And such

Trouble at the Hotel Grande

By Michael Jesse

"I can't trust you anymore, Rocky," he said, pointing the 45 at me.

I took a step back, raising my hands a little. "Boss, you got it all wrong. It's that dame — she's tellin' you stories."

Brian stood up behind the big desk. "Deloris ain't got nothin' to do with this, Rocky. " He gave that facial tick he likes to do and slowly walked out around the desk. Behind him through the window I could see the sun going down behind the ferris wheel. "One of us has gotta go, Rocky," he said. "Guess who it's gonna be."

"Wait, Boss," I said and we both stood there a minute. The police should have been in the door by now. "Wait," I said again, searching for something else to say. "Ya know, my brains is gonna make a terrible mess splat'rin' all over this fancy rug a yours. What's it, Oriental?"

He aimed the big 45 at my head. "So I'll get it cleaned."

I couldn't think of anything else clever to say, but just then a police officer burst into the room. Brian turned but the cop shot him first and he fell backwards and slumped against his desk, twitching once or twice before dramatically expiring.

Behind me the crowd cheered and clapped and Brian got up and bowed. The policeman and I bowed too and Sharon and the others came into the room and we all bowed together. The audience filed out behind the velvet ropes and I knocked Todd's policeman's cap off his head. "Missed your cue," I said.

He scooped it off the floor, laughing.

"Blame it on me, Dave, " Brian said. "I told him to do that so we could see what you'd come up with. What'd you guys think of Dave's ad lib?" he said to the others. "What's dis, Boss?" he said mocking my gangster accent. "Is dis one-a-dem Oriential-type rugs, Boss? Jeez, whaddaya pay for one-a dem?"

We all hurried down to the dressing rooms to change. The amusement parked closed at ten so each night we had a half an hour or so to ride a couple of the big rides or grab some food before the concessions closed. Todd and I ran to ride the Death Star and Sharon and Brian walked off to the beach to make out somewhere.

That was the summer after my freshman year in college when I worked at VacationLand, a sprawling amusement park that juts out on a sandy peninsula on Lake Superior. I was a theatre major at the time and got a job playing Rocky Grimes at the park's Hotel Grande showhouse.

There was a whole street of "showhouses," like the back lot of a movie studio. On one end was a Western saloon with the classic swinging half-doors, and several times a day a college student wearing a cowboy hat would come flying out the swinging doors to sprawl theatrically in the sand. Then a fake-mustachioed sheriff would stride through the doorway -- his spurs jangling -- and tell the rascal to git out of town before sundown.

Other shophouses on the street included one that looked like a castle where they did sword fights, one that was a mad scientist's laboratory and another that was like a spaceship. All were just made of plywood, but had been elaborately painted (by other college students studying stage design) and from a distance they looked almost real. The exterior of the Hotel Grande was painted to look like a big yellow Victorian house with all the intricate architectural details of that period, while on the inside the walls were painted to look like a Hollywood version of a gangster hangout of the 1930s.

It was like being in a giant dollhouse because one wall was open to the boardwalk where our audience filed along one wall behind a velvet rope and slowly passed through the building. In each room we'd do a scene from our story, climaxing with the big shootout in Jimmy's office. We had our own stairways and entrance points and hurried to get into place or set up props between scenes. We did three shows a night and sometimes it'd be a little different each time.

Brian was our director as well as playing the main role. He was always pushing us to improvise, often moving props around or changing his lines. Pretty soon the rest of us were doing it too

* * * * * *

"One of us has gotta go, Rocky," Brian said, reaching into the desk drawer. I grinned at him as he realized the gun wasn't there.

"Lookin' for somethin' Boss?" I said, reaching into my jacket and pulling out the 45. "I found it lyin' aroun' the odder day. Youse got any idea who belongs to it?" It was a heavy gun, made of metal and very much like the real thing, only it fired little carbon caps like the western guns I'd had as a kid.

Brian stood up. "You don't scare me, Rocky," he said, walking around the desk.

I leveled the gun at him. "Don't try anything cute, Boss. Or should I say ex-Boss. I'm takin' over this dime store racket of yours, pally. Time for your big exit."

Brian almost always got shot in î the end anyway and often he plugged me first a few seconds before Todd's entrance. It didn't really matter which one of us bought it so long as there was lots of gunfire and nobody shot the cop. Actually, we did shoot him once but someone complained to Brian's boss. So now that was one of the rules: don't shoot the cop, don't swear and always always stay in character.

But that night I knew there would be no cop. Todd had wanted to sneak out early to meet a bordello girl from the Long Branch Saloon next door. I told him I'd cover for him and swiped the gun. I didn't bother telling Brian though.

"Hold on there, Rocky," he was saying. "You'd be a dope to gun me down here. My boys are in the other room. They'll moider you."

"I already bought your boys, big shot," I said, prepared for that argument. "Good thing you're such a cheapskate." It was 9:30. Time to end it. I pointed the gun at him. "Say your prayers."

Just then Sharon slipped in the side entrance pointing a tommy gun at me.

"I shoulda known you were trouble, Rocky," she said, working up some tears of indignation. "You were just usin' me to bring down Jimmy, weren't you?"

She pointed the big tommy gun at me and I wondered if she'd remembered to turn it on. The other guns shot caps, but the tommy had a battery-powered rat-a-tat sound and it only worked if the power switch was on.

"Deloris, baby," I said, turning slowly towards her. I wasn't quite sure if I wanted to shoot Sharon or not, but I figured I might have an opportunity if she had to fumble with the switch.

"Don't let him sweet-talk you, doll," Brian yelled. "Drill him!"

She pulled the trigger and it was turned on all right. The sound of machine gun fire rang through the room and I had no choice but to fall backwards and wiggle around on the floor like Sonny Corleone as she drilled me with about a hundred rounds.

The crowd loved it and we took four or five bows before they finally left. We'd gone fifteen minutes over so there wasn't much time to do anything. I was bored with the rides anyway. That night we all just went to the beach and sat on chaise lounges in the surf while we surreptitiously drank wine in paper cups, keeping the bottles hidden in paper sacks, wino-style.

Alcohol was strictly forbidden on the park grounds so we were always pretty careful, though security never came out to check us unless we were making too much noise, which happened sometimes.

"Hey Todd," I said. "Did you rat me out?" He'd heard all about Sharon gunning me down and Brian had twice done his impression of my death scene, wriggling around on the sand and making his own machine gun noise – and the second time he ended it by going into a Curly spin from the Three Stooges. I almost peed from laughing at him doing that and couldn't catch my breath to protest.

Todd insisted he'd told no one except Jody — his girlfriend from the Western show who now stretched out beside him on the chaise lounge caressing his back. I wondered if they'd had sex while I was getting rubbed out. She sure acted like it.

Sharon came to Todd's defense. "He didn't have to tell me Dave," she said. "When it was close to Todd's cue and I didn't see him around I knew something was up, so I figured I'd play too." She reached over from her chair and fingered a worn hole in my t-shirt, touching my skin for a moment. "Sorry I shot you full of holes," she said.

"Don't worry about it, baby," I said in my Rocky voice. "Ya done it with class. . . . and I'm a sucker for a classy dame."

"Hey that's my classy dame," Brian said, throwing a wadded paper cup at me. He sat down heavily next to her, almost tipping their chair. It was getting late and he was pretty sloshed. He whispered something in her ear and I knew he wanted her to come with him down the beach like they always did. I lay back in my lounge chair and watched the stars to give them privacy. I could still hear their voices and I realized they were arguing without saying much out loud. She got up alone and walked back to the women's dorm. I glanced over at Brian and he shrugged.

"Dames," he said, and did that eye tick.

* * * * * *

Sharon was in the bar alone, waiting for me. It was the middle of the script and our first show of the night. The scene was when Deloris flirts with Rocky, trying to find out for Jimmy if he's reliable.

I walked in the bar and glanced around. "Where's the boss?"

"Haven't seen him," she said lighting a fake cigarette.

I walked over to the bar and poured myself a fake Scotch — it was actually flat cola diluted with water; tasted terrible. "izat so?" I said. "I thought youse two were, whaddayacall, inseparable."

She walked slowly over, grinding her hips as someone off stage played a snippet of vamp music. She stopped in front of me and said her line as always — "I do what I want." But this time as she said the line she put her hand on my chest and slid it under the lapel of my suit. I forgot my next line and there was a pause until she smiled and skipped ahead. "What's your angle, Rocky?"

I tossed back by drink and put the glass on the counter. "It's very simple," I said. "I like to run my show and make a lotta dough in the process." I turned to go.

"What about Jimmy's show?"

"Long as it's the same as mine it don't matter. Leastwise, not yet." And I was out the door.

That was pretty much the way we'd played that scene all summer, except her touching me like that and me blowing the line. Nothing else eventful happened in the first show. Brian stuck to the script and didn't bother trying to drop me before the cop walked in. He seemed preoccupied.

An hour later we were in the bar again and this time when she walked up to me she touched my chest again, and then made a show of straightening my tie.

"Jimmy does what he wants and I do what I want," she said, changing the line a little.

I upped the ante, holding her by the waist and pulling her close to me. "And what is it you want, dollface?"

There was a long pause while we looked in each others eyes from about ten inches away. I didn't know if she was playing it that way or searching for a line. Then she pushed herself away. "What's your angle, Rocky?" We were safely back on script.

The third time around we played it the same way, except this time when I asked what she wanted she put her hands on my neck and kissed me. It was more or less a stage kiss, but it went on a nice long time and afterwards she didn't ask me what my angle was and my mind was absolutely blank.

"What about Jimmy?" she said.

"What about him?" I said, still blank. Off stage Todd was motioning for us to wrap up the scene. Sharon seemed blank too. I searched my mind for lines from the original scene that would still work. "I like to run my own show and as long as Jimmy's show is da same as my show, den it . . . don't matter which show we're doing . . . cause they're the same show and . . . we're makin' a lot a dough in the process."

There was nothing to do but exit so I did and Sharon followed me. We both collapsed on the floor laughing off stage, trying not to be heard by the departing audience. In a moment everyone was gone, including the other actors who were upstairs beginning the next scene. When we stopped laughing we were looking at each other and I just knew we were going to kiss for real right there. And we might have too, but Todd called down the stairwell, "two minutes to your entrance Sharon." She squealed and scrambled up the stairs.

* * * * * *

That night was a Friday and on Fridays and Saturdays a bunch of us always took the 10 o'clock ferry over to Port Haley, which was the nearest town on the mainland. During the week the 10 o'clock was the last ferry so there'd be no way back to the park except to walk five miles around the bay on the peninsula road. But on weekends there was a midnight run so we'd go over and have almost two hours to hit a few bars. Even so, a couple of times we missed the midnight ferry and had to walk back anyway.

I kept looking for Sharon and Brian on the ferry dock while it was getting ready to push off but they weren't around. There were about 15 of us as usual but it was odd for those two to miss it. No doubt they were on the beach somewhere making up for their fight, I thought, and got on the boat sulking.

But just before the gate shut Brian came trotting on board. He was acting like his old self and I heard him tell someone Sharon wasn't coming. He sat next to me and dropped his cheerful act. "We just broke up," he said quietly.

"You did?"

"Yeah, I'm tired of her moods. She's up and down and cold and hot. And that scene she did with you tonight, just trying to get me jealous or something."

"She was just improvising," I said quickly.

"I know she was improvising. I don't have any problem with that. Hell, it was a good scene — til you screwed up your line." He jabbed me in the ribs with his elbow and laughed briefly. "Don't feel bad; that was a minor flub. No big deal. But you know, Sharon could've tried that variation any time. She did it now to jerk me around. But I don't care. Screw her. I told her that. I said 'you do what you want.' But enough of that shit." He stood up. "Who's ready to party?" he shouted, and a whoop went up around us.

On the mainland the group split up into two or three parts and Brian was leading the biggest contingent. He didn't notice when I dropped out and went back to the dock. The ferry hadn't departed yet and I went aboard and rode alone back to the park listening to the waves slapping against the water and a few noisy gulls that flew alongside.

I found Sharon sitting alone on a park bench facing the beach. She had a wine bottle wrapped in a sack and a paper cup.

"Hey," I said.

"I thought you went to town with the others," she said.

"I did. I just didn't stay very long. Want to go for a walk?"

She poured what little was left of the wine into her paper cup and dropped the bottle into a trash can. We walked along the beach, sharing the paper cup until it was empty. We didn't talk, both stumped for lines again. And then in the moonlight I kissed her and she kissed me back and before long we were making love on the sand, hidden in the tall reeds of beach grass.

Afterwards I walked her back to the women's dorm. Still we could think of almost nothing to say to each other. Under the streetlight I tried to kiss her again but she pushed away and said, "what about Brian?"

"What about him?" I said. "It's over, isn't it? Maybe we rushed things just now, but it's over with him isn't it?"

"I don't know," she said. "Did he say that?"

I threw up my hands and turned away.

"Don't say anything to him," she said. "Please. I need to be the one."

The next day we had three shows as usual. I saw Brian and he looked terrible. He'd been out until past four and walked back with poor dumb Todd who threw up on himself from doing tequila shots. Todd was too sick to work so Brian just said we'd work around him.

I didn't get to talk to Sharon before the first show started. They both went through the first show like zombies, saying all the lines of the regular script. During the second show I tried to talk to Sharon during that ten-minute stretch when neither of us was needed on stage.

"Sharon, please talk to me," I said. "What's going on?"

"I'm going to tell him what happened," she said.

"Okay," I said. "I guess that's the right thing. When?"

"Tonight. After the show. Down on the beach when no one is around."

* * * * * *

"One of us has gotta go, Rocky, and it ain't gonna be me." It was the final scene of the second show and Brian was getting his color back and looked pretty normal.

"Boss you got it all wrong. It's . . ." I choked on the line. He seemed surprised.

"Rocky, you're slippin.' Used ta be such a smooth talker." He said it with such a snear I wondered if he suspected.

"Put down the gun boss," I said, just to say something.

"I can't trust you anymore, Rocky. You think I don't know what's going on? What'd you think I'm stupid?" My god, I thought, has she told him already?

When I didn't say anything he added. "Give me one good reason I shouldn't blast you, Rocky"

I couldn't think of anything.

"Time's up," he said and shot me. I didn't go down with the first bullet so he shot a few more times until I did.

The audience applauded. I got up off the floor and bowed with Brian and everyone else and the audience filed out.

"Jeez," Brian said, slapping me on the shoulder. "What's with you tonight? I was feeding you some great lines and you just froze. Christ, I thought you weren't even gonna hit the deck when I shot you."

"I'm sorry Brian. I don't know what happened."

"I do," he said. "You're brain's fried from all that tequila. I'm just starting to recover myself. You'll be okay. Man I can't even remember walking back, except Todd throwing up every ten feet." He was slapping me on the back and laughing as we walked out and then he stopped and shook his head. "You know, man, I don't even remember you being there last night. I don't remember much though. What'd you do, catch the midnight ferry?"

I didn't want to lie to him, but I didn't want to tell him either. "I wasn't up for a long night," I said. "I took the ferry." I started to walk away.

"At midnight?"

"Uh, no, I took the earlier one."

"You came back at eleven? No wonder I don't remember you being there. Hell you might as well as stayed here."

"Yeah. Well, we're about to start again in a few minutes and I got to take a leak." I started away again.

"Hey Dave," he called. "Did you see Sharon last night?"

"Um, yeah. I saw her."

"What's going on with her man? She says we need to talk tonight. I think she's going to dump me, Dave."

"What do you mean?" I said. "Brian you told me last night on the ferry you broke up with her."

"Oh we had a fight. We both said some things. It was just words; we can take them back."

I didn't know what to say. "I got to go," I said finally and walked away.

I tried to find Sharon but couldn't and then the third set was starting. We were all in the opening scene together and everything seemed okay, but Brian was brooding again and just doing the lines.

Halfway through there's a scene where I'm telling my henchmen — and the audience — about my plan to take over the operation. Somewhere off stage I could hear Sharon and Brian arguing.

The next scene was where Rocky finds Deloris in the bar alone. I walked in and she was in her usual spot, but her face was in her hands. I made my entrance and said my line. "Where's the boss?"

She looked up at me and her eyes were filled with tears "I don't know," she said.

I poured my fake scotch and went ahead with my line. "I thought youse two were . . . close."

"We used to be," she said.

I was stumbling for something to say to get us through the scene. She looked over. "I told Jimmy everything, " she said.

I drank some of the fake scotch, wishing it were real. "Kinda lousy timing, doncha think?"

"I had to. He was asking questions and I didn't want to lie to him."

There was another long silence, and then I said "I'm sorry I got you into this, Deloris. You gonna be okay?"

"Sure, Rocky," she said. "Eventually."

I didn't know what else to say. The time was nearly up anyway. I drained the glass and set it on the counter. "Take care of yourself, Deloris," I said and walked out.

Brian was sitting behind the big desk when I walked in. He looked up glaring at me. "I can't trust you anymore, Rocky. Can I." It wasn't a question.

"I'm sorry, Jimmy," I said.

"I don't wanna talk to you about it," he said, pulling the gun from his desk. "I just want to get this over with."

He pointed the big gun at me. "I'd really enjoy blowing your fucking head off with this, Rocky."

I could hear an indignant gasp from someone in the audience behind me. "Maybe you should, Jimmy," I said, taking a step toward him and trying to provoke him into shooting me to just get the scene over with before he said something worse.

But then he pointed the gun at his own head. "Maybe this'd be better, huh Rocky? Pretty convenient for you and Deloris, wouldn't it?"

I stopped stone still and looked at the gun. It was the prop gun . . . wasn't it? It looked the same, but suddenly I wasn't sure. My stomach turned over and acid suddenly burned at the back of my throat.

"Put down the gun," I said in a whisper. "Please."

" 'One of us has got to go,' " he said, quoting the line like a recitation. "Who should it be, Rocky, old pal?"

I started to say something — anything — but then he pointed the gun in the air and fired it three or four times. With relief I heard the familiar bang of the cap gun and breathed in the trail of carbon smoke it left behind. "Jesus," I heard myself say.

Brian tossed the gun on the desk and walked toward me and I swear to God I thought in that moment he was going to hug me and say everything was okay. But when we were nearly toe to toe he slammed his fist in my stomach and I doubled over. He hit me with a left to straighten me back up and pounded me on the nose with a right. I flew backwards over the velvet rope and into the audience, blood spurting from my broken nose.

* * * * * *

The next day they fired Brian. I said goodbye to him before he left and it was almost okay between us, but we both knew we'd probably never see each other again anyway.

Sharon left that day too. She didn't have to, but she did. I asked her to stay, thinking we could still have something, but she just looked at me with no emotion. When we said goodbye on the dock I tried to memorize every detail of her face but she hardly looked at mine. I watched the ferry boat drift away and I could still see her on the deck but she didn't look back at me. When the boat disappeared into the fog I stood up and walked back to the Hotel Grande.

A few days later I was sitting at my desk, drumming my fingers impatiently while Todd stood in front of me trying to explain what had happened.

His voice trailed off and I looked up at him calmly.

"I can't trust you anymore, Rocky," I said, pointing the big 45 at his chest. "One of us has gotta go and lemme tell you something, pally – it ain't gonna be me."