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River Run


Harry Buschman

The train slowed to a walk as it pulled in to Odessa, Texas. Dixie thought it might be a good idea to drop off now – no telling if it might speed up again. He could see the lights of Odessa up ahead. Less than a mile he thought.

He looked at the stone ballast below the boxcar door. It was smooth, no hardware to trip over if he dropped off now. "Well, hello Odessa, Dixie just blew in." He let himself slip off the sill of the open door, jogged a few steps and slowed down to a walk. The long freight speeded up a little and then went on for what seemed like fifty cars before the caboose put an end to it. Then it was still. Deadly still.

The sky was on fire with stars, so many the constellations were lost in them. "The air is cleaner down here – warmer too," he luxuriated in the warmth of the night. "Back in the midwest I would be huddled in a doorway, but here it would be comfortable sleeping in the open air."

As he walked on he heard voices from the other side of the tracks. He stopped and listened. They were young voices ... "A family," he thought. Dixie knew what families were. Homeless teenagers from broken families, living together like the Manson bunch. Nobody was safe from them. They'd get booted out of one town and move on to another. Were they headed for Odessa or coming from it? They were a sizable group from the sound of them – he could hear dogs too. They always had dogs, dogs warned them.

Like most drifters, Dixie kept clear of families. They were high on dope when they had the money or drunk on beer if they didn't. They couldn't work – so the girls hustled – the men sponged, and if the police hassled them they moved on to the next town. Because of the dogs more than anything, Dixie decided to give this family a wide berth. He walked away from the tracks and in the dark he picked his way out to a dirt road. It ran parallel to the tracks and he figured it would lead him into town.

"Yes," Dixie reminded himself. "... and they were dangerous." If they caught you alone, like Dixie was, they'd take you for every cent you had and bury you some place where no one would ever think of looking.

He hoped they were coming from Odessa, not going to it. For the next few nights Dixie would probably be on the street. Vulnerable. After that, he'd be settled in. By then he'd have a job somewhere – he always found work. A car wash ... a chicken factory ... raking leaves in a city park. He'd take anything to begin with and if something better came along, he'd take that. Moving up a little at a time. He'd sleep at a mission house until he had the money for a room; he was no vagrant, he was a hobo – a vagabond.

He had only a vague idea of the time. He seemed to remember standing at the open freight car door and passing a gas station with a large revolving digital clock that said two something. Was that a hour ago or more? He could never keep track of time when he was on the freights. He settled for four a.m., Odessa wouldn't be awake yet. He needed a place to wash up; the train station would be the best. Where would Odessa put their passenger train station? If it was in the center of town it meant he'd be seen walking the streets before dawn; he'd be a target both for the 'families' and the police.

It would be best to hit the town just as the sun came up. He could mix with the commuters, if this town had commuters. He would mingle with them, walk at their pace – not too fast not too slow. He'd keep his eye peeled all the time for a place to wash up, shave and put on the one clean shirt he still had in his bag. He'd listen to the people, too – get the hang of their speech so he wouldn't sound like an out-of-towner when he looked for work.

He passed a FedEx shipping dock at the edge of town. That was a good sign. A siding led to it from the main line of the railroad – lights were just coming on there. He marked that down as a good place to look for work, he still had his union card. Then he walked past a nursery ... he didn't think he'd find a nursery in Odessa. He knew a lot about plants, lawns and fertilizers. He grew optimistic, he might spend the spring and summer here in Odessa.

He passed a hardware store, still shut up tight. He looked at his image in the window and saw a man of medium height, somewhat down at the heels, carrying a small pack on his back that looked as though it had seen better days. Yet all in all he felt his appearance was in keeping with his immediate goals. They were basic, he wanted to earn a living. A living to him was a necessity – he had nothing to fall back on. He didn't ask for much beyond that, hobos can't be greedy – something to eat – a place to sleep – a woman when you need one ... and enough money to pay for it all. Nothing more.

The sleepy town was coming to life now. Traffic was picking up, he saw newspaper delivery trucks, airport taxis and a bus marked 'Collegetown'. As he walked, he had the impression of floating down a river. It was an old vision, one he had often. So long as he stayed on the river and moved with the crowd, he had no sense of movement. He floated downstream with the crowd. It was not until he looked out at the shoreline that he had any sense of movement at all. Then he knew he was moving – he and the river. Yet time was the same. Time passed for the people on the shore and the folks who lived on the river. After it passed he would be some place else, far away, but the people on the shore would still be here. They would spend their lives where they were.

What was he doing here?

He knew his name wasn't Dixie, even though that was the name written in magic marker on his shoulder bag. He knew he had been married – how long ago? He couldn't remember. The years don't go by when it's summertime all year, when you're where the weather suits your clothes, He remembered what his wife looked like – his daughter too. Two peas in a pod. When he left he couldn't tell one from thee other. He didn't like either of them.

His wife was a news face on the TV. Made ten times what he did. She kept him hidden – hidden like a mad relative stashed away in the attic. They had a house in East Hills and she wanted to move to Greenwich, Connecticut where all the TV people lived, where her daughter could meet the right people. All that was clear to him as he strolled the streets of Odessa. But he couldn't remember how long ago that was.

He remembered being in the way ... of both of them. Being put up with – left out. What would happen when she grew old and ugly? Would she live on in her daughter? His thoughts rambled on as he walked. Twice he asked for directions to the train station and got vague waving advice, "You ain't walkin' it man, it's miles ..." That seemed to be the gist of it. He started walking back to the FedEx depot and across the street he saw the Sunrise Diner.

He would have passed it by except for the picture of a cat drawn in magic marker on the wall next to the front door. That was hobo sign talk for a place friendly to drifters, a good sign to Dixie. He looked both ways, walked quickly across the street and opened the screen door.

A radio was playing. The weather would be warm and clear with gathering clouds and showers late in the afternoon. A woman's dismembered body was found in a matching set of luggage at Jackson International Airport and Donald Trump's application for a 5-star casino bordering Odessa's circumferential highway was turned down. A woman, dyed blonde and slightly overweight was emptying a bag of coffee into stainless steel urn.

"You're early, soldier. We ain't open for another half hour."

"Door was open."

"Airin' the place out." She put the cover on the urn and walked into the kitchen. "Sit yourself down, no sense standin' there." She pushed a swinging door open with her hip. "How'r y'comin' in there, Earl? About ready for a hungry soldier?"

Earl, a beefy man in white pants and an undershirt came to the door wiping his hands on his pants ... "Nobody leaves the Sunrise Diner hungry ..." his voice trailed off when he saw Dixie. "Just get in, did'ja?"

"Half hour ago."

"Bummin' are ya?"

"No, followin/ the weather is all."

Earl turned to the waitress. "King of the road, Edna," he turned back to Dixie. "Why dont'cha freshen up first. there's a men's over there, around the end of the counter. I'll wrestle somethin' up for ya."

"Kind of you, I won't be a minute." Dixie started off, then turned back to Earl. "I can pay, you know ... I'm not askin' for a hand-out."

As he walked off, Earl nudged Edna and said, "Got his pride, that one. You can always tell the good ones from the bad ones by their pride. It may be all he's got, but it's a good sign. Get him a cup of coffee, Edna, I'll scramble him up an egg and some hash browns."

Dixie came out of the men's room looking like a ten-year old on his way to school. Hair slicked back and fresh shaved. Edna couldn't help commenting. "Looka you," she said, "all you need 's a haircut. Is that a fresh shirt?"

"Sure is. Never been wore after bein' washed. I remember washin' it in a laundramat in Kansas."

Edna put a cup on the counter and filled it with the blackest coffee Dixie had seen in weeks.

"Boy that looks good," he said. "that fer me?"

"Yeah. Sit down. Earl's makin' somethin' t'eat." She looked at him as he held the cup in two hands with his elbows on the counter. "You talk funny, you been t'college?"

"Yeah, I been – lotta good it did."

"I never been. Wish I did – I missed a lot by not goin' t'college. This is a college town, y'know?"

"Yeah. I noticed that when I got here." Dixie finished his coffee and put the cup on the saucer upside down. "Good coffee, Edna. Okay if I call you Edna?"

She nodded.

"Don't feel that way about missing college. It's no guarantee of anything, y/know?"

"I always thought I could'a been a somebody."

"Look at me. A tramp with a college education."

"Why y'trampin', why don'tcha settle down?"

So he told her the story. He didn't leave out the bad parts, he took the blame. Emma listened carefully and when he finally expelled a long sigh and looked at her, he shrugged and said, "That's it."

"She must'a been a bitch," Emma said.

"Not in the beginning. We was two of a kind – kinda like on the fast track, you know. Then little by little the distance between us got bigger and bigger. I couldn't keep up with her and she went on without me."

"Any children?"

He looked down at his plate and played his fork around the few uneaten home fries. "Your cook in there; he makes great scrambles. He own the place?"

"Earl, yeah ... he's a pro. Nice guy. His wife works here too, she's cashier. Y'didn't answer my question."

"I know." Dixie looked up at the daily menu chalked on the blackboard that leaned against the kitchen wall. "We had a kid. A girl. The kid was the reason we got married. I think maybe that was the trouble in the first place. I don't think we'd a married otherwise ... and then ... I wouldn't be here. It woulda been a different story all around, y'know?"

"You should go back."

"Can't. Can't ever go back. They don't know what's happened to me. I'm not the same man.

"Then you should stay here."

"What's here? I'm here as long as it's my kinda weather."

Edna shrugged and cleared his dishes away. "You don't hafta pay for this, y'know. It's a present from the Sunrise Diner," she said. "Earl's got a big heart. Until he settled down here, he was just like you."

But Dixie insisted. Even though there was no one at the register and Edna hadn't given him a check, he stood up and reached for his worn leather wallet. "I don't wanna owe nobody," he said.

He could feel the river running within him. These people in the Sunrise Diner were trying to keep him here – this Earl and this Edna. He could see them standing on the shore; trying to keep him from passing by. He was a drifter and to stay in one place was to die. "How's about two bucks? Two bucks okay?"

"Will it make you short?"

"No, I'll be fine. Thanks for the use of the facilities. I'll be movin' along." He fished two tightly rolled dollar bills out of the top of his sock and put them next to his plate.

©Harry Buschman 2007

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