Finding the Way
Al sat in the warm truck cab and watched the neighborhoods shift and change around him as his dad drove down Sandy Boulevard. He let his hand rest on the warm vinyl seat, faded from decades of sun and damp to a colorless beige. His dad turned right on 33rd, heading north.
“We’ll try this way for a while,“ he said, rubbing his mouth before reaching down to take a swig of his chicory coffee. “Let me know when you see it.“
Al shifted in the sunny warmth, avoiding his dad’s eyes. There were a lot of people driving on the Way today. He counted twelve cars at the next intersection in addition to several pedestrians and eight bicycles as they waited their turn to move through. Above, the ancient and useless traffic signal swayed in the wind.
“I don’t really know what I’m looking for, Dad,“ he said, starting to sweat.
His dad kept his eyes on the Way, “You’ll know your Way when you see it.“
“How?“ Al pressed, and he realized he did want to find it after all, if only to begin. They had been driving aimlessly for at least an hour.
“Well,“ his dad said, “It’ll just sort of jump out at you.“ He looked at Al, saw this was not enough of an answer, and tried again, “Maybe it’ll seem a little darker, or a little brighter than the rest of the area. But Al, the real way you’ll know, is that you’ll want to get out of the car and start walking. It’ll pull you, that’s your Way. How it looks is the least of it.“
Al thought about this as his dad edged down a hill where a bridge used to be, crossed a long wide Way with butterfly bushes growing ten feet high through the cracks in the crumbling piles of cement, and continued on north toward the river. He couldn’t lift his eyes to the window, but just kept staring at his sweating hand.
“What if I don’t see it?“
“Yeah, but what if I don’t?“ Al’s voice cracked and he willed it into a lower, more controlled pitch. “What if this isn’t the day?“
They pulled up to a long dike at the far side of a t-intersection. His dad drove up the broken pavement that led to what had once been a dock and parked. In front of them, the river flowed, the other shore a good mile away.
“Well,“ Dad said, taking another sip from his mug, “You’re definitely not walking north.“
They didn’t move though, and the river flowed, high and blue in the late spring warmth. Little wooded islands were bright green with new leaves. All the pilings from the old docks were underwater, but there were a few small boats out, casting nets for the spring salmon run, and Al briefly wondered where they put in. The light grew flat, and Al looked up to watch a fluffy cloud block the sun for a moment before continuing on with its brethren upriver. His dad took a deep breath, and Al knew the moment was over. They carefully turned around on the crumbling asphalt and returned to the intersection.
Al watched the scene brighten and dull as they began crossing the Way, looking out the window so his dad couldn’t see his fear. the Way stretched away from him, lined with bright green grass under the spring sky, disappearing as the West Hills rose up, as if there were no river between him and them. He thought that if he started walking, he could keep going up through the Hills, past Beaverton, and on to the sea.
“Dad, stop.“ The truck stopped.
“You found it,“ Dad said, cutting the engine. Al turned to look at him as his dad let his head fall back against the seat, closing his eyes for a moment. He didn’t look old, Al realized, but he did look tired. There were bags under his eyes and his hair was a little greasy, and for a moment, Al wondered whether his father was scared, too.
They sat there for a long time. A man and woman bicycled past them pulling a heavily loaded cart, and after a while a car slowly skirted them in the other direction, filled with people, maybe a driver taking folks to find work in Pendleton. Al and his father sweated in the truck, neither willing to break the silence and set things back in motion.
Finally a third vehicle, a rare sixteen-wheeler probably hauling exotic goods like avocados and oranges from California, coffee from Mexico, blared it’s horn at them as it approached, and Al’s dad restarted the truck and pulled onto the shoulder.
“So. Tell me about Walking the Way.“
“You know this, Albert,“ his dad retorted.
“Tell me anyway,“ Al stalled. “Just in case.“
“You follow the Way until it ends. Then you make camp and wait.“
“What if I see people on the Way?“
“They’ll leave you alone unless they hear a Call, then they will bring you food, or help in some way. If they say anything to you, listen carefully.“
“What about robbers?“ Al asked, continuing the catechism.
“They will not touch you.“
“Because you’re on your Way.“
“How will they know?“
“They’ll know the same way you’ve known every time you’ve seen a boy or girl on their Way. Everyone knows not to mess with someone while they’re on their Way, which is why you must never leave it until you’ve learned your Lesson.“
“What happens if you leave it?“
“If you leave your Way, you are lost.“
“Has anyone ever found their Way, again?“
His father looked at him then, and Al regretted forcing this recitation, even though he knew he needed it.
“None that I know of.“
Thoughts of his older brother Eben, rose unbidden in Al’s mind. Eben would come back. He was still on his Way, or he would find it again. Eben would be the first in…Al pushed the thought away. He was certain he would see Eben walking toward him, careless grin and all, again.
“What about animals?“ Al continued stubbornly.
“They are part of the Way, whether they sustain or menace you.“
“What can I bring?“
“A knife and the clothes on your back.“
“What happens when I reach the end?“
“You build a fire and wait.“
“How long does it take?“
“It’s different for everyone.“
“What happens when the Lesson comes?“
They sat there a long time, long enough for the clouds to come together and block out the sun completely. Long enough for the heat in the car to disappear and for Al’s sweat to dry.
“May start raining soon,“ his dad said reluctantly. “It would be better to start before then.“
Al stepped out of the car to put on his fleece and his coat. His dad handed him a hunting knife in a sheath, and Al slid it onto his belt before his dad spoke again.
“Your mother and I will be down at the Esplanade Market on Friday. You could head for the Willamette and follow it upstream and meet us if you’re done.“
Al looked at his dad, who smiled at him, and he tried to return it knowing the offer was an attempt at encouragement, “Okay.“
“See you, then.“
Al turned and walked away, west down the Way, because he didn’t know what else to say. After about fifteen minutes, he looked back, but his dad’s truck was still there.
A light rain started up, and Al pulled his hood up as a car drove by. He glanced back to see the truck again.
The Way started to bend gently to the right, and Al went on under the tall trees that sheltered him from the increasing rain. He didn’t look back to see his dad’s truck eclipsed by the curve of the Way.
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED