The Trail, scene twenty two
Tom eased back onto the bed, every movement a throbbing effort of pain. Cat stood and looked out the window, he seemed calmer, almost serene. It was as if he had excised a demon. He had the same aura about him that he’d had for their entire time together, except for one booze soaked twelve hour period. Tom worked his lower jaw in slow circles, feeling something click in the joint on the left side. He remembered seeing a flash, and very little else from that point until he awoke in bed. “I saw you spray tequila into the one cowboy’s eyes, what happened to the other guy? I could see him grab his eyes, but why?” Cat took a big breath and dropped his head, until his chin was nearly resting on his chest. He turned from the window and sat back down in the chair. “I knew those guys were gonna fuck me up, they were both way bigger, way stronger, so I guess I had to find a way to uh…to equalize the odds. I threw a handful of that tequila salt in his eyes. I thought after they were down that I had shit under control, but I didn’t think about that other guy that was with them. I turned just in time to see you hit the floor, he blindsided you, and there were enough people grabbing and pulling on me that I couldn’t get over there before he put the goddamn boots to you good and hard. I shoulda seen it coming, I really should have.” Cat licked his thumb and reached down and cleaned something off the toe of his shoe. “Anyway, that woman you were dancing with came over and got that big son of a bitch off you until I got over. She helped me get outside with you. Then she went back in and called a cab.” Tom pictured her helping, imagined her waking up in the morning glad she wasn’t tangled up with him. “Her name is Gina.” Tom said. Cat looked up, “That’s right, I think I remember her telling me that now.” They sat quietly for a few minutes, both of them still disseminating the information and order of the previous night’s events. Tom kept looking at the tan telephone and thinking about his dream. He was exhausted and sore, but the phone loomed constantly. “Cat?” said Tom. Cat looked at him. “I need to make a call, you think I could get a minute alone?” Cat stood, “Sure, I’ll take a little walk.” He turned and grabbed the walking stick and left the room. Tom picked up the phone and sat it on his lap. He looked at it for a long time before finally picking up the receiver and dialing the number he’d known by heart for as long as he could remember.
Cat took a slow walk to the grocery store that he’d bought the vodka from, and wandered the aisles slowly, as he picked out a few random groceries, when he returned, he sat against the wall of the hotel rather than returning to the room. The sun had warmed it, and he could feel it radiating through his shirt. Traffic moved back and forth sporadically on the road in front of him, the sound of the tires loud and reverberating off the wall, the faint smell of exhaust coming to him seconds after each car passed by. Across the street a man with a shiny bald head, wearing a pair of long black basketball shorts, and a white wife beater, polished an old blue Ford pickup parked in the shade of a big elm tree. He used an electric drill with a yellow pad that was plugged into a long extension cord. Cat watched him for a few minutes, and said under his breath, “Like trying to polish a turd.” He whittled intermittently on the walking stick, while checking over his shoulder at the room, as if somehow he would know when it was okay to return. He tried to take his own advice and live in the moment. There was nothing he could do about the night before, it was over, there was nothing he could do about Tom if he decided he was going to quit the road and go home, and there sure as hell wasn’t anything he could do about tomorrow. So he carved the walking stick and watched the bald man polish his truck. When he finally went back to the room, Tom was sound asleep, the phone perched in his lap. There was a mound of pink, bloody tissues piled on the bed next to Tom’s hip, and when Cat saw them he felt a wave of guilt.
When Tom woke from his nap he felt slightly better, the headache was gone, and the swelling in his face and ear had receded enough where the skin didn’t feel like it was going to split from pressure. Cat was lying on the other bed watching a movie with no sound on, and the room had the look of late afternoon dusk, the crack in the curtains let in warm orange light. He looked at the clock, 6:19, the day was gone. “Holy shit, I didn’t mean to sleep the whole day away.” Cat sat up and drew his legs up and crossed them, “You needed it. It was a short night…and well, you’re pretty banged up. How are you feeling?” Tom eased his legs off the bed and sat facing Cat. “Actually, a little better. I’m still sore as hell, but I feel like that rest helped. I’m hungry as hell too.” Cat hopped off the bed and rummaged through a paper grocery bag. “Went to the store while you were out.” He brought out a can of vienna sausages and some Ritz crackers, and an aerosol can of cheese whiz. “This isn’t exactly gourmet, but you’re welcome to it.” For the next 10 minutes Tom assembled little sandwiches from the ingredients and ate them. When he was done he stood and went to the bathroom. Maybe he’d just become used to the pain in his left side, or maybe it was actually improving, but he felt better. He walked gingerly around the room, cautiously leaning more onto his left side as he walked, seeing just how much pressure he could put on that side before it became too much. Finally he sat and looked at the phone, a weird sense of relief and guilt washed over him and he immediately chose not to rehash the call he’d made back home. It was done, and they knew he was alive. There would be time to rehash the details some other day. He thought about Gina, and how things could have played out differently if it weren’t for a pile of quarters on a jukebox. A spark of anger flared through him, but he let it fade out. He looked at Cat for a long moment, “What did you think about that woman I was dancing with last night, Gina?” Cat turned from the TV, his slick clean hair catching light from the bedside lamp. “I didn’t have much of a chance to talk to her. I got a little busy, but she’s a really pretty girl. She sure as hell had no problem diving right in and shooing that big bastard away from you. Dove right in.” Tom wished he could remember, he reached up and felt the joint in his jaw, sore, probably from where it had been disconnected when he was knocked out. “Did she say anything after I was out?” Cat stood up and pulled a soda from the mini refrigerator. “She just helped me get you into the cab. I was kind of preoccupied, so if she said anything, I don’t remember it,” he popped the soda open with a sharp hissing crack, “She sure was a little devil protecting you though.” Another surge of anger, and Tom had to bite his tongue. He played out a scene in his mind like a TV show where the camera was above and he was watching himself lying on the filthy floor of the bar, Gina hovering over him like a mother hen with her young. He thought about going back to the bar. He wanted to see her again, but wasn’t comfortable going back in the shape he was in, or so soon after the fight. It didn’t have to go like this, this idiot screwed everything up. But then he remembered about living in the moment, and that’s what he tried to do. He thought, last night is gone, tomorrow never gets here, let everything go and live right now. He took a breath as deep as he could with his smashed ribs, and exhaled through his nose, then he eased himself back onto the pillows. Cat walked to the window and pushed the curtains open. A series of pale orange clouds that looked like small waves sat motionless in the sky. Cat stared at them, his back to Tom. “You remember me telling you about how I got my nickname?” Tom answered, “Yeah…” Cat continued to watch the sky, and slowly crossed his arms over his chest, “It wasn’t that I changed my mind about converting.” Tom wasn’t sure what Cat was referring to, “What do you mean?” The room fell silent for a few moments besides the whining of the air conditioner fan. Tom watched the reflection of the television, blurry and distorted, in the window as he waited for Cat to speak. “I didn’t change my mind about converting to Islam, I couldn’t stay sober, that’s why I couldn’t convert, because I couldn’t stay sober.” He uncrossed his arms and put his hands on his hips. “This…this problem, has fucked my life up so many times.” He sighed, the kind of sigh that sounded like defeat and sadness. He looked across the street at the shiny, freshly washed Ford pickup, the pavement still wet where the water had run off. “I guess in a way it was a blessing when it came to Islam, because even if I had converted and been able to stay sober, I don’t believe it anymore.” He went back and laid on the bed, lacing his fingers together behind his head. He stared at the ceiling as if some magical writing might appear to him. Tom rolled to his right side so he could see him better, and asked, “Is it like that every single time you drink?” Cat turned only his eyes toward Tom, “Well, it doesn’t always end in a fist fight, but it always ends in trouble. Tom wanted to ask him, if you know it ends in trouble every single time, why do you keep doing it? But he knew Cat was asking himself the same question, and probably had asked it hundreds of times. “We used to live about two blocks from a huge park.” Said Cat. “I was about 13 years old, and I was in foster care. The people weren’t terrible people, but they were brutally strict. It was almost like they were looking for some reason to crack down on me. It seemed like they thought that if they just piled more rules and punishment on me, it would cure all my issues, so I hated being there. I had a ratty old worn out football that I’d take down to that big park. Sometimes I’d find enough kids to get a little game going, but they’d always end up having to leave or something and I’d be there alone.” Cat sat up cross legged and held his ankles as he stared at the television absentmindedly. Tom watched the side of his face, and could see that he was replaying that long ago scene. “I’d punt the ball, then hustle after it, then throw it back, then punt it, then throw it, over and over. I used to imagine an NFL scout sitting somewhere far off watching me with binoculars. I imagined him seeing something in me, something maybe I didn’t even see, potential or something. I imagined him following me along secretly as I progressed year by year in football, then one day coming for me, making all my dreams come true.” Cat smiled an almost dazed smile, his eyes looking back over the years as he stared at the movie without seeing it. The smile slowly faded away. “I was a decent athlete, but by my freshman year I was middle of the pack, and I knew that little story in my head was just a fantasy. That’s about the time when I chose to go a different route…but I took the wrong set of stairs…took the wrong set of stairs…”
Tom woke in the calm, dark, climate controlled room, the steady sound of the air conditioner humming smoothly. He didn’t remember falling asleep. He looked at the clock, 4:48. He felt remarkably clear headed and rested, must have passed out early. Cat was turned away, his breathing so quiet it was inaudible. Cars coming from a side street cast beams of light that somehow dodged the curtains and swept across the ceiling, he heard them hiss by after navigating onto the main street. He worked his jaw in little circles and although he felt tenderness, it was no longer outright pain. He worked his shoulders side to side, trying to feel his ribs. They were still very sore, but he felt he could rise without using everything as a crutch. He threw the blankets back and eased his legs onto the floor, then made his way into the bathroom. He took a very long, very hot shower, and he thought about going home. A part of him wished he’d stayed dead in everyone’s mind back in Wisconsin, because now home, and familiarity, were siren calls. He always knew he was a phone call away from going back, but it was different now, somehow more real.
When he opened the bathroom door Cat was just coming in from outside, he smelled fresh cigarette smoke in the rush of air that came from outside. Cat pulled some fresh clothing from his bag and held it in his lap. “So, what’s it going to be?” It was almost as if he could read Tom’s mind, feel the pull of home that Tom was feeling. Tom didn’t have to ask him what he meant, he knew, “I’m ready to get moving, we still haven’t made the west coast.” Ever so slightly Cat acknowledged his decision with a tiny head nod, then stood and said over his shoulder, “I’ll get showered then, and we’ll get the hell out of here.”