Authors: Horace McCoy
‘Kick it out, kick it out,’ Rollo said.
I couldn’t bend my leg. It simply wouldn’t work. It was stiff as a board. Every time I took a step the pain went through the top of my head.
‘There’s a charley horse on Couple 22,’ Rocky said into the microphone. ‘Stand by there, trainers—’
‘Kick it out, kick it out,’ Rollo said.
I kicked my leg against the floor but that was more painful than ever.
‘Kick it out, kick it out—’
‘You son of a bitch,’ I said; ‘my leg hurts—’
Two of the trainers grabbed me by the arms and helped me to the pit.
‘There goes the brave little girl of No. 22,’ Rocky announced, ‘little Gloria Beatty. What a brave kid she is! She’s soloing while her partner is in the pit with a charley horse look at her burn up that track! Give her the inside, kids—’
One of the trainers held my shoulders down while the other one worked my leg up and down, beating the muscles with the heels of his fists.
‘That hurts,’ I said.
‘Take it easy, said the trainer who was holding my shoulders. ‘Didn’t you ever have one of those things before?’
Then I felt something snap in my leg and the pain was suddenly gone.
‘Okay,’ the trainer said.
I got up, feeling fine, and went back on the track, standing there waiting for Gloria. She was on the opposite side from me, trotting, her head bobbing up and down every time she took a step. I had to wait for her to come around. (The rules were you had to come out of the pit at the point where you went in.) As Gloria neared me I started walking and in a moment she had coupled on to the belt.
‘Two minutes to go,’ Rocky announced. ‘A little rally, ladies and gentlemen—’ They began clapping their hands and stamping their feet, much louder than before.
Other couples began to sprint past us and I put on a little more steam. I was pretty sure Gloria and I weren’t in last place, but we had both been in the pit and I didn’t want to take a chance on being eliminated. When the pistol sounded for the finish half the teams collapsed on the floor. I turned around to Gloria and saw her eyes were glassy. I knew she was going to faint.
‘Hey …’ I yelled to one of the nurses, but just then Gloria sagged and I had to catch her myself. It was all I could do to carry her to the pit. ‘Hey!’ I yelled to one of the trainers. ‘Doctor!’
Nobody paid any attention to me. They were too busy picking up the bodies. The customers were standing on their seats, screaming in excitement.
I began rubbing Gloria’s face with a wet towel. Mrs Layden suddenly appeared beside me and took a bottle of smelling salts off the table by the cot.
‘You go to your dressing room,’ she said. ‘Gloria’ll be all right in a minute. She’s not used to the strain.’
I was on a boat going to Port Said. I was on my way to the Sahara Desert to make that picture. I was famous and I had plenty of money. I was the most important picture director in the world. I was more important than Sergei Eisenstein. The critics of
had agreed that I was a genius. I was walking around the deck, thinking of that marathon dance I once had been in, wondering what had become of all those girls and boys, when something hit me a terrific blow in the back of the head, knocking me unconscious. I had a feeling I was falling.
When I struck the water I began lashing out with my arms and legs because I was afraid of sharks. Something brushed my body and I screamed in fright.
I woke up swimming in water that was freezing cold. Instantly I knew where I was. ‘I’ve had a nightmare,’ I told myself. The thing that had brushed my body was a hundred-pound block of ice. I was in a small tank of water in the dressing room. I was still wearing my track suit. I climbed out, shivering, and one of the trainers handed me a towel.
Two other trainers came in, carrying one of the contestants who was unconscious. It was Pedro Ortega. They carried him to the tank and dumped him in.
‘Is that what happened to me?’ I asked.
‘That’s right,’ the trainer said. ‘You passed out just as you left the dance floor—’ Pedro whimpered something in Spanish and splashed the water, fighting to get out. The trainer laughed. ‘I’ll say Socks knew what he was doing when he brought that tank in here,’ he said. ‘That ice water fixes ’em right up. Get off those wet pants and shoes.’
… by the
State Prison …
HOURS ELAPSED: 752
Couples Remaining: 26
HE DERBY RACES WERE
killing them off. Fifty-odd couples had been eliminated in two weeks. Gloria and I had come close to the finish once or twice, but by the skin of our teeth we managed to hang on. After we changed our technique we had no more trouble: we had stopped trying to win, not caring where we finished so long as it wasn’t last.
We had got a sponsor too: Jonathan Beer, Non-Fattening. This came just in time. Our shoes were worn out and our clothes were ragged. Mrs Layden sold Jonathan Beer on the idea of sponsoring us.
Sell St Peter on the idea of letting me in, Mrs Layden. I think I’m on my way.
They gave Gloria and me three pairs of shoes, three pairs of grey flannel trousers and three sweaters each with their product advertised on the backs of them.
I had gained five pounds since the contest started and was beginning to think that maybe we had some chance to win that thousand dollar first prize after all. But Gloria was very pessimistic.
‘What are you going to do after this thing is over?’ she asked.
‘Why worry about that?’ I said. ‘It’s not over yet. I don’t see what you’re kicking about,’ I told her. ‘We’re better off than we’ve ever been—at least we know where our next meal is coming from.’
‘I wish I was dead,’ she said. ‘I wish God would strike me dead.’
She kept saying that over and over again. It was beginning to get on my nerves.
‘Some day God is going to do that little thing,’ I said.
‘I wish He would …I wish I had the guts to do it for Him.’
‘If we win this thing you can take your five-hundred dollars and go away somewhere,’ I said. ‘You can get married. There are always plenty of guys willing to get married. Haven’t you ever thought about that?’
‘I’ve thought about it plenty,’ she said. ‘But I couldn’t ever marry the kind of man I want. The only kind that would marry me would be the kind I wouldn’t have. A thief or a pimp or something.’
‘I know why you’re so morbid,’ I said. ‘You’ll be all right in a couple of days. You’ll feel better about it then.’
‘That hasn’t got anything to do with it,’ she said.
‘I don’t even get a backache from that. That’s not it. This whole business is a merry-go-round. When we get out of here we’re right back where we started.’
‘We’ve been eating and sleeping,’ I said.
‘Well, what’s the good of that when you’re just postponing something that’s bound to happen?’
‘Hey, Jonathan Beer,’ Rocky Gravo called out. ‘Come over here—’
He was standing by the platform with Socks Donald. Gloria and I went over.
‘How’d you kids like to pick up a hundred bucks?’ Rocky asked.
‘Doing what?’ Gloria asked.
‘Well, kids,’ Socks Donald said, ‘I’ve got a swell idea only I need a bit of some help—’
‘That’s the Ben Bernie influence,’ Gloria said to me.
‘What?’ Socks said.
‘Nothing,’ Gloria said. ‘Go on—you need a bit of some help—’
‘Yeah,’ Socks said. ‘I want you two kids to get married here. A public wedding.’
‘Married?’ I said.
‘Now, wait a minute,’ Socks said. ‘It’s not that bad. I’ll give you fifty dollars apiece and after the marathon is over you can get divorced if you want to. It don’t have to be permanent. It’s just a showmanship angle. What do you say?’
‘I say you’re nuts,’ Gloria said.
‘She doesn’t mean that, Mr Donald—’ I said.
‘The hell I don’t,’ she said. ‘I’ve got no objection to getting married,’ she said to Socks, ‘but why don’t you pick out Gary Cooper or some big-shot producer or director? I don’t want to marry this guy. I got enough trouble looking out for myself—’
‘It don’t have to be permanent,’ Rocky said. ‘It’s just showmanship.’
‘That’s right,’ Socks said. ‘Of course, the ceremony’ll have to be on the square—we’ll have to do that to get the crowd. But—’
‘You don’t need a wedding to get a crowd,’ Gloria said. ‘You’re hanging ’em off the rafters now. Ain’t it enough of a show to see those poor bastards falling all over the floor every night?’
‘You don’t get the angle,’ Socks said, frowning.
‘The hell I don’t,’ Gloria said. ‘I’m way ahead of you.’
‘You want to get in pictures and here’s your chance,’ Socks said. ‘I already got some stores lined up to give you your wedding dress and your shoes and a beauty shop that’ll fix you up there’ll be a lot of directors and supervisors here and they’ll all be looking at nobody but you. It’s the chance of a lifetime. What do you say, kid?’ he asked me.
‘I don’t know—’ I said, not wanting to make him sore. After all, he was the promoter. I knew if he got sore at us we were as good as disqualified.
‘He says no,’ Gloria said.
‘She does his thinking for him,’ Rocky said sarcastically.
‘Okay,’ Socks said, shrugging his shoulders. ‘If you can’t use a hundred dollars maybe some of these other kids can. At least,’ he said to me, ‘you know who wears the drawers in your family.’ He and Rocky both laughed.
‘You just can’t be polite to anybody, can you?’ I said to Gloria when we had walked away. ‘We’ll be out in the street any minute now.’
‘Might as well be now as tomorrow,’ she said.
‘You’re the gloomiest person I ever met,’ I said. ‘Sometimes I think you would be better off dead,’
‘I know it,’ she said.
When we came around by the platform again I saw Socks and Rocky talking earnestly to Vee Lovell and Mary Hawley, Couple No. 71.
‘Looks like Socks is selling her a bill of goods,’ Gloria said. ‘That Hawley horse couldn’t get in out of the rain.’
James and Ruby Bates joined up and we walked four abreast. We were on friendly terms again since Gloria had stopped trying to talk Ruby into having an abortion performed. ‘Did Socks proposition you to get married?’ Ruby asked.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘How did you know?’
‘He’s propositioned everybody,’ she said.
‘We turned him down cold,’ Gloria said.
‘A public wedding isn’t so bad,’ Ruby said. ‘We had one’
‘You did?’ I said, surprised. James and Ruby were so dignified and quiet and so much in love with each other I couldn’t imagine them being married in a public ceremony.
‘We were married in a marathon dance in Oklahoma,’ she said. ‘We got about three hundred dollars worth of stuff too …’
‘Her old man gave us the shotgun for a wedding present—’ James said, laughing.
Suddenly a girl screamed behind us. We turned around. It was Lillian Bacon, Pedro Ortega’s partner. She was walking backwards, trying to get away from him. Pedro caught up with her, slamming her in the face with his fist. She sat down on the floor, screaming again. Pedro grabbed her by the throat with both hands, choking her and trying to lift her up. His face was the face of a maniac. There was no doubt he was trying to kill her.
Everybody started running for him at the same time. There was a lot of confusion.
James and I reached him first, grabbing him and breaking his hold on Lillian’s neck. She was sitting on the floor, her body rigid, her arms behind her, her head thrown back, her mouth open like a patient in a dentist’s chair.
Pedro was muttering to himself and did not seem to recognize any of us. James shoved him and he staggered backward. I put my hands under Lillian’s armpits, helping her to her feet. She was shaking like a muscle dancer.
Socks and Rocky rushed up and took Pedro by either arm.
‘What’s the big idea?’ Socks roared.
Pedro looked at Socks, moving his lips but not saying anything. Then he saw Rocky and the expression on his face changed, becoming one of ferocious resentment. He suddenly twisted his arms free, stepping backward and reaching into his pocket.
‘Look out—’ somebody cried.
Pedro lunged forward, a knife in his hand. Rocky tried to dodge, but it all happened so quickly he never had a chance. The knife caught him across the left arm two inches below the shoulder. He yelled and started running. Pedro turned around to follow but before he could take a step Socks hit him in the back of the head with a leather blackjack. You could hear the plunk above the music of the radio. It sounded exactly like somebody thumping their finger against a watermelon. Pedro stood there, an idiotic grin on his face and Socks hit him again with the blackjack.
Pedro’s arms fell and the knife dropped to the floor. He wobbled on his legs and then he went down.
‘Get him out of here,’ Socks said, picking up the knife.
James Bates, Mack Aston and Vee Lovell lifted Pedro, carrying him off to the dressing room.
‘Keep your seats, ladies and gentlemen—’ Socks said to the audience. ‘Please—’
I was bracing Lillian from behind. She was still shaking.
‘What happened?’ Socks asked her.
‘He accused me of cheating—’ she said. ‘Then he hit me and started choking me—’
‘Go on, kids,’ Socks said. ‘Act like nothing has happened. Hey, nurse—help this girl to the dressing room—’ Socks signalled to Rollo on the platform and the siren blew for a rest period. It was a few minutes early. The nurse took Lillian out of my arms and all the girls gathered around them, going into the dressing room.
As I went off I could hear Rollo making some kind of casual announcement over the loud speakers.
Rocky was standing at the wash basin, his coat and shirt off, dabbing at his shoulder with a handful of paper towels. The blood was streaming down his arm, running off his fingers.
‘You better get the doctor on that,’ Socks said. ‘Where the hell is that doctor?’ he bellowed.
‘Here—’ the doctor said, coming out of the lavatory.
‘The only time we need you you’re “sitting on your fanny,’ Socks said. ‘See what’s the matter with Rocky.’