On the Highway

By | 1 July 1998

after Dorothea Lange

The road takes your eye.
Dave stands in front of me
on the loose gravel, his gaze locked
on the bitumen, following the curve
past the last tree to the haze of hills
in the distance. His arm is extended,
ready, prepared to make a supplicating arc
whenever a car approaches.There’s no sign
of a car.There haven’t been any cars
for fifteen minutes and the last one
was going in the wrong direction, back
to Arizona, back towards our abandoned car,
back to the old farm, the sweeping furrows
ploughed right up to the verandah by now,
the vegetable garden and chicken coop gone,
replaced by furrows as far as the eye
can see, as far as a tractor, that bright
new toy of the bank, can make them.
It’s hot.The sun is burning Dave’s neck,
burning up through the leather soles
of his lace-up, pointy-toed white shoes –
his favourite shoes–not the sort of
sensible shoes you’d wear on a country road
in the middle of August 1936.At least
I’m resting, sitting on our suitcase,
my girl asleep on my lap, her hot breath
gluing my dress to my skin. My son squats
beside me, feet bare, cap tilted, his hand
under his chin, musing, supporting his father
who is still gazing down the road in search
of a lift. Dave says there’s supposed to be work
around Bakersfield–grapes, more cotton,
oranges, even some regular jobs at the cannery.
He keeps saying it–there’s work in Bakersfield,
as if simply repeating it will make our luck
change. California. The name used to be as sweet
as sherbet on my tongue, but now it’s a parched
growl stuck in my throat. I smile. For my son’s
sake, for Dave’s, I smile. He’s humming
some tune to himself, the girl’s sound asleep,
my boy’s dragging a stick through the dirt,
making another picture. Nothing to do but wait.
And then go on. No point telling them
what I really think, what I know.
Our luck won’t change.

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