Chapter no 48

East of Eden

Late in November the Nigger died and was buried in black austerity,

as her will

demanded. She lay for a day in Muller’s Funeral Chapel in an ebony and silver casket, her lean and severe profile made even more ascetic by the four large candles set at the four corners of the casket. Her little black husband crouched like a cat by her right shoulder, and for many hours he seemed as still as she. There were no flowers, as ordered, no ceremony, no sermon, and no grief. But a strange and catholic selection

of citizens tiptoed to the chapel door and peered in and went

away—lawyers and

laborers and clerks and bank tellers, most of them past middle age. Her girls came in one at a time and looked at her for decency and for luck and went away.

An institution was gone from Salinas, dark and fatal sex, as hopeless and deeply hurtful as human sacrifice. Jenny’s place would still jangle with honky-tonk and rock with belching laughter.

Kate’s would rip the nerves to a sinful ecstasy and leave a man shaken and weak and frightened at himself. But the

somber mystery of

connection that was like a voodoo offering was gone forever.

The funeral was also by order of the will, the hearse and one automobile with the small black man crouched

back in a corner. It was a gray day, and when Muller’s service had lowered the casket with oiled and silent winches the hearse drove away and the husband filled the grave himself with a new shovel. The caretaker, cutting dry weeds a hundred yards away, heard a whining carried on the wind.

Joe Valery had been

drinking a beer with Butch Beavers at the Owl, and he went with Butch to have a look at the Nigger. Butch was in a hurry because he had to go out to Natividad to auction a small herd of white-face Herefords for the Tavernettis.

Coming out

of the

mortuary, Joe found himself in step with Alf Nichelson— crazy Alf Nichelson, who was a survival from an era that

was past. Alf was a jack-of-all-trades, carpenter, tinsmith, blacksmith,


plasterer, scissors grinder, and cobbler. Alf could do anything, and as a result he

was a

financial failure

although he worked all the time. He knew everything about everybody back to the beginning of time.

In the past, in the period

of his success, two kinds of people had access to all homes and all gossip—the seamstress and the handy man. Alf could tell you about everybody on both sides of Main Street. He was a vicious male

gossip, insatiably curious and vindictive

without malice.

He looked at Joe and

tried to place him. “I know you,” he said. “Don’t tell me.”

Joe edged away. He was wary of people who knew him.

“Wait a minute. I got it. Kate’s. You work at Kate’s.” Joe sighed with relief.

He had thought Alf might have known him earlier. “That’s

right,” he said


“Never forget a face,”

said Alf. “Seen you when I built that crazy lean-to for Kate. Now why in hell did

she want that for? No window.”

“Wanted it dark,” said Joe, “Eyes bother her.”

Alf sniffed. He hardly

ever believed anything simple or good about anybody. You could say good morning to Alf and he’d work it around to a password. He was convinced that everyone lived secretly and that only he could see through them.

He jerked his head back at Muller’s. “Well, it’s a

milestone,” he said. “Nearly all the old-timers gone. When Fartin’ Jenny goes that’ll be the end. And Jenny’s getting along.”

Joe was restless. He

wanted to get away—and Alf

knew he did. Alf was an expert in people who wanted to get away from him. Come to think of it, maybe that is why he carried his bag of stories. No one really went away when he could hear some

juicy stuff about

someone. Everybody is a gossip at heart. Alf was not liked for his gift but he was listened to. And he knew that Joe was on the point of making an excuse and getting out. It occurred to. him that he didn’t know much about Kate’s place lately. Joe might trade him some new stuff for some old stuff. “The old days

was pretty good,” he said. “ ‘Course you’re just a kid.” “I got to meet a fella,”

said Joe.

Alf pretended not to hear him. “You take Faye,” he said. “She was a case,” and, parenthetically, “You know Faye

run Kate’s place.

Nobody really knows how Kate come to own it. It was pretty mysterious, and there was some that had their suspicions.” He saw with satisfaction that the fella Joe was going to meet would wait a long time.

“What was


suspicious about?” Joe asked. “Hell, you know how

people talk. Probably nothing in it. But I got to admit it looked kind of funny.”

“Like to have a beer?” Joe asked.

“Now you got something there,” said Alf. “They say a fella jumps from a funeral to the bedroom. I ain’t as young as I was. Funeral makes me thirsty. The Nigger was quite a citizen. I could tell you stuff about her. I’ve knew her for thirty-five—no, thirty-seven years.”

“Who was Faye?” Joe asked.

They went into Mr. Griffin’s saloon. Mr. Griffin

didn’t like anything about liquor, and he hated drunks with a deadly scorn. He owned and operated Griffin’s Saloon on Main Street, and on a Saturday night he might refuse to serve twenty men he thought had had enough. The result was that he got the best trade in his cool, orderly, quiet place. It was a saloon in which to make deals and to talk

quietly without interruption.

Joe and Alf sat at the round table at the back and had three beers apiece. Joe learned everything true and untrue,


and unfounded, every


conjecture. Out of it he got complete confusion but a few ideas. Something might have been not exactly on the level about the death of Faye. Kate might be the wife of Adam Trask. He hid that quickly— Trask might want to pay off. The Faye thing might be too hot to touch. Joe had to think about that—alone.

At the end of a couple of hours Alf was restive. Joe had not played ball. He had traded nothing, not one single piece of information or guess. Alf found himself thinking, Fella that close-mouthed must have

something to hide. Wonder

who would have a line on him?

Alf said finally,

“Understand, I like Kate. She gives me a job now and then and she’s generous and quick to pay. Probably nothing to all the palaver about her. Still, when you think of it, she’s a pretty cold piece of woman.

She’s got a real bad eye. You think?”

“I get along fine,” said Joe.

Alf was angry at Joe’s perfidy, so he put in a needle. “I had a funny idea,” he said.

“It was when I built that lean-to without no window. She laid that cold eye on me one

day and the idea come to me. If she knew all the things I heard, and she was to offer me a drink or even a cupcake

—why, I’d say, ‘No thank you, ma’am,’ ”

“Me and her get along

just fine,” said Joe. “I got to meet a guy.”

Joe went to his room to think. He was uneasy. He jumped up and looked in his suitcase and opened all the bureau drawers. He thought somebody had been going through his things. Just came to him. There was nothing to

find. It made him nervous. He tried to arrange the things he had heard.

There was a tap on the

door and Thelma came in, her

eyes swollen and her nose red. “What’s got into Kate?” “She’s been sick.”

“I don’t mean that. I was in the kitchen shaking up a milkshake in a fruit jar and

she came in and worked me over.”

“Was you maybe

shaking up a little bourbon in it?”

“Hell, no. Just vanilla extract. She can’t talk like that to me.”

“She did, didn’t she?” “Well, I won’t take it.” “Oh, yes, you will,” said Joe. “Get out, Thelma!”

Thelma looked at him

out of her dark, handsome,

brooding eyes, and


regained the island of safety a woman depends on. “Joe,” she asked, “are you really just pure son of a bitch or do you just pretend to be?”

“What do you care?” Joe asked.

“I don’t,” said Thelma. “You son of a bitch.”


Joe planned to move slowly, cautiously, and only after long consideration. “I got the breaks, I got to use ’em right,” he told himself.

He went in to get his

evening orders and took them from the back of Kate’s head.

She was at her desk, green eyeshade low, and she did not look around at him. She finished her terse orders and then went on, “Joe, I wonder if you’ve been attending to business. I’ve been sick. But I’m well again or very nearly well.”

“Something wrong?” “Just a symptom. I’d

rather Thelma drank whisky than vanilla extract, and I don’t want her to drink whisky. I think you’ve been slipping.”

His mind scurried for a hiding place. “Well, I been busy,” he said.


“Sure. Doing that stuff for you.”

“What stuff?” “You know—about Ethel.”

“Forget Ethel!” “Okay,” said Joe. And then it came without his

expecting it. “I met a fella yesterday said he seen her.”

If Joe had not known her

he would not have given the little pause, the rigid ten seconds of silence, its due.

At the end of it Kate asked softly, “Where?” “Here.”

She turned her swivel chair slowly around to face

him. “I shouldn’t have let you work in the dark, Joe. It’s hard to confess a fault but I owe it to you. I don’t have to

remind you I got Ethel floated out of the county. I thought she’d done something to me.” A melancholy came into her voice. “I was wrong. I found out later. It’s been working

on me ever since. She didn’t do anything to me. I want to find her and make it up to her. I guess you think it’s strange for me to feel that way.”

“No, ma’am.”

“Find her for me, Joe.

I’ll feel better when I’ve made it up to her—the poor old girl.”

“I’ll try, ma’am.” “And, Joe—if you need

any money, let me know. And if you find her, just tell her what I said. If she doesn’t

want to come here, find out where I can telephone her. Need any money?”

“Not right now, ma’am.

But I’ll have to go out of the house more than I ought.” “You go ahead. That’s

all, Joe.” He wanted to


himself. In the hall he gripped his elbows and let his joy run through him. And he began to believe he had planned the whole thing. He went through the darkened parlor with its low early evening spatter of conversation.

He stepped

outside and looked up at the stars swimming in schools through


wind-driven clouds.

Joe thought of


bumbling father—because he remembered something the old man had told him. “Look out for a soup carrier,” Joe’s father had said. “Take one of them dames that’s always carrying soup to somebody— she wants something, and don’t you forget it.”

Joe said under


breath, “A soup carrier. I thought she was smarter than that.” He went over her tone and words to make sure he hadn’t missed something. No

—a soup carrier. And he thought of Alf saying, “If she was to offer a drink or even a cupcake—”


Kate sat at her desk. She could hear the wind in the tall privet in the yard, and the wind and the darkness were full of Ethel—fat, sloppy Ethel oozing near like a jellyfish. A dull weariness came over her.

She went into the lean-to, the gray room, and closed the door and sat in the

darkness, listening to the pain

creep back into her fingers.

Her temples beat with

pounding blood. She felt for the capsule hanging in its tube on the chain around her neck, she rubbed the metal tube, warm from her breast, against her cheek, and her courage came back. She washed her face and put on make-up, combed and puffed her

hair in

a loose

pompadour. She moved into the hall and at the door of the parlor she paused, as always,


To the right of the door two girls and a man were talking. As soon as Kate stepped

inside the talk

stopped instantly. Kate said, “Helen, I want to see you if you aren’t busy right now.”

The girl followed her down the hall and into her

room. She was a pale blond with a skin like clean and polished bone. “Is something the matter, Miss Kate?” she asked fearfully.

“Sit down. No.

Nothing’s the matter. You

went to the Nigger’s funeral.” “Didn’t you want me


“I don’t care about that. You went.”

“Yes, ma’am.” “Tell me about it.” “What about it?” “Tell me what you

remember—how it was.” Helen said nervously, “Well, it was kind of awful and—kind of beautiful.” “How do you mean?”


don’t know.


flowers, no nothing, but there was—there was a—well, a kind of—dignity. The Nigger was just laying there in a

black wood coffin with the biggest

goddam silver

handles. Made you feel—I can’t say it. I don’t know how to say it.”

“Maybe you said it. What did she wear?” “Wear, ma’am?” “Yes—wear.


didn’t bury her naked, did they?”

A struggle of effort

crossed Helen’s face. “I don’t know,” she said at last. “I don’t remember.”

“Did you go to the cemetery?”

“No, ma’am. Nobody did—except him.”


“Her man.”

Kate said


almost too quickly, “Have you

got any

regulars tonight?”

“No, ma’am. Day before Thanksgiving. Bound to be slow.”


forgotten,” said

Kate. “Get back out.” She watched the girl out of the room and moved restlessly back to her desk. And as she looked at an itemized bill for

plumbing her

left hand

strayed to her neck and touched the chain. It was comfort and reassurance

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