They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (5 page)

BOOK: They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
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‘Are you that innocent?’ she said. ‘On the level are you?’ She laughed, shaking her head. ‘You certainly are a card.’

‘All right, forget it,’ I said.

‘Why, that dame is the biggest bitch west of the Mississippi River,’ she said. ‘She’s a bitch with an exclusive education and when you get that kind of bitch you’ve got the worst bitch of all. Why not even the girls can go to the can when she’s around—’

‘Hello there, Gloria,’ called out Mrs Layden. She was sitting in her usual seat in the front row box the far end of the hall, away from the master of ceremonies’ platform. Gloria and I walked over to the railing …

‘How’s my favourite couple?’ she asked.

‘Fine,’ I said. ‘How are you, Mrs Layden?’

‘I’m fine too,’ she said. ‘I’m going to stay a long time tonight. See?’ She pointed to her blanket and her lunch basket on the chair beside her. ‘I’ll be here to cheer you on.’

‘We’ll need it,’ Gloria said.

‘Why don’t you take one of those boxes down there away from the Palm Garden?’ I asked. ‘It gets pretty rowdy at the bar later on when everybody starts drinking—’

‘This is fine for me,’ she said, smiling. ‘I like to be here for the derby. I want to watch them make the turns. Would you like to see the afternoon paper?’ she asked, pulling the paper out from under the blanket.

‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘I would like to know what’s going on in the world. How is the weather outside? Has the world changed much?’

‘You’re poking fun at me,’ she said.

‘No, I’m not … it just seems like I’ve been in this hall a million years …Thanks for the paper, Mrs Layden …’

As we moved away I unfolded the paper. Big, black headlines hit me in the face.

NAB YOUTHFUL MURDERER IN MARATHON DANCE

——————————

Escaped Criminal Was Taking Part in Beach Contest

———————————

Detectives yesterday picked a murderer from the marathon dance now in progress on the amusement pier at Santa Monica. He was Giuseppe Lodi, 26-year-old Italian, who escaped eight months ago from the Illinois state prison at Joliet after serving four years of a fifty-year sentence for the conviction of the hold-up slaying of an aged druggist in Chicago.

Lodi entered in the marathon dance under the alias of Mario Petrone, offered no resistance when he was arrested by Detectives Bliss and Voight, of the Robbery Detail. The officers had dropped in to the marathon dance seeking diversion from their duties, they said, and recognized Lodi through a picture they said they had seen in ‘The Line-Up’, a department of a popular detective monthly which contains pictures and measurements of badly wanted criminals …

‘Can you beat that?’ I said. ‘I was right beside him when all that happened. I certainly feel sorry for Mario now.’

‘Why,’ said Gloria, ‘what’s the difference between us?’

Pedro Ortega, Mack Aston and a few others gathered around us, talking excitedly. I handed the paper to Gloria and walked on alone.

‘That’s a hell of a thing,’ I thought. ‘Fifty years! Poor Mario …
And when Mario hears the news about me
,
if he ever does
,
he will think
: “
Poor guy
!
wasting his sympathy on me and him getting the rope
…”’

At the next rest period Socks Donald had a surprise for us. He issued the uniforms we were to wear in the derby races; tennis shoes, white shorts, white sweat-shirts. All the boys were given thick leather belts to wear around their waists, and on either side of the belt were little handles, like those on luggage. These were for our partners to hold on when we went around the curves. It seemed very silly to me then, but later on I discovered Socks Donald knew what he was doing.

‘Lissen, kids,’ Socks said. ‘Tonight we start on our first million. There’ll be a lot of movie stars here for the derby and wherever they go the crowds will follow. Some team will lose tonight some team will lose every night. I don’t want no squawks about this because it’s on the level. Everybody has the same chance. You’ll get some extra time to get on your uniforms and some extra time to take them off. And by the way, I talked to Mario Petrone this afternoon. He told me to say good-bye to all his pals. Now, don’t forget to give the customers a run for their money in the derby, kids—’

I was surprised to hear him mention Mario’s name because the night before, when Mario was arrested, Socks had wanted to beat him up.

‘I thought he was sore at Mario,’ I said to Rollo.

‘Not any more,’ Rollo said. ‘That was the best break we ever had. If it hadn’t been for that nobody ever would have known there was a marathon dance. That newspaper publicity was just what the doctor ordered. Reservations have been coming in all afternoon.’

… you,

Robert Syverten,

 be delivered …

chapter eight

T
HAT NIGHT, FOR THE
first time since the contest started, the hall was crowded and practically every seat was taken. The Palm Garden was crowded too and there was a lot of boisterous laughing and talking at the bar. ‘Rollo was right,’ I said to myself. ‘Mario’s arrest was the best break Socks ever had.’ (But not all those people had been attracted by the newspaper publicity. I found out later that Socks was having us advertised over several radio stations.)

We walked around in our track suits while the trainers and nurses set up the floor for the derby.

‘I feel naked,’ I said to Gloria.

‘You look naked,’ she said. ‘You ought to have on a jockstrap.’

‘They didn’t give me one,’ I said. ‘Does it show that much?’

‘It’s not only that,’ she said. ‘You’re liable to get ruptured. Get Rollo to buy you one tomorrow. They come in three sizes: small, medium and large. You take a small.’

‘I’m not by myself,’ I said, looking around at some of the other boys.

‘They’re bragging,’ Gloria said.

Most of the contestants looked very funny in their track suits. I never saw such an odd assortment of arms and legs in my life.

‘Look,’ Gloria said, nodding to James and Ruby Bates. ‘Ain’t that something?’

You could see Ruby was going to have a baby. It looked as if she had stuffed a pillow under her sweat-shirt.

‘It certainly is noticeable,’ I said. ‘But remember it’s none of your business.’

‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ Rocky said into the microphone, ‘before this sensational derby starts, I want to call your attention to the rules and regulations. Because of the number of contestants the derby will be run in two sections forty couples in the first and forty in the second. The second derby will be run a few minutes after the first one and the entries in each one will be decided by drawing the numbers out of a hat.

‘We’ll run these derbies in two sections for a week, the couple in each one making the least number of laps to be eliminated. After the first week there will be only one derby. The kids will race around the track for fifteen minutes, the boys heeling and toeing, the girls trotting or running as they see fit. There is no prize for the winner, but if some of you ladies and gentlemen want to send up some prize money to encourage the kids, I know they will appreciate it.

‘You will notice the cots in the middle of the floor, the nurses and trainers standing by with sliced oranges, wet towels, smelling salts and the doctor in charge to see that none of these kids carry on unless they’re in good physical condition.’

The young doctor was standing in the middle of the floor, his stethoscope hanging from his neck, looking very important.

‘Just a minute, ladies and gentlemen just a minute,’ Rocky said. ‘I have in my hand a ten-dollar bill for the winner of tonight’s derby, contributed by that marvellous little screen star, none other than Miss Ruby Keeler. A hand for Miss Keeler, ladies and gentlemen—’

Ruby Keeler stood up, bowing to the applause.

‘That’s the spirit, ladies and gentlemen,’ Rocky said. ‘And now we need some judges, ladies and gentlemen, to check the laps each couple makes.’ He stopped to wipe the perspiration off his face. ‘All right now, ladies and gentlemen, I want these judges out of the audience—forty of them. Step right up here don’t be afraid—’

Nobody in the audience moved for a moment, and then Mrs Layden crawled under the railing and started across the floor. As she passed Gloria and me she smiled and winked.

‘Maybe she’ll turn out to be useful after all,’ Gloria said.

Soon others followed Mrs Layden until all the judges had been selected. Rollo gave each of them a card and a pencil and seated them on the floor around the platform.

‘All right, ladies and gentlemen,’ Rocky said. ‘We’ve got enough judges. Now we’ll have the drawing for the first-derby. There are eighty numbers in this hat and we’ll draw forty of them. The other couples will be in the second derby. Now we need somebody to draw the numbers. How about you, lady?’ he asked Mrs Layden, holding out the hat. Mrs Layden smiled and nodded her head.

‘This is a big moment in her life,’ Gloria said sarcastically.

‘I think she is a very sweet old lady,’ I said.

‘Nuts,’ Gloria said.

Mrs Layden began drawing out the numbers, passing them to Rocky, who announced them into the microphone.

‘The first one,’ he said, ‘is Couple No. 105. Right over here, kids all you couples who are drawn stand over here on this side of the platform.’

As fast as Mrs Layden would draw the numbers Rocky would announce them, then pass them to one of the judges. That was the couple he checked, counting the number of laps they made.

‘ …Couple No. 22,’ Rocky said, handing the number to a young man who wore spectacles.

‘Come on,’ I said to Gloria. That was our number.

‘I’d like that one,’ I heard Mrs Layden say to Rocky. ‘That’s my favourite couple.’

‘Sorry, lady,’ Rocky said. ‘You have to take them in order.’

When the drawing was finished and we were all together near the starting line, Rocky said, ‘All right, ladies and gentlemen, we’re almost ready. Now, kids, all you boys remember heel and toe. If one of you has to go to the pit for any reason whatsoever, your partner has to make two laps of the track to count for one. Will you start ’em off Miss Keeler?’

She nodded and Rocky handed Rollo the pistol. He took it to Miss Keeler, who was sitting in a front-row box with another girl I didn’t recognize. Jolson was not there.

‘All right, ladies and gentlemen, hold your hats,’ Rocky said. ‘All right, Miss Keeler …’ He signalled to her with his hand.

Gloria and I had edged along the side of the platform towards the starting line and when Miss Keeler pulled the trigger we jumped away, pushing and shoving to get in front. Gloria had me by the arm.

‘Hold on to the belt,’ I yelled, struggling to get through the crowd. Everybody was stumbling over everybody else, trying to get in front … but in a minute we spread out and began pounding around the track. I was taking such long steps Gloria had to trot to keep up with me.

‘Heel and toe there,’ Rollo said. ‘You’re running.’

‘I’m doing the best I can,’ I said.

‘Heel and toe,’ he said ‘Like this—’

He stepped in front of me, illustrating what he meant. I had no trouble at all in learning. The trick was to keep your shoulders and arms properly timed. I had no trouble at all in figuring that. It seemed to come to me naturally. It was so simple, I thought for a moment I must have done some heel and toe walking before. I couldn’t remember it, so evidently I hadn’t. I’ve got a marvellous memory.

We had been going about five minutes and were well up towards the front when I felt Gloria stop propelling herself; that is, she stopped traveling under her own power. I was dragging her. I felt as if she were trying to pull the belt through my stomach.

‘Too fast?’ I asked, slowing down.

‘Yes,’ she replied, almost out of breath.

One of the nurses slammed a wet bath towel around my neck, almost knocking me off balance. ‘Rub your face with it,’ I said to Gloria …Just then Couple No. 35 cut in front of us, trying to get into the turn first. The spurt was too much for the girl. She began to stagger, loosening her hold on his belt.

‘Stand by No. 35,’ yelled Rocky Gravo, but before a nurse or trainer could reach her she had fallen on her face, sliding a couple of feet across the floor. If I had been alone I could have sidestepped the body, but with Gloria hanging on me I was afraid if I dodged I would sling her off. (Making these turns with a girl hanging on you was like playing pop-the-whip.)

‘Look out!’ I yelled, but the warning was too late to do any good. Gloria stumbled over the body, pulling me down with her, and the next thing I knew four or five couples were piled together on the floor, struggling to get up. Rocky said something into the microphone and the crowd gasped.

I picked myself up. I wasn’t hurt, only I knew from the way my knees were burning that all the skin was rubbed off. The nurses and trainers rushed over and began tugging at the girls, carrying Gloria and Ruby to the cots in the pit.

‘Nothing serious, ladies and gentlemen,’ Rocky said. ‘Just a little spill … something happens every minute in the derbies … while the girls are in the pit the boys have to make two laps to count as one full lap for the team. All right, kids, give those solos the inside track.’

I began walking very fast so as not to lose our position in the race. Now that Gloria wasn’t hanging on to the strap any more I felt light as a feather. A nurse and a trainer began working over her while the doctor listened to her heart with his stethoscope. The nurse was holding smelling salts at her nose and the trainer was massaging her legs. Another trainer and nurse were doing the same thing to Ruby. I made four laps before Gloria came back to the floor. She was very pale.

‘Can you hold out?’ I asked, slowing down. She said yes with her head. The people were applauding and stamping their feet and Rocky was speaking words into the microphone. Ruby came back into the race, looking all in too.

‘Take it easy,’ Rollo said, moving beside me. ‘You’re in no danger—’

Then I felt a sharp pain in my left leg that shot up through my body and almost blew off the top of my head. ‘My God,’ I told myself: ‘I’m paralysed!’

BOOK: They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
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