Thursday, July 19, 2012

A Small, Unnoticed Crime by Margaret Symmank

Margaret Symmank has enjoyed a life-long career of writing and entertaining audiences. Her work has seen production on school, college, church and community theatre stages for over thirty years. Ms. Symmank is a member of the American Association of Community Theatres, Christians in Theatre Arts, and Texas Nonprofit Theatres. She lives with her husband, J.D., in south Texas. They have four children and five grandchildren.  



by Margaret Symmank

     The railroad tracks ran past our house just the other side of a narrow, winding road and a weed-grown gully.  They crossed a trestle over a drainage ditch banked with sour-smelling mud and teeming with minnows and crawfish destined to be seined up in a tow sack – a task my brother and I undertook with religious regularity.  On occasion we’d stop seining and stand stock still, knee-deep in the slow, brown stream for the passing of a water moccasin.

     The possibility that one of us might be flattened by a train, bitten by a snake, drowned or carried off by some rail-riding vagrant was, for our mother, a constant concern.  It was also the force that drew us like small, barefoot magnets to the railroad tracks against her daily warnings.  We were confident in our ability to escape any threat that came our way.  The chance that we might have to held irresistible appeal.

     My brother was six years older than I, and at twelve was admirably reckless and capable of any number of wonderful things.  He could catch crawfish, cook them over an open fire on the ditch bank and eat them right out of the pan.  While he engaged in this remarkable activity, I hung around gathering sticks for the fire and trying to look as though I would eat muddy crawfish if I felt like it – I just wasn’t hungry.  Secretly, I knew I would never be that hungry.  If he sent me back to the house for supplies, more Tabasco sauce or bacon for the frying pan, I’d build one of my special deluxe, double-decker, peanut-butter-and-sweet-pickle sandwiches and eat it as I trekked back, feeling vaguely unworthy.

     My brother made lucky pieces from pennies and dimes he’d stack together on the tracks to be smashed flat by a train. The result was predictable and impressive. In an instant, pocket change was transformed to a tiny silver moon rising against the copper circle of a miniature sun, marked with the name of God  – paper thin and warm in your hand. I’d watch the artistic process from a nearby tree, then scurry down when the train had passed to retrieve the latest creation. It was an illegal act, my brother told me – damaging federal property.  But it was really his money after all, and he wasn’t afraid of any government agent.  He wasn’t afraid of anything.  He once picked a live wasp nest from under the railroad bridge and put it in a cigar box.  I’d seen him haul a snapping turtle from the water, clamp-jawed and hissing, on a stick.  I would have followed him anywhere, and often tried, to his considerable annoyance.

     My sister was sandwiched between us in age, three years my senior, three years his junior, and a stabilizing influence on the both of us.  When B.J. prepared to fry up the crawfish, Millie insisted he sterilize the blade of his pocketknife before cleaning his catch.  Listerine was her antiseptic of choice.  She often stepped in as the voice of reason, quelling my attempts to launch a kitten on a kite, dye my hair with food coloring and eradicate a large bed of ants from under the house by setting fire to them.  The summer I scared myself silly inventing stories of criminals hiding out by the railroad tracks, she did her best to resolve my fears by explaining that there was no suitable place for them to sleep by the tracks; nothing to eat, except crawfish, which we both agreed didn’t count as real food; and surely not even a criminal would wash himself in that nasty ditch water.

      It was a logical argument. But, logic had little effect on imagination gone out of control. I first began to worry when I heard the grown-ups reminiscing one night during a summer storm.  In those days, rain and high wind invariably knocked out the electricity, and we spent many an evening reading comic books or playing cards by the light of a kerosene lamp, waiting for the power company to work its way out to us.

     My parents and my aunt and uncle sat around the dinning room table, talking and eating sardines and crackers, their faces golden in the lamplight, their voices lapping over each others’ in collective memory.  Favorite topics were the wars, both I and II, and the Depression.

     During the Depression, our house belonged to my grandparents.  They built it in the early thirties in Arcadia – a rambling, 1½ story structure with high ceilings and tall windows shuttered with metal storm blinds.  My grandparents struggled through the grim decade of the ‘30’s in that house, selling fruit from a small fig orchard.  After the fig trees froze in a record-setting South Texas freeze, they raised chickens and sold eggs.

     They witnessed boxcar loads of men riding past the house looking for work, or hope, or sometimes just for supper.  They were desperate men, my father said.  Family men, many of them, who had left wives and children and places where there were no jobs and headed off to other places where there were likely no jobs either.

     They would appear at the back door of the house offering to do work for a little money or something to eat.  There was no work and no money.  My grandmother invented odd jobs to salvage their pride and swapped the chores for egg sandwiches.  She always had cracked eggs she couldn’t sell, so she fed the men as many sandwiches as they could eat, then gave them a sack full to take along when they went.

     In time the rail-riders diminished in number, and only a few unfortunates stopped by for food.  By then, the masses of unemployed had dwindled – absorbed by a world busy with war.  Those who were left became a nuisance to many, suspect for not being soldiers or otherwise engaged in the war effort.  They were dubbed “hobos” – of questionable character at best and generally unwelcome.  But my grandmother still fed any who stopped and asked.  She would leave the food on the back porch and step back in the house while the travelers ate.  When they’d gone, she’d collect their dishes.

     Some said that the hobos left markers near the tracks for the benefit of others who came after them, a pattern of sticks or rocks indicating where a meal might be had.  Only one or two came to the house the year before my grandmother died.  Now, in the prosperous fifties, no hobos came at all.

     I sat in the thin spill of lamplight, spellbound by tales that seemed very long ago but not at all far away.  My aunt was of the opinion that my grandmother had taken unnecessary risks and was lucky a hobo hadn’t knocked her over the head for her trouble and then come in to rob the house.  She said they were only common criminals toward the end.  Neighbors had also questioned my grandmother’s judgment, asking her why she would take such a chance.  They were hungry, my grandmother said.

     I tried to visualize those common criminals who had once sat eating egg sandwiches on our back porch.  I’d never seen a criminal, common or otherwise, and I wrestled with the image, until I came face-to-felonious-face with an entire wall full in the post office.  I don’t know how I’d missed them before.  The “Wanted” posters displayed dozens of devious types in front view and profile, charged with a staggering array of crimes.  They stared out at me from smudged, black and white squares, tight-lipped and mean-eyed, their hair in wild disarray.  They looked as though they’d been wakened too soon and were plenty mad about it. There was no doubt – these were desperate men.  Desperate enough to commit armed robbery or kidnapping, then hop a train and turn up hungry.

     As I stood before that wall of would-be hobos, my heart pounded against the smashed penny and dime medallion that hung on a string around my neck – a reminder that I had been party to the destruction of federal property and now stood on federal ground wearing the evidence.  Evidence that could, I suddenly realized, expose me for what I was – a common criminal.  In an instant I saw my school picture, front view and profile, among the “Wanted” posters.  I snatched hold of the lucky piece and dropped it down my shirtfront, praying that no one had seen.  Government agents could be anywhere.  From that moment on, there were two things I wanted desperately.  One was to wipe away my dishonorable past, forget my transgressions and go straight.  The other was to make absolutely certain that I never saw any of those faces I’d seen on the post office wall turn up at our back door.

     I took to combing the railroad tracks and surrounding areas for hobo signs.  Search and destroy missions.  Maybe I’d find rocks laid out like an arrow pointing to our house, or a cryptic symbol etched in the hard, black dirt, some long overlooked message from one hobo to another, a mysterious communication that would bring common criminals to our door.  But there were none.  Only the blackened remains of my brother’s cooking fire and a little pile of crawfish pincers, sun-bleached and closed harmlessly for all time.

     I sometimes thought I saw a distant figure on the railroad tracks, stooped and sinister, moving slowly and steadily in my direction.  It usually proved to be our dog, Madge, trotting casually between the rails or, more often than not, an apparition left from last night’s dreams.

     That year, sometime in October, summer let loose her last hold on fall.  The wind turned sharp and pushed around the eaves and whistled over the slats of the blinds.  The days grew gray and shorter.  One late afternoon, Millie and I lay on our stomachs on the living room floor by the fire, dully turning comic book pages, one eye cocked toward the TV screen.  The Mouseketeers announced their names in cheery salute, one after another, for the one-hundredth time.

     Mother, back from town with groceries to be brought in, knocked loudly on the back door, then rattled it for emphasis.  We detached ourselves from Nancy and Sluggo, and Archie and Veronica, respectively, and scooted through the dinning room into the kitchen.  Halfway across the room, Millie halted abruptly.  I shot past her, stopping inches from the back door.  The red and yellow roosters on the kitchen door curtain framed a face dead center in the door glass.  It was not my mother waiting to be let in.  It was a hobo.

     He was the most remarkable looking person I had ever seen.  He was very, very dirty.  It seemed to be accumulated dirt, a dark olive-gray-brown that permeated his clothes and skin and hair, making them sooty and greasy and all the same flat hue as though he’d been colored top to bottom with some large, horrid Crayon.  His eyes were pinched and his mouth was tired.  There were wrinkles – folds in his skin and in his old, old clothes.  His jacket was alternately frayed and slick.  He seemed to be all but used up from head to toe, but whatever part was left hung on just beneath his skin.  It peered out hard through his glistening eyes, through the window glass and straight at me.

     There were mere inches and a pane of glass between us.  I barely breathed.  Suddenly Millie was beside me.  She reached for the window shade, jerking it down with a swoosh, and the hobo disappeared – wiped away like a drawing on my Magic Slate when the plastic sheet was lifted.

     We tiptoed back to the living room where we crouched behind an armchair and peered out through the lowered blinds.  The hobo walked around the side of the house, across the yard and out the front gate.  He crossed the road, dropped down in the gully momentarily, then came up again onto the tracks, heading on in the direction he had been going.  We were a small detour – a momentary hope, unfulfilled.     

     I only saw the hobo’s face for a few, fleeting seconds, but I see it clearly still.  It’s a face I’ve seen many times since, on the news, in the streets, on old men, young women, babies and children.  The face of want is recognizable in all its soul-wrenching variety.  It’s sometimes edged with sickness or pain, pride or anger, and always an ongoing weariness that feeds on the constant diet of too little, too late.

     Sometimes I recall the hobo’s visit, and in my mind I change what happened.  In the style of my grandmother, I ask him to wait in the yard, and I build a stack of my special deluxe, double-decker, peanut-butter-and-sweet-pickle sandwiches.  I leave them on the back porch for him, along with a sack full to take with him.  I smile at him politely through the door glass.  The smile means that I know a desperate man does not necessarily make a hobo – any more than a smashed penny on a string makes a common criminal.

     The summer after the hobo, my brother stopped making lucky pieces. When he turned thirteen he gave the last one to a girl.  As far as I know, he remained on the right side of the law thereafter and is now retired to a ranch in the Hill Country and leads a reasonably respectable life.  My sister and I never ate any crawfish from the ditch.  I had been right about that; I’ve never been that hungry.

     In my second version of the hobo story – the one that didn’t happen – I always think about giving him my lucky piece.  But I never do.  I know it’s not enough.


1 comment:

  1. This is a masterpiece, and not just because I have actually played in that ditch and looked through the blinds of that house. Your vivid description has brought so many childhood images back into sharp focus. Thank you, Margaret. Now get busy and complete this book of short stories for publication!


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