by Jeff Meyer
The Joads weren't the only ones with a not-so-happy ending...
The officers of business and enterprise understood, and they smiled sarcastically behind their hands when the men came to town to outfit the family for travel, hope trembling on their lips. “Hunnerd jobs in California. Thousands!”
“Is that so?”
“Got a han’bill says so! Land o’ plenty.” The store owners smelled blood, sold the farmers bacon at price-and-a-half. The automobile men foisted hard-rimmed scrap iron on them for twice the price.
“We can’t pay that and make it west.” And the sellers shook their heads in disgust, looked past the poor men, always finding a new customer, always another buyer. The men with the sun-leathered faces looked at each other, at no one in particular, and gave in for the first of many times. “Well, I guess we have to, but I can’t figger ‘er. Sugar cost 30 cents a pound and bacon twice that. But we gotta get a move on... Just can’t figger it...” The money was taken from the desperate men, the coffers filled, and the banks and ledgers were sated for a while.
Stripped of crops and denuded of humanity, the raped land burned under an indifferent western sun. Walls became silent, dooryards mute. Like some horrid miscarriage of birth, family and community alike was aborted, turned out, disgorged into the mountains: distant teeth intent on consuming the salt of the earth. And the men with their pockets bursting with dollars, these midwives of disaster, lingered on with no one left to sell, no one left to gouge.
They looked angrily at their women, embarrassed; they looked past the questions in their children’s eyes, ashamed of the answers. They had accepted the money from the banks to plow over the land, plow under the families. They had put on the masks of progress and driven the machines that severed the bloodlines of Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas. And all the time beyond their shoulders, the horizon crawled like a defeated army--west, ever west.
The vacated towns died like the abandoned cattle starving in the dusty, mechanized fields. The bones left behind were picked clean: boards from houses were burned for heat; iron pump handles disappeared in the night; shelter for man and beast crumbled into dust or was repossessed, entry denied, humanity repelled down hard, unforgiven paths.
The Migrant Road became posted, not with markers for places, but with unskilled graves. “Heres grandmaw, we cant a ford the Papers. God rest her sole.” And the men who stayed behind accepted more money from back east to catalog the grisly signposts: in a grove of linden trees, two twins; beneath a crude cairn in a razed field, Henry (we knowed him as Pap); in an abandoned tent; by a tree that looked like a cross, down an embankment, by a creek. They were retrieved and noted, made numbers from names. Silent, hurt faces emerged ghostly from the surrounding woods, staring at the men. They watched their futures played out before them with eyes that refused the relentlessness. The displaced faces looked on, and the grave robbers--not brave enough to fail in the passes of the mountains--carried the wagons of the dead out of the pastures, out of the trees, away from the rivers. And they cursed those silent, pleading eyes for having seen them in their shame.
The men who lingered in the dust faded into apathetic hopelessness, with no hope of a noble early grave. They were allotted their coins, thirty pieces per. They supped, and they slept. And they cursed themselves for the pay they took, the damnation they recorded line by line in the ledgers and the books of the dead.
They looked to the mountains and wondered how many made it through the pass, and how many starved for the sake of a wrinkled handbill and the profit from a poor jalopy. And they wondered why they hadn’t gone themselves.