by Allen Rolf
The hoboes would come down our alley from the railroad tracks. These were real hoboes, not bums or panhandlers, but men with bindles who traveled the rails. A black mark on the back fence always brought them to our back door.
Our back door was several steps from the ground and they would climb the steps to knock, then politely step back into the yard. When they came I always listened eagerly to what they said. I loved their visits. I seemed to have hobo blood in my veins.
Ma was kind to the hoboes. She would always fry an egg sandwich, wrap it carefully in waxpaper, and put it on a china plate, then serve it with a fruit jar of milk.
When the hoboes came and she came to the door, she would always hook the screen.
"You can't come in, of course," she would say, "sit down and I'll see what I can fix."
Sometime there would just be one, other times they came in pairs. They had patched clothes, with stubbled faces, and they'd always tell you they had been riding the rails. The hoboes always wore something red; a bandanna, a hat, or a shirt. Red was their badge.
I asked Ma one time about the egg sandwich on the plate and the fruit jar of milk.
"Son, you never let a stranger drink from a glass, it'll bring bad luck every time."
Ma would open the screen, hand out the food, then hook the screen again.
"Where you been?" she always asked.
The hoboes always understood a story was payment for her food.
They would sit on the bottom step and tell of their travels, about picking peaches as big as baseballs in Georgia, tomatoes and oranges in Florida, about working the shrimp boats off Dolphin Isle, the hot vegetable fields of the Rio Grande and the cold Mexican beer in the cantinas at night.
Ma would stand in the door listening and she would get a far away look in her eyes as she stared across the back yard.
Then the hoboes would tell of the golden fields of Kansas and the stars as big as South African diamonds in the night sky, the juicy red apples of Michigan, and the long trip by rail back to Florida for the winter.
I would watch Ma there with that dreamy look. I knew she could smell the peaches, feel the salty Gulf air in her hair, hear the thrum of the Spanish guitars, and see the diamonds of the big dipper in the midnight sky. It was her payment for kindness; a waxpaper-wrapped egg sandwich, and a fruit jar of milk.
Then the hoboes would leave, taking care to reinforce the black mark on the back fence with a lump of coal. Ma would return to her housework.
Ma was about thirty then, alone to raise me and my brother, Robert. Pa had left when I was three and no one knew what had happened.
Ma took care of us and went to her job at night at the big house up on the hill owned by Aunt Tilly. Everyone called her Miss Tilley, so she really wasn't our aunt, but that's what she wanted us to call her.
Every night, Ma would put us to bed, catch the 8 PM trolley up the hill, returning on the last run at 2 AM. Sometimes I would awake when she came in, other times I would find her in the morning asleep in Grandma's old rocker, the Bible open on her lap.
I never understood what Ma did working those odd hours, but Miss Tilly's house was on the hill by the boarding house up from the rail yard. Train men would trudge up the hill to spend their turn-around time at Miss Tilly's, hanging their lanterns on pegs on the front porch. Sometimes there would be eight or ten red lights on Aunt Tilly's front porch throughout the night, and a lot of people commented that it gave the place a touch of class.
Sometimes, Ma would work over on Saturday nights and Mr. Alex, Aunt Tilley's black chauffer, would come in a big black Buick to take Robert and me to church. Afterward, we would go to Aunt Tilley's for Sunday dinner.
On Sundays there were always clean shaven talc-smelling train men in their Sunday shirts and ties reading their paper in the parlor. They puffed big black cigars.
At high noon, Miss Tilly would ring a bell and the train men would slip on their coats and gather with the girls at the dinner table.
Miss Tilley, like a Grand Marchessa, would take her place at the head of table, her girls and burly guests lining each table side.
Mr. Alex, in white coat and and puff cap, would carve the main course on the side table. A couple of young girls from the kitchen, dressed in lace frocks, would serve the courses from the side table. There would be roast pork, fried chicken, mashed potatoes, thick brown gravy, stewed green vegetables, apple sauce, cranberry jello, followed later by iced sherbet, cake, and several kinds of steaming pies.
Robert and I would sit at the table like the adults and be pampered like young lords by the girls. My favorite was Miss Dominque who was from "Paa-arree". Miss Dominque had long blond hair and always smelled of violets. Her voice was high pitched like a wind chime on the topmost limb of a spring-bloom apple tree.
Yes, dinner at Miss Tilley's big house was always like Christmas, full of new sounds, exciting smells, and pleasant tastes. Above it all ruled Miss Tilly, heavy with jewelry, her flamboyant wig of copper curls sprawling, the fertile goddess of the hearth who teased the banter and laughter along, urging her guests to have another piece of pie, or an extra large piece of cake, followed by jet black coffee or sweet peach wine.
On my twelfth birthday, Ma bought me my first pocket knife and during that hot summer Robert and I would spend our time beneath the big China Berry tree. We would go to Brewer's Grocery across the street and find an old apple crate and I whittle wooden airplanes and carve small ships from the crate.
It was on such an afternoon that the hobo appeared.
He was a thin fellow who walked with a noticeable limp. His shoes were torn and he wore an old kaki military sweater with ragged holes in both sleeves. He needed a haircut and a shave and smelt of coal dust and creosote. He didn't have a bindle, or even a bindle stick, but he did have a red kerchief tied around his head as a sweat band. You could tell he had been traveling.
Robert and I followed as the thin hobo walked to the back door, knocked, and then stepped back to wait.
When Ma came to the door, I heard her give a short cry. Her hand went to her mouth. Quickly, her hand flew to the screen door and the hook.
"You can't come in her," she cried.
The hobo stepped back.
"No, No, Mary, it's not that ..... I just wanted to stop and see you and the boys."
"Well, we're still here," she said with a frown, "there are your sons."
She pointed at Robert and me.
The hobo turned to us slowly, a faint smile appeared.
"Boys how are you doing? I'm your pa."
Robert moved behind me to hide. I could only look at the ground and kick the dirt.
"We're OK, I guess."
I felt a bitter sour taste in my throat. I remember the times I had found Ma sitting in grandma's rocking chair with the Bible open in her lap. I suddenly realized the loneliness with which she read in the early dawn. I did not like this strange hobo who stood before me.
The hobo turned back to Ma.
"Like I said, Mary, I just wanted to see you and the boys."
He turned away.
"Wait," Ma called. "You can't come in but you look like you could use some food."
"Yes, it's been a couple of days."
"Sit on the step. I'll see what I have."
A few minutes later, Ma appeared at the back door with a waxpaper-wrapped egg sandwich on a china plate and a glass of milk.
The hobo took her sandwich and unwrapped it and took a bite.
Ma stood in the doorway, staring across the yard.
As I left to scrub the black mark from the back fence forever, I heard her say:
"Where have you been?"
© 1998 Allen Rolf