The Day of the Locust, by Nathanael West

4

Claude was a successful screen writer who lived in a big house that was an exact reproduction of the old Dupuy mansion near Biloxi, Mississippi. When Tod came up the walk between the boxwood hedges, he greeted him from the enormous, two-story porch by doing the impersonation that went with the Southern colonial architecture. He teetered back and forth on his heels like a Civil War colonel and made believe he had a large belly.

He had no belly at all. He was a dried-up little man with the rubbed features and stooped shoulders of a postal clerk. The shiny mohair coat and nondescript trousers of that official would have become him, but he was dressed, as always, elaborately. In the buttonhole of his brown jacket was a lemon flower. His trousers were of reddish Harris tweed with a hound tooth check and on his feet were a pair of magnificent, rust-colored bluchers. His shirt was ivory flannel and his knitted tie a red that was almost black.

While Tod mounted the steps to reach his outstretched hand, he shouted to the butler.

“Here, you black rascal! A mint julep.”

A Chinese servant came running with a Scotch and soda.

After talking to Tod for a moment, Claude started him in the direction of Alice, his wife, who was at the other end of the porch.

“Don’t run off,” he whispered. “We’re going to a sporting house.”

Alice was sitting in a wicker swing with a woman named Mrs. Joan Schwartzen. When she asked him if he was playing any tennis, Mrs. Schwartzen interrupted her.

“How silly, batting an inoffensive ball across something that ought to be used to catch fish on account of millions are starving for a bite of herring.”

“Joan’s a female tennis champ,” Alice explained.

Mrs. Schwartzen was a big girl with large hands and feet and square, bony shoulders. She had A pretty, eighteen-year-old face and a thirty-five-year-old neck that was veined and sinewy. Her deep sunburn, ruby colored with a slight blue tint, kept the contrast between her face and neck from being too startling.

“Well, I wish we were going to a brothel this minute,” she said. “I adore them.”

She turned to Tod and fluttered her eyelids.

“Don’t you, Mr. Hackett?”

“That’s right, Joan darling,” Alice answered for him. “Nothing like a bagnio to set a fellow up. Hair of the dog that bit you.”

“How dare you insult me!”

She stood up and took Tod’s arm.

“Convoy me over there.”

She pointed to the group of men with whom Claude was standing.

“For God’s sake, convoy her,” Alice said. “She thinks they’re telling dirty stories.”

Mrs. Schwartzen pushed right among them, dragging Tod after her.

“Are you talking smut?” she asked. “I adore smut.” They all laughed politely.

“No, shop,” said someone.

“I don’t believe it. I can tell from the beast in your voices. Go ahead, do say something obscene.”

This time no one laughed.

Tod tried to disengage her arm, but she kept a firm grip on it. There was a moment of awkward silence, then the man she had interrupted tried to make a fresh start.

“The picture business is too humble,” he said. “We ought to resent people like Coombes.”

“That’s right,” said another man. “Guys like that come out here, make a lot of money, grouse all the time about the place, flop on their assignments, then go back East and tell dialect stories about producers they’ve never met.”

“My God,” Mrs. Schwartzen said to Tod in a loud, stagey whisper, “they are talking shop.”

“Let’s look for the man with the drinks,” Tod said.

“No. Take me into the garden. Have you seen what’s in the swimming pool?”

She pulled him along.

The air of the garden was heavy with the odor of mimosa and honeysuckle. Through a slit in the blue serge sky poked a grained moon that looked like an enormous bone button. A little flagstone path, made narrow by its border of oleander, led to the edge of the sunken pool. On the bottom, near the deep end, he could see a heavy, black mass of some kind.

“What is it?” he asked.

She kicked a switch that was hidden at the base of a shrub and a row of submerged floodlights illuminated the green water. The thing was a dead horse, or, rather, a life-size, realistic reproduction of one. Its legs stuck up stiff and straight and it had an enormous, distended belly. Its hammerhead lay twisted to one side and from its mouth, which was set in an agonized grin, hung a heavy, black tongue.

“Isn’t it marvelous!” exclaimed Mrs. Schwartzen, clapping her hands and jumping up and down excitedly like a little girl.

“What’s it made of?”

“Then you weren’t fooled? How impolite! It’s rubber, of course. It cost lots of money.”

“But why?”

“‘To amuse. We were looking at the pool one day and somebody, Jerry Appis, I think, said that it needed a dead horse on the bottom, so Alice got one. Don’t you think it looks cute?”

“Very.”

“You’re just an old meanie. Think how happy the Estees must feel, showing it to people and listening to their merriment and their oh’s and ah’s of unconfined delight.”

She stood on the edge of the pool and “ohed and ahed” rapidly several times in succession.

“Is it still there?” someone called.

Tod turned and saw two women and a man coming down the path.

“I think its belly’s going to burst,” Mrs. Schwartzen shouted to them gleefully.

“Goody,” said the man, hurrying to look.

“But it’s only full of air,” said one of the women.

Mrs. Schwartzen made believe she was going to cry. “You’re just like that mean Mr. Hackett. You just won’t let me cherish my illusions.”

Tod was halfway to the house when she called after him. He waved but kept going.

The men with Claude were still talking shop.

“But how are you going to get rid of the illiterate mockies that run it? They’ve got a strangle hold on the industry. Maybe they’re intellectual stumblebums, but they’re damn good businessmen. Or at least they know how to go into receivership and come up with a gold watch in their teeth.”

“They ought to put some of the millions they make back into the business again. Like Rockefeller does with his Foundation. People used to hate the Rockefellers, but now instead of hollering about their ill-gotten oil dough, everybody praises them for what the Foundation does. It’s a swell stunt and pictures could do the same thing. Have a Cinema Foundation and make contributions to Science and Art. You know, give the racket a front.”

Tod took Claude to one side to say good night, but he wouldn’t let him go. He led him into the library and mixed two double Scotches. They sat down on the couch facing the fireplace.

“You haven’t been to Audrey Jenning’s place?” Claude asked.

“No, but I’ve heard tell of it.”

“Then you’ve got to come along.”

“I don’t like pro-sport.”

“We won’t indulge in any. We’re just going to see a movie.”

“I get depressed.”

“Not at Jenning’s you won’t. She makes vice attractive by skillful packaging. Her dive’s a triumph of industrial design.”

Tod liked to hear him talk. He was master of an involved comic rhetoric that permitted him to express his moral indignation and still keep his reputation for worldliness and wit.

Tod fed him another lead. “I don’t care how much cellophane she wraps it in,” he said —“nautch joints are depressing, like all places for deposit, banks, mail boxes, tombs, vending machines.”

“Love is like a vending machine, eh? Not bad. You insert a coin and press home the lever. There’s some mechanical activity inside the bowels of the device. You receive a small sweet, frown at yourself in the dirty mirror, adjust your hat, take a firm grip on your umbrella and walk away, trying to look as though nothing had happened. It’s good, but it’s not for pictures.”

Tod played straight again.

“That’s not it. I’ve been chasing a girl and it’s like carrying something a little too large to conceal in your pocket, like a briefcase or a small valise. It’s uncomfortable.”

“I know, I know. It’s always uncomfortable. First your right hand gets tired, then your left. You put the valise down and sit on it, but people are surprised and stop to stare at you, so you move on. You hide it behind a tree and hurry away, but someone finds it and runs after you to return it. It’s a small valise when you leave home in the morning, cheap and with a bad handle, but by evening it’s a trunk with brass corners and many foreign labels. I know. It’s good, but it won’t film. You’ve got to remember your audience. What about the barber in Purdue? He’s been cutting hair all day and he’s tired. He doesn’t want to see some dope carrying a valise or fooling with a nickel machine. What the barber wants is amour and glamor.”

The last part was for himself and he sighed heavily. He was about to begin again when the Chinese servant came in and said that the others were ready to leave for Mrs. Jenning’s.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/west/nathanael/day-of-the-locust/chapter4.html

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