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First Place: The Hobo

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"Well, for God's sake, who is it?" Wiping her hands on her apron, Momma walked down the long kitchen to the back door. The man mumbled something and she said, "Well, just wait, right here on the porch. I'll bring you a plate."

I was up against the refrigerator banging my elbows on it. Momma motioned me away, pulled out meatloaf, half a cucumber, the mayonnaise.

"Get me four pieces of bread. Then the lemonade," she said.

The pitcher was heavy and I had to use both hands. Momma cut off four pieces of meatloaf, then poked around in the fridge and slammed the door. She reached into her apron pocket for a cigarette.

"I could've sworn we had salad left over."

"The salad's behind all the bottles," I said. I looked inside the refrigerator, pushing the baby bottles out of the way, and grabbed the salad bowl.

"Careful, careful," she said, but she was looking out the window, taking big drags off her cigarette. She grabbed a tomato off the windowsill.

"Here, cut this up with the cucumber and throw it in with the salad."

Soon as I dropped a big glob of mayonnaise in the bowl, she started fussing.

"Stop, stop. You put in too much. Oh, never mind," she said.

She ran water over her cigarette, threw the butt in the sink and grabbed the plate. I followed her onto the back porch. He was sitting on the bottom step, smoking and staring at our weeping willow tree. She gave him the plate, and after I gave him silverware and lemonade, I scooched past him and jumped off the porch.

"That's my playhouse. See, over there." I pointed to the hollyhocks. "In the summer, I practically live there. It's got two chairs, a flyswatter and a blue table."

"It's a fine playhouse, I do believe," he said through a mouthful of the meatloaf sandwich. His hands looked dark against the bread. Momma should've asked him inside to wash. No, not let him inside, she should've turned on the hose for him.

Cigarette smoke was coming out of the kitchen window. Momma was at the sink, watching. Probably thinking she was sorry, sorry about how she'd yelled at Daddy last night. She usually yelled at Daddy, but by the time she'd said the same thing about three times, Daddy had already walked out of the room.

My jump rope lay under the hydrangeas. I grabbed it and starting jumping. Maybe I'd go a hundred without a miss. But it was too hot. After jumping to seventeen, I dropped the rope and kicked it off the sidewalk.

"Too hot to jump," the hobo said. His napkin was balled up now. Dirty, but he kept wiping his sweaty face.

"You got the hottest town. Maybe in the whole South. So, how old are you?"

"Seven and a half."

"When's your birthday?"

"The end of April. You know how to jump rope?"

"Then you're really only seven and a quarter," he said. He gulped down some lemonade.

"Yeah. But, Daddy lets me say seven and a half. You know how to jump rope?"

"Ha. Back in Ohio, boys didn't jump rope. We raced cars. Big wooden boxes on wheels. My car was yellow and red. Number 27." When he grinned, I saw his white teeth. Not broken or black like the other hobos.

"You see that willow? Last summer a tiger got loose from the circus one day. Sandy, she's my best friend, Sandy and I were going to sleep out in my play-house. But tigers sleep in trees and hunt at night."

"A tiger?" He frowned.

"Yeah. They get loose all the time. The train station's close. But, you already know that. Circuses always come on the train."

I stopped talking and looked at the ground. I'd done it now, I'd mentioned trains. Out of the corner of my eye I watched his face, but it hadn't changed. So I kept on going.

"After the tiger ate Sandy, we'd have to call on her Momma. We'd have to say we're sorry the tiger ate your little girl."

"So, the tiger really came?"

"No. Sandy and I had Cokes and popcorn in the playhouse. But we came inside to sleep. Just in case."

I squinched my eyes and the willow blurred into a bright green, the same color as a tiger's eyes. He stared at the willow, looking up and down, like he was searching for the tiger. Or maybe, like me, he was disappointed it hadn't come. Had he ever ridden on a train with tigers and other circus animals? No. He'd of told me if he'd seen any tigers when he was jumping up on trains. He kept squinting, the sweat dripping off his face.

So I said: "When it's this hot, we turn on the sprinkler. Wanna run through the sprinkler? Oh, I guess grown-ups don't like sprinklers. Here, I'll take it off and just use the hose."

But the hose and sprinkler were stuck together and I couldn't get them apart. He saw me twisting and twisting.

"Here. I'll get that," he said.

Just before he stood, he ducked his head and I could see a bare spot on top. Daddy had a bigger bare spot on account of a high fever when he was a little boy. Momma says Daddy's too young to be bald. He's 32. That's pretty old.

Through the kitchen window, I could hear Momma washing dishes. After he untwisted the hose, I turned on the water. It poured out burning hot and smelling rubbery, just like the hose's insides.

"You gotta let it run awhile, or you'll burn yourself," I said.

He nodded like he understood, then grabbed the hose and put it over his head. Water ran down all over his hair and face and it kept running down his brown shirt and his jeans. Probably into his shoes, too.

"I'll get a towel," I said on my way up the steps. But right then Momma opened the screen door, holding out a little bar of soap like the kind you get in hotels. And an old pink towel that we use at the beach.

"Here. Let him use this. It's fine," Momma said, without looking at him. Then she went back inside.

Wondering how many flies would die before he finished washing himself, I got my swatter from the play-house and took it to the porch. One time I killed about eighty before Momma caught me and said it was vulgar. She made me stop. I'm allowed to catch lightning bugs because they don't carry disgusting diseases. But, on that summer day, the day the hobo came, Momma wouldn't be worrying about dead flies piling up on the porch.

I'd gotten five flies before I saw his clean face looking up at me. He looked taller than Daddy. Was he handsome as Daddy? Would Momma think so? Where was Daddy, anyway? Then I remembered it was only Thursday and he'd be at work. That summer, except for special things like hobos and going to the beach, all the days were blurred together.

Through the kitchen window "Summertime" came on the radio. We'd all been singing it since Momma and Daddy saw Porgy and Bess at the Mosque Theater. When they came home that night, I heard them laughing.

Momma was banging around, fixing lunch and warming the baby's bottle. The hobo put the soap in his jeans pocket and rinsed off his hands, then shook his head. His blonde hair flopped around, then he pushed it back with his fingers. I noticed his blue eyes. Now he looked like a cowboy. Or maybe a movie star.

"Get your Mother for me. OK?"

He was holding the towel out to me. I grabbed it and headed for the kitchen. The baby was crying. I didn't know what to do. If I held the baby, Momma would go outside with the hobo.

"He's leaving, Momma. Here's the towel."

I held it out to her, all wet and streaked with dirt.

"Go put it in the hamper." She was holding the baby's bottle. When she shook it, a few drops of milk fell on the inside of her wrist.

"The milk's not too hot. Good," she said, then looked out the window. "He's still there," she said.

"I'll go get the plate," I said. I dropped the towel, and before she could stop me, I ran back outside.

"Momma's feeding the baby. So, you gotta go now. Goodbye," I said without looking at him.

I grabbed the plate and glass and ran up the steps. When I turned, he hadn't moved, he was just looking up at me. I squinched my eyes and turned him all blurry, but he still didn't move.

"I'd like to thank your Mother. I'll wait," he said.

He sat on the bottom step and pulled out a cigarette from a wrinkled pack.

"So, what else about the willow tree?" He struck a match, lit the cigarette, then looked over his shoulder, grinning up at me.

"There's nothing else. No tigers came."

I was watching the willow tree and didn't look at him. Inside, the crying stopped. Momma must be feeding the baby.

"She's feeding the baby. It takes a long time. She can't come outside," I said.

Just then Momma called through the kitchen window.

"Lizzie. Come get the baby and feed him. It's too hot for him outside."

The hobo grinned. Momma came to the door, a cigarette hanging from her mouth, holding the baby on one arm.

"Here, take him," she said and handed me the baby.

The baby's little face was red with the heat. I kissed his damp head and held him close to my chest, breathing in his talcum-powder smell. Holding him close, I began humming a little. Worry was making my stomach hurt.

Momma opened the door and went out on the porch. Her long hair looked red in the sun, it seemed to glow. When the hobo looked up at her, he was smiling.

"Thanks, ma'am. You're a real good cook. And for the towel and all. You sure do make a great meatloaf."

"I'm glad you enjoyed it," she said.

Momma was leaning against the railing and her voice was smiling. Looking out through the screen door, I squinched my eyes until the screen got blurry. Then I took a deep breath and pinched the baby on the leg, just as hard as I could. When the baby screamed, Momma turned around.

"I guess I'll be on my way, then." The hobo shrugged, but didn't move. He kept smiling and staring up at Momma, his head to one side like he was expecting something. I pinched the baby again.

"Lizzie, for God's sake. The baby was fine a minute ago."

She came inside, the screen door slamming behind her. I handed her the baby.

"He wants you to feed him, Momma."

Momma sighed and took the baby to the kitchen table, but I stayed at the door with my nose pushed against the screen, watching him walk by the hollyhocks and trash cans, then turning into the alley. I held my breath until I was sure he'd gone. S



About the Writer

Richmond native Lenore Gay has been writing and telling herself stories in her head since she was 5. Now at 62 she is still curious about everything and loves to read, but is inspired even more by images than by words. "A phrase will stick," she says, "but images are even more powerful. I follow an image and see where it's going to go. I grew up in a houseful of paintings and around artists with a lot of visual stimulation."

Holding a master's degree in sociology and a master's in rehabilitation counseling from Virginia Commonwealth University, Gay is a licensed professional counselor who was in private practice for 10 years before joining the Rehabilitation Counseling Department at VCU. She retired in May, but is busier than ever. She volunteers weekly at the Fan Free Clinic and as a reader for VCU's literary magazine, Blackbird.

Gay received writing fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in '97 and '98 and has had a memoir, "Mistresses of Magic," published in the anthology "In Praise of Our Teachers." Having just completed her first novel, Gay says she has really been working her fiction, ever since she got serious about writing in 1988. Although "The Hobo" is not autobiographical, she says, it does capture a certain essence from her childhood and is the first chapter of her second novel. — Valley Haggard



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