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  • Writer's pictureTodd Stevens

The Trail, scene thirty nine

Sometime during the night fog moved in, dense, like soaked gray cotton. When Tom woke, it was daylight, but muted from the fog, it was like looking through a lens coated with vaseline. Cat was already awake, dressed, and smoking a cigarette, “This is one hell of a deal, huh?” He said. “Gotta be the thickest pea soup fog I’ve ever seen. The good news is, no one can see us up here, the bad news is, we’re gonna be soaked again when we walk back down.” He took a drag of the cigarette and then exhaled a plume towards the ceiling of the pole barn, and it hung in a ball, curling around as if it were alive. “I’ve seen thick fog in San Diego, but not like this.” Cat made a cutting motion like he was holding a knife, “You could practically slice it.” Tom was still waking up. He got out of his bag and pulled on his shoes, surprised that it wasn’t as cold as it looked. He looked up at Cat, then out into the fog, “We had fog in Wisconsin too, but not anything like this, holy shit, this is disorienting.” Cat stood and walked over to the edge of the pole barn. “This is ocean fog, no doubt about it, we aren’t far off.”

Cat was right, they were soaked from the knees down by the time they were back on the road. The grass was coated with millions of minute drops of moisture that had settled out of the fog. They ate granola bars and jerky as they walked down the road, and washed it down with water. The road climbed up and down over rolling hills, and Tom thought the countryside must be similar to England or Ireland, or at least how he’d imagined them to be, having never been there. Occasional vehicles rolled through the fog, appearing at the very last minute, headlights dulled, then disappearing in seconds, tail lights and sound swallowed into the void of gray fog. “It’s almost like these cars are ghosts, and they only exist for the couple of seconds that we see them.” Said Tom. “I mean, when you see a car like that, it’s hard to imagine that the driver is a real person who exists in a universe just like you and I have,” Tom hooked a thumb alternately back and forth between Cat and his own chest. “I mean how dare they think they’re as important in their world as we think we are in ours.” Cat kicked a wet looking little black stone loose from the road and toed it down the road just in front of him for a few yards until a kick was slightly too hard and it careened off into the roadside grass. “I’ve thought about that before, Tom. One time in ‘84 I was between El Paso and Santa Teresa, New Mexico, and in case you were wondering, it’s one of the worst goddamn places on the planet to get stuck, but that’s where the train stopped,” he took out a cigarette and his lighter and walked along with the unlit cigarette bobbing in his mouth as he talked, the lighter in his hand. “It was getting kinda dusky, and it was early winter, so when the sun goes down in those desert places, it gets colder than hell. I could see the red face of a cliff off a mile or so, and figured that I might find a spot to sleep there, so I walked over to it. There was a little clam shell hollow in the face of the cliff, and damned if there wasn’t an old man sitting in front of a little fire he’d built in that hollow. It surprised me, and I wasn’t gonna intrude, but he called out to me, said I was welcome to share his fire and sleep there for the night.” Cat stopped walking, angled his head to one side, and lit the cigarette, then started walking again. “The guy had to be 75-80 years old, and he was a true hobo. He had beans and bacon steaming in a pot, and some sort of bread he was baking right in the coals of the fire. Shit, when he saw me he added another can of beans and a handful of bacon into the pot, yeah, he was a true old timer hobo…” Cat’s voice trailed off, and Tom could tell he was thinking about the moment. “We got to talking, and he told me about his travels, and I mean to tell you, that old bastard had been everywhere. After a while we sat and looked out to the west, and watched the last of the red sunset kinda melt into the dirt. The old timer asked me if I had a drink, and in those days, I always did, but I was off the shit for a while. I gave it to him and he looked at that bottle like it was the Hope diamond, with a near religious reverence. He muttered something under his breath, almost like a prayer, then scratched his white whiskers, and took three big drinks. He looked over at me and motioned the bottle at me, and I shook my head, no. Then he tilted it back again and drained the son of a bitch. I couldn’t believe it. He sat there for a few minutes, then asked me for a cigarette and a light. I was kind of laughing, because he had no qualms at all about asking, he was a true road king.” Cat smiled and took a drag of the cigarette, then out of habit, ashed the cigarette with the flick of his thumb across the butt. “The old timer was kind of quiet for a while, but eventually he started talking. He’d been in finance, and he had a degree from some fancy college back east. He had a wife and two daughters, lived in a big house with a nice shiny car out front, white picket fence, the whole nine yards. When he was talking about that time in his life I watched his eyes, they just glinted with happiness, you could see the joy through the scruffy beard and wrinkles, the old bastard was living in the moment. Then the great depression came. He lost everything, the bank account, the car, the furniture, and he had a foreclosure notice, it was all going. He said one nice bright spring day he walked to work, and when he got there the place was boarded up.” Cat took a last drag from the cigarette and flicked it into the road ahead of him, then timed his steps so that he crushed it out with his left foot. “I asked him what he did. He gave me a lopsided smile and stared into that fire, and I could see something in there stirring around. He looked up at me and said, I had one silver dollar in my pocket, just one. Prohibition had just ended, so I walked to a liquor store and bought a quart of rye whiskey and a couple of sacks of tobacco. There was a little park down by the river, and I went and sat in the sun on a big flat rock. I sat there and drank rye whiskey straight out of the bottle, and rolled cigarettes and smoked them. Somewhere about sundown I started walking back home. I can still remember the smell of bread and bacon coming from people’s homes. When I got to the house I stood outside and looked through that big yellow picture window, watched em’ moving around and talking, and I could tell the old lady was nervous, you get to know a person..and I couldn’t go in…I just couldn’t. So I kept on walking…and I’ve been walking ever since. After the old hobo stopped talking he just sat there staring into the fire, and I left him alone. Anyway, he had a universe, and he let me in on it, and I’ve thought about that old man ever since. He could still be alive I guess, but goddamn, mid 80's and on the road still would be hard, damn hard. I wonder how many people know about his universe?”

After an hour of walking through the gray mass of fog, it began to lighten. Soon they were surrounded by brilliance. Sunlight caught and illuminated the fog, turning it powdered sugar white. Then, in the east, they could see the sun, a soft, edge-less yellow mass, pressing through, burning off the fog. A breeze pressed into their faces, and where the fog floated past roadside mailboxes and fence posts, they could see it moving, flowing like a living thing. Within thirty minutes the only remnants of fog hung in the shade of the forest like it had retreated there out of fear of the sun. There were fields on either side of them, so emerald green they looked artificial, and the sun dazzled on wet \spears of grass. Far up on the top of a hill was a sparkling white farmhouse flanked by a big red barn and silos. A long driveway cut through the idyllic scene, and on each side of the driveway were rows of tall sunflowers, with huge, brilliant yellow flowers on top, surrounding dark seeds. Tom smiled, “Now if that isn’t the prettiest little farm I’ve ever seen, I don’t know what is.” Cat raised a hand to shade the sun from his eyes, “Yeah…perfect.” They walked up the little dirt lane, and when they reached the top, as far as they could see was deep midnight blue water. They stopped with hands on hips and stared at it. “If you’d have told me fifteen feet back that the Pacific ocean was just on the other side of this hill, I’d have called you a liar,” said Tom, “that’s one hell of a sight isn’t it?” Cat smiled and sang, “Well I was born in the sign of water, and it’s there that I feel my best. The albatross and the whale they are my brothers…” Tom smiled, “Cool change, The Little River Band, I love that song.” Without signaling one another they began walking down the hill, happy, refreshed, a strange feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment filling them. Their steps felt light, and they passed down the road without noticing the delicate gray mourning doves that sat shoulder to shoulder on blackened fence wires calling their sad songs, or the big fuzzy black and yellow bumble bees feeding on a late crop of purple thistle flowers that populated the roadside. They followed the road down through low farm country, and crossed two small streams, both almost hidden by overhanging grass and brush. The dirt road turned to the south and they followed it through fields of scrubby oak that also held an occasional giant pine tree that watched over all. A red tailed hawk circled endlessly above them, either because the breeze was perfect for gliding, or he was hunting some careless prey.

The road turned from dirt to pavement, then turned to the west and into small bungalow style homes. They walked through the neighborhood and no one seemed to realize they were even there, like ghosts. Finally there was a parking lot that held a dozen cars parked against a tall sand berm with clumps of dried and yellowing sedge grass growing here and there on it. A little mobile home converted to a store bordered the southern edge of the lot, and two kids sitting on BMX bikes were out in front eating blue popsicles. Tom took his pack off and propped it against the side of the store. “Mind watching this while I run in?” Cat shook his head affirmatively, and Tom disappeared into the store. Cat watched and listened to the kids on the bikes. They cursed excessively, hung their heads until all their hair hung straight down, then flipped it back violently exposing pimply faces of 14 or so. Cat smiled to himself, just kids trying to find their way… Tom came out with a small brown paper bag in one hand, and white one in the other. He put the brown bag next to his pack and then walked over to one of two red picnic tables that sat on a cement pad on the western side of the store. “Hey Cat, I got us a treat.” Cat sat down across the table. Tom slid a half dozen tacos wrapped in thin yellow paper out onto the table. “Eat up, I hope you like carne asada.” They ate three tacos each, dousing them in hot sauce with each bite. The kids on the bikes rode up the berm, then across the top, then shot down the face and jumped off a little ramp they’d built, over and over they did it. When they finished eating, Cat looked at Tom, “Hey, I really, really appreciate you feeding my ass these last couple weeks…I mean it.” Tom was taken by surprise at the eye contact and seriousness of the thanks. “Yeah man, no problem, I’m sure you’d have done the same.” Cat nodded, and his eyes had that glassy, wet look of tears, without any actually being present.

They walked north on the beach, straddling the furthest edge from the water that was wet enough to create a solid base to walk on. A steady breeze came off the ocean, and the surf roared. Skinny legged Sandpipers scurried along the edge of the water looking for food. They seemed to always skirt the very edge of the water without getting into it. Large white gulls hung like living kites in the wind, and on the ground they gathered here and there in groups of three or four, squawking their squealing high pitched warnings to one another. After walking for forty minutes they found a jam of wave and sand beaten logs that formed a half moon shape, and faced the surf. It was high enough to be out of tidal range, but had a beautiful view of the ocean. They dug a hole a foot deep and three feet in diameter, then collected piles of driftwood for a night time fire. A large dead tree, devoid of bark, and silver from sun and water exposure, laid across the back of the little cubby where the fire pit was built, they rested their packs against it, then walked down to the water’s edge. A light breeze came off the water, muting the late afternoon effect of stinging sunrays. There wasn’t another person in sight, nor so much as a footprint on the beach. Cat smiled, “It’s amazing how walking a couple of miles can separate a person from humanity.” Tom nodded, “Yeah, we have the whole beach to ourselves.” A sharp brown stone cliff intersected the beach and ran into the surf a mile up the beach, and the water created an eddy against it. Piles of driftwood and pieces of rope, broken styrofoam floats and hundreds of bottles had collected along its edge. Cat dug around in the pile until he found a two liter soda bottle, and a milk jug. He used his pocket knife to cut the shape of scoops from both, then handed Tom the milk jug. “What are we doing with these?” Asked Tom. Cat waved at him as if to say, come on. Tom followed and watched Cat as he carefully examined wet sand that wasn’t yet under water. Finally he stopped and pointed at a nickel sized hole in the sand. “See that? There’s a clam down there.” He walked forward lightly, then plunged the bottle into the wet sand, digging several scoops away rapidly before sticking his hand into the hole and pulling out a dark gray clam the size of his palm. He turned and showed it to Tom, his face bright with victory. “If we get enough of these we’re gonna eat like kings.” For the next hour they pursued clams as the shellfish tried to outrace the scoops into deeper sand. Sometimes the clams succeeded in escaping, but after an hour they had a pile half again bigger than a basketball. Tom took off his shirt and used it as a sack to carry them back to camp.

They boiled the clams in sea water, using every large pan they had, then pulled the flesh from the shells and cleaned as much sand as possible from them, and spit the rest out as they ate. When they were done, they laid back on their packs next to the roaring fire and watched the sun, orange like the yolk of a farm egg, sink slowly off the edge of the world.

Cat whittled on the last nubbin of the walking stick and smoked a cigarette, something that had become an after dinner habit for him. The minute the sun disappeared, the ocean seemed to calm, and the wind died away almost completely. The sky was fire orange in the far west, changing to paler yellows and reds the further east it got from the sunset. Tom smiled. “This is exactly how I always pictured the ocean to be in my dreams. A big belly full of seafood, a beautiful sunset…exactly. I could almost live and die right here without needing another damn thing.” Cat laughed, “No woman huh?” Tom scratched the stubble on his cheek, and squinted in thought, he pictured Gina with him, even though he barely knew her, and wasn’t even sure if she looked how he remembered. “Well, maybe a woman would complete the picture.” Cat laughed again, as he bent over the end of the stick and worked on carving some small detail. “When you were a kid did you ever want something really, really bad?” He asked, not looking up from his work. Tom nodded, “Yeah, sure…why?” Cat held the stick in the light of the fire and looked at his work. “Well, I don’t know about you, but whenever I got something I really, really wanted, it was almost a letdown. I remember I wanted a Star Ship Enterprise ship deck, from Star Trek. I begged my step parents for that son of a bitch from May on. Christmas came, and guess what?” Cat didn’t wait for Tom to answer, “I got it. I bet I didn’t have it five minutes before I realized that it wasn’t gonna make me happy.” He let the stick fall into his lap and looked at Tom, the light from the fire making his face orange. “It was a sick feeling, you know? I finally had the object of my desire, and it wasn’t what I’d imagined it to be…not at all.” He turned away from Tom and looked out over the ocean at the last narrow line of deep vermilion on the western horizon. “That’s how I’ve always been, the next place is gonna make me happy, and it never does.” He stood and walked down toward the water in the dark carrying the stick, and Tom watched him until he disappeared into the dark. He wondered if he was like Cat, or, could he be satisfied somewhere, with someone?

Cat was gone for a few minutes, and when he came back he carried the stick, soaked and coated with sand. He was whistling a song that Tom recognized. He sat cross legged across the fire from Tom and worked the wet sand up and down the length of the stick, twisting and turning it every which way. Finally he finished, and laid the stick next to the fire to dry. The wind had completely disappeared, and the flames of the fire, which had danced crazily in the breeze went straight up, the wood snapped and popped as it was consumed by flame. Tom dropped a few pieces of driftwood on top, and sparks traced high up into the sky before burning out. “Man, if you could pick a more perfect night than this, I don’t know how you’d do it.” Cat, who was still quietly whistling the song, stopped, “No, I don’t think you could.” From behind them white light from the moon rose, and they could see a muddled line in the ocean where its light was reflected. They climbed into bed and the exhaustion of the day overwhelmed them. Tom was thinking about the song Cat had been whistling, “Hey Cat, what was that song you were whistling tonight?” Cat was quiet for a few seconds, and Tom thought he might be asleep before he finally spoke. “Midnight Rider by the Allman Brothers. One of my favorite songs.” Quietly, but in perfect tune, Cat sang, “And I don’t own the clothes I’m wearing, And the road goes on forever, And I’ve got one more silver dollar…” Tom smiled, “I love that one too.” At some point the moonlight dancing on the water mesmerized them to sleep.

It was the shrill squawk of seagulls that pulled Tom from his slumber. The sun wasn’t yet up, but it was light enough to see. He turned and looked to see if Cat was up yet, and his bedroll was gone, and so was his pack. He climbed from the bag and pulled on his shoes and stood and looked down the beach both ways and saw nothing but cold surf racing up the sand and then back out. He walked toward the cliff a hundred yards or so, then back the other way, but he was alone. When he walked back to the camp, he saw it. The walking stick was carefully placed on top of his pack. He picked it up and ran his fingers over the grooves and crevices smoothed from Cat’s hands and the sand. He sat on the silver log and looked at it, intricate scenes from their journey carved one after the other, a totem documenting the trail they’d followed. The trailer where they met, railroad cars, Tom with a black eye, Gina, carved in incredible detail, and around her face in block letters, When you know…you know, Jerry, Viv, two men soaking in a hot pool. There was a message carved in ornate scroll work at the bottom, And the road goes on forever… Tom let the stick fall to his lap, an overwhelming mix of emotions that were so intertwined with one another he couldn’t sift them all out. He sat and looked out over the sea for a long time, then he packed and started back down the beach, and as he walked, he thought about Gina, and Billings, but mostly he thought about Cat, and the road that goes on forever.

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