“You’ve been a traveler,” my brother James said, confident that I understood why he was riding the rails that summer. Mist from the fountain beside Trinity Church blew on our faces. Like two weathervanes, we both turned to face into it. He was in Boston for the night and planned to hop another train just before dawn the next morning.
We’d both begun our travels in the same womb, in the Deep South, but we did not meet until we were full-grown people, both of us soft around the edges. Now, a dozen years later, he was pared down to the bone, but his smile could still return people to their childhoods.
He was far from home but I lived nearby. Did he want to stay over at my house? Grab a shower and some sleep in a real bed? Stay a few days?
James said no, and I wasn’t surprised.
He was with a half-dozen people dressed in black lounging near the fountain at Copley Square. Walking toward them, I’d recognized my brother from the shape of his skull and the curve of his spine. He sat cross-legged, facing the fountain with his back to me. When I called out to him, he turned and rose with his arms wide open in one smooth movement, his long black coat swirling out.
After our long hug, I held him by the shoulders to get a good look. “Nice coat,” I said. “High Plains Drifter.”
“A guy named Jesus kicked it down to me. At the Rainbow Gathering in Ocala. He said he was never leaving Florida again. Now I’ve got Jesus’ coat.”
The other travelers got up to be introduced. James pronounced their street names in the preacher voice he reserved for declarations: Oz, Goliath, Burned, Heron, Zoot.
They were kids under their costumes and swagger. Their street names wrapped them in metaphor, like their tattoos and piercings and gauges did, saying something both sorrowful and beautiful, tough and vulnerable.
James had tattoos inked by our brother Rudy — an elaborate cross, a “Jesus Saves” — but he didn’t go in for the other body art. He was 43 that summer, a generation older than the kids, but the tumble of the street smooths the edges from those sorts of differences when people travel together. The kids called James “Papa Smurf” in a tribute to his age and to the cartoon series they grew up on.
I didn’t know if he had watched it as a kid; we hadn’t grown up with each other because I was our mother’s first child, born when she was 15, and then swept away by a secret adoption. From what I knew of my brother and my family now, I understood James’s traveling couldn’t be stopped. His daddy had moved the family around ceaselessly and had once left our mother and their kids behind when he’d taken off to California and had not come back.
As family lore has it, our mother, who was 21 then, tied their four children together along a length of rope, tethered them to her waist, swaddled her newest infant, and boarded a cross-country train in Jacksonville to go get her husband back. She succeeded. Maybe the rhythm of the train on that trip had marked James.
California was one place I’d gone when I’d been a traveler, a confused runaway hitchhiking her way along old roads instead of riding the rails. Tattered flannel shirt, black hi-tops, worn jeans. Taking a wide stance in the breakdown lane, my right arm at a right angle to my body. Motherless in a way I didn’t fully comprehend, except that I had no mother who would own me.
“She’s been a traveler,” James said, introducing me to the train kids. I imagined them chasing slow-moving trains and hopping up into boxcars. At least they faced the right direction on the chase. The paradox of hitchhiking is that you turn your back to your destination and face the past while you’re trying to catch a ride to a future behind you.
Daylight ebbed, and everyone began drinking openly from bottles wrapped in paper bags. James took a long draw off his. I worried that he was too old to keep up with these kids.
He and I had once been tiny cells lodged together in our mother’s body, and something of her body sticks to us. Maybe I left something behind for my siblings: A belief in buoyancy, in the faint glow of daylight through our mother’s stretched flesh toward the end of her pregnancy. A chimeric shimmer of how it felt to be carried from place to place.
We sat close to one another, holding hands and catching up until it was deep night.
He and his friends were cagey about where they planned to sleep. Somewhere sussed out by travelers who had been there before. Walking me back to my car, James told me about riding in an open boxcar earlier that summer through the high plains and the Badlands, the euphoria of seeing for miles because there were no trees and no humidity.
“I’ve never been there,” I said. “Just California and the Southwest. Old Route 66.”
“That’s a road, sis. You’ve been a traveler.” He meant I could do it again, or that I should remember it.
“Thirty years ago,” I said, and was about to add that I was too old now. Instead, I told the truth, “I’m too comfortable now.” I didn’t want to be standing on a highway shoulder at night with headlights piercing my skull, wanting someone to stop, afraid the wrong person would stop, hoping for a ride, hoping no one would hurt me, desperate for a different fate. Was that what James and those train kids wanted, a future the fates had in mind for them? Or was the changing scenery only a distraction from his regrets about the three teenage daughters he’d left behind?
“If you hit the road again, check out those high plains. And the Badlands. And the Pacific Northwest,” he said, as if I might change my mind.
We reached my car and I popped the trunk to get his gift, the one I hadn’t known I’d give him. It was a wool blanket a friend had brought back from Iceland for me, a light gray bolt of indestructible warmth and comfort to wrap yourself in for a time.
I did remember some things about living untethered. Travel light. Take only what you need. When it’s time to travel even lighter, drop what you thought you needed. Kick it down for the brother or sister who’s next in line.
Michele Sharpe recently completed a memoir manuscript titled “Southbound.”