They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (2 page)

BOOK: They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
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Neither of us said anything for a couple of seconds.

‘A girl friend of mine has been trying to get me to enter a marathon dance down at the beach,’ she said. ‘Free food and free bed as long as you last and a thousand dollars if you win.’

‘The free food part of it sounds good,’ I said.

‘That’s not the big thing,’ she said. ‘A lot of producers and directors go to those marathon dances. There’s always the chance they might pick you out and give you a part in a picture …What do you say?’

‘Me?’ I said … ‘Oh, I don’t dance very well …’

‘You don’t have to. All you have to do is keep moving.’

‘I don’t think I better try it,’ I said. ‘I been pretty sick. I just got over the intestinal flu. I almost died. I was so weak I used to have to crawl to the john on my hands and knees. I don’t think I better try it,’ I said, shaking my head.

‘When was all this?’

‘A week ago,’ I said.

‘You’re all right now,’ she said.

‘I don’t think so—I better not try it, I’m liable to have a relapse.’

‘I’ll take care of that,’ she said.

‘ … Maybe in a week—’ I said.

‘It’ll be too late then. You’re strong enough now,’ she said …

… it is the judgment and sentence of this court …

chapter four

T
HE MARATHON DANCE WAS
held on the amusement pier at the beach in an enormous old building that once had been a public dance hall. It was built out over the ocean on pilings, and beneath our feet, beneath the floor, the ocean pounded night and day. I could feel it surging through the balls of my feet, as if they had been stethoscopes.

Inside was a dance space for the contestants, thirty feet wide and two hundred feet long, and around this on three sides were loge seats, behind these were the circus seats, the general admission. At the end of the dance space was a raised platform for the orchestra. It played only at night and was not a very good orchestra. During the day we had what music we could pick up with the radio, made loud by amplifiers. Most of the time it was too loud, filling the hall with noise. We had a master of ceremonies, whose duty it was to make the customers feel at home; two floor judges who moved around the floor all the time with the contestants to see that everything went all right, two male and female nurses, and a house doctor for emergencies. The doctor didn’t look like a doctor at all. He was much too young.

One hundred and forty-four couples entered the marathon dance but sixty-one dropped out for the first week. The rules were you danced for an hour and fifty minutes, then you had a ten-minute rest period in which you could sleep if you wanted to. But in those ten minutes you also had to shave or bathe or get your feet fixed or whatever was necessary.

The first week was the hardest. Everybody’s feet and legs swelled and down beneath the ocean kept pounding, pounding against the pilings all the time. Before I went into this marathon dance I used to love the Pacific Ocean: its name, its size, its colour, its smell—I used to sit for hours looking at it, wondering about the ships that had sailed it and never returned, about China and the South Seas, wondering all sorts of things …But not any more. I’ve had enough of the Pacific. I don’t care whether I ever see it again or not.
I probably won’t. The judge is going to take care of that.

Gloria and I had been tipped off by some old-timers that the way to beat a marathon dance was to perfect a system for those ten-minute rest periods: learning to eat your sandwich while you shaved, learning to eat when you went to the john, when you had your feet fixed, learning to read newspapers while you danced, learning to sleep on your partner’s shoulder while you were dancing; but these were all tricks of the trade you had to practise. They were very difficult for Gloria and me at first.

I found out that about half of the people in this contest were professionals. They made a business of going in marathon dances all over the country, some of them even hitchhiking from town to town. The others were just girls and boys who came in like Gloria and me.

Couple No. 13 were our best friends in the dance. This was James and Ruby Bates, from some little town in northern Pennsylvania. It was their eighth marathon dance; they had won a $1,500 prize in Oklahoma, going 1,253 hours in continuous motion. There were several other teams in this dance who claimed championships of some kind, but I knew James and Ruby would be right in there for the finish. That is, if Ruby’s baby didn’t come first. She expected a baby in four months.

‘What’s the matter with Gloria?’ James asked me one day as we came back to the floor from the sleeping quarters.

‘Nothing. What do you mean?’ I asked. But I knew what he meant. Gloria had been singing the blues again.

‘She keeps telling Ruby what a chump she would be to have the baby,’ he said. ‘Gloria wants her to have an abortion.’

‘I can’t understand Gloria talking like that,’ I said, trying to smooth things over.

‘You tell her to lay off Ruby,’ he said.

When the whistle started us off on the 216th hour I told Gloria what James had said.

‘Nuts to him,’ she said. ‘What does he know about it?’

‘I don’t see why they can’t have a baby if they want to. It’s their business,’ I said. ‘I don’t want to make James sore. He’s been through a lot of these dances and he’s already given us some good tips. Where would we be if he got sore?’

‘It’s a shame for that girl to have a baby,’ Gloria said. ‘What’s the sense of having a baby unless you got dough enough to take care of it?’

‘How do you know they haven’t?’ I asked.

‘If they have what’re they doing here? …That’s the trouble now,’ she said. ‘Everybody is having babies—’

‘Oh, not everybody,’ I said.

‘A hell of a lot you know about it. You’d been better off if you’d never been born—’

‘Maybe not,’ I said. ‘How do you feel?’ I asked, trying to get her mind off her troubles.

‘I always feel lousy,’ she said. ‘God, the hand on the clock moves slow.’ There was a big strip of canvas on the master of ceremonies’ platform, painted in the shape of a clock, up to 2,500 hours. The hand now pointed to 216. Above it was a sign:
ELAPSED HOURS—
216.
COUPLES REMAINING—
83.

‘How are your legs?’

‘Still pretty weak,’ I said. ‘That flu is awful stuff.’

‘Some of the girls think it’ll take 2,000 hours to win,’ Gloria said.

‘I hope not,’ I said. ‘I don’t believe I can hold out that long.’

‘My shoes are wearing out,’ Gloria said. ‘If we don’t hurry up and get a sponsor I’ll be barefooted.’ A sponsor was a company or a firm that gave you sweaters and advertised their names or products on the backs. Then they took care of your necessities.

James and Ruby danced over beside us. ‘Did you tell her?’ he asked, looking at me. I nodded.

‘Wait a minute,’ Gloria said, as they started to dance away. ‘What’s the big idea of talking behind my back?’

‘Tell that twist to lay off me,’ James said, still speaking directly to me.

Gloria started to say something else but before she could get it out I danced her away from there. I didn’t want any scenes.

‘The son of a bitch,’ she said.

‘He’s sore,’ I said. ‘Now where are we?’

‘Come on,’ she said, ‘I’ll tell him where he gets off—’

‘Gloria,’ I said, ‘will you please mind your own business?’

‘Soft pedal that loud cussing,’ a voice said. I looked around. It was Rollo Peters, the floor judge.

‘Nuts to you,’ Gloria said. Through my fingers I could feel the muscles twitching in her back, just like I could feel the ocean surging through the balls of my feet.

‘Pipe down,’ Rollo said. ‘The people in the box can hear you. What do you think this is a joint?’

‘Joint is right,’ Gloria said.

‘All right, all right,’ I said.

‘I told you once already about the cussing,’ Rollo said. ‘I better not have to tell you again. It sounds bad to the customers.’

‘Customers? Where are they?’ Gloria said.

‘You let us worry about that,’ Rollo said, glaring at me.

‘All right, all right,’ I said.

He blew his whistle, stopping everybody from moving. Some of them were barely moving, just enough to keep from being disqualified. ‘All right, kids,’ he said, ‘a little sprint.’

‘A little sprint, kids,’ the master of ceremonies, Rocky Gravo, said into the microphone. The noise of his voice in the amplifiers filled the hall, shutting out the pounding of the ocean. ‘A little sprint around the track you go—Give,’ he said to the orchestra, and the orchestra began playing. The contestants started dancing with a little more animation.

The sprint lasted about two minutes and when it was finished Rocky led the applause, and then said into the microphone:

‘Look at these kids, ladies and gentlemen after 216 hours they are as fresh as a daisy in the world’s championship marathon dance a contest of endurance and skill. These kids are fed seven times a day—three big meals and four light lunches. Some of them have even gained weight while in the contest—and we have doctors and nurses constantly in attendance to see that they are in the best of physical condition. Now I’m going to call on Couple No. 4, Mario Petrone and Jackie Miller, for a specialty. Come on, Couple No. 4 there they are, ladies and gentlemen. Isn’t that a cute pair? …’

Mario Petrone, a husky Italian, and Jackie Miller, a little blonde, went up to the platform to some applause. They spoke to Rocky and then began a tap dance that was very bad. Neither Mario nor Jackie seemed conscious that it was bad. When it was over a few people pitched money onto the floor.

‘Give, people,’ Rocky said. ‘A silver shower. Give.’

A few more coins hit the floor. Mario and Jackie picked them up, moving over near us.

‘How much?’ Gloria asked them.

‘Feels like about six-bits,’ Jackie said.

‘Where you from, kid?’ Gloria asked.

‘Alabama.’

‘I thought so,’ Gloria said.

‘You and I ought to learn a specialty,’ I said to Gloria. ‘We could make some extra money.’

‘You’re better off without knowing any,’ Mario said. ‘It only means extra work and it don’t do your legs any good.’

‘Did you all hear about the derbies?’ Jackie asked.

‘What are they?’ I asked.

‘Some kind of a race,’ she said. ‘I think they’re going to explain them at the next rest period.’

‘The cheese is beginning to bind,’ Gloria said.

… that for the crime of murder in the first degree

chapter five

I
N THE DRESSING ROOM
Rocky Gravo introduced Vincent (Socks) Donald, one of the promoters.

‘Lissen, kids,’ Socks said, ‘don’t none of you be discouraged because people ain’t coming to the marathon dance. It takes time to get these things going, so we have decided to start a little novelty guaranteed to pack ’em in. Now here’s what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna have a derby race every night. We’re going to paint an oval on the floor and every night everybody will race around the track for fifteen minutes and the last couple every night is disqualified. I guarantee that’ll bring in the crowds.’

‘It’ll bring in the undertaker, too,’ somebody said.

‘We’ll move some cots out in the middle of the track,’ the promoter said, ‘and have the doctor and nurses on hand during the derby. When a contestant falls out and has to go to the pit, the partner will have to make two laps to make up for it. You kids will get more kick out of it because the crowds will be bigger. Say, when that Hollywood bunch starts coming here, we’ll be standing ’em up …Now, how’s the food? Anybody got any kicks about anything? Alright, kids, that’s fine. You play ball with us and we’ll play ball with you.’

We went out to the floor. None of the contestants had anything to say about the derbies. They seemed to think that anything was a good idea if it would only start the crowds to coming. Rollo came up to me as I sat down on the railing. I had about two minutes more of rest before the next two-hour grind.

‘Don’t get me wrong about what I said a few minutes ago,’ he said. ‘It’s not you, it’s Gloria.’

‘I know,’ I said. ‘She’s all right. She’s just sore on the world, that’s all.’

‘Try to keep her piped down,’ he said.

‘That’s a hard job, but I’ll do the best I can,’ I said.

In a moment I looked up to the runway from the girls’ dressing room and I was surprised to see Gloria and Ruby coming to the floor together. I went over to meet her.

‘What do you think about the derbies?’ I asked her.

‘It’s one good way to kill us off,’ she said.

The whistle started us away again.

‘There’s not more than a hundred people here tonight,’ I said. Gloria and I weren’t dancing. I had my arm around her shoulder and she had hers around my waist, walking. That was all right. For the first week we had to dance, but after that you didn’t. All you had to do was keep moving. I saw James and Ruby coming over to us and I could tell by the expression on his face that something was wrong. I wanted to get away, but there was no place to go.

‘I told you to lay off my wife, didn’t I?’ he said to Gloria.

‘You go to hell, you big ape,’ Gloria said.

‘Wait a minute,’ I said. ‘What’s the matter?’

‘She’s been after Ruby again,’ James said. ‘Every time I turn my back she’s after her again.’

‘Forget it, Jim,’ Ruby said, trying to steer him away.

‘Naw, I won’t forget it. I told you to keep your mouth shut, didn’t I?’ he said to Gloria.

‘You take a flying—’

Before Gloria could get the words finished he slapped her hard on the side of the face, knocking her head against my shoulder. It was a hard wallop. I couldn’t stand for that. I reached up and hit him in the mouth. He hit me in the jaw with his left hand, knocking me back against some of the dancers. That kept me from falling to the floor. He rushed at me and I grabbed him, wrestling with him, trying to jerk my knee up between his legs to foul him. It was the only chance I had.

A whistle blew in my ear and somebody grabbed us. It was Rollo Peters. He shoved us apart.

‘Cut it out,’ he said. ‘What’s coming off here?’

BOOK: They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
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