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I woke up shivering in the boxcar where I'd spent the night. Late October might be the tail end of summer in Texas, but it wasn't up here, wherever here was.
I coughed and ran my tongue over the grit clinging to my teeth. My body jangled with the vibration coming up from the train wheels.
Sharp lines of sunlight edged the wide, almost closed doors of the car and lay in stripes across the forms of men sprawled around me. We must have passed out of the dust storm, I thought, remembering the day before, when the train rushing north across farmland had entered a blackness of blowing dirt unlike anything I had ever seen.
First I'd wondered if the huge cloud moving toward us, too dark brown for rain, might be smoke. Then somebody called it for what it was, just before we got swallowed up in a violent torrent of sandpapering earth.
I'd fallen asleep to the howl of it.
Leaning into the boxcar door, I pushed it open. A wedge had kept it from shutting all the way- a safety against the bar-latch on the outside coming down and locking us in. Dazzlingly bright light flooded the car, and someone demanded, "You trying to blind us?"
"Sorry," I said, sliding the door far enough shut that the sunlight wasn't shining right on him.
He got up long enough to relieve himself against a wall, belch, scratch, and swear 'cause a bottle he picked up turned out empty. "Blind me again, kid," he said, "and I'll throw you under the wheels."
I turned away. That wasn't the worst I'd heard in the days since I left Muddy Springs and my job at the little Texas airport where I'd worked.
Days! It seemed more like weeks or months I'd been gone, like my last afternoon there happened in a different life even.
I closed my eyes to the endless country outside- butte and prairie land now, desolate looking- and saw again that scene I'd gone over and over. Lord, what a fool I'd been, playing at my job like I was some kid.
Dancing at it. Dancing!
"Come on, Miss McDonough! Hurry back!" I'd said aloud, swinging out my broom like it was my girl I was spinning across a dance floor. Of all the weekends for Beatty to be off to Dallas with her aunt and uncle. I had news to tell her.
I'd been accepted to radio school, and tuition was even in a range I could afford if I watched every penny till next July when I could start. A thick letter from the school, along with a thinner one from my ma that I hadn't read yet, burned a hole in my back pocket.
Beatty and I, we had it planned. Come May- just another seven months- we'd be high school graduates, class of 1936. Then Beatty, who loved flying like she was born to it, would start flying full-time, for pay. She'd do contract work, like her teacher, Annie Boudreau, did. And I'd get serious about turning radios into more than a hobby.
I gave the broom another fancy turn. There wasn't anybody to see. The afternoon plane was long gone, and I had the Muddy Springs Airport terminal to myself. I just needed to finish sweeping, and then I could go up to my room and read all the radio-school pamphlets from start to finish.
"You always dance with brooms?" a man called out, and I whirled around, feeling like a right fool. I recognized one of the airport directors, a Mr. Kliber, that I knew by sight but no more.
"I'm 'feared you missed everybody," I told him. I explained how Grif- Beatty's uncle, who managed the airport- was away till Monday, and that his assistant had knocked off for the day.
"Actually, it's you I came to see," Mr. Kliber said.
Puzzled, I said, "Yes, sir?"
"It's like this, Moss," he said, and commenced beating around the bush so bad I couldn't get what he was telling me. Then he finally said it straight out.
"You're firing me?" I asked. My voice sounded like it was coming out of somebody else's throat.
"I have to let you go," he said. "You can understand, Moss. The man we're hiring- I'll be honest, he's a cousin of mine- has a wife and children to take care of."
I nodded, feeling numb. I did understand. With Texas and the rest of the country deep in the Depression, a body had to understand favoring a family man over a teenager on his own.
It was just that I hadn't thought anybody else would want my part-time job, being the airport's janitor, mechanic's assistant, night watchman, and general gofer. I'd patched it together by pitching in wherever I'd seen a need. I got twelve dollars a week for doing it, and the room upstairs. Enough to live on, send some home to help my family, and save a bit.
I dragged my attention back to Mr. Kliber, who seemed bound to explain why his cousin had to have my job, now that he'd lost his own in a machine shop up in Oklahoma.
I broke in. "You needn't explain," I said. "I know how it is."
"You can have a couple days more," Mr. Kliber said. "I wish I didn't have to spring it on you this fast, but Orville's already on his way."
I went after a gum wrapper and dropped it into my dustpan, buying time to get control of the panic welling up. "I guess if I'm going, I best think about when to start," I said.
Maybe, I thought, as the train crossed a trestle, that was where I went wrong. For certain, I shouldn't have been so hasty to leave, shouldn't have let my pride get so wounded over being fired that I couldn't stay to face my friends.
I shouldn't have taken off without even leaving them a good-bye, telling myself I'd write when I had something proud to say.
But then there was that other letter, the one from my ma, in Spanish Creek, Louisiana.
Up in my bedroom above the terminal lobby, I'd read it. Now I took it out and read it again, the flimsy paper rattling in the wind.
Dear Son, she'd written, I hope you are keeping well. I wished I could say we are but I am having a time making ends meet. We only did get money once from the WPA job I told you yr pa was on and then no more. I do not know if he is hurt or killed or taken off again without a say-so to anybody. If it is that he ought to be ashamed. Except for what you send, I would be at wits end caring for your brothers and sisters. But I don't complain, being just thankful the Lord gave me a good son. Yr loving mother, Bertha Trawnley.
That hadn't left me any choice. Maybe I could have found a way to hang on in Muddy Springs myself, but there was no way I'd have gotten something that paid enough so that I could send Ma the help she needed.
The hobo in the corner swore at me again, but I ignored him. The car reeked, so I wasn't about to close the door on anything less than another dust storm.
I'd lay money my father wasn't hurt or killed. He just wasn't doing his duty to his family like he ought. Just like he hadn't done it for a time now. Not since walking away from us two years ago. Not since before that, come down to it.
That last night in Muddy Springs I'd thought carefully about where my own duty lay and come up with a clear answer.
First I needed to mail my radio-school savings to Ma.
Then I needed to go find my pa at his WPA job in Montana and see he was all right. And if he was, then remind him he had a family to take care of. If I presented it careful, he'd realize he needed to send his wages home regular.
I wasn't sure what would come then. Maybe I could find some kind of job for myself up there, for the time being. Maybe I could even find some way to help him.
I'd packed my suitcase quickly- I didn't have much to put in it besides a few clothes, the letter from the radio school, and a picture of Beatty in front of an airplane. I left the next morning.
And now here I was, hundreds of miles from Texas. Well, one thing was for sure. I was more than ready to get to Montana and be done riding freight cars forever.
Copyright © 2005 by Jeanette Ingold
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