Coriander likes to ride possum-belly on top of cow crates, sipping ginger brandy from a flask, and letting the sixty mile an hour winds slough the chapped skin off her arms and legs. She has dusted the Mojave Desert with her scales. She has smelled the entire length of the Pacific Ocean travelling at 75 mph. Me, I prefer to ride inside the boxcars, with a brake shoe wedged into the door and a hammock strung up diagonally, watching the landscape speed past and thinking about what it might be like wherever we get off. I try not to worry about my sister clinging to the roof above me.
“Come on up Clarence!” she shouts, occasionally popping her head over the edge and peering in at me. “The view is better from here!”
Butterbeans usually sleeps propped up in the corner of the boxcar, his soft snores keeping time with the churning rhythm of the locomotive. No matter how deep his sleeps are he always starts up and jumps to attention like a marine when we arrive at our intended destination. Butterbeans is an antique. He has been riding the rails long before Coriander and I were ever born.
“Pocatello,” he says with a crusty stretch as the train slows down enough for us to jump off. We always try to disembark just before we hit the rail yards. Beans loves to wax poetic about how much times have changed for a tramp. “The Yard Bulls ain’t like they used to be,” he is fond of saying. “They’ll just as soon yank you and send you off to jail as they will catch sight of you. Used to be we all got along.”
This means we always dismount on the fly. Coriander loves this. She could be an acrobat. Her muscles are strong and limber and her timing is impeccable. Beans gets all choked up watching her perform a rolling dismount into the dust, curling her body around her backpack and landing in a scraggly patch of chokecherry. Even intoxicated she is graceful. I am much less so. I throw my hammock in my backpack and jump spread eagle like a salamander, hitting the ground with a painful thud that sets my ears ringing. Butterbeans follows a moment later. We all lay on our backs for a moment as the train thunders on past, before getting up to dust ourselves off. The sky in Pocatello is cloudless and blue. It makes me hungry for the scent of rain.
We are headed to Pocatello’s hobo jungle to meet up with an old friend of Butterbeans’ called Scudder. The jungles are a mixture of leftover tramp culture, disinfection stations, and sad stories. They are almost always in between a rail yard and a city. Close enough to let the tramps get around, and far enough away not to attract too much unwanted attention. In the jungles my eyes go first for the amputees. I watch them hobble around their campfires, mostly drunk, and usually ready with a story involving flipping cannonballs or train hopping on the fly. They love nothing more than to tell their war stories, usually making them as gory and horrific as possible. The jungle has been a classroom for Coriander and I. We do most of our learning around campfires from old men with names like Tin Cap Earl, Bluegrass Pendleton, Crippleknuckle, and Ransom Jack. Men missing teeth, and digits, occasionally a limb or two. In my opinion there are some more practical parts of education that we have lost out on.
“Pocatello is grand,” Butterbeans tells us as we shoulder our packs and start walking down the tracks. “You’ll love it here.”
Coriander’s eyes glitter. She is always a hit in the hobo jungles. My sister is a scaled siren. She has left a wake of broken hearts all along the Union Pacific Railway. She is something like our mother in this way. Back in the day, our mother was a showbiz act. Cleopatra the Alligator Empress. Butterbeans says she was the most bewitching woman around.
“I can’t wait to sleep under the stars,” says Coriander. She’s always a dozen steps ahead of us. I figure we’re going the right way or Butterbeans would correct her. The last few nights have been spent in boxcars and flophouses. We are all eager to be out in the open.
There is a path worn into a forest of tall conifers. White pines with trunks as thick as three of us glued together.
“Smells free here,” says Coriander.
She’s always saying ridiculous things like that.
“Haven’t seen Scudder in nearly twenty years,” says Butterbeans. “He’s a tough old tramp. Lost his eyesight in a desert sandstorm a dozen years ago and he’s still king of Pocatello.”
Of the three of us, I am certain that I have the most sense. Butterbeans is drunk most of the time and happy to ramble from town to town. He has passed these qualities on to my sister. She is enamored with the transient lifestyle of a tramp. It’s not uncommon for the two of them to wake up and start swigging whiskey, moonshine, cheap rum, brandy… whatever is around. I do my best to moderate them but it’s tough. Beans is too set in his ways. Coriander is bullheaded. She thinks she is invincible.
When the path becomes littered with broken glass I know we are near the jungle. Coriander skips ahead. She loves to make an entrance. She’s like a creature of the past. Slanted lidless eyes, gypsy skirts and tiny tops, and a scaly muscular body.
“Coriander,” Butterbeans calls. It’s no use.
Although it is only mid-afternoon, the jungle is littered with castoffs. They are staring at Coriander in surprise. There is a fire smoking under the shade of spicy trees. There are a dozen or so flapping tents scattered about. Scudder is immediately recognizable. He’s sitting in a makeshift throne built from old crates and draped with blankets and sleeping bags. Both of his eyes are shut tight and his face is wrinkled like an old apple. His hat is decorated with fishing lures and rusted pins. There’s a bowed out banjo by his side. The trees around him are decorated with empty bottles speared on the low hanging branches. It has a sparkling, magical quality.
“Scudder,” Beans says, in a heartfelt, guttural croak. He wrenches himself forward to embrace him.
As Coriander introduces herself to the community of curious tramps, I stand awkwardly. I receive some stares. My scales itch. My pack is heavy on my back.
“Boiling station over there,” says a kind, cross-eyed tramp with a limp, maybe seeing something familiar in my discomfort.
I take all of our packs and head over to the row of pots set up to boil the lice out of clothes. Coriander and I rarely have issues with any kind of insects, but Beans picks them up constantly. There’s a kelly stick leaning up against the row of boiling pots. I fill the pots with fresh water and soap and light the makeshift burners beneath them, waiting for them to get hot enough to soak our clothes. I use the stick to swirl them around in the soapy suds until the dirt begins to come free. There is something calming in the ritual. The steam from the boiling pots soothes my dry hide. I unroll a length of clothesline from my pack and stretch it tight between two trees. I arrange our clothes neatly on the line after wringing them with a well-learned efficiency.
I can see us clearly in the line of hanging clothes. Butterbeans favors overalls, camo fatigues, and heavy button down shirts, scuffed and worn, threadbare in places. There is barely an article of his clothing that has changed for as long as I can remember. I could make a map of the holes in his only coat. My own clothes are flavorless. Grey t-shirts, jeans, and hooded sweatshirts. I am so meticulous in my care of my own clothing that Coriander and Beans both tease me about it. I scrub at the dirt stains and mend the rips and tears as seriously as if I am performing a surgery. Coriander’s wardrobe consists of ridiculous things like silk scarves and long dresses with trailing hems. She likes bare sleeves. She flaunts her scales. Sometimes she ties the scarves around her head like a gypsy. Her row of wispy, bright-colored garments contrasts against my own drabness.
The cross-eyed tramp has come up behind me to inspect my progress. “You’ll have to watch those,” he says, indicating the silk scarves that are tasseling about in the breeze. “There’s been some goose-berrying around here this past week. Hard to say who’s doing it. We’ve got a few fruit tramps staying at the moment who seem kind of shifty. At least they say they’re fruiters. They claim to be waiting for apple season in Washington.”
The threat of Coriander’s clothes getting goose-berried is enough for me to decide to set up my hammock close enough to keep watch on things.
“Thanks,” I tell my informant. “I’m Clarence.”
He holds out a hand for me to shake and only hesitates for a moment when he looks at my scales, before pumping it up and down enthusiastically. He gives me a wide, gap-toothed smile.
“I’m Lonely Lenny,” he says. “Got fixed up with a job here in Pocatello, so I’ve been here for a while. It’ll dry up soon and then I’m headed east towards the ocean.”
“Think I’ll take a nap,” I say.
“Scudder told us you were coming. The Alligator Twins. Our haybags are fixing a big feed, collar and shoulder style. You’re our proper guests. You let me know if there is anything I can do for you. Scudder says we’re to treat you like royalty.”
This is because of our mother. She was a legend in the old hobo community. Only the ancients truly remember her anymore. She died not long after Coriander and I were born.
“Thanks,” I say again. But this is not enough to deter him. He follows me to my hammock and leans up against a tall pine.
“Tobacco?” he asks, rolling himself a cigarette and handing me the pouch.
I hate taking things from other hoboes but I feel like I owe it to Lonely Lenny. I roll a cigarette and sprawl out, staring at the blue patches of sky through the trees. I pull a book out of my pack and Lenny stares.
Before I can answer he continues. “My parents were big readers. I have trouble with letters. They gave me up when I was young, you know.”
This is not uncommon for a jungle. Hoboes love to tell their own stories. This is why I like books. It gives me an alternative to the constant expulsion of sad childhoods and even sadder adulthoods. I avoid anything that is too heartfelt or depressing. I like romance novels. I know this is strange for a guy. This is not something that I am willing to share with the others.
“Where do you get your scales?” Lonely Lenny asks, as if I purchased them somewhere. “I’ve never seen anything like you and your sister.”
Ichthyosis is what it’s called. I don’t tell Lenny this. “It’s hereditary,” I say. “Our mother had scales. We have no sweat glands. We have no pores. It’s just a skin disease.”
At his alarmed look I say, “Not transmittable. You get it at birth.”
Lenny nods. “Sure. All kinds of crazy stuff in the world.”
We smoke our cigarettes in silence.
“You want to do something to help me?” I ask.
He nods again.
“Keep an eye on my sister.”
I have been worrying more and more about Coriander lately. She has grown distant from me to the point of hostility. She hates my advice. She despises my help. She is determined to live as large as our mother.
I hear the whir of night birds beginning although the sun has not even started to set yet. The shade beneath the trees turns a cool green.
Lonely Lenny pulls a bottle out from one of the pockets of his shirt. He replaces it with the tobacco pouch. “We’ve got beavers and bluebirds here. You’ll see them in the morning at the creek. But I do miss fireflies this time of year. Back home we always had fireflies.”
I pass off his offer of whiskey. I watch the blue patches darken until I am sure that the most lightweight of Coriander’s clothes have dried. Lenny has fallen into a light snooze against the tree. I gather up silk scarves in my hand and push them down into my pack. I’m not too worried about anyone lifting anything belonging to me and Beans. While Lenny is still asleep I oil my skin. The itchiness abates a tiny bit. The good thing about evenings in Pocatello is that even though they are dry they are cool. Intense heat makes my eyes tear. With no sweat glands our eyes leak in hot weather. Coriander usually covers her own with a pair of giant, Jackie-O glasses. I wipe mine with a hankie.
I nudge Lonely Lenny with my foot a little as a politeness.
“I’m going to look after the others.”
There is the unmistakable scent of hobo food in the air: indeterminable meat, root vegetables, smoky campfires.
“Yep,” he says, as if he has been awake the whole time. Tramps have great reflexes. He springs to his feet and pulls out his tobacco pouch, rolling a cigarette as we walk. “Grub time for sure.”
I can hear harmonica and banjo melodies. I also hear Coriander’s voice as we approach the main fire.
“Here comes Clarence,” she says with a flourish that makes her scarves ripple out behind her into the gloaming. One of them brushes against Scudder’s cheek and I can see him inhaling the scent of her. Her green eyes are glowing with moonshine.
There are a dozen or more tramps now scattered around the fire. Butterbeans is propped up beside Scudder’s throne looking misty-eyed. I know they have been reliving their exploits as young tramps. I don’t need to hear about them, I already know. Dodging yard bulls, the kindness of strangers, and the companionship of the jungles. If they have talked about beautiful women or lost loves then I know my mother has been a part of their stories.
“Clarence,” says Scudder, in his booming and kingly way. He has turned his face towards the sound of my footsteps. “Your sister says you are a musician.”
I give Coriander a look. I don’t bother smiling since I know he can’t see my face. “Not really,” I say. “I can play music.”
Coriander and I have a musical act for when we are out busking. I play a tin whistle and she dances, slow and sinuous. The appeal seems to be that it conjures up the image of old time snake charmers. It was Beans who thought this gig up. He is an entrepreneurial old codger. When I was a child he had me wrap towels around my head for effect. I don’t do that anymore. I am resigned to tramping. But I draw the line at being some sort of sideshow circus act. Coriander doesn’t mind as long as all eyes are on her. She gets drunk off the power of hypnotizing people.
“Let’s do a song before supper,” she says.
I don’t want to. All eyes turn to me and I have that curious feeling of owing them something. My scales itch. My eyes begin to burn. Nearby, a woodpecker begins tapping out a wild rhythm in the tall pines. That is what I latch on to. I suppose nights like this are made for music.
I pull my tin whistle from my pocket and play along to the sounds of the forest. I synchronize myself with the spitting of the campfire, the burps and belches of the tramps, the rat-a-tat-tat of the solitary woodpecker, the uncertain shimmer of new stars. Music always moves straight through me. Out to in to out again. I don’t know what it sounds like to other people, but I can feel things synchronize within myself.
Coriander begins dancing, serpentine and slow. This is how my sister and I are connected. Whenever I play something she hears it immediately. She understands it and her body responds. Aside from our scales, sometimes it is the only way that I know we once shared the same womb. The other hoboes are entranced. Scudder looks blissful. I don’t know if it is the sound of my music or the pattern of the breeze from Coriander’s dancing that whispers to him. Butterbeans has tears welling up in his eyes.
There is dead silence when we finish, not even a smattering of applause. The tramps stare at us open-mouthed, as if they have just seen something from another world.
Lonely Lenny is the first to recover. “Well knock me down with a sack of potatoes,” he says. “What a splash of magic you two put on.”
“Amazing,” says Scudder. He passes his banjo over towards me. “You’re something, kid. Now give us a song we can all sing along to.”
It is not that I don’t like to play. I do. I just have a silent resentfulness about singing for my supper. It’s a problem. There is no room for personal pride in a hobo jungle. I play for them. I pick and roll and strum a litany of Union Pacific work songs. I play shanties and folk songs and spirituals. The tramps hoot and holler and dance around the fire in their spastic and uncoordinated way. Lonely Lenny moves like a cross-eyed accordion. Beans dances like a broken marionette. The others jig away, resembling drunken pirates and clowns.
I’m relieved when the haybags start bringing out the food. If there is one thing I am not picky about it’s a steaming plate. I don’t need to know what it is, where it came from, or how it was prepared. I am not even bothered that a few of the haybags give me gummy, rot-mouth smiles of seduction as they pile the slop on my plate. We all begin to eat, no dainty manners or false pretensions. We are hungry people. We are grateful for food. The haybags watch us happily as if they find something nurturing in our distended bellies.
I always have a soft spot for these women. In every jungle they are at the bottom of the hobo hierarchy. Too old or used up for work or rail riding anymore, they take on the role of preparing the food for the rest of the tramp community. Their lives have ended here. They look the same in every jungle. Plump, ragged, and dirty with no dreams left in their eyes.
Our feast however, is delicious. There is an abundance of boiled cabbage. There is succotash and fresh string beans, as well as a slightly chewy smoked brisket and loaves of bread spread with grease. I know this is a real feast. Hoboes chomp and owls hoot. There is some kind of beauty in it after all.
I watch Coriander getting chummy with a group of young rail riders. Punks. Kids with nose rings and faux mohawks and tatty dreads. Bad news, these types.
“I’m bringing out the alligator bones,” Coriander says. She wears them in a pouch on a leather string around her neck. “This is my real gift,” she tells them. She’s showing off even more than usual. “I can see the future in these bones.”
The haybags clear our plates away and the night turns solemn and witchy. The moon is a crooked smile between the trees.
“Coriander,” I say. These bones are special. Not a traveling sideshow gypsy trick. These bones belonged to our mother.
She doesn’t listen to me. “Watch here,” she says, and they all watch. She clears out a patch of dirt beneath a layer of pine needles and shakes the bones out of her pouch and onto the forest floor.
The young rail-punks are crowded around her. One is touching the back of her neck in a caress. Even Lenny has moved in for a closer look.
The bones that she uses to predict the future are from the tail of an albino alligator. Small and sharp and delicately pointed they stick into the dirt like reluctant soldiers. Coriander swirls them around once with a scaled finger. Her eyes are glazed but it is not the bones doing this. She has been swigging from Scudder’s moonshine bottle.
The bones are the one legacy that our mother left for us. She died not long after we were born. Butterbeans gave them to Coriander when she turned fifteen. They were our mother’s good luck charm. They were her freak totem.
This is enough for me. I reach out and scoop up the bones and the sand, surprising everyone with my action. I can’t stand to watch her make a mockery of us and our mother.
“No,” I say with enough force to make even the punk rail kids sit back a little. “That’s enough, Coriander.”
She’s good and drunk. She looks at me through slanted lidless eyes, her pupils black and glossy. Even in the firelight I can see that her skirts are streaked with dirt and trailing twigs. Her headscarf has slipped to one side.
“Time to sleep,” I say. “We’ve been traveling all day.”
“Time for you to sleep,” says Coriander.
It is a very familiar argument.
I usually try not to go to bed until Coriander is in her hammock. Beneath the music and dancing there is a darkness to the jungles. I have a terrible fear that if I let my sister out of my sight I will never see her again.
“Let’s go,” I say, standing up and holding out my hand to her.
She battles me silently with her gaze for a moment before stumbling to her feet and following me. Lonely Lenny, Scudder, and Butterbeans call out goodnights while the rail punks boo and jeer at me softly. The one who was caressing her neck gives me a vicious look and I square up and glare at him with a throaty hiss.
“I hate you,” says Coriander, as we head over to our hammocks. I hold her up while she stumbles. She stinks of cheap whiskey and peppermint schnapps, a horrible olfactory combination. We stop once on the way for her to be sick in the bushes and then I settle her into her hammock.
“I want my bones back,” she slurs. “I can’t sleep without my bones.”
She is unconscious before I can answer.
That night I sleep with the alligator bones pressed close to my heart. I dream about my mother, Cleopatra the Alligator Empress, all lit up in the neon glow of show business, her scales glistening, her gown glimmering. I dream about the jungles, faces flickering in firelight, haggard and full of stories. I dream about smooth skin, and the sensation of smooth upon smooth. I dream about people who aren’t hoboes or alligator boys, the kind of people I read about in my romance novels. I dream about a train headed far away. I can almost smell the destination. Not quite. Earthy and damp. I dream again about my mother, but this time her image is transposed with the flames of the hobo fires. I watch as she melts into a pile of glowing hot scales that gets stoked among the burning embers.
When I wake up I’ve been goose-berried.
I suspect this is less because my clothes are coveted by anyone and more because I forced Coriander to leave last night’s campfire.
It will be a while before my sister wakes up. She has a scarf pulled over her face to block out the morning sun. One leg dangles from her hammock languidly. Butterbeans is splayed out flat on the ground snoring like a rummy buccaneer.
I stick the alligator bones in my pocket and go for a walk. It’s still very early. I can just smell the haybags starting to fry up slabs of bacon. I don’t see any of Lonely Lenny’s bluebirds or beavers, but the sunlight filtering down through the tall pines is nice. I find a small stream to wash up in. Then I head back to camp to oil my skin. I leave a note next to Coriander’s hammock with directions to the stream and then make my way into the jungle where tramps are slowly coming awake. Fires are burning, pots and pans sizzling.
Lonely Lenny finds me immediately and directs me to an enormous woman with tangled black hair, who heaps bacon and beans onto a tin plate for me with a big, gappy-toothed grin.
“I think Trick-leg Trixie is sweet on you,” he says as she winks at me from her frying station.
I smile back politely, trying not to shudder.
I barely hear Lenny talk as I stare at the flames of Trick-leg Trixie’s fire. I see my mother’s face again. Or is it my sister’s? They bleed into one and then fade away, licked up by heat and crumble into the ashes.
“So what do you think?” Lenny asks. “You want to work today? Foreman needs another set of hands.”
“Sure,” I say. I touch the alligator bones in my pocket. I hate to leave Coriander alone, but I’ve been trying to gather a small stash of money.
Lenny and I return to the jungle before dark and already the festivities are in full force. Coriander is drunk and nuzzled up to the young rail punk. Butterbeans is dancing around with the seedy fruit tramps while Scudder plucks at his banjo. The entire scene makes me nauseous. All day the sun has been beating on my scales. All day the men on the construction site have stared at me as if I’m some kind of animal. All day Lonely Lenny has chattered on about going east, oblivious to our complete ostracization.
After a quick oil, I go down to the stream and in the fading light I pull out the alligator bones. I scatter them gently in the sand and search them for some kind of meaning. I sit there for a long time, staring and rearranging. Staring and rearranging. The evening darkens enough so that they are only glowing points on the sand. Finally, I know what I have to do.
I’ve made up my mind. Coriander and I can’t stay in Pocatello.
When I don’t show up for dinner, Lonely Lenny comes to find me with a plate of corned beef hash and biscuits from Trick-leg Trixie.
“Listen,” I say. He seems surprised to hear me initiate any kind of conversation. “I’m worried about my sister.”
“Aw, it’s just the moonshine,” he says.
“I have to get her away from all of this. What’s it like out east?”
“Dunno,” Lenny says, shrugging his shoulders and sinking down to sit beside me. “Oceans and swamps down south. Mountains and forests up north.”
“My sister needs a new life. I need to help her. The moonshine’s the problem, you understand?”
Clearly he doesn’t because he sits in stumped silence. The words start pouring out of my mouth. I don’t know what they are. All of my unspoken thoughts and worries. How I’m afraid Coriander will end up like our mother. How she shakes if she doesn’t have liquor in the morning. How after a couple of swigs she likes to ride possum-belly on the tops of freighter trains and try to walk over the coals of dwindling fires. How she could be a ballroom dancer. How her life is unfair because she is a scaled, train-hopping orphan raised by tramps. How she’s the only person in the world I have.
Tears are pouring out of my eyes. Some of it is the release of sweat that has built up all day in the heat, but mostly they are real tears. Alligator tears. I’m crying for my sister.
I needn’t bother being embarrassed because Lonely Lenny is crying too.
After a while, my tears dry up, and Lenny calms down and rolls a cigarette.
“Maybe you’ll find what you need out east,” he says.
“Well, I won’t find it here.”
We smoke together in silence.
In the morning I shake Coriander awake. She tries to kick me away, but I’m persistent.
“What do you want, Clarence?” she asks.
Butterbeans is in his usual position snoring loudly. The sound makes her wince. I pull the scarf off from over her eyes. She is angry and reptilian.
“We’re leaving,” I say.
She puts the scarf back in place. “Shut up. What are you talking about?”
“We’re going somewhere new.”
“Beans didn’t say anything about that to me. Besides, we just got here.”
“Well, we’re leaving. And Beans isn’t coming with us.”
This time she lowers the scarf herself, and peers at me with the slanted eyes that have bewitched so many hoboes.
“What are you up to, Clarence? You’re not making any sense.”
I look at Butterbeans lying in the grass. I feel a pang of disloyalty, although I know we have to leave him behind. I care about him, but I care more about getting a new life for my sister. I have written him a long letter explaining that we need a fresh start. We will always be able to find each other by rail stories and monikers. We will always be grateful that he took us under his wing and that he loved our mother.
“This isn’t the life she would have wanted for us,” I say.
Coriander immediately knows what I am talking about. “Of course it is. The old days are gone. There’s no money in being a freak anymore. No glamor. She left us with Butterbeans because this is where we belong.”
At one time, Cleopatra the Alligator Empress was famous across the country. Her name was lit up in bright lights. She had her own act for a while before traveling with the carnivals. And then the circuses. And then the sideshows. And then finally falling in with the transients who worked the events. Rail-riders like Butterbeans. Folks who didn’t consider her an outcast because they were outcasts themselves.
“He’s not our father, Coriander,” I say.
She rolls away from me. “Tell me something I don’t know.”
I tell her the rest.
Our mother baked to death in the front seat of beat up old station wagon with the windows rolled up and empty bottles of grain alcohol in the passenger seat. It was one of the hottest days on record and she was unconscious and unable to move. She baked to death. Butterbeans swears it must have been an accident, but all I can think of is what she must have looked like to whoever found her. Scales swollen and split apart in bloody ridges, lidless eyes puffed open, and everything bursting and gushing from the relentless heat. She must have truly looked like a monster.
I’ve already got us all packed up. Coriander is shaking. She puts on her Jackie O sunglasses and ties a scarf around her head. We’re headed east. I’m going to track the damp, earthy dream scent until we find the place that we’re looking for. I’ll read the bones each night for direction. This is what they were meant for.
KIMBERLY LOJEWSKI is an MFA fiction student at UMass Amherst. Her work has been published (or is forthcoming) in PANK, Aesthetica Creative Works Annual, Gargoyle, The Drunken Boat, Danse Macabre, the-always-beloved Jersey Devil Press, and many more. In 2011 she received her first Pushcart nomination, as well as founding the wayward storyteller’s magazine Belletrist Coterie. In her free time she works on her captain’s license as well as her hot air balloon pilot’s license. Her grand plan is to be able to roam freely by ocean or air.