The Hobo

by Morris Marshall

This story is dedicated to Linda Hay,
whose bright smile and infectious sense of humour are gifts from God.


My wife loves shopping. Like most women, she gets energized by perusing purses and clothes in a trendy boutique, even if she has no intention of actually buying anything.

Like most guys, I detest shopping. I’d rather be sitting in a dentist’s chair having a root canal than deciding between brown loafers or black dress shoes. My disdain for shopping stems from something that occurred when I was only twelve. Even today, almost thirty years later, I dream about it occasionally.

It’s always the same. I’m being chased through a crowded mall, bumping into people as I try to escape. A raspy voice behind me yells: “I’m gonna get you, kid!” Just as a hand clasps onto the back of my T-shirt, I wrench myself awake, biting back a scream, feeling the dampness of perspiration on my sheets...

It all began on October 23, 1981, a sunny and unusually warm day in Toronto. Summer had returned for one last gasp before relenting to the crisp coolness of fall. The day began innocently enough for two ambitious grade-six students who had a vacation from school. Mark McCowan and I were inseparable misfits brought together by a love of chess, heavy metal music and reckless adventure.

“It’s beautiful outside,” I reminded Mark in a phone conversation that morning. “What are you doing?”

“Nothing. What about you, Jeff?” We’d met just months before while vying for the grade-six chess championship, which Mark won. I spent so much time at his house that fall that his mom routinely set up an extra place at the dinner table.

“I heard you just got the new home version of PacMan,” I said. “What about trying it out?”

“Nah, my dad’s off work sick.”

“What about going to the mall then?” Mark’s dad, who had a union job working for the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), gave him a generous allowance.

“Sounds good,” Mark said. “I’ll call Ryan and get back to you.”

“Does he have to come with us?” I asked.

“You’re not still angry with him, are you, Jeff?”

“Yeah, I am. I think he’s trying to break up our friendship. The guy threw my umbrella into the Humber River a couple months back. I fell in trying to go after it. I had to toss out my favourite black T-shirt because the sewer smell wouldn’t wash out.”

“I already told Ryan the three of us would be getting together,” Mark said. “Don’t be so paranoid. He really does like you, you know.” Psychologists could have used the three of us as a case study for prepubescent peer pressure.

“O.K.,” I agreed. “I’ll be at your place in about half an hour and we’ll go to Ryan’s together.”

“Don’t forget to bring your gym bag,” he reminded me before hanging up. I assumed we’d probably stop at the schoolyard to play soccer on our way back from the mall.

After picking up Ryan, we proceeded briskly along Rogers Road, stopping at the Becker’s Milk Store. Mark went in and bought three chocolate popsicles, which he generously distributed to us.

As we ate and walked, Mark asked, “Do you remember the last time we were at the mall?” He swept his hair out of his eyes and chocolate pooled along the sides of his mouth. “That fat janitor with the red face kept chasing us around.” He puffed up his cheeks with air and mockingly extended his arms outward from his body in a wide, sweeping arc.

Ryan laughed. “He was pretty fast that day. He almost caught us in the elevator.”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “When his hand reached inside the elevator, it scared the crap out of me. Thank God the door closed. I’ve never heard so many swear words in my life!”

Mark and Ryan laughed and it felt good to be the centre of attention — for a while, anyway. Both my friends had shoulder-length brown hair with long bangs almost to the eyes, right in style for rockers of that era. Every time I tried to grow my hair, my dad would march me off to the local barber shop for a good old crew-cut. Once, when I put up a fuss, Dad took out his store-bought barber kit and cut my hair himself. When he finished, I thought I looked more like Little Red Riding Hood than a rock star.

“There are the tracks,” Mark said, pointing out a steep, gravelly embankment that ended abruptly on top of a CN railway bridge.

“It’s faster traveling that way,” Ryan commented.

We scaled the embankment with minimal effort and headed north along the tracks toward Westside Mall like three outlaws in a Clint Eastwood movie. Sometimes we liked to throw rocks at trains as they rumbled by, but you had to be careful of the CN police. The last thing you wanted was to be arrested for mischief.

Westside Mall — circa early 1980’s — contained a Shoppers’ Drug Mart, Food City grocery store and a Zellers department store on the main floor. There was also a cafeteria-type restaurant beside the Zellers, where lonely pensioners drank bottomless cups of coffee and read obituary columns to see who they’d outlived.

All the real fun, though, was downstairs in the arcade. We invested countless hours playing pinball, pool and video games in this home away from home. We even found a way to get free video games by innovatively taping a quarter to a string before inserting it into a given machine and then pulling it out repeatedly. Unfortunately, the owner of the arcade eventually discovered our antics and rigged the machines so that stealing was no longer possible.

“It’s too bad I don’t see the janitor today,” I quipped to Mark and Ryan as we arrived at the mall and walked through the sliding doors.

“Let’s go get something to eat,” Ryan suggested. “I’m starved. That popsicle didn’t fill me up!”

Mark’s eyes brightened and glazed over. I’d seen that look countless times, usually just before he orchestrated some crazy scheme. It was that spontaneity that made him so much fun to hang out with. “You’re always thinking of your stomach,” he said to Ryan. “Come on, guys, follow me!”

I picked up my gym bag and we took the elevator upstairs. It was just before midday. The Zellers store was empty except for a few Halloween shoppers who were scanning aisles lined with witch and skeleton masks as well as Yoda and C3P0, the Star Wars characters from the hit movie.

“I’ve been meaning to pick up a new jacket,” Mark said. We walked in unison toward the menswear section and found a rack containing a line of pricey Levis jean jackets. Even with his hefty allowance, it would have taken several weeks to purchase one of these.

Mark scanned the store for about half a minute, and removed one of the jackets from the rack. He unzipped my gym bag and deposited it inside.

Panic washed over me. “Are you crazy, Mark?” My heart pounded.

His expression was calm, unrepentant. “Don’t worry, Jeff. I’ve done this many times. No sweat.”

It was too late to put the jacket back. Unsure of how to respond, I walked casually to the front of the store. Ryan, also caught off guard by Mark’s surprise move, sauntered ahead of us at a distance, nervously glancing around. We left the store and merged with mall traffic. Home free.

The next thing I felt was a strong force grabbing my T-shirt from behind, yanking me backward, and wheeling me around to face someone who looked like he hadn’t showered in a long time. He was in his forties and had greasy, matted dark hair that extended to his shoulders, covering the collar of his black leather jacket. His dark beard was thick and unkempt. The black patch over his right eye made him look like a comical hybrid of Blackbeard the Pirate and a Depression-era, boxcar-riding hobo. I tried to flee, but my feet felt like heavy marble.

“You’re both under arrest, you little buggers!” the Hobo bellowed in a gravelly voice. He smelled like stale cigarette smoke.

“We didn’t do anything!” Mark protested.

“I didn’t do anything,” I chimed in.

“Yeah, yeah,” the Hobo rasped, undeterred. He stubbornly clutched his prey in his right hand and a black cane in his left one. “Come on, we’re going back to the dungeon!”

I put on my bravest face to mask my horror. I don’t know what upset me more: being arrested or betrayed by my best friend.

The Hobo dragged his captives to his private lair at the back of the store. His feet shuffled as he moved. We bumped through a couple of swinging doors marked “Private” into a small poorly lit office that paying customers never see.

“Sit over there,” he commanded, tossing us like beanbags toward two straight-backed chairs.

Inside the office was a dark brown hardwood table. Along one wall, a middle-aged blonde woman in thick, black-rimmed glasses sat on a green leather sofa. She looked up briefly from her newspaper as if she’d seen this routine hundreds of times before.

A large, wooden multi-tiered cabinet graced the other wall. It had a series of alphabetized beige cardboard file folders in it, the kind you’d often see in doctors’ offices during the 1980’s, before the advent of computerized filing.

He doesn’t look like a store detective. The thought kept cycling through my mind.

Mark and I watched, astonished, as the Hobo removed his eye patch and tossed his cane onto the sofa. As he walked toward us, his shuffle was glaringly absent. He stopped and hovered over us, posturing himself like a champion boxer preparing to deliver one final knockout blow.

“Look what I dug up,” the store detective said to his blonde counterpart. He looked like he’d just caught a couple of prize-winning fish and was posing for the camera. “They’re a couple of tough guys, real rotten apples, especially the shorter, shifty-eyed one.” He scowled at me.

The Hobo plucked the jacket from my gym bag and put it on the table for the female detective to see. “I think this one’s the leader,” he told her, pointing an accusatory finger at me.

“I’m not,” I insisted. “I didn’t know he was going to steal the jacket.” I imagined a secret dungeon in the basement of the store where children caught shoplifting were chained to a stone wall and fed crusts of multigrain bread and healthy vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower. Only after they turned 18 would they be set free — if they survived that long.

“Shut up!” the Hobo barked. He was a master at inflicting pain. “The cops are on their way right now. You guys are going to jail for so long, you’ll be old men by the time you get out. I’ve seen it happen many times. Parents never see their kids again.”

Mark rubbed his hands together, his gaze flitting between the Hobo, the female detective and me. A glimmer of hope rose in me. Maybe Mark’s charm could still get us out of this mess.

Of course there was no way out. My eyes began stinging and I felt tears stream down my face as I pondered what my parents would do to me when I got home — if I ever got home. Neither of us dared to speak.

The Hobo rose from his chair and headed for the door. “Don’t move, either of you. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

We sat quietly for what seemed like hours. Fear lodged itself in my throat. What if the Hobo was right? I’d heard rumors — none of them good — about what happened to weak people in jail.

Footfalls emerged from outside the office, the clicking of hard heels on linoleum. The sound reminded me of Mr. Bailey’s grade 4 math class. We’d be carrying on, yelling and firing paper airplanes from one side of the room to the other. Then we’d hear his heels down the hall, getting progressively louder with each step. We’d shut up and run to our assigned desks, saying nothing as he breezed through the door...

The swinging doors flew open. The Hobo entered the store office and removed some papers and two new beige folders from the filing cabinet. He sat down and asked us several questions: name, address, and date of birth.

Just as we finished filling them out, there was a knock on the office door. A fat, white-haired police officer with grey eyes and a toothbrush moustache peered inside. He looked like Officer Graham, the friendly policeman who came to our primary school to explain road safety rules. So it was true. We were being taken to jail.

Mercifully, I was wrong. Officer Graham guided us through the mall to an unmarked police car. The ride home was wonderfully uneventful. We stopped at my house first, and, although shocked, my mom took the news better than expected.

The officer gently reminded her that I wouldn’t be allowed back in the mall until age eighteen, at which time my record would disappear. I don’t think she ever told my dad because the subject never resurfaced. That was the last time I saw Mark, and two years passed before I found a new best friend.

One morning, about twenty-five years later, I was taking the subway into downtown Toronto for a job interview. My résumé needed work and I considered adding some fictitious career experiences to make it look better. I took out my laptop. As I began typing, I felt as though I was being watched.

Anyone who lives in Toronto knows that most subway riders stare vacantly at the floor or at the advertisements above the windows. Yet, from a window seat at the end of the train, a man was staring at me.

He was in his sixties and had shoulder-length white hair that flowed around the collar of his black leather jacket. A white, unkempt beard cascaded over his lips and chin. He wore faded, ripped blue jeans, and... it couldn’t be. I did a double-take, but there it was: a black patch over his right eye! The sight of it evoked a childish, dreamy fear that slithered coolly up my spine. Dimly, as if from the back of a long corridor, I heard a rasping voice: You’re both under arrest, you little buggers!

Without changing my résumé, I quickly shoved my laptop back in its case. Then I sat back, took a deep breath, closed my eyes and didn’t open them again until I reached my stop.


Copyright © 2011 by Morris Marshall

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