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  • Writer's pictureTodd Stevens

The Trail, scene twelve

The river curved away from the road and dropped a little, racing along some high red clay bluffs that were honeycombed with dark baseball sized holes. A long smooth, sloping beach angled into the water, and they decided to take a night off and camp there. They cooked in the calm late afternoon, and ate a dinner of ramen and tuna with hot sauce from hot sauce packs they’d grabbed at the truck stop. The story Cat had told played on Tom’s mind the whole evening. He could picture a tattered coat blowing gently in the wind, and some scattered snow white bones on a barren ridge somewhere, no one ever having claimed them. Maybe he was really cared for…thought Tom, maybe his parents have been looking for him this whole time…and not knowing. Cat stood down on the water’s edge smoking a cigarette. As he smoked, he watched little bird heads, shiny and black, poke out of the holes in the red cliff across the stream. They darted out and looked in all different directions for something unseen, their movements so lightning quick the human eye couldn’t register them. Tom watched him, watched him take drags from the cigarette and then slowly exhale bluish smoke toward the sky, watched it hang and slowly drift and then disappear.

“Hey Cat…” Cat didn’t answer. “Hey…Cat.” Cat turned and walked back to where he had unrolled his bed and sprawled out on his back, the cigarette hand relaxed on his chest. “Yeah?’ he finally answered. “Listen…if something should happen to me, I want you to contact my family.” Cat said nothing, he’d been very quiet since he’d told the story. “My full name is Miles Thomas Sinclair…and I’m out of southwestern Wisconsin, near LaCrosse.” He suddenly wondered why he’d been so against letting anyone know where he was from. Cat was quiet for a moment, then sat up and faced Tom. “So, your given first name is Miles, but you go by Tom?” His voice carried a bit of humor. Tom sighed, “It’s not that I go by Tom, it’s what my mom has always called me. It’s a compromise name. See, my Dad was a huge jazz fan, and in particular he loved Miles Davis. He fought to call me that, but my mom hated the name Miles. I guess she went to school with some little asshole named Miles that tormented her, so she associated the name with little assholes. The compromise was that my Dad would get his way, and my first name would be Miles, but in everyday life I’d be called Tom…or Thomas when my mom was really pissed.” They both chuckled. Cat shoved the cigarette into the gravel and mounded sand over the spot it had entered the earth. “I agree with your dad, Miles is the better name, no offense.”

Tom watched as Cat slid the walking stick from his pack. He unfolded his knife and started whittling where he’d left off. Tom looked at the top of his head, stared at the shiny hair parted neatly down the middle and drawn back into a ponytail. “Ever since I first met you I’ve been wondering about your name. How did you end up with the name, Cat?” Cat kept whittling as if he hadn’t heard the question, and Tom wondered if he hadn’t heard him for a few seconds. “How do you know it isn’t my given name?”said Cat. Tom smiled, “Actually the thought did enter my mind, but I can’t think of any male names that Cat could be short for…of course, I don’t know your parents, but maybe they were flower children, maybe it really is your name.” Cat blew wood shavings from the stick, then closed one eye and held the stick at an angle like he was looking down the barrel of a gun before bringing it back down and carving it again.

“Kind of a dumb story really. Years ago when I was in Florida I started running with a guy by the name of Mustafa Islam, or so he called himself anyway. He told me he was a Syrian from Syria, but he spoke better English than I did. Anyway, he carried around a rolled up little red woven rug with gold tassels on each end, cool looking thing. He’d get it out and unroll it and kneel on it to pray all the time, he claimed he was a muslim. There was something about that dedication that I thought was cool. We could be at a McDonalds or the middle of a hay field, it didn’t matter, he would unroll that little rug, kneel on it, and pray. So, I got myself a little red, tasseled prayer rug too, and I started praying with him. Told people I was converting, told ‘em to call me Abdul. That’s what I’d renamed myself. Well, the conversion didn’t stick, and neither did the name.” Tom was baffled, “So what does any of that have to do with you being called Cat?” Cat ran his hand up and down the stick as if he held sandpaper, then he twisted it and Miles could hear the little squeak from the friction between wood and skin that it made every time he did it. “Back in the 70’s there was a popular singer that was on the radio all the time. He had a couple of really big hits. The guy calls himself Yusuf Islam now, but back before he changed his name, back when he had those big hits in the 70s, he went by a different name…Cat Stevens. So, some smart ass said one day, “Hey man, I thought you were gonna be named Muhammad or some shit?” I told him that I’d changed my mind, and he said, “You’re just like Cat Stevens, only in reverse. From that moment on people called me Cat. At first I fought against it a little…but then I just decided, what the hell, and went with it.” Cat dropped the stick into his lap and shrugged his shoulders, “Now you know.” Tom thought for a minute, “What’s your real name then?” Cat smiled, “Now that, you don’t need to know.” He stood up and stuck the walking stick back into its place on his backpack.

They felt like rich men that night. They ate store food, drank hot, sweet coffee, and relaxed on the gravel beach like they were pleasure camping, and not drifters. Tom fought against the constant inner desire to accomplish something, anything. He fought to live in the moment and not worry about the morning, or the weather, or their food supply…or the mess he’d left back home. Long thin shreds of clouds like sheer, see through scarves hung motionless in the sky, and as the sun hit the western horizon it turned them first, bright gold, then orange, then a faded light pink, like cotton candy. Tom watched them change like sky chameleons, and then slowly move east and disappear as night fell, and the first few sharp, white stars made their appearance, like glimmering pin holes poked in a dark veil, letting spots of white light through. They fed gray pieces of driftwood into the fire, and it was bright and hot. They alternated facing the fire, then as it grew too hot on their faces and hands, they turned and warmed their backs. Cat measured Tom for the hundredth time since they had been traveling together. He looked carefully at the man’s eyes, the expression on his mouth, the tension in his forehead and eyebrows, and he decided he had to know, he had to ask. He was careful how he posed his words, he didn’t want to cause friction, Tom was an easy traveling partner, and he knew how rare that was. “So…you’re out of LaCrosse, and you told me you’re new at this. Did you just decide on an adventure, or is this something you always wanted to do?” Tom wasn’t expecting the question, he’d been busy fighting off a thousand worries, and even more tomorrows. He was standing across the fire from Cat, and Cat was sitting Indian style on his bedroll, back a few feet from the fire, but his face flickered with its yellow light. Tom didn’t know how to answer because he’d never really thought of why he was on the road in those specific terms. He was quiet for a few seconds and Cat decided to backtrack, “Listen, it’s really none of my business. If you don’t want to tell that story, don’t, I’m fine with that.” Tom shook his head no, “No, it’s not that at all, I guess I’m not sure how to answer the question.” He thought about the story Cat had told him about the nut case who’d died while they were traveling, that was a personal story, and Cat had told it unsolicited, the least he could do is answer the question.

“I never specifically set out to do this. I mean, I never said to myself, hey, I’m gonna go off the grid and just disappear.” Tom sat down and crossed his legs as Cat had done. He found a long willow and put one end into the fire. Cat could see he was thinking, could see the eyes working. “I had a woman…” Tom paused for a long time. He pulled the willow from the fire, the end holding a white flame, then he plunged it into the sand and extinguished it. “We grew up together in the same neighborhood, same little town, same school. It’s funny, we never really dated much until right at the end of our senior year.” Tom poked the willow into the fire again and watched it catch flame. “You grow up with someone, you can literally see their house from your house, you know their mom, their friends, their likes and dislikes, where they go to church, what food they like…” Tom’s voice trailed off. He pulled the willow out of the fire and brought it near his mouth, then slowly blew until the flame went out, and a dense, pencil thin stream of smoke curled into the air. “,,,but you never really know a person I don’t think. Especially if you’re in love with that person. It’s like one of those 3D pictures that look like a bunch of blurry dots when you’re right up close. It isn’t until you move back away and get some distance, and really, really, look that you can see the picture. It’s that distance and perspective that show you who a person really is, at least that’s how it was for me. By the time I saw who she really was, my life was a fucking disaster. I…I couldn’t stay there and watch her go on like I meant nothing…which is exactly what I meant to her, nothing.” He drew his knees up and put his elbows on them and brought the end of the willow near his mouth again, and blew on the end until the coal was hot and glowing red, then he stuck it into the sand to put it out again. He laid back on his sleeping bag, turned sideways, and propped his head on his crooked elbow and palm. Cat stared into the fire and listened to the popping and sharp snapping of the burning wood. “Cat, you ever do something totally out of character. I mean, something that you can’t believe you ever, ever, would do?” Cat sat motionless but darted a quick glance over at Tom. He said very slowly, drawing each word out as if he were almost in slow motion, “Yeah..I think just about everyone has at one time or another.” He watched Tom’s body language, sensed that he was holding a secret that he needed to tell. It was the way he chewed at his bottom lip, the way he blinked rapidly at the fire. Tom took a deep breath and exhaled, making his cheeks puff out, and then he got up and stood facing the fire, extending his hands to the flames even though they weren’t cold. “I did something, I don’t know…ridiculous and stupid and, and…idiotic.” Cat didn’t prod him, he stayed seated and looked up at his partner. Tom brought his palms up and rubbed the sides of his head in circles. “I had to get out of there, I couldn’t face another day of ridicule and humiliation, whether I was imagining it or not, that’s how I felt. But I had this house and it was like living in a goddamn coffin. She wasn’t there, but every bit of the life I knew and was working to build was tied to that place, all the shit in it, everything was pointing to that future, the life that was gone. She was with someone else who took that future, and I was left with a coffin full of memories, but the fucking corpse was still walking around…with my best friend. So, one night I took all the shit in that house and I drug it into the living room, the living room with the big cream colored rug and the eggshell white furniture that was so important that we have, and I doused it with diesel fuel, and I burned the whole place to the fucking ground…” Tom immediately felt a sense of relief, like a piece of sand being removed from an eye. He sat again. Cat raised his eyebrows really high and held them for a few seconds. “Well that’s not where I thought that story was going. I was pretty sure you were about to tell me where you’d put the body.” They both instantly started laughing. After a couple minutes it was quiet again. Tom said quietly, “You think I could be in trouble for that?” Cat looked at him intently and thought for a moment. “Did you have insurance? How much did you owe on it?” Tom was fiddling with the willow again, pushing it back and forth through the sand and making a little wake. “I had insurance, but I don’t plan on making a claim, and the house was mine, free and clear. Cat shrugged, “Then I don’t think you have much to worry about. If the fire department came out you might have some liability there I guess, but the property was yours, no law against burning your own shit.” Tom smiled with no humor, “That’s what I was thinking too.”

As the fire faded they crawled into bed and squirmed around until they were comfortable. Tom stared into the clean, clear sky. A satellite traced silently through the stars, and Tom marveled at the men who put it there. He was just about asleep when Cat said, “You ever wish that you’d have sold that house and all that shit, and banked the money?” There was a long pause, “Yeah..” They both laughed again before drifting into the night.

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