Authors: Horace McCoy
‘Don’t let ’em kid you,’ Mack Aston, of Couple No. 5, said as he passed by.
‘Rocky!’ a voice called. It was Socks Donald. Rocky got down from the platform and went to him.
‘I don’t think it’s very nice of you to razz me,’ I said to Gloria. ‘I don’t ever razz you.’
‘You don’t have to,’ she said. ‘I get razzed by an expert. God razzes me …You know what Socks Donald wants with Rocky? You want some inside information?’
‘What?’ I asked.
‘You know No. 6—Freddy and that Manski girl. Her mother is going to prefer charges against him and Socks. She ran away from home.’
‘I don’t see what that’s got to do with it,’ I said.
‘She’s jail bait,’ Gloria said. ‘She’s only about fifteen. God, with all of it running around loose it does look like a guy would have better sense.’
‘Why blame Freddy? It may not be his fault.’
‘According to the law it’s his fault,’ Gloria said. ‘That’s what counts.’
I steered Gloria back to where Socks and Rocky were standing, trying to overhear what was being said; but they were talking too low. Rather, Socks was doing all the talking. Rocky was listening, nodding his head.
‘Right now,’ I heard Socks say, and Rocky nodded that he understood and came back on the floor, winking wisely to Gloria as he passed. He went to Rollo Peters and called him aside, whispering earnestly for a few seconds. Then Rollo left, looking around, as if he were trying to find somebody, and Rocky went back to the platform.
‘The kids only have a few minutes left before they retire for their well-earned rest period,’ Rocky announced into the microphone. ‘And while they are off the floor, ladies and gentlemen, the painters will paint the big oval on the floor for the derby tonight. The derby tonight, ladies and gentlemen: don’t forget the derby. Positively the most thrilling thing you ever saw—all right, kids, two minutes to go before you retire a little sprint, kids show the ladies and gentlemen how fresh you are—You, too, ladies and gentlemen, show these marvellous kids you’re behind them with a rally—’
He turned up the radio a little and began clapping his hands and stamping his foot. The audience joined in the rally. All of us stepped a little more lively, but it was not because of the rally. It was because within a minute or two we got a rest period and directly after that we were to be fed.
Gloria nudged me and I looked up to see Rollo Peters walking between Freddy and the Manski girl. I thought the Manski girl was crying, but before Gloria and I could catch up with them the siren blew and everybody made a dash for the dressing rooms.
Freddy was standing over his cot, stuffing an extra pair of shoes into a small zipper bag.
‘I heard about it,’ I said. ‘I’m very sorry.’
‘It’s all right,’ he said. ‘Only she’s the one who did the raping …I’ll be all right if I can get out of town before the cops pick me up. It’s a lucky thing for me that Socks was tipped off.’
‘Where are you going?’ I asked.
‘South, I guess. I’ve always had a yen to see Mexico. So long …’
‘So long,’ I said.
He was gone before anybody knew it. As he went through the back door I had a glimpse of the sun glinting on the ocean. For a moment I was so astounded I could not move. I do not know whether I was the more surprised at really seeing the sun for the first time in almost three weeks or discovering the door. I went over to it, hoping the sun would not be gone when I got there.
The only other time I ever was this eager was one Christmas when I was a kid
the first year I was big enough to really know what Christmas was
and I went into the front room and saw the tree all lighted up.
I opened the door. At the end of the world the sun was sinking into the ocean. It was so red and bright and hot I wondered why there was no steam.
I once saw steam come out of the ocean. It was on the highway at the beach and some men were working with gun-powder. Suddenly
setting them on fire. They ran and dived into the ocean. That was when I saw the steam.
The colour of the sun had shot up into some thin clouds, reddening them. Out there where the sun was sinking the ocean was very calm, not looking like an ocean at all. It was lovely, lovely, lovely, lovely, lovely, lovely. Several people were fishing off the pier, not paying any attention to the sunset. They were fools. ‘You need that sunset worse than you do fish,’ I told them in my mind.
The door flew out of my hands, slamming shut with a bang like that of a cannon going off.
‘Are you deaf?’ a voice yelled in my ear. It was one of the trainers. ‘Keep that door closed! You wanna be disqualified?’
‘I was only watching the sun set,’ I said.
‘Are you nuts? You ought to be asleep. You need your sleep,’ he said.
‘I don’t need any sleep,’ I said. ‘I feel fine. I feel better than I ever felt in my life.’
‘You need your rest anyway,’ he said. ‘You only got a few minutes left. Get off your feet.’
He followed me across the floor to my cot. Now I could notice the dressing room didn’t smell so good. I am very susceptible to unpleasant odours and I wondered why I hadn’t noticed this smell before, the smell of too many men in a room. I kicked off my shoes and stretched out on my back.
‘You want your legs rubbed?’ he asked.
‘I’m all right,’ I said. ‘My legs feel fine.’
He said something to himself and went away. I lay there, thinking about the sunset, trying to remember what colour it was. I don’t mean the red, I mean the other shades. Once or twice I almost remembered; it was like a man you once had known but now had forgotten, whose size and letters and cadence you remembered but could not quite assemble.
Through the legs of my cot I could feel the ocean quivering against the pilings below. It rose and fell, rose and fell, went out and came back, went out and came back …
I was glad when the siren blew, waking us up, calling us back to the floor.
… carrying with it the extreme penalty of the law …
HE PAINTERS HAD FINISHED.
They had painted a thick white line around the floor in the shape of an oval. This was the track for the derby.
‘Freddy’s gone,’ I said to Gloria, as we walked to the table where the sandwiches and coffee had been set up. (This was called a light lunch. We had our big meal at ten o’clock at night.)
‘So is the Manski girl,’ Gloria said. ‘Two welfare workers came and got her. I bet her old lady burns her cute little bottom.’
‘I hate to say it,’ I said, ‘but Freddy’s leaving was the brightest spot of my life.’
‘What had he ever done to you?’ she asked.
‘Oh, I don’t mean that,’ I said. ‘But if he hadn’t left I wouldn’t have got to see the sunset.’
‘My God,’ Gloria said, looking at her sandwich. ‘Ain’t there nothing in the world but ham?’
‘To you that’s turkey,’ said Mack Aston, who was in line behind me. He was kidding.
‘Here’s a beef,’ said the nurse. ‘Would you rather have a beef?’
Gloria took the beef sandwich, but kept the ham too. ‘Put four lumps in mine,’ she said to Rollo, who was pouring the coffee. ‘And lots of cream.’
‘She’s got a little horse in her,’ said Mack Aston.
‘Black,’ I said to Rollo.
Gloria took her food over to the master of ceremonies’ platform where the musicians were tuning up their instruments. When Rocky Gravo saw her he jumped down on the floor and began talking to her. There wasn’t room there for me, so I went around to the opposite side.
‘Hello,’ said a girl. The shield on her back said: 7. She had black hair and black eyes and was rather pretty. I didn’t know her name.
‘Hello,’ I said, looking around, trying to see whose partner she was. He was talking to a couple of women in a front row box.
‘How are you making out?’ No. 7 asked. Her voice sounded as if she had been well educated.
‘What is she doing in this thing?’ I asked myself. ‘I guess I’m doing all right,’ I replied. ‘Only I wish it was all over and I was the winner.’
‘What would you do with the money if you won?’ she asked, laughing.
‘I’d make a picture,’ I said.
‘You couldn’t make much of a picture for a thousand dollars, could you?’ she asked, taking a bite of her sandwich.
‘Oh, I don’t mean a big picture,’ I explained. ‘I mean a short. I could make a two-reeler for that, maybe three.’
‘You interest me,’ she said. ‘I’ve been watching you for two weeks.’
‘You have?’ I said, surprised.
‘Yes, I’ve seen you stand over there in the sun every afternoon and I’ve seen you with a thousand different expressions on your face. Sometimes I got the idea you were badly frightened.’
‘You must be wrong,’ I said. ‘What’s there to be frightened about?’
‘I overheard what you said to your partner about seeing the sunset this afternoon,’ she said, smiling.
‘That doesn’t prove anything,’ I said.
‘Suppose …’ she said, glancing around. She looked at the clock, frowning. ‘We’ve still got four minutes. Would you like to do something for me?’
‘Well … sure,’ I said.
She motioned with her head and I followed her behind the master of ceremonies’ platform. This platform was about four feet high, draped with heavy, decorated canvas that fell to the floor. We were standing alone in a sort of cave that was formed by the back of the platform and a lot of signs. Except for the noise she and I might have been the only people left in the world. We were both a little excited.
‘Come on,’ she said. She dropped to the floor and lifted the canvas, crawling under the platform. My heart was beating rapidly and I felt the blood leave my face. Through the balls of my feet I could feel the ocean surging against the pilings below.
‘Come on,’ she whispered, pulling at my ankle. Suddenly I knew what she meant.
There is no new experience in life. Something may happen to you that you think has never happened before
that you think is brand new
but you are mistaken. You have only to see or smell or hear or feel a certain something and you will discover that this experience you thought was new has happened before. When she pulled at my ankle
trying to get me beneath the platform
I remembered the time when another girl had done exactly the same thing. Only it was a front porch instead of a platform. I was thirteen or fourteen years old then and the girl was about the same age. Her name was Mabel and she lived next door. After school we used to play under the front porch
imagining it was a cave and we were robbers and prisoners. Later we used it to play papa and mama
imagining it was a house. But on this day I am speaking of I stood by the front porch
not thinking of Mabel or games at all
and I felt something pulling at my ankle. I looked down and there was Mabel. ‘Come on,’ she said.
It was very dark under the platform and while I crouched there on my hands and knees trying to see through the gloom No. 7 suddenly grabbed me around the neck.
‘Hurry …’ she whispered.
‘What’s coming off here?’ growled a man’s voice. He was so close I could feel his breath against my hair. ‘Who is that?’
I recognized the voice now. It was Rocky Gravo’s. My stomach turned over. No. 7 let go my neck and slid out from under the platform. I was afraid if I tried to apologize or say anything Rocky would recognize my voice, so I quickly rolled under the curtain. No. 7 was already on her feet moving away, looking back over her shoulder at me. Her face was white as chalk. Neither of us spoke. We strolled onto the dance floor, trying to look very innocent. The nurse was collecting our dirty coffee cups in a basket. Then I discovered my hands and clothes were filthy with dust. I had a couple of minutes before the whistle blew, so I hurried into the dressing room to clean up. When that was done I felt better.
‘What a close shave that was,’ I told myself. ‘I’ll never do anything like that again.’
I got back on the floor as the whistle blew and the orchestra began to play. This was not a very good orchestra; but it was better than the radio because you didn’t have to listen to a lot of announcers begging and pleading with you to buy something. Since I’ve been in this marathon I’ve had enough radio to last me the rest of my life.
There is a radio going now
in a building across the street from the court room. It is very distinct.
Do you need money
…Are you in trouble
‘Where’ve you been?’ Gloria asked, taking my arm.
‘I haven’t been anywhere,’ I said. ‘Feel like dancing?’
‘All right,’ she said. We danced once around the floor and then she stopped, ‘That’s too much like work,’ she said.
As I took my hand from around her waist I noticed my fingers were dirty again. ‘That’s funny,’ I thought. ‘I just washed them a minute ago.’
‘Turn around,’ I said to Gloria.
‘What’s the matter?’ she asked.
‘Turn around,’ I said.
She hesitated, biting her lip, so I stepped behind her. She was wearing a white woollen skirt and a thin white woollen sweater. Her back was covered with thick dust and I knew where it had come from.
‘What’s the matter?’ she said.
‘Stand still,’ I said. I brushed her off with my hand, knocking most of the dust and lint loose from her sweater and skirt. She did not speak for a moment or two. ‘I must have got that when I was wrestling in the dressing room with Lillian,’ she said finally.
‘I’m not as big a sap as she thinks I am,’ I told myself. ‘I guess you did,’ I said.
Rollo Peters fell in with us as we walked around the floor.
‘Who is that girl?’ I asked, pointing to No. 7.
‘That’s Guy Duke’s partner. Her name is Rosemary Loftus.’
‘All your taste is in your mouth,’ Gloria said.
‘I merely asked who she was,’ I said. ‘I haven’t got a crush on her.’
‘You don’t need one,’ Gloria said. ‘You tell him, Rollo.’
‘Leave me out of this,’ Rollo said, shaking his head. ‘I don’t know a thing about her.’
‘What about her?’ I asked Gloria, as Rollo walked away, joining James and Ruby Bates.