Delivering the Punch Line: Last Words

When somebody is looking, I generally just pilfer a little. When there’s no one around, I steal, and, over time, have become a fairly good thief. Lord knows I’ve had years of practice. And those who catch me simply shrug, shake their heads, and walk on past.

Some are collectors. Others buy, swap, finagle, bid, or trade for what they want.

Not me.

I simply take what’s not mine.

And nobody remembers.

I take the words that belong to someone else.

I take their most prized possessions.

I keep them.

I file them away.

And sooner or later, I dredge up the phrases, thoughts, and expressions, scatter them randomly on a blank piece of paper, and publish them as though the words had been incubated and born in a back corner of my own brain.

For decades, I have eavesdropped on conversations, heard fascinating turns of a phrase, and immediately slipped out my notepad and wrote them down. In airports, in subways, walking along the shoreline of a lake or down a beach, sitting on front porches, at family reunions – mine or someone else’s – and on downtown street corners, you can learn enough stories, past and present, about people, now and then, to keep you writing new stories and new books for a long time.

I have clipped newspapers and magazines, drifted through archives of ancient and recent history, found wonderful little stories, ripped them out, scissored them out, printed them, copied them, and bought one filing cabinet after another to hold them all..

I have no idea when they will show up in print.

But they always do. And, on occasion, when I’m backed against a wall, staring at a blank piece of paper, I crawl into those filing cabinets and run across a little nugget, sometimes a little masterpiece.

More than three decades ago, I had one of the interminable layovers at the Little Rock airport. Storm pounding the runways. Fog rolling in. Flights delayed. Nothing to buy for supper but another plate of grease –with or without onions.

Nothing to do but wait.

Nothing to do but read.

I picked up a wrinkled copy of the Arkansas Democrat that someone had left behind and turned to the obituary page. That’s the best page in a newspaper. That’s the page where all of the great little stories of life can be found.

And sure enough, a gentleman had died.

Age 82.

Married 57 years.

And it quoted the final words his wife had told him just before he breathed his last.

I smiled, ripped the clipping out of the newspaper, stuck it in my hip pocket, and never forgot it.

Decades later, my writing partner, Frank Q. Dobbs, who had gone to play the motion picture game in Hollywood, called to say that he and I had been asked to write a two-part mini-series for CBS Television for The Gambler, a western franchise, starring Kenny Rogers that had been galloping along since 1980.

We based the script loosely on the ill-fated exploits of Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid as they fled Texas for a date with destiny high among the rugged slopes of the Andes in Bolivia.

With them rode Etta Place, the beautiful and sophisticated prostitute from Hell’s Half Acre in Fort Worth, thought I doubt she was very beautiful or sophisticated. Legends, however, have a life of their own.

Sundance tried to leave her behind in Texas. But she was in love and refused to leave him no matter how difficult the ride might be.

Besides, robbing banks was a much easier and more lucrative profession than collecting a few dollars here and there amidst the beds and bedlam of a brothel.

In one of those final, critical, climactic scenes, Sundance has been shot.

He is dying or knows he will be dead soon.

Time is running out.

Pinkerton’s agents are closing in around them. Their shadows fall long and deadly across the Andes.

Sundance persuades Etta Place – played by the young and lovely, Mariska Hargitay, a former Miss Beverly Hills – to escape with Kenny Rogers, the Gambler.

She doesn’t want to ride away.

She knows she will never see him again.

But she has run out of chances and choices.

I needed one final line of dialogue for Etta to whisper to Sundance, whose eyes were already growing dim.

I had no idea what to write.

Then I remembered the obituary from a newspaper in a Little Rock airport so many years ago.

I smiled. It was just right. So I stole a grieving wife’s final words and put them in the mouth of a beautiful young prostitute with death closing in around her.

Etta leaned over. She took Sundance’s hand.

And she whispered, “When you get there, walk real slow, because I’ll be running to catch up.”




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