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  • Writer's pictureTodd Stevens

The Trail, scene fifteen

When they turned, all they saw was the blue black of a rifle barrel, there was much more to see, but that’s all that mattered. The gun wasn’t pointed at them. It hung from the man’s side in one hand, the barrel pointing at an angle into the earth. Cat spoke first, “We walked up here looking for work sir, nothing more, the dog looked friendly and so Tom bent to pet it, and damned if he didn’t try to take us, this truck was the closest thing to get up on, so we jumped in, I swear to God that’s all this is.” There was hesitation before the man spoke, and in that moment they could feel the slightest sense that the man believed them. He had a huge protruding belly, and the bottom of his fleshy stomach hung from the bottom of a plain white t-shirt. He wore red suspenders that held up a pair of wranglers, faded white and threadbare. Suddenly he whistled shrilly, and called loudly, “Franklin.” That’s all the dog needed to hear, he wobbled back to the man, turned, and sat by his side. “You say you’re looking for work eh? Well, hop on out of the truck, Franklin is a noisy bastard, but he won’t hurt ya…unless I tell him to.” Slowly they stepped out of the truck, watching the dog sharply, neither of them convinced the man was telling the truth about the dog not attacking them again. “Where did you leave your vehicle?” the man asked. Cat spoke again. “We’re on foot sir, we’re just passing through.” The man still hadn’t relented with the threat of the rifle. He lifted his chin high and forward, like a bulldog, and his eyes turned to slits. “Come on over here so I can get a look at ya.” They walked forward cautiously, and the dog, who had been sitting, stood, causing them to pause. “Franklin ain’t gonna do jack shit unless I tell him to. Then he looked down at the dog, “Franklin, go lay down.” The dog turned and jogged over to a pickup shell that was placed on a couple of rickety, paint splattered saw horses. Underneath the shell was an old twin mattress laying right on the ground. Franklin slumped into a curled position and put both his paws together in front of him, then laid his chin on top of them. The man watched the dog go through his laying down ritual, and didn’t speak until the dog was settled. “You say you’re just passing through? What do you mean, you’re just passing through?” A very slight evening breeze carried the man’s breath to them, and they could smell beer and Copenhagen. “We’re traveling on foot, seeing the country…and, well, we’re running a little short. We’ve asked every place along the road for miles if there’s any kind of work, but no one has anything” said Tom. The man looked back and forth between the two of them, like he was at a horse sale checking them for flaws. The bulldog look melted away, and he raised his eyebrows. With the non-gun hand he scratched his red cheek that was covered with short, white, sugar looking stubble. “Might be able to find a couple things if you guys will give me an honest day’s work or two…” They were elated, “That would be great, sir.” said Cat. The man smiled, his teeth yellow like old piano keys, his gums receded and dark at the roots. “Name’s Jerry, sir, was my dad’s name.” Even though his attitude had relented, the gun stayed at the ready. “You guys had anything to eat?” They shook their heads no. Jerry pointed the rifle at a heavy red picnic table, “Have a seat.” They walked through what had been a yard at one time, but was now just a series of dusty paths through tall yellow grass. They sat across from each other at the table, under two massive weeping willow trees. Franklin watched them warily from his spot under the shell. The evening was falling fast, and underneath the trees it was even darker. They caught the odor of cooked food drifting from the house, and it smelled delicious, even though they couldn’t pin down exactly what kind of food it was. Suddenly a light came on from one of the willows. They could see a black extension cord leading from inside the house that snaked up the tree to a bare aluminum bowl shade with a bright light bulb in the middle. They looked at each other across the table, and though nothing was said, they were beginning to understand one another’s thought patterns, and they were both thinking, We got lucky here tonight, hat was close to going really, really bad…

Jerry was only gone a few minutes. He came back out with two paper plates of food and sat them on the table, but not near Cat and Tom. Immediately they noticed that he’d ditched the rifle, but had a pistol in a black nylon holster strapped onto his belt. “All I had left was breasts, hate the breasts. The older I get the harder it is for me to swallow anything dry. Anyway, eat up. You fellas can’t stay in the house, but the barn or anywhere else is fine. I’ll be up and line you out on a few things in the morning.” He started back toward the house, then paused and turned half way back. “We turn in early, so..well, just don’t be loud.” He stood, hands on hips, and looked at the thin rim of orange light that remained on the dark western horizon for a few seconds, then resumed his walk back to the house. After he climbed the porch he whistled a short burst to Franklin and the dog got up and trotted across the yard and into the house.

They devoured the food like they hadn’t eaten in a week, quiet, focused, and grateful for every bite. Jerry had served them roasted chicken and mashed potatoes smothered in white gravy, buttered green beans, and Pillsbury biscuits. It was heaven. After they finished dinner they threw the paper plates into a big green dumpster and put the silverware on the porch. The light breeze that whispered from the west, passed over irrigated fields and picked up cool moisture and moved it past them like a swamp cooler in waves varying from pleasantly cool to almost too cold. They walked across the dirt yard and worked through the maze of vehicles, and then behind the long loafing shed. They stopped at the big, red, shiny new barn. There was a white door on the southeast corner, and it was illuminated by a fluorescent yard light a few feet above it. A row of blue 55 gallon drums lined the side of the barn, and Cat hopped up on one and lit a cigarette. “Man, I thought that dog was gonna take a chunk out of my ass, I don’t think his teeth missed me an inch, and then I turn around and see that guy…Jerry, with a gun. I about shit myself. Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard place” said Cat. Tom hopped up on the barrel next to Cat. “When we were down by the river today, you said, ‘what I wouldn’t give for a hot meal’ funny enough, you almost gave an ass cheek.” Cat laughed, “That I did…that I did.”

They sat on the barrels as Cat smoked, and they listened to the electric buzzing of the light above them. The shadows of moths passed around and around on the ground as the insects flew around the light. A lone cricket squeaked its song from somewhere to their left, and they could hear something like rice paper rattle dryly out in the dark when the breeze blew. The barn was pitch black when they went in, and though they found a light switch, they decided not to use it just in case its light might wake Jerry. Instead Tom dug out his flashlight that cast a beam no brighter than a farmer match would throw because the batteries were nearly dead. The barn was relatively empty except for a bench on one side that had a jumble of tools and wire and boxes scattered on it, and a pair of fat cat motorcycles parked side by side. In the back of the barn was a stack of hay bales, ten deep and fifteen wide, and it looked like a great beast had taken a crescent shaped bite right out of the middle. They both looked at the hay for a few seconds, and Tom asked the obvious, “I wonder why they haven’t used the hay on the edges?” The question struck first Cat, and then Tom, as hilarious because it was such a strikingly obvious thing to say. They laughed as they had in the horse trailer on the way to Montana. After they settled down they scooted a few bales together to form mattresses, and made their beds on top. “Welcome to hick hotel” said Cat, “where hay has many purposes.”

It took them a few minutes of adjusting and rolling around in the dark to find comfort. When they finally did, everything in the barn became more noticeable. The sharp smell of hay and diesel fuel, the pinging of cooling, settling metal, a moth bumped irregularly along the corrugated metal of the wall panels, the dull gray line of light at the bottom of the door. Tom laid on his side and rehashed the day that had felt a month long, he thought of her for the first time in days, Wondered what she was doing, pictured her with her new man, and probably with all their old mutual friends, and then he squeezed the image from his mind the best he could. He thought of the minnows again, and the two big survivor trout, and the gentle sway of the current. He was right on that weird precipice of sleep and reality when Cat’s voice came. “We lived in this tiny trailer when I was a kid. It was in a shitty little trailer court that had a dirt parking lot almost like this guy has. There were three or four trailers on each side, and we lived in the last trailer on the left as you drove in. It was old, narrow, and only had one bedroom. It was about half the size of the other places in that court. My mom, my two sisters and I lived there. Mom worked in a truck stop as a waitress, and at night she took in laundry. She’d sit on the couch watching TV and iron laundry almost every night. Us kids knew all the other kids in the area. We’d invent games all the time, try to improve on hide and seek or tag, make up our own rules as we went along, just have a hell of a time. Most of those kids only had a mom too, so we had a lot of time to dick around. But when mom came home we went right in. She’d usually bring us some little treat from the truck stop, garlic bread, corn bread, sometimes that chester fried chicken, or if we were really lucky, some cake or pie. It was always exciting. She’d come bouncing in over the potholes in an old, rusty, green Ford Valiant. That thing had no shocks, and the brakes just fucking shrieked when she stepped on them. We’d basically attack the car and mug her. She’d divide whatever little leftovers she’d brought home up amongst us around the table, then start dinner. She wasn’t much of a cook, usually hot dogs or pizza, but hell, we were kids and didn’t give a shit. Then she’d tell us not to come into the bedroom for a minute and she’d go in and come out with sweats and a big old red, man’s t-shirt on. We’d eat as she carried in a basket or two of laundry. She’d Iron and fold or put it on hangers as we ate and ask us about our day. The rest of the night we’d all be on that big couch watching TV and goofing around… Then she’d get up and turn the TV off and we’d go to bed, all of us in that one bed squished together. We’d giggle and tell jokes and ask mom about when she was a kid, and I’d always somehow end up next to her, I’d worm my way in. It felt like total safety, I couldn’t imagine anywhere else in the world that I’d rather be than right there, right at that moment. I had no idea life could be better than that, just none. I didn’t realize we were poor, I had my friends, I was fed…and the best place on earth to sleep.” Tom was listening intensely, straining into the darkness. Cat paused for a long time. “One Saturday morning I woke up and mom was already up. I got up and walked out into the kitchen. I had my Hulk pajamas on. There was a box of pop tarts on the table, so I opened a pack and started eating one. I kept waiting to hear the sound of the toilet flushing, and the door to the bathroom opening, but it never came. I walked outside and looked down at the common area. Sometimes she sat down there visiting with some of the other moms, but there was no one there. Then it dawned on me that mom’s car was gone.” Cat paused again for a long time. “I had a weird feeling. I went back in and looked in the dresser and closet and her stuff was all gone. I was confused. I ran to the kitchen and looked on the fridge door for a note. She sometimes scribbled out what she wanted us to do on the back of an envelope and left it under a refrigerator magnet. There was nothing there, nothing on the table, nothing anywhere, and her stuff was gone. That weird feeling got worse. I woke my sisters and we tried to reason it out, there had to be a reason. She wouldn’t just leave, she wouldn’t do that.” Cat was silent, and Tom listened carefully for anything that was different, breathing, a sniffing nose, but there was nothing. “After a while we sat at the table and ate the pop tarts, and I still remember sitting in those Hulk pajamas, they were my pride and joy, and I was just shaking all over, my teeth chattering. We sat around that quiet table and ate those pop tarts, and we knew something was wrong…bad wrong.” Another very long pause. “That’s the reason why I never knew if she married again.” And then the night was quiet, and they both laid there awake for a long time, Cat reliving the experience, and Tom picturing a scared, skinny little kid in Hulk pajamas, eating pop tarts and wanting his momma.

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