The National Catholic Review

Remember this scene from John Steinbeck’s depression-era novel, The Grapes of Wrath. A cook, a waitress, and two truckers are in a diner, on Route 66. Outside:

A woman in the car, a flaxen-haired woman, said, “See if you can get it here.”

The man turned off the hose and screwed on the cap again. The little boys took the hose from him and they upended it and drank thirstily. The man took off his dark, stained hat and stood with a curious humility in front of the screen. “Could you see your way to sell us a loaf of bread, ma’am?”

Mae said, “This ain’t a grocery store. We got bread to make san’widges.”

"I know, ma’am.” His humility was insistent. “We need bread and there ain’t nothin’ for quite a piece, they say.”

"'f we sell bread we gonna run out.” Mae’s tone was faltering.

"We’re hungry,” the man said.

"Whyn’t you buy a san’widge? We got nice san’widges, hamburgs.”

"We’d sure admire to do that, ma’am. But we can’t. We got to make a dime do all of us.” And he said embarrassedly. “We ain’t got but a little.”

Mae said, “You can’t get no loaf a bread for a dime. We only got fifteen-cent loafs.”

From behind her Al (the cook) growled, “God Almighty, Mae, give ‘em bread”

“We’ll run out ‘fore the bread truck comes.”

"Run out, then...” said Al. And looked sullenly down at the potato salad he was mixing (203-04).

The Book of Leviticus banishes those afflicted with leprosy from human company. That Mosaic border was meant to be protective, not punitive. How else does one shield the lives of those not infected? Don’t people — people like Mae — have to think of their own well-being first?

St. Mark’s Jesus breaks down that border. In drawing the leper into health, he restores him to fellowship. Mark perfectly presents the four-fold gospel tradition, in which Jesus lowers barriers, restores fellowship, calls the sick and the hungry into wholeness and satiety. Indeed, for the evangelists, the Messianic mark of Jesus is his table fellowship, his gathering-in of outcasts. Where there is inclusion, healing, and abundance, there is the Christ.

One more book. In his Galilean Journey, Fr. Virgilio Elizondo acknowledges that “the Mexican American propensity for celebration is something that others find extremely difficult to understand.” Yet he tries to explain,

Our fiestas are life because we celebrate the passage from death (the end of old groups) to life (the birth of new groupings). Our fiestas are not an escape (repression), but a resurrection (sublimation) — a rising above and beyond the rational limits of understanding. Only someone who fully shares in our suffering-unto-life experience can fully share and savor the joy of our fiestas. The Mexican-American people is not afraid of suffering and death — it has been its lot for centuries — but it is finding a new meaning in this suffering and death: that it is the passage to a new existence (31).

The fiesta is profoundly evangelical. Where there is inclusion, healing, and abundance, there is the Christ. Put conversely, if we want Christ to be among us, we must entrust ourselves to inclusion, healing, and abundance.

In Steinbeck’s scene, Mae herself comes to a Christological border. She crosses from fear to fiesta, siding with inclusion, healing, and abundance.

She held the screen door open and the man came in, bringing a smell of sweat with him. The boys edged in behind and they went immediately to the candy case and stared in — not with craving or with hope or even with desire, but just with a kind of wonder that such things could be.

Mae opened a drawer and took out a long waxpaper-wrapped loaf. “This here is a fifteen-cent loaf.”

The man put his hat back on his head. He answered with inflexible humility. “Won’t you —can’t you see your way to cut off ten cents’ worth?”

Al said snarlingly, “[M]ae. Give ‘em the loaf.”

The man turned toward Al. “No, we want ta buy ten cents’ worth of it. We got it figgered awful close, mister, to get to California.

Mae said resignedly. “You can have this for ten cents”

"That’d be robbin’ you, ma’am.”

"Go ahead — Al says to take it.” She pushed the wax-papered loaf across the counter. The man took a deep leather pouch from his rear pocket, untied the strings, and spread it open. It was heavy with silver and with greasy bills.

"May soun’ funny to be so tight,” he apologized. We got a thousan’ mile to go, an’ we don’ know if we’ll make it.” He dug in the pouch with a forefinger, located a dime, and pinched in for it. When he put it down on the counter he had a penny with it. He was about to drop the penny back into the pouch when his eye fell on the boys frozen before the candy counter. He moved slowly down to them. He pointed in the case at big long sticks of striped peppermint. “Is them penny candy, ma’am?”

Mae moved down and looked in. “Which ones?”

"There, them stripy ones.”

The little boys raised their eyes to her face and they stopped breathing: their mouths were partly opened, their half-naked bodies were rigid.

"Oh — them. Well, no — them’s two for a penny.”

"Well, gimme two then, ma’am.” He placed the copper cent carefully on the counter. The boys expelled their held breath softly. Mae held the big sticks out.

"Take ‘em,” said the man.

They reached timidly, each took a stick, and they held them down at their sides and did not look at them. But they looked at each other, and their mouth corners smiled rigidly with embarrassment.

"Thank you, ma’am.” The man picked up the bread and went out the door, and the little boys marched stiffly behind him, the red-striped sticks held tightly against their legs.

From inside the restaurant the truck drivers and Mae and Al stared after them.

Big Bill wheeled back. “Them wasn’t two-for-a cent candy,” he said.

What’s that to you? Mae said fiercely.

"Them was nickel apiece candy,” said Bill.

"We got to get goin’,” said the other man. “We’re droppin’ time.” They reached into their pockets. Bill put a coin on the counter and the other man looked at it and reached again and put down a coin. They swung around and walked to the door.

"So long,” said Bill.

Mae called, “Hey! Wait a minute. You got change.”

"You go to hell,” said Bill, and the screen door slammed (204-06).

Where there is Christ there is inclusion, healing, and abundance. “‘If you wish, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, ‘I do will it. Be made clean’” (Mk 1:40-41).

Terrance W. Klein

 

Comments

NORMA NUNAG | 2/10/2012 - 12:53pm
This is so beautiful!  I'm all choked up!   Thank you so much.