When the conductor and Mr. Beale walked away from Hannibal, complaint still lingered in the air around the platform. It smelled bitter and only slightly more arid than the smoke that panted from the train engine. Most of the smoke had dissipated but the taste of burning oil was still there, as was the stench of the whiskey Mr. Beale had been drinking. Hannibal was aware of it and his own shame and anger. The others, Roosevelt, Willie and Dexter had gone back into their cars, no doubt to make them up in time for the evening run; but not before, they had seen the conductor escort Mr. Beale over to his car. The conductor allowed Mr. Beale to give Hannibal a piece of his mind, such as it was, because Mr. Beale was still pickled from last night. Hannibal was embarrassed to be taken to task in front of the other porters; though they had been discreet, ignoring the yelling and distracting other passengers from his reprimand.
It angered him because he was in the right. The man was three sheets to the wind and disturbing other passengers. Wasn't it his job, his responsibility, he had asked, to maintain order in his car? One of the many edicts they had drilled into his head at Pullman's training school, along with how to fold linen, and how to wake a man up from a deep sleep without making a sound was how to handle his passengers with grace. Last night, Beale couldn't string together his own shoelaces, much less a sentence; but he didn't want to be told by a porter when to stop drinking. He tried explaining this to the conductor in front of Mr. Beale. All the while, he had been acutely aware that his collar was choking him, wondering if the uniform had tightened up deliberately to keep him from saying the wrong thing. The conductor threatened to write him up and assured Mr. Beale that he would. Obviously, Hannibal had more to learn about the grace. He'd be fired, sure. Here it was – the middle of his first run and he was already in trouble. Hannibal unbuttoned the top two buttons of his uniform. This would the first and the last time he'd wear it. Heavy, scratchy navy blue wool with oversized gold buttons and gold braids around the collar and cuffs, this uniform was too weighty for real work. He would have sweated like a sow, if it had been summer. Even on a fall night like this one, with all the loading and unloading of luggage, running back and forth and catering to passengers, he had soaked his undershirt clean through. He had intended one day to buy a second uniform, but he had had to borrow money from Mac, his mother's husband, to pay for this one since the Pullman Company made them buy their own uniforms. Hannibal thought he'd be able to pay him back by the time he'd returned from Denver. Now he owed Mac. Again.
Hannibal took his hat off, letting steam float off the top of his head in the cooling evening air. He sat down on the metal step that led to the interior his car, the ridges pinching his back. Served him right. A herd of steamer trunks, suitcases, and carpetbags still stood on the platform. Their varying heights made him think of the Rocky Mountains he'd hoped to see. Now he'd be stranded somewhere in Nebraska, still too far away to see it. Mac had paid for his train ticket to Chicago. Mac had helped him to get this job. You had to be referred to become a Pullman. References were hard to come by and as valuable as gold nickels. Only men known to be to hard-working, honest and trustworthy with no criminal record got the chance and some of them couldn't tough it out. That Hannibal was a veteran worked in his favor and they didn't ask about his father or his grandfather because Mac's brother, a Pullman porter on the New York-Miami run vouched for him.
Hannibal was looking down at his shoes, whose highly polished reflections stared back at him, when he felt someone shaking him by the shoulder.
"Why you sitting there?" Hannibal looked up to see Dexter, watching him. Hannibal was calculating the cost of getting back to Chicago. He hadn't counted his tips but he wasn't going to travelling by Pullman car so the price would be much cheaper.
"Didn't you see?" Hannibal waved his hand in the air, as if that said it all.
Dexter tapped his wristwatch and thrust his chin at him. "Get on up. We got thirteen minutes before we pull out of here and another twenty or thirty before these folks come back from the dining car." Hannibal turned away from Dexter, taking note of the small town depot – a small one-story building with an awning over the door that opened onto a long wooden platform. That was it. It wasn't even covered. On rainy days, people probably waited inside until the train pulled in. They probably didn't have a place for colored people to sleep. Just as well, he'd save himself some money.
Dexter nudged him again. "Get a move on. We got to prep this car."
"It don't matter, Dex." Hannibal told him.
"I see you out of uniform, with a whole car that need to be made up for sleeping." Dexter tilted his head in the direction of Hannibal's car. "Need get to getting." When Hannibal didn't move, Dexter bent down, hissing in Hannibal's ear so that the words sounded almost like a whistle. "I said get a move on. Button that uniform up and get in here." Before Hannibal could argue, Dexter was gone.
(For the remainder of the story, please pick up an edition of the Prism Review, from the University of LaVerne.)
Causes Lenore Harris Supports
CinnamonGirl Inc. - provides mentoring to young women of color