travellin' man
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Big Rails
by Robert Eiland



  The center of the San Joaquin Valley, Fowler, California was hot, flat and suitable for growing everything. Decades ago, a spur was built off the Southern Pacific railroad there to load and ship cattle, fruit and vegetables. The tracks stretched up and down the state through this little nowhere. By the late fifties, Fowler had grown around it.

 The tracks were my playground.  Amidst the heat of the day, these steel parallel ribbons became one, a wavy line that pushed into the flat blue sky. Going west, Adams Avenue crossed the tracks only yards from our house on Grove Street. Guided by the tracks, drifters in faded clothes got on and off the giant boxcars. The up tempo push of the engines that carried them hissed and puffed and locked onto my curiosity.    

  I walked to the right off Adams onto the tracks. With every stride, from one creosote stained railroad tie to the next, the smell of burned oil pushed at me. Chunks of brick forced heat up through the rubber soles of my tennis shoes. Illusions danced in my brain;  a narrow trestle five hundred feet above a swift, wide river, the specter of a big engineer who moved over to let me drive, boundless fodder for the imaginings of a young boy.

       The heat drove me east off the tracks to the grape vineyards and a cool drink. I picked a dusty bunch of ripe Thompsons, washed  them in the cold ditch water. A great place to wash my face and hands.  The ditches were full and the first thaw ran cold from the mountains above Clovis.

 My thirst quenched, I headed back to the tracks, crossed the path of a slow walking man in dirty clothes, sun darkened skin. He carried a thick roll tied over his shoulder, moving at his own pace, making his own choices.

            “Hello,” didn’t know what more to say. It was my chance.

            “Yep,” he answered without a look. I supposed all the conversation he needed was in his head. I glanced over my shoulder as he passed.  Gravel crunched as I turned on my right foot to follow him.  

            “Where you headed?” My words caught him.. He pointed forward. His own choice, his own time. I measured his stride, now was my chance. My dreams had taken me into the magical world of this mysterious stranger.   

We walked far enough to hop on the southbound. He boosted me onto the big container. I felt its slow rumble. The clatter in my ears matched the even bumpety-bump under my feet. A steady breeze at my face and body, a magic carpet that wobbled and flew low. “You getting off at Fowler?” I looked for an answer.

“Yeah, I got to eat. Little café up a ways. I can catch some work for a meal.”

  Tingling pushed through my arms and neck. I knew the place. Maybe he’d talk some more. The moment split open like a ripe melon as the big car jerked to a smooth roll. He grabbed the edge of the open doorway and swung his left leg to the bottom rung and the rocks that edged the ties. I leaned into my stance to keep my balance, and stepped down from the big car. In a few strides I caught him. Questions in my throat

We walked to the west side of the highway through the oleander bushes. He sprang over the cyclone fence and glanced back at my move. “You going there?” He pointed at the café.

 “Yeah, I work there sometimes.” He tilted his head, weighing my words. Without looking he walked around back to the kitchen door. I walked through the front, passed the counter hoping to catch his knock.

  My mother owned the café. Twelve swivel-back stools, covered in green leather, ran the length of the counter. A chrome cash register sat in between an even number of stools on each side. Five booths were always full. The juke box sat in the corner.

 Travelers through the central valley, locals and an occasional hobo found their way to the good food. The front door was for paying customers. You had money to pay or went around  back and earned it. “There’s a hobo at the back door.” My mom chased the tap at the back.     

“Yes, what can I do for you?” I listened to my mother talk to him.

“Got any work for me? For food?” My mother had a reputation for a fair trade.

  She dispensed with the pleasantries. “You wanna work? I’ll trade a hot meal for good work. She liked giving a chance. Been on the other end.

“Yes ma’am, fair trade,” He knew how to do it.

 She opened the door fully, walked down the back steps, to the shovel, hoe and rake that leaned against the inside corner of the building. He was close behind. Glad to see the hungry rider, I hated hoeing weeds. But I wanted to catch all that he was. Free to go, free to be.

“I’ll be back in a while to see how you did,” she smiled faintly, looked at the rake and back at me. I hurried down the steps to my partner.

He grabbed the hoe, moved to the first growth of the weeds. “You rake?” he asked, not sure of why I was there.

“I know how,” I said. I lowered my hands, pulled two quick paths on the rake, one next to the other.

 Soon the perspiration ran in matched rows from underneath his brown ragged newsboy hat. In only a few swaths, he dropped the hoe, grabbed his coat and shrugged it off his shoulders. He picked up the tool and went back to work.

 “I can hoe for awhile,” I said, wanting to do my share. Without a word, without turning his head, his glance bounced off my face. Kept pulling on that hoe. I followed his path with my steel tined rake, chasing the puncture vines and Johnson grass he made loose.

“Got to eat, son. Been days since I had a hot meal.” I could see it in his face. He continued to clear his path, then back the other way.

“Good food here,” I spoke to his back as he kept moving.

“I know,” he said as he pulled hard on the long handled scraper.

The sun pressed hard on my neck just above the line of my white t-shirt. My arms wet and shiny from sweat. Had to keep up. Couldn’t stop. Earning my way didn’t have a time clock. My work mate pushing hard. The cloud of dust we forced into the air floated between us, descended onto his hat and my hair.

I raked the smaller piles into one big one. Heard the creak of the rear screen door. My mother walked toward our weed less patch, looked around at our work.

“This is good; wait at the back door,”

He raised up from his working stance, pushed back his hat with his forearm and wiped the sweat from his face and forehead.

We filled the rusty wheel barrow with the weeds from our work, leaned the tools back on the inside corner. Mom came down the wooden steps, handed him a bar of soap and a towel. I turned on the water at the hose bib, a few feet from the back door. He rolled his sleeves above his elbows, threw his hat onto his coat and roll. I handed him the running hose. He exhaled hard as he washed the dust and the hot sun from his head and face. I lathered my face and arms. He handed me the towel. I’d earned my place. Dried off to complete the job. I knocked on the back screen door.

“Come around to the front, to the counter; sit near the glass pie rack.” She looked at him, and nodded at me. I followed him through the front door;  he was now a paying customer and ready to eat. I sat next to him. Turning the stool, sitting up straight, he looked toward the kitchen; I watched him swallow big in anticipation of the hot meal he’d earned.

In a short moment, she placed the roast beef sandwich in front of him, piled with mashed potatoes, smothered in sweet smelling beef gravy. Two warm dinner rolls next to the carrots and peas. She followed with a tall iced tea, moisture condensed around the cold glass. He poured sugar from the metal topped dispenser. Knife in one hand,  fork in the other, he dug into it.

I watched him eat what he earned

He didn’t look up. He didn’t have to. My mother brought my hamburger to me, pointed at my plate, gave me an extended look. Without a word, “Let him eat,” filled the moment. Best burger better ever.

He sopped his plate clean with the second roll. She refilled his tea, took his plate to the kitchen, returned with a slice of apple pie. He glanced up at her.

“You earned it,” she said without changing expressions. The pie quickly disappeared.

  He glanced at my clean plate. We’d earned our good food. He swiveled away from the counter. Without hesitating he stepped to the space next to the juke box and grabbed his roll and jacket. With his left hand, he pulled the seasoned hat down onto his head.  I followed him through the front door into the summer sun. I had to say something. 

“Which way you going?” He turned back at me.

He pointed across the highway, flipped his roll over his shoulder with a quick shrug. “Believe I’ll go south,” he said, through his first smile. I’d watched him earn it all. His day was complete. He turned toward the cyclone fence that separated the frontage road from the oleanders, the highway and the big steel tracks.

“See ya,” I called to him as he jumped the fence.

“Could be,” he said. “Could be.”




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