When did you write your Mother Last?

Collins was a bum. He roamed about the country on foot or abaft the rods of a wind-jamming freight car, summer and winter, a restless spirit whose sole desire was to get food enough to keep him alive and beer as often as possible. He never stayed in one place long enough for people to inquire why he hadn’t a regular job—because engraven on his soul was a solemn pledge: “Never Work.” If he had ever condescended to do a little manual labour, no matter how spasmodic, he would have elevated himself to the status of a tramp. A tramp will work, if there is no other way out. But a bum—never. He will sooner throw himself under a Mogul engine, and sue the railroad company for damages.

The lowest, the most good-for-nothing among us, say the psychologists, have some capability, some potential power, to do a certain thing better than the average of our fellows. Collins could hold the attention of a camp-fire gathering of twenty derelicts for hours at a time with his yarning. He was known as the best yarn spinner among the disorganized cohorts of Coxie’s army from the Battery to the Golden Gate. They called him affectionately “The Ace-high Liar.” His yarns, he swore, were honest experiences from his own life, but as a matter of fact, as all his pals knew, they were seventy-five per cent Collins’ purple imagination. But they listened to him, and so passed many an hour otherwise weary and profitless. He could take them with him over the broad, cracked face of the earth. He could make them believe they were Alaskan gold hunters, explorers in the Uganda, English tars, seal hunters in the Bering Sea, plantation proprietors in Hawaii, Mexican arms smugglers—anything that came into his round red head.

In another stratum Collins might have been a successful writer of “red-blooded” fiction or thrilling scenarios for the movies. He had been the hero of a thousand unfilmed reels. He was a Lafcadio Hearn for description, a Jack London of narrative, a veritable Dickens for pathos. Nor is this saying much. Most every man has known some unheralded genius like Collins, blissfully ignorant of his own possibilities and therefore three times blessed.

One raw night toward the end of November, Collins and a pal were hugging a radiator in the lobby of the Salvation Army hotel in Minneapolis. Why they happened to be there I don’t know. Where they had come from, I don’t know. But they were there. And it was good to feel the hot pipes pressed against their shivering bodies. They were cold and hungry and miserable; the joy of life had fled from their souls. Under their breath they cursed each other, God and the weather. The other occupants of the room were peacefully reading or pretending to read. But Collins and his companion were in no mood for reading. Their seared, yellow eyes roamed about the room. They craved whisky, raw whisky. It would ease their troubles and give them a temporary feeling of well-being. But they were flat broke, they couldn’t borrow, and the days of begging had been fruitless. Their eyes continued to roam squintingly, maliciously. They hated the fatuous air of comfort exhaled by the rest of the room.

“Hell!” muttered Collins.

His pal did not answer. Collins turned to look at him. A single tear was trickling down his unshaven cheek. He was a young man almost half Collins’ age. His gaze was fixed on the opposite wall, and Collins, following its direction, encountered a placard in large letters: “When did You Write Your Mother Last?”

“Got the homesick bug, eh?” The other furtively drew his hand across his cheek. “Forget it!” he said hoarsely.

“I don’t blame ya, after what we’ve had handed us the last two days.” There was rough kindness in Collins’ tone.

“Forget it!” repeated the kid. After a moment he added sullenly, “Guess I’ll read. Nothin’ else for a guy to do in this damned hole.” He shuffled over to a table and sat down.

Collins hugged the radiator several minutes longer. Then he turned up his coat collar and left the room. He had decided to make another try at pan-handling the price of a drink.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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