Contemporary Revelations

by Kaden Washburn

The Tumbleweed Man

Nothing goes on here. The most interesting thing I can recall ever happening in this town was years ago when a pickup truck wrecked into the side of the mercantile. Some liquored up teenagers from Tucson hopped a curb doing 85 or 90, blew apart a few Saguaros and skidded straight through enough brick to turn their old Tacoma into a hot pile of metal. “Let that be a lesson to you Cyrus!  Don’t you ever drink until you’re grown! And don’t sit behind the damn steering wheel drunk!” That’s what Mother told me after she heard about it. Alcoholism runs in the family. Those poor kids. Just trying to have a little fun. That might’ve been the only time this place ever made it into the state newspapers. I remember being excited that Ridgeford was mentioned in the papers even though it wasn’t for a good thing. 

Mother was one of six teachers at the elementary school. She taught fifth grade. Never had more than probably a dozen students at once. Kids were usually kind to her, but only because they knew what would happen if they weren’t. Stubborn woman, she was. Always stood up for herself. She got it from my granddad. My father, on the other hand, was one of the kindest men anyone can meet. He was a miner. Woke up at the crack of dawn everyday to get to his shift on time. Usually stumbled into the house close to midnight, beat from a long day at the copper mine. He was a big man and he wore big boots, so he would always wake us up when he came home so late at night. Even though he was usually out late, he never let any of us sleep through church on Sunday morning. Things were alright. They took real good care of me even though they both worked all the time.

I was a damn rascal back then. After school, me and my friends would meander around town, try to smooth-talk some girls, hurl bottles off of the bridge, smoke cigarettes, steal candy from the mercantile store, and throw rocks at stray cats that would forage through the trash cans outside the diner. Nothing really wholesome, but there isn’t much else for kids to do here. Just bushes and cactuses and rocks all around. The school had a basketball court, but there was a group of older teenagers who wouldn’t let me or my friends set foot on it, and even if they were gone, none of us had a decent basketball to play with.

As a kid, time moves slower than sand. Everyone knows that because everyone was a kid once. Childhood is like a secret club we all used to be a part of. Spent a lot of time sitting in an alley between the auto shop and the dry cleaners, smoking L&M cigarettes that my friend would take from his father’s nightstand, watching cars cruise through town. People going to places. I always liked to imagine myself as one of the passengers of those cars, going somewhere interesting, maybe to a carnival or a football game or something. Not a lot of people came to Ridgeford unless they needed to get gas and take a piss at a gas station, but then they’d leave a few minutes later and never look back.

Every now and then, a lonely wanderer would come into town, toting a big heavy backpack full of junk. Some called them hobos or bums, I called them tumbleweed men. That’s what they reminded me of. Tumbleweed. Dried up old dusty men that would drift into town, rummage through dumpsters, ask for handouts and keep moving on, almost like they moved with the wind. I never thought much of them. They were always dirty and smelled bad. Nobody paid them any attention.

One day I was riding my bike home from school and the chain broke. I walked it over to the sidewalk and propped it up against a chain linked fence. I didn’t have a clue how to fix the damn thing. I was young. Probably 9 or 10 at the time. Mother couldn’t have been too far behind me because she stayed after school for about half an hour everyday to grade papers and tutor the kids who needed it. I just sat there against the fence and waited. I probably could have just walked the rest of the way home. Can’t remember why I didn’t. I’m sure I had a reason. 

It was a hot day. I remember that. The kind of heat that you can feel coming up through the sidewalk, roasting the soles of your shoe. Like putting your feet in a toaster or something. I just stayed leaned up against that fence hoping Mother would come rescue me. Every few minutes I’d see a car approaching from a distance that looked kinda like her car, but as they’d come closer I’d see a stranger behind the wheel. They’d look at me as they passed too. Must’ve been strange for them to see some sweaty little kid eyeing them down as they drove passed through a run down, armpit of a town. 

It was probably around 4 o’clock when I saw a man walking on the sidewalk towards me. Couldn’t tell who he was or what he looked like because of all of the mirage radiating off the asphalt. As he came closer I realized it was just some shot out old tumbleweed man. I fixed my eyes on the sidewalk under my feet. Those tumbleweed men always creeped me out and if you made eye contact with them they’d try to ask you for money. I remember hearing him shuffling up towards me dragging his worn down sneakers on the ground and kicking pebbles into the road. I was just hoping he wouldn’t try to talk to me. I kept my eyes down. All of a sudden he stopped and stood still right near me. I could feel him staring at me. Then he spoke. Probably the first time a tumbleweed man had spoken to me.

“You alright, boy?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I answered hesitantly.

I looked up at him. I still remember how screwed up he looked. Mangey, skinny old white guy. Hardly any teeth, none of which were a shade of white. Worn out t-shirt and cargo shorts. Bulky, sweat stained backpack, the kind that hikers wear. Sun bleached Dodgers baseball cap. Hadn’t shaved in a while or showered in at least two weeks. I want to say that he was around 40 years old, but he looked like he could’ve been 60 because the sun had taken its toll on him. 

He said, “Looks like that bicycle’s not goin’ nowhere.”

“Yeah,” I said. I didn’t know what else to say.

He said, “Looks like your chain’s come undone there.”

He leaned over and spat out what looked like that last bit of moisture he had in his body. The hot sidewalk dried it up in a few seconds.

Then he went, “You ever learned how to fix a bicycle? They ever teach you about bicycles in school?”

They didn’t. We stood awkwardly for a bit.

He said, “I bet I could fix it for you. Would you like that?”

I nodded. He took his backpack off and set it against the chain linked fence. Got working on getting the chain back on. I just watched him. What else was I supposed to do? It was a strange moment for me. I was used to seeing tumbleweed men being the ones who needed help. I always looked at them like the bottom feeders of society, yet there I was standing out in the sun like a fool while one of them helped me out. In probably two minutes he managed to get the chain back in the right position. He stood up and wiped the sweat off of his head.

“There,” he said, “That should ride real smooth for you.”

“Thanks,” I said.

He asked what my name was and I told him. Something Mother told me not to do.

He said, “Well Sammy, don’t go gettin’ yourself stranded anymore, okay?”

He didn’t move. Guess he wanted to see me ride it away. I hopped on my bicycle and rode away from the tumbleweed man. Suppose I was still in awe at what had just happened because it was like seeing a wild animal and decided to interact with it. Never in a million years did I think I would wind up talking to a tumbleweed man, and never in two million years did I think a tumbleweed man would do anything other than beg for pocket change or cigarettes, let alone fix my damn bicycle for me.

The next morning, I woke up with a nasty cough, probably from smoking with those boys. I was hacking up all sorts of gross stuff. I asked Mother for cough medicine but we didn’t have any. She told me to tough it out and that I needed to build up my immune system. She was somethin’ else. I met up with my friends in the alley in between the auto shop and the dry cleaners. It was too hot to be out in the sun and no one had anything fun to do at their house, so we just hung out there in that shaded alley like little lizards, the ones that hide in the gaps throughout the cinder block walls in people’s backyard.

Lo and behold, as I was standing there in that alley, I saw the tumbleweed man that fixed my bicycle across the street at the gas station. He was digging in the trash bins. Looked like a coyote scavenging for food. Didn’t expect to see him again. Tumbleweed men usually skipped out of town after a few hours because people got tired of them real quick. I walked over to him, coughing up mucus and spitting it out on the asphalt. I was glad to have a reason to get out of that alley. The smoke was bothering my lungs and congested throat. While he was busy rummaging in the garbage, I snuck past him and into the gas station. I used the bit of change I had in my pocket to buy him a hot dog, made sure to put extra toppings on it. Kinda wanted to take a bite myself. I Felt obligated to repay the man for fixing the bicycle chain. I walked out of the store and greeted him awkwardly… 

He was startled and pulled his arms out from the trash, spilling junk on the ground. Poor man was clearly embarrassed I caught him scavenging. 

He said, “Hey Sammy! What you up to? Bicycle busted again?”

I said, “Just wanted to give you this. You look pretty hungry.”

I held the hot dog out. He just stared at it, confused lookin’. 

“You bought that? For me?”

That sunken face lit up. He leaped into the air and down to the ground like he had struck gold. It was nice to see him so happy. 

He said, “I don’t know what to say. Thank you, Sammy.”

He patted me on the shoulder. I coughed some gunk onto the pavement.

“Quite a cough you got there,” he said, “That can’t be fun. I can fix it for you! You stay right here! I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

He turned around and headed up the street before I had time to say anything. I wasn’t sure where he was going or how he was planning on getting rid of my cough, but I just stayed there and waited anyways. 

A few minutes passed, then a few more, and then a few more. I was a little confused. He told me he wouldn’t take long. Just assumed he had gotten lost or something, but then I saw a police car scream down the road, sirens blaring, headed in the same direction that he had walked. Right away I started sprinting behind it, coughing my lungs out. I was worried sick. Prayed that nothing bad was going down. 

About a quarter mile later, I saw the cop car parked at the pharmacy. A small group of people stood around it talking amongst themselves. The tumbleweed man was in the backseat. I ran towards the deputy, interrupting the conversation he was having with a few pharmacy employees, trying to catch my breath… I asked him what was up.

The deputy said “Don’t worry about it boy. That bum just got caught tryin’ to sneak out the store with his pockets full of cough medicine. I’m takin’ him down to the jail.”

I tried to explain that he wasn’t a bad guy.

The deputy said, “I have to. I can’t let him get away with shoplifting. Sick of these greasy hobos coming into town and causing trouble. Everyone else here is sick of ‘em too. Now get outta here, boy!”

I stepped away because the deputy seemed pissed off. He got into the car and pulled out of the parking lot. The tumbleweed man looked at me through the window for a second and then looked away. I stood and watched the car fade into the mirage. That was the last time I ever saw that wacky tumbleweed man. God knows where he ended up. For the first time ever, I was sad to see a tumbleweed man leave Ridgeford. Maybe it was for the best. 

I started seeing people differently after that. I had grown up thinking that men like him were no good. I don’t know why I thought that way. They never taught me that in school or at home. I guess I just learned from the way the town treated them. That’s a sad way to look at people. We’re all just trying to fulfill our needs and make ends meet, some people are just dealt a bad hand, and that’s what they’ve got to work with. Doesn’t mean nothing about their character.

Every now and then, when I see a tumbleweed man drift into town, I pull him aside and buy him a hot dog. 

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