ButterIt was just a few days ago that Olga got out of the hospital where she had her tubes burned out and lost a little excess weight. However she doesn't look as if she had gone through much suffering. She weighs almost as much as a camel-backed locomotive; she drips with perspiration, has halitosis, and still wears her Circassian wig that looks like excelsior. She has two big warts on her chin from which there sprouts a clump of little hairs, she is growing a mustache.
The day after Olga was released from the hospital she commenced making shoes again. At six in the morning she is at her bench; she knocks out two pairs of shoes a day. Eugene complains that Olga is a burden, but the truth is that Olga is supporting Eugene and his wife with her two pairs of shoes a day. If Olga doesn't work there is no food. So everyone endeavors to pull Olga to bed on time, to give her enough food to keep going, etc.
Every meal starts off with soup. Whether it be onion soup, tomato soup, vegetable soup, or what not, the soup always tastes the same. Mostly it tastes as if a dish rag had been stewed in it --- slightly sour, mildewed, scummy. I see Eugene hiding it away in the commode after the meal. It stays there, rotting away, until the next meal. The butter, too, is hidden away in the commode; after three days it tastes like the big toe of a cadaver.
The smell of rancid butter frying is not particularly appetizing, especially when the cooking is done in a room in which there is not the slightest form of ventilation. No sooner than I open the door I feel ill. But Eugene, as soon as he hears me coming, usually opens the shutters and pulls back the bedsheet which is strung up like a fishnet to keep out the sunlight. Poor Eugene! He looks about the room at the few sticks of furniture, at the dirty bed sheets and the wash basin with the dirty water still in it, and he says: "I am a slave!" Every day he says it, not once, but a dozen times. And then he takes his guitar from the wall and sings.
But about the smell of rancid butter There are good associations too. When I think of this rancid butter I see mvself standing in a little, old-world courtyard, a very smelly, very dreary courtyard. Through the cracks in the shutters strange figures peer out at me old women with shawls, dwarfs, rat-faced pimps, bent Jews, midinettes, bearded idots. They totter out into the courtyard to draw water or to rinse the slop palls.
One day Eugene asked me if I would empty the pail for him. I took it to the corner of the yard. There was a hole in the ground and some dirty paper lying around the hole. The little well was slimy with excrement, which in English is shit. I tipped the pail and there was a foul, gurgling splash followed by another and unexpected splash. When I returned the soup was dished out. All through the meal I thought of my toothbrush --- it is getting old and the bristles get caught in my teeth.
When I sit down to eat I always sit near the window. I am afraid to sit on the other side of the table --- it is too close to the bed and the bed is crawling. I can see bloodstains on the gray sheets if I look that way, but I try not to look that way. I look out on the courtyard where they are rinsing the slop pails.
The meal is never complete without music. As soon as the cheese is passed around Eugene jumps up and reaches for the guitar which hangs over the bed. It is always the same song. He says he has fifteen or sixteen songs in his repertoire, but I have never heard more than three. His favorite is Charmant poème d'amour. It is full of angoisse and tristesse.
In the afternoon we go to the cinema which is cool and dark. Eugene sits at the piano in the big pit and I sit on a bench up front. The house is empty, but Eugene sings as if he had for audience all the crowned heads of Europe. The garden door is open and the odor of wet leaves sops in and the rain blends with Eugene's angoisse and tristesse.
At midnight, after the spectators have saturated the hall with perspiration and foul breaths, I return to sleep on a bench. The exit light, swimming in a halo of tobacco smoke, sheds a faint light on the lower corner of the asbestos curtain; I close my eyes every night on an artificial eye--- From Tropic of Cancer
by Henry Miller
© 1961, Grove Press