Ghosts of Tom Joad
By Peter Van Buren
Luminis Books Copyright © 2014 Peter Van Buren
All rights reserved.
A Snowball's Chance in Hell
The longest day of my life started when I accidentally shot myself. Went downhill from there, as you'll soon see.
Don't feel bad for me, though I probably have a snowball's chance in hell. And that's sort of okay, I guess. I'm Earl, and I've been riding a bus around my hometown of Reeve, Ohio. My nerves was fragile as the sound of boots on cold gravel and, to be fair, at some point I was just seein' unhealthy shadows, like standing up too quickly, head tingly, and was resigned to riding this bus all day and night. The road to Hell now has bus service. Squeal, whoosh, doors open with a puff of inside-outside air changing, people get on and off, and I sat here. It was something to do, a way to pass the time since I couldn't find steady work. Safe, steady in its own way, like old black and white shows on the TV. It's not a bad life, or it wasn't, until today.
See, at one point there were patterns that made simple sense as the Driver followed the same route around town. The doors would slap open and closed, reminding me how when I was a baby, my mom, I guess, would push me on the swings sayin' "Back and a-wwwway, back and a-wwwway" as I swung. We weren't that small of an Ohio town anymore that everyone knew where to go, but we weren't big enough that you were afraid to talk to a stranger on the bus.
And that's part of what made this day on the bus different, the strangers. For the most part, I knew them only as Fat Guy with Laptop, in his shirt like a sausage casing, or Woman with Noisy Child, or Old Man with a face like you'd see in a commercial for gas bloat medicine. A lot of times too, I saw a young Korean boy in the back of the bus, shadowy places under his eyes that one, kinda scary if a kid could be scary. Never said anything, probably didn't speak English, but a lot of them had moved to town. Then, somehow, the people on the bus became more familiar — really familiar — until even I had to recognize that I knew almost all of them.
Or had known them — most of the folks who get on the bus with me have been long missing from my life of fifty-two years. Now they were coming and going, even talking to me, just as if it was no big deal that they were like ghosts. It was like having a super power. I was the Hulk of mental illness. It's one thing to hear voices in your head telling you to love some famous actress or smear purple paint on your chest, but it's another to run into both your mom and your old girlfriends in living color on a bus. But it seems everybody you run across in life you drag forward. You can't help that. They're all on the bus with you.
It is quiet now, and we're about to stop for someone. This happens all the time. I'm envious that they get to climb on and off, when all I really would like is to finish this ride. That's the last big question I got to answer: how to get off this bus.
My best friend from high school, Muley, got on and sat down behind me. His real name was Thomas, but only his mom and Mrs. Garrity the English teacher who said she believed in him called him that. Most of us called him Muley, an unfortunate leftover from an unfortunate puberty thing in sixth grade. In towns like this we don't forget, but we do compensate. Just like my friend Rich, who moved in to Reeve from Gibbsville, and who twelve years later was still known as the new kid, and always will be.
The summer of 1977 was the hottest one any of us not yet old remembered. Old people always remembered a hotter one from some ancient time like 1950, but we rarely listened to them except politely at Sunday dinner and even then only as long as the dessert and Mom's vigilance lasted. Hot summers were good for corn, but for people the heat and the awful Ohio humidity ate away at you, especially before air conditioning when you had to live in the weather. It was a big, damp towel over everything. The waves of heat and humidity would break with violent thunderstorms, also good for the corn.
I do a lot of remembering on this bus. I was just remembering our old house here in Reeve, Ohio used to have a porch, where Dad and Mom would sit out and drink lukewarm beer. Over the years, the story changed to iced tea or lemonade, but I clearly remember him saying beer often enough and, when I got older, mentioning nips of whiskey from a bottle he kept outside under some cushions for when Mom stepped off the porch to visit with someone. After everybody got their air conditioners, the porch filled with bikes and lawn equipment. Then Mom and Dad, they moved 'cause Dad lost his job, town factory closed down. That was a real sack of it.
"You remember that last summer, the one between junior and senior year?" Muley asked me on the bus. I hadn't talked to him in years, but I quickly was adjusting to talking to long-missing people who happened to be riding my bus. That summer was a while ago, the year the first Star Wars came out and everyone was saying "May the Force be with you" all the time. "Jeez, people still say it now, lame," said Muley. In 1977, a fat and weepy Elvis was dead and we listened to Kiss and Alice Cooper in a not-then-ironic kind of way. We lived in Reeve, Ohio. Reeve isn't really on the way to anywhere, but is located between Clyde and Gibbsville, places people seem to know better, to give you an idea where it was. Not too far from Columbus, the nearest actual really big city.
Muley had one of those smiles that when he got around to grinning would bring you in. He otherwise maintained a kind of glazed look, like school pictures. Sometimes he missed the point, which was part of what made him funny. I remembered swimming in the river with him, a bunch of us really, a couple of days before high school football practice would start. Six packs of Little Kings, where you lost half the beer to foam just opening them in the heat.
"Wait guys, I'm thinking."
"Ah, c'mon Muley, how long is that gonna take?"
"No, seriously, here's this joke," Muley said. "So this family down in one of the south patches has like nine kids and they won't have another, 'cause they heard that one out of ten kids born in America is Mexican, and the mom and dad don't speak Mexican."
"That ain't no joke. My old man says Mexicans are taking away our jobs." That was Rich, the old new kid.
"There aren't hardly any Mexicans in this town. No work for 'em."
"What about that one junior kid?"
"He's the exchange student from Korea somewhere. They don't talk in Spanish over there."
"Well, it's a good thing then, because we need our jobs, my dad says." Rich's dad always said things Rich then said to us.
"My grandfather gets drunk and still talks about the Irish coming into this part of Ohio and taking jobs." My other friend Tim said that. He'll probably get on this bus too before long.
"Your grandfather is some old crapper."
"Why'd you say that? You Irish?"
"I don't know. I was born in Pennsylvania. Am I?" Muley again.
"There's this joke I heard. 'Part of me says I shouldn't be drinking so much' and the other part says 'Don't listen to that drunk.'"
"I don't get it. Why ain't he drinking anymore?" Like I said, sometimes it's funny when Muley doesn't get stuff.
"When's that cut under your nose gonna heal, Muley?" And when Muley didn't get something, Tim was already there like that.
"He means your dumb mouth, Muley."
"Is that some kind of joke?"
"No, just one of those things, like how come your dad eats cake with a spoon."
"Football practice and school is starting soon," I said. It was on my mind the whole time. It felt like a Sunday night, not looking forward to Monday.
"Senior year we gotta take physics class." Rich again.
"Is that the one with triangles and math?" Muley of course.
"We got almost another month of summer."
"But August goes by faster than July."
It was sometimes fun on the bus to remember those kinds of afternoons. Like all kids, I had no idea if I was livin' in the best of times or the worst, I just lived in the only time there was. We could go on and on like that, talking without saying much, enjoying being young and stupid and irresponsible, warm and happy in the warm brown river water. We were boys.
We didn't yet know about the broken places in life, the dark threads.
I say let the young men in other small Ohio towns dream of bright lights. We didn't need a fortune teller. We knew growing up we were going to work in that factory. We said, "Graduate today, factory tomorrow." Life was rich, fat, happy enough. Hard at the beginning when rough guys looked at you like a puppy who couldn't stay off the couch, hot and full of swear words in between and at the other end you had a pension and on Thursdays free bus rides to the new Atlantic City casinos, box lunch provided. I thought that factory in Reeve where everyone's dad, and grandpa, uncle, brother and cousin worked was drawn in ink but it turned out to be watercolor. When the factory died, I was a Telemarketer. Tire salesman, one McJob after another. Christmas help at the Higbee's, Hill's, Halle's, Uncle Bill's, Giant Tiger, Gold Circle, Lazarus, Clark's department stores that have all since gone belly-up. The development that had been planned for Reeve, the one that was gonna bring in big retail stores and jobs for everyone, fizzled on some complicated six-way derivative financing deal, whatever the hell that even is, and so, long after they tore down the factory, the land stayed vacant.
There were pieces of machinery from the factory left on the ground, too unimportant to sell off, too heavy to move, too bulky to bury, left scattered like clues from a lost civilization, droppings of our failure. Might as well been the bones of the men who worked there. Better than what happened at Youngstown Sheet and Tube, which famously made cannon balls for the North including Ohio during the Civil War, where they left the pig iron making furnace up like a tombstone. At least when a person died they'd close his eyes and throw a blanket over him. Here they just left everything. The last men to work in that plant were the ones who tore out its guts and disassembled the machines. Same as in Weirton, in West Virginia, where my cousin was from. The whole town was built around a single steel mill and when it closed, a good Midwest town died of old age. A local newspaper ran a feature story about one worker, Jack Brown, who made $24.65 an hour in 1982 at the mill and now was unsure if he'd ever find work again. We were once the American Dream, and now we're just what happened to it. I think God owes us an apology.
People said we'd seen this kind of change before. At the time of the American Revolution, we learned in school ninety-five percent of the U.S. population lived on farms. Now it was only two percent. Thing is that those farming jobs were replaced with industrialized jobs, at a ratio of better than one-to-one. Now, with the factory jobs gone and not coming back, rock bottom isn't a destination but an expectation for us. This town used to employ thousands of people, families really, and when the manufacturing jobs went away and weren't replaced they also took with them a way of life. A regime change. What is the purpose of towns that used to have a reason for being and now don't anymore?
A couple of years later things got started again in Reeve during what was then the latest recovery and turnaround and corner turned, and another group of investors moved off the scrap metal and paved the factory site, like a mercy killin'. They then ran out of money and pretty soon the place was home to only itinerant peddlers with velvet paintings and stolen car stereos selling out of the back of vans. A big sigh of relief when they broke ground later for something, what turned out to be only a shitty strip mall. Since nobody in Reeve had much money, the dreams of high-end stores that would take that money ended up being satisfied by some fast-food places, plus a couple of dollar stores run by Koreans who found their way to Reeve God knows how. When I was a kid grandma used to say "Satan can't be everywhere, so he created liquor stores." Amen to that, 'cause there was also a new state store selling Lottery liquor CIGS, the three main food groups for us working poor, all the sadness of the town there in those three words (the Ohio state government kept a monopoly on hard liquor sales, they knew their people).
There was also a club with blacked-out windows I'll let on more about later. Plus we had a coffee shop, a little joke from someone who knew unemployed people needed a place to hang out during the day, especially after revenue cuts closed the Carnegie public library with its ivy beard I always liked. Smaller businesses happy to extract smaller amounts of money was our economic rebirth here in Reeve. The town still had its looks, to a point. Old habits die hard. When middle class folks fall out of the middle class, they still tend to keep things neat and see that the grass gets cut. But what was once maybe quaint was now just old.
Riding the bus, I remembered that waiting — time — is the real currency of this new economy. The more money you got, the less you gotta wait. Priority lines, expedient fees, private jets for some, for me, waiting twenty minutes or forty minutes, you never know so better leave early, for a city bus to take you sometime somewhere. Pretty soon you're out here in a parking lot waiting for work from someone with more money but less time than you.
It had rained again overnight, puddles rainbowed with oil. March now, which should have been an improvement over February, but in Ohio this year it wasn't, the wet snow and cold rain leaving you thinking Bambi had killed spring or something. Some familiar faces in the parking lot, guys I sorta recognized from way back when I was in high school, maybe the football team, I can't really say — picking out their faces was like tryin' to spot tears in the rain now as an adult. Here they weren't that way no more, a long way from tan and tight-muscled, instead slurry-eyed and tired, sort of hunched over against the cold day, the wind leaning on them. While we sometimes talked, it was about nothing much, safer that way, as you never knew what a guy was carrying around with him that you'd stir up. Some of the guys had already had a few drinks no matter how early it was, some had given up drinking and seemed worse for not having it, some had just plain given up, emptied bottles.
"I need tres hombres, arriba," said the man in the pickup.
"We speak English brother. We're Americans, too."
"Well, yens' are dirty like Mexicans. Anyway, I'm looking for three today."
"What'cha got? Construction? Painting?"
"Three of you wanna work, get in the back of the truck."
"What're you payin'?"
"I'm at $2.50 an hour."
"That ain't minimum wage."
"Did I say $2.50? I meant two bucks an hour. Now, another of you smartasses got a problem, or you like being poor and standing in a parking lot?"
I had had enough.
"If none of us take his shitty $2.50, he'll have to pay us better."
"Shut up, Earl. I'll take your shittin' $2.50 mister."
"Get in the truck, and watch your mouth if you want a job today. And I still am thinking about the $2.50. We'll see how it works out, if you're lazy or not."
"Get out of his truck. C'mon, man."
"You go to hell, Earl. I need this."
Two more looked at their feet a bit too long, and I knew we'd been broken. They climbed, silently, into the back of the pickup. The guy driving flipped me off and hit the gas, splashing puddle scum at me, now with another eight hours 'til dark.
The next day we were all back in the lot. Hungry and angry walk pretty close to each other. Puts the bullies up front 'cause regular people stop caring.
"To Hell with you, Earl, man, just to Hell with you. I should've pushed them assholes out and gotten in the truck myself yesterday."
"How much that guy end up paying you all yesterday?"
"We only got the two bucks an hour thanks to your smartass mouth, Earl, but he kept us on for nine hours so we did okay. Bastard had us tearing out insulation, worked every last dollar outta us. We asked for a break and the jerkoff laughed at us, saying, 'What, you in a union?'"
"It sucked but, yeah Earl, you keep your mouth shut next time and we'll at least get some work."
"Don't tell me to shut up, you asshole. You was being used and you're too dumb to even see it."
"Fuck you, Earl. Go find a job with the Koreans movin' into town. Maybe they'll let you clean up their crap for them."
I hadn't hit anyone since junior year of high school, and that was just Muley one time when we got into a fight over some stupid football game neither of us remembered right. There was a lot of trash talk and some pushing and shoving in between long lulled pauses like we saw in movies. I swung at him and Muley poked me once alongside of my nose and we wrestled a bit. It didn't hurt much more than when you eat ice cream too fast. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Ghosts of Tom Joad by Peter Van Buren. Copyright © 2014 Peter Van Buren. Excerpted by permission of Luminis Books.
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