by Rick H
A short story of a life changing encounter. Does God dress as a Tramp?
| Rodger And The Tramp King
Word count: 3836
Rodger Horton's blue eyes looked liked an urban sprawl road map. All roads visibly displayed in squiggly red lines. He stood at the liquor store counter swaying not knowing or caring what day it was. His descent into homeless oblivion and been steady and rapid. Taking less than two months, Rodger had lost his self respect, job, home, and fiancé Lucy Fremont. The last three vaporized in a single afternoon.
Final in a series of small time jobs found Rodger driving a small delivery truck. Driving it incidentally into the rear of a cement truck while making cat calls and annoying a pretty professional in the blue Mercedes convertible in the next lane. Rodger had noticed the wave of her finger as he bounced back and forth in the seat belt as she continued on her way.
He completed his jump into the abyss by losing his fiancée and home later that afternoon. Rodger's self centered, spiteful, and controlling ways had put more than a little strain on the once loving and naive Miss Fremont. Being drunk, and disrespectful that afternoon was the end of her tolerance and Rodger's free ride. So he gathered his merger belongings and left playing victim. Spraying gravel out of the driveway in Lucy's pickup he went directly to the bank, where he emptied the joint account. Not letting the fact he had never made a deposit bother him in the least. He filled his thoughts with self-righteousness and his pockets with a little over two thousand dollars. His next destination was the liquor store. He hadn't been sober since.
Today's activities were routine now. Buy a couple fifths of the cheapest rot gut whiskey he could find then swill them as fast as he could. Blame the world and everybody else for his sorry existence, and then pass out. Wake up and repeat the performance, day in and day out. Today's memories would end somewhere in a parking lot near a dumpster. Rodger would be foraging for discarded hamburgers and other half eaten foodstuffs. The manager would be threatening to call the police. Somewhere during that time all would become blank.
"Rodger! Rodger! So are you choosing life today?" the voice said.
Rodger's eyes shot wide open, laying half in and half out of his sleep bag in the back of the truck. He lay still not knowing quite what was happening. What was this? Was he finally losing his mind? Had his brain finally turned to mush?
"Well, what's it gonna be, son ? Sink or swim? Live or die. You know it's all very simple, not hard to figure out at all." the voice counseled.
"You only have two choices left. Only two remain for you, son"
Rodger eased up; half sitting he glanced over the side of the truck. No one was visible. The campsite at the riverside seemed undisturbed. The empty whiskey bottles and a multitude of beer cans lay strewn about mingled with his trash and litter. The campfire burned out a day or two ago. He tried to focus but last night and most of yesterday was just another blackout.
Trying to clear the cob webs he rubbed his soot smeared hands over his face. This did little for his unkempt appearance. He succeeded only in moving the grime from his forehead to his cheeks and his crusty beard. Whiskey. Where were those whiskey bottles? Rodger rooted around under the dirty clothes, empty beer packs and tarps. His only reward was a empty half gallon bottle from days back.
"Dammit." he cursed, "This sucks, life sucks!" he shouted as he threw the empty towards the campfire, smashing it on the stones.
"Something has to change, Rodger." the voice said calmly. There was something familiar about it, but his mind was too blurred to pinpoint it.
"You can't go on like this forever." the voice continued to taut.
No, he couldn't. Yesterday the folks at the unemployment office saw to that, he thought in response to the voice. Those lily livered bureaucrats think they know everything!
"Well they don't!" he screamed into the empty air. His caseworker had informed him since he was found guilty of causing the accident that had led to his dismissal he was not entitled to any benefits. The caseworker, had also suggested that Rodger should perhaps consider the Rescue Mission and get cleaned up and look for more work. Rodger had told him exactly what he thought of that.
"Yes I did..." he said aloud with a feeling of triumph. Slowly, the empty feel of self-justification began to fad.
“How is it Rodger,that every bad thing in your life are everybody else doing? Ever come around to think about that? "the voice softly asked.
"Awwh shut up and go to hell!" he again shouted at the sky. Rodger with his mind still hazy from the whiskey could almost make out a soft chuckling.
"Been there, done that, son" , the voice said.
Rodger was becoming more uncomfortable as this conversation progressed, He questioned his sanity, the voice sounded so real and so close, yet looking out of the bed of the truck all that lay there were the broken remains of his own indulgences. He saw no one. I'm finally losing it, he thought to himself as he lay back down and stared at the dawning sky.
He drifted in and out of conciseness until the call of nature weighed too heavy upon him to remain passive. He scrambled out of the truck and staggered his way to under the highway bridge and relieved himself on the rocks of the now shrunken river. Making his way back, through the bush and small trees he stopped suddenly. There at his campfire, was an old ragged man adding some small twigs to the beginnings of a fire.
“Hey! What do you think you're doing?” ,Rodger shouted meaning to run at the old tramp, but his body, and his head in particular would have none of that.
“Who are you? Where'd you come from?” Rodger demand suddenly feeling dizzy and ill.
The ragged old tramp in his long loose fitting, tattered gray greatcoat slowly stood. His age was almost impossible to guess. One moment staring at this old relic, he seemed to be well beyond an acceptable life span. Then in the next, he appeared to be no more that fifty, younger maybe. Rodger just couldn't decide which. Everything seemed to be enigmatic about this fellow. He stood with a bearing of great dignity his eyes had a sparkle dancing deep in them, like fires seen from faraway.
The hat the old man wore was wide brimmed and flat. His long hair flowed over the back of his shoulders to the middle of his back, ash white and straight and not one was uncombed or out of place. His jeans were clean and well worn. His pointy toed cowboy boots old, but polished. The man studied Rodger for a moment that bordered on eternity. Rodger felt himself naked and uncomfortable before the man finally removed his gaze and returned to tending the fire.
“Been called allot of names, son. As far as where I come from, well that's a mighty deep question. Suffice to say, for now, I've been right here all along.”
“You're talking in riddles old man.” Rodger said curtly.
“I get that allot, son, mostly by folks with no understanding.” he said without looking up.
Reaching into the folds of his greatcoat he withdrew a small skillet. Out of his pocket he somehow managed to produce twin potatoes and a quarter of butter. The knife off his belt made home fries out of them.
As the potatoes began to sizzle he asked Rodger, “One egg or two?”
“Two.” he said not waiting for a reply. He then produced four eggs cradled in his large hand.
“What else you got in that coat of yours old man?” the touch of sarcasm softening in Rodgers voice.
“Oh I have everything most folks around need most times.” He said with a small laugh.
“Well, why don't you pull me out a fifth then?” Rodger said expectantly.
“Because Rodger, you don't need a fifth. You may want a fifth. But you don't need it, son.” he said, again without taking his eyes away from his task.
“Well how about some bacon then.” Rodger said taunting the old tramp.
“Nope. No bacon, Just ham.” He said pulling a small canned ham out of somewhere from his coat. “Here open that. There's a key on the bottom,” he said tossing the one pound can to his host.
“You got everything, don't you old man.” Rodger stated as he handed the mystical hobo the opened tin.
“More than you could ever imagine Rodger. More than you know, that's for certain. Here. Take this and go clean yourself up in that river. You ought to be ashamed.” He said with a shake of his head, handing over a freshly laundered towel with a bar of soap. Again from inside of his coat
As Rodger returned from bathing in the river, the old man handed Rodger a plate and fork, and began to eat his own breakfast.
“Pull up a rock and take a load off son. You had a heck of a night, best just rest easy and get some food in you.” he said to his slightly stunned host.
Rodger did as was suggested and sat across from his mysterious invader that seemed to know him so well.
“So again. What are you doing here?”, Rodger pried.
“Eating.” said the enigmatic traveler.
“That's not what I mean!” Rodger retorted.
“I know exactly what you mean son. Right now I’m trying to eat my breakfast. Now eat yours before it gets cold. And be quiet!”, the man said impatiently.
After breakfast the odd tramp began, slowly telling Rodger things he knew and thought about him. The ancient man summed up his dissertation by the river side, taking great care in washing the kitchen articles. He deftly made them all disappear into his coat.
“To sum it all up for you son, life is like this river. It starts, real small in the mountains, both pure and simple. It flows. Just flows. It just does what it was created to do. Ain't nobody going to stop it. Oh sure people might feed off it, say, build a canal irrigate a farm or two. But it's still the river. They can throw trash in it, but that river going to keep on flowing. Dirtier maybe, but still flowing. Heck, they might even clogged it up with all kind of junk or it might just get blocked up naturally, say with trees and rocks after a flood. But sooner or later though, that river is going to burst. Get itself freed up! And that young man is most likely an explosive event indeed.” he mused in a quiet even voice that resonated loudly inside of Rodger.
“Kinda like me.” Rodger said realizing the metaphor.
“Sorta. Right now you're just backed up, Rodger. Gettin' all the banks swampy like. Muddy and all. Starts to kill what was once beautiful growing there. ”
“So what do I do?” Rodger asked.
“Pretty simple really, you live. Just live right that's all.” the traveler said finally standing.
“How?” he asked the old man.
“Well, I suggest that you try taking some responsibility for it. And forgive too. Yourself first then others. That'll start that river flowing again Rodger.” the old traveler said, “Now it's up to you.Your choice is what are you going to do with it."
The old man left Rodger at the riverbed. Rodger saw no one around when he returned to camp minutes later. He saw no foot prints, not even in the dust of the fire pit. Where the stranger had been cooking. Rodger felt the hairs on his neck and forearm stand, as the goose bumps formed.
Rodgers knees weakened and he had to seat himself on a nearby rock. His thoughts whirled as the recollections of his Sunday school lessons rushed back at him. Could it really had been Him, he thought to himself. The full weight of his troubled life fell heavy upon him. Rodger saw how Lucy had tried so hard to love and help him. He saw himself as he truly had behaved. Rodger was overcome with guilt and sorrow. His memories of hurts inflicted, disappointments rendered and rejection issued, flew across his mind. His eyes burned with tears. No tear had ever fallen since childhood. Now they rolled down into his beard. His guilt pressed the sobbing breath out of him. He hung his head trying to mumbling long since forgotten prayers. The words of these traditions caught with a hoarse scrap in his throat and would not release. His shoulders heaved as the pressure of shame and remorse built inside of him until the very moment he thought he would explode from lack of release.
In his mind he saw visions of swamps, stagnant and infested. There were mighty rivers, blockaded by human debris and remnants of forest. There were vast expanses of desserts, wind blown and barren. He understood these visions as his own human condition. Emotionally choking, Angrily isolated, and rebelliously blocked. He spun off the rock and knelt, he wept bitterly and soundlessly.
Softly he said “Dear God in heaven help me please. I don't know what to do. I want to live.” the vacuum of his life enveloped him as he continued to weep.
Then he said "Show me how, show me Your way, I want to believe.”
Rodger had no idea how long he knelt there. He may have even slept. When he finally stirred himself out of that trance like state he suddenly remembered his encounter with the caseworker. He saw now the man really had not been condescending at all. He had only tried to help Rodger.
Rodger wiped his face with the towel that had somehow remained clutched in his hand. Staring at it with the newness of wonder, he heard the old Tramp words repeat,
“Oh I have pretty much everything most folks around need most times.”
Rodger chuckled at this and said to the air, "I guess you do tilting his head skyward.
He gathered up what was his and worth taking at the campsite. He then emptied all the trash out of his truck and burned it. While it was burning he began to make quick work out of cleaning up the mess he had created at the campsite. He neatly stacked the cans and bottles near the fire pit.
"Some other tramp will want to turn these in." he said and smiled. He couldn't remember how long it had been since he actually thought of another without reason or motive. He knew he would change that.
When he had finished, the fire was easily put out. He headed to and he started up his truck.
“Well let's see if there's enough gas to get to that mission." He was only slightly surprised when the gauge which had read bone dry yesterday, was sitting steady at a half of tank.
“You don't miss a trick do you Lord?” he said to the open air. Rodger drove up the dirt road to the highway and started off on his new found life.
Two hundred yards up the river, through thick and over grown brush, two figures sat around a fire pit. An old enamel coffee pot sat on a bed of coals as the two men sat quietly talking, old canteen cups steaming in their weathered hands.
“So what happened to you last night Joe?” the semi bald man asked his white haired friend.
“Oh I went to that motel up the road a piece. I was on my way back when I found that young knot head that's been trashin' our spot down river.”, said the broad brimmed hatted man. “You know Fred, that boy has some serious issues! I think the poor fella has done pickled his brain. Kept lookin' at me funny like. Like he was seeing a ghost or something. Don't figure though, I mean I stayed at his camp, had to sleep under his dang truck! Too dark to make it back here last night and I sure didn't want him to know we were here anyway.”
“So where'd ya find him?” Fred asked.
“Up there at the rest stop on the highway towards the motel. Passed out over the wheel of his truck! Just waitin' for some Ranger to find his sorry butt! Dang fool don't know diddly!”
“Well why didn't ya just let 'im be? Get what he deserves?” Fred summoned.
“Aw heck, Fred you were young once, maybe when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, but young just the same!” Joe chided.
“Well, there's a big difference betwixt bein' a bum and bein' a tramp! He's a bum! Me? I've always been a Tramp!” Fred said proudly.
“You and me both Fred, and darn good ones too! Just like these Tramp coats! We are Prooo Fessionals!” Joe said standing full smiled. He spread his greatcoat wide open, revealing the many pockets and loops of various sizes and angles, sewn inside. He took a deep bow before his friend as spoons and forks and a few small plates spilled out.
“ Ha ha ha, you best get that flap sewed up right quick before we do any more 'shopping' tonight! You'll get us both thrown in the poky!” Fred roared with laughter at his partner in crime.
“ So tell me what'd that knot head do when you woke him up?” Fred asked his friend when he finished carefully reloading his coat.
“”Well,” he began the story, breaking off the length of thread and sewing the flap of his china cabinet pocket. “That darn fool must not have been passed out too long because he woke up blind drunk! First thing that maniac did was open another fifth, and just start guzzling it down! I mean, we've both seen some real power drinkers in our time, haven't we Fred, but this kid was suicidal!”
“That's too bad. Sad to see the demon get 'em that young.” Fred said sadly lowering and shaking his head. They paused the story telling while they both sipped and then refilled their cups. They had indeed seen many men drink and die from it ,in one form or fashion, but all dead just the same.
“So as I was saying,” he began again. “ He gets up I guess to go relieve himself, just takes off out of the truck runnin' from Caesar's ghost! Crazier than a loon, right across the lot! Right past the lavatories! Then he stands there pissing on the grass, in front of God Almighty and everybody. I was just about to skedaddle out of there, when all of sudden he just keels over! In his own piss!”
“ And knowin' you, you went and helped that damn fool.” Fred reprimanded his friend.
“Yes I did Fred. It's the Code. We don't leave a man down if we can help it, even if he is a fool! Most of us are. You know the rules of Road and Rail.” The old wise tramp said.
“Yeah I know but,” Fred responded.
“But nothin' Fred! Rules are rules that's why we got 'em in the Code in the first place! They ain't for pickin' and choosin'!” Joe said his speech and language taking on the air of an authority on all things tramp.
“Yes, I'm sorry. See, that's why you were coronated here in Texas 'King Of The Road'. Your right. Sorry your Majesty.” Fred said rising and bowing with not a hint of sarcasm. The rules of Rail and Road were a code that had a long rich history and tradition, dating back to the days of the Great Depression.
The King went on to tell Fred of how he put Rodger in the back of his pickup and brought him back to their former camp. He went on about the delirious rants and mumbling of Rodger's sorry existence. He had learned quite a bit about the young fellow. Enough to know Rodger didn't belong in a life on the road.
“So when I got in the truck. The tanks empty! Just barely enough to get me around enough to find someplace that'll accept my Oklahoma credit card. Which luckily in a minute or two, was only a few parking places away!” Joe continued on triumphantly. “I'm just glad that young fella in that handsome truck, took his sweet time in there! I appropriated a strong half a tank and some stores for the larder too! I had more but that young fool needed some nourishment, and I was hungry too.” The Tramp King set out the remains of his 'shopping spree' at the rest stop.
“Well he was a most generous civilian wasn't he?” Fred remarked looking at the jam, coffee and potatoes.
“Yes he was! So after I fed that boy down there,” he said nodding his head downriver. “I gave him what little advice I felt he could understand with a head that must have felt like a melon. Then I just left him there thinking, I guess. I left in such a hurry to get out of sight from there I forgot my towel! Now I have to walk back up to the motel and sweet talk that maid again."
"Well that's not such a bad thing I suppose.” he said with a sly and whimsical smile. “She does appear to be most enamored with me. I suppose I'll have to let her wash my clothes, while we shower there again today. Ain't it the life Fred? Ain't it the life.”