ASK THE DUST

John Fante


Chapter Four

Down on Spring Street, in a bar across the street from the second-hand 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.

I sat at one of the tables against the wall. I remember that I sat with my head in my hands. I heard her voice without looking up. I remember that she said, "Can I get you something?" and I said something about coffee with cream. I sat there until the cup was before me, a long time I sat like that, thinking of the hopelessness of my fate.

It was very bad coffee. When the cream mixed with it I realized it was not cream at all, for it turned a greyish color, and the taste was that of boiled rags. This was my last nickel, and it made me angry. I looked around for the girl who had waited on me. She was five or six tables away, serving beers from a tray. Her back was to me, and I saw the tight smoothness of her shoulders under a white smock, the faint trace of muscle in her arms, and the black hair so thick and glossy, falling to her shoulders.

At last she turned around and I waved to her. She was only faintly attentive, widening her eyes in an expression of bored aloofness. Except for the contour of her face and the brilliance of her teeth, she was not beautiful. But at that moment she turned to smile at one of her old customers, and I saw a streak of white under her lips. Her nose was Mayan, flat, with large nostrils. Her lips were heavily rouged, with the thickness of a negress' lips. She was a racial type, and as such she was beautiful, but she was too strange for me. Her eyes were at a high slant, her skin was dark but not black, and as she walked her breasts moved in a way that showed their firmness.

She ignored me after that first glance. She went on to the bar, where she ordered more beer and waited for the thin bartender to draw it. As she waited she whistled, looked at me vaguely and went on whistling. I had stopped waving, but I made it plain I wanted her to come to my table. Suddenly she opened her mouth to the ceiling and laughed in a most mysterious fashion, so that even the bartender wondered at her laughter. Then she danced away, swinging the tray gracefully, picking her way through the tables to a group far down in the rear of the saloon. The bartender followed her with his eyes, still confused at her laughter. But I understood her laughter. It was for me. She was laughing at me. There was something about my appearance, my face, my posture, something about me sitting there that had amused her, and as I thought of it I clenched my fists and considered myself with angry humiliation. I touched my hair: it was combed. I fumbled with my collar and tie: they were clean and in place. I stretched myself to the range of the bar mirror, where I saw what was certainly a worried and sallow face, but not a funny face, and I was very angry.

I began to sneer, watched her closely and sneered. She did not approach my table. She moved near it, even to the table adjacent, but she did not venture beyond that. Each time I saw the dark face, the black large eyes flashing their laughter, I set my lips to a curl that meant I was sneering. It became a game. The coffee cooled, grew cold, a scum of milk gathered over the surface, but I did not touch it. The girl moved like a dancer, her strong silk legs gathering bits of sawdust as her tattered shoes glided over the marble floor.

Those shoes, they were huaraches, the leather thongs wrapped several times around her ankles. They were desperately ragged huaraches; the woven leather had become unraveled. When I saw them I was very grateful, for it was a defect about her that deserved criticism. She was tall and straight-shouldered, a girl of perhaps twenty, faultless in her way, except for her tattered huaraches. And so I fastened my stare on them, watched them intently and deliberately, even turning in my chair and twisting my neck to glare at them, sneering and chuckling to myself. Plainly I was getting as much enjoyment out of this as she got from my face, or whatever it was that amused her. This had a powerful effect upon her. Gradually her pirouetting and dancing subsided and she merely hurried back and forth, and at length she was making her way stealthily. She was embarrassed, and once I saw her glance down quickly and examine her feet, so that in a few minutes she no longer laughed; instead, there was a grimness in her face, and finally she was glancing at me with bitter hatred.

Now I was exultant, strangely happy. I felt relaxed. The world was full of uproariously amusing people. Now the thin bartender looked in my direction and I winked a comradely greeting. He tossed his head in an acknowledging nod. I sighed and sat back, at ease with life.

She had not collected the nickel for the coffee. She would have to do so, unless I left it on the table and walked out. But I wasn't going to walk out. I waited. A half hour passed. When she hurried to the bar for more beer, she no longer waited at the rail in plain sight. She walked around to the back of the bar. She didn't look at me anymore, but I knew she knew I watched her.

Finally she walked straight for my table. She walked proudly, her chin tilted, her hands hanging at her sides. I wanted to stare, but I couldn't keep it up. I looked away, smiling all the while.

"Do you want anything else?" she asked.

Her white smock smelled of starch.

"You call this stuff coffee?" I said.

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.

"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."

I was panting when I finished. Her thick lips trembled and the fists in her pocket were writhing under the starched stiffness.

"I hate you," she said.

I felt her hatred. I could smell it, even hear it coming out of her, but I sneered again. "I hope so," I said. "Because there must be something pretty fine about a guy who rates your hatred."

Then she said a strange thing; I remember it clearly. "I hope you die of heart failure," she said. "Right there in that chair."

It gave her keen satisfaction, even though I laughed. She walked away smiling. She stood at the bar again, waiting for more beer, and her eyes were fastened on me, brilliant with her strange wish, and I was uncomfortable but still laughing. Now she was dancing again, gliding from table to table with her tray, and every time I looked at her she smiled her wish, until it had a mysterious effect on me, and I became conscious of my inner organism, of the beat of my heart and the flutter of my stomach. I felt that she would not come back to my table again, and I remember that I was glad of it, and that a strange restlessness came over me, so that I was anxious to get away from that place, and away from the range of her persistent smile. Before I left I did something that pleased me very much. I took the five cents from my pocket and placed it on the table. Then I spilled half the coffee over it. She would have to mop up the mess with her towel. The brown ugliness spread everywhere over the table, and as I got up to leave it was trickling to the floor. At the door I paused to look at her once more. She smiled the same smile. I nodded at the spilled coffee. Then I tossed my fingers in a salute of farewell and walked into the street. Once more I had a good feeling. Once more it was as before, the world was full of amusing things.

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. He sold them for fifteen cents apiece. He also sold newspapers, the Examiner and the Times. He had a room piled high with copies of The New Masses. Maybe he saddened me as always with his grim horrible vision of the world tomorrow. Maybe he poked his stained fingers under my nose and cursed me for betraying the proletariat from which I came. Maybe, as always, he sent me trembling out of his room and down the dusty stairs to the fog-dimmed street, my fingers itching for the throat of an imperialist. Maybe, and maybe not; I don't remember.

But I remember that night in my room, the lights of the St. Paul Hotel throwing red and green blobs across my bed as I lay and shuddered and dreamed of the anger of that girl, of the way she danced from table to table, and the black glance of her eyes. That I remember, even to forgetting I was poor and without an idea for a story.



I looked for her early the next morning. Eight o'clock, and I was down on Spring Street. I had a copy of The Little Dog Laughed in my pocket. She would think differently about me if she read that story. I had it autographed, right there in my back pocket, ready to present at the slightest notice. But the place was closed at that early hour. It was called the Columbia Buffet. I pushed my nose against the window and looked inside. The chairs were piled upon the tables, and an old man in rubber boots was swabbing the floor. I walked down the street a block or two, the wet air already bluish from monoxide gas. A fine idea came into my head. I took out the magazine and erased the autograph. In its place I wrote, "To a Mayan Princess, from a worthless Gringo." This seemed right, exactly the correct spirit. I walked back to the Columbia Buffet and pounded the front window. The old man opened the door with wet hands, sweat seeping from his hair.

I said, "What's the name of that girl who works here?"

"You mean Camilla?"

"The one who worked here last night."

"That's her," he said. "Camilla Lopez."

"Will you give this to her?" I said. "Just give it to her. Tell her a fellow came by and said for you to give it to her."

He wiped his dripping hands on his apron and took the magazine. "Take good care of it," I said. "It's valuable."

The old man closed the door. Through the glass I saw him limp back to his mop and bucket. He placed the magazine on the bar and resumed his work. A little breeze flipped the pages of the magazine. As I walked away I was afraid he would forget all about it. When I reached the Civic Center I realized I had made a bad mistake: the inscription on the story would never impress that kind of a girl. I hurried back to the Columbia Buffet and banged the window with my knuckles. I heard the old man grumbling and swearing as he fumbled with the lock. He wiped the sweat from his old eyes and saw me again.

"Could I have that magazine?" I said. "I want to write something in it."

The old man couldn't understand any of this. He shook his head with a sigh and told me to come inside. "Go get it yourself, goddamnit," he said. "I got work to do."

I flattened the magazine on the bar and erased the inscription to the Mayan Princess. In place of it I wrote:

Dear Ragged Shoes,
You may not know it, but last night you insulted the author of this story. Can you read? If so, invest fifteen minutes of your time and treat yourself to a masterpiece. And next time, be careful. Not everyone who comes into this dive is a bum.

Arturo Bandini

I handed the magazine to the old man, but he did not lift his eyes from his work. "Give this to Miss Lopez," I said. "And see to it that she gets it personally."

The old man dropped the mop handle, smeared the sweat from his wrinkled face, and pointed at the front door. "You get out of here!" he said.

I laid the magazine on the bar again and strolled away leisurely. At the door I turned and waved.



Chapter Five

I wasn't starving. I still had some old oranges under the bed. That night I ate three or four and with the darkness I walked down Bunker Hill to the downtown district. Across the street from the Columbia Buffet I stood in a shadowed doorway and watched Camilla Lopez. She was the same, dressed in the same white smock. I trembled when I saw her and a strange hot feeling was in my throat. But after a few minutes the strangeness was gone and I stood in the darkness until my feet ached.

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.

I couldn't eat any oranges the next morning. The thought of them made me wince. By noon, after an aimless walk downtown, I was sick with self-pity, unable to control my grief. When I got back to my room I threw myself on the bed and wept from deep inside my chest. I let it flow from every part of me, and after I could not cry anymore I felt fine again. I felt truthful and clean. I sat down and wrote my mother an honest letter. I told her I had been lying to her for weeks; and please send some money, because I wanted to come home.

As I wrote Hellfrick entered. He was wearing pants and no bathrobe, and at first I didn't recognize him. Without a word he put fifteen cents on the table. "I'm an honest man, kid," he said. "I'm as honest as the day is long." And he walked out.

I brushed the coins into my hand, jumped out the window and ran down the street to the grocery store. The little Japanese had his sack ready at the orange bin. He was amazed to see me pass him by and enter the staples department. I bought two dozen cookies. Sitting on the bed I swallowed them as fast as I could, washing them down with gulps of water. I felt fine again. My stomach was full, and I still had a nickel left. I tore up the letter to my mother and lay down to wait for the night. That nickel meant I could go back to the Columbia Buffet. I waited, heavy with food, heavy with desire.



She saw me as I entered. She was glad to see me; I knew she was, because I could tell by the way her eyes widened. Her face brightened and that tight feeling caught my throat. All at once I was so happy, sure of myself, clean and conscious of my youth. I sat at that same first table. 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.

She did not venture near my table, but I was glad. Don't come right away, Camilla; let me sit here awhile and accustom myself to this rare excitement; leave me alone while my mind travels the infinite loveliness of your splendid glory; just leave awhile to myself, to hunger and dream with eyes awake.

She came finally, carrying a cup of coffee in her tray. The same coffee, the same chipped, brownish mug. She came with her eyes blacker and wider than ever, walking toward me on soft feet, smiling mysteriously, until I thought I would faint from the pounding of my heart. As she stood beside me, I sensed the slight odor of her perspiration mingled with the tart cleanliness of her starched smock. It overwhelmed me, made me stupid, and I breathed through my lips to avoid it. She smiled to let me know she did not object to the spilled coffee of the other evening; more than that, I seemed to feel she had rather liked the whole thing, she was glad about it, grateful for it.

"I didn't know you had freckles," she said.

"They don't mean anything," I said.

"I'm sorry about the coffee," she said. "Everybody orders beer. We don't get many calls for coffee."

"That's exactly why you don't get many calls for it. Because it's so lousy. I'd drink beer too, if I could afford it."

She pointed at my hand with a pencil. "You bite your fingernails," she said. "You shouldn't do that."

I shoved my hands in my pockets.

"Who are you to tell me what to do?"

"Do you want some beer?" she said. "I'll get you some. You don't have to pay for it."

"You don't have to get me anything. I'll drink this alleged coffee and get out of here."

She walked to the bar and ordered a beer. I watched her pay for it from a handful of coins she dug out of her smock. She carried the beer to me and placed it under my nose. It hurt me.

"Take it away," I said. "Get it out of here. I want coffee, not beer."

Someone in the rear called her name and she hurried away. The backs of her knees appeared as she bent over the table and gathered empty beer mugs. I moved in my chair, my feet kicking something under the table. It was a spittoon. She was at the bar again, nodding at me, smiling, making a motion indicating I should drink the beer. I felt devilish, vicious. I got her attention and poured the beer into the spittoon. Her white teeth took hold of her lower lip and her face lost blood. Her eyes blazed. A pleasantness pervaded me, a satisfaction. I sat back and smiled to the ceiling.

She disappeared behind a thin partition which served as a kitchen. She reappeared, smiling. Her hands were behind her back, concealing something. Now the old man I had seen that morning stepped from behind the partition. He grinned expectantly. Camilla waved to me. The worst was about to happen: I could feel it coming. From behind her back she revealed the little magazine containing The Little Dog Laughed. She waved it in the air, but she was out of view, and her performance was only for the old man and myself. He watched with big eyes. My mouth went dry as I saw her wet fingers and flip the pages to the place where the story was printed. Her lips twisted as she clamped the magazine between her knees and ripped away the pages. She held them over her head, waving them and smiling. The old man shook his head approvingly. The smile on her face changed to determination as she tore the pages into little pieces, and these into smaller pieces. With a gesture of finality, she let the pieces fall through her fingers and trickle to the spittoon at her feet. I tried to smile. She slapped her hands together with an air of boredom, like one slapping the dust from her palms. Then she put one hand on her hip, tilted her shoulder, and swaggered away. The old man stood there for some time. Only he had seen her. Now that the show was over, he disappeared behind the partition.

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.

After a while I pushed back my chair and got up to leave. Standing at the bar, she watched me go. There was pity for me upon her face, a tiny smile of regret for what she had done, but I kept my eyes away from her and walked into the street, glad for the hideous din of street cars and the queer noises of the city pounding my ears and burying me in an avalanche of banging and screeching. I put my hands in my pockets and slumped away.

Fifty feet from the saloon I heard someone calling. I turned around. It was she, running on soft feet, coins jingling in her pockets. "Young fellow!" she called. "Oh kid!"

I waited and she came out of breath, speaking quickly and softly. "I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't mean anything - honest."

"It's okay," I said. "I didn't mind."

She kept glancing toward the saloon. "I have to get back," she said. "They'll miss me. Come back tomorrow night, will you? Please! I can be nice. I'm awfully sorry about tonight. Please come, please!" She squeezed my arm. "Will you come?"

"Maybe."

She smiled. "Forgive me?"

"Sure."

I stood in the middle of the sidewalk and watched her hurry back. After a few steps she turned, blew a kiss and called, "Tomorrow night. Don't forget!"

"Camilla!" I said. "Wait. Just a minute!"

We ran toward each other, meeting halfway.

"Hurry!" she said. "They'll fire me."

I glanced at her feet. She sensed it coming and I felt her recoiling from me. Now a good feeling rushed through me, a coolness, a newness like new skin. I spoke slowly.

"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?"

She looked at me in horror, her lips open. Clasping both hands against her mouth, she rushed inside the saloon. I heard her moaning. "Oh, oh, oh."

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!

1939


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