The Trail, scene eleven
The truck stop was massive. There were rows of semi trailers angled and idling, and the smell of burned diesel hung over the entire lot, stinging the nostrils of Cat and Tom. The sense of civilization and connectedness to other humans that Tom felt he’d been missing was still sorely absent even among people. Everyone at the truck stop was just as transient as he and Cat were, even though they were in trucks and not on foot. The air inside the store was cool and felt oddly sterile. Cat walked back to the restroom and Tom wandered the aisles until he found a spot where he was unobserved. He checked both ways and then unbuckled his belt and unzipped a tiny zipper on the inside and slipped a twenty dollar bill out and stuck it into his pocket before closing the zipper and buckling his belt back on. He walked the aisles and carefully gauged what he was going to purchase. He grabbed four packs of ramen, four cans of tuna, a small box of instant rice, a tiny bottle of vegetable oil, a miniature box of instant oatmeal, a can of pork and beans, a toothbrush, a travel size toothpaste, and a small jar of instant coffee. He thought of getting more food, but there would be no space to carry it in the pack.
He went up and stacked everything on the counter. A man about 45 years old with a bushy mustache and wearing wire rimmed, thick coke bottle glasses rang him up without looking up. “$16.30…” Tom thought for a moment. “Gimme two hard packs of Marlboro reds too please.” The guy turned without acknowledging what Tom had asked for and grabbed the cigarettes and slid them across the counter before ringing them up. “$20.40…” Tom paid the man with the twenty, and then dug coins from his pocket to complete the transaction. He took his goods and wandered to the back of the store where he found a little trucker lounge. He sat in a big cream colored naugahyde chair and waited for Cat. A bank of payphones lined the wall to his left and he stared at them. He thought about back home, he thought about the job he’d left, he thought about the pile of ashes that had been his home, and his heart gave a jump. He thought of his friends, and a lifetime of connections, and his high school, and his church, and his parents…of everything that was now suddenly a shadow of memory, and he stared at the phone even harder for a minute, and then he stood and walked back into the store to find Cat.
They walked back across the pavement together, Tom carrying two bags, and Cat also carrying two bags, plus two large paper cups of soda. As they approached the far edge of the lot, they both eyed a stunning, silky black corvette parked at an angle and reflecting the sun into their eyes. They walked within ten feet of it and stopped to admire it. Cat walked slowly down the length of it, “This is a brand new 1990 ZR-1. It’s a beauty, but if I had the money for this car I’d rather have a 71…or 72, I love the curves of those a lot more than these boxy new ones.” They stood and stared for a moment longer, and both of them wondered about a different trajectory that might have led them to own a brand new Corvette, then they climbed the berm and walked back to their camp.
They packed the food away like puzzle pieces into their packs, and when Tom came to the cigarettes, he turned and lobbed them onto Cat’s pack. “A present for you.” Cat picked them up and looked at them, “Damn, look who’s flush with cash…” Tom looked back at him quietly for a second, “Believe me, I’m nowhere near flush with cash.” Cat handed one of the sodas over to him, “I just spent my last $17.00, I think I got you beat on not being flush. Anyway, there’s my present to you.” Tom raised the soda to Cat. “Thank you, I really do appreciate it.” He raised the straw to his mouth and was about to take a sip. “No, no, no, take a look inside.” Tom lowered the drink and popped the lid off. There were two Slim Jims and two chocolate bars inside the soda. He fished them out and dried them on his pant leg. “Did you steal these then?” Cat looked at him half with amusement, and half with incredulity, “No, I just like putting shit I’ve purchased into soda…of course I stole them…”
They found a half moon shaped high bank that the stream had cut out years before, and Cat built a low smoke Indian fireplace into it. They hung a pot of water to boil and then relaxed while they ate their Slim Jims and chocolate. “This might be the finest piece of meat I’ve ever eaten.” Tom chuckled as he said it. Cat smiled and swallowed a mouthful, “You know, I hate beets, I’ve always hated them. One time me and this crazy bastard I was traveling with decided we were gonna go from Vegas down to Bullhead City. We didn’t have shit for money, and almost no food, but we figured it wasn’t that far, so we could pick up some odd jobs when we got there.” Cat dropped the wrapper of the Slim Jim into the fire and it melted and gyrated like it was alive until it collapsed down into a little black spot with a white flame feeding from it. “Well…we caught a ride out of town for about 10 miles in the back of a welders truck. Had to sit on boxes of sticks and acetylene tanks. The guy let us out and turned off that dirt road, and when the sound of that rattling bastard got far enough away where we couldn’t hear it, there was dead fucking silence. I mean quiet. I don’t get rattled very easily, but it was so quiet I could hear his nose whistling as we walked along. The first night we split a box of animal crackers. We sat there and listened into that black son of a bitch for any sign of a vehicle, and there was nothing. The second night we didn’t eat anything. It was about that time when that crazy bastard started talking about skin walkers and this indian spook called, Wendigo. Had me about half creeped out, plus I was starving, and I had an uneasy feeling I can’t even explain. Almost like that movie, “The Hills have Eyes” like something was watching us. There were no buildings, no traffic…and on that third day we were out of water. He just kept rambling on about all these desert ghosts and demons and shit, until finally I told him I’d had enough, and I didn’t say it nice.” Cat unfolded a chocolate bar, took it from its wrapper and balanced it on his knee, then he dropped the wrapper into the fire. He broke a corner off the bar and put it into his mouth, his white teeth working as he melted it with his tongue. “That fourth night I was so hungry and so thirsty I was starting to lose it. I could see a little finger ridge that ran right into the road. From the top we could see miles in both directions and we'd have been able to flag a car down. We climbed it in the late afternoon and just laid on our bed rolls. We both fell asleep, and when I woke up it was dark, and so cool I was shivering. I sat up and looked out across this big flat that ran to the south. To the east and butted up against the ridge we sat on about a mile away I could see one of those really white yard lights. I'd looked during the day and just missed it I guess. I could see some sort of a roof reflecting that yard light, so I thought maybe it was a loafing shed or something. I figured it might have water, so I decided it was worth the gamble to walk to it. I went to wake that nut case up and had a hell of a time getting him up. He told me he didn’t feel like he could make it that far. He just turned over and laid back down. I grabbed his water jug and mine and headed toward that light. Seemed like it took forever, every step was a chore because I was totally dehydrated and my muscles felt like they were full of sand.” Cat broke off another piece of chocolate and stuck it into his mouth, then he looked at the melted chocolate on his index finger and thumb for a second before reaching down and wiping his fingers on the inside of his pants cuff. “When I got there I could see it was one of those little half trailers, like a mobile home but smaller. Weeds were grown up everywhere and there was no sign of people at all. Of course, it was locked. I’m not really the criminal type, but this was literally life and death. I found a big rock and broke the handle off that door and kicked it open. It reeked of something in there, but I didn’t care. I tried the water faucet, and by God, it came on. I about collapsed. I searched around for a light and found one above the stove. That water was the color of this chocolate” he pointed at the bar. “I have never been more torn in my life, I wanted that water so bad…so bad…” Tom could hear the torture of the moment in Cat’s voice. He could see his eyes playing that moment again, like a movie. “I sat there running that water for a solid ten minutes. Little by little it started to clear. Finally I chanced it and took a few sips. I knew not to go crazy because a lot of water all at once to a man who hasn’t had any in a long time can be dangerous, so I filled our jugs and searched that trailer. I found a bottle of Tabasco sauce and some salt packets, and on the top shelf of the pantry in the far corner were two cans of pickled beets. I grabbed them and headed back with my haul. When I got there he was still sleeping. I opened a can of the beets and ate a couple and sipped the water. I nudged that nut case, and he didn’t budge.” Cat paused for a long time. He bent over and grabbed a little straw of dead willow and broke it up and dropped it into the fire. “You know, somehow I instantly knew . But I was so goddamn thirsty…” Cat handed the rest of his chocolate to Tom, and he took it without realizing he even had. “I sat there in that big dark night and I ate beets that I’d once hated and I drank bitter water…and I was sorry there was no one to call…and I was sorry I didn’t know his name.”