FICTION

LAUGH ’EM AND LEAVE ’EM

BURT SIMS October 15 1949
FICTION

LAUGH ’EM AND LEAVE ’EM

BURT SIMS October 15 1949

LAUGH ’EM AND LEAVE ’EM

FICTION

BURT SIMS

AFTER Harry Spencer had wandered around a while, inhaling the fabulous salt air, soaking up the fabulous sunshine and feeling a little out of place with all his clothes on, he paused in front of a beachfront restaurant.

It wasn’t Mocambo. But it was clean and inviting. It was called Randall’s.

He tried to shrug away that emptiness which Vic Matti, the agent, had drilled some vague place inside him. But the other one, the one in his stomach . . .

He fingered the ninety-seven cents which made brave, jingling sounds against the stub of a one-way boat ticket. “Und zo-o-o-o,” he murmured dialect to the noonday brilliance, “the hearty man ate a condemned meal.” He went inside, managing to swagger just a little.

The counter girl, her back to him, was removing some plates from a low shelf. She straightened, brushing a wisp of hair, light brown like maple, out of her eyes. As she saw his frank appreciation a flush crept, up her tanned face.

“Yes?”

He grinned. “Maybe you could do me something. I saw a lot of clubs down by the dock. Any of them looking for talent?”

“No.”

“Fast question, fast answer,” sighed Harry. “The fried shrimp, please. Easy on the ground glass.”

Something would turn up, he told himself. It always did. Santa Lucia was a vacation island. There were lots of people on it; people with money. Give them some laughs in return, and there were worse ways to make a living.

Harry had given laughs to a great many people in the clubs he’d worked in back East. They had told him he was very funny; a born comedian. He liked laughter. Perhaps because he had never known enough of it, himself, growing up.

He liked laughter so much that sometimes he willingly made a glorious fool of himself just to hear the sound of it. Trying for laughs had become a habit, as much a part of him as his tentative grin, his restlessness, his long face with its sardonic eyebrows. Only, sometimes, people didn’t understand.

WHEN she had brought the shrimp, he said, “I wasn’t making a pass. I’m serious. Maybe you’re not the right one to ask.”

She was slim with steady grey eyes that were wary. Working in a resort, he thought, would do that for a girl. “I’ve lived here all my life,” she said quietly. “My father owns this restaurant. If there was a spot open I’d know.”

“What an island!” He smiled. “All the natives are hostile.”

“No. But if you’re a drifter, you picked the wrong place. These clubs hire on full summer engagements. Unless someone gets sick, or jumps the island.”

“Always room for a good man,” said Harry, “to coin a cliche.” He began to worry a little. “Listen/’ he said seriously, “I’ve been told I’m very funny.” She looked at him with tolerance. He got it, all right. “I was okay for the smaller places,” he explained. “I took a crack at the big time—radio. The guy said I wasn’t quite ready, yet.”

Well, it hadn’t been exactly like that, admitted Harry to himself as she moved away. Vic Matti had said he smelled out loud. Matti had said he was about as funny as a coroners’ convention. Matti had waved that cigar with an imperiousness that often comes with quick success. “People come to me looking for top, grade A merchandise. They take my word for it. I can’t afford to give them a bum deal, and I got to make up my mind fast. It’s a fast business, y’know.” Matti had squinted. “About you, kid, it’s made up. Your stuff is stale.” Thirty-seven clubs ringing with laughter had told Harry he was ready for big time. Only, Vic Matti, the agent, the guy who could make you or break you —well, Matti wasn’t having any. But he will, thought Harry; he will. That's what I get for chasing him. I should have him chasing me.

The girl came back with coffee. “It’s like fishing,” Harry told her. “Last time, I wæ the fish and another guy was the bait. Whoever heard of a fish hooking the bait?” He wagged a solemn finger. “Next time, I’m the bait.”

She looked at him as though he were very odd. Casually, he \ cocked one of his trick eyebrows. \ He could raise one and lower the other, simultaneously. It heightened his puckish, quizzical appearance. “ ’Tis indeed a black day for the Black Irish,” Harry mourned in dialect. “Could I borrow a small knife; say, hara-kiri size? Or maybe you’ll lend me a cork and an eggbeater, and I’ll whip that twenty miles back to the mainland.” His flippant ruefulness drew a smile. She said, with a casual air, “It’s just an idea—but if you really want a job . . .”

About Harry, the comedian, who played everything for laughs. And Lois, the beautiful eyeful, who’d play love only for keeps

She was beginning to like him. Harry brightened. “If I really want to eat ...”

“The Santa Lucia Company could use a couple of drivers. Those big buses that take the tourists around. All you have to do is drive, and talk.” “My old man used to drive a truck,” said Harry. “I inherited the touch. It pays money?”

“So I hear. It’s the transportation office, across the street. The man’s name is Peterson.”

Harry, reading something in her tone, nodded pleasantly. “Convenient. The boy friend?”

The flush was on her face again. “Listen, funny man. If the people on this island like you, you’ll never want to leave. If they don’t, you won’t wear well in that job. And one way to have them like you . . .”

“I catch.” Harry was grinning. “Mind my own business. You know, you’re cute. Nice, too.” He poured his ninety-seven cents on the counter. I’ll be back for dinner.”

Peterson was as tall as Harry, but heavier, with sun-bleached hair, big hands and shrewd friendly eyes. He was saying, “You get a discount in the company restaurant . . .”

“I’ll be eating in Randall’s,” said Harry. “Good food, excellent view of the counter girl.”

Peterson leaned back. “I’ve seen a lot of guys like you,” he observed mildly. “Drift onto the island; drift off.

Every summer. They never find what they want because they don’t know what it looks like.” His voice stayed even. “A lot of them have made passes at Lois Randall. She doesn’t like it. Neither do I.”

“Pal,” said Harry, getting up, “I am free, broke, and twenty-nine. I will herd one of your unarmored tanks all over this junior paradise. I will make your customers split their wallets with laughter, and gold will run in the streets. I also will eat in Randall’s, and any place else I choose.” He smiled easily, knowing he was pushing his luck but liking the independence. “Provided, that is, and it says here, I still get the job.’.’

Peterson appraised him for a long moment, then shrugged. “You’re the kind who has to find out everything the hard way. Personally, I’d tell you

to keep right on drifting, buddy—if we weren’t opening the airport this week. We need drivers.” He tossed some pamphlets on the desk. “Read these. You’ll ride with Dennis a couple of days. Martin, across the hall, will fix up your insurance and assign you a cottage. Be here at eight in the morning.”

Harry just sat, and grinned. “Care to rent a good watch?”

Peterson hesitated, then drew a few crumpled bills from his pocket. He separated two. “It’d go farther in a company restaurant.”

“Do tell,” said Harry pleasantly. “Do tell.” Waiting with Castro, the porter, Harry leaned against the wall of the airport control tower. The morning sun was full of heat, sowing beads of perspiration along his upper lip. “Castro, old tamale, things go pretty slow around here, don’t they?”

“Not for you,” Castro observed. “A raise, already, in three weeks.”

Harry considered. “And all I had to do,” he said, working his eyebrow, “was beat Peterson ovei the head with the Seabreeze Rallroom.”

Castro’s chunky shoulders shook. Laughter was inside him. “Harry, you make everybody laugh. Now, if only you were as funny as Flip Nash maybe you’d be doing that radio show from the ballroom tomorrow night.”

“Nash has a good style,” said Harry. “And good writers. Good writers, old tamale.” In the heat bis uniform clung moistly to him. He flipped his cigarette into the dust. “One big break, that’s all you need. What’s Nash got that I haven’t got—besides talent?” he added sardonically.

Castro shrugged. “Like you say, maybe the writers.” He gave Harry a sly, quick glance. “But things go good for you here. Peterson likes your ideas. Two changes he made in the bus route—the raise.” He paused “And I see you eat all the time in Randall’s ...” Harry turned slowly. “Why, it’s terrific.” His tone belittled himself. “It takes me three weeks so she’ll say something besides, ‘Soup or salad?’ Three weeks, and now tonight I get to walk home with her. Terrific!”

Castro glanced away. “Amigo, I have live here forty-two years. A long time I worked in Randall's. She is a fine girl, I tell you.”

Harry squinted into the haze that merged sky and ocean, as though trying to see what he had heard. Castro said softly, “One fine girl. She’s maybe a little bit scared.”

A trim red monoplane racketed across the end of the narrow asphalt runway which striped through the brcwn flatness of the hilltop. It banked sharply into the sun, and Castro said respectfully, “Fellow has his own plane - He makes money, that Flip Nash.” “Money,” said Harry. “What’s money—except everything.”

There were eight compartments, each stretching the width of Harry’s bus. As the passengers climbed in, Nash and the girl in one, the two men behind them, Harry said professionally, “Welcome to Santa Lucia.”

Nash twisted his round face to the two men. “You know what I think, all right. So far the stuff stinks.”

The bald bespectacled one spoke soothingly. “It’ll develop. Humbert’s got more for that tourist sketch.”

“Like poison ivy it’ll develop,” groused Nash, turning his busy eyes on Humbert, who was thin, mustached and nervous. “It sounds like the stuff I was doing ten years ago. You guys get good dough. Don’t you like your work? Let’s produce, produce!”

HARRY adjusted his sunglasses, and plugged in the small microphone which sprouted from his chest harness. Peterson had thought the microphone was a good idea, too. “If you’ll give me your attentior,” Harry suggested, “I’ll be glad to point out some of the . . .”

“Tell him to turn it off,” ordered Nash.

“Driver,” called the bald one. “Never mind.”

Harry pulled out the plug. Town was nine miles away.

“Look,” he heard Humbert’s nervous voice. “After you say, ‘Santa Lucia —that’s a third-degree sunburn overlooking a hangover,’ give ’em this: ‘And, you know, this place is famous, too, for its hunting. Back home, when a wolf is trapped, you get paid a bounty. Over here, you just put up bail.’ ”

“Work on it,” said Nash fretfully. “We should have a wolf gag. This place is full of flesh.”

“Too bad we flew over,” reflected the bald one. “Might have been something come out of a boat trip.” “Boats make me sick,” said the girl. “Make me heave.”

Nash said, “Don’t be plebeian, baby.”

“The boat got a little rough,” the bald one mused. “But nothing like a rough boat trip to bring oui, the best in a man.”

Nash groaned, and held his head. “Vintage 1910. Great Scott, Feldman! That’s older than my ulcer. Let’s produce!”

It went like that for the nine miles. Now and then Harry’s eyes brightened with appreciation. To his practiced ear, even much of the material they discarded held promise of laughter. But Nash was hard to please, and was arguing with the two writers as the group entered the hotel. Harry watched them go, and (bought of Vic Matti and the old bitterness was sharply revived.

He had little appetite for his lunch at the airport. He pulled two more trips, and was back in town for dinner.

IOIS was doing something to the big J coffee urn. Over her shoulder she said, “You had Hendricks in the bus this afternoon, didn’t you?”

Harry nodded. “The country cop.” “Country cop or not, he’s sold on you. He said you had the passengers laughing all the way into town.” “That was the matinee. He ought to try the Starlight Drive the nights I work it. Or he should have been along on the first trip this morning. Flip Nash. Bigger and better laughs.” She turned slowly. “What’s the matter?”

Harry sighed. “Nothing.”

“It’s too bad, really, that you’re a drifter.” She glanced away. “We all like to laugh.”

He shrugged. “I’d never make the big time polishing my pants on that bus seat. But jusl wait till I finish the new routine.”

She was refilling his cup. “And then, off to Hollywood again with your little bag of gags.” Her hand wavered, and coffee spilled in the saucer.

“Where is the lettuce any greener?” he asked lightly, wondering at the edge in her voice. “Or with such big dollar signs on it?”

She wrote out his check in silence. He said, “How soon are you off? And what’s this dialogue about going straight home?”

“Halfan hour.” She sounded almost sullen. “You’ll never understand it, but homes aren’t so bad, really. Some people like homes.”

“Home,” he said. “That’s the last resort.”

She walked away, slim and graceful, and there was something strong and determined in the set of her shoulders. He felt again the attraction for her, and a vague doubt crawled into him and would not be shrugged away.

HE WENT outside. The evening freshness of the sea air had a fullbodiedness in his lungs. Lights were coming on, but there was little garishness. There was a restful, small-town leisureliness to this place. For once, strolling along a now familiar street, he didn’t feel as though he were pushing hard to get somewhere.

And that, he thought suddenly, was the trouble. He’d have to start pushing, and soon. He knew himself to be an extrovert. A successful comedian had to be. And when appreciation was not forthcoming, he withered, and all tastes were bitter.

The casual appreciation of those now around him was not enough. He needed it, instead, from those who mattered; those who would come to see him, pay to hear him. It went a long time back . . .

He had been one of seven children —and too near the top. He hadn’t been a baby long enough before others were usurping his place. The only way he had been able to get more than a minimum of attention was to do better tricks, or be louder.

ft had become a pattern, then a livelihood. But dimly aware of all this, he only knew that something was lacking; an appreciation from someone who mattered. And since there was no one like that, here on this island, his frustration was a nebulous nagging that galled him.

He was waiting beside the door of the restaurant when Lois came out. She stopped short, and gave him a look he couldn’t fathom. “I’ve changed my mind,” she said. “1 did you a favor once. Now do one for me. Go away.” “Hey,” he said in surprise. “Wait a minute.”

Her eyes wouldn’t meet his, and he had the impression she was fighting something. He fell into step beside her. He felt his face growing red, and he not only didn’t like the feeling, he didn’t understand it. He would have recognized plain embarrassment. This had a pain in it, too. His voice was low'. “I’m not going to get fresh. Get that. At first, three weeks ago— maybe. But—well, I like you, that’s all. It’s that simple. I—I don’t know how else to say it.”

They were going up the street, away from the sea. He felt the wall between them give a little, and he kept walking, mostly because he didn’t quite know how to stop. Presently, quizzically, he said, “Well, there’s always Peterson. You know Peterson. The big, goodlooking boy with the black-snake whip.”

“You know darned well he’s nice.” She had an air of detachment. “Pete’s lived on the island all his life, just as 1 have. He’ll always live here, I think.” “The permanent type.” He could piece some of it together, now. He should have seen it sooner. Nobody wants to be a waitress forever. But she can’t make up her mind about Peterson. He felt a passing satisfaction that she couldn’t, and then quickly lost the thought in his fretting. He didn’t want any part of this. He liked her, that was all. He had just wanted a date, and some laughs.

THEY were beyond the edge of town, and the sidewalks had ended. They walked slowly in the tree-fringed street, past small homes with neat yards. As they passed through the amber veil of a street lamp she turned her face toward him. “Harry, why did you come here?”

He waved a hand. “No matter how thin you slice it, it’s still an island. I felt like an island, after Hollywood.” He paused, and was absorbed in thoughts which left her. “I saw a guy today who has what I want. I’m not kidding anybody, including me. I’m as good as Flip Nash. All I need is the break. And the writers who go with it.” Her sigh was deep. “Did you ever stay anywhere long enough to find out whether you really liked it?”

He was restless. “Maybe, before you know what’s best, you have to try quite a few.”

“This is best for me. Right here on the island. Oh, little trips are all right. But a home, a place to live, it’s here for me. I know it. And I love it.” He frowned. “Maybe you just don’t know any better. You should get around more—”

“Like you do?” She flashed a quick, pitying glance. “From one night club to another? Don’t they all smell the same? Don’t the people look the same? The only difference is some drunks laugh louder than others!”

He cocked an eyebrow. The words had needled him. “Lois, get off it,” he told her. “It’s a nice night, moon coming up . .

“You don’t want to change, do you? You don’t even want to talk about it. I knew I shouldn’t have seen you again. You’re blind! Completely, utterly blind !”

He stared, bewildered at the hurt fury in her voice. “Lois, wait a minute . . .”

He heard her sob, and a hand stung his face. “No!” she cried. “Leave me alone!”

He stood there, hearing her footsteps go swiftly, brokenly, through the darkness, and his hand was slow as it rubbed across his face.

THE NEXT DAY’S sun glinted on the airliner as it sank reluctantly to earth. Watching the ragged knot of passengers move toward his bus, Harry suddenly stiffened. For a moment he forgot the impending radio show which gave the man good reason to be here. He pushed his sunglasses tightly against his face, and pulled his hat down a trifle, wondering if Vic Matti would recognize him.

The agent, talking energetically to a slender, tight-lipped man, climbed into the fourth compartment. In the rear-view mirror Harry noted that Matti had grown no taller, had lost none of the fleshiness around his bullfrog jowls.

He plugged in the mike and headed the bus toward town. “Welcome to Santa Lucia,” he said amiably. Then the thought struck him.

Harry hesitates, his mind racing and a strange tautness suddenly gripping his stomach. “Yes, folks, Santa Lucia . . .” His fingers tightened on the wheel. He could try it, just once. “That’s a third-degree sunburn, overlooking a hang-over.”

The mirror reflected some expectant smiles, and he heard a ripple of laughter. Matti, frowning, stopped talking. If they'll laugh, thought Harry, you’ll listen, Vic. Laughter is a fat dollar sign, Vic.

Nine miles, he told himself tightly,

in which to gamble. He had gags, lots of them, in a new routine. And he had several others—that belonged to Flip Nash.

Matti would hear some of them later, from Nash. But, perhaps, too much later. With a contract between them, Vic Matti managing Harry Spencer, the agent might work hard for him. For both of them. If he could hold Matti’s interest, thought Harry; if he could put it over now, in the bus, that contract might come. It could be the beginning, the one big break.

“I think you’ll like Santa Lucia,” said Harry. It was a small house, but the laughs would never count more. His palms were wet inside the driving gloves. “People sleep late over here. In fact, in the mornings the place looks uninhabited.” He timed it smoothly, “And, at night it looks uninhibited.” The laughter was quick, and appreciative. He had them now. They had come for a good time and he was giving it to them right from the start. He rode the crest. He made cracks about the scenery. He pointed out historic landmarks, and had humorous footnotes for each observation. He set himself a fast pace, and desperately made it look easy.

“You’ll like the Seabreeze Ballroom,” he promised. “You meet so many interesting elbows.”

The mirror showed Vic Matti’s hard, speculative eyes trained on him. The bus ground around a bluff, and the town spread below them. Harry said casually, “And we even have a bowling alley. You know, my uncle was quite a bowler. In fact, he once bowled twelve strikes in a row—before he could get his thumb out of the ball.”

They were laughing when he let them out at the hotel. He rested his arms on the wheel, infinitely tired. A voice said, “Say, driver . . .”

He looked out the window, to his left. Vic Matti and the slender man stood below, regarding him with open interest. A puzzled expression flickered across Matti’s face. “Say, you look—” Harry tried to sound calm. “Maybe you liked it.”

“Why—yeah. Some of it.” “Possibilities,” approved the slender man briskly, “possibilities. My name is Beider. Of Hart, Ryan and Beider.” “Advertising,” said Harry. He peeled off his sunglasses. Matti nodded slowly. “Sure—Spencer, isn’t it? Larry Spencer.”

“Harry.”

“Yeah. You’ve improved, Spencer. Not terrific, y’understand. But the

delivery is sharp. Very sharp. And the material—”

“Vic, they’re screaming,” said the slender man impatiently. “We have to show them something by Tuesday, or risk losing the account. Material we can get. Comedians, that’s something else.” He turned to Harry. “Suppose you meet us later, in the hotel. About five?”

Harry grinned, and relaxed. He had it made. “Sure,” he said. “Why not?”

HE SHOWERED and changed, and started back to the hotel. The bitterness was gone; the world was right, again; he had a new confidence.

As he turned a corner briskly he collided with Hendricks, the cop, a heavy-shouldered man with a trace of sad wisdom in his face. Hendricks grinned. “I’ll run you in. A traffic hazard.”

Harry grinned back. “Don’t slow me, Sherlock. I’m headed for the long green, the happy cabbage.”

“Half the time it’s riddles to me,” chuckled Hendricks, “but you say it; funny, anyway. I owe you a lot of laughs, Harry. We all do.”

“Could be,” said Harry lightly, “that I’ll be handing you a lot more. And soon. My big break finally broke. Meanwhile, happy raiding.”

“You’re leaving?” Hendricks’ eyes sobered. “Now, that’s a mean trick. You were getting to be one of the family.”

“I never was the family type.” Harry’s smile felt a little crooked. “But I kid you not, chief. It’s been swell. It really has.”

“I sort of thought . . .” Hendricks stopped, and shrugged. “Well—good luck, Harry.”

Harry went on, past the familiar club fronts, the novelty shops, the howling alley. Yes, he realized, it had been swell. One of the family, Hendricks had said. A queer surge of pleasure went through him. For the first time he thought about leaving the people instead of leaving the place, and he frowned.

He realized he was consciously hurrying toward the hotel, and he recalled the leisurely pace of the past few weeks. Once more, he was pushing himself to get somewhere. A tiny discontent slowed his steps, and when he saw the windows of Randall’s across the street he stopped.

Someone brushed him, and gave a passing greeting. Up the street, one of the speedboat men waved casually. Even as Harry paused there, others hailed him familiarly. It heightened his sense of belonging.

He didn’t quite know how to handle it—but he knew he had to see her again. He took a deep breath, almost as though for a plunge into icy water, and crossed the street.

She stood in strained silence as he toyed with the menu. “Just coffee, I guess.”

She placed the cup before him, and was writing a check when he said, “I’m leaving the island tonight.”

Her hand paused. “With the little bag of gags,” Harry said. “I’m getting a chance at the big time.”

He wondered why it required effort to sound enthused. Her calm grey eyes were studying him, and he couldn’t tell whether she was sorry to see him go. With an abruptness that was almost pain, he wished she were.

“That’s— that’s fine—Pete is getting a new job, too. In the main office. Assistant supervisor of concessions.”

“Great,” said Harry. She wasn’t

sorry to see him go. He should have guessed that. “A nice guy.”

“They—they’ll need another transportation chief.” She took a sharp breath, as though for courage, and glanced away. “I thought you knew he had recommended you. He told them you had a lot of good ideas. You —I’ve always known you didn’t belong on a bus.”

Harry’s heart jumped swiftly and i unaccountably against his ribs. His throat was dry. “Last night,” he said slowly. “You wanted nothing to do with me. Was it because of Pete?” Her chin came up. “There’s not much point in talking about it, now, is there? I know the way you are. Loose-footed. A drifter. A home never lasts for you.” Her lips trembled, and she turned her i head.

With a faint shock, he glimpsed the torment in her eyes. It hit him hard then, that she had been afraid of him. Not of love, for there was no helping that, but of the way it would end. i “Harry—please. Please go away.”

; He sat very still, remembering the : casual pace, the feeling of belonging;

; the living that had needed only one thing to make it complete. He knew, now, what it was.

t “Stop that,” Harry said softly. “Go away? Are you crazy?” He reached i for her hand. “If I’d ever leave, I’d leave now. I shopped a long time for this break. It’s a tough racket, the i laughs racket. Anything goes—except getting caught.” The grin came on him, then, masking the precariousness he felt as he waited for an answer. “Do you know what I’m saying?”

; Her eyes searched his face. He said, “I’ll be the greatest transportation chief in history. By the time I’m [ through, we’ll own the whole island.” Her smile formed slowly, most of it in her eyes, believing and proud and : radiant. He said quite humbly, “I’m

; not that good, baby. Not yet, if ever.

But it’s wonderful to know you think ; so.” He leaned across the counter. “I i need this,” and he took her face in his hands and kissed her.

Someone applauded, and he heard ; friendly laughter, and behind him Hendricks, the cop, said, “So. At last.” Harry turned, the cool softness still on his lips, and grinned shakily. “It was close,” he said. “But take it easy. Remember—I’m a family man.”