by J. B. Hogan
part 1 of 2
Stephen White is a lumpy, likeable guy with a good job, good friends, a pretty girl to long for, and a mostly boring small town life. Boring that is, until from out of the blue he develops a surprising and often terrifying ability to travel in time and space.
Quickly and without warning, he may find himself in the middle of a band of berserking Civil War-era outlaw raiders, lined up for execution with Fyodor Doestoevski in a St. Petersburg Square, or staring down the rifle barrels of modern-day poachers in Africa. Stephen’s adventures take him anywhere, any time.
Through it all, he is precariously balanced between confusion and understanding, between action and passivity. He has no idea what the next journey will hold for him but he is certain that it’s coming, and that it will, as always, catch him off guard. All Stephen can do is ride out this storm to wherever and whenever it may take him. It’s his new world, his new reality; he’s just going to have to get used to it.
David White, Stephen White’s father, thought his son’s little one bedroom apartment was a cluttered, unkempt mess.
“Your apartment,” Mr. White said with mild annoyance, “is a cluttered, unkempt mess.”
“What, dad?” Stephen called from his small kitchen off the main living/dining room area.
He was frantically trying to organize the kitchen, dirty dishes, empty food containers, all the refuse that was a metaphor for his lack of an organized, real life. His dad might suddenly decide to look around the place and if he saw the condition of Stephen’s kitchen it could lead to a very stern lecture on the art of living alone. Stephen wanted to avoid that lecture at all costs.
Out in the living room, his father was moving some books around on a messy coffee table. The titles of the books all sounded peculiar to the elder White male.
“Waiting for Lefty,” he said, picking up a smaller volume. “Ten Days that Shook the World. The Grapes of Wrath.” At least he’d for sure heard of that one. “What are you reading,” he questioned loudly, just as Stephen re-emerged from the kitchen, “a bunch of communists?”
“You don’t have to yell, dad,” Stephen said, “I’m right here.”
“Yeah,” David White said, “I can see that.”
“Why didn’t mom come?” Stephen asked, tossing a couple of towels off his undersized couch and sitting down.
“Hen stuff,” his dad grumped.
“You know, some kind of Lady’s Auxiliary crap.”
“Oh, I see,” Stephen said, not seeing. “Sit down, dad.”
“Where?” Mr. White said, looking askance at the less than spic and span couch.
Stephen jumped up and removed a pair of pants and a shirt from a cheap, padded chair on the other side of the coffee table from the couch.
“Great,” Mr. White said with a sniff, but he sat down.
The two men of the White clan of Nevada, Missouri sat across from each other then, silently looking at one another over the distance of the book-covered coffee table.
When the silence finally became too much for Stephen to bear, he spoke. “You said something about what I was reading before, dad?” he offered with some trepidation.
Stephen knew his father already thought that he, Stephen, was highly suspect when it came to being a man out in the world — a man living, socializing, working, reading on his own.
“I said,” Mr. White responded, “that this looks like a bunch of commie crap that you have piled here like so much paper crap.”
“Commie?” Stephen laughed. “There aren’t any commies around anymore, dad. It’s just terrorists now. Magic ones, ones that can appear and...”
The look on his dad’s face caused Stephen to break off what he thought was a funny little rant. Whoa, Nellie, he told himself, hold up. Don’t go there. Don’t play the anti-War on Terror card. Not with the old man. He’ll go crazy.
“That kind of talk is just plain crazy,” Mr. White said.
“Sure, pop,” Stephen tried an uncomfortable laugh, “I was just trying to make a joke.”
“A bad one,” his father stated flatly.
Stephen hushed up. No point in making his dad mad at him. The old man came by seldom enough as it was.
“You kids nowadays don’t have any idea about how things used to be,” Mr. White declared. “Why back in my day....”
“I know,” Stephen foolishly butted in, “you had to walk two miles to school, in a foot of snow, uphill both ways.” His father’s frown instantly wiped the beginnings of a smile from Stephen’s lips.
“You remember your Great-Uncle Mortie Higgins, don’t you?” Mr. White asked.
Stephen remembered Uncle Mortie alright. From the last family reunion where the sawed-off relative had corralled Stephen by a table filled with pies, cakes and cookies baked by the ladies of the White, Higgins, and other families of the clan.
“You young people have no idea what life was like back in the Great Depression,” Uncle Mortie said, foreshadowing Stephen’s father’s comments of only moments before.
“You weren’t even born yet during the Depression, Uncle Mortie,” Stephen had said, also foolishly at that time as well.
“Not long after, Mr. Know It All,” Uncle Mortie had countered. “Not so long after. And we lived in the country. We were always in a depression. The big one didn’t mean anything to us.”
“Uh, huh,” Stephen had replied, greatly bored. And then he’d stupidly made the walking two miles to school remark to Uncle Mortie then, too.
“Oh, sure, Mr. Smart Alec,” Uncle Mortie had said, a little hurt. “Mr. Knows Everything.”
“I’m sorry, Uncle Mortie,” Stephen had said, trying to placate his uncle.
Luckily for Stephen, just then some music playing members of the family had launched into “Mountain Dew.”
“My Uncle Mort, he’s sawed off and short....” they sang enthusiastically.
“See there, Uncle Mortie,” Stephen had said, “they’re singing your song.”
“Hmmph,” Uncle Mortie had snorted.
“You should be more respectful of your Uncle Mortie,” Mr. White broke into Stephen’s memory reverie.
“I love Uncle Mortie,” Stephen replied, “it’s just that he tells these tall tales.”
“You’ll never understand what it was like,” Mr. White reiterated to his son, “you young ones just don’t get it.”
“You want a coke, dad?” Stephen said, forcefully dragging the two men out of the past and the direction the conversation seemed intent on going.
“I guess,” Mr. White said. “I suppose.”
Stephen trundled off into the kitchen to make the cokes. He didn’t know why his dad had showed up so early on a Saturday morning but he, Stephen, was definitely not prepared for it.
“How’s the job going?” Mr. White called after him.
“Fine, dad,” Stephen called back, locating a couple of semi-clean tea glasses in a cabinet with an ill-fitting door.
“You got a girlfriend there?”
Stephen took the two glasses out and made a reasonable effort to wipe the stains off their ugly, yellow-flower pattern. Then he located two cans of Classic Coca-Cola.
“Want ice?” he asked his dad, ignoring his father’s constant concern about his, Stephen’s, nearly non-existent social life. Besides, when the words work and girl were used closely together in a conversation, all Stephen could think about was Lisa Backman, his pretty co-worker and object of a rather considerable case of unrequited love.
“I don’t want hot soda,” his father sniffed.
“Yes, sir,” Stephen said.
He opened his refrigerator and then the little door to the ice compartment. There was some kind of pungent odor in the fridge. Stephen looked around the refrigerator part. Nothing seemed to be too decomposed, nothing had anything green growing on it.
He took a tray of ice out of the compartment and snapped a couple of cubes out into the two glasses. The cubes looked a little on the brownish side for clean water but Stephen shrugged off his mild concern. He walked back into the living room and handed his father one of the glasses,
“Is this thing clean?” Mr. White wanted to know, suspiciously eyeing the ugly tea glass he held in his right hand as if it might be a venomous snake. He turned the glass around several times. “Did you use tap water to make this ice?”
“It’ll be alright, dad,” Stephen assured his father, but when he took a big swig of his coke he noticed right away that it tasted funny. A little on the metallic side.
“Your mother and I feel you should get out more often, Stephen,” Mr. White said, after taking a sip of his coke. He scrunched up his nose at the drink and sat it on a nearby counter. “You should be finding a girl soon. Marriage. Grandkids. You know.”
“Let’s not talk about that, dad,” Stephen said, taking another big drink of the funny-tasting soda.
“Well, let me tell you something, mister,” his father launched into, to Stephen, an all too familiar routine.
It was all about how he, Stephen, should be saving money, buying a home, going out more often, blah, blah, blah. Mr. White ran this routine by Stephen pretty much every time they got together, which wasn’t often, but occurred enough so that Stephen was very bored with it.
Stephen sat down on his small couch and leaned back. His dad rattled on. Maybe ten or twelve minutes later, just as Mr. White was really hitting his stride, Stephen began to feel funny — tired, faint, light-headed.
“I don’t feel so good,” he said softly. So softly that his dad didn’t at first hear him. “I think I need to lie down.”
“What?” his dad finally asked, pausing in the midst of the usual micro-economics lecture he was giving Stephen.
“I’m feeling funny,” Stephen said. “I think I need to take a nap.”
“A nap?” Mr. White asked. “Now, this early in the day? What is the matter with you?”
“Gotta rest, dad” Stephen said weakly, slumping onto the couch into a prone position, “need to just take a little nap.”
“Well,” his father said, shaking his head, “well, for heaven’s sakes.”
* * *
The first thing that penetrated Stephen’s senses was the strong, nearby smell of smoke. Wood smoke, he was sure of that. And then the odor of coffee boiling. It smelled really good. Stephen sniffed it in deeply, sighed, and opened his eyes.
“Whoa,” he cried out, “what the...”
He was at the edge of what looked like, in the gray, pre-dawn light, an old-fashioned hobo jungle. There were maybe ten or twelve men huddled around a fire where the coffee was cooking in an old, black pot on top of wood coals.
“Finally woke up, huh?” a quavery voice to Stephen’s right asked.
Stephen, startled again, pulled back. The voice belonged to a very old, very ragged, very dirty old man. There was enough light to see that his shoes and pants were practically worn out. He wore an incongruous, once-expensive coat of a faded plaid color — the shirt beneath it, Stephen assumed, was as worn as his pants and shoes.
The old man was missing several front teeth and he had several days, at least, of white-stubble on his chin. Gray, unkempt hair poked out from beneath a slick-dirty stocking cap that was either blue or black.
“Wha... are you talking to me?” Stephen choked out.
“Don’t know who else it’d be, young feller,” the old man said good-naturedly. “You’re sitting right here by me, ain’t you?”
“Well,” Stephen said haltingly, “I guess I am.”
“Well, there you are then,” the old man said with a smile. “Care for some hobo coffee?”
“Hobo coffee?” Stephen wondered.
“Just old grounds and dirty water in a bottom-burnt pot,” the old man explained.
“Oh,” Stephen said. “No, no. Thank you.”
“Polite boy, ain’t you,” the old man said. “Where you headed?”
Stephen looked around at the other men by the fire. None of them seemed to notice he was there. It was all so strange. He didn’t have any idea where he was. Or when.
“Where are we?” he asked the old man.
“You don’t know where we are?”
“Just outside Tulare.”
“Tulare? Where’s that?”
“Boy, you don’t know much of nothin’, do you.”
“Uh, no,” Stephen admitted.
“California, son,” the old man laughed. “California.”
“How’d we get here?”
“On that train over there on the side track.”
“Was I with you on the train?”
“You’re always with me,” the old man said, shaking his head like he thought Stephen was a little off or something.
“Hey, Buster,” one of the other hobos, a big, rough-looking man, called over to the old man. “Talkin’ to your imaginary pals again? Hope they kept you warm last night. Maybe they’ll help you get a job today.”
The rough-looking man and the other hobos laughed heartily. It seemed like it was a long standing joke of some kind.
“You leave me alone,” Buster muttered back, then again spoke to Stephen. “Don’t pay them no mind, they’re just jealous ’cause none of them have friends. They’re just bums. Lousy hobos.”
“What are you?” Stephen asked, hoping not to sound condescending or rude. Buster didn’t take offense.
“Down on my luck,” the old man said matter-of-factly. “A lot of us are these days.”
Stephen started to form several more questions for the old man, such as when “these days” were, what was going on, where they were going? Basic things like that. But he didn’t get the chance to articulate them to Buster.
Just as Stephen was opening his mouth to speak, there was a loud, metallic sound. The sound that trains make when they are beginning to move, when the attached cars are suddenly jerked forward with that first movement. Just as suddenly as the sound came, the hobos around the fire were also in motion.
“C’mon,” someone yelled, “she’s movin’ out. Hurry.”
One of the men kicked sandy dirt onto the fire beneath the coffee pot, another grabbed the pot itself, and the whole group raced for the side track where the train was starting to move forward.
“Keep an eye out for Bulls,” the rough-looking hobo told the others. “They’ll knock our heads and kick us off if they see us.”
“Hurry up, Buster,” another of the hobos yelled at Stephen’s newfound friend.
“I’m comin’,” Buster called back, “I’m comin’.”
With the old man, Stephen hustled breathlessly towards the creeping train. He’d never ridden the rails and he had no idea how to really hop onto one of the cars. There seemed to be several of the kind with sliding side doors and a couple of open flat cars as well. Buster made a bee line for the last car with an open side door. Stephen was amazed at how easily and agilely, the old fellow was able to get on board the railroad car.
Stephen himself was huffing and puffing alongside the track, Buster reaching a hand out to help the younger man onto the car. Stephen reached up and grabbed Buster’s arm just as the train was starting to pick up speed. With an ungraceful leap only made possible by Buster’s help, Stephen launched himself into the railroad car and landed with a side-bruising thud on its dirty, wooden floor. Buster laughed out loud.
“My, my,” the old man laughed happily. “You are a sure-fire rookie at this.”
Copyright © 2006 by J. B. Hogan