The Trail, scene thirty
In the dark they put together a cold, cobbled breakfast, granola bars, a half a bag of peanuts, and dry ramen noodles that they crunched up like chips. They packed their bags, crossed the field, and were walking the road by the time the first dark purple edge of daybreak painted the eastern horizon. The road was no longer wet on the surface, but it was still dark, and dense from the rainfall, like they were walking on hard packed fudge. On the south side of the road a white horse stood by the fence, ghostly in the first gray filtering light. It tore a mouthful of grass from the pasture, making a hollow snapping sound. It raised its head and looked impassively at the strangers as they walked by, and Tom could hear the grass being ground in its powerful jaws. The morning air was crisp, and it made Tom believe that perhaps summer was slowly dying. The road was flat for a mile, then climbed very gradually for a half mile, and without consciously knowing it, they were quiet against the extra exertion as they ascended. By the time they reached the top, the sun was up high enough that it illuminated the tops of a distant row of hills like yellow torches, but the valley between was still shadowed, and looked like a dark lake. A truck banged up the road behind them, its headlights still on, and it pulled a dirty flatbed trailer that held a welder and a half dozen pieces of angle iron, all held down with yellow nylon straps. Cat, who was about to light a cigarette, hid the cigarette and lighter in the pocket of his hooded sweatshirt, then stuck out a thumb. The driver was obscured by the morning gloom and the headlights of the truck, but Tom could see the silhouette of a cowboy hat. The driver waved as he passed by, as if that’s what Cat had done. Cat kept his thumb up until the truck was well past, following it with his eyes. He still had the fake grin on his face when he said, “Well fuck you and the horse you rode in on cowboy…” Something about the contrast of the fake grin, the thumb in the air, and what Cat said, struck Tom as funny. He laughed as Cat stared after the truck, his thumb still in the air. He turned and looked at Tom in an effort to gauge if he should be offended, and immediately saw that he shouldn’t. He smiled a big white grin and slowly lowered his thumb to his side. “No excuse not to let us hop on that trailer at least,” Cat said, “no goddamn excuse whatsoever.”
The road dropped in a long slow descent, and curved gradually toward the south. The prairie was all gone now, and the fields were either being pastured to cattle, freshly mowed, or awaiting harvest. Birds were out in force, and they sang their songs from different spots all over the fields, sometimes they called sharply, sometimes softly, but always beautifuly. Occasionally, if they got too close to the birds, two or three sparrows or robins or grackles would burst into flight and go just far enough away to feel as if they were safe before settling back to earth. The sun was soon all the way up, and a whisper of a breeze came out of the north. The little wind carried just enough force to ripple the surface of the brown mud puddles that dotted the road that had looked like little mirrors placed into the low spots in the early morning calm. The road was half again busier than it had been the previous day, all the same type of vehicles. Muddy pickups, most of which pulled trailers, either flatbed or horse, and even a few that had sides. They all had one thing in common, a big smile and wave, and a fast acceleration away. After walking for almost 3 hours the road dropped precipitously through a man made cut in a low hill. The cut had to have been done long ago, because where the grades were, little scrubby trees and grass grew, and as the road continued west it passed over a long gray, concrete bridge that spanned the wide gray green river below it. They paused when it came into view and stared for a long time. “I thought this river was a mirage, you know, like when they see an oasis in the desert and really it’s just more dunes,” said Tom. Cat laughed, “Looks like a damn good stopping place to me, we’ve covered some ground today.”
Under the eastern end of the bridge was a red gravel flat that was only four or so feet below the bottom of the bridge. A pile of rusty cans sat against the abutment and a blackened fire ring of broken white granite chunks marked the middle of the flat. “Good lord, it feels like a month since we’ve eaten anything hot,” Tom said. Cat nodded, “The problem is going to be finding anything dry enough to burn.” They shucked their packs against the abutment and started their search for firewood. The ring itself had some half charred pieces of wood that were dry, and from the tops of a couple dozen bushes they hauled back armloads of pencil thin willows and other scrubby bushes. They prepared water from the river to boil for drinking water and got pans ready to cook in, the problem was that their food supply had dwindled down to just a few items. Cat eyed the pathetic pile of goods from his knees, hands on hips. “I’m starving, but what do you think the chances are that we can save this shit,” he waved a hand over their supply, “and between my slingshot and your fishing pole we can get lunch?” Tom shrugged, “We have nothing to lose I guess…”
After Cat disappeared down the river with his slingshot, Tom cast his line out as far as he could into the straight current of the big river. It felt like a shot in the dark, such a tiny bait in a massive body of water. He wondered what river it was, and what kind of fish it contained. He thought back to sixth grade geography and concentrated on an imaginary map…maybe the Yellowstone? He thought again, No, we’re too far north…maybe the Missouri? He nodded, Yes, the Missouri. The girders under the bridge had been painted silver at one point in time, but the paint was missing in large chunks, and orange rust showed in those bare metal areas. Every corner where angles met were gray, knobby, swallow nests, made from mud. Tom marveled at the ingenuity it took for swallows to build their nests right out of bare surfaces. He watched the swallows coming and going from their nests, diving out and setting their wings so that they fell toward the water, and at the very last second averted a watery crash before soaring above the river looking for insects. The wind had gained a little strength, and for the first time in days a hint of woodsmoke mixed with the fresh smell of the water. Is that from the big fire, or is someone burning something much closer? Three times he pulled the bait in, which was a ball of earthworms he’d collected from under rocks and threaded onto a bait hook, and checked it. Three times it was undisturbed. The last time he checked it he decided to chunk it a bit farther down, into the swirling water below the abutment. Instantly he felt a hammering bite through his fingertips. He stood and set the hook, and in the process lost his balance. In the process of regaining his footing, his right leg went into the river all the way to his knee. The water was icy cold, and soaked him before he got it out. “Son of a bitch…” He pulled against the fish enough to tire it without snapping the line, and each time he got it close to shore it slashed back into the current, his fingers burning where the line created friction passing over them. For the next five minutes he played tug of war with the fish, a mystery down in the deep gray water. When it swam upstream, Tom followed it, the line in his hand held high, cold water squishing from his shoe with every step. When the fish turned and went downstream, he had to scramble backwards and use both hands to pull in line just to keep slack out, and keep the fish from spitting the hook. Finally, in the angled light of the morning sun, he saw a yellowish flash in the current, carp… He could feel the urgency of the fish waning, its head shaking less and less violently, until it was visible like he was looking through glass smeared with vaseline. The fish looked like a blurry yellow torpedo, still in some depth of water. As it finally neared the shore, it thrashed wildly on the surface. Tom walked backwards and pulled it out until it was flopping three or four feet from the waters edge, then he dropped the line and pounced on it. It was cold, and solid, and its girth was incredible considering it was probably two feet in length, and it wasn’t a carp, it was a massive, hook jaw Brown trout. Its teeth were white daggers, much, much longer than any of the Brown trout teeth he’d seen in Wisconsin. He remembered his uncle calling trout with big jaws like the one he’d just landed, cannibals, because they ate mostly other fish. Its side was covered with pea sized brown freckles, a few red ones scattered through, and it was much darker than it had appeared in the water, only the belly was yellow, the rest of the fish a light seal brown. Tom marveled at it, he’d never seen one so large, its yellow ringed, emotionless eye stared at him, and the jaw worked in perfect time, each time its mouth opened the gill plate lifted up, exposing a bright red slash of gills. There was a part of him that wanted to take him down and work him in the current until he was strong, and then watch him drift back down into the current. It felt wrong to take the life of such a masterpiece of nature…but then he felt his stomach rumble. He looked at the great fish and thanked him for the meal he would make, and then he said a short thankful prayer, and quickly dispatched the fish.
By the time Cat wandered back down the shore of the river, Tom had the big trout cleaned, and oil from the little bottle heating over the twig fire. He’d hung his soaked sock on a rock near the fire, and his shoe was propped to collect the most drying heat. He had the pots of river water they were boiling for drinking next to the flames on either side, and used the metal skewers laid across them to form a rack. Cat walked up and stood upwind of the campfire smoke. The slingshot hadn’t produced anything, but he carried four ears of corn. “Holy shit, now that’s a trout,” he said, squatting to look at Tom’s catch, “I couldn’t get a shot on anything, but I got these,” He lifted the corn to show Tom, “I guess I was the gathering half of the hunter gatherer thing today.” He laughed, and then nestled the green ears of un-shucked corn into the coals of the fire. “There was a huge field of sweet corn down the river a ways, and I figured that if the racoons can eat the hell out of it, we might as well grab a couple ears too.” Tom cut the fish crosswise into steaks and salt and peppered them, then laid the pieces into the hot pan, causing the oil to sizzle and dance in the pan like it was alive. The smell of fresh cooked fish instantly filled the area under the bridge, sparking both men to feel hunger pains, their stomachs twisting like empty rubber bladders. After the fish steaks were settled into the pan, both men sat cross legged upwind from the fire. They poked little pencil thin twigs onto the red coals so the food would cook, and the water would boil, but they kept the fire small and efficient so it wouldn’t create too much smoke. They were both aware that campfires were almost certainly banned because of fire danger, and didn’t want trouble, but they needed a hot meal. Tom used one of the twigs as a poker, and kept pushing the little red glowing coals together under the fish pan. The fish was so fresh it curled and buckled at odd angles as it cooked.
“Every summer I used to go on overnight camping trips with my dad and a group of my friends, and their dads,” said Tom. “It was always such a fun time. Dad would pack soda, candy bars, chips, stuff for s'mores, and normally we never ate that shit, they just didn’t keep it in the house, so it was a huge treat. My best friend Brian used to come over to our house and we’d shoot hoops in the driveway as my old man, and his old man would pack everything into the vehicles right before we took off.” Tom used the poker stick to scoot a red coal that had rolled away from the main fire back under the frying pan. “The last time we went was the summer after seventh grade. Dad lowered the hoop down so we could dunk the basketball, you know, like Dr. J. We took turns trying to outdo each other. Then, when they finally got everything loaded, I did my takeoff from the free throw line dunk, and when Brian tried to match it, he missed.” Tom laughed at the memory as he watched Cat feed three twigs into the coals. “He was so pissed, because we were leaving and he didn’t have a chance to get me back. He took the basketball and banged it down on the picnic table and told me he was gonna kick my ass when we got back.” Tom pushed the twigs together like a little log truck load in the fire, then took a fork and loosened the fish steaks from the pan and flipped them, causing the oil to dance wildly, flames shot up around the pan for a second as it consumed the falling grease. Cat rolled the blackened ears of corn so the other side could cook. “So we went up north...I don’t ever remember the name of a specific place, it was always just up north. We always had a hell of a time. We ate junk food all day and washed it down with soda, got in and out of the lake a dozen times, laid on the dock and let the sun burn the living shit out of us. I can still remember the tight tingling feeling of the sunburn before it started to hurt. I mean, holy hell, it was a week of living outside the rules. We stayed up late, watched for shooting stars, caught big buckets full of crayfish, it was a total blast…” Tom’s voice tailed off, and Cat, who’d been staring at the gleaming surface of the fish steaks, turned when Tom paused. He could see a look on Tom’s face he didn’t recognize. He’d been half jealous listening to the marvelous family time Tom had enjoyed, something he had never, ever experienced, and he was living vicariously through Tom’s telling of it. He watched as Tom gently felt a small cut on the back of his index finger with the thumb of the same hand. He ran the thumb back and forth over it absentmindedly, as he stared into the fire for a few minutes. Cat wanted to say, and then what happened, but he didn’t, maybe that’s it? But he finally started again. “That last year, we sat around the fire late one night, all of us, the dads and all of us boys. We told scary stories and ate shit food until we were on the verge of puking. I’d been in bed and asleep for a while when my dad shook me, he screamed at me to get up. I was scared shitless, I’d never seen my dad not in control, never, ever.” Cat looked out of the corner of his eye at Tom as he spoke, his voice had a different timbre to it, something he couldn’t identify. “I jumped out of my bag and pulled my shoes on, and dad had my jacket waiting. We jumped into the truck and followed the others out. I was confused, and half asleep. I still had my pajamas on, but my big jacket was on over them and I had on a pair of big clunky high top Nikes. It’s weird, but I still remember looking down at how I was dressed and thinking, this looks crazy.” Cat slid a cigarette from the pack in his pocket, and poked a twig into the fire until it caught a little yellow flame, then he lit his cigarette with it and threw the twig back into the fire. “We drove out of there on that little dusty road about twice as fast as we should have, I could see the dim red glow of tail lights through the dust in front of us like devil eyes. Finally I got my wits about me a little bit. I asked dad, what’s going on? I could tell he didn’t want to answer me. He was smoking in the new truck, and he never smoked in the new truck, so I knew something big was happening. He kept looking over at me like he wanted to say something, and then couldn’t. Finally I asked him again, and I think he could tell I was scared and freaking out. When he finally told me, he didn’t look at me. He said, Brian is very, very sick Tommy, we don’t know exactly what’s going on, but pray for him okay? I thought of what could have gone wrong and couldn’t think of anything that could possibly have happened. I mean, it was only an hour before we went to bed that he’d told me this stupid fucking knock knock joke and laughed his ass off.” Tom stood and grabbed the hot handle of the frying pan with the mostly dry sock, and lifted it away from the flames, then used the fork to slide the steaks onto a plate before putting the rest of the fish into the pan and replacing it over the fire. Cat was absorbed in what Tom was telling him, as hungry as he was, he wanted resolution. He took a drag from his cigarette and blew smoke rings at the fire, ignoring the fish. Tom sat again, and started talking. “When we got into Rice Lake I could see Brian’s dad carrying him into the hospital…his arms and legs just dangling, like a marionette. For some reason I remember thinking that Brian’s dad better not be letting his head dangle too much or his neck might get broken. We all sat in that little waiting room, no one talking, deathly quiet, I had never heard us as quiet as that, not even in church. We sat there waiting in our pajamas and our out of place shoes and jackets, smelling like smoke and s’mores. It seemed like forever we sat there, but it was probably a half hour. When the Doctor finally came out, he called the dads over and I remember how bushy and dirty they looked standing next to that Doctor in his snow white jacket and those aqua scrubs. I could hear hushed words, like it was a priest talking to them or something, then he turned and went back through that swinging door, the dads came back over…except Brian’s dad, who was still in back. Someone asked, what’s wrong with Brian? The Dad’s sat on a table in front of us and started in with some bullshit that was like, Sometimes in life things aren’t fair…and that’s all I needed to hear, and I knew. It’s weird, because we had to go back up to the lake, get our stuff, and then drive six hours home. The whole way my dad kept saying, you okay buddy? I just shook my head, I didn’t have any emotion, didn’t shed a tear. I just looked out the window and watched stuff whiz by, my head empty.” Tom used the fork to check under a couple of the steaks, and seeing that they were done, flipped them. Cat rolled the corn again, the cigarette held in the corner of his mouth, his eye squinted against its smoke. “We got home and unloaded everything, and my mom hugged me and told me she was going to be there for me and shit, and I was thinking, there for me? What the fuck does that mean? We ate dinner and I went to my room, and I could hear them whispering as they watched TV, I knew it was about me. Parents always think they’re so clever, but usually you know what they’re up to. I went out the back door, and it was starting to get dark, so I walked around to where the yard light was, and then I saw it.” Tom paused for a long time, and he blinked rapidly, and swallowed a half dozen times, like he had a wad of gum caught in his throat. “That fucking basketball was right where he’d left it. I walked over and laid my hand on it, and it was like an electric shock, and every laugh and tear we’d ever shared just streamed through me like a movie. I sat there in the dark sunset, hugging that basketball and sobbing until I was too exhausted to move. That goddamn ball was still sitting there in the same spot, Brian was the last one to touch it, and the whole world had changed…everything as I knew it jacked sideways forever, and the goddamn ball was still sitting there waiting for him.” Tom was quiet again. Cat took over cooking the fish, he used the fork to pile it atop the other steaks, then he used a twig to roll the corn away from the coals before sitting back down. Tom was feeling the scratch on the back of his finger again. Cat watched him for a few minutes. “Hey man, thank you for sharing…now we’re even,” he smiled at Tom a little, his teeth not showing. Tom nodded, “You want to know the crazy thing?” Cat exhaled the last drag from his cigarette through his nose and dropped the butt onto the fire, “Of course.” Tom shook his head ever so slightly, “He’d never had an allergic reaction to food, never. That night we melted butter and boiled about 5 gallons of crayfish, and he died from a shellfish allergy…I still can’t wrap my head around that…I just can’t.”