“You wanna do something fun?”
Standing in the doorway, Tom looked at Jack, his new neighbor. Tom’s family moved here the previous week. They’d crossed paths and said hello a couple times. They’d be starting fourth grade in a few weeks. Being the new kid promised to be hard enough. He needed a friend.
“Sure. It doesn’t have anything to do with coffee does it?”
“Coffee? No… Oh, you talking about the Kaffe Fest? That was back in June.”
“Never heard of a festival based on coffee.”
“Yeah. I guess that’s what we’re known for. They have a parade with a giant coffee pot and stuff.”
“Coffee contests? Espresso races?”
“I don’t think so. Let’s go.”
Tom closed the door and joined his new friend on the sidewalk. It was warm and muggy. “Where to?”
“Not far.” At the corner, he turned toward the railyard.
Tom’s Dad recently became manager of the freight depot at the railyard of their new home, Willmar, Minnesota. Most goods entering and leaving the farm town of about ten thousand passed through it. Freight trains delivered machinery, fuel, lumber, and food. At harvest time, grain laden trains rolled east to the mills in Minneapolis. The interstate, had it existed, would not pass through Willmar.
“I can’t go to the train yard.” Jack stopped and stared.
“Dad’ll kick my butt. And Mom will skin me alive.”
“The hobos, for one thing. One banged on our back door this morning and Mom threatened to sic the cops on him.”
“Weird. What’d he do?”
“I only heard her shouting. He just kept grinning at her, but…”
Jack made an abrupt turn down the dirt lane, running behind their houses. Tom followed, relieved at the detour. Weeds grew between the ruts. Water collected in the low places. Jack stopped near their back yard, where a path from the tracks emerged.
“Look.” He pointed at some symbols scrawled or chalked onto the fence planks bordering Tom’s back yard.
Looking like kid’s doodles of circles, arrows, squares, and a few cartoonish animals, they made no sense. He said, “Extra credit for art class?”
Jack found a sharp stone and vigorously scratched away a primitive drawing of a cat. He scrawled three parallel hash marks below it and tossed the stone into the weeds.
Clapping his hands, he said, “That should help.” He disappeared into the brush, down toward the rail yard. “Let’s go!”
Tom tried to keep up through the undergrowth. “What was that?”
“Hobo hieroglyphics. Updating them, so they don’t, uhm… get ideas about your Mom.”
“Wow… thanks. That was simple.”
“I don’t know all the meanings. They’ve been there forever. I’ve met some. They’re okay.”
Tom began to cough. “Phew! What’s that?”
“That’s the turkey plant. They burn the feathers every few weeks.”
“More around Thanksgiving. The wind’s usually from the west, so it’s mostly downwind.”
“Lotta jobs. Most of my family worked there off and on.”
Tom had barely seen more of the town than the three block shopping district. What he’d seen, discouraged further exploration. It was mainly pre-war vintage houses and sloughs.
When moving there, they drove past what seemed endless fields of corn. He saw a farm house with the ‘world’s largest ball of twine’ sitting on the lawn, or so the sign read. One bleak town they drove through, only had a gas station and a grain elevator.
Tom asked, “Whaddya do for fun? Summer’s almost over.”
“Swimming. But leeches are out this late.”
“Take ‘em off with salt. Legs run red. Bleeding won’t stop. Fun chasing the girls with ‘em.” Tom laughed. “I grossed Maryann out last year when I ate one. She hasn’t talked to me since.”
Tom stopped. “You ate one?”
Jack laughed so hard, he couldn’t talk. “Chewy and salty. Not bad.” Tom gagged. Jack laughed harder. Recovering, he said, “Not really, man. I faked it. But don’t say anything, ‘kay?”
Tom shook his head. “I won’t blow your cover.”
“Circus comes in the spring. The sword swallower sold me his ‘how to’ secrets, for a dime, this year.”
“My Mom won’t let me eat with a knife, let alone…”
“Come fall, deer hunting and high school football. My brother traps muskrats.”
“Big market in their pelts.”
Tom shook his head.
“Ice fishing. Don’t catch much. They sit in their huts and drink. Dry county, though. My uncle drives booze up from Marshall.”
“Good to know…”
“Every winter, they hold a lottery. Tow a junker onto the lake and bet on when it’ll fall through.”
“How much do they…?”
“I think it runs a dollar per ticket. But you can buy as many as you want. Winners split the pot.”
“Like a few hundred bucks?”
Jack nodded. “My uncle’s friend tried to help it along one year. Middle of the night, of course. When the ice gave way, he went in with it. Big deal. Police shut it down, but it started back up again, last winter.”
They came out to the expanse of the rail yard. A locomotive hummed in the distance. A forklift crew unloaded a freight car. Tom’s father worked in the building fifty yards away.
But the random pile of derelict refrigerators attracted Jack. “Whoooeee!” He ran to the base of the twenty foot pile. “There must be a hundred!”
Piled high and tilted every which way, some doors had been removed. Others were shut tight. A shallow puddle from the last rain, lay in the gravel.
“Race you to the top!”
“Wait, Jack. It doesn’t look safe.”
Jack kicked one lying on its side, making a dull thump. “Come on! They’re not going anywhere.”
“Wouldn’t want to catch one.”
“Rolling down in one of those? What a ride!”
That thought spurred him on. Jack climbed atop one and took a victory stance. The refrigerator wobbled and Jack steadied himself against another, which shifted. “Whoa!”
Tom saw his father and the foreman walk to the side of the building. The foreman pointed toward some distant storage tanks. They paid no attention to the boys playing by the abandoned refrigerators. A semi pulled onto the lot and they directed it to the loading dock.
Tom moved to the far side of the mountain. “We shouldn’t be here, Jack. I’m going. Let’s do something else.”
Jack pouted for a moment and jumped down to join Tom. They made their way up the path. “We could climb to the roof of the green house.”
“The flower shop, on the corner. Can’t if they’re still open. But maybe Sunday. Can see the water tower from there.”
“But, a green house? With a glass roof?”
“Yeah. Pretty cool, looking down on the plants and stuff.”
They emerged by the hobo signs behind his house.
Tom said, “I just remembered. Mom wants me to help unpack. I’ll see you later.” He went through the gate.
Jack yelled out, “See ya!”
Tom walked through the back yard to his house. He entered through the kitchen door. His mother turned from the stove, where she stood making dinner. Roger Miller sang ‘Dang Me,’ on the radio. She turned it down.
“Oh, there you are. Make some new friends?”
“That’s nice. What did you do today?”
“Go wash up. Dinner as soon as Dad gets home.”
Tom ran up to his room and looked out the window. It had begun to rain. A train announced its departure with a long mournful horn.
Tom wondered where it would go.