Chapter 1: Saxophone Cheeseburger

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The train chugs along, picking up speed with every thrust of the coupling rods. Forty-two jumps, grabs onto the door of the boxcar with one hand, and manages to pull himself inside. Forty-three is jogging along, already falling behind the pace of the train. Forty-two crouches and sticks out his hand. “Come on, I've got you!”

Forty-three reaches for the hand, brushes Forty-two's fingers, falls back. “I can't make it,” he pants. “The bulls are gonna get me.” He glances over his shoulder to see how close they are. They're close, but not that close, but now he's off his stride and he trips. He puts out a hand to brace the fall but still hits his face on the gravel. One of his shoes slips off, loosened by sweat. He picks it up and throws it at the bobbing flashlights. “What the hell,” he mutters. He slips the other shoe off and chucks it, too. One of the flashlights swings up to bat it away and misses. There's a dull thud. Forty-three pumps his fist once, then he's back up and running in his stocking feet.

“There you go!” shouts Forty-two. “You can make it, just grab my hand.”

He's a few cars behind now, but he feels a pulse of adrenaline from beaning the bull with his wingtips. He's already got a stitch, but he pushes through, legs pumping hard to catch up.

“Just a little farther,” says Forty-two, one hand outstretched, the other holding on for life.

Forty-three tries to answer, but he can't catch enough breath to make a word. Forty-two knows what he has to do. He reaches behind his back and grabs the tenor saxophone that hangs there on a strap. He holds it out, reed-first. Forty-three grabs it.

Seconds later, they're both in the car. Forty-three lies on his back, panting. “Now I get it,” he says. “Showing a through at a guy can be mighty satisfying. Er, throwing a shoe, that is.”

“Now you're out of shoes, though,” says forty-two. “Aw, shoot. Dented my sax pulling you in. Look at it.” He looks down dolefully, the yellow strobe from the sodium lights casting a shadow into the dinted brass. This key doesn't close all the way now.”

“I almost missed the ride and you're worried about your sax? I could've been on my way to the hoosegow right now.”

“Well, whose fault would that be, Forty-three?”

“You're blaming this on me?”

“I almost had enough for a bus ticket. We're trying to keep a low profile. You had to go and drum up a crowd. Now the heat's gonna be on us clear into the next county.”

“I was trying to help out. More people, more money. Why do you keep on busking if we're keeping a low profile?”

“It's the only thing that keeps from feeling dead inside,” Forty-two says under his breath.

“What?”

“I said we need the money. I hope you've got a plan, because the riches aren't exactly trickling down.”

“Oh, you love to throw that back in my face.”

“Well, only a moron throws a shoe.”

“I don't need a shoe to clobber you!”

The two men come together, punching and grappling. The train chugs past the last lights of town, leaving the boxcar in the dark. Most of their blows swish through the empty air, but one of the men will have a black eye the next day, the other a fat lip. Their melee is cut short by an unfamiliar voice. “That's enough of that, now.”

The scratch and hiss of a match strike cuts through the noise of the rail. A warm circle of light blooms from the far corner of the boxcar. The hand holding it belongs to a lean and lanky man of about thirty going on ninety. His clothes are mostly patches. His hat's so ragged it looks like an open sack with a band. His beard is scruffier than a used-up pot scrubber. “There's no fighting in a hobo car, gentleman.” He touches the match to the wick of a lamp. The light spreads a little farther. “You fellas nearly blew up my spot,” he says.

Forty-two stands up and staggers a little, still getting his train legs. “Our apologies.” He holds out his hand. “We're traveling businessmen, currently between vehicles. We didn't know this boxcar was occupied. My name is-”

“I know who you are,” says the man in the corner. “Him, too,” nodding at Forty-three. “I voted for one of you, but not t'other, and I'll let you puzzle that out between yourselves. You boys are looking a little scrawny. Been on the road long?”

“Longer than I'd like,” says Forty-three.

“How does a hot meal sound?” He pats his bindle.

“Oh, that sure would hit the spot,” says Forty-three.

“We'd be much obliged,” says Forty-two. “We're a little tight on funds at the moment, but we'd be happy to pay you for it.” He reaches into his pocket, bulging with change and crumpled bills.

“I don't wanna take your whole road stake," says the hobo. “Tell you what. Play me a tune on that old umbrella-horn, and we'll call it square.”

“I'm not sure how it's gonna sound with this dent. This key won't even close.”

“This is America,” says the man. “Everything's a little dented.” He unwraps his bindle and peeks inside. “How does a burger sound?” he says.

“That'd be more than a fella could ask for,” says Forty-three, smacking his lips. “Fresh-ground beef from a corn-fed American cow. I can picture it now. Its black and white majesty plodding across the plains, its ample girth bulging with wet, juicy meat. Its udders swollen with milk, soon to be rendered into individually wrapped cheese-like singles. She hesitates a little on the ramp, but only for a second. She knows her destiny, as the river knows the sea. Medium rare. Ice cold lettuce. Plain white bun.”

“That's not how a burger sounds,” says Forty-two. He presses the saxophone's mouthpiece to his lips. A squeak or two and a wrong note feel just like the sting of an old memory, his jazz fingers feeling their way past the broken key and settling into a smooth riff, just as the memory comes flooding in. The memory of a more carefree time, though he wouldn't have believed it then. A time when he would jog down the street, surrounded by men in suits, his stride sure as he makes his way to those golden arches at the end of the lane.

The song ends. The memory fades. The boxcar is silent for a minute.

The hobo nods. “Now, that's how a burger sounds.”

“Yeah,” says Forty-three. “That's it, all right.”

“I'm a vegan now,” says Forty-two. “With no regrets.”

“Oh, we've all got regrets,” says the hobo. He reaches into his bindle. “Anyway, turns out all I've got is beans.” He holds up a can with the label scraped off. He punches a few holes in the top with a Swiss Army knife can opener and sets the can on top of the lamp to warm. “Better get used to beans. We're all hobos now, Mr. Presidents.”