October, 2016 — Ann Arbor, Michigan
It has been something like a four mile walk by the time civilization creaks into view. Rosy-fingered dawn is just tickling a blush onto the tent-tops of Ann Arbor’s hobotown. This is the finest shantyville in the Midwest, the tramp metropolis with the highest concentration of PhDs in the world, the hobo haven that Harvard can only dream of. This is Gandy Town.
Jack grins painfully.
Thanks to the years of training in the martial arts that he didn’t have, Jack was able to expertly break his fall from the train using his left knee, right elbow, and the left side of his face. So for the last 3.9 miles he’s been limping, holding his left arm tight to his side while hoping to fuck that it’s not broken, and keeping his left eye closed. At this point he probably couldn’t open that eye if he wanted to. It feels kind of stuck.
From a distance, and with one eye, Gandy Town looks pretty good. It certainly looks big, which is good. Big means anonymity. Big means possibility.
And it’s just as well that this place looks good, because, with no cash remaining to him but the couple hundred bucks that Jack still has sewn into his pants, it would appear that he is going to be staying here a while. Jack wants to continue on toward Chicago and Points West at his earliest opportunity. Probably not all the way to California, though. California has been kind of a shithole ever since the War. Why not Fargo, North Dakota? Why not Minot! Jack grins again, which hurts again.
It occurs to him that he should probably learn not to do that, but if he were to start actually learning things at this stage in life, where might that lead? Does the School of Hard Knocks offer graduate degrees?
In any case he’s not going to hop the next freight before he has a little more grubstake saved up again, and for that purpose Gandy Town looks like a very promising locale indeed. With the sun rising behind him, Jack Coulter limps toward the future.
“You got into fate?”
Jack turns around at the question and finds himself looking up at probably the largest man he has ever seen. This fucker has got to be close to seven feet tall and three feet across at the shoulders. The giant has a full red beard, close-cropped red-blond hair sticking out from under a black elaborately embroidered short-billed cap, and a face that looks like it got left out in the wind too long. He nevertheless has the open and simple features of a fairly young guy.
“Excuse me?” Jack manages to inquire.
“You got into fate!” the giant says, looking quite happy about it. “You got punch! In aye!” The giant easily grips his hugely loaded meal tray in one over-sized paw and makes punching motions at his own eye, grinning alarmingly.
“My eye?” Jack says. “Oh!” He puts a hand to his left eye and curses under his breath. He at least got it open, but it still stings like a son of a bitch all around his eyebrow and cheekbone. It must look like he got kicked by a horse. Suddenly, the giant’s language comes clear to him, the vowels all shifting over a notch. “Oh! You want to know if I was in a fight?”
“Yaw!” the giant exclaims, grinning happily. “You fate hou mainy? One?” He makes a single punching gesture, which is impressive in spite of being performed in slow motion. “Toh?” He punches twice, grinning still more widely.
Jack smiles, which hurts, and holds up three fingers. “Three!” he says. “That’s why they threw me off the train.”
“Threy! Yaw? Threy?” The giant laughs boomingly, loud enough that some of the people at nearby tables move a little further away while trying not to be too obvious about it. The giant then says something like “Go-their mother!”, which Jack assumes to be some sort of imprecation, except that the giant laughs again as he says it, and claps Jack on the shoulder with a ham-sized hand that feels like it could break a collar bone without meaning to. “Come!” the big man says, “we ate!”
Jack frowns for a second, then gets it.
“Oh, eat, yeah? Yeah, well, that would be great but I think they stopped serving.”
“Oh,” the giant frowns as if offended. “Come on! We shaire!” He gestures at his mountainously overburdened plate. “I got plainty!”
“So, where you from?” Jack says, between mouthfuls of fried potatoes.
The big man stops chewing and looks at him with a frown of concentration.
“Where. Are. You. From?” Jack asks.
“Ah, yaw!” the giant grins. “From Hafnarfeardish, me!” He points at the center of his chest.
“Hafnar—” Jack ventures. “Fear? Dish?”
“Yaw, yaw!” he nods vigorously. “There from, me!”
Jack ponders how to put this delicately. “Where,” he smiles a little, to show he means no insult but not so much that it might look like he’s trying to make some kind of a joke, “Is. Haf Nar Fear Dish?”
“Ah, yaw!” the big guy says after another mouthful of potatoes helps him comprehend the question. “West. Hafnarfeardish west. After Reykyavik!” The giant grins, certain that he has made his point.
Jack, not realizing that his dinner partner has just used another place-name, wonders if it might turn out that this guy is not a foreigner at all, but has simply had a stroke or something. If so, how long would it take to figure that out?
OK, there is just not going to be any subtle way of asking this…
“What,” Jacks enunciates carefully. “Country?”
The big guy nods, frowning for two seconds as he parses the question, then his eyes widen and he throws back his head and laughs like a grizzly bear that just got a joke for the first time in its grizzly life.
After a good ten seconds of this hilarity, the giant calms himself, then looks back down at Jack and answers.
Jack takes a slow breath. Even eight years ago when he first hit the rails, practically anybody you met from another country would have been able to speak English like God and Walter Cronkite intended. Not that there were all that many Europeans riding the rails of course, but you might run into them occasionally. But since the War and the resulting conquest of most of the planet by U.S. Foreign Command, English seems not to be nearly such a ‘cool’ language to learn anymore. This big guy, probably no more than twenty years old, is just young enough that he has grown up mostly in the time when English was decidedly not cool. And yet, paradoxically, there are way more foreigners here riding the rails now than ever before. Probably because they figure they can still cadge a better living here in the States than they can in Occupied Europe, which is probably correct. Also because they figure that the America of the freights and the hobotowns is not exactly the America of U.S. Foreign Command. Which is also probably true.
“Eeslan?” Jack says.
The giant smiles. “Eyes-lan-dih,” he says slowly.
“Iceland! You’re from Iceland?”
“Yaw!” The giant laughs. “Iceland. Hafnarfeardish, Iceland, me.”
Jack leans back on his bench. “Holy shit. Iceland! No shit? I never met anybody from Iceland.” He frowns. “Man, what the hell are you doing here? Are you fucking lost?”
The giant considers. “Yaw,” he agrees sorrowfully. “Fuckin loss, me. I come lookin for—father’s brother’s son.”
“Yaw!” the viking says happily. “Kowsin! But—” his large features sadden again. “Not find nowhere.”
“What’s his name?”
“Authi,” the giant says. “Mikkleson.”
Jack frowns. “That’s his last name? Mikkleson.”
The giant shakes his head. “Not last names, us. Father-name. Mikkle.”
Jack frowns again. “His father’s name is Mikkle?”
“You don’t have—last names?”
“You got an address? Or anything?”
“Nei. I only ask—” he frowns, “peeples. You know Authi? I ask, I ask. Nei, nei. No-bodies knows.”
Jack laughs. “You came here asking for a guy by his first name?”
The giant regards him sadly. “Yaw. This place,” he waves a large hand, “so big! Nobodies knows no things.”
The giant frowns at his empty plate. “And nobier.”
Jack looks at him. “Excuse me?”
The giant regards Jack uncertainly.
“What. Did. You. Say?”
“No,” the giant answers, “bier.”
“No beer? To drink?” Jack pantomimes drinking.
“Yaw!” The giant attempts to look happy at Jack’s understanding while remaining sad about the content of his statement. He succeeds only very approximately. “No beer, to drink!”
Jack leans back again, and smiles. “My friend,” he says, “I think I can help you there.”
“Yaw? Bier?” The giant’s eyes widen.
Two hours later with his liver significantly more poisoned and sporting an elaborately embroidered black cap hand made in Iceland, Jack Coulter walks the alleys of Gandy Town until he finds the kind of establishment he has been looking for.
The sign hanging over the door of the tent says Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow. He weaves his way inside.
“We’re closed!” the young woman shouts, then looks at him and changes her expression. “Or, closing soon anyways.” She smiles.
“I just need,” Jack takes off the cap and holds his hands out to show his profound sincerity, “to be blond.”
The young proprietress smiles at him. “That sounds like fun. But,” her face registers professional concern. “You’ll need a shave.”
“A shave?” Jack’s hand flies to his face. It does feels a bit rough there, but he certainly doesn’t have a serious beard.
“It’s dark, you know?”
“Ah. Yeah.” Jack considers, and his face lights with inspiration. “Could you just make it, like reddish?”
The charming owner smiles. “That would be cool,” she says.
Jack smiles back at her.