Boxcar Witchcraft

On the morning after Prohibition went the way of the dodo, the Hobo Witch-king came to call. I stood in the narrow alley behind the brothel where I was raised, pissing away the sour mash demons that hadn’t quite let go. Only long johns and the carryover warmth from my bedroll protected me from the freezing Chicago air. I knew it must be something serious. King never called on anyone. He rode the rails from jungle to jungle, held court, and the hobos and road kids with the traveling craft called on him. I still had my pecker out when I heard his familiar voice behind me.

“Something wrong with the toilets in that fancy house o’ yours?” he asked.

I couldn’t stop a grin from spreading ear-to-ear as I tucked myself away and turned to face him. Before me stood a gaunt man who looked more like a downtown banker than a hobo. Three times my own twenty years, at least, he wore a fancy gentleman’s suit years out-of-date but showing little wear; his shoes had no holes and the fresh shine gleamed. Beneath his full head of bone white hair, coal black eyes twinkled with mischief. I grabbed the old man and pulled him in for a hug. When I caught a whiff of his cologne, I became all too aware of my own sweat and whiskey stench, but it didn’t matter. King was dear to me, and I wanted to hug him for as long as I could.

“I’ve missed you; it’s been too long,” I said.

“I’ve had to get my affairs in order,” he said with a bit less twinkle in his eye.

My heart cracked. “King, no!” Before I knew it, tears streaked my cheeks.

“Don’t weep for me, St. Valentine. I’ve outlived far too many younger hobos. It’s my time.”

“How can you be sure? Not a doctor, right?”

“It’s true, can’t trust no doctor’s opinion of my health, but I gave myself a reading and the cards of the Hobo ‘Ro don’t lie.”

As I stood there like an idiot, teeth chattering and knees knocking in between sniffs and sobs, the back door opened and Tildy, one of my witch mothers, leaned out.

“Robby Ray Johnson, why are you running around outside in your skivvies? You’ll freeze,” she said.

“The pots inside were full up with witches and sales ladies. Unless you wanted me in there with ‘em, it was head outside in my drawers. And you’re supposed to call me St. Valentine now.”

“Ain’t no way I’m calling you St. Anything,” she scoffed and pointed at my crotch. “That thing of yours finds warm and welcoming beds the way a dowsing rod finds water.”

She wasn’t judging me, just having some fun at my expense. No one who lived in the house cared a lick how someone got their kicks, but my ears burned anyway. Even as a grown man, the witches who raised me had a way of making me feel twelve again, and I got real embarrassed with her talking about my ding-dong like that. She gave me a sly wink that only made matters worse. King’s melodious chuckle followed.

“So true, Miss Tildy,” he said. “More than once, I’ve hoisted Valentine into a moving boxcar to escape the pursuit of angry fathers and brothers.”

“It’s not my fault,” I said with exaggerated indignation, my sadness and embarrassment giving way to the casual comfort of friends and family. “It’s usually their idea, and I’m always sure to do the right charms and cantrips to make sure I’m shooting blanks.” If I only learned one thing from my witch mothers and a house full of working women, I learned men could often be assholes, and I had vowed long ago not to be an asshole.

“Come on inside, you two,” Tildy scolded. “I can’t feed you, King Robby’s eaten everything in sight, and no one’s been to the market yet, but there’s a fresh pot of coffee brewed.”

“Thank you kindly” King said. Before he crossed the threshold behind me, I heard him pray to the Goddess, “On the rails, to do what I must, with perfect love and perfect trust.

Tildy grabbed the coffee and a couple of mugs. She indicated King and I should sit at the kitchen table, set the mugs on the table with a clank, and filled them. I rolled up the blankets still laid out on the kitchen floor. To give a boxcar witch like me a more permanent place in the house would spoil the energy of the hearth-and-home rituals. The home of my youth could now only serve as an occasional flop house.

“I need you to catch-out with me,” King said, “and bring some of your boys too. I gotta take the NP to Seattle.”

“Jesus, that’s a long way to ride the rails up north in winter. Especially if you’re sick.”

“I was born by Puget Sound, and I want to die by it, but I don’t have much time.”

I felt tears well up in my eyes again and batted them away harshly, angry that I couldn’t be stronger for King. More followed. “Booker T and Cool Papa are working the World’s Fair with me. I think Brother Mulligan is in town too.”

“I need a couple o’ weeks,” King said, “but I want to catch-out soon after that. Can you and the other boys be ready then?”

Tildy looked both sad and relieved. My witch mothers love me, but it drains them to keep me under their roof. When a couple of Capone’s men had hid with us after the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the women turned me out claiming if the cops came, they’d assume I was in on it too. In truth, the growing strength and untamed nature of my traveling craft had begun putting the whole house at risk, even then.

“Of course,” I said. “On the rails, to do what I must, with perfect love and perfect trust,” I whispered to the Goddess and then got to work making plans.