WHEN MAY GOT home from her job at the Safeway with the daily sack of groceries she felt was a perk her employers would have given her if they'd thought of it, the apartment was dark. It was not yet quite six o'clock, but in this apartment, whose windows showed mostly brick walls four to six feet away, midnight in November came around three p.m.
May switched on the hall light, went down to the kitchen, stowed the day's take, went back up the hall, turned right into the living room to see if the local news had anything she could bear to listen to, switched on the light there, and John was seated in his regular chair, in the dark, gazing moodily at the television set. Well, no; gazing moodily toward the television set.
May jumped a foot. She let out a little cry, clutched her bosom, and cried, "John!"
She stared at him. "John? What's the matter?"
"Well," he said, "I'm doomed."
For the first time in years, May wished she still smoked. Taking the other chair, she flicked ashes from that ancient cigarette onto the side table where the ashtray used to be, and said, "Was it that cop?"
"It sure was."
"And did Stan find you?"
With a hollow sardonic laugh, John said, "Oh, yeah. He found me."
"He can't help?"
"Stan doesn't help," John said. "Stan needs help, him and his golden dome. If my only problem was Stan Murch and his golden dome, I'd be sitting pretty, May. Sitting pretty."
"Well, what is the problem?"
"The thing the cop wants me to get," John said. "It's a golden chess set — more gold — and it's supposed to be too heavy for one guy to lift."
"Get somebody to help."
"It's also," he said, "in a sub-basement vault under a midtown bank building."
"Oh," she said.
"And this guy, this seventeen-months-not-a-cop," John said, "he let me know, I try to leave town, he's got these millions and millions of cop buddies on the Internet and they'll track me down. And he would, too, he's a mean son of a bitch, you can see it in his forehead."
"So what are you going to do?"
"Well," he said, "I figure I'll just sit here until they come to get me."
"You don't mean that, John," she said, though she was afraid he actually did mean it.
"I've done jail before, May," he reminded her. "It wasn't that bad. I got through it."
"You were less set in your ways, then," she said.
"You can pick up the old routines," he said. "Probly a few guys still there I knew in the old days."
"Or there again."
"Yeah, could be. Old home week."
May knew John had a very bad tendency, when things got unusually difficult, to sink with an almost sensuous pleasure into a warm bath of despair. Once you've handed the reins over to despair, to mix a metaphor just a teeny bit, your job is done. You don't have to sweat it any more, you've taken yourself out of the game. Despair is the bench, and you are warming it.
May knew it was her job, at moments like this, to pull John out of the clutches of despair and goose him into forward motion once more. After all, it isn't whether you win or lose, it's just you have to be in the goddam game.
"John," she said, being suddenly very stern, "don't be so selfish."
He blinked at her, emerging slowly up from a dream of prison as a kind of fraternal organization. "What?"
"What about me?" she demanded. "Don't you ever think about me? I can't go to jail with you, you know."
"What am I going to do with myself, John," she wanted to know, "if you're going to spend ten to fifteen upstate? I've made a certain commitment here, you know that, I hope."
"May, it's not me, it's that cop."
"It's you that's sitting there," she told him, "like you're waiting for a bus. And you are waiting for a bus. To jail! What's the matter with you, John?"
He tried, though feebly, to fight back. "May? You want me to try to get down into that vault? Never mind the vault, you want me to try to get into the elevator that leads down to the vault? The bank's money is down there, too, May, they will be very alert about that vault. And, even if I was crazy enough to try it, who am I gonna get to help carry? Who else would try a stunt like that?"
"Call Andy," she advised.