They hop off as soon as the train slows down. “Best to get out before it pulls into the yard,” says the hobo. "Makes it easier to steer clear of the bulls. Don't leave any trash in the car. Always leave a place as good as or better than you found it.”
The night was short, but it was the best sleep the ex-presidents have gotten in weeks, rocked to sleep by the locomotive like babes in a cradle, huddled for warmth in a boxcar.
The dew's still on the grass as they make their way across a field. The hobo expertly opens a can of beans as they walk, takes a bite and passes the can around. “You fellas headed anywhere in particular?” he asks.
Forty-two and Forty-three glance at each other. “We're still working that out,” says Forty-two. “It's not safe being a President these days. Especially since it's been outlawed.”
“Not just outlawed, but unpopular,” says Forty-three. “No matter where we go, we find ourselves persona au gratin.”
“We might be able to help you out on that front,” says the hobo. “Hobos have a knack for finding a place where they're welcome. And leaving when they're not. There's a jungle not far from here. That's what we call a hobo camp. It's under a bridge, but we try to keep the trolls away. We can boil up, at least. Best to let me do the talking when we get there. You might have a silver tongue,” he points to Forty-two, “and you've got folksy charm to spare,” he points to Forty-three, “but you're still as green as a couple of Angelinas.”
“Considering I only understand about half of what you say, I'm happy to let you do the talking,” says Forty-three.
The jungle is more than a campsite, less than a town. It spills out from under an old bridge, spreading out like dandelions on the riverside, a haphazard ragbag of tents and bedrolls. There's a makeshift bathhouse cobbled together from corrugated iron and plywood. Some of the denizens are still sleeping, but the camp is bustling with activity. Hobos of multifarious ages, genders, and backgrounds cook breakfast, wash up, and boil their glad rags in giant pots over campfires.
Forties Two and Three are met with a wary gaze, but everyone seems to recognize their hobo guide. “Ho there, Sam!” somebody hollers. “Where'd you pick up the city slickers?”
“These two flipped a cannonball last night,” Sam answered. “Don't let the suits fool you; they've been carrying the banner for a while now. They've been paddin' the hoof and doggin' it, so I figured I'd give 'em a primer on freighthopping.”
“Just like you to take on a couple of road kids,” says the other hobo.
“Friends,” says Sam to the presidents, “this here's Abby. Abby's a barnacle, which means she's kept a local job for a couple of years now. She runs this camp, so be respectful now. Abby, these two 'bos go by the monikers Forty-two and Forty-three. They're new to the life of an itinerant.”
“To be honest,” says Forty-two, “we much appreciate your guidance and hospitality, but, and I mean no disrespect to your way of life, I'm just not sure the hobo lifestyle is for us.”
Forty-three nods. “Our density lies elsewhere.”
“With all due respect to the former dignity of your former office, I know the lost when I see them.” Abby shakes them both by the hand. “You've been spurned by the very country you thought you served. Your peers, betrayed by you, or you by them. Everything familiar, vanished. Your values, constantly in question. You don't know where to turn. What to do. Men without a country. Men without a purpose.” Abby turns and beckons for them to follow. “There are many here like you,” she makes a sweeping gesture that encompasses the entire camp. The people sharing a plate of fish, meager but freshly caught. The ones helping each other hang their clothes to dry. The ones negotiating a trade of supplies. People asking about work. Looking for friends. Looking for food and clothes for their children, some barely old enough to walk. Some looking at the presidents with scorn. Some with admiration. Most ignoring them altogether as they go about their business.
“None of them will stay for long,” says Abby. “Many will be gone tomorrow, on their way to someplace else. More will come to take their place, passing through like migrant birds. Some return again and again, like Sam. Some we see only once. It is a place of tradition, and a place of change. Of permanence and transience. But one thing is constant. People only come here if they're looking for something. Or someone. Somewhere. That's what the word 'hobo' means: Homeward Bound. Now, strip off your glad rags. We gotta check you for lice.”