Closer To The Tracks
By Bernie Suttle
Gaunt and bent, he wore a torn, dirty, felt hat and bib overalls over a dirty long john shirt. His feet were encased in white and brown sport shoes with slits cut to ease painful toes. He looked like he hadn’t shaved since when and a scab on his upper lip ran up to his nose. Standing back from the door with his head down he mumbled, “Haven’t e’t in two days. Commin’ from Wichita on 66 and Santa Fe rails goin’ to LA. Have any leftovers?” Mom replied, “This house doesn’t have leftovers. You sit on the curb out front. I’ll see what I can get you.” She closed the front door. The cold air beneath a hostile grey sky pushed into the house making the curtains dance.
Our house was twenty miles east of Los Angeles on Route 66. Mom always gave the hobos that came something to eat even though it wasn’t sure we had enough for ourselves. She turned to me and said, “Keep your eye on him. Don’t want him goin’ back of the house with Dad not here. I’ll close and lock the garage door. You bring him what’s left of your birthday cake, then get right back into the house.” She stopped on her way back from locking the garage to bring in the dry items off the clothes lines. Reluctantly, I gave my cake to the hungry man; I had planned to eat it myself, but what Mom decided was the law. He said, “Thank ya, son,” as he turned to go back to the curb.
Our front door opened directly into the living room. It was furnished with a Mohair couch and easy chair, each with white linen doilies carefully placed to prevent hair grease from staining the tapestry. We had two lamp tables and a fireplace we used for heat by burning the contents of the wastebasket.
It smouldered but the egg shells never burned. There was a dining area next to the living room with a built-in buffet where Mom kept the good dishes. Our Philco radio standing atop the buffet set on station KFI presented the babble of Sam Hayes as he rasped out that early morning 1939 news. “A German Blitzkrieg” had hammered Poland and a ship of Jewish refugees was turned away by the US.
Mom was always busy. She started the day by getting Dad off to work with a farmer’s breakfast of bacon, eggs, tomato slices, toast and coffee. Although he had grown up on a farm, Dad always dressed in a three-piece suit that was tailored by Mr. Licznik, a refugee from Poland. Dad wore an Arrow shirt with complimentary necktie and Florsheim shoes as he drove away in our dull, brown, 1937 Plymouth sedan at sunrise to his tiny real estate office in Eagle Rock.
After working each weekday he was home driving down the driveway at ten minutes after six. We would all gather at the back door to greet his entry hoping for but never mentioning our desire for his news of some income.
Being an uptight engineer, Dad’s life was scheduled. He would enter the kitchen door, kiss Mom and head for the bathroom where he would disrobe while the tub filled with hot water. Mom had lit the gas water heater in anticipation of his arrival. Then she’d sit on the closed commode and they would visit while he bathed. Each member of our family used the same tub of water. We took turns in age sequence from high to low. Being the youngest of our four family members, I had the honor of bathing in tepid water and then scouring the ring around the tub with Dutch Cleanser.
Another of my enjoyments occurred while Dad was disrobing. I was allowed to pick up his discarded dress shirt, button it, put it over my head and scamper around the house with its bottom edge trailing along the floor. I still recall a sweet scent from his shirt. His perspiration.
One day I asked, “Mom, how come we moved off of Maple Street down here to Highway 66? I don’t have my own room anymore and we’re on a main highway close to the Santa Fe trains? All the kids I know live on Maple Street.”
“Dad sold the house, Son. We’re living off the few hundred dollars that came from the sale. We’ll get used to it. I can feed the family on a dollar a day. Here we have space for chickens and some vegetables. And Dad is building a room on the back for you.”
“I still don’t like that we had’ta move,” I grumbled.
“Son, the people of this world have been moving forever, some because they wanted to, like your Dad and me. We moved out here when we married because we wanted to raise our family here. But most people move because they have to so they can stay alive. Now that you’re five-years-old you can help us live. Bring the card table out front, sit there and sell my pies. Wear the big sombrero to protect your head from the sun. Before you go out front, get the eggs from the back yard before the dogs do. Dad will be proud of the pie sales you make.”
As I sat beside US 66, I watched the flow of mud-splattered, exhausted trucks and tired sedans with Desert water bags hanging from their radiator caps. Dirty, worried faces searching for sanctuary stared out at me. None of them ever stopped at the hand-painted sign, Fresh Baked Berry Pies, 35 Cents