The Trail, scene thirty six
Larry leaned over the steering wheel as he piloted the motorhome through the dark canyon, his hands so tight on the steering wheel that his knuckles were pale. The big vehicle swayed from side to side on the curves, its center of gravity high, and the sense that it could flop to its side could be felt with every turn. Cat and Tom sat at the table with Viv drinking coffee. They’d left all of their wet gear and shoes at the door. She smiled at them and mouthed quietly, “Larry is nervous…he’s not used to handling something this big in the mountains.” He called over his shoulder, “So far so good with the patch job. Watching the temperature gauge, and she’s been steady.” The rain beat down on the metal roof, and the wipers slid back and forth slick and clean on the windshield, making a tiny squeak at the end of every sweep. The road parallelled the river mile after mile, and every place that it was forced to narrow, white current boiled up from the kelly green water. Tom envisioned the motorhome on its side, green river water pouring through the cab, then as soon as thought arrived he pushed it away. Viv tried to be relaxed, mostly so Larry wouldn’t feel her nerves. “I bet this storm won’t last much longer, I bet we’ve about driven through it.” she said. She leaned over and put one shoulder against the wall and looked up at the sky, her eyes shining in the dull light. Yeah, it’s definitely getting lighter.” It was as if she were manifesting better weather by speaking to it. She pulled her legs up onto the seat and sat sideways on them. “So when you boys are traveling around and it rains like this, what do you normally do? Just keep on walking I suppose?” Cat shrugged, “It kind of depends on the situation. I’ve been caught out in the middle of nowhere when it hits, and there’s nowhere to go, so you have to just keep moving. Usually you can find cover somewhere though. Maybe a bridge, or the awning of a building…or a semi trailer.” He and Tom laughed, then told her the story of how they’d met in the middle of an eastern Colorado hail storm. Viv smiled as she listened, then asked, “How long ago was that?” They looked at each other, each man searching the other for an answer to her question. Finally Cat turned to her, “A lifetime ago.”
Gradually the curves began to be less sharp, and the canyon widened slightly. They came to a little town, Syringa, but there were no services available, just a handful of scattered homes, quiet, soaked, and isolated. A red and white sign mounted on a tall metal pole read, Cafe, but there were no lights on, and no vehicles parked near the building the sign indicated. “How in the hell do these people live out here without so much as a gas station?” Asked Larry. “It ain’t like Baker or Miles City are exactly New York City, but at least a fella can get a goddamn tank of gas.” Viv’s brow drew tight and her mouth pursed tightly, “Larry, language, for heaven's sake.” He was quiet for a second, then, “Sorry, I shouldn’t take the Lord’s name in vain.” Their interaction was practiced, smooth, like he’d said the same curse words, in the same manner, thousands of times, and Viv had corrected him just as many.
They drove west, and the canyon continued to open, and just as Viv had predicted, the sky lightened, and the rain stopped. They came out into a wide spot and there was a town, Kooskia. Larry slowed and crossed a bridge that spanned the river, then followed it into town. He drove for a few blocks until he came to a service station and pulled into the parking lot. They all had a sense of relief that the patch had held. “You really did her good.” Larry said to Cat. “Me and Viv can’t thank you enough.” Cat shook his thick hand, and at the same time realized that Larry was also saying, now find a different ride…we’re even. He looked Larry in the eye when he realized what the older man was indicating, and they both silently acknowledged what was being communicated. “Hey Tom, let’s get our stuff together and go find a bite to eat somewhere.” Tom didn’t see any of the exchange, he turned, somewhat confused, “Don’t you want to see if they can fix it?” Cat shook his head, “Sure, but let’s eat real quick. We can come back in a bit.” Tom pinched his ear and pulled on it a few times, confused. “Why don’t we leave our stuff here?” Cat glanced at Larry, and Larry looked away, half ashamed at the way he’d shoved them off. “Naw, let’s bring it with us.” Tom shrugged and stepped into the motorhome to retrieve his belongings.
They walked two blocks south, then a block to the west before coming back to the river. Cat walked along the bank until he found a spot in the rip-rap where they could hide their bags from view. As they walked back toward town Tom said, “We should probably hurry. I don’t think it’s gonna take long for them to fix that hose.” Cat made a face that was half smile, and half grimace. “Listen, Tom, Larry gave us the shove off. It was probably Viv that forced him to stop and pick us up to begin with. He shook my hand back there and I could tell he was giving us the get lost sign.” Tom scratched his cheek, and furrowed his brow, “Shit I didn’t notice a damn thing. Are you sure that’s what was going on?” Cat laughed without humor, “Yeah, I’m sure. Believe me, I can read between the lines.” They turned back to the north and walked through an empty four way stop. It was sunny and calm, but the rain had left the gutters full, and every low spot a puddle. As they walked up the uneven sidewalk under a canopy of mature oak trees, they split and moved around pools of rainwater that had collected in broken patches of sidewalk. Rusty chested Robins bounced around on mowed lawns, feeling for worms, and occasionally stopping to pull one from the earth, stretching them long and thin from beak to dirt. A white washed drive-in restaurant with a red Coke sign, beckoned from the very end of the street. They walked to the window and a teenager wearing a white paper hat took their order of cheeseburgers, fries, and cokes. They sat at an oxidized metal picnic table that wobbled with every motion. “Why would Larry brush us off like that?” Tom was curious, and irritated, they’d done nothing but help the old couple. Cat lit a cigarette and watched the last drops of rain fall intermittently from the roof they sat under, into a crater in the blacktop, probably created from years of rain dripping in that exact spot. “You gotta think about it from his angle Tom. A couple of road weary drifters that could turn violent and rob him or whatever at any moment. He ain’t a bad guy, he probably just wants one on one time with Viv…without a couple of dangerous men like us fucking the whole thing up.” Tom laughed, “Good lord, us, dangerous? That’s a goddamn joke.” Cat took a drag of his cigarette and blew three, thick, white, rolling smoke rings that faded into nothing in the humid air. “Yeah, I know, but Larry doesn’t know that.”
They ate quickly, and then walked back, retracing the way they’d come. “So, we can stay here and camp out quietly along the river somewhere, or we can start walking and try to thumb it out of here. I didn’t see any rails around here, so I think that’s our only two options…what do you think?” Asked Cat, as he slicked his ponytail back and readjusted the tie. Tom sighed and scratched his head with both hands vigorously, “I guess I don’t see any reason to hang around here. We stick out like sore thumbs in this little shit hole.”
They walked through town to the southwest, and crossed a bridge back over the river, which had turned a dirty tan, like coffee with cream, from the rain runoff. A steady little breeze traced up the canyon, going the opposite direction of the river current. Ripened grass seed heads, bowed from their own weight, bobbed in the wind. On the south side of the bridge was a wide pullout. It was paved, and at one time had been painted with slots for parking, but those lines had been all but obliterated by weather and wear. A red semi pulling an empty flatbed idled quietly, it belched the smell of burning diesel that carried to Tom in patches by the breeze. “We hangout here for an hour or two and we might find a ride.” Said Cat. Between the pullout and the highway was a brown gazebo with a cement floor. They stowed their bags in some scrubby pine trees and then came back and sat at a white picnic table under the gazebo. “There ain’t another spot wide enough for a truck to pull off for miles, we have a corner on the market for truck pullouts,” said Cat. Tom could feel the sense of wanting to get to the next place rising in him, an unease that he was wasting time by his lack of motion. He picked a piece of flaking paint from the picnic table and laid it flat, then picked another and placed it on top, and continued until there was a little pile, like miniature pancakes. When he couldn’t find any more loose pieces, he stood and fished his money out of his pocket. He flattened each bill by running them back and forth over the corner of the table. Cat watched the process and counted quietly as Tom organized the money. “$71.18, wow, you’re about $59.00 richer than me,” said Cat. Tom folded the bills around the coins and stuck the whole wad back into his pocket. “If I’d have had that much money when I was a kid, I’d have felt like a king,”said Cat, “being broke now doesn’t really bother me, I’ve always been broke, I don’t really know the difference I guess. If you really think about it, that’s probably what makes rich people scared of poor people. Us poor people haven’t got anything to lose, and if you haven’t got anything to lose…well, that can make you dangerous. Probably why old Larry gave us the kiss off.”
Cat was right about trucks using the wide spot to pull off. Truck after truck pulled in and parked, some of the drivers disappeared over the bank to relieve themselves, some got out bars and tightened loads, and some crawled into sleepers and slept…but none offered a ride. One tall truck driver with a big belly, filthy baseball cap, and a shirt unbuttoned to his belly button turned on his heels and threatened Tom with a cheater bar he was using to tighten straps. “Get the fuck out of here before I put you to sleep you fucking bum.” Tom didn’t challenge him. Cat didn’t see the exchange, he was talking to a different potential ride. When Tom told him about it he seemed unfazed, “Yeah, you’re gonna get that from time to time. Can’t really blame ‘em I guess.”
All day they plied every vehicle for a ride, and every time other than the one truck driver, they were politely refused. The sun moved past the mountains to the west, causing a long shadow to creep across the entire pullout. They walked down to the river’s edge and ate peanuts, jerky, and a granola bar for dinner. Cat found a seat where he could lean back against a big smooth rock and spent an hour carving like a surgeon on the walking stick, a pile of curled yellow shavings formed in his lap before he stood and brushed them off into the river. Tom studied him. He tried to understand how anyone could be so calm while only having $12.00 to their name, no ride, and a dwindling food supply, he couldn’t grasp Cat’s lack of concern for the situation he was in, he simply wasn’t like him…at all.
Evening, and then night moved in swiftly. The breeze, which had blown all day abated with the sun set, and traffic slowed substantially. They walked a quarter mile down the highway in that strange purplish light right before it becomes deep night, and found a spot between two boulders to bed down. The rushing river made a constant white noise that swallowed all other sounds. Both men were exhausted, Tom could never remember being so routinely tired as he had been since he took to the road. He remembered Cat asking him one time if he felt lazy because he wasn’t working, he’d answered, no, and he was even more certain now that freedom from responsibility was far more work than simply having a job. Sleep came like a thief, one minute he was conscious, thinking, aware of his surroundings, and the next he was in a different world, distorted, strange, full of oddly familiar faces, but ones that he didn’t recognize, except for one snippet dream. In the little dream his great grandfather, impeccably shaved and dressed, as he was in real life, sat on the porch of an old farmhouse. He had a pocket knife in one hand, and an apple in the other. He sliced slivers of the apple off and brought them to his mouth on the knife blade, slowly chewing them. His glasses caught and reflected the sunlight, and he smelled like old spice. And then Tom was awake, it was before early morning, still late, late night. The moon was directly overhead, big and dumb and motionless through the branches of the trees above them, its blue light filtering over everything. Tom looked to the side, and Cat’s covers were thrown back and he was gone. Must have needed to take a piss… When he wasn’t back in a certain amount of time, Tom raised up onto his elbows. Over the top of the grass he could see Cat. He stood on a big rock at the edge of the river. Both arms hung at his sides limply, a cigarette held in his left hand curled smoke up and away from him. He stared up at the moon, and Tom could see a faint reflection on Cat’s shiny hair. He watched him for a minute or so, wondering what was going through his mind, and then a twang of guilt came, as though he’d intruded on the moment, almost like reading someone’s private diary. He laid back down and turned from Cat’s bed. He didn’t hear him come back, or even if he did.
The next morning was not just chilly, it was very still, raw, and cold. They’d turned to face each other during the night. “Son of a bitch, I’m cold right through this bag.” Tom said. Cat nodded, “We gotta get out of here, it ain’t gonna turn warm at night from here on out. We need to hustle for a ride or get to walking.” Tom could see shivers coming from under his friend’s blankets. “Hey Cat, can I ask you something?” Cat nodded yes. “Why don’t you get a bag? This one has got to be warmer than what you’re sleeping in.” Cat pulled his knees up and scrunched into a fetal position. “I told you that I’m claustrophobic, I’d rather freeze.” Tom nodded, “Yeah, I remember you telling me that. Just always been that way huh?” Cat pulled his blanket-covered fists up under his chin and pulled his shoulders forward, like he was trying to get his entire upper body into one small spot. “No…I wasn’t always claustrophobic.” Tom waited, but Cat didn’t say anything else for a few minutes. Cat’s eyes worked in little darting motions as he stared at something off in the woods, he was thinking. He refocused his eyes on Tom. “I was one of the youngest kids at the second group home I was in. They issued us sleeping bags that had been donated by an Army-Navy surplus store. One night a couple of those older pricks zipped me inside the bag and threw me into one of those metal footlockers…and locked me in. I screamed and I screamed, but there was no one to help. I couldn’t move, or breathe, and even I could tell that no one could hear me. I was helpless. It felt like I was going to die, and that I’d been in there for an hour. Eventually they opened it and let me out. I was hysterical. Anyway, one kid took pity on me and it never happened again, but to this day I can’t be in tight spaces for long, and especially not a sleeping bag.” Tom had risen to an elbow as he listened. He imagined the horror, “Good God, I’m sorry that happened.”
The two hours before the sun was high enough to warm the little valley were freezing, frost had coated everything, and every breath was white fog. They made their way back over to the pullout, more determined than ever to find a ride. “If we don’t get something by the time it warms up, I say we beat it down the road. I can’t just feel like I’m treading water,” said Tom, almost pleadingly. Cat agreed. The morning droned on as it had the day before, pleasant denial after pleasant denial, “Sorry, my insurance doesn’t allow riders…” They sat at the picnic table defeated. “Two days of this shit now,” said Cat, “I don’t know if I’ve ever had such a hard time getting a fucking ride in my life.” Tom was surprised at his reaction, he rarely showed frustration. A big white open box truck pulled in and the driver parked and disappeared over the bank of the river. When he came back Tom greeted him, “Hello, hey I know it’s weird, but I’m looking for a ride west if you could see fit to let us jump into the box?” The driver was young, early twenties. He wore levis and an untucked white t-shirt that hung on his tall, bony frame. He looked down at Tom, perhaps sensing his desperation, “You’d have to ride in the box, there’s no top and it’s a cold bitch out here, but I guess so.” Tom waved at Cat, elated at his success. He turned back to the tall driver, “Where you headed?” The guy smiled, “We sold this produce truck to a farmer just outside of Crescent City California. Got a ways to go, ain’t gonna stop much.” He looked at a black banded watch that was strapped to his skinny freckled arm, as if he needed them to hurry up. “Allowing for a couple stops, oughta be there around eleven tonight.” Tom smiled, “Can we ride the whole way?” The kid shrugged and raised his red eyebrows, “Why not…”