Read an Excerpt
The Root of His Evil
By James M. Cain
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1951 James M. Cain
All rights reserved.
IT IS HARD TO WRITE on the deck of a sloop that is anchored here, off the Bay Islands, for if a swell from the Caribbean doesn't tilt the boat so the typewriter slides off the hatch, then a Bay Islander is aboard, telling about his ancestors, how they are really English and what they are going to do if Honduras tries to collect taxes. So the interruptions are many, but I want to tell my story, partly because to me it is my story, and partly to correct false impressions. Yes, I am Carrie Selden, the Modern Cinderella, but if a girl emerges who is different from the girl the newspapers pictured, then all I can say is that the newspapers printed a great many surprising things, and if they are shown up it is no more than they deserve. My story really begins, of course, with the appearance of Grant, but perhaps I should give some of my background, for it is not true that I was raised in an orphan asylum, and was scrubbing pots in the Karb kitchen at the time I met him.
I was born in Nyack, New York, and I don't know who my parents are, that much of the story is true. Also I was taken in by the orphan asylum, but the length of time I spent there was only six months. I then was taken in by Pa and Ma Selden, before I can remember, and they are the only parents I have ever known. The reason I don't know who my parents are is that the asylum had a rule that no information about parents would be given out, as it was better that the child have an entirely fresh start when it was adopted, rather than be the child of two families, and not really know where it belonged. But by the time I was old enough to be told that I was not the child of Pa and Ma Selden, and wanted to know who I really was, the asylum was not there any more, having been torn down to make way for a box factory, and I never was able to find but two of the matrons, who did not remember me very clearly, and did not know what had become of the records. Not knowing who your parents are is a matter worth a book in itself, but I shall try not to say much about it, as I do not want to seem self-pitying. However, from my experience and certain traits of my character, I would say I must be Scotch. I am small, with yellow hair that has a touch of red in it, very large blue eyes, and a skin that has a tendency to freckle in the sun, as alas it is doing here on the sloop. My figure is very neat and pretty, and I am a little vain about it. But I am quite strong and nimble, and can do handstands and back flips, and often thought if I had to I could earn my living as an acrobat in a circus. I may as well confess that I am very careful in money matters, and always have been. From time to time certain of my friends have viewed this as a fault, and perhaps it is. But to me, money is something to be saved and used, not wasted.
I went to work when I was fifteen, that is, nearly ten years ago, because Pa Selden lost his farm to his sister, when she stood for interest on the mortgage, and while it was acceptable that Pa and Ma come to live with her, she wouldn't have me, as she had never approved of the adoption. So I had to find employment in Nyack, which presented some difficulties, as I had lived on the farm ever since I could remember, was only in the second year high school, and wasn't used to town ways. But as I have pointed out, I have always rejoiced in a strong body, and so was able to take a place as waitress in one of the hotels, although I had to misrepresent my age as eighteen. The salary was six dollars a week, but the first money I got was a dime tip. This I still have. At first I carried it tucked into a corner of my pocketbook, but now it is made into a little pendant, and hangs on a silver chain around my neck. While at the hotel, I enrolled for night classes at the high school, continuing the regular course, and graduated when I was nineteen. This was a year late, but it is not true that I write my name with a mark, as one newspaper said. I have a high school diploma.
Also, when I received my first salary at the hotel, I began a practice which I have never relaxed, which was to make a regular deposit in a savings bank. At first, I was able to spare only $1 a week, as I had to contribute to Pa and Ma Selden, since Aunt Lorna would not allow them any money for their needs. But after they died, when I had my nights free and could take extra work at the Diamond Cafe, I was able to increase my savings. And then when I came to New York and saw the night deposit boxes maintained by the banks there, I came to the resolution that has been an important part of my life: Let no working day go by which does not represent an amount saved. In New York I made my deposits nightly.
Thus it was that when I became twenty-one, I had a thoughtful day with myself, and decided that bigger things lay ahead of me than could be found in Nyack. This may sound conceited, but I had a little to go on. I had $855 saved up in the bank, representing principal and interest for six years, I had a knowledge of at least one business, and I had an education. So I began to consider New York, and after a trip down there to look around, I moved there, and two weeks later I took employment with the Karb restaurant chain, operating seventeen places in greater New York, in which I had a three-fold object. First, I wanted to enter a service big enough to hold a future by way of promotion, if I cared to remain there. Next, I wanted to save more money, in case I wanted to start a place of my own. Next, I wanted opportunity to study New York eating tastes, as well as restaurant methods, before coming to any decision at all. I had to start in one of the Brooklyn restaurants, and wait my turn for a Manhattan assignment, but I didn't have to wait long, as I agreed to transfer to the place on Lower Broadway, not regarded as very desirable. As the clientele was mostly from the Wall Street financial district, and as Wall Street is practically deserted after six o'clock, the restaurant did a luncheon business exclusively, so that the girls were only on call for four hours, hardly enough to make much. However, I made an arrangement with a cocktail bar within walking distance, near the City Hall, to work from three-thirty to six-thirty, and that way it came out very nicely. I worked from eleven to three at Karb's, and just had time to reach the Solon and change without an idle period. The pay at both places was sixty cents an hour, which came to about twenty-five dollars a week, counting occasional overtime. The tips at Karb's came to about five dollars a day, about the same at the Solon, where although the rush time was shorter the patrons were a little more generous. I got my meals, breakfast and lunch at Karb's, and dinner at the Solon. So, exclusive of subway fare, which has to be subtracted, I made about eighty-five dollars a week in addition to my meals. I debated where to live, and tried a furnished room for a few days, but there was something lonely about it, and besides I think any girl owes it to herself to live in a decent way. So I made inquiries, and finally located a hotel, the Hutton, on West 58th Street, which catered to women, and had a desirable suite which would shortly become vacant, consisting of living room, bedroom, bath and pantry, for $150 a month. I took it. Then I invited one of the girls at the restaurant, Lula Schultz, to share it with me. Yes, that is how I came to be associated with Lula Schultz, but let me say right now she was not as bad as the newspapers painted, even if she was a source of much trouble to me.
About the same time I thought it advisable to pay more attention to my dressing, and accordingly began to study the stock of the good shops, and presently bought myself two fine dresses, one for $59.50, and one for much more, more than I care to admit at the moment, but they were so becoming to me, and wore so beautifully, that I think they were worth what they cost. One was dark blue, the other dark green, and harmonious with my coloring. Miss Eubanks, the saleslady who sold me the green, made some hint about shoes, and when I drew her out, she told me that the foundation of all good dressing was fine shoes, which I never forgot. From that time on I paid money for what I put on my feet, but then again I have pretty feet.
Such was my general condition when I met Grant. I was twenty-two years old, strong, healthy and good-looking. I was saving $35.00 a week, I had ambitions for my future. Our manner of meeting was not in the least romantic, in fact the other way around. I remember the day: it was the 13th of August, two years ago, for it was the date of the big organization meeting for the Karb waitresses, as it was the only one of the big chains still unorganized, under a big op deal that had been made by one of the four Karb brothers, one of whom had once been president of some printers' union. Indeed the local we were going to form, and all the big plans for the night, were very much in the air, and the girls could hardly talk about anything else. Personally, I was not greatly excited, but I felt if a union would do us any good we might as well have one, but possibly because I took such an unbiased attitude, the other girls kept gathering around me to know what I thought. Then in the middle of the lunch rush, one of them came back with a tray, and muttered out of the side of her mouth at us as she went up to the counter, "Company spy, girls, watch your step."
"By the rail, and he's asking me plenty."
"In the brown suit?"
I looked, but what I saw certainly didn't look like a company spy. He was big, and black-haired, and shaggy, and sunburned almost the color of copper. But the rest of them knew at once what he was, and began saying what they thought of him, and then Lula Schultz, my roommate, started for him. "Who do they think they are, snooping around on us? Can't we have a union if we want to? Isn't it in the Constitution or something?"
Lula is very impulsive, that is one of her main troubles, but another girl grabbed her. "Where you going?"
"I'm going to tell the bum where he gets off."
"And tip him to what we're doing?"
"What do we care?"
"You stop that, they'll know everything."
"We going to let them get away with this?"
Then one of them shoved her against the counter. "You stay right where you are. Let Carrie talk to him."
"That's it. Carrie can handle him."
"Sure, leave it to Carrie."
I didn't see that it made much difference what he was up to, but they seemed to place some kind of reliance in me, so it was up to me. One of the girls took the ammonia and cleared two or three places in my station. I mean she wiped the tables with ammonia so the customers that were sitting there had to get up and leave, and another on duty as hostess that day, brought Grant over and sat him down, and I went and put the menu in front of him, and there we were. But if he had been inquisitive about the union, he didn't bring it up then. He seemed to be in a sulky mood, and after he studied the menu he looked up. "What in the hell is Korn on the Karb?"
"Sweet corn on the ear, sir. Would you care for some?"
"No, just asking."
"The corn all comes from our selected farms, and the contract specifies that it must be pulled the morning of delivery, and arrive by special truck. If you like the dish, you might try the Mess o' Karb Korn on the a la carte—three large ears, cooked to order and served right out of the pot. The order includes drawn butter and a Karbtassle brush. It's really quite good."
"It's a socko sales talk."
"Would you care to try it?"
"I'll try it, but no silver handles, no drawn butter, and no Karbtassle brush. Now listen to what I tell you. That corn goes in the pot in the husk. Six minutes in the pot, put it on a plate, and bring it over. Give me a double hunk of regular butter, and that's all. The idea is, I don't want you to take trouble with it. I want it as is. Do you understand me? No Karbnificence."
"Did you say—in the husk?"
"And besides it stays tender. And it stays hot. If Montezuma had 50,000 slaves to serve his table, you could certainly trust him on this."
When I went over to the counterman they gathered around me like flies. "What does he want?"
"Korn on the Karb."
"Boil three, Charlie."
"Not so fast."
I then explained how the order was to be cooked, and Charlie's eyes almost popped out. He picked up three ears in the husk and shook his head. "One for the mule, girls. This is a new one we got."
That was a big laugh, but I kept thinking it was a very peculiar way for a company spy to act. So I decided to find out what he was, but first I would have to know his name.
I filled a water glass and went up behind him. As I reached over him to set it down, I spilled a spoonful of it on his shirt, where his coat was hanging open. He jumped, but I had my napkin ready, and before he could say anything I was apologizing and wiping the water off. Then I pretended there was some on the inside of his coat, and began wiping that off. As I did so, I turned down the inside pocket, and there, sure enough, was his name, written in by his tailor. It said: Grant Harris.
I went to the pay telephone, took the receiver off the hook, and came back. "Pardon me, are you Mr. Grant Harris?"
He looked up, very surprised, and I stood right over him, looking down into his eyes so I could see everything they did. "Why yes. Harris is my name. Why?"
"They've been trying to locate you. Mr. Roberts is on the line. He wants to speak to you."
Nobody was on the line, but if he went over there and got no answer, I could pretend they must have hung up. What I wanted was to see how he reacted to that name Roberts when I spoke it that way, suddenly, because Mr. Roberts was general manager for Karb's, Inc. He didn't react at all. His face screwed up, and he looked at me as though I must be crazy. "Roberts? I don't know any Roberts."
"He's on the line."
"I don't know him, I didn't tell anybody I was coming here, so it must be some mistake."
"Do you want to talk?"
Not once did his eyes give that little flicker that a man's eyes will usually show when he is trying to hide something, so I felt all the more strongly that the girls were wrong about him. I went to the phone, pretended to hold a little conversation in case he was looking, hung up, and then went and got the corn. I put down the plate, butter, and the little platter with the three ears, still in the green husks. "May I remove the husks for you, sir?"
"No, thanks, but you can watch, so you'll know how next time."
He began stripping the corn, very neatly, as though he had done it that way often. "... Why aren't you watching?"
It came like a shot, and his eyes were drilling me through. They were big and perfectly black, but now they were hard, as I found out they could be when there was reason. "I am watching."
"Me, you're watching, not the corn. I've been keeping book on you in that mirror."
"I'm sorry if I—"
"What is this, anyway? What was that phony call?"
Now there is such a thing as knowing when to stop the fooling, and besides I couldn't help having some admiration for the way he had caught me, even if I felt very silly. "All right, I'll tell you."
"They thought you were a company spy."
"The girls. You asked some questions."
"Oh. So I did. Oh, now I begin to get it. That's why they're all watching us out of the corner of their eyes, is that it?"
"Yes. So they picked me to find out."
"I don't know. They often rely on me."
"Because you're a pretty slick little spy yourself, maybe. How did you find out my name?"
"I found out all I wanted to know."
"Anyway, that you're no company spy."
"Yes, I'm sure. I don't think you're anything, much."
I only meant to get back at him for saying I was slick, but my remark had the most unfortunate effect on him. His eyes dropped, his face got red as mahogany, and he picked up the corn and started to eat it. I waited for him to say something, but all he did was gnaw around the corn, with even his neck getting red. I went and got his salad. When I got back, he was almost through his second ear. I picked up the other ear and stripped it exactly the way he had. "Just to show you I really was paying attention."
"I never had it that way, but it looks good."
"What's your name?"
"Carrie. Carrie Selden."
"Well, Carrie, I think you're trying to be friendly, but you hit me below the belt. What made you say that? Was it just a crack, or—did you have something to go on?"
"I had to have some kind of a comeback."
"Yes, but I'm thinking of something."
"Those girls. Why did they pick you out?"
"Oh, they often do."
"Not for nothing. They thought you'd take my measure."
"They just thought I'd be careful."
He looked at me a long time, in a way that made me feel very peculiar, because to me at least there was something unusual about his eyes, something very warm and tender. Then he said: "Well, all I can say, Carrie, is that I find you very baffling."
"In what way, may I ask?"
"Everything about you seems delicate, and flowerlike, except that really you're very cold and knowing."
Excerpted from The Root of His Evil by James M. Cain. Copyright © 1951 James M. Cain. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.