My arms ache. I have hung the contents of five basketsful of sopping laundry on the clothesline this morning, and with this last sheet, I also feel a sharp twinge in the small of my back.
As I attach a wooden clothespin to the dripping sheet, I am startled by a sound near my right shoulder—a man stands there, clearing his throat and holding his tattered cap in grimy hands. Crazily, my first thought is not for my own safety but for that of my clean laundry. Oh please, don’t touch my sheets, I think, but all that I say is “May I help you?”
“I ain’t askin’ for nothin’ much, ma’am,” he mumbles, and I can hear weariness in his voice. He keeps his eyes low and hesitates before speaking again. “Jes’ a sammich, maybe, er a couple a eggs. I kin chop some wood fer ya, if ya want.” He nods toward my dwindling woodpile, and finally meets my eyes.
I should be frightened. I am no longer a young woman, and I have lived alone here since Henry died in the trenches of the Great War. Fifteen years I have been a widow, scraping out a living by taking in laundry, missing Henry every day. But this sad little tramp is older than I am; his thinning hair is a dingy gray and wrinkled skin drapes his throat. He will not harm me.
I direct the wiry little man to the woodshed where Henry’s tools are still kept, and watch as he takes the axe and shuffles back to the woodpile. He seems too old to work for long, but soon the thunk thunk of iron on maple creates a rhythm in the late morning air. I walk into the kitchen and prepare him a lunch of cold meatloaf and my last slice of apple pie.
The nightly radio broadcasts have warned housewives like me to beware of the hoboes who have been seen with increasing frequency in areas near railroad lines. Today’s visitor is a first for me, although in these difficult years since The Crash, I’ve often seen his despairing look on the faces of other men. The congregation of my little church dwindles weekly, desperation stealing fathers and sons away from this hopeless place. They are not searching for Something Better, but for Anything At All. The American Dream that roared through the last decade has become a nightmare.
The thunks stop, and I peer through the curtains, afraid that the man may have run off with Henry’s axe. He is still there, leaning on the axe handle and wiping his brow. I step into the sunshine with a plate and a mug of coffee.
“Rest a bit,” I tell him as I offer the food. He sits on a log and gratefully takes the plate. I’m surprised to see him close his eyes in a silent blessing.
He eats quickly. “I thank ya kindly, ma’am.”
I start to speak, hesitate, then begin again. “Have you seen…do you know…a boy named Hank? Early twenties, reddish blond hair, quite tall?” I realize how foolish I must sound. Oh Hank, my son, you could have stayed…
The fellow wipes a crumb from his mouth with the back of his hand. “No ma’am, I surely haven’t. The younguns mostly go East. There’s more track out East. Hank’s yer boy?”
He finishes the last bite of pie, then stands and gazes into the distance. “I’ll be on my way, ma’am. The wood’s in yer shed. I hope yer boy comes home. If ya like, I’ll say a prayer fer ‘im.”
My throat has formed a tight knot of loneliness and grief, so I do not reply, but I marvel at this poor man’s richness of grace.
Several hours later, while I am taking down the stiffly dried sheets and towels, Sergeant O’Meara from town steps out of his car and shows me a childlike drawing in charcoal on the front gate. It’s a little cat—the sergeant tells me it’s a message to other hoboes: a kind woman lives here. “You’ll want to wash that off, Mrs. Chambers, or every tramp in the state will be at your door, looking for a handout.”
I thank the officer—and leave the drawing. Let them come; I will feed each one, and pray that somewhere out East there is a kind woman with a cat sketched on her gate, offering my Hank a heel of fresh-baked bread.
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