Mert and his fellow travelers huddled silently in the boxcar, each wrapped in their own misery The rumble of the car on the rails made sleep impossible. It was too cold anyway. It didn’t help to know that it was almost Christmas. Soon 1938 would be gone and it would be 1939, another new year. I’ve been riding these rails for three years, he thought. Three years since he had slammed out of his parent’s house and jumped on a passing freight car.
Why did I leave? He pondered on that night. Some silly argument. He was such an arrogant jerk. His parents, no doubt, were glad to seem him go. Probably relieved that he hadn’t written or tried to call at all in those three years. Not even to ask for money. He bowed his head in shame. What did they do when they discovered that before he left he stole his mother’s egg money? Two dollars, which would have bought them some flour and maybe a few beans for a couple more meager meals. Yes, for sure they were glad he was gone.
The train slowed down as it approached the rail yard. Mert realized just before it stopped, that it was Fernville, his hometown. He debated staying on, but joined the other two hobos as they leaped off then separately disappeared into the darkness. As Mert made his way into the town, he realized that it looked just like all the other nameless towns he had been in these past years. They were all alike during this Depression, empty storefronts, soup kitchens, and women standing in line for loaves of bread. He thought wistfully of the year he had worked in a logging camp in the deep woods of Oregon. That had been good, a bunkhouse to sleep in and three meals a day. He’d made friends there and felt some sense of security. But the mill went broke after he’d been there a year and he was back to riding the rails again.
He walked up the street looking for any place he might find a place to work for food and/or a bed for the night. There used to be a hotel along here. Hotels were often good for work for a meal or a bed. He had shoveled coal in a few of them in order to sleep in some blankets on the floor in the basement and get a cup of coffee or a bowl of soup. Everything was dark. Well, maybe some kind housewife would let him split wood for a meal.
So lost in his thoughts, Mert had taken little notice of his surroundings. Suddenly, to his shock he realized he was in his old neighborhood. As though he had no control over them, his feet walked along the street where he used to live.
Then, there it was, his home. By the light of the kerosene lamp in the living room window, he could barely make out a small Christmas tree, decorated as usual with strings of cranberries and paper chains. The neighbor’s dog came out and started barking at him. but he was so full of despair he didn’t notice.
Shivering with cold, he stood across the street and looked longingly at the house. How nice it would be to go knock at the door and enter that warm room. No, no, they are better off without his thieving presence. They would always be wondering what he would steal next. And besides, they didn’t need another mouth to feed. Head down, he turned to walk away.
The front door opened. “Is someone there?” His father, Edward, stood on the porch. The dog kept barking. Mert turned slowly around. His father looked his way. “Who is it?”
Mert walked toward his father. May as well get this over. “It’s me, Dad, Mert.”
“Mert!” His father came down the steps toward him, then stopped and shouted through the still open door. “Mary, it’s Mert! It’s Mert! Our son has come home.”
He grabbed Mert in a tight hug. Tears stung Mert’s eyes as he said, “Dad, can you forgive me.”
“For what?” his father said, “Come, son. Come into the house. Your mother has been praying all these years for you to come home again."
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