The Trail, scene nine
They followed the tracks north, through sparse pasture that bordered the tracks on both sides. After they’d been walking for an hour, Tom said, “Do these tracks lead close to that little store you were talking about? Because if it was only a couple miles up the road, we may have missed it, we’ve been walking more than an hour now.” The sun was sharp on their backs, and the wind had picked up enough to make the short pale yellow grass clumps that dotted the prairie dance stiffly. Cat stopped and put his hands on his hips for a moment, “Yeah…” he said, and followed it with silence. He brought a hand up and shaded his eyes like a visor. He looked into the distance, then turned to his left and looked, and then finally looked back and toward the highway. Each time he adjusted, his feet made a dry clinking sound in the crushed rock. He squatted down and gathered up a little handful of stones and threw them down one by one until finally he threw those that were left down all at once and stood up and rested his hands on his hips again. “Well, obviously I was wrong about where that store was. I don’t see a damn thing. I know it’s gotta be close…: Tom shaded his eyes and looked all around, and there was nothing in sight. “So I guess we keep walking then.” he said it neither as a question or a statement, but as a fact. Cat answered him, “I guess we do.”
They walked without talking for a quarter mile, each determining just how hungry and tired they were willing to get before they stopped. The wind had turned Tom’s lips into white, flaking parchment, like a dry, day old glazed donut. His instinct was to lick them, but he knew better. Instead he bit them lightly and somehow that loosened them up. Cat watched him do it a few times and chuckled. “My old man’s lips were constantly chapped. He always had a tube of Chapstick with him and yet they were always drier than dust, kinda whitish like yours are, and you could see little bloody cracks in them. If he heard a joke or a funny story, when he laughed he was careful not to smile too big, so he’d keep his lips tight and his mouth would look like a chicken’s asshole.” Tom started to laugh and immediately tightened his mouth up. Cat pointed quickly at Tom’s mouth and cackled, “Just like that!” He laughed so hard he bent over and grabbed his knees. “Son of a bitch, it was almost like you had a picture of the old man to look at.” The heat began to climb rapidly, and the wind picked up at the same pace. It was hot enough to cause heavy perspiration, but the wind and dry heat evaporated it before it got the chance to collect. As they walked they scared grasshoppers away. They flew ten feet or so, sounding like a snappy sprinkler, then landed and froze in place. In the distance they could see where the willows that lined the creek bottom passed over and into the tracks, then reappeared on the other side. “There’s gonna be a bridge there. What do you think about stopping there until the heat starts to drop?” said Cat. “I’m all for stopping.” said Tom, his feet felt like lead, his eyes burned, and his lips throbbed. Shade would feel great.
They climbed down under the bridge and shucked their packs onto the gravel shore. Cat pulled his shirt up and over his head and then took off his pants and underwear. He stretched high up to the sky and then walked unevenly with his tender feet down into the water with absolutely no attempt to cover himself at all. Tom watched him go and was caught off guard not so much by the sudden nakedness, but by the complete lack of modesty or awareness that he exhibited. Cat waded out into the water until he was in up to mid thigh. He stood there for a moment, his lean legs creating waves where the mild current butted against them, then curled around the other side creating little eddies. He pulled the tie holding his ponytail out and tossed it back onto the bank. He had several large black tattoos that were eye-catching, but Tom couldn’t identify what they were. One of the tattoos in particular stood out. It was a black band about six inches wide that went all the way around his torso like a cumberbund. It was so dense that it reflected sunlight that was itself reflected from the surface of the river. He slowly lowered himself into the water until only his shoulders and head were out, then tilted his head back and let his long hair flow in the current like spirits gently coiling and uncoiling. He called to Tom, “Feels great, the water is cold, but it feels amazing.” Tom watched his new friend laze in that water, and he was caught with the sudden desire to do the same thing, just strip everything off and climb in…but something wouldn’t let him. He felt a sense of anger and disappointment at his inability to just do it. “You’re really missing out man.” Cat didn’t say it with an ounce of goading or coaxing, he meant exactly what he’d said, You’re really missing out. Tom stared at the edge of the water where tiny pieces of black floating debris ebbed and flowed along, and for the first time in days he thought about what he’d left behind. He thought of her, and what she’d brought into his life. The constant upholding of invisible rules that always held him in check, always at bay from creativity, always just out of reach of who he really was. She held him in fear of living because of what others might think of the choices he might make. He looked back up at Cat, who was now laying on his back staring at the underside of the black bridge timbers, his arms spread wide like a bird, and his hair gently flowing down and over his shoulders and chest. Slowly Tom got to his feet, first he peeled off his shirt, then his pants, and finally his underwear. He felt like running into the water quickly to hide himself, but he didn’t. He walked slowly, and as he walked he felt a strange combination of rebellion, and freedom. It was as if a few strands of some invisible rope that had held him back had snapped. He lowered himself into the water and laid back, totally submerging himself for a moment, and when he came out he felt as clean as he ever had in his life.
They sat in the shade of the bridge in their underwear. Both men had soaked their clothes in the river, then worked them roughly between their hands using a bar of soap that Cat had as makeshift detergent on the dirtiest parts. They hung the clothing from willows facing the dying sun. A light breeze blew over the surface of the stream and cooled the air enough to make it tolerable. Cat pulled the granola bars from his pack and handed one of them to Tom. “Well…it ain’t much, but at least it’s something.” The bar did little to quell their hunger. Tom pulled a pair of camouflage cargo shorts and a gray t-shirt from his pack and put them on. He took his fishing gear from the pack and started searching under rocks for bait. “I’m starving. I didn’t have any luck in this stream last time, but the water is going back down, maybe I’ll get lucky.” Cat joined the search and within a few minutes he found a fat gray earthworm. Tom threaded it onto the hook and tossed it out. Cat got his slingshot out and the little pouch of stones and wandered out into the willows looking for anything that could feed them. As they tried for game the sun worked its way down past the spotless horizon and the evening became so still and quiet that even the lightning quick rustling of a mouse out in the willows could easily be pinpointed. Tom sat on his butt with his legs out in front of him, knees up, and elbows resting on his knees. He held the line lightly in his right hand and waited for the slightest indication of a bite. The sun went down and left a brilliant yellow outline on the horizon, and just above that, the air was orange that melted into deeper and deeper blue. Frogs began to call out their rubbery croaks to one another suddenly, as though signaled by a certain lack of light. The fish he was waiting for never arrived. After an hour he wound the line in and stowed the gear. He walked over and felt his drying jeans and shirt. The shirt was all but dry, but the jeans were still damp. He listened into the darkening distance but didn’t hear Cat. Where the hell did he go? He walked out into the brush and broke a big armful of dead willows. He piled them under the bridge and went back for another load. When he got back, Cat was there and had a fire birthed in a little depression he’d scooped out of the gravel. ”Any luck?” he asked Tom. Tom shook his head, “Naw, not even a bite, how about you?” Cat shook his head. “Normally I’m pretty good with that slingshot, but I missed three shots, then it got too dark to shoot.” Tom sat down on the opposite side of the fire. When the fire finally burst into full flame and lit the underside of the bridge up, it caused the night to immediately look much darker. “You got any of that coffee left?” asked Cat. Tom leaned and grabbed his pack and pulled it to him. He took out the little bottle of instant coffee and the sugar. “Got enough for a cup each tonight and then in the morning.” Tom took his camp set out and repeated the same process he’d done before of scooping river water, then letting it settle before making coffee with the clear water.
They sat with their backs against the black wooden railroad ties that made up the bridge abutment and sipped their sugared coffee. The moon was rising huge in the far east, and looking through the hazy air made it appear pale orange. Tom distractedly watched it slowly expose itself. “Man, I can’t remember ever being this fucking hungry in my whole life.” He said. He waited for Cat to agree, or at least acknowledge what he’d said, but he said nothing. Instead he stood, carefully holding his coffee out in front of him to keep it from spilling. He walked down to the edge of the water and sat cross legged facing the east and the rising moon. Tom got up and moved down to stand beside him. “We gotta get up early and make some headway tomorrow, get to a store and get food…” he paused for a moment, then began again, “...we’ve been walking on or near this track for a couple days and I haven’t seen a train, not that I want to ride a train again, but we need to get the hell out of here.” Cat said nothing, but he repositioned his legs so that his knees were drawn up under his chin and his arms were wrapped around them. For the first time Tom was annoyed with his traveling companion. What the hell is wrong with this guy? He’s got to be hungry too. A part of him knew that he was just hungry and tired, so he tried not to show his irritation. He sat next to Cat and stared across the slick surface of the water. Behind them the little fire of dead willows had burned down to nothing, leaving wispy white ashes behind, like feathery ghosts. Cat took a sip of the coffee, and then rested his chin on his right knee. “You ever just spent a moment in that moment only?” He didn't wait for Tom to answer. “I mean, when you think about it, this second…right here…right now, is all we have. We can’t even alter the way we started that fire or boiled the water for this coffee because it’s a moment that’s gone now...and we can’t do anything about what’s going to happen one minute from now, nothing at all. We have this one moment in time and that’s all we have, that’s all we ever have. This hunger we’re feeling is just a part of this moment, that’s all it is. There’s nothing we can do about it. So I’m gonna sit here and look at this…this beautiful moment, and I’m going to feel this hunger, and I’m going to realize that it’s just temporary, the hunger, the moon, the water, this conversation, all of it.” He tipped his cup back and finished his coffee when he’d finished speaking, and then repositioned his chin on his knee and stared into the moon. Tom looked at him peripherally for a moment, and could see the moon reflected in his eyes. He turned Cat’s words this way and that and could take no offense, so he turned and he too stared into the moon with a million crickets and frogs singing their songs all around, and he tried to be in the moment, tried to see what Cat saw, and feel what he felt. They sat shoulder to shoulder in the dark, staring into the moon for a long time…