The Dustbowl Dance

Tom strolled after the three young men, but then he froze. He knew that sharp angled-face, that walk trying to be a man's strut but which just came out unsure. Tom paced closer, sidestepping an old man restraining his grandson, the young boy's hair still stuck flat to his head like dark, stringy syrup from the scrubbing his mama had given him before she let him come. Craning his neck to keep those raggedy-jean clad legs in his sight, Tom ignored them and the others he passed. Instead, he noticed the deeply sunburned skin of the familiar man; he watched the hesitation in the man's stride caused by how he deferred to the others with him when they moved to cut him off. It should still have been too tough to tell for certain from this far behind, but Tom would swear he saw a glimpse of ice blue eyes, dilated, glowing, and deeply frightened, when the man who must be Connie turned and asked a hesitant girl to dance. Tom watched Connie as he almost dragged her reluctant feet out on to the floor in his haste. Now Tom let his own eyes cut to Rose of Sharon, where she had settled down with Ma, stilling his feet as he found her nearby. He watched her supporting her stomach, balancing on a wooden bench too thin for her awkwardness to be comfortable, her own eyes fixed on her hands. He blanched when one of Connie's companions asked her to dance, was relieved when he saw Ma's lips move instead and the man turn away. Thank the Lord she had not seen Connie.

Tom briefly considered his planned purpose tonight. His job, to find the outsiders who intended to disrupt the dance, had been clear, and he could alert the right men to their presence and it would be taken care of within moments. He was sure these three were the men he wanted, but now his intense focus was all on Connie. Rage leapt in his chest for his baby sister. How could the bastard ask one woman to dance after so casually abandoning another? But Tom could not do anything about it here. Images more real and therefore more vivid than in any moving picture burst through his mind of what would happen if he tried: the confrontation, Connie's cowering face, with the boy maybe trying to brazen it out before his nose cracked under Tom's fist. But then the friends would join in the fight, and they would have the riot they wanted in earnest. Instead, Tom took a deep breath and started walking again. He was scared of the original misjudgment he had made of Connie, thinking him a good husband for his sister, but he intended to rectify the problem now.

Tom found Willie against the wall and signaled, a quick snap in the air of fingers that yearned to punch instead. Willie walked over quickly, jittery with the nervousness and the responsibility of the night.

"What'uv we got?" Willie asked.

"Them three - see - there?" Tom asked him.

"Yeah," Willie burst out quietly in a harsh puff of air and excitement.

"They're gonna be trouble," Tom answered. "Jule spotted 'um, and I've met 'um before."

Willie gave him a puzzled look, but didn't hesitate. "Well, alrighty then. Let's go tell Huston an' the other boys."

As he and Willie walked side by side, Tom watched couples laughing, flirting, pairing off, watched a group of gaunt women with dresses that hung like sacks on shoulders that had once been broader, watched them nod in approval or disapproval of whom their girls chose, watched anything at all but the dance floor and Connie. He was not interested in seeing how Connie had changed; he was dead to their family now.

He worried about Rose of Sharon, and what she would do if she saw her one-time husband. In his mind, the girl he was worrying about was not this new and still unfamiliar Rose of Sharon, but the sister he remembered more clearly. The tomboy who wouldn't have noticed boys except as competition, with her hair in braids and a dress streaked with mud. Who would have laughed at his worrying, would have told him in that firm squeaky voice that she could take care of herself, jeez. But then he remembered that he was worrying because that Rose of Sharon had left more than three years ago, and this new one threw temper tantrums in fear, not exuberance, this new one was carrying the baby of a man holding another women too close as he swung her around to the caller's beat.

He also remembered what Ma had said before the dance, and so let some of the worry go. Ma would take care of Rose of Sharon if he took care of Connie. So together he and Willie informed Huston, whose eyes got hard and cruel. "Willie," he said, "you sure you got ever'thing ready?"

Willie grinned happily. "Sure have Mr. Huston. Ain't gonna be no trouble."1

Tom observed from the side as Willie and Huston moved away, the voice of the caller trailing off as the dance ended. In the scramble as everyone found new partners, Huston's boys neatly cordoned off Connie and the other two and led them outside. Connie would not come to Weedpatch again, and Tom let out the breath he had been holding as safely inside of him as he wished he could hold his family.


1 Writing in italics taken directly from John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, 1939. They can be found on pages 340-341 in the Penguin Group edition of 1992, ISBN 01430039431.