The Trail, scene seventeen
The day wound by slowly, the sun’s steady heat, and unending light wore on them. Even though they had drunk plenty of water, they had to fight cramps, their muscles jittering and ticking like parasites just under the skin, their fingers curled in cramps around the shovel handles, and they had to pry them loose. This must be what rigor mortis feels like, if you were alive to feel it, thought Tom. About 5:00 they heard the metallic banging of the truck as it jarred its way over the road toward them. Jerry pulled up, his elbow out the window and a Budweiser between his legs. “You fellas had enough? Hop in the back. We’ll leave that old bitch and the trailer here for the night.” They sat with their backs against the cab, exhausted, their heads bobbing this way and that in unison as they passed over bumps. When they got back, Jerry took them around to the back door of the house. “Now listen, the old lady ain’t even too keen on friends and family coming into the place, so she wasn’t in the greatest humor when I told her I was gonna let you boys take a shower. So get your shit together, and when you come in this back door, you act like you’re cat burglars, quick, quiet, in and out.” He stepped up on a little one step concrete porch and pointed a thick, calloused finger to the left. “You go down the stairs to the left, and the shower is the second door on the right. Do not go to the right, that goes into the living room, and that’ll get me in a shit load of trouble.” He stepped down off the porch, and as he walked away, he half turned his head, “Have at er’”
Tom didn’t realize how much a simple pleasure like hot water could mean, he’d bathed almost daily since he’d been drifting, but not in hot water. He washed as fast as he could, then stood with the water pouring over him and counted to sixty, three times. If I can’t enjoy three minutes of hot water, well then…he didn’t finish the thought.
They sat at the heavy red picnic table after they’d showered and shaved, and combed their hair, and felt fresh, human, and part of society again. Their hands were very sore, and they both squeezed them open and closed over and over to feel the soreness, as if suddenly the pain wouldn’t be there if they did it enough. The sun was going down, but a thick golden ray cut from the corner of the house at a long slant, under the drooping willow branches. Tom sat just barely out of the light in the shade of the house, but he had a full view of the dense ray of sunshine. Little flies and gnats hurried through the light, one of them occasionally flying a corkscrew pattern toward the sun, all of them glowing as if the sunlight had somehow attached to them like a coat of glowing paint. The hard work had taken their desire to be social away, and they sat in a near stupor until they heard the screen door squeak open, and then bang shut again. Jerry walked across the yard with two paper plates. He still wore the gun. “See, you fellas come to work here and you eat like a king, get your exercise in, and damned if you don’t get access to a spa at the end of the day.” He sat the plates on the table. Franklin came up from behind Jerry and stuck his nose in the air a few inches from the food. “Now Franklin, don’t you go gettin’ any ideas,” said Jerry. Franklin, as if he knew what Jerry had said, drooped his head down and then sat staring at the ground, looking very sad. They thanked him for the food, and then ate. Jerry’s wife had made pork chops, two big ones on each plate, and a heap each of fried potatoes and buttered peas. Jerry walked back to the house as they ate, Franklin on his heels. A few minutes later he came out carrying a polished pellet gun in one hand, and three cans of Budweiser still in the plastic rings dangling from the fingers in his other hand. He sat the beers and gun on the table, and then scooted in on the far end from where Tom and Cat were eating. They both paused almost imperceptibly, and looked at the pellet gun. Jerry picked it up and broke the front stock away at an angle and began pumping the gun rapidly a half dozen times. “I filled Franklin’s bowl before I left to pick you fellas up. In the time it took for me to go down and back, those son of a bitching magpies all but emptied his bowl of food, bastards. Elaine told me Franklin never left the house, so I know it was them bastards. This has gone on for a while now…” They had stopped eating, and were watching Jerry’s face, now deeply red again, as he carefully monitored Franklin’s stainless steel food bowl. “I really hate magpies, squawking shit heads…” He laid the gun across the table, aimed at the food bowl, and took a can of copenhagen out of his breast pocket. Without ever looking at the can, he screwed the brass lid off and held the tobacco in his palm, and the lid in the same hand balanced upright alongside the can. He used his thumb and first two fingers to take a big gob out of the can, gently shake the loose tobacco back into the can, and then deftly deposit it between his cheek and gum on the lower left front side of his jaw. He somehow closed the can with only the hand that held it, and stuck it back in his pocket. “I heard that magpies are protected, but somebody’s gotta stick up for old Franklin.” He gave them a wink, and then used the tip of his tongue to spit tiny bits of loose tobacco out with a, “ptt” sound. Tom and Cat finished eating and took care of the plates and silverware as they had the previous evening, then came back and sat at the table. They could hear the TV coming through the screen door, and an occasional clash of dishes being washed and put away. The sun was sinking lower and the white light of the day was morphing into deep yellow and orange. The sparrows had once again lined up on the sagging power line, and the crickets were on the front edge of their nightly chorus. Jerry pulled a can of sweating Budweiser from a plastic ring and cracked it open with a sharp hiss. White foam bubbled at the opening, and then receded. Jerry pushed the cans toward Tom and Cat, but they both refused. Jerry looked at them for a long moment, shrugged and took a big swallow of the beer. Cat took out a cigarette and lit it, then half turned to Jerry, “How long you owned this place?” Jerry took another quick drink and then tried to put the can back down exactly onto the condensation ring it had left on the table. “Bought this place in the spring of 46 right after I got out of the service. Had her 44 years now…pay more taxes on it in one year now than I paid for the whole son of a bitch back then. Bunch of goddamn thieves. Once a place is paid for, that should be it, a guy should own it. That ain’t the way she works. If I got in arrears on it now, they’d haul me and the old lady off carrying a couple cardboard boxes with our underpants in em’ and auction everything else off. Nope, you never really own property in this country, that’s just an illusion.” There was more disillusionment in his voice than anger or venom. He hoisted the beer again, and they could see his Adam's apple work up and down in long swallows under his red skin. He put the empty can on the ground and crushed it under his heel, then baffled a belch with a closed fist, “Excuse me…” He reached over and tore another can from the six pack and popped it open. Tom watched him take another drink, “Did you serve in world war two?” Jerry grabbed the lobe of his ear and rolled and pinched it between thumb and finger. “Officially, yes, in reality, well…not really. I guess I was lucky, I was transferred here and there about every other week, and should have seen action a dozen times, but damned if it didn’t work out that way.” He suddenly raised the pellet gun, took aim, and fired, the dog pan made a loud tinging sound and a magpie flew away frantically, the sound of his beating wings clear. “God…Damn it, missed.” He pumped the gun rapidly a few times and used the tiny bolt action to chamber another pellet, then returned the gun exactly where it had been laid before. He took a big swig of beer, then spat. “What the hell was I talking about again?” And then he started again before they could tell him. “Oh yeah, so I guess I came out lucky in the war, some fellas didn’t,” then after a three second pause he said again, “..some didn’t.”
A slow, steady breeze carried cool air from the irrigated fields to them, so they opened the front door of the barn and let it push the stuffiness and canned heat out. The sun had gone down 45 minutes before, but there was still lavender light over the ranch. They pulled a couple bales of hay over by the door and sat facing the west and the last vestiges of sunlight. Cat whittled on the walking stick. He held the smallest blade of his knife like a writing pen, and moved both the stick and the knife this way and that, trying to get just the right angle for something intricate he was carving on. Tom only half watched him. Out in the big dirt lot, a smooth white cat with black feet and ears walked slowly from the corner of the long shed, across the lot towards the house. His head and tail were low and almost looked limp, he wasn’t on the hunt. He stopped about 20 feet from the front door and sat, then curled his tail around in front of him so that it almost tucked under his rump and rear leg. He stared up at the door as if he were expecting a dish of milk, and when it didn’t come, he stood and resumed his nonchalant walk toward the house. An old rusted milk can stood just off the steps of the porch, and in one explosive, silky movement, he jumped to the top, walked in a circle a few times and then sat down in a posture like the great Sphinx. “How long you wanna hang out here?” asked Cat. He’d stopped carving and was examining where he’d been working, and had his head cocked over to one side a little, like by doing so it gave him a fresh perspective on his work. Tom raised his eyebrows and turned to Cat, “Now don’t get me wrong, because I appreciate the fact that we have work, and the food, and the way Jerry has treated us, but I really wasn’t planning on doing chain gang type labor for too awful long. My hands are killing me.” Cat resumed carving, and Tom turned to look at the white cat, but it was gone. “I was thinking we work here for a week or ten days, then hit the road. If he pays us minimum wage that’d be around $400.00 apiece. That ought to get us where we don’t have to eat a bunch of shiners and rubbery rabbits for a while.” They both laughed and agreed on the plan.
The days rolled by, each a carbon copy of the last. They rose early in the dusky predawn, ate a quick breakfast, Jerry drove them down and dropped them off at the field, they sweated and toiled for eight or nine hours in the blazing sun, came back, snuck in the back door for a shower, ate dinner, sat around the table and listened to Jerry ramble while he poured beers down, then off to bed. Every day was exactly the same. On the eighth day of work Jerry came out with their breakfast, they ate, and after they climbed into the back of the truck Cat said, “Did you notice anything different today?” Tom glanced over at Cat quickly, “What do you mean? It was oatmeal and eggs today, instead of toast and eggs…can’t think of anything else.” Cat smiled, “Jerry wasn’t strapped today, no gun. I think the old bastard is finally starting to trust us.” Tom replayed the morning like a little video in his mind, “By God, you’re right. Well how about that?”
When they arrived at the field, Jerry didn’t just drive away like he normally did. After they’d jumped out he parked the truck and turned it off, then went through the slow ritual of putting his cowboy booted feet down onto the earth softly, like there was a thin stick of glass he was trying not to break. “I’ve had gout for years. Doctor says it’s from too much fat and whiskey. Well, I give that shit up for awhile, everything starts feeling better, and damned if that bacon and whiskey doesn’t start whispering in my ear, a little won’t hurt,” he cupped his hands around his mouth when he said it, and whispered loudly as if he were telling a secret, “so I start out with every intention of it being just a little. “Elaine….” he looked quickly over both shoulders as if she might be standing there listening, “...Elaine shakes her head when she sees me dipping back into that stuff. She always shakes her head and says, ‘Jerry, you’re gonna kill yourself with that shit, you Goddamn old fool.” He laughed when he said it. “Let me tell you, she is a tough son of a bitch…tough, and she’s never met the man she’s afraid of, including this fat old bastard.” He stabbed himself in the chest with a big pink thumb to accentuate his point. He hobbled out into the section where they had cleaned a wide swath of rocks from the field. “You fellas have really slicked her up. Startin’ to take shape. A man could probably machine this chunk if he really wanted to.” He hooked his fingers in his red suspenders and rocked back onto his heels. “Going to Billings day after tomorrow. I suppose you fellas are gonna need some money here at some point. Might as well get even with you then.” He was quiet for a moment, then turned and started walking back toward the pickup. “Hate to see you guys go, and you’re welcome to stay on, but you fellas were honest and let me know up front that you were traveling…so if you decide to move on, you’re welcome back any time…any time at all.” He labored into the seat of the pickup, shut the door, and then sat with his elbow out the window without starting the truck for a moment. “Maybe that little piss ant will wreck another car and need to make a little money, he can come crawling up to the place with his goddamn tail between his legs. Maybe this time I won’t be such an awnry old prick.” He took out the can of copenhagen from his breast pocket and opened it with the same procedure he’d done the last time. Shook the excess off back into the can, and expertly deposited it in his lip. He drove away directly into the rising sun, and Tom and Cat watched him go, dust billowing straight up and hanging in orange clouds, the bright sun magnifying oddly through the filthy windshield. Once he’d disappeared over the little rise, Cat said, “Well, at least he isn’t expecting us to stay on forever. Much as I’ve sort of enjoyed this place, I’m ready to get moving.” Tom raised a hand and looked at the swollen, red, raw tips of his fingers, “Me too.”