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Hobo Signs

by Tony Crunk

It was my mother’s job to look for hobo signs.

They would be scratched on the wall of the shed or on one of the trash barrels or one of the fence slats, with chalk or charcoal or a knife. She even found them scratched into the cross-ties of the tracks running just behind the fence.

She didn’t know what any of them meant. But she knew they told you whether you were welcome at a certain house, whether it was a good place to stop for food or clothes or work, or whether it was best not to stop. Her job was to rub them off or scratch over them, so you couldn’t tell what they were.

Her father said he didn’t mind helping a man out, but he wasn’t running a tramp hotel, either. And since he was a preacher, they were likely to get more traffic than most anyway. If one did come to the door, they would try to give him something if they could, but there were many times they just didn’t have anything to give.

A man stopped by one time to ask for something to eat, and my mother watched her mother give him the bowl of cornbread batter she was stirring up for supper—it was all she had to spare. Her mother didn’t like the looks of the man, so she handed the bowl out the kitchen window, instead of opening the door to him. The man spooned the batter into his mouth, handed the empty bowl back through the window, and went on.

They would pass by most often in the late afternoon or early evening, headed for the camping place they had about a mile away, behind the cemetery at the edge of town. The camp was just a clearing in some scrub pine, where they could have a fire. They had put up a couple of lean-tos with some old sheet tin and lumber scraps and tar paper.

Sometimes people would take a box of old clothes or some food out and leave it there for them.


My mother was seven when she found out she was adopted. She found the papers in her mother’s cedar chest. She could read well enough by then to tell what they meant.

She says she began to be afraid—afraid that if her mother and father had gotten her at an orphanage, then they could take her back any time they wanted, any time she did something that made them sorry they had gotten her.

Then she started to wonder, of course, where her real mother and father were. She figured that her mother must have died, because mothers don’t just give their children away. But she thought her father might still be out there somewhere.

She started to wonder whether he might be one of them, if he might come walking down the tracks one evening and see her and stop for her.

He would tell her other mother and father that he had come to get her, to take her back home. She would go inside and gather up her belongings while he waited for her. She would come out and kiss her other mother and father, and tell them thank you. They would be crying. Then the two of them would set off together, disappearing down the tracks.

She started keeping all her important things—her Pinky and Blue Boy paper dolls, the painted thimbles her grandmother had given her, her Sunday hair clips—in a shoe box under her bed that she could just pick up and walk out with if she had to.

She started sitting on the back steps as late into the evening as she was let to, watching the tracks.

She wondered if there was a hobo sign that meant, “Stop here. Your lost daughter lives here.”

She wondered whether he would stop if he saw it scratched into one of the fence slats.


One evening, she and a couple of her friends snuck down the tracks to the cemetery to spy on the hobo camp.

They hid in the trees and watched them—dark shadows shaped like men, sitting, leaning into their fire, holding their hands over it, hunched against the chill, their faces and their hands lit up.

They scared her, the look of them.

That night, and several nights afterwards, she lay awake as long as she could, not wanting to sleep, afraid that she would dream of them, stepping out of the darkness.

But, then, she began to think that if her real father were one of them, that is how he would come to her—out of the black trees and across the tracks toward her, his face lit yellow and flickering, his body of shadow, his shining hands reaching for her—

She knew that she would still go to him.

Sunday Morning

Before the names were changed to numbers, it was called The Dixie Bee Line. And they used to say it was a mighty good road, if you were looking for a road for leaving—north to Evansville and Terre Haute and Chicago, south to Nashville and Chattanooga and Atlanta.

It’s the road I take out of town, returning from my visits to Hopkinsville. Just north of Kelly Station, in the early light of Sunday morning, a faded billboard, collapsing into a cornfield, shrinks away in my rearview mirror. It shows a giant honey bee, black-and-yellow striped, smiling and waving a white-gloved hand.

“Follow Dixie Bee,” it says. “Hopkinsville 37, Nashville 116.”

I am awake these mornings earlier than I should be, with a full day of driving ahead. But I get up as soon as I hear my father making coffee. It will be a while yet before my mother is up, and this is one of the few hours I have to spend alone with him. He knows this, and I think he looks forward to it and would be disappointed if I didn’t get up to visit with him, though, of course, he would never say so.

We sit in the kitchen talking, half-dressed, watching night begin to thin away to first light beyond the peach trees in the yard.

He asks about work and tells me about some job he knows of and thinks I could get if I wanted to think about coming back home.

He asks about the route I will take on the drive back, asks if it will take me through Virginia. It always does, and I tell him so. He asks if I will go through Bristol or Richmond or Roanoke, and I never do, and I tell him so.

He talks about things he’s heard on the news, asks me what I know about them, asks if I know where places like Jordan or Bosnia are, if they’re anywhere near Greece or Italy—places he also knows from when he was in the Navy.

By dawn, I’ve gathered my things into the car, my mother is up, making a lunch for me to take. I call my brother once more. He’s dressing, going over his morning’s sermon. I tell him to come visit sometime. He says he should, though in fifteen years he never has, and likely never will. He tells me I ought to get home more often. I tell him yes, I should.

Then, without waiting for breakfast, I tell my mother and father good-bye. As I pull away from the house, they are standing inside the screen door, my mother waving, my father holding their little dog in his arms so it won’t make a break for the street.

Out of Thornton Gap, I take the ramp onto the Parkway, October morning opening out clear and crisp.

It comes to me that this year, for his birthday, I will give my father an Atlas of the World. With an Atlas of the World, he would be able to find any place he heard about. He would be able to see where I live now, the route I take to get there. With the whole world opened out on his lap before him, maybe distances would not seem so great.

The Parkway takes me east, then north, through Muhlenburg, my mother’s homeland. I dial through the church services on the radio, looking for gospel or bluegrass. At the Central City exit, I pull into the first toll booth, as a quartet is beginning “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning.”

The woman in the booth is middle-aged, in a blue uniform.

“Morning,” she says. “Getting off here?” she asks.

Off to my right, on a low ridge, thick smoke hovers and clings around a small barn, where tobacco is being fired. A man in a heavy coat with a hunched gait is walking up a dirt path toward it.

I hand the woman my money.

“No, ma’am,” I say. “Passing through.”


Tony Crunk's first collection of poetry, Living in the Resurrection, was a selection in the Yale Series of Younger Poets. He has subsequently published numerous additional collections, as well as a number of works in other genres. He currently serves on the teaching staff at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, Lexington, Kentucky.


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