Springtime, North Dakota
by Mike Florian
The train rolled quietly to a stop, a few miles west of Fargo. It stopped on a stretch of straight track on top of a knoll during a cold April night. The diesel engine rumbled far up the line as it shuttled itself free and then disappeared noisily into the dark. After that it was quiet. A single light in a farmyard shone like a star on the horizon, a mile away on the Dakota prairie.
Slowly the young man peered out of the boxcar. The night breeze carried his breath as he stuck his head out of the opened side door. He listened for any footsteps crunching on the gravel bed beside the track in case a yard bull happened to have been riding in the caboose. But there was no bull and not even a caboose. All was quiet save for the wind rustling through the frosted prairie stubble.
The young man was wearing the clothes he had with him. He had white woolen Stanfield long johns, a pair of jeans with a belt, a black-watch long sleeved shirt, a red one over that. He wore two white T’s over the two shirts. Then came a dark blue woolen sweater and over that his thin black windbreaker.
Finally, the plastic black garbage bag that served as a duffle became a fine looking shiny vest when he poked through a neck and two arm holes. That was back in Minnesota when he couldn’t stand the cold and he spent the time running in the moving box car like a rat on a treadmill until the first rays of light in a cloudy sky. To his chagrin, his hatless head and wet, brown, thin-soled street shoes let out as much heat as his shivering body could muster.
The rider was nineteen, maybe twenty, years old. He was tall and lanky as a teenager should be. Wearing his belongings made him larger. The cold, ten-hour trip from Minnesota had weakened him, scared him, made him cry in the corner of the boxcar and shake his confidence. In the daylight it was easy. Sitting by the opening, he watched as the train wound its way through the coulees, squealing along the sharp curves.
At dusk it changed. This car had no cardboard, no newspapers with which to wrap his legs. Not like the one he rode out of Detroit. There he had lots of cardboard on the floor, paper, even a charcoaled spot in the corner where someone had made a fire. Here, out and exposed in the prairie, the wooden floors were as cold as steel, and he spent hours walking circles trying to keep warm.
This was no speeding train he was on. It was a long, slow freight moving thirty miles an hour at best. When it curved on itself occasionally, it would slow so much that a man could jump off, run alongside and then hop back on. As the train slowed this last time he braced for another curve. It never came and the train rolled to a stop. The staccato pounding of the cars echoed into the night and the single diesel cleared itself of the rolling cargo. Three flat cars remained at one end of his boxcar and two on the other. All was still except for the wind.
The duct-taped, glass water bottle was nearly empty, the loaf of Wonder Bread was almost gone. He jumped out of the car, crouched, looked around, and walked toward the distant light.
* * *
It was two in the morning on this same Saturday night. The year was nineteen sixty-five. The Fargo bar was closing. The bartender had heard the freight train’s whistle blow as it crossed Main Street almost an hour ago. He wasn’t comfortable with the last rowdy bunch of four.
“Last call came and went, boys,” he said.
“You keep ’em coming,” said the big, black-haired man. His left hand was wrapped around the beer glass. The letters h, a , t, e were crudely tattooed on the outside of each finger just below the knuckle.
“You tell him,” said another man smiling, showing no teeth. “You tell this son-of-a-bitch that we are here to stay and enjoy the party till it ends.”
“The party’s over,” said the barman. He made his way around the old wooden bar and stood by the men’s table. “I gotta get home,” he continued.
“One more and we’re gone,” said the third man. “Jack here, he’s been put away for almost five years,” he said motioning to the black-haired man. “Give him a chance to breathe some free air and drink some booze. We’re celebratin’, aren’t we boys?” The third man sniffed after his comment and turned quickly like a weasel towards the other three. Boils and blackheads covered the back of his neck.
“You bet,” said Jack.
“I don’t want to spoil your night out, boys, but I gotta shut it down. The cruiser will be coming around with the men in blue and wondering how come I’m still opened when the law says 2:00 a.m.”
“You callin’ the law, mister?” asked Jack.
“Nope”, answered the barman, still standing assuredly at the side of the men’s table. “I just want to get home. Now finish ’er up and be good about this.” He walked back behind the bar.
Jack, with the ‘hate’ fingers, and the toothless one started to confer with each other. The pimpled man pulled in his chair. He wanted to be part of this, whatever it was. The fourth, a young man, sullen and alone, sat outside of the group of three. He hadn’t said a word most of the night. He didn’t drink. His eyes were as black as Jack’s hair. He wasn’t looking forward to spending another night in the crowded blue Chevrolet.
Presently, the three men got up and walked towards the bar. They had a plan. The young man remained sitting.
“Hey, mister,” started Jack. “You give us twenty bucks and we’ll leave you alone. We’ll leave real quick and be quiet about it. We dropped twenty bucks for your booze already.”
“This a stickup, boys?” asked the barman.
“No, it ain’t a stickup,” said the toothless one. “We just want some dough to get us to the next town. It’s no stickup.”
“Stickup,” snickered the man with the pimples and looked around at all of his buddies.
“Tell you what boys,” said the barkeep. “Let’s go out back. I’ve got a Jerry can full of gas that’ll take you at least a hundred miles and we’ll call it a night. I’ll even throw in the hose so that your partner over there, the talkative one, can do the siphoning. You boys had your fun, you won’t get into any trouble, I won’t call the men in blue and we’ll all get along. What say?”
“This ain’t a stickup,” repeated the toothless one. “We’re just asking. That’s all.”
“You bet,” said the barman. He was no slouch. “Just askin’. No problem. Let’s go out the back, boys.”
* * *
As the young man walked across the open field and approached the farm he heard no dogs. He saw the barns, two tractors lit up by the shaded light, high up the electric pole. It was a bright light and he didn’t lurk on the edge of the shadows, but boldly walked through the middle of the compound.
He walked past the truck, sitting with the hood propped open by a two-by-four, past some more machinery. It was two in the morning. He could see the watch face reflected in the light. He made his way up the four steps leading to the veranda at the back of the house. Everything was in its place. A broom leaned up against the white side of the back porch. He strode across the expansive veranda and gently knocked on the kitchen door. A light from upstairs came on immediately A few minutes later the door opened.
The man at the door looked like a seventy-year old Mickey Rooney. A round, clean, happy face, open to the prairie elements and open to strangers knocking on his door in the middle of the night. He looked up and saw the young, tall man towering above him. He saw a blackened face where diesel exhaust had settled and made the young man’s face look like leather. He saw the makeshift plastic cover over his chest, no hat, no gloves, wet leather shoes.
The young man was shivering. He was trying to say something. It sounded like: “Can you spare a place in your barn, in the hay maybe? Just got off the train that stopped on the track back there.” He pointed towards where he came from. His arm didn’t come up too high.
“Where you from, son?”
“M-montreal, sir. I’ve got a job out west.”
“Long way from home.” He looked at the young man. Despite the large frame, he saw something harmless. “Come on in,” he said.
They stepped back and into the kitchen. It was as warm as a hot bath with the heat emanating from a white, ceramic cooking stove centered against a kitchen wall. Beside the stove was a stack of wood. Beside the wood was a pail of water, and beside that a small whisk broom, the kind that picks up the remainder of floor sweepings. A pine kitchen table sat in the middle of the room, four straight-backed catgut chairs, white cupboards all around.
“What’s your name,” asked the farmer.
“Well, Marty, I’m Aaron and upstairs is Angela. You sit by the stove there,” he said pulling one of the kitchen chairs up to the heat. “We’ll get you warm real pronto.”
The young man sat by the stove. He didn’t wonder too much, but he did notice how the old Mickey Rooney couple was nice with each other. How they seemed kind to him. How Aaron pulled up the chair, padded the pillow, how his wife upstairs was scurrying around, as fast as her old legs were able to move. They were busy all right, and he sensed that he was the beneficiary.
After not too long, Angela called down. “Come on upstairs, son,” she said. “The bath is drawn and you’d better get in it and start washing up. Then get to bed, it’s near three in the morning.
Marty went upstairs. He had left his shoes at the door so he walked in his stocking feet. The wooden floor was warm from the ever-burning stove . He left unwanted damp footsteps with his left foot as he walked across the room and up the narrow staircase to the second floor.
At the top of the landing, in the corner by the gabled window was a wooden spinning wheel and stool. He thought of it years later when he had time to remember that night. Now, his thoughts were toward the washroom and the promised bath.
He stepped into the bathtub, white with lion’s feet at the base. There was no shower curtain, just a table that was pulled up, more like a stand with a wash basin and a pitcher inside of it. He sat in the tub and began to wash the diesel-matted grime out of his short hair. He washed hurriedly. He didn’t want to impose on Aaron and Angela that time of the morning.
“When you’re through, Marty,” said Angela, “take that bathrobe hanging on the door and use it to cover yourself.”
“Yes ma’am,” Marty answered, and proceeded to do so. When he stepped out, the elderly couple was waiting by a bedroom door and proudly showed him in. Inside was a feather bed like he’d never seen. The pillow was the size of half the mattress and the comforter was big enough to hide in. They said they’d see him in the morning and when the door was shut as they said good night, Marty slipped under the foot-thick comforter, and fell fast asleep.
Ten hours later, with the sun heating up the room, Marty woke up. At the foot of his bed was a clean stack of his clothes. The folded-up jeans, the t-shirts, the black watch shirt, sweater, jacket. On top lay his one ten dollar bill and a single. He had kept the cash in his right sock, and now it was placed on the washed and folded clothes.
Beside the clothes lay a new black garbage bag. He dressed and stepped out into the tiny hallway. The roof of the second story was low, and the old Victorian house design cut into any available space.
“Down here,” yelled Aaron.
“How’d you sleep?” asked Angela, pride in her voice. Proud that she could offer something nice to a stranger.
“C-could I offer to do some chores for you, some yard work or housework?” asked Marty as he made his way downstairs. The kitchen table was spread with a light blue embroidered tablecloth. On top of the tablecloth was some bread and butter, orange juice, jars of jam, everything one wanted. On the stove Angela was frying eggs, onions, and peppers.
“Sit down and eat, son,” offered Aaron. “You may have a long spell ahead of you. Where do you plan to get to?”
Marty sat down at the table. He had table manners. He picked up his cloth napkin, took it out of the polished silver ring and laid it on his lap. He thanked them again for the bed and the hospitality. He thanked them for the breakfast. He again offered to do some chores to which offer Aaron and Angela again vehemently declined.
“My destination is Calgary,” he said. “I was planning to get to Laurel, Montana until the train stopped last night and left me here. I’ve got a job there, somewhere in northern Alberta.”
“You be careful,” said Aaron, “but you know you’re welcome to stay a bit longer and rest up.”
“Thank you,” said Marty. “I’ve got a time to be at the work camp and I can’t lose this job.”
After a polite time at the table, Marty did not want to impose on this hospitality. He had never seen it like this before. Not that he’d seen many years but he’d seen some at that time. He helped clear the table. Again he thanked the couple as best as he knew how and as sincerely. It gave him a good start on the next bunch of miles.
“Walk down the graveled driveway and you’ll hit the highway,” said Aaron. “You’ll be able to pick up a ride shortly. Take care.” “You too,” said Marty. “Thank you Angela. Thanks for taking me in. I must have looked like something else last night. It’s a wonder.”
“Be safe. God bless.”
* * *
Marty left the front porch and started walking down the gravel road, a tall figure with a bag slung over his shoulder. He turned and waved and the couple waved back. Their house was gray, not white, but in the noonday sun and with dark prairie rain clouds way back on the horizon it shone out like chrome in a pool of oil.
He made it to the highway and stuck his thumb out just as a blue coloured Chevrolet sped by, slowed, and then screeched to a halt. “Get in,” said the driver when Marty caught up. The front seat had two men, the back seat had two more. Each sat brooding up against their respective window.
“Let ’im in,” said the driver, and one of the men jumped out, a skinny teenager with jeans and long black hair. Marty slid into the middle of the back seat. The teenager sat back inside and continued to stare out. He noticed the white farmhouse a few hundred yards up the driveway. Marty felt his eleven dollars inside his clean blue sock.
“Where you goin’?” asked the driver.
“West,” answered Marty. The car sped off, making a dust cloud where Aaron’s and Angela’s driveway met the paved highway. Marty looked back at their house, and as he turned his head towards the front, he noticed that the neck of the driver was dirty and full of blackheads and pimples. A man with black hair sat in the front passenger seat, his arm lazily stretched across the back of the front bench of the old Chevy. Marty couldn’t help but notice the letters h,a,t,e roughly tattooed on the fingers. The knuckles were bruised and torn.
Marty’s eyes wandered to the gas gauge. It clearly showed full. He looked back once more at the white house disappearing into the distance as the blue Chevy headed westward. Maybe he should have stayed one more night.
Copyright © 2012 by Mike Florian