Sunday, November 16, 2008

Gummi Worms

Tommy Braxton slowed to a trot, comfortable with the distance he had put between himself and those who wished him harm. His legs were cramping under the weight of the backpack, but the shield had spared him a multitude of welts. Tommy rested his hand on his front pocket—where his lunch money had been only moments earlier. Tossing it on the ground was the only thing that saved another beating. It had sent the scavengers scrambling and given him a head-start.

He turned and waved a defiant middle finger in their direction. The response to his rebellious gesture came in the form of an angry growl. Gus Childers’ voice rose from the distance and sliced the autumn air. Although the threat in no way carried the fear of a face to face confrontation, his sentiment rang clear.

“Go ahead you chicken-shit, hang out with the hobos! They’re the only one’s that will have you, but you better believe I’ll be waiting for you again tomorrow!”

The scamper had carried him to the old train yard. Perhaps a poor choice of escape routes considering the ample supply of ammunition within arms reach, but fear rarely consults with logic. Truly did it matter, rocks or fists?

Tommy recognized the wisps of smoke rising from an old burn barrel. Despite their differences, the heat like a magnet drew the wanderers into a tight circle. Tommy searched for one in particular. Carl had never given a last name. With no mortgage papers, bank accounts, or auto loans to sign for, a career hobo had little need for one. Yet he had seen thousands of places; moving about as his heart guided him and controlling his own destiny. Tommy admired the freedom of his lifestyle, but also appreciated his words. Carl looked past the acne of a teenager and spoke to him as if he were already one of them.

Tommy made his way into the circle and opened his pack. Only a room full of kindergarten children could have been more appreciative of a bagful of Gummi Worms.

“Let’s here it for Mr. Carver. I slipped in and out of there before the half-blind old man saw me lift a thing.”

The smallest of the group wasted no time. With the enthusiasm of an attack dog on an intruder’s leg he chomped at the generous gift. Dwarf, aptly nicknamed, was second in command behind Carl. He laid claim to being the oldest of the wanderers, but forty plus years on the run had taken their toll. The hunch in his back required him to noticeably lift his bald head in order to keep from speaking to the ground. He stared a moment at Tommy’s ripped jeans before speaking.

“Looks like you run into trouble this mornin’, Tommy.”

“Same old, same old—turns out Gus Childers and his goons wanted my lunch money more than I wanted my ass beat.”

The miniature man stroked his chin for a moment. In a move that revealed hours of practice he withdrew a knife from his boot and ran his thumb across the blade.

“Big, red-headed kid ain’t he? For another bag of them goodies ole Dwarf might see to it Gus Childers don’t come around no more. Bet he’s as rotten inside as he his out!”

“Dwarf, you better put that knife away. I’ll take care of Gus one day and you’ll be the first to hear about it.”

Each of the outstretched hands had been satisfied except for one; one which lacked three fingers and half of a thumb. Carl had slipped trying to board a train outside of Boston. Tommy never tired of hearing about learning to pick his nose with a pinky finger or the nasty visual represented by wiping one’s backside with an inexperienced hand. No matter the circumstance Carl took what the world was willing to give and made the best of it.

Tommy held up a giant bag of worms reserved for his favorite, “So where’s Carl?”

Dwarf tilted his head to the left. “Ain’t sure you wanna talk to him this morning—crabbier than usual I’d say!”

“This’ll put a smile on his face,” Tommy beamed with confidence.

Carl stared at the bag Tommy tossed at his side as if it were poison.

“Ain’t this a school day?”

“You’re starting to sound like my parents. Why should I spend another boring day in school—when I can hang out with you guys learning about the real world?”

Carl’s voice took on a serious tone, one that Tommy was unfamiliar with.

“Sit down here for a minute, Tommy. Let me tell you about the ‘real world’.”

“What do you plan on doing once you graduate?”

Tommy smiled, “Not sure I will—graduate I mean; thinkin’ about droppin’ out. I thought I’d hang out with you guys—you know, see the world.”

In a commanding voice Carl asserted himself.

“First thing you need to do is take the stolen stuff back and then you need to stop coming here—forever!”

Tommy cowered in response to the harsh tone. The only one he considered a true friend was asking him to leave and never return. Suddenly the friendly surrounding had become cold and demanding. He started to stand and leave, but Carl grabbed his arm.

“Look—it ain’t that I don’t like you, but you got potential. This ain’t about stolen candy, but that’s where it starts. Tommy some day you’ll have to look in a mirror and the stranger staring back at you will ask questions—hard questions.”

Carl fished around in the pocket of his soiled flannel shirt until he produced and envelope and handed it Tommy. Inside was a picture of a young women holding the hand of a little girl; no one he recognized.

“That’s my mirror, Tommy—and I hate what I see staring back at me.”

Carl’s eyes softened considerably and his voice wavered as he continued.

“That used to be my wife and daughter before I made the decision to leave. We were so young and I was scared to be a daddy—scared to fail the woman I loved. Chelsea was only three when I hopped my first train. Last week my little girl got married and in my absence some other man walked her down the aisle. Those you abandon and hurt will eventually grow cold and indifferent to you. This shell of a man rides a train because that’s all he knows. Believe me, there comes a day when there are no more trains—when you can’t run any farther from yourself. When it’s too late you finally realize the problem was not the world, but how you chose to deal with it. It will literally break my heart in two if I ever meet up with you in a boxcar. Don’t throw away your future, don’t be a wanderer, Tommy.”

Fueled by Carl’s words Tommy graduated from a community college some years later. He walked the familiar path to the train yard, wishing to check on the wanders, more specifically to thank Carl for his advice. In one had held his diploma proudly and in the other a jumbo size bag of Gummi Worms; one that he had purchased this time.

As he stared at those that circled the fire Dwarf’s was the only face he recognized. He didn’t attempt to lift his head as he explained the circumstances surrounding Carl’s sickness and eventual death. Before turning and melting into the darkness he handed Tommy an envelope. The scribbling was difficult to read with only the dancing flames’ intermittent light. Tommy BRAXTON; the last name was capitalized and underlined.


The very first day you came to the train yard I knew you were different, but in my selfish desire for company I allowed you to stay. For that I apologize; for the harsh words I spoke to you I cannot. When you walked away from here I celebrated inside.

I know you’re a thinker—yes; the small amounts of cash I mailed to you each month were earned honestly. Once you enrolled in college I found a reason to work. I lost something very valuable in a boxcar back in Omaha and spent twenty six years searching for it.

I’ve included the adress of my wife and daughter. Can you go there and explain I died with a smile on my face. I finally did do something I’m proud of—and you’re it, Tommy Braxton. You represent hope for the future.


Angel C. said...

Very nice story, Dan. Good life lesson there. I really like how you use comparisons to describe things in your stories. Good job!

Jo Janoski said...

Excellent story, Dan! One of your best.

paisley said...

that was impeccable.. i a mean it was soooo good... wow.. to take a little thing like a gummi worm and turn it into this... that is a gift..

Jo said...

Brought tears to my eyes Dan, you never know what brilliance will come from gummi worms. This is also a wonderful kids story, loved the images!

Selma said...

Well you are just a fabulous writer. Your style is so engaging. I am really enjoying all of your stories. Going back to read more!

Dan said...

Thanks to all of the 'usual suspects' for your kind words. I wish I could say that I started with Gummi Worms and wrapped a story around it, but the truth is that the Gummi Worms came much later.

Selma, so glad you stopped by!

cordieb said...

OK. . . . I'm about tired of crying now. . . you really have to stop this ya know. . .

It's a good cry though. . . you know a book or movie is good when it envokes such emotions such as yours. . .

PLL, CordieB.