Tag Archives: hoboes

Dawn

He’s early. Too early for his usual train. But it’s cool this early. The roof tar is just barely warm to the touch.

He thinks about this. If the roof were still warm from the previous day—warmer than the early-morning air—and today’s heat made it warmer still, and it never cooled—each day growing a tiny bit warmer than the day before—three steps forward and two steps back—then by the end of summer…

He pictures the tar passing a threshold: turning to vapor, rising in waves, ignited by the tiniest spark—like a telephone call or the reflection from a lens…

There’s a train coming! He hears it!

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Evening

His parents are nice people. He can see how hard they work. He can see how lucky he is. He can see how unusual this is. He can read the papers. He can appreciate how blessed he is, with food and clothes and a roof and hardworking people who love him, sitting here, being together, sharing a meal. He can see how this summer is an island, with plenty of time and plenty of freedom and plenty of food and nice people to watch over him. Still, as he eats, he’s biding his time, waiting for dark and the ominous hum and the sure sense that something is out there, far away but growing near.

Dawn

He wakes where he always wakes. He has slept in his clothes, and he smells like a fermented towel.

His mother looks in and shakes her head. He blinks at her and pushes off the sheet as she turns away. These gray socks are what’s wrong. Maybe if he could just…

Sleepy. Crazy. Not yet with the world.

The water from the tap is cold. Colder than makes sense, from up there in the tower, exposed to this same summer air, pipes under the lawns warming in the sun, up through the walls…

He leans forward and places a palm on the plaster. The plaster is cool. He wonders why it doesn’t sweat. He wonders whether there’s any coffee, whether his mother will complain as he drinks it, as if it would stunt his growth, as if he were a child.

Night

The headphones are getting uncomfortable, but something is going on.

He nudges the tuning knob and the hiss intensifies, pulsing, like the breath of a predator. Deep in the background there are tiny irregular clicks—faint, frightened: the prey? And the hum? The hum is constant over this whole portion of the spectrum, no matter which way he tunes: the night? The sea?

He pulls off the headphones and pushes back the chair. His ears feel like boxers’ ears: hot, flat and raw.

There is motion outside the window. Something in the sky.

He eases the door open, applying a lot of muscle for extra control. The hallway boards want to creak as he bobs silently along with deep knee bends. He’s all joints tonight. He’s all joints every night.

The stairs flex. The front entry holds its breath. The door lets it out. The porch paint peels.

Up above the northern lights are swarming and searing, although this is not the North and it’s the humid heart of summer. Up there must be far from here. Cool, dry and highly-charged. Ionized. Electrified.

The sidewalks lead to the streets. The streets lead to the roads. The roads lead out of town.

The soles of his shoes are vulcanized.

Evening

It’s getting dark.

“Trains,” she says. “You can’t trust ’em.” She drops sticks on the pile and slowly begins to pace, eyes on the ground. “Just when you think you’re gettin’ somewhere, you end up stranded for half a day.” She sees a stick, and picks it up. “And your feet get tired.” Another stick. “And your legs get tired.” And another. “At least it ain’t rainin’.”

She carries the sticks back, kneels, and sets them on the pile. The crickets seem extra-loud tonight. And the trees. She pauses for a few moments, listening to the dark.

A quarter-inch of cool red flame hunches in the tinder. She purses her lips and blows out a stream of air, and the flame turns orange, and yellow, and begins to spread. “You there?” she asks. She looks around at the empty clearing. Maybe they won’t come.

The fire snaps and a wet branch begins to hiss. A circle of wan light begins to expand. At its edge, a wrecked leather shoe begins to appear, and a sock with a hole, and a toe. “Evenin’, Harry,” she says.

Another shoe appears, and filthy cuffs, and a pair of boots, and ruined overalls, and another pair of shoes—freshly shined—and neatly-patched trousers, and a jacket and a shirt, and a coat and a shirt, and a shiny blazer and a faded white shirt. Three noses. Six eyes. A pair of glasses. Thirty fingers, five of which are holding out a flask. She takes it and raises it. “Seems like forever,” she says, and takes a long drink.

Morning

Stove pulls her jacket tighter. It’s a warm day, but the motion of the train makes a relentless gale.

She crouches with the fingertips of her left hand against the floor for balance and watches the yellowing fields flash by.

Something changes behind her.

She looks over her shoulder and sees the stranger standing by the doorway, his dead-seeming arms hanging by his sides. Crazy bastard must have been climbing from car to car.

She nods curtly and turns back to her view. Looks like rain. Clouds coming up. She feels him grab her shoulder, but she looks at him coldly and doesn’t bother to stand.

His head snaps back as if something has grabbed him by the hair. Then his legs go out from under him, his tailbone goes up in the air and his arms and legs dangle like rags. He’s spitting and shouting, but it all sounds like train to her.

As if his ass were a balloon and his body the string, he bobs red and foaming toward the door, takes one last swing back into the car and flies out the door and disappears down the grade and out of sight.

She nods once before returning to her cloud-gazing. “Thanks,” she says, but no one answers because no one’s there.

Dawn

The thought of breakfast had kept her moving the last five miles.

“Jesus, Stove, you been walking all night?”

“Howdy, Pete. You been stealin’ coffee again?” She sticks out her hand.

“Only when I find some,” he says. He half-stands and shakes her hand before returning to his squat. “Where’d you get the fire helmet?”

She squats silently beside the smoky fire and waits until Pete hands over his cup. She wraps her fingers around it and drains it off, even though it burns going down. “Any of you other fellers givin’ it away for free?” she asks.

“Every chance I get,” says a low voice. “Course, it’s only beans.”

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Night

The tiny electric spark had barely enough energy to ignite a speck of dust, and that speck’s pitiful flame was only large enough to ignite the two specks nearest it. The walls of the grain silo burst outward, and all the windows on this side of town cracked at once, leaving gaping holes that immediately let in the dry night air. A dog began to bark.

A hundred yards away a twisted pair of wires ran up under a truck’s battered hood, and inside the cab the young woman let her hand drop from the ignition. She opened the door, jumped down to the ground, and walked slowly away beside the tracks.