“The next prospect’s a pain in the ass,” Mary said, twisting the rear view mirror to reapply some ruby gloss to her puckered lips. “A real pain in the ass. Buckle up.”
I didn’t know Mary well. She acted casually around me, although I was the boss. However, I was new on the scene; new to Orange County; even to California. She was the sales rep, and I the observer. Still, she made me feel like a kid being driven to school by his mother.
“A pain?” I asked. “How so?”
“They’re all pains. Even those that buy. While they’re prospects, they're dull pains. When they’re customers, they’re got you by the titties pains.”
“Or the balls.”
“Balls. Titties. They control it all. Buckle up.”
I hated sales calls, especially with a smart-ass, know-it-all rep who was taking advantage of my substitute-boss status. In from headquarters, I was baby sitting for the Orange County office, while the appointed sales manager recuperated from a motor cycle accident. Lucky man, I thought. No sales calls for him.
Mary sped away babbling about her perfect sales technique, obviously an attempt to score points. I didn’t hear a word of it. It was all crap. People bought what they wanted when they wanted. No amount of coaxing from some bimbo with ruby gloss lips mattered. If you were in the right spot at the right moment, you got the sale. Be on the spot enough and you were honored as Sales Person of the Month, earning enough commissions for that extra scoop of pistachio at the local Dairy Queen.
“It’s all in the timing,” Mary said. “I can tell when they’re ripe for the signing. Pen in their hand, I know. Gets the contract every time. Are you listening?”
I wasn’t. I was watching a vast expanse of farmland passing by the open window. The warm breeze folded its new-mown aroma about my nose and I remembered.
“Strawberries,” Mary said.
“The strawberries are up and the pickers are in. Migrant workers. They drift in about this time of year to pick the strawberries.”
My eyes refocused. In the fields, dozens of migrants bent their backs over the crop, filling baskets with red, merry berries. Women scooped them up, while men hoisted the heavy loads into trucks. Children crawled about the rows for the loose stuff, like gamers playing marbles in the dust.
“Are you okay?”
I just stared, panning over those fields — sighing. I remembered.
“Fill ‘er up,” he said. “Marge, look at the price of gas. Only 22 cents a gallon.”
“Well, that’s Georgia,” Marge said sitting beside him in their 1954 green Nash Rambler and listening to Patty Page sing the Tennessee Waltz on the radio. “Oh, I love this song, Eddie.”
“D’yall say fill ‘er?” the attendant asked.
“That’s fine. Fill ‘er up. Yer have a terlet here? A place to pee?”
“Yessir. ‘Tsright over there.”
“Marge, do you gotta go?”
“No, Eddie, I’ll be fine.”
Eddie left Marge tapping to her radio waltz. She lit a cigarette and looked around.
Attracted by the sign for cheap gas, they had pulled off the main highway into a linden grove. Sultry Georgia seemed unending — dusty roads and dull farmland. At least, under the lindens, a cool breeze sighed.
“Do yer want a stretch?” the attendant said as he pumped. “We hev a Coca-Cola cooler.”
“No, I’m fine,” Marge said, fanning herself with the latest issue of Life.
Marge relaxed to the music, puffing away, her auburn hair kept neatly pinned beneath a pink and gold silk scarf. She peered over her sunglasses at the surrounding piles of garage debris — old cars, wheels and hubcaps. Something caught her eye. Sitting on the running board of a rusty maroon truck, a barefoot child sat smoking a pipe. He couldn’t have been more than five years old. Their eyes met, the boy smiling, shading his eyes upon seeing her. His feet were caked with good, red Georgia clay. He wore rags.
“Excuse me,” Marge said to the attendant. “That boy over there? Is he yours?”
“No, no m’am. None of them people are fit for company.”
“Migrant workers,” he said, spitting some tobacky. “He’s a migrant brat. Pay him no heed. His folk are sleepin’ down by the crick. If he’s a bother to yer m’am, I’ll shoo ‘em ‘way.”
“No, no. He’s fine. He’s just so . . .”
“Well, yes. And he has no shoes. His feet are torn up.”
“It’s to be ‘spected when you toil on the ground fer yer livin’.”
“Pretty clean terlet,” Eddie said, returning. He paid the attendant, got in and revved the Nash. “Anything wrong, Marge?”
“No, nothing. Just, that boy over there. He looks so . . . forlorn. Migrant worker, you know. Cast off. Unwanted.”
Marge drifted back to her own childhood, cast off and unwanted, from aunts to grandfather to half-sister — a touch and go existence that always loomed at her shoulder despite the great security she now enjoyed. She signaled to the boy, who hopped off the running board.
“Don’t encourage him,” Eddie said. “We got to make time. We’re doin’ good so far on this route. Marge, don’t encourage him.”
“Hush, Eddie. How could a dime hurt?”
The boy looked up at his dirty-faced reflection in Marge’s sunglasses. She stretched down and gave the boy a dime — a whole 10 cents, almost half the price of a gallon of gas.
“For ice cream,” she said. “I wish I could buy you shoes, but only ice cream today.”
The boy took the coin and wept.
“Eddie, let’s go quick, before my heart breaks.”
The Prospect Park Baptist Church stood on the corner of Avenue C and 3rd Street in Brooklyn, having been moved there years before from downtown to the wilds of Flatbush. A small church, formerly a chapel, it now stood on an ample lawn in a quiet residential neighborhood. Among the church’s many events, the Junior Women, a ladies auxiliary, met once monthly to discuss and schedule their charitable activities.
“The floor recognizes Marge Cliffe,” Madam President said. “Marge has a new idea for a fund raiser.”
Two dozen heads turned as Marge stood and took the floor. Never a great public speaker, Marge usually shunned the spotlight. However, she felt compelled by this idea, perfect for the next charitable activity.
“Thank you, Anna,” she said looking about nervously. “As you all know, Eddie and me just came back off a drive from Florida. I hope you all got your post cards. We really enjoyed ourselves. It was a grand trip, but a long trip — most of it through some very poor areas. Now, we were in this place called Conovertown, in Georgia; and while we were getting gas, I met a little migrant worker boy. He was so down on his luck. I just thought we might be able to send some money from our next fundraiser to help these children. I mean, they didn’t even have shoes.”
Mrs. Van Gelderfeder raised her pudgy hand.
“Yes, Hettie,” Madam President said.
“There’re lot’s of children without shoes, Marge,” Hettie said, taking the floor. “My own neighbor’s kids walk around barefooted all the time. Now I feel sorry for these tykes, but their parents have chosen a very difficult way to earn a living. Nomads in the fields. I think we should keep our money closer to home.”
She sat. There was a soft consensual rumble amongst the women.
“I see what you mean,” Marge stammered. “But did you know that migrant workers are not just Southern drifters. They work the farms in Long Island.” The ladies, surprised, whispered. “There are many other facts about the migrant workers I have here in my papers. I sent away. It’s fascinating. But to the point, this has nothing to do with what they do. It’s about the children. Hettie, have you ever gone barefooted because your parents couldn’t afford to keep you in shoes?”
Hettie sat up in her chair.
“Marge,” Madam President said. “We all care about the children. Whenever we can bring relief to those tender lambs, we try. Just like Our Lord.” Reverential silence. “Still, we should never ignore an opportunity to do the Lord’s work. Just what did you have in mind, Marge?”
“Just a dinner,” Marge said. “A simple dinner. Spaghetti, with donated sauce — home made. The good kind. We can all make sauce, can’t we? My daughter’ll help. The more we donate, the lower the expense, and the more money we can send for the children. I found an association that’ll take the money and assure it goes strictly to help the migrant children.”
Madame President folded her hands, slowly radiating a smile.
“All those in favor of a Spaghetti dinner to help the migrant worker children, say aye.”
As the ayes had it, the great spaghetti event unfolded in the year of Our Lord 1956 with high expectations and excitement. Donated cakes, pounds of meat, simmered sauce and box after box of spaghetti mustered into the little church. On the lawn, games for the children and ice cream. Above it all, a diminutive Marge buzzed between tables and booths, supervising every detail.
“A dime a dip?” Mr. Forster-Brookings said. He was a tower of piety and strength in the church. “A bit steep for a ladle full of sauce, Marge, don’t you think?”
“But you get the spaghetti for free, John,” she answered. “Remember, a meatball is only a nickel. But you get no bread with one meatball.”
“Four meatballs and two dips,” John crowed. “How much for a sprinkle of cheese?”
“For free,” Marge said, “unless you want to donate a little something extra. Then I’ll throw in a nice green side salad.”
“This is amazing,” Anna said. “Everyone’s having a wonderful time. It’s a great event, Marge; and the last time I checked, the till was at a whopping . . .”
“$500,” Marge said. She smiled, an inward radiation filling her cheeks. “If I get to $600, I’ll be happy. Lot’s of shoes for $600. Next year . . .”
“Why, of course, unless you want to do it sooner? Next year, we’ll add arts and crafts.”
“Next year,” Marge said, “you must assure that the Dime a Dip continues. I wish I could get up and run it from South Jersey, but it’s impossible. Promise me.”
“I don’t see how we can stop it after thirty years,” Anna said. “What’s in the till today?”
“$8,000. Lots of . . .”
“Lots of shoes for $8,000. Bless you dear.”
Marge beamed. She went into the kitchen and lit up, her slight gray form reflected in the stainless steel. Her auburn hair, long since honey blond by choice, neatly peeked out from beneath her scarf. She looked through the service window at the busy ladies and satisfied customers, taking their dime a dip, donating much more at checkout. Marge smiled. Something caught her eye. A man, in business attire, quite out of place for a spaghetti dinner, spoke with Anna. Anna pointed toward the kitchen door. The man approached Marge’s restful inner sanctum.
“Mrs. Cliffe?” asked the man coming through the door.
“Yes, can I help you?”
“Can you help me?” he said. “That’s the strangest question I thought would ever come from you. Can you help me?”
“I’m sorry. Do I know you?”
“I’m Kyle Andersen from the Georgia Migrant Worker’s Board.”
“Oh, heavens,” she said. “I’ve been sending a check to your organization for thirty years now. This is the first time anyone has come up to inspect. We run a clean shop here. Everything’s donated and we make no profit.”
“No, no, Mrs. Cliffe.”
“Call me Marge. Cigarette?”
“No. I don’t smoke anymore.”
“Bad habit. I’ll give it up some day.”
“I’m here in a private capacity. I wanted to meet the woman who has raised over $200,000 for the migrant children. I wanted to meet her and thank her personally. Meet her again, at least.”
“Yes, again. We met some year’s back.”
“At the fund-raiser? I don’t remember you. Sorry. Has it been $200,000? Time goes so fast. Me and my husband, Eddie, just bought a house down in South Jersey. We’re retiring there. I don’t know how I can give all this up? But I believe it must be done. The ladies will run it again next year. I’m sure it will go on forever, if they can help it.”
“Your efforts on our behalf have been tireless and faithful, Marge,” he said, kissing her on the forehead. Flustered, she giggled. Kyle smiled broadly and reached into his pocket holding high a dime.
“That will buy you a dip,” she said.
“A scoop,” he said. “This dime was meant for a scoop.”
“Yes, a scoop. This dime was given to me by a very kind lady years ago, who told me it was for ice cream.”
Marge held on to the stainless sink as Kyle pressed the dime into her hand, retreating quickly back into her memory.
“Are you okay?” Mary asked. “We’re almost there. Are you crying?”
I turned to her, the tears streaming down my face.
“It’s the sun. That’s all.”
“Here, wipe them. I heard about your grandmother. I’m sorry. It takes time, you know.”
“I know. Thanks.”
I wiped my face quickly, and then quietly returned my gaze out the window. Mary had finally shut up. I thought to tell her about the great woman whose small contribution our generation would probably ignore, even in the footnotes. But such information is unworthy of the selfish. I kept it to myself as we crossed those California fields — the endless fields of strawberries, with their picking children — children in shoes now.