Pat Hobby sat in his office in the writers' building and looked at his morning's work, just come back from the script department. He was on a "polish job," about the only kind he ever got nowadays. He was to repair a messy sequence in a hurry, but the word "hurry" neither frightened nor inspired him for Pat had been in Hollywood since he was thirty--now he was forty-nine. All the work he had done this morning (except a little changing around of lines so he could claim them as his own)--all he had actually invented was a single imperative sentence, spoken by a doctor.
"Boil some water--lots of it."
It was a good line. It had sprung into his mind full grown as soon as he had read the script. In the old silent days Pat would have used it as a spoken title and ended his dialogue worries for a space, but he needed some spoken words for other people in the scene. Nothing came.
"Boil some water," he repeated to himself. "Lots of it."
The word boil brought a quick glad thought of the commissary. A reverent thought too--for an old-timer like Pat, what people you sat with at lunch was more important in getting along than what you dictated in your office. This was no art, as he often said--this was an industry.
"This is no art," he remarked to Max Learn who was leisurely drinking at a corridor water cooler. "This is an industry."
Max had flung him this timely bone of three weeks at three-fifty.
"Say look, Pat! Have you got anything down on paper yet?"
"Say I've got some stuff already that'll make 'em--" He named a familiar biological function with the somewhat startling assurance that it would take place in the theater.
Max tried to gauge his sincerity.
"Want to read it to me now?" he asked.
"Not yet. But it's got the old guts if you know what I mean."
Max was full of doubts.
"Well, go to it. And if you run into any medical snags check with the doctor over at the First Aid Station. It's got to be right."
The spirit of Pasteur shone firmly in Pat's eyes.
"It will be."
He felt good walking across the lot with Max--so good that he decided to glue himself to the producer and sit down with him at the Big Table. But Max foiled his intention by cooing "See you later" and slipping into the barber shop.
Once Pat had been a familiar figure at the Big Table; often in his golden prime he had dined in the private canteens of executives. Being of the older Hollywood he understood their jokes, their vanities, their social system with its swift fluctuations. But there were too many new faces at the Big Table now--faces that looked at him with the universal Hollywood suspicion. And at the little tables where the young writers sat they seemed to take work so seriously. As for just sitting down anywhere, even with secretaries or extras--Pat would rather catch a sandwich at the corner.
Detouring to the Red Cross Station he asked for the doctor. A girl, a nurse, answered from a wall mirror where she was hastily drawing her lips, "He's out. What is it?"
"Oh. Then I'll come back."
She had finished, and now she turned--vivid and young and with a bright consoling smile.
"Miss Stacey will help you. I'm about to go to lunch."
He was aware of an old, old feeling--left over from the time when he had had wives--a feeling that to invite this little beauty to lunch might cause trouble. But he remembered quickly that he didn't have any wives now--they had both given up asking for alimony.
"I'm working on a medical," he said. "I need some help."
"Writing it--idea about a doc. Listen--let me buy you lunch. I want to ask you some medical questions."
The nurse hesitated.
"I don't know. It's my first day out here."
"It's all right," he assured her, "studios are democratic; everybody is just 'Joe' or 'Mary'--from the big shots right down to the prop boys."
He proved it magnificently on their way to lunch by greeting a male star and getting his own name back in return. And in the commissary, where they were placed hard by the Big Table, his producer, Max Leam, looked up, did a little "takem" and winked.
The nurse--her name was Helen Earle--peered about eagerly.
"I don't see anybody," she said. "Except oh, there's Ronald Colman. I didn't know Ronald Colman looked like that."
Pat pointed suddenly to the floor.
"And there's Mickey Mouse!"
She jumped and Pat laughed at his joke--but Helen Earle was already staring starry-eyed at the costume extras who filled the hall with the colors of the First Empire. Pat was piqued to see her interest go out to these nonentities.
"The big shots are at this next table," he said solemnly, wistfully, "directors and all except the biggest executives. They could have Ronald Colman pressing pants. I usually sit over there but they don't want ladies. At lunch, that is, they don't want ladies."
"Oh," said Helen Earle, polite but unimpressed. "It must be wonderful to be a writer too. It's so very interesting."
"It has its points," he said . . . he had thought for years it was a dog's life.
"What is it you want to ask me about a doctor?"
Here was toil again. Something in Pat's mind snapped off when he thought of the story.
"Well, Max Leam--that man facing us--Max Leam and I have a script about a Doc. You know? Like a hospital picture?"
"I know." And she added after a moment, "That's the reason that I went in training."
"And we've got to have it right because a hundred million people would check on it. So this doctor in the script he tells them to boil some water. He says, 'Boil some water--lots of it.' And we were wondering what the people would do then."
"Why--they'd probably boil it," Helen said, and then, somewhat confused by the question, "What people?"
"Well, somebody's daughter and the man that lived there and an attorney and the man that was hurt."
Helen tried to digest this before answering.
"--and some other guy I'm going to cut out," he finished.
There was a pause. The waitress set down tuna fish sandwiches.
"Well, when a doctor gives orders they're orders," Helen decided.
"Hm." Pat's interest had wandered to an odd little scene at the Big Table while he inquired absently, "You married?"
"Neither am I."
Beside the Big Table stood an extra. A Russian Cossack with a fierce moustache. He stood resting his hand on the back of an empty chair between Director Paterson and Producer Leam.
"Is this taken?" he asked, with a thick Central European accent.
All along the Big Table faces stared suddenly at him. Until after the first look the supposition was that he must be some well-known actor. But he was not--he was dressed in one of the many-colored uniforms that dotted the room.
Someone at the table said: "That's taken." But the man drew out the chair and sat down.
"Got to eat somewhere," he remarked with a grin.
A shiver went over the near-by tables. Pat Hobby stared with his mouth ajar. It was as if someone had crayoned Donald Duck into the Last Supper.
"Look at that," he advised Helen. "What they'll do to him! Boy!"
The flabbergasted silence at the Big Table was broken by Ned Harman, the Production Manager.
"This table is reserved," he said.
The extra looked up from a menu.
"They told me sit anywhere."
He beckoned a waitress--who hesitated, looking for an answer in the faces of her superiors.
"Extras don't eat here," said Max Leam, still politely. "This is a--"
"I got to eat," said the Cossack doggedly. "I been standing around six hours while they shoot this stinking mess and now I got to eat."
The silence had extended--from Pat's angle all within range seemed to be poised in mid-air.
The extra shook his head wearily.
"I dunno who cooked it up--" he said--and Max Leam sat forward in his chair--"but it's the lousiest tripe I ever seen shot in Hollywood."
--At his table Pat was thinking why didn't they do something? Knock him down, drag him away. If they were yellow themselves they could call the studio police.
"Who is that?" Helen Earle was following his eyes innocently, "Somebody I ought to know?"
He was listening attentively to Max Leam's voice, raised in anger.
"Get up and get out of here, buddy, and get out quick!"
The extra frowned.
"Who's telling me?" he demanded.
"You'll see." Max appealed to the table at large, "Where's Cushman--where's the Personnel man?"
"You try to move me," said the extra, lifting the hilt of his scabbard above the level of the table, "and I'll hang this on your ear. I know my rights."
The dozen men at the table, representing a thousand dollars an hour in salaries, sat stunned. Far down by the door one of the studio police caught wind of what was happening and started to elbow through the crowded room. And Big Jack Wilson, another director, was on his feet in an instant coming around the table.
But they were too late--Pat Hobby could stand no more. He had jumped up, seizing a big heavy tray from the serving stand nearby. In two springs he reached the scene of action--lifting the tray he brought it down upon the extra's head with all the strength of his forty-nine years. The extra, who had been in the act of rising to meet Wilson's threatened assault, got the blow full on his face and temple and as he collapsed a dozen red streaks sprang into sight through the heavy grease paint. He crashed sideways between the chairs.
Pat stood over him panting--the tray in his hand.
"The dirty rat!" he cried. "Where does he think--"
The studio policeman pushed past; Wilson pushed past--two aghast men from another table rushed up to survey the situation.
"It was a gag!" one of them shouted. "That's Walter Herrick, the writer. It's his picture."
"He was kidding Max Leam. It was a gag I tell you!"
"Pull him out . . . Get a doctor . . . Look out, there!"
Now Helen Earle hurried over; Walter Herrick was dragged out into a cleared space on the floor and there were yells of "Who did it?--Who beaned him?"
Pat let the tray lapse to a chair, its sound unnoticed in the confusion.
He saw Helen Earle working swiftly at the man's head with a pile of clean napkins.
"Why did they have to do this to him?" someone shouted.
Pat caught Max Leam's eye but Max happened to look away at the moment and a sense of injustice came over Pat. He alone in this crisis, real or imaginary, had acted. He alone had played the man, while those stuffed shirts let themselves be insulted and abused. And now he would have to take the rap--because Walter Herrick was powerful and popular, a three thousand a week man who wrote hit shows in New York. How could anyone have guessed that it was a gag?
There was a doctor now. Pat saw him say something to the manageress and her shrill voice sent the waitresses scattering like leaves toward the kitchen.
"Boil some water! Lots of it!"
The words fell wild and unreal on Pat's burdened soul. But even though he now knew at first hand what came next, he did not think that he could go on from there.
Esquire (March 1940)