The Day of the Locust, by Nathanael West

11

He had been living this way for almost a month, when, one day, just as he was about to prepare his lunch, the door bell rang. He opened it and found a man standing on the step with a sample case in one hand and a derby hat in the other. Homer hurriedly shut the door again.

The bell continued to ring. He put his head out of the window nearest the door to order the fellow away, but the man bowed very politely and begged for a drink of water. Homer saw that he was old and tired and thought that he looked harmless. He got a bottle of water from the icebox, then opened the door and asked him in.

“The name, sir, is Harry Greener,” the man announced in sing-song, stressing every other syllable.

Homer handed him a glass of water. He swallowed it quickly, then poured himself another.

“Much obliged,” he said with an elaborate bow. “That was indeed refreshing.”

Homer was astonished when he bowed again, did several quick jig steps, then let his derby hat roll down his arm. It fell to the floor. He stooped to retrieve it, straightening up with a jerk as though he had been kicked, then rubbed the seat of his trousers ruefully.

Homer understood that this was to amuse, so he laughed.

Harry thanked him by bowing again, but something went wrong. The exertion had been too much for him. His face blanched and he fumbled with his collar.

“A momentary indisposition,” he murmured, wondering himself whether he was acting or sick.

“Sit down,” Homer said.

But Harry wasn’t through with his performance. He assumed a gallant smile and took a few unsteady steps toward the couch, then tripped himself. He examined the carpet indignantly, made believe he had found the object that had tripped him and kicked it away. He then limped to the couch and sat down with a whistling sigh like air escaping from a toy balloon.

Homer poured more water. Harry tried to stand up, but Homer pressed him back and made him drink sitting. He drank this glass as he had the other two, in quick gulps, then wiped his mouth with his handkerchief, imitating a man with a big mustache who had just drunk a glass of foamy beer.

“You are indeed kind, sir,” he said. “Never fear, some day I’ll repay you a thousandfold.”

Homer clucked.

From his pocket Harry brought out a small can and held it out for him to take.

“Compliments of the house,” he announced. “’Tis a box of Miracle Solvent, the modern polish par excellence, the polish without peer or parallel, used by all the movie stars . . . ”

He broke off his spiel with a trilling laugh.

Homer took the can.

“Thank you,” he said, trying to appear grateful. “H much is it?”

“The ordinary price, the retail price, is fifty cents, but you can have it for the extraordinary price of a quarter, the wholesale price, the price I pay at the factory.”

“A quarter?” asked Homer, habit for the moment having got the better of his timidity. “I can buy one twice that size for a quarter in the store.”

Harry knew his man.

“Take it, take it for nothing,” he said contemptuously. Homer was tricked into protesting.

“I guess maybe this is a much better polish.”

“No,” said Harry, as though he were spurning a bribe. “Keep your money. I don’t want it.”

He laughed, this time bitterly.

Homer pulled out some change and offered it.

“Take it, please. You need it, I’m sure. I’ll have two cans.”

Harry had his man where he wanted him. He began to practice a variety of laughs, all of them theatrical, like a musician tuning up before a concert. He finally found the right one and let himself go. It was a victim’s laugh.

“Please stop,” Homer said.

But Harry couldn’t stop. He was really sick. The last block that held him poised over the runway of self-pity had been knocked away and he was sliding down the chute, gaining momentum all the time. He jumped to his feet and began doing Harry Greener, poor Harry, honest Harry, well-meaning, humble, deserving, a good husband, a model father, a faithful Christian, a loyal friend.

Homer didn’t appreciate the performance in the least. He was terrified and wondered whether to phone the police. But he did nothing. He just held up his hand for Harry to stop.

At the end of his pantomime, Harry stood with his head thrown back, clutching his throat, as though waiting for the curtain to fall. Homer poured him still another glass of water. But Harry wasn’t finished. He bowed, sweeping his hat to his heart, then began again. He didn’t get very far this time and had to gasp painfully for breath. Suddenly, like a mechanical toy that had been overwound, something snapped inside of him and he began to spin through his entire repertoire. The effort was purely muscular, like the dance of a paralytic. He jigged, juggled his hat, made believe he had been kicked, tripped, and shook hands with himself. He went through it all in one dizzy spasm, then reeled to the couch and collapsed.

He lay on the couch with his eyes closed and his chest heaving. He was even more surprised than Homer. He had put on his performance four or five times already that day and nothing like this had happened. He was really sick.

“You’ve had a fit,” Homer said when Harry opened his eyes.

As the minutes passed, Harry began to feel better and his confidence returned. He pushed all thought of sickness out of his mind and even went so far as’ to congratulate himself on having given the finest performance of his career. He should be able to get five dollars out of the big dope who was leaning over him.

“Have you any spirits in the house?” he asked weakly.

The grocer had sent Homer a bottle of port wine on approval and he went to get it. He filled a tumbler half full and handed it to Harry, who drank it in small sips, making the faces that usually go with medicine.

Speaking slowly, as though in great pain, he then asked Homer to bring in his sample case.

“It’s on the doorstep. Somebody might steal it. The greater part of my small capital is invested in those cans of polish?”

When Homer stepped outside to obey, he saw a girl near the curb. It was Faye Greener. She was looking at the house.

“Is my father in there?” she called out

“Mr. Greener?”

She stamped her foot.

“Tell him to get a move on, damn it. I don’t want to stay here all day.”

“He’s sick.”

The girl turned away without giving any sign that she either heard or cared.

Homer took the sample case back into the house with him. He found Harry pouring himself another drink.

“Pretty fair stuff,” he said, smacking his lips over it. “Pretty fair, all right, all right. Might I be so bold as to ask what you pay for a . . . ”

Homer cut him short. He didn’t approve of people who drank and wanted to get rid of him.

“Your daughter’s outside,” he said with as much firmness as he could muster. “She wants you.”

Harry collapsed on the couch and began to breathe heavily. He was acting again.

“Don’t tell her,” he gasped. “Don’t tell her how sick her old daddy is. She must never know.”

Homer was shocked by his hypocrisy.

“You’re better,” he said as coldly as he could. “Why don’t you go home?”

Harry smiled to show how offended and hurt he was by the heartless attitude of his host. When Homer said nothing, his smile became one expressing boundless courage. He got carefully to his feet, stood erect for a minute, then began to sway weakly and tumbled back on the couch. “I’m faint,” he groaned.

Once again he was surprised and frightened. He was faint.

“Get my daughter,” he gasped.

Homer found her standing at the curb with her back to the house. When he called her, she whirled and came running toward him. He watched her for a second, then went in, leaving the door unlatched.

Faye burst into the room. She ignored Homer and went straight to the couch.

“Now what in hell’s the matter?” she exploded.

“Darling daughter,” he said. “I have been badly taken, and this gentleman has been kind enough to let me rest for a moment.”

“He had a fit or something,” Homer said.

She whirled around on him so suddenly that he was startled.

“How do you do?” she said, holding her hand forward and high up.

He shook it gingerly.

“Charmed,” she said, when he mumbled something. She spun around once more.

“It’s my heart,” Harry said. “I can’t stand up.”

The little performance he put on to sell polish was familiar to her and she knew that this wasn’t part of it. When she turned to face Homer again, she looked quite tragic. Her head, instead of being held far back, now drooped forward.

“Please let him rest there,” she said.

“Yes, of course.”

Homer motioned her toward a chair, then got her a match for her cigarette. He tried not to stare at her, but his good manners were wasted. Faye enjoyed being stared at.

He thought her extremely beautiful, but what affected him still more was her vitality. She was taut and vibrant. She was as shiny as a new spoon.

Although she was seventeen, she was dressed like a child of twelve in a white cotton dress with a blue sailor collar. Her long legs were bare and she had blue sandals on her feet.

“I’m so sorry,” she said when Homer looked at her father again.

He made a motion with his hand to show that it was nothing.

“He has a vile heart, poor dear,” she went on. “I’ve begged and begged him to go to a specialist, but you men are all alike.”

“Yes, he ought to go to a doctor,” Homer said.

Her odd mannerisms and artificial voice puzzled him. “What time is it?” she asked.

“About one o’clock.”

She stood up suddenly and buried both her hands in her hair at the sides of her head, making it bunch at the top in a shiny ball.

“Oh,” she gasped prettily, “and I had a luncheon date.”

Still holding her hair, she turned at the waist without moving her legs, so that her snug dress twisted even tighter and Homer could see her dainty, arched ribs and little, dimpled belly. This elaborate gesture, like all her others, was so completely meaningless, almost formal, that she seemed a dancer rather than an affected actress.

“Do you like salmon salad?” Homer ventured to ask.

“Salmon sal-ahde?”

She seemed to be repeating the question to her stomach. The answer was yes.

“With plenty of mayonnaise, huh? I adore it.”

“I was going to have some for lunch. I’ll finish making it.”

“Let me help.”

They looked at Harry, who appeared to be asleep, then went into the kitchen. While he opened a can of salmon, she climbed on a chair and straddled it with her arms folded across the top of its back and rested her chin on her arms. Whenever he looked at her, she smiled intimately and tossed her pale, glittering hair first forward, then back.

Homer was excited and his hands worked quickly. He soon had a large bowl of salad ready. He set the table with his best cloth and his best silver and china.

“It makes me hungry just to look,” she said.

The way she said this seemed to mean that it was Homer who made her hungry and he beamed at her. But before he had a chance to sit down, she was already eating. She buttered a slice of bread, covered the butter with sugar and took a big bite. Then she quickly smeared a gob of mayonnaise on the salmon and went to work. Just as he was about to sit down, she asked for something to drink. He poured her a glass of milk and stood watching her like a waiter. He was unaware of her rudeness.

As soon as she had gobbled up her salad, he brought her a large red apple. She ate the fruit more slowly, nibbling daintily, her smallest finger curled away from the rest of her hand. When she had finished it, she went back to the living room and Homer followed her.

Harry still lay as they had left him, stretched out on the sofa. The heavy noon-day sun hit directly on his face, beating down on him like a club. He hardly felt its blows, however. He was busy with the stabbing pain in his chest. He was so busy with himself that he had even stopped trying to plan how to get money out of the big dope.

Homer drew the window curtain to shade his face.

Harry didn’t even notice. He was thinking about death. Faye bent over him. He saw, from under his partially closed eyelids, that she expected him to make a reassuring gesture. He refused. He examined the tragic expression that she had assumed and didn’t like it. In a serious moment like this, her ham sorrow was insulting.

“Speak to me, Daddy,” she begged.

She was baiting him without being aware of it.

“What the hell is this,” he snarled, “a Tom show?”

His sudden fury scared her and she straightened up with a jerk. He didn’t want to laugh, but a short bark escaped before he could stop it. He waited anxiously to see what would happen. When it didn’t hurt he laughed again. He kept on, timidly at first, then with growing assurance. He laughed with his eyes closed and the sweat pouring down his brow. Faye knew only one way to stop him and that was to do something he hated as much as she hated his laughter. She began to sing.

“Jeepers Creepers! Where’d ya get those peepers? . . . ”

She trucked, jerking her buttocks and shaking her head from side to side.

Homer was amazed. He felt that the scene he was witnessing had been rehearsed. He was right. Their bitterest quarrels often took this form; he laughing, she singing.

“Jeepers Creepers! Where’d ya get those eyes? Gosh, all git up! How’d they get so lit up? Gosh all git . . . ”

When Harry stopped, she stopped and flung herself into a chair. But Harry was only gathering strength for a final effort. He began again. This new laugh was not critical; it was horrible. When she was a child, he used to punish her with it. It was his masterpiece. There was a director who always called on him to give it when he was shooting a scene in an insane asylum or a haunted castle.

It began with a sharp, metallic crackle, like burning sticks, then gradually increased in volume until it became a rapid bark, then fell away again to an obscene chuckle. After a slight pause, it climbed until it was the nicker of a horse, then still higher to become a machinelike screech.

Faye listened helplessly with her head cocked on one side. Suddenly, she too laughed, not willingly, but fighting the sound.

“You bastard!” she yelled.

She leaped to the couch, grabbed him by the shoulders and tried to shake him quiet.

He kept laughing.

Homer moved as though he meant to pull her away, but he lost courage and was afraid to touch her. She was so naked under her skimpy dress.

“Miss Greener,” he pleaded, making his big hands dance at the end of his arms. “Please, please . . . ”

Harry couldn’t stop laughing now. He pressed his belly with his hands, but the noise poured out of him. It had begun to hurt again.

Swinging her hand as though it held a hammer, she brought her fist down hard on his mouth. She hit him only once. He relaxed and was quiet.

“I had to do it,” she said to Homer when he took her arm and led her away.

He guided her to a chair in the kitchen and shut the door. She continued to sob for a long time. He stood behind her chair, helplessly, watching the rhythmical heave of her shoulders. Several times his hands moved forward to comfort her, but he succeeded in curbing them.

When she was through crying, he handed her a napkin and she dried her face. The cloth was badly stained by her rouge and mascara.

“I’ve spoilt it,” she said, keeping her face averted. “I’m very sorry.”

“It was dirty,” Homer said.

She took a compact from her pocket and looked at herself in its tiny mirror.

“I’m a fright.”

She asked if she could use the bathroom and he showed her where it was. He then tiptoed into the living room to see Harry. The old man’s breathing was noisy but regular and he seemed to be sleeping quietly. Homer put a cushion under his head without disturbing him and went back into the kitchen. He lit the stove and put the coffeepot on the flame, then sat down to wait for the girl to return: He heard her go into the living room. A few seconds later she came into the kitchen.

She hesitated apologetically in the doorway.

“Won’t you have some coffee?”

Without waiting for her to reply, he poured a cup and moved the sugar and cream so that she could reach them. “I had to do it,” she said. “I just had to.”

“That’s all right.”

To show her that it wasn’t necessary to apologize, he busied himself at the sink.

“No, I had to,” she insisted. “He laughs that way just to drive me wild. I can’t stand it. I simply can’t.”

“Yes.”

“He’s crazy. We Greeners are all crazy.”

She made this last statement as though there were merit in being crazy.

“He’s pretty sick,” Homer said, apologizing for her. “Maybe he had a sunstroke.”

“No, he’s crazy.”

He put a plate of gingersnaps on the table and she ate them with her second cup of coffee. The dainty crunching sound she made chewing fascinated him.

When she remained quiet for several minutes, he turned from the sink to see if anything was wrong. She was smoking a cigarette and seemed lost in thought.

He tried to be gay.

“What are you thinking?” he said awkwardly, then felt foolish.

She sighed to show how dark and foreboding her thoughts were, but didn’t reply.

“I’ll bet you would like some candy,” Homer said. “There isn’t any in the house, but I could call the drugstore and they’d send it right over. Or some ice cream?”

“No, thanks, please.”

“It’s no trouble.”

“My father isn’t really a peddler,” she said, abruptly. “He’s an actor. I’m an actress. My mother was also an actress, a dancer. The theatre is in our blood.”

“I haven’t seen many shows. I . . . ”

He broke off because he saw that she wasn’t interested. “I’m going to be a star some day,” she announced as though daring him to contradict her.

I’m sure you . . .

“It’s my life. It’s the only thing in the whole world that I want.”

“It’s good to know what you want. I used to be a bookkeeper in a hotel, but . . . ”

“If I’m not, I’ll commit suicide.”

She stood up and put her hands to her hair, opened her eyes wide and frowned.

“I don’t go to shows very often,” he apologized, pushing the gingersnaps toward her. “The lights hurt my eyes.” She laughed and took a cracker.

“I’ll get fat.”

“Oh, no.”

“They say fat women are going to be popular next year. Do you think so? I don’t. It’s just publicity for Mae West.” He agreed with her.

She talked on and on, endlessly, about herself and about the picture business. He watched her, but didn’t listen, and whenever she repeated a question in order to get a reply, he nodded his head without saying anything.

His hands began to bother him. He rubbed them against the edge of the table to relieve their itch, but it only stimulated them. When he clasped them behind his back, the strain became intolerable. They were hot and swollen. Using the dishes as an excuse, he held them under the cold water tap of the sink.

Faye was still talking when Harry appeared in the doorway. He leaned weakly against the door jamb. His nose was very red, but the rest of his face was drained white and he seemed to have grown too small for his clothing. He was smiling, however.

To Homer’s amazement, they greeted each other as though nothing had happened.

“You okay now, Pop?”

“Fine and dandy, baby. Right as rain, fit as a fiddle and lively as a flea, as the feller says.”

The nasal twang he used in imitation of a country yokel made Homer smile.

“Do you want something to eat?” he asked. “A glass of milk, maybe?”

“I could do with a snack.”

Faye helped him over to the table. He tried to disguise how weak he was by doing an exaggerated Negro shuffle. Homer opened a can of sardines and sliced some bread. Harry smacked his lips over the food, but ate slowly and with an effort.

“That hit the spot, all righty right,” he said when he had finished.

He leaned back and fished a crumpled cigar butt out of his vest pocket. Faye lit it for him and he playfully blew a puff of smoke in her face.

“We’d better go, Daddy,” she said.

“In a jiffy, child.”

He turned to Homer.

“Nice place you’ve got here. Married?”

Faye tried to interfere.

“Dad!”

He ignored her.

“Bachelor, eh?”

“Yes.”

“Well, well, a young fellow like you.”

“I’m here for my health,” Homer found it necessary to say.

“Don’t answer his questions,” Faye broke in.

“Now, now, daughter, I’m just being friendly like. I don’t mean no harm.”

He was still using an exaggerated backwoods accent. He spat dry into an imaginary spittoon and made believe he was shifting a cud of tobacco from cheek to cheek.

Homer thought his mimicry funny.

“I’d be lonesome and scared living alone in a big house like this,” Harry went on. “Don’t you ever get lonesome?”

Homer looked at Faye for his answer. She was frowning with annoyance.

“No,” he said, to prevent Harry from repeating the uncomfortable question.

“No? Well, that’s fine.”

He blew several smoke rings at the ceiling and watched their behavior judiciously.

“Did you ever think of taking boarders?” he asked.

“Some nice, sociable folks, I mean. It’ll bring in a little extra money and make things more homey.”

Homer was indignant, but underneath his indignation lurked another idea, a very exciting one. He didn’t know what to say.

Faye misunderstood his agitation.

“Cut it out, Dad,” she exclaimed before Homer could reply. “You’ve been a big enough nuisance already.”

“Just chinning,” he protested innocently. “Just chewin’ the fat.”

“Well, then, let’s get going,” she snapped.

“There’s plenty of time,” Homer said.

He wanted to add something stronger, but didn’t have the courage. His hands were braver. When Faye shook good-bye, they clutched and refused to let go.

Faye laughed at their warm insistence.

“Thanks a million, Mr. Simpson,” she said. “You’ve been very kind. Thanks for the lunch and for helping Daddy.”

“We’re very grateful,” Harry chimed in. “You’ve done a Christian deed this day. God will reward you.”

He had suddenly become very pious.

“Please look us up,” Faye said. “We live close-by in the San Berdoo Apartments, about five blocks down the canyon. It’s the big yellow house.”

When Harry stood, he had to lean against the table for support. Faye and Homer each took him by the arm and helped him into the street. Homer held him erect, while Faye went to get their Ford which was parked across the street.

“We’re forgetting your order of Miracle Salve,” Harry said, “the polish without peer or parallel.”

Homer found a dollar and slipped it into his hand. He hid the money quickly and tried to become businesslike.

“I’ll leave the goods tomorrow.”

“Yes, that’ll be fine,” Homer said. “I really need some silver polish.”

Harry was angry because it hurt him to be patronized by a sucker. He made an attempt to re-establish what he considered to be their proper relationship by bowing ironically, but didn’t get very far with the gesture and began to fumble with his Adam’s apple. Homer helped him into the car and he slumped down in the seat beside Faye. They drove off. She turned to wave, but Harry didn’t even look back.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30