by Steve Carr
Jack awoke and opened his eyes to the sight and sound of box cars packed with cattle crossing the tracks over his head, showering dust and bits of hay down on him. He covered his face with his arm and lay still which protected his eyes but did nothing to stop the strong odour of cow manure from assaulting his nostrils. While the train passed he tried to remember where he was and what day of the week it was. After a couple of minutes of concentrating really hard he remembered it was Sunday but couldn’t for the life of him recall where the railroad bridge was that he was now lying under. It was north of the Badlands in South Dakota, that much he knew, but even the memory of the ride he accepted to get to where he was, was hazy at best. What he did remember was that it had been night and much warmer. He also remembered a hand being placed on his leg, squeezing it, and that was all. As the last car of the train clacked off the far end of the tracks, Jack removed his arm from his face and looked around.
The bridge above him was no different then any other railroad bridge, a combination of steel and wood and cables, blackened with age, weather, use or paint, he couldn’t tell. Not far down the slope thick with prairie grass that he was lying on passed the gentle gray currents of a river. There were no trees on the bank he was on and none on the bank on the other side. The houses on this side of the river were about a half-mile down river and along with those along the ridge on the other side revealed nothing special about their occupants, their history or their location other than what he already knew. There were no boats of any size on the river or any piers jutting out into it and no landing docks that he could see. Other than the now faint sound of the train disappearing in the distance on its journey to wherever it was headed, and the slight splashing of the river currents against the bank, it was very quiet. At the side of the sleeping bag his clothes were laid out just as always; as if laid there by a stranger who had just evaporated in them while lying down. His bladder suddenly made its presence and need to be emptied known.
Unzipping the bag he shivered as the cool air washed over his naked skin. As he stood up and looked down the length of his lean body he wondered how he had gotten the bruises along his ribs on the left side. I’ll try to remember that later he thought as he faced downwind and urinated. While watching his pee water a patch of brown prairie grass he heard the growl of a dog and looked up to see a skinny black mongrel a few yards away, its teeth barred and head tucked down but staring straight at him.
‘Easy, boy,’ Jack said softly.
Despite the growling the dog wasn’t being aggressive and it wasn’t drooling so Jack slowly bent down and held his hand out, palm up.
‘I’m a nice guy pooch. I won’t hurt you.’
It stopped growling but it’s posture and distance didn’t change.
‘I guess I should find out where I am,’ Jack said standing slowly.
He slid on his jeans then picked up his t-shirt. Just before he slipped it over his head he stuck his fingers through a hole where a pocket had been.
‘Damn,’ he muttered, ‘this is my last one.’ He put it on, his small brown nipple showing through the hole.
With his backpack and sleeping bag hidden behind a piling under the bridge, Jack made his way to the main west-east road and highway going through the town he was in. There were barely any vehicles traveling on it, but there were a couple of motels, small businesses and restaurants; a clear indication it was a main through-o-fare even if there wasn’t much to it or anything to brag about. Jack walked eastward down the narrow sidewalk with the dog following behind but still maintaining a distance. At a small gas station and convenience store, Jack went in and bought a bottle of orange juice, a package of small chocolate frosted doughnuts and a can of dog food. He placed the items on the counter and took several bills out of his jeans front pocket.
‘Your shirt has a rip in it,’ the teenage girl behind the cash register said to him as she rang up his items.
‘I know,’ Jack said, reaching up and feeling the hole and his nipple. ‘Do you have a can opener I can borrow to open the can of dog food?
‘You’re not going to eat dog food are you?’ she said screwing her face into a look of disgust.
‘No, it’s for my dog. Well, he’s not my dog, but I think he’s pretty hungry.’
She reached under the counter and pulled out a can opener and eyed him suspiciously as he removed the lid from the can. With his juice and doughnuts in a small bag in one hand and the opened can of dog food in the other Jack left the store. The dog was sitting on the sidewalk but backed a few feet away as Jack scooped out some of the dog food onto the pavement. Jack sat on the curb a few yards from the pile of dog food and drank the juice and ate the doughnuts. Keeping his eyes on Jack, the dog slowly crept forward, sniffed at the food, then quickly devoured it, then sat down on the sidewalk, still watching Jack.
‘Whatever made you so frightened of people I’m sorry pooch,’ Jack said as he stood and tossed the bag, empty doughnut package and empty bottle in a waste can outside the door of the store.
Led by nothing else other than curiosity, Jack turned off of the main street onto a side street and walked down the tree lined street heading nowhere in particular while looking at the modest sized houses and well-kept lawns. It didn’t look any different than many other small town streets he had seen since leaving wherever it was he had left. He assumed by the condition of his worn sneakers and what few dollars he had in his pocket that he had been traveling for some time and for quite a distance. Certainly places he had seen recently along the way, like the Badlands, were still very clear in his memory. Usually he awoke in a new place, or found money in his pocket. He had had thumbed rides from one place to the next, that much he knew, but he had no clue where the money came from.
At a low street-level narrow whitewashed bridge that extended from the end of the street he had come down across to a parking lot that bordered the banks of a river, Jack stopped and read the sign: Griffin Park. With the dog following, Jack walked across the bridge, passed by a single car driving very slowly. On the edge of the parking lot, overlooking huge boulders on the bank of the river, Jack sat down and scooped another handful of dog food out of the can and put it on a rock and remained perfectly still while the dog slowly inched forward and gulped down the food then backed away, once again sitting at a distance from his benefactor.
‘They will give you a ticket if you don’t have your dog on a leash.’
Jack turned around and looked up at a young man about Jack’s age with dark skin and long black hair tied in the back into a braided pony tail.
‘He’s not my dog,’ Jack said. ‘He’s hungry so I’m giving it some food, but he’s not mine.’ Jack stood up and faced the young man and reached out his hand. ‘I’m Jack.’
‘I’m John Wind Feather,’ John said taking Jack’s hand and shaking it. ‘Who gave you the black eye?’ He asked pointing at Jack’s left eye.
‘My eye is black?’ Jack asked, surprised, and putting his fingertips to it and wincing. ‘I didn’t know it was black until you told me.’
‘Your shirt is torn also,’ John said pointing to Jack’s exposed nipple.
‘Yes, that I know about.’ Jack said suddenly feeling self-conscious and momentarily covering the hole with his hand.
‘I haven’t seen you around here before,’ John said. ‘Are you just visiting?’
‘You could say that,’ Jack replied. ‘But I’m not exactly sure where here is.’
John tilted his head and looked appraisingly at Jack. ‘It’s Griffin Park.’
‘I know that,’ Jack said. ‘I meant what city is this?’ He said sweeping his hand around like a malfunctioning compass arrow.
‘You don’t know what city you’re in?’ John said, somewhat amused. ‘It’s Pierre. The capital of South Dakota. How could you not know what city you’re in?’
Jack pulled at the hole around his nipple. ‘I wish I could explain that but I can’t.’
By the time Jack and John arrived at John’s house on a nearby street, Jack explained what little he could, which wasn’t much. At the door, Jack scooped the last of the dog food out of the can with his hand and put it in the grass for the dog that had followed the two keeping a safe distance behind.
‘Are you sure your family won’t mind you bringing me home?’ Jack said.
‘It’s just me and my grandfather,’ John said. ‘He is very old and doesn’t know where he is most of the time either so you two will have that in common.’
As Jack entered the house and directly into the living room he was greeted by two sites: every wall and the ceiling was a painted mural of Native American themes, and John’s grandfather was sitting naked in a rocking chair in the middle of the room in front of a large flat screen television watching ‘Leave it to Beaver.’ John closed the door and went to his grandfather.
‘Thunkashila, where are your clothes? We have a guest.’ He leaned over and said loudly into his grandfather’s ear.
‘Hau cousin,’ John’s grandfather said ignoring John and looking at Jack.
‘Thunkashila, my grandfather, is saying hello in the Lakota Sioux way,’ John explained.
‘It’s a pleasure to meet you,’ Jack said, barely able to take his eyes off the brilliant colors of images of prairie landscapes, eagles, buffalo, and horses that adorned the walls. The ceiling was painted a brilliant baby blue with smatterings of snow-white clouds. ‘Who did the murals?’ Jack asked John.
‘My grandfather did most of it,’ he said. ‘All he does is paint and watch television. I did a little of it. He is teaching me how to paint.’ John turned to his grandfather, ‘Thunkashila, I am going to give my friend some food okay?’
‘Ohan, tokse ake,’ his grandfather said waving an arthritically gnarled hand at Jack while keeping his eyes on the television.
John led Jack into the kitchen and had him sit at a rickety wooden table while he pulled a plate of roasted chicken out the refrigerator and fry bread from an old tin breadbox. Jack was staring at the colorful baskets and pottery painted on the walls as the food was placed in front of him.
‘Who taught him how to paint like this?’ Jack asked.
‘He was taught by his grandfather. It is said by my family on Pine Ridge Reservation that my grandfather’s grandfather fought at Little Bighorn and came back and put away his weapons and taught himself how to paint and never picked up his weapons again,’ John said.
After eating and in the bathroom Jack removed his shirt and looked in the mirror on the medicine cabinet and saw the black and blue bruising around his eye and the bruises on his side.
John opened the door.
‘You’ve been in here for an hour. I was getting worried about you. Can I come in?’ John asked. ‘I have a t-shirt for you and some clean socks.’
‘Thanks,’ Jack said, trying to recall what he had been doing for an hour.
‘Jack your back is covered in bruises,’ John said coming into the bathroom with the t-shirt and socks in his hands. ‘You don’t remember what happened to you?’
‘I wish I did,’ Jack said.
As a crescent moon glowed in the night sky, Jack sat on the slope beneath the bridge tossing pebbles into the Missouri River. John was stretched out on his back on the bank and chewing on the end of a long piece of yellow prairie grass. Above them a freight train rattled across the bridge.
‘You could stay here,’ John said. ‘There is room with me and my grandfather.’
Jack waited for a moment before answering. ‘Thank you, but I must go on.’
‘Go on to where?’ John asked.
‘Just on, wherever that is,’ Jack answered. He stood and said, ‘I’m tired and need to get some sleep.’
‘I understand,’ John said sitting up and spitting the blade of grass into the river.
Jack removed the t-shirt that John had given him and slid his shoes and socks and jeans off and now naked laid them all out beside his open sleeping bag as if they were still being worn by an invisible being. He laid down on his back and looked up at the dark bridge. He heard the dog lap some water from the river then settle in the grass nearby. He said nothing as John removed all of his clothes and laid down beside him. Jack fell asleep.
When he awoke John was gone.
As he stood along the side of Highway 34 outside of Pierre going east he stuck his thumb out and quickly caught a ride with a middle-aged man wearing a white cowboy hat and cowboy boots driving a pick up truck. He put his backpack in the back seat and settled into the front passenger seat, looking down and seeing a ten-dollar bill sticking out of his jeans pocket. As the man pulled the truck back onto the highway Jack could see the Missouri River in the distance. He turned his head hoping that he would remember this moment, this place. In the side mirror he saw the dog running down the highway after the truck, after him. As the truck sped up and the dog was lost in the distance, he told the man his name was Jack. The man put his hand on Jack’s leg and squeezed.
Steve Carr, who lives in Richmond, Va., began his writing career as a military journalist and has had over 300 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals and anthologies since June, 2016. He has two collections of short stories, Sand and Rain, that have been published by Clarendon House Publications. His third collection of short stories, Heat, was published by Czykmate Productions. His YA collection of stories, The Tales of Talker Knock was published by Clarendon House Publications. His plays have been produced in several states in the U.S. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice.