Return to Murlock
As Elian began his drive out of L.A., he looked in the rearview mirror to wave goodbye.There was only an empty street and a black and white cat sitting on the sidewalk.
He accelerated then swerved hard to speed away, roaring around gentle neighborhood traffic, zipping through stop signs, but he could not shake the emptiness he felt or the deep disappointment over his failure to find work.
He had been unemployed, off and on for six months and had run out of friends to stay with, so it seemed he had no choice but to head for Murlock, into the dusty central valley of his childhood. On the freeway entrance, he slowed and spotted a solitary figure dressed in a woolen cap and orange t-shirt, clutching a cardboard sign, “Need ride to Murlock.” He flashed back to the memory of unemployed migrant workers laid off from the tomato fields and lining the highway. Elian drove on, carefully avoiding the hitchhiker’s eyes and thinking, at least I’m not as bad off as that
All through his teens, Elian had dreamed of leaving to find his fortune in L.A. But here he was, age 21 and embarking on a road trip that would wind backwards to the small rural village that was his hometown. He knew he should have been angry and frustrated, but mainly, he felt empty and alone.
That summer had been a relatively comfortable one for Elian, living with his friends George and Rachel while he looked for his own apartment. Food and company had been abundant. He had even celebrated his 21 st birthday with them, but the stability at home contrasted with his difficulty keeping a job, any job. He felt he could not in good conscience stay and freeload any longer. Shaking his head, Elian sped up and closed the windows against the hot wind. Full of ambiguous emotions, he sought to settle his mind before the long drive, hoping to open his spirit to the freedom of the road.
He decided to pull off the freeway to eat the lunch Rachel had insisted he take with him. He knew that hunger and fatigue would push him into the depression that hovered in his mind. At the first rest stop, he got off the freeway, parked near a sunny picnic bench and took out a plastic wrapped sandwich. As he began eating, a very large, long-haired ginger cat emerged from under a bush and cautiously approached, seeming to grow bigger and bigger as it came near.
Elian stared and thought, this cat is the size of a pit bull and it moves like an African lion. He examined the cat closely. Stray cats had always been a part of his childhood, a bright spot in the chaos of his family life, offering a bit of warmth in exchange for only a bit of food and a modicum of attention.
“I know, I been hungry too. Here.” Elian wondered if he was making a mistake feeding this oddly large cat but the animal ate slowly and politely. Despite its size, the cat seemed like all the other cats he had known growing up, polite, cautious and interested mainly in food. “You’re a big boy aren’t you?” On closer examination, the cat seemed rather thin despite the large face surrounded by a red furry ruff. It had tufted ears and a long haired coat. It looks like an underfed stray, he thought. When it finished eating, the cat looked up with hazel eyes and trilled.
“You got good manners cat,” he said with mock severity, “you’ll go a long way with that attitude.” He was able to reach over and stroke the animal’s head. The cat looked up solemnly then to Elian's surprise, lightly jumped through the half opened car window.
“Now how did you do that?” For the cat still barely fit on the front seat, albeit with legs and paws dangling. Elian had the feeling that the cat was laughing at him, enjoying the mystery of its leap through an opening too small. “What are you cat? You’re too big to be a bob cat, too small to be a puma and god knows how you got into the car..."
As Elian carefully steered out of the park, the cat curled up on the seat content to ride along. The long animal somehow settled perfectly into the bucket seat and then wrapped its tail about its legs.
Elian was headed to crash at his half-sister’s house or rather at his half-sister’s boyfriend’s place from which he would try to find a job and get a new start. He wasn’t sure how things would work out, but Sue would never turn him away despite their constant bickering and fighting. Sue was brassy and bossy and she considered her belligerence “being blunt.” Unfortunately, the main target of her “bluntness” had always been Elian. She blamed him for the breakup of their mother’s marriage and their abandonment by both their fathers. But she was his sister and the only one who would take him in.
The golden afternoon light shifted to orange as the sun’s warmth faded. Orange gave way to a watery blue that deepened to indigo. Elian mused that no matter when he left Los Angeles, he always ended up driving through the night to Murlock, whether it was a blown tire or an overheated radiator, he rode the darkness as if surfing a vacuum. The freedom of the road warred with a reluctance to arrive and he never wanted the drive to end. Soon, he could no longer make out the grapevines and irrigated vegetable fields nor could he quite see the lights of the towns. Twinkling car lights stretched out through the deepening twilight, replacing the oppressive browns of late summer. Still, he could not shake off childhood memories of his mother dying, his uncle drunk and raging, his sister lost and frightened. The deeper into the valley he rode, the more quickly the memories flashed.
“Mrrrrm?” Elian had momentarily forgotten the cat. Now he glanced at the cat’s cocked head and into slanted eyes.
“Getting hungry? We’ll pull over and get a burger but you have to stay in the car.” At the next exit, he found a McDonald’s and pulled into the drive through.
“That’s $4.95, please. Hey look at the size of that cat!”
“Yeah, it’s a stray but it’s really friendly…it’s gonna be a great cat…”
As Elian and the cat sat in the parking lot munching a Big Mac and fries, he noticed that among the customers sitting inside was the hitchhiker he had passed earlier. His head was bowed and he seemed to be sipping coffee but as he looked up, Elian got the impression of hazel eyes peering intently at him through the darkness. Again he thought of the ragged migrants. Shaking his head, Elian drove out quickly, glad to be unseen, grateful that the night’s anonymity permitted him some escape from his memories.
Back on the freeway, the dark resumed its velvety descent upon the landscape. After a few hours, he pulled off into a rest stop. By now the cat was awake and restless but Elian feared to release it into the night, lest it run away. “Cat, you’ll have to wait till morning for your potty break…coyotes and things you know? They eat cats. It’s not a nice world out there even if you do look like a baby orange lion.” He settled into the bucket seat, amused by the cat’s antics and was lulled into sleep when it curled up and began grooming.
When the dawn brightened and Elian opened his eyes, the cat was standing up against the window staring outside. “Mrrrouw?”
“Okay cat, you can go but don’t get lost okay?”
But when Elian had stretched, visited the rest stop bathroom and looked in his pack for one last sandwich, the cat had not returned. He called and searched the rest area, feeling a growing emptiness for the warm purring creature that had comforted his drive. It would be hard to leave it behind but the sun was rising and he knew he had to get to Murlock soon or Sue would be gone for the day and maybe not return home until after midnight.
As he walked back to the car, the hitchhiker emerged from the restroom, looked at him quizzically and asked, “Did you find your cat? I heard you calling, in fact, you woke me up.” He was tall and thin with short hair graying under his woolen cap and he spoke with a clear eyed openness that surprised Elian.
Maybe I misjudged him, he thought. He said, “No. Didn’t I see you back in LA looking for a ride to Murlock?”
“I was lucky yesterday, got a ride. I have a job waiting for me and I don’t want to blow this chance.”
“Yeah? Me too. I’m hoping to find something in Murlock, but hey, we’re not there yet, we’ve another 80 miles to go.” In spite of himself, Elian felt himself wanting to invite this stranger along for the last of the ride. Without the cat, it would be a long depressing descent into Murlock.
“My name’s Elian” he said.
“Homer,” the hitchhiker responded and Elian began to hope for a companion who could help fend off the depression that threatened the sunny morning.
“Mrweeeeegh!” A feline screech tore the air, ripping against the noise of the trucks grinding along the freeway. “The cat!” Elian gasped and ran toward the line of trees bordering the rest stop, imagining a pack of coyotes or even a mountain lion. He heard footsteps following him and looked back into the eyes of the hitchhiker. Turning they pounded their way to the forest. The screech became louder as they ducked into the shadow of the growth, green twilight descending as they fought branches and vines in their faces, thorns pulling at their trousers. Breathing hard, Elian could make out a clearing, where he saw the ginger cat menaced by three coyotes.
“Damn,” Elian heard whispered behind him. He charged ahead, calling “Kitty, hey kitty,” but as he got closer, it screamed and charged one of the canines. Grabbing a rock at his feet, Elian thought, It’s as big as a mountain lion. Just then a branch twirled from behind, landing between the coyotes. Turning to shout a thanks to the hitchhiker, Elian saw only a bramble of oak trees and scrub oak, no sign of the stranger. “Where?” he thought as he reared back and aimed the rock at the second coyote, all the while shouting “Get away! Go’on Shoo!” The rock glanced off the animal and it pranced off, followed by its mates who trotted backwards and loped off, one after the other.
Elian breathed deeply and after a few minutes, the ginger cat sauntered toward him, fur no longer standing on end, tail no longer enlarged and bushy. Although the cat was shrinking in size, Elian backed away, unwilling to trust this large cat who had just demonstrated a savage ferocity of fangs and claws. He jumped as the ginger cat let out another scream but it was only calling defiance to the coyotes and Elian’s heart returned to its place. Then the ginger cat turned to look at Elian. It turned a full hazel eyed gaze upon him, “Mrrrrrrrm?” it trilled.
“What’s going on cat?”” Elian demanded, irritated now that the adrenalin was wearing off. This is ridiculous, he thought, I must have been crazy to think I could have this cat for a pet.
The cat had now come close enough to touch. It extended its head and butted against Elian’s knee twice then looked up with a slow blink of its eyes.
Elian’s irritation melted away in the hazel gaze. “You hungry? I still got one last sandwich, let’s go eat…” Elian turned and the cat followed. He looked about for Homer thinking to offer him a ride into Murlock, but he had disappeared.
Elian wondered what people at the rest stop would make of this abnormally large and noisy cat but the rest stop was empty. Freeway traffic whizzed by but even after a few minutes, no one chose to make a breakfast stop. With a tiny glance of worry, Elian wondered if the ham sandwich was enough for himself and the cat, but the animal seemed grateful and happy with half, even leaving the crusts uneaten. Hungry, Elian finished them.
“Okay,” Elian smiled. “We’ll stick together. And maybe we’ll conquer the world. At least it won’t be lonely. Let’s go see if Sue’s still home. I think you’ll scare the shit out of her…might be kind of funny…what do you think?” As the cat jumped into the car and hunched down to fit, Elian added, "I can’t wait for Sue to see you, she’ll freak!”
Two hours later, he pulled in front of an older tract house, spirits plunging as the bright day narrowed to a vision of weeds, litter and trash cans lying askew in the driveway. An older model Honda civic sat waiting alongside an even older Harley Davidson. They’re home, Elian thought.
“Stay in the car cat,” he said. “Sue always ends up getting mad and yelling at me.”
Slowly approaching the door, Elian jumped as it suddenly burst open and a short woman with blond highlights in her dark hair rushed out calling, “See you tonight…you better be home!”
“Elian, my god! Did you just get in? Couldn’t you wait until I got home from work?”
“Sorry, why don’t you just go and I’ll hang out until you get back. Could I drop off my stuff and maybe get a shower?”
“Aah, go on. Give me a hug, see you later.”
But as Elian walked back to his car, Sue jammed on her brakes, stuck her head out and called, “What the hell is that? There’s a monster cat in your car!”
Elian’s back straightened and he protested, “It’s just a big cat and it’s been good company on the road…it can stay outside…”
“Are you crazy? Rob hates cats, he'd just as soon shoot it!. Take it to the Pound.”
“Why? It’s just a cat. Don’t tell me he's scared of a cat!”
“Look at it! It’s big and hungry and I got no time for animals.”
The front door banged again and a burley bare-chested man demanded, “What the hell’s going on…what the fuck is that??”
“Stay in the car kitty,” Elian said trying to quiet the animal as he turned to face his sister’s latest boyfriend. “We won’t come in the house…I’m going…”
“Oh, why are you such an asshole?” Sue said. “Just get rid of it before somebody shoots it.”
But the cat couldn’t be persuaded to stay out of sight. The loud voices had attracted its curiosity and it craned its neck and stared, entertained by the excitement. Elian found himself exasperated by the cat who seemed to have no clue of the danger it faced. That’s right cat, he thought, stick your head up…they’ll just shoot you down! He decided, it’s time to split, maybe they’ll calm down later.
He jumped into the car and drove off as the cat stared out the rear window, ears twitching and eyes darting, alert to catch every last bit of the fading drama. As the car pulled out into the town, the cat turned towards Elian who glanced into his rearview mirror.
In spite of everything that had gone wrong, the sight of the furry, grinning cat left him with a moment of pure happiness.