The Trail, Scene nineteen
It was only because Tom had the foresight to bring his drivers license that they got a room. The desk attendant, a skinny, hunchbacked, and condescending woman, with a severe widow's peak and clammy blue skin, refused to rent the room with just cash. “I need to see an ID, or I’m going to have to ask you to leave.” Tom could tell that she wanted to ask them to leave. He left the office and tore his entire pack apart, and finally found his ID in a plastic baggie, along with some photos. One of the pictures was of his mom and dad at their 20th anniversary party. The picture was eight years old, and just starting to look a bit dated, it was mostly the hairstyles. He looked at it closely and his stomach turned, guilt gnawed at him. He thought of all the opportunities he’d had to contact them, and just…hadn’t. He didn’t have an answer why, he just couldn’t. He decided it was time, it had been long enough, he’d severed whatever it was that he needed to sever. The other photo was of her. She was sitting on the hood of her piece of shit blue Pinto, arms crossed over her chest, and no smile. For the first time since before the start of the breakup, there were no butterflies, no yearning, no heart twisting sickness. He looked at it like he’d found a photo of a stranger, then stuck it into his pocket. The picture of his mom and dad went back into the baggie, and everything was again packed away neatly. The condescending woman at the desk looked gravely disappointed when he produced the license. Tom stared her down, not with a glare, but with a look that said, serve me, bitch.
The room was standard low cost hotel stuff. Two beds, a TV, a shower, and three cheap landscape prints done by someone who had tried desperately to copy a real artist. They cranked the air conditioning unit under the front window all the way up, and the fan caused the thick tan curtain and white sheer to billow. They kicked their shoes off, and flopped onto the beds. Cat grabbed the remote and turned on the TV, which was tuned to news. He quickly changed the channel, “Got enough shit to deal with on my own. I don’t need to listen to this nonsense.”
On the ground floor of the hotel was a common room that had vending machines and several coin operated washers and dryers. One of the machines had ready made sandwiches and pieces of cake in clear plastic boxes. They bought sandwiches and cake from the machine, and washed all of their clothing except for the athletic shorts they each wore back to the room. It felt almost unreal to be in normal living conditions, comfortable surroundings, food, television. Tom found himself thinking, A guy could get used to this, then a second later thinking, you could live like this in two days if you wanted to.
Cat showered and shaved first. He came out of the bathroom with a billow of steam, smelling like soap and chlorine, his face was shaved very clean, the big black tattoo was even more noticeable than it had been before. Tom went in and used a towel to wipe the mirror clean. He stared at his reflection. Any softness that had been on his frame before he left, was gone. He lifted his fingers and felt his cheekbones, he’d never noticed them before, his Adam’s apple and collar bones were far more pronounced than he remembered them ever being. He ran the sink full of hot water and lifted handfuls up to his face, then lathered and shaved. His skin wasn’t as dark as Cat’s, but it wasn’t pale anymore either. He ran his fingers through his dark hair and decided he needed a haircut, then he took a long, hot shower, and scrubbed every inch of himself. When he came out, Cat was folding clothes, still in his shorts, and he’d put Tom’s clothes on his bed. “Figured I better bring them all up before someone else either stole them…or shit canned them.” He held a tattered pair of jeans up and poked a finger through a hole in the knee as he said it.
Wearing clean t-shirts and shorts, they laid on top of the bed and watched the second half of, Blazing Saddles. They laughed at a few parts, but it wasn’t as funny as they remembered it being. When the movie was over Cat sat up on the bed and used his knife to operate on an ingrown toenail. As he worked at it, he said, without looking up, “Do you think Jerry and his wife love each other? She doesn’t exactly sound like a warm and fuzzy person if you ask me, and Jerry, well, he was a nice guy and everything, but I bet he ain’t the easiest guy to live with.” Tom rolled over toward Cat and propped his head up in the palm of his hand and said. “I can’t imagine they’d have stayed together that long if there wasn’t something they loved about each other.” Cat pinched a piece of skin between his thumb and the knife blade and pulled it loose.. He grimaced as he tore the skin away. “Goddamn it…” he said, as he put the skin onto a matchbook with some previously cut little pieces of toenail. “Yeah there’s something there, but do you think it’s love, or do you think it’s convenience, or maybe just familiarity?” Tom rolled onto his back and stared at the white popcorn textured ceiling, he drummed his stomach with his fingers. He thought about the question for a few seconds as he watched Cat dab at the now bleeding toe with a little piece of toilet paper. He remembered Jerry talking about his wife, there was definitely a little glimmer of pride when he’d described her toughness. “I think they love each other, not every love story is like what you see on TV. Shit, if that was the case there’d be about 25 marriages left in this country. No…I think they do love each other, it just isn’t a romance novel kind of love,” said Tom. Cat picked up the matchbook and poured the pieces of nail and skin into his palm, then got off the bed and walked to the wastebasket, the toe he’d been working on wrapped in toilet paper and elevated so that only his heel contacted the ground with each step. “Yeah, I think you’re right,” he said as he dropped the nails into the garbage. “Life sure as hell isn’t all romance.”
The afternoon passed by slowly. They swam in the pool, and sat in the jacuzzi, and ate candy and chips from the vending machines. The sun’s blazing rays had little effect on them because they were either cold from the pool, or lounging in the air conditioned room. At 3:00 Tom paged through the phone book and found a barber shop that was only three blocks away. The advertisement read, ‘Walk-ins-welcome.’ Tom flopped the book back onto the little desk he’d taken it from. “I gotta get a haircut man,” he grabbed big fistfuls of hair and shook his head. Cat looked at him, “Shit, you’re almost to ponytail length. Another month on the road and you’d have flowing locks like this.” He flipped his ponytail in front of his shoulder. Tom laughed, “No, I’m a short hair guy, I can appreciate yours, but this is driving me crazy.” Cat shook his head slightly and stared at a point to the left of Tom and above him, in thought. “Well then, why don’t we get our Sunday best on before we go, and that way we can just head out after the barbershop and find somewhere to have a drink?”
They walked north along a busy street, Cat wore his best pair of worn out jeans, a pair of black, high top Chuck Taylor All-Star tennis shoes that Tom had never seen, and a plain black t-shirt. Tom wore virtually the same outfit, but his t-shirt was white, his jeans newer. The barber shop was kitty-corner from a big grocery store. Tom said, “I’m gonna go over to the store, I’ll meet you back here in 30 minutes or so.
The barber was an older man, probably in his late 60’s, he was impeccably groomed, his hair combed straight back, and his face clean shaven. He was all business. He asked Tom what he wanted, then turned on the clippers, the buzzing rhythmic and fast. In five minutes the cut was done, and the barber lathered and shaved his neck. He took the cape off and Tom felt what was left of his hair, velvety and smooth, like a suede jacket. “$8.00, the barber said. Tom got out a ten dollar bill and handed it to him, “Keep the change, and, you wouldn’t happen to know where a person could get a quiet drink around here, would you?” The barber opened an ornate old gold toned cash register, with a sharp ding sound. He put the ten in and shoved the drawer closed with his belly. He pointed to the east, “You go right up this road two blocks, and there’s a place on your left, kinda sits back off the road a bit, called, The Range. They make a great burger, and they won’t short you on the booze.” Tom thanked the barber and walked out into the heat. He immediately noticed the movement of air on his scalp with no hair to block it, he kept running his hand over his head as he watched the flow of traffic, waiting for a break. When it finally came, he jogged across the road and then walked across the parking lot of the big grocery store. As he approached the door, Cat came out carrying a small paper bag. He stopped in his tracks and opened his mouth in exaggerated shock. “Wow, when you said you were going to get a haircut, you weren’t bullshitting around.”
Tom laughed, “I guess not, I decided to get my money’s worth.” Cat walked slowly around Tom, looking at his shaved head “I guess you weren’t joking when you said you weren’t a long hair guy.” They fell into stride together and walked across the parking lot. It was as hot as it had been all day. When they reached the road they looked down its length as heat rose from it and the sidewalk, making a mirage that looked like spilled fuel rising up. Tom looked at the bag that Cat held cradled like an infant in one arm, “What do you have there?’ Asked Tom. Cat smiled, “A vacation in a bottle.” He opened the bag and tilted it so Tom could see in. A clear pint bottle of vodka and two cold, beaded up bottles of Seven-up stared back. Cat closed the bag. “I thought we could do a little pregame warmup until we find a bar. For a second it crossed Tom’s mind not to say that he knew there was a bar only a short walk away, he even thought about trying to steer away from it completely. The thought did cross his mind. But as far as he knew, Cat hadn’t lied to him, and he hadn’t lied to Cat, so he told him where it was. Cat nodded, “Now all we gotta do is find a place to enjoy this first,” he hoisted the bag a little. They passed a used car lot, marked with red and blue banner flags in streamers that ran from a pole high above the little office to lower poles by the street, then came a little yellow building with brown trim. On the front of the building was a big brown sign that said in white block letters, LOANS. After that came a pawn shop, with a glowing green and red neon sign that said PAWN. There were no empty lots, no dark corners, no narrow alleyways to slip away into. The sun was low behind them, and cast a deep yellow light on the sidewalk in front of them, their shadows long and thin, and Tom’s head looked tiny without the bush of hair. “Hey, I see it.” Cat pointed at a sign that had been white and illuminated at one time, but was now mostly gray exposed raw metal, and more than half of the light bulbs that had at one time lighted the sign were either burned out or missing altogether, it said, Laundromat. “These places are always open,” said Cat.
They walked through the laundromat, the gentle sound of cloth and buttons being tumbled filled the place. They walked over ultra polished black and white floor tiles to the back. Two young women were folding children's clothes into neat piles directly across from each other on a big white formica table top, a horde of small kids played with plastic action figures on the floor underneath the table. Down a narrow hallway lit by a yellowed fluorescent light, was a door that read, “Restroom for customer use only.” Cat ignored the sign and walked in, and Tom followed. Cat opened the bag and unscrewed the top of the vodka bottle with a sharp crack as the seal broke, then opened the Seven up. “Here’s to Jerry, and rock picking, may they always be around.” He tilted the bottle back and took three large swallows, then chased it with a big gulp of Seven up. When he exhaled, the room smelled more like rubbing alcohol than vodka. Cat handed the bottle to Tom, who took one swallow. Instantly there was the sharp stab of pure booze, immediately followed by burning warmth all the way down to his stomach. Tom stood there, stunned from the booze, and enduring a faint hint of nausea. “I gotta say,” said Cat, “this really hits the spot, hits the nail right on the fucking head.” He took the little bottle back from Tom and downed three more long, slow swallows, followed by another Seven up chaser. There was only about an inch of clear booze left in the bottle. Cat held it up to the light and looked through it as if he were checking to see if a rock was actually an agate. ”Well shit, I think I took a little more than my share, the rest is yours.” he poked the bottle at Tom, who was still recuperating his breath from the first drink. He took the bottle from Cat and sipped a half shot from it, then immediately washed it down with Seven up. “I’m a lightweight Cat, that’s already more than I’ve had to drink in six months. The rest is yours.” Cat took the bottle, “ You ain’t gonna have to twist my arm very hard.” He drank the rest in a flash, the last of the booze bubbling in the narrow part of the bottle before it disappeared. He drank a chaser, then offered the soda to Tom, who refused it. Cat tossed everything into the wastebasket, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Let’s find that bar, because now I’m primed.” Tom followed him back past the women and out into the sweltering heat, Cat walked with purpose, his eyes searching. Tom watched him from his peripheral vision, his own sense of anxiety began to melt as the vodka’s impact hit his brain. They only walked two hundred yards before they saw the place. It was a big, stand alone bar, low slung, dark, with a wide boardwalk porch that wrapped not only the front, but around both sides. Neon signs beckoned from the windows, St. Pauli Girl, Coors, Jagermeister. Big, leafed out, mature oak trees grew up and over the place, almost as if they were guarding it. They walked across the mostly empty parking lot and up the wide wooden steps. The smell of old perfume, stale booze, cigarettes, and french fries wafted to them, and Tom could see Cat’s body relax, the metamorphosis was so obvious that it was physically visible. Cat was in his element, he was home.