Copyright © Eric Lanke, 1990. All rights reserved.
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The snow flurries were just beginning as Kenny made his way across the trainyard. He was set. He was wearing the oldest and grungiest clothes he could find in the rag bag in the basement of his mother’s house: two pairs of holey socks and tattered tennis shoes, torn and paint-speckled trousers, three layers of sweat and tee-shirts under a rag of an overcoat, and a dirty baseball cap with a faded green Burlington-Northern patch. He hadn’t bathed in a week. He was sure to fit in. But most importantly, he had a bottle of 100-proof Tennessee whiskey in one of the deep pockets of his overcoat.
A quick glance around the trainyard and Kenny found what he was looking for, three men huddled in an open boxcar waiting in the darkness for the train to pull out and take them away. The engine at the front of the line was in an obliging mood; it groaned and started to move slowly on the tracks. Dirty snow and slush splashed up his legs as Kenny ran to catch up. Two of the men had retreated into the darkness of the boxcar, but one remained at the open door and watched the young man run.
When Kenny got close enough, the man at the door reached out a hand and pulled him up into the car. Kenny stood next to the man and saw the other two filling an empty oil drum with straw and wooden slats from some empty crates that were piled in the far corner of the boxcar.
“Howdy,” the man at the door said. “Where ya headed?”
The man was much older than Kenny, with a white beard, missing teeth, and a face like cracked leather.
“Away from here,” Kenny said.
“Well,” the man said, “that’s where I’m goin’ too, but I think this train’s goin’ to Saint Louie.” He gave Kenny a gap-toothed smile and shook his hand. “My name’s Alf.”
Alf motioned him over to the oil drum and they joined the other two men. “Boys,” Alf said. “This here’s Kenny. Kenny, these shifty-lookin’ characters are Match and Dancin’ Joe.”
Kenny shook hands with both men. Match was not much older than himself, wearing an old fedora with the brim turned up above his forehead. He had big ears and a big nose, and was halfway between clean shaven and a beard. Dancing Joe was a man easily forty, but big and muscular all the same. His hands seemed the size of tennis rackets. Match smiled and said a warm hello to Kenny, but Dancing Joe remained silent and paused as if in indecision before shaking the stranger’s hand.
“Match,” Alf said, “show Kenny here how ya got yer name and light this sucker. If I get much colder, I think my balls’ll fall off.”
“Sure will,” Match said happily and dug a hand into a pocket of his coat. He brought out a pile of matchbooks. One by one he brought them close to his face, squinted, and read their cover aloud. “Let’s see, we’ve got...Nicky’s Tavern...Simpleton Cigars...Snyder Grinding Company...Jerry’s Family Restaurant...Oscar’s on State...”
“He collects matchbooks,” Alf said confidentially to Kenny. “Saves ‘em all year long but they only really come in handy in the winter time. He don’t smoke or nothin’.”
Out of the corner of his eye, while he watched Match shuffle through his little prizes, Kenny caught Dancing Joe staring at him. He tried to ignore the stare, and averted his eyes to the door of the boxcar. The train was beginning to pick up some speed as it left the city. All was dark outside, and only the snowy landscape could be seen. A few flakes of snow fell into the car as the train rattled through the night. Kenny turned back to Dancing Joe and the big man was still staring at him. Kenny did not like the big man’s eyes on him. Dancing Joe had the eyes of a madman.
“Sure likes to light fires, though,” Alf said.
Match went on with his list. “...Fuller Brush Company...Castle County Cigarettes...The Ramble Inn...Zablocki Funeral Home...The Lighthouse—”
“Just pick one and light the goddamn fire!” Alf shouted. He shook his head and turned to Kenny. “Boy just loves goin’ through his collection. Don’t care if we all just freeze to death.”
“The Lighthouse, then,” Match said, putting the rest of his books back in his pocket. He took off a match from The Lighthouse, lit it, and dropped it quickly into the drum, as if he was afraid of burning himself. The straw and paper seemed to catch the flame instantly and in no time there was enough fire for the four men to warm themselves.
“Say,” Kenny said as he reached inside his coat and brought out the bottle of whiskey. “You boys wouldn’t know what I should do with this, would you?”
Alf let out a snort. “Well, son, gimme here and I’ll see if I can figure somethin’ out.”
Kenny handed over the bottle. Alf unscrewed the top, breaking the seal, and took an unceremonial drink from it. He lowered the bottle and smacked his lips. “Ahhh... Been awhile since I’ve had a taste that fine. I don’t think my liver’ll know what to do with licker this smooth. Key-rist!” He passed the bottle to Dancing Joe.
Dancing Joe gave Kenny another long hard stare before taking a drink from the bottle. The looks were starting to gnaw at Kenny’s insides, so he nudged Alf and quietly asked the old man what was the matter with his friend.
“Hey, hey,” Alf said. “Don’t ya worry none ‘bout ol’ Dancin’ Joe here. He used to be a pro-fessional boxer, he did. Christ, ya might’ve even heard of him. Called himself Dancin’ Joe Dandee. Used to dance ‘round the ring like a goddamn ballerina.” Alf shuffled his feet and threw a shadow punch.
Kenny raised his eyebrows. “I have heard of him.”
“Sure, course ya have,” Alf said. “Fought the Champ ‘bout ten years back.” Alf leaned closer to Kenny. “I think the Champ tagged him one too many times in the head, if ya know what I mean. Spent a long time in the hospital, and when he come out, his fightin’ game went right down the crapper. I met him here on the trains couple years back. Don’t talk much, but he’s okay.”
Kenny smiled weakly. Dancing Joe gave him another haunted look, took a second swig of the booze and passed the bottle to Match.
The clackity-clack of the rails was the only sound for a while. Match slowly took his drink of the whiskey. He nodded his satisfaction when he was done and gave the bottle back to Kenny. Dancing Joe threw some more straw and wood on the fire.
“Say, uh, Kenny,” Alf said. “If ya don’t mind me askin’, what’s yer story?”
“My story?” Kenny asked.
“Yer story,” Alf said. “Why ya out ridin’ the rails?”
Kenny took a sip of the booze. “Well,” he said. “For a few years now, I’ve been trying to make it as a writer.”
“A writer?” Alf asked.
“Yeah. Except I can’t seem to write anything that anybody wants to read. But a while back, I get this idea. I used to live near those trainyards we just left and I’ve seen so many men like you hanging around—”
“Men like me?” Alf interrupted.
“Yeah, you know. Anyway, like you said, I always wondered what their stories were. What’d happened to them that made them ride the trains. So I started riding the trains myself and talking to people. I’ve been out here with you guys about six months now, and I’ve heard some pretty interesting things. I’m hoping to make a decent book out of the lives and experiences of men like you.”
“‘Bout us?” Alf said. “Ya wanna write ‘bout us? ‘Bout me and Match and Dancin’ Joe here? Ya think people are gonna wanna read ‘bout us?”
“Well sure,” Kenny said. “Why not?”
Alf took the bottle away from Kenny. “Match, can ya believe this boy?”
“Sure can’t, Alf. Sounds damn crazy to me.”
“Crazy is right!” Alf said. “Boy, the people who have money to waste on books don’t want to read ‘bout no people like us. They hate us. Nothin’ but no good bums they call us. They’re the ones who kick us out of the damn bus terminals and make up dumb excuses when we ask them for some change.” Alf took a drink from the whiskey bottle and gave it to Dancing Joe.
“Maybe so,” Kenny said, “but that’s only because they don’t like being around you. I’m sure a lot of them are interested in the lives you lead. You guys are a piece of Americana. Lone outcast fighting for survival against a hostile world. People love that stuff. It’s sort of romantic in a way.”
Dancing Joe took a long drink and gave the bottle to Match.
“Romantic!” Alf shouted. “Father God and Sonny Jesus, boy, ya think there’s somethin’ romantic ‘bout being a vagrant? Christ, Match, he called us romantic.”
Match swallowed and passed the whiskey back to Kenny. “Crazy sonofabitch all right, Alf.”
Kenny stood there holding the whiskey. “Well,” he said, “I guess romantic is too strong of a word, then. But it is interesting. Best idea I’ve had for a book yet, at least.”
“Well, it sounds none too appealin’ to me,” Alf said. “How ‘bout you, Match?”
“Nope. Sure don’t, Alf.”
Kenny took a drink and held the bottle out for Alf to see it. “Does that mean you’re not going to help me?”
Alf clutched the bottle to himself. “Well, well, now I wouldn’t say that right off. After all, ya did bring this here whiskey.” He took a drink and gave the bottle to Dancing Joe. “Seems to me the least we could do is spin ya a few yarns. Just cut it with that romantic garbage. How ‘bout it, Match?”
“I reckon so, Alf.”
Kenny looked at Dancing Joe, expecting Alf to ask for his opinion as well, but no one said anything to the boxer. He kept his eyes fixed on Kenny as he took another long drink of the whiskey. The liquid bubbled a few times on his lips and the level in the bottle went down more than two inches. When he was finished, he gave the bottle to Match and went about gathering more fuel and throwing it into the fire.
“Myself,” Alf said, drawing Kenny’s attention away from the actions of Dancing Joe, “I’ve been ridin’ the rails for nearly forty years now. And I’d say in that time I’ve seen more of this great country than most re-spectable people ever hope to. Oh, I don’t get to go any of them fancy places, of course. I mean, they don’t exactly let my kind in the penthouse suite at the Waldorf and I don’t get invited to no presidential boofeys, for Christ’s sake, but I guess I’ve seen ‘bout all the land has to offer someone like me. Born right here in the Ohio Valley, I was, but don’t ask me when ‘cause frankly, I’ve lost track of the date.” Alf stopped and suddenly eyed Kenny with a cocked eyebrow. “Say, boy, ain’t ya gonna write some of this down or somethin’?”
Kenny took the bottle from Match who was finishing his drink. “Don’t need to,” he said. “I’ve got a real good memory.”
Alf wrinkled his brow. “Well is there anythin’ special ya want to know, then?”
Kenny took a drink and gave the bottle to Alf. “Well, I guess mainly what I’m looking for is what went wrong with your life.”
Alf took a drink. “What went wrong?”
Kenny nodded. “Yeah, you know, what made you become a—made you, ah...start riding the trains.”
Alf took another drink.
“That’s two!” Match shouted. “You took two, Alf!”
“I knows it, I knows it,” Alf said, quickly handing the bottle to Dancing Joe. “Don’t get yer balls in an uproar! There’s enough left for ya to have two when it gets around to ya.”
“There’d better be,” Match said.
Silence fell uneasily over the group and Dancing Joe threw some more broken wood on the fire. The flames crackled and deepened the lines in Alf’s face as Kenny studied the old man. He was staring wide-eyed into the drum. Alf slowly shook his head back and forth and bit at his lower lip. Dancing Joe took another long drink of the liquor, and the gurgling sounds brought Alf’s face back up to the group of men in the boxcar.
“It was nineteen thirty-two,” Alf said in a voice he hadn’t used all night. “Three years after the Crash and the Depression was hitting everyone really hard. Through seniority and luck I’d kept my job at American Linen, but that year my number came up, and I was laid off just like everybody else.”
Quietly, almost delicately, as if afraid of waking an abusive father, Dancing Joe handed the bottle to Match.
“Me and Sylvia...” Alf looked at Kenny. “Sylvia was my wife.” The old man paused and coughed into his fist before he went on. “We were living in this shack on Freemont Avenue with our little one, Susannah, who’d been very sick for about a month before the day I got fired. The factory was within walking distance of our home, and I remember wandering the streets that day trying to think of how I was going to take care of the little one without a job.”
Match took two quick sips of the whiskey and handed the bottle hurriedly to Kenny. He took it and held it in his left hand.
“Mrs. Rosenburg lived next door to us with her husband and two kids. She was a short round woman with black hair and red cheeks. Sometimes, she’d make pies for me and Sylvia, because Sylvia, no matter how much I loved her, was a terrible cook. She treated me like a god. Burnt offerings at every meal.”
The joke barely made it out of Alf’s mouth. It had to fight its way through the old man’s cracked lips, but it found that nobody in the boxcar wanted it, so it dropped quickly into the fire.
“The Rosenburgs,” Alf continued, “suffered in the Depression with the rest of us, but throughout it all, they always had a little money to spare. Arthur Rosenburg worked at one of the movie theaters in town.”
Kenny took a drink of whiskey and passed the bottle to Alf. There wasn’t much of it left.
“Mrs. Rosenburg was always one of the happiest little women you could ever imagine. I never thought she’d ever be sad about anything her entire life. She was always singing while she did the wash or things like that. As I walked home that day, I was hoping I’d get to hear one of her happy songs before I had to go in and tell Sylvia the news. I was really counting on hearing one of her songs. I think it could’ve really helped me. When I got home, Mrs. Rosenburg was sitting on my front stoop, crying.”
Alf took a struggled drink of whiskey and pushed the bottle into Dancing Joe’s large hands.
“Mrs. Rosenburg—Anna—told me that my little Susannah had died that afternoon, and that Sylvia had to be taken away in hysterics. The doctors had a fancy word for what had happened to her. They told me to think of it as some kind of breakdown. I guess it doesn’t matter what it was. Less than a year later, my baby was still dead, Sylvia was in a state institution, and I was riding the trains.”
Alf lowered his head, the tears on his leather face glowing in the firelight.
Match put his hands in his pockets and kicked at the floor.
Dancing Joe finished the rest of the whiskey.
Kenny nodded and turned to Match. “And what about you?”
The crash was so loud that at first Kenny thought the train had derailed or had hit an oncoming freight. Three heads popped up to see Dancing Joe bent over in his follow-through. The glass of the whiskey bottle had shattered against the wall of the boxcar and the noise echoed over and over again in the suddenly cramped space. The shards of glass exploded throughout the car like the shrapnel of a grenade.
“You son of a bitch!” Dancing Joe roared as he straightened up to his six and a half feet. “Put that in your goddamn book, will you?! Just one more fucking fairy tale of the rails, eh?! Well, you want something to write about, goddammit? I’ll give you something to write about, you fuck!”
Dancing Joe pushed his way past Alf and bore down on Kenny. Kenny backed up to the end of the boxcar and pressed himself against the wall.
“Don’t do it, Joe,” Alf said as he tried to pull the boxer back. “The boy didn’t mean nothin’ by it. It ain’t his fault the things that happened to me.”
Dancing Joe shrugged him off. “Don’t worry about it, Alf. I’m just going to give the boy here something to write about in his goddamn book. Something about us lousy hoboing bums. Yes sir, I am.”
“Ya’ve had too much,” Alf pleaded. “It’s just the booze talkin’, Joe.”
Dancing Joe walked right up to the cowering form of Kenny and poked him in the chest with a stiff finger while he shouted at him. “Yes sir, Mister Writer, I’m going to give you just what you’ve been asking us for.”
“W…wa…waitaminute,” Kenny stammered. “I didn’t mean any offense. Please. I just—”
“You just wanted to know how come we were lousy hoboing bums. No harm in that, right? Well listen to me, you goddamn fake, I ain’t riding these trains because it’s romantic or interesting for dumbfuck pencilnecks like you. I’m riding these trains simply because I couldn’t hit an ugly nigger hard enough to knock him on his black ass.”
Dancing Joe punched Kenny in the gut and he doubled over, the air whooshing out of his lungs. He dropped to his knees.
“Now, what do you think?” Dancing Joe asked. “Do you think that was hard enough to drop some ugly nigger? Sure put a paisley-ass faggot like you on the floor.”
Kenny wheezed for breath as he looked up and saw Alf and Match standing very still by the burning oil drum. The corners of his vision were black. Dancing Joe brought his knee up hard into Kenny’s chin and Kenny bit his own tongue deeply. Blood filled his mouth and his head rocked back with the blow. Dancing Joe grabbed him by the shirtfront and hauled him up against the wall of the boxcar. With one hand, the boxer reached around and took Kenny’s wallet out of his back pocket. It was made of leather and almost new.
“What are ya gonna do, Joe?” Alf asked.
“I knew it!” Dancing Joe said, ignoring Alf. He held the wallet up in front of Kenny’s face. “Six months, my ass. How much money you got in here, you goddamn fake? Enough so that when we get to Saint Louis, you’ll head for the warmest hotel, I’ll bet. Enough money to buy that goddamn whiskey to loosen the lips of us lousy hoboing bums.”
Kenny coughed up some blood onto Dancing Joe’s shirt.
Dancing Joe punched Kenny in the face and dropped him to the floor, unconscious. Dancing Joe put Kenny’s wallet in his own coat pocket.
Alf took a full step forward. “What are ya gonna do, Joe? Don’t do nothin’ stupid, now.”
“Back off, Alf,” Dancing Joe said. “I’m going to throw this book-writing faggot off this damn train, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Alf ran over to the fallen Kenny. “We’ve got to be goin’ sixty for Christ’s sake! You’ll kill the boy!”
Dancing Joe looked at Alf and then slowly over to Match.
“Alf’s right, Joe,” Match said. “You’ll kill him.”
Dancing Joe smiled. “You’re goddamn right I will.”
“Listen, Joe,” Alf said. “Don’t blame the boy for the things that happened to us. It wasn’t his fault. I’m here because my country dried up and my family went with it. You’re here because ya found yerself unable to do the only thing ya were ever any good at. And Match…well, Christ, ya know why Match is here.”
Dancing Joe kept his eyes on Kenny’s unconscious form.
“The point is,” Alf went on, “that we got dealt a bum hand. The boy had nothin’ to do with it. He might’ve pissed ya off with all his questions and fakery, but that still gives ya no right to go ahead and kill him. Ya may not deserve to be ridin’ these trains, but the boy sure don’t deserve to die.”
Kenny stirred and let out a moan.
Dancing Joe looked up at Alf. “But I am riding these trains, ain’t I, Alf? Like you say, I don’t deserve to be, but I am. I guess we don’t always get what we deserve, do we?”
Dancing Joe knelt down and picked up Kenny like he was cradling a baby. Kenny was making noises but he was still out cold. Alf stood between the boxer and the open door.
“Get out of my way, Alf,” Dancing Joe said. “Or, so help me, I’ll push you out with him.”
Alf looked into the big man’s eyes for a long time before he stepped aside.
Dancing Joe lifted the inert form of Kenny to chest level and, with one mighty heave, pushed the body out of the boxcar and into the night air. Kenny disappeared into the blackness and swirling snowflakes. There was no sound of his body hitting the ground. The boxcar sped on through the night, pulled along by the engine at the head of the line.
Alf slowly made his way back to the oil drum. Match stood there, hands still in his pockets.
“What’re we gonna do, Alf?” Match asked, looking over at Dancing Joe still standing at the boxcar door.
Alf turned to look at Dancing Joe and then back to Match. “Fire’s goin’ out,” he said.
“Ain’t we gonna do nothin’?” Match whispered across the dying flames.
Alf drew his coat around his body. “Match,” he said. “The fire’s going out.”
Match looked down into the drum. “Yeah,” he said. “I suppose it is.” He took his collection of matchbooks from out of his pocket. He cleared his throat. “Nicky’s Tavern…Simpleton Cigars…Snyder Grinding Company…”
Dancing Joe listened to the list and looked silently out across the snowy countryside.
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