The Green Gate
By E. A. Short

It’s 1934 all over again: gray dawn light burning sleep from my eyes; birdsong coaxing a reason to live from my bones; that first waking thought bursting like a swimmer from the sea: oranges!

Next it’s my Ford Fiesta, radiator boiling, flying toward Fred Meyer for bags of dimpled Valencias and hot dog-shaped rolls of quarters. Then comes the sponge bath at the miniature kitchen sink — Joy soap wiped from my armpits and toothpaste hustled down the drain — followed by slices of bread toasted all spotty over the propane stove’s open flame. The travel trailer squirms on its concrete blocks with each step I take.

Finally, there is the coffee: black, no sugar, because sugar would’ve been too expensive back in 1934. After converting the trailer’s half-twin bed back to a table, I hover over a gleaming cup of it like I’m reading the future in my own face. This is when I start to think.

Selling Mirror Magic at county fairs, I guess, is a lot like picking oranges out West during The Great Depression. From fair to fair, all of us who pitch products — Never Tie Your Shoes Again shoelaces, Kiss Me Kate kiss-proof lipstick, knives that stay just that sharp even after sawing through a tin can — huddle in makeshift tent cities when we aren’t working long hours.

Most of us bunk in travel trailers now, but you still see the occasional Coleman planted in the rear parking lot where the fair administration corrals us. At the Oregon Tri-County, we walk half a mile through a haze of gravel dust to reach the fair’s Green Gate, plus several city blocks to our booths in the Commercial Building — through spluttering lights, the cheap perfume of pork fritter sandwiches, and packs of bleary-eyed carnies hunkering jealous rings around stashes of cigarette butts. After a long twelve hours we turn tail on our booths, just like the orange pickers left the groves each night, and stand in line to report our sales by payphone. A lot of us visit the honey buckets during the night because dump stations aren’t included with hookups. To top it off, just like the orange pickers, none of us are getting rich — except the Potz N Panz folks who stay in motels.

Toiling in the footprints of history, I know I can learn something important. To make sure I’m doing it right, I eat my toast like it’s a hard biscuit I fry over a campfire — like it’s all I’ll eat, except for the oranges, until suppertime when I’ll grab a funnel cake or basket of curly fries. Most important, I always drink my coffee black and bitter. I figure that was how they must have done it, the Joads and all the others in California back when The Grapes of Wrath was happening.

I rise early each morning like the Joads did and consider my future awhile before setting off toward the Green Gate with my quarters and oranges.

This morning I’ve woken up extra early; it’s still dark outside and cold, too. I decide to forego the Fred Meyer run and skip the toast to create a little more hardship in my day. It was that way for the Joads sometimes — like when they’d run out of flour or lard for the biscuits and then, on top of that, the orchard foreman cracked down and wouldn’t let them eat oranges for lunch. As for the quarters to make change, I’ll sell the Mirror Magic for an even $10 and subtract the sales tax from my commission like I’m getting stiffed on my pay. That happened to the Joads, too.

With nothing but time and quiet, I sit in the open doorway of the trailer with my coffee. The moths will get in and tick-tick at the light above the sink, but I don’t care.

I’m alone, but I pretend I’m Tom Joad worrying about the rest of the family, their fitful breathing in the pup tent behind me a responsibility wheezing in my ears, and thinking how are we going to survive.

I murmur to myself, pretending Ma has just gotten up to begin on the biscuits. I remind her we’re out of flour and reach to squeeze her imaginary hand, even though Tom probably wouldn’t have done it. I try to get into Tom’s head and feel what it was like to miss Oklahoma and the farm, grasshopper-infested as it was when we finally drove away and left it behind. I can nearly taste his dreams of rain, sweet and cool, falling over the ruined fields. If I stare hard enough into my coffee, I can see the whole thing running like a movie.

One day, my vision stripped clean by toil, the movie will flicker to a halt and I’ll see something more: my future. Surefire, diamond-hard, and pretty as an orchard in bloom just like the Joads had probably envisioned their own futures when they sat around camp some mornings. This morning, engulfed by the rawness of things, I think I might be getting somewhere and decide to ask Sunny about it during the morning lull.

Sunny sells Watkins in the booth next to mine. She isn’t quite five feet tall and wears a homemade pinafore with the word Watkins embroidered over her ample chest. If it isn’t too hot, she wears a crisp white bonnet, too. In her younger years, after bearing five large children, she’d been twice as big; in middle age, she’s slimming down.

Sunny lives in town and works just the Oregon Tri-County. The rest of the year she hosts Watkins parties, whipping up crock pots of soup from mixes, and cracking open bottles of vanilla and tins of cinnamon for her friends to smell. If a guest is rheumy, Sunny doses her up with medicinals, free trial offer.

Sunny runs a smart little booth with neatly stocked, old-timey shelves, and when things are slow we talk. She’s passionate about a lot of things — elephant ears, for example, although she never refuses my oranges. But more than anything, she loves movies and has even seen The Grapes of Wrath starring Henry Fonda, although she hasn’t read the book like me.