WHEN JOHN DORTMUNDER, a free man, not even on parole, walked into the O.J. Bar & Grill on Amsterdam Avenue that Friday night in July, just before ten o’clock, the regulars were discussing the afterlife. “What I don’t get,” said one of them, as Dortmunder angled toward where Rollo the bartender was busy with something far over to the right end of the bar, “is all these clouds.”
A second regular put down his foaming beerglass to say, “Clouds? Which clouds are these?”
“That they’re sitting on!” The first regular waved an arm dangerously, but did no damage. “You look at all these pictures, Jesus sitting on a cloud, that other God sitting on a cloud, Mary sitting on a cloud—”
“A little lower down,” suggested a third.
“Well, yeah, but the point is, can’t Heaven come up with furniture?”
As Dortmunder approached Rollo, he saw that the beefy bartender in his once-white apron was deeply absorbed in making five very complicated drinks in glasses Dortmunder had never seen before and would not have suspected the O.J. of possessing: curled, twisted, wider than deep, they looked mostly like crystal hubcaps, though smaller. But not much smaller.
Another regular, meantime, was objecting to the concept of furniture in the beyond, saying, “Whadaya want with furniture. Heaven isn’t Westchester, you know.”
A fifth regular weighed in, saying,“Yeah? What about all those fields of plenty?”
“Land of milk and honey,” added the third regular, as though it were an indictment.
The first regular lifted a skeptical glass and a skeptical brow to say,“Do they give out overshoes?”
What Rollo was doing with those glasses was just about everything. He had already sluiced in some crushed ice, and now he was adding some red liquid and some yellow liquid and some brown liquid and some clear liquid, all of them channeling around through the shards of ice and combining to form pools that looked like a lab test you didn’t want the results of.
The second regular was now saying, “What gets me is this fruitcake Muslim Heaven with the seventy-two virgins.”
“There aren’t seventy-two virgins,” the first regular objected.
“Well, no,” the second regular conceded, “not all at one time, but still, what kinda Heaven is this? It would be like being assigned to an all-girls’ high school.”
“Ouch,” said the third regular.
“Can you imagine,” the second regular said, “what it sounds like in the cafeteria at lunchtime?”
The fourth regular, the one with something against Westchester, said, “Would you have to learn volleyball?”
This introduction of sports stymied everybody for a minute, as Dortmunder watched Rollo slice up a banana and drop the chunks into the glasses like depth charges. Next he reached for a lime, as Dortmunder looked around and saw what must have happened. It was summertime in New York City, late July, and the sluggish tide of tourists had washed up on this unlikely shore five ladies who did each other’s silvery wavy hair, and who were seated now at one of the booths on the right. They perched very straight on just the front edge of the seat, their backs not touching the seatbacks, like freshmen in military academy, and they gazed around the unlovely precincts of the O.J. with an anthropologist’s guarded delight.
Their clothing combined many of the colors Rollo was injecting into their drinks. One of them, Dortmunder saw, had a cell phone–camera and was sending pictures of the O.J. to the folks back home.
Well, being a free person and not on parole was all well and good, but there was no point in overdoing it. Hunching a shoulder against the spy-cam, Dortmunder said,“Whadaya say, Rollo?”
“With you in a minute,” Rollo said. Inside each glass now, it looked as though an elf had blown up, but Rollo was not done. To cap it all, he dropped a shiny red spheroid on top of each; could those be related to cherries somehow.
Surely that was all even these glasses could stand, but no.
Turning to a little-used drawer under the backbar, Rollo came up with five Oriental pastel parasols and plopped one onto each drink, as though some poor shipwrecked son of a bitch were marooned on each of them.
And now they actually were done. Since apparently total concentration was not necessary while loading glasses onto a tray—not even glasses like these—while Rollo did that operation he said, “You already got the beer and salt back there.”
Tray full, Rollo reached under the bar and came up with a bottle of sluggish brown liquid behind a label reading,
Amsterdam Liquor Store Bourbon
“Our Own Brand”
Placing this bottle on the bar before Dortmunder, he said, “The other bourbon and ice? He coming?”
“I’ll get you two glasses,” Rollo said, and while he did, Dortmunder told him, “Also the rye and water, the one that tinkles his ice cubes all the time.”
“Haven’t seen him for a while.” Rollo knew everybody not by their name but by their drink, which struck him as the professional way to go about things.
“He’s the one called this meeting,” Dortmunder said. “Let’s hope it’s good news.”
“I’ll drink to that,” Rollo said, though he didn’t. Instead, he carried the tray of weirdness toward the five tourist ladies, who filmed his approach.
Picking up the bottle and the two glasses with their own discrete burdens of ice cubes, Dortmunder made his way around the regulars, who were still gnawing the same bone, the third regular now saying, “What if you can’t play cards in Heaven? What if you can’t dance?”
“Big deal,” the second regular said. “I can’t dance on Earth.”
Leaving the theologians, Dortmunder made his way down the hall, past the doors defined by neat dog silhouettes labeled POINTERS and SETTERS and past the phone booth that was now a helplessly gaping unofficial portal to cyberspace, and into a small square room with a concrete floor. The walls were fronted, floor to ceiling, by beer and liquor cases, leaving just room for a battered old round table with a stained green felt top and half a dozen armless wooden chairs, at one of which—the one most completely facing the door—sat a carroty-headed guy with a glass of beer in front of his right hand, a salt shaker in front of where his left hand should be, and his left hand actually holding a cell phone to his ear.
“Here’s John now,” he said into it. “I’ll tell him.”
“Hello, Stan,” Dortmunder said, and sat to his left, so he, too, could have an unobstructed view of the door.
Hanging up and secreting his cell on his person, Stan said, “I think the Williamsburg is gonna be all right.”
“That’s good,” Dortmunder said. Stan Murch was a driver, and as a result he gave more than the usual consideration to the routes he chose.
“For many years,” Stan said, “the Williamsburg Bridge was where you went if you wanted to sleep in your car. Only now the construction’s done, turns out, that humongous expressway Robert Moses wanted to put across Manhattan from the Williamsburg to the Holland Tunnel, slice the island in half like the Great Wall of China, only he didn’t get it, that’s fine, turns out it didn’t have to happen anyway. Canal Street’s a great run across, the West Side Highway’s a snap coming up, I’m here so early this is my second saltshaker.” Being a driver, Stan liked to pace his alcohol intake, but he hated it when his beer went flat; hence the salt. Every once in a while, a judicious spray, the head comes right back.
“That’s nice,” Dortmunder said.
“However,” Stan said, “that was Ralph on the phone, the meet is off.”
Ralph was Ralph Winslow, the rye-and-water-in-a-tinklingglass.
Dortmunder said, “He called the meeting, now he calls to say it’s off.”
“Some cops found something in his car,” Stan explained. “He couldn’t go into details.”
“No, I know.”
“In fact,” Stan said, “he’s got me on his speed-dial, so the cops think he’s still on his one permitted call to his lawyer.”
“Call Andy,” Dortmunder suggested.“He’s on his way, save him some time.”
“Good idea. He’s on my speed-dial. You don’t have one of these, do you?” Stan asked, unleashing his cell.
“No,” Dortmunder said simply.
As Stan made the call to warn off the final attendee of the non-meeting, he and Dortmunder walked back down the hall and around the regulars and over to where Rollo was firmly wiping with a dirty rag the part of the bar where he’d made all those strange drinks. At the booth, the ladies were gone and those glasses were all empty except for some dirty ice. That was fast. They’d taken the parasols with them.
“Sorry, Rollo,” Dortmunder said, returning the bottle and glasses. “Change of plan.”
“You’ll be back,” Rollo said.
As Dortmunder and Stan headed for the street, the first regular was saying, “You want my idea of Heaven? You go there, you take a nap.”
The third regular veered half around on his barstool to get a better look at things.“Yeah? Then what?”
“What what? It’s over. The Last Nap. Can you think of anything better?”
Into the profound silence that followed upon that, Dortmunder, on his way out the door, said, “I was counting on this. I could use something.”
“Me, too,” Stan said. “I’ll give you a lift home.”
“Thank you. Maybe,” Dortmunder said, “I’ll get another phone call.”
Copyright © 2005 by Donald Westlake