Life on the rails is full of adventure and occasional strife. There’s not much money in it, but, as I learned, it’s full of friends you’d never expect. This is a story about how I met a very special lady who taught me the ropes—or the rails, I guess you might say.
Back about 20 years ago I was new to the hobo life and just doing my best to hop on the slowest-moving trains. Most times I missed, and missing a train meant missing a meal and a place to sleep. I suppose I wasn’t doing so well as a wanderer. I was about to give up and head back to my old job as a chiropractor when a chance meeting changed everything.
I had just failed to catch yet another boxcar and was feeling pretty sorry for myself. There I was, sitting up against a pile of coal and crying like a girl when I heard deep, gravelly voice say, “Well, you just gonna bawl yerself to sleep or are you gonna get somethin’ to eat?”
I turned toward that rather masculine voice and came face to face with the roughest-looking lady I’d ever seen. She looked to be about 4 feet tall but, judging by her hump, she may have actually been closer to 5’2”. She was desperately in need of an adjustment and a bath, but the kindness in her eyes is what really struck me.
She stuck out her hand and said, “They call me Proud Mary.” I would soon learn she was so named because that old broad didn’t have an ounce of shame in her hunched-over body.
She was tending a coffee can balanced over a small fire whose warmth paled in comparison to the warmth she had in her heart. I peeked in that can and saw nothing but some simmering water. Proud Mary saw my disappointment and chuckled.
“Oh, just wait,” she murmured, “It’ll be a meal in no time.”
She was desperately in need of an adjustment and a bath, but the kindness in her eyes is what really struck me.
I settled next to her on an old railroad tie and let her put her arm around me. We got a little cozy, and she began to whisper comforts in my ear.
“You may have missed that train and all the promises it held, but then you would have missed me,” she cooed.
Then she began coughing and wheezing like a Kentucky coal miner. When she caught her breath, she continued, “You just let Proud Mary make it all better.”
About then I started to wonder how that snaggle-toothed woman could make anything better, but strangely enough, I started to relax and, for some reason, things didn’t feel so hopeless.
Before I knew what had hit me, Proud Mary had me pinned down and was tearing off my ratty flannel shirt. I attempted to fight her off, but it was no use. She was just so strong for her size, and I think I wanted to give her what she was after. Besides, I was willing to do damn near anything for the promise of a bite to eat. So, with half my mind on the inevitable loving and the other half on the hope of some soup, I surrendered to the wiles of Proud Mary.
I won’t go into all the details, but I will say this: Never has a woman ravished me the way Proud Mary did beside the flickering flames of that tiny railyard campfire. I was renewed and my manhood restored. Though it was certainly strange love, it was just the love I needed, and somehow that hag knew it.
Afterwards, she rolled off me, rolled a cigarette and gazed up at the hazy night sky. She sighed and said, “For every star up there, there’s a hobo out there that I’ve turned out. You’re gonna be the brightest one yet.”
I didn’t want to think about what she meant, so I quickly changed the subject. “How about that meal, ma’am?” I shyly asked.
She threw back her head and howled at the moon. The howl evolved into a cackle and she said, “You young boys always worry about filling your bellies.”
I gestured toward the coffee can and reminded her that she promised to feed me.
Again she laughed. “Oh, that’s my sock-washing water. But I fed you, alright. You got a spark in your eye that wasn’t there before, boy, because ol’ Mary fed you what was important.”
I looked at her with confusion, and she stopped laughing. She patted my bottom and explained, “What we just did here fed your soul, and that’ll hold you over much longer than any soup ever could.”
And just as quick as she had appeared, she was gone. I thought I had dreamt the whole episode until a few days later when I came down with the most vicious case of crabs this world has ever seen.
These days I can catch a train as it leaves the yard without even thinking about it, and I never go hungry. There’s not always food for my stomach, but for some reason, I never want for it. Perhaps I lost my appetite along with my innocence that night, or perhaps Proud Mary really had filled my soul to overflowing with the kind of food you just can’t eat with a spoon.