Last Ride of the Hell City Angels, 1959
Dead center of the rink, the Radmen cranked out a fuzzy rendition of “Summer Time Blues” to a handful of beatniks and riff raff who’d snuck in early to The Fountainhead. But no one was really hear for the band: they wanted to see the Hell City Angels defeat the Atomic Bombshells in a winner-take-all roller derby extravaganza that every radio station and telephone poll had been advertising like it was the end of days.
The Poor Radmen! Each band member had a hotrod jammed in their instrument. Hotrods were the best thing about the A-Bomb, a throwaway material that made your aura glow like magic when your moods changed, and 100% safe by AEC standards. All the best bands and entertainers had them color the world in radioactive glom. But with the bargain basement variety in their hands, all the Radmen had was a grungy green glow of their dime-store aura to go along with their thick and muddy version of Eddie Cochran’s classic while the crowd began to swell. You’d think those hotrods weren’t even radioactive!
To the far left behind the band, close to the backstage area and next to the grease-haze of the burger stand, two gals leaned across the bars of the rink, dressed in civilian garb like they’d just been kicked out of the secretarial pool, pencil skirts and Kashmir sweaters hiding the legion of bruises, bumps and scrapes that they would soon be showing off with pride.
“I like the sax player,” Mary said, fussing with the bobby pins keeping her jet black hair pinned tight.
“Oh really?” Penny laughed with her sinister smile, lips as bright red as her hair. Her broken nose gave her a salacious countenance. Most of Mary’s injuries were in her bruised tailbone. “And here I thought you’d be cleaning your bearings. Since when did you take a shine to the bad boys of the band?” She thumbed her chest with both hands. “That’s my gig.”
Mary smiled. “Well, two can play it that game.”
Penny chuckled. “You switched your Aspirin for love pills?” Mary sacked Penny’s shoulder with a full knuckle jab and they both started laughing. “Come on, Captain,” Penny said, rubbing her shoulder. “What’s eating you? Can’t be those boys. Hell, half of them still have acne scars.”
Mary leaned over the rail, enjoying the pain of the bruise on her stomach. “You know this is the end, right?”
Penny pulled out a cigarette, snapped off the filter, and lit up the ragged end. “Hey, check out the crowd! There’s always a chance Big Minnie will make a mint and--”
Mary gave her the stern mother look that was damn near Frankenstenian in the cheap hotrod glow of the Radmen.
“Fine,” Penny said long and slow. “We’re doomed. She’s got debts going back before she hitchhiked out of the Ukraine. I bet she owes Uncle Joe’s ghost a couple of kopeks. So it’s the end of the rink.” She whistled a funeral march.
“And the end of us,” Mary said. Penny handed her the cigarette. Mary didn’t smoke, unless Penny was around. She took a small drag. “I don’t know if that makes tonight special or trivial.
“’Special or trivial.’” Penny crossed her arms while Mary took another short drag. “La dee da, Lady Sartre. You talk like you already started college. Listen, no good idea has ever come from a Frenchman, besides how to kiss.” Mary tried to push out the smoke before a laugh twisted into a cough. “So tonight the Hell City Angels ride off into the sunset.” Nerves twitched Penny’s smile. “Wonder if we should talk strategy, Mary Go Round.”
Mary took a last, deep drag and handed the shrinking smoke to Penny. “Strategy is to cream the Bombshells and make Kim Kong regret the day she went on the radio and talked shit about us being the dynamic dyke duo. Especially since she’s the Queen of the Butches.” Mary started to talk about using the blockers in diamond formation, and who might make the best pivot, since there was no way anyone else would be the jammer but Penny...until she realized that Penny wasn’t there. Oh, she was nodding in the right places but her eyes were foggy distant. “Okay, spit it out.”
Penny smiled. “Sorry, just thinking about that sax player--“
“No. You weren’t.” Mary leaned her back against the rail, hard elbows over the edge. “We need to have clean minds when we get our hotrods glowing on our skates tonight. So spill the beans, Penny Dreadful. I won’t have my best player lost in the clouds when we need her A game.”
Penny ashed, arms crossed. “Fine. You want the truth?”
“Last thing I want is a lie.”
Worry lines clenched Penny’s face as she forced her razor smile again and laughed. “It’s a silly idea..well, no, actually, it’s pretty much the only one I’ve got. The one I need.”
Mary was about to say there was no “I” in team, like that efficiency expert at Mary Craft’s Secretarial said, but she listened.
Penny dragged her tongue across her teeth as if there was a lipstick stain. “I want to be a blocker.”
Mary’s whole face puckered, crinkling her makeup as the Radman’s rendition of “All I Have to do is Dream” fuzzed through the air with the taste of cheap electricity. “You’re the best jammer in the league. Kim has no one that can catch you. Even smoking a pack a day unfiltered, you’ve got more wind in your guts than a prairie storm. Why give up the glory of letting Kim Kong eat your dust as you drive by? Why be a blocker like me?”
“Because!” Penny said, manic. “I want to take that trash down a notch, okay? I want to cram my elbows into her mush so she doesn’t talk shit. I want to give her a righteous can opener so she crumbles down the ugly tree and hits every branch on the way downtown! I want to turn this last match into her doomsday!”
Mary pushed her jaw up with her fist to shut her own gapping mouth. “You sound like a wrestler.”
Penny snickered, laughed, then tapped her nose with her fingers, cigarette cherry running close to her skin. “Bing-o. Jackie Wolfe is coming to the show.” And even Mary knew that fink. A promoter of “ladies” wrestling. His rep was as long as his greasy fingers, keeping a private harem that he trolled out across the USA. “I...want to show him what I can do.”
Mary shook her head, anger thick as her helmet. “I need some air.” She headed toward the locker room.
“Hey!” Penny said. “Don’t turn your back on me.”
Mary flipped her the bird, but Penny’s cheap Sears-Roebuck heels shuffled at her. She let Penny yank her around, but then turned to stone. Penny’s cigarette hand pointed a loaded finger .
“You said yourself, Fountainhead is dead. And you know what? So’s derby. If it weren’t for Kim Kong’s big mouth we wouldn’t even have this crowd. It’s dying slow and I don’t want to die with it. Some of us aren’t staying up reading Sartre and headed for college, Mary. Some of us don’t want to stay home. Some of us need to get the hell out of Dodge.”
Mary smacked the accusing finger away. Sparks flew from the cherry and eyes rolled from the neon glow of the Radmen to the two women ready to rumble. “That’s what you want to do with a year of hard bumps and fresh hotrods from New Mexico? Every twisted ankle, every broken nose and bruise, for what? So you could end our ride in a blaze of stupidity? We’ve worked too hard to throw it all away for some glory moment just for you.”
“Just for me?” Penny’s knuckles twisted into fists while the sax player played a blistering solo, cigarette cherry shinning red and smoking hard. “So we’re supposed to follow your lead to oblivion, just so you can go out as captain of victory? Don’t deny you want to see your picture on the wall, all of us holding you up doing one last jam.”
Mary gripped invisible bars of steel and crushed them. “That’s not true and you know it.”
“You’re right,” Penny said, “I do know it. Mary Go Round who doesn’t go-round, Snow White captain of the Hell City Angels, not a proud bone in her banged up body. Maybe you don’t want me to drop Kim Kong because you’d hate to have me spoil her before you can ask her out!”
Mary came in swinging, the stronger of the two, and her right hook cut the air while the bass drum thudded and the cat calls and wolf whistles followed, but Penny was always the quicker and ducked like a wack-a-mole before tossing a hard jab in Mary’s eye.
“Hey, boys,” someone shouted, “Girl fight!”
But Angels don’t fight like girls. A circle of spectators, from farm hands and greasers to daddy-o poets emerged around them and even the Radman stopped midway through an instrumental version of “Jail House Rock.” Haymakers and headbuts swung hard and fast and bruises bloomed and blood flew as two friends worked each other over like a government mule, crowd egging them on as their heels flew off their feet and they got down to business.
“Hey...those are the Angels!”
“Good money’s on Captain Mary!”
“Hey, Penny, win and I’ll marry you!”
But the boys were all mute in the ears of Mary and Penny.
Penny side stepped a right cross. “You’re lucky you’re so damn slow. If you knocked me out, we’d never win!”
“You’re so stupid,” Mary said, guard up and rock solid, “if I knocked you out, no one would even notice.”
Penny laughed, but took a sweet jab to the jaw that caused her to swing wild and pretty soon they crashed into each other and rolled on the floor. The crowd roared until a rumble rolled down and knocked through the onlookers like bowling pins.
Minnie, all three-hundred Ukrainian pounds of her, stormed into the circle and magnetized everyone’s attention. White hair pushed down one side of her face like a peasant Veronica Lake, her voice and Slavic accent boomed everyone still. “Back to rink side. The Angels don’t fight for free. Show starts in ten. Go!”
All obeyed Minnie’s commands as she yanked Mary and Penny off the ground. “You two are being stupid bitch-bitches. Fighting before a fight? Stupid. Save it for the Bombshells. Your team is in the locker room, waiting. The Bombshells are likely planning your destruction, and you’re at each other’s throats like starved dogs.” She spat. “Pathetic. Where I come from, your friends are only enemies when they turn you over to the Checka. Now clean up, solve your shit, or I will beat sense into you myself. You will not ruin our last ride at the Fountainhead. You will go out and win.” She then shoved them to the ground, dusted her hands, and strutted off to the concession stand as The Radmen cranked up a sloppy version of “Mack the Knife.” Mary adjusted her sweater, then stood. “You done?”
Penny remained on her ass, grimacing.
Mary sighed. “Hate me tomorrow. We need you tonight.” She held out her hand.
“Come on,” Mary said. “Do you want me to be sorry? I’m not. You think I want to wake up tomorrow and not have this around? The smell of the rink mixed with fries and excitement?”
Penny snickered. “Boo hoo, just college and boys and a future so bright and glowing it might as well be made of a thousand hotrods, straight from Hiroshima. You’re breaking my heart, Mary.”
Mary’s hands retreated. “I’m not going. To college. Not now, anyway.”
Penny’s eyes narrowed. “Come again?”
Mary took a step back. “Mom...used my tuition.” Penny was up. “It’s not like that. She still has nightmares and she’s been sick so--”
“She’s a drunk.” Penny said.
Mary’s resolve flattened. “She needs me to help out this year.” She faced the Radmen. “I didn’t really want to go.”
“Horseshit,” Penny said, finger jabbing the air. “You’re the smartest thing on two legs in this town and that no good wino is chaining you to her fate. You know it, I know it.”
Mary’s hard fists shook. “But she’s my mother!”
Penny grabbed Mary’s shoulders. “That means she supposed to take care of you, not the other goddamn way around!”
Mary growled, slapped Penny’s hands away. “Just because you’re mom’s perfect doesn’t mean you know anything about mine.”
Penny dug in her purse for a cigarette. “She’s not perfect.”
“Compared to mine she’d a goddamn saint! All she needs is a couple of miracles and-“
Penny’s whole body shook until tears ran down her face and the cigarette hit the floor like the last nail in a coffin.
Penny didn’t cry. Not when her nose got broke for the third time. Not when she almost broke her collar bone last year against the Bombshells. Never.
Mary took her hand and led her to the woman’s bathroom. A stray Bombshell was washing up, and Mary’s voice was colder than a Eskimo’s heart. “Fuck off and stay out.” She did, and Mary locked the door behind her, then hit taps to cover Penny’s sobs. “What’s wrong?”
Penny shook her head, rivers of mascara running down her cheek.
“I’m not mad,” Mary said, tone all strong and straight. “I’m listening.”
Penny sucked in air. “She’s dying.” The next breath came out cold and ragged. “Sure as the sun’s coming up. And I can’t...I can’t be there for it.”
Silence killed the hundred questions in the air. Then... “All we did with the Angels,” Penny said. “Mary, you did it for memories. Memories of when we were wild and rode with hotrods lighting the dark. Sure, it got you out of the witch’s apartment, but it was a distraction before arrived at a world of books and school. But I don’t want them to be memories, Mary. I want them to be the present. The future. I want to keep driving forward, on skates or boots, but forward, just keep on forward. I can’t stay still, and I can’t stay here. If I do, I’ll die, too.”
“What about your mom? Who will take care of her?”
Penny gripped her elbows, shakes covering her like a fever.
Thunder slammed against the door.
“Hey bitches!” Kim Kong’s falsetto voice grated the air, loud and clear. “No place to run, no place to hide. Tonight, you dykes are going to eat rink and that championship cup is mine, mine, all the time, mine!”
“Go fuck yourself, you cunt!” Mary screamed.
Even the band stopped playing to catch a fresh breath. Then the world went normal.
“Do yourselves a favor and drown each other in the toilet,” Kim Kong said. “See you in five, dead or alive.”
Mary turned back to Penny, whose face was five different colors of shocked. “The ‘c’ word?” Penny said. “Even I don’t say the ‘c’ word.”
“She had it coming.”
Penny snorted. “Remind me never to give you grief when you’re in the bog.” She sniffed. “God, I’m a wet mess. We should go to the locker room. Jennie Jet is probably planning a coup d’état in your absence.”
“Look,” Penny said, mascara down her face like a melting clown. “Forget what I just said. All of it. Everything since I showed up. Let me just clean my act up and we can win this thing together.”
“No, Penny. I won’t forget.”
Penny wiped away the mess.
“I’ve got an idea.”
Ten minutes later the Radmen were cut short by Megaphone Dave’s announcement over the Rad World War-era klaxon. “Ladies and Gentleman, Boys and Girls, and Hep Cats and Rad a tat tats! It’s time for the main event!”
Bodies were jammed five rows deep from the frontline around the rink and it was a who’s who of any and everybody in a five hundred mile radius. “And her come the challengers from Alamogordo, New Mexico, lead by Captain Kim Kong, together they form the eighth wonder of the world, the Atomic Bombshells!”
Bursting down the rink, the Bombshells were neon nightmares. The hotrods in their skates made each one radiate their aura, and each one was a devil red creature with skin of flame and looks that kill. They moved like a pack of rabid hyenas trying to break Chuck Yeager’s record, each lap ending with a thunderous “BOOM!” scream. Kim Kong was a staunch five-five platinum blonde with arms like a lumberjack and the face of a lipstick model. She blew kisses like she was emptying a six gun into the crowd.
“And now,” Megaphone Dave yelled, “the ladies you’ve all been waiting for! Give it up for your home town heroines, the Hell City Angels!”
Roars killed the Bombshell’s boom as the Angels rode out like cavalry. Their hotrods had turned them into a fiery phoenix made up of five colors, not just one. Jennie Jet was green as an emerald, Greta the Great a dapper yellow to match her golden strands, and “Give ‘em Hell” Harriet was ice blue. Her “pivot” stripes on her helmet made her aura swirl like a barber pole, though everyone knew she never got a chance to pivot because Penny was the best jammer around, so she soaked in the attention of her aura like sunlight and enjoyed every smile.
Then all eyes were on the leader and her right hand. Mary Go Round was a dirty white streak, a blizzard of brightness like snow from a broken Philco swivel screen. Beside her was a copper red blaze known as Penny Dreadful, as pretty and deadly as her whiplash smile. The star on her helmet made it clear she was going to be jamming for the team.
“Ladies! Take your starting positions! Get ready! Let’s...Jam!”
And history was ready to be made:
Penny kept jamming and was untouchable, her team blocking and pressing and swinging her past the point of points until the Angels caught a lucky break when a bozo threw marbles on the rink to tie the score. When the final round came, the crowd was bursting at the seams of the ring. The next jam would carry it.
“Ready?” Mary said, as they did a cooling lap.
“Are you?” Penny said.
Mary smiled and called “Time Out!”
The crowd watched as the Angels huddled on the move. Harriet’s face was riddled with shocks as she slowly took off her pivot helmet and exchanged it with Mary.
The crowd gasped. Now, Mary, the strongest blocker , would ride up front as a pivot. She could even get the chance to be a jammer...if Penny “passed the star.” With all the rumors flooding the crowd after their Donnybrook before the match, no one could make heads or tails of it, including Jackie Wolfe and his entourage from the Greater Wrestling Territories of the South West. “Look at this crowd,” he said to Tyrannical Rex, incognito without his lizard-skin mask. “And the girls aren’t shaking their tits, and there’s not one swinging dick on the card.”
“Could be why I’m bored out of my skull.”
Jack grunted, then smiled. “They love ‘em. And those two that were scrapping before the show?” Wolfe cackled, then took a deep inhale. “You can’t smell that coming of them?”
Wolfe slapped Rex across the face and the big man just had to take it. “Moron,” he said, and then took another inhale. “That’s the smell of money.”
Rex massaged his cheek. “Which one smells better?”
Wolfe smiled. “We’ll see.”
But it wasn’t just the Angels reforming on the rink. The Bombshells had done a switcharoo. As the pivots got in front of the mass of blockers, the jammers waited twenty feet behind. This time, Penny was confronted by Kim Kong, glowing wild in her star helmet.
“Never took your fat ass for a jammer,” Penny said, huffing.
“Keep talking, whore,” Kim said, big, red lips smiling. “I’ve been doing cardio like you smoke Pall Malls. Debbie Ray Gun said she could hear your lungs wheezing through most of the last jam. And now, you’re going to suck my wind.”
“While you’re dreaming, Kim,” Penny said, gasping, “I’d like a pony. Try not to bleed on my skates when I,” another gulp, “dump your ass.”
Kim laughed. “If you think passing the star to your butch girlfriend will work, good luck. You’re making a bad play, and you know it.”
Penny let the insult stand and Kim Kong gleamed with satisfaction, aura burning bright.
The ref blew the start whistle. Mary and the Bombshell’s pivot took off, the blockers following them...and then the next whistle screamed for the jammers to roll.
And damn if Kim wasn’t as good as her word, pulling ahead of Penny as they ran hard through the blockers. All bets were off as elbows and trips tangled the jammers as they tried to make the first jam, but Penny was rabid and red and bodies fell away from her as she screamed through the mess of limbs while the blockers kept the worst attacks at bay.
Kim was only three feet ahead as they approached the pivots. Penny started to huff. Kim’s pivot reached out to sling shot her down the rink,
Mary shot a look back, smiling, then elbowed Kim’s pivot in breast: the dreaded can opener! She dropped her hands and Kim flailed forward. Mary spun back as Kim passed her, everyone screaming “she’s going to pass the star! Mary’s going to go for it!”
She held out her hand.
Penny smiled, reached out.
But no star was passed.
Penny was shot like a bullet down the rink thanks to Mary’s sling shot, speeding past Kim wild and righteous until she’d circled back toward the blockers. The Angels went nuts with elbows and made a clear path while Kim Kong screamed “Noooo!”
Penny jammed past the blockers, aura burning like a newborn star. As soon as Kim straggled to make a single point, Penny slapped her hands on her hips and killed the jam. Electricity shot through the crowd as Megaphone Dave screamed: “The Angels win! The Angels win!”
When the roar of the crowd died, the girls gathered for a post match interview with all four greasy feet of Megaphone Dave and his styling vitalis hair slick. “Girls that was a spectacular performance of radioactive hotrod derby action and what an exciting victory for you all. Mary, tell us how you did it?”
Jackie Wolfe and his crew stepped forward to get a front row view. Mary smiled big and bright, makeup fresh and clean. “Well, Dave it was a team effort all the way and--“
Mascara running down her face like black veins, Penny grabbed the mike. “Team effort? Last time I checked I was the one who scored all the damn points.”
The crowed ooo’d as Dave tried to bring the mic back, but Mary grabbed it, too, and pulled it close. “And you’d never have scored at all if it weren’t for us working together.”
“Ladies, please,” Dave said, visibly shaken and stirred, “this is on national radio!”
“You know what, Mary?” Penny said. “You’re right. I’m sorry. We were all winners. I’m just hopped up because Kim Kong has such a potty mouth in the ring.” Laughter cackled. Penny put out her hand. “Friends, Captain?”
“Of course, Penny!” She took Penny’s hand-
-and was dragged into a clothes line that set a thousand cameras a flutter.
Jack Wolfe chuckled. “The red smells green to me!”
Penny dragged Mary’s head into a headlock, doubled over and grunted into her ear
Mary gasped and whispered. “My pleasure. I’ll tell your mom you joined the circus!”
Penny turned her smile to a grimace as she hoisted Mary up and slammed her to the ground on Megaphone Dave, and both of them tried not to laugh.