THE MAN’S CLOTHES WERE new – all of them, cheap and new. His gray cap was so new that the visor was still stiff and the button still on, not shapeless and bulged as it would be when it had served for a while all the various purposes of a cap – carrying sack, towel, handkerchief. His suit was of cheap gray hardcloth and so new that there were creases in the trousers. His blue chambray shirt was stiff and smooth with filler. The coat was too big, the trousers too short, for he was a tall man. The coat shoulder peaks hung down on his arms, and even then the sleeves were too short and the front of the coat flapped loosely over his stomach. He wore a pair of new tan shoes of the kind called ‘army last’, hob-nailed and with half-circles like horseshoes to protect the edges of the heels from wear. This man sat on the running board and took off his cap and mopped his face with it. Then he put on the cap, and by pulling started the future ruin of the visor. His feet caught his attention. He leaned down and loosened the shoelaces, and did not tie the ends again. Over his head the exhaust of the Diesel engine whispered in quick puffs of blue smoke. The music stopped in the restaurant and a man’s voice spoke from the loudspeaker, but the waitress did not turn him off, for she didn’t know the music had stopped. Her exploring fingers had found a lump under her ear. She was trying to see it in a mirror behind the counter without letting the truck driver know, and so she pretended to push a bit of hair to neatness.
The truck driver said, “They was a big dance in Shawnee. I heard somebody got killed or somepin. You hear anything?”
“No,” said the waitress, and she lovingly fingered the lump under her ear. Outside, the seated man stood up and looked over the cowl of the truck and watched the restaurant for a moment. Then he settled back on the running board, pulled a sack of tobacco and a book of papers from his side pocket. He rolled his cigarette slowly and perfectly, studied it, smoothed it. At last he lighted it and pushed the burning match into the dust at his feet. The sun cut into the shade of the truck as noon approached. In the restaurant the truck driver paid his bill and put his two nickels’ change in a slot machine. The whirling cylinders gave him no score.
“They fix ’em so you can’t win nothing,” he said to the waitress.
And she replied, “Guy took the jackpot not two hours ago. Three-eighty he got. How soon you gonna be back by?”
He held the screen door a little open. “Week-ten days,” he said. “Got to make a run to Tulsa, an’ I never get back soon as I think.”
She said crossly, “Don’t let the flies in. Either go out or come in.”
“So long,” he said, and pushed his way out. The screen door banged behind him. He stood in the sun, peeling the wrapper from a piece of gum. He was a heavy man, broad in the shoulders, thick in the stomach. His face was red and his blue eyes long and slitted from having squinted always at sharp light. He wore army trousers and high laced boots.
Holding the stick of gum in front of his lips he called through the screen, “Well, don’t do nothing you don’t want me to hear about.” The waitress was turned toward a mirror on the back wall. She grunted a reply. The truck driver gnawed down the stick of gum slowly, opening his jaws and lips wide with each bite. He shaped the gum in his mouth, rolled it under his tongue while he walked to the big red truck. The hitch-hiker stood up and looked across through the windows.
“Could ya give me a lift, mister?” The driver looked quickly back at the restaurant for a second.
“Didn’t you see the No Riders sticker on the win’shield?”
“Sure – I seen it. But sometimes a guy’ll be a good guy even if some rich bastard makes him carry a sticker.” The driver, getting slowly into the truck, considered the parts of this answer. If he refused now, not only was he not a good guy, but he was forced to carry a sticker, was not allowed to have company. If he took in the hitch-hiker he was automatically a good guy and also he was not one whom any rich bastard could kick around. He knew he was being trapped, but he couldn’t see a way out. And he wanted to be a good guy. He glanced again at the restaurant.
“Scrunch down on the running board till we get around the bend,” he said. The hitch-hiker flopped down out of sight and clung to the door handle. The motor roared up for a moment, the gears clicked in, and the great truck moved away, first gear, second gear, third gear, and then a high whining pick-up and fourth gear. Under the clinging man the highway blurred dizzily by. It was a mile to the first turn in the road, then the truck slowed down. The hitch-hiker stood up, eased the door open, and slipped into the seat. The driver looked over at him, slitting his eyes, and he chewed as though thoughts and impressions were being sorted and arranged by his jaws before they were finally filed away in his brain. His eyes began at the new cap, moved down the new clothes to the new shoes. The hitch-hiker squirmed his back against the seat in comfort, took off his cap, and swabbed his sweating forehead and chin with it.
“Thanks, buddy,” he said. “My dogs was pooped out.”
“New shoes,” said the driver. His voice had the same quality of secrecy and insinuation his eyes had. “You oughtn’ to take no walk in new shoes – hot weather.” The hiker looked down at the dusty yellow shoes.
“Didn’t have no other shoes,” he said. “Guy got to wear ’em if he got no others.” The driver squinted judiciously ahead and built up the speed of the truck a little.
“Goin’ far?” “Uh-uh! I’d a walked her if my dogs wasn’t pooped out.” The questions of the driver had the tone of a subtle examination. He seemed to spread nets, to set traps, with his questions. “Lookin’ for a job?” he asked.
“No, my old man got a place, forty acres. He’s a cropper, but we been there a long time.” The driver looked significantly at the fields along the road where the corn was fallen sideways and the dust was piled on it. Little flints shoved through the dusty soil.
The driver said, as though to himself, “A forty-acre cropper and he ain’t been dusted out and he ain’t been tractored out?”
“‘Course I ain’t heard lately,” said the hitch-hiker.
“Long time,” said the driver. A bee flew into the cab and buzzed in back of the windshield. The driver put out his hand and carefully drove the bee into an air stream that blew it out of the window.
“Croppers going fast now,” he said. “One cat’ takes and shoves ten families out. Cat’s all over hell now. Tear in and shove the croppers out. How’s your old man hold on?” His tongue and his jaws became busy with the neglected gum, turned it and chewed it. With each opening of his mouth his tongue could be seen flipping the gum over.
“Well, I ain’t heard lately. I never was no hand to write, nor my old man neither.” He added quickly, “But the both of us can, if we want.”
“Been doing a job?” Again the secret investigating casualness. He looked out over the fields, at the shimmering air, and gathering his gum into his cheek, out of the way, he spat out the window.
“Sure have,” said the hitch-hiker. “Thought so. I seen your hands. Been swingin’ a pick or an ax or a sledge. That shines up your hands. I notice all stuff like that. Take a pride in it.” The hitch-hiker stared at him. The truck tires sang on the road.
“Like to know anything else? I’ll tell you. You ain’t got to guess.”
“Now don’t get sore. I wasn’t gettin’ nosy.”
“I’ll tell you anything. I ain’t hidin’ nothin’.”
“Now don’t get sore. I just like to notice things. Makes the time pass.”
“I’ll tell you anything. Name’s Joad, Tom Joad. Old man is ol’ Tom Joad.” His eyes rested broodingly on the driver. “Don’t get sore. I didn’t mean nothin’.”
“I don’t mean nothin’ neither,” said Joad. “I’m just tryin’ to get along without shovin’ nobody around.” He stopped and looked out at the dry fields, at the starved tree clumps hanging uneasily in the heated distance. From his side pocket he brought out his tobacco and papers. He rolled his cigarette down between his knees, where the wind could not get at it. The driver chewed as rhythmically, as thoughtfully, as a cow. He waited to let the whole emphasis of the preceding passage disappear and be forgotten. At last, when the air seemed neutral again, he said, “A guy that never been a truck skinner don’t know nothin’ what it’s like. Owners don’t want us to pick up nobody. So we got to set here an’ just skin her along ‘less we want to take a chance of gettin’ fired like I just done with you.”
“‘Preciate it,” said Joad.
“I’ve knew guys that done screwy things while they’re drivin’ trucks. I remember a guy use’ to make up poetry. It passed the time.” He looked over secretly to see whether Joad was interested or amazed. Joad was silent, looking into the distance ahead, along the road, along the white road that waved gently, like a ground swell. The driver went on at last, “I remember a piece of poetry this here guy wrote down. It was about him an’ a couple of other guys goin’ all over the world drinkin’ and raisin’ hell and screwin’ around. I wisht I could remember how that piece went. This guy had words in it that Jesus H. Christ wouldn’t know what they meant. Part was like this: ‘An’ there we spied a nigger, with a trigger that was bigger than a elephant’s proboscis or the whanger of a whale.’ That proboscis is a nose-like. With a elephant it’s his trunk. Guy showed me a dictionary. Carried that dictionary all over hell with him. He’d look in it while he’s pulled up gettin’ his pie an’ coffee.” He stopped, feeling lonely in the long speech. His secret eyes turned on his passenger. Joad remained silent. Nervously the driver tried to force him into participation.
“Ever know a guy that said big words like that?”
“Preacher,” said Joad. “Well, it makes you mad to hear a guy use big words. ‘Course with a preacher it’s all right because nobody would fool around with a preacher anyway. But this guy was funny. You didn’t give a damn when he said a big word ’cause he just done it for ducks. He wasn’t puttin’ on no dog.” The driver was reassured. He knew at least that Joad was listening. He swung the great truck viciously around a bend and the tires shrilled.
“Like I was sayin’,” he continued, “guy that drives a truck does screwy things. He got to. He’d go nuts just settin’ here an’ the road sneakin’ under the wheels. Fella says once that truck skinners eats all the time – all the time in hamburger joints along the road.”
“Sure seem to live there,” Joad agreed.
“Sure they stop, but it ain’t to eat. They ain’t hardly ever hungry. They’re just goddamn sick of goin’ – get sick of it. Joints is the only place you can pull up, an’ when you stop you got to buy somepin so you can sling the bull with the broad behind the counter. So you get a cup of coffee and a piece pie. Kind of gives a guy a little rest.” He chewed his gum slowly and turned it with his tongue. “Must be tough,” said Joad with no emphasis. The driver glanced quickly at him, looking for satire.
“Well, it ain’t no goddamn cinch,” he said testily. “Looks easy, jus’ settin’ here till you put in your eight or maybe your ten or fourteen hours. But the road gets into a guy. He’s got to do somepin. Some sings an’ some whistles. Company won’t let us have no radio. A few takes a pint along, but them kind don’t stick long.” He said the last smugly. “I don’t never take a drink till I’m through.”
“Yeah?” Joad asked.
“Yeah! A guy got to get ahead. Why, I’m thinkin’ of takin’ one of them correspondence school courses. Mechanical engineering. It’s easy. Just study a few easy lessons at home. I’m thinkin’ of it. Then I won’t drive no truck. Then I’ll tell other guys to drive trucks.” Joad took a pint of whisky from his side coat pocket.
“Sure you won’t have a snort?” His voice was teasing.
“No, by God. I won’t touch it. A guy can’t drink liquor all the time and study like I’m goin’ to.” Joad uncorked the bottle, took two quick swallows, recorked it, and put it back in his pocket. The spicy hot smell of the whisky filled the cab.
“You’re all wound up,” said Joad. “What’s the matter – got a girl?”
“Well, sure. But I want to get ahead anyway. I been training my mind for a hell of a long time.” The whisky seemed to loosen Joad up. He rolled another cigarette and lighted it. “I ain’t got a hell of a lot further to go,” he said.
The driver went on quickly, “I don’t need no shot,” he said. “I train my mind all the time. I took a course in that two years ago.” He patted the steering wheel with his right hand. “Suppose I pass a guy on the road. I look at him an’ after I’m past I try to remember ever’thing about him, kind a clothes an’ shoes an’ hat, an’ how he walked an’ maybe how tall an’ what weight an’ any scars, I do it pretty good. I can jus’ make a whole picture in my head. Sometimes I think I ought to take a course to be a fingerprint expert. You’d be su’prised how much a guy can remember.” Joad took a quick drink from the flask. He dragged the last smoke from his raveling cigarette and then, with callused thumb and forefinger, crushed out the glowing end. He rubbed the butt to a pulp and put it out the window, letting the breeze suck it from his fingers. The big tires sang a high note on the pavement. Joad’s dark quiet eyes became amused as he stared along the road. The driver waited and glanced uneasily over. At last Joad’s long upper lip grinned up from his teeth and he chuckled silently, his chest jerked with the chuckles. “You sure took a hell of a long time to get to it, buddy.”
Excerpt from The Grapes of Wrath, a novel by John Steinbeck published in 1939 by Viking Press.
Betty Goodwin (1923 – 2008) was a Canadian artist and printmaker.