The Trail, scene six
The first few seconds after realizing that he wasn’t alone a mass of conflicting thoughts tangled inside his head. Friend? Foe? How is it that someone is here, of all places? Who am I dealing with? The shock he felt must have been obvious because the man spoke again.
“Hey man, I’m sorry about the jump scare, but I didn’t know how else to let you know I was here.” He stuck a hand out before saying anything and held it in place for a few seconds. “My name is Cat. Looks like we might be stuck here for a bit, what do you go by?” He had to think for a second, he’d been so disconnected from who he was that it took him an embarrassingly long time to answer. “I’m Tom…” he reached out and shook Cat’s hand. In the dark he could tell that they were about the same size, and that he had a good firm handshake, but that was all he had a gauge of, because the shadow of the tires hid Cat.
From the dark, Cat measured Tom, and Tom could feel he was being gone over, measured up, and yet he didn’t sense malice. Cat looked at Tom’s shoes, his clothing, and then he touched the pack with his toe, ‘Nice pack.” He didn’t need to ask if Tom was new to the road. He sat up and moved from the shadows and squatted on his heels, and looked out over the light cast from the lamps. “Man this is a banger. This trailer is keeping the rain and hail off us, but it ain’t gonna stop a tornado…” Something in the stranger’s tone disarmed Tom, he felt a sense of confidence that he was in no danger, but he kept his guard up anyway. “No…are there tornadoes where we’re at?” He could see the man better after he looked out toward the light. He was lean, had a very tan face, the skin tight over high cheekbones that left angular shadows in the hollow of his cheeks.. He wore his hair slicked back in a tight ponytail, and it looked perhaps blond, or light brown. Cat looked sideways at him for a long second. “You don’t know where we’re at?” Tom shook his head, “No…it’s a ridiculous story, but I don’t.” Cat chuckled, “We’re sitting under a trailer in eastern Colorado, and yes, there can be tornadoes here.” Eastern Colorado, Tom thought about that for a moment, I’m far from home. Crisp white slashes of lightning came down with tearing, splitting sounds, and thunder hit at the same moment as the light. Hail pounded the earth as if it were at war with it. “Can you imagine if you were some poor farmer back in the 1800’s and your crops were just starting to look good, and along comes a big storm like this and just levels everything?” Cat rocked back and sat on the ground, then crossed his legs Indian style before continuing. “You’d be sitting inside some dark little sod house watching the hail smash your work to smithereens, and be thinking, I’m gonna starve to death come winter. Can you imagine that?” Tom was caught off guard, it was a very in depth and unusual question from a guy he’d met less than ten minutes before, but he answered. “I guess I never thought of it before, but it would be awful.” As he spoke he pulled his pack to him, took out his sweatshirt, and pulled it on. The storm had dropped the temperature fifteen degrees, and he was feeling it. Cat crawled over and grabbed a knapsack that was propped against the tire. He unzipped it and took out a wool, alpaca style poncho, striped black, white, and orange. He pulled it over his head and then leaned back against the inside of the tire. “Where you heading?” The question was plain and genuine, and he had no answer, at least not one he wanted to give to a stranger he’d just met. “I don’t really know..” For a few seconds they sat quietly and listened to the storm rage all around their little oasis. After a few seconds Cat said, “I don;t know where I’m going either.” Tom climbed over and leaned against the tire across from Cat. He crossed his legs and took out a sweater and draped it over his lap for warmth. “Any idea how long these storms last?” Cat didn’t hear the question, he was too busy looking through his bag. Finally he took a quart sized zip-lock bag from his pack and opened it. He took out a cigarette and brought it to his mouth, then sparked a lighter 2 or 3 times, temporarily illuminating his face, before it caught flame. He lit the cigarette, and Tom could immediately smell tobacco smoke. “I was through Colorado once before, but not this part.” Said Cat. “That was 6 years ago, about this time of year too. It was the summer of 84’ right after I graduated. Hated Denver, hated Colorado Springs, swore never to travel through there again.” He took a deep drag off the cigarette and exhaled, the blue smoke hanging in the air until it cleared the edge of the trailer and disappeared into the wind. “Why did you hate that part of Colorado?” Cat took another drag and blew it out through his nose. “Too many guys like me there. It was crowded with rubber tramps, rail bums, thieves and beggars. It wasn’t a place for me. That’s why I came this route, and that’s how I choose most of my paths. I don’t want to be in with most of those guys, I like being the only tramp in a small town I guess.” he chuckled. “That’s why I was surprised when I saw you running across the field. I thought, what in the hell are the chances that two tramps find the same spot on the same highway in the middle of nowhere, must be fate.” He laughed again. Tom smiled, and it dawned on him that it had been a long time since the last smile. He watched Cat smoke in the dark, the cherry of the cigarette illuminating an orange red, then dying in between puffs. “What is a rubber tramp?” the phrase had stuck in his head. “Cat measured him quickly again, questions bubbling that he didn’t ask. “A rubber tramp is a guy that travels and lives out of his car…tires, rubber. Get it?” Tom nodded, “Yeah, I get it. I just never heard that before.” Cat took a big drag on the cigarette, held it in the light and looked to see how much tobacco was left before it burned down to the filter, then he took another quick drag and flicked the cigarette out into the hail with his middle finger and thumb. They became quiet again, the way strangers meeting for the first time do after the initial greetings are out of the way. The eye of the storm was past them and the hail and wind slowed quickly. Tom’s stomach churned with hunger. He still had a pack of ramen and the beans. He pulled the beans out and hefted them up and down in his hand as if he were gauging how heavy they were. “I wish we had some firewood, I’d heat these up.” Cat squinted at the can, “What ya’ got there?” Tom turned the label to face the light, “Pork and beans. They’d be better warm, but I’m starving, I’ll eat the bastards cold if I have to.” Cat fished in his knapsack and brought out two cans. One was about twice the size of a can of tuna. He lobbed it gently at the ground in front of Tom, and said, “Chicken chunks.” Then he held up the other can, “This is a cooking wick, like they put under pans to keep them warm. You share those beans and I’ll share this stuff?” The thought of hot food made it an easy decision. Cat had a utility knife almost identical to Tom’s. They took the lids about two thirds off and then bent the tops back like shoe horns so they could use them as handles. Cat lit the flame and they held the cans over the flame, occasionally turning the insides with a spoon. After 10 minutes or so they poured half of each can into separate dishes and ate quickly without speaking. The warm food acted like a sleeping pill on them. Tom laid the plastic sheet out and put his bag on it and then took off his shoes and climbed inside. Cat rolled out a thin piece of foam and put layers of blankets down.
He felt Tom watching him. “Never could sleep in a bag, I’m too claustrophobic.” He climbed in and rolled around like a dog might, until he found the best position. The men laid there in the quiet and listened to occasional vehicles making their way carefully over the hail covered highway. Tom wondered about this stranger. If he graduated at 18 in 84’, he must be 24 give or take, about m. I wonder if he’s been on the road this whole time… With that thought in his mind, sleep started to overtake him in fits and starts, mixed with little chunks of dream. Then he heard Cat’s voice. “I’ll see you in the morning, might be okay to run together for a day or two.” He let the idea marinate for a second, “Yeah, it might.”