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.


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