"Swede" by Scott Olsson
It was hot, hazy, and humid, because that’s how August is in Pittsburgh. Swede stood by a few scraggly trees at the edge of the rail yard and lit a Camel. The smoke he exhaled blended into the oppressive smear of dust and heat. It would be another two hours before his shift was over. Two more hours before he could have a cold beer. Four more years before he could retire. He sighed and looked over the yard while he smoked. It was hard work, but he wouldn’t want to do anything else, even if he could. It was who he was.
Swede took one last long drag on his cigarette and dropped the butt, crushing it out with his boot. He was about to get back to work when a figure moving in the yard caught his eye. Anything that didn’t belong caught his eye instantly, and this most definitely didn’t belong. A scrawny fellow, dressed in black, with no safety vest. He was walking down a line of railcars, getting closer to Swede but hadn’t seen him. Swede had a knack for watching people unnoticed. He didn’t hide; he just naturally tended to stand quietly in places where people didn’t look. It sometimes scared the hell out of people when they finally noticed him.
The figure got closer and Swede could see he was just an underfed kid, probably no more than seventeen or eighteen years old. His pants, tank top, and backpack were all black, his unkempt longish hair blonde. Swede frowned. Real “dirty kids” that hop freight have a uniform grayish-brownish color that comes from the sun burning the dye out of their black clothes, the hundreds of miles of dust and rain they ride through, and the dirt they sleep on. This kid didn’t have that look. This kid was also meandering through the yard in broad daylight. Luckily for him, the bull was probably asleep somewhere in his truck.
Swede watched silently as the kid walked past him, looking the other way, examining a line of low-sided gondolas. The kid looked up and down the line but still not behind him, where Swede was. He hopped up on the ladder, looked into the gondola for a few seconds, then clambered over the side into the car. He stood there, his head and shoulders visible above the four-foot sidewalls for a moment, and then disappeared. Swede shook his head. He remembered being young and dumb once, a long time ago.
Swede walked slowly across two sets of empty tracks and over to the railcar the aspiring hobo was hidden in. He looked around. There were no other yard workers in sight. Swede reached up and grabbed the ladder on the gondola and swung himself up with remarkable ease for a man of his age and mileage. He stepped up one rung and stood there, leaning his arm on the side of the car, looking down at the kid sitting in the three feet of empty space between the load of 30-millimeter steel rebar and the end of the car. The kid was sitting with his back against the side of the car and his knees pulled up to his chest, his backpack next to him. He jumped a little when he saw Swede looking down at him, and his eyes darted around like he was contemplating jumping out and breaking an ankle.
“New at this?” Swede asked in a calm, bored voice.
The kid looked at him with wild, frightened eyes for a few seconds and then nodded.
Swede pulled his cigarettes from his shirt pocket with the hand that wasn’t on the side of the car and put one between his lips. He held the pack out, offering one to the kid. The kid got up hesitantly, came over, and took one. Swede put the pack back in his pocket and took out his zippo. He lit his cigarette and handed the zippo to the kid. The kid lit his and handed it back.
“They call me Swede. What’s your name?”
“JD,” the kid said, looking up from his shoes for a brief second.
“Well, JD, this ain’t the best car to ride,” Swede said and took a long drag on his Camel.
JD looked around the railcar, exhaled smoke, and looked back down at his shoes.
“See those dents?” Swede asked, pointing his cigarette at the end wall of the car.
JD looked up at Swede and then at the dents he was pointing at.
“Those are from loads shifting and hitting the end of the car,” Swede said.
JD looked at the bundles of fifty-nine-foot-long steel bars, at the dents, and back at the steel bars.
“People have gotten trapped?” JD asked.
“People have gotten dead.”
JD looked at Swede and blinked a few times.
“Yeah,” Swede said. “Makes a mess.”
Swede blew smoke to the side and looked at JD. He was eighteen at the most. A little bit of patchy scruff on his face. Nervous eyes. Swede wondered if he was scared of being arrested or just scared of returning to whatever he left.
“Come on,” Swede said. “Get out. This train’s not going anywhere anytime soon, anyhow.”
JD put his cigarette between his lips and picked up his backpack. He shouldered it. Swede stepped down off the ladder and looked around. Still no one else in sight. JD swung out over the side of the gondola and climbed down the ladder. He hitched his backpack higher on his shoulders and looked at Swede.
“Let’s go,” Swede said and started to walk.
JD just stood there looking at Swede.
“Or hang around until the bull rides through and get your ass whooped,” Swede said over his shoulder.
JD hurried to catch up.
“I really have to catch out,” JD said, his voice cracking a little.
Swede snorted and flicked his cigarette butt into the weeds. He walked about a hundred yards down the line, away from the office and the classification yard, with JD following him, until they were between two trains on tracks next to each other.
Swede stopped and looked at the long line of grainers to his right. He looked at JD and back at the train.
“If I were going to ride freight,” Swede said and paused, “I would be a damn fool, but if I were going to do it, I would get on a train that was actually leaving sometime soon, like this one, and I would ride the back of a grainer that had a porch. Like that one there.”
JD stared at the grainer.
“The ones with the wider trim generally have a solid platform on the back. The ones with the narrow trim don’t,” Swede said. “This one is what they call a Cadillac grainer. It has that lip around the platform that keeps you a little more hidden. If you can squeeze through the hole there, there’s just enough room to sit inside there and be completely out of sight.”
JD walked over to the grainer and looked back at Swede. He pointed to the platform. Swede raised his eyebrows and nodded. JD climbed up onto the back porch of the car and looked inside the hole. He looked back at Swede with wide eyes and a smile.
“Where’s it headed?” JD asked.
“Fort Wayne, Indiana.”
JD smiled and nodded a little.
Swede turned around and started to walk back the way he had come, shaking his head slightly.
“Hey,” JD called out.
Swede stopped and turned half-way around.
Swede sighed, nodded his head, and walked back the way he had come.
Half an hour later, he heard the train power up and the slack being pulled out of the couplers. It started to move out of the yard. Swede stood and watched it leave. An hour and a half later, he clocked out.
Sitting in the same hole-in-the-wall bar he always sat in, he stared into his beer. “Good luck, JD,” he said and smiled a little in spite of himself.
SCOTT OLSSON was born and raised in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, where he was chided by multiple English teachers for wasting his gifts and instead pursuing a juvenile record. He graduated from Geneva College and has spent the last 18 years as a social worker, working with wayward youth. He got a late start writing, much like his biggest influence, Raymond Chandler. He can often be found in the South Side of Pittsburgh, talking to the kids who hop freight trains.