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Rated: 13+ · Fiction · Music · #2320678
Short story about a rail-riding hobo turned pub singer, on the night of his last gig
Fast Freight

By Jim Watkins

         Billy Austin struggled to catch his breath more than usual that night. He was loading up his gear for the drive to Patrice’s Pub. The guitar case and microphone were easy enough, but the heavy amplifier and monitors had started killing his back and shoulders.
         Even his chest felt heavy on this night; like there was a dog lying on top of him, as he once heard a guy describe it.
         His neighbor was sitting next door on the porch. “You okay, Billy?”
          “Yup,” he managed to answer. But he didn’t feel okay. Even stranger, just as the pain in his chest set in, he heard a song in his head he hadn’t played or even thought about in years.

“As I listen for the whistle, lie awake and wait
Wish the railroad didn’t run so near
‘Cause the rattle and the clatter
of that old fast freight
Keeps a-makin’ music in my ear”

         “Fast Freight” was a Kingston Trio song from 1958. His dad bought the record, and Billy played it incessantly, picking up the phonograph needle to move it back, again and again, to “Fast Freight.”
         It’s a song about a boxcar-riding bum; a hobo, who one day leaves the tracks behind for a respectable life, but never stops yearning to go back. Hobos would gather near dusty big-city train yards and rickety small town stations, to share stories and bottles before sneaking aboard in the dark of night for wherever the tracks took them.
         Billy wanted to play “Fast Freight” himself. He got a cheap guitar and learned some chords. One night when he was 15, his sorry drunk of a father walked out of their dingy house and never walked back in. He knew his mother wanted to do the same. When he turned 20, he grabbed his instrument, and took off for the tracks. He didn’t say goodbye.
         The other hobos and tramps came to call him Guitar Billy. His ax was his one worldly possession; by this time, he knew how to play it, and he could sing. All the hobos from Tacoma to Tallahassee had heard of young Guitar Billy, and knew that if he emerged from a nearby boxcar, it meant a little joy would be theirs for a night.
         Billy always slept half-draped over the top of the guitar case, a knife beneath him to keep the pawn shop vipers from getting any ideas. It was the life he’d imagined for himself when he heard “Fast Freight.” It had him always clinging to one thought: wherever he was, somewhere else must be better.

Heeare the whistle blow, heeare the whistle blow
Clickity clack, clickity clack
The wheels are singing to the railroad track
Well, if ya go you can’t come back,
If ya go you can’t come back”

         And fourteen-years into this life he chose, barely a mile from his final encampment, he found his “somewhere else”: a little cantina, called Patrice’s Pub on the rent-a-sign out front, so close to the railroad track, folks could feel the rumble of the giant locomotives their gut.
         Patrice was sweeping the porch when he walked by with his guitar case, looking for food.
         “Howdy” she said “You a picker, hon?”
         Billy nodded.
         Patrice thought.
         “Maybe that’s what we need around here,” she finally said, glancing about the empty parking lot that somehow just looked like it was going to stay that way.
         “You interested in playin’? Wanna start tonight? Unless you’re really bad, it could only help.”
         Billy, who had learned countless songs around hobo fire pits while writing a few of his own, just shrugged and said “Sure.” Mostly for the free meal she promised him.
         Patrice added letters to the sign spelling “Live Music” and waved him in. And sure enough, starting that night, people came.
         Turned out Billy was a natural entertainer. His guitar playing popped like it never had outdoors, and what he lacked in trained vocal chops he made up for with passion and pathos. Night after night, it moved cowboy wannabes in their boots and tractor caps to whoop and sing along with “Jambalaya” and “Ring of Fire,” then get misty-eyed along with their wives and and girlfriends and waitresses for “He Stopped Loving Her Today” or one of his own soft ballads.
         Whether the songs were quiet or rowdy, people loved drinking to them. Pub owners love people drinking to tunes they love, and they love the musicians playing them. Before long the “play for your dinner” arrangement turned into $150 a night, later $250 as they kept packing ‘em in. Billy was able to buy bigger and better sound gear. He got a decent apartment. Patrice expanded to a full-scale diner, with booths and half-a-dozen four tops in addition to a bigger bar and bigger menus.
         Word got around about this hobo troubadour–he’d hear Patrice answer the phone–“Yeah, Billy’s playing tonight and tomorrow. You’d best get here early.” He was able to grab some side gigs at crafts fairs and tractor shows to help the bank account. Billy even allowed himself to dream that somebody important in the music biz would come in and hear some of the songs he’d written himself. Maybe help him become more than just a barroom singer.
         He never married. But his music, the respect it won him, and the handful of buddies he made got him through the lonesome times. He gradually drank less, then stopped altogether. He never could quit the daily half-pack of Marlboros.He did quit playing “Fast Freight. “
         Success came to Billy and Patrice in a 15-year blur. The beer and booze flowed nonstop. The food even became “dive chic” for a time, according to an article in a national travel magazine. A picture of Billy and Patrice was on the cover. Folks drove out from the city and distant points beyond. The pub near the railroad tracks with the famous hobo singer was the place to be.
          Until it wasn’t. Other nightspots in better parts of town with younger singers opened up. Billy Austin’s act was getting old and stale, and increasingly, so was the restaurant and so was Billy. He knew it from the pulled muscles and constant aches from moving his gear back and forth. The singalongs died down. There were more notes he couldn’t reach, more lyrics he couldn’t remember.

“If you go you can’t come back.If ya go ya can’t come back”

         The man was sitting in a booth facing the tiny stage before Billy even started playing. He was anything but the usual customer at Patrice’s; young, 35-ish, with dark, styled hair and sharp clothes.Billy thought he looked like a young Tony Curtis.
          A few songs in, the stranger hadn’t taken his eyes off Billy Austin. It made him a little nervous. He wasn’t having a good night. His chest still hurt and he was short of breath. The singing was flat out bad. But the young man applauded politely after each tune, usually the only customer to do so. Just my luck, thought Billy. Somebody without a cowboy hat actually paying attention, and I can barely croak out John Denver.
          He finished the first set, just wanting to sit quietly and catch his breath. But as soon as he put the guitar back on the stand, the mystery man waved him over, gesturing for Billy to sit down across from him.
         He stood to shake his hand. “Hardy Evers. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
         They sat down. “Billy Austin.”
          “Oh, I know who you are, Mr. Austin. May I call you Billy?”
         He half-smiled and nodded.
          “Well, I know you and your music, I should say.”
         Billy looked puzzled. “How’s that? I don’t recall ever seeing you here before.”
         “Not many people do, wherever I go. But I know the people I need to know”
          “And why do you need to know me? I’m not exactly an up-and-comer in the music business, if that is indeed your racket.” Billy felt a sharp ache in his upper left arm.
          “It’s one of my rackets, as you put it. I keep an eye on artists, see which way things are going in their careers as time goes by, hand out some advice and observations, if they’re wanted.”
          Billy looked down and half-smiled. “I suppose advice and observations from a music business man are always in order. You’re about ten-years late, though. I used to write my own songs. People liked ‘em. Thought once they might be my ticket to the big time.”
         “I know,” Evers said. “It must have hurt when Patrice told you to ditch the originals and only do covers.”
         As a steady murmur droned from the bar, Billy looked up in silence and took his first really good look at the man; a furrowed, slightly frightened look. “How’d you know about that?”
         “I just watched a full set of all covers. Just a guess. Why do you suppose the change?”
         Billy found himself more irritated by the memory of Patrice’s demand than he was spooked by Evers’s apparent mind-reading talent.
         “She says people don’t want to hear songs anymore they don’t already know. Bad for bar business. I wrote a love ballad years ago called “Lost in Caroline.” Couples got up from their tables and slow-danced to it, sometimes would even request it again the same night. Now “Sweet Caroline” is all they want.”
         Evers looked at him with genuine sympathy. “I know, I heard it in the first set. Didn’t seem to generate much of a singalong.”
         The dog on his Billy’s chest was gaining weight, and it was time for his next set.
          “Gotta play,” he mumbled. Another train rumbled by. It sounded louder and closer than before.
          He sat on his stool and hiked his guitar to his thigh, his years of standing and playing long-since over. Hardy Evers stayed right where he was, hanging on every syllable Billy sang.
         The lyrics and chords to all the songs scrolled by on an iPad mounted next to his mic stand. Billy had begun forgetting them. A neighborhood boy taught him to upload the songs and set the iPad to scroll at the right tempo. But the technology was confusing for Billy, and when the lyrics started scrolling too fast or too slow or just stopped altogether, he had to simply end the song. Lately people weren't paying enough attention to even bother being embarrassed for him. After one scrolling glitch, he caught a glimpse of Patrice, shaking her head and looking disgusted.

“Go bum again. Go bum again,”

          The second and final set—he used to play three, even four on wild nights—was no better. The trains, going non-stop now, were the only real music in the increasingly-shabby old diner. Billy was barely even background noise.
         His last song ended with clapping only from Hardy Evers, looking as sharp and alert as when he’d arrived. He waved Billy over again, but Billy pointed to the restroom behind the bar and headed that way. On his way, he glanced up at the chalkboard listing next weekend’s entertainment. His name wasn’t on it.
          Instantly his knees felt weak, the dull chest ache had turned into a stab, and it was all he could do to get from the bathroom back to Hardy’s booth.
         “Tough set. And it seems now you’ve been fired.”
         Again, Billy looked at him in disbelief.
          “No trick to that,” said Hardy. “I saw the chalkboard.”
          Billy felt dizzy. “Why do you even care? Who the hell are you? The devil? Are you God?
         Hardy paused.
          “Neither. I’ve come to save you from torturing yourself any further. Music seems eternal, but like everything it has a time, for both the greats and the unknowns. And the time comes to an end. It always comes to an end.”
         Billy grimaced in pain.
         “I can see the energy leaving your body, Billy. I believe this is your final gig.”
         Suddenly Hardy’s eyes brightened.
“But you still have one more song to play before…before you go. You know the tune. It came into your head today for a very special reason. It’s the song that’s always been there whether you knew it or not.”
         The diner was now empty. Billy slowly turned and looked back at the stage.
          “Go ahead. Play it, Billy. Play “Fast Freight.” Hardy glanced at his watch. “You’ve got time for the last verse.”
          Billy stood. The pain shooting through his body was suddenly gone. On steady feet, he walked to the stage, sat on his stool and began chugging the E-minor root chord in precise syncopation with the pistons of the passing locomotive. He remembered every word and chord, and in a surprisingly strong voice, Guitar Billy Austin began singing.

“So every night I listen, wonder if it’s late
In my dreams I’m riding on that train
I feel my pulse a-beatin’ with that old fast freight
And thank the Lord I’m just a bum again”

          Billy stared down at the floor until the vibrations from the last chord evaporated. When he lifted his head, Hardy was gone. He stood up slowly from his stool, put on his heavy winter coat, and stepped out into the black night. He knew his amps and other gear would be divvied up in the morning.
         Then Billy suddenly stopped, turned, and went back inside. He took his guitar off the stand, placed it into its battered case and closed the tarnished gold latches. He lifted the case by its fraying handle, and walked back outside.
         He headed into the exact part of the woods he’d headed out of so many years earlier. Peering toward the boxcars through the leafless, twisted trees, he saw in the distance three hobo fires burning in rusted steel drums, surrounded by the shadowed silhouettes of hard and broken men grasping out to the flames seeking warmth.
         Billy disappeared into the darkness, and soon a cry went up.

“Hey, everybody look. It’s Billy. It’s Guitar Billy!”
“How are ya, Billy? Gee, it’s been an awful long time.”
“So where ya headed tonight? Engineer told me there’s a fast freight leaving for Wichita. Come with us!”
“But play us a song first. The one we all loved about the pretty girl named Caroline. Would you play that for us, Guitar Billy?”

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