It was a scene straight out of a Peter Gabriel song, straight out of my life.
I had wandered south from Peyote, taking back roads and seeing the desolation of a winter prairie. In the summer, as I well knew, the prairie in full wheat is a glorious sight: oceans of waving golden grasses that become more glorious only after the grains are harvested and the spring burns begin.
But now, winter had taken the glory away, as it inevitably did. Blanketed in a coat of snow, it might have taken my breath away with its beauty. Even I, with my innate love of the prairies and green rolling hills of my native land, could find no solace in naked and bumped dirt littered with grain carcasses.
I followed the Verdigris River, roughly; the same river had the Ingalls family—of Little House on the Prairie fame—followed on their trek to Independence, Kansas (and independence) over 125 years before.
Independence is a relatively big town—relative, of course, only to the towns I had passed through on my journey. I stopped briefly to get gas, and feed and exercise Pi’pouce.
Let me say here that bringing the cat along was among one of the more stupid ideas I have had in my 30 years . . . right up there with sweeping a concrete patio with a live rabbit—
—and riding a less-than-dependable motorcycle cross-country in the dead of winter.
However, motorcycle training the cat had been fairly easy, as such things go. I had given her the opportunity to jump out of the saddlebag while traveling five (or thereabouts) miles per hour. She has no claws, so she wasn’t able to cling to my back, and she learned that the black thing going very fast underneath her was not her friend.
Whenever we stopped, I clipped her leash to the harness she wore and walked her. You haven’t lived until you’ve tried to walk a cat.
Then once, she got away from me before I could put her leash on her. I panicked as she rounded the corner of the dumpster across the parking lot of that particular filling station. Several lethal possibilities hit me at once:
A—dogs and assorted other animals
She had only ever been a house cat. Hand-raised and bottle-fed from her third day in the world, completely declawed, and a bit clumsy, she was vulnerable to even the most innocuous of dangers for an outdoor feline.
What I failed to take into account was her basic meanness. With or without claws, with or without experience, that cat could hold her own.
I also failed to realize how deeply she loved me—or was that the can of tuna I had just opened?
* * * * *
You would be amazed at all the places that will allow you to bring in a cat.
Clearly posted on most establishments’ doors are prohibitions against dogs. But walk in with a cat on a leash or in your arms, and be prepared for a lot of glances askance but nothing more.
Only one café sent us packing, but the waitresses were so taken with Pi’pouce (the advantage of having a beautiful animal as opposed to an ugly one not lost on me) that the manager allowed us back in as long as I leashed her.
By the time we got to Stillwater, Oklahoma (where I felt I should stop and outfit myself more adequately), she was (if resentfully) acclimated to our mode of living and transport.
Late February, it was still chilly, but this far south, it was almost bearable. I found a grove of trees in a field outside of town, by a small creek, where I thought to make camp. I could not rent a hotel room every night, but I had no other alternative unless I camped.
Besides, it would be more in the spirit of what I had set out to accomplish.
(Which was what? laughed that part of my brain I could only classify as “accountant”—that term encompassing everything I hated about my dual personality.)
* * * * *
My first stop was the Wal-Mart, which, though I denigrate it often as I travel the backroads, is a very handy thing to have around.
Milk crate, wool baby blankets, bungee cords, tuna, chili cheese Fritos, deli sandwich, milk, orange juice, pup tent, sleeping bag, Coleman lantern, metal plate and one set of cheap utensils…you get the picture.
I carried Pi’pouce around in my backpack because though the Wal-Mart people are very nice…they aren’t very tolerant of cats in the produce section.
The customer service counter kept my purchases aside and gave me directions to the nearest motorcycle shop where I planned to buy an actual trailer. Such a contraption would send my image plunging down the coolness scale, but no matter.
I carried Pi’pouce. A woman in a motorcycle shop with a cat in her arms would ensure prompt and courteous service.
Motorcycle men, particularly the more hard-bitten ones, tend to appreciate the softness women bring to their lives. A little chauvinism is a small price to pay for a cheerful helping hand.
However, that helping hand did not appear as quickly as I had expected. Not because of me, certainly, but because the little drama playing out at the counter had everyone in the shop enthralled. It even drew me in after a few moments.
“Please . . . I need a job!”
The plaintive, last-ditch tone caught my attention before anything else about the boy did.
“Kid, look. You don’t seem no more’n fourteen years old. I ain’t givin’ a job to no runaway. I got me enough problems as it is with Uncle Sam without hirin’ an illegal worker. ’Sides, how much could you know ’bout bikes?”
Indeed, the boy looked no older than fourteen or fifteen. His voice cracked every time he spoke, and his body had (probably) only recently outgrown his clothes. Taller than me by several inches, he had a shock of red hair and a bony frame wrapped in nothing warmer than a sweater and windbreaker. I hoped he had long johns under his jeans, and a couple pair of thermal socks in his worn boots.
“Go home,” the cycle shop owner (so I assumed, given his earlier comments) told him. “Whattaya runnin’ from, anyway?”
I flinched at the sheer naïveté in the man’s voice. Stillwater is a big enough town; how could he not have known of the horrors that drive many kids to the streets?
“I know motorcycles, inside and out,” the boy croaked, trembling, his gangly body shaking so badly I imagined I could hear his bones knocking together in a steady tattoo. “But I don’t even care about that. Let me sweep your floors, clean your windows—something, anything!”
The child’s voice had a cultured note to it, his grammar clipped and precise. He did not seem to fear the men gathered around him, and though humiliated and begging, he held his head high. I began to see the shop owner’s point: This boy had not been abused.
The owner’s mouth tightened, and he sighed, staring up at the boy in front of him, silent as he thought.
“C’mon back,” he finally muttered, turning away and throwing his arm toward a door marked OFFICE. “I’m gonna feed you, but then you gotta go. Brian, help the lady with the cat.”
I started. So he had seen me. My respect for the shop owner increased; apparently not much missed his sharp senses.
The Brian person assigned to assist me did so with alacrity and a sweet Oklahoma drawl. Not much older than the boy who had obediently trotted off after the owner, he seemed much more inclined toward ogling girls and fixing bikes than leaving home. A happy kid, I figured, and knew, somehow, that he was the owner’s son.
I told Brian what I wanted, and though he listened, his eyes strayed to my cat or my breasts—I couldn’t tell which. So I said, “Would you like to pet her?” and bit back a smile at the guilty flush that spread across his face.
Brian arranged to put the hitch on my cycle himself (“Right this minute, ma’am.”) and asked me could I please wait in the lobby for a few minutes. “Coffee’s good—made it myself—and fresh. Well, kinda. Uhm, well, not really. On second thought, maybe you shouldn’t drink the coffee. Here—I’ll make a new pot for—”
“Brian!” boomed the older man’s voice out from nowhere, startling both of us. “Quit yammerin’ and put that hitch and trailer on the lady’s bike pronto.”
And poof! Brian was gone.
I sauntered over to the counter where the man bent over a parts catalog, occasionally taking notes.
On closer inspection, he was a handsome man, but haggard. Too many years in the sun and wind, too many worries. His face had character, and when he sensed my staring, he looked up, his blue eyes so perfect with his tawny hair that any other color would have been incongruous.
“Yes, ma’am. Can I help you?”
I thought about all the ways he could help me, if I were that kind of girl, but I’m not, so I let it go. And in his face, the quick touch of a smile there and gone so fast I might have imagined it (but I knew I hadn’t), let me know he had thought the very same thing I had.
“What’s the story on the kid?” I asked quietly.
The man glanced over his shoulder at the closed office door, slow to answer.
“Sleepin’ right now,” he murmured. “Couldn’t wait for the chili to heat up. If he knows what’s good for him, he’ll head on home.”
“Where does he live?”
The man grunted. “Long way from here. Been on the road a long time.”
“What do you suppose he’s running from?”
“His self,” the man answered, rather brusquely, as he moved away from the counter, away from me, and ending the conversation.
The shop bell jingled after a few moments of me standing there at the counter with a cat on a leash, feeling a little bit of a fool. The interruption was welcome, a break in the silence I figured was tense only to me.
Another handsome, older man came in—this one as haggard as the shop owner, yet his fatigue was recent, and though his clothes were dirty and wrinkled, they were expensive.
“Can I help you?” Again that deep voice with the thick Oklahoma accent.
The new arrival sighed and swept off a baseball cap that had “Pebble Creek” beautifully embroidered on it to reveal a mop of auburn curls.
So. Here was the father.
“I hope so. I’m looking for a boy about, oh, this high—” And he held his hand at the level of my forehead. The boy’s growth spurt had happened during his time on the road.
But the man stopped talking, and his shoulders slumped. He dropped his hand and nearly collapsed on the counter, his face buried in his hands. His shoulders shook.
I wanted to put my hand on the man’s arm, but he was a stranger, and I was not used to dealing with strangers on such an immediately visceral level. So in lieu of that, I went to pour him a cup of coffee.
“My son,” he was saying when I returned, and sent me a generic, watery smile of thanks. I doubted he would remember my existence, but that was neither here nor there. The shop owner listened without comment. “I’ve been looking for him for the past six months. I lost his trail in Branson, picked it up again in Bartlesville.” He pulled out a picture of a wedding party—the groom being the father, the boy (several inches shorter) the best man. The boy did not look happy.
One look at the bride and I knew the whole story.
Apparently so did the shop owner, because his gaze and mine met in perfect, sympathetic unity of thought.
The owner handed back the picture. “Why do you think he woulda come here? Tons o’ other places he coulda gone.”
“He’s hit every motorcycle shop from Chicago to here, looking for a job.”
“He any good?”
“Yes,” replied the father, too wrapped up in his picture to take notice of the oddity of the question.
“Pretty bride,” I commented as I tapped the photo from beside him.
My companion-in-thought slid me another look, but that one I could not decipher.
The father said nothing for a moment, then quietly released his bitterness. “Looks can be deceiving.”
I noticed that the shop owner slipped away, but the father still stared at the picture.
The father’s head snapped up, and as he gazed at his son (and obviously shocked at seeing how much his son had grown), his Adam’s apple bobbed and a tear tracked unheeded (and unashamedly) down his face.
“I’m not going back!” the boy threw out, half defiant, half wary.
But when the father suddenly vaulted over the counter and strode to the boy in two long strides, the boy’s fright won out and he turned to flee.
One hand gripped the child’s biceps, and the father jerked the boy around until he was engulfed in his father’s arms. The father buried his face in his son’s hair, even as the son buried his face in his father’s shirt and wept, his arms around his father as if he would never let go.
“She’s gone, son,” the older man told the boy. “I sent her packing. You were right about her and I’m sorry. So sorry. Son,” he said, “grab your things—I’ve come to take you home.”
* * * * *
I strapped the milk crate to the back of the bike with bungee cords, lined it with the baby blankets, put the cat in it, and fastened another blanket on top with the last bungee.
Everything I bought fit in the trailer nicely, and I even bought a cooler and ice for foodstuffs and water.
Our camp, once I set it up, was cozy. We had a little fire and grilled Spam. I staked the cat’s leash so she couldn’t wander far, and, as was her wont, she slept on top of me when we retired for the evening.
Would that I could sleep so easily.
I remembered when I was at the end of my rope, not so many years ago, in a place I had begun to hate, with a spirit I was losing to despair. And I remembered calling my father, 1,200 miles away, on a Sunday, the despair and terror in my voice all too palpable.
And how, early on Tuesday morning, my father knocked on my door.
“Child,” he said, “grab your things—I’ve come to take you home.”
©1998 Moriah Jovan