I have been running a series of extracts from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (the previous extracts are here and here). One of the great novels of the Great Depression, The Grapes of Wrath tells the story of one family, the Joads, tenant farmers from Oklahoma, who are forced off their land by the banks, pushed into migrating to the promised land of California, and the even greater wretchedness they find in their Utopia. In this third extract, the Joads have finally found work in a picking field. It is, however, more like a prison than a farm – protected by guards and fencing, with the pickers warned off from leaving the camp. As they enter the farm, they see a group of protestors at the gate. Tom Joad decides to find out what they were protesting about – and finds among the protestors Casy, the former preacher who had travelled with the Joads from Oklahoma, but who had been imprisoned after he protected Tom, by taking the blame for assaulting a policeman who had come to attack a squatters camp in which the Joads were staying. It is a story of the pitilessness of capitalism, the horrors of migration, the disintegration of communities and families, and the meaning of solidarity, in an age long before concepts such as ‘globalisation’ or ‘neoliberalism’ had been coined.
From The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck,
A figure stirred beside the road. A voice said, ‘Hello – who is it?’
Tom stopped and stood still. ‘Who are you?’
A man stood up and walked near. Tom could see the gun in his hand. Then a flashlight played on his face. ‘Where you think you’re going?’ ‘Well, I thought I’d take a walk. Any law against it?’
‘You better walk some other way.’
Tom asked, ‘Can’t I even get out of here?’
‘Not tonight you can’t. Want to walk back, or shall I whistle some help an’ take you?’
‘Hell,’ said Tom, ‘it ain’t nothin’ to me. If it’s gonna cause a mess, I don’t give a darn. Sure, I’ll go back.’
The dark figure relaxed. The flash went off. ‘Ya see, it’s for your own good. Them crazy pickets might get you.’
‘Them goddamn reds.’
‘Oh,’ said Tom. ‘I didn’ know ’bout them.’
‘You seen ’em when you come, didn’ you?’
‘Well, I seen a bunch a guys, but they was so many cops I didn’ know. Thought it was a accident.’
‘Well, you better git along back.’
‘That’s O.K. with me, mister.’ He swung about and started back. He walked quietly along the road a hundred yards, and then he stopped and listened. The twittering call of a raccoon sounded near the irrigation ditch and, very far away, the angry howl of a tied dog. Tom sat down beside the road and listened. He heard the high soft laughter of a night hawk and the stealthy movement of a creeping animal in the stubble. He inspected the skyline in both directions, dark frames both ways, nothing to show against. Now he stood up and walked slowly to the right of the road, off into the stubble field, and he walked bent down, nearly as low as the haycocks. He moved slowly and stopped occasionally to listen. At last he came to the wire fence, five strands of taut barbed wire. Beside the fence he lay on his back, moved his head under the lowest strand, held the wire up with his hands and slid himself under, pushing against the ground with his feet.
He was about to get up when a group of men walked by on the edge of the highway. Tom waited until they were far ahead before he stood up and followed them. He watched the side of the road for tents. A few automobiles went by. A stream cut across the fields, and the highway crossed it on a small concrete bridge. Tom looked over the side of the bridge. In the bottom of the deep ravine he saw a tent and a lantern was burning inside. He watched it for a moment, saw the shadows of people against the canvas walls. Tom climbed a fence and moved down into the ravine through brush and dwarf willows; and in the bottom, beside a tiny stream, he found a trail. A man sat on a box in front of the tent.
‘Evenin’,’ Tom said.
‘Who are you?’
‘Well – I guess, well – I’m jus’ goin’ past.’
‘Know anybody here?’
‘No. I tell you I was jus’ goin’ past.’
A head stuck out of the tent. A voice said, ‘What’s the matter?’
‘Casy!’ Tom cried. ‘Casy! For Chris’ sake, what you doin’ here?’
‘Why, my God, it’s Tom Joad! Come on in, Tommy. Come on in.’
‘Know him, do ya?’ the man in front asked.
‘Know him? Christ, yes. Knowed him for years. I come west with him. Come on in, Tom.’ He clutched Tom’s elbow and pulled him into the tent.
Three other men sat on the ground, and in the center of the tent a lantern burned. The men looked up suspiciously. A dark-faced, scowling man held out his hand. ‘Glad to meet ya,’ he said. ‘I heard what Casy said. This the fella you was tellin’ about?’
‘Sure. This is him. Well, for God’s sake! Where’s your folks? What you doin’ here?’
‘Well,’ said Tom, ‘we heard they was work this-a-way. An’ we come, an’ a bunch a State cops run us into this here ranch an’ we been a-pickin’ peaches all afternoon. I seen a bunch a fellas yellin’. They wouldn’ tell me nothin’, so I come out here to see what’s goin’ on. How’n hell’d you get here, Casy?’
The preacher leaned forward and the yellow lantern light fell on his high pale forehead. ‘Jail house is a kinda funny place,’ he said. ‘Here’s me, been a-goin’ into the wilderness like Jesus to try find out somepin. Almost got her sometimes, too. But it’s in the jail house I really got her.’ His eyes were sharp and merry. ‘Great big ol’ cell, an’ she’s full all a time. New guys come in, and guys go out. An’ ‘course I talked to all of ’em.’
‘’Course you did,’ said Tom. ‘Always talk. If you was up on the gallows you’d be passin’ the time a day with the hangman. Never seen sech a talker.’
The men in the tent chuckled. A wizened little man with a wrinkled face slapped his knee. ‘Talks all the time,’ he said. ‘Folks kinda likes to hear ‘im, though.’
‘Use’ ta be a preacher,’ said Tom. ‘Did he tell that?’
‘Sure, he told.’
Casy grinned. ‘Well, sir,’ he went on, ‘I begin gettin’ at things. Some of them fellas in the tank was drunks, but mostly they was there ’cause they stole stuff; an’ mostly it was stuff they needed an’ couldn’ get no other way. Ya see?’ he asked.
‘No,’ said Tom.
‘Well, they was nice fellas, ya see. What made ’em bad was they needed stuff. An’ I begin to see, then. It’s need that makes all the trouble. I ain’t got it worked out. Well, one day they give us some beans that was sour. One fella started yellin’, an’ nothin’ happened. He yelled his head off. Trusty come along an’ looked in an’ went on. Then another fella yelled. Well, sir, then we all got yellin’. And we all got on the same tone, an’ I tell ya, it jus’ seemed like that tank bulged an’ give and swelled up. By God! Then somepin happened! They come a-runnin’, and they give us some other stuff to eat— give it to us. Ya see?’
‘No,’ said Tom.
Casy put his chin down on his hands. ‘Maybe I can’t tell you,’ he said. ‘Maybe you got to find out. Where’s your cap?’
‘I come without it.’
‘How’s your sister?’
‘Hell, she’s big as a cow. I bet she got twins. Gonna need wheels under her stomach. Got to holdin’ it with her han’s, now. You ain’ tol’ me what’s goin’ on.’ The wizened man said, ‘We struck. This here’s a strike.’
‘Well, fi’ cents a box ain’t much, but a fella can eat.’
‘Fi’ cents?’ the wizened man cried. ‘Fi’ cents! They payin’ you fi’ cents?’ ‘Sure. We made a buck an’ a half.’
A heavy silence fell in the tent. Casy stared out the entrance, into the dark night. ‘Lookie, Tom,’ he said at last. ‘We come to work there. They says it’s gonna be fi’ cents. They was a hell of a lot of us. We got there an’ they says they’re payin’ two an’ a half cents. A fella can’t even eat on that, an’ if he got kids—So we says we won’t take it. So they druv us off. An’ all the cops in the worl’ come down on us. Now they’re payin’ you five. When they bust this here strike—ya think they’ll pay five?’
‘I dunno,’ Tom said. ‘Payin’ five now.’
‘Lookie,’ said Casy. ‘We tried to camp together, an’ they druv us like pigs. Scattered us. Beat the hell outa fellas. Druv us like pigs. They run you in like pigs, too. We can’t las’ much longer. Some people ain’t et for two days. You goin’ back tonight?’
‘Aim to,’ said Tom.
‘Well – tell the folks in there how it is, Tom. Tell ’em they’re starvin’ us an’ stabbin’ theirself in the back. ‘Cause sure as cowflops she’ll drop to two an’ a half jus’ as soon as they clear us out.’
‘I’ll tell ’em,’ said Tom. ‘I don’ know how. Never seen so many guys with guns. Don’ know if they’ll even let a fella talk. An’ folks don’ pass no time of day. They jus’ hang down their heads an’ won’t even give a fella a howdy.’
‘Try an’ tell ’em, Tom. They’ll get two an’ a half, jus’ the minute we’re gone. You know what two an’ a half is—that’s one ton of peaches picked an’ carried for a dollar.’ He dropped his head. ‘No—you can’t do it. You can’t get your food for that. Can’t eat for that.’
‘I’ll try to get to tell the folks.’
‘How’s your ma?’
‘Purty good. She liked that gov’ment camp. Baths an’ hot water.’
‘Yeah – I heard.’
‘It was pretty nice there. Couldn’ find no work, though. Had a leave.’
‘I’d like to go to one,’ said Casy. ‘Like to see it. Fella says they ain’t no cops.’ ‘Folks is their own cops.’
Casy looked up excitedly. ‘An’ was they any trouble? Fightin’, stealin’, drinkin’?’ ‘No,’ said Tom.
‘Well, if a fella went bad – what then? What’d they do?’
‘Put ‘im outa the camp.’
‘But they wasn’ many?’
‘Hell, no,’ said Tom. ‘We was there a month, an’ on’y one.’
Casy’s eyes shone with excitement. He turned to the other men. ‘Ya see?’ he cried.
‘I tol’ you. Cops cause more trouble than they stop. Look, Tom. Try an’ get the folks in there to come on out. They can do it in a couple days. Them peaches is ripe. Tell ’em.’
‘They won’t,’ said Tom. ‘They’re a-gettin’ five, an’ they don’ give a damn about nothin’ else.’
‘But jus’ the minute they ain’t strikebreakin’ they won’t get no five.’
‘I don’ think they’ll swalla that. Five they’re a-gettin’. Tha’s all they care about.’ ‘Well, tell ’em anyways.’
‘Pa wouldn’ do it,’ Tom said. ‘I know ‘im. He’d say it wasn’t none of his business.’ ‘Yes,’ Casy said disconsolately. ‘I guess that’s right. Have to take a beatin’ fore he’ll know.’
‘We was outa food,’ Tom said. ‘Tonight we had meat. Not much, but we had it.
Think Pa’s gonna give up his meat on account a other fellas? An’ Rosasharn oughta get milk. Think Ma’s gonna wanta starve that baby jus’ ’cause a bunch a fellas is yellin’ outside a gate?’
Casy said sadly, ‘I wisht they could see it. I wisht they could see the on’y way they can depen’ on their meat—Oh, the hell! Get tar’d sometimes. God-awful tar’d. I knowed a fella. Brang ‘im in while I was in the jail house. Been tryin’ to start a union. Got one started. An’ then them vigilantes bust it up. An’ know what? Them very folks he been tryin’ to help tossed him out. Wouldn’ have nothin’ to do with ‘im. Scared they’d get saw in his comp’ny. Say, ‘Git out. You’re a danger on us.’ Well, sir, it hurt his feelin’s purty bad. But then he says, ‘It ain’t so bad if you know.’ He says, ‘French Revolution—all them fellas that figgered her out got their heads chopped off. Always that way,’ he says. ‘Jus’ as natural as rain. You didn’ do it for fun no way. Doin’ it ’cause you have to. ‘Cause it’s you. Look a Washington,’ he says. ‘Fit the Revolution, an’ after, them sons-a-bitches turned on him. An’ Lincoln the same. Same folks yellin’ to kill ’em. Natural as rain.’‘
‘Don’t soun’ like no fun,’ said Tom.
‘No, it don’t. This fella in jail, he says, ‘Anyways, you do what you can. An’,’ he says, ‘the on’y thing you got to look at is that ever’ time they’s a little step fo’ward, she may slip back a little, but she never slips clear back. You can prove that,’ he says, ‘an’ that makes the whole thing right. An’ that means they wasn’t no waste even if it seemed like they was.’‘
‘Talkin’,’ said Tom. ‘Always talkin’. Take my brother Al. He’s out lookin’ for a girl. He don’t care ’bout nothin’ else. Couple days he’ll get him a girl. Think about it all day an’ do it all night. He don’t give a damn ’bout steps up or down or sideways.’
‘Sure,’ said Casy. ‘Sure. He’s jus’ doin’ what he’s got to do. All of us like that.’
The man seated outside pulled the tent flap wide. ‘Goddamn it, I don’ like it,’ he said.
Casy looked out at him. ‘What’s the matter?’
‘I don’ know. I jus’ itch all over. Nervous as a cat.’
‘Well, what’s the matter?’
‘I don’ know. Seems like I hear somepin, an’ then I listen an’ they ain’t nothin’ tohear.’
‘You’re jus’ jumpy,’ the wizened man said. He got up and went outside. And in a second he looked into the tent. ‘They’s a great big ol’ black cloud a-sailin’ over. Bet she’s got thunder. That’s what’s itchin’ him—’lectricity.’ He ducked out again. The other two men stood up from the ground and went outside.
Casy said softly, ‘All of ’em’s itchy. Them cops been sayin’ how they’re gonna beat the hell outa us an’ run us outa the county. They figger I’m a leader ’cause I talk so much.’
The wizened face looked in again. ‘Casy, turn out that lantern an’ come outside. They’s somepin.’
Casy turned the screw. The flame drew down into the slots and popped and went out. Casy groped outside and Tom followed him. ‘What is it?’ Casy asked softly.
‘I dunno. Listen!’
There was a wall of frog sounds that merged with silence. A high, shrill whistle of crickets. But through this background came other sounds—faint footsteps from the road, a crunch of clods up on the bank, a little swish of brush down the stream.
‘Can’t really tell if you hear it. Fools you. Get nervous,’ Casy reassured them. ‘We’re all nervous. Can’t really tell. You hear it, Tom?’
‘I hear it,’ said Tom. ‘Yeah, I hear it. I think they’s guys comin’ from ever’ which way. We better get outa here.’
The wizened man whispered, ‘Under the bridge span—out that way. Hate to leave my tent.’
‘Le’s go,’ said Casy.
They moved quietly along the edge of the stream. The black span was a cave before them. Casy bent over and moved through. Tom behind. Their feet slipped into the water. Thirty feet they moved, and their breathing echoed from the curved ceiling. Then they came out on the other side and straightened up.
A sharp call, ‘There they are!’ Two flashlight beams fell on the men, caught them, blinded them. ‘Stand where you are.’ The voices came out of the darkness. ‘That’s him. That shiny bastard. That’s him.’
Casy stared blindly at the light. He breathed heavily. ‘Listen,’ he said. ‘You fellas don’ know what you’re doin’. You’re helpin’ to starve kids.’
‘Shut up, you red son-of-a-bitch.’
A short heavy man stepped into the light. He carried a new white pick handle.
Casy went on, ‘You don’ know what you’re a-doin’.’
The heavy man swung with the pick handle. Casy dodged down into the swing. The heavy club crashed into the side of his head with a dull crunch of bone, and Casy fell sideways out of the light.
‘Jesus, George. I think you killed him.’
‘Put the light on him,’ said George. ‘Serve the son-of-a-bitch right.’ The flashlight beam dropped, searched and found Casy’s crushed head.
Tom looked down at the preacher. The light crossed the heavy man’s legs and the white new pick handle. Tom leaped silently. He wrenched the club free. The first time he knew he had missed and struck a shoulder, but the second time his crushing blow found the head, and as the heavy man sank down, three more blows found his head. The lights danced about. There were shouts, the sound of running feet, crashing through brush. Tom stood over the prostrate man. And then a club reached his head, a glancing blow. He felt the stroke like an electric shock. And then he was running along the stream, bending low. He heard the splash of footsteps following him. Suddenly he turned and squirmed up into the brush, deep into a poison-oak thicket. And he lay still. The footsteps came near, the light beams glanced along the stream bottom. Tom wriggled up through the thicket to the top. He emerged in an orchard. And still he could hear the calls, the pursuit in the stream bottom. He bent low and ran over the cultivated earth; the clods slipped and rolled under his feet. Ahead he saw the bushes that bounded the field, bushes along the edges of an irrigation ditch. He slipped through the fence, edged in among vines and blackberry bushes. And then he lay still, panting hoarsely. He felt his numb face and nose. The nose was crushed, and a trickle of blood dripped from his chin. He lay still on his stomach until his mind came back. And then he crawled slowly over the edge of the ditch. He bathed his face in the cool water, tore off the tail of his blue shirt and dipped it and held it against his torn cheek and nose. The water stung and burned.
The black cloud had crossed the sky, a blob of dark against the stars. The night was quiet again. Tom stepped into the water and felt the bottom drop from under his feet. He threshed the two strokes across the ditch and pulled himself heavily up the other bank. His clothes clung to him. He moved and made a slopping noise; his shoes squished. Then he sat down, took off his shoes and emptied them. He wrung the bottoms of his trousers, took off his coat and squeezed the water from it.
Along the highway he saw the dancing beams of the flashlights, searching the ditches. Tom put on his shoes and moved cautiously across the stubble field. The squishing noise no longer came from his shoes. He went by instinct toward the other side of the stubble field, and at last he came to the road. Very cautiously he approached the square of houses.
Once a guard, thinking he heard a noise, called, ‘Who’s there?’
Tom dropped and froze to the ground, and the flashlight beam passed over him. He crept silently to the door of the Joad house. The door squalled on its hinges. And Ma’s voice, calm and steady and wide awake:
‘Well, you better get some sleep. Al ain’t in yet.’
‘He must a foun’ a girl.’
‘Go on to sleep,’ she said softly. ‘Over under the window.’
He found his place and took off his clothes to the skin. He lay shivering under his blanket. And his torn face awakened from its numbness, and his whole head throbbed. It was an hour more before Al came in. He moved cautiously near and stepped on Tom’s wet clothes.
‘Sh!’ said Tom.
Al whispered, ‘You awake? How’d you get wet?’
‘Sh,’ said Tom. ‘Tell you in the mornin’.’
Pa turned on his back, and his snoring filled the room with gasps and snorts. ‘You’re col’,’ Al said.
‘Sh. Go to sleep.’ The little square of the window showed gray against the black of the room. Tom did not sleep. The nerves of his wounded face came back to life and throbbed, and his cheek bone ached, and his broken nose bulged and pulsed with pain that seemed to toss him about, to shake him. He watched the little square window, saw the stars slide down over it and drop from sight. At intervals he heard the footsteps of the watchmen.
At last the roosters crowed, far away, and gradually the window lightened. Tom touched his swollen face with his fingertips, and at his movement Al groaned and murmured in his sleep.
The dawn came finally. In the houses, packed together, there was a sound of movement, a crash of breaking sticks, a little clatter of pans. In the graying gloom Ma sat up suddenly. Tom could see her face, swollen with sleep. She looked at the window, for a long moment. And then she threw the blanket off and found her dress. Still sitting down, she put it over her head and held her arms up and let the dress slide down to her waist. She stood up and pulled the dress down around her ankles. Then in bare feet, she stepped carefully to the window and looked out, and while she stared at the growing light, her quick fingers unbraided her hair and smoothed the strands and braided them up again. Then she clasped her hands in front of her and stood motionless for a moment. Her face was lighted sharply by the window. She turned, stepped carefully among the mattresses, and found the lantern. The shade screeched up, and she lighted the wick.
Pa rolled over and blinked at her. She said, ‘Pa, you got more money?’ ‘Huh? Yeah. Paper wrote for sixty cents.’
‘Well, git up an’ go buy some flour an’ lard. Quick, now.’
Pa yawned. ‘Maybe the store ain’t open.’
‘Make ’em open it. Got to get somepin in you fellas. You got to get out to work.’
Pa struggled into his overalls and put on his rusty coat. He went sluggishly out the door, yawning and stretching.
The children awakened and watched from under their blanket, like mice. Pale light filled the room now, but colorless light, before the sun. Ma glanced at the mattresses. Uncle John was awake. Al slept heavily. Her eyes moved to Tom. For a moment she peered at him, and then she moved quickly to him. His face was puffed and blue, and the blood was dried black on his lips and chin. The edges of the torn cheek were gathered and tight.
‘Tom,’ she whispered, ‘what’s the matter?’
‘Sh!’ he said. ‘Don’t talk loud. I got in a fight.’
‘I couldn’ help it, Ma.’
She knelt down beside him. ‘You in trouble?’
He was a long time answering. ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘In trouble. I can’t go out to work. I got to hide.’
The children crawled near on their hands and knees, staring greedily. ‘What’s the matter’th him, Ma?’
‘Hush!’ Ma said. ‘Go wash up.’
‘We got no soap.’
‘Well, use water.’
‘What’s the matter’th Tom?’
‘Now you hush. An’ don’t you tell nobody.’
They backed away and squatted down against the far wall, knowing they would not be inspected.
Ma asked, ‘Is it bad?’
‘I mean the trouble?’
Al opened his eyes and looked at Tom. ‘Well, for Chris’ sake! What was you in?’ ‘What’s a matter?’ Uncle John asked. Pa clumped in. ‘They was open all right.’ He put a tiny bag of flour and his package of lard on the floor beside the stove. ‘’S’a matter?’ he asked.
Tom braced himself on one elbow for a moment, and then he lay back. ‘Jesus, I’m weak. I’m gonna tell ya once. So I’ll tell all of ya. How ’bout the kids?’
Ma looked at them, huddled against the wall. ‘Go wash ya face.’
‘No,’ Tom said, ‘They got to hear. They got to know. They might blab if they don’t know.’
‘What the hell is this?’ Pa demanded.
‘I’m a-gonna tell. Las’ night I went out to see what all the yellin’ was about. An’ I come on Casy.’
‘Yeah, Pa. The preacher, on’y he was a-leadin’ the strike. They come for him.’
Pa demanded, ‘Who come for him?’
‘I dunno. Same kinda guys that turned us back on the road that night. Had pick
handles.’ He paused. ‘They killed ‘im. Busted his head. I was standin’ there. I went nuts. Grabbed the pick handle.’ He looked bleakly back at the night, the darkness, the flashlights, as he spoke. ‘I—I clubbed a guy.’
Ma’s breath caught in her throat. Pa stiffened. ‘Kill ‘im?’ he asked softly. ‘I—don’t know. I was nuts. Tried to.’
Ma asked. ‘Was you saw?’
‘I dunno. I dunno. I guess so. They had the lights on us.’
For a moment Ma stared into his eyes. ‘Pa,’ she said, ‘break up some boxes. We got to get breakfas’. You got to go to work. Ruthie, Winfiel’. If anybody asts you— Tom is sick—you hear? If you tell—he’ll—get sent to jail. You hear?’
‘Keep your eye on ’em, John. Don’ let ’em talk to nobody.’ She built the fire as Pa broke the boxes that had held the goods. She made her dough, put a pot of coffee to boil. The light wood caught and roared its flame in the chimney.
Pa finished breaking the boxes. He came near to Tom. ‘Casy – he was a good man. What’d he wanta mess with that stuff for?’
Tom said dully, ‘They come to work for fi’ cents a box.’
‘That’s what we’re a-gettin’.’
‘Yeah. What we was a-doin’ was breakin’ strike. They give them fellas two an’ a half cents.’
‘You can’t eat on that.’
‘I know,’ Tom said wearily. ‘That’s why they struck. Well, I think they bust the strike las’ night. We’ll maybe be gettin’ two an’ a half cents today.’
‘Why, the sons-a-bitches—’
‘Yeah! Pa. You see? Casy was still a—good man. Goddamn it, I can’t get that pitcher outa my head. Him layin’ there—head jus’ crushed flat an’ oozin’. Jesus!’ He covered his eyes with his hand.
‘Well, what we gonna do?’ Uncle John asked.
Al was standing up now. ‘Well, by God, I know what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna get out of it.’
‘No, you ain’t, Al,’ Tom said. ‘We need you now. I’m the one. I’m a danger now. Soon’s I get on my feet I got to go.’
Ma worked at the stove. Her head was half turned to hear. She put grease in the frying pan, and when it whispered with heat, she spooned the dough into it.
Tom went on, ‘You got to stay, Al. You got to take care a the truck.’
‘Well, I don’ like it.’
‘Can’t help it, Al. It’s your folks. You can help ’em. I’m a danger to ’em.’
Al grumbled angrily. ‘I don’ know why I ain’t let to get me a job in a garage.’
‘Later, maybe.’ Tom looked past him, and he saw Rose of Sharon lying on the mattress. Her eyes were huge – opened wide. ‘Don’t worry,’ he called to her. ‘Don’t you worry. Gonna get you some milk today.’ She blinked slowly, and didn’t answer him.
Pa said, ‘We got to know, Tom. Think ya killed this fella?’
‘I don’ know. It was dark. An’ somebody smacked me. I don’ know. I hope so. I hope I killed the bastard.’
‘Tom!’ Ma called. ‘Don’ talk like that.’
From the street came the sound of many cars moving slowly. Pa stepped to the window and looked out. ‘They’s a whole slew a new people comin’ in,’ he said.
‘I guess they bust the strike awright,’ said Tom. ‘I guess you’ll start at two an’ a half cents.’
‘But a fella could work at a run, an’ still he couldn’ eat.’
‘I know,’ said Tom. ‘Eat win’fall peaches. That’ll keep ya up.’
Ma turned the dough and stirred the coffee. ‘Listen to me,’ she said. ‘I’m gettin’ cornmeal today. We’re a-gonna eat cornmeal mush. An’ soon’s we get enough for gas, we’re movin’ away. This ain’t a good place. An’ I ain’t gonna have Tom out alone. No, sir.’
‘Ya can’t do that, Ma. I tell you I’m jus’ a danger to ya.’
Her chin was set. ‘That’s what we’ll do. Here, come eat this here, an’ then get out to work. I’ll come out soon’s I get washed up. We got to make some money.’
They ate the fried dough so hot that it sizzled in their mouths. And they tossed the coffee down and filled their cups and drank more coffee.
Uncle John shook his head over his plate. ‘Don’t look like we’re a-gonna get shet of this here. I bet it’s my sin.’
‘Oh, shut up!’ Pa cried. ‘We ain’t got time for your sin now. Come on now. Le’s get out to her. Kids, you come he’p. Ma’s right. We got to go outa here.’
When they were gone, Ma took a plate and a cup to Tom. ‘Better eat a little somepin.’
‘I can’t, Ma. I’m so darn sore I couldn’ chew.’
‘You better try.’
‘No, I can’t, Ma.’
She sat down on the edge of his mattress. ‘You got to tell me,’ she said. ‘I got to figger how it was. I got to keep straight. What was Casy a-doin’? Why’d they kill ‘im?’ ‘He was jus’ standin’ there with the lights on ‘im.’
‘What’d he say? Can ya ‘member what he says?’
Tom said, ‘Sure. Casy said, ‘You got no right to starve people.’ An’ then this heavy fella called him a red son-of-a-bitch. An’ Casy says, ‘You don’ know what you’re a- doin’.’ An’ then this guy smashed ‘im.’
Ma looked down. She twisted her hands together. ‘Tha’s what he said—’You don’ know what you’re doin’?’
Ma said, ‘I wisht Granma could a heard.’
‘Ma – I didn’ know what I was a-doin’, no more’n when you take a breath. I didn’even know I was gonna do it.’
‘It’s awright. I wisht you didn’ do it. I wisht you wasn’ there. But you done what you had to do. I can’t read no fault on you.’ She went to the stove and dipped a cloth in the heating dishwater. ‘Here,’ she said. ‘Put that there on your face.’
He laid the warm cloth over his nose and cheek, and winced at the heat. ‘Ma, I’m a- gonna go away tonight. I can’t go puttin’ this on you folks.’
Ma said angrily, ‘Tom! They’s a whole lot I don’ un’erstan’. But goin’ away ain’t gonna ease us. It’s gonna bear us down.’ And she went on, ‘They was the time when we was on the lan’. They was a boundary to us then. Ol’ folks died off, an’ little fellas come, an’ we was always one thing—we was the fambly—kinda whole and clear. An’ now we ain’t clear no more. I can’t get straight. They ain’t nothin’ keeps us clear. Al— he’s a hankerin’ an’ a-jibbitin’ to go off on his own. An’ Uncle John is jus’ a-draggin’ along. Pa’s lost his place. He ain’t the head no more. We’re crackin’ up, Tom. There ain’t no fambly now. An’ Rosasharn -’ She looked around and found the girl’s wide eyes. ‘She gonna have her baby an’ they won’t be no fambly. I don’ know. I been a- tryin’ to keep her goin’. Winfiel’—what’s he gonna be, this-a-way? Gettin’ wild, an’ Ruthie too—like animals. Got nothin’ to trus’. Don’ go, Tom. Stay an’ help.’
‘O.K.,’ he said tiredly. ‘O.K., I shouldn’, though. I know it.’
Ma went to her dishpan and washed the tin plates and dried them. ‘You didn’ sleep.’
‘Well, you sleep. I seen your clothes was wet. I’ll hang ’em by the stove to dry.’ She finished her work. ‘I’m goin’ now. I’ll pick. Rosasharn, if anybody comes, Tom’s sick, you hear? Don’ let nobody in. You hear?’ Rose of Sharon nodded. ‘We’ll come back at noon. Get some sleep, Tom. Maybe we can get outa here tonight.’ She moved swiftly to him.
‘Tom, you ain’t gonna slip out?’
‘You sure? You won’t go?’
‘No, Ma. I’ll be here.’
‘Awright. ‘Member, Rosasharn.’ She went out and closed the door firmly behind her.
Tom lay still—and then a wave of sleep lifted him to the edge of unconsciousness and dropped him slowly back and lifted him again.
‘You – Tom!’
‘Huh? Yeah!’ He started awake. He looked over at Rose of Sharon. Her eyes were blazing with resentment. ‘What you want?’
‘You killed a fella!’
‘Yeah. Not so loud! You wanta rouse somebody?’
‘What da I care?’ she cried. ‘That lady tol’ me. She says what sin’s gonna do. She tol’ me. What chance I got to have a nice baby? Connie’s gone, an’ I ain’t gettin’ good food. I ain’t gettin’ milk.’ Her voice rose hysterically. ‘An’ now you kill a fella. What chance that baby got to get bore right? I know – gonna be a freak – a freak! I never done no dancin’.’
Tom got up. ‘Sh!’ he said. ‘You’re gonna get folks in here.’ ‘I don’ care. I’ll have a freak! I didn’ dance no hug-dance.’ He went near to her. ‘Be quiet.’
‘You get away from me. It ain’t the first fella you killed, neither.’ Her face was growing red with hysteria. Her words blurred. ‘I don’ wanta look at you.’ She covered her head with her blanket.
Tom heard the choked, smothered cries. He bit his lower lip and studied the floor. And then he went to Pa’s bed. Under the edge of the mattress the rifle lay, a lever- action Winchester .38, long and heavy. Tom picked it up and dropped the lever to see that a cartridge was in the chamber. He tested the hammer on half-cock. And then he went back to his mattress. He laid the rifle on the floor beside him, stock up and barrel pointing down. Rose of Sharon’s voice thinned to a whimper. Tom lay down again and covered himself, covered his bruised cheek with the blanket and made a little tunnel to breathe through. He sighed, ‘Jesus, oh, Jesus!’
Outside a group of cars went by, and voices sounded. ‘How many men?’
‘Jes’ us – three. Whatcha payin’?’
‘You go to house twenty-five. Number’s right on the door.’ ‘OK, mister. Whatcha payin’?’
‘Two and a half cents.’
‘Why, goddamn it, a man can’t make his dinner!’
‘That’s what we’re payin’. There’s two hundred men coming from the South that’ll be glad to get it.’
‘But, Jesus, mister!’
‘Go on now. Either take it or go on along. I got no time to argue.’
‘Look. I didn’ set the price. I’m just checking you in. If you want it, take it. If you don’t, turn right around and go along.’
The images are lithographs from the Great Depression. From top down: Thomas Hart benton, ‘Strike’; Charles Turk, ‘Work Relief’; Blanche Grambs, ‘No Work’; James Allen Lane, ‘Prayer for Rain’; Clare Leighton, ‘Bread Line’; Jacob Burck, ‘The Lord Provides’; Minna Citron, ‘Strike News’; Blanche Grambs, ‘Depression’; Thomas Hart Benton, ‘Departure of the Joads’. The book cover is of the original edition of The Grapes of Wrath.