Daddy once told me that he never read The Grapes of Wrath. “I lived it, sis. Why the hell would I want to relive it?” Needless to say, Steinbeck has always been a favorite of mine because he showed me the world that made my father.
“Daddy, can I go strawberry picking with Marilee? She goes every day and the bus comes at five in the morning and drives them out to the fields on the island and she’s back by lunchtime and sometimes she makes more than $10 in one day just for picking strawberries!” The child is breathless.
Robert runs the pad of his thumb across the calloused tips of his fingers, then turns them – palm up, down, up again. Memories flow like water over his shoulders and the weight of long forgotten harvests surge through his body in a torrent.
Excited shouts and laughter of towny children echo across the fields of his memory. Children who live in houses with indoor plumbing and light fixtures and mothers who tuck them in at night between clean, crisp sheets. Children who do not move lock, stock and barrel with the changing of the seasons. From the rows, he watches them fly through the tall grass at the edge of the fields, running toward the swimming hole, where cares are peeled away as easily as clothes.
Sweat stings his eyes. He inhales miles of beans reaching for heaven. Slips on windfall peaches under his bare feet. He shakes his head, baby-fine hair falling all around, and reaches for his cap too late to stop the burn. A river of heat pours down the small of his back. Dirt and pea-gravel work their way into thin, bent knees. The long gone prick and sting of the cane berry vines with their blood-red berries stain his memories. Cotton bolls cut through gloves, lancing his palms like a scythe. Now the jolt of the truck in the morning, waking him to the fields. Now the sway in the evening, carrying him to bed.
“Well, Daddy – can I go?’ Her voice startles him back.
He looks down into her open, eager face. She is hungry for cash. Anxious to board the early morning farm bus that will take her to the fields. To the heady scent of early summer strawberries. To the youthful backache. To the blistering sunburn. To the blood-soaked fingers. To the fields that steal a childhood in a single afternoon.
“No,” he says, like a mission. “I don’t want you to pick.”
Her brow furrows. He has taught her to work, and now he is denying her the chance. He bends slightly to meet her eye to eye. His voice softens. “I’ve picked enough for the both of us.”
She looks into him with old eyes. Then she nods and blinks quickly. He wonders if her tears are because he will not let her go, or because she understands why.
He reaches behind and pulls out his wallet. Rifles the few bills. Chooses one and lays it across his palm, extending it to her.
“Here’s five. You can earn more if you want. Stay home.”
It is a month’s allowance. Still, the bus ride, the strawberries. She shifts. She takes the bill and holds it, one hand grasping each end. Her gaze falls to his hands and then rises once more to meet his. In the space between, a covenant is sealed.
“Thank you, Daddy.” She does not argue. “I’ll earn it. I promise.”
Robert watches her walk away, and then looks down – palm up, down, up again.