The Trail, scene twenty one
Just about 11:00 it was almost as if a secret button was pushed behind the bar that sent out a signal for everybody in the room to move to a higher level of noise, and booze induced euphoria. The dance floor was suddenly jammed, the music a half octave louder, laughter became hyena cackles, cigarettes bumped into things and fell in showers of sparks to the floor. Tom danced three times with Gina, and all three times he watched the cowboys in the corner, as they in turn watched Cat, who was seemingly impervious to alcohol. He drank faster than anyone else in the bar, yet there wasn’t even a glimmer that he was intoxicated. Tom guided Gina to her table, then sat at the table with Cat. He looked up at the stack of quarters on top of the jukebox, then back at Cat. “I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to get hungry. Maybe we should go find a place to get a bite to eat?” Said Tom. He tried to look through the mass of people on the dance floor to see what the cowboys were doing, then glanced over at Gina. Cat smiled, “I’m not going anywhere, but if you want to take your girl and go, I’ll see you back at the motel later on.” He stared at Tom with his dead eyes, which made him look like a different person. “Listen, Cat…I’m far from one to try and tell anyone else what to do, but…” Cat cut him off, “Then don’t. I already told you, take your lady friend and go. I’m gonna sit right here,” he stabbed the table with his finger, “..and listen to music, and enjoy this night.” He raised his eyebrows and moved ever so slightly forward, not menacingly so, but with force, and an attitude that said, this conversation is over. Tom shook his head up and down slightly, and after a second he leaned back. “Okay, I see, and like I said, I’m no one's boss.” He stood and walked back over to Gina and sat in a chair next to her. “Hey…there’s about to be trouble. I can’t get this guy, Cat, to use any kind of sense. I don’t want his bullshit to reflect on me, I mean…this is not the guy I’ve been traveling with, it’s like the minute he took a drink he was a totally different person.” Her eyes lost their humor as Tom spoke. “But I don’t feel like I can just leave him here alone to get his ass tromped into the dirt…but I’m worried what you’re gonna think.” She bit her bottom lip with her upper teeth. And ran her hand through her hair, pushing it away from her face. “I’m not gonna let what he does make me think less of you, I just wish your friend would wake up, those guys are the last people on earth he wants a fight with.” Tom scrubbed his face with both hands, then rubbed his velvety new haircut. “Yeah, I can see that…” Tom watched Cat stand and walk to the bar. “I’ve had a great time getting to know you. What days do you work?” She smiled, “You know what’s funny? If you’d come in here when I was working, this never would have happened. See, as a female bartender, you put out the vibe that you’re semi interested in every man that bellies up to the bar, but you never date any of them. That way there’s an air of mystery, and the possibility remains that they could be the one to take you home exists…and the tips follow.” She laughed a little embarrassed laugh. “Now, I didn’t come up with that protocol, a veteran girl that worked here did. But it works, and I’ve always stuck to it. So you see, this was meant to be.” She looked right into his eyes, and there was a seriousness that he saw, it wasn’t overly romantic booze talking. He nodded, “Yeah, I agree.”
Behind her, Cat walked back to the table, he carried a shot of tequila, cut limes, and a salt shaker. From the other side of the dance floor, Tom saw the big cowboy with one of his friends right behind him, walking to the jukebox. “I’ll be back Gina, I gotta go.” Tom stood, adrenaline rushed through him like ice water, heightening his senses and making the room slow down. Cat took one of the shots, quickly throwing his head back, and Tom could see that Cat also saw the cowboys approaching the jukebox. Don’t do it you stupid son of a bitch… But Cat moved toward them, Tom only three or four steps behind. Then the cowboys and Cat were only a few feet apart, right in front of the jukebox. Cat raised his hand slowly, un-aggressively, as if he were going to scratch his ear. Then in one quick motion the hand flashed forward to the big cowboy’s face, throwing something, and at the same instant he spewed the shot from his mouth into the second cowboy’s eyes like a fountain, the light of the jukebox caught in the spray, turning it into a pink rainbow for a split second. They both grabbed at their eyes, and in that moment of confusion Cat’s right foot moved with speed and accuracy, like a whip, smashing the big cowboy full speed in the groin, and was followed by a lashing left hand that was retracted just slightly as it contacted the second cowboy’s adam’s apple. The big cowboy was on the ground clutching his groin when Cat unleashed a full speed kick directly into his solar plexus, he immediately vomited. The second cowboy was on his knees, his eyes wild with terror as he fought for breath, Cat turned and punched him in the ear, splitting it, blood instantly spraying. The attack was calculated, and vicious, with no regard whatsoever for the rules of engagement. Tom stood there stunned with the other onlookers, and then he saw a flash of light, like one of those old time flashbulbs. He felt a loss of control over his body, but couldn’t understand why. Everything turned yellow in his vision, and he was confused, why was everyone sideways? Then he suddenly realized that they weren’t sideways, he was on the ground. He could see Cat’s shoes, and people backing away, and then a smashing pain, in his ribs, followed by instant darkness, as if he were a narcoleptic who’d had an episode.
He was sitting at the kitchen table, it was a beautiful early morning, the sun not yet up, but that sweet, perfect, warm lemon light filled the room. He was nine, or twenty, or some age…he couldn’t tell for sure. “Tommy, you sure you want to do this? It’s not like it’s too late, she ain’t in trouble or anything. You could walk away right now and the whole thing would be forgotten in a month.” Tom watched his dad take a drink of coffee, then use his bottom lip to reach up and clean his mustache, almost like he was trying to reach his bottom lip over it. His dad was young…or old, and then it wasn’t his dad anymore, it was suddenly his school counselor. What the hell are you here for? The counselor turned, “Call your parents Tom.” A sudden pain in the side of his head, his mom accidentally touched a hot coffee pot to his ear, “Mom, you’re burning me,” but when he turned she wasn’t there, his ear still hurt fiercely. Then they were all gone, but there was a terrible sound. He looked down the little hallway and could see their Irish setter, Donny. He was hunched forward, retching right by the front door, the sound awful.
Tom opened his eyes from the dream, the entire scene melting away, the hotel room dark, cold, real. There was searing pain in his left ear and side of his head, and as he tried to roll to his back, pain surged through his side, pounding, and dull, and sharp all at once. “Fuck…” he whispered. Then the retching again. He looked at an angle and could see Cat’s feet, he was kneeling at the toilet. He vomited long, and hard, and when he was done there were dry heaves, and spitting, and gasping breaths. Tom pieced together the night before, the bar, Gina, the cowboys, getting utterly smashed and stomped. He looked over at the red glowing numerals of the bedside clock, it read 4:17. He closed his eyes and replayed the previous evening. He couldn’t remember anything after being on the floor, it was lost. He had to take shallow breaths, because if he didn’t, it felt like someone was swinging a sledgehammer into his ribs. He drifted off again, this time dreamless. When he woke it was light, and he hadn’t shifted in his sleep. He looked at the clock, 7:44. Cat sat at the desk chair. He was clean, and dressed in fresh clothing. There was a new bottle of ibuprofen sitting on the desk, and a white, paper cup of coffee. When Cat saw that he was awake he said, “Coffee?” Tom rolled to his back painfully, slowly, his heartbeat keeping time in his ear, and his ribs felt like they were pinned between a car bumper and a wall. “Yeah, could you give me a hand?” Cat stood and slowly eased him up, then used all the pillows in the room to brace him in a sitting position. He took the coffee from the desk and handed it to him. “I got some ibuprofen for you…well, and me.” His voice was shaky, unsure, Tom had never heard him sound so broken, not even when he’d recounted the story of his mother abandoning him. He wanted to yell at Cat, ask him what in God’s name he was thinking, tell him to get the hell away from him, but he couldn’t. He saw the trembling hands, the glistening, watery eyes, and heard the voice filled with remorse, sadness, defeat, and he couldn’t bring himself to say it. He took a sip of the coffee and it sizzled in an open cut on the inside of his left cheek. “Could you hand me those ibuprofen?” He took the bottle from Cat and shook four into his left hand, which was covered with smeared and dried blood. “Listen, Tom, I..” but Tom cut him off by raising his hand and shaking whatever Cat was about to say away, “Just…not right now. Let me wake up first.” Cat nodded, then leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, and both of his hands holding the paper cup of coffee. He looked at a spot on the floor and tried to rinse away the awful feeling that gripped him in every way. Tom washed the ibuprofen down, careful not to let the coffee touch the left side of his mouth. They sat there in the still room and listened to birds, happy with the morning, talk to each other as they perched on the iron handrail in front of their room. Tom drank about half the coffee, moving only his right arm, which was seemingly the only thing that didn’t ache on his entire body. The ibuprofen began to take the upper edge of the pain away, and he decided to take a shower. As he moved from the bed, the pain in his ribs was intense. It felt like they had been separated from one another, like they were floating independently and rubbing against one another. When he stood, the heartbeat started again in the side of his head and ear. Cat helped him, and offered him a hand. Tom took it.
The mirror told an awful story. His ear was purple, like an overripe plum, and his eye was swollen half shut, and shiny black underneath. The entire left side of his face was puffy, like he’d had a severe allergic reaction. His ribs from the armpit to his waist were red and black. He weighed his wounds, touched them carefully, like he was testing a fresh coat of paint to see if it was still wet. He slowly scrubbed himself in the hot shower, the blood that came from his body made thin pink strands in the water before slipping into the drain. The shower held healing power, and he stayed in for a long, long time. When he came out, Cat was gone. He sat on the edge of the bed wrapped in only a towel for a few minutes, then gritted his teeth and agonizingly dressed in shorts and a t-shirt. Questions abounded in his mind, and he wanted to talk. Slowly he moved to the window, and using his right arm, pushed the curtains aside. It was a bright, sunny, cloudless day. One side of the hotel courtyard had a row of low hedges, and one of the underground sprinkler heads that watered those hedges had leaked. Tom could see where water had formed a little stream that had run down and formed a puddle in a low spot in the center of the paved courtyard. A half dozen sparrows sat placidly around the edge of the puddle, already having satiated their thirst. To the right of the big lot was a cement walkway that led past the doors of the ground level hotel rooms. Cat sat leaning against the far wall of the hotel. He had a cigarette in his mouth, and he was carving on the walking stick. Tom watched him work, trying his best to reconcile the two Cats. The tranquil, friendly, thoughtful man he’d traveled with for weeks, the one he was now watching, with the dead eyed savage that he’d watched devastate two men half again his size in seconds. He pushed the curtains all the way back and sat on the edge of the bed, every movement documented in pain. When Cat finished the cigarette, he stood and flicked it into the street, then turned and started toward the room. As he walked, he twisted the stick in his hands and blew away wood chips.
Tom arranged the pillows and leaned back against them like a soft recliner. When Cat came in, he paused at the door for a second, the stick hanging loosely at his side, temporarily forgotten. He looked at Tom’s smashed face, “How ya feeling?” he asked. Tom didn’t try to sugar coat his answer. “About like I look, I’m in a lot of pain. I don’t think my ribs are broken, but they feel loose, like they’ve been separated from each other.” Cat reached back and shut the door by catching it with his elbow. “Tom, listen, I don’t care if you want to hear this or not, I gotta say it.” He slowly tossed the walking stick onto his bed, then sat on the chair as he had earlier, elbows on knees, fingers laced together in between. “I have this thing…it builds up in me. Sometimes I’ll go a year, sometimes a few months…but this thing builds up in me, and…” he paused for a long time, watching his own thumbs as he rubbed them together, “...and I try really hard to ignore it, but then one day it becomes so unbearable that I have to drink, it’s like I have no control. It’s almost like when you eat a big meal and you feel right after you’re done like you’re never going to need food again. Then a few hours later that hunger starts, and you try to ignore it, you tell yourself you don’t need it. But the hunger is insistent, it never stops, so finally you eat, and when you do, you’re a glutton and you eat too much, and then the whole damn thing starts again. Well, that’s me with liquor. Right now, after all this terrible shit I’ve caused, I feel like I’m never gonna do it again, never. But I’m already worried that it won’t last.” He looked up at Tom. He wasn’t crying, but there were shining tears hanging on his bottom eyelid. “I’m sorry about last night, I know that’s way too little, way too late, but it’s all I got. I can promise you this though, it won’t happen again if you decide you still want to travel together.” Tom looked at his friend, again wondering how two men, so totally different from each other, could inhabit the same body. Cat was genuine, and Tom believed him. He stuck out his hand. Cat looked at it, then up at Tom’s swollen face, then back at the hand. He leaned forward, lifting his butt from the chair and took Tom’s hand and shook it, then sat back in the chair and rubbed his thighs with his hands almost like he was trying to warm them. “I’m not gonna make it far after we check out. I’m sore as hell.” said Tom. Cat smiled, “Well, you won’t have to worry about it until tomorrow. I rented it for another night.” Tom was shocked, “Isn’t that gonna drain you?” Cat breathed in a big breath, then out through his nose loudly. “Yeah, but it’s the least I could do. I had to call a cab last night too. After this room for two nights, the cab, and what I spent at the bar, I’m down a lot.” He smiled, and for the first time it looked like the old Cat’s smile, “It ain’t like I haven’t been broke before, and I still have plenty of cigarettes…I’ll be fine.”