The Grapes of Wrath Intercalary Chapter This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

A middle aged woman in a tattered old dress with dirt and tear stained skin led the line of people into the California state prison. Unsympathetic policemen with cold, hard expressions pushed the starving felons hatefully along to get fingerprinted. A more kind hearted guard stood in a cold sweat, unbelieving of the seemingly endless line of near-starving, near-dying people being roughly ushered into the prison. He knew none of them were truly criminals at heart, they only committed the crimes because of their circumstances. It was difficult to make sure you could feed yourself, but providing for an entire family was near impossible. Prison was different from county jail. Those who committed the petty crimes were sent there and were only held there temporarily. The wretched jobless, homeless, starving souls with nothing left in their lives, committed worse crimes aiming to be sent to prison. Prison meant shelter, it meant food, and it meant not having to keep moving to find work that gave no job security. Prison was a blessing.

“What you ‘spose they’s gonna give us to eat?”

“Meat or somepin hearty, I’m hopin’.”

“You think they’ll be a-givin’ us some new clothes? I knew a fella who been in one of these places and they gave ‘im all new clothes.”

A bearded man with a hard expression was next in line. He was extremely thin and malnourished with bags under his eyes and the face of a dead man. An annoyed husky policeman with no feeling in his eyes took the man’s prints, hastily scribbled something on a piece of paper, and motioned for him to move along. Traditionally, this was when the guards would confiscate all of the belongings the new prisoner had on him, but most of these people had nothing to their names but the clothes on their backs.

The hallways of the prison where the cells were located were not warm, but, much to the chagrin of the prisoners, were kept cold for sanitary reasons. Though they dared not complain. They had a roof and food and they would take it over any naked street corner or leaky tent. The smell of mildew, must, and mites wafted through the edifice. The prison lacked color and life. Everything was gray, cold, and unfeeling. Each inmate received a worn, but clean, blanket, a navy blue jumpsuit that smelled of mothballs, a small bar of yellow soap, and a copy of the Holy Bible.

Into the frigid cell, the thin man shuffled. This was to be his humble abode for the next three years. What would become of him after that time elapses? His heart began to ache painfully for his life forgotten. He absorbed his surroundings. In the back corner there was a mildew stricken sink with one of the faucet handles missing, an even filthier toilet beside it, and in the opposite corner a cot that he knew his long ragged body would not completely fit on. A flickering light bulb hung about a foot from the cracked ceiling and a moth flew excitedly about it. It was the best place he had lived in since he ventured out from Oklahoma a year ago. He tenderly placed his new and only belongings on the cot and glanced upward. A dim pink orb of light from the California sunset came through a small window. He stood on his new bed which groaned under his weight and he rubbed his forearm against the window to clear the thin layer of dust. The window was too small for even a child to fit through. He peered out and sighed, thinking of everything he had lost in a such a short period of time. He thought of his wife, Deborah, who died in childbirth along with his newborn daughter in the government camp only three months ago. His thoughts turned to the store clerk he shot. If he had not done it, he still would be living on the streets. His dry eyes began to burn with tears. His life had unexpectedly plummeted downhill so suddenly. He sat on the cot and put the palms of his burly hands against his tearing eyes with his elbows leaning on his bony thighs. Sitting up, the weeping man peered through the bars into the cell across from his. A boy no older than seventeen stared back at him with sullen and drowsy eyes. The man grunted and roughly wiped his face with his sleeve, bringing back his composure. He smiled an awkward crooked smile.

“What you in for boy?”

“Stabbin’ a cop. I didn’t kill ‘im though!”

“Whatcha do it for?”

“He slapped my ma and she didn’t do nothin’!”

The thin man nodded his head wearily in understanding and looked down at his walking shoes that were still fairly new and had yet to even be broken in. He had stolen them the week before from a clothing depot. A clerk was shot and killed just so he could have something on his feet.

One floor up in the women’s cell hall, a plump woman knelt beside her cot, her knees slowly bruising against the cold cement floor and her elbows resting on the edge of her thin mattress. She gripped her deceased mother’s blood red rosary beads between her filthy fingers. Her grip was so tight that her knuckles were as white and bloodless as a corpse. The small figure of Christ on the end of the string of beads stared up at her as if listening. She was whispering desperately and fat sincere tears rolled down her pale cheeks like tumbleweeds rolling across the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma.

“Forgive me God, for I have sinned. Forgive me God, for I have sinned. Forgive me, God for I have sinned.”

A Jesus-lover. Not many of them could be found in prison. Most Jesus-lovers would never even dream of stealing due to their intense fears of hell and the bad karma reciprocating back to harm their families. Then there were those few who stole to save their family and later begged for forgiveness, like the woman.

The Jesus-lover’s prayer was abruptly interrupted by an unsettling ruckus issuing from down the hall. A trio of exasperated guards were making their way toward the exit as they struggled to drag a rebelling woman down the hall. Like a banshee, she repeatedly shrieked. Every one of her limbs were flailing about as the men attempted to get a better grip on her frail body.

Third one this week, they all thought. As more and more Okies were finding refuge in the prison each day, it was becoming overcrowded, therefore the prison had to make the necessary adjustments and free some of the inmates. No one possessed the desire to leave. The prison was their haven, their sanctuary from everything cruel about the unjust world outside. For outside, all that awaited them was poverty, dejection, and possibly their demise. Dismissing them from the prison was the same as taking their lives. Unable to respond to the woman’s protests and pleas, the inmates watched in horror. They each said a silent prayer for her, all the while knowing her eventual fate.

Dinner time arrived at last. Small tin plates and mugs were thrust carelessly through the
rusting cell bars and clattered on the floor. The people joyously rushed to it like starved dogs to a bone. Some ate quickly, stuffing their mouths, others slowly, savoring the taste and ripping their pieces in half to make it last just a little longer. Dinner consisted of a stale wheat roll, a warm chunk of unidentifiable meat soaked in a flavorless gravy with a couple pieces of cold withering broccoli. Breakfast was merely a bruised peach and lunch was two slices of bread with a flimsy slice of ham in between. Milk was given with lunch and dinner, and black coffee with breakfast. Meal time was the most anticipated time of the day. Nothing else mattered. Some laid awake in their cots at night thinking only of the “meal” that would be coming the next morning.

One evening a guard neglected to give an elderly man his roll. He pretended not to hear the desperate cries of the famished man and continued on his way. The guards showed no sympathy and they viewed them all as worthless, just an annoyance, nuisances to society. As far as this guard knew, this waste of space deserved no meal at all.

Guilt gripped the seventeen year old boy as the man began to sob pitifully. He tore his roll in half and stuck his thin arm through the bars and held it out to the deprived man. He stared at the boy in wonder for a good minute, but then snatched the morsel greedily from his hand, showing no sign of gratitude. When times changed, so did the people.

Every Sunday the inmates joined the Jesus-lovers and whispered psalms from their bibles, softly sung hymns to themselves, and prayed for their lost families and lives. Prayers of forgiveness for their past wrong doings were also spoken.

Days came and went, each so similar to the next that the prisoners began to lose track of time and the days began to blend together. People continued to pray, think, and eat with little else to do.





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