The Day of the Locust, p.1Nathanael West
The Day of the Locust
Around quitting time, Tod Hackett heard a great din on the road outside his office. The groan of leather mingled with the jangle of iron and over all beat the tattoo of a thousand hooves. He hurried to the window.
An army of cavalry and foot was passing. It moved like a. mob; its lines broken, as though fleeing from some terrible defeat. The dolmans of the hussars, the heavy shakos of the guards, Hanoverian light horse, with their fiat leather caps and flowing red plumes, were all jumbled together in bobbing disorder. Behind the cavalry came the infantry, a wild sea of waving sabretaches, sloped muskets, crossed shoulder belts and swinging cartridge boxes.. Tod recognized the scarlet infantry of England with their white shoulder pads, the black infantry of the Duke of Brunswick, the French grenadiers with their enormous white gaiters, the Scotch with bare knees under plaid skirts.
While he watched, a little fat man, wearing a cork sun-helmet, polo shirt and knickers, darted around the corner of the building in pursuit of the army.
“Stage Nine—you bastards—Stage Nine!” he screamed through a small megaphone.
The cavalry put spur to their horses and the infantry broke into a dogtrot. The little man in the cork hat ran after them, shaking his fist and cursing.
Tod watched until they had disappeared behind half a Mississippi steamboat, then put away his pencils and drawing board, and left the office. On the sidewalk outside the studio he stood for a moment trying to decide whether to walk home or take a streetcar. He had been in Hollywood less than three months and still found it a very exciting place, but he was lazy and didn’t like to walk. He decided to take the streetcar as far as Vine Street and walk the rest of the way.
A talent scout for National Films had brought Tod to the Coast after seeing some of his drawings in an exhibit of undergraduate work at the Yale School of Fine Arts. He had been hired by telegram. If the scout had met Tod, he probably wouldn’t have sent him to Hollywood to learn set and costume designing. His large, sprawling body, his slow blue eyes and sloppy grin made him seem completely without talent, almost doltish in fact.
Yes, despite his appearance, he was really a very complicated young man with a whole set of personalities, one inside the other like a nest of Chinese boxes. And “The Burning of Los Angeles,” a picture he was soon to paint, definitely proved he had talent.
He left the car at Vine Street. As he walked along, he examined the evening crowd. A great many of the people wore sports clothes which were not really sports clothes. Their sweaters, knickers, slacks, blue flannel jackets with brass buttons were fancy dress. The fat lady in the yachting cap was going shopping, not boating; the man in the Norfolk jacket and Tyrolean hat was returning, not from a mountain, but an insurance office; and the girl in slacks and sneaks with a bandanna around her head had just left a switchboard, not a tennis court.
Scattered among these masquerades were people of a different type. Their clothing was somber and badly cut, bought from mail-order houses. While the others moved rapidly, darting into stores and cocktail bars, they loitered on the corners or stood with their backs to the shop windows and stared at everyone who passed. When their stare was returned, their eyes filled with hatred. At this time Tod knew very little about them except that they had come to California to die.
He was determined to learn much more. They were the people he felt he must paint. He would never again do a fat red barn, old stone wall or sturdy Nantucket fisherman. From the moment he had seen them, he had known that, despite his race, training and heritage, neither Winslow Homer nor Thomas Ryder could be his masters and he turned to Goya and Daumier.
He had learned this just in time. During his last year in art school, he had begun to think that he might give up painting completely. The pleasures he received from the problems of composition and color had decreased as his facility had increased and he had realized that he was going the way of all his classmates, toward illustration or mere handsomeness. When the Hollywood job had come along, he had grabbed it despite the arguments of his Mends who were certain that he was selling out and would never paint again.
He reached the end of Vine Street and began the climb into Pinyon Canyon. Night had started to fall.
The edges of the trees burned with a pale violet light and their centers gradually turned from deep purple to black. The same violet piping, like a Neon tube, outlined the tops of the ugly, hump-backed hills and they were almost beautiful.
But not even the soft wash of dusk could help the houses. Only dynamite would be of any use against the Mexican ranch houses, Samoan huts, Mediterranean villas, Egyptian and Japanese temples, Swiss chalets, Tudor cottages, and every possible combination of these styles that lined the slopes of the canyon.
When he noticed that they were all of plaster, lath and paper, he was charitable and blamed their shape on the materials used. Steel, stone and brick curb a builder’s fancy a little, forcing him to distribute his stresses and weights and to keep his corners plumb, but plaster and paper know no law, not even that of gravity.
On the corner of La Huerta Road was a miniature Rhine castle with tarpaper turrets pierced for archers. Next to it was a little highly colored shack with domes and minarets out of the Arabian Nights. Again he was charitable. Both houses were comic, but he didn’t laugh. Their desire to startle was so eager and guileless.
It is hard to laugh at the need for beauty and romance, no matter how tasteless, even horrible, the results of that need are. But it is easy to sigh. Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous.
The house he lived in was a nondescript affair called the San Bernardino Arms. It was an oblong three stories high, the back and sides of which were of plain, unpainted stucco, broken by even rows of unadorned windows. The façade was the color of diluted mustard and its windows, all double, were framed by pink Moorish columns which supported turnip-shaped lintels.
His room was on the third floor, but he paused for a moment on the landing of the second. It was on that floor that Faye Greener lived, in 208. When someone laughed in one of the apartments he started guiltily and continued upstairs.
As he opened his door a card fluttered to the floor. “Honest Abe Kusich,” it said in large type, then underneath in smaller italics were several endorsements, printed to look like press notices.
“…the Lloyds of Hollywood”—Stanley Rose.
“Abe’s word is better than Morgan’s bonds”—Gail Brenshaw.
On the other side was a penciled message:
“Kingpin fourth, Solitair sixth. You can make some real dough on those nags.”
After opening the window, he took off his jacket and lay down on the bed. Through the window he could see a square of enameled sky and a spray of eucalyptus. A light breeze stirred its long, narrow leaves, making them show first their green side, then their silver one.
He began to think of “Honest Abe Kusich” in order not to think of Faye Greener. He felt comfortable and wanted to remain that way.
Abe was an important figure in a set of lithographs called “The Dancers” on which Tod was working. He was one of the dance
Despite the sincere indignation that Abe’s grotesque depravity aroused in him, he welcomed his company. The little man excited him and in that way made him feel certain of his need to paint.
He had first met Abe when he was living on Ivar Street, in a hotel called the Chateau Mirabella. Another name for Ivar Street was “Lysol Alley,” and the Chateau was mainly inhabited by hustlers, their managers, trainers and advance agents.
In the morning its halls reeked of antiseptic. Tod didn’t like this odor. Moreover, the rent was high because it included police protection, a service for which he had no need. He wanted to move, but inertia and the fact that he didn’t know where to go kept him in the Chateau until he met Abe. The meeting was accidental.
He was on the way to his room late one night when he saw what he supposed was a pile of soiled laundry lying in front of the door across the hall from his own. Just as he was passing it, the bundle moved and made a peculiar noise. He struck a match, thinking it might be a dog wrapped in a blanket. When the light flared up, he saw it was a tiny man.
The match went out and he hastily lit another. It was a male dwarf rolled up in a woman’s flannel bathrobe. The round thing at the end was his slightly hydrocephalic head. A slow, choked snore bubbled from it.
The hall was cold and draughty. Tod decided to wake the man and stirred him with his toe. He groaned and opened his eyes.
“You oughtn’t to sleep there.”
“The hell you say,” said the dwarf, closing his eyes again. “You’ll catch cold.”
This friendly observation angered the little man still more.
“I want my clothes!” he bellowed.
The bottom of the door next to which he was lying filled with light. Tod decided to take a chance and knock. A few seconds later a woman opened it part way. “What the hell do you want?” she demanded. “There’s a friend of yours out here who…” Neither of them let him finish.
“So what!” she barked, slamming the door.
“Give me my clothes, you bitch!” roared the dwarf.
She opened the door again and began to hurl things into the ball. A jacket and trousers, a shirt, socks, shoes and underwear, a tie and hat followed each other through the air in rapid succession. With each article went a special curse.
Tod whistled with amazement.
“You bet,” said the dwarf. “A lollapalooza—all slut and a yard wide.”
He laughed at his own joke, using a high-pitched cackle more dwarflike than anything that had come from him so far, then struggled to his feet and arranged the voluminous robe so that he could walk without tripping. Tod helped him gather his scattered clothing.
“Say, mister,” he asked, “could I dress in your place?”
Tod let him into his bathroom. While waiting for him to reappear, he couldn’t help imagining what had happened in the woman’s apartment. He began to feel sorry for having interfered. But when the dwarf came out wearing his hat, Tod felt better.
The little man’s hat fixed almost everything. That year Tyrolean hats were being worn a great deal along Hollywood Boulevard and the dwarf’s was a fine specimen. It was the proper magic green color and had a high, conical crown. There should have been a brass buckle on the front, but otherwise it was quite perfect.
The rest of his outfit didn’t go well with the hat. Instead of shoes with long points and a leather apron, he wore a blue, double-breasted suit and a black shift with a yellow tie. Instead of a crooked thorn stick, he carried a rolled copy of the Daily Running Horse.
“That’s what I get for fooling with four-bit broads,” he said by way of greeting.
Tod nodded and tried to concentrate on the green hat. His ready acquiescence seemed to irritate the little man.
“No quiff can give Abe Kusich the fingeroo and get away with it,” he said bitterly. “Not when I can get her leg broke for twenty bucks and I got twenty.”
He took out a thick billfold and shook it at Tod.
“So she thinks she can give me the fingeroo, hah? Well, let me tell…” Tod broke in hastily.
“You’re right, Mr. Kusich.”
The dwarf came over to where Tod was sitting and for a moment Tod thought he was going to climb into his lap, but he only asked his name and shook hands. The little man had a powerful grip.
“Let me tell you something, Hackett, if you hadn’t come along, I’da broke in the door. That dame thinks she can give me the fingeroo, but she’s got another thinkola coming. But thanks anyway.”
“I don’t forget nothing. I remember. I remember those who do me dirt and those who do me favors.”
He wrinkled his brow and was silent for a moment. “Listen,” he finally said, “seeing as you helped me, I got to return it. I don’t want anybody going around saying Abe Kusich owes him anything. So I’ll tell you what. I’ll give you a good one for the fifth at Caliente. You put a fiver on its nose and it’ll get you twenty smackeroos. What I’m telling you is strictly correct.”
Tod didn’t know how to answer and his hesitation offended the little man.
“Would I give you a bum steer?” he demanded, scowling. “Would I?”
Tod walked toward the door to get rid of him.
“No,” he said.
“Then why won’t you bet, hah?”
“What’s the name of the horse?” Tod asked, hoping to calm him.
The dwarf had followed him to the door, pulling the bathrobe after him by one sleeve. Hat and all, he came to a foot below Tod’s belt.
“Tragopan. He’s a certain, sure winner. I know the guy who owns him and he gave me the office.”
“Is he a Greek?” Tod asked.
He was being pleasant in order to hide the attempt he was making to maneuver the dwarf through the door. “Yeh, he’s a Greek. Do you know him?”
“No,” said Tod with finality.
“Keep your drawers on,” ordered the dwarf, “all I want to know is how you know he’s a Greek if you don’t know him?”
His eyes narrowed with suspicion and he clenched his fists.
Tod smiled to placate him.
“I just guessed it.”
The dwarf hunched his shoulders as though he were going to pull a gun or throw a punch. Tod backed off and tried to explain.
“I guessed he was a Greek because Tragopan is a Greek word that means pheasant.” The dwarf was far from satisfied.
“How do you know what it means? You ain’t a Greek?”
“No, but I know a few Greek words.”
“So you’re a wise guy, hah, a know-it-all.”
He took a short step forward, moving on his toes, an Tod got set to block a punch.
“A college man, hah? Well, let me tell…”
His foot caught in the wrapper and he fell forward on his hands. He forgot Tod and cursed the bathrobe, then got started on the woman again.
“So she thinks she can give me the fingeroo.”
He kept poking himself in the chest with his thumbs.
“Who gave her forty bucks for an abortion? Who? And another ten to go to the country for a rest that time. To a ranch I sent her. And who got her fiddle out of hock that time in Santa Monica? Who?”
“That’s right,” Tod said, getting ready to give him a quick shove through the door.
But he didn’t have to shove him. The little man suddenly darted out of the room and ran down the hall, dragging the bathrobe after him.
A few days later, Tod went into a stationary store on Vine Street to buy
“How’s things?” he demanded.
Tod was surprised to find that he was just as truculentas as he had he had been the other night. Later, when he got to know him better, he discovered that Abe’s pugnacity was often a joke. When he used it on his friends, they played with him like one does with a growling puppy, staving off his mad rushes and then baiting him to rush again.
“Fair enough,” Tod said, “but I think I’ll move.”
He had spent most of Sunday looking for a place to live and was full of the subject. The moment he mentioned it, however, he knew that he had made a mistake. He tried to end the matter by turning away, but the little man blocked him. He evidently considered himself an expert on the housing situation. After naming and discarding a dozen possibilities without a word from Tod, he finally hit on the San Bernardino Arms.
“That’s the place for you, the San Berdoo. I live there, so I ought to know. The owner’s strictly from hunger. Come on, I’ll get you fixed up swell.”
“I don’t know, I…” Tod began.
The dwarf bridled instantly, and appeared to be mortally offended.
“I suppose it ain’t good enough for you. Well, let me tell you something, you…”
Tod allowed himself to be bullied and went with the dwarf to Pinyon Canyon. The rooms in the San Berdoo were small and not very clean. He rented one without hesitation, however, when he saw Faye Greener in the hall.
Tod had fallen asleep. When he woke again, it was after eight o’clock. He took a bath and shaved, then dressed in front of the bureau mirror. He tried to watch his fingers as he fixed his collar and tie, but his eyes kept straying to the photograph that was pushed into the upper corner of the frame.
It was a picture of Faye Greener, a still from a two-reel farce in which she had worked as an extra. She had given him the photograph willingly enough, had even autographed it in a large, wild hand, “Affectionately yours, Faye Greener,” but she refused his friendship, or, rather, insisted on keeping it impersonal. She had told him why. He had nothing to offer her, neither money nor looks, and she could only love a handsome man and would only let a wealthy man love her. Tod was a “good-hearted man,” and she liked “good-hearted men,” but only as friends. She wasn’t hard-boiled. It was just that she put love on a special plane, where a man without money or looks couldn’t move.
The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes