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  • Writer's pictureTodd Stevens

The Trail, scene eighteen

Updated: May 19

Jerry let them shower early in the morning before they left for Billings. They packed all their things neatly away, and were surprised when they came out of the barn to see a canary yellow 1975 Chevy Nova parked and ready for the trip. They stood uneasily, shifting from foot to foot, with their packs shouldered as they waited for Jerry. Cat was smoking a cigarette he’d rolled from old tobacco, all the tailor made cigarettes had been smoked. They were quiet, and felt a strange sense of leaving home, even though they’d only been on the ranch for less than two weeks. Franklin lifted his head from where he’d been splayed out at the edge of the big lot. He stared at them for a few seconds before biting rapidly at a fly that kept trying to get into the corner of his eye. Finally he got up and walked over. He sat and looked up at them, and Tom thought it looked like he was saying goodbye. They both gave the old dog a scratch and a pet, and when the petting stopped he collapsed slowly onto his side creating a little dust cloud, and stretched his neck way out and closed his eyes. Cat dropped the last of his cigarette into the dirt and ground it into the dust with his toe. “Every time I’m at a place for this long, when I leave it feels like I’m leaving something behind, a little piece of me or something, an essence maybe. And then after I’ve moved on, I realize I’ve taken some of the essence of that place with me. Maybe that’s part of the reason I usually move on so quickly…no time to get attached. It isn’t really sadness, I don’t know how to put it into words. Maybe Greek, or Latin or some other language has a word for this feeling, but English doesn’t.” A loud exchange of words came from the house, and a second later Jerry came out, the screen banging shut behind him. He was wearing a clean pair of jeans, a cream colored, long sleeve western shirt with pearl snaps, a pair of new black suspenders, and a crisp tan Stetson hat. He walked fast towards them, and it made his waddling walk even more noticeable. “Can’t ever leave the fucking house without a fight from that goddamn woman. She can’t just let me go to town. Today I was wearing this hat,” he flicked it with his middle finger and it made a dull thump, “and according to her goddamn reasoning, this is my get drunk and get in trouble hat. Well, I got news for her, if I wanna get drunk it ain’t got a fucking thing to do with this here hat. Now let’s get the hell out of here.” They threw their packs in the back seat and got in.

They drove over gray country roads that split huge green pastures. Jerry drove fast, much faster than Cat or Tom were comfortable with. A big billowing cloud of gray dust, like spent fuel from a rocket, followed them. Jerry leaned way forward, hunched over the steering wheel, Tom was in the passenger seat, and Cat sat in the middle of the back seat, a pack on each side of him. Jerry blinked rapidly, as if by doing so he was calming his anger. His hands worked and twisted at the wheel, like he was trying to rotate it. “Every time I head to town she’s gotta put her two cents in, can’t just shut her trap. Gets me going, and then I really do want to get drunk.” Tom didn’t hear much of what he said, he was too busy envisioning the car careening off the road nose first into a square ditch bank. He pictured his bloody, unconscious face, staring blankly into the sky from where it had landed after being thrown from the car. Jerry navigated a corner and hit a patch of washboard. The car vibrated, and they could feel it drifting sideways towards the ditch. Jerry steered into the drift and hammered the gas as if that sort of problem happened every time he drove. “Well, I might prove her right…I might just prove the bitch right. If I’m gonna get called out on some goddamn thing I didn’t do, might as well just go ahead and do it. Already took the punishment, might as well enjoy the sin.” Tom glanced at Cat from his peripheral vision. He was fishing down in the cracks of the seat for seat belts. Tom felt around for his own seat belt and found one half, but not the other. He held the useless half tightly, like a security blanket. The road straightened, and huge cottonwoods lined both sides of the road like great living columns. The green shade the cottonwoods cast had a sedative effect on Jerry. His hands stopped twisting, his blinking slowed, and he leaned back from the wheel. He took his can of copenhagen from his shirt pocket, held the steering wheel with his knees, and took a big dip. Then he closed it with one hand and put it away before rolling the window down and turning his head to spit rogue pieces of tobacco out several times. After he rolled the window back up he said, “She has the uncanny ability to set me the fuck off like no other person ever has…I don’t know why I still let it bother me after almost 50 years, but damned if she doesn’t know how to get me a-going.” They passed out from under the cottonwoods and then turned southeast onto a paved road that felt ultra smooth after the pounding and vibration the dirt road caused. After a mile or so they passed under a bridge, then turned left onto an onramp, and in a few seconds were going full speed towards Billings.

Jerry drove through a series of turns in a beat up, very aged part of town. The houses were large, but older, and most of them were badly in need of paint, shingle, and gutter repair. The sidewalks were raised and cracked from the massive root systems of oaks. The lawns were overgrown, brown, and mostly unmowed. When he finally exited the neighborhood, he turned and drove across a main road that looked like it had recently been repaved and painted. The surface was very black, and the white and yellow lines were crisp and easy to see. Once across the road he pulled into the parking lot of a building with a large mirrored glass front, and was otherwise sided with dark chocolate toned perpendicular wood siding. Jerry opened the door and put the good cowboy boots, all shined up for town, onto the ground, and the heels made a hollow, faintly drum sound. He grabbed the door frame and groaned painfully as he hoisted himself out after two aborted attempts. “Be back in a second fellas.” He used his left pointer finger to remove the wad of copenhagen, then flung it to the pavement, a shiny, tar colored ball. He wiped his fingers quickly on his hip and walked into the building. Tom turned and looked at Cat. They both shook their heads, each knowing what the other was thinking. “I didn’t think we were going to make it to the highway, let alone Billings. I thought on that one corner he took about 80 miles an hour that we were goners. I just closed my eyes and prayed for my soul,” said Cat. There was something comical about the look on Cat’s face, his eyes wide, brows arched, and his normally dark face a shade lighter than normal. He was almost always composed, almost always ready with a quick approach to anything that came up, so to see the relief on his face struck Tom as funny. He started laughing, and at first there was a tiny spark of anger in Cat’s eyes, but when he realized that he wasn’t being laughed at, but rather with, it melted away and he joined in. They got out of the car and leaned side by side against the trunk. It was still early, but the sun was already intense. “Glad we ain’t picking them rocks today,” said Cat. He shaded his eyes against the sun and looked east. “There isn’t a cloud in sight, be a real bitch again today if we’d have stayed on.” Tom shaded his eyes with both hands and looked towards the east, the sky was a very pale blue, almost white, and the sun was also very pale. “Yeah, it’s gonna be a hot son of a gun today,” he said.

Jerry walked across the pavement looking off center, like someone walking on a pair of stilts when one is three inches shorter than the other. He carried two white envelopes. When he got close he handed one to each man. “I figured you guys had about a hundred hours, and I pay $5.00 an hour, so there’s $500.00 apiece in there, might count it real quick, make sure you aren’t taking it in the shorts.” They shook their heads that they didn’t need to count the money, and glanced at one another. “Jerry, at the very most we had about 85 hours, I think maybe you wrote the hours down wrong or something,” said Tom. Jerry was in the process of depositing another big chew in his lip. When he finished, he spat a couple times. “Do you really think I don’t know how to count or add?” He leaned forward and looked sharp, hawklike into Tom’s eyes, his own eyes sparking like he had a secret that only he knew. His body eased, relaxed, and he seemed taller. “Now, if we’re done arguing about your pay…you fellas need a ride somewhere?” Cat and Tom looked at each other and shrugged, “We don’t have anywhere we need to be. This is as good a place as any.” Jerry pushed his cowboy hat back on his head, exposing a red imprint across his forehead where the hat band had pressed his flesh. “Well…I guess that about does her then. We’re all square, I don’t owe you, and you don’t owe me.” A strange silence fell for a few seconds, and then Jerry stuck his big, pink, spotted hand out. Tom realized that was the first time he’d shaken his hand. It was massive, powerful, and as hard as a stone, a hand that had done two lifetimes of hard labor. “Been a pleasure having you fellas.” he opened the car door and eased into the seat, then swung his legs in with the aid of his hands lifting them. “You fellas get back this way…you have a job waiting.” He squinted at the sun for a moment then said, “Well, gotta get a-movin’.” He pulled out of the parking lot, and raised a hand out the window, and they raised one back.

They walked north over a sidewalk that was black from age, shattered in places, and missing altogether in others. No words passed between them for a couple of blocks. They were both thinking about the man that had dropped them off. Tom spoke first. “Well, that entire experience went one hell of a lot different than I thought it would. I kind of grew attached to that old codger.” Cat shook his head in amazement. “I’ve been doing this a long time, I haven’t met anyone like Jerry. Shit, after the start we got off to, I sure as hell wasn’t expecting to be treated like that.” Cat took the envelope out of his pocket and opened it. It was filled with ten and twenty dollar bills. “I have never been paid extra in my life, never. “I’ve been screwed more than a few times, but never over paid.”

They walked for a half hour, stopping at a grubby, handbill covered convenience store where they bought cold sodas, and Cat bought a carton of cigarettes. Two blocks to the north was a large, run down park. There was a huge round cement pad on one side, and spaced evenly around the pad, facing the center, were huge, brightly painted cement frogs. There was a yellow frog, an orange one, a robin’s egg blue one, and many more. Each frog spit a spray of water toward the middle, and right in the center of the pad was a thirty foot fountain. Children, most of them under 12 years old, ran through the water screaming, yelling, calling to friends, and having a great time. There was a covered shelter off the west end, with a dozen green wooden picnic tables under it. They crossed the patchy grass and sat across from one another at the far end, away from the kids and the water, but turned so they could watch. The icy soda was refreshing in the already scorching morning. Little clutches of women sat here and there, two or three together. Some were holding books, but not reading them, they were too engaged in watching their kids and talking to friends. The roof of the little shelter was covered with so much graffiti that it had become an interesting piece of abstract art. Right where Tom sat, someone had used something sharp to scratch a circle in the thick, shiny, green paint of the picnic table, right down to the wood. Then inside the circle they had used the sharp object to write in crude letters, Tanna Fulbright is a slut. Tom traced his fingers over the letters absentmindedly over and over. Cat took out his walking stick and started carving on it. “Thinking about getting a drink tonight…” he said. Tom looked over at him quickly, then turned back to the cement pad. A kid no more than a year old was walking around in the water with a baggy diaper sagging way down between its legs. When the baby turned so Tom could see its face, he could see that it held a bottle between its teeth, and when it walked, the bottle banged against its protruding belly. “A drink huh? When you turned that beer down at Jerry’s place, I figured you might not be a drinker.” Cat knocked the stick gently against the ground the way pool players will do with their cues. “Couple reasons for that. First off, I don’t like beer, second, if I’d have drank that beer, I’d have headed for town. One beer is like eating one salted peanut, what’s the point? If I’m just gonna drink one, might as well have a can of coke.” He lifted the soda to emphasize his point. Tom looked at him carefully, watched him as he worked on the stick with his knife. Something about the way he described drinking made Tom uneasy. He did his best to put the unease aside. Cat laid the stick on top of his bag and opened a fresh pack of cigarettes, slid one out and tapped it filter side down on the table to pack it. He struck a match, its flame bright yellow in the gloom of the shelter, and lit the cigarette. “Thinking about renting a room. Take a nice long shower, watch a little TV, maybe hit the pool. I know that’s an outlay of our funds, so it isn’t a must do…what do you think?” Tom took a big drink of soda, “Yeah…hell yeah, I’m all for it. Be nice to sleep in a bed and not have to hurry through a shower.” Cat picked up the stick and started carving again. “If we get cleaned up, we can go sit in some cold dark little bar and have a few…it’s been awhile.” Tom watched the kid with the sagging diaper throw the bottle at a bright pink frog. Watched without seeing, the unease wouldn’t go away.

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