October 12, 1935
I've only ever seen it this dark once before in my life and that was the night that a gang of bulls in Chicago ran up through the shanty where me and Jimmy were sleepin' and trampled everything flat. First it was quiet, like it is now ('cept there ain't no crickets in the city on account of it being forsaken by God according to BoWeevil) and then there came the thunderin' of those shoes! Crackshot always told us, "Don't leave nuthin' trailin' in the wind! What you leave behind is bound to get you in a mess of trouble." He was talking about shoelaces and keeping yourself ready in case you had to run on a night like that but I figured it was good advice for life.
It's a good thing that these little hobo spirits are flying around lighting up their butts because I can hardly see a thing! Though I reckon it's good it's so dark because the rock in my pocket is weighing heavy and I might nearly be indecent. My trousers are a bit too big, you see, but I found them with only one or two holes in 'em and fixed 'em up. Jimmy grew out of his suspenders so he gave me 'em and they're holding up so far but I've got the legs tied up so they won't get caught up in the workings when I'm hoppin' on or off. And like Crackshot said - I won't leave nuthin' trailin'! Especially on one of these nights! If I leave any hint of my goin's on then I'm bound to get caught and arrested and sooner or later some no-gooder with an eye for buggering will find out that I'm a girl. Sheriff Kilgore won't be able to help me out of that jam, no siree!
There's only a few folks that know that secret, besides you now. There's my brother Jimmy, of course, and the gang that we met in the boxcar when we hopped our first train. I bet you want to know why we hopped that train, huh?
Y'see after Mama died there was no one to keep Daddy nice. Now Jimmy was only 11 months older than me but he was the man of the house when Daddy was gone for days and days. When he came back he'd beat the tar out of poor Jimmy for makin' him feel worthless or something. And Daddy came after me once or twice for lookin' too much like Mama. (Jimmy says it's because of the curly brown hair and the swampy eyes but my freckles and knobby nose look more like Jimmy's and Daddy's.)
So there was this one-day when Jimmy got a hold of a penny and we went out a mile or so to the train tracks. Jimmy put it down right on the rail and we waited for an hour or more just sittin' there nervous. Jimmy said that Jack Nelson had told him a train had been derailed like that just a few months before in Valdosta. We didn't believe him because Jack was the kind of kid that was always trying to scare somebody. He once told me that he'd seen corn stalks walkin' around at night and I swear there was a stalk of corn sitting outside my window when I went to bed. I didn't want to tell anybody why I wouldn't sleep in my room anymore but Jimmy finally got it out of me and he beat Jack blue the next day! (When Daddy found out he nearly broke Jimmy's arm.)
Well the train finally came by and that copper just flattened out like a metal pancake! We took it home and Jimmy took a nail and hammered a hole through it and then put it around my neck strung through with one of his fishin' lines. He said that if it didn't derail the train it must be good luck! I still have it today, see? After that Jimmy got one of his ideas and he said, "Sarah-Paul, if a train can do that to a penny, just imagine what it could do to Daddy's truck!"
So the next time Daddy went missing Jimmy stole his truck and we drove it out across the tracks. But what we never noticed was that Daddy was passed out cold in the back. Now I see that look in your eyes but don't go thinking I'm guilty of murder or nothin'! Luckily that train had a pretty long view up the tracks and saw Daddy's truck with plenty of time for the brakeman to stop the train. But the ruckus woke Daddy up and there was nowhere to run where he wouldn't see us. Me and Jimmy did the only thing we could think of and ran to an open boxcar! Jimmy climbed in first and then I followed and to our surprise there was a gang of folks already in there. This grungy old feller with a kind smile, you'll know him now as BoWeevil Jake, put his finger on his lips and we kept quiet-like until the truck got moved and the train started again.
Now see this boxcar here, this looks like the one we want. I'll just break the latch with my rock. There! I knew it! This rusty latch wasn't gonna last much longer anyway - I'm practically doing it a favor.
BINGO! Yessiree! This car is chock full of government supply! Whew whee! Idgie's just gonna bust a gut I reckon! I'm not sure how Smokey gets his information but he's always right! (Personally I think it has something to do with the Sheriff but I don't know.) Now we don't have a thing to worry about because these cars were all inspected and locked by the bulls already. We just have to sit in here and keep quiet until the train starts movin'. When the train passes through Whistle Stop it'll slow for the curve, we'll signal Idgie, and she'll hop on with us. Then we'll just jump off with the food in Troutville!
Y'know you're pretty good at this! I might put in a good word with Idgie cuz I'll probably be movin' on soon. Crackshot says I've got a talent for this sneakiness because I'm lightweight and keen like a hound dog and I have a mind to take my talents on the road. Hell I ain't never been out of Alabama! But that Crackshot, he's as wise as an old owl but I swear sometimes he can't tell it's his own shadows following him. (But it's a good thing these folks don't look too close, if you know what I mean.) Oh but I was telling you about who else knows my secret! Well there's Jimmy and BoWeevil and Smokey... and there was girl called Starling in the car that night. She was Starling LaRue and she'd had a gig in a tavern but circumstances happened and she was cut loose without a dime. She and this gentleman called Chattanooga were travellin' together and she was a kick because she'd just hum and whistle all night long - like she hadn't a trouble in the world. She shows up every now and then and I can just sit and listen to her hummin' for hours. Sometimes she calls me her "little shadow" because I just follow her everywhere.
So anyway, Chattanooga noticed the penny around my neck and showed Jimmy and me his personal collection of pancaked coins and pieces of metal just like mine. He said that he kept every one of them to remind him of a place where his luck had turned for the better, someone gave him honest work or provided him with good food. When he didn't have a coin, he said, he'd just take what he could find and flatten it on the tracks. Jimmy asked him if he'd ever derailed a train and Chattanooga said that if he had he surely had not intended to but there were some coins and doo-dads that he'd misplaced and a few tripped up trains he'd heard about. Then he showed us a little flat piece of tin that still had a portion of a tomato picture on it. He told us that it was from Troutville where he'd once survived for a month on the canned goods that had been tossed by "Railroad Bill" off a train. Now that old Smokey Lonesome was in the corner of that boxcar sitting by himself with his hat covering his eyes, like he normally does, and I thought I noticed the whisper of a grin on his face even then!
Anyway - Jimmy and I got off with this gang in Troutville because that's where they happened to be headed and we were introduced to our first shantytown. But before I'd even gotten off the train Chattanooga and BoWeevil had trussed me up to look more like a boy because they said it wasn't right for a little girl to be on her own. This was three years ago and I was only 10 so it was a bit easier for me to blend in that way. Starling had some small scissors and she did the honors of trimming my hair down. That was also when they first started calling me Pennyslvania Paul and Jimmy and I were the Pennyslvania Twins even though we've never seen that city. They said it was better to have a story than to look like we didn't know nothing. They took a few days to teach us the pleasantries and the rules - y'know like don't sit down at a fire if you ain't invited and gathered us up some more clothes and a camp of our own. Eventually Paul turned into Paulie and that's fine by me because it has a ring of girl to it. As for Jimmy, he pretended to be a bit older and started working at the mill in the first few weeks. So we've been living in the "town" and buying our food with the money he brings in ever since.
Also, about a year ago some missionary types from the Baptist church came to evangelize here. BoWeevil was here at the time and he pretended to be our father so they wouldn't get any strange ideas but there was this one pretty woman who kinda just drew people to her. This was Ruth and I know you've heard of her because Smokey keeps that picture of her in his jacket and goes on about her when he's asleep. But anyway - Ruth made us promise to meet her on Sundays for bible study and who could refuse? She could make anyone do anything with just a kind smile (and plus she kinda reminded me of Mamma)! Now I'm not much for religion but bible study was going to take place at her cafe in Whistle Stop and I knew for certain that the cafe was known in boxcars around the country as a place generous to hobos. So I gathered up Jimmy with me and after studying something about Jonah and a whale we were welcomed into the cafe. It was 'bout the best meal of our lives so every Sunday after that we showed up for studyin'.
There was this other girl at the cafe too - Idgie. She and Ruth were thicker than sisters but she never stuck around for bible class. Afterwards, though, Idgie'd visit with us and the town kids (including that kid with the one arm - that's Stump, Ruth and Idgie's son) and tell us these fantastic yarns for hours. Anyway, we'd laugh and gossip and I guess I gave something away because every Sunday she'd look at me real closely until finally she took me aside one day and asked me straight out if I was a hen under all these feathers. Now Idgie is probably the most beautiful girl you'll see in these parts if you really look but she keeps herself hidden under suspenders and felt hats herself so I figured she was safe and I was right. After that she'd come to visit with me and Jimmy once or twice a week and she'd take us fishin' and sometimes she'd bring us biscuits and make us promise not to share them with anyone. Idgie said she figured I needed a positive influence as opposed to some holy-roller or an old ashy hobo (Smokey just giggled when she said it). She's like a big sister to me now and so she, of course, told me her secret so that all was square.
She said while I'd been busy disguising myself up as a boy she'd been coloring her face with coal dust, wearing a stocking cap and pretending to be a negro boy called "Railroad Bill." Now you can't tell a soul what I just told you because Idgie'd have my hide! I mean it - there's a reward out for Railroad Bill and if I find you with a suit and a ticket for the train I'll kill you myself.
But anyway she told me that the Southern Railroad had hired more bulls to keep Railroad Bill from boarding the trains and tossing the food off to the hungry folks and that she needed more help. She told me that if I was up to it and if I could keep it an absolute secret (or toss my soul to the mercy of the demon-spawn catfish that she swore swam in an underground river beneath Troutville) that she'd sure love it if I would agree to help out. I mean it was hardly a question because I'd do anything for Idgie (or I guess even Ruth or Starling) but I told her yes and she gave me the only hug I've had in my life since my Mama took the Westbound and I could have died right then.
So that's how this started! Smokey tells me when the government supply trains are coming and it's just my job to hop a ride out earlier in the day, pick a car and get it ready so Idgie doesn't have to waste anytime guessing and risking getting caught! Its pretty dangerous too but I don't mind takin' the blame if they catch me one day. But them bulls think they're looking for a Negro anyway!
Boy, I'll tell ya it sure is nice to have someone to talk to! It can get real tiring when the only thing answering you is a fiddlin' cricket. It'll be an hour or two before we meet up with Railroad Bill though so howsabout you tell me how you ended up in Troutville? Oh and just for the record, now you owe me a secret! Don't worry, you can trust Pennsylvania Paulie!