by Jarrod Henry
Text ©2006 Jarrod Henry; illustration ©2006 Cubist
It wasnt supposed to turn out this way! It was supposed to be a simple deal. All I wanted was to refinance the house so I could pay off the settlement for the lawsuit. The banker said it was a sure thinghe said itd definitely go throughbut now Im sitting there at the bank staring at a loan application with Rejected stamped on it. The banker sighed.
If you had a co-signer isnt there anyone..?
As a matter of fact, there isnt anyone. And that question hurts more than I can say. After thirty-five years as a stockbroker, working nights and weekends to keep up with the overseas markets, there simply isnt anybody that can sign for me. Theres nobody that even knows me. My parents died years ago. My few relationships are the on-again off-again sort, all of which have been off for years. The answer was plain as day: There was nobody that could sign for me because there was nobody that even knew I existed. Theres nothing to sign for. No existence, no hopes, no dreams, no ambitions. My entire life laid out in front of everyone, by a well-meaning banker who wasnt even aware of the weight of his questions. I must have scared him with my look.
Sir its not the end of the world dont even think about doing that.
That convinced me even further and I took a deep breath. I gave him the best fake-smile I could manage and stood up. He extended his hand. It felt so full of life I shook his hand and reached down to pick up my suitcase. He thrust a card into my hand. This is for when life turns around for you.
It wasnt that easy. I exited the bank and got into my car. Or rather, since the loan was rejected, my home. Or my office. I drove west for the rest of that day, following the sun. The next day I drove as well, then stopped at a rest area to sleep. I woke up as if startled from a dream, and looked around. Was this real? Did it really happen? Stumbling inside the rest area building, I put two quarters in a vending machine to get a horrible tasting latte-named drink. It woke me a little as I stared at the map. I was in Arizona. Arizona, for the love of God! I must have driven through Texas, but I didnt remember any of it. Just like I didnt remember driving through Arkansas Arent memory lapses a sign of insanity? I asked myself. Well, why not? My world had gone mad, so why shouldnt I follow suit? I took a second, more careful, look at the map: I was actually a few miles from the Grand Canyon. Thats when I got the idea.
When youre at your highest, you never really think about suicide. You never think about ending it. I drove to a frontage road that ran alongside the edge of the cliff. It was as if I were on autopilot. I stopped at a gas station near the canyon that offered maps. I bought a map, a compass, and a case of beer. The big cat behind the counterwait. I blinked, and the cat wasnt a cat any more, just a grizzled old man with a tawny suede jacket and some kind of white crescent on a cord around his neck. Okay, I know whats going on here: Im hallucinating. If Id known it was this painless, Id have gone crazy years ago! The man looked me over, and shook his head. Nope. Cant do it. Sorry, son.
What? Ohhere, Ive got ID. I threw my drivers license on the counter.
He shook his head, and frowned. Still cant do it. And I know why youre here. They tell me, you know.
Whos they, and what do they tell you?
I didnt see any cats, and I said as much. What luck! He was crazy, too. Maybe we could compare notes before my exit.
He shrugged. Theyre around; mountain lions. Pumas. Cougars. Take your choice. They tell me youre in pain. And I cant sell you this beer.
The cats tell you that you cant sell me this beer? I was growing very upset at him. Damnit, I want the beer so I dont feel it! So I can just jump and have it done with. I dont want to feel anything.
No, son. The Arizona State Alcohol Control Board says I cant sell you that beer, cause its Sunday fucking morning. The cats, though, they tell me youre hurting and screwed-up in general.
The desert must have gotten to him. I didnt argue; I just sighed and took the beer back to the cooler. I paid for the maps and compass, and reached for my change. As he gave me the last quarter, he looked sadly at me. He knew. Somehow, this guy knew what I was going to do, what I was planning! He mumbled something I didnt catch, and took his necklace off, sliding it across the counter.
Here, take this.
I cant I
His eyes, old eyes, peering eyes, cat eyes, searched deep into me. I could feel him swimming in my soul as he spoke. His breath was a soft whisper.
Just a day, son. Twenty-four hours. Sunrise to sunrise. And if you still want to jump, then do it.
I swallowed. Who the hell are you? Are you God?
He chuffed. I mean, chuffed. Like those cats on the Discovery Channel! No. I cuss too damn much to be God. Im just a man. That necklace, thats my fathers. And his fathers. And his fathers. Its been in our family forever.
I stared at it. Why are you giving it to me?
Fuck if thats a gift, Jay. Its a loan.
I froze. He knew my name. At this point, I should have been scared. I wasnt, though. It was an oddly calming sensation to be here with him. He wasnt mean, that was easy to tell. He was genial and calm. He was soothing and comforting. He blinked his cat eyes again, and almost seemed to purr as he spoke.
Drive up the road a few miles. Theres a place for you to camp out there under the stars. Its real peaceful.
I walked out the door, and got back into my car. The entire experience was like a blur. I let myself sink further into unreality as I began to follow the old mans directions. I touched the claw on my necka cougars claw. I looked down at it in surprise, and looked up just in time to see something in the middle of the road.
It was a solitary word that made me hit the brakes as hard as I could. I skidded to a stop next to a suede-colored form in the middle of the roadway. Opening my door, I saw a cougar laying on the asphalt in front of me. He lifted his head up, assessing me. He growled a bit, a growl of pain.
Help me. Please help me!
Now Im hearing them? I thought. Okay, I am going off my rocker.
The animal was big. It was bigger than I ever imagined them to be. Suddenly, I was kneeling next to him. My fingers stroked his fur. He recoiled and hissed in anger at me. I was overcome with a touch of sadness.
What the hell what happened?
Gun. A gun. Your kind. Not alone! I dont want to be alone!
I checked him over for a gunshot wound, and found it in his right flank. Then I stopped for a moment as I realized what was going on. Cougars dont talk. Yet, this one did. Cougars arent docile, yet this one was. A cougar in this position should be trying to kill me, if I were to believe what television had taught me. Yet, this one wasnt.
I slowly rolled him over as he let out a yelp. The bullet hadnt exited his body. It was in him, somewhere.
My fingers reached into the wound, which caused the animal to yelp again. His claws extended and he snapped at me. I persisted, probing the wound until I found a piece of metal in him, and pulled it out as gently as I could. As I returned to my car to get the first aid kit, I heard him cry out to me again. This time, he actually attempted to stand before crashing to his chest.
Dont leave me here!
I raced to his side, holding him down with my paws. He fought against me, as I leaned down to growl back at him. His body went still as I spoke. Stop fighting. The more you fight, the more youll hurt yourself.
He held still as I dressed his wound and applied a tourniquet. He seemed to take this with a bit of ease, and I stroked his fur. The rumble from him wasnt like a housecats purr, but more like the sound of a misfiring vehicle. It was a mixture of contentment, pain, anger, and disappointment at being in this position. It wasnt long before the cat fell asleep.
By now, it was night, and Id hardly noticed the sun setting I dragged the cougar into the brush alongside the road, and whispered to him. Ill be back, cat. I promise. He grunted an assent as I left back towards the gas station.
The old man was sitting in a chair behind the counter, and I must have startled him when I came through the door. He jumped to his feet, somewhat surprised. The televisions volume was turned down slightly; it was showing an old World War II flick.
Son, whats going on? Im surprised to see you.
I need help.
I already knew that. Folks dont take the quick route down lest they think theyre out of options.
I blinked, looking up at him as I grabbed some chicken from the freezer. Who was this man? How did he know so much about me? Almost immediately, the claw hed given me earlier poked into my chest. It snapped me back to whatever reality-substitute I was using.
I need a tent, old man. Do you have camping supplies?
Yes yes I do. I have a Canyon special package. Tent rental, sleeping bag rental, food for two, and a set of single-use camping grills. Will that help you?
Yes. I froze, somewhat concerned with how I was going to phrase the next question. The mans eyes blazed through me and he beat me to the draw.
Theres something more, isnt there? Youre in a hurry. Whats going on?
I looked down. Nothing. I shook my head, emphasizing the point. Only who was I trying to convince, myself or him?
The man stared at me and growledliterally growled. I stepped back as he shook his head angrily. Son, do not lie to me. You dont have time to lie to me.
I shot back quickly. Im not your son, old man! Im Im
I stopped, searching for the word that should have been on the tip of my tongue. Who was I? Im a man. A man from well I had to be from somewhere, didnt I? I looked around the room nervously, suddenly very afraid. He had already come around the counter, and was moving towards me.
Theres look, theres a cat. On the road, a big one. It needs your help my help our help. I handed him back his cougar claw, as tears streamed down my face. Please help me. Please help him. Hes scared and he doesnt know what to do or whats going to happen next. He was hurt bad and
The old man touched my shoulder, and his voice was calm. Lets see what we can do for your friend. He worked through the store, picking up things here and there, and we moved outside. He produced some keys from his pocket and locked up the store. You lead, son.
I drove back to the bushes Id left the cat in, and the old man jumped out of his car. He looked at me, a bit confused at the dressing Id done. His old, worn hands traced over the wound.
You ever do this before?
Wheres the bullet?
I reached into my pocket and handed it to him. He sniffed it a few times, and shrugged. Okay, it seems to be all there. He threw it over his shoulder, and walked back to his truck. All I could do was stroke the cougars fur. His glassy eyes looked up to me as the old man came back with a large hunk of meat and a bag of various items.
Who? spoke the cougar. Who?
I looked at the old man. Did you hear that?
The old man seemed a bit confused. Hear what, son?
Him! The cat! He spoke! Thats how I found him!
The cougar took a large chunk of meat from the old mans hands, eating the food slowly. He cant hear me. Only you can.
What? Why cant he hear you?
The man sat down, next to me. He cant hear me because Im not like you, son. He smiled a bit curiously to me. And Ill bet you dont even remember who or what you are!
Of course I do. I struggled to hide my confusion. After all I was a man? From
Like hell you do. Youre a dreama figment.
A dream? Was my lifeeverything Id been througha dream? I shook my head. No, thats Im real. I mean, I bought stuff from you. I led you to him!
The cougar drank water now, becoming more and more alert, his eyes becoming clearer and more full of life. He gingerly stood up on his three good paws, but after testing them dropped back down. I jumped at with his sudden movement.
No, not yet, cat. You cant go yet.
The cougar drifted back off to sleep as the old man began to pitch a tent. He laid out the canvas and I threaded the poles into the main structure of the tent. As we were setting the tent up, I could see the old man glancing from the tent to the cougar to me. He finally spoke once the tent was up.
Ive got a name, and its not old man. Im Jack Runs-With-Cougar.
Youre an Indian?
The term is Native American. And no, Im not one of emthis red skin is from 20-odd years of being a desert rat. I used to be a New York stockbroker, before I got so damn tired of the money game. Friend of mine gave me the name because me and cougars, weve always got along real good. So what about youwhats your story?
I shrugged. Not because I didnt have a story to tell, because I did. I just wasnt sure if it was real anymore. I dont really know, Jack. My names Bob... I think
He smiled warmly. Bullshit, he said in a tone I couldnt take offense at. Earlier, you said your name was Jay. Now its Bob? Uh-huh. Whats your identification say?
Of course, they always kept that in their pockets I checked mine, but couldnt find anything. I looked at Jack, completely confused. Confused and very, very scared.
Jack, I dont know who I am. Why Im here. Nothing seems real anymore. I looked towards my car, and it was gone as well. And wheres my car..?
Jack let out a slow whistle as he looked at me, he seemed a bit surprised. Ive heard legends, before. Of things happening like this. No, Jay, youre not losing your mind. Youre caught up in a truly weird shitstorm, but youre definitely not losing your mind.
It was at that moment, I looked up to him and blinked. I looked back to the cougar, and let out a slight whimper. Am I him? The words confused me. I didnt even understand the implications of them. Jack, what am I? I mean, did my life really happen?
Jay, you were in a fuckin lot of pain. And you had to do something to help yourself.
I was falling backwards. I could hear myself speaking. But my life as a human, I mean. What about that?
The last words I heard him speak before I fell into the blackness were reassuring. Sleep, cougar. When you wake, Ill be here.
I slept soundly, and had only one dream. In the dream, I was walking across the desert, and I could see a man approaching me. Something about him was unnerving, and I turned to run from him. Suddenly, a sharpness ripped through my ankle and I woke with a yelp. My eyes searched around as I felt a new perspective, searching for the cougar. I couldnt see him. I did, however, see Jack.
Wheres the cougar?
Jack could only smile a bit, but he clearly didnt understand me.
Jack. Wheres the cat? Hes still alive, right? Tell me he didnt die.
I stood up, and only came to Jacks waist. My eyes looked up to him, as everything clicked into place. No, I didnt die. I stood in front of Jack. I tested my leg. It was sore, but it would be okay in a bit. Jack grinned, watching me figure it out.
What you wants a story, by damn! Once, Jay, there was a spirit who was hurt so greatly that his soul was shattered. He had his entire world ruptured, and was so scared of losing himself that he split into many different forms. Those forms roamed the earth, trying to avoid pain. However, because they were separated, because they were apart, they longed for each other. And because they were alone, they only experienced pain. Then, the forms tried to find each other, in an attempt to end the pain and suffering. And in becoming whole again, the spirit realized that the only way to stop pain was to help others through it. This was the birth of compassion to this world.
Compassion. I liked the sound of that. Almost as good as getting shut of my human life no. Getting shut of the pain, the hole in my self, that I would have had no matter what I looked like. But what would I do with myself now? Well, Id think of something
Jack stood and walked to his car. I licked at my fur. And a new day started.