Five Summers and John Steinbeck

by Brian Ted Jones


“We are lonesome animals. We spend all life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say–and to feel– ‘Yes, that’s the way it is, or at least that’s the way I feel it. You’re not as alone as you thought.'”

-John Steinbeck, Interviewed by George Plimpton and Frank Crowther, The Paris Review, 1975


Summer of 2006 I was in a bad way: freshly graduated, wasting time on the East Coast, and writing a bad novel before I had to head back to Oklahoma to start studying law. One of my dear friends, Billy, was also in a tight spot. He’d started up a late romance with a classmate of ours named Moira, but something had happened in the switch between college and real life. Now Moira was gone, and Billy had nothing in Annapolis to hold him down. He asked if I’d drive him across America, to San Francisco. I agreed on the spot. We spent a week together, out there on the big road. To pass the time, he read to me from John Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez.

Hear another story of one man’s life on America’s highways.

Somewhere in Plato’s heaven there is a list of all the magical things young Americans ought to do before adulthood. I never waited tables in New York City, never worked as a ski bum in Colorado, never played in a rock and roll band, never hiked the Appalachian Trail. But I did cross this great big continent, from sea to shining sea, and on the open road, too—the big Eisenhower road. Annapolis to Indianapolis, to Iowa City and then on to the Badlands of South Dakota, through the big-sky country of Montana and Wyoming, down into Idaho, where Billy and I looked for, but did not find, the lonely grave of Ernest Hemingway. I stood on the Golden Gate Bridge and felt the cold Pacific wind as I gazed down at Alcatraz Island. I saw the hell-glow of Las Vegas looming up in the nighttime desert, rode across the Hoover Dam, got a speeding ticket in Arizona, and breakfast tacos in Albuquerque. I crossed the Texas Panhandle in the morning, surrounded by sandy plains, rust-red derricks, and a sky the color of old jeans. I stopped at the law school in Oklahoma, got a feel for the place, then visited Graceland in Memphis, before making the all-night climb through eastern Tennessee and western Virginia, ending right back where I’d started: where America, more or less, had started.

I grabbed Travels with Charley and went for a walk, only to somehow end up an hour later locked in the underground garage of Billy and Aaron’s apartment building.

Billy ended up doing all right out in California, joining forces with Aaron, another guy we’d graduated with. They shared an apartment in Oakland. In summer of 2007, I went for a visit. On Billy’s firm suggestion (almost a requirement if I was to be vouchsafed his apartment’s couch), I took along John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America. I had a grand time on that trip. Billy, as it happened, had rekindled things with Moira; she actually arrived in Oakland not long after I did. The two of them planned to leave fairly soon after my departure. They were moving on to Chicago. I congratulated them. They asked me, as friends do, if I was seeing anyone. I said, “No, no—classes keep me pretty busy.” I told them there was this one, a young woman I had met while giving blood, but she mostly kept to herself. When they asked if I was still writing, I told them I’d made the law review.

Billy and Aaron threw a party toward the end of my time in Oakland, which turned into an all-night rager that found me awake and alert at six in the morning while everyone around me slept. I grabbed Travels with Charley and went for a walk, only to somehow end up an hour later locked in the underground garage of Billy and Aaron’s apartment building. If you have never been locked in an underground garage in a strange city after a night of no sleep, well then, my friend, you are missing out on a rare and thrilling vintage of loneliness. All I could do with myself was sit on the concrete wheel brake of an empty parking spot, read my Steinbeck, and hope that someone came down before too long.

The woman who gave blood with me—her name was Jennifer. She went by Jenne. A little over a month after I got back to Oklahoma from California, I worked up the nerve to call her. I got the voicemail. I started to panic and hang up, then I squeezed the panic down, froze it out, and I, by God, asked her out on the voicemail. She called back, laughing, and said, “Hell, why not?” We met at The Library in Norman, which is actually a bar. At one point, the talk turned to Flannery O’Connor. Neither of us could remember the name of the story where the Bible salesman steals the girl’s wooden leg. Later that night, I was washing dishes at the apartment, and saw a flash on my cell phone. It was a text from Jenne: “Good Country People.”

That was all she wrote.

* * *

Neither of us could remember the name of the story where the Bible salesman steals the girl’s wooden leg. 

Summer of 2008 I took an internship with the criminal defense division of a law firm. I showed Jenne two of my old short stories—she read them, looked me straight in the eye, pointed to one, and said, “This is no good.” Then she pointed at the other and said, “This one is something special. You ought to keep doing this.” I worked during the day and wrote at night. At the end of the summer, the division head took me out to lunch, and said they had a job waiting for me when I graduated and passed the bar. “Come in and see me sometime during your last semester,” he said. “We’ll talk particulars—salary, benefits.” Jenne had a good job lined up, too, as a plaintiff ’s lawyer for an employment discrimination firm. We talked about getting married. We talked about having a kid. We set the wedding for spring break 2009. Jenne found a dress at Target. I bought a suit at Dillard’s. We decided on a simple ceremony in my parents’ back yard, officiated by a family friend with an Internet minister’s license. Jenne’s son, Oscar, drew a picture of us for the invitations—a stick-figure lady holding hands with a stick-figure guy. A couple of months before the wedding—early 2009—I went in to talk to my boss, about “salary and benefits.” He cleared his throat and then: “Look, what with the economy the way it is . . .”

A month or so after the wedding, I came home to the little townhouse on the east side of Norman, where we lived during that last year of law school. Jenne greeted me, holding something behind her back. She looked ready to bust.

“What’s up?” I said.

She drew her hand out and showed me a pregnancy test, with a big blue plus sign in the window.

Summer of 2009 was not a good time to be looking for a job in America. I got close with an entry-level spot at the attorney general’s office, only to find out the legislature had yanked funding for it at the last minute. Job-hunting also had to compete with preparing for our last batch of law school finals, packing up the house in Norman, finding a new place to live, and studying for the bar. We landed in a rent house just off Sooner Road. Jenne and I took bar prep courses in the morning, and studied in the afternoon. I started reading The Grapes of Wrath.

* * *

Any reading of The Grapes of Wrath is an encounter with the mixed heart of human beings. 

A friend of mine from law school was helping me move a used couch into our new place. I told him about the job hunt. He mentioned that his wife’s dad, a lawyer in Shawnee, was looking to hire an associate for his little general practice outfit.

“Anything, man,” I said. “Absolutely anything.” Jenne’s belly was already pretty big by then. The kid inside liked to do somersaults.

Any reading of The Grapes of Wrath is an encounter with the mixed heart of human beings. The novel shows us at our magnificent worst, and our lowly best. The banks, the bosses, the exploiters, who squeeze whatever value they can from the human material set adrift by economic collapse and ecological disaster. Then it shows the chain-strong ties of love and dedication, which is all trodden families like the Joads have to hold on to, their only defense against utter annihilation. When it seems like the powerful should finally have enough, they find a way to want more, and to get more out of those with almost nothing. And when it seems like the Joads shouldn’t have anything left to give, their daughter—abandoned by her husband, bereft of her newborn child, homeless, wandering, suffering—gives milk from her breast so a starving man, a stranger, can eat.

Growing up is about choosing sides—but by the time you’re old enough to understand this, you’ve been carried most of the way, to one side or the other, by decisions you’ve already made, often on the lightest of considerations. I was never terribly interested in practicing corporate law, for instance—it didn’t seem like the right style for me. Had I been more interested in it, though, or had I thought of it as a temporary thing, a means to an end, then Jenne and Oscar and I might’ve spent those months in the middle of 2009 in far greater comfort and security. Maybe I could have made some kind compromise between the demands of a job like that and the time I needed to work on my stories, or on the rickety manuscript of the novel I was writing. But probably I wouldn’t have. And I wouldn’t be writing this. I wouldn’t know how. These simple sentences stand on top of an invisible mountain of discards, fragments, dead-ends: the early refuse of my continuing apprenticeship. There is a person I could have been who would have viewed all that work as nothing but a silly waste of time. That same person would probably never have made it to the end of Grapes. And if he had, he might have giggled.

Billy and Moira stayed in Chicago a couple of years, but by the time I’d finished Grapes, they were off again, this time to Vietnam, where they lived and taught English. They were married in the summer of 2011, lived awhile in Russia, and are back in the States now. Billy and I haven’t seen one another since Oakland, but we talk often enough. Nearly every time we do, he tells me I should read East of Eden. He read it to Moira during their long drive out of California. The way he talks, it’s the kind of book that’ll change your life.


Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4 Issue 19. Oct. 1, 2013