From Short Stories about John Steinbeck by Steve Hauk: “John and the River”

John sat by the front parlor window reading from a book of Bret Harte stories while his mother Olive gardened in the backyard. Olive dug around the turnips to loosen the dark soil. She cut back the red and white chrysanthemums casting shadows against the frame house in the morning sun. Olive wore a straw sun hat and canvas gardening gloves. She stooped vigorously to her work, as she did everything, digging and snipping.

John’s head jerked when he heard a clink on the front window. Then another. He glanced at the window. He frowned and tried to concentrate on his book because he had just read, “He heard a wolf howl, then he looked up and saw a mule in the distance.’’ John wanted to stay in this man’s world. He wanted to know if the man was in danger from the wolf, or perhaps, more alarming to John, the mule was in danger, or maybe they both were. But there was another clink as a pebble struck the glass, and another, and then he heard Herb’s voice.

“John! John!”

It was early summer, and John had turned twelve several months earlier. He was now impatiently waiting to be thirteen, when he felt sure his life would finally change for the better. He would, by then he hoped, gain some control over his clumsy body and awkwardness. Until then he would do a lot of reading if his friend Herb would leave him to it, but it didn’t seem Herb would.

“John! John!’’ Herb called in a soft voice. Herb was wary of alerting Olive in the backyard. He was a little afraid of Olive. John set the book down, keeping his place with an oak leaf he inserted between the pages he was reading. He came out onto the porch, carefully closing the door quietly behind him.

Herb looked up at John, waiting, his hands on his hips, a baseball mitt hooked onto his belt. Herb was small but wiry strong, and had rolled his blue jeans up to his knees – which Herb thought made his pants look like the wool flannels Babe Ruth wore when he came up to bat at Yankee Stadium. Alice, who was John’s age, stood by Herb, and a little bit off John saw his sister Mary, who was Herb’s age, ten.

Alice wore a light green summer dress with white sneakers and Mary had on her favorite denim coveralls and lace up boots. Summer mornings Mary was often out and about before John even got up. John noticed dirt on the front of his sister’s coveralls, suggesting she had already gotten into a scrape or fallen climbing a tree. Mary wore coveralls for a good reason.

“Come on, John, it’s almost ten o’clock, let’s head out!’’ Herb said in a hoarse whisper.

“Can’t, Herb, I told mother I’d read and study this morning,’’ John said.

“Come down off the porch, John,’’ Alice said slowly. “She won’t mind if you come do something. It’s summer after all.’’

Although John liked Alice and thought she was pretty with her yellow hair and dark blue eyes, the way she talked and looked at him often made him even more aware of his clumsiness and large ears. He never knew what to say to Alice, so usually he said nothing and just looked away.

“We’re going to the park!’’ said Herb, looking from one to the other. “If there’s a baseball game maybe we can play. Alice and Mary said they’d watch.’’

“Mother wouldn’t like it. Mary, you know I’d catch hell from mother.’’

Mary shrugged. But she knew it was true that her brother might get in trouble. Olive always let Mary get away with more than John even though she was younger and a girl. This worried her a little bit. Herb made a face of disgust.

“Aw, come on, John,’’ he said, remembering to keep his voice down. “Make a break for freedom. I want to play some ball. The Babe hit two homers last night.’’

John peeked around the side of the porch to see if his mother was coming. To his relief she wasn’t.

“Herb, you know I’m not good at baseball yet,’’ John said.

“What do you mean yet?’’ said Herb.

“I’ll probably be good when I’m thirteen, when I’ve grown into my body,’’ John said. “That’s what father says – I have grown very fast and my body has some catching up to do. When it does I’ll be okay. That’s the way it was with him.’’

“That doesn’t make sense,’’ said Herb. “I haven’t had to catch up to my body and I’m good at baseball.’’

“You’re small, Herb, it’s a different thing,’’ Mary said. “If John isn’t good at sports yet, it’s because of what he said – he’s the biggest boy his age in Salinas.’’

“Who wants to play baseball anyway?’’ Alice said, looking at John still standing on the porch. “When a boy grows so much so fast like John has, strange things can happen to his body, isn’t that so, John?’’

John didn’t know what to say.

“Well,’’ said Herb, “if we can’t play baseball, maybe we can go across the tracks to Chinatown.’’

John looked at Herb and decided to come down the porch steps.

“I wouldn’t mind going to Chinatown,’’ he said.

“John, if mother found out I went to Chinatown she’d lock me up for the whole summer,’’ Mary said. “You know that.’’

“I’d go to Chinatown with you, John,’’ said Alice.

“Sure, we can make fun of the old men,’’ said Herb. “Ching-Chong Chinaman! Ching-Chong Chinaman!’’

“I wouldn’t do that, Herb, make fun of the old Chinese men,’’ said John.

“Because of the Tong? Because the Tong would get after us?’’ said Herb, who had been reading a detective magazine story about secret societies, including the Tong.

“Well, I don’t know about the Tong, Herb. I don’t think there are any Tong in Salinas. But Andy made fun of an old Chinaman just last week in Monterey, down by the sardine canneries, and boy was he sorry.’’

“What happened?’’

“The old man looked at him! That’s what Andy said – stared right at him!‘’

“That’s all? Just stared at him?’’

“Not just – Andy said he looked right through him, so Andy thought he’d been hit in the gut with a basket of fish or something. And you know, Andy’s a pretty tough guy.’’

“Basket of fish?’’ said Herb, thinking it over. “Is that like a Chinese hex?’’

“The old man just looked at him, that’s all. Andy said all he could see was the old man’s sad, dark eyes.’’

“That’s a hex!’’ Herb said triumphantly.

“I don’t think the Chinese have hexes,’’ John said patiently. He found he usually had to be patient with Herb, because once Herb got an idea into his head he had a hard time letting it go. If Herb thought there were Tong, there had to be Tong.

“I don’t care if it was or it wasn’t a hex, or if there are Tong or there aren’t Tong,’’ said Alice. “I just want to do something. Let’s go on a picnic.’’

“Where, Alice? Where would you like to go for a picnic?’’ John said. He was glad that Alice changed the subject, since Herb certainly wasn’t going to.

“Somewhere there won’t be adults telling us what to do, that’s for sure, maybe down by the Salinas River. If we stand around doing nothing and arguing all day soon the summer will be over. We can hide in the rushes by the river and swim, and you know.’’

“Swim naked?’’ Mary asked bluntly.

“Well, that’s not what I meant, but I don’t care. I might if I feel like it. You can if you want. Who would be there to stop us?’’

“Mary isn’t going to swim naked,’’ said John.

“I wouldn’t, don’t you worry, John, because they say the snakes are coming out now,’’ said Mary. “A man was bit near the river by San Ardo. I wouldn’t want to be bit when I was naked.’’

“Who says a man was bit by a snake?’’ said Herb.

“It was in the newspaper this morning, on the front page, father read it aloud before going to work. John wasn’t up yet,’’ said Mary.

“I didn’t know about that,’’ said John.

“They said the man was a raggedy hobo from who knows where. He was passing through and stopped to camp and eat by the river and was bit by a rattlesnake. Maybe two or three rattlesnakes because there were bites on his arms and legs.’’

They were all quiet for a moment, looking at each other and breathing softly as they thought about snakes and snakebites. Then John remembered something he had read once.

“Well, it’s true the snakes are probably there, but it’s nothing new – they’ve been coming down to the Salinas River for at least a million years, maybe more, way before there were people to get in the way, coming out of the hills in the late spring and summer to beat the heat and get some water. But if we’re careful and Alice still wants to go on a picnic . . . .‘’

“I don’t know,’’ said Herb. “If a hobo was bitten . . . .‘’

“Well, San Ardo’s pretty far from here, more than fifty miles I think,‘’ John said. “It would take those snakes a couple weeks to make it up here. And we could look for frogs. You like looking for frogs, don’t you, Herb?’’

“Sure, but so do rattlesnakes, I’d guess, especially plump little frogs and fat little tadpoles. And I’d suppose we have our own rattlesnakes here in Salinas whatever you say.’’

“Well, if you don’ want to,’’ said John.

“I didn’t say that,’’ said Herb, not wanting to seem afraid. “I guess I’d go down to the river if you and the girls are game. Anyway, it is a lot hotter down by San Ardo than here in Salinas, don’t you think? So maybe there won’t be any snakes up here until it gets hotter.’’

“Maybe that’s so, certainly not as many,’’ John nodded, even though he knew that might not be the truth. “Mother talks about how hot it used to be when she was a girl growing up down there.’’

“Did your mother swim naked in the river?’’ asked Alice.

“I don’t think so,’’ said John. “I don’t think mother would do that.’’

“They said his body was stiff and sprawled out like this!’’

“What body?’’ said Herb.

“The hobo’s,’’ continued Mary. “They said his body was stiff with his arms this way and he was found with his mouth open and his tongue sticking out to the side, like this,’’ and Mary stuck out her tongue, then pulled it back so she could talk some more.

“And I don’t want that to happen to me, no thank you. There was an open can of baked beans on the ground, too, but the beans had spilled out onto the ground and maybe the snakes ate some.’’

“Did the newspaper say that?’’ John said. “That the snake ate some beans?’’

“No, I just thought it up,’’ said Mary, who stooped over to tie a loose shoelace. “Who’d know anyway if a snake ate a bean?’’

“Was the hobo dead?’’ said Herb, who was worried all over again.

“Of course he was dead! What do you think we have been talking about? You think his tongue would be sticking out like this,’’ and Mary stuck her tongue out and pulled it back again, “if he wasn’t dead? Do you think he would have left a can of beans that cost ten cents on the ground if he wasn’t dead?’’

They thought about Mary’s last question and what they could do with ten cents and then Alice declared, “Yes, I think he must have been dead.’’

“That’s a nice story, Mary. I like that story,’’ John said after a moment.

“A nice story?’’ Alice was shocked. “Someone’s mouth like this with his tongue sticking out isn’t nice, John. I wouldn’t want to kiss anyone with a mouth like that, would you?’’

“Well, maybe his mouth wasn’t nice,’’ said John.

“So his body being stiff? That was nice?’’

“There was just something about the way Mary told her story, that’s all. I like the way Mary tells stories. She acts them out.’’

“She got the story from a newspaper reporter so I don’t see what the excitement is about.’’

“The newspaper reporter didn’t act it out. He didn’t stick out his tongue. That was Mary’s doing.’’

“I might be an actress someday. I’m seriously thinking about it,’’ said Mary, who enjoyed being the center of attention and being flattered by her brother.

“You never said that before, Mary, that you wanted to be an actress,’’ John said.

“I just started thinking about it, John.’’

“Oh.’’

They were all quiet for some time, thinking about what they might grow up to be – except for Herb, who had decided a long time ago he wanted to have his own gasoline station on Main Street, so there was no reason to waste time thinking about that anymore. Then Herb had another thought.

“I thought you said you couldn’t go anywhere today, John.’’

“Well, going to the river, that’s a different thing than playing baseball. I like the Salinas River and I’ll tell you why. The Salinas River is one of only two rivers in the whole world that flows from south to north, and guess what the other one is – the River Nile in Egypt! And here’s something else. Flowing from south to north must really be important, because the Salinas Valley and the Valley Nile are the two most fertile valleys in the world.’’

“Really?’’ said Herb, impressed.  “The most fertile?’’

“Yes,’’ said John.

“You read that?’’

“Yes.’’

“In a book?’’

“In two books and a magazine.’’

Herb had to admit the information John could come up with knocked him over sometimes. Herb knew how many homers the Babe hit but nothing about the habits of snakes or the directions rivers flowed.

“And they both really flow south to north?’’ he asked just to make sure.

“Yep.’’

“So the Salinas Valley is like Egypt?’’

“Well, we don’t have pyramids or pharaohs, but when it comes to lettuce and strawberries, I guess so.’’

“I’d like some strawberries,’’ said Alice.

“Too bad we can’t turn the other rivers in the world around and make them go from south to north,’’ said Herb. “We could grow more crops around the world and make a lot of money.’’

“It seems that way,’’ John said. “So I was thinking, Herb – so we can go to the river and watch the water flow from south to north which is a rare sight that you can only see here or in Egypt – I was thinking maybe we could come up with a story . . . .’’

“A story?’’ said Herb suspiciously.

“So mother would let me go. So I was thinking you could tell Mother you need to do a summer book report, and you want me to go to the library and help you select a book because you’re only ten . . . .’’

“I don’t know,’’ said Herb.

“She might think that’s OK.‘’

“And we’d really go to the river – is that what you mean? That’s a pretty complicated lie, John.’’

“It won’t really be a lie, Herb. We really will go to the library first to find a book. We did it before. We just won’t tell her the river part.’’

“We did it before?’’

“Sure, remember I picked out Huckleberry Finn for you last summer?’’

“Oh sure, I remember – ,’’ said Herb, spitting on the ground. “I remember getting in trouble for reading it because I was only nine!’’

“But we’d still be going to the river for a picnic, wouldn’t we, John? Not just to the library?’’ said Alice.

“We’ll go to the river after we go to the library. And don’t worry, we’ll look out for snakes. I’ll bring a snake stick.  Maybe you and Mary could scrape up some food and some sodas.’’

Herb shifted his weight from one foot to the other. He looked toward the back of the house. “I don’t know, John. Your mom’s a schoolteacher and she’s smart too. She looks right through me, like that Chinaman did to Andy. Some moms you can get away with stuff, not your mom.’’

At that moment Olive came around the side of the house, taking off her gardening gloves and putting them in the basket as she walked toward the children. She pushed the sun hat back on her head and smiled at the children and then looked at the sky, shielding her eyes with her hand before looking down at Herb.

“I’m not so tough, Herbert Henderson,’’ said Olive. “Don’t I give you oatmeal cookies?’’

“Yes, ma’am!’’ said Herb, amazed that John and Mary’s mother always seemed to know what was going on. Either she had ears like an elephant or she was a mind reader. She would, Herb thought, be a match for the Tong.

“And don’t I tell your mother you are always welcome at our house?’’

“Yes, ma’am, you sure do!’’

“Well, then, don’t tell untrue stories. You are one of the few boys I allow to play with John. I hope you’re not learning bad behavior from him. I do worry about you children. Why, hello, Alice.’’

“Hello, Mrs. Steinbeck,’’ said Alice with a slight curtsey.

“Aren’t you pretty! Mary, do you see how pretty Alice looks in her green summer dress and white sneakers? Doesn’t she look nice?’’

Mary looked at Alice and then at her own boots and dirty coveralls – she’d already taken a fall in a vacant lot tripping over a board and it wasn’t noon yet. She nodded, looking at the ground. It bothered Mary when her mother compared her to other girls.

“Well, since you’re all here feel free to have something to eat in the kitchen. We have lemonade and cold pickles. John and Mary will help you.’’

“Mother?’’

“Yes, John?’’

“Herb’s been assigned a summer book report – ‘’

“Have you, Herbert? Well, summer’s a time for learning, too. We shouldn’t forget that.’’

“Yes, ma’am,’’ Herb muttered.

“So I thought I might help him choose a book – like I did last summer.’’

“Oh, yes, I recall that turned out very well,’’ said Olive, her smile fading.

“I thought maybe something by Bret Harte this time – his tales of California maybe.’’

“Yes, that sounds safer than Huckleberry Finn.’’

“I’d go to the library with Herb. We’d find the book best for him.’’

“What a delightful idea, the two of you reading together in the library! Would Alice and Mary accompany you?’’

“Yes, ma’am,’’ said John just as, at the same time, Herb and Alice were saying, `No, ma’am.’’

Only Mary, aware of the traps her mother could set, had the good sense to wait before saying anything. To make double sure she would keep her mouth shut, she bit her lower lip as she shoved her hands deep into her coverall pockets.

Olive pulled herself up very straight, looming over all of the children except John, who was almost as tall as his mother.

“Children, as John and Mary will tell you, I grew up on a farm at the foot of the mountains not far from San Ardo. Most every summer the rattlesnakes came down from the hills to find water in the riverbed. I have seen cattle staggered and killed by the bite of a rattlesnake. Yes, large beef cattle felled by a single bite. I’m sure you heard about that hobo found dead yesterday on the riverbank. No one knows where he comes from so he will be given a pauper’s grave with a simple cross to mark his passing. Our church congregation, including John and Mary, will pray for his soul this Sunday. This poor hobo had no home, but now he will, with the Lord.’’

Olive waited a moment, gently looking at each child with her soft green eyes, giving her speech time to settle in. This is what she did when she wanted her students to remember something she thought especially important.

“Now Herbert, now Alice, if you’d run along – to your homes, I would suggest, not to the river to swim, with clothes on or otherwise. It is too dangerous at this time of the year, as we have seen. Will you do this for me?’’

She looked at them again and Herb and Alice met her eyes for a second then nodded. Herb realized there was nothing that could be hidden from John and Mary’s mother.

“And if I might mention, John and Mary have duties and studies to attend to this summer, not roaming around Salinas. John will have plenty of time for that when he gets older. I hope Mary never does. Anyway, I’m sure you’ll all get together again when school resumes.’’

Herb and Alice glanced up at John, who looked at his shoes, then over at Mary, who pretended to be looking at the porch. Then Herb and Alice left, walking stiffly down the sidewalk as if in a little two-person parade because they knew they were being watched. John’s eyes followed them until they were out of sight and wondered what they would do the rest of the day. Maybe they would go to Chinatown or maybe the city park, he thought. He knew they wouldn’t likely go to the Salinas River without him. Olive looked at her children and leaned down and kissed each on the forehead.

“Don’t concentrate so hard, you’ll hurt yourselves,’’ she said with just the flicker of a smile. “Mary, you can help me in the garden if you wish. Your coveralls already have mud on the knees so we won’t have to worry about getting them dirty. John, after lunch Mary and I will have you retell us the story you are reading, will you? From what you were saying this morning, it sounds like a good one. I want to know what happens.’’

John watched as his mother and little sister walked to the backyard, then climbed the porch steps to go inside and finish reading his story. He wanted to know what happened to the man and the mule in the distance who had heard a wolf howl. He hoped their fate would be better than the poor hobo’s by the river.

“John and the River” is one of a series of short stories being written by Steve Hauk based on little-known but dramatic events in the life of John Steinbeck. The stories are inspired by actual incidents, but characters and events are added, as in any work of fiction. There are some exceptions, pure surmises based on anecdotes and reminisces, such as “John and the River,” in an attempt to capture character.  Steve’s working title for the collection of short stories is “Almost True Stories from a Writer’s Life.”

 

Steve Hauk About Steve Hauk

Steve Hauk is a playwright, short story writer, and art expert in Pacific Grove, California. Co-curator of This Side of Eden—Images of Steinbeck's California, the inaugural art exhibition at the National Steinbeck Center, he has written on John Steinbeck for Steinbeck Review and is the author of two CINE Golden Eagle award-winning PBS-telecast documentaries narrated by Jack Lemmon, Time Captured in Paintings: The Monterey Legacy and The Roots of California Photography: The Monterey Legacy. His plays include Fortune's Way, or Notes on Art for Catholics (and Others)The Floating Hat, Reflections of an American Mossad, A Mild Concussion, and The Cottages, Scenes from Lives Interrupted. Steinbeck: The Untold Stories, a book of fictional stories based on incidents from Steinbeck's life, has been published by SteinbeckNow.com.

Comments

  1. Richard O'Mara says:

    Felt like I was part of the story, very nice….

    • Steve Hauk says:

      Richard,

      I hadn’t thought about it, but that would be a nice quality to find in a story or poem or play – that you are a part of it. I think, for me, it might happen most often in poems. Thank you for the thought.

  2. Dixie Layne says:

    I was about 10 myself when I started exploring Pacific Grove with my brother … a fascinating time for kids growing up in small towns. Your story, fictional or not, demonstrates how Steinbeck’s natural curiosity and his growing up in Salinas and summering in Pacific Grove laid the foundation for his depth of understanding and curiosity of the many different people, places, and cultures he wrote about with such clarity and truth. His stories of this area were filled with an understanding that started as a boy and never left his consciousness.

    • Steve Hauk says:

      That’s a great point, Dixie, about the experiences of his youth in Monterey County contributing so vividly to his later writing. I remember the first time I saw Hannibal, Missouri, I could see and understand so much of what inspired Mark Twain.

  3. You fleshed it out, Steve, since the draft I read a while back. i can see those four kids and hear them: they are just right between themselves and also in their demeanor with the adult. Can’t wait to read the other stories in the collection!

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  1. […] in Monterey, Pacific Grove, and Salinas, California comprise a work in progress. When we posted “John and the River,” Steve’s story attracted the attention of local readers familiar with Steinbeck’s […]

  2. […] writer who lives in the Pacific Grove home once owned by John Steinbeck’s friend Ed Ricketts. In stories and plays set in Pacific Grove, Monterey, and Salinas, Steve captures the spirit of Steinbeck and […]

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