Mon, 23 Sep 2002

I guess this makes me a bastard, but I found “The Grapes of Wrath” kind of irritating.

***

Night grazed hungrily on prairie grass, dry and yellow. A coyote howled. A field mouse pushed its way among the dry stalks, first this way then back, one way then the other, searching, hunting, following its pink twitching nose through a maze of stalks, lit by the low-hanging moon, lit by the melancholy laughing stars, lit only by the moon and the stars. The mouse stopped and sniffed, nose twitching. A pill-bug waddled by, bouncing off the dry stalks, tumbling among the dry stalks, rolling tank-like over the crumbly earth. The mouse nose twitched. The pill-bug waddled along. The pill-bug butted up against a fair-sized stone sitting right in its path. The pill-bug blundered to its left and then to its right, searching for a way around the stone. Finally it found a clear path around, and it waddled on its way. The mouse watched it waddle by. The mouse nose twitched. The mouse scuttled forward and sniffed the pill-bug’s smooth carapace. The pill-bug froze. The mouse sniffed again, and the pill-bug instantly curled up, pulled its legs and head inside its carapace, rolled up into a smooth ball, smooth as a pebble. The mouse sniffed again, then took a bite. Its sharp little teeth, fine and sharp as bee’s stingers, scratched for purchase on the pill-bug’s smooth shell. The pill-bug didn’t move. The mouse dug for purchase with its little bee’s stinger teeth, found none, sniffed around a bit with its little pink nose, and moved on. The pill-bug stayed rolled up. It was in no hurry. The moon slipped off its veil of cloud and sank toward the horizon. Morning approached.

In huts and shacks and little clapboard houses, women and men, eyes still closed, asleep together on their firm beds, their modest, hard little beds, their tattered blankets pulled up under their chins, felt the moon sink toward the horizon. They felt the moon sinking and they felt the sun rising. Their minds worried away at a day’s supply of small victories and small defeats, worried them into dreams of larger victories, of larger defeats, and still they felt the moon sinking, and still they felt the sun rising. Morning approached. And even as they dreamed, the women and the men were aware that morning approached, and their work-hardened muscles twitched in anticipation of the day’s work to come. The women’s forearms twitched in anticipation of laundry to be scrubbed, and of pots to be scrubbed, and of mush to be stirred. The men’s thicker forearms twitched in anticipation of axes to be swung, and of flies to be swatted, and of sticks to be whittled. They twitched and they dreamed, the men and the women, and all the time the moon still sank, and the sun still rose, and morning came on, relentless. A coyote howled one last time, and that was that. Morning was here.

All across the countryside, in huts and shacks and little clapboard houses, the men and the women arose, and the children arose, and the old folks, too, rolled over and saw that morning had arrived, and they pressed their feet down flat upon the morning-cold floor. The women slipped into their Mother Hubbards and set to work preparing the breakfast, and the men climbed into their overalls and emerged into the morning and looked off to the east, nodding at the rising sun, thinking of the day’s work to come, squatted on their haunches and found sticks on the ground and drew patterns in the dirt with the sticks, looking off to the east and then to the west, thinking, always thinking, always thinking. And the women stood in the doorways of their little clapboard houses, and the children crowded around the women’s bare legs, and the women and the children watched the men squatting on their haunches in the dirt, scratching in the dirt with their sticks, and the women and the children knew not to interrupt the men when there was thinking to be done. The women stirred flour and eggs together in metal pans, stirred quietly, and watched the men from the doorstep, and together they knew that a new day was upon them. The children knew too.

Up where the dirt road met the main highway, a car turned off the highway and onto the dirt road. The man scratching in the dirt turned and saw the car coming along the dirt road, raising a cloud of dust as high as the roof of a clapboard house. The car crunched along the dirt road, and turned off the dirt road where there was a break in the fence, and now the car was in the dooryard, pulling to a stop just yards from where the man squatted. The car was new, ten years old maybe, and white, with only a little rust down along the bottom of the door. The car pulled to a stop in the dooryard and the man rose stiffly to his feet, released the stick to fall where it may among the scratches he’d made in the dirt. The woman herded the children inside to sit around the table, but they peered from their chairs out the open door and wondered at this unexpected visitor arriving in their dooryard. The woman beat her flour and her eggs in the metal pan, and watched out the window. She knew to let her man do the talking.

The door of the white car opened. A city man stepped out. He wore tight black jeans and a yellow shirt. His hair was combed straight back. Sweat beaded above his well-groomed eyebrows. He blinked away some sweat and drummed on the roof of the car with soft fingers, soft pink fingers, fingers that had never gripped an axe handle or whittled a stick or felt the warm rush of blood flowing down from the throat of a freshly slaughtered sow. Soft, pink, sluggish fingers that had held pencils, perhaps, or pushed elevator buttons, but that had never squeezed the trigger of a .22 rifle to blow the head off a prairie chicken. With his soft, pink, sluggish little city man fingers, he drummed away. And he gazed around at the dooryard, at the chickens scratching at the side of the house, at the old black dog panting under the edge of the porch, at the clapboard house, at the man in his crusty overalls and bare feet standing just in front of the house. The city man took this all in, and squinted, and felt down in his throat a sense of something he didn’t want to acknowledge. It rose up in his throat like the taste of sour cherries, but he didn’t want to acknowledge it, and it stayed there. He wiped the sweat off his brow and smiled a soft little smile. “Uh, hi,” he said.

The man in the overalls said nothing, just looked at the city man in his yellow shirt. He looked for something in the city man’s face, something to give him confidence, but he could find nothing there. He scratched in the dirt with his bare toe.

“Sorry to bother you so early,” said the city man. “Um…I’m lost. I’ve been driving down this highway all night, and I haven’t seen a town since, well, last night. And…uh…I was going to keep on driving, but I thought I’d better make sure I’m on the right highway…so…I saw you standing out there and I thought I’d, you know, stop. Hope you don’t mind.”

The man in the overalls reached down the front of his overalls and jumbled his testicles in his right hand. He scratched thoughtfully in the dirt with his big toe, scratching unnameable letters there in the dirt, and jumbled his testicles, and looked over the city man in his yellow shirt, and waited for the city man to say something more.

“Uh…my name’s Michael,” said the city man. “I was just…you know, wondering…just wondering where this highway goes. Uh, does this highway go anywhere? I thought it was supposed to go to the I-40, but I stopped last night to get some food at a little diner…and, uh, when I turned back onto the road I must’ve got on the wrong one, but I didn’t notice…and by the time I did, there was nowhere to pull over to find out where I was going. So…sorry to bother you…but…”

The man in the overalls jumbled his testicles in his right hand and scratched another alphabet in the dirt with his toe. A black ant making its way across the dooryard marched down into the trenches created by the man’s scratching toe, and got briefly lost in them, and finally wandered out and back to its anthill, to carry the memory of the strange new alphabet in its marching feet. The man in the overalls reached his other hand down the back of his overalls and scratched his asshole.

“Um. I guess I just thought maybe you could tell me what’s the nearest town, or…you know, which way to the nearest main highway, or…I don’t even know how I got onto this highway in the first place…sort of weird…anyway, I’m sorry to bother you. My name’s, uh, Michael, by the way.” The city man rapped his knuckle four gentle times on the roof of his white car. “Uh, and you are?”

“Jodson,” said the man in the overalls, jumbling his testicles and scratching his asshole. “I’m Pa Jodson, that there’s Ma in the window, Abelmay an’ Floricarn back in the house, Preacher Willie laid out over there in that there hammock, Uncle Boogly sleepin’ off a drunk in the boughs of yarn tree, and Grampy and Grammy is comin’ up behin’ you from the barn where they sleep cos they bladders isn’t so good no more.”

A bristly old man in long underwear was hopping along the path from the barn to the house. A halo of wispy white hair stood up behind his head. An open sore on his lip oozed yellow pus. His chin whiskers were stained yellow from pus and tobacco. Behind him was a leathery crooked old woman in a thin cotton shift. Bits of straw were stuck in the flesh of her knobbly knees. “Praise be and Jesus love ya!” said the old woman, and lifted her shift above her leathery hips, and squatted there on the path, and urinated there while the city man looked on, squinting, rapping his knuckles on the roof of his car. The old man hopped up to the city man and looked up into his eyes.

“What you want here?” said the old man.

“Uh…” said the city man. He was trying not to stare at the old woman urinating just a few yards from his car. The old man continued to look into the city man’s eyes, to examine his face, searching for a kind of understanding that he didn’t expect to find there. The old man narrowed his gaze and focussed on the white skin visible at the base of the city man’s neck, a white scrawny chicken-flesh neck, where his collar was open. There the old man searched for understanding. Finding none, he shrugged, turned around, and hopped up to the front porch, where he collapsed and lay on his back, wheezing shrilly.

The woman came out, still stirring in her metal pan, and got on her knees beside the old man. She looked at his face. His eyes were wide open, staring up at the sky, still searching for understanding. His mouth opened. His tongue rolled out. It rolled back in. He shivered and spat, like a cut of fatty sidemeat in a frying pan. The woman beat her flour and her eggs. “Grampy’s havin’ ‘nother ep’lepsy,” she announced. The children ran out and crowded around the shaking old man.

“Nyah, nyah, Grampy’s dyin’ agin,” chanted Abelmay and Floricarn.

“Hush, children. Abelmay, go get Grampy a glass of warm milk. And pour a little bacon grease in, for strength.” Abelmay ran back inside the house. Floricarn stuck out his tongue and patted his head and reached down his overalls to jumble his immature testicles. The woman beat her flour and her eggs, and her eyes were set hard with a look of unshakeable patience. This was her lot, to oversee the births and the deaths and the ep’lepsies, to stir the mush and to salt the pork, to scrub the laundry and to scrub the pots. Her eyes scanned over the horizon, and the eyes anticipated nothing, and made no demands.

In the dooryard, Pa had turned his back on the city man. Pa had found another stick, and inserted it down the front of his pants, and he was frantically scratching. His other hand worked away at his asshole. He hopped up and down on one foot, drawing ever-more complicated patterns in the dirt with the big toe of his other foot. The city man thought he could make out a few words in the scratches Pa left in the dirt with his toe. The city man craned his neck to read. “All is vanity,” said the scratches in the dirt. The city man gave this a little thought, and then, not wanting to intrude further, he ducked back into his car and closed the door.

As the city man drove out of the dooryard and turned onto the dirt road, he looked back and saw that Grammy, too, had collapsed, and was now twisting and jerking in a puddle of her own urine there in the path, her shift still hiked above her hips, foaming at the mouth and praising Jesus with every raspy breath. Ma was still kneeling on the porch beside Grampy, still beating her flour and her eggs, still looking out over the land with an expression of infinite patience and hard-won wisdom. Abelmay came out onto the porch with Grampy’s milk, proudly thrusting her young developing breasts ahead of her. Preacher Willie was preaching a sermon. Floricarn turned white with a sudden attack of the skitters. The city man drummed his soft fingers on the steering wheel and turned onto the highway.

Pa watched the white car as it turned west onto the highway, joining the row of cars already crawling west, heading for California. There were oranges in California, Pa thought, and green grapes growing wild in every gully, and peaches to be plucked from the overhanging trees. Pa thought about joining the row of cars, thought of giving up the farm, thought of heading west. “Times is rough,” he thought. “Gettin’ so a man cain’t hardly enjoy his mornin’ asshole-scratch no more.” A land turtle crawled across the dooryard. Afternoon suddenly arrived.

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