Hard Travelin’

Max Vande Vaarst

The young man from the north country was rail thin and poor of posture, dressed in thrift store clothes and a corduroy hat. In one hand he gripped a shovel, in the other, a guitar. His palms were smooth and fragile, though his fingers blistered in the places where he struck the strings. He stood for a while on the hospital lawn, a thousand miles of travel behind him, and wondered beneath which tree he’d hollow the grave.

The young man told lies. On some days, he was the progeny of circus folk, a bone-spitting geek whose bloodlines were tangled in trapeze wire. On others, he was a pureblood Indian, sprung from the warrior trailers of wild Navajoland. There were days when he claimed that he had no parents at all, and that America itself had birthed him alone beside a back road in some empty western state.

The truth was that he was bored with being middle class. He was bored with having a mother who worked in a department store and who mailed him spending money each month. There were men deep in the guts of steel mills whose whole hands were bloody claws. They knew the satisfaction of real work, of real sweat. The young man had only his fantasies.

As a child of the Iron Range, he used to sit awake at night in his pajamas, catching the AM waves that streamed in from across the sky. The singers on those stations had strange names like Muddy and Howlin’ and Luke the Drifter. They sang songs about hard times and broken hearts. The young man watched the snow fall outside his window, white and vast, and prayed that he might someday get some hard times of his own.

When the young man learned his hero was lying dead in New Jersey, he left his school in the Cities and hitched a ride to Madison, then took a couple Greyhounds down through Chicago, Indianapolis, Columbus, Pittsburgh. He would sit in the back row and play his hero’s songs as loud as he could. If they chucked him out, he would hitch his way to the next big town and try the Greyhound thing again. The Midwest unfurled itself like a tedious flipbook, grain elevators and yellow cornfields blurring into factories and barbed wire fences, until the entire thing rolled back against the cusp of Appalachia and vanished.

The young man liked to imagine that he was riding the back of a freight train, hiding out in a boxcar with a flock of California hobos. He’d slide a harmonica out from his blue jeans and blow a tune about Tom Joad, who didn’t really exist, but was everywhere at the same time. Then he would remember that it was 1961 and that he was traveling coach, and he’d quiet down a bit.

The Greyhound dropped him off in a place called Morristown, which looked like it could have been anywhere in Jersey. The young man got directions to the asylum from a drunk at the Elks Lodge and set to making up the remaining miles on foot. By the time he arrived, the winter sun was already low over the Psychiatric Building’s tall rotunda. The clouds were black and fat with snow, and all around him the bare limbs of trees rattled and ached. The young man pulled his jacket tight, threw his tools across his shoulders, and stepped inside to collect the body of Woody Guthrie.

A pair of orderlies guided the young man down a fluorescent hallway, to a door stenciled with the numbers 4-0. Ribbons of rust and old paint clung to it like barnacles, and when it opened, it opened with a death rattle. As he stepped inside, the young man pulled his shirt collar over his mouth and nose to keep from choking. The air here was rife with ash, which seemed to neither drift nor descend, but hang, unmoving, as though it were born from the static between television channels.

“Second-to-last room on the left,” said the orderlies, who nudged him inside before shutting the door.

The young man whistled as he made his way through the ward. He kept his sights fixed on the opposite wall, trying not to steal a peek inside the patients’ cells, for at times he thought he could hear moaning or the jangling of broken bells from somewhere within them. The ash that hung in the air left black streaks on his hair and clothes.

The second-to-last room on the left looked no different than any of the others, though the young man could smell a fresh breeze wafting through the smashed glass of the door’s windowpane. There was light in the cell, the last scraps of day seeping into the blackness of the asylum.

The only furniture inside was a corroded bedframe in the corner, a stringless guitar propped against it. Woody’s body lay in the center of the room, seared into the floor. Its flesh was the texture of charcoal and ripped with sores. There was an IV tube still stuck in the dried veins of its arm, and the young man could hear the drip drip drip of the saline as it bled its way down the line. The body was naked.

The young man cried into his folded hands, shaking and snarling, cursing at nothing and no one. In a rage, he kicked the bedframe, threw his shovel to the ground, tore the IV from its arm, until he was so consumed by it all that he could only think to pick up his guitar and play.

“I ain’t got no home, I’s jus’ a-roamin’ round,” he hollered, his bare fingers working the strings fast and angry. “Jus’ a wanderin’ worker, I go from town t’town.”

The walls of the cell seemed to suffocate the young man’s voice, swallowing his words before they could return to his ears. He was deaf to his own song, but he kept playing.

“Oh, the gamblin’ man is rich an’ the workin’ man is po’, an’ I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.”

On the last note, the young man drooped to the ground. He remained there for a minute, working a million different thoughts through his head, until he heard a voice. It was low and gnarled, spoken in short, errant gasps, the sound of sandpaper on sandpaper.

“I ain’t dead yet, kid,” said the body of Woody Guthrie.

The young man crawled over to examine the corpse, which looked back at him through one opened eye.

“You alive?” the young man asked.

“Nah, jus’ ain’t dead yet,” Woody said, stammering through his words. “There’s a difference.”

His body remained locked into the floor, all but melted in the places where it made contact with the tiles. There was a heat rising from it, and though the young man wanted to reach out and touch it, he was afraid.

“You the one they called on to set me in the dirt?” Woody asked.

“No one called on me,” said the young man. “I came on my own. I came a long way fer you, Woody. Left my family behind. Left a girl behind too, back in Minnesota. Came t’give you the buryin’ you deserve.”

“Was a fire,” Woody said, a pool of Thorazine sloshing through the bare pockets of his mouth. “Was always gonna be a fire. Fire killed my sister. Got her dress coated in kerosene one day. That was the end of her.” The young man pulled in closer, and could feel the flames blazing on Woody’s brow. “Fire crippled my father, an’ it turned my mother into a heap of cinder. See, there was a fire started in me the day I was born. Been smolderin’ all my life, jus’ waitin’ t’combust, an’ now that fire gonna kill me too.”

“Well, no shame there,” said the young man, brushing Woody’s forehead with the back of his palm. “There’s a fire waitin’ fer all of us, I guess.”

The body of Woody Guthrie looked up at the young man through its greying cataracts. “Know what, kid?” he said. “I like that.”

The cold day had become a colder night. Snowflakes fluttered in from behind the moon, invisible but through the dim lens of bleary lamplight. There was a parking lot on the edge of the lawn, its lone occupant a black Lincoln Cosmopolitan with Connecticut plates, parked in a reserved space. It looked like an angel’s chariot, its hood all dusted white.

“Where you want me t’start a-diggin’?” asked the young man.

Woody coughed phlegm into the crook of his elbow. “Yer teachers learn you that English?”

“No sir,” said the young man. “You did.”

“Thought as much,” Woody grumbled. “You ain’t the first fan of my music t’come callin’ here. Used t’get ‘em every week or two. Bunch of baby-faced city kids, tellin’ me they knew where I’d been, knew what I’d seen.”

The young man rubbed his virgin hands together to keep the warmth in.

“An’ sure, they play the songs right,” said Woody. “Got all them little words where they meant t’be, but the feelin’s wrong.”

Woody took a seat between the trunks of two great weeping beeches, their sagging branches still clothed in green despite the season. The young man sat down next to him.

“I heard you playin’ my song. Back in the cell,” he said. “Wasn’t too bad. There was feelin’ to it, alright. Got any others fer me?”

The young man nodded and took up his guitar.

“This one here I first heard on a flatwheeler leavin’ Topeka, Kansas,” he said, tuning the strings. “The fella who sanged it was the saddest man I ever knowed.”

Woody cracked a small grin and scratched at his stubble.

“I’m a man of constant sorrow, I seen trouble all my days. I say goodbye to Colorado, where I was born, and partly raised,” the young man sang, strumming the chords and stirring his voice with all the passion he could. “Through this open world I’m a-bound to ramble, through ice and snow, sleet an’ rain. I’m a-bound to ride that mornin’ railroad, perhaps I’ll die on that train.”

The blisters on the young man’s fingers pulsed. Drops of cold sweat formed under his cap. Woody’s expression had not changed.

“You got talent, no disputin’ that,” he said after a moment. “Problem is, yer singin’ somebody else’s song. Talkin’ ‘bout places you never been, lives you ain’t ever gonna live. You gotta know yer own song ‘fore you start a-singin’.”

The young man sat looking at his feet, fingerpicking idly. “How do I do that?” he asked.

Woody pointed to the boughs of the weeping beeches, which swayed in the dark before them.

“Watch these trees, boy. Watch these trees and you’ll see.”

The young man didn’t know what to say. Woody held a finger to his lips for quiet. The wind picked up and the trees began to quake.

There were colors in the leaves, bright pastels and hazy blues and browns, swirling as the world rocked back and forth. Stars raced from the westward horizon to the east, scattering streaks of white light across the lawn. The asylum appeared to dissolve, and with it, yesterday and tomorrow and every yesterday or tomorrow before or after that.

The trees were painting pictures with their branches. There was a leaky-roofed farmhouse in Oklahoma, and a Negro boy on a stoop playing Railroad Blues. A dust storm blew into the Texas Panhandle, leaving only blight and fields of mutilation. The young man saw hootenannies, raucous barn dances, golden faces laughing and singing in the bitter corners of migrant camps.

Days and decades erupted in a flash, floating through the air not like ash, but like embers, little fires sparking in the night. The pop of each ember brought whispers of new towns, new travels, new failures and hopes. Most of all, there were people, the voices of friends and lovers, children and strangers. Some faded slower than others, but all went quiet before the young man could stand to hear them pass.

“I learned my song,” said Woody from someplace far away. “Learned it the only way a man can.”

The wind and leaves came to a calm, and the illusion ended. The young man’s head stung. He looked around for Woody, but he was nowhere. All he could see was a single light in the distance, and he crawled on his belly to meet it.

It was a window, and through its frame he did not find a trapeze artist, or a Navajo soldier, but a middle class boy in his pajamas. He was eleven years old, maybe, and not yet through puberty’s roughest patches. The young man rolled onto his back, while a voice sang to him from a radio behind the wall, “This train is bound for glory, this train…this train is bound for glory, this train…”

The snow kept coming, covering the young man until he could not see, nor hear, not feel, but sleep. Behind the window, the song kept playing, “This train is bound for glory, this train…”

When he awoke he was holding his shovel. There was a pit before him, one man deep. Woody Guthrie sat at its edge, his legs dancing above the grave.

“Ain’t this why you came here, Bob?” Woody asked with a smile. The young man kept silent.

From the highest point of the weeping beeches fell the evening’s final ember. It sank into Woody’s hand, where it caught on something and ignited, lighting the walls of the pit. Woody held the fire out for the young man to take. He thought it at first to be a small torch, but it turned out to be a lit cigarette. The young man popped it in his mouth and smoked.

“If yer gonna play the undertaker, you might as well look the part,” said Woody, climbing down into the ground. He lay on his back, his arms crossed over his chest, and mouthed a quick Christian prayer. The young man stood over him, looking once more upon the body of his hero.

“I told you ‘fore, an’ I’ll tell you one more time,” said the body, hot with flames. “I ain’t dead yet.”

The young man brushed his tears as he scooped the soil, heaping ice and mud like a winter blanket over the cinders that now lay below him. His muscles strained and his hands became rough and hard with the work. Pieces of a song swam in and out of his mind.

“I’m leavin’ tomorrow, but I could leave today, somewhere down the road someday. The very last thing that I’d wanna do is t’say I’ve been hittin’ some hard travelin’ too…”

The words bubbled into place as the grave filled. Each swing of his shovel became a promise, a vow heard by none but the New Jersey night.

He was John Henry, hammering hard rock and driving train steel with every beat in his big heart. He was Teddy Williams, dropping ten fascists to their knees with each crack of the bat. He was Woody Guthrie, dust bowl troubadour, author of the only true songs ever written, riding a lonesome railroad car through the heart of the country that had birthed him.

MAX VANDE VAARST is a maybe possibly someday up-and-coming writer of imaginative fiction. Like Fake Bob Dylan, he spent an uncomfortable amount of his youth exploring abandoned buildings all across New Jersey, most often with his nervous Jewish grandmother serving as the getaway driver. Max can be reached at www.maxvandevaarst.com, or by way of the Maxsignal. Please allow twenty-five minutes to an hour for Maxsignal response.

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