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John Fante (April 8, 1909 – May 8, 1983) was an American novelist, short-story and screenwriter of Italian descent.
Born: April 8th, 1909
Died: May 8th, 1983
Quotes: 104 sourced quotes total
|Words (count)||65||14 - 274|
|Search Results||20||10 - 300|
All the way home Hellfrick was exultant, but the steering wheel was sticky with blood, and once or twice I thought I heard the calf kicking in the back seat...On bunker Hill we turned down our alley and pulled up at the parking space adjacent the hotel wall. Hellfrick got out. "Now I'm going to give you a lesson in butchering."
I stepped inside. It was almost pitch dark, smelling of old underwear and the sleep of a sick body. A feeble light came from a crack in the window covered by a slice of sacking. Before I could stop him, Sammy had bolted the door...Vapors spilled from our mouths in the cold air. "Let her in, Sammy," I said. "What the hell."
"Forgive my body!" she said. She put her arms out to me, the tears flowing down her cheeks. "Think of my soul!" she said. "My soul is so beautiful, it can bring you so much! It is not ugly like my flesh!"
"Maybe this isn't coffee at all," I said. "Maybe it's just water after they boiled your filthy shoes in it." I looked up to her black blazing eyes. "Maybe you don't know any better. Maybe you're just naturally careless. But if I were a girl I wouldn't be seen in a Main Street alley with those shoes."
"You try so hard to be an American," I said. "why do you do that? Take a look at yourself"..."And all that paint on your face. You look awful--a cheap imitation of an American. You look frowsy. If I were a Mexican I'd knock your head off. You're a disgrace to your people."
"those huaraches--do you have to wear them, Camilla? Do you have to emphasize the fact that you always were and always will be a filthy little Greaser?"
Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town.
But I am poor, and my name ends with a soft vowel, and they hate me and my father, and my father's father, and they would have my blood and put me down, but they are old now, dying in the sun and in the hot dust of the road, and I am young and full of hope and love for my country and my times, and when I say Greaser to you it is not my heart that speaks, but the quivering of an old wound, and I am ashamed of the terrible thing I have done.
She watched me like a prize dog, and Solomon watched her like a criminal.
Far down the street I saw the building where Vera lived. Hanging from the wall, like a man crucified, was the bed.
No chance to speak, she was over me again, clinging like a wet vine, her tongue like a frightened snake's head, searching my mouth.
You don't understand Mexican women. They don't like to be treated like human beings. If you're nice to them, they walk all over you.
Then she tried to show me how to hold the gun. I jerked it away from her, flung the barrel recklessly in all directions.
God Almighty, dear God, good to me, gave me a sweet tongue, and these sad and lonely folk will hear me and they shall be happy.
Dear little Vivian, all the way from the clean fields of Minnesota, and not a Swede either, and almost a virgin too, just a few men short of being a virgin.
Another magazine wanted the Long Lost Hills in digest form. A hundred dollars. I was rich again. A time for amends, for righting the past. I sent my mother five dollars.
We drove into the Los Angeles Black Belt, Central Avenue, night clubs, abandoned apartment houses, broken-down business houses, the forlorn street of poverty for the Negro and swank for the whites.
You are a coward, Bandini, a traitor to your soul, a feeble liar before your weeping Christ. This is why you write, this is why it would be better if you died.
And here was another place and another girl. Oh, how lonely she was, from away back in Minnesota. A good family too. Sure, honey. Tell my tired ears about your good family.
I sat before my typewriter and the great awful void descended, and I beat my head with my fists, put a pillow under my aching buttocks and made little noises of agony.
I pulled the huge door open and it gave a little cry like weeping. Above the altar sputtered the blood-red eternal light, illuminating in crimson shadow the quiet of almost two thousand years.
Sick in my soul I tried to face the ordeal of seeking forgiveness. From whom? What God, what Christ? They were myths I once believed, and now they were beliefs I felt were myths.
The world was dust, and dust it would become...I gave up cigarets for a few days. I bought a new rosary. I poured nickels and dimes into the Poor Box. I pitied the world.
the city was the same, but I was afraid. The streets lurked with danger. The tall buildings forming black canyons were traps to kill you when the earth shook. The pavement might open. The street cars might topple.
"Mean?" I said. "My dear girl, I am equally fond of man and beast alike. There is not the slightest drop of enmity in my system. After all, you can't be mean and still be a great writer."
Far away like frightened birds, the echo of our feet floated through the upper floors. We climbed three flights of stairs and proceeded the length of another hall. At the end was a door. The Negro opened it.
That night he walked into my room. He sat on the bed, his long arms dangling to the floor...Then he began on the subject of meat. "How would you like a big thick steak?" he said, his lips loose.
I don't remember what I did after I left her. Maybe I went up to Benny Cohen's room over the Grand Central Market. He had a wooden leg with a little door in it. Inside the door were marijuana cigarets.
An old woman wept among the white faces. Two men carrying a body. An old dog crawling on his belly, dragging his hind legs. Several bodies in the corner of the lot, beside a shed, blood-soaked sheets covering them. An ambulance.
His meat craze had got out of hand. All day I heard him frying cheap steaks, the odor creeping under my door. It gave me a mad desire for meat...But he never offered me so much as the scraps from his plate.
Suddenly she laughed again. It was a shriek, a mad laugh like the clatter of dishes and it was over as quickly as it began. I looked at her feet again. I could feel something inside her retreating. I wanted to hurt her.
Now there were screams. then dust. Then crumbling and roaring. I turned round and round in a circle. I had done this...You did it, Arturo. This is the wrath of God...Great clouds of dust...Up in that room on that bed you did it.
I didn't care. It was better to be a live coward than a dead madman. These people walking in and out of huge concrete buildings--someone should warn them. It would come again...Los Angeles was doomed. It was a city with a curse upon it.
That night I slept there, but the next morning I began to hate the place. With her there it was part of a dream; without her, it was a house. I packed my things into the rumble seat and drove back to Los Angeles.
After Beverly Hills there was no fog. The palms along the road stood out green in the bluish darkness, and the white line in the pavement leaped ahead of us like a burning fuse. A few clouds tumbled and tossed, but there were no stars.
We smoked them down until they burned our fingertips. Then I rolled two more. In the middle of the second it began to come, the floating, the wafting away from the earth, the joy and triumph of a man over space, the extraordinary sense of power.
I prowled the city with my Ford: I found mysterious alleys, lonely trees, rotting old houses out of a vanished past. Day and night I lived in my Ford, pausing only long enough to order a hamburger and a cup of coffee at strange roadside cafes.
I didn't ask any questions. Everything I wanted to know was written in tortured phrases across the desolation of her face. It didn't look like insanity to me. It looked like fear, the terrible fear screaming from her big hungered eyes, alert now from the drug.
He had a way, that Hackmuth; he had a style; he had so much to give, even his commas and semi-colons had a way of dancing up and down. I used to tear the stamps off his envelopes, peel them off gently, to see what was under them.
The desert was always there, a patient white animal, waiting for men to die, for civilizations to flicker and pass into the darkness...All the evil of the world seemed not evil at all, but inevitable and good and part of that endless struggle to keep the desert down.
And I drank, greedily, until my throat suddenly choked and contracted and a horrible taste shook me. It was the kind of milk I hated. It was buttermilk. I spat it out, washed my mouth with water, and hurried to look at the other bottle. It was buttermilk, too.
A cop won't pick you up for vagrancy in Los Angeles if you wear a fancy polo shirt and a pair of sunglasses. But if there is dust on your shoes and that sweater you wear is thick like the sweaters they wear in the snow countries, he'll grab you.
Still sneering, she looked at me quickly, and let out the clutch. I was thrown against the seat, then against the windshield. We were jammed between two other cars. She banged into one, and then into the other, her way of letting me know what a fool I had been.
I turned around and saw the crease on the bed where Camilla had been seated, the sensuous contour where her thighs and hips had sunk beneath the softness of the blue chenille bedspread. then I forgot Sammy, and wild with longing I threw myself upon my knees before the spot and kissed it reverently.
Afraid of a woman! Ha, great writer this! How can he write about women, when he's never had a woman? Oh you lousy fake, you phony, no wonder you can't write! No wonder there wasn't a woman in The Little Dog Laughed. No wonder it wasn't a love story, you fool, you dirty little schoolboy.
She kissed me, her mouth tasting of liverwurst on rye. She sat back, breathing with relief. I took out my handkerchief and wiped the sweat from my forehead...She pulled me down and her arms went around me and we fought until I thought it was absurd. I sat back and tried to think of another escape.
Then Lola Linton came on, slithering like a satin snake amid the tumult of whistling and pounding feet, Lola Linton lascivious, slithering and looting my body, and when she was through, my teeth ached from my clamped jaws and I hated the dirty lowbrow swine around me, shouting their share of a sick joy that belonged to me.
She would go right through a stop signal if no cars were around, and when anyone got in her way she would smash her palm on the squealing horn and hold it there. The sound rose like a cry of help through the canyons of buildings. She kept doing this, no matter whether she needed it or not.
Every move she made, the soft turn of her neck, the large breasts swelling under the smock, her fine hands upon the bed, the fingers spread out, these things disturbed me, a sweet painful heaviness dragging me into stupor. Then the sound of her voice, restrained, hinting of mockery, a voice that talked to my blood and bones.
When it was all gone, the dream of floating toward bursting stars, and the flesh returned to hold my blood in its prosaic channels, when the room returned, the dirty sordid room, the vacant meaningless ceiling, the weary wasted world, I felt nothing but the old sense of guilt, the sense of crime and violation, the sin of destruction.
Below us the breakers flayed the land with white fists. They retreated and came back to flay it again. As each breaker retreated, the shoreline broke into an ever-widening grin. We coasted in second down the spiral road, the black pavement perspiring, fog tongues licking it. the air was so clean. We breathed it gratefully. There was no dust here.
She laughed and began undressing. She was brown underneath, but it was natural brown and not a tan. I was white and ghostlike. There was a blob of heaviness at my stomach. I pulled it in to hide it. She looked at the whiteness, at my loins and legs, and smiled. I was glad when she walked toward the water.
She walked over to my desk and pulled a page out of the typewriter. I didn't know what was happening. I still said nothing, but I could smell liquor on her breath, and then the very peculiar but distinctive odor of decay, sweetish and cloying, the odor of oldness, the odor of this woman in the process of growing old.
All at once I was full of plans. Laguna Beach! That was the place for her. It was winter now, and we could get a place cheap. I could take care of her and get started on another book. I had an idea for a new book. We didn't have to be married, brother and sister was alright with me.
Then she came out of the kitchen with a glass of milk in her hand. "Here," she offered. "A cool drink." But it wasn't cool at all, it was almost hot, and there was a yellowish scum on the top, and sipping it I tasted her lips and the strong food she ate, a taste of rye bread and Camembert cheese.
A bell was supposed to ring when the bull's eye was hit. Not a sound. I emptied the gun, sniffed the tart stench of powder, and made a face. Tim and Camilla laughed at the sissy. By now a crowd had gathered on the sidewalk. They all shared Camilla's disgust, for it was a contagious thing, and I felt it too.
Nobody crossed him without a battle. He disliked almost everything, particularly his wife, his children, his neighbors, his church, his priest, his town, his state, his country, and the country from which he emigrated. Nor did he give a damn for the world either, or the sun or the stars, or the universe, or heaven or hell. But he liked women.
Down on Spring Street, in a bar across the street from the secondhand store. With my last nickel I went there for a cup of coffee. an old style place, sawdust on the floor, crudely drawn nudes smeared across the walls. It was a saloon where old men gathered, where the beer was cheap and smelled sour, where the past remained unaltered.
Come down out of the skies, you God, come on down and I'll hammer your face all over the city of Los Angeles, you miserable unpardonable prankster. If it wasn't for you, this woman would not be so maimed, and neither would the world, and if it wasn't for you I could have had Camilla Lopez down at the beach, but no!
The dark corridor of that Central Avenue Hotel, the sinister Negro, the black room and the hopheads, and now the girl who loved a man who hated her. It was all of the same cloth, perverse, drugged in fascinating ugliness. Midnight on Temple Street, a can of marijuana between us. She lay there, her long fingers dangling to the carpet, waiting, listless, tired.
So this was where she lived! I smelled it, touched it with my fingers, walked through it with my feet. It was as I had imagined. This was her home. Blindfolded I could have acknowledged the place, for her odor possessed it, her fevered, lost existence proclaimed it as part of a hopeless scheme. An apartment on Temple Street, and apartment in Los Angeles.
You'll eat hamburgers year after year and live in dusty, vermin-infested apartments and hotels, but every morning you'll see the mighty sun, the eternal blue of the sky, and the streets will be full of sleek women you never will possess, and the hot semitropical nights will reek of romance you'll never have, but you'll still be in paradise, boys, in the land of sunshine.
But the room seemed so poor, pleading for warmth and joy. Vera Rivken's room. She had been nice to Arturo Bandini, and she was poor. I took the small roll from my pocket, peeled off two one dollar bills, and laid them on the table. Then I walked down the stairs, my lungs full of air, elated, my muscles so much stronger than ever before.
I drew my hands over her belly and legs, felt my own desire, searched foolishly for my passion, strained for it while she waited, rolled and tore my hair and begged for it, but there was none, there was none at all, only the retreat to Hackmuth's letter and thoughts that remained to be written, but no lust, only fear of her, and shame and humiliation.
I tried to answer but she interrupted and went off in a Barrymore manner, speaking deeply and tragically; murmuring of the pity of it all, the stupidity of it all, the absurdity of a hopelessly bad writer like myself buried in a cheap hotel in Los Angeles, California, of all places, writing banal things the world would never read and never get a chance to forget.
It crept upon me--the restlessness, the loneliness. What was the matter...Then it came to me like crashing and thunder, like death and destruction. I got up from the counter and walked away in fear, walking fast down the boardwalk, passing people who seemed strange and ghostly: the world seemed a myth, a transparent plane, and all things upon it were here for only a little while...
Camilla cooked breakfast for us, and we ate from plates on our laps. The fare was fried corn meal and bacon and eggs. Sammy ate with the peculiar robustness of unhealthy people. After the meal, Camilla gathered the tin plates and washed them. Then she had her own breakfast, seated in a far corner, quiet except for the sound of her fork against the tin plate.
I went for a walk through the streets. My God, here I was again, roaming the town. I looked at the faces around me, and I knew mine was like theirs. Faces with the blood drained away, tight faces, worried, lost. Faces like flowers torn from their roots and stuffed into a pretty vase, the colors draining fast. I had to get away from that town.
Willie was sound asleep in her lap, but he sucked her little finger. South of Long Beach we stopped at a drugstore and bought a bottle with a nipple, and a bottle of milk. Willie's eyes opened when she put the nipple to his mouth. He fell to his task like a fiend. Camilla lifted her arms high, ran her fingers through her hair, and yawned with pleasure.
I sat smiling wretchedly, my heart weeping for The Little Dog Laughed, for every well-turned phrase, for the little flecks of poetry through it, my first story, the best thing I could show for my whole life. It was the record of all that was good in me, approved and printed by the great J. C. Hackmuth, and she had torn it up and thrown it into a spittoon.
The trouble with trouble was that trouble was looking for Coldwater Gatling. They don't like Texas Rangers down in Arizona, consequently Coldwater Gatling figured shoot first and find out who you killed afterwards. That's how they did it in the Lone Star State where men were men and the women didn't mind cooking for hard-riding straight-shooting people like Coldwater Gatling, the toughest man in leather they had down there.
I tried the door. It opened, darkness inside, and I switched on the light. She lay there in the Murphy bed. Her face was the face of an old rose pressed and dried in a book, yellowish, with only the eyes to prove there was life in it. The room stank. The blinds were down, the door opened with difficulty until I kicked away the rug against the crack.
Mr. Hellfrick was an atheist, retired from the army, living on a meager pension, scarcely enough to pay his liquor bills, even though he purchased the cheapest gin on the market. He lived perpetually in a grey bathrobe without a cord or button, and though he made a pretense at modesty he really didn't care, so that his bathrobe was always open and you saw much hair and bones underneath.
In a little while all resistance was gone, and I knocked on Hellfrick's door. His room was madness, pulp western magazines over the floor, a bed with sheets blackened, clothes strewn everywhere, and clothes-hooks on the wall conspicuously naked, like broken teeth in a skull. There were dishes on the chairs, cigaret butts pressed out on the window sills...He was always drinking, day and night, but he never got drunk.
After a mile she complained about her feet and asked me to hold the wheel. As I did it she reached down and took off her shoes. Then she took the wheel again and threw one foot over the side of the Ford. At once her dress ballooned out, spanking her face. She tucked it under herself, but even so her brown thighs were exposed even to a pinkish underthing.
So down to Main Street and to Fifth Street, to the long dark bars, to the King Edward Cellar, and there a girl with yellow hair and sickness in her smile. Her name was Jean, she was thin and tubercular, but she was hard too, so anxious to get my money, her languid mouth for my lips, her long fingers at my trousers, her sickly lovely eyes watching every dollar bill.
She kissed me, author of The Little Dog Laughed. Then she took my wrist with her two hands. She pressed her lips into the palm of my hand. She placed my hand upon her bosom between her breasts. She turned her lips toward my face and waited. And Arturo Bandini, the great author dipped deep into his colorful imagination, romantic Arturo Bandini, just chock-full of clever phrases, and he said, weakly, kittenishly, "Hello."
Ah, Los Angeles! Dust and fog of your lonely streets. I am no longer lonely. Just you wait, all of you ghosts of this room, just you wait, because it will happen yet, and that Camilla, she can have her Sammy in the desert, with his cheap short stories and stinking prose, but wait until she has a taste of me, because it will happen, as sure as there's a God in heaven.
I saw the earth open like a huge mouth, then close again over the paved street. An old man was trapped by the foot. I ran to him, told him to be brave while I hacked the pavement with a fireman's axe. But I was too late. The vise tightened, bit his leg off at the knee. I carried him away. His knee is still there, a bloody souvenir sticking out of the earth.
I looked down at the poor calf. Its hide was spotted black and white and it had the most delicate ankles. From the slightly open mouth there appeared a pink tongue. I closed my eyes and ran out of Hellfrick's room and threw myself on the floor in my room. I lay there and shuddered, thinking of the old cow alone in the field in the moonlight, old cow mooing for her calf. Murder!
The name on the mailbox was Vera Rivken, and that was her full name. It was down on the Long Beach Pike, across the street from the Ferris Wheel and the Roller Coaster. Downstairs a poolhall, upstairs a few single apartments. No mistaking that flight of stairs; it possessed her odor. The banister was warped and bent, and the grey wallpaint was swollen, with puffed places that cracked open when I pushed them with my thumb.
We drove him home, down Spring Street to First and over the railroad tracks to a black neighborhood that picked up the sounds of the rattling Ford and threw the echoes over an area of dirty frame houses and tired picket fences. He got out at a place where a dying pepper tree had spilled its brown leaves over the ground, and when he walked to the porch you could hear his feet wading through the hissing dead leaves.
Dear Sammy: That little whore was here tonight; you know Sammy, the little Greaser dame with a wonderful figure and a mind for a moron...having read the bile your manuscripts contain, let me speak for the world at large and say at once that your departure is everybody's good fortune. You can't write, Sammy...I speak for all sensible, civilized men when I urge you to burn this mass of literary manure and thereafter stay away from pen and ink.
Write her a poem, spill your heart to her in sweet cadences; but I didn't know how to write poetry. It was love and dove with me, bad rhymes, blundering sentiment. Oh Christ in Heaven, I'm no writer: I can't even put down a little quatrain. I'm no good in this world. I stood at the window and waved my hands at the sky; no good at all, just a cheap fake; neither writer nor lover; neither fish nor fowl.
I watched him tiptoe toward the barn door. I cursed him and waited tensely. In a little while I heard the mooing of a cow. It was a piteous cry. Then I heard a thud and a scuffle of hoofs. Out of the barn door came Hellfrick. Across his shoulder lay a dark mass, weighing him down. Behind him, mooing continually, a cow followed...It was a calf, blood spurting from a gash between the ears...I was sick, very sick. It was plain murder.
And I remembered the inside of that apartment, how it smelled of mice and dust, and the old women who sat in the lobby on hot afternoons, and the old woman with the pretty legs. Then there was the elevator man, a broken man from Milwaukee, who seemed to sneer every time you called your floor, as though you were such a fool for choosing that particular floor, the elevator man who always had a tray of sandwiches in the elevator, and a pulp magazine.
She sat there, the white of saliva at the ends of her mouth, her teeth gritted, her hands pulling at her long hair, her face fighting off a scream, but it didn't matter; she could scream if she liked, for Arturo Bandini wasn't queer, there was nothing at all wrong with Arturo Bandini; why, he had a passion like six men, that boy, he had felt it coming to the surface: some guy, mighty writer, mighty lover; right with the world, right with his prose.
The greying east brightened, metamorphosed to pink, then red, and then the giant ball of fire rose out of the blackened hills. Across the desolation lay a supreme indifference, the casualness of night and another day, and yet the secret intimacy of those hills, their silent consoling wonder, made death a thing of no great importance. You could die, but the desert would hide the secret of your death, it would remain after you, to cover your memory with ageless wind and heat and cold.
All at once I loathed her, because she had hurt me. This girl! She had torn up my sonnet by Dowson, she had shown my telegram to everybody in the Columbia Buffet. She had made a fool of me at the beach. She suspected my virility, and her suspicion was the same as the scorn in her eyes. I watched her face and lips and thought how it would be a pleasure to strike her, send my fist with all force against her nose and lips.
And the redheaded girl from St. Louis who always asked about the Filipinos...Endlessly she spoke of the Filipinos, pitied them, thought them so brave in the face of prejudice. One day she was gone, and another day I saw her again, walking the streets, her copper hair catching sunbeams, a short Filipino holding her arm. He was very proud of her. His padded shoulders and tight waisted suit were the ultimate of tenderloin fashion, but even with the high leather heels he was a foot shorter than she.
The hotel was called the Alta Loma. It was built on a hillside in reverse, there on the crest of Bunker Hill, built against the decline of the hill, so that the main floor was on the level with the street but the tenth floor was downstairs ten levels. If you had room 862, you got in the elevator and went down eight floors, and if you wanted to go down in the truck room, you didn't go down but up to the attic, one floor above the main floor.
She rose and looked at me with delirious black eyes, black and wanton and in a dream, her neck stretched and defining the bulging cords at her throat. she had nothing to say with her lips, but the ghastly cast of her face, the teeth too white and too big now, the frightened smile, these spoke too loudly of the horror shrouding her days and nights...As I walked toward the bed, she pulled up her knees, slipping into a crouched frightened position, as though she expected me to strike her.
The restless dust of Los Angeles fevered him. He was a greater wanderer than myself, and all day long he sought out perverse loves in the parks. But he was so ugly he never found his desire, and the warm nights with low stars and yellow moon tortured him away from his room until the dawn arrived...Some day he would leave this hated city, some day he would go back where friendship meant something, and sure enough, he went away and I got a postcard signed "Memphis Kid" from Fort Worth, Texas.
Far out across the Mojave there arose the shimmer of heat. I made my way up the path to the Ford. In the seat was a copy of my book, my first book. I found a pencil, opened the book to the fly leaf, and wrote: To Camilla, with love, Arturo I carried the book a hundred yards into the desolation, toward the southeast. With all my might I threw it far out in the direction she had gone. Then I got into the car, started the engine, and drove back to Los Angeles.
I had to go through with it, and I turned around and she was nude except for hose and shoes, and then I saw the wounds. It was at the loins; it was a birthmark or something, a burn, a seared place, a pitiful, dry, vacant place where flesh was gone, where the thighs suddenly became small and shriveled and the flesh seemed dead. I closed my jaws and then I said, "What--that? Is that all, just that? It's nothing, a mere trifle." But I was losing the words, I had to say them quickly or they would never form.
I tossed my shoulders and swaggered away, whistling with pleasure. In the gutter I saw a long cigaret butt. I picked it up without shame, lit it as I stood with one foot in the gutter, puffed it and exhaled toward the stars. I was an American, and goddamn proud of it. This great city, these mighty pavements and proud buildings, they were the voice of my America. From sand and cactus we Americans had carved an empire. Camilla's people had had their chance. They had failed. We Americans had turned the trick. Thank God for my country. Thank God I had been born an American!
I was passing the doorman of the Biltmore, and I hated him at once, with his yellow braids and six feet of height and all that dignity, and now a black automobile drove to the curb, and a man got out. He looked rich; and then a woman got out, and she was beautiful, her fur was silver fox, and she was a song across the sidewalk and inside the swinging doors, and I thought oh boy for a little of that, just a day and a night of that, and she was a dream as I walked along, her perfume still in the set morning air.
I opened the door, and there he stood, a telegraph boy. I signed for the telegram, sat on the bed, and wondered if the wine had finally got the Old Man's heart. The telegram said: your book accepted mailing contract today. Hackmuth. That was all. I let the paper float to the carpet. I just sat there. Then I got down on the floor and began kissing the telegram. I crawled under the bed and just lay there. I did not need the sunshine anymore. Nor the earth, nor heaven. I just lay there, happy to die. Nothing else could happen to me. My life was over.
When I saw a policeman strolling toward me I walked away. It was a hot night. Sand from the Mojave had blown across the city. Tiny brown grains of sand clung to my fingertips whenever I touched anything, and when I got back to my room I found the mechanism of my new typewriter glutted with sand. It was in my ears and in my hair. When I took off my clothes it fell like powder to the floor. It was even between the sheets of my bed. Lying in the darkness, the red light from the St. Paul Hotel flashing on and off across my bed was bluish now, a ghastly color jumping into the room and out again.
She was forcing it with her scorn, the kiss she gave me, the hard curl of her lips, the mockery of her eyes, until I was like a man made of wood and there was no feeling within me except terror and a fear of her, a sense that her beauty was too much, that she was so much more beautiful than I, deeper rooted than I. She made me a stranger unto myself, she was all of those calm nights and tall eucalyptus trees, the desert stars, that land and sky, that fog outside, and I had come there with no purpose save to be a mere writer, to get money, to make a name for myself and all that piffle.
Tonight there was music in the saloon, a piano and a violin; two fat women with hard masculine faces and short haircuts. Their song was Over the Waves. Ta de da da, and I watched Camilla dancing with her beer tray. Her hair was so black, so deep and clustered, like grapes hiding her neck. This was a sacred place, this saloon. Everything here was holy, the chairs, the tables, that rag in her hand, that sawdust under her feet. She was a Mayan princess and this was her castle. I watched the tattered huaraches glide across the floor, and I wanted those huaraches. I would like them to hold in my hands against my chest when I fell asleep. I would like to hold them and breathe the odor of them.
Standing at the mirror, I tilted my hat over one eye and examined myself. The image in the glass seemed only vaguely familiar. I didn't like my new tie, so I took off my coat and tried another. I didn't like the change either. All at once everything began to irritate me. The stiff collar was strangling me. The shoes pinched my feet. The pants smelled like a clothing store basement and were too tight in the crotch. Sweat broke out at my temples where the hat band squeezed my skull. Suddenly I began to itch, and when I moved everything crackled like a paper sack. My nostrils picked up the powerful stench of lotions, and I grimaced. Mother in Heaven, what had happened to the old Bandini, author of The Little Dog Laughed? Could this hog-tied, strangling buffoon be the creator of The Long Lost Hills? I pulled everything off, washed the smells out of my hair, and climbed into my old clothes.
The landlady had white hair. Around her neck was a high net collar fitting tightly like a corset. She was in her seventies, a tall woman who increased her height by rising on tiptoe and peering at me over her glasses...She smiled with a smile that seemed to hurt her face, cracking it open with old lines that broke up the dry flesh around her mouth and cheeks...She was lonely, and so lost and still proud. One afternoon she took me to her apartment on the top floor. It was like walking into a well-dusted tomb...For two hours she talked of Bert, and Lord! how she loved that man, even in death, but he was not dead at all; he was in that apartment, watching over her, protecting her, daring me to hurt her...The tea was old. The sugar was old and lumpish. The tea cups were dusty, and somehow the tea tasted old and the little dried up cookies tasted of death. When I got up to leave, Bert followed me through the door and down the hall, daring me to think cynically of him.
I went up to my room, up the dusty stairs of Bunker Hill, past the soot-covered frame buildings along that dark street, sand and oil and grease choking the futile palm trees standing like dying prisoners, chained to a little plot of ground with black pavement hiding their feet. Dust and old buildings and old people sitting at windows, old people tottering out of doors, old people moving painfully along the dark street. The old folk from Indiana and Iowa and Illinois, from Boston and Kansas City and Des Moines, they sold their homes and their stores, and they came here by train and by automobile to the land of sunshine, to die in the sun, with just enough money to live until the sun killed them, tore themselves out by the roots in their last days, deserted the smug prosperity of Kansas City and Chicago and Peoria to find a place in the sun. And when they got here they found that other and greater thieves had already taken possession, that even the sun belonged to the others; Smith and Jones and Parker, druggist, banker, baker, dust of Chicago and Cincinnati and Cleveland on their shoes, doomed to die in the sun, a few dollars in the bank, enough to subscribe to the Los Angeles Times, enough to keep alive the illusion that this was paradise, that their little papier-mâché homes were castles. The uprooted ones, the empty sad folks, the old and the young folks, the folks from back home. These were my countrymen, these were the new Californians. With their bright polo shirts and sunglasses, they were in paradise, they belonged.