Wednesday, August 23, 2006
DIARY OF A RAG AND BONE MAN
by Jack Rafter
Today's Episode: "A Letter From The Past"
This morning I woke up in my tent in the woods thinking about scrambled eggs, a stack of pancakes with melted butter, maple syrup and thick slab bacon. So I took Vincent and headed down to the freight yards to look for something I might give Johnny Blair in exchange for breakfast. Johnny runs the Bizzy Bee Cafe over on Mort Street. Bartering is our little arrangement.
You see, Johnny's kind of an artist. He not only cooks, but he builds shadowboxes in his spare time. He uses nice woods, like poplar and cherry, to make the small square pigeon holes, into which he puts little found treasures. Each shadowbox has a theme, so the objects he puts in are related to each other in some way.
A FOUND OBJECT
Well, we were walking along the edge of the woods on a little rise overlooking the yard, when Vincent stopped in his tracks and gave out a strange crying bark. I didn't see what he was looking at at first, but then, as I crept forward a few feet, I saw the object of his concern lying in the tall weeds—a dead body. I recognized him, too: a homeless guy named Steve. He'd been staying in the woods for a couple of weeks. Came in on a freight from somewhere out in the east. I think he was headed for Tucson or Yuma. He'd been sick the last few days. He drank too much and I doubt he ate enough to compensate. Probably didn't get enough water, either. I had a feeling he died of heat stroke.
He wasn't in his right mind. He would converse with people who weren't there, although I found that he would talk to me, if I could get his attention. He laughed quite a bit, a kind of manic laughter, as if he thought everything in his tragic life was funny. And maybe it was. He told me he was a veteran, but he couldn't remember which war he fought in. “I guess it doesn't matter which one,” he said, and he laughed and laughed, as if the joke were on him. Then, he said something kind of odd. He said, “I fought in all of them. I fought in all the wars.” The words of a crazy man, of course. But he wasn't laughing, now. In fact, he looked pretty sad lying there. He wasn't that old, maybe fifty or so. His ratty blue suit looked like it came from Goodwill. He was on his back, his head turned to the side, eyes open, so I guess the last things he saw were the trains going by in the yard, perhaps headed somewhere he would have much preferred to be than where he ended up.
One thing caught my eye--his hands, resting on his stomach, small, childlike, caked with grime. They were perfectly relaxed, as if he'd seen death coming and made no effort to fend it off.
Vincent circled around him, whimpering a little, crept up to him, smelled him, then backed off again and sat down, looking. I squatted beside Steve and went through his pockets. Luckily, he hadn't been dead too long or I couldn't have done it. Right off, I discovered he died rich—had a fiver on him and some loose change, a key to something, I don't know what. He carried no wallet, no identification. In one coat pocket, he had a collection of perfectly smooth, brightly colored little stones he might have found in a creek or riverbed somewhere. I thought about Johnny Blair's shadowboxes, so I took a few of the stones and put the rest back. I didn't think he'd mind—they amounted to a good handful. Johnny would appreciate the story.
Then, from the inside coat pocket, the one over his breast, I retrieved a folded piece of paper. It was old, almost falling apart. Carefully, I opened it up and glanced at it. It was a letter—handwritten—signed “Millie” at the bottom, a wife or a girlfriend, I supposed. No envelope, so I had no idea where it came from or where it was mailed to. I looked around. I didn't want to sit there, exposed to the trains and everything, so I backed up a few feet in the the woods and read the letter. It was dated January—something; the year was smudged out. Parts of it were smudged or almost faded out, but I took my time and managed to piece it together.
When I finished, I thought it should stay with Steve. But I really wanted a copy of it, so I borrowed it, went back to my tent in the woods, found a pencil and paper, and copied it. As I wrote, I started thinking about how somebody would come along and haul Steve down to the morgue. They might do an autopsy. They would probably take his clothes, his handful of colored stones, and the letter, throw them away, then bury him in a pauper's grave. So I decided maybe I should bury him myself. I went and found a couple of guys, one named Charles, the other one calling himself Smitty, both living in the woods, to help me with him. They were sitting in their camps hot and bored, more than willing to go look at a dead body, and maybe even help me bury him.
But we got there too late. Through the trees, as we approached, we saw the Union Pacific men--four of them--standing around in their bright yellow hardhats. One was on a walkie-talkie. We could hear him telling someone what they'd found lying in the weeds by the yard. I knew an ambulance would be along any minute to haul him off somewhere.
Smitty wiped his mouth, then said, “Well, I don't want nothin' to do with no railroad people.” “Me neither,” said Charles. They turned and walked off.
I stood there, debating for a minute. The men were down on the roadbed a little below where Steve lay. I wondered which one of them found him, and how he was able to see him from down there. Maybe he just caught a glimpse of the pasty white of Steve's face. Or maybe it was the blue of his coat sifting through the sunburnt grass. Of course, an engineer could have spotted him from up in the cab, or a switchman, hanging from the side of a boxcar.
THE TRAIN MAN
I decided to risk it and came out of the woods and showed myself. They didn't notice me at first. Then, the guy with the walkie-talkie looked up and saw me. He was older than the other three, streaks of gray at his temples. He wore a tie and carried a clipboard. Already there were sweat stains on his clean, white shirt, even though it wasn't yet ten o'clock. I was a little surprised when he nodded and spoke to me. “Howdy,” he said. I said, “Hi” and came on up to where Steve lay. He looked the same as before, still lying on his back, staring vacantly at the yards, but with all the people hovering around him now, he seemed even more lost and out of place. And these strangers were about to decide where he should go next.
“You know anything about this fella?” said the white shirted man. The name tape on his hardhat said, “Grimes.”
“I know his name was Steve,” I replied. “I don't know his last name. I found him this morning.”
“You found him?”
“Yeah, I did.”
“How come you didn't report it?” said one of the others, much younger than Grimes.
“Who says I didn't?” I replied.
Grimes took a handkerchief from his back pocket, dabbed his brow. “Well, we didn't find any i.d. on him, so we don't even know for sure his name was Steve.”
“He told me that was his name. He's been around here for a couple of weeks. He also had this letter on him.” I held the folded letter up.
Grimes, looking squint-eyed at the letter, said, “Can I see that?”
“On one condition,” I said.
“Promise me you'll make sure it gets buried with him. It's from his wife. You read it, you'll see his name was Steve. Her name was Millie.”
“Was there an envelope with that? Was there an address for Millie?”
“No,” I said. “No address for him, none for her. Just their names, that's all. He was a veteran. You'll see, it's in the letter. He deserves a decent burial somewhere, and this letter should be buried with him. It's all he had in the world. Promise me you'll do it.”
Grimes sighed deeply and said he would see to it. I handed him the letter. He opened it up. The other men moved in a little. Grimes frowned and bit his lower lip as he looked at it. Then, abruptly, he held it out to me. He spoke quietly, “You want to read it?”
“Okay,” I said. I raised the letter and started to read. Grimes removed his hardhat. The others did the same. This is what I read:
January. . .We stood around and waited till the ambulance showed up. Grimes called one of the railroad doctors out to officially pronounce the death so no autopsy would need to be done. When the doctor asked for a name to write on the form, the railroad man leaned forward and quietly replied, “Steve Grimes.”
My Darling Steve,
We had some rain last night and it was bitter cold. But this morning was bright and beautiful, and even though the air was still nippy, I got out and walked a little. And I thought about the last time you were here on leave, back in the summer. I went down to the sandbar below the house where we spent our last night together, and I remembered how warm it was, and how the moon was starting to come full and shown down on the sand and the water. You said it made the river look like diamonds. Remember?
I still have the shirt—that old army t-shirt—you wore that night. I haven't washed it. I put it up to my face last night to smell you and some sand fell out of it. I started laughing, and then, I was crying. I felt so stupid. But I didn't care.
My darling husband, I love you so. I love you more than life. I dream so often of you and me holding hands down on the sandbar in the moonlight. Isn't it funny? It's such a vivid dream. I want you to come home and put on that t-shirt and make love to me! I will never wash that shirt until you return, safe and sound.
Come back to me, my dearest dearest love. Let no harm come to you is my prayer every morning and night to the angels of mercy. Never forget how much I love you and what you mean to me.
After they left, Grimes assured me that Steve would get a proper burial. He said he intended to take up a collection from the railroad worker's union and buy Steve a plot in a nice cemetery and provide him with a headstone. And he would seal the letter in an envelope and put it back in Steve's coat.
THE BIZZY BEE
By the time I got to Johnny's cafe, the lunch crowd had come and gone. Johnny fired up the grill, cooked up half-a-dozen eggs, pancakes and bacon, then sat down and had breakfast with me. And as we ate, I told him about finding Steve, and about Millie's letter, and what Grimes had done, and then I dropped the smooth colored stones on the table by his plate. Johnny didn't say much, mostly just looked and listened. He started to read my copy of the letter to himself, but like the good trainman, he handed it back to me and said, “Why don't you read it, Jack?
After I finished, he just shook his head. “Lord, Lord,” he said. “How strange life is, huh, Jack? How strange.”
“Yeah, it is,” I nodded. “Sure is.”