Bill could tell it was noon by the low-pitched reverberations emanating from his stomach like the far-away rumble of distant thunderheads. Right on time. When you eat lunch at exactly the same time every day, your stomach comes to depend on this routine and acts accordingly. This was one part of the mold Bill was not quite ready to break out of yet, so he began scouting for a shady spot in which to sit and eat one of his sandwiches.
A scraggly bush here and there and a few large rocks near the tracks were all he could see for some distance ahead. His prospects of finding a tree with enough leaves to provide a little respite from the sizzling sun looked pretty grim at the moment.
He trudged on for another fifteen minutes before the old deserted train station came into view, like a tiny wart on the horizon where the twin rails became one line. As he approached it, he could see that the derelict building jutted out from the underbelly of another of those sleepy towns that dot the countryside, much like the one he had left a few hours ago. One lone tree proudly struggled for existence just north of the depot, standing off from it as though it wished not to be associated with the building or its squalid decay. A leaning roof covered half the platform and offered the most shade Bill had seen all morning.
As he came within spitting distance of the platform, an old man staggered around the far corner of the building dragging a tattered garbage bag. He sat down hard on the concrete, leaned halfway to the cement from the momentum then regained his balance and sat back against the weather-beaten wall of the station house. He extracted a big green bottle from deep within his coat pocket, carefully unscrewed the cap and gulped down some of its contents.
The rim of the bottle swayed below his lower lip when he caught sight of Bill. He watched silently as Bill hoisted himself onto the platform and settled against the wall just inside the perimeter of the shade, several feet away from the old man.
The man looked to be a hundred years old with his thin, yellow-white, disheveled hair and watery gray eyes that might have been blue some very long time ago. His stubble-covered face was the same color as the planks of the depot and equally as lined. He tipped the bottle up and sucked down some more of its fluid. Then he wiped his mouth on his sleeve from the crook of his elbow down to his wrist.
“Hi,” Bill said, quickly glancing at the man. His moth-eaten overcoat was covered with grease and dirt and crusted stuff that might otherwise have only seen the inside of a street sweeper. In fact, it looked as though the man himself might have seen the inside of a street sweeper once or twice. Bill supposed the old man and his coat had been having a close, personal relationship for quite some time now and that both had seen better days.
“Howdy, son,” the old man said. Then, “Shoor, it’s hokay wif me if you hunker here for a while.”
Bill’s face burned with the sarcasm. Okay, the man had been there first and maybe he should have asked first if he could share his shade, but what the hell, it was the only shade for miles and Bill was damned if he was going to sit out in the sun to eat his lunch. He almost apologized for his breach of etiquette but, hells bells, the man was just an old wino. Instead, he simply said, “Thanks,” and pulled a PB&J out of his knapsack.
Bill peeled back the plastic wrap and prepared to sink his teeth when suddenly the wino appeared directly beside him and, closely eyeballing the sandwich, said, “Plenny fine wif me.”
The putrid, rotten stench rising off the old coot stopped Bill’s appetite in mid-grumble and the sandwich halfway to his gaping maw. His jaws snapped shut and his stomach simultaneously closed up shop for the day and went fishing.
Drool pooled up in the wino’s slackened lower lip as he peered at the half-naked sandwich as though the peanut butter and jelly were a girl’s secret place, now exposed, between two milk-white thighs.
“Uh, here,” Bill said, holding out his meager lunch. “I guess I’m not as hungry as I thought.”
“Tanks, son!” The old man snatched the sandwich out of Bill’s hand and made a good quarter of it disappear in one bite, hardly chewing it with the blackened stumps that were his remaining teeth. Bill risked another social blunder and moved away from the man in order to take deep breaths of fresh air, but the wino didn’t seem to notice, so engrossed was he in the sandwich. How the old fart could stand to wear his raunchy coat in late June when it was hotter than a pimple on the devil’s ass was beyond Bill.
Perhaps as a gesture of gratitude—or payment for the food—the man thrust the green bottle towards Bill as he polished off the sandwich. Looking at the label, Bill could see that it was the kind of wine that’s so cheap it’s almost free. His older brother, seventeen now, had told him about it. When Bill had asked his brother how he had liked the wine, he had said that elk piss would have tasted better and that elk piss probably wouldn’t make you feel like an over-used crash-test dummy the next day, to boot.
“No, thanks,” Bill said. “I’ll just have some of my water.” He removed the lid of his canteen and took a swig.
“Water? Eeyick! How can you drink dat stuff?” the wino asked. Bill wasn’t really sure if he was serious or what.
“I can only drink it when I’m thirsty,” he replied, looking the wino straight in the eye, not really sure if he was serious or what.
The man regarded Bill suspiciously for a moment then suddenly his gnarled face scrunched up on itself and his loose-fitting lips curled back in a hideous grimace, exposing his nearly barren gums. Looking inside his mouth was like looking at mountain ridges after a forest fire. For a moment, Bill thought the geezer was having a heart attack and prayed that he was just passing gas, but then the man’s shoulders began jumping up and down and his breath wheezed out in rapid-fire bursts: he was laughing.
Bill started to chuckle which caused the old man to laugh even harder which caused Bill to start giggling which caused the old man to start slapping his knee which caused Bill to hold his sides which caused the old man to fart and then they were both rolling all over the platform in desperate hysterics.
After a while, they were too deflated to move so they lay there a moment trying to stifle the aftershocks. When they were able, they sat up in silence. The wino returned to his bottle and Bill to his canteen.
Presently, the old man poked his hand into his bedraggled trash bag, rummaged around, then pulled out an old whiskey bottle, long since empty, with clods of dirt clinging to its dusty sides. He held it up and examined it, turning it this way and that to view it from every angle as though it were a fine jewel. After a thorough examination, he chucked it out to the far edge of the platform where it hit the cement with a gratifying crash. He took another tug on his live bottle and began to dig in his bag again.
“Where you headed, son?” he asked, his back to Bill.
Bill craned around the man to see into the bag. It was full of glass bottles and jars of every size, shape and color. They were heaped in the bag like a pile of fingers and fists. “Oh, I don’t know yet,” Bill replied. “A big city. Denver first then maybe Los Angeles. I guess I’ll know when I get there.”
The old man nodded knowingly. He had pulled out a brown beer bottle and was sizing it up. He tossed it. It shattered, and now brown shards lay mingled with the clear glass of the whiskey bottle in a rough sunburst pattern. The wino gave a satisfied chuckle. Bottle breaking was obviously his second most favorite pastime. He guzzled some more wine and wiped his entire face with his sleeve, taking off the trickle of wine and clots of snot but leaving the grin. He prepared to launch another bottle, a blue-green rum container.
“Are you a hobo?” Bill asked.
“Hobo my ass!” he snorted. “Doan you read da papers, boy? I’m part a da growin’ nashnull kee-rye-sees of da ‘Merican homeless!” At this the wino hee-hawed, but Bill didn’t get it. To Bill, the old man looked like a plain old hobo.
“You read the papers?” Bill asked doubtfully.
“Why shoor I do,” he replied gleefully. “Right afore I goes ta sleep unner em.” Judging from his horse-laughter, you would have thought the wino had just uttered about the wittiest dang thing ever uttered in all his copious born days, but Bill did not appreciate the old fart making fun of him. He had seen cartoons of bums sleeping under newspapers on park benches before but never really thought anyone actually did that. Otherwise, he had never really given it any thought at all. Bill wondered why anyone would live like that, and his eyes fell on the half-full bottle in the old man’s hand. At that moment, the wino pitched a pickle jar.
“So, how come you don’t get a job and a place to live?” Bill inquired.
“Used ta do dat,” he replied. “Bin some twenny years since I punched summun’s clock. Had a wife, too, an’ a coupla kids. But I swear dey was a chokin da life outta me! Ever’body tellin’ ya what to do, when ta do it, how ta do it, why ta do it an’ where ta do it. Got soze a man coon’t even turn aroun’ less summun tol’ him ta first. So I took off an’ bin ridin’ aroun’ seein’ da country ever since. Ain’ nobody tellin’ me what ta do now ‘cept maybe a cop or trainman ever now an’ agin.” He sucked on his wine and tossed out a peanut butter jar.
His was a story to which Bill could certainly relate: Between parents, big brothers, teachers and Mr. Olsen—at whose farm Bill worked in the summer for chump change—there was no shortage of people giving him directions, corrections and grief. It was part of the reason why he had decided to allow the ninth grade class to start up that fall in his absence. Another part of the reason was that he figured no one would really give a rat’s ruby red lips whether he stayed or went, lived or died. He felt like he was just another mouth to feed in an already over-crowded family, another head to stuff in an unruly classroom and another set of fingers to work to the bone for a stingy pittance.
Plus, Bill wanted excitement and adventure. He wanted to see the cities with their skyscrapers and amusement parks and glitzy restaurants and airports with behemoth jets taking off and landing every minute. He wanted to see men in tuxedos and women in sparkling gowns. He wanted to be where long-haired blondes drove snazzy red sports cars. In short, he wanted to be where the action was, not in some boring, podunk town in the sticks, dying of cerebral atrophy.
“Why you runnin’ away from home, son? Dad whoop up on you one time too menny?”
“What? My dad never hits me!” And it was true; Bill’s dad never took to beatings for punishment with the exception of lightweight spankings on the smaller ones when they defiantly misbehaved. The old man’s question took him by surprise. His dad wasn’t anything like his friend Eddy’s dad who, Bill had once witnessed, clipped Eddy a good one on the chin for the minor infraction of having opened the refrigerator door once time too often on a sweltering summer afternoon. Poor Eddy had stoically walked away, holding back the tears until they were safely inside the tool shed where he then cut loose with a torrent of hurt and anger so intense that it scared Bill pretty badly. Eddy had promised that one day he was going to kill “that fat-assed, drunk son-of-a-bitch who has the balls to call himself my father.” They had been ten at the time, and the incident had disturbed Bill a great deal. Though Bill’s family was not exactly lovey-dovey, they were at least close and halfway respectable. Bill felt sorry for Eddy who had to endure that kind of treatment as often as Bill had to endure Sunday school.
“I’m just looking for some adventure,” Bill added, seeking the truth of it in his hands.
“Oh, you’ll find advenshur, all right, but jes’ keep yer guard up at all times, son. S’all I gotta say. Doan trus’ no one, ya hear? Some people kin be real ugly sometimes.” He smashed another bottle for emphasis.
“Then why do you do it, be a hobo, I mean?”
“Oh, nobuddy pays no tenshun to a ole man like me. Sometimes dey tries ta roll me fer my change, but dis here,” he held up the nearly empty wine bottle, “is about all da change I ever got, so nobody bodders me much.”
Bill’s mind went to the fifty-seven hard-earned dollars in his buttoned shirt pocket. It was all the money he had in the world.
“But you, boy, all young an’ pretty like dat, why, dey’ll be a-bodderin’ you day an’ night!” he said, giving Bill a deep, meaningful sidelong stare to see if he was catching his drift. He lobbed a ketchup bottle onto the growing heap of broken glass. Bill watched stupidly as he struggled to grasp the meaning of the hobo’s words. Then it hit him all at once, and his eyes bugged out in unabashed horror.
“Oh, gross! Really?”
“Jes’ as shoor as I’m a-sittin’ here,” he said. “Mosta da bums likes wimmin well nuff, but dis here lifestyle ain’ zackly cuhndoosive ta tractin’ da lady folk, ya know. An’ affer a man does wiffout fer a long time, well ….” He shrugged and slung out a miniature whiskey bottle which landed on top of the bed of glass and remained intact. “Damn! Go fetch dat fer me, will ya, boy? I’ll try agin.”
Bill did as he was asked, shaken with the man’s revelation. His mind began conjuring up all manner of revolting scenarios: men cat-calling him as if he were a girl; overt flirtations; men in boxcars sidling up to him and putting their hands on his legs, looks of expectation smitten upon their grizzled, toothless faces; rape. In spite of the heat, Bill couldn’t subdue a violent shudder. It boiled up from somewhere deep within him and he shook like a wet dog.
The old bum swallowed most of his remaining wine and tossed the little whiskey bottle high in the air. It fell short of the pile and broke once and for all.
“Why do you do that?” Bill asked indicating the mound of splintered glass.
“Why, I’m makin’ me a rainbow, son,” he answered.
Bill did think it was rather pretty to see all those bits of color all jumbled up and sparkling like a kaleidoscope.
“Woan yer folks be a-missin’ ya, boy?”
“Shoot, it’ll be six months before they even notice I’m gone, what with all my brothers and sisters keeping them occupied,” Bill said, perhaps a tad more bitterly than he had intended.
“How menny ya got?”
“Four brothers and two sisters.”
“Shee-eez! Dat ain’ nuttin. I got twelve brudders an’ sisters. Tirteen. Unlucky number, ya know. An’ I was da tirteent, too. Seven, now, dere’s a lucky number if ever I saw one.”
Lucky or not, it still seemed like too many to Bill. And yet, if he were given the power to return some of them to the place from which they had come, he guessed he would have been hard-pressed to choose which ones would go. He harbored no ill will against any of his siblings, it was just that sooner or later you simply wanted to be more than just another potato in the stew.
The old man flang a couple more hues to his rainbow, polished off his wine and added that bottle, as well. He had slipped down the wall—just as the wine had slipped into his blood—until he was nearly prone. He lay there gazing at his handiwork through heavy, bleary eyes, his hands laced complacently over his stomach. The sun was westering now, eating up the remaining shade on the platform.
Bill sat in silence, arms around his knees, thinking of his family. In a few hours, they would be getting worried. A few hours after that, the worry would fade into fear; fear into panic.
So, why wasn’t he relishing these thoughts? How come his chest felt all bruised inside and his stomach full of dirty river rocks? Remorse had not been part of his plan.
He could see his mother’s face, anxiety pulling it taut, while she called around to his friends’ houses, then the hospital, then the police. He could see his dad dispatching his brothers and assorted neighbors on search parties while he and the remaining neighbors formed their own. When he failed to turn up after a while, Bill could see them all huddled about the living room, waiting for the phone to ring, knowing with growing certainty that when the call came, the news would not be good.
How crushed they would be when they found out that his disappearance was not accidental at all, that he had not been kidnapped, shot or pureed by a train. How devastated they would be when they discovered he had instead run away, abandoned them, deliberately caused them great worry over his welfare and whereabouts. That knowledge was going to damage them far worse than if something had happened to him which had been beyond his control.
Tears puddled up in his eyes and he dared not breathe or surely he would start blubbering. His mind seemed awfully twisted up. He didn’t know why he had felt so lonely all the time or why his mom and dad just didn’t seem the same anymore. He couldn’t remember whatever it was that had led him to believe that no one cared about him anymore or why he had felt the terrible need to run away as if he could really take good care of himself in a city. What was he going to do for money, be a stockbroker? At age fourteen, what kind of job was he going to get? Now the whole idea seemed stupid, stupid, stupid.
Had he been thinking to punish his family for not making him the center of everyone’s attention? That seemed pretty damned arrogant. What made him think he deserved a disproportionate share of his parent’s affection and interest? If he had it, would he really want it? They loved him and, when you shaved off all the fur, that was really the cold, naked truth of the matter, wasn’t it? And he loved them, too, all of them, from his dad on down to the baby.
What was worse than all this mush Bill was feeling was the fact that, deep down, he still needed them, as well. Oh, he could probably survive out in the wilds of the world one way or another, but his innards were beginning to inform him that sneaking off into the underbrush without so much as a parting handshake had been about as intelligent as having yourself lobotomized. He found himself in want of their nightly dinners, their Christmas mornings, their summer vacations, even the sibling turf wars that often degenerated into impetuous wrestling matches when diplomatic name-calling failed.
Unlike the tramp, who seemed to have found family responsibility unbearable, he still ached for the structure and solid support of his family’s routineness. When you tabulated all the benefits minus all the deficiencies, it simply was not a bad way to live. How unfortunate that it had required a trip up the tracks to discover this, Bill thought.
With his head on his knees encircled by his arms, he thought of the hobo. Over the bum’s face Bill’s father’s face superimposed itself. Perhaps at one time or another his father had felt strung between the two ideals of family or complete freedom. If so, he had chosen to stay. He could have run away, too, but had not. Suddenly, shame closed about Bill like odor from a cesspool. Whereas that morning he had felt brave and manly, now he felt only like a sniveling coward who had been feeling very sorry for himself.
A sound like a garbage disposal working over a chicken bone arose from the wino. Looking at him, Bill wished him sweet dreams.
What a life.
Bill sighed and stood up. After stretching like a cat, he noticed that the line of the sun had crept up and was now at the old man’s tattered, mismatched shoes. For a moment, he watched him sleeping soundly, drunkenly, and vaguely wondered what the bum dreamt about, if anything.
Jumping off the platform, Bill rooted around the depot until he came up with a few bottles the bum had missed. He put them in the trash bag. Then gingerly, with thumb and forefinger, he lifted the lapels of the wino’s coat in order to stuff inside of it the rest of his sandwiches, twenty-five dollars and a pair of his clean underwear. The corner of a snapshot poked irresistibly out of the bum’s shirt pocket. Putting the sandwiches down, Bill withdrew it.
It was an old black and white photo of two little blonde girls, about four and five years old, in matching sun dresses. The younger one was clutching a stuffed dog with floppy ears and was smiling up at the camera. Bill smiled back at the adorable little girls.
Scrawled in ink on the back of the photo was this simple statement: “Daddy’s little rainbows.” Staring at the inscription, Bill was filled with an indescribable sorrow for the old wino, for the girls he had left behind and who were, no doubt, grown women now with children of their own. Blinking rapidly, he carefully replaced the picture and finished loading the coat with his donations. He prayed no one would roll the bum while he was asleep.
Hitching on his knapsack, Bill walked out to the end of the platform. He stirred the broken glass with the toe of his boot. The old sot had built himself a mighty fine rainbow, indeed.
He jumped down to the tracks, adjusted his canteen and pack, then started off. He stopped after a few paces and turned to look at the motionless hobo and his shimmering rainbow. He almost went back to leave the canteen for him, too, but thought better of it. He might be needing it on the long trek back.