The Day of the Locust, by Nathanael West

16

The next afternoon, Tod was on his way upstairs when he saw a crowd in front of the door to the Greeners’ apartment. They were excited and talked in whispers. “What’s happened?” he asked.

“Harry’s dead.”

He tried the door of the apartment. It wasn’t locked, so he went in. The corpse lay stretched out on the bed, completely covered with a blanket. From Faye’s room came the sound of crying. He knocked softly on her door. She opened it for him, then turned without saying a word, and stumbled to her bed. She was sobbing into a face towel.

He stood in the doorway, without knowing what to do or say. Finally, he went over to the bed and tried to comfort her. He patted her shoulder.

“You poor kid.”

She was wearing a tattered, black lace negligee that had large rents in it. When he leaned over her, he noticed that her skin gave off a warm, sweet odor, like that of buck-wheat in flower.

He turned away and lit a cigarette. There was a knock on the door. When he opened it, Mary Dove rushed past him to take Faye in her arms.

Mary also told Faye to be brave. She phrased it differently than he had done, however, and made it sound a lot more convincing.

“Show some guts, kid. Come on now, show some guts.”

Faye shoved her away and stood up. She took a few wild steps, then sat down on the bed again.

“I killed him,” she groaned.

Mary and he both denied this emphatically.

“I killed him, I tell you! I did! I did!”

She began to call herself names. Mary wanted to stop her, but Tod told her not to. Faye had begun to act and he felt that if they didn’t interfere she would manage an escape for herself.

“She’ll talk herself quiet,” he said.

In a voice heavy with self-accusation, she began to tell what had happened. She had come home from the studio and found Harry in bed. She asked him how he was, but didn’t wait for an answer. Instead, she turned her back on him to examine herself in the wall mirror. While fixing her face, she told him that she had seen Ben Murphy and that Ben had said if Harry were feeling better he might be able to use him in a Bowery sequence. She had been surprised when he didn’t shout as he always did when Ben’s name was mentioned. He was jealous of Ben and always shouted, “To hell with that bastard; I knew him when he cleaned spittoons in a nigger barroom.”

She realized that he must be pretty sick. She didn’t turn around because she noticed what looked like the beginning of a pimple. It was only a speck of dirt and she wiped it off, but then she had to do her face all over again. While she was working at it, she told him that she could get a job as a dress extra if she had a new evening gown. Just to kid him, she looked tough and said, “If you can’t buy me an evening gown, I’ll find someone who can.”

When he didn’t say anything, she got sore and began to sing, “Jeepers Creepers.” He didn’t tell her to shut up, so she knew something must be wrong. She ran over to the couch. He was dead.

As soon as she had finished telling all this, she began to sob in a lower key, almost a coo, and rocked herself back and forth.

“Poor papa . . . Poor darling . . . ”

The fun they used to have together when she was little. No matter how hard up he was, he always bought her dolls and candy, and no matter how tired, he always played with her. She used to ride piggy-back and they would roll on the floor and laugh and laugh.

Mary’s sobs made Faye speed up her own and they both began to get out of hand.

There was a knock on the door. Tod answered it and found Mrs. Johnson, the janitress. Faye shook her head for him not to let her in.

“Come back later,” Tod said.

He shut the door in her face. A minute later it opened again and Mrs. Johnson entered boldly. She had used a pass-key.

“Get out,” he said.

She tried to push past him, but he held her until Faye told him to let her go.

He disliked Mrs. Johnson intensely. She was an officious, bustling woman with a face like a baked apple, soft and blotched. Later he found out that her hobby was funerals. Her preoccupation with them wasn’t morbid; it was formal. She was interested in the arrangement of the flowers, the order of the procession, the clothing and deportment of the mourners.

She went straight to Faye and stopped her sobs with a firm, “Now, Miss Greener.”

There was so much authority in her voice and manner that she succeeded where Mary and Tod had failed. Faye looked up at her respectfully.

“First, my dear,” Mrs. Johnson said, counting one with the thumb of her right hand on the index finger of her left, “first, I want you to understand that my sole desire in this matter is to help you.”

She looked hard at Mary, then at Tod.

“I don’t get anything out of it, and it’s just a lot of trouble.”

“Yes,” Faye said.

“All right. There are several things I have to know, if I’m to help you. Did the deceased leave any money or insurance?”

“No.”

“Have you any money?”

“No.”

“Can you borrow any?”

“I don’t think so.”

Mrs. Johnson sighed.

“Then the city will have to bury him.”

Faye didn’t comment.

“Don’t you understand, child, the city will have to bury him in a pauper’s grave?”

She put so much contempt into “city” and horror into “pauper” that Faye flushed and began to sob again.

Mrs. Johnson made as though to walk out, even took several steps in the direction of the door, then changed her mind and came back.

“How much does a funeral cost?” Faye asked.

“Two hundred dollars. But you can pay on the installment plan — fifty dollars down and twenty-five a month.”

Mary and Tod both spoke together.

“I’ll get the money.”

“I’ve got some.”

“That’s fine,” Mrs. Johnson said. “You’ll need at least fifty more for incidental expenses. I’ll go ahead and take care of everything. Mr. Holsepp will bury your father. He’ll do it right.”

She shook hands with Faye, as though she were congratulating her, and hurried out of the room.

Mrs. Johnson’s little business talk had apparently done Faye some good. Her lips were set and her eyes dry. “Don’t worry,” Tod said. “I can raise the money.”

“No, thanks,” she said.

Mary opened her purse and took out a roll of bills. “Here’s some.”

“No,” she said, pushing it away.

She sat thinking for a while, then went to the dressing table and began to fix her tear-stained face. She wore a hard smile as she worked. Suddenly she turned, lipstick in air, and spoke to Mary.

“Can you get me into Mrs. Jenning’s?”

“What for?” Tod demanded. “I’ll get the money.” Both girls ignored him.

“Sure,” said Mary, “you ought to done that long ago. It’s a soft touch.”

Faye laughed.

“I was saving it.”

The change that had come over both of them startled Tod. They had suddenly become very tough.

“For a punkola like that Earle. Get smart, girlie, and lay off the cheapies. Let him ride a horse, he’s a cowboy, ain’t he?”

They laughed shrilly and went into the bathroom with their arms around each other.

Tod thought he understood their sudden change to slang. It made them feel worldly and realistic, and so more able to cope with serious things.

He knocked on the bathroom door.

“What do you want?” Faye called out.

“Listen, kid,” he said, trying to imitate them. “Why go on the turf? I can get the dough.”

“Oh, yeah! No, thanks,” Faye said.

“But listen . . . ” he began again.

“Go peddle your tripe!” Mary shouted.

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