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View Full Version : A Hobo Homebound (2,893 words - Some language)



BurntMason84
March 19th, 2015, 09:36 AM
This is a short story, dedicated to Melissa. To a great, incomparable friend whom I never got the chance, or courage, to say goodbye to.

The pastures and forests flew by the small opening of Garry's cramped steel cabin. As the train headed north through the Illinois flatland, the tramp couldn't help but wonder what he would do when he got up to Oshkosh. He never ever really visited the area at all, but knew that she was there. It dawned on him that she had a sister, and wondered if her sister was still there too or if she moved on after getting hitched in recent years, or so he had heard.

The box car rattled and the door slid open a smidgen. Garry had lucked out, as boxcars on trains were becoming more and more rare. Especially empty box cars. These weren't the 1930's by a long shot. Most trains had flatcars with freight on them, large ship containers piggy backing on, or just hauled grains and liquids in special cars. Any empties were generally held over until some sort of freight could be loaded back on before being shipped back or onto another destination. Then again, there were also quite a few "bulls", or railway cops, who patrolled the yards in this day and age too.

Remembering his last encounter at the previous rail yard, Garry found had found an old, green Burlington Northern boxcar which was empty. He hadn't been sure if it was heading north, but he knew it would be taking off fairly soon, and it was as good a ride as any. However, so much commotion was going on at the time, which had helped to cover his own tracks, that he never heard the white pickup pull up behind him. The driver, a "bull" named Ralph, called out to Garry.

While Garry would've generally run for the hills without a second thought, a lack of sleep and not eating for days sapped what little energy he had left. This had surprised Ralph, who wasn't use to a hobo who surrendered without a flight or fight mode kicking in. He walked up to where Garry stood ever so slowly. Facing the rail cop now, he had set his rucksack on the ground, raising his hands in the air. Ralph eyed Garry with suspicion, as these days he'd seen one too many drug addicts who thought they were more clever than he, despite their drug induced haze.

"You ok?" Ralph finally asked after a few moments, breaking the deafening silence of train engines and grinding steel. While he was a pretty good judge of character, there weren't many bums he met on the rail lines that weren't suspicious in some way. However, the guy in front of him didn't seem suspicious in any sense, which put him off even more in Ralph's opnion.

"Peachy," Garry replied. He was too tired to fight anymore, despite yearning to go back up to Wisconsin, his home. If he had to serve a few days in jail, so be it. Maybe he'd get a meal out of it. Odds were though that this old "bull" would just run him off the yard. Regardless, he'd get back up there to where he was going, one way or another.

Ralph couldn't help but chuckle. Peachy as he was, the hobo before him looked like he had been in a knockdown, drag out fight with nature in all her glory and lost on multiple occasions. His hair was long, as long as it could be for balding, and his beard ran in hundreds of separate directions. His skin was a living palette of every color of dirt and mud in existence, and Ralph was sure that all the clothes he wore were more rags and tears than anything else. "You sure look it," Ralph replied finally.

Ralph pulled up his radio to call in to dispatch that he had found a stowaway, but he noticed the telltale stare in the bum's eyes weren't of resign or misery, but lost in some sort of thought or memory. Something about this stranger was off, and it tugged at Ralph's curiosity. He set the radio back into it's cradle, resting against his hip. He chuckled to himself once more, unbelieving he was going to entertain this bum, but again, he couldn't shake that something was off about him and he wanted to know what it was.

"Tell you what," Ralph spoke to Garry in a matter-of-fact tone. "I'll give you a chance to tell me why I should let you go, and see if it's something worthwhile."

Garry broke his empty gaze with the ground and stared, dead eyed, straight at Ralph. He replied, "I'd rather not really get into it. You probably should just arrest me."

For a second, Ralph was taken aback by this tramp's glare. It wasn't menacing or threatening by far, but there was something behind it, something more than your average hobo. Maybe it was reverence, maybe it was determination. Then again, maybe it was both, Ralph thought. "C'mon," Ralph prodded, as this strange anomaly of a man before him fueled his curiosity further with every passing minute, "Entertain me. You never know, I might really give in and let you go."

Ralph smiled. He wasn't sadistic and didn't mean to toy with the bum who was down on his luck, but he was also earnest in his statement about letting him go too. The tramp seemed harmless enough, maybe he was just heading home. Then again, he also might be a crackpot who had a wild tale that was sure to be entertaining. Either way, it would probably be a win-win for Ralph.

Garry sighed and dropped his hands to his sides. There was no harm in telling the rail cop where he was going and why, though being taken to jail would've been nice just for a warm bed and bowl of soup. His shoulders fell in exhaustion, and he began to explain to Ralph of where he was going and why. As he regaled Ralph with his tale, Ralph's wide grin slowly began to disappear, and his bushy eyebrows furrowed as the story went on. The local train yard was shifting cars and engines to and fro, and a wide range of diesel engines, horns and grinding steel filled the background.

Ralph stood, stern faced, staring at Garry after he had finished his story. He was processing what the drifter had relayed, and wasn't quite sure what to do. Ralph hadn't ever let a hitchhiker go before, but this one was different. As if he understood how the "bull" was feeling, Garry squatted down to his rucksack and dug around the mishmash of items in it. He pulled out a small, beaten cardboard box that had once held a smart phone that someone discarded. It was covered in duck tape and dirt, but you could still discern that it was cared for more than the other items in the bag. Garry opened the top and unfolded a handful of handkerchiefs and rags which offered padding for the goods inside. Once uncovered, he showed the contents to Ralph.

Staring into the box for a minute, Ralph finally came to a decision. He nodded a couple of times, more in an effort to reassure himself that he was doing the right thing than to confirm he had seen what Garry had shown him. He turned around and walked to the truck without uttering a word.

Surprised, Garry figured that maybe luck paying him back for all the years of shit he had to put up with before and that the railway cop was letting him go, just like he said. He carefully folded the contents back up in the box, and tucked it away gingerly into his pack. He strapped his rucksack up and threw it back of his shoulders. He looked up when he heard the truck door slam and Ralph was striding right back to Garry's spot, staring him down. Then again, maybe luck was still a bitch, Garry had thought to himself.

In his hands, Ralph carried a gallon jug of water and what appeared to be a lunch box. He walked up to the hobo without a single word, and handed him the lunch box and water. Garry took it, despite the confusion which was setting in. Ralph then walked up to the green Burlington Northern boxcar, and unlocked the door. He turned to Garry, again nodding his head, though Garry still wasn't sure if it was in approval or debate.

"This train is heading up to Green Bay in an hour or so," Ralph began to explain to Garry, "and will cut right through Oshkosh. There are a few change overs and crossings there, so it'll slow up a bit and should be enough for you to be able to hop out when you get there." He smiled, and Garry couldn't help but smile back.

"It's not much," Ralph gestured towards the water and lunch box, "but it should get you through." He then slapped his heaving belly and laughed, "You'll even put on a pound or six with all the mayo the wife puts in her food!" Still chortling, Ralph rested a hand on Garry's shoulder as he walked past. "You get on there and you get home." With that, Ralph climbed back into his truck and drove past, waving out the window to Garry as he departed down the way and out of sight.

Not wanting to get caught by another crewman or bull who wasn't as friendly, Garry threw the lunchbox and water into the car and climbed in. He closed the door all the way, even though he didn't care for the dark. If it was open ajar, any passerby would become curious and inspect the boxcar for sure. He pulled out a little LED light attached to a key chain he had found weeks ago, and shone it down into the lunchbox he had opened. There rested a huge club sandwich with mayo oozing out the sides, a bag of barbeque potato chips, an apple, and a small apple pie from McDonald's. While he was grateful for Ralph giving up his lunch, he was even more grateful that Ralph was a hearty man with a mighty appetite. He reveled in his breakfast as he awaited the train to pull out to it's destination.

The green pastures were beginning to give way to vibrant red and orange landscapes, rippling with hills and bluffs, valleys and creeks. Snapping out his recent memory of an awesome breakfast, he sat up from resting on the floor to take in the new scenery. No more pastures, but just the forest enriched by autumn's colors, Garry figured that he had crossed the border back up into Wisconsin. The sun was still rising in the sky and it looked as though the haze which would set about the valleys and between the bluffs still hadn't burned out. Having been across most of the country, there was no sight like that anywhere.

Garry closed the doors and hunkered down in the corner of the car. They'd soon be going through Milwaukee, and while the train was supposed to head on through, things could always change and he didn't want to take a chance. He'd have a few hours before getting up to her, and it would give him time to think about what he was going to day. It had been almost 10 years, and he obviously wasn't the man he used to be.

After another five hours of travel, Garry could see the forest clearing. There was a sign not to far off which stated there was a shop in Fond du Lac that travelers should stop and see. Garry knew that Oshkosh was pretty close now, as Lake Winnebago began to come into view through the breaks in the trees. The train had stopped in a few major rail yards in Milwaukee a couple of times, but not for very long. He hadn't even heard any dogs which some of the rail cops and crews might have used to catch hitch hikers, but then again, maybe they'd only use them at night when it was hard to see. Regardless, Garry was almost at his last stop now.

As the train slowed down through a crossing in Oshkosh, Garry pushed the door open. There were some deep ditches, though a great deal of fresh cut grass which helped cushion the fall, though not by much. Garry got up and brushed himself off. Getting his direction, he realized he wasn't too far from where she was now. He pulled his rucksack onto his shoulders, grabbed the water jug still half full, and began his march to his final destination.

After cutting through a few warehouse and parking lots, Garry found himself amongst idle, quiet homes. The streets were oddly vacant, and a cool breeze blew around the colorful leaves which were falling from the trees. As he walked along the street, he took in the old architecture around him. Many were Victorian, but a Tudor or Dutch style would stand out here an there. He imagined that if things would have been different, he and her would probably have moved into one of these houses after one of their many archeological excursions into the wilds.

His day dreams of what might have been were cutoff when he realized the homes had ended and he was at the edge of the cemetery. It lined another lake, whose name he could not remember. He began to walk through looking at each headstone, as he had never come to the funeral, having been too much of a coward to say goodbye that day. He looked up at the sun which had long since crested in the sky and was now beginning is descent back down. He'd have time to find her still. One row at a time, he searched.

Finally, he found her. Her headstone was simple, yet elegant, and had couple of chips missing, whether that was done on purpose or not. It couldn't have been a better fit for her; she was graceful yet rambunctious, gorgeous and a tomboy, everything and more. A bouquet of flowers and trinkets showed that others missed her just as much as Garry.

As he looked down, he couldn't hold back his thoughts any longer. He tried to prepare himself, but seeing her name, it all came rushing out. He collapsed to his knees and his rucksack tried to fell him backwards. Fighting fits of sobs and tears he landed on his side, his head right next to the headstone. All the memories cascaded through his eyes; the times he'd see her on the old army base, digging through dirt in cordoned off areas, looking for her next discover, the times at the local little bar, where they drank too much and sang the songs from their youths off key, the nights where they just walked and held hands, not a word spoken aloud.

"I'm sorry," Garry could barely utter as his throat was swollen from the sadness. "I don't know why I ran... I don't know why I didn't call... I don't know why I wasn't there." The painful regret and memories wracked his mind. He would never know what she had felt, what she had wanted to say. He sat up, and wiped away the tears streaming down his face as best he could. Taking off his rucksack, he pulled out the box he had shown Ralph at the rail yard. After opening it, he pulled out each item from it reverently and with great care.

He lined the foot of her headstone with an arrowhead, an piece of clay pottery, a decorated feather with bones attached to it, and a number of other Native American artifacts and shards. He finished lining her headstone with the pieces and smiled; he had gone across the country as he ran, gathering pieces and relics of tribes and history which she had been so passionate about. Though he wasn't as learned as she, he made sure to understand what each piece he had gathered was before he would be ready to give it to her. As he looked at each piece, he couldn't help but smile, as he was sure she would laugh at such a gushy gesture.

After a few moments, he reached back into his rucksack and pulled out his old flip phone. Though it was nearly 10 years old and had lost power long ago, it's memory card retained one single voice message of her. They hadn't talked in a year or two, but she had left a message out of the blue, asking him to call her back. He had meant to, but never mustered the courage to give her a call back. There was always an excuse; too busy today, not feeling well today, I'll call back tomorrow. He tried calling weeks later but it was disconnected. Weeks after that, he learned she had died right after she had called him of a blood disease, and that was that. No more calls, no more cheesy karaoke songs, no more walks, no more anything. He put the phone down in the middle of all of the relics he had gathered for her. The tears had subsided, the pain receded, and all that was left was an empty pit, void of anything. He reached into his breast pocket of his coat and pulled out one more arrowhead. It was a rare find, made out of obsidian and black as night. Furthermore, it's edges were still razor sharp in parts, enough to break the skin. As the sun set and set the dusk on fire across the sky, Garry sat in front of her, happy he had mustered the courage to his final destination, to her.

Toot Sweets
March 20th, 2015, 08:42 PM
A thoroughly enjoyable read BurntMason. I especially liked the vivid imagery you put into this piece, I had no trouble imagining the story's landscapes. But even more spectacular to me is the way in which you captured a truly compassionate moment between Ralph and Garry. I know that (especially in this day and age) railroad security is not taken lightly, so it was wonderful to learn that your MC makes it through not only unscathed, but with some care to spare. I also want to mention that I think you have the perfect level of suspension going (with the phone box) to keep your readers intrigued. Your plot is both interesting and very touching as well. Although it does contribute to a rather somber conclusion, I think you were wise to withhold the fact that the woman of Garry's interest has passed on until near the end of the story. This allows for the reader to experience a hopefulness throughout Garry's journey that would otherwise be greatly suppressed.

You have a few SP/grammar issues to work out and I also feel like if you were to rephrase certain parts of this story it would flow more naturally, but overall I feel that this piece is well thought out and well written. A quick question: Is the last line of the story implying that Garry is now prepared to die as well, or simply stating that he is content in accomplishing his objective? Unless it was your intention to leave the reader wondering, I would suggest clarifying Garry's concluding emotions.

BurntMason84
March 20th, 2015, 09:09 PM
Thanks Sweets! I always have a bit of trouble editing, both spelling and grammatically. I just get lost in the story when I begin to reread it.

As for the end, I wanted to leave it open. In all honesty, I'm not sure how I'd end it in my own head as well. It's completely up to the reader. Maybe Garry held on to the last arrowhead as a reminder, maybe he went to school to carry on her work, maybe he ended his lift after his trek, maybe he just hopped on another train, forever bound to wonder in his grief. Still, I found it hard to leave it so all options were open, and maybe should have left out the fact that the arrowhead could break the skin, as you're right, it does sound as though ending his life was the more obvious of ends to the story. Truly though, thanks for the read and critique!

Toot Sweets
March 20th, 2015, 11:04 PM
I always have a bit of trouble editing, both spelling and grammatically. I just get lost in the story when I begin to reread it.

I feel much the same way. And it's especially true / emphasized when you are being too critical of your writing style or plot development (something I'm afraid I do a bit too often).

Thanks for clarifying that this is open-ended, I can feel better now in believing that Garry has made it out of poverty and is carrying on in his friend's footsteps. :nevreness:

riotcoke
May 5th, 2015, 02:20 PM
The imagery here is so beautiful and well-written - you convey the scene with ease and comfort and the words flow naturally. Very readable and enjoyable. One of the best pieces I've read here so far - but i've only been here two days so don't let it get to your head :)

Bevo
May 5th, 2015, 06:31 PM
This story really held my attention, I also felt the loss and urgency to complete his journey.
The images were visual, great detail!

enjoyed that, thanks!

escorial
May 24th, 2015, 02:03 PM
the constant use of garry and ralph...i found frustrating...the story was very real life at times