Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Excerpts from The Grapes of Wrath (2)


(From Chapter 15)


Steam spurts from the valve of the coffee urn.  The compressor of the ice machine chugs softly for a time and then stops.  The electric fan in the corner waves its head slowly back and forth, sweeping the room with a warm breeze.  On the highway, on 66, the cars whiz by.
"They was a Massachusetts car stopped a while ago," said Mae.

Big Bill grasped his cup around the top so that the spoon stuck up between his first and second fingers.  He drew in a snort of air with the coffee, to cool it.  "You ought to be out on 66.  Cars from all over the country.  All headin' west.  Never seen so many before.  Sure some honeys on the road."

"We seen a wreck this mornin'," his companion said.  "Big car.  Big Cad', a special job and a honey, low, cream-color, special job.  Hit a truck.  Folded the radiator right back into the driver.  Must a been doin' ninety.  Steerin' wheel went right on through the guy an' lef' him a-wigglin' like a frog on a hook.  Peach of a car.  A honey.  You can have her for peanuts now.  Drivin' alone, the guy was."

Al looked up from his work.  "Hurt the truck?"

"Oh, Jesus Christ!  Wasn't a truck.  One of them cut-down cars full a stoves an' pans an' mattresses an' kids an' chickens.  Goin' west, you know.  This guy come by us doin' ninety--r'ared up on two wheels just to pass us, an' a car's comin' so he cuts in an' whangs this here truck.  Drove like he's blin' drunk.  Jesus, the air was full a bed clothes an' chickens an' kids.  Killed one kid.  Never seen such a mess.  We pulled up.  Ol' man that's drivin' the truck, he jus' stan's there lookin' at that dead kid.  Can't get a word out of 'im.  Jus' rum-dumb.  God Almighty, the road is full a them families goin' west.  Never seen so many.  Gets worse all a time.  Wonder where the hell they all come from?"

"Wonder where they all go to," said Mae.  "Come here for gas sometimes, but they don't hardly never buy nothin' else.  People says they steal.  We ain't got nothin' layin' around.  They never stole nothin' from us."

Big Bill, munching his pie, looked up the road through the screened window.  "Better tie your stuff down.  I think you got some of 'em comin' now."

A 1926 Nash sedan pulled wearily off the highway.  The back seat was piled nearly to the ceiling with sacks, with pots and pans, and on the very top, right up against the ceiling, two boys rode.  On the top of the car, a mattress and a folded tent; tent poles tied along the running board.  The car pulled up to the gas pumps.  A dark-haired, hatchet-faced man got slowly out.  And the two boys slid down from the load and hit the ground.

Mae walked around the counter and stood in the door.  The man was dressed in gray wool trousers and a blue shirt, dark blue with sweat on the back and under the arms.  The boys in overalls and nothing else, ragged patched overalls.  Their hair was light, and it stood up evenly all over their heads, for it had been roached.  Their faces were streaked with dust.  They went directly to the mud puddle under the hose and dug their toes into the mud.

The man asked, "Can we git some water, ma'am?"

A look of annoyance crossed Mae's face.  "Sure, go ahead."  She said softly over her shoulder, "I'll keep my eye on the hose."  She watched while the man slowly unscrewed the radiator cap and ran the hose in.

A woman in the car, a flaxen-haired woman, said, "See if you can't git it here."

The man turned off the hose and screwed on the cap again.  The little boys took the hose from him and they upended it and drank thirstily.  The man took off his dark, stained hat and stood with a curious humility in front of the screen.  "Could you see your way to sell us a loaf of bread, ma'am?"

Mae said, "This ain't a grocery store.  We got bread to make san'widges."

"I know, ma'am."  His humility was insistent.  "We need bread and there ain't nothin' for quite a piece, they say."

" 'F we sell bread we gonna run out."  Mae's tone was faltering.

"We're hungry," the man said.

"Whyn't you buy a san'widge?  We got nice san'widges, hamburgs."

"We'd sure admire to do that, ma'am.  But we can't.  We got to make a dime do all of us."  And he said embarrassedly, "We ain't got but a little."

Mae said, "You can't get no loaf a bread for a dime.  We only got fifteen-cent loafs."

From behind her Al growled, "God Almighty, Mae, give 'em bread."

"We'll run out 'fore the bread truck comes."

"Run out, then, goddamn it," said Al.  And he looked sullenly down at the potato salad he was mixing.

Mae shrugged her plump shoulders and looked to the truck drivers to show them what she was up against.

She held the screen door open and the man came in, bringing a smell of sweat with him.  The boys edged in behind him and they went immediately to the candy case and stared in--not with craving or with hope or even with desire, but just with a kind of wonder that such things could be.  They were alike in size and their faces were alike.  One scratched his dusty ankle with the toe nails of his other foot.  The other whispered some soft message and then they straightened their arms so that their clenched fists in the overall pockets showed through the thin blue cloth.

Mae opened a drawer and took out a long waxpaper-wrapped loaf.  "This here is a fifteen-cent loaf."

The man put his hat back on his head.  He answered with inflexible humility, "Won't you--can't you see your way to cut off ten cents' worth?"

Al said snarlingly, "Goddamn it, Mae.  Give 'em the loaf."

The man turned toward Al.  "No, we want ta buy ten cents' worth of it.  We got it figgered awful close, mister, to get to California."

Mae said resignedly, "You can have this for ten cents."

"That'd be robbin' you, ma'am."

"Go ahead--Al says to take it."  She pushed the waxpapered loaf across the counter.  The man took a deep leather pouch from his rear pocket, untied the strings, and spread it open.  It was heavy with silver and with greasy bills.

"May soun' funny to be so tight," he apologized.  "We got a thousan' miles to go, an' we don' know if we'll make it."  He dug in the pouch with a forefinger, located a dime, and pinched in for it.  When he put it down on the counter he had a penny with it.  He was about to drop the penny back into the pouch when his eye fell on the boys frozen before the candy counter.  He moved slowly down to them.  He pointed in the case at big long sticks of striped peppermint.  "Is them penny candy, ma'am?"

Mae moved down and looked in.  "Which ones?"

"There, them stripy ones."

The little boys raised their eyes to her face and they stopped breathing; their mouths were partly opened, their half-naked bodies were rigid.

"Oh--them.  Well, no--them's two for a penny."

"Well, gimme two then, ma'am."  He placed the copper cent carefully on the counter.  The boys expelled their held breath softly.  Mae held the big sticks out.

"Take 'em," said the man.

They reached timidly, each took a stick, and they held them down at their sides and did not look at them.  But they looked at each other, and their mouth corners smiled rigidly with embarrassment.

"Thank you, ma'am."  The man picked up the bread and went out the door, and the little boys marched stiffly behind him, the red-striped sticks held tightly against their legs.  They leaped like chipmunks over the front seat and onto the top of the load, and they burrowed back out of sight like chipmunks.

The man got in and started his car, and with a roaring motor and a cloud of blue oily smoke the ancient Nash climbed up on the highway and went on its way to the west.

From inside the restaurant the truck drivers and Mae and Al stared after them.

Big Bill wheeled back.  "Them wasn't two-for-a-cent candy," he said.

"What's that to you?" Mae said fiercely.

"Them was nickel apiece candy," said Bill.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Excerpts from The Grapes of Wrath (1)

(From Chapter 8)

"Don't yell," said Tom. "Let's creep up on 'em, like," and he walked so fast that the dust rose as high as his waist.  And then he came to the edge of the cotton field.  Now they were in the yard proper, earth beaten hard, shiny hard, and a few dusty crawling weeds on the ground.  And Joad slowed as though he feared to go on.  The preacher, watching him, slowed to match his step.  Tom sauntered forward, sidled embarrassedly toward the truck.  It was a Hudson Super-Six sedan, and the top had been ripped in two with a cold chisel.  Old Tom Joad stood in the truck bed and he was nailing on the top rails of the truck sides.  His grizzled, bearded face was low over his work, and a bunch of six-penny nails stuck out of his mouth.  He set a nail and his hammer thundered it in.  From the house came the clash of a lid on the stove and the wail of a child.  Joad sidled up to the truck bed and leaned against it.  And his father looked at him and did not see him.  His father set another nail and drove it in.  A flock of pigeons started from the deck of the tank house and flew around and settled again and strutted to the edge to look over; white pigeons and blue pigeons and grays, with iridescent wings.

Joad hooked his fingers over the lowest bar of the truck side.  He looked up at the aging, graying man on the truck.  He wet his thick lips with his tongue, and he said softly, "Pa."

"What do you want?" old Tom mumbled around his mouthful of nails.  He wore a black, dirty slouch hat and a blue work shirt over which was a buttonless vest; his jeans were held up by a wide harness-leather belt with a big square brass buckle, leather and metal polished from years of wearing and his shoes were cracked and the soles swollen and boat-shaped from years of sun and wet and dust.  The sleeves of his shirt were tight on his forearms, held down by the bulging powerful muscles.  Stomach and hips were lean, and legs, short, heavy, and strong.  His face, squared by a bristling pepper and salt beard, was all drawn down to the forceful chin, a chin thrust out and built out by the stubble beard which was not so grayed on the chin, and gave weight and force to its thrust.  Over old Tom's unwhiskered cheek bones the skin was as brown as meerschaum, and wrinkled in rays around his eye-corners from squinting.  His eyes were brown, black-coffee brown, and he thrust his head forward when he looked at a thing, for his bright dark eyes were failing.  His lips, from which the big nails protruded, were thin and red.

He held his hammer suspended in the air, about to drive a set nail, and he looked over the truck side at Tom, looked resentful at being interrupted.  And then his chin drove forward and his eyes looked at Tom's face, and then gradually his brain became aware of what he saw.  The hammer dropped slowly to his side, and with his left hand he took the nails from his mouth.  And he said wonderingly, as though he told himself the fact, "It's Tommy--"  And then, still informing himself, "It's Tommy come home."  His mouth opened again, and a look of fear came into his eyes.  "Tommy," he said softly, "you ain't busted out?  You ain't got to hide?"  He listened tensely.

"Naw," said Tom.  "I'm paroled.  I'm free.  I got my papers."  He gripped the lower bars of the truck side and looked up.

Old Tom laid his hammer gently on the floor and put his nails in his pocket.  He swung his leg over the side and dropped lithely to the ground, but once beside his son he seemed embarrassed and strange.  "Tommy," he said, "we are goin' to California.  But we was gonna write you a letter an' tell you."  And he said, incredulously, "But you're back.  You can go with us.  You can go!"  The lid of a coffee pot slammed in the house.  Old Tom looked over his shoulder.  "Le's surprise 'em," he said, and his eyes shone with excitement.  "Your ma got a bad feelin' she ain't never gonna see you no more.  She got that quiet look like when somebody died.  Almost she don't want to go to California, fear she'll never see you no more."  A stove lid clashed in the house again.  "Le's surprise 'em," old Tom repeated.  "Le's go in like you never been away.  Le's jus' see what your ma says."  At last he touched Tom, but touched him on the shoulder, timidly, and instantly took his hand away.  He looked at Jim Casy.

Tom said, "You remember the preacher, Pa.  He come along with me."

"He been in prison too?"

"No, I met 'im on the road.  He been away."

Pa shook hands gravely.  "You're welcome here, sir."

Casy said, "Glad to be here.  It's a thing to see when a boy comes home.  It's a thing to see."

"Home," Pa said.

"To his folks," the preacher amended quickly.  "We stayed at the other place last night."

Pa's chin thrust out, and he looked back down the road for a moment.  Then he turned to Tom.  "How'll we do her?" he began excitedly.  "S'pose I go in an' say, 'Here's some fellas want some breakfast,' or how'd it be if you jus' come in an' stood there till she seen you?  How'd that be?"  His face was alive with excitement.

"Don't le's give her no shock," said Tom.  "Don't le's scare her none."

...

"Come on," said Pa, "come on in now.  She got to see you.  I got to see her face when she sees you.  Come on.  She'll yell breakfast in a minute.  I heard her slap the salt pork in the pan a good time ago."  He led the way across the fine-dusted ground.  There was no porch on this house, just a step and then the door; a chopping block beside the door, its surface matted and soft from years of chopping.  The graining in the sheathing wood was high, for the dust had cut down the softer wood.  The smell of burning willow was in the air, and, as the three men neared the door, the smell of frying side-meat and the smell of high brown biscuits and the sharp smell of coffee rolling in the pot.  Pa stepped up into the open doorway and stood there blocking it with his wide short body.  He said, "Ma, there's a couple fellas jus' come along the road, an' they wonder if we could spare a bite."

Tom heard his mother's voice, the remembered cool, calm drawl, friendly and humble.  "Let 'em come," she said.  "We got a-plenty.  Tell 'em they got to wash their han's.  The bread is done.  I'm jus' takin' up the side-meat now."  And the sizzle of the angry grease came from the stove.

Pa stepped inside, clearing the door, and Tom looked in at his mother.  She was lifting the curling slices of pork from the frying pan.  The oven door was open, and a great pan of high brown biscuits stood waiting there.  She looked out the door, but the sun was behind Tom, and she saw only a dark figure outlined by the bright yellow sunlight.  She nodded pleasantly.  "Come in," she said.  "Jus' lucky I made plenty bread this morning."

Tom stood looking in.  Ma was heavy, but not fat; thick with childbearing and work.  She wore a loose Mother Hubbard of gray cloth in which there had once been colored flowers, but the color was washed out now, so that the small flowered pattern was only a little lighter gray than the background.  The dress came down to her ankles, and her strong, broad, bare feet moved quickly and deftly over the floor.  Her thin, steel-gray hair was gathered in a sparse wispy knot at the back of her head.  Strong, freckled arms were bare to the elbow, and her hands were chubby and delicate, like those of a plump little girl.  She looked out into the sunshine.  Her full face was not soft; it was controlled, kindly.  Her hazel eyes seemed to have experienced all possible tragedy and to have mounted pain and suffering like steps into a high calm and a superhuman understanding.  She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken.  And since old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt and fear, she had practiced denying them in herself.  And since, when a joyful thing happened, they looked to see whether joy was on her, it was her habit to build up laughter out of inadequate materials.  But better than joy was calm.  Imperturbability could be depended upon.  And from her great and humble position in the family she had taken dignity and a clean calm beauty.  From her position as healer, her hands had grown sure and cool and quiet; from her position as arbiter she had become as remote and faultless in judgment as a goddess.  She seemed to know that if she swayed the family shook, and if she ever really deeply wavered or despaired the family would fall, the family will to function would be gone.

She looked out into the sunny yard, at the dark figure of a man.  Pa stood near by, shaking with excitement.  "Come in," he cried.  "Come right in, mister."  And Tom a little shamefacedly stepped over the doorsill.

She looked up pleasantly from the frying pan.  And then her hand sank slowly to her side and the fork clattered to the wooden floor.  Her eyes opened wide, and the pupils dilated.  She breathed heavily through her open mouth.  She closed her eyes.  "Thank God," she said.  "Oh, thank God!"  And suddenly her face was worried.  "Tommy, you ain't wanted?  You didn' bust loose?"

"No, Ma.  Parole.  I got the papers here."  He touched his breast.

She moved toward him lithely, soundlessly in her bare feet, and her face was full of wonder.  Her small hand felt his arm, felt the soundness of his muscles.  And then her fingers went up to his cheek as a blind man's fingers might.  And her joy was nearly like sorrow.  Tom pulled his underlip between his teeth and bit it.  Her eyes went wonderingly to his bitten lip, and she saw the little line of blood against his teeth and the trickle of blood down his lip.  Then she knew, and her control came back, and her hand dropped.  Her breath came out explosively.  "Well!" she cried.  "We come mighty near to goin' on without ya.  An' we was wonderin' how in the worl' you could ever find us."  She picked up the fork and combed the boiling grease and brought out a dark curl of crisp pork.  And she set the pot of tumbling coffee on the back of the stove.

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