The Day of the Locust, by Nathanael West

8

It took Homer only a few minutes to get settled in his new home. He unpacked his trunk, hung his two suits, both dark gray, in the closet of one of his bedrooms and put his shirts and underclothes into the dresser drawers. He made no attempt to rearrange the furniture.

After an aimless tour of the house and the yard, he sat down on the couch in the living room. He sat as though wailing for someone in the lobby of a hotel. He remained that way for almost half an hour without moving anything but his hands, then got up and went into the bedroom and sat down on the edge of the bed.

Although it was still early in the afternoon, he felt very sleepy. He was afraid to stretch out and go to sleep. Not because he had bad dreams, but because it was so hard for him to wake again. When he fell asleep, he was always afraid that he would never get up.

But his fear wasn’t as strong as his need. He got his alarm clock and set it for seven o’clock, then lay down with it next to his ear. Two hours later, it seemed like seconds to him, the alarm went off. The bell rang for a full minute before he began to work laboriously toward consciousness. The struggle was a hard one. He groaned. His head trembled and his feet shot out. Finally his eyes opened, then widened. Once more the victory was his.

He lay stretched out on the bed, collecting his senses and testing the different parts of his body. Every part was awake but his hands. They still slept. He was not surprised. They demanded special attention, had always demanded it. When he had been a child, he used to stick pins into them and once had even thrust them into a fire. Now he used only cold water.

He got out of bed in sections, like a poorly made automaton, and carried his hands into the bathroom. He turned on the cold water. When the basin was full, he plunged his hands in up to the wrists. They lay quietly on the bottom like a pair of strange aquatic animals. When they were thoroughly chilled and began to crawl about, he lifted them out and hid them in a towel.

He was cold. He ran hot water into the tub and began to undress, fumbling with the buttons of his clothing as though he were undressing a stranger. He was naked before the tub was full enough to get in and he sat down on a stool to wait. He kept his enormous hands folded quietly on his belly. Although absolutely still, they seemed curbed rather than resting.

Except for his hands, which belonged on a piece of monumental sculpture, and his small head, he was well proportioned. His muscles were large and round and he had a full, heavy chest. Yet there was something wrong. For all his size and shape, he looked neither strong nor fertile. He was like one of Picasso’s great sterile athletes, who brood hopelessly on pink sand, staring at veined marble waves.

When the tub was full, he got in and sank down in the hot water. He grunted his comfort. But in another moment he would begin to remember, in just another moment. He tried to fool his memory by overwhelming it with tears and brought up the sobs that were always lurking uneasily in his chest. He cried softly at first, then harder. The sound he made was like that of a dog lapping gruel. He concentrated on how miserable and lonely he was, but it didn’t work. The thing he was trying so desperately to avoid kept crowding into his mind.

One day when he was working in the hotel, a guest called Romola Martin had spoken to him in the elevator.

“Mr. Simpson, you’re Mr. Simpson, the bookkeeper?”

“Yes.”

“I’m in six-eleven.”

She was small and childlike, with a quick, nervous manner. In her arms she coddled a package which obviously contained a square gin bottle.

“Yes,” said Homer again, working against his natural instinct to be friendly. He knew that Miss Martin owed several weeks’ rent and had heard the room clerk say she was a drunkard.

“Oh! . . . ” the girl went on coquettishly, making obvious their difference in size, “I’m sorry you’re worried about your bill, I . . . ”

The intimacy of her tone embarrassed Homer.

“You’ll have to speak to the manager,” he rapped out, turning away.

He was trembling when he reached his office.

How bold the creature was! She was drunk, of course, but not so drunk that she didn’t know what she was doing. He hurriedly labeled his excitement disgust.

Soon afterwards the manager called and asked him to bring in Miss Martin’s credit card. When he went into the manager’s office, he found Miss Carlisle, the room clerk there. Homer listened to what the manager was saying to her.

“You roomed six-eleven?”

“I did, yes, sir.”

“Why? She’s obvious enough, isn’t she?”

“Not when she’s sober.”

“Never mind that. We don’t want her kind in this hotel.”

“I’m sorry.”

The manager turned to Homer and took the credit card he was holding.

“She owes thirty-one dollars,” Homer said.

“She’ll have to pay up and get out. I don’t want her kind around here.” He smiled. “Especially when they run up bills. Get her on the phone for me.”

Homer asked the telephone operator for six-eleven and after a short time was told that the room didn’t answer. “She’s in the house,” he said. “I saw her in the elevator.”

“I’ll have the housekeeper look.”

Homer was working on his books some minutes later when his phone rang. It was the manager again. He said that six-eleven had been reported in by the housekeeper and asked Homer to take her a bill.

“Tell her to pay up or get out,” he said.

His first thought was to ask that Miss Carlisle be sent because he was busy, but he didn’t dare to suggest it. While making out the bill, he began to realize how excited he was. It was terrifying. Little waves of sensation moved along his nerves and the base of his tongue tingled.

When he got off at the sixth floor, he felt almost gay.

His step was buoyant and he had completely forgotten his troublesome hands. He stopped at six-eleven and made as though to knock, then suddenly took fright and lowered his-fist without touching the door.

He couldn’t go through with it. They would have to send Miss Carlisle.

The housekeeper, who had been watching from the end of the hall, came up before he could escape.

“She doesn’t answer,” Homer said hurriedly.

“Did you knock hard enough? That slut is in there.” Before Homer could reply, she pounded on the door. “Open up!” she shouted.

Homer heard someone move inside, then the door opened a few inches.

“Who is it, please?” a light voice asked.

“Mr. Simpson, the bookkeeper,” he gasped.

“Come in, please.”

The door opened a little wider and Homer went in without daring to look around at the housekeeper. He stumbled to the center of the room and stopped. Al first he was conscious only of the heavy odor of alcohol and stale tobacco, but then underneath he smelled a metallic perfume. His eyes moved in a slow circle. On the floor was a litter of clothing, newspapers, magazines, and bottles. Miss Martin was huddled up on a corner of the bed. She was wearing a man’s black silk dressing gown with light blue cuffs and lapel facings. Her close-cropped hair was the color and texture of straw and she looked like a little boy. Her youthfulness was heightened by her blue button eyes, pink button nose and red button mouth.

Homer was too busy with his growing excitement to speak or even think. He closed his eyes to tend it better, nursing carefully what he felt. He had to be careful, for if he went too fast, it might wither and then he would be cold again. It continued to grow.

“Go away, please, I’m drunk,” Miss Martin said.

Homer neither moved nor spoke.

She suddenly began to sob. The coarse, broken sounds she made seemed to come from her stomach. She buried her face in her hands and pounded the floor with her feet.

Homer’s feelings were so intense that his head bobbed stiffly on his neck like that of a toy Chinese dragon.

“I’m broke. I haven’t any money. I haven’t a dime. I’m broke, I tell you.”

Homer pulled out his wallet and moved on the girl as though to strike her with it.

She cowered away from him and her sobs grew stronger.

He dropped the wallet in her lap and stood over her, not knowing what else to do. When she saw the wallet, she smiled, but continued sobbing.

“Sit down,” she said.

He sat down on the bed beside her.

“You strange man,” she said coyly. “I could kiss you for being so nice.”

He caught her in his arms and hugged her. His suddenness frightened her and she tried to pull away, but he held on and began awkwardly to caress her. He was completely unconscious of what he was doing. He knew only that what he felt was marvelously sweet and that he had to make the sweetness carry through to the poor, sobbing woman.

Miss Martin’s sobs grew less and soon stopped altogether. He could feel her fidget and gather Strength. The telephone rang.

“Don’t answer it,” she said, beginning to sob once more. He pushed her away gently and stumbled to the telephone. It was Miss Carlisle.

“Are you all right?” she asked, “or shall we send for the cops?”

“All right,” he said, hanging up.

It was all over. He couldn’t go back to the bed.

Miss Martin laughed at his look of acute distress.

“Bring the gin, you enormous cow,” she shouted gaily. “It’s under the table.”

He saw her stretch herself out in a way that couldn’t be mistaken. He ran out of the room.

Now in California, he was crying because he had never seen Miss Martin again. The next day the manager had told him that he had done a good job and that she had paid up and checked out.

Homer tried to find her. There were two other hotels in Wayneville, small run-down houses, and he inquired at both of them. He also asked in the few rooming places, but with no success. She had left town.

He settled back into his regular routine, working ten hours, eating two, sleeping the rest. Then he caught cold and had been advised to come to California. He could easily afford not to work for a while. His father had left him about six thousand dollars and during the twenty years he had kept books in the hotel, he had saved at least ten more.

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