The Walking Man could see a storm building up ahead, and he shivered. The leaves were the red, gold and russet of autumn, and the night's chill never quite left the day. If he got wet tonight, he was like not to dry for the next week.
The town he was passing through right now was Hicksville, and didn't have a motel, even if he could have afforded one, there was no railroad to provide the shelter of a station, no bus depot, and no barns, as far he could see.
Over to the left though, there was a house, and in its yard was a broken-down station wagon on blocks. Two kids, boys of somewhere between five and eight, were playing at races in it. He wondered…
He didn't like asking for favours, but otherwise he knew his walk could end in the hospital.
He walked up to the door, and the kids clambered out of the car, looking at him curiously. They were dressed cheap, their clothes worn and mended, but they, and the clothes, were clean. The Walking Man knocked.
The woman who came to the door was thin, but the way her clothes hung loose on her body indicated she hadn't always been like that, and her face was tired, as she dried her hands on a dish towel. She was probably no more than thirty, but she stood like someone older.
"Can I help you?" she asked, and her voice was quiet, and gentle.
"I'm travelling, mam," he said, "and it's coming on to rain. I was wondering if I could put out my bedroll in your station wagon for the night, just to keep off the wet. I'll be gone in the morning."
She looked confused for a moment.
"Travelling? But surely you have a car then?" She looked up and down the road, as if searching for it.
"He's walking, momma," one of the boys said.
"Oh." She nodded then stood looking at him for a long, long time, her face considering.
In his mind, he inventoried what she would see. A man, well into middle age, his face lined, and his hair mostly gone to gray, clothes shabby, and none too clean, a kitbag slung over his shoulder. Nothing to inspire her confidence or trust.
"If it's too much trouble…"
"Oh, no, no!" the woman shook her head vigorously, "I was just thinking. I have a box room, only tiny, but it has a soft bed, and it's warm. You can sleep there. Come on in."
She stood to one side, and gestured him into the house.
"I couldn't impose," he said, shaking his head.
"Please," she sounded genuine, "come in."
He crossed the threshold diffidently. The house was like the kids clothes - nothing was new, but it was well-cared for and loved. From the kitchen, the smell of cooking drifted, and saliva filled his mouth. He swallowed it, hastily, thinking of the dry bread he had in his bag. He would eat that later, it would kill his hunger. She showed him through the house to the room she spoke of. It was cluttered with boxes, and as small as she had said, but much more comfortable than any place he had been in recent weeks. He dropped his bag on the bed, and turned to thank her.
"Would you like to take a bath?" she asked. "I can run your clothes through the wash," she raised a hand to quiet the instinctive protest that he began to utter, "it's no trouble, I have to wash the boys stuff for the morning anyway, and there's room for more in the load. You'll find pyjamas and a gown in the bathroom cupboard. They'll be big for you, but you can tie them tight."
His eyes sought out a photo on the dresser. Behind the woman and two babies, a tall, dark man, laughing.
"Thank you mam. If you're sure your husband won't mind, I'd be grateful. Will he be home soon?"
A shadow passed briefly across her face. She said nothing but shook her head. Her man was dead then, or gone, he thought, or maybe just 'gone for now'.
She gestured to the older boy. "Robbie will show you to the bathroom," she said, "give your clothes to him."
The Walking Man lay in the hot water, feeling the aches he hadn't really noticed he had soaking out of his body with the dirt. He washed his feet, noticing how hard and leathery the soles had become, thinking back to how they used to blister, back in the beginning. He hadn't had a blister in months now.
As he was drying himself, he heard a tap on the door.
"Momma says that dinner will be on the table in five minutes, mister."
The woman was weighing him down with obligation, he thought, as he seated himself, dressed for bed like the kids, at a table laid for four. To refuse her generosity would be churlish, though, and the food smelled good, and tasted better even than it smelled. There was a rich stew, more vegetables than meat, and hunks of warm bread, fresh from the oven, to mop up the gravy. The kids ate with relish, not stopping to talk, and the woman, too, ate quietly, but slower. The Walking Man felt a warmth in his belly and a comfort that was strange to him.
The woman took his plate away, and replaced it with another, containing a golden-crusted slice of apple pie. It was too much. He felt tears start to his eyes as the sweetness of the fruit filled his mouth, and he blinked them back hard.
"You like the pie mister?" the smaller boy piped. "Me an' Robbie picked up the apples last night, 'cos it's our favourite."
He nodded, then forced himself to speak "Yes, it's very good. You did a good job son." He sounded stilted, he knew, but even so, the kid beamed.
After the meal was finished, the woman hustled the boys to their beds, returning to wash dishes and make coffee. As she handed him a steaming cup she asked, "Come far?"
"A fair ways." He nodded and sipped at the hot, wonderfully bitter brew.
"You must be tired." She seemed nervous, and he took that as a hint. Gulping the rest of the coffee down, he nodded.
"Yes. I'll take myself to bed now, mam. And thank you for your kindness."
He heard the door creak, about an hour later, as he lay in the narrow bed, staring into the darkness. He could make out her shape in the doorway, silhouetted against the light in the hallway.
"I've brought your clothes." She bent forwards, holding out arms on which rested pressed, folded fabric.
He sat up, and reached his hands out to take them from her. His hands brushed the skin of hers, roughened with housework, and a jolt of sudden arousal went through him. He heard her catch her breath.
"You say you're moving on in the morning?" Her voice was quiet, and a little husky.
She let go of the clothes, and straightened, moving towards the door, but she didn't pass through. Instead, she closed it, shutting out the light and, in the darkness, she moved back to the bed, sitting on the edge.
"Please?" was all she said.
He didn't know if he was giving or receiving as she moved on him like a wave on the beach, silent and inexorable - whether he was lessening his obligation to her, or accruing a debt he could never hope to pay - it didn't matter either way. Their bodies were joined in desperation and desire, and, when it was over, she lay for a while along him with her head resting on his chest, breathing deeply, and his arms held her thinness against him.
She rose, at last, awkward in the cramped space.
"We get up early," she said, "I'll send one of the boys to wake you."
"No need, I'll be up." His voice was gruff.
The door creaked again, as she slipped through it, and moments after it closed dreamless sleep took him.
He rose with the sun, dressed and made the bed, slinging his bag over the shoulder, to find her already in the kitchen, putting bread into the oven. The children, rubbing sleep from their eyes were sat at the table, drinking glasses of milk.
At the bench, the woman wrapped half a loaf of bread, some cheese, and the remains of the pie into a parcel.
"To keep you going," she said, holding it out to him.
He shook his head, even as he took the food from her, and stowed it in his bag.
"Would you like coffee?" her voice begged him to refuse.
"No, mam, thank you. I'd best get moving." He took his cue, as required.
"I'll show you out."
"Bye mister," the boys chorused from the table, and he raised a hand in silent farewell.
She opened the door for him, and stood to one side. He looked down at her, worn, weary, and warm.
"I can't thank you en…" he began. She raised a finger to his lips, touching them briefly.
"No need for thanks. I'm glad to help another soul in need. I hope you get where you are going, or find what you are looking for."
He bowed his head, and left. As he reached the street, the Walking Man turned back to look at the house, and catch a last glimpse of her, but the door was closed.
He looked into the sunrise, and started to walk again.
turn back keep walking