The Day of the Locust, by Nathanael West

19

Tod got a lift back to his office in a studio car. He had to ride on the running board because the seats were occupied by two Walloon grenadiers and four Swabian foot. One of the infantrymen had a broken leg, the other extras were only scratched and bruised. They were quite happy about their wounds. They were certain to receive several extra days’ pay, and the man with the broken leg thought he might get as much as five hundred dollars.

When Tod arrived at his office, he found Faye waiting to see him. She hadn’t been in the battle. At the last moment, the director bad decided not to use any vivandières.

To his surprise, she greeted him with warm friendliness. Nevertheless, he tried to apologize for his behavior in the funeral parlor. He had hardly started before she interrupted him. She wasn’t angry, but grateful for his lecture on venereal disease. It had brought her to her senses.

She had still another surprise for him. She was living in Homer Simpson’s house. The arrangement was a business one. Homer had agreed to board and dress her until she became a star. They were keeping a record of every cent he spent and as soon as she clicked in pictures, she would pay him back with six per cent interest. To make it absolutely legal, they were going to have a lawyer draw up a contract.

She pressed Tod for an opinion and he said it was a splendid idea. She thanked him and invited him to dinner for the next night.

After she had gone, he wondered what living with her would do to Homer. He thought it might straighten him out. He fooled himself into believing this with an image, as though a man were a piece of iron to be heated and then straightened with hammer blows. He should have known better, for if anyone ever lacked malleability Homer did.

He continued to make this mistake when he had dinner with them. Faye seemed very happy, talking about charge accounts and stupid sales clerks. Homer had a flower in his buttonhole, wore carpet slippers and beamed at her continually.

After they had eaten, while Homer was in the kitchen washing dishes, Tod got her to tell him what they did with themselves all day. She said that they lived quietly and that she was glad because she was tired of excitement. All she wanted was a career. Homer did the housework and she was getting a real rest. Daddy’s long sickness had tired her out completely. Homer liked to do housework and anyway he wouldn’t let her go into the kitchen because of her hands.

“Protecting his investment,” Tod said.

“Yes,” she replied seriously, “they have to be beautiful.” They had breakfast around ten, she went on. Homer brought it to her in bed. He took a housekeeping magazine and fixed the tray like the pictures in it. While she bathed and dressed, he cleaned the house. Then they went downtown to the stores and she bought all sorts of things, mostly clothes. They didn’t eat lunch on account of her figure, but usually had dinner out and went to the movies. “Then, ice cream sodas,” Homer finished for her, as he came out of the kitchen.

Faye laughed and excused herself. They were going to a picture and she wanted to change her dress. When she had left, Homer suggested that they get some air in the patio. He made Tod take the deck chair while he sat on an upturned orange crate.

If he had been careful and had acted decently, Tod couldn’t help thinking, she might be living with him. He was at least better looking than Homer. But then there was her other prerequisite. Homer had an income and lived in a house, while he earned thirty dollars a week and lived in a furnished room.

The happy grin on Homer’s face made him feel ashamed of himself. He was being unfair. Homer was a humble, grateful man who would never laugh at her, who was incapable of laughing at anything. Because of this great quality, she could live with him on what she considered a much higher plane.

“What’s the matter?” Homer asked softly, laying one of his heavy hands on Tod’s knee.

“Nothing. Why?”

Tod moved so that the hand slipped off.

“You were making faces.”

“I was thinking of something.”

“Oh,” Homer said sympathetically.

Tod couldn’t resist asking an ugly question.

“When are you two getting married?”

Homer looked hurt.

“Didn’t Faye tell about us?”

“Yes, sort of.”

“It’s a business arrangement.”

“Yes?”

To make Tod believe it, he poured out a long, disjointed argument, the one he must have used on himself. He even went further than the business part and claimed that they were doing it for poor Harry’s sake. Faye had nothing left in the world except her career and she must succeed for her daddy’s sake. The-reason she wasn’t a star was because she didn’t have the right clothes. He had money and believed in her talent, so it was only natural for them to enter into a business arrangement. Did Tod know a good lawyer?

It was a rhetorical question, but would become a real one, painfully insistent, if Tod smiled. He frowned. That was wrong, too.

“We must see a lawyer this week and have papers drawn up.”

His eagerness was pathetic. Tod wanted to help him, but didn’t know what to say. He was still fumbling for answer when they heard a woman shouting from the behind the garage.

“Adore! Adore!”

She had a high soprano voice, very clear and pure.

“What a funny name,” Tod said, glad to change the subject

“Maybe it’s a foreigner,” Homer said.

The woman came into the yard from around the corner of the garage. She was eager and plump and very American.

“Have you seen my little boy?” she asked, making a gesture of helplessness. “Adore’s such a wanderer.”

Homer surprised Tod by standing up and smiling at the woman. Faye had certainly helped his timidity.

“Is your son lost?” Homer said.

“Oh, no — just hiding to tease me.”

She held out her hand.

“We’re neighbors. I’m Maybelle Loomis.”

“Glad to know you, ma’am. I’m Homer Simpson and this is Mr. Hackett.”

Tod also shook hands with her.

“Have you been living here long?” she asked. “No. I’ve just come from the East,” Homer said.

“Oh, have you? I’ve been here ever since Mr. Loomis passed on six years ago. I’m an old settler.”

“You like it then?” Tod asked.

“Like California?” she laughed at the idea that anyone might not like it. “Why, it’s a paradise on earth!”

“Yes,” Homer agreed gravely.

“And anyway,” she went on, “I have to live here on account of Adore.”

“Is he sick?”

“Oh, no. On account of his career. His agent calls him the biggest little attraction in Hollywood.”

She spoke so vehemently that Homer flinched.

“He’s in the movies?” Tod asked.

“I’ll say,” she snapped.

Homer tried to placate her,

“That’s very nice.”

“If it weren’t for favoritism,” she said bitterly, “he’d be a star. It ain’t talent. It’s pull. What’s Shirley Temple got that he ain’t got?”

“Why, I don’t know,” Homer mumbled.

She ignored this and let out a fearful bellow.

“Adore! Adore!”

Tod had seen her kind around the studio. She was one of that army of women who drag their children from casting office to casting office and sit for hours, weeks, months, waiting for a chance to show what Junior can do. Some of them are very poor, but no matter how poor, they always manage to scrape together enough money, often by making great sacrifices, to send their children to one of the innumerable talent schools.

“Adore!” she yelled once more, then laughed and became a friendly housewife again, a chubby little person with dimples in her fat cheeks and fat elbows.

“Have you any children, Mr. Simpson?” she asked.

“No,” he replied, blushing.

“You’re lucky — they’re a nuisance.”

She laughed to show that she didn’t really mean it and called her child again.

“Adore . . . Oh, Adore . . . ”

Her next question surprised them both.

“Who do you follow?”

“What?” said Tod.

“I mean — in the Search for Health, along the Road of Life?”

They both gaped at her.

“I’m a raw-foodist, myself,” she said. “Dr. Pierce is our leader. You must have seen his ads —‘Know–All Pierce–All.’”

“Oh, yes,” Tod said, “you’re vegetarians.” She laughed at his ignorance.

“Far from it. We’re much stricter. Vegetarians eat cooked vegetables. We eat only raw ones. Death comes from eating dead things.”

Neither Tod nor Homer found anything to say. “Adore,” she began again. “Adore . . . ”

This time there was an answer from around the corner of the garage.

“Here I am, mama.”

A minute later, a little boy appeared dragging behind him a small sailboat on wheels. He was about eight years old, with a pale, peaked face and a large, troubled forehead. He had great staring eyes. His eyebrows had been plucked and shaped carefully. Except for his Buster Brown collar, he was dressed like a man, in long trousers, vest and jacket.

He tried to kiss his mother, but she fended him off and pulled at his clothes, straightening and arranging them with savage little tugs.

“Adore,” she said sternly, “I want you to meet Mr. Simpson, our neighbor.”

Turning like a soldier at the command of a drill sergeant, he walked up to Homer and grasped his hand.

“A pleasure, sir,” he said, bowing stiffly with his heels together.

“That’s the way they do it in Europe,” Mrs. Loomis beamed. “Isn’t he cuter”

“What a pretty sailboat!” Homer said, trying to be friendly.

Both mother and son ignored his comment. She pointed to Tod, and the child repeated his bow and heel-click. “Well, we’ve got to go,” she said.

Tod watched the child, who was standing a little to one side of his mother and making faces at Homer. He rolled his eyes back in his head so that only the whites showed and twisted his lips in a snarl.

Mrs. Loomis noticed Tod’s glance and turned sharply. When she saw what Adore was doing, she yanked him by the arm, jerking him clear off the ground.

“Adore!” she yelled.

To Tod she said apologetically, “He thinks he’s the Frankenstein monster.”

She picked the boy up, hugging and kissing him ardently. Then she set him down again and fixed his rumpled clothing.

“Won’t Adore sing something for us?” Tod asked. “No,” the little boy said sharply.

“Adore,” his mother scolded, “sing at once.”

“That’s all right, if he doesn’t feel like it,” Homer said. But Mrs. Loomis was determined to have him sing. She could never permit him to refuse an audience.

“Sing, Adore,” she repeated with quiet menace. “Sing ‘Mama Doan Wan’ No Peas.’”

His shoulders twitched as though they already felt the strap. He tilted his straw sailor over one eye, buttoned up his jacket and did a little strut, then began:

“Mama doan wan’ no peas, An’ rice, an’ cocoanut oil, Just a bottle of brandy handy all the day. Mama doan wan’ no peas, Mama doan wan’ no cocoanut oil.”

His singing voice was deep and rough and he used the broken groan of the blues singer quite expertly. He moved his body only a little, against rather than in time with the music. The gestures he made with his hands were extremely suggestive.

“Mama doan wan’t no gin, Because gin do make her sin, Mama doan wan’ no glass of gin, Because it boun’ to make her sin, An’ keep her hot and bothered all the day.”

He seemed to know what the words meant, or at least his body and his voice seemed to know. When he came to the final chorus, his buttocks writhed and his voice carried a top-heavy load of sexual pain.

Tod and Homer applauded. Adore grabbed the string of his sailboat and circled the yard. He was imitating a tugboat. He tooted several times, then ran off.

“He’s just a baby,” Mrs. Loomis said proudly, “but he’s got loads of talent.”

Tod and Homer agreed.

She saw that he was gone again and left hurriedly. They could hear her calling in the brush back of the garage. “Adore! Adore . . . ”

“That’s a funny woman,” Tod said.

Homer sighed.

“I guess it’s hard to get a start in pictures. But Faye is awfully pretty.”

Tod agreed. She appeared a moment later in a new flower print dress and picture hat and it was his turn to sigh. She was much more than pretty. She posed, quivering and balanced, on the doorstep and looked down at the two men in the patio. She was smiling, a subtle half-smile uncontaminated by thought. She looked just born, everything moist and fresh, volatile and perfumed. Tod suddenly became very conscious of his dull, insensitive feet bound in dead skin and of his hands, sticky and thick, holding a heavy, rough felt hat.

He tried to get out of going to the pictures with them, but couldn’t. Sitting next to her in the dark proved the ordeal he expected it to be. Her self-sufficiency made him squirm and the desire to break its smooth surface with a blow, or at least a sudden obscene gesture, became irresistible.

He began to wonder if he himself didn’t suffer from the ingrained, morbid apathy he liked to draw in others. Maybe he could only be galvanized into sensibility and that was why he was chasing Faye.

He left hurriedly, without saying good-bye. He had decided to stop running after her. It was an easy decision to make, but a hard one to carry out. In order to manage it, he fell back on one of the oldest tricks in the very full bag of the intellectual. After all, he told himself, he had drawn her enough times. He shut the portfolio that held the drawings he had made of her, tied it with a string, and put it away in his trunk.

It was a childish trick, hardly-worthy of a primitive witch doctor, yet it worked. He was able to avoid her for several months. During this time, he took his pad and pencils on a continuous hunt for other models. He spent his nights at the different Hollywood churches, drawing the worshipers. He visited the “Church of Christ, Physical” where holiness was attained through the constant use of chestweights and spring grips; the “Church Invisible” where fortunes were told and the dead made to find lost objects; the “Tabernacle of the Third Coming” where a woman in male clothing preached the “Crusade Against Salt”; and the “Temple Moderne” under whose glass and chromium roof “Brain–Breathing, the Secret of the Aztecs” was taught.

As he watched these people writhe on the hard seats of their churches, he thought of how well Alessandro Magnasco would dramatize the contrast between their drained-out, feeble bodies and their wild, disordered, minds. He would not satirize them as Hogarth or Daumier might, nor would he pity them. He would paint their fury with respect, appreciating its awful, anarchic power and aware that they had it in them to destroy civilization.

One Friday night in the “Tabernacle of the Third Coming,” a man near Tod stood up to speak. Although his name most likely was Thompson or Johnson and his home town Sioux City, he had the same countersunk eyes, like the heads of burnished spikes, that a monk by Magnasco might have. He was probably just in from one of the colonies in the desert near Soboba Hot Springs where he had been conning over his soul on a diet of raw fruit and nuts. He was very angry. The message he had brought to the city was one that an illiterate anchorite might have given decadent Rome. It was a crazy jumble of dietary rules, economics and Biblical threats. He claimed to have seen the Tiger of Wrath stalking the walls of the citadel and the Jackal of Lust skulking in the shrubbery, and he connected these omens with “thirty dollars every Thursday” and meat eating.

Tod didn’t laugh at the man’s rhetoric. He knew it was unimportant. What mattered were his messianic rage and the emotional response of his hearers. They sprang to their feet, shaking their fists and shouting. On the altar someone began to beat a bass drum and soon the entire congregation was singing “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

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