Winner of an Honorable Mention in the Lorian Hemingway Contest
Papa had just gotten a brand new radio. Big and solid oak, it made a huge impression in the parlor where Papa kept it so we could listen to it especially on Saturday afternoons. Papa had bought the first radio in the community almost eight years ago and since that time, every Saturday afternoon after four o’clock, come rain or shine, every Dick and Jerry from miles around crowded around our front porch to listen to the radio or take in the fight, if there was one. Papa obliged them all and as such kept his praises in the mouths of nearly everyone in the community. This new radio had come on Papa’s birthday, ordered directly from Sears and Roebuck and delivered special handling. Since the beginning of fall , however, the radio had been neatly put away, positioned back on its perch on the glass and marble end table in front of the parlor window. No one had a taste to listen to it and Papa didn’t think it wise to bring it out to play anymore. Only I snuck into the parlor whenever I could, after finishing chores or after finishing dinner, and turned the big knob to listen to Deford Bailey, Roy Acuff, and Maybelle Carter at the Grand Ol’ Opry. Papa regularly sat to listen to the radio on Sunday afternoons after church, listening to the news and to music. It was only between the two of us that the radio remained functional.
Things had gotten bad. The mill had closed and as summer approached there were hundreds of men out of work in our town. Their children were starving and people had started wandering. I nearly died of fright one late morning as summer started while I sat out breakfast for the cats. A man came walking past the house coming down from the railroad tracks that crossed our property past the apple, pear, and peach orchards. The man was tall and lanky, little more than skin and bones with a shirt and a pair of pants thrown over it. He carried a knapsack over his shoulder and as he passed the house, he looked at me with something between derision, pity, and contempt. He passed me by without uttering a word, but was so close to the house, I swung back inside and fastened the screen door shut after me. I told Mama about what happened. Mama sat me down and very sternly told me that if I ever saw any men walking down from the railroad track towards the house to not be afraid. I should stick close to the house, be kind and respectful, and offer them food if they asked for it. She said those men were wanderers, and called themselves hobos and they were looking for places to sleep and something to eat because they had nothing else going for them. They were wandering to and from town looking for work and food. Our house was the closest and quickest path from the rail line into town. She said I should always remember that she wasn’t that far from the house and just to call for her if I needed her. What she told me peaked my curiosity. Why were these men wanderers? I was determined to find out more about them and why they were wanderers.
I had just turned twelve as school let out. My older sister Margaret had just gone off to college and I was left all alone at the house before school resumed that fall. Mother usually spent her days in her garden, toiling in her few acres of vegetables and herbs on the other side of the hill, leaving after breakfast at half past six and not returning until late in the afternoon on the other side of four o’clock. That left me to fetch my own breakfast and occupy myself until mother came back home. Father wandered into the house at half past six every evening, rain or shine, and had done so every day of my life since I knew him. Being alone in our huge, rustic house , I let my imagination take reign. Armed with my new knowledge of the wanderers, I perched myself to find out whatever I could when the opportunity presented itself.
That first morning of my vacation, I turned over in my bed, my ears perched slightly as my mother wandered out from the house. Turning back over, I slept til well past eight then commenced to get up and take myself into the kitchen in order to make breakfast. My mother always baked biscuits every morning before leaving the house, cooking for her own breakfast, my father’s and ultimately mine. I was ever so grateful for those biscuits. I cracked eggs open and whisked away at them, adding pepper and salt, and threw strips of bacon in the skillet, but somehow those biscuits provided a comfort to me that I had something to eat, even if my little hands couldn’t make it. With my oven-warmed biscuits, eggs, bacon, and thermos of orange juice( I cheated when by myself: I never used a juice glass for breakfast, but took as much as I wanted, not knowing that the absence of juice would be noticed) I commenced to the front porch where I made myself a picnic, listening to the birds giving concerts and basking in the early morning sunshine. After breakfast, I was obliged just to sit back with my arms folded behind my head, laying against the wood floor of the porch, tapping my feet in time with the natural rhythm of the universe. I was lost in the euphoria of my youth and new found freedom. Every day seemed a mere extension of some magical universe. I had completely forgotten about the wanderers.
That Friday, I lay out on the porch staring up into space, as had become my custom, just me and my connection to the cosmic, when I heard the crunching of footsteps in the yard, moving along at a mechanical pace, like the ticking of a machine in a factory. At first I sucked in all my breath and was unable to move, my body paralyzed and stuck to the hard wood of the floor. Struggling and pushing, I forced my torso into an upright position and there I saw him. Again, he was tall and lanky-it must have been a trait peculiar to the wanderers- and wore ragged clothes merely pasted to his body. This one was attractive though. His hair was dark brunette and a whisp of it fell into his face in a little curlicue. His face was handsome, showed no sign of strain. His eyes were magnetic and warm and his tiny mouth puckered beautifully into a pouty bottom lip, all of it covered by the mask of his dark brown beard, which was soft and gave him the appearance of being a genteel young man somewhere in his late twenties or thirties.
He was a few yards away from the house when I finally stood up. Nodding my head in his direction, I muddled up enough sound in my throat to utter a weak greeting.
“Hello.” I nodded again and threw my hand in the air.
The man attempted something of a smile and threw his hand back up in the air at me. Almost at the house, he didn’t slow down and I wondered if he planned to ask for something to eat or not. He did not stop, but slowed greatly, ready to engage in conversation if so obliged.
“Are you a hobo?”
The man thought on it a minute.
“Why yes, I reckon I am.”
“That means you’re wandering. A hobo means wandering.”
His answer satisfied me for a minute. A smile sprang across my face in my satisfaction at discovering another hobo. After that, we stood together, several feet apart, in a long odd silence.
“Are you hungry? “ I asked somewhat prematurely.
“Why yes’m. I’d be much obliged of some victuals. I’m mighty hungry.”
“Come up to the porch and I’ll get you something to eat. “ I summoned him up with my hands and obliged him to stand at the bottom of the steps while I went back into the house. I debated on what I should feed him. Not knowing what to do, I turned on my heels and went back to the porch.
“When was the last time you had a meal?”
The man got a perplexed look on his face as he tried to figure the last meal he had eaten.
“I don’t rightly know.”
Shaking my head, assuming a maternal role, I gestured to him with my hand.
“Come up here to the porch and sit at this table, let me get you something to eat. “
Slowly, he obliged, climbing the eight steps to the porch and sitting at the table.
After he was seated, I went into the house and proceeded into the kitchen. Setting the skillet on the stove to get hot, I pulled off four pieces of bacon and put them in the fryer along with two eggs. While the bacon and eggs were frying, I placed a brown paper sack on the table and filled it with apples, oranges, some candy, a pear, a block of cheese and some crackers. I figured he could eat them while he wandered around doing whatever hobos did. I also took three cans of sardines out of the pantry and placed them in the bag. I hated sardines and despised whenever mother presented them to me for lunch. I got rid of as many cans as I could within reason. This man was going to have a good lunch.
When the bacon and eggs had finished frying, I sat two biscuits in the stove to get hot and shoveled them onto a plate along with another apple, which I figured rounded out the plate for a healthy breakfast. I got the cane syrup out of the cabinet and doused the plate with it then poured a healthy glass of orange juice. Once I finished up packing the paper bag, I grabbed the plate and the orange juice then proceeded out to the porch to the wicker table where I had left him sitting.
“ Here you go. I hope you’re mighty hungry this morning, because this is a good breakfast.” I smiled as I sat the plate and glass on the table. The man nodded his thanks to me silently and dug into the food with restrained relish. As he ate, I pulled up a chair on the opposite side of the table and folded myself into it, leaning into my elbows as I watched him eat.
“What’s your name?” I asked him, my fists stuck into my jaws.
“How old are you, Hezekiah?”
I let that one sit on my mind a bit. He was more than twice my age. His face was young and gentle though.
“Why are you wandering? “
He looked up at the question, unsure of how to answer.
“At this point, I don’t even rightly know. But I do know my legs are tired, my body’s tired, and I’ve traveled a long way.”
“Where’d you come from?”
The man smiled and lowered his head at her question.
“I don’t even know that anymore.”
“Well how do you get to eat?”
“Sometimes I don’t.”
“That must be mighty hard.” I shook my head at the thought of having nothing to eat.
“It gets hard. The open road’s a hard life. There’s plenty of freedom, but you get rained on, you get tired. And you play by a different set of rules. Rules of the road meted out with hobo justice. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and sometimes you get taken advantage of.“
“What’s hobo justice?” I asked as he resumed eating.
He looked up from his plate and shook his head.
“Just rules of the road, young lady. A Hobo’s life with a hobo’s code of ethics.”
“It must be hard and dangerous living by the hobo rules.”
The man smiled, moved that I would engage him so in conversation.
“Want to hear a story about a hobo’s life?” He asked after a small pause.
“Sure!” I curled my knees further into the chair, digging in to listen at the story.
“Once, not even three months ago, a hobo was passing through a town and came to a small brick house on a quiet street. He was looking for food. He was hungry and had twenty five cents to his name, a nickel and two dimes. He was willing to give that nickel and two dimes to anybody who would spare him a morsel to eat. He came upon the house and noticed a young woman sweeping off the front step. She had two small children, around five or six years old, running at her heels. The house was decent and clean—had a piano near the window where it could be seen from the street. The upholstery was old, but it was neat and clean and appeared very well cared for. “
I drew my chair closer to him, intrigued by his story.
“So the man figured this woman would be kind and gentle. He could give her his money and have her fix him something to eat. He just wanted a small morsel, nothing fancy, not even enough to intrude on her grocery bill. He waited and then two hours later, after the woman had finished her chores and laid her children down for a nap, he went and rapped at her door. She answered and he made his proposal, to which she agreed. Excited, he gave her the twenty-five cents and told her he would wait under the tree in her front yard for his food. The lady took the money and closed the door. The man sat down under the tree with his knees under his chin. He could already taste the food in his mouth as he sat there. He wondered if it would be bacon and a piece of bread or a piece of fatback on a biscuit. His mouth watered. He waited. An hour passed. Then two hours. After two hours he rapped on the door again, this time to no avail. Going up to the window on the porch, he looked in. The house was as quiet as a mouse. The woman and her children were gone and the stove was as cold as stone. Angry, he was determined to sit there all night perched under her tree. It was less than an hour later, however, when the lady reappeared with her children at the front of the house, this time accompanied by a policeman. She had told the policeman that the man was loitering in her yard and she feared for her life. After failing to explain himself, he left willingly. He found shelter under a tree right at the edge of town, just a six minute walk from the woman’s house. His body was hungry and cold, but his soul was red hot. He was boiling over with the need for revenge. He waited there at the edge of town, under his tree, until Sunday. “
Hezekiah seemed fully absorbed in the story as he told it. His skin turned a bright red and his voice grew animated as each scene unfolded until he seemed to remember my presence. He paused for a moment, looked at me and sighed as the color left his skin. Slowly, he resumed telling his story.
“That Sunday, the woman dressed her two children in their Sunday best and made her way to church. He stood at a distance and watched them go. After they had left, the man made his way up the steps of the house and found the woman had left her kitchen window open. On the sill, sat a sleeve of matches from a fancy hotel the lady had saved as a souvenir. The man looked down at the book of matches. It had a pretty pink cover with fancy writing on it and it said it was from the Peabody Hotel, Atlantic City. For a minute, he just stood there and looked at the book of matches. Looking up briefly, his eye caught sight of a porcelain container filled with kitchen grease sitting on the counter by the window. A pan of biscuits sat next to the stove. His eyes went from the kitchen grease to the matches and from the matches to the kitchen grease. The more he looked, the angrier he grew. Breaking the window, the man reached inside the window and took the kitchen grease from the side counter and drizzled it all across the front of the porch and the inside of the window. He then broke out one of the matches, struck it against the lighting pad, and threw it against the house. The fire burned, but was contained only to the front part of the house under the window and the kitchen. Using his shoulder as a battling ram, he broke the door down and entered the house, kicking things over until he found a can of gasoline in the pantry. Hot venom spread through his fingers as he literally turned the can up and spread the contents of the can over everything he could reach. He then broke off another match, lit it, and threw it inside the house, barging outside after the deed was done. Flames roared inside the house, and soon the entire house was ablaze. Reaching inside his pocket, he felt a pencil, and a slip of paper lining his pockets. He walked up to the tree under which he had sat so many days before waiting for food and nourishment, his blood boiling so that he was almost an inch off of the ground. Taking the paper, he wrote on it. “This house cost twenty-five cents.” Then he stabbed the paper into the side of the tree with the pencil and left. “
I sat still as a mouse, completely drawn in by him and the dark unfolding of his story. His tale amazed me. Some part of me had grown listening to the story. After he finished the tale, I felt that I knew him. I had come to a deeper understanding about his life and about justice. I had learned something of human will and motivation. We sat there across from each other, a kind of sympathy reflecting from our eyes onto the other until finally he lowered his head and resumed his meal.
The next quarter of an hour was quiet as he noisily supped, sopping up the drippings from the plate with his biscuit. I went inside the house and fetched the paper sack that I had fixed for him. By the time I made it back out on the porch, he had finished eating.
“Here, this is for you too. It’s something to keep you while you’re out wandering.” I sat the bag on the table next to him. Boldly, I touched him, clapping him on the shoulder. Peering inside the bag, he nearly swallowed his tongue.
“Why thank you, ma’am. This is too much. Thank you. Thank you.” Tears threatened to well in his eyes. He fought bravely to keep the nice, congenial demeanor he had assumed. He licked his fingers as he roamed through the contents of the bag. He was outdone by his fortune. His eyes blinked as if to make him truly believe what his eyes saw sitting before him. Standing quickly, he moved to make his leave from the porch and back to his life as a wanderer. Grabbing the bag, he made his way down the steps. Just as suddenly, he turned on his heels and peered back up towards me. Again, our eyes connected.
“Here little girl, this is for you.” He reached his hand into his pocket and pulled out a scrap of paper. It seemed to be something ripped out of a newspaper. I extended my hand down and accepted his gift. Opening up the torn out newspaper clipping, I read the headline. The paper was dated May 5, 1930 and the headline read “Woman’s House Burns Over Twenty-Five Cents.” I folded the clipping back and looked up at Hezekiah, a huge smile on my face.
Silently, he lifted his hat on his head to me then turned and continued walking towards town. I turned and went into the house. Later that night, I slipped into the parlor to listen to the radio. I’ll never forget the song that was playing. I fell asleep on the floor listening to the words:
May I sleep in your barn tonight, mister
It is cold lying out on the ground
And the cold north wind is a-howling
And I have no place to lie down