Charles Ray was a popular juvenile star in the 1910s and ’20s, but by the ’30s, his career was on the rocks, and he turned to writing. Here’s another in a series of offerings from his book, Hollywood Shorts, a collection of short stories set in Tinseltown.
“Fool!” he groaned again and again.
His lips twitched with the cold, and he beat his shoes against the brick wall to rid them of icicles, giving himself hell for buying a pack of cigarettes when it was really a bowl of soup that he needed.
Nothing short of foolhardy, he reasoned disgustedly. He should have held out at least supper money from his wager. A dollar couldn’t have made much difference in his winnings, if the Kid did win. When the Kid won, his mind corrected quickly.
Self-censure was helping to consume his strength.
He was forty-four, and should have better sense. This eastern dampness was playing havoc with his lungs. Clear out, that’s what he’d do. Right after the fight. He’d force the Kid to go to Hollywood, make a few pictures, and forget the fight game entirely.
Two men bumped each other on the slippery sidewalk.
“Goin’ soft?” the fat individual kidded. “What you doin’ with an umbrella, Bert? So you can’t take it?”
His friend laughed. “Can’t take it? That’s how I got it! You look hearty enough, George,” he complimented and disappeared in the night.
“Hearty!” Fred Van grunted.
That’s what he desired most. Then to block out unhealthy thoughts, he took inventory.
He had trained Kid Royal right up to the moment, gave him last-minute instructions, and put hom on the train for Newark. He couldn’t stand seeing the Kid fight from the ringside. Besides, his presence might make the Kid nervous. There was too much at stake. He wanted to listen to the fight over the radio, when he got nerve enough to enter the poolroom again.
Quick speculating why it was that he could not bring himself to act just as he used to do, when he had plenty of jack, he was answered as rapidly. His appearance reflected nil in the mirror of men’s eyes. The poolroom manager might class him as a bum if he was seen hanging around that radiator, and might demand his exit. Too near being the truth.
And so his mind argued on until aching toes made a decision for him.
Moving along the edge of the building carefully, he wiped his coat sleeve across the frosted glass window and peered into the poolroom. Through the steamy surface, he saw that the place was filling up. Fourteen minutes to eight, said the wall clock.
His aching body informed him that he would have to chance results.
Act natural, that’s what he’d do. Just as he used to do when searching for a favorite billiard partner. Then he’d casually ease over by the radiator.
With a firm decision, he descended three steps and flung the door open with the air of a millionaire. But his attitude was ephemeral. A terrific north wind blew the door from his grasp, and it rebounded instantly, striking him a severe blow. His icy heels flew from under him, and the next moment he was sprawled on the floor under a pool table.
Spasmodic laughter echoed in his ears. Banalities were hurled at the prostrate figure. But when Fred Van remained inert on the floor, human nature changed quickly. Flippancies were replaced by kind remarks. Players left their games quickly to render aid.
“Shorty!” the manager’s crisp voice rang out. “Get a cushion outa my office and place a chair by the radiator for this guy.”
The royal treatment continued. Shorty and the manager rested Fred Van in a chair like a babe, leaning over him as attentively as relatives saying “goo!”
Fred Van shuddered when he revived too quickly, for he heard the manager yell for Shorty to get him a billiard partner, and saw him scowl suspiciously when Fred declined to play.
“Hey, buddy!” Fred called to the nearest table. “What’s the latest odds on Kid Royal?” he asked like a gambler.
The boy laughed derisively.
“Oh Alex Car, you mean,” the youth returned cockily. “He stands to win in a push-over. Better romp with class instead of has-beens!”
Mentally scoffing at his advice, Fred Van began calculations upon his possible winnings, but superstition caused him to desist as quickly.
Suddenly the radio loud speaker rasped: “Nemos Canned Chicken hour, friends. Presenting baritone Harry La Var, who will sing a group of three: I’m Sittin’ Pretty, California Here I Come, and I’ve Got You in the Palm of My Hand.”
All good omens, Fred said in his heart, but the name of the radio hour disturbed his stomach intensely. For consolation, he lit a cigarette, visioning dollar signs in the smoke rings he blew easily into the air. Gradually he dozed into unconsciousness.
A radio announcer’s voice shot new life into him.
“And Kid Royal,” the loud speaker heralded, “is climbing through the ropes into the ring. Newark fans are razzing him about the loud color of his trunks and bathrobe. Goodnaturedly he waves at the audience and skips over to the rosin box. The front-row boys are laughing at his antics. He entertains with a few tap steps at the rosin. However, I must say that he looks very fit. Now he’s off for his corner. Seems to have plenty of life, and he’s reduced palpably since we last saw him. Well, hi-ho, perhaps he’ll surprise us.”
Grunting approval, Fred Van sat up in his chair.
“The Kid, you know,” the announcer informed glibly, “has lost a great deal of his popularity since his former victories over two years ago here in Newark. No accounting for that, however. Fight fans are fickle. Just a moment. Oh, it was a little a rumpus in his corner about his stool. Didn’t set even enough for him. He’s adjusting it now to his liking while the fans boo at his superstitious actions. I don’t see the Kid’s trainer, Fred Van. He’s probably out, laying some late money on the line. It was Van, you know, who thought that he could bring Kid Royal back with this bout. Well, he brought him back as far as Newark, at least.”
To keep from being recognized in the poolroom, Fred Van pulled his hat farther down over his eyes and his coat collar higher about his neck.
“Oh, oh!” the announcer shouted. “Here comes the favorite fighter. Alex Car is coming down the aisle toward the ring like a nimble shadow. Listen to the fans cheer him! Alex is wearing white trunks with a blue and red sash. Maybe he’s gone American! These fighters certainly like their color mixed hot. Alex jumps through the ropes like a pole vaulter. He’s shaking his clasped hands toward the galleries. Now he’s exchanging remarks with the reporters over the ropes, in the front row. It seems that they’re kidding him about his bathrobe. Boy, is it loud! Looks like an awning, I heard someone crack a moment ago.
“Kid Royal is glaring enviously across the arena at Alex. It was only a few months ago that Kid Royal had all the attention, as you remember. Well, things change fast in the fight game. Up today and down tomorrow. Oh, Oh! Just a little nifty of my own. Pardon my Southern accent, friends. I’m trying to fill in a little while we’re getting ready to go places with this bout.”
With a sneer in his heart, Fred Van gritted his teeth and gave the announcer a silent raspberry.
“Hear that laughter, friends?” the announcer spouted. “Alex Car sat down without looking, and missed the stool. He fell through the ropes. Boy, he’ll have to counteract that flop with a knockout. Both boys are seated now, receiving the usual massaging from their attendants. Kid Royal’s chief attendant is whispering something in his ear. He’ll need all the advice he can get when he mixes with Alex.
“Alex Car, as you may be informed, has won some excellent matches in this last few— Oh, oh! Did you hear that laughter? Alex’s attendant did something which called for a biff. Alex hit him harder than he intended. He’s apologizing. Alex is sorry, and we know the attendant is.
“Kid Royal is smiling over at them. Swell of the Kid, after the streak of hard luck which has followed him lately. Swell that he can smile at all, I mean. And here they go, folks. The fighters are called to the center of the ring for last instructions. The Kid looks alert. Alex is a little too sure of himself, if anything. I’ll turn the microphone over now to Wayne Ripley, who will describe the bout to you blow by blow, and round by round as only he can. The great Ripley!”
“Good evening, fans. Wayne Ripley announcing. The boys are returning to their corners now. They look heart and hale, and I might say— There’s the gong! The fight is on!”
Fred Van stared up at the loud speaker as if he could see the arena.
“The boys touch gloves,” Ripley continued in his rapid manner. “They dance about a bit—sort of a hello gesture. A nice gentle beginning, so to speak. Maybe I’m wrong. They exchanged about six or eight heavy punches while I was cracking wise. And some more like them are raining. A little heavy for a first-round opening. Well, well, we shall see. Both boys have stopped dancing now. Alex moved right in with some pretty hard blows. The Kid is cagey. He backs away nicely. No harm done. They both mean business, however. And they clinch. They are parted by their referee. They clinch again. They break of their own accord. Fast body punches are raining thick and weighty. Pretty speedy for a first round, I should say.”
The fast first-round action caused Fred Van’s heart to pound. Those were his instructions to the Kid. Fast in the first, to show the fans that he was his old self again.
“They’re pounding each other like piledrivers. This is the fastest first round that I can remember. The Kid has received many blows on the mouth. It is bleeding quite a bit. Alex divides his attention between straight lefts to the jaw and terrible body punches which seem to fall short of the stomach and hit the Kid’s chest. Too high for the wind, but they are plenty hard. The Kid’s chest is already red from the onslaught. There’s the gong! The first round ends furiously. Both boys are panting terribly as they sink on their stools. The bell was welcome to both of them.”
Fred Van was happy. The Kid carried out his instructions perfectly: gain respect of the fans quickly and surprise Alex Car into changing his attack. With relief, the trainer pulled his hat off and wiped his moist brow. His tension recurred on hearing the announcer shout: “The gong!”
“Round two of the Kid Royal and Alex Car bout at Newark, New Jersey. Ripley announcing. The boys have jumped right into the fray with renewed strength. They both punch hard. The Kid at the jaw. Alex is hammering body punches. So far, Alex hasn’t a mark on him. Kid Royal has his right eye patched up a little. His lips are swollen twice their normal size. Wow! While I was rambling on, Alex took a few lefts which made him shake his head to clear the dizziness. He spits a little blood. Must have a loose tooth. The crowd is cheering. They appreciate the Kid’s efforts. He’s winning back a lot of his lost respect in this match.”
In the poolroom, the trainer sat up with pride. His heart beat with elation. With every blow that his boy landed on the opponent, he added to it with mental strength of his own, accompanying them with grunts and little jerks of his whole body.
One by one the pool enthusiasts left their games to hover closer around the loud speaker, commenting on the speed of the first round and placing side bets quickly on Kid Royal.
“Alex has the Kid in a corner!” the announcer exclaimed excitedly. “Ah, the Kid shows his clever training in getting out in a moment. Alex is following up, however, with those awful body punches. Heavy ones, staggering the Kid whenever they land solidly. Swell! The Kid retaliates with jaw punches.”
As one in the throes of a nightmare, Fred Van helped his boy with the jaw punches. Unconsciously, he was fighting the bout himself. His whole body was exuding perspiration.
“Alex is pounding the Kid’s body hard. It looks red around the heart, but the Kid stays with jaw punches. Alex feels them too. He spits blood occasionally. Left, right, left, right. Alex landed four heavy jabs on the Kid’s middle. He has him against the ropes. Kid Royal is breathing hard from the effect of those body punches. He’s clever though. he ducked out into the center of the ring again. The crowd is yelling like they were mad. Oh, swell! Kid Royal is showing fans what good training can do. If you ask me, he’s outpointing Alex Car.”
Proudly accepting the compliment, Fred Van was absorbed. He took every body punch his boy took, and retaliated, with power, when the Kid did.
“The crowd is going crazy! Hear that yelling? The Kid slipped! Alex has been rushing him for the last ten seconds, giving the Kid no time to relax, hammering body punches. The Kid is weakening a bit, it seems. Playing for time, perhaps. Hoping for the bell. Alex is after him every second. Oh, folks, I just tumbled to his big idea. Alex isn’t playing for the stomach as I presumed. He’s pounding at the Kid’s heart! Remember? Kid Royal was supposed to have a weak heart ever since that bout last winter with Eddie Schambly. Boy, Alex is pounding at his heart, with no let-up. The Kid is growing weaker and weaker. His chest is very red. Looks like the Kid can’t take it. Those punches are terrible. The Kid is breathing in gasps! His body is sagging. He grabs for the ropes. Alex is following him up with lightning blows at the heart. He keeps at the heart! Boy! After one uppercut on the chin, he returns to the heart, pummeling like a triphammer. The Kid is sinking! The Kid is falling! He has no strength at all. He clinches. he’s holding onto Alex desperately to get away from those awful heart punches. He’s sliding down Alex’s body—to one knee—now the other. The referee is counting. His knees won’t support him. He sinks to the floor. Alex steps away while the referee counts. The Kid has no life in him. Listen to the referee count: six, seven, eight, nine, ten!
“Alex Car wins! The referee is holding up his arm—the symbol of victory. The crowd is going wild! Listen to them roar! Listen to the whistling above the cries! Alex was certainly the stronger—faster—in better shape, also. Kid Royal is certainly out. They’re trying to lift him to his stool, but his body sags like a rag doll! There’s no life left in him. They’re lifting him through the ropes. The doctor is following as they carry him down the aisle. Looks serious. Well, it was a clean knockout for anybody’s money.
“Two policemen have climbed into the ring to keep the fans away from Alex Car. Alex is smiling, waving to the galleries. Everyone seems to be trying to get into the ring to shake hands with the victor. Alex doesn’t seem to be a bit fatigued now. The gang are lionizing him. They’ll sure idolize him if he gets to be Champ.”
There was a bedlam of excitement in the poolroom. Enthusiasts were collecting side-bet winnings. In running to the manager’s office to make change, Shorty discovered Fred Van limp on the floor.
“Hey, Boss!” he cried. “This guy’s out! Sick or somethin’. Fell outa his chair!”
The manager pulled at two sleeve holders, bit at his cigar, and commanded: “Some of you guys help Shorty carry him in here to my couch. Ed! Telephone the doc at the hotel.”
Pool players hovered about the door of the office until the manager shouted:
“Scram. Here comes the doc. Doc, this guy fell outa his chair. He doesn’t seem to breathe. Whatsit, do you think?”
“Tell you in a minute,” the doctor assured, opening his satchel to secure his stethoscope. “From the color about his mouth, the case looks ‘hearty’ to me.”
Shorty hammered on the glass door of the office. “Hey, Boss! Listen to the announcement over the radio.”
“We are informed that Kid Royal, who was knocked out in the second round of a prizefight at Newark, New Jersey, hasn’t regained consciousness up to the moment of this broadcast. Another item of news is—“
With a futile expression on his face, the doctor rose from examining Fred Van’s body. “He must have received a great shock,” he diagnosed. “Quite a sudden one. The man is dead!”
The manager puffed at his cigar meditatively.
“Poor guy,” he sympathized. “He stumbled and fell when he entered here about an hour ago.”
“No,” the doctor informed wisely. “It’s some shock which has suffered in the last few minutes.”
After a careful scrutiny of Fred Van’s face, the manager exchanged understanding glances with Shorty.
At an early hour the next day, the two were sitting in the warm confines of the poolroom. Shorty was nervously waiting for the sport sheet of the newspaper the manager was perusing.
“What’s it say, Boss? Lemme have a look? Can I have the sheet next?”
With a clowning air and a chuckle, the manager tore a zigzag piece from the edition, handing it to him as one feeds a puppy. It read: