(This is part two in a series that will be updated weekly. Click on my profile to find subsequent parts.)
The drive through New Mexico was uneventful. The vast desert was a scary proposition with three hungry children and a rickety Model T. Everything went well until just east of Flagstaff. The winding mountains and rising altitude made the car’s engine wheeze and cough, much like the little ones. There was hope, however, in the fact that they hadn’t seen a duster in days. They pulled into a gas station in Williams and disembarked.
“Fill, please, and check the radiator,” Markus said to the attendant, handing him two dollars.
After washing all the dust off from their long ride, Ingrid took the children to a nearby road-side stand to look for something to eat. She wanted to get the children something substantial like beef jerky, but they didn’t have money for such luxuries. Instead, she bought ten pounds of sweet potatoes for fifty cents. They were cheap and would keep for a while.
Barstow arrived just in time. The Model T’s radiator did not like the desert heat. Neither Markus nor Ingrid had ever experienced such a climate. The thermometer at the filling station near Needles had read 115 degrees.
“How much further is Bakersfield? And why are we going there again?” Ingrid asked her husband as she handed out hard pieces of sweet potato to the children.
“Hundred and thirty miles. We’re going there because there are jobs in the fields. Besides, it is in San Joaquin Valley. If it is good enough for the Blessed Virgin Mary’s papa, it is good enough for me.”
The long, hard drive had been a respite for Markus. While it had not been without worries, progressing toward a goal gave him a sense of accomplishment; something he hadn’t had in a while. His main concern now was Ingrid. She had lost even more weight off her already thin body. Her hair was thinning and she was pale. Her threadbare cotton dress no longer fit her curves as it once did and blew in the breeze like it was hung on a clothesline.
As they pulled into Bakersfield, their hearts sank. The influx of people in recent years had strained the town’s resources. Tent settlements abounded. Out of work men sat sleeping on street corners, heads covered by yesterday’s newspaper and hats next to them with a few copper coins inside. Markus parked the car next to a grocery about two blocks from the town center.
“Take the kids inside and find them something to eat. I will be back soon,” he said, walking away briskly.
Markus carefully walked the town square, pausing briefly at the door of each saloon to listen – finally deciding to walk into the quietest one, The Hospitality House. Walking up to the bar, he placed a quarter on the wood and asked for a beer.
“Where might a man find work?” Markus asked the barkeep, nodding at him to keep the change.
“Well, that is something just about everybody would like to know,” he replied. “If you think you can hack it in the fields, there are a few places to try. North of town there is Mr. Smithwycke’s cotton plantation and Señor Chavez’ vineyard. To the west is Monsieur Petit and his alfalfa fields. Those are the main players in town.”
The sun was just rising as Markus quietly climbed from underneath the car in order to not wake the children. They had picked a spot just north of town along the side of the Kern River. It would provide water, shade and diversion for Ingrid and the kids. He planned to walk to Smithwycke’s and Chavez’ places today looking for work. He softly said his morning prayers as he cleaned up down at the river.
As he pulled his hat on and walked away, Ingrid whispered to herself, “Saint Cajetan.”
Markus reached the Smithwycke plantation by ten o’clock and was immediately turned away by the gate guards, “No work, no Okies allowed!”
Turning west the Chavez vineyard was five miles away.
The morning had gone well for Ingrid. Despite her hunger, she pulled the last of the milk from the river’s edge and gave it to the children to drink for breakfast. She set about fashioning fishing poles out of willow branches, thread and clothes pins.
“You boys are going to catch our supper while Inga and I look for greens.”
Walking down the dusty road, one could see the weariness in Markus’ gate. His experience at the Chavez vineyard had been more pleasant than the Smithwycke place. Señor Chavez himself had spoken to him, explaining that he had to take care of his people before opening the door to gringos. He had even given him a bit of bread and cheese to start him on his way. A produce truck drove just past him and slowed to a stop. Markus jogged forward and hopped on the tailgate slapping the fender.
Ingrid’s spirits were good that afternoon. They had found plenty of wild onions and dandelion greens and the boys had caught a few small fish using grasshoppers as bait. She thanked her guardian angel for their good fortune and asked the Markus’ angel do the same.
At the Petit ranch, Markus had been welcomed into the business office and Monsieur Petit’s manager interviewed him about his experience running tractors, combines and other farming machinery. Markus’ hopes rose as the interview progressed.
“My final requirement is this: please empty your pockets onto this table. I want to make sure I am not hiring somebody who brings weapons onto the ranch,” demanded the manager.
Markus slowed took the two things he had in his pockets out and placed them as instructed; his handkerchief and his rosary.
“Thank you. Please leave the premises, I will not hire you.”
“Please, sir, I have a wife and three children. I know how to do your work.”
“No, I cannot. Monsieur Petit has standards that must be upheld. Any applicant with three strikes cannot be hired.”
“What were my three strikes?”
“First, you’re an Okie, but so is everybody else looking for work. Second, you’re a Kraut and Monsieur Petit remembers what happened to Paris in 1871. Third, you are a Pope worshipper and this is a Huguenot household. Good day.”
It was dark when Markus returned. The kids were asleep with bellies full of trout and greens. Even Ingrid had eaten well and was dozing in the back seat. He crept quietly past the car and walked down to the water’s edge. Sitting on the damp earth, he wept.
“Remember Job,” Ingrid said as she embraced his large shoulders from behind.