I was sleepin'. He had him this dream 'bout savin' enough money for buyin' us a good-runnin' truck an' movin' us  out to California where everythin' be better."
       Lamar drank and nodded. "'Times I 'member when your daddy did seem a little restless, man. ...Maybe that what Mr. Rudd mean by fillin' your head with too many ideas? ...Like, other folks might think you was tryin' to polish a crow."
       "What you sayin'?" demanded Toby. "Hell, your own daddy smart as a goddamn whip! Shit, you just look at how good he be runnin' his very own business. An' I bet he never need to read no books about it neither. 'Sides, bet he still ain't happy all the time."
       Corbitt nodded. "'Spect nobody happy all the time. Else, how you know you was?"
       "Know what?" asked Lamar.
       "If you happy, dodo," said Toby. "It be your crow, so polish its ass off."
       "...Oh," said Lamar.  "I s'pose that logical. Well, listen here, if my daddy ain't happy sometimes, he get over it quick as he get over bein' unhappy." Lamar studied Corbitt. "'Times you trouble me with words."
       Toby snickered. "It called thinkin', burrhead." He yawned and stretched. "Let's us go natural. Okay?"
       Corbitt glanced upstream. "'Spect we could. Sherry be gone, an' ain't nobody 'round but the little ones."
       The boys stood up and stripped, then sat back down. Toby's skin was pale where his shorts normally covered, though two years ago it wouldn't have been. Lamar was a little lighter there, too. Only Corbitt's slender body was unchanged, as if the sun had no power over midnight.
       Corbitt took another sip from the bottle, the whiskey warm and soothing like the feel of a sunbeam on his face. Here with his brothers by the river, their shoulders touching his and their scents comforting and familiar, it would be easy to side-slip in time, so tempting today to just do what was expected of him. Lamar's voice brought him back.
       "Anyways, can't see no reason my daddy gots for bein' unhappy."
       Toby gave Corbitt a lazy grin. "See, brother, y'all start him tryin' to polish his crow."
    Lamar frowned. "Oh, shush. Y'all hear Miz Griffin tell how much better it be for us now than back in her days. An' she oughta know, on account her bein' a maid here when Bridge-end was a real motel. She always tellin' stories to the little ones 'bout how we had to ride in the backs of buses an' weren't allowed in the same cafes an' schools with whites, nor even get to use the same bathrooms. Them ol' signs she put up didn't used to be jokes."
       "I know," said Toby. He studied his finger before slipping it back in his mouth. "That musta sucked," he added around it.
       "No you don't," Corbitt said suddenly. "You can't."
       Toby's blue eyes went puzzled. "Huh?"
       "Ain't none of us here know," Corbitt went on. "Not for real. We ain't gots nothin' to go by 'cept them ol' stories Miz Griffin tell." He pointed upstream where Hayes was trudging mightily through the shallows with a piece of frayed rope over his shoulder, towing three smaller kids on a big truck tube. "'Times I wonder if they be believin' but half 'bout them days as even us did."
       "Could we buy us a pizza back then?" asked Toby.
       "It had to be at a black pizza place," said Lamar.
       "It was probably better," said Toby. "Like, soul-pizza."
       "I think soul-food come along later," said Corbitt. "In the nineteen-sixties."
       Lamar shot a sudden glare across the river. "Well, some things never change, for a fact! Like that ol' bastard Bates over there! Seem all he ever done be strut 'round his end of the bridge, watchin' all us kids like he figure he still own us or somethin'!" Lamar lowered his voice, even though no one else was near. "What I sayin' is, if this thing with Bates an' Corbitt's dad woulda happened back in them ol' days, the KKK woulda come in the night an' burn Bridge-end to the ground! There talk say Bates used to be one... an' maybe even still is!"
       "Well," said Toby. "He sho' 'nuff sick in the head enough for bein' a 'perial lizard."
       "Wizard," said Corbitt.
       "Yeah, I know. But my dad call him lizard. Sound better to me. More... um..."
       "'Propriate," said Corbitt. His eyes drifted across the river, narrowing. "'Times I wonder if it even matter we 'member what happen back then. Onliest thing I can figure is life must been really hard for us in them days to get us thinkin' it better now. There my daddy fix all them big 'spensive trucks in the Army, yet all Mr. Rudd can find for him at the truck stop be part-time pumpin' diesel. Shit, any us sittin' right here could do that, but it all what a growed-up man can get."
       Lamar spread his big work-callused palms. "But, you know Mr. Rudd doin' all he can to help us, Corbitt? My daddy say he be one of the finest white men in the county that way. Ain't that so, Toby?"
       Toby took a swallow from the bottle. "My folks don't like him much."
       Lamar's mouth dropped open. "What?"
       Toby took a big gulp. He shuddered and sucked air, then gave a helpless shrug. "I don't know why. Want I should try an' make you happy by lyin'?"
       Corbitt turned to the blond boy and laid a hand on his shoulder. "Listen, Tiger-bro, you be makin' nobody happy by lyin' to 'em. 'Cause one day they wake up an' find they been lied to. An' then they ain't your brothers no more."
       Toby nodded. "Sound like somethin' Miz Griffin would say."
       "Is." Corbitt thought for a moment then shrugged. "Look at it like this, Tobe. Here Mr. Rudd be sellin' gas a couple cents cheaper than your daddy can. S'pose it only a natural business thing they not get along." Corbitt smiled. "Here now, boy, you gimme that bottle 'fore you get yourself field-nigger drunk in the middle of the day. Suck on that finger a little while more, it 'most ready."
       Corbitt recapped the bottle and set it down on the dry mud, then turned to Lamar. "An' I know for a fact Mr. Rudd be a good man. Just look at how he been lettin' me wash all them Greyhound windshields an' never once take a cent of my profits. Fact is, that why I ain't gonna drink no more... gonna go over in a little while an' lay my idea out to the man." Corbitt slipped his arms around the other boys. "An' it 'cause I gots me two fine brothers care enough to polish my crow."
       Lamar and Toby grinned at each other, then Toby nodded happily to Corbitt. "An' it a smart idea too! An' like I tell you the other day, y'all start makin' piss-pots of money an' figure you can afford a helper, I yours, brother."
       Lamar also nodded. "An', maybe now... with your daddy gone... Mr. Rudd be extra good to you for startin' your business."
       A shadow crossed Corbitt's face. "I ain't wantin' him to like my idea just 'cause he feel sorry for me. I want him to like it 'cause it good... or not to like it if it ain't."
       "Well," said Lamar. "Me an' Toby can't see no logical reason for it not workin' out. Fact is, seem like that idea of yours be way overdue 'round here. 'Course, you can't never tell what a white person gonna think. But Mr. Rudd, he always talk straight so's you can understand."
       Toby cocked his head. "An' my daddy don't? Hey, he white!"
       "Huh?" Lamar looked at Toby. "Shit, man, nobody who know your daddy take him for white."
       "Well, that's a relief." Toby turned to Corbitt. "Figure you gots enough capital saved back?"
       "Most of thirty dollars. That oughta be enough for gettin' started."
       "I might could 'vest some. Still gots some birthday money."
       Corbitt smiled. "So how much it cost you two po' niggers for this present?"
       "Shit," said Lamar. "You don't wanna know."
       "I figure as much," said Corbitt. "You two already 'vested all I gonna let you in me. An', best believe I pay y'all back when I start in makin' money." Corbitt pulled his knife from his jeans; an Army knife his father had given him, something like a Boy Scout model but all stainless steel. "Okay, Toby, gimme that finger."
       Toby held out his hand and Corbitt opened the knife blade. "This gonna hurt some, brother. That little bastard be in you deep for easy cuttin' out now."

                                          Chapter Four

       "When you see a big black bird cruisin' the hood with somebody's gold it either a sign, or it ain't. ...'Course, neither way there not a fuck of a lot you can do about it."
       Lactameon leaned against grimy brick in the shade of an alley and watched Beamer's face as the boy worked that out. Finally, Beamer nodded. "Um... sound like somethin' your mom say. Like, to one of her customers. Um, so, it true, man?"
       Lactameon shrugged. "Hard to say, homey. Her customers mostly girls an' ol' ladies. Pay mom a dime to hold their hands, look in their eyes, an' rattle some bones on the table."
       Beamer scratched at his crotch. "Um... so, you believe that, 'Tam? 'Bout signs, what I sayin'."
       Lactameon shrugged again. "Don't matter what I believe. Them customers mostly leave lookin' happy, an' there always plenty of food on that table after my mom put the bones away." Then he frowned, watching Beamer scratch. "Yo! Don't do that, man! Look like you gots the crabs or somethin'! Um... you don't, do ya?"
       "Nah. Balls always itch. Don't yours, 'Tam?"
       "Sometimes." Lactameon smiled. "Toni White come in for another readin' last week. I watch her from inside my room. My balls itched all night."
       "Was that some sorta sign?"
       Lactameon laughed. "Yeah, I ain't gay."
       Beamer's unfinished face turned suddenly serious. "Not funny, man! You gots to love somebody, man. For real! An'... an'... if you do, then you goddamn for sure wear a rubber!"
       "...Well, jeeze, Beamer, chill the fuck out. Shit, I know all that." Lactameon sighed. "'Sides, Toni used to like me, but not that way."
       Strangely, Beamer looked furious. "She she still like you, stupid!" Scowling, he yanked out his ragged nylon wallet, ripped a top-line Trojan from inside, and slapped it into Lactameon's hand. "Fuckin' use this, 'Tam! If you an' her ever... do. "
       Lactameon patted his mammoth belly hanging to his knees. "Never happen, homey." But he slipped the foil packet into his own wallet.
       "Um... you sayin' you still like Toni, man? I mean, even after what happen?"
       "You talkin' 'bout her gettin' pregnant last year? Shit, man, so what? She still the same person. Word say she went to one of them clinics. An' even what she doin' now don't bother me. Everybody gots to eat."
       Beamer studied the fat boy a time, then nodded. "You way past goddamn cool, 'Tam. Most dudes call her a ho."
       Lactameon smiled. "Well, I ain't most dudes, 'case you ain't noticed by now."
       Beamer smiled, too. "No, man, you ain't. Um... so, what them signs you talkin' say to people?"
       "Mom say signs only advise. They don't make you do nothin'. 'Course, if you can't read 'em, then you gots no business lookin' for 'em. Like, magic is cool, but leave it the fuck alone if you don't know your ass from your elbow."
       Beamer nodded seriously. "Say the same 'bout fuckin', man."
       "Yeah, I guess you could." Lactameon squinted upward. "Well, sign or not, it don't look like we gonna score us no gold chain today." He sighed again and mopped sweat from his face. "Swear to god this the hottest summer I ever seen! Maybe it the greenhouse effect."
       "What that?" asked Beamer.
       "Somethin' makin' the whole world get hot."
       "Um... so why not they paint houses some other color?"
       Lactameon grinned. "I like your mind, man."
       "Yeah? Wanna trade?"
       "Shit, Beamer, you on a roll today, man. Maybe it all that milk you been drinkin'. ...So, Beam, how come kids do crack an' shit?"
       Beamer spread his hands. "You not needin' no retard to figure that out. Kids not wanted. Kids not happy. Kids do crack. I... see their eyes, 'Tam. Maybe it somethin special I gots... like your Voodoo magic. Some kids gots somethin' missin' out their eyes. I see that, know I gots me a sucka."
       Lactameon considered. "Well, seem like to me, that little Rasta dude we seen in the park oughta be your best customer then."
       "Nah. You not see his eyes, 'Tam. He gonna die for sure, but not with a pipe in his mouth."
       From a scrapyard across the street came a crash of steel against steel. Both boys turned to watch a rusty old dump truck with bars bolted to its front bumper butt the corpse of a car within reach of a big, battle-scarred crawler crane. The truck farted smoke and scuttled away as the crane's bucket smashed down and snatched up the car in tooth-studded jaws. Black smoke billowing, turntable squealing, the crane swung the car through the air and dropped it in a crusher. Another engine throttled up with a roar and there came a last scream of steel as the crusher lids closed.
       "This place a lot like that for kids," said Lactameon.
       Beamer nodded sadly. "Yeah." He glanced back down the street. "I gotta get back to the park. Um... you gonna come back after lunch? I know you don't like walkin'."
       Lactameon smiled. "I'd walk a mile for you, Beam... or try to, anyway. I bring another book. Maybe we start on that readin' shit."
       Beamer lowered his head a little. "Um... maybe not best when I workin'."
       "Oh. Yeah."
       "Um... maybe you come over tonight, 'Tam? After 'bout eight, so's my dad leave us chill. I... um... need to show you somethin', man. But I can't talk no more 'bout it now. Okay?"
       "Sure, Beam. I be there."
       "Thanks, 'Tam." Tugging his pack straps, Beamer decked his old board and rolled back toward the park. Lactameon could hear the cans of condensed milk clinking among the little rock bottles. Then he slumped against the sooty wall. There was still shade here, so why not make use of it? There were three fucking blocks between him and lunch, which seemed more like three miles. He had a bus pass, but the bus didn't run in this 'hood. For sure he'd survive without lunch, but there was nothing else to do. Besides, he had to snag another book to make it through the long afternoon until dinner. Lactameon used to wonder how kids could go crazy: he didn't wonder anymore. Closing his eyes, he thought of all the Burger King food, KFC buckets, and pizza that goddamn gold chain would have scored. ...Well, Beamer would have gotten half, but that still left enough for a lot of good meals. ...But he'd also have to share that with the gang.
       He took a step away from the wall, leaning way back to balance his belly and steeling himself for the long waddle home, then thought of the crow again... where had it gotten the chain? And, maybe more importantly Lots of crows lived in the country. He tried to picture a clean, open countryside -- the kind where kids played on TV -- lots of fresh green wherever you looked, trees that weren't dying or already dead, and maybe a clear, rocky stream like those beer commercials showed. No: order up a river! You could swim in a river. Lactameon opened his mind like his mom did when she rattled the bones... an open mind was free to pick up all sorts of signals. Yeah, there it was, a friendly green river, cool, and slow enough where you didn't have to swim your ass off. Something to do a cannonball from...
       Another crash came from the scrapyard as the old truck shoved another car-corpse toward its last ride like a six-wheeled Grim Reaper. The green river image faded from Lactameon's mind. Too bad kids couldn't be recycled. The sun flared wickedly bright as it cleared the roofline above. Slowly the hot light came creeping down the wall, sucking up Lactameon's shade. Sighing once more, he yanked at his jeans and turned for the street. Something caught his eye, glinting in the dusty air over the scrapyard. Shit! There was the crow with a gleam of gold still in its beak! Was the stupid bird going to drop that chain in the crusher?
       Behind him, voices came from the alley's opposite end. A Dumpster lid slammed, but Lactameon only kept watching the crow.