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31 Days of Stories 2022, Day 15: “Little Miss Marker” by Damon Runyon

From Guys and Dolls and Other Writings

“I took one little section of New York and made half a million dollars writing about it.” So claimed Damon Runyon, as quoted by Pete Hamill in the introduction to the Penguin Classics volume Guys and Dolls and Other Writings.

If Runyon is remembered today, it is likely for the Frank Loesser musical based on the author’s characters, and this is perhaps appropriate, since Broadway sits smack in the centre of the “little section of New York” that made Runyon famous. In the words of Hamill, Runyon’s turf

was located in about ten square blocks of midtown Manhattan during the second and third decades of the 20th century. … It is a world primarily inhabited by the New York children of Irish, Jewish, and Italian immigrants, although Runyon enjoys describing the collisions of his Broadway people with various outlanders: slumming members of the upper class, greenhorns from way out in America, ambitious grifters in town to make big scores.

Hamill also points out that the world Runyon described “vanished long ago, if indeed it ever existed at all.” The caveat is important, not least because Runyon, who was also a journalist working for New York dailies (or “bladders,” in Runyon’s indelible argot) owned by William Randolph Hearst, successfully mythologized this milieu in writings set mostly in the years just following the great stock market crash of 1929. Writing during the Depression, it becomes easier to see why Runyon took so much pride in making bank on his writing; and in the bulk of his stories, one finds hustlers, gamblers, gangsters, and grifters doing whatever it takes to make a buck.

This is true of “Little Miss Marker,” about a bookmaker who accepts an unconventional marker from a gambler who insists he’s got a line on a sure thing, a horse named Cold Cuts. The only problem is the horse player doesn’t have the cash for the deuce bet, so he leaves collateral: the young girl, “maybe three, rising four,” who accompanies him to the bookie joint. Of course Cold Cuts craps out – “in fact is not even fifth” – so the bookie, known as Sorrowful, is left with the useless marker and the little girl, who has been sitting patiently in his shop since her minder left.

Putting the gamblers and other colourful reprobates who hang around Sorrowful’s joint in the position of deciding what to do with the little blonde girl, who garbles her name (perhaps Martha) such that it comes out as “Marky,” has the effect of humanizing the characters in a way that is not always apparent in other Runyon tales. It also offers fodder for some high octane humour.

There is gleeful irony, for example, in the fact that Sorrowful agrees to the bettor’s scheme, since we are told that he would never ordinarily take a marker, even from a magnate like Andrew Mellon. “In fact,” the narrator informs us, “Sorrowful can almost break your heart telling you about the poorhouses that are full of bookmakers who take markers in their time.” This irony is thickened when Sorrowful tells a group of listeners about the runaway horse player, who learned about the “sure thing” from “a guy who is a pal of a close friend of Jockey Workman’s valet.”

All of this is marvellously funny, but what really carries the story, as with all of Runyon’s writing, is the language. The tale is not narrated by Sorrowful. Rather, it is told by an anonymous first-person narrator who we understand to be a Runyon manqué, a stand-in who serves as an observer of the antics that unfold around him. The language this narrator employs is heightened by a vibrant use of the present tense, as well as a street-level syntax that combines underworld vernacular with jouncy, barrelling rhythms:

Some of us try to explain to Sorrowful that if he is going to keep Marky it is up to him to handle all her play, but right away Sorrowful starts talking so sad about all his pals deserting him and Marky just when they need them most that it softens all hearts, although up to this time we are about as pally with Sorrowful as a burglar with a copper. Finally every night in Mindy’s is meeting night for a committee to decide something or other about Marky.

No one talks like this. But in Runyon’s hands the stylized speech becomes a fluid reflection of his characters’ interior selves, and his sustained use of colloquialisms starts to sound less artificial and more poetic. Runyon’s facility with a mannered speech pattern predicated upon modified street language anticipates the work of such writers as Elmore Leonard, David Mamet, and Quentin Tarantino, all of whom owe a debt to the elder wordsmith.

Sorrowful is not, of course, the most responsible father figure: he locates a governess to watch over the young girl while he is away, but the woman, “a French doll with bobbed hair and red cheeks by the name of Mam’selle Fifi,” turns out to be a less than perfect example of moral rectitude. He replaces her with a more suitable minder named Mrs. Clancy, but when the new nurse falls asleep while Sorrowful is out one night, Marky escapes the apartment and goes to find her new would-be father at the nightclub he’s retired to.

Her doing so is fortuitous because her appearance saves Sorrowful from being shot by an aggrieved former boxer named Milk Ear Willie, who blames Sorrowful for “a parlay on the races the day before.” Milk Ear Willie does not follow through with his intention to “shoot Sorrowful full of little holes” with his “John Roscoe,” opting instead to complain to the owner of the Hot Box (a delightful name) about the inappropriateness of allowing children into a nightclub.

As might be apparent, Runyon wrote in the comic mode, and much of “Little Miss Marker” is absurdly funny. But it diverges from some of the author’s other work in its final third, which takes on ever more tragic tones, until a climax that is truly affecting in its sadness. The relationship between Sorrowful and Marky, so acutely observed, is charged with a tenderness that is absent in much of the author’s work, and the finale hits with an emotional wallop that is startling precisely because the reader is so unaware of the way Runyon has worked to lay the ground for it.

Runyon, Hamill points out, was an unabashed entertainer with few pretensions to literary greatness. This is perhaps one reason his work endures. The characters in his stories exists as colourful avatars of a mythical early 20th century New York, a place that “almost certainly existed only in the imagination of the man who wrote about it.” Hamill continues:

Perhaps it was a city that was both magical and real. Certainly Runyon loved New York as William Faulkner later said he loved Mississippi: in spite of, not because. … But Runyon did not write fiction to change his readers’ minds. He wanted them to laugh. And they did, and still do.

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