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  • Writer's pictureTodd Stevens

The Trail, scene twenty three

They walked north along a broad avenue, the early Sunday morning traffic was so slow that it made each car that passed very noticeable. The smell of fried onions and bacon filled the still air as they passed a little blue fronted cafe named, Custer's. The added weight of the pack aggravated Tom’s battered ribs and he took the pack off with great care, as if it contained eggs he didn’t want to be broken, and eased it to the ground just after they passed the restaurant. “I need to rest these ribs for a few minutes, and after I smelled that food, I’m starving.” Cat also lowered his pack to the ground. “Wanna go in and get a bite?” Tom shook his head no, “I don’t want to have to explain this,” he pointed to the side of his face and eye, purple and swollen, and starting to take on hints of yellow at the edges of the bruising.”Oh…yeah, well…I’ll go in and see if there’s anything we can take along and eat,” Cat entered the restaurant with a jangle of bells. Tom sat on a little wooden bench against the front of the restaurant. He worked his jaw again to feel if it was healing, and it moved somewhat easier, and the click in the joint had disappeared. He wondered how long it would take for the pain to be more manageable in his ribs. They’d only walked a mile and every step was a conscious effort not to jar the ribs in any way. Tom stood and looked through the big plate glass window into the restaurant. Cat stood at the counter, bent over at the waist and propped on his elbows, fingers clasped together. He’d obviously found something they could eat as they walked. Tom turned and slowly walked back to the road. It was gray with dust, and the gutters were filled with flattened paper cups, cigarette butts and bottle caps. He looked to the east, and the rising sun, which hadn’t reached his eye level yet, but reflected brightly from the bows that the power lines formed between poles. He wondered if Gina ever drove the road, and then he stopped himself. You met her and exchanged maybe a hundred words you moron, she probably already forgot about you, stop flattering yourself. He walked towards the rising sun very slowly, and suddenly realized what his body was going to feel like when he was an old man. A motion caught his eye across the street. An elderly lady in a light blue, ankle length sleeping gown, and wearing a pair of white fuzzy slippers, carried a large green watering can that showed chunks of bare galvanized metal where the paint had chipped and fallen off. She took glacially slow steps, then paused to look at each plant before she tilted the can and poured a wavering shower of water onto each one. He watched her move along methodically tending to each plant, and he wondered if that was the highlight of her day. The bells on the restaurant door jangled, and when he turned, he saw Cat carrying two long items wrapped in yellow paper, “Burritos, they were the only thing I could find that we could eat while we walk.” He handed one of the burritos to Tom. “Guy at the counter said there’s a rail yard about a mile and a half northwest of here, told me how ro find it.” Tom felt sudden worry, and Cat saw the concern spread across his face. “I’ve done this hundreds of times Tom, I give you my word that we won’t end up trapped in a box car.” Tom held the half unwrapped burrito, a flap of the yellow wrapper moving slightly in the thin morning breeze. Cat shouldered his pack, “I know I don’t have a right to ask this after what I did this weekend…but trust me, we’ll be fine.” Tom thought about the last few weeks, he played a little movie of all he’d done, most of which was side by side with Cat. He handed his half unwrapped burrito to Cat, and bent for his pack with a pained groan. “I trust you, but that isn’t gonna make me worry less.” He situated the pack, took his burrito back, and fell into stride alongside Cat. The elderly woman, who had finished watering her plants, sat on the wooden stoop of her home with the watering can between her feet, and watched them walk down the sidewalk until they disappeared.

Watery heat fumes rose from the dark brown, oiled rail yard, and the smell of warm diesel fuel and creosote permeated the still air. They sat in the long morning shadow of a billboard that advertised a local realtor. Tall, dusty gray knapweed, and massive straw colored tumbleweeds grew all around them. Cat was using his pack as a recliner, his hands resting on his chest, the right hand held a cigarette. In the near distance they could hear the dull roar of a diesel locomotive idling, accompanied by the rhythmic ding of a bell, which sounded more like a blacksmith beating on a horseshoe. Tom’s side throbbed with every beat of his heart, and his face and ear felt puffy and hot. He couldn’t tell if the heat was exacerbating his pain, or helping to dull it. He hooked a thumb inside the cuff of his t-shirt and used it to dab away stinging sweat from his eyes. “How long until we get in one of those cars?” said Tom. A long train stretched both ways almost as far as he could see in front of him, there were massive sections of the cars painted in multi-colored, swirling designs. Tom knew the graffiti was mostly gang related symbols, but he couldn’t help but marvel at the talent some of the artists had displayed. “They’ll send a security officer around here at some point. We’ll watch him until he passes by, then we’ll sneak over and jump on.” Cat watched Tom’s body language, looked at the side of his face, the bruises turning more yellow, and green around the edges by the hour. “You gonna be able to get on with those ribs?” asked Cat. Tom leaned away from his injured side, stretching the bruised ribs as far as he could. “I think so. If you get on first, I might need a hand up.” Cat nodded, then sat up. He took a big drag from the cigarette and exhaled two thick streams of smoke from his nose, before rubbing the butt out on the sole of his shoe. “It’s gonna be a hot son of a bitch today…it’s already a hot son of a bitch. That big train is gonna leave here soon.” Cat shaded his eyes and squinted to the north. “The engines are idling up there, and this train is pointed north. Don’t mean it’s going to stay going north, but it ain’t like we have a train schedule, gotta take a chance.” Tom was nervous. He couldn’t shake the bad feelings of the train ride that had started his trip, he asked Cat, “You ridden trains very often?’ Cat nodded, “Here and there. It’s kind of a dying thing really. You don’t see many full time riders anymore. I do it when I’m just trying to move on, get the hell out of a spot. Sometimes, like with this train, you have a pretty good idea where they’re heading, and sometimes it’s a crap shoot.” He laughed a little, and reached out and plucked a lavender knapweed flower. He rolled it between his thumb and index finger, brought it to his nose and smelled it, then tossed it into the bushes. “One time I was in Hoboken New Jersey and hopped a freighter for Florida…or so I thought, and had been told. That train didn’t stop until Gary Indiana, damn near 800 miles the wrong way.” He turned toward Tom and laughed, a sparkle in his eye, “So you might say that was a kink in my plans.” He smoothed his ponytail back and tightened it by working the rubber band up. “So if we end up in Wichita, don’t blame me.” They both laughed.

The early morning passed into midday and as the sun moved, they followed the shadow of the billboard. At lunchtime they ate the little vienna sausage and cracker sandwiches again, and had peanut m&ms for dessert. Cat stood and said, “Be right back, I gotta see a man about a dog.” He jogged, half stooped at the waist, over behind a big stack of pallets. Tom washed 4 ibuprofens down with water after he finished eating. He wanted to stay ahead of the pain a little bit. Cat jogged back the same way he’d left, bent at the waist like a soldier trying not to draw fire. He settled in and dropped a reddish, rusty railroad spike onto his pack. Tom didn’t ask, he’d learned his lesson not to pry when he’d asked about the shiny black tattoo. He was just about to lay back onto his pack when Cat slapped his knee gently and pointed with his chin at a man driving a white pickup slowly down the length of the train. “That’s the bull. Once he gets out of sight, we’ll make our move.” Tom’s stomach turned, like it had when he was a kid and his dad had driven over a rise in the road. “What will happen if they catch us?” said Tom. Cat’s eyes followed the truck as it bumbled over the uneven surface, kicking up low dark dust clouds just around the tires. “They’ll act like they caught us trying to rob the bank of England, give us a stern warning, and send us down the road. It’s not like you see in the movies where they beat the shit out of guys with axe handles…but we ain’t gonna get caught.” From a sitting position Cat swung his pack on and grabbed the railroad spike, Tom followed suit. Cat turned and looked right into Tom's eyes, then brought his index and middle fingers up and pointed one at each eye, look, and pointed at a big mustard yellow box car with the door still open. Why are we acting like we’re being listened to, wondered Tom. Then he recalled whispering to friends when he was young, for no reason other than habit, and he understood. Cat raised up on his knees and leaned to one side, like he was looking around something way out in the distance. He held that strained position, the cords of his neck standing out like stretched wire under his skin, for a few seconds before rising to a low crouch and waving at Tom. They crunched through the weed patch and out into the white, piercing sunlight. They broke into that same militaristic bent over jog that Cat had done earlier, the soles of their shoes leaving perfect tracks in the oiled dirt. When they reached the last few steps before the car, Cat somehow removed his pack while still running, and chucked it into the open door, then jumped up and caught the floor with the flats of his hands, pressed up, and swung his legs in like he was doing a pommel horse routine. Tom mimicked him, but sharp glass shard pains stabbed at his side where the stomped ribs were not healed. He stalled with his hands flat on the floor. Cat reached over him and grabbed handfuls of wadded shirt on his back and pulled him the rest of the way in. They scrambled to the far end of the car in the dark and settled against the wall. Cat dropped his pack and hurried back to the door. He took the railroad spike out and worked it down into the hole the lock mechanism made in the car door. When he sat back down he said, “That son of a bitch will never lock now, even if they try.” Tom’s ribs pounded with pain every time he took a breath, and it took 5 minutes before he wasn’t in agony. “I’m sorry about wrenching you like that, but we had to be quick.” Cat whispered. “Sometimes they sneak along here listening, so we best be real quiet until we get moving.” Tom’s eyes were adjusted to the dark just enough to see the reflection of the doorway in Cat’s eyes. He stared at them and tried to wish the pain in his side away. They sat silently sweating in the sweltering boxcar for almost two hours. Whatever had been hauled in the car previously smelled strongly like a pink, powdered hand soap Tom remembered from grade school. Better than shit smell I guess… They didn’t know it, but at exactly 2:11, the train began moving with a series of bangs, like one person after the next slamming a metal door for a half mile as the train jolted forward setting off the chain reaction. By 3:15 they were going full speed, heading…somewhere.

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