Yesterday, while doing time in the seasonally long checkout line at the supermarket, Christmas muzak forced itself in my ears: It’s the MOST wonderFUL TIME of the YEAR…. Ha. More like, over-rated. No, over-advertised.
What’s a synonym for advertise? Hypnotize. Via TV, radio, facebook, google, twitter, tablets, phones, you name it, vendors use it to do it. From Black Friday through New Year’s Eve, everywhere you go, eddying masses of shopping-bag-encrusted people with glazed eyes at half-mast get in the way. Especially in parking lots. Oh joy.
From behind me in the queue, a woman’s voice broke up these festive thoughts, “Did you get the croutons?”
A second female voice answered, “Capons? I thought we were going with turkey. Do they even carry capons here? Awfully fancy.”
The first voice said, impatiently, “Croutons!”
The second, “Coupons?”
The soundtrack changed to Rudolph, The Red Nosed Reindeer had a very shiny nose, and if you ever saw it and I was at the OJ Bar & Grill, standing at the bar with Dortmunder, my favorite thief, waiting for Rollo, the meaty, blue-jawed bartender to notice us. Meanwhile, the regulars at the bar talked amongst themselves. Oh joy!
Overhearing the regulars at the OJ is the best of all possible interludes in this best of all possible worlds: a Dortmunder caper by Donald Westlake. (Also in this, the real world.)
As you know, Westlake is my favorite author. The reasons are many, and here’s another. In every stream of action there are lulls, during which people around us talk, and who listens? Westlake. Master alchemist, he takes this dross and makes comedic gold.
At some point in every Dortmunder caper— Oh, when? The anticipation!— the gang meets in the back room of the OJ. Which means passing by the bar where the regulars take sloshy slugs at life’s pressing conundrums. And miss.
Let's listen. We gotta wait for Rollo anyway.
When Dortmunder walked into the O.J. Bar & Grill on Amsterdam Avenue at four minutes before six that evening, Rollo, the bulky, balding bartender, was painting MERY XM on the extremely dusty mirror over the back bar, using some kind of white foam from a spray can, possibly shaving cream, while the regulars, clustered at one end of the bar, were discussing the names of Santa’s reindeer. “I know it starts,” the first regular said, “’Now, Flasher, now Lancer, now—‘”
“Now, now, wait a second,” the second regular said. “One of those is wrong.”
Dortmunder walked over to stand at the bar, somewhat to the right of the regulars and directly behind Rollo, whose tongue was stuck slightly out of the corner of his mouth as, with deep concentration, he painted downward a left-trending diagonal next to M.
“Oh yeah?” said the first regular. “Which one?”
“I think Flasher,” said the second regular.
A third regular joined in at this point, saying, “Naw, Lancer.”
Rollo started the second leg of the next letter.
“So what are you telling me?” demanded the first regular. “They’re both wrong?”
A fourth regular, who had been communing with the spheres of the universe, or maybe with the bottles on the back bar, inhaled, apparently for the first time in several days, and said, “Rupert.”
All the regulars looked at him. Rollo started the horizontal.
“Rupert what?” demanded the second regular.
“Rupert Reindeer,” the fourth regular told him.
The third regular, in total disdain, said, “Wait a minute. You mean the one with the red nose?”
“That’s not a reindeer!” the third regular informed him.
“Oh yeah?” Transition complete, the fourth regular was at this point fully in the here and now. “Then why do they call him Rupert Reindeer?”
“He’s not one of these reindeer,” the first regular explained.
“He’s not even Rupert,” the third regular said. “He’s Rodney. Rodney, the red-nosed—“
“They won’t let him play,” the second regular said, “unless it’s foggy.”
“And you,” the third regular said, pointing a definitive finger at the fourth regular, “are foggy.”
“Hey!” the fourth regular said. “How’m I supposed to take that?”
Rollo added an extremely accomplished apostrophe just to the right of XMA, then paused to contemplate that next bare space.
“Any way you want,” the third regular said.
The fourth regular frowned, thinking that over.
Rollo shook his head, then turned slightly to glance toward Dortmunder. “How you doin,” he said.
“Fine,” Dortmunder assured him.
Rollo shook the spray can in the direction of the space next to the XMA’. “It’s all curves from now on,” he said.
“You did good with the R,” Dortmunder told him.
Rollo was cheered by that. “You think so? It’s in the wrist, I believe.”
“You’re probably right,” Dortmunder said.
“I think one of them is Dopey,” the second regular said.
“Yeah,” the third regular said, “and I know which one, too.”
The first regular said, “I think the next two are Masher and Nixon.”
“Nixon!” snorted the third regular. “ He wasn’t even alive yet.”
“Well, it’s Masher and somebody.”
“Donner,” said the second regular. “I know Donner goes in there somewhere.”
“No, no, no,” said the first regular. “Donner’s that place where they ate the people.”
Everybody was interested in that. “Who ate the people?” asked the fourth regular, who had decided not to make a federal case out being called foggy, or whatever it was.
“Some other people,” the first regular explained, “They got stuck in the snow, on a bus.”
“Now wait a minute,” the third regular said. “It wasn’t a bus. I know what you’re talking about, it was a long time ago, it was one of those wagons, Saratoga wagons.”
“It wasn’t Saratoga,” the second regular said. “Maybe you mean station wagon.”
As Rollo started the slow circuitous path of the final letter on the mirror, the first regular said, “Station wagon! If it’s too long ago for a bus, whada they doin in a station wagon?”
“I dunno, Mac,” the second regular said, “it’s your story.”
Rollo finished a somewhat recognizable S, and the first regular called over, “Hey, Rollo, you got that misspelled there!”
Rollo looked at the regular, then at his handiwork. MERY XMA’S. He didn’t seem particularly worried. “Oh yeah?” he said.
“You gotta spell merry,” the first regular told him, “with an a.”
The third regular said, “What are you, nuts? When you spell it with an a, that what you call it when you get married.”
“Only if that’s her name,” the fourth regular said, and received massive frowns of bewilderment in response.
Rollo at last put down the spray can and faced Dortmunder. “It’s the thought that counts,” he said.
“You’re right about that.”
“You’ll be wanting the back room.”
“Sure. We’re gonna be the other bourbon, the vodka and red wine, the beer and salt, and the beer and salt’s Mom. I think she’s a beer, too.”
“She is,” Rollo agreed. A professional to his fingertips, he identified his customers exclusively by their choice of beverage. “I’ll give you the other bourbon’s glass,” he said, “and send everybody back when they get here. You’re the first.”
“I’m kind of the host,” Dortmunder said.
As Rollo went off to get glasses and ice and a bottle of Amsterdam Liquor Store Bourbon— Our Own Brand, as it said on the label, the regulars spent some time trying to decide if it was Mary that was a grand old name or Ulysses S. Grant that was a grand old name. Ulysses S. Grant certainly sounded grander. Probably older, too.
Rollo brought over a round enameled metal Rheingold Beer tray containing two plain water glasses, a shallow ironstone bowl with ice cubes in it, and the alleged bourbon, which, beyond the brave statement of its label, was a muddy brown liquid that looked as if it might have been scooped from a river somewhere in Azerbaijan. “See me on the way out,” he advised.
“Sure,” Dortmunder said. “Merry exmas,” he added, and carried the tray past the regulars, most of whom were pretty sure at this point that Nerdy was not one of the original Seven Dwarfs….” Bad News