Asleep, back against weathered slats, knees akimbo, Wayne’s body jostled with the rhythmic jar and bump of an empty boxcar. His berth, speckled with dust, was coupled to over 40 like cars, hooked to a freight train headed toward the port of Galveston on the Texas coast.
It was the summer of 1965 – a year of pubescent memories and fractured dreams of an abstract future. Of letting go and self-discovery.
The soft chords of “Amazing Grace” from a harmonica drew him awake.
“Mornin’” a voice called out.
Wayne opened his eyes to see a stranger standing and leaning against the opposite wall, the harmonica held loosely in his left hand. Shadowed in the meager morning light it was impossible to tell the stranger's age. He could have been twice his own age of eighteen or only a few years older. Traveling the rails did that to a man - hid his age.
“Didn’t mean to startle you. I hopped aboard ‘round mid-night. Knew enough not to wake someone sudden in the dark; ‘specially when he’s alone on the road.”
“Yeah, its okay. Just wasn’t expecting to see anyone, that’s all.”
“Trains about to come ‘round to Murphy’s Bend. It slows just enough to jump off. Hobo’s camp there ‘case you’re interested.”
“Don’t think so. Want to get to Galveston before tomorrow.”
“Catch a Caribbean-bound freighter, huh?” The stranger slid opened the boxcar’s door.
The eastern horizon burned red with the sun allowing its light inside. “Did that once or twice myself.”
The stranger shrugged. “It’s okay; found most people to be about same as ever-where else, only speak different, that’s all.”
“Reckon I’ll find out.”
“Reckon so if you keep your wits ‘bout you. That’s the thing ‘bout people being the same, gotta keep your wits ‘bout you.”
“Where’re you headed?” After a year on the road, Wayne had learned it to be an unwritten rule, unless offered, you never asked a man where’s he from, only where he’s headed. Traveling the rails did that, too, hid a man’s past.
“Me I’m headin’ for that place just ahead – the one beside the crystal fountain. You know, the Big Rock Candy Mountain.” He gave a rueful laugh turning his face into the air stream outside. His voice, diluted by the wind, softened. “Wasn’t always that way, though.”
“Had the gypsy curse. Achin’ to do nothin’ but roam. Never satisfied where I was; and if it weren’t for this harmonica, “wouldn’t know what peace was. Just a roamer finding a shameful kind of truth in the raveled edges of life.”
“What changed you?”
He looked at Wayne. “Someone believing in me; and God lettin’ me see myself through their eyes. Sorta like a second sight.” He paused. “You don’t belong here, Wayne, ‘cept you choose to be. Something’s bit you and left the poison of what’s- the-use in your blood.”
Wayne flinched; as if a wound had been reopened and the reason for the unwritten rule suddenly becoming apparent. The train lurched and slowed, its whistle signaling an approach to a crossing. “Murphy’s Bend?” he said, hopes of changing the subject tinting his voice.
“I heard you calling out a name in your sleep. Davey. That the reason you runnin'?
“Who said I was running? Besides it's not right messing in another man’s business.”
“You’re right unless the look on the other man’s face is asking what his tongue can’t get around to.”
The sound of the clickety-clack of the train’s wheels hung between them. Wayne glanced at the harmonica in the stranger’s hand and then into his eyes. “Davey, he was my brother. He was killed in Viet Nam a little over a year ago. He was my age now. He…he played the harmonica, too.”
“And you’re tryin’ to reason it out?”
“He was my brother! I should have been there for him!”
“You were, Wayne.”
Wayne looked as if he’d been struck in the face. “Wayne. You’ve called me Wayne twice now. How’d you know my name?”
The train’s whistle blew again. “I’m good, little brother, I’m at peace. The Big Rock Candy Mountain’s just ‘round the bend. But wanted to take this one last gypsy trip to set things right. Keep your wits about you; let me go. I’m okay.”
Davey tossed his harmonica into Wayne’s lap. Then, with a slight nod and smile, he threw his bindle out into the air stream and followed it like a tail tied to a kite; flying high beyond the distant mountains.
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