© 2013 Paula Tohline Calhoun

“Come on!" he shouted, “Fasta! Pick up yo’ feet!”
Exhaling a cloud of cigar smoke, he
reached out his calloused hand, and nimbly
hauled me onto the accelerating freight train.
With his help I made a final vault onto
the crowded car, already filled with
freeloaders crossing the broad prairie
of wheat, rye, or barley, in hopes to make a
leap off at the next town that’d take in drifters..

The dark, lean old man with long sinewy limbs,
stretched out his arms beyond the well-worn
sleeves of a torn flannel shirt,and pulled over
an empty crate atop a stack nearby, an invitation 
for me to rest, or “set a spell,” as we watched
the sun set over the endless amber prairie
of the country that held no home nor welcome
for boys and men like me with holey pockets
once filled with nickels and hopes, long ago
leaked and empty, nothing left but chance.

“Wanna pull?” the old man rasped, offering
his chewed, half-smoked cigar.  I had not yet
spoken a word. but surprised myself, mumbling
my “Thanks,” as he smiled, then hawked and spat
a wad of phlegm out the rusted freight-car door.
For my first time, I felt the acrid burn on my
dry throat, and savored the taste, long smelled
but never inhaled, except second-hand in the
closely-packed saloons where once I had worked for
meager tips and promises, and chips for games
I never played well enough to cheat myself a win.

After I found my voice, the old man smiled
listening, nodding politely, eyes half-closed, to
the oft-heard tale intoned by many of the kids,
most younger and braver than me, who left all behind,
each in search of something more, somewhere else.
And I wondered what took me so long. Why
had I delayed feeling the neutral whip of the summer wind,
instead of the of the hateful slap of a drunken father?
Oh! for the choking swirl of the chaff of newly-cut grain
filling the rattling, splintered red car full of so-called bums,
amiable, yet alone, agreeably and equally sharing
the tins of any stew or vegetables we could swipe
as we rummaged and sneaked down the endless
hall-like expanse of wooden box-cars, separated
by heavy metal hitches and creaky wooden doors?

My throbbing jaw robbed me of the rapture; the dream.
The screams of my old man, the weeping of my mother,
and the whimper of my baby sister, restless from the noise
from the room next door, brought me fully awake. Tears
run down my face as I rise and cross the room to hear
more clearly what the fight’s all about this time. Another
baby on the way, and I knew there would be no train,
no life of solitary freedom. It was not in me to leave alone
the little ones who had no defense, or the woman
without the will or sense to leave the drunken bully.
All I felt was the cowardly shake of fear in my knees,
and the courage of my dream melt away,


Paula Tohline  Calhoun

Waynesville, United States

  • Artist
  • Artwork Comments 1

Artist's Description

A story as old as time, sad and unfortunately all-too-true-to-life. The agony of a boy-child grown to manhood far too soon, he dreams of getting away from a life that has become intolerable.

Artwork Comments

  • Matty B. Duran
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