MAY had put together a special dinner, all of Dortmunder’s favorites: Salisbury steak, steamed green beans, whipped potatoes from a mix, enriched white bread, beer in the can, and boysenberry Jell-O for dessert. On the table were lined up the ketchup, the A-1 sauce, the Worcestershire sauce, the salt and pepper and sugar, the margarine, and the can of evaporated milk. She had the entr'ee done by midnight, and put it in the oven to keep warm till Dortmunder got home at quarter to four.
From the slope of his shoulders when he walked in she knew things hadn’t gone well. Maybe she should wait, and broach the subject some other time? No; if she waited for John Dortmunder to be in a good mood they’d both of them be very, very old before she ever said anything.
He dropped his bag of tools on the gray armchair, where they clanked. He unzipped his black jacket, peeled off his black gloves, shook his head, and said, “I don’t know, May. I just don’t know.”
“Something go wrong?”
“Twenty-five minutes going through that door,” Dortmunder said. “I did everything right, everything smooth and perfect. Not a sound, not a peep. I go in through the door, I flash the light around, you know what the place is?”
She shook her head. “I can’t imagine,” she said.
“Since last Tuesday and today,” he said, waving one hand around, “they went out of business. Can you figure that? Just last Tuesday I walked by the front of the place, they’re still open. All right, they’re having an up-to-fifty-percent-off sale, but they’re open. Who expects them to go out of business?”
“I guess times are bad all over,” May said.
“I’d like to take the guy had that store,” Dortmunder said, “and punch him right in the head.”
“Well, it isn’t his fault either,” May said. “He probably feels just as bad about closing up as you do.”
With a cynical look, Dortmunder shook his head and said, “Not damn likely. He made out on that sale he had there, don’t you think he didn’t. And what do I get? I get zip.”
“There’ll be other times,” May said. She wished she knew how to console him. “Anyway, wash up and I’ve got a nice dinner for you.”
Dortmunder nodded, heavy and fatalistic. Walking away toward the bathroom, shrugging out of his jacket, he muttered, “Living off the proceeds of a woman.” He shook his head again.
May scrinched her face up. He was always using that phrase, whenever things went wrong, and it was perfectly true that when he didn’t make any money they had to live on her salary and fringe benefits from Bohack’s, but she didn’t mind. She’d told him a hundred times that she didn’t mind. All she minded, actually, was that phrase:
“Living off the proceeds of a woman.” Somehow, the impression the phrase gave her didn’t seem to have anything to do with being a cashier at Bohack’s. Oh, well. He didn’t mean anything bad by it. May padded on back to the kitchen to see to dinner, and also to change cigarettes. The one burning away in the corner of her mouth had become no bigger than an ember by now, causing a sensation of heat against her lips. She reached up, plucked the burning coal from her mouth with thumb and two fingers, and flipped it into the sink, where it sizzled in complaint and then died. Meanwhile, May had already taken the crumpled pack of Lucky Strikes from her sweater pocket and was finagling one cigarette out of it. It was a process like removing an accident victim from his crushed automobile. Freeing the cigarette, she straightened and smoothed it, and went looking for matches. Unlike most chain smokers, she couldn’t light the new cigarette from the old, there never being enough of the old one left to hold onto, so she had a continuing supply problem with matches.
Like now, for instance. There were no matches at all in the kitchen. Rather than carry the hunt through the rest of the apartment she turned on a front burner of the gas stove, crouched down in front of it, and crept up on the flame like a peeping tom creeping up on an open window. The smell of cigarette smoke mingled in the air with the smell of singed eyebrow. Squinting her eyes shut, she ducked back, puffed, shook her head, wiped her eyes, turned off the burner, and saw to dinner.
Dortmunder was sitting at the table in the dinette end of the living room when she carried the two hot plates in, using potholders with cartoons on them. Dortmunder looked at the food as she put it before him, and he almost smiled. “Looks real nice,” he said.
“I thought you’d like it.” She sat down opposite him, and for a while they just ate together in companionable silence. She didn’t want to rush into this conversation, and in fact she wasn’t even sure how she would start it. All she knew was that she wasn’t looking forward to it.
She waited till they were having their coffee and Jell-0, and then said, “I had a call today from Murch’s Mom.”
“Oh, yeah?” He sounded neither interested nor suspicious. What a simple, honest, trusting man, May thought, looking at him, feeling for him again the same tenderness as when they’d first met, the time she caught him shoplifting in Bohack’s. That time, he hadn’t run or lied or complained or caused any trouble at all; he’d just stood there, looking so defeated she hadn’t had the heart to turn him in. She’d even helped him stuff the sliced cheese and the packaged baloney back into his armpits, and had said, “Look, why not hit the Grand Union from now on?” And he’d said, “I always liked the Bohack coffee.” It was the first thing he’d ever said to her.
She cleared her throat; she was feeling misty and emotional, and that would never do. Much as she hated the role, what she had to do now was start manipulating her man; it was, after all, for his own good. So she said, “She told me, Murch’s Mom told me, that Andy Kelp is still trying to organize that kidnapping idea.”
Dortmunder paused with a spoonful of Jell-O, gave a disgusted look, and went back to his eating.
“He wanted Stan to drive,” May said, “but Stan wouldn’t go into it without you.”
“Good,” Dortmunder said.
“I’m worried about Kelp,” May said. “You know what he’s like, John.”
“He’s a jinx,” Dortmunder said. “He’s also an ingrate, and besides that he’s a bigmouth. Let’s not spoil a nice dinner with talk about Kelp.”
“I’m just afraid of the kind of woman he’ll get,” May said. “You know, to take care of the child.”
Dortmunder frowned. “What child?”
“The one they kidnap.”
Dortmunder shook his head. “He’ll never get it off the ground. Andy Kelp couldn’t steal third in the Little League.”
“Well, that would make it even worse,” May said. “He’s really determined to do it, you know. He’ll get the wrong people, some awful woman who doesn’t care about children, and some barfly to do the driving, and they’ll just get themselves in trouble.”
“Good,” Dortmunder said.
“But what if the child gets hurt? What if the police surround the hideout, what if there’s a shoot-out?”
“A shoot-out? With Kelp? He’s so gun-shy, he goes out to the track, he surrenders at the beginning of every race.”
“But what about the other people with him? There’s no telling who he’ll wind up with.”
Dortmunder looked pained, and May remembered that he and Kelp really were old friends; so maybe there was a chance, after all. But then Dortmunder’s expression became mulish, and he said, “Just so he doesn’t wind up with me. He’s jinxed me long enough.”
May cast around for another argument, considered a specific mention of the friendship between Dortmunder and Kelp, and finally decided not to do that. If she did, he might just be angry enough now to deny the friendship, and then later on he’d think he had to stand by the denial. Better to let the dust settle for a minute.
They were finishing the Jell-O when she started again, coming in from another direction entirely, saying, “I read that book again. It isn’t bad, you know.”
He looked at her. “What book?”
“The one Kelp showed us. The one about the kidnap. ping.”
He straightened and looked around the room, frowning. “I thought I threw that out,” he said.
“I got another copy.” She’d gotten it from Kelp, but she didn’t think she should mention that.
He turned his frown toward her. “What for?”
“I wanted to read it again. I wanted to see if maybe Kelp had a good idea after all.”
“Kelp with a good idea.” He finished his Jell-O and reached for his coffee.
“Well, he was smart to bring it around to you,” she said. “He wouldn’t be able to do it right without you.”
“Kelp brings a plan to me.”
“To make it work,” she said. “Don’t you see? There’s a plan there, but you have to convert it to the real world, to the people you’ve got and the places you’ll be and all the rest of it. You’d be the aw-tour.”
He cocked his head and studied her. “I’d be the what?”
“I read an article in a magazine,” she said. “It was about a theory about movies.”
“A theory about movies.”
“It’s called the aw-tour theory. That’s French, it means writer.”
He spread his hands. “What the hell have I got to do with the movies?”
“Don’t shout at me, John, I’m trying to tell you. The idea is—”
“I’m not shouting,” he said. He was getting grumpy.
“All right, you’re not shouting. Anyway, the idea is, in movies the writer isn’t really the writer. The real writer is the director, because he takes what the writer did and he puts it together with the actors and the places where they make the movie and all the things like that.”
“The writer isn’t the writer,” Dortmunder said.
“That’s the theory.”
“So they call the director the aw-tour,’ she explained, “because that’s French for writer.”
“I don’t know what we’re talking about,” Dortmunder said, “but I think I’m getting caught up in it. Why do they do it in French?”
“I don’t know. Maybe because it’s more classy. Like chifferobe.”
She could sense the whole thing getting out of hand. “Never mind,” she said. “The point was, you could be the aw-tour on this kidnapping idea. Like a movie director.”
“Well, I think that whole aw-tour theory is—” He stopped, and his eyes squinted. “Wait a minute,” he said. “You want me to do the job!”
She hesitated. She clutched her paper napkin to her bosom. But there was no turning back now. “Yes,” she said.
“So you can take care of the kid!”
“Partly,” she said. “And also because all of these late-night burglaries aren’t good for you, John, they really aren’t. You go out and risk life imprisonment for—”
“Don’t remind me,” he said.
“But I want to remind you. If you get caught again, you’re habitual, isn’t that right?”
“If I stay away from Kelp,” Dortmunder said, “I won’t get caught. And if I stay away from him, my luck’ll get better. I’ve had a string of bad luck, and it’s all from hanging around with Andy Kelp.”
“Like tonight? That store going out of business? You haven’t seen Kelp for two weeks, not since you threw him out of here.”
“It takes time to wear off a jinx,” he said. “Listen, May, I know I’m not pulling my weight around here, but I’ll—’,
“That’s not what I’m talking about, and you know it. These small-time stings just aren’t right for you. You need one major job a year, that you can take some time on, do it right, and feel comfortable with a little money in the bank afterwards.”
“There aren’t any of those jobs any more,” he said. “That’s the whole problem in a nutshell. Nobody uses cash any more. It’s all checks and credit cards. You open a cash register, it’s full of nickels and Master Charge receipts. Payrolls are all by check. Do you know, right here in Manhattan, there’s a guy sells hot dogs on a street corner, he’s on Master Charge?”
May said, “Well, maybe that shows Kelp has a good idea. You can take the story in that book, and adapt it around, and turn it into something. Andy Kelp couldn’t do it, John, but you could. And it wouldn’t just be following somebody else’s plan, you’d adapt it, you’d make it work. You’d be the aw-tour.”
“With Kelp for my actor, huh?”
“I’ll tell you the truth, John, I think you’re unfair to him. I know he gets too optimistic sometimes, but I really don’t think he’s a jinx.”
“You’ve seen me work with him,” Dortmunder said. “You don’t think that’s a jinx?”
“You didn’t get caught,” she pointed out. “You’ve been collared a few times in your life, John, but it was never while you were working with Andy Kelp.”
Dortmunder glowered over that one, but he didn’t have an immediate answer. May waited, knowing she’d presented all the arguments she could, and now all she could do was let it percolate through his head.
Dortmunder frowned toward the opposite wall for a while, then grimaced and said, “I don’t remember the book so good, I don’t know if it was such a hot idea in the first place.”
“I’ve still got it,” she said. “You could read it again.”
“I didn’t like the style,” he said.
“It isn’t the style, it’s the story. Will you read it again?” He looked at her. She saw he was weakening. “I don’t promise anything,” he said.
“But you will read it?”
“But I don’t promise anything.”
Jumping to her feet, she said, “You won’t be sorry, John, I know you won’t.” She kissed him on the forehead, and ran off to the bedroom to where she’d hid the book.