The cold, steel latch handle of the box car sliding door is covered with a coating of ice and slips in his hand as he cracks the door open to look inside. It’s empty and looks sufficient to shelter him from the weather for a while longer. He swings his old dufflebag up on to the floor and crawls in behind it. Although there is no heat in the idle rail car, it feels much warmer to him than the outdoor exposure. As they say, ‘any port in a storm’ and this one would fill the bill for a night’s sleep assuming the rail-yard cops didn’t disrupt his stay.
He should already be in Tucson but he had been distracted and sidetracked since the medication ran out. Winter had caught up with him here on this Fort Worth track siding. He had been working his way south from Tulsa trying to stay ahead of the cold. It had finally caught up with him in the form of an ice storm that was blanketing much of north Texas. He had not anticipated the ice but then again, what difference did it really make?
He had two choices; head south then westbound or stay up on the northern rail routes, the latter definitely not the best selection. He was just glad to be out of the sleet and freezing temperatures for the night. His stomach growled registering the two days he had now gone without food or water. That must be a priority for the morning. He needed sleep and time to think about the next leg of his journey west. Shoving the dufflebag together with a few pieces of cardboard that he found on the car floor, he lay down giving up quickly to exhaustion. He falls asleep listening to the persistent tapping of the sleet against the top and sides of the rail-car.
Morning comes much too quickly with small traces of sunlight peeking through the cracks around the rail-car door. The air is now crisp inside the rail-car after the night chill down and his breathe registers in fogging bursts to the air. The priorities are very clear for the day, food and transportation. The decision process is very clear when one is operating in the lowest levels of survival…food and shelter. His stomach hurts and cries out for him to fill the hunger first. He agrees, slides back the rail-car door, and slips out dragging his dufflebag behind him. There is still ice about but the sun seems to be warming the day. Things are looking up a bit.
The tattered and stained tan canvas coveralls that he wears are insulated for winter use. He has found them in a dumpster outside Kansas City. One of the back pockets is ripped a bit but that is fine. The old coveralls with their flannel-lined insides are a lot warmer than anything else he has in his bag. He is warm but not warm enough. No, never warm enough and never to be welcome very long in any place where it is warm enough. He has learned that from experience.
He has been asked to ‘move on’ more times than he can count. He’d quit counting anything anyway. It don’t make any difference anymore. He crosses over the various tracks with his dufflebag strap over his shoulder walking up the grassy hill near the track siding to the row of buildings sitting up near the road. His hands and lips are chapped from the wind and cold. Maybe he can do something about that once he gets to Tucson.
A dumpster sits against the wall at the rear of one of the buildings. Based on the smell in the air, someone is cooking breakfast nearby. Dropping the dufflebag next to the dumpster, he flips the dumpster lid back and looks in hoping to see something that could salve his hunger. He has long since lost his affinity for the dumpster environment. Hunger drives one past that level rapidly. His eyes search about scanning for any morsel of food that he can reach.
More times than not, a dumpster would yield some nourishment that was reasonably fresh especially if the dumpster was situated near any place serving or selling food items. The smell of breakfast in the air confirms this dumpster as a good prospect. He continues to search the inside of the dark dumpster with his eyes hoping for a bite to eat.
A door on the back of the building makes a rasping sound as it quickly opens causing him to pull back from the dumpster opening. A man clad in a white apron steps outside quickly spotting him standing by the dumpster. The man, possibly a cook, looks directly at him for a few seconds then turns and heads back inside. Based on past experience, it is best to give up his search and move on before the police arrive.
He grabs the strap of the dufflebag and begins to walk toward the end of the building heading for the alley leading to the road. The door opens again and the apron-clad man steps out holding out a brown paper bag in his direction. He stops, turns, and looks into the man’s eyes, kind eyes that seem to speak to him. Reaching out, he takes the paper sack and tries to say ‘thank you’ through his cracked, dried lips. No words come forth, he can only nod. The apron man seems to understand and tips his hand to his forehead in a small salute-like move. The man steps back through the door again gone like a short dream.
Too hungry, he moves back behind the dumpster and sits down on his dufflebag to examine the contents of the paper bag. Opening the rolled top of the bag, he gazes in to see a small carton of milk, two cinnamon rolls, and some scramble eggs rolled in a tortilla. The smell rushes forth from the bag filling his nostrils rapidly. Tearing at the edges of the sack, he exposes the food and eats with both his hands full of rolls.
By the time he moves to the tortilla, he has gained some control over his hunger and slows a bit. He opens the milk carton and drinks slowly feeling the cool nourishment of the milk as it flows over his parched lips and tongue. He can sense the thankfulness of his body. Along the way, people like the ‘apron man’ have shown up in his life when he needed it most. It had just happened again today. Maybe there was a God.
Finishing off the last few crumbs trapped in the corners of the paper sack, he tosses it into the dumpster and quickly follows it with the empty milk carton. The wind is picking up speed now from the north and it begins to send a chill into the thickness of his coveralls. It is time to move back toward the rail-car and get out of this wind. He needs to get to Tucson but maybe today is not the best time to try it. The sun will surely melt the remaining ice and offer a warmer day tomorrow.
Maybe he best move back to the warmth and shelter of the rail-car and wait things out one more day. The thought occurs that he should have saved one of the rolls for later. It is too late to think about that now. He will just have to hope to see apron man again tomorrow he thinks as he descends the grassy slope back toward the frigid warmth of the box car. Crawling back inside, he curls up on the cardboard hugging the dufflebag close to his face. It is early in the day but he is already tired and ready to sleep. Tomorrow he will catch another rail-car ride headed westbound for the warmth of Tucson. Sleep returns quickly as he plans the next day and the next steps of the journey.
The north wind make a whistling sound as it blows through the roof railings between the rotating emergency lights of the security vehicle. Stopping beside an empty rail-car sitting on the siding, two men exit with guns and flashlights. They go about their tasks like robots charged with securing the rail-cars and preventing their use by vagrants. This stop is one of many they have made over the course of the night working in the bitter cold to discharge the unwanted humanity.
One of the officers slides back the door of the car while the other covers him and illuminates the inside walls with his flashlight beam. The beam scans back and forth about the inside and eventually comes to rest on a motionless hulk over in one corner. Climbing into the car, one of officers approaches and stoops to examine the vagrant. He turns to the other signaling with a nod to indicate that the body is lifeless and cold. Then he calls out to his partner, “Get on the radio and 911 for a morgue pickup…this one’s gone.” The officer stands up shining his light down at the lifeless face lying against the surface of the old dufflebag and says, “I don’t know where you were heading Mister Doe, but Fort Worth is the end of the line for you.”
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