Hobo Heart: Suspense Short Fiction By Stu Watson About Racism
In Hobo Heart, Kudzu’s grandfather fled the racism and brutality of Jim Crow for the relative peace of Los Angeles. Now, Kudzu lives a quiet life as an academic, but history calls him to see what his grandfather’s life was like.
On the backside of a long award-winning journalism career, Stu Watson now devotes his energies to poetry, essay and short fiction. His work reflects a love of human diversity, and a twisted view of reality.
Watson’s work has appeared in The Maine Review, Two Hawks Quarterly, Revolution John, Montana Mouthful, Wretched Creations, Flash Boulevard and Wanderlust Journal. He lives with his wife and the world’s best dog in the Columbia River Gorge of Oregon.
Kudzu leaned against the open boxcar door. Oregon rolled by in shades of black and sparkly lights from homes up the passing hill. He wondered what he should make of his traveling companion’s routine use of the n-word.
Then he felt Bub’s hands on his back.
Then the push.
Kudzu found himself floating outside the car, the train moving on, his body hanging for a moment on the wind.
His momentum stalled.
He started to fall, through the air, from the air, waving his arms and legs around for purchase, a rung, a rope, the nothing at hand.
He thought he would hit something hard. Perhaps fall under the train’s wheels. Perhaps lose his head. Perhaps knock himself out.
Instead, he drifted out and past the gravel rail bed and then down below the level of the tracks into the air space above the surface of a pond, godsent, trapped between the tracks and the sparkling hill. Kudzu splashed into water and sank.
He started to fall, through the air, from the air, waving his arms and legs around for purchase, a rung, a rope, the nothing at hand.
Still in the boxcar, Bub watched Kudzu fly. Good to be rid of the professor, Bub thought. Done with the n—–. And richer now, for having separated Kudzu and his bag.
They had met in a camp, just north of the Swan Island rail yards in northwest Portland.
“What’s your story, morning glory?” Kudzu asked a day earlier, striding from the brush toward Bub and a smoking fire.
The greeting wasn’t original, but it came from a good source. Every day, back when a teenaged Kudzu worked high school summers rolling sod, the large, black poet philosopher Miles Kaiser would arrive at the fog-wrapped field and begin the day with his street poetry. Kudzu loved it.
“What’s your story?” Bub responded to Kudzu, as if only he, not Kudzu, had the right to ask.
Kudzu was new to the jungle. He had boned up on the argot. Now he had to use it, or what he thought was it.
“Hopping,” he said. “East. Maybe Boise. You?”
“Hobby boes like you, most go up and down the coast,” Bub said. “Nothing east but dirt.”
Kudzu’s wife was right. He was slumming. Kudzu figured he should tell it straight. He told Bub he was a university professor, doing research on black hoboes. Said he was on sabbatical.
Bub thought, sabbata what?
Kudzu said he thought about researching black poker players, black barbers, black chefs. Alvita thought he was nuts. He settled on hoboes. His wife sighed. He told her it seemed more interesting, given that his Poppy Oz had often pointed to the “hobo jungle” south of Santa Barbara.
A jungle? With hoboes?
Cool. To a kid.
As Kudzu grew into adulthood, the lure of the jungle called. Memories of stories told by his Poppy, of hopping freights to flee the Midwest, find his way to SoCal, put the rabid white man behind. Poppy had been naive. Found a different kind of racist in the lee of the Hollywood sign. Found a good woman, though, another refugee from Jim Crow, willing to take his seed, give them Kudzu’s dad and his two brothers.
Around the family table, with Oz and Elsa there to share, Kudzu learned how it had been for Oz, growing up black in south Indiana, down near Mason and Dixon. Doing what dirt the man let him do. Picking. Shoveling slag. If a white man wouldn’t touch it, Oz would.
With a push and a kick from his own folks, Kudzu found his way to the library and an education. Long Beach was looking to diversify when he stepped into his PhD in sociology. Books followed, treatises on life at the bottom, looking up at society’s sole.
Kudzu wanted to put flesh on the skeletal stories Oz shared, stories about the mob brutality that enforced ol’ Crow’s laws. Oz thought maybe he should’ve held off the stories, until Kudzu was old enough to take it in. At the age of seven, he was unprepared for tales that put reality to the green-eyed lyncher his classmates invoked to terrorize him.
Even after Kudzu was on his own, wed to Alvita, secure in his career, he would often wake with a start, covered in sweat, the image of mutilated innocents swinging in his dreams.
Despite Alvita’s protests, in defiance of her insistence that the railroad was no road for a tweed-tailored prof, Kudzu rose early, packed a change of shirts, a toothbrush and deodorant with three books. He had Alvita drop him at the edge of the Southern Pacific yards in South Central. She looked like she was saying goodbye forever.
“You’ve got nothin’ to prove,” she said. “You’re not a bad ass.”
“I need to make it real. Diggin’ in the stacks ain’t real.”
“You wanna get real? Go down to Crenshaw, buy you some malt liquor, stand on the corner talkin’ tough. Leastwise you could be home for dinner.”
Kudzu grinned. She could nail a point.
“We got it pretty soft,” he said. “Don’t you ever want to more edge?”
“Lord, you need to feel some gratitude.”
“Chill, Sweet Tater. I’ll call you.”
“You’re slumming. Gonna get yourself killed. Purely for research, of course. It’s why people go to stock car races and football games. Stay home. Please. With me.”
“You know me too well,” Kudzu said. He smiled, as if that would allay her anxieties.
“It’s not too late to trade me in. You could light out for the celebrities. You’re beautiful enough to take a safer guy’s arm.”
She shook her head. He pressed the car door closed.
Walking toward the boxcars, he thought of what he had promised. He would report in, let her know that he still breathed air, but not so often it would feel like a kid calling Mom from camp. If he was going to hit the road, he needed it to be authentic. He needed to avoid stepping back to the plexiglass bubble of the classroom and faculty meetings.
Now, a day later after a long northbound rattler, Kudzu had made it to Portland, and stood staring at Bub. At the edge of unlighted trees and brush, well north of the city’s industrial heart, Bub looked at Kudzu, took in his disclosure and his pack and his bedroll. First guess, somewhere inside that bindle is a wallet with jack. Nobody hops freight with credit cards.
Bub wondered why Kudzu was so interested in black hoboes. He had never seen many.
“Why not white boes, like me?” he asked. “Lot more of us. N*s got it too good to be boes, I guess. ”
Kudzu felt his jaw clench, but he didn’t bite. Changed the subject.
“Thought I’d fruit tramp a bit,” Kudzu said.
Bub said he was heading east himself.
“Cherries out near The Dalles now. I like the pack. Cooler. Out of the sun.”
Kudzu didn’t know what Bub meant by pack, but he didn’t ask. In time, he would find out it meant the packinghouses. Later, from the other side of the fire, Kudzu handed Bub a chunk of fire-crisped SPAM, between some saltines. Bub took it like his due.
“You’ve gotta know that people like me, we don’t tolerate people calling us n*s,” Kudzu said. “It’s the most offensive thing you can say.”
He tried to keep his tone neutral, to avoid sounding pedantic or censorious. Bub looked up from the fire, from his half-eaten SPAM sandwich.
“If you ain’t n*s, what are you? All I ever knowed. My ol’ man, he tol’ me not to trust ‘em. His pappy, he was there when they hung one a them no-goods.”
The revelation sucked the breath from Kudzu’s lungs. He poked at the fire, fiddled with the last chunk of canned meat.
“Where you from?”
“Indiana. Marion. There’s pictures. Gramps was the guy with the mustache, pointing.”
Kudzu knew the photo, of a white mob, milling about beneath the bodies of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. Here, he sat across a campfire from someone born to people proud of such a brutal act.
He stirred the fire. In a while, he got up and walked into the dark, where he rolled out his bindle and lay on it, awake, afraid of the night and what might come with it, until dawn. Bub was at the fire when Kudzu joined him.
“Mind if I join you on that train?” he asked.
It was an uneventful ride, until Kudzu found himself rudely separated from the train, submerged in weeds and algae. Not what he had imagined, but then again, what had he imagined?
Kudzu figured he was pretty close to The Dalles because Bub had said “Not far now” a minute before he shoved Kudzu out.
The weeds were so thick, he almost crawled across them to the shore, then out and up the slope, where he could rest a bit. He climbed to the tracks, looked both ways, and stepped onto the ties. He began to walk, in the direction the train had been traveling.
Several trains passed, in both directions. He had to turn frequently, look behind himself. They were oddly silent until they were almost upon him. At a sweeping bend in the tracks, he spied clutter ahead. As he approached, he recognized his pack and sleeping bag. Several items of clothing lay scattered nearby. He gathered them together. His wallet was missing. He counted it no loss. It had ten bucks in it, no ID, no plastic. A debit card and driver’s license were sewn into the yoke of his shirt. Reflexively, he reached up and over his shoulder, and felt them still secure between his shoulder blades.
By his watch, he must have walked ten miles before reaching a town. Early light revealed buildings off to his right, a freeway, and hills beyond. He turned toward town where a small creek flowed beneath the tracks, into the Columbia River. He passed some buildings, found a paved trail and followed it a short distance past a pile of concrete block from a collapsed building.
Beneath two large cottonwood trees, a small sandy beach suggested a camp. He tucked his gear beneath some berry vines, and kept walking toward town. It was coming awake as he walked down the central boulevard, stores opening, people strolling to and from their cars. Kudzu approached a man in denim pants and scuffed boots, and asked if anyone was hiring.
“Cherry growers,” he said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder. Kudzu thanked him and followed the angle of the thumb. He passed large wooden vats that emitted a rank smell, and found his way to an office beneath a sign that said, “Now Hiring.”
The hiring lady watched him approach. She looked over her shoulder, then back, as if she needed reinforcement.
“We don’t get many like you,” she said.
“People who want to work?”
“You know. Like you.”
She shoved an application across the counter and he took the clipboard to a seat and filled it out. They must’ve been desperate. In less than an hour, they had him building pallets of boxed cherries. Dozens of Latinas lined the processing line. He got a break for lunch. He knew he could hit an ATM for cash, but tried to avoid the easy out. He had intended to work his way around the country, covering bills from what he earned. Try to live like his subjects. He ate a bag of cherries for lunch. A burger would have been better, but the price of cherries was free.
On his way back to camp, he passed a man and woman, each on horseback. They gave him the look. Both wore cowboy hats and had stars on their chests.
“Help you?” Kudzu offered.
“Looking for three cows,” the male deputy said. “Somebody” — he paused, to let the insinuation sink in — “let’m out. You ain’t seen ‘em?”
Kudzu had a sense of humor. Now wasn’t the time to tell them he was waiting for cut ‘n’ wrap.
“If I see them, I’ll tell them you’re looking for them,” he said.
“We got one a you at the college,” the woman deputy said. “Maybe you know her?”
“Don’t think so,” Kudzu said. “What’s her name?”
“Arlie. Arlie Washington.”
“Nope. Can’t say as we’ve met. Strange, seein’s how most of us know each other.”
The deputies sat there, done with the chit-chat. Kudzu bid them adieu, and kept walking.
He didn’t expect to find three cows hanging out in his camp, but there they were. Stomping through the bushes where he had left his kit.
“I saved your stuff,” a familiar voice said.
Sitting on a log off in the shade, opposite the shuffling cows, Bub held up Kudzu’s pack.
“Books are heavy. I ain’t seen a ‘bo hauls a book around. Much less three.”
If not for the sound of horse hooves on the hard earth behind him, Kudzu was inclined to pick up a branch and bean this clown.
“Figgered as much,” Bub said. “N* egghead like you.”
He held up one of the books. “The Souls of Black Folk? Y’all got soul, I got that. But a whole book? Ever read that Mandingo?”
Kudzu ignored his murderer. He turned instead to the deputies. “Looks like your cows found you,” he said.
“Looks like maybe we found the culprit.”
Kudzu tensed. He could see this whole confluence heading south.
“Look,” Kudzu heard himself saying. “Bub didn’t steal your cows. They just showed up. I was at work. When I left camp, there were no cows here. Hell, there was no Bub here. The last time I saw him, he was pushing me from a train.”
Bub jumped up. “Hey, shine, I didn’t push you. You fell. I saw you. I threw your bag and bindle after your sorry ass.”
“Way I see it, you just like every other honkie. Blamin’ us for your shitty-ass life.”
“He’s lyin’,” Bub screamed to the deputies.
The deputies sat there, looking at each other, trying to figure out what they had stumbled on. Kudzu could see the wheels turning. If he had been in their shoes, he would have tried to figure out fast how they could extricate themselves from what looked to become a real mess real fast. The two deputies moved their horses close, then leaned toward each other and whispered a bit.
“What did you plan to do with the cattle?” the male deputy asked.
Kudzu and Bub looked at each other.
“We didn’t plan nothin’,” Kudzu said. “They … just … showed up.”
Bub looked at the deputies. “Hey,” he said, “why’n’t you use ‘em lariats to hook up these cows, and ease ‘em back where they belong?”
“We only got two lariats,” the man deputy said. “We got three cows.”
“Well, you could lasso the heifers and let the bull follow along,” Kudzu said.
“That looks like a steer to me,” the woman deputy said.
Bub smiled to himself. Checkin out the lack of ‘nads, she had her eye on the essentials.
More to the practical appraisal of an evolving situation, Kudzu tapped his history. He had been raised on a farm, but it didn’t take a rocket surgeon to appreciate the power of hormones. Two females of whatever breed would get a male of whatever equipment moving.
“I don’t do this cowboy shit,” the male deputy said. “Could one of you loop this rope around one of their necks? And Beth–” he turned to his partner “– could you let one of them use your lariat to hook up the other cow?”
She did. In seconds, they had two in tow, and the steer trotting back down the trail to where they all belonged.
Kudzu looked at Bub. “Give me my shit,” he said, walking toward the seated man.
“Why you care so much? Nuthin’ but nuthin’ here. Shirts. Books. Jack shit.”
“My jack shit,” Kudzu said. “And where’s my wallet? Can’t believe I’m talking to you.”
“Why? It ain’t like I ain’t been here before. This is where we was goin’. Before you fell.”
Kudzu turned and started to walk away. Then he stopped.
“Fell? You are a murderin’ son-of-a-bitch.”
“That so? Here you stand, alive as all get out.”
“You best leave, right now, before I get a mind to give you back what you gave me.”
“I ain’t leavin’. This is where I always camp. Every time I’m here.”
Kudzu grabbed his gear and started walking back toward town. Everybody he passed, he asked if they knew of a hobo camp near town. Nobody did, so Kudzu got a weekly rate at a dilapidated roadside motel. Bed, bath and bad TV. After briefly flogging himself for what Alvita might call a capitulation to cowardice, Kudzu reveled in the shabby creature comforts.
Everybody he passed, he asked if they knew of a hobo camp near town.
It was almost like being at home, and much as he felt himself a failure for deviating from the hobo life, he also realized that his research was going nowhere. He had met one hobo, a racist thug, and escaped with his life. Regardless of what nonsense Bub was up to, Kudzu knew one thing: He deserved a hot shower.
As the water fell over him, he mentally flogged himself. You’re a fraud. You’re chasing black hoboes, but there aren’t any black hoboes. You’re the only black hobo in a hundred miles or maybe a thousand, and you’re not even a black hobo. ‘Sides which, you’re glamping in a ratty-ass motel. Hobo life is about the dirt. You don’t have to do dirt. You can bail any time. Play safe. But safe? Safe is boring. Go home, be a coward. You put yourself out here, thinkin’ you knew what. You didn’t know what. What is only what you put yourself in. You gotta stay in to see what comes.
It went like that until he got out, dried himself on the cheesecloth towel and built himself a peanut butter and jam hobo dinner. The bed sagged, but slept like a cloud.
On his third day building pallets of cherries, Kudzu discovered what Bub was doing: Pushing a broom and mopping cherry glop. Kudzu spied him bent over his mop bucket, at the far end of the production line, and left it at that. Later, out on the street, he saw Bub pass along a side street astride a bicycle.
When he returned to his motel room, Kudzu noted a bicycle leaning against the wall. It wasn’t his, so he didn’t give it a second thought. He was relaxing inside, eating a subway sandwich and sipping a beer, when he heard a knock at the door. The sheriff’s deputy who had been riding the horse stood there, sunglasses hiding his eyes.
“That your bike?” he asked.
“Nope. Not sure whose it is.”
“No surprise. When you steal a bike, you don’t ask the owner for a name.”
“Whoa, hold on, hoss, I didn’t steal that bike. It was here when I got home from work.”
Deputy dawg wasn’t buying his plea of innocence. Down at the sheriff’s office, he learned that someone name of Robert Colesworth had reported the bike stolen. Kudzu spent the night, appeared before a judge and, on the public defender’s advice, pleaded guilty. Then he paid a $300 fine and walked home, mystified by the whole affair, but sensing that he had been set up.
Three days later, he again spied Bub riding his bike. After Bub had passed and was facing the other direction, Kudzu yelled “Hey, Robert!” and watched Bub jerk at the sound of his name, trying to turn toward the caller, who was crouching behind a parked vehicle at that moment.
Kudzu felt a sick mixture of revulsion and gratification, proof of perfidy, anger and a burning desire for revenge. It wasn’t enough that the little bastard had tried to kill him, but now he was trying to put him behind bars. All because … what? Never in his life had he felt the weight of his blackness, certainly not since he had escaped to the shiny, insulated bubble of academia.
Colleagues there might want to drag you down, riddle your research with petty critique, diminish your work for its inability to rise above personal validation, but at least they didn’t relish the thought of your death. Openly, anyway. Like Bub. Directly and bluntly and proudly, as if part of their existence required them to terminate yours.
He stood and turned and strode toward Bub’s camp. Along the way, he stopped in a hardware store for supplies. At the camp, he saw no sign of Bub. Still at work. Kudzu had time to lay his trap. A slipknot in the rope, the loop laid near the log where Bub liked to sit, covered lightly with dirt, the other end of the rope running along the log and into the brush and up and over a stout cottonwood branch, and down to a lower branch, where Kudzu tied it off to a couple of concrete blocks borrowed from the ruins nearby.
The blocks sat precariously on the lower branch, held in place by Kudzu’s hand as he settled in to wait. It was the same sort of snare he had used to catch dozens of rabbits for the family table, in the days when his father’s farming barely kept a roof over their heads.
With the sun setting, Kudzu at last heard Bub’s whistling. His bike rolled from the trail into the clearing around the fire ring. He dumped the bike to the ground, and walked toward his log. He sat and dug into a paper bag, extracting a large bottle of beer. He screwed off the cap, tipped it to his lips and swallowed hard.
Kudzu saw his chance. He pushed the blocks off the branch, and as they fell, their weight cinched the rope rapidly from its bare concealment, up and around Bub’s feet, and jerked him from the log. The force of the weight dragged him toward the brush but left him dangling, half on the ground, half in the air.
Kudzu climbed from the branch and added his weight to the rope, lowering himself slowly to the ground as the combined weight raised Bub from the ground and left him hanging upside down, one foot kicking in the air, the other secure in the slip knot.
Kudzu snaked a piece of wood around the taught rope. He tilted the branch down to form a handle with the rope wrapped tight around it. Then he pulled down a little more, to get Bub’s head a good two feet from the ground before he tied the rope to the trunk.
He walked into the clearing and stood next to Bub’s inverted form. He listened a bit, as Bub called him “N* this,” “N* that.”
“Sticks and stones,” Kudzu said.
Bub briefly noticed how Kudzu looked to be hanging upside down himself, from the ground, much like Bub was hanging from a tree limb toward the ground. It was almost funny.
Inside Kudzu’s head, he heard the wisdom of Poppy Oz. “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Sometimes you gotta take out the trash.”
Bub could see Kudzu’s upside-down legs. They started to walk toward him. Kudzu wasn’t hanging at all. He was free to do as he wished.
Kudzu stopped, squatted.
Bub heard a click. His eyes flicked toward the latch on Kudzu’s pack.
“You could be here a long time,” Kudzu said, reaching into the bag. “I was gonna gut you. I was. I got the knife right here.”
“Why don’t you?”
“Too easy. You’re already dead. You need to suffer some.”
He slid his copy of “The Souls of Black Folk” under Bub’s swinging nose.
“This oughta do it,” Kudzu said as he stood up and walked away. “Bet you can turn the pages. If you want. I’ve got to catch a train.”
Bub watched Kudzu step through the brush.
“Hey, n*!” he yelled. “Hey! N*! Which way you goin’?”
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