PREACHER ON VACATION

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: DOWN-HOME
A tramp on a mission from Chicago to find his lost brother in Chattanooga, travels alone through the bitter winter, sick, sometimes starving, taking brief refuge in a hobo camp along the way. Nearing his end he finds what refuge he believes will help him, a church in the city of his destination, only to find the premises vacated briefly, a note on the door informing him the preacher is on vacation.

Submitted: October 04, 2018

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Submitted: October 04, 2018

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PREACHER ON VACATION

Painting & Story by Virgil Dube’ - Copyright 2018

FORWARD

As a child my mother Hardie Dube recited folk stories, usually about indigent people. She also sang Mississippi Country Music legend Jimmie Rodgers’ railroad hobo songs, oftentimes people of former social standing whose lives were uprooted and they driven into poverty and danger as they sought endless refuge drifting Americas’ highways, byways, and rails.

Listening to her lively narratives and me keenly visualizing the characters, I feel fortunate to have remembered important aspects of the ‘Preacher on Vacation’ story over a lengthy stretch of time. After painting the scene later in life that I envisioned the sick and desperate tramp beginning to crumple on the church house doorsteps - freezing, hungry, sick, I wrote my version of mama’s story. I’m happy to share the painting and story with you, a tribute to Mama, and her hoboes of yesteryear, especially hapless people today imperiled in a characteristically indifferent world.

 

HARDIES’ PREACHER ON VACATION STORY REVISED AND RETOLD BY ME

The beleaguered man dressed heavily in shabby clothes, and wearing a knitted hat, stringy and full of holes revealing his reddish bushy hair, stooped under low hanging branches, as he advanced on heavy worn boots toward the light broken by limb and tree within the dense woodland. The loner trudged forward, struggling for each step until he finally had to pause and lean against a big tree to catch his labored breath. As he summoned additional strength, a man fifty feet away huddled among several men around a campfire, glanced his way, seeing him dimly lit in the hanging foliage. The man stepped from his companions and carefully approached the besieged stranger.

“Can we help you, mister?”

The stranger uttered something garbled, spoken so softly it was initially incomprehensible.

Persistently, yet warily, the camper asked, “Please speak-up; what’s your name, my friend?”

“Buddy,” the untidy outsider finally muttered louder. He righted himself, then on shaky legs, entered the wooded clearing and brighter light of the hobo camp outside Nashville, Tennessee, his large cur dog at his side.

The greeter stepped aside, as another man, taller and wearing lose and well-patched overalls, a wrinkled yet clean shirt, and tattered shoes, stepped forward from the awaiting and curious assemblage. He extended his hand. The stranger complied, grasping the friendly warm hand with his hard ice-cold one, at the same time listening to the man’s introduction, “Stranger, welcome, I’m Gregory Knott.”

Gregory stood foremost among the group of ten equally penniless individuals, all remaining wary despite the friendly approach by the outsider. All, including a gathering of children, hovered around an upright rusty steel drum with numerous punched-out air holes. The contents blazed, flames rising two feet above the drum to illuminate the nearby makeshift enclosures: tents, lean-to shelters, plus around them clothes drooping on lines strewn between trees, and an assortment of camp paraphernalia lying about.

Buddy forced a smile to ease tension, as he stepped close to the barrel and lifted his shaky bluish hands toward the radiating heat on this cold December night in 1935, just two weeks prior to Christmas Day. Rubbing his stiff near-frozen hands together, the warmth began to thaw them, the thaw at first an intense tingle sensation followed by needle-piercing pain before true and welcomed feeling returned. Thawed, Buddy looked around, and spoke surprisingly cultured, “My dogs’ name is Tin Can. I found him recently in a Nashville alley eating from a can.”

The foremost greeter not yet introduced responded, “He looks about as down and out as you. We know his name, so what’s your last name, Buddy?”

“Ma told me it was Martin.”

“And who’s your Ma?” The second greeter Gregory asked.

“Lillian Martin, mister. She’s from Chicago, I think.”

“You from Chicago, too?” Gregory pressed further, as a squat woman handed him a tin cup of hot coffee, and he in turn, offered it to the Buddy the stranger.

Buddy accepted the battered cup, smelling pleasurably the black liquid’s aroma, the first he’d had in days after a meal in a Nashville soup line. His first sip proving quite hot was much appreciated.

“Yes, Chicago is the first place I remember as a boy, Ma saying I was born there.”

“Your past does seem kinda doubtful, my friend. At least most of us have some roots linked to somewhere.”

Buddy shrugged, “Doesn’t matter; don’t miss it at all.”

The initial greeter reached and patted Buddy on a shoulder, “Buddy, my name’s Teddy.” Teddy in turn introduced the remaining circle of men.

Feeling suddenly woozy, Buddy sat the coffee cup down and backed away. He leaned against a tree trunk nearby to avoid collapsing, bent over and coughed. Turning from his visibly compassionate hosts, he spat something foul into surrounding darkness.

“For heaven's sake," a toothless middle-aged woman within the group, blurted, “Our guest is ailing bad … probably half dead. Give the poor man a helpin’ of possum stew.”

After eating scantily from the bowl offered him, yet enjoying the little stew he ate for which he had never tasted, Buddy in half an hour recovered to some extent. He sat on a stump and savored a second refreshing cup of hot coffee. When warmed by an extra tattered wool blanket offered by the same toothless woman, who wrapped it around his boney shoulders, he began to open up more sociably of his experiences and shambled past to his inquisitive new friends huddled suddenly near and around him, all expressly sympathetic, for they too had experienced parallel histories.

“You asked who I was, Gregory. I have no real pa in my life, just my ma, and a half-brother I’ve never met maybe living in Chattanooga. Ma raised me on the streets after she was fired from her job by the big boss man she claimed was my actual pa, he married with a big family in a rich house.”

“My gosh,” several around the circle responded in chorus, the toothless woman saying bluntly above the others, “Lawdy-mercy, you’ve been disinherited and cast aside homeless since birth by a rich cuss with no gumption.

Buddy glanced at her, nodded despondently, then continued despite added murmurs of disbelief passed between his listeners now numbering fifteen adults and some added children, all huddling nearer to not miss a spoken word. “Lillian left Chicago. Before I came along she had a respectable job, was a law firm accountant before the Great Depression landed her on the streets. She wandered aimlessly, her and me surviving each new day on one city or small town street after another. After the stock market collapse she tried hard to get any job, nobody offering in a crumpled economy. Her family lost everything and was as bad off as she was, so she had nowhere to turn. During it all, she tried to educate me using rejected books and setting personal example. Not all, but much of her teaching stuck. Before she died three months ago in Springfield, Illinois, she broke down and finally informed me more about my pa, that he was a big-shot lawyer in the Chicago law firm she once worked, but would not identify him by name fearing I’d do him harm someday and be sent to prison. She remained brokenhearted to the end, claiming she was another of his office affairs, one of many women he had secret relationships and fired to protect him and his upper-class family from shame. After my birth in an alley she challenged him. Coldheartedly, he rejected her, and cast us off like so many of his willing women and illegitimate young’uns. Ma hung on long enough to tell me she learned from a knowing person – swore never to identify him or her – that I had many half-brothers and sisters scattered across Chicago, that a respectful family adopted one particular orphan, educated him, and he now lives in Chattanooga. Apparently he avoided his father and chose a higher calling of some sort, deciding not to follow the man’s example. So, that’s where I’m hell-bent to go; to find my half-brother in Chattanooga, maybe learn the identity of my uncaring father.”

Gregory stood up and stretched. Towering above Buddy, who remained seated, he placed his brawny hand on the visitor’s shoulder, and said, “My friend, your sad story reflects many tales spoken between us in camp. I wish you good luck finding your brother. By the looks of you, I would continue that trip only after you are rested and have recovered your strength, especially after this stormy weather clears somewhat. You’re mighty sick; it’s plain to us.”

Buddy looked up and into the strangers’ compassionate downcast eyes, and muttered, “I know and appreciate your compassion.”

The gathering remained silent a couple minutes.

Buddy broke the hush to counter what he expected next, an invitation by Gregory to stay permanently. “I thank you and your camp for the food and a night’s rest if you allow me to stay here his evening. I may not have long so I must travel tomorrow, Gregory. I want desperately to meet and visit my half-brother, at least feel some meaning and importance to my life, a genuine connection to one more family member before my end.”

“You’ll find your brother, but be cautious of strangers, Buddy.”

Gregory scanned his companions’ faces, deciding them fatigued and the hour late, plus, this man needed rest desperately to challenge the harsh environment tomorrow in his travels.

“It’s gettin’ mighty late, so most of us and the kids are turning in. You’ll find that old army blanket Mandy gave you handy. Before we bed down, we’ll pack some items in a travel bag for you: food, water, extra clothes, and basic necessities for your journey to Chattanooga.”

Buddy teary-eyed, reached to hug the man, the first friendly contact he’d had with another person since before to his mother’s death.

Bone-chilling cold and the dimness of dawn’s first light greeted Buddy the next morning under a lean-to Gregory and Teddy had prepared him. Before anybody in camp rose to challenge the frigid weather, he silently departed to begin his journey south; sack rope slung over one shoulder, Tin Can grudgingly keeping pace.

* * * 

“Mister, you got TB … get lost!” The rejection accosted Buddy at most homes he knocked on the front door for help, or majority of isolated individuals he stumbled upon seeking their aid. On occasion when receiving handouts, or in bread lines, or to recharge his failing body in town soup kitchens and missions, he disguised his illness the best he could and waited his turn. Mostly, he survived on raw nature: digging deep under hardened earth in woodland to pluck insects from under rotting stumps piled with snow, and any small easy-to-catch backwoods’ creature off the main road where he predominantly traveled. When thirsty, he captured rain or snow in a tin can. Discarded diner garbage in town alleys offered him a delicacy and some semblance of everyday food consumed by ordinary people.

December 24 and nearing two weeks out of Nashville, Buddy and Tin Can approached the remote outskirts of Chattanooga. A blizzard struck with quick intensity; gale-force winds, blinding snowfall, and instances of stinging ice. The wool blanket greatly appreciated, proved a fitting barrier, as well as the boggy swamp where he took refuge to break unabated stabbing wind. Regardless of the fleeting reprieve, he had further weakened from the sickness exacerbated by grueling travel.

Recouping somewhat, drawing on every reserve allowed him by his failing body; Buddy left the slough and made his way to Chattanooga city limits. Except for an occasional flurry, moderate snowfall had diminished for the present. Nevertheless, snow accumulation and unfamiliar surroundings confused him and hampered his progress, for he staggered often and fell repeatedly resulting in lengthy rest periods, and his left hip injured in a fall from hopping a train six months prior, pained him with each step.

‘Get lost, tramp’, the customary renunciation repelled him into ever-increasing dismay. The sole consolation for him was the closeness he attained with each step forward to meet the only living kin he knew of that lived somewhere in this town.

As she lay dying in a Springfield alley Lillian had revealed to him his half-brother’s name, Charlie Fulton, and where he lived on the city’s east side. She had feebly penciled the information on a strip of paper he had placed in an empty tobacco tin then stuffed in his breast pocket. Under the circumstance and increasing delusion, the distance might as well be across the country, for Buddy was totally lost with no one to direct him, nor lend him a charitable hand. His only sanctuary appeared to be a church some blocks distance, the steeple rising above a mosaic line of leafless tree branches and white world beneath. Feeling a flicker of energy to combat mounting hopefulness, he thought, certainlyrefuge awaits me at that beautiful church on Christmas Eve, plus a cup of steaming coffee, maybe tea, and possibly hot chocolate.Picturing refuge, and food for him and Tin Can, expectation coursed through him to push forward, every step dragging the bag more agonizing as he trudged toward the Holy Sanctuary.

The afternoon turned bleaker by the minute, the time drawing late as the light of day dimmed steadily under snow clouds moving in from the northwest. Still, the church seemed an infinite distance, like hunting for the unreachable gold pot at the end of a beautiful rainbow. Steadfastly, brutally subjecting his body to horrid torment, Buddy focused on the steeple seemingly drawing close yet remaining just out of reach. Light remained to favor his progress, filtering through thinner cloud cover to reflect off snow and brighten nearby surroundings he observed through ice-crusted eyelids. These swaths of light bathed the cottony world against an eerie grayed darkness enveloping Chattanooga’s inner-city streets, where a few people were out with Christmas cheer and braving the late afternoon elements, coming, going, and some in groups caroling, all unmindful of the grubby stranger’s delirium and unwelcome presence. Even vagrants darting in and out of dark refuges avoided contact with Buddy visibly burdened by the bag he lugged and obvious sickness.

Buddy ultimately approached the church property – Confederate Methodist Church the brass plate proclaimed just off the street sidewalk. Beyond at a distance, the stucco-covered brick building atop a white velvet knoll surrounded by hardy shrubbery, stood shrouded with artificial light.

Dragging his weighty sack containing personals given him in the hobo camp, Buddy began to ascend the incline using for counterbalance and support a stick he had fashioned into a crude cane. Hobbling over what he assumed a stone walk beneath the soft carpet that crunched under his every labored step, and covered by wind-blown debris, he at length reached the porch lighted brightly by a two high lamps above the heavy wood door. Eyes dazed and barely able to discern the ink handwriting on the sign taped to the door, Buddy finally focused on the lettering, ‘Preacher on Vacation – Services at Elm St. Church.’

Dejected, Buddy moaned, slumped back and almost fell. He broke his fall grasping the steel handrail anchored firmly to the porch floor and church wall. However, strength ebbing, he slowly sank on his haunches.

As Buddy settled on the snow-covered porch floor, Tin Can sensed his master’s immediate hopelessness. Whining despondently, the dog stood on hind legs and began to claw at the locked door. Behind him, his friend slumped further back against the rail’s upright pole. Head down and angled sideward, cold consuming Buddy, consciousness flowed from him as he settled on the snow-covered brick porch floor.

As the cold permeated into his body and his sickness drained from Buddy Martin completely, painlessly, he slipped into a blackness of infinite scope.

* * * 

“Reverend Fulton,” the uniform cop said the next morning at daybreak, surprise obvious in his voice. The police officer drew near Pastor Charlie Fulton, as the minister exited his car parked curbside to begin walking the stone walk to his church. “You’re back from vacation sooner than expected. Thank goodness you’ve returned before the New Year; we have a situation.”

Apprehensively, the Pastor looked beyond the cop to view scattered police cars with lights flashing. “What do you mean, Officer Hinkler? Has our church been robbed … vandalized?”

“No sir. However, a tramp’s body lies stone cold on your porch. It appears the vagrant showed up last night and froze to death at the church-house doorstep. There’s no evidence of foul-play.” He paused to retrieve a crumpled piece of paper from his breast pocket, and then handed it to the Pastor. “This wrinkled note was inside a tobacco tin on him, the writing scratchy but legible. I think it might be of interest to you Pastor Fulton.”

Charlie’s head dropped after reading the note. Not commenting, he walked ahead of the police officer to where the body was propped against the steel rail post, frozen stiff, looking mummified. He sank to both knees oblivious of the cold floor’s discomfort. Looking keenly at the grayed frozen faced with similar features as he, it hardened, resembling a granite sculpture; Pastor Fulton slumped further, and wept.

“I’m sorry my long lost brother,” he whimpered somberly, and in soft painful salvoes,added, “My mother adopting me told me when daddy wasn't around that you and many other brothers and sisters existed. She didn’t know where, that Our Heavenly Father knew yours and their exact whereabouts. She dared not seek you immediately, but as years passed did contact a friend of your street guardian, Lillian, telling her about me a minister, she knowing about me and where I lived, that one day you might visit me. You actually did … on Christmas Eve, but I wasn’t here in this holy shrine to welcome you in your greatest hour of need; may Our Holiness forgive me. I’ll give you an honorable burial on these grounds and place your name on a striking headstone.” 

Pastor Fulton’s declaration of guilt faded into silence, and for a span of time he studied the horrid bluish face, the lifeless eyes now clouded, then added solemnly, “Josh ‘Buddy’ Martin, my lost brother, you are found at last.”

The shrub next to the porch stirred. Disrupted snow fell from leaf and branch to the earth, as a haggard tan-colored dog appeared. The emaciated animal pulled itself laboriously onto the porch, and meekly approached the corpse to lick the dead man’s icy cheeks. Then it lay beside him and whined sadly.

“My dear brother, this must be your faithful companion. You needn’t worry; I’ll take care of him for you, give him a good home where he’ll always be warm, welcome, and never go hungry.”

After funeral services two days later with only Charlie and funeral home attendees present, Pastor Fulton fed the dog in his church cottage kitchen, as he had since that heartbreaking day. Hearing his phone ring in the adjacent dining room, he sat the can of dog food on the floor beside the dog bowl then rushed to answer it. Returning minutes later to see the food in the bowl devoured, the dog frantically licking the can and nuzzling it around on the floor, Charlie chuckled, “Well my new friend, I shall name you suitably … Tin Can.

The dog paused, abruptly looked up with affectionate eyes to see a double of his former master, and barked as if he understood.

THE END


© Copyright 2019 Virgil Dube. All rights reserved.

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