His eyes opened to dim bands of light coming through cracks in the ancient boxcar. Those who had never found a need for a low-budget ride on a fast freight might not appreciate how he could have slept through the clack of the wheels and the squeal of steel. After years of becoming used to it, he found the rock and sway comforting, and only heard the noise when some fellow traveler might try to speak over it. However, had he known he was soon to be a corpse; he might not have slept so well.
Still on his back, he swung calloused hands to his face and tried to massage the parchment there into something with the feeling and life of skin. When this proved relatively ineffective, he ran fingers through thinning hair, and then pressed it down. This cursory attempt at neatness was as effective as can be expected when the body in question has been subjected to several days of soot, sand, and the sun-soaked interior of a boxcar. The face was nicely smeared, and the hairs – those that remained – waved merrily at each other.
With a stiffness ignited by sleeping on the hard floor, but more the result of inadequate and infrequent nourishment, he rolled to his side, then to hands and knees. He shook his head in an attempt to improve circulation and vision. The desired result was only marginally achieved and the abrupt movement did little to improve his appearance. Slowly, with the aid of a rocking boxcar wall, he attained a position which could almost be described as upright. He was only in his late twenties, but the thinning hair and frequent stiffness often led observers to guess his age ten years higher.
“The faint-hearted fools on the home front know not the great pleasures of life on the road,” he said aloud to the duffel bag at his feet.
With one hand on the wall for support, he staggered the short distance to the door and rolled it open a few inches. Before him were the dark shapes of trees, open fields and an occasional homestead. The day was fast approaching, but the lights in some of the houses still winked at him as the train sped toward the dawn.
Leaning on the door frame he unbuttoned his shirt pocket and retrieved tobacco and papers. Just as he turned away from the rush of air to light his freshly rolled cigarette, the lonesome sound of the whistle came from up ahead in a long, plaintive wail. After a short pause, two shorter blasts cut the dawn.
Pushing the door back a little more he leaned out into the slipstream to look ahead, dropping the broken match on the roadbed. He could see a community ahead, but not well enough in the wind and poor light to identify it. Stepping back into the car he drew deep on the cupped cigarette, then coughed at the dry smoke on a too dry throat.
“Maybe you should smoke two or three cigarettes at once, you damn fool,” he said between bouts of choking.
By the time he recovered and turned to the open door, the train was passing through the small town and he could identify it from two earlier visits. Catching a fleeting glimpse of the sign on the end of the station also helped.
to be continued next week