When I got back to Los Angeles I found a cheap hotel just off Hoover Street and stayed in bed and drank. I drank for some time, three or four days. I couldn't get myself to read the want ads. The thought of sitting in front of a man behind a desk and telling him that I wanted a job, that I was qualified for a job, was too much for me. Frankly, I was horrified by life, at what a man had to do simply in order to eat, sleep, and keep himself clothed. So I stayed in bed and drank. When you drank the world was still out there, but for the moment it didn't have you by the throat.
I got out of bed one night, dressed and walked up town. I found myself on Alvarado Street. I walked along until I came to an inviting bar and went in. It was crowded. There was only one seat left at the bar. I sat in it. I ordered a scotch and water. To my right sat a rather dark blonde, gone a bit to fat, neck and cheeks now flabby, obviously a drunk; but there was a certain lingering beauty to her features, and her body still looked firm and young and well-shaped. In fact, her legs were long and lovely. When the lady finished her drink I asked her if she wanted another. She said yes. I bought her one.
"Buncha damn fools in here," she said.
"Everywhere, but especially in here," I said.
I paid for three or four more rounds. We didn't speak.
Then I told the lady, "That drink was it. I'm broke."
"Are you serious?"
"Do you have a place to stay?"
"An apartment, two or three days left on the rent."
"And you don't have any money? Or anything to drink?"
"Come with me."
I followed her out of the bar. I noticed that she had a very nice behind. I walked with her to the nearest liquor store. She told the clerk what she wanted: two fifths of Grandad, a sixpack of beer, two packs of cigarettes, some chips, some mixed nuts, some alka-seltzer, a good cigar. The clerk tabbed it up. "Charge it," she said, "to Wilbur Oxnard." "Wait," he said, "I'll have to phone." The clerk dialed a number and spoke over the phone. Then he hung up. "It's all right," he said. I helped her with her bags and we walked out.
"Where are we going with this stuff?"
"To your place. Do you have a car?"
I took her to my car. I had bought one off a lot in Compton for thirty-five dollars. It had broken springs and a leaking radiator, but it ran.
We got to my place and I put the stuff in the refrigerator, poured two drinks, brought them out, sat down and lit my cigar. She sat on the couch across from me, her legs crossed. She had on green earrings. "Swell," she said.
"You think you're Swell, you think you're Hot Shit!"
"Yes, you do. I can tell by the way you act. I still like you. I liked you right off."
"Pull your dress a little higher."
"You like legs?"
"Yeh. Pull your dress a little higher."
"Oh, Jesus, now higher, higher yet!"
"Listen, you're not some kind of nut, are you? There's one guy been bothering the girls, he picks them up, then takes them to his place, strips them down and cuts crossword puzzles into their bodies with a pen knife."
"I'm not him."
"Then there are guys who fuck you and then chop you up into little pieces. They find part of your asshole stuffed up a drainpipe in Playa Del Rey and your left tit in a trashcan down at Oceanside..."
"I stopped doing that years ago. Lift your skirt higher."
She hiked her skirt higher. It was like the beginning of life and laughter, it was the real meaning of the sun. I walked over, sat on the couch next to her and kissed her. Then I got up, poured two more drinks and tuned the radio in to KFAC. We caught the beginning of something by Debussy.
"You like that kind of music?" she asked.
Some time during the night as we were talking I fell off the couch. I lay on the floor and looked up those beautiful legs. "Baby," I said, "I'm a genius but nobody knows it but me."
She looked down at me. "Get up off the floor you damn fool and get me a drink."
I brought her drink and curled up next to her. I did feel foolish. Later we got into bed. The lights were off and I got on top of her. I stroked once or twice, stopped. "What's your name, anyhow?"
"What the hell difference does it make?" she answered.
Her name was Laura. It was 2 o'clock in the afternoon and I walked along the path behind the furniture shop on Alvarado Street. I had my suitcase with me. There was a large white house back there, wooden, two stories, old, the white paint peeling. "Now stay back from the door," she said. "There's a mirror halfway up the stairs that allows him to see who's at the door."
Laura stood there ringing the bell while I hid to the right of the door. "Let him just see me, and when the buzzer sounds, I'll push the door open and you follow me in."
The buzzer rang and Laura pushed the door open. I followed her in, leaving my suitcase at the bottom of the stairs. Wilbur Oxnard stood at the top of the stairway and Laura ran up to him. Wilbur was an old guy, grey-haired, with one arm. "Baby, so _good_ to see you!" Wilbur put his one arm around Laura and kissed her. When they separated he saw me.
"Who's that guy?"
"Oh, Willie, I want you to meet a friend of mine."
"Hi," I said.
Wilbur didn't answer me. "Wilbur Oxnard, Henry Chinaski," Laura introduced us. "Good to know you, Wilbur," I said.
Wilbur still didn't answer. Finally he said, "Well, come on up."
I followed Wilbur and Laura across the front room. There were coins all over the floor, nickels, dimes, quarters, halves. An electric organ sat in the very center of the room. I followed them into the kitchen where we sat down at the breakfastnook table. Laura introduced me to the two women who sat there. "Henry, this is Grace and this is Jerry. Girls, this is Henry Chinaski."
"Hello, there," said Grace.
"How are you doing?" asked Jerry.
"My pleasure, ladies."
They were drinking whiskey with beer chasers. A bowl was in the center of the table filled with black and green olives, chili peppers, and celery hearts. I reached out and got a chili pepper. "Help yourself," Wilbur said, waving toward the whiskey bottle. He'd already put a beer down in front of me. I poured a drink.
"What do you do?" asked Wilbur.
"He's a writer," said Laura. "He's been printed in the magazines."
"Are you a writer?" Wilbur asked me.
"I need a writer. Are you a good one?"
"Every writer thinks he's a good one."
"I need somebody to do the libretto for an opera I've written. It's called 'The Emperor of San Francisco.' Did you know there was once a guy who wanted to be the Emperor of San Francisco?"
"No, no, I didn't."
"It's very interesting. I'll give you a book on it."
We sat quietly a while, drinking. All the girls were in their mid-thirties, attractive and very sexy, and they knew it.
"How do you like the curtains?" he asked me. "The girls made these curtains for me. The girls have a lot of talent."
I looked at the curtains. They were sickening. Huge red strawberries all over them, surrounded by dripping stems.
"I like the curtains," I told him.
Wilbur got out some more beer and we all had more drinks from the whiskey bottle. "Don't worry," said Wilbur, "there's another bottle when this one's gone."
He looked at me. "My arm's getting stiff." He lifted his arm and moved his fingers. "I can hardly move my fingers, I think I'm going to die. The doctors can't figure out what's wrong. The girls think I'm kidding, the girls laugh at me."
"I don't think you're kidding," I told him, "I believe you."
We had a couple of drinks more.
"I like you," said Wilbur, "you look like you've been around, you look like you've got class. Most people don't have class. You've got class."
"I don't know anything about class," I said, "but I've been around."
"Let's go into the other room. I want to play you a few choruses from the opera." "Fine," I said.
We opened a new fifth, got out some more beer, and went into the other room. "Don't you want me to make you some soup, Wilbur?" asked Grace.
"Who ever heard of eating soup at the organ?" he answered.
We all laughed. We all liked Wilbur.
About the book:
Henry Chinaski, an outcast, a loner and a miserable drunk, drifts around America from one dead-end job to another, from one woman to another, and from one bottle to the next.
Uncompromising, hilariously gritty, and peppered with black humour, Factotum is every bit as entertaining as Buk's bestselling Post Office.
Snippet from All Our Names
- Dinaw Mengestu
Snippet from All the Light We Cannot See
- Anthony Doerr