The Trail, scene twenty eight
The smoke was still present, but not nearly as dense as it had been before their ride, and the stars were clearly visible through the haze. They started down the road the same way the truck had gone, their legs stiff and half numb from laying mostly immobile for so long. Somewhere off in the distance the steady hum of an irrigation pump could be heard, and nearer, the timed shush of a giant sprinkler head hitting a thick pressurized stream of water came through the light screen of smoke. The air was much moister, and cooler, and they knew they’d reached some sort of agriculture. “Man, I’m starving, and tired.” Tom said. Cat nodded his agreement in the dark, and said, “Me too. Might be a lean night, I don’t think we dare start a fire this close in where people are gonna see it, and my sterno is all gone. I wish it was light enough to make heads or tails of what’s going on. You still got those ibuprofen? My head is pounding, and I’m aching from laying there for so long.” Tom lowered his pack to the ground and rifled through until he found the bottle. They each took two capsules and washed them down with water, then started down the road again. Out of the dark, on what seemed to them to be south, they heard the low bawling moan of a cow, followed by the shuffling of heavy feet, and air being pushed loudly through big nostrils. “Might be a little search to find a spot to bed down. This is someone’s land here, and since we can’t see jack shit, anywhere we sleep might be where someone can see us. Remember that asshole that ran us off before we hooked up with Jerry? I just hate getting pushed around like that, rubs me the wrong way. I’d rather push until we can find a spot that ain’t right out in the open.” Cat said. “Yeah..me too.” Tom said.
They walked for twenty minutes, their eyes had adjusted enough to see that the road was lighter than the fields on either side. Crickets called from the grass until they heard feet in the gravel, then they hushed for a moment until the men had passed by before slowly starting up again. The road rolled up and down gently, and even though it was harder to walk uphill, they were glad that they had finally made it past the vast plains of eastern Montana. The longer they walked, the less smoke they could smell, but they couldn’t be sure if it was diminishing, or if they’d just become used to it. They could see that the road curved slightly to their left and crested a substantial hill. Tom stopped, and so did Cat a step later. “Your ribs starting to bother you?” Cat asked. Tom twisted a little to see how they felt, he hadn’t thought of them much, so they must be fine. “No, they’re okay. I’m just bushed. I was thinking maybe we get to the top of this hill, and if we don’t see any place to clearly sleep, we just make the best of it and sleep right there. We’ve been going hard at it since early.” Tom could hear Cat digging for a cigarette, the cellophane of the package crinkling as he pulled the pack from his pocket. He struck the lighter, and the smell of fresh tobacco smoke filled Tom’s nostrils. He heard Cat exhale loudly and could vaguely see the plume of smoke dim the stars. “I’m ready to stop too. I guess if someone comes and rousts us out in the morning I’ll just grit my teeth and take it, but at least I’ll be rested.”
The walk up the hill was slow and plodding, and Tom felt like one of the climbers he’d seen in a documentary film about men who had scaled Mt. Everest. Those mountaineers walked the same way through the snow and the ice, every step took supreme effort. When they reached the top of the hill, they looked to what they believed was west. There were lights scattered sparsely out over the expanse in front of them like someone had dropped a couple dozen glowing BBs and where they’d rolled out and stopped was where they put houses. “Well I’ll be a son of a bitch, finally made it back to civilization.” Cat said. Tom tapped him on the shoulder and pointed at a faint black streak, thick and dead in the distance, like a black razor strap. “That looks like water. I think maybe a river.” Cat nodded, “Yeah, definitely a river…but we ain’t making it there tonight.” They began descending the hill, both of them straining into the dark looking for a place to sleep, a tree, a clump of bushes, anything that wasn’t just flat ground where they would stand out starkly in the morning. After walking close to another mile, Cat stopped and leaned his head way forward, as if the couple inches he gained by doing it would make all the difference in his ability to see something in the dark. “Hey, there’s a couple of good sized trees over there,” he pointed in the dark like Tom could see what he was gesturing at. “I think that’s as good a place as any we’re going to find. You wanna give her a shot?” Tom shook his head, rummy from exhaustion, then realized Cat could barely see him, “Yeah…”
They crossed the field, and each step they took came down on sharp, short, recently mowed hay stubble. The field pitched downward as they approached the trees, and the cool hint of humidity began to cling to their arms, and ankles, and made their cheeks feel clammy. When they got near the trees the field became unmowed, and they walked through thigh deep grass and scrub brush. A pheasant exploded at their feet, clucking like two pieces of chalk being rubbed quickly together, “Goddamn it,” they said in unison. “That bastard about gave me a heart attack,” said Tom, temporarily wide awake from the shot of adrenalin. Cat laughed, “I think I damn near stepped on him.” Finally, they reached a semi flat spot under the wide branches of the tree. Tom couldn’t determine what kind of tree it was in the dark, and he didn’t care. He stomped in the brush and grass back and forth where he was going to lay his bag, trying to smooth the area. Cat didn’t bother. He had his blankets out and unrolled expertly in seconds, and was under the covers with his pack for a pillow. Eventually Tom was laying in his bag too. He couldn’t hear the heavy sleep breathing of Cat, and knew he was laying awake. He stared straight up at the sky and could make out the crooked silhouette of a limb, but had to move his head back and forth so that it blotted out the light of stars so that he could be sure what he was looking at. “Hey Tom, you awake?” Said Cat quietly, in case Tom had already drifted off. “Yeah, just laying here trying to unwind a little. I thought you were sleeping,” Tom lied, not sure of his reason for doing so. Cat was quiet for a few seconds, and they could both hear something moving in quick motions out in the brush. Probably a mouse, thought Tom. “You ever have the idea to own a piece of ground, I mean like a few acres?” asked Cat. Tom thought of his little house, and the pile of ashes it was now, and he had a pang of real regret. “Yeah…I guess so. The place back in Wisconsin was just a big lot. Be kind of cool having a few acres I think.” The quiet moved in instantly when he stopped talking. The temperature had dropped enough where the crickets weren’t even talking. They laid there staring up at the scattered stars, like white paint specks on black velvet, neither saying anything for a while. Tom broke the silence, “How about you? You ever think about getting a place?” He could hear Cat readjust his position, the grass and brush catching and rubbing on his bedding. “No. I’ve never really had the desire for my own piece. I could never be in just one spot like that forever. It’s not yours anyway, the land has always been here, and it always will be, no one really owns it, they just inhabit it until they’re dead, then someone else inhabits it until they’re dead, and that goes on forever. Besides, all the acres are mine, I just don’t have the deed to them.”
Somewhere in the black night they were awoken by gashing, buffeting wind that they either hadn’t felt building while they slept, or had truly hit all at once. The grass and brush they were laying in was pushed nearly flat to the ground, first one direction, then the other. The wood grain of the tree they had been sleeping under squeaked and screamed, and it seemed impossible that it hadn’t been sheared off, let alone the fact that it still retained its branches. Lightning shuddered and cracked constantly, so close that they could hear the tearing of it through the sky before the thunder hit, like the very fabric of the atmosphere was being ripped in half. Neither of them said a word, they pulled their shoes on and stowed sleeping gear as the first marble sized drops of ice cold rain fell. Tom, was terrified that the tree, which was the tallest thing in the area, would be struck by lightning, grabbed his pack and moved out into the mowed field. He reached into the front side pocket of his pack and after feeling for a few seconds, found the square of plastic he’d brought, smooth under his fingers. Cat came up behind him, and tapped Tom on the shoulder. He pointed at a little brushy ravine down between the edge of the field, and a low bald hill to the north. Tom popped the plastic and unfolded it like he was shaking sand from a beach towel. He and Cat pulled it over their heads like a makeshift shawl, and started down the hill. The lightning was continuous, and so close that it was hard to pinpoint where it was striking. It turned the landscape to a series of white and black strobe images, grass sideways, huge drops of rain glimmering in the light of the lightning, all frozen like photo negatives in their vision. At the bottom of the hill was a short clump of willows, bent sharply to the east from the wind. They backed underneath it and pulled the plastic around themselves and over their heads, and it left just enough to sit on. The rain fell heavier and heavier every second, and when the lightning popped, it illuminated a solid gray wall of rain, and they could see the earth turned shiny black like brownie batter. They got up and sat on their heels because the water was soaking their jeans where they touched the ground. Cat yelled at Tom over the thunder, and slashing rain, and the pounding of the willows on the plastic. “Wish we had a trailer to get under like back in Colorado.” Tom could see his face in the flashing light, the shadows at weird angles, making him look like a crypt keeper from an old horror movie. He didn’t answer, but nodded his head aggressively. The thin plastic and the willows were the only things that kept them from being raw and exposed to the violence of the storm, and Tom wondered how rabbits and birds or deer survived when nature unleashed itself so violently. They sat shoulder to shoulder, their feet and ankles soon soaked, and they made their world small. All that mattered was the little circle within their reach.
The storm raged for what seemed like forever, and then within a five minute span the wind died, and the lightning was past them. The sky was still black, and because it was still so dark, and because of the burning in his eyes, Tom knew he hadn’t been sleeping long when the storm had hit. They sat hunched under the plastic waiting for the rain the storm had ushered in to stop, but even though the wind disappeared, the rain stayed. It fell steadily, and straight down, not a downpour, but much more than a drizzle. “How long is this shit gonna last?” Tom said, more rhetorically than looking for an actual answer. Cat shrugged and shook his head, “I don’t know, hopefully not long.” They pushed up against the base of the willows and half leaned against them and each other, their legs drawn up and under the sheet of plastic that was over them, and semi dozed for an hour. The lightning had moved far to the east, and was nothing more than silent, fuzzy, blips of light on the horizon, but the rain kept falling steadily. The heavy cloud cover delayed daybreak, and when it did finally begin there was no focal point of light, just a gradual gray filtering away of darkness. When it had become light enough to make out the black skeleton of the tree they’d slept under the night before, Cat slipped a cigarette from his breast pocket and struck the lighter, its light a brilliant piece of color in the dull, monochromatic, pre-dawn light. “This is pointless, we might as well be moving rather than sitting here and pretending that we’re fucking sleeping,” said Cat as he exhaled a heavy blue cloud of cigarette smoke that floated in place before the rain pelted it away. “We’re just sitting here getting slowly soaked instead of just plunging in. I don’t know about you, but I’m gonna move.” Cat stood, the cigarette cupped in his palm to keep the rain from dousing it. Tom got up too, his butt cold and numb from sitting. “Let’s cut this plastic in half so we both have a chunk,” Tom said. They pulled it out as tight as they could and marked the center, then Tom ran his knife blade down the middle and the thick plastic parted silently. They fashioned ponchos by tying the plastic over their heads and under their arms with some of the baling twine that Cat had, then started for the road.
Slowly the sun’s light pierced through the dark gray layer of clouds, but even by noon the gloom held on, making it feel like it was early in the morning. Everything was sodden, and heavy, and there was no breeze whatsoever, just the straight down rain, popping constantly on the plastic ponchos, and making brown bubbles in mud puddles. Both of them were soaked from head to toe, either from rain, or sweat that had nowhere to escape to because of the ponchos. Tom thought about his parents house, thought about the television being tuned to the Packers, the house warm and dry, the smell of roasting garlic chicken in the air, and then he looked at where he was, at Cat, his muddy shoes and pants, the constant rain…what in the hell am I doing…
Six times vehicles passed by. Each time they scooted to the side of the road and stared past the squeaking windshield wipers into the cabs of the vehicles, hoping someone would take mercy on them, but each time all they got were questioning stares and a quick speed up. They were quiet for a long time, each man weighing decisions both large and small that had led them to the road they shared. There were no signs of life, not a mouse, not a sparrow, nothing. “We’re the only things dumb enough to be out in this shit,” Tom said, “I haven’t seen so much as an ant moving, but here we are, slogging through it like it’s a balmy Sunday afternoon.” Cat chuckled but said nothing. They walked slightly downhill for a quarter mile, then began a long, slow ascent of a sloped hill. The hillside was green, the first truly green pasture they’d seen in days, and it was a refreshing change. Tom looked over it, “Must be getting somewhere, this has been irrigated.” Cat nodded, and Tom watched him from his peripheral vision. Cat had been uncharacteristically quiet. They slowed to a slow plod as they fought up the hill. Tom felt the need to engage Cat, felt like there was something wrong. “I never asked you how you ended up out here doing this. I mean, it’s none of my business really, so don’t answer if you don’t want to…” Cat stopped walking for a second and stared straight down at his feet, a long tendril of hair hung out from under the poncho and it was soaked, a drop of water hung like a teardrop from the end of it before gravity became too great and it pulled loose and plummeted to the earth, another immediately began to form in its place. “Hey, I just proved you wrong,” Cat said. He pointed to the brown/orange muddy road, “there’s your sign of life.” A long pink earthworm stretched and contracted in the mud, trying to make the side of the road. Tom laughed, “Well, there you go, that makes us and the worms dumb enough to be out here.” Cat pulled the plastic forward to create a larger umbrella, then slid a cigarette and the lighter from his pocket, he lit the cigarette and put the lighter back, exhaling through his nose. He started walking again, and Tom assumed he wasn’t going to get an answer to the question he’d asked. They were a quarter way up the hill, and Cat was a half dozen big drags into the cigarette before he started talking. “You know, when I got out of high school, I got a job working as a sous chef in a restaurant. It’s funny they call it chef, because all you do is chop celery and onions and squeeze lemons and peel potatoes and you’re just the main chef’s bitch. I worked there for a couple months, and one day I just stopped going.” Cat took a deep drag of the cigarette, then another quick one before flicking the butt ahead of them into a mud puddle, where it made a small pfft sound as it went out. “So you quit with no notice?” Cat chuckled, “No. I just stopped going. I went in on payday, and they wanted to sit me down and weren’t gonna give me my money until I explained myself. Well, I told them if they didn’t have my money immediately I was going to the state labor board, and that I didn’t have to listen to their bullshit because I didn’t work there anymore. Yeah…they got my check. After that I worked for a company that made custom windows, then in a bakery for a while, and a couple other places too. I…just, I just couldn’t take the going into the same place, and putting myself under some dip shit that thought he was a bad ass just because he’d been making donuts two weeks longer than me. Just couldn’t do it. So, I sold most of the shit I had, and scratched together a few bucks, and told everyone I knew that I was hitting the road.” Cat hopped over a puddle, and where his shoe had been, muddy water swirled into the vacuum and erased the print. “There was one foster parent I had when I was older that I liked, a guy named Vince. I mean, he took an actual interest in me, he wasn’t doing just the bare minimum. The night before I left I told him what I was going to do, and he just didn’t get it. He kept saying, but where are you headed? What are you going to do? I kept telling him, I’m not headed anywhere, and I don’t have any plans on what I’m gonna do.” Cat laughed, and tucked loose pieces of hair back behind his ears. “He kept looking at me like…like, you ever see a dog get puzzled? You know, they’re sitting there and you make a funny sound or something, and they turn their head sideways? Well that’s the look he gave me. He just kept saying, what’ll you do for work, where you gonna sleep, where you gonna live, over and over and over he said it. He kept saying that I needed to settle down, get a job, find a wife. I waited for him to finish, and you know what I told him?” He didn’t wait for Tom to respond. “I said, what makes your way of living more right than my way? Because it’s easier? Because that’s how people have always done it and it’s conventional? There isn’t a goddamn thing more noble about what he was doing than what I was going to do. I think somewhere that light switch kind of came on for him. He sat there real quiet for a few minutes, then he got out his wallet. He dug into a little pocket and pulled this out.” Cat leaned to one side and poked a thumb and forefinger into the watch pocket of his jeans and brought out a dime. “This is a 1945 Mercury dime, Vince was born that year, and he was given the dime as good luck when he was just a little kid, and he carried it around with him all those years. He shook my hand and then put that dime in my palm and told me good luck. Greatest thing anyone has ever given me. I’ve been out here all this time without a home, but I’ve never been homeless.” Tom could hear something husky in his voice, and could see that he was blinking back tears. “I just can’t live any other way, I had no choice in the matter, this life chose me, I didn’t choose it.”