Authors: Horace McCoy
Pedro was lying on the floor with Mack Aston straddling him, working on his stomach like a lifeguard with a man who had been drowning.
‘Watch it—’ Vee Lovell said, coming up with a bucket of water. Mack stepped back and Vee dumped the water in Pedro’s face. It had no effect on him. He lay there like a log.
James Bates brought another bucket of water and doused him with that. Now Pedro began to show signs of life. He stirred, opening his eyes.
‘He’s coming to,’ Vee Lovell said.
‘I better get Rocky to the hospital in my car,’ the doctor said, taking off his linen coat. ‘He’s got a deep cut almost to the bone. It’ll have to be sutured. Who did it?’
‘That bastard—’ Socks said, pointing to Pedro with his leg.
‘He must have used a razor,’ the doctor said. ‘Here—’ Socks said, handing him the knife. Socks had the leather blackjack in his other hand, the thong still around his wrist.
‘Same thing,’ the doctor said, handing back the knife.
Pedro sat up, rubbing his jaw, a dazed look on his face.
‘It isn’t your jaw,’ I said to him in my mind, ‘it was the back of your head.’
‘For Christ’s sake, let’s get going,’ Rocky said to the doctor. ‘I’m bleeding like a stuck pig. And you, you son of a bitch,’ he said to Pedro; ‘I’m going to prefer charges against you—’
Pedro looked at him fiercely, saying nothing.
‘There won’t be any charges filed,’ Socks said. ‘I’m having enough trouble keeping open now. Next time be careful who you cheat with.’
‘I wasn’t cheating anybody,’ Rocky said.
‘—’ Socks said. ‘Take him out the back way, Doc’
‘All right, Rocky,’ the doctor said. Rocky started out. The temporary gauze bandage on his arm was soaked already. The doctor draped a coat around Rocky’s shoulders and they went out.
‘Are you trying to bust up this contest?’ Socks asked, turning his full attention to Pedro. ‘Whyn’t you wait till this was over to get him?’
‘I tried to cut his throat,’ Pedro stated calmly, in precise English. ‘He seduced my fiancée—’
‘If he seduced your fiancée around here he’s a magician,’ Socks said. ‘There’s no place to seduce anybody.’
‘I know a place,’ I said in my mind.
Rollo Peters came into the dressing room. ‘You guys ought to be getting your sleep,’ he said. ‘Where’s Rocky?’ he asked, looking around.
‘The doc took him to hospital,’ Socks told him. ‘How are they out there?’
‘They’re calmed down,’ Rollo said. ‘I told ’em we were rehearsing a novelty act. What was the matter with Rocky?’
‘Nothing much,’ Socks said. ‘He just damn near had his arm cut off by this greaseball, that’s all.’ He handed him Pedro’s knife. ‘Here take this thing and get rid of it. You do the announcing till we find out about Rocky.’
Pedro got up off the floor. ‘I am very sorry I have a very quick temper—’
‘I guess it could have been worse,’ Socks said. ‘It could have happened at night when we had a full house. How’s your head?’
‘It is sore,’ Pedro said. ‘I am very sorry this happened. I wanted to win the thousand dollars—’
‘You still got a chance,’ Socks said.
‘You mean I am not disqualified? You mean you forgive me?’
‘I forgive you—’ Socks said, dropping the blackjack into his pocket.
… to be
HOURS ELAPSED: 783
Couples Remaining: 26
ADIES AND GENTLEMEN,’
announced, ‘before the derby starts the management has asked me to tell you that there will be a public wedding here one week from tonight—a real, bona-fide wedding right here on the floor between Couple No. 71, Vee Lovell and Mary Hawley. Step out there, Vee and Mary, and let the ladies and gentlemen see what a cute couple you are—’
Vee and Mary, in track suits, went to the centre of the floor, bowing to the applause. The hall was packed again.
‘—That is,’ Rocky said, ‘if they are not eliminated in the derby by then. We hope not, anyway. This public wedding is in line with the management’s policy to give you nothing but high-class entertainment—’
Mrs Layden tugged at the back of my sweatshirt.
‘What’s the matter with Rocky’s arm?’ she asked in a whisper. You could see Rocky had had some kind of an accident. His right arm was through his coat sleeve in the usual way, but his left arm was in a sling and on that side he wore his coat like a cape.
‘He sprained it,’ I said.
‘They only took nine stitches in it,’ Gloria said, under her breath.
‘That’s why he wasn’t here last night,’ Mrs Layden said. ‘He had an accident—’
‘Did he fall?’
‘Yes’m, I think so—’
‘—introducing that beautiful screen star Miss Mary Brian. Will you take a bow, Miss Brian?’
Miss Brian took a bow. The audience applauded.
‘—and that master comedian, Mr Charley Chase—’
There was more applause as Charley Chase stood up in a box seat and took a bow.
‘I hate these introductions,’ Gloria said.
‘Good luck—’ Mrs Layden said as we moved towards the platform.
‘I’m sick of this,’ Gloria said. ‘I’m sick of looking at celebrities and I’m sick of doing the same thing over and over again—’
‘Sometimes I’m sorry I ever met you,’ I said. ‘I don’t like to say a thing like that, but it’s the truth. Before I met you I didn’t know what it was to be around gloomy people.’
We crowded behind the starting line with the other couples.
‘I’m tired of living and I’m afraid of dying,’ Gloria said.
‘Say, that’s a swell idea for a song,’ said James Bates, who had overheard her. ‘You could write a song about an old nigger down on the levee who was tired of living and afraid of dying. He could be heaving cotton and singing a song to the Mississippi River. Say, that’s a good title—you could call it Old Man River—’
Gloria looked daggers at him, thumbing her nose.
‘Hello, there—’ Rocky called out to Mrs Layden, who had arrived at the platform. ‘Ladies and gentlemen—’ he said into the microphone, ‘I want to introduce to you the champion marathon dance fan of the world a woman who hasn’t missed a single night since this contest started. This is Mrs Layden, and the management has issued a season pass to her—good any time, good all the time. A big hand for Mrs Layden, ladies and gentlemen. Will you take a bow, Mrs Layden—’
Mrs Layden hesitated a moment, badly rattled, not knowing exactly what she should do or say. But as the audience applauded she took a couple of steps forward, bowing awkwardly. You could see this was one of the biggest surprises of her life.
‘You people who are dance fans have seen her here before,’ Rocky said. ‘She is a judge in the derby every night we couldn’t have a derby unless she was here. How do you like the marathon dance, Mrs Layden?’ he asked, stooping down on his haunches and moving the microphone so she could talk into it.
‘She hates it,’ Gloria said under her breath. ‘She wouldn’t come to one on a bet, you dumb bastard—’
‘I like it,’ Mrs Layden said. She was so nervous she could hardly speak.
‘Who’s your favourite couple, Mrs Layden?’
‘My favourite couple is No. 22 Robert Syverten and Gloria Beatty.’
‘Her favourite couple is No. 22, ladies and gentlemen, sponsored by Jonathan Non-Fattening Beer You’re pulling for them to win, are you, Mrs Layden?’
‘Yes, I am and if I were younger, I’d be in this contest myself.’
‘That’s fine. Thank you very much, Mrs Layden. All right and now it gives me pleasure to present you with a season pass, Mrs Layden the gift of the management. You can come in any time without paying—’
Mrs Layden took the pass. She was so overwhelmed with gratitude and emotion that she was smiling and crying and nodding her head at the same time.
‘That’s another big moment,’ Gloria said.
‘Shut up!’ I said.
‘All right are the judges ready?’ Rocky asked, straightening up.
‘All ready,’ said Rollo, helping Mrs Layden to a chair in the judges’ row.
‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ Rocky announced, ‘most of you are familiar with the rules and regulations of the derby—but for the benefit of those who are seeing their first contest of this kind, I will explain so they will know what is going on. The kids race around the track for fifteen minutes, the boys heeling and toeing, the girls running or trotting as they so desire. If for any reason whatsoever one of them goes in the pit—the pit is in the centre of the floor where the iron cots are—if for any reason one of them goes in the pit, the partner has to make two laps of the track to count for one. Is that clear?’
‘Get going,’ somebody in the audience yelled.
‘Are the nurses and trainers ready? Is the doctor standing by? All right—’ He handed the starter’s pistol down to Rollo. ‘Will you start the kids off, Miss Delmar?’ Rocky asked into the microphone. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Delmar is a famous Hollywood author and novelist—’
Rollo took the pistol to Miss Delmar.
‘Hold your hats, ladies and gentlemen,’ Rocky sang out. ‘Orchestra, get ready to give. All right, Miss Delmar—’
She shot the pistol and we were off.
Gloria and I let the racehorses set the pace. We made no effort to get up in front. Our system was to set a steady clip and hold it. There was no special prize money tonight. Even if there had been it would have made no difference to us.
The audience applauded and stamped their feet, begging for thrills, but this was one night they didn’t get them. Only one girl, Ruby Bates, went into the pit and that was only for two laps. And for the first time in weeks nobody collapsed on the floor when the race was over.
But something had happened that frightened me. Gloria had pulled on my belt harder and longer than she ever had before. For the last five minutes of the derby it seemed she had no power of her own. I had practically dragged her around the track. I had a feeling we had just missed being eliminated ourselves.
We had just missed. Later that night Mrs Layden told me she had spoken to the man who had checked us. We had made only two more laps than the losers. That chilled me. I made up my mind then that from now on I had better forget my system and open up.
The losers were Basil Gerard and Geneva Tomblin, Couple No. 16. They were automatically disqualified. I knew Geneva was glad it was over. Now she could get married to the Captain of that live bait boat she had met during the first week of the contest.
Geneva came back on the floor while we were eating. She was dressed for the street and carried a small grip.
‘Ladies and gentlemen—’ Rocky said into the microphone ‘—there’s that marvellous kid who was eliminated tonight. Doesn’t she look pretty? A big hand, ladies and gentlemen—’
The audience applauded and Geneva bowed from side to side as she walked towards the platform.
‘That’s sportsmanship, ladies and gentlemen she and her partner lost a hard-fought derby, but she is smiling—I’ll let you in on a little secret, ladies and gentlemen—’ he moved his face closer to the microphone and whispered loudly: ‘She’s in love—she’s going to get married. Yes, sir, ladies and gentlemen, the old marathon dance is the original home of romance, because Geneva is marrying a man she met right in this hall. Is he in the house, Geneva? Is he here?’
Geneva nodded, smiling.
‘Where is the lucky man?’ Rocky asked. ‘Where is he? Stand up, skipper, and take a bow—’
Everybody in the audience craned their necks, looking around.
‘There he is—’ Rocky shouted, pointing to the opposite end of the hall. A man had stepped over the railing from the box and was walking down the floor towards Geneva. He had the peculiar walk of a sailor.
‘Say a word, skipper—’ Rocky said, tilting the microphone stand over.
‘I fell in love with Geneva the first time I saw her,’ the skipper said to the audience, ‘and a couple of days later I asked her to quit the marathon dance and marry me. But she said, no, she didn’t want to let her partner down; and there wasn’t nothing for me to do but stick around. Now I’m glad she’s disqualified and I can hardly wait for the honeymoon—’
The audience rocked with laughter. Rocky pulled the microphone stand upright again. ‘A silver shower for the new bride, ladies and gentlemen—’
The skipper grabbed the stand, yanked the microphone down to his mouth. ‘Never mind any contributions, folks,’ he said. ‘I guess I’m plenty able to take care of her—’
‘The original Popeye,’ Gloria said.
There was no silver shower. Not a single coin hit the floor.
‘You see how modest he is,’ Rocky said ‘But I guess it’s all right for me to tell you he is the captain of the Pacific Queen, an old four-master that’s now a live bait barge anchored three miles off the pier. There are water taxis every hour during the day and if any of you folks want some good deep-sea fishing go out with the skipper—’
‘Kiss her, you chump,’ somebody in the audience yelled.
The skipper kissed Geneva, then steered her off the floor while the audience howled and applauded.
‘That’s the second wedding the marathon dance has arranged, ladies and gentlemen,’ Rocky announced. ‘Don’t forget our big public ceremony here next week when Couple No. 71, Vee Lovell and Mary Hawley, will get married right before your very eyes. Give—’ he said to the orchestra.
Basil Gerard came out of the dressing room in his street clothes and went to the table to get his last meal on the house.
Rocky sat down on the platform, swinging his legs off.
‘Look out for my coffee—’ Gloria said.
‘Okay, okay,’ Rocky said, moving the cup a little. ‘How’s the food?’
‘All right,’ I said.
Two middle-aged women came up to us. I had seen them several times before, sitting in box seats. ‘Are you the manager?’ one of them asked Rocky.
‘Not exactly,’ Rocky said. ‘I’m the assistant manager. What was it you wanted?’
‘I’m Mrs Higby,’ the woman said. ‘This is Mrs Witcher. Could we talk to you in private?’
‘This is private as any place I got,’ Rocky said. ‘What was it you wanted?’
‘We are the president and the vice-president—’
‘What’s the matter?’ asked Socks Donald, coming around behind me.