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Sailors and Cowboys

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Hobie Doyle wasn't much of a drinking man, but he came home from the studio after his first day's work on the Laurentz picture, ears full of the director's plummy voice, and poured himself a big old tumbler full of bourbon. He needed the drink, you see—for Hobie was a perfectionist, and lacking the benefit of a nightcap he was liable to lie awake running lines back and forth and staring at the ceiling. Before Lazy Ol' Moon wrapped its musical number in a single take, the neighbors had lodged no fewer than fourteen noise complaints as a result of his nightly rehearsals, and Mr. Mannix had been awfully sore about it. But now the studio had him set up in his own house up in the hills. It was a little lonely sometimes, sure, but Hobie could sing or run lines—or yodel, depending on the picture—as much as he liked. And he could send his ma a snap of the Hollywood sign, which you could see from the back porch.

He sat in the parlor and sipped at his bourbon until he felt a little less agitated, and then he went upstairs and went to bed, and only lay there muttering Would that it were so simple! for a quarter of an hour before the bourbon lulled him to sleep. He awoke the next morning feeling troubled, and took his time showering and shaving so that the studio car had to buzz up to the house three times before he answered.

"Drop you at the soundstage, Mr. Doyle?" asked his driver as they came through the studio gates.

"Oh, no thank you," said Hobie. "The canteen'll be fine. I want a cup of coffee."

"Don't Mr. Laurentz keep a craft table at the soundstage, Mr. Doyle?"

"He sure does," said Hobie, who had had a rather toothsome tuna fish sandwich off the craft table yesterday. "But they've got a croissant at the canteen I like. S'got chocolate in the middle of it."

At the canteen he found himself in line behind a couple of sailors, which took longer than it should have to strike him as strange. One of them half-glanced back over his shoulder at Hobie, did a double take and then turned all the way around, and all at once Hobie was faced with Burt Gurney himself.

"My brother was in the Navy," said Hobie. "In the war."

Gurney gave him a curious look.

"On account of your costume," said Hobie. He swallowed. "I don't know why I said that."

The frontmost sailor snorted. Burt elbowed him, real subtle like he didn't want Hobie to see. "Good for him," he said to Hobie, not unkindly. "I just dressed up like one to sell war bonds. Hell, I was in every branch of the service by the end."

"I saw you in the newsreels," Hobie said. "You and DeeAnna Moran."

"No kidding. Yeah, we did a whole bond tour together back in '44. They used to make us go to municipal pools. Kind of an aquatic theme. Say, you're the fellow working with Laurence on his new picture, aren't you?"

"Laurentz," said Hobie. He stuck out a hand. "Hobie Doyle," he said.

Gurney took it, gave him an odd look. "Burt," he said. "Burt Gurney. So, how's it going?"

"Oh, on the picture? Well, I, uh. I only got to set yesterday. I think Mr. Laurentz and I are still feeling each other out."

The other sailor snorted again.

"Larry can be a bit of a stickler," said Gurney, ignoring him.

"He does seem particular," said Hobie diplomatically. "But heck, I can take particular. Why, I had a foreman once at the Circle Y up in Cheyenne who made me scrub the feed tubs out with a toothbrush."

"Well, even so," said Burt.

They reached the front of the line, which featured a hairnetted woman who'd probably served coffee to Garbo, to Lamarr, to Valentino. "What'll it be?" she said, leaning hard on an elbow. She had a toothpick hanging from the corner of her mouth.

"I'll have a coffee," said Burt. "Cream, no sugar." He looked at Hobie. "I'm buying," he said.

"Coffee, ma'am," said Hobie. "Black's fine. And one of them chocolate croissants."

"Make it two," Burt said. He smiled at Hobie, a newsreel sort of smile. His teeth were very white, and Hobie found that smile difficult to look away from.

"Do you see the studio dentist?" he asked. "Mr. Mannix said my incisors looked a little horsey."

"The studio guy's a crank," said Burt. "I know a man in Beverly Hills who's a wizard with porcelain. I'll give you his card if you like. But if you ask me—here, gimme a smile, will you? A real movie star smile."

Hobie did.

"If you ask me, Mannix is seeing things," said Burt. "Thanks, sweetheart," he said to the cashier, who'd slid over two coffee cups and a white paper bag. Burt drew out one of the croissants and took an overlarge bite.

"Mmm," he said after he'd swallowed. "You've got good taste." He handed Hobie the bag. He watched him take it, bit his lip as though he was pondering something.

Hobie was abruptly aware of the first sailor, who'd watched the whole exchange while sipping from his own cup of coffee and was now giving the two of them a look that was by turns jaundiced and interested. "Burt," he said presently. "Call time was five minutes ago. You know how Seslum gets; he'll start raving."

"In a minute," said Burt. He looked back at Hobie. "Look, I, uh. I used to work with Larry all the time. I could give you some tips if you like."

"Tips?"

"Sure," said Burt. "Delivery, blocking. That sort of thing. Come to mine tonight, if you're free."

"Tonight?"

"If you're free."

Hobie was free. He nodded. "That'd be awfully hospitable of you," he said. "Thanks, Mr. Gurney."

"Burt," said Burt. "You're on stage twelve, aren't you? I'll have a runner send over my address. Say seven o'clock?"

"Seven's fine," Hobie said.

Burt smiled again, and again Hobie found it difficult to look away.

"Burt," said the sailor. "You've made your date, now—"

"Oh, can it, Jimmy," Burt said. "Sorry," he said to Hobie. "Seven o'clock?"

"Seven it is," said Hobie. "But Mr. Gurney—"

"Burt."

"Burt. Why are you takin' me on like this?"

Burt had turned away already, had nearly reached the canteen door. He turned back. "I just think we sailors and cowboys ought to stick together," he said, and then he opened the door and went out to join his erstwhile shipmate.

When he'd gone Hobie checked his watch. He was due on the soundstage any minute, and he'd have to shake a leg to get there. Even so, he sat on a bench outside and ate his croissant, dipped it in his coffee til the pastry went soggy and the chocolate melted. His ma used to say you ought to take a minute out of every morning to get yourself in order. That was what the pit stop at the canteen was supposed to be, only now Hobie found himself with a heck of a lot more to figure out. He sighed, and swallowed the last bite of croissant. Then he necked his coffee, crumpled the cup and bag and tossed them in the garbage can, which had the Capitol Pictures logo on it. He brushed his hands off on his trousers and, thus fortified, set off in the direction of the soundstage.

***

At five until seven Hobie found himself roping a rosebush at the end of Burt Gurney's drive. He stood outside an imposing set of wrought iron gates. They were unmarked save a house number, which Hobie found reassuring. He heard Baird Whitlock had his initials set into his own gate in curly script, the thought of which made Hobie faintly embarrassed. At seven on the dot he rang the bell, and after a moment the gates swung open. Hobie started up the driveway towards a large white house. There was a fountain out front, lit from within and swarming with goldfish.

He didn't have a chance to knock, for as he came up to the door it opened to reveal Burt Gurney, relieved of his sailor suit and dressed in a pair of wool trousers, loafers, and a collared shirt. He grinned when he saw Hobie. Hobie swallowed.

"You go around like that?" Burt said, indicating Hobie's clothing.

"Like what?" He had on his denims and Rocketbusters, same as ever. He'd worn a new hat for the occasion, and a new yoked shirt with pearl buttons and piping. It had seemed fitting somehow.

"Nevermind," Burt said, a curious look on his face. "Come on in."

Burt's house was outfitted in chrome and pale woods. The furniture was low set and modern, and looked angular enough to bark your shins coming and going, like all the stuff the studio had tried to fill Hobie's old place with. It was nice, Hobie guessed. Wasn't especially comfortable, but maybe that wasn't the point. He didn't know much about furniture.

"Have a seat," said Burt. "Drink?"

"Oh," said Hobie. "Sure. You got a Coke?"

"You don't want anything stronger?"

"Coke'll be fine," said Hobie. “Please.” He had the feeling he ought to have his wits about him tonight, though he couldn't quite say why. He took his hat off and set it beside him on the sofa.

"Suit yourself," said Burt. He went over to the wet bar along the wall, leaned down and took a curvy glass bottle of Coca-Cola out of a little drawer. He filled a glass with ice cubes—clink, clink—and poured the Coke in after it.

"I like rum with Coke myself," he said. "But not tonight." He brought Hobie's glass of Coke over to the sofa, and for himself he brought a tall bottle filled with clear liquid and a single squat glass.

"What's that?" asked Hobie, accepting his Coke.

"Vodka," said Burt. "You had vodka before?"

"Never," said Hobie.

"Mm," said Burt. "I've picked up a taste for it." He sloshed his glass a quarter full and held it up. "Cheers," he said. "To your illustrious career."

Hobie laughed at that. The Coke bubbles tickled his nose as he took a drink. Across from him Burt knocked the vodka back and refilled his glass.

"I, uh. I brought over the shooting script for the picture," Hobie said. "Tomorrow we're mainly shooting dancing scenes, but I thought we might work on the day after."

"Sure, sure," said Burt. "All in good time. Take a load off, Hobie. Drink your Coke. You look like Larry's been running you ragged."

"Does Mr. Laurentz know you call him Larry?"

"Sure he does," said Burt. "I think he likes it. Deep down."

Hobie gave an involuntary shudder.

Burt laughed. "You know, he made me cry once," he said.

"No kidding?"

"No kidding. First time I worked with him. Made me run the same damn monologue over and over and over, and then he told me real acting was more than just putting one foot in front of the other, and if I needed a bloody dance chart I could get the hell off of his set. We wrapped for the day, I made a beeline for my dressing room and bawled my eyes out like a goddamn baby."

He shook his head slowly, and poured himself another measure of vodka. Hobie thought he looked a little moony, which was strange, considering the subject.

"And you still went back?" Hobie asked.

Burt nodded. "Pride, I guess," he said. "I wanted to prove him wrong. And you know, I think I did. But it…it turned into something else." He drank his vodka, and didn't say anything more about what precisely it had turned into. Hobie sipped his Coke and thought that he wasn't sure he was interested in proving people wrong.

"I just want to do my best," he said.

"Yeah," said Burt. He set his glass down. "You know why I invited you here, Hobie?"

"You said cowboys and sailors oughtta stick together."

"And I meant it," Burt said. "You know, guys like Larry, they look at guys like us and see just what I called us. A sailor, right? And a cowboy. Because that's what we do, what we've always done. And they don't see how we can do anything else."

"All right," said Hobie.

"Because it suits 'em, doesn't it," said Burt. "For us to do what we've always done."

"The studio wanted me for Mr. Laurentz's picture," said Hobie. "And you said yourself you proved Mr. Laurentz wrong."

"Well, even so," said said Burt. "Look, why d'you think the studio liked you for Merrily We Dance?"

"Liked me?"

"Why'd they pick you?"

"I suppose it's on account of my other pictures," said Hobie. "Doing well at the box office and all."

"Exactly," said Burt. "You're a moneymaker, Hobie. A cash cow."

"Thanks, I guess," Hobie said, though it hadn't sounded especially complimentary.

"No, no," said Gurney. "That wasn't—they're using you. The studio. They're using all of us. Doesn't it bother you?"

"I just think it's funny, Mr. Gurney."

"Burt," said Burt. "What's funny?"

"Getting paid to rope a steer or sing a song or ride ol' Whitey on camera, over and over. Makes me feel a little like a dog getting a scrap of steak every time I sit and stay, but I send my ma a money order twice a month and a stack of signed glossies, and she runs the Hobie Doyle Fanclub out of her living room in the house I bought her. So, you know. I do my tricks. And like I said, it's kinda funny. But I guess it's okay."

Burt sighed. He ran his hand over his face, and then he took another sip of his vodka. "I sure wish you wouldn't make me drink alone," he said. "It's good in Coke too, you know, but you can't drink a vodka Coke around just anyone. I've got friends who'd think I'd lost my mind."

"Friends like Larry?" Hobie didn't know why he said it, or how it would go over once he had. But Burt seemed tickled; he snorted, and smiled in a way one might describe as wry, if one were in the business of cataloguing smiles.

"No," said Burt. "Not like Larry. Though Larry's a scotch whiskey man, himself."

They fell silent after that. Once his wry smile faded Hobie thought Burt started to look a little blue, and there was something about that look that didn't sit right with him. If he'd been a girl Hobie might have scooted closer to him on the sofa, or told a bad joke, or roped Burt's pointer finger with a piece of string, but as it was he felt at something of a loss. He thought a minute, until he lit on a promising notion.

"Well, why not," said Hobie finally, sliding his glass of Coke towards the bottle. "Go on and spike it, Burt."

Burt grinned.

Halfway through his second vodka Coke, Hobie had to admit it wasn't half bad. It took the edge off the soda's sweetness, and it kicked like a damn mule. He told this to Burt, who laughed so hard he spat vodka across the coffee table.

"Let's dance," said Burt, leaping to his feet.

"Dance?"

"You said you were shooting a ballroom scene tomorrow," Burt said. "So let's dance."

"Is Larry awful particular about dancing?"

"He's particular about everything," said Burt, and held out his hand.

"We're a couple of fellas," said Hobie.

Burt shrugged. "I can lead or follow," he said. "Doesn't matter to me."

And Hobie couldn't argue with that, so he finished his drink and let Burt pull him up to standing.

Burt went to the record player and turned it on, set the needle down. A bright, jazzy beat, not the waltz Hobie would be dancing with Allegra, or Deirdre, or whoever. Hobie considered pointing this out to Burt, but he seemed so happy to be dancing Hobie thought he'd rather just go along.

"You've never made a musical," Burt said. "We do this all the time, two fellows. We've got a dance director who takes us through it, and he's a fellow, nine times of ten." He stepped up close to Hobie and slipped an arm around his waist and took Hobie's hand in his.

"Okay," said Hobie.

"You want to lead? Or shall I?"

"Maybe you better," said Hobie. "I think that vodka's catching up with me."

Burt was, on balance, an excellent dancer, and Hobie decided after a minute or two that it was nice to follow someone who knew what he was doing, and it was nice to feel Burt’s hand on the small of his back, and to look at his smile up close. As the first song ended and a second began they drew closer, and closer still.

“What I said about the studio,” said Burt. “And what you said about your mother--”

“Yes?”

“Nick Schenk, the head honcho? He’s up in New York making ten times what you’re sending your ma every month, and he’s making it on your back.”

“All right,” said Hobie.

His head was beginning to spin, from the vodka, from the dancing. It wasn’t unpleasant. Burt smelled awfully good, Hobie thought, and under his hands his collared shirt felt awfully soft. He wondered idly if Burt’s skin would be so soft, if he tucked his fingers just inside that collar against Burt’s throat and felt the buzz of his voicebox as he kept on talking.

“And what if I told you that’s what this whole country is built on, men like Schenk making a buck on the backs of good honest guys like you? Guys who have it worse off than you, and guys even richer than Schenk. Richer than the head of Capitol Pictures. What would you say to that?”

“Well, I guess I’d say that wasn’t right,” said Hobie.

“Of course it’s not,” said Burt. “And yet that’s what this whole damned country’s doing. Breaking the backs of the worker. Of--of the little guy.” He reached out then, and ran his fingers along the line of Hobie’s jaw. “You’ve got a great face, you know,” he said, and Hobie felt himself blush.

“Aw,” he said. “It’s nothing special.”

“Of course it is,” Burt said. “Perfect for the movies. Sort of face that could tell you anything, and you’d listen.”

“I don’t know about that.”

“Mm. I do. I think that’s why they wanted you for Larry’s picture. And I think--I think that’s why you could be very important to some friends of mine. And to me.”

Hobie swallowed. “To you?”

Burt nodded slowly. Around them the music swelled to a crescendo. Hobie was smiling, he realized, and Burt was looking at his mouth as intently as Mr. Mannix had when he told Hobie to fix his teeth. But that had been like vetting livestock, and this wasn’t the same at all.

“Maybe--maybe we oughta run those lines,” Hobie said.

“Okay,” said Burt softly. “You got any kissing scenes?”

“I guess so,” said Hobie. “Mr. Laurentz says Deirdre’s supposed to be sweet on me.” He had a funny feeling in his stomach. It felt like sticking a tough landing off of Whitey, or like hitting a target, or like hearing someone cry out Action!

“All right,” said Burt, leaning in. “Then I’ll be Deirdre.”

Burt didn’t kiss like a Deirdre, but Hobie couldn’t bring himself to say anything about it, just like he hadn’t brought up the dancing earlier. Burt was very enthusiastic, and if there was one thing Hobie could appreciate in anyone, it was enthusiasm. It was his favorite thing about show business.

“I do not think Mr. Mannix would approve of this,” Hobie said breathlessly. They were in the bedroom now with the lights turned down low, and Burt had his mouth on Hobie’s neck.

“Eddie Mannix,” said Burt, as though he were cursing. “If I had a dollar for every knocked-up starlet that son-of-a-bitch has begged me to marry. The thing you’ve gotta learn about Mannix is that the sooner you start taking his rules as suggestions, the happier you’ll be.” He kissed Hobie illustratively.

“He ain’t so bad.”

“He’s not a bad guy,” Burt said acquiescently. “He just takes himself too seriously.” He ran a thumb over Hobie’s bottom lip. “Forget about Mannix,” he said, so Hobie did.

***

“Would that it were so simple.”

“Good,” said Burt. “Again. And remember what I said, huh?”

“About pathos,” said Hobie. “Right.”

They were lying in Burt’s bed. Hobie sat up and arranged the sheets around his waist. He cleared his throat and thought of Deirdre, in repose on the divan, and of the haunting sight of Biff’s grip in the hallway, and of Allegra, who he wanted most of all.

“Would that it were so simple!”

“Better,” said Burt. He lay back against the pillows, smoking a cigarette. He took a drag and blew a smoke ring up at the ceiling. He ran a hand along Hobie’s bare arm. “You hungry?” he asked. “I’m getting hungry.”

“Huh? No, I’m fine. Say, you want to run that bedroom scene over one more time?”

Burt laughed, and pulled Hobie closer. “You’re single-minded,” he said. “I’ll give you that.”

They ran Hobie’s lines until both of them were too worn out to continue. Hobie hadn’t been this tired since Lazy Ol’ Moon, and that was saying something. He must have fallen asleep, because when he opened his eyes again the lamp was off and Burt was gone from the bed. Hobie could just make him out across the room, curled up on a loveseat next to the open window. He was smoking another cigarette and talking on the telephone in a murmur Hobie couldn’t quite make out.

“Yes,” Burt was saying. “Yes, of course. Patience, comrade,” he said, sounding as though he was trying to soothe a child. “Patience. No, you--you’ve done well. Thank you. Wait for my instructions, and when the time comes I’ll see you at the appointed place.” He hung up the phone and sucked on his cigarette.

Hobie sat up in bed. “Is everything all right?”

“You’re awake,” said Burt.

“Didn’t know I fell asleep. Must’ve been pretty bushed.”

“I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“It’s okay,” said Hobie. “I’ll, uh. Now I’m up I suppose I oughtta get out of your hair. Big day tomorrow and all.”

“Yes,” Burt said, looking thoughtful. “Tomorrow is a big day.” He sighed. “Hobie, I--I’m going away for awhile. Very soon. Nobody at the studio knows about it. Larry doesn’t know about it either, and I think he’ll be pretty put out when he realizes.”

“Where are you going?”

Burt coughed. “East,” he said.

“New York City?” New York seemed the sort of place to which one might be called with little warning, on very important business.

“Further,” said Burt. “Where isn’t important, not now. But I meant what I said earlier, about your being important to the cause.”

“What cause?”

“I have friends who run a--a kind of study group,” said Burt. “After I’m gone they may try to get in touch.”

“They give you your taste for vodka?”

Burt bleated a laugh. He looked pleased, as though the question had impressed him. “You might say so,” he said.

Hobie nodded. “I never was one for studying,” he said.

“Well,” said Burt. “Think about what I said, will you? You could be quite a help getting our message across.”

“I’ll think on it,” said Hobie. And he meant it, because Hobie Doyle always meant what he said.

Burt came over and sat beside him on the bed. He brushed Hobie’s fringe from his forehead, where it was plastered by a mix of Brylcreem and perspiration.

“If you get the taste for a little something extra in your Coke. Hmm?”

“I’ll think on it,” Hobie said again.

Then he laid one last kiss on Burt’s movie star mouth, because he didn’t need to think on that. And he didn’t think of Deirdre or Allegra while he did it, or Laurence Laurentz, or Eddie Mannix, or anybody else at all.