Traveling Human

Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.~Seneca

At a rest stop on Interstate 80 somewhere in Iowa, I ended up in a conversation with a crusty old character from Nebraska. “Nebraska,” he said, “is so wide open that just about anywhere you go, there’s nothin’ between you and anyplace else ’cept hundreds of miles of cows.”Seated on a picnic bench, he leaned back against the table and said with a chuckle, “Yep. Some of our state troopers will patrol up to 500 miles. When one pulls you over, it’s not to give you a ticket. It’s to have someone to talk to.”Neb, as I called him, made me laugh out loud. I met him about eight hours into a two-day road trip my husband Terry and I were taking from Detroit, Michigan to Custer, South Dakota where my father lived.Normally, that conversation would never have occurred. Trips in the past had meant racing to every possible touristy thing in record time. But there was nothing like a life-changing blow to force you to slow down and open your eyes. A recent acquisition and reorganization at work had cost me my job. Seven years of proving myself were wasted, apparently. So this trip was different.A few hundred miles before I met Neb, at a rest stop in Illinois, a man had strolled past me walking a strange little dog. Then I realized it was no dog, but a baby raccoon. Intrigued, I wandered over to where they had stopped.“That’s a baby raccoon,” I said, pleased with my cleverness.“Yep. His name is Buddy,” the man answered. He explained that a car had killed Buddy’s momma.“Can I pet him?” I asked.“Sure!” he replied. “He loves it.”I crouched beside Buddy and started stroking him. He seemed to be enjoying it when suddenly he went rigid and keeled right over.I jerked back, horrified. “What did I do?”The man laughed. “He wants you to scratch his belly.”Tentatively, I reached down and scratched. Sure enough, Buddy stretched out with delicious languor, his little eyes closed.It was a timely encounter with a man and his baby raccoon, a strange and wondrous sight that I saw as I took my time exploring a part of our great country.A few days later we were in Custer, South Dakota, staying in a little hotel called the Bavarian Inn. Every morning at breakfast, Terry and I would see this same big man seated alone at a corner table. He was a huge, imposing fellow with a goatee, an earring, tattoos, and a jet-black Mohawk ponytail. No sensible person would want to irritate this mass of a man.One morning after breakfast I took a stroll to investigate the outdoor pool at the back of the property. The big man was in it, lazily backstroking. I turned to leave when a deep voice said, “Hi!”I turned around. The big man swam to the edge, smiling, extending his enormous mitt at me.“Jason,” he said.I mustered the courage to accept the hand and watched mine disappear inside of it.It turned out that Jason, a mix of Choctaw and Cherokee, was living there for the summer while teaching at a school on a nearby reservation. He was also in the process of obtaining his doctorate in English. English had been my major. Jason and I were kindred sprits with the same love of the written word. More amazingly, this dangerous looking man’s dissertation was on, of all things, female Native-American poets.Over the next week, Jason, my husband, and I breakfasted together, enjoying many lively conversations. One favorite thing about Jason was how he would raise a massive fist and say “Right on!” whenever he really liked something, though the phase has been long extinct. We sometimes honor our memories of Jason by mimicking him that same way.A few days later, I met Linda. Linda owned a small grocery in Pringle, South Dakota, with a population of eighty. That day, we were meeting my father and his wife there for lunch.Arriving a little early, Terry and I waited outside on a porch, seated in a row of eclectic chairs. A dusty truck pulled up and two burly fellows who looked alike climbed out, eyeing us as they shuffled past and into the store.A minute later, one of them stuck his head out the door.“You here for Al Kopka?” he said.“Yeah,” I replied. “He’s my dad.”He came over. “Remember me?” he asked. “I’m Warren Schwartz.”I remembered him then. The other guy, his twin, was Lawrence. They were the locally famed handymen “The Schwartz Brothers.” I’d met them several years earlier when my sister and I flew out for a visit. I realized I should have known them in the first place since they looked to be wearing the same clothes as last time.Warren invited us inside. We followed him through the store to the back where several mismatched tables and chairs were arranged. Several other locals seated inside smiled at us as we timidly came in and took a seat with the brothers. To one side was an open kitchen area where a woman somewhere in her forties moved around like a tornado.Within a minute, the tornado was setting plates of food in front of us. Warren and Lawrence dug in. My husband and I looked at each other. We hadn’t ordered yet. We hadn’t even seen a menu.Seeing our baffled expressions, the woman said, “You’re here to eat, right?”“Uh . . . yeah,” Terry said.“Well, enjoy,” she said with a smile and whirled off.Apparently, if you were there, you were there to eat whatever Linda, the owner and cook, was making. That day it was ham steak, corn, potatoes, biscuits and lemon meringue pie. For six bucks, everyone got the same meal, made from scratch, and more delicious than anything in this world.I managed to have a conversation with Linda afterward. She had purchased the store a year ago and business had been so poor she would cry herself to sleep some nights. Then she got the idea of serving a meal every day to attract more customers, so she renovated the back and built her little café. Word got around and people came — including a couple of tourists from Michigan.Linda made me want to follow my dreams.I discovered treasures of all sorts during that trip, mainly because I thought I’d lost everything else. I still encounter treasures now because now I know where they are. I even became grateful to have lost that job. Away from the chaotic commutes and corporate politics that can turn you cold, I was reminded of what I was part of — a great land filled with heart. The spirit of my home and its people helped me find my way again.~Karen DeVault

Mabel Made This Family

When someone leaves, it’s because someone else is about to arrive — I’ll find love again.

~Paulo Coelho, The Zahir

Before Mabel, there was just me. I was thirty years old and single. The long-term relationship I had invested all my energy in for the last five years had broken down. My heart had a big crack in it, not entirely broken, but not in perfect working order, not capable of real trust. I felt cold on the inside, so I went to warm clubs and danced with sweaty people. I was lonely and sought company.

In this manner, I ended up with a heart that was not only still cracked but also tired. It was tiring to try to connect with people when I was trying to protect myself at the same time. If I went on a date with a handsome young man and he asked me reasonable questions about myself and my life, I would come up with evasive answers. I would hear myself trying not to let him know me. When, after two or three meetings of this nature, he didn’t call again, I would sink into a new layer of my old sadness.

When my elderly neighbour passed away, I grieved for that loss, too. She had been like a grandmother to me. A magical sort of little old lady, she’d also been a cat breeder. One or another of her five Abyssinian cats would climb across me and leap onto her shoulder while we chatted, while the other four sat contentedly on shelves and windowsills, grooming their sleek, sandy-coloured coats or cocking their large ears at noises from the garden. When I heard that she had died I needed some comfort, so I went to visit my friend Alex.

I didn’t know how many cats to expect to meet when I went to see Alex. There was always Lucy, her gorgeous Tortoiseshell, but there were also others. Alex worked for a charity that rehomed feral cats. The cats would be rescued from the city streets, neutered and either re-released or brought to Alex for socialisation. Some of these cats had never been touched by a human before. Upon arriving in her apartment, the cats would invariably hide under the bed, where they would stay for as long as it took for trust to grow between them and Alex. There was no one more patient than Alex.

That day, I said hello to Lucy on her armchair, and then Alex introduced me to the beautiful ginger kitten who jumped up onto the coffee table. She explained that he was just about to be adopted by a couple who were on their way over. He was a real scamp, full of life and energy. “The mother was brought in just before she had her kittens, so these guys have been an easy case,” she said.

Then I saw the other one. She was sitting off to the side, watching me. She was mostly gray, but when I looked closer I could see patches of orange and white beneath the smoky coat. “That’s Mabel. I thought her name was Marble because I read her papers wrong, but she looks like a marble, doesn’t she? She’s a Dilute Tortoiseshell.” She picked her up and put her in my arms. The purr that started up was like a small engine, and I held her against my chest. I felt my shoulders relax as a smile spread across my face. I rubbed my cheek along her spine. She twisted her body to see me, and I looked into her sparkling green eyes. She blinked slowly and then held my gaze again. I didn’t want the moment to end. But she was full of life, too, and she clambered up to my shoulder, just like my elderly neighbour’s cats. She perched up there, her purr idling in my ear until the doorbell rang and she jumped down.

The young couple fell in love immediately with Mabel’s ginger brother and coaxed him into the carry case they had brought with them. While Alex was explaining his food and preferences, clearly having a bit of trouble saying goodbye, Mabel reappeared. She sat on my feet. She stared up at me. She said to me quite clearly, I am going home with you.

A few days later, I was back at Alex’s with my own carry case. This time, the parting was joyful. Alex would be able to keep in touch with Mabel. They would always know each other.

I took Mabel home and let her out in my bedroom. She explored every corner, climbed on every surface, pounced on the toy mouse I had bought her and patted at it playfully. She leapt onto the windowsill and swiveled her gray ears at the sounds from the garden. She seemed to be satisfied, and my cheeks ached because I was smiling so hard.

Then, as though she had done it a thousand times before, she lay down on my pillow. She stretched her front legs out past her whiskers and sighed. I lay down beside her, my arm around her soft, little body. Her purr started up, and I felt tears slide across my face. For the first time in a long time, I felt my love received and returned. Mabel’s warmth was like hot tar, finding that old crack in my heart and sealing it up for good.

Within six months, I met Eddie. By summer, we were talking about the future. By autumn, he had proposed. After a really special weekend together, Eddie started packing reluctantly. He threw his bag on the floor, and when he turned to put in his dirty socks, Mabel was sitting inside the bag, staring up at him with her emerald eyes. Eddie laughed and called to me to come and see. I picked up Mabel, and the pair of us held her between us. “So, you like him?” I said to her. “Don’t worry, he’s not going anywhere.”

We got married and moved in together. Mabel had just found a spot on our new windowsill when I became pregnant. Now she lies against my big, warm belly. I tell her that the baby will be here soon, and she blinks slowly and knowingly. My family has come into being because of Mabel. I let myself love her, and then I let myself love the man who became my husband. I am so grateful for this spirit, Mabel, who looks like a marble. She sat on my shoulder and my shoes, and mended my cracked heart.

— Jessica Parkinson —