Sheppard drove his family through the thick and dead air of the south, through the highway snaking by towns that used to consider themselves nowhere. That air, brutal in heat but nonetheless a current, stirred in their minivan and whipped at Hicks when he put his window down, which he did when--not often, this--he was too numb to the hiss of the internal air to let it continue, too numb to the burden of tending it as well, and numb, though he loved them ferociously, to his family's restless noise, which circled around him as vultures do who intend to torture their prey with the mere threat of their presence, and which in turn drowned in its volume--this sound being the two boys bashing their action figures together, and Gran-Momma Steward uttering hushabies one after the other, and Rosie Baby being silent--which drowned out, once again, the pop radio stations for which he had to search anew with each infelicitous shift in airwaves, tenderly rotating the dial until a sexy electronic croon filtered in. They were moving to the south--not moving, but subjected to the scrutiny of moving, for of course moving, to the ones who move, means the will to move, which these Sheppards, for reason mainly of the effort it invokes, had not. They were moving from Orlando to Alabama. (Others will object that Orlando is already the south--nearly as south as the latter lets itself get.) Sheppard's law firm demanded his transfer to Alabama, remanded him and therefore the Sheppards in general to its deep and green luster, after the loss of a case which, however potent his involvement, was not after all his fault. Nissan was too suit-strong, too busy internally, to sue with success, however stalwart Sheppard had been--which indeed, in disposition, Sheppard had been, to the salvation of no one, including Sheppard himself.
The summer was at war with the earth, dry and defeated, and to walk around outside was to feel the pressure of an impending explosion, a landmine approaching--to be, as a southerner, held under the regime of heat. The Sheppards did their best to ignore this late-August conflict--they sang as one, played games that faded with the day--this heat which shimmered not unlike, of course, a wave, taut and cruel in how it disgusted those who lived it with even themselves, with how they smelled and how it made them afraid of their own bodies, how it made the outside, the sun and its arsenal, a medium between this inside and that one, places to hide: refuge, respite, rest. And the rest stops, too--and the motels, too kitschy to be sketchy, too banal to be funny--were stricken with liquidy heat. This summer did not suck at the south, did not drain it, but swallowed it and then, the sun agape and impatient as always, longed for more.
Sheppard stood outside of the rest stop and looked at his children, sweat beginning to tickle his shoulders from a mere moment in the heat. His t-shirt would stick to his dampening skin if he stood for a minute or more, and so he pulled at its middle, and used it to fan at his chest, the dense hair now vaguely wet like a sponge which mops up water but is itself wet . His two boys were playing with sticks over by the creek which ran through a small trench abutting the parking lot, small boscages there kicked about by a swift but generous wind. He mopped at his forehead, at his thin and thinning hairline, with the back of his hand and sighed, knowing that he had to gather his boys, and soon; Saturday was halfway done, and Sheppard was due in the office on Monday morning, which was a different, more impersonal kind of moving--a change, he expected, in neither content nor workaday form.
"Boys," he said, then clicking his tongue at them. The heat stuck around everyone like an aura. Truckers were smoking near him, laughing at any syllable-- grunt, suggestion of a sound--struck up between them. One snorted, and that was enough to get them laughing, and then they coughed up, all at once, a surround of smoke like a tiny see-through mist, seeming to shield the heat, making it a rumor to them, for they seemed impervious to it, as if behind this scrim it did not exist.
"Boys, quit," he said, and added, "Boys, there's liable to be snakes."
The creek didn't lap but was folded, almost pleated in surface, the skirt of the earth; smooth, tiny spikes were what passed for ripples; its cold was not a contrast to the day but a contradiction. No fish lived. The boys didn't splash but smacked at the water, and one of them, Abe, would cup this frigid water with a hand and apply it to his face, to the nascent acne, the fringes and beginnings of hair, its cracking and cracked texture. Indeed he was young for his age, teenaged as he was, but the water was such a danger to the day--a defense against the depth of its heat--that anyone with skin and a sensibility would have done the same.
"Boys," Sheppard said, greedily smoothing his fat, Jewy hair.
The younger boy, Nigel, did the same as Abe, made a scoop of his hand and sunk it in the water, and then applied it, without knowing why, to his face.