Monday, December 08, 2003
Diary of A Rag And Bone Man
By Jack Rafter.
November 30. Dear Mr. Mowgli. Well, another Thanksgiving came and went. Another jillion turkeys killed and eaten by all the flesh eaters in every city and hamlet in America. And, yes, Vincent and I were among the flesh eaters. Vincent, being a dog, is a natural-born flesh-eater, of course. It’s funny. You don’t find too many vegetarians among us bums. Only people who have plenty to eat can afford to leave off meat. Bums have to take what they can scrounge, or whatever’s handed them.
The day didn’t start out too promising. Since I last wrote you, I’ve been spending some nights in boxcars at the train yard—the big Centennial Yard here in Fort Baird. Seemed like the best place to get out of the cold. I put on my wool overcoat, wrapped an army blanket around me, then rolled up inside a big piece of cardboard. There’s always lots of cardboard in boxcars. So I managed to stay warm.
Then, on Thanksgiving Eve, I took sick. Must have been something I ate. I was up and down all night, retching, battling chills and fever. What made it worse was having to roll out of my cardboard cocoon every half hour, then drag myself over to the door to heave out on the rocky railroad bed. Poor Vincent didn’t sleep much, either. Every time I crawled out, he was up shadowing me, thinking we were going somewhere, then he’d follow me back, watch me roll up again, and plop down next to me with a heavy sigh.
Finally, I passed out. I don’t know how long I slept, but the dream I had was a little strange. In this dream, I was roaming the streets in a town that looked like the dingy East End of London in the 19th century, even though I knew it was really Fort Baird. I was walking along the avenue with this mop-haired teenager dressed in the most ragged, filthy clothes I’d ever seen. He was a thief, a pickpocket, and he talked a mile a minute. He gestured a lot as he spoke and I could see his hands and fingers were brown with dirt, his over-long fingernails had'nt been cleaned or trimmed in years. He seemed to find himself quite the entertainer and laughed at every other sentence. I winced at his teeth and gums, which were black and rotted. Suddenly, I had a realization. I turned to him and said, “You’re the Artful Dodger, aren’t you? And I’m Oliver Twist.” He smiled and winked at me, as if it was a secret between us.
“C’mon,” he said, “I’ll introduce you to the King of Thieves.”
Suddenly, we were in a huge room. It wasn’t the poor surroundings of the robbers’ den in Dickens’ story. More like a room in a palace, filled with expensive antique furniture. Rich tapestries and paintings hung on the walls; huge chandeliers flew from the ceiling. Open chests filled with gold coins flanked the walls. A grand table of polished mahogany twenty yards long stood in the center of the room, all set for dinner with the finest china, gleaming silver place settings; its center-piece was an enormous ice sculpture in the shape of an elephant, flanked by vases of flowers. The room was crowded with people decked out like royalty from the 18th century. They wore the finest silks, powdered wigs capped by tri-fold hats, festooned with colorful ostrich plumes. I realized it was an elaborate costume party, and I felt nakedly out of place in my pauper’s raiment. The Dodger, standing nearby, whispered, “Just do what everyone else does, and no one will notice you.”
I nodded and stood there, not quite believing it. But it seemed to work just as he said.
Suddenly, everyone broke into applause and cheers. The Dodger called out: “Don’t just stand there, Oliver. Clap hands!” So I clapped with enthusiasm. Then, I saw what everyone was applauding. At the far end of the room, a carriage was brought in, the kind mounted on poles, carried by dusky skinned servants, two in front and two in back. The carriage was studded with glimmering jewels of jade, diamonds and gold filigree. They set the carriage down on a stand with steps leading up to the door. The servants stood at attention. Then, one of them opened the door. A spotlight clicked on and the whole thing was bathed in white light. Into the light stepped a little man wearing a jeweled crown, carrying a scepter. Unlike the others, he was dressed in a slick suit and tie. As he filled the doorway, he suddenly looked up and flashed a big smile. The light radiated on his ruddy cheeks and sparkled on flashing teeth. With a jolt, I recognized George W. Bush. Glancing around, I now found I could pick out faces in the crowd—off over there was Ken Lay, and beyond him was Donald Rumsfeld, and there was John Ashcroft, and Condi Rice, and Paul Wolfowitz. I blinked stupidly as I recognized each one. Then I blinked again, as I beheld the man standing right next to me, applauding and cheering. It was none other than Oliver North, dressed like a four-star general. He bit down on a big cigar and shined like a monument. He was shouting: “That’s my boy! Go get ‘em, Georgie!”
Standing next to Ollie was the almost cartoonish looking John Poindexter. “My God,” I thought to myself. I wasn’t about to quit applauding. Then, I looked to my left. I was shocked to see the nasty little Dodger hungrily groping some woman. She had long blonde hair like a surfer girl, and she just gleamed and sparkled next to the Dodger, who looked and smelled like a hyena. He had his filthy hand up her short skirt and he was sucking on her neck. You could almost hear him smooching and slurping. Then, for a moment, I caught her eyes as she looked at me wantonly over his shoulder. “Sweet bleedin’ Jesus!” I said under my breath. “It’s Ann Coulter!”
I averted my eyes and kept applauding like a mad fool. The little Prez-King stepped down to the floor, waving his scepter at the crowd, as if blessing them, like a Pope. Another man stepped into the doorway of the carriage. The spotlight flashed off his bald dome as bright as a camera flash, temporarily blinding me. Then, he looked up. It was Dick Cheney. He, too, was dressed in a suit and tie. Pinstripe. Big cigar in his pudgy hand. He waved the cigar at the crowd. People were going ape-shit.
Suddenly, a shower of confetti was unleashed. The lights swung this way and that way, glancing and glinting off green pieces of paper fluttering down. “God!” I thought, “It’s money!” Green backs! All crisp, newly minted. They fell over the carriage, over the two gloating men, over everyone and everything in the room. And it wasn’t just ones or even tens or twenties. But hundreds, five-hundreds, thousand-dollar bills! A gully-washer of cash!
As I stood there, I felt the floor surge and move under me. The room began to spin till I was dizzy. Then it seemed to go black, the mindless cheers and applause faded to a low roar. I felt as if I were being sucked down and swallowed by some huge throttling, rolling machine.
It took awhile to realize that the machine was the train moving. My eyes blinked open. I sat up and looked around. No longer surrounded by opulence and cheering revelers, but by the dark, grimy insides of the boxcar. At first I couldn’t figure out where I was, the dream seemed so real. I focused my eyes on the big open door—trees and telephone poles whooshing by. Yes sir, moving at a good clip, she was.
All of a sudden, I forgot about being sick. In fact, the nausea seemed to have vanished. I rolled out of my cardboard, drunk-walked over to the doorway, and had a look. Right off, I could see we weren’t in Fort Baird anymore. It was all rolling hills, dark woods and cedar breaks. Not a house or car in sight.
How long had I been asleep? For a moment I panicked. I thought of jumping from the train, but it was impossible. We were moving too fast. I watched the land roll by. The night seemed to be lifting. The moon sat low in the West. The sky to the East, far behind the train, showed a river of pale blue broken with long finger islands of pink and red. Gradually, the blue river spread out and began to lighten the tops of trees and hills. Vincent looked up at me, smiling, wagging his tail. That is one dog that loves to travel. Most times, I do, too. But this wasn’t one of those times.
Still, there wasn’t much I could do but ride this train. I gave up and tried napping awhile, rolled up in my cardboard, but the racketing rolling motion of the boxcar made it impossible to sleep. So it was back to the doorway, where I sat cross-legged, my army blanket pulled around me, and Vincent making a warm spot on one side.
We crossed a big railroad trestle and saw pockets of mist snuggled in creeks, hovering over the shadowy parts of the river far below. The sun climbed the sky and the mist burned off. It was actually starting to get warm. I let the blanket slide off my shoulders and dozed awhile, sitting up.
Every so often, I’d wake up and see a house or a farm go by or the highway come up close for a spell, then drift away again. There weren’t many cars. Then, I realized it was Thanksgiving and everybody was most likely at home eating turkey and sweet potatoes, cornbread and pumpkin pie. The thought of it made me feel nostalgic and hungry.
Then, around what I guessed was ten o’clock, I felt the train lurch and start slowing down. There was the highway running along, and scattered buildings, warehouses, stores, houses made of cinder brick or shacks with hog wire enclosing dirt yards and chicken coops. We were rolling into a small town somewhere. I got up and looked out the door toward the front of the train. We were just pulling into the yard. A sign went by that said, “Jeffords.” Now, I knew where we were. We were about a hundred fifty miles west of Fort Baird.
The train slowed to a crawl as it labored into the yard. By now, Vincent was up, watching everything with the keen interest in the most routine things that only a dog seems to possess. I swung my legs out the doorway as we rode along. Then, with a slight jolt, the train came to a halt, shivering through the cars, like a row of dominoes clacking into each other.
I sat there. Vincent paced and whimpered a little, as if to say, “Now what?” But I wasn’t in any particular hurry to wander off somewhere. Where would I go? The train sat, huffing and sighing. A blustering breeze made a humming sound as it blew through metal sleeves and crevices, and whipped and scattered dust around me in the boxcar. But the sun slanted down, kept the chill at bay. Not a cloud in the sky. I told myself things could be worse. It could be freezing rain.
I scooted over and leaned against the doorframe. Vincent sighed and lay down again. I only had to figure out when a train might be headed in the opposite direction. Hitchhiking was out of the question. Riding in a boxcar leaves you looking filthy and unsightly. Doubtful anyone would stop.
Sitting there, I thought about food again. I pictured myself knocking at the back door of the Busy Bee Griddle in Fort Baird. The morning cook is Johnny Blair, who also happens to be the owner. Now, there’s a real character. His head is completely shaved and most of his body covered with tattoos. He still has a few bare spots, but his goal is to cover every square inch. Except for his head, I suppose. And he might have plans for that, as well. The whole effect of the shaved head, the black goth t-shirts he wears, and the tattoos, makes him look a little scary to people who don’t know him. But he’s gentle as a lamb. And generous to a fault. If I show up at the right time, he’s liable to scramble me up some eggs, throw in a couple of strips of bacon and some hash-browns—not the processed kind, but real honest-to-god hash-browns, made out of chunks of new potatoes fried to a golden brown in onions and paprika. Pure heaven. When I have any money, I give it to him. If I’m short, he winks and says, “I’ll put it on your tab.”
And he always tells me to come back for lunch, though I never do. You don’t want to wear out a good thing.
You’ll never catch me waxing romantic about being broke or poor, or acting like money ain’t important, ‘cause by God, nothing is more important to them that don’t have any. But there are other ways of paying people, and some of those ways may actually be better than money. For instance, Johnny Blair has a love for anything odd or interesting. So if I happen to find something in my wanderings that I think might catch his fancy, I take it to him. I found a minieball one time lying next to a park bench. I found a beautiful conch shell in a pile of rubbish in front of a dilapidated house where someone had been evicted. I found a three-foot long rattlesnake skeleton—completely intact, including the rattles—in a shelf of limestone in a coulee near the train yards. I gave them all to Johnny one time or another, in return for all the breakfasts he’s given me at the Busy Bee.
But just then, Johnny Blair's hot grill seemed a long way away. Thanksgiving was even further. In Fort Baird, there’s a few churches and shelters where folks down on their luck can score some turkey, a scoop of brocolli-cheeze casserole, a slice of Wonder bread and a dab of canned cranberry sauce. But sometimes I just get to thinking about my family on Thanksgiving, my wife and children, and then I just want to hole up somewhere and declare a day of fasting, in respect of better days.
Now, stuck in this strange town, I didn’t know what to do or where to go for food. Takes awhile to get to know a town, you see. I hated to walk off, especially if it meant missing the only eastbound train that day.
Maybe there was someone I could ask. A switchman or a signalman. I leaned out, looking up and down the train. But there wasn’t a soul in sight. Maybe they all went home. It was a small yard, after all. There were only a few other trains parked here and there, all dead quiet, except for the wind gusting through their doorways.
Finally, for want of better ideas, I gathered myself and hopped down. Vincent was up in a flash, whimpering and pacing. The jump was too much for him. I reached up, grabbed him and set him on the ground. “Don’t wander off, Vince,” I said. I pulled a length of clothesline out of my coat pocket and tied it on his collar. We started walking up beside the train, then crossed the tracks, climbing over a coupling or two, weaving between trains. Then, we went out of the yard and walked along the highway.
Most everything was closed, only a few cars driving around. We spotted a guy sitting on a guardrail, having a smoke. He wore an old fedora, a filthy plaid suit jacket and mismatched pants. I took him for a stray from the train yard. He glanced sideways at us as we walked up. I wasn’t sure whether to talk to him or not. You have to understand—so many of these homeless folks are just batshit. Once you start a conversation, they’re liable to cling to you like flypaper. It was hard to avoid him, though, so I nodded as I came up.
“Hello, pardner,” he said with a gap-toothed smile.
“Hello,” I said. His eyes were noticeably bloodshot, but otherwise, he looked more or less level and plumb, so I said, “Could you tell me where me and my dog might get us a bite to eat around here?”
He chuckled. “Well, sir, I just was sitting here wondering the same thing, myself.”
“You’re not from here?”
“Who me? Oh, no, I’m from over Fort Baird way.”
“So am I. How’d you get here?”
“That train over there delivered me here.”
“Is that right? Well that train delivered me here, too.”
“Ain’t that a caution!” he slapped his knee, laughing.
“Did you mean to come here?” I asked him.
“Hell, no, I didn’t mean anything of the kind. But then, I ain’t meant to do anything in twenty years.” He laughed again, snorting, like a horse. “Drank a little too much hooch last night, I guess, and passed out in one of them cars. Next thing I know I’m wakin’ up in a different freight yard, in a different town. Thought I was dreamin’. Guess I’m lucky I’m still in the country. What happened to you, friend?”
I told him my story. Then I asked him if he had any money on him.
“Got exactly four bits,” he said, grinning.
“I’ve got a dollar and some change,” I said.
“Wow, finally met a rich man!” he chuckled. Then, he nodded up the highway. “There’s a convenience store up yonder. It’s open, too. This is Thanksgiving, ain’t it?”
“Well, it’s open. I was gonna buy me a banana, but he wanted seventy-five cents. Can you believe that?”
“We could get more for our money if we could find a supermarket,” I said.
“I don’t know where anything is.” He shook his head.
I looked around. “Well, I hate to leave the yard. I wonder if there’s another train going back today.”
“I wondered that, too,” he said. “But I couldn’t find nobody to ask. An’ if I did, I’d be skeard they might arrest me.”
We both shrugged, fell into step, and started toward the convenience store.
“Nice dog,” said the man. “What’s his name?”
“Vincent. And I’m Jack Rafter.”
“Glad to meet you, fellas. My name’s Brewer. Finster Brewer. He don’t bite, does he, Jack?”
He reached down, patted Vincent on the back. As we walked along, a police car slinked by, gave us the once-over, and moved off.
“Just keep on goin’, my friend,” said Finster Brewer, smiling and waving at the cops. The cops looked back without smiling.
We crossed the highway and entered the convenience store. We poked around awhile, counting and recounting our money, trying to figure out what we could buy. The shopkeeper, who was either Pakistani or Indian, watched every move we made and seemed to go out of his way not to look too cheerful. I tried to make small talk with him, but he just grunted “yes” or “no” or “uh-huh,” and about all he could do was form incomplete sentences. And it wasn’t because he couldn’t speak English.
At one point, Finster, smiling, said to him, “Hey, bet you wish you were home for Thanksgiving, huh, friend?” The guy said, “I don’t care about Thanksgiving. I’d rather be here, making money.” But he didn’t look like he wanted to be there at all. Then, he said, “You gonna buy something or you just gonna look?”
So we made our purchases and got out of there. Finster said, “What’s the matter with him?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
We came out with two bananas and a six-pack of peanut butter crackers. “Here,” I said, opening the package. “There’s three for you and three for me.”
“Well, this oughta hold me till lunch,” Finster chuckled. Then, he popped one of the little cracker sandwiches in his mouth. “Mm, not bad,” he mumbled.
We peeled our bananas and ate them as we walked back to the yard. Finster said, “Well, lucky for us it ain’t freezing, eh?”
“Damn right,” I said. He smiled, jovially, his cheek pooched out like a squirrel's. I said, “Finster—that’s an unusual name, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is,” he said.
“Where’d you get that name from?”
“Well, my mother give me that name. She was an artist. She named me after this fella, Howard Finster. Maybe you heard of him.”
“Don’t think so,” I said.
“Well, he’s kinda famous, now. Been written up in some of the magazines. Time and Newsweek, and them. He was what they call a primitive artist. Meaning somebody that didn’t actually go to school to be an artist. You know, they just start in one day doin’ whatever the hell they want to do, paintin’ on scraps of wood or tin or whatever they happen to pick up here and there. You know, what most other people see as trash, they’ll see it as somethin’ that could be beautiful and then sure nuff make somethin’ out of it. Of course, you never hardly find their work in a gallery or a museum because it’s not done on canvas or it’s not framed properly or it ain’t considered proper by the experts—you know, it’s not impressionism or realism or any other isms, so they call it primitive, just like we once called the aborigines primitives or savages because they weren’t us. So these artists just have to get along, somehow, do whatever they can to get their work out there. And if that means putting their paintings out by the road so people in cars can see ‘em as they drive by, or stickin’ ‘em up on fence posts, then that’s what they do. And that’s what ol' Howard Finster did. He started puttin’ his work up around his house. Then out in the yard. Then, up on the fences. And then on the sides of his house. And even on the roof. Till gradually, over the years, his house, his yard, his trees, and just about everything he owned, became one great sprawling work of art. I swear his place looks like something out of a storybook. I haven’t been there, but I’ve seen pictures of it. It’s like a weird fairy tale. He’s very religious, too, Howard Finster. Lots of religious themes running through his work. Quotes from the Bible. All kinds of lessons and warnings and forebodings. Yep, Finster’s very religious.” He paused a moment, thinking with a frown. “He just died recently, I believe. He was livin’ in Georgia. Somewhere near Athens, I think. His house is a tourist attraction, now. His wife's in charge of it. I always wanted to go see his house and meet the man I was named after. But I never got around to it. Maybe I’ll do that one of these days. Maybe I’ll go meet Finster’s wife. That would be something, wouldn’t it. Hi, I’m Finster Brewer. I was named after your late husband.”
We paused at the entrance to the yard.
“I named my dog after an artist.”
“Wow! Is that right? Now, there was a great man. He painted some beautiful things. Like Starry Night. Now, that’s my favorite painting in the whole world. I love that painting. Wish I had a copy of it. You don’t have a copy of it, do you, Jack?”
“No, I don’t.”
“I almost think my life would be complete right now if I could just get me a copy of that Starry Night. Yeah. I think that would do it for me.”
“You say your mother was an artist?”
“Oh, yeah! My mother was a great artist! She could paint and draw whatever she wanted. She was trained. Chicago Art Institute, nineteen-fifty—lemme think. Fifty-two? Or was it fifty-three? Look here.” He reached inside his coat, brought out a folded piece of paper. Stained and yellow. Carefully, he opened it up--it was about to fall apart at the creases—to reveal a pencil sketch, lightly drawn. It was of a boy with a dark crop of hair, a careless droop over the eyes. I studied it a moment. Finster was quiet. The lines were delicate, drawn by a sure hand. Signed, Nina Brewer, 1964.” I looked at Finster. “Is this you?”
“Yeah, it’s me,” he whispered. “I was twelve years old.” Suddenly choked, he covered his face with a grimy hand. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled.
“It’s all right,” I said.
“I can’t bear to think of her. She went mad. She died all alone in some bad place.”
He stood there a moment, sobbing quietly. I rested my hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry, Finster,” I said.
“I’ll be okay,” he said under his hand. “I’ll be okay in a minute.” Then, sniffling, he looked up, managed a smile. “Really, I’m okay. Just caught me by surprise. She does that to me sometimes. Haven’t thought of her in awhile.”
“Yeah.” He carefully folded the sketch, slipped it back inside his coat over his heart.
“C’mon,” I said, and started into the yard. He hung back. “Aren’t you coming?”
“No,” he smiled. “Think I’ll try it here awhile. Might be easier bein’ broke here than broke in the big city.”
“Maybe so,” I said. “Well. . .see ya, Finster. Good luck.”
“Wait.” Reaching in the side pocket of his coat, he pulled out a slender glass object and held it out. “Here,” he said.
“What is it?”
“It’s a candle. A luminaria. Found it in the boxcar last night. Somebody musta used it before me. You take it, now. Might need it some dark night. See? It has a saint on it. Santo Nino de Atocha. She’s an infant saint. If you pray on her real hard, your wishes will be fulfilled.” He held it out. “Take it, Jack.”
“Well, okay,” I said. “Thanks, Finster.”
“Don’t mention it.”
I slipped the candle in my coat pocket. We stood looking at each other a moment. Then, we both nodded. I turned and walked off. When I got to the first train to cross over the coupling, I looked back. Finster was sitting on the guardrail by the yard, smoking, staring off at the highway and the passing cars.
There weren’t any trains pointed east, so Vincent and I went back to the one we came in on. It was still sitting there. We went to the same boxcar, climbed up inside and sat in the doorway. I gave Vincent a peanut butter cracker sandwich to assuage his hunger, then I ate the last one. We sat watching the yard. It was pretty quiet. The wind whistled through the crevices.
After awhile, I took out the glass luminaria and studied it. There was just a dab of candle left in the bottom. It would be hard to light without a long match. The young girl saint was pictured on the front, sitting on a little throne. She wore a red cape with a seashell attached, like a brooch. The cape had a broad white collar with ruffles. She wore a little blue hat turned up in front with a plume billowing out the top. She wore a matching blue dress with sandals. She had long dark locks and loving eyes. In her right hand, a basket. In her left, a scepter and several shoots of wheat. On the back were these words printed in blue:
INFANT OF ATOCHA
Gracious infant of Atocha! Infant of a thousand
Wonders. I salute thee and glorify thee on this day
and offer this novena in memory of thy tender
love that was always evident to your sainted mother
and father. Look favorably on this favor and
request and grant that which I humbly solicit. Amen.
(Concentrate on your petition)
In small print below, it said: “Reed Candle Co. San Antonio, Texas.”
I turned the candle around and looked into the soft, kind eyes of Santo Nino de Atocha. I said: “Dear little Saint. My dog and I would sure appreciate something good to eat right now.” I looked at her a moment longer, concentrating hard. I closed my eyes and meditated on the thought of wonderful food. When I opened my eyes again, she seemed to be looking at me with a pleased expression on her face. Then I slipped the luminaria back in my coat pocket.
We sat there about an hour, Vincent snuggled against me. I was just dozing off when I felt him jerk awake, then he was up on his feet with a slight whimper. I turned and looked at him. He was staring out the door toward the back of the train. There was a man coming. He wore blue overalls, a blue-jean jacket and a pin-striped cap. Red bandana at his neck. He was dark-skinned and as he drew closer, I noticed a short growth of beard on his chin, almost white, no mustache. He looked about sixty years old. But he walked with a purpose and a vigor, despite his years, and barely glanced at me as he passed.
I nodded to him, but he just kept moving as if to say: “Don’t bother me, now, I’m busy.” Vincent and I watched him walk up the track beside the train. He raised his arms over his head and waved at someone—probably the engineer, but never slowed his pace.
I heard the clacketing all the way down through the cars and braced myself, then felt my boxcar buck as it jerked forward. The switchman reached out, grabbed a ladder on the side of a boxcar and leaped up in one fluid motion. I debated whether to jump down or stay put. The train crawled further into the yard, maybe an eighth of a mile, then abruptly stopped. The switchman swung down, graceful as a dancer, raised his left arm and waved like a clock hand starting at “twelve,” and arcing backwards to “nine.” Then, he turned, and started back in my direction. Moving quickly, he bent at the waist and glanced under the cars as he came. Now and then, he’d reach under, pull something, then move on. When he got to my car, he stopped, checked the air hose by the coupling, then looked under the car. Vincent and I sat quietly watching him. He was big, broad across the shoulders, like a prizefighter. His face was serious. There was something formidable about him. I had a feeling he was going to speak to me. I thought he was going to tell me to get lost.
Instead, he said “Hello,” as he moved by me.
“Hello,” I said.
He went back and checked between the cars, then turned, looked toward the front of the train, and waved. Then, pausing, he looked at me. He didn’t speak right off, but when he did, he said: “This train’s laid aside.”
“Oh, it is?” I said.
It sounded like a nice way of saying, “Get lost.” I started to move.
“That’s all right,” he said, “stay there, if you want. I’m just tellin’ you so’s you’ll know.”
“Thanks,” I said.
He glanced toward the front of the train, waved again. This time, it looked more like a friendly wave than a signal. I looked that way and saw a man walking away from the engine.
The switchman said, “He’s goin’ home.” He paused and looked at us. “That’s some dog you got there.”
“His name’s Vincent,” I said.
“Oh. You two on your way somewheres?”
“Tryin’ to get back to Fort Baird,” I said.
“Ah, you come out here on this train, didn’t you?” He smiled slightly.
“Yup, sure did.”
“Fall asleep in there, did you?”
“Somethin’ like that.”
“I see ‘em do that a lot on this train.”
“Uh-huh. Don’t know what it is about this ol’ girl. Just seem like she wants to bring folks out here, for some reason. Then leave ‘em stranded. She oughta know better, but she’s a mischievous ol’ thing.”
“Where does she go from here?”
“Ain’t goin’ nowhere now. Goin’ back to Fort Baird in the morning, though. She just runs between here and there. Little ol’ pack train. Number 7 out of Fort Baird.”
He shook out a cigarette, held out the pack.
“No, thanks,” I said. “Is there another train going back today?”
“Nope, not a one.”
He lit his cigarette with a silver flip-top lighter, snapped it shut, slipped it back in his pocket. He took a long first drag, letting it out slow. While he did that, he stood there looking at me and the dog, as if quietly sizing us up. The smoke made his eyes squint a little. After a moment, he said, “You hungry?”
“Yes, I am.”
He took a watch out of his overall vest pocket. It was a nice one—old and smooth, hooked on a chain. He glanced at it, then put it back. “’Bout noon,” he said. “C’mon.” He turned and started off. I grabbed Vincent and jumped down. We followed him to the rear of the train, about fifty yards. To my surprise, there was a rusty red caboose attached at the end.
“I thought they did away with cabooses,” I said.
“Not on this train,” he replied. “I been workin’ trains almost thirty-five years. When they asked me if I wanted this line, I told ‘em they had to give me a caboose or I was gonna retire. So they give me a caboose.”
He started up the steps, then paused and looked back at me. “By the way,” he said, “I’m Spencer Dupree. What’s yours?”
“Jack,” I said. “Jack Rafter.” I started to tie Vincent outside.
“That's all right, bring him on in.” Spencer opened a door and stepped inside. Vincent and I followed him in. We filed through a narrow passageway, and entered a small room. I was stunned by what I saw. The table by the window was covered with white linen. There were two place-settings with fine old china, a silver tray in the center arrayed with nice cuts of turkey, light meat on one side, dark on the other. Next to that, a silver pitcher of mushroom and giblet gravy. There were bowls with green beans, black-eyed peas, home-made cranberry sauce, a platter of sweet potatoes, a black skillet of cornbread. Sunlight angled in the window made it all look even more magical and delicious.
Then, I noticed the silver-haired woman sitting at the end of the table. She wore a beautiful blue silk dress with a white rose over her breast. She smiled. The switchman removed his hat. “This is my wife, Jewel,” he said. “And this is Jack Rafter. Jack’s joinin’ us for dinner, honey.”
“Very pleased to meet you, Jack,” she said.
“Oh, Lord, I’m not dressed for this,” I said, backing up a little.
“No, no, don’t worry about it,” said Spencer, grabbing me by the arm. “Honey, I think we’re gonna need an extra place setting.”
“Coming up,” Jewel said. She got up, went back to a closet, brought out another plate and silverware, setting them on the table between hers and Spencer’s.
“Spencer, I’m a wreck,” I whispered. “I can’t sit in front of your wife like this. Maybe if I could wash up a little--?
He nodded, slipped his arm around his wife's waist and kissed her on the lips. "We're goin' back here a minute, honey. Be right back."
"I'll be here," she smiled, and kissed him back. For a moment, they seemed to gush over each other.
Then, he lead me to a bathroom at the other end of the car. There was a shower stall inside. I must have looked at it with longing.
“Would you like to use that shower?” Spencer said, smiling.
“Yes, sir, I sure would.”
The shower had hot water and was a pure dream. I couldn't get enough of it--I'm sure I took too long. Afterward, drying off, I gazed on my pile of filthy clothes with dread. Then, there was a knock. I opened the door a crack, and a womanly hand slipped through the opening holding a hanger of fresh clothes. “Thanks,” I whispered. “You’re welcome.” The voice sounded like honey on the other side of the door.
My beard was still a bit scraggly, but at least it was clean. There was a comb in a glass by the sink. I combed my wet hair and parted it on the side. Then I put on the clean flannel shirt and khaki pants. Both were too big for me, but I rolled up the sleeves and the cuffs and cinched the waist up with my old belt, and never felt better.