Dedicated to my grandpa, who used to ride the rails during the Depression, and told me stories that inspired this StoryADayMay one.
by Marian Allen
He scraped by on odd-jobs for a while, but the longer the Depression went on, the more guys were willing to work for less and less. Time came when Joe couldn’t live on what he could earn – not live like a regular person.
Time came when he wasn’t giving crackers and cheese to bums at the back door, he was following one to the hobo jungle by the rails.
Zeke took him under a wing. Some veterans of the road latched onto young guys and used them wrong, but Zeke was one of the good guys who just wanted to help out a fella who was down on his luck.
He showed Joe all the tricks: how to jimmy the door on a boxcar while a train was stopped for water or coal. He taught him how to make stew out of next to nothing in a tin can over a brush fire.
But hopping freights ages a man fast. In a year, Joe was wise to the ways of the rails and Zeke was failing.
Joe became one of those guys who’d do for four cents what another guy was doing for a nickle. He got pretty good at stealing from gardens and windowsills, and he split everything with Zeke.
“You orta ditch me,” Zeke would say. “A man on the road can’t afford a burden like me.”
And Joe would say, “Aw, shut up, old man. I don’t take arguing with.”
Winter looked like being hard on Zeke’s bones. He tried to cuss Joe out of lifting him into a boxcar heading for Arizona, but the youngster ignored him and did it anyway.
Joe tucked Zeke into a corner and sat guard on him, so nobody would get the idea they could take the old man’s shoes or coat.
Joe dozed, half-waking when the door rumbled open to let in a new rider and a flare of light from a railyard or from the full moon at a water station or coal tipple.
Sometime that felt like early in the morning, he woke needing to relieve himself. The car was pitch dark. Not a gleam or a glow.
Joe shuffled forward, hunting the door with his outstretched hands.
“Whoa, young’un!” Zeke’s frail voice could barely be heard over the low thunder of the rails. “Listen to me for once, and stop right there.”
Joe stopped, wide awake now. His fingers still touched only air, but now he felt that air flowing over them. He spread his arms sideways and cracked knuckles on the edge of the door.
The open door.
Light burst in as the train left the tunnel they’d been going through.
Wobble-legged, Joe – who really needed to relieve himself now – did his business, shut the door, and crawled back to his place.
“Nearly didn’t make it Arizona,” he said. “Hadn’t o’ been for you, I’d o’ stepped right out onto sky. But how’d you know? Was you awake when we went into that tunnel?”
When Zeke didn’t answer, Joe put a hand on the old man’s shoulder to joggle the answer out of him.
Zeke was cold.
Stiff and cold, hours dead.
It’s Tuesday, so I’m posting at Fatal Foodies about cucufeta salad.
A WRITING PROMPT FOR YOU: Write about friendship.