Damon Runyon

August 2 1941

One afternoon in an early November, I am sitting in Chesty Charles’ little Sharkskin Grill on Biscayne Boulevard in the city of Miami, Florida, chatting of this and that with a guy by the name of High-C Homer, who is called by this name because he loves to sing songs in a real high voice.

In fact, Homer tells me that when he is much younger he wishes to become a singer by trade and tries out one amateur night at the old Colonial Theater in New York but he says professional jealousy is very strong at the time and somebody in the audience pegs a turnip at him while he is singing Sweet Alice, Ben Bolt and hits him on the Adam’s apple and affects his vocal cords so his voice is never again good enough for the stage, but all right for back rooms.

Anyway, when he sees there is no hope for him in a musical career, Homer has to find something else to do and what he does is the best he can, which is one thing and another, and he is explaining to me in the Sharkskin Grill that even doing the best he can, he is not doing so good when in comes a fuzz by the name of Finnegan, a fuzz being a way of saying a plain-clothes copper, who steps up to Homer and speaks to him as follows:

“Homer, the chief of police will consider it a favor if you will kindly bid us farewell.”

“Why?” Homer says. “What is his idea?”

“Does the chief have to have one?” Finnegan asks.

“No,” Homer says, “by no means and not at all. I am just wondering.”

“Well,” Finnegan says, “when he first mentions your name he requests me to bring you in because it seems a large touch comes off in West Palm Tuesday night and right away the chief thinks of you. But,” Finnegan says, “I remember seeing you in the police station all night Tuesday night trying to square that traffic violation, so you cannot also be in West Palm and when I speak of this to the chief he says all right but to suggest your departure anyway. You may thank me if you wish.”

“Thanks,” Homer says. “Do you mind telling me the details of the touch to which you refer?”

“Oh,” Finnegan says, “it is a pay-off swindle. They beat an old simkin from Iowa for fifty thousand tears of blood.”

“A fifty-er?” Homer says. “My goodness, this is important moo. But. Finnegan,” he says, “I am not in the pay-off world and I do not see how anybody can associate me with such incidents. I am an operator on the race courses and quite upright and legitimate.”

“Well,” Finnegan says, “if you call skinning marks on those phony tip sheets you peddle legitimate, maybe you are legit, but perhaps the chief looks through the files on you. I seem to be able to remember some things myself.”

“Never mind,” Homer says. “Tell the cheese of police goodbye for me, Finnegan, and the same to you.”

Then Homer thinks a while and finally he guesses he will go over to Tampa and he invites me to accompany him and as it is quite a while before the races start in Miami and I have nothing on my mind at the moment and the fuzz also gives me some severe looks, I accept the invitation.

So Homer goes to a parking lot not far away where he keeps an old bucket parked and presently we are rolling along the Tamiami Trail headed west, and as we journey along Homer sings several songs to me that sound very soothing but all the time he seems to be in deep thought and finally he sighs and says to me like this:

“Well,” Homer says, “fifty thou is undoubtedly a splendid tally but I am glad I am not in on it. Honesty is the best policy, to be sure. There are no handholds on a wrong dollar. The way of the transgressor is hard. But,” he says, “if it is the guys I think it is, they at least owe me the courtesy of a refusal to participate because of past favors rendered. I never hear a word from them.”

Then Homer begins singing again and I get to thinking that it is really most remarkable that there are still marks in this world for the pay-off, as the pay-off is really a very old-fashioned dodge in which the marks are convinced that they are being let in on crooked horse races and are permitted to win a while in an astonishing manner, but when they commence asking about being paid off they are told they must first prove they will be able to settle if they happen to lose.

So the marks generally send to their banks and get the cash money to prove this, as the pay-off guy never picks marks who do not have cash money in banks, and the next thing anybody knows the money disappears and so do the pay-off guys. Furthermore, the marks seldom squawk, as the pay-off guys are cute enough to pick marks who cannot afford to let it become noised about that they are trying to make a few dishonest dibs, though it is well known to one and all that when such a mark does squawk it is the loudest squawk ever heard on land or sea.

There is no doubt that the pay-off requires great perseverance and much preparation and expense, but personally I do not approve of this method of making a living, as it calls for much deceit.

Now the Tamiami Trail is a road that runs from Miami toward Tampa and vice versa through the Everglades, and the Everglades is a big stretch of flat country that makes you feel very lonesome indeed after the sun goes down. And soon after dusk it comes on to blow and after a while it is quite a high breeze and, in fact, the wind is picking up our old can in one place and setting it down in another yards away and this makes riding in it a trifle bumpy.

Furthermore, it begins raining more than somewhat and it is darker than a yard down a bear’s throat except when it lightnings and I tell Homer it may be a good idea to pull up and wait until the storm blows over. Homer says he quite agrees with me and that in fact he is looking for a gaff he knows of which ought to be somewhere along about where we are at the moment, and I tell him he better find it very shortly as it does not look as if the old rattle-and-jar can hold the road much longer.

Finally we notice some streaks of light through the dark and the rain off to one side of the road and Homer says this must be the spot and he turns the car in that direction and we come on a long, low frame building which I can see seems to be some kind of a jook, which is a sort of a roadhouse where refreshments are sold and dancing goes on and I do not know what all else.

Homer runs his old pail as close as possible to the side of the building where the other cars are parked and we get out and he locates a door that figures to open outward and we pull on it together with the wind pushing against us for several minutes before we can pull it wide enough to ease inside. And there we are in a long, narrow room with a number of tables scattered around in it and a small bar and an old piano on one side and with big gas lamps swinging back and forth from the ceiling as the wind shakes the building.

There are maybe half a dozen guys in the joint sitting at the tables and behind the bar is a short, stocky-built female party of maybe half past thirty-eight, to give her a few hours the best of it. She is by no means fashionably dressed and, in fact, she has on a short-sleeved ragged sweater and her brown hair with streaks of gray in it is flying every which way about her head and she is far from beautiful. In fact, she is strictly a blouwzola, but when Homer sees her he seems greatly pleased and he walks up to the bar and speaks to her as follows:

“Hello, Barbecue,” he says. “Big wind outside.”

“Big wind inside now,” she says. “Well, Homer,” she says, “what line of larceny are you engaged in this season?”

“Look, Barbecue,” Homer says, “why do you always speak of larceny to me when I come to pay you a social call? It hurts my feelings, especially,” he says, “when I am now as honest as the day is long.”

“The days are getting shorter,” this Barbecue says. “Homer,” she says, “I never ask you to pay me any social calls. In fact, it seems to me that when you are here a year ago I tell you to please remain away forever. It is the time you persuade me to bet forty dollars of my hard-earned funds on some catfish in a race at Hialeah stating you know something, and it is not in yet. It is also the time I miss a tenner from my damper after you go, Homer,” she says. “I am always hearing strange things about you from the cops who come around asking questions whenever you are in this part of the country, and besides,” she says, “you remind me of gloomy days. But,” she says, “I will not turn a dog out on such a night. Sit down, Homer, and keep quiet and do not try to talk me into anything,” she says.

So we go to a table and sit down and Homer seems very sad and finally I say to him:

“Homer,” I say, “what is the idea of this old komoppo speaking to you in such a discourteous manner? Who is she and how well do you know her?”

“I know her well,” Homer says. “She is no komoppo. In fact, I think she is quite handsome if you look at her from a certain angle. She is once my wife. Her name is Sadie but everybody calls her Barbecue since she opens this drum because she specializes in barbecued spareribs, which is a very tasty morsel, indeed. She divorces me years ago because she claims my way of life is not substantial. But,” Homer says. “I still love her. Every time I see her I love her more than ever. I hear she does very nicely here, too. I am always hoping to win her back again, but she seems somewhat hostile this evening. Can I always pick winners?” Homer says.

Naturally, I am somewhat surprised to learn that Homer High-C is ever married and I am more surprised that he seems to be earning the torch for such a looking pancake as this Barbecue. Personally I will just as soon carry one for a crocodile, but, of course, I do not mention these sentiments to Homer. On the contrary I express my deepest sympathy for him and about now Homer notices two guys sitting at a table in a corner away back in the rear of the room and gives them a hello. It is not a large hello and, in fact, it is a very small hello and they hello him back just as small and maybe smaller and Homer lowers his voice to a whisper and says to me like this:

“The big guy is Dandy Jock McQueen out of St. Louis,” he says. “The little guy is Johnny Aquitania. They are very rapid guys in every way, shape, manner and form.”

“What is their business?” I say.

“They have a pay-off background,” Homer says. “Now I can understand the touch Finnegan the fuzz speaks of because these parties are connected with a pay-off store which operates out of Tampa. Yes,” Homer says, “it will be a privilege and a pleasure to me to get a glaum at the contents of the little brown suitcase under the table there. I will almost guarantee it contains the beesom they take off the marks in West Palm and they are undoubtedly on their way back to Tampa with it.”

I am looking the guys over when there is a noise at the front door and in comes a guy and a pretty thing and the guy is dragging what seems to be a big bull fiddle in a zippered-up canvas case behind him, a bull fiddle being a large musical instrument about six feet long which is sometimes called a bass viol and which is played with great zest by musicians in orchestras. In fact, I recognize the guy as a party by the name of Juliano who has an orchestra of his own in a night trap in Miami where I go occasionally though I do not know him personally and I do not remember him playing a bull fiddle, either. What I remember him playing is a clarinet and very hot, too.

He is a young guy and the pretty with him is also young and she is wearing a long raincoat and has a felt hat pulled down to her eyes but I can see enough of her face to judge that she is quite a lovely object to behold, if you like blondes, and I like blondes. They sit down at a table not far from Homer and me and Juliano lays the bull-fiddle case down on the floor beside him and they both glance around in a way that causes me to figure that they are somewhat agitated.

But naturally I also figure their agitation comes of their experience in the storm outside and I am thinking that they make a fine-looking young couple together when I happen to observe the bull-fiddle case more closely and I say to Homer like this:

“Homer,” I say, “I think there is something in the bull-fiddle case that is not a bull fiddle.”

“Why?” Homer says.

“Because,” I say, “it is something too limp for a bull fiddle and I notice it pulls heavy for a bull fiddle when the guy drags it in. Besides,” I say, “you do not lay a bull fiddle flat on the floor. What you do with a bull fiddle is to stand it up against the wall.”

Well, at this, Homer takes a good glaum himself at the bull-fiddle case and finally he says:

“No,” he says, “it is not a bull fiddle in the bull-fiddle case. It is a body. I see a finger sticking out of a place where the zipper comes open a little. But,” he says, “I cannot tell from the finger whether it is a male or a female body.”

“Homer,” I say, “why do you suppose they are carrying a body around in a bull-fiddle case?”

“Oh,” Homer says, “perhaps it is just a hobby. Anyway,” he says, “it is a live body because the finger just wiggles.”

Well, I can see the finger for myself and sure enough, it is wiggling though not very much and I have a notion to go over and ask Juliano and the pretty what is the idea of a body in the bull-fiddle case, only I am afraid they may think I am inquisitive. Then Juliano seems to notice that Homer and I are glauming the bull-fiddle case though he does not seem to observe the finger himself and in fact by this time the finger disappears from view. But presently Juliano says something to the pretty and they get up and go out the front door again, this Juliano dragging the bull-fiddle case after him.

We can hear their car starting even above the wind but they are not gone more than five minutes before they are back again but without the bull-fiddle case and Juliano stops at the bar and remarks to Barbecue that the breeze is too strong for them to think of continuing their journey.

They sit down at their table again and Homer whispers to me that their going out is just a stall to plant the bull-fiddle case in their car because the chances are our gazing at it makes Juliano nervous and he also tells me not to stare at them any more as it is most impolite. So I pay no more attention to them and neither does Homer and they pay no more attention to us, which makes it even, but continue talking to each other very earnestly with their heads close together and finally Homer whispers to me like this:

“I am commencing to be a little curious about the bull-fiddle case,” Homer says. “Follow me,” he says, “but,” he says, “make it nonchalant.”

Then he gets up but instead of going toward the front he saunters in the direction of the back end of the room and as I tail him I can see that Homer is somewhat familiar with these premises. He leads the way into a kitchen where an old colored guy with a bald head is cooking meat on a revolving spit over a charcoal brazier and producing very savory odors, indeed, and then on into a small room opening off the kitchen which I can see is a sort of storeroom. It is full of sacks and boxes and there are vegetables and other truck hanging from the rafters including a middling-sized dressed pig and Homer points to this pig and says:

“Barbecue personally raises them and butchers them for her business,” he says. “She is really a smart broad,” he says. “Do you wonder I love her?”

Now Homer goes out a door of the storeroom into the wind and I go with him and he moves around the parked cars fumbling in each one in the dark until he finds what he is looking for, which is the bull-fiddle case. It is jammed in the back seat of a big limousine and Homer lifts it out and drags it into the storeroom where he unzippers the case from top to bottom and what falls out of it but a little tiny gray-haired guy with a little tiny gray mustache who is in dinner clothes and whose hands are tied in front of him with cords.

His feet are also tied and he has a gag in his mouth, and naturally Homer and I are greatly surprised at this spectacle and Homer says to the guy like this:

“What is the idea of putting yourself in a bull-fiddle case?” he says.

But the guy just rolls his eyes and it is plain to be seen that he cannot speak with the gag in his mouth, so Homer outs with his pocket knife and cuts all the cords and lifts the guy to his feet and says:

“Come, come,” he says. “Please explain this hiding in a bull-fiddle case, will you? It is not dignified for a party of your years.”

“They put me in it,” the little guy finally says. “My wife Dimples and Juliano. She hits me over the head with a blunt instrument when I am not looking and when I regain consciousness I am tucked in this bull-fiddle case. I have a terrible headache. They think I am dead and are driving out into the Glades to cast my remains into a swamp. I hear them discussing the matter when I revive in the bull-fiddle case. My name is Greebins.”

“Tut, tut,” Homer says. “This sounds most unconstitutional. What is their idea?”

“Dimples is in love with Juliano,” Greebins says. “She wishes to get rid of me so she can acquire my money and marry Juliano and live happily ever afterward. Well,” he says, “I cannot blame her. I am nearly three times her age and by no means vivacious, and Dimples enjoys laughter and music and the rumba.”

“Well,” Homer says, “now you can step in and confront them and they will think they are seeing a ghost and after we scare them half to death we will turn them over to the law, although,” he says, “personally I am opposed to doing the law any favors.”

“No,” Greebins says. “I will not confront them now. It will be too great a shock to Dimples. She is a nervous little thing. Let us consider this situation.”

Then he sits down on a box and I suggest to Homer that while we are doing this considering, Juliano may miss us from the scene inside and become uneasy and take it into his head to see if his bull-fiddle case is still where he places it and not finding it, he and the pretty may fan off and we will have nothing to consider and Homer says this is undoubtedly true and that we must not waste too much time.

At this moment, the old colored guy comes into the storeroom and removes the dressed pig from its hook on the rafter, probably with the idea of lugging it into the kitchen and carving it up, but Homer stops him and takes the pig himself and puts it in the bull-fiddle case and zippers it up tight. Then Homer goes out into the wind again dragging the bull-fiddle case and when he returns he says:

“Now,” he says, “we can consider at our leisure. I put the bull-fiddle case back in their car, pig and all, so if they investigate they will find everything in order.”

“Why,” Greebins says, “you are really a genius. You settle the whole problem. If I confront them now it will not only be a great shock to Dimples’ nervous system but they will flee in dismay and I may never see her again. But if we let them go on their way and dispose of this bull-fiddle case in a swamp thinking I am still in it, they will not know I am still alive until Dimples tries to collect my money. Then,” he says, “when she finds she is unable to do this while I am alive, she will return to me because Dimples cannot do without money and Juliano does not have a quarter. Of course,” Greebins says, “it is somewhat humiliating to use a pig as a stand-in. I will prefer a lamb.”

“Greebins,” Homer says, “do you mean to state that you will take her back after all this? Why?”

“I love her,” Greebins says.

“Ah,” Homer says. “I see your point. Well,” he says, “you remain out of sight in the kitchen until the storm passes and they leave and we will drive you back to Miami where you can await developments. That is,” Homer says, “if my car is not blown there already.”

So Homer and I go back to the large room and nobody seems to notice our return any more than they do our departure and it may be because one and all now have something else to think about, which is the way the building is shaking in the wind. In fact, everyone is just sitting still looking somewhat perturbed and there is no conversation and finally Barbecue speaks up and says like this:

“Listen,” Barbecue says, “is this a wake, or what? Homer,” she says, “sing something, will you? I will play for you.”

Then she goes over to the old piano and begins playing and what she plays is Sweet Alice, Ben Bolt, and Homer sings as follows:

“Oh, don’t you remember,

Sweet Alice, Ben Bolt,

Dah-dah, de, dah-dah,

Dah, de dah.”

“Homer,” Barbecue says, “a little less of the dah-de-dah stuff and more words.”

“I do not remember the words,” Homer says. “I do not sing this song in years. Not since I used to sing it to you. Barbecue,” he says, “you know I still love you. What about you and me trying it again?”

“Homer,” she says, “you are not really a bad guy at heart and I like you, but,” she says, “you are loaded with larceny and I fear you always will be. Come back a year from today and if you can tell me you live 100 per cent on the square during this period, there is a chance for you.”

Well, all of a sudden there is quite a crash and the roof over the rear of the room caves in, and it caves in over the spot where the piano is located, too, and Homer pulls Barbecue off the stool and out of the way just in time and all of us go to the front part of the joint where a piece of the roof still holds, including this Juliano and the pretty, who is sobbing and carrying on in such a manner that I can see she is indeed high-strung. Personally, I flatten out on the floor and the others soon follow my example and now there is nothing else to do but to lie there and to hope and trust that the rest of the gaff does not go.

Finally when daylight comes on, the wind dies down and the sun shines and we can look around and see what happens and it is something of a mess, to be sure, though not as bad as you will expect. The parked cars outside the building seem to be pushed around no little, but I can see that at least one of them is not damaged, as I observe Juliano and the pretty departing lickity-split with the bull-fiddle case bouncing up and down in the back of the car, they are going so rapidly. And what becomes of them I do not know and, furthermore, I do not care, as I consider them most unworthy characters, indeed, though from what I see of the pretty I judge Greebins calls the turn in figuring her to come back to him when she discovers the true situation about his money.

Now I remember that the guys Homer High-G mentions as Dandy Jock McQueen and Johnny Aquitania never seem to be among us after the roof caves in, so I go to the spot where they are sitting the last time I see them and I behold them under a pile of rubbage, lying quite still, and I tell Homer that I fear these parties are no more.

“Yes,” Homer says, “I know this several hours ago. You do not notice it, but during the confusion I crawl over there figuring to help them, only to find I am too late. It is very sad. I also secure the little brown suitcase while I am about it. Just as I suspect, it is full of the soft. It is all in neat stacks. I can tell by feeling around in it in the dark. I have a wonderful sense of feeling for banknotes. Yes,” he says, “it contains plenty of moo. I am most fortunate.”

“Why, Homer,” I say, “you do not intend keeping it, do you? It seems to me,” I say, “that there is a law requiring you to turn this property over to the heirs of the deceased.”

“Can this be true?” Homer says. “Well,” he says, “such a course will only lead to legal complications and take a lot of time. I am going to South America and establish a home and live there honestly on these funds for a year from date to keep my promise to Barbecue. Then I will return and we will resume our happiness where we leave off. Do I tell you she kisses me for yanking her away from the piano and saving her life? But, come,” Homer says, “let us find our friend Greebins and return to Miami.”

Well, as we are making ready to depart Barbecue comes up to Homer and puts her arms around him and gives him a large hug and says to him like this:

“Be strong, Homer,” she says. “Think of me when you feel temptation and never do the least little thing out of line, because,” she says, “it may come to my ears and cancel my promise. Return to me pure and we will finish our lives together in great happiness. I am going to trust you once more, Homer,” she says.

“Barbecue,” Homer says, “wild horses will not be able to drag me from the straight and narrow path from now on, and,” he says, “this even goes for race horses, too.”

Then he points the car for Miami and we are off, with Barbecue and the old colored guy waving us farewell, and I observe that tears are running down Homer’s cheeks and splashing on the little brown suitcase which is resting in his lap, so I can see that he is deeply touched.

So I suggest to Homer that we go to the Sharkskin Grill and have a few drinks and maybe they will cheer Greebins up too, and Homer thinks the drinks a good idea even if they do not cheer Greebins up, and presently we are lined up in front of the Sharkskin Grill bar having these drinks when who comes in but Finnegan, the fuzz, and he walks up to Homer and says:

“Hello,” he says. “I am very glad to see you again, Homer, although it seems to me I tell you to take it on the lammeroo out of here just yesterday. Or am I mistaken?”

“No,” Homer says, “you are not mistaken. I go, but I am driven back by the big storm.”

“What big storm?” Finnegan says. “Do you mean the slight squall over the Glades? Look, Homer,” he says, “you must not speak of such a minor disturbance as a big storm. The chamber of commerce will disapprove of your statement as a knock to our weather, which is wonderful at all times. Anyway,” he says, “I repeat I am glad to see you because I now have a definite order for your arrest.”

“Copper,” Homer says, “I tell you again I am not in the pay-off department. I have nothing whatever to do with the West Palm matter. You may arrest me if you choose but I will immediately summon a lawbooks and sue you for false imprisonment.”

“Well, I choose,” Finnegan says. “Come with me.”

Now all this time Homer is carrying the little brown suitcase and in fact he never loosens his clutch on it for a minute.

And at this point Greebins, who does not say much more than yes or no for several hours, steps up to Homer and taps him on the shoulder and speaks as follows:

“Brother,” Greebins says, “I am trying to think of where I see you before ever since I stand out in the kitchen last night and hear you sing Sweet Alice, Ben Bolt. It just this very instant comes to me. It is years ago at the Colonial Theater and you appear on the stage and sing the same song. You are really terrible both times, but,” he says, “this is neither here nor there. I peg a vegetable at you from the Colonial audience and score a bull’s-eye under your chin. It is the only unconventional conduct of which I am ever guilty and I wish now to make you a belated apology.”

“Ah,” Homer says. “So you are the one? Do you realize,” he says, “that you ruin my whole life? If it is not for your destroying my musical career with your vegetable I will probably still be married to Barbecue and partaking of her profits and never come in contact with such scurvy characters as this copper.”

I am greatly surprised to note that Homer High-C appears to be laboring under strong emotion because he is usually quite calm, no matter what. In fact, he appears to be losing control of himself for the moment. Suddenly he swings this little brown suitcase around his head like Hubbell taking a windup and belts Greebins over the pimple with it, almost knocking him loose from his little gray mustache. It is a blow of such great force that it not only flattens Greebins but it breaks open the suitcase and a number of fat packages of banknotes spill out over the floor and Finnegan picks up one of these packages and observes that the band around it has the name of a Des Moines bank on it.

“Well, well,” Finnegan says. “Well, well, well, well. Des Moines, eh? Iowa, eh? The West Palm swag, eh? Homer,” he says, “how fortunate for me you boff this little old gee with such a weapon as your suitcase, although, Homer,” he says, “it strikes me as most unsportsmanlike considering the difference in your ages. But if I do not see this money with my own eyes, I will never suspect you of being mixed up in the West Palm skulduggery, especially when I know you are right here in this city when it comes off. I will get promoted for this, I hope,” he says.

“Wait a minute,” Homer says. “What do you mean you will never suspect me? Do you not just put the arm on me for it? Do you not just state you have an order for my arrest?”

“Oh,” Finnegan says, “the arrest order is for something entirely different, Homer. I am wondering why you keep beefing about the payoff thing when I do not even dream of connecting you with it. The chief gets a call today from a biscuit by the name of Barbecue who runs an eating joint out on the Trail and who states that she can prove by the eye-witness testimony of a colored party who works for her that you rob her of a pig. Come on, Homer.”