The Day of the Locust, by Nathanael West

22

They were well on their way to getting drunk when Homer came out to the garage. He gave a little start when he saw the dead chicken sprawled on the carpet. He shook hands with Claude after Tod introduced him, and with Abe Kusich, then made a little set speech about everybody coming in for a drink. They trooped after him. Faye greeted them at the door. She was wearing a pair of green silk lounging pajamas and green mules with large pompons and very high heels. The top three buttons of her jacket were open and a good deal of her chest was exposed but nothing of her breasts; not because they were small, but because they were placed wide apart and their thrust was upward and outward.

She gave Tod her hand and patted the dwarf on the top of the head. They were old friends. In acknowledging Homer’s awkward introduction of Claude, she was very much the lady. It was her favorite role and she assumed it whenever she met a new man, especially if he were someone whose affluence was obvious.

“Charmed to have you,” she trilled.

The dwarf laughed at her.

In a voice stiff with hauteur, she then ordered Homer into the kitchen for soda, ice and glasses.

“A swell layout,” announced the dwarf, putting on the hat he had taken off in the doorway.

He climbed into one of the big Spanish chairs, using his knees and hands to do it, and sat on the edge with his feet dangling. He looked like a ventriloquist’s dummy.

Earle and Miguel had remained behind to wash up. When they came in, Faye welcomed them with stilted condescension.

“How do you do, boys? The refreshments will be along in a jiffy. But perhaps you prefer a liqueur, Miguel?”

“No, mum,” he said, a little startled. “I’ll have what the others have.”

He followed Earle across the room to the couch. Both of them took long, wooden steps, as though they weren’t used to being in a house. They sat down gingerly with their backs straight, their big hats on their knees and their hands under their hats. They had combed their hair before leaving the garage and their small round heads glistened prettily.

Homer took the drinks around on a small tray.

They all made a show of manners, all but the dwarf, that is, who remained as arrogant as ever. He even commented on the quality of the whiskey. As soon as everyone had been served, Homer sat down.

Faye alone remained standing. She was completely self-possessed despite their stares. She stood with one hip thrown out and her hand on it. From where Claude was sitting he could follow the charming line of her spine as it swooped into her buttocks, which were like a heart upside down.

He gave a low whistle of admiration and everyone agreed by moving uneasily or laughing.

“My dear,” she said to Homer, “perhaps some of the men would like cigars?”

He was surprised and mumbled something about there being no cigars in the house but that he would go to the store for them if . . . Having to say all this made him unhappy and he took the whiskey around again. He poured very generous shots.

“That’s a becoming shade of green,” Tod said.

Faye peacocked for them all.

“I thought maybe it was a little gaudy . . . vulgar, you know.”

“No,” Claude said enthusiastically, “it’s stunning.”

She repaid him for his compliment by smiling in a peculiar, secret way and running her tongue over her lips. It was one of her most characteristic gestures and very effective. It seemed to promise all sorts of undefined intimacies, yet it was really as simple and automatic as the word thanks. She used it to reward anyone for anything, no matter how unimportant.

Claude made the same mistake Tod had often made and jumped to his feet.

“Won’t you sit here?” he said, waving gallantly at his chair.

She accepted by repeating the secret smile and the tongue caress. Claude bowed, but then, realizing that everyone was watching him, added a little mock flourish to make himself less ridiculous. Tod joined them, then Earle and Miguel came over. Claude did the courting while the others stood by and stared at her.

“Do you work in pictures, Mr. Estee?” she asked.

“Yes. You’re in pictures, of course?”

Everyone was aware of the begging note in his voice, but no one smiled. They didn’t blame him. It was almost impossible to keep that note out when talking to her. Men used it just to say good morning.

“Not exactly, but I hope to be,” she said. “I’ve worked as an extra, but I haven’t had a real chance yet. I expect to get one soon. All I ask is a chance. Acting is in my blood. We Greeners, you know, were all theatre people from away back.”

“Yes. I . . . ”

She didn’t let Claude finish, but he didn’t care.

“Not musicals, but real dramas. Of course, maybe light comedies at first. All I ask is a chance. I’ve been buying a lot of clothes lately to make myself one. I don’t believe in luck. Luck is just hard work, they say, and I’m willing to work as hard as anybody.”

“You have a delightful voice and you handle it well,” he said.

He couldn’t help it. Having once seen her secret smile and the things that accompanied it, he wanted to make her repeat it again and again.

“I’d like to do a show on Broadway,” she continued. “That’s the way to get a start nowadays. They won’t talk to you unless you’ve had stage experience.”

She went on and on, telling him how careers are made in the movies and how she intended to make hers. It was all nonsense. She mixed bits of badly understood advice from the trade papers with other bits out of the fan magazines and compared these with the legends that surround the activities of screen stars and executives. Without any noticeable transition, possibilities became probabilities and wound up as inevitabilities. At first she occasionally stopped and waited for Claude to chorus a hearty agreement, but when she had a good start, all her questions were rhetorical and the stream of words rippled on without a break.

None of them really heard her. They were all too busy watching her smile, laugh, shiver, whisper, grow indignant, cross and uncross her legs, stick out her tongue, widen and narrow her eyes, toss her head so that her platinum hair splashed against the red plush of the chair back. The strange thing about her gestures and expressions was that they didn’t really illustrate what she was saying. They were almost pure. It was as though her body recognized how foolish her words were and tried to excite her hearers into being uncritical. It worked that night; no one even thought of laughing at her. The only move they made was to narrow their circle about her.

Tod stood on the outer edge, watching her through the opening between Earle and the Mexican. When he felt a light tap on his shoulder, he knew it was Homer, but didn’t turn. When the tap was repeated, he shrugged the hand away. A few minutes later, he heard a shoe squeak behind him and turned to see Homer tiptoeing off. He reached a chair safely and sank into it with a sigh. He put his heavy hands on the knees, one on each, and stared for a while at their backs. He felt Tod’s eyes on him and looked up and smiled.

His smile annoyed Tod. It was one of those irritating smiles that seem to say: “My friend, what can you know of suffering?” There was something very patronizing and superior about it, and intolerably snobbish.

He felt hot and a little sick. He turned his back on Hamer and went out the front door. His indignant exit wasn’t very successful. He wobbled quite badly and when he reached the sidewalk, he had to sit down on the curb with his back against a date palm.

From where he was sitting, he couldn’t see the city in the valley below the canyon, but he could see the reflection of its lights, which hung in the sky above it like a batik parasol. The unlighted part of the sky at the edge of the parasol was a deep black with hardly a trace of blue.

Homer followed him out of the house and stood standing behind him, afraid to approach. He might have sneaked away without Tod’s knowing it, if he had not suddenly looked down and seen his shadow.

“Hello,” he said.

He motioned for Homer to join him on the curb. “You’ll catch cold,” Homer said.

Tod understood his protest. He made it because he wanted to be certain that his company was really welcome. Nevertheless, Tod refused to repeat the invitation. He didn’t even turn to look at him again. He was sure he was wearing his long-suffering smile and didn’t want to see it.

He wondered why all his sympathy had turned to malice. Because of Faye? It was impossible for him to admit it. Because he was unable to do anything to help him? This reason was a more comfortable one, but he dismissed it with even less consideration. He had never set himself up as a healer.

Homer was looking the other way, at the house, watching the parlor window. He cocked his head to one side when someone laughed. The four short sounds, ha-ha and again ha-ha, distinct musical notes, were made by the dwarf.

“You could learn from him,” Tod said.

“What?” Homer asked, turning to look at him.

“Let it go.”

His impatience both hurt and puzzled Homer. He saw that and motioned for him to sit down, this time emphatically.

Homer obeyed. He did a poor job of squatting and hurt himself. He sat nursing his knee.

“What is it?” Tod finally said, making an attempt to be kind.

“Nothing, Tod, nothing.”

He was grateful and increased his smile. Tod couldn’t help seeing all its annoying attributes, resignation, kindliness, and humility.

They sat quietly, Homer with his heavy shoulders hunched and the sweet grin on his face, Tod frowning, his back pressed hard against the palm tree. In the house the radio was playing and its blare filled the street.

They sat for a long time without speaking. Several times Homer started to tell Tod something but he didn’t seem able to get the words out. Tod refused to help him with a question.

His big hands left his lap, where they had been playing “here’s the church and here the steeple,” and hid in his armpits. They remained there for a moment, then slid under his thighs. A moment later they were back in his lap. The right hand cracked the joints of the left, one by one, then the left did the same service for the right. They seemed easier for a moment, but not for long. They started “here’s the church” again, going through the entire performance and ending with the joint manipulation as before. He started a third time, but catching Tod’s eyes, he stopped and trapped his hands between his knees.

It was the most complicated tic Tod had ever seen. What made it particularly horrible was its precision. It wasn’t pantomime, as he had first thought, but manual ballet.

When Tod saw the hands start to crawl out again, he exploded.

“For Christ’s sake!”

The hands struggled to get free, but Homer clamped his knees shut and held them.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“Oh, all right.”

“But I can’t help it, Tod. I have to do it three times.”

“Okay with me.”

He turned his back on him.

Faye started to sing and her voice poured into the street

“Dreamed about a reefer five feet long Not too mild and not too strong, You’ll be high, but not for long, If you’re a viper — a vi-paah.”

Instead of her usual swing delivery, she was using a lugubrious one, wailing the tune as though it were a dirge. At the end of every stanza, she shifted to an added minor.

“I’m the queen of everything, Gotta be high before I can swing, Light a tea and let it be, If you’re a viper — a vi-paah.”

“She sings very pretty,” Homer said.

“She’s drunk.”

“I don’t know what to do, Tod,” Homer complained. “She’s drinking an awful lot lately. It’s that Earle. We used to have a lot of fun before be came, but now we don’t have any fun any more since he started to hang around.”

“Why don’t you get rid of him?”

“I was thinking about what you said about the license to keep chickens.”

Tod understood what he wanted.

“I’ll report them to the Board of Health tomorrow.”

Homer thanked him, then insisted on explaining in detail why he couldn’t do it himself.391

“But that’ll only get rid of the Mexican,” Tod said. “You’ll have to throw Earle out yourself.”

“Maybe he’ll go with his friend?”

Tod knew that Homer was begging him to agree so that he could go on hoping, but he refused.

“Not a chance. You’ll have to throw him out”

Homer accepted this with his brave, sweet smile. “Maybe . . . ”

“Tell Faye to do it,” Tod said.

“Oh, I can’t”

“Why the hell not? It’s your house.”

“Don’t be mad at me, Toddle.”

“All right, Homie, I’m not mad at you.”

Faye’s voice came through the open window.

“And when your throat gets dry, You know you’re high, If you’re a viper.”

The others harmonized on the last word, repeating it. “Vi-paah . . . ”

“Toddle,” Homer began, “if . . . ”

“Stop calling me Toddle, for Christ’s sake!”

Homer didn’t understand. He took Tod’s hand.

“I didn’t mean nothing. Back home we call . . . ”

Tod couldn’t stand his trembling signals of affection. He tore free with a jerk.

“Oh, but, Toddle, I . . . ”

“She’s a whore!”

He heard Homer grunt, then heard his knees creak as he struggled to his feet.

Faye’s voice came pouring through the window, a reedy wail that broke in the middle with a husky catch.

“High, high, high, high, when you’re high, Everything is dandy, Truck on down to the candy store, Bust your conk on peppermint candy! Then you know your body’s sent, Don’t care if you don’t pay rent, Sky is high and so am I, If you’re a viper — a vi-paah.”

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