Hobo Blues

by Dennis Fridd


He got off in Santa Fe, then rode the red line up to Denver.  The mountain air tore at his throat, settled cold and hard in his lungs, the inverse of a good pull of whiskey, but there were no bulls in the yard that night.  That was something.

Some claimed the mountain air made the cure last longer, kept the rooting at bay, but Morris didn’t believe it.  He had taken the cure in Boston, in Memphis, in Miami, sweating through an army surplus cot while his head screamed from the pressure, in Los Angeles, too, Philadelphia—it seemed like every few years he needed to take the cure again.  Sometimes they’d give him pills, other times it was a needle straight in the crook of the arm, a sharp pain and a plunger pushing a dirty brown liquid like the wash water in a St. Jonestown prison deep into his veins.  In either case he was flat on his back for twenty or thirty or forty-eight hours afterwards, his head filled with visions of angels and prosperity.  His tongue taped to his chin for good measure.

Most of the places made him read from the bible too, but it wasn’t so bad because they fed him a hot meal before sending him on his way.  The bedding and the heat in the ministries was almost always preferable to the clinics run by the state, whose concrete walls wept like religious statues.

He was not in Denver for the quality of the air but its viciousness.  This time of year the cold kept most of his fellow vagabonds out of the Northern Midwest, where the snowdrifts could rise high enough to entomb any man who made the mistake of sleeping out in the open.

He had a good coat though, a big baggy thing made of bearskin won in a card game from an honest-to-god indian, and heavy boots from the clinic in Santa Fe.  As long as he wrapped his fingers carefully at night he would be okay.

Sometimes the cure was given in forms other than medicine.  Morris remembers an aging doctor with a thin mustache who put him under hypnosis, the doctor’s sonorous voice pushing Morris into an ever deepening state of relaxation as he felt his body slip wholly into the sofa.  At another clinic they simply made him talk about his feelings each day and keep a journal.  In all honesty he preferred the pills.

It did not have to be Colorado.  Up North in Canada he could find work tapping trees for the winter syrup harvest; the plantation owners would lodge him and the other men for the duration of the maple season.  Or he could drift Southward, weathering the winter in the green embrace of California until the crops came in and farmhands were needed again.  There were the canneries.  There were the timber mills, which never stopped except to pull a man from the machinery.

But what Morris craved was solitude, to think on the words of Big Pete.  Morris met the man two months before, his wide red face first glimpsed through the Pennsylvania brush, shining in the light of the campfire, the flames dancing in his eyes.  Morris saw the fire in the woods about a mile from the tracks.  He edged close, keeping his ears open for signs of treachery.  It was not unheard of for the bulls to set a false fire to lure a travelling man in, then give him a good beating when he strolled into the Potemkin campsite.  They treated it like a game, some of them.

This was no false camp.  Morris heard the first strains of “Hobo Blues” coming through the trees, the voices deep yet scratchy.  He smelled the fire and under it the familiar mix of caught game and pilfered chickens and scavenged herbs and spices thrown together in a single pot; it was their normal meal, no two batches alike and yet each batch essentially the same.

“Hallo,” Morris shouted through the brush.  The men whipped around, shifting their body weight onto the balls of their feet in anticipation.  He showed himself, striding into the camp with his flask held in front.  “Got brandy if you’re partial.”

There were five men.  The tall ruddy figure in the center spoke first.  “Hell yes we’re partial.”  The men burst out laughing.  “I’m Big Pete,” the man said.  He introduced his fellows, then asked for his new friend’s name.

“You call just call me Morris.”  He passed around his flask, then helped himself from the communal stew.

At first they exchanged news about the rails, offering information and advice about developments in the routes.  Morris learned that the line from San Francisco to Northern California was running irregularly due to labor struggles, while he in turn told them of the new bull hired in Des Moines, pulling up his shirt to reveal the bruise on his abdomen as evidence of the young man’s enterprising nature.

As the fire burned down to embers and the men got deeper in their cups, they turned to talk of the constellations.  Most travelers of the rail knew enough astrology to orient themselves by the North Star, and many could pick out easily recognizable features like Orion’s Belt and the Big Dipper.  Big Pete however went further, pointing out exotic forms like Perseus, Taurus, and Ursa Major.

He went on, telling them the stories behind these constellations, how the Romans saw Ursa Major as a bear, and developed an elaborate story about the jealous wife of Jupiter turning one of his mistresses into the beast and hurling her into the sky.  Taurus was the bull, of course, and Perseus slew Medusa, killing her with her own reflection.

Big Pete had a deep, rumbling voice, each word rolling off his tongue with an almost practiced ease.  Morris had met a few learned men in his travels, mostly those of high position fallen on hard times, but a few of them self-taught members of the lower classes who for whatever reason, either inability of lack of inclination, never rose to any higher position.  Pete seemed to be of the second type, his long slicked hair, scraggly beard, and frequent interspersal of slang into his speech making an upper-crust upbringing unlikely.

Inevitably, as in all campfire discussions among such men, their talk turned to the cure.  All of them had taken it at one point or another, many in the same clinics.  All could count one horror story or another.  One of the men, Charlie, recalled vomiting for nearly twenty-four hours straight as the cure worked its way through his body.  Morris himself had fought off night sweats, diarrhea, and yes, vomiting, while taking the cure.

Big Pete offered that he took the cure only when absolutely necessary, as he felt it dulled his mind for some several weeks afterward.  “And not dulled in a good way, liken this brandy here.  But liken I can’t think on what I thought on before the cure.”

“The stars don’t seem as bright, too,” Charlie added.  Each man murmured in agreement, knowing the peculiar flatness of nature after taking the cure.  Indoors, with only twenty feet or so to the next wall, the effect went unnoticed.  But once outside, chugging through the hills of Georgia or the endless red rock of Arizona with the door of a railcar opened just a crack, the colors, the depth, indeed the grandeur of such scenes was muted.  The sound of a good piece of music or the smoky scent of a campfire also suffered a reduction after the cure.

However each man also knew the pain of going too long without the cure.  He knew the restlessness, the inability to sleep, the way the rails and the roads and the endless petty jobs and campsites blurred into a grey oblivion until the world became far more muted, in all its pleasures, than it ever did in the aftermath of the cure.  He knew the hollowness, which seemed to spread from the stomach until it filled every limb, which could not be sated with food or drink.  He knew that feeling that it could never end soon enough, whatever this thing was that men were doing with their lives.  And under it all the anger, the anger at nothing in particular that could be pointed to but anger all the same, anger in every direction, anger at even the things a man once loved.  When these murmurs in the heart of a man rose to the point of shouts and cries, it was time the find the nearest clinic and take the cure.

“How do you stand it,” Morris asked Pete, “Going without the cure so long?”

The man sat for a moment in silence, finally laying his pipe on the ground so as to clasp his hands between his legs.  “I don’t know if I can stand it,” he began.  “But maybe I can stand it more’n taking the cure itself.  I think there’s somethin’ bad about this cure.  I think that we been lied to about the travelling man, about the drifter.  The say we’re men at the edge of society, no more use to anyone than a barren sow.  And yet we pick their fruit in the summer and in the fall, we shovel their roads in the winter, we build their dams and bridges year round when men are needed.  Without us all spreadin’ our fingers round this country where would they be?  Would they not want for men of work?

“They need a man, a man they can tell what to do, a man so low he’ll take orders from men who are dumber ‘an him but happen to be somebody’s son, a man apart from his family, so it doesn’t matter if he dies or gets fed into a machine and mangled.  When a man gets restless or doesn’t want to work anymore he goes and takes the cure.”

Big Pete paused, winding his fingers through the thicket of his beard.  “It’s like a man who has a problem with his stomach, and needs to change his diet.  But instead of changin’ his diet, and fixin’ the problem forever like, a doctor gives him somethin’ to deal with the pain.  But the stomach give out eventually, of course.”

He finished his speech, the other men allowing it to breathe in respect for his oratorical talents.  With time they gave their answers.  One man protested that he was his own man, that he preferred the life he lived to any other, that he was around this campfire of his own accord and nobody else’s.

The other men quickly assented.  “I like what you said about how us being good to proper society and all,” Charlie responded, “but you makin’ it sound like we ain’t even our own men.  Every man gets restless time to time, that’s why the cure exists.  They givin’ you somethin’ and you wanna spit in their face, tell ’em it ain’t no good.”

Morris kept his own counsel.  After the objections quieted down, Big Pete laid down his pipe again to answer them.  “Perhaps the brandy has gone to my head, fellows.  I din mean to say you weren’t yer own masters, only I was tryin’ explain myself to our new friend here.”

That silenced the men, and soon the conversation became amiable again.  Talk returned to the constellations, to the weather, to tales of the road.  Big Pete remained his booming self, though his mastery of the conversation seemed somewhat diminished.  Eventually they drifted into sleep, waking a few hours with the coming of dawn, each man saying his goodbyes before moving in his chosen direction, some back to the rails and others deeper into the town to look for work or food.

And that day Morris did not think much on Big Pete’s words.  The whole week in fact he seldom thought of them though once or twice before going to sleep he did return to the concept.  In that weeks that followed he thought of them more and more, until at times they kept him awake late into the night.  When he tried to explain them to other men they reacted harshly, as had the men at the camp.  He grew restless in this time until at last he could stand it no more and he thought about taking the cure but instead he hopped a train to Denver.




Dennis is a microbiologist and Rochester native.  He likes cats.