this book is dedicated to the memory of James Crumley. I think I remember everything he ever said to me, and I hope that wouldn't disappoint him.
We took a table in the corner by the counter, away from the couple who were reading Westword together and the guy doing organic chem, and I got out a pad to take notes. I had no idea what I was going to ask her, but I thought I was supposed to write down the answers. Elisha scribbled diligently with a marker on a pad she’d given him. I guess he had a lot more ideas than I did.
“So,” I said, “You need a job, and you talked to Breit. Have you ever worked at a coffee house before?” I wasn’t sure which was being more brilliant, just then, my managerial acumen or my sparkling repartee.
I'd just set up a Peter Yanker and two Virgin Busters, when I turned back to the counter and Stacy Hilburn was there.
I hadn't seen her since she'd testified against me at my manslaughter trial. She looked better than I remembered, and what I remembered was pretty good. Slim all over, small blonde, came up to my shoulder maybe, a few of those pale freckles that look all cute and All-American, tummy that looked planed and sanded, thighs like Minnie Mouse. Freshman year, when she'd been my best bud, she'd picked up some cash doing leg modeling.
She was looking down at her money, deciding how much she wanted to spend, I guess, so she hadn't really seen me yet.
She said, "Petite Sweet Blonde, Whipped."
I just said, "Okay, that all?" like I would to anyone else.
"Hal?" At least she was smiling. "Hal!" I'd forgotten about the gray-blue eyes, though I don't know how.
"Yeah, I uh, I work here." Where I'm noted for my repartee. "Are you still around?"
"Still at Pitkin, doing the fifth year senior thing, and I was out of school a while too." She sounded just like someone inventing a reason not to have read the Pitkin Post. "But I'm graduating this spring. How long have you—I mean—"
"They paroled me in July. I'll graduate in three years—I flunked out that semester." I figured no need to say which semester.
"Yeah, that sucks. But at least you get to finish."
The door swung open and a warm whiff of November Indian summer blew in. The guy looked so prof—little goatee, round glasses, worn out suit jacket, new Dickey pants, and one of those lumpy cloth hats that looks like someone sewed a folded-up sock to the top of his head—that I was sure the bums just said, "Hey, prof," when they hit him up for change. Probably he was so absent-minded he just told them he'd give them an incomplete, maybe adding, "Sorry about your grandmother."
I figured he'd take a minute or so thinking, so I fixed Stacy's order. A "Petite Sweet Blonde" is a shot of espresso, dash of vanilla, and tablespoon of honey in steamed milk. "Whipped" means "froth it and squirt Reddi-Whip on top."
I finished Stacy's order, and the guy in the prof costume decided on a Stud Muffin and a Green Eyed Skank. I didn't look up while I was taking his money and putting his order together, but after he drifted off to a table, Stacy was still standing there.
Well, figure, if she'd wanted to avoid me I'd've never seen her or if she'd wanted to give me shit she'd've started right in. I guess I had to accept that she wanted to be friends.
But I couldn't see why. By the night I got all fucked up and killed Chelsea, Stacy wasn't hanging with us anymore, usually, but for some reason she went to the club with us that night. Couldn't have been old times' sake, she'd never done that kind of shit with us before.
Much later, when they put Stacy on the stand, looking totally all-American good-girl college chick in an interview suit and pearls and all, she told the truth: I was totally trashed that night, martinis, weed, and X. Less than an hour before I peeled out with Chelsea in my car, Stacy had seen me fall across some people's table and fix it up by giving the guy I hit $300 and the bouncer $200.
All the prosecutor had to do was point to that for the jury. Here's a kid, his mom gets food stamps, dad's in prison. But he's got a new car, paid cash for it two months before. How can he even afford to be in that club, let alone pull out five benjamins to fix some guy's weave?
I didn't blame Stacy one fucking bit for telling the truth, you know, no hard feelings. But … she had no way of knowing that I'd be glad to see her—she'd taken a big risk, seeing me, just to be friends again. I didn't deserve any friend that good, and I knew it.
Besides, I didn't have a clue what to say, know what I'm saying? Like casual, About killing your roommate, you cool with that? Or maybe like inspirational, Hey, thanks for testifying, it helped me get my life together, no really, I mean it.
Meanwhile I must be making hella impression by staring off into space. "Sorry I zoned out on you," I said.
"It wasn't for more than half an hour, and I think it's kind of cute the way your mouth hangs open and saliva drips out."
I was so clueless I checked the clock and wiped my face. Of course I'd only actually been standing there like a dumbfuck for like a couple seconds.
"Score," she said. And that twinkle, I'd forgotten how her gray-blue eyes could twinkle.
"Definitely," I admitted.
She hopped up on a bar stool at the counter, like a pixie perching on a mushroom. The big rush was over till dinner time, and Stacy and me just talked, establishing that somewhere down underneath we were still the freshgeeks that talked till oh god thirty about Harry Potter and Firefly and local bands and all that stuff that you think is your identity when you're just out of high school.
Along the way I said prison hadn't been as bad as I'd been afraid of and that I was picking up judo again pretty quick, considering I'd missed two seasons, and kind of angled to see what had kept her from graduating on time.
She just said it was some kind of trouble with her family, and she thought the trouble was over, "but you know how that family bullshit can go, even when it's over you never definitely know it's totally over, you know?"
"Oh, yeah, I have a family too," I said. God I sounded retarded.
"Yeah, I know, your sister crashed with me and Chelsea for a couple days, that 'you too can go to college' dealie they had at the start of sophomore year, remember?"
I'd forgotten completely, because it was just before I grabbed my pretty good life and extremely wonderful girlfriend with both hands and shook them all to shit till there was nothing left. "Yeah," I said, "Now you remind me, for about two months there, Leigh wanted to be you."
"I was a good influence—me?"
"I think she just wanted to be blonde and thin," I said. Stacy stuck her tongue out at me, I said, "Score back," and she grabbed my wrist and lasered right through my head with those blue-gray eyes. "I've missed you. I am still your friend, Hal. Say hi when you see me. Got it?"
"Uh, yeah." More of my famous repartee.
Then I was saved by the bell: Nasty John's regular pack of Yakky Dumb Chicks—you know the kind, all teeth and hair and shrieks—pranced in, yelling directions to each other like our main room was a fucking corn maze instead of eighteen tables and a counter with eight stools.
Stacy winked, raised an eyebrow, and vanished like she really was the Pixie Queen.
I set about supplying the demands for Pussy Warmers, Peter Yankers, and Wide Open Honeys. Not one of them wanted their order the regular way. I guess when you look, talk, and dress just like all your friends, you have to be a fussy eater just so you can remember which one is Aymee and which one is Jekka. (Aymee is afraid of chocolate sprinkles "cause they're bad like clowns and flags and things" and Jekka has to have "half the usual amount of honey and it has to be organic and use French Vanilla not Dark Roast kay? Cause that's what I like.")
As I set up their orders on the counter behind me, that little coterie of intellectuals conducted a focus group on my appearance. Aymee liked my shoulders and hair, Melody thought my eyes were nice, but all of them agreed I had a great butt. Eventually they went clopping away in their noisy shoes, to find a table outside where they could smoke and shriek.
They pretty much trampled Dr. Lang, coming in. Taller than me but probably half my weight, he had very dark skin, a white mustache like an albino walrus, and a very round shaved head. In old rumpled khakis, a jacket that was expensive twenty years ago, and down at the heels moccasins without socks, he looked about as much like a professor as a guy in a space suit looks like an astronaut. In that very-educated-Jamaican accent that sounds more British than you can find on any actual British guy, Lang said, "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good butt must be in want of a hookup."
I was sure that was a reference to something, so I laughed.
He grinned. "I was more entertained by the way you became just as invisible as any teacher."
"I need only turn my back to write on a blackboard and instantly I am invisible. They start talking at once about their HIV tests, or how drunk they were last night, or what excuse they think will work on me."
"Does 'I got drunk and now I have to get an HIV test' work?"
"Oh, for that I require documentation—video, preferably."
Dr. Lang had been my favorite teacher before, the last guy whose classes I attended. Then last summer, when I was just getting out of Cañon, some of the profs were organizing to boycott me, because if none of them would be my advisor I couldn't enroll, but Lang stepped up and said he would. On local Fox News he said, Hal has paid a debt to society, which is more than you can say for most of my colleagues. "Would your insane boss be around anywhere?"
I glanced at the clock. "I'm expecting him back in half an hour."
"Splendid. I'll wait. Hot Black Mama."
I pulled a three espresso shots and dropped them in a mug of hot water with a square of dark chocolate and a squirt of molasses. If you have one of those at nine in the morning, you'll be awake till Christmas. I left room "for cream." actually from Lang's flask.
He settled into his favorite corner table and I avoided looking that way, so I wouldn't see Lang drop a double shot of dark rum into his Hot Black Mama. He was at least half in the bag all the time, and all the way in the bag at least half the time, and still a better teacher than most of them.