Sunday, February 19, 2012
This'll teach me to do anything interesting, ever. Literally the day after posting the first action-heavy scene in Father Lucifer, chaos of an almost entirely good kind (CAEGK, which sounds like a noise a cat makes bringing up a hairball) erupted into my life. This is rather like what some other writers refer to as a Sekrit Project, which is probably a reference to something or other that I missed along the way. Anyway, can't talk about it yet, will be great if it happens, and won't know for a couple few weeks I think ... but I should be back on the regular job around Wednesday or Thursday, and all blogs will resume normality shortly after that. So meanwhile Hal's unconscious, Stacy is kidnapped, and Breit is still a gross old poop, but Hal will just have to depend on him anyway, because he is the only Good Guy on his feet at the moment. Might get something in late this week but will probably let it ride around till Tuesday the 28th.
Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Night was rushing across the sky, swarming over the last glints of sun that poked out between the mountains, with a chill coming on. Stacy pressed close to me and I put my arm around her. That was nice.
"Here's the thing," she said. "I had this idea that I could get away from my idiot parents and steps, once and for all, if I could just make one good score. You know how good that can sound."
"Oh, yeah. Thought you said it wasn't drugs."
I thought for a long second about several things I didn't want to think about, and decided to stay real neutral. "So the deal went south."
"Way south. The people I was dealing with knew my old history, and it was too late to back out."
I didn't know her old history but this didn't seem like the time to ask.
She rubbed her head on my shoulder. "It's just hard to tell you about it, is all. I know you would never judge me but the whole thing is dumb and embarrassing, and I just hate to think about telling you."
"Then don't," I said. "Tell me when you want to, if you ever do. Doesn't matter to us being friends." It's easy to be all understanding and shit when you have no idea what you're talking about, and don't want to.
We didn't talk the rest of the way to Chivington Hall. It was getting dark fast now, long shadows from the trees and the campus buildings throwing freezing night across the lawns and walks. The colors were mostly gone except for the indigo sky with a couple stars out. Stacy took a minute to untie her sweater from her waist and slip into it, and put an arm around my waist. I lay my arm over her bony little shoulders. If this was going to be a regular thing I was totally down with it.
We walked on past the Fieldhouse. I thought about introducing her to Coach Park, like meet the folks, and was just beginning to look up at a bright star over in the east and think Star light, star bright … since for once I knew what I might wish for, when I realized we were almost to Chivington. "Hey, after Nasty John's tonight, can you give me a ride home?"
"For sure," I said. "If the game doesn't finish before closing time, they're all such chivalrous old gomers, if I ask for twenty minutes to drive you home, all you have to do is stand beside me, show'em some big scared eyes—"
"I've been pointing big eyes at older men ever since I found out I liked ice cream cones." she said.
That seriously creeped me. I'd been joking but it didn't quite sound like she was.
Her class was upstairs, mine was downstairs, so we let go of each other at the big swooping staircase with the huge wood balustrade that runs up the center of Chivington, not quite kissing, but at least one of us was having the thought.
I usually take good notes but this time I didn't even do much of a job copying the board. I think the prof talked about logic and I think he was in favor of it.
At judo practice, I had the worst case of monkey mind I'd had in years, with that Liz Phair song about being already wet and gonna go swimming stuck in my head. I was so out of it during uchikomis that I was losing my breath control, holding my breath instead of using it for power, and after the third time Coach Park caught me, he said, "Why can't you breathe?" and after that I couldn't have had more of a monkey mind if you'd planted a banana tree in my skull.
Well, though my head wasn't in it, at least my ass got a workout. The shower felt great for the thirty seconds or so I allowed myself, and then I threw myself into my clothes, slammed that locker door, and was off to Nasty John's like a cruise missile with a late payment.
Stacy had grabbed a table near the counter and strewn it with books and papers, sitting cross-legged on her chair, in slippers, a huge-on-her Pitkin College sweatshirt, and baggy pants that I suspected were pajamas.
I slipped an arm around her shoulders as I passed and said, "I won't be out here much, have to stay by the door to the back room, but though you won't see me, I'm here, and I'll wave from the counter."
"Sort of like the love of God, except he rarely waves from the counter." She slipped an arm around me to return the hug.
"He's dealing with a longer line," I said.
I looked up and Gayle was laughing. "That's not only cute, it's the first thing from work I could quote to my minister," she said. "Don't worry, Hal, I'll make sure no one steals your girlfriend."
I thought about explaining that Stacy wasn't and then decided I didn't want to. "Gotta yalla, set-ups are complicated and there's not much time." I squeezed Stacy's shoulder again. It would have been another perfect time to kiss her, just a friendly small kiss to definitely establish the obvious. But, what the hell, I did have to hurry, and building tension is always good, right?
As I was fetching my sideboard stuff in from the kitchen, only Dr. Lang and Breit were in the back room. It was all the things they liked—for most of the night I'd be in the chair beside the door, and they'd ring the bell when they wanted me to come in to make sandwiches or salads or whatnot, a few times an hour. Sometimes I'd have to go out to the fountain, the stove, or the coffee counter to make up something special.
Bonafide, I loved Wednesday nights. First of all, I wasn't on the clock, and Breit would just hand me five twenties at the end of the night. Can't beat that. It also wasn't much work. The Risk Club were all clean as cats, so at the end I'd just cover the serving dishes and stack them in the cooler, load the dishwasher, and hit the table with a rag and the floor with a mop. Mostly, between bells, I sat in my chair by the door and read any old thing that was highly interruptible.
That night, I laid out the trays and the serving tools, quick and neat, and was just setting out plates, glasses, and cups when Breit said, "Hey, Dim, hypothetical question. Suppose we're in here playing and someone tries to come through that door you're sitting by. What do you do?"
"You mean kitchen staff or counter people? They know not to do that so I guess I'd just remind them."
"Sure. And if it's a stranger?"
"They shouldn't be back here anyway, so I'd already be asking them what they were looking for and steering them back toward where they belong."
"And if they don't want to be steered, Dim?"
"I'd steer them. Look, Breit, be real. If six armed commandos with a battering ram show up to take the door down, I'm going under a table like anyone with half a brain would. Ain't nothing about dying in my job description. But if it's just some lost, pushy dork, or some guy with no good excuse? You'd never know he'd tried. "
Breit was bobbing his head up and down vigorously, like he was trying to smear some of his ugliness on an invisible window in front of him, the way he did when he felt like the world understood him. "See, Peter, I told you. I don't have to explain things to Dim, he just knows. Like this morning when he wisely ignored all my attempts at influence-peddling and just got a carry permit by the fastest, simplest possible means. And trust me, if I'd just explained the Official Nasty John's Policy on Rude Intruders During Risk Club Meetings, he'd have tuned me out, paid no attention, and then done the right thing anyway."
Dr. Lang nodded slowly, seriously, the way he did in class when someone gave a better answer than he was expecting. "I suppose I am just not used – "
A knock at the back door. I slid back the peeper-slider thing that Breit called the "Judas" and saw Coach Park, so I opened it and let him in.
"See?" Breit said. "Told him once to always use the Judas, and ever since, Dim does. It does not do a damn bit of good to joggle the boy's elbow."
I guess that was a vote of confidence, just expressed as obnoxiously as possible, "The Boy" thought.
As he always did, Coach Park bowed and then shook hands with everyone, including me. He was formal even for a Korean. "Hal," he said, "you were not focused tonight. Are you sick? Got trouble at home? Or are you in love?"
My expression must have been pretty funny; they were all laughing.
Dr. Lang said, "Hal, don't let this old charlatan play head games with you. Coach Park is not using the secret powers of the mysterious Orient to read your mind. He and I were chatting in his office, just before I taught my class, and I was gossiping like an old yenta, you know, about you and the beauteous Ms. Hilburn, and he looked out from his office in the Fieldhouse and saw the two of you walking together. Do not let either this horrid lecherous old troll or this low-rent Obi wan-Kenobi persecute you for having a love life."
That was nice of him, but a pack of old farts noticing that Stacy was hot was still fucking creepy. I tried to think of some super-polite way to say, "fuck off" to Breit and Park that would also indicate, "please don't talk about that" to Dr. Lang.
I checked the Judas; of course it was Backdoor Man. He said "Good evening, Hal," in a formal way, in a voice that sounded like he might have retired from the BBC. As always, he shook my hand like we were old friends. He was a bit past middle age, not so far you'd call him "old," with a deep red face, as if he'd come in from the cold, heavily lined like he'd either spent a lot of time outdoors or been a heavy smoker at one time.
I closed the door behind him and helped him out of his coat, a Burberry leather calf-length that probably cost about twice what my car was worth. The coat was old and soft from a lot of oiling and saddle soap; I hung it on its particular wood hanger (the one Breit had told me to always use) with reverence.
Backdoor Man himself was like that coat; understated, so that you wouldn't notice him unless you looked carefully, but when he entered, three brainy guys who each thought the rest of the human race was their inferiors (and of course Dr. Lang and Coach Park were right), who normally had no respect for anyone, would act like this was the True King of Elfland returning in some cheap fantasy book.
Without being asked, I went out to the coffee counter (a chance to wave at Stacy, who waved back and made my heart float), pulled a double espresso, added a shot of crème de cacao syrup and a half shot of vanilla essence, covered the top with a saucer, and carried it back to deliver it perfectly hot. At the sideboard I added a shot of Myers Dark Rum and set it at Backdoor Man's place. He lifted it, sipped, smiled like I'd just sunk ten Spanish galleons for him or brought him the head of a dragon, and said, "Thank you, Hal, perfect." He glanced around as if seeing the board and setup for the first time, and then said, "Well, gentlemen, shall we see who can lose the world tonight, and if it is a world well lost?"
"Anything to order while Hal is here?" Breit asked.
"Hot tuna on baguette with the usual," Dr. Lang said.
"Same for me," Coach said.
I went to the kitchen to fix those up. While the toaster oven ran, through the kitchen door, I could see how Stacy's hair fell along the curve of her neck.
I was just pulling the split baguettes, toasted to medium, from the toaster oven, and laying on provolone in thick slices, when Lance demanded, "Hey, Dim, what's that?" from the counter.
"It's a toaster oven," I said, because playing dumb was often the best way to get rid of him.
"Ha ha, Dim, don't play dumb."
Well, it used to be.
"I'm waiting on a private party in the back," I said. "This isn't on our regular menu, just on our catering menu."
"Yeah, but Dim, you got all the stuff to make one, so you could just sell me one tonight – "
"Nope," I said, laying thin slices of tuna steak on one side of each baguette, brushing them with Italian dressing, and returning them to the still-hot toaster oven. "Regular menu only in the shop."
Lance was a libertarian so he gave me a two-minute harangue about how this was contrary to the self-interest of Nasty John's and of me personally. I had hoped to go out and say hi to Stacy, but I didn't want to have to try to get past Lance twice when the timing to get this right was kind of delicate, so I stood there and tried not to listen while he explained that I was a communist because I wasn't making him the exact sandwich he wanted right now even though he had the money.
I opened the oven door for just a second to slide in the tops of the baguettes so the cheese could melt; the Italian dressing was sizzling on the tuna steaks, so that looked about right. A minute later, I pulled it all back out, set fresh tomato slices into the melted cheese on the tops, sprinkled it with basil and gave it all a squirt of yellow mustard. I closed the sandwiches up, heading back to get them to Dr. Lang and Coach Park while the tomatoes were still cold and firm (I sometimes thought that instead of the Risk Club they ought to call themselves the Fussy Eaters Association).
"Hey, Dim, I still had a question to ask you and you didn't tell me why – "
I realized he was following me behind the counter, but before I had time to turn around and bark at him, little Gayle went after four-hundred pound Lance like an X-wing after the Death Star, chewing him out for going behind the counter and for calling me "Dim" when that was Breit's prerogative and for believing all that silly crap about markets and freedom was more important than simple good manners, and I think finishing up with telling him to wash his hands before dinner and sit up straight when he ate.
Maybe she wouldn't win the Customer Service Trophy this month. But then we didn't have one anyway; what would be the point, at Nasty John's?
"Uproar out there?" Breit asked.
"Lance decided to come behind the counter and make us all be libertarian and Gayle dealt with it," I said, and explained what had happened. "I want to revise my answer, Mr. Breit. I should have said that if it was six armed commandos I'd turn them over to Gayle and she'd make them wipe their feet, take off their hats, and say please. Never mess with an experienced mommy."
Breit roared. "See, everyone, I told you he plays rough when he needs to. Good answer, Dim, and it sounds like that Gayle's a keeper."
I went back to my chair by the door. For the next couple hours, between bells and messing with food, I read the stuff for Dr. Lang's Former Soviet Republics class in case I needed to talk to him about anything as the party broke up, but it all seemed young-chimp easy. I moved on to this week's book for comp lit. It was about this woman dirt farmer, and how bad it sucked to have a shitload of kids and be poor and work your ass off. I had to admit that there were some kids in the class that that seemed to be news to.
The lady that taught the class really liked to hear guys say how close they were to their mothers and had decided I had a "real cool mom" based on my description of how the place was always in chaos but there was always plenty of pot and music (if old hippie shit like the Dead is music). Also, she thought my having been in prison was cool. So I dog-eared and highlighted a couple of pages that sort of reminded me of my mother, and another page that reminded me of a guy I'd known in the pen, and was readier than I needed to be.
Every few minutes the little bell would ding and I'd go in to fix something up; it looked like Breit's black pieces were gradually gaining ground, but with Vietnam Rules, things flip and change.
At last Coach Park was eliminated, his final redoubt in South America overrun. Breit said, "We're going to talk late, tonight, Hal, so pull us one more pot of coffee and bring clean cups, and I'll do the last cleanup back here."
I wrapped the food trays and put them back into the cooler, and shoved the dishes into the dishwasher along with the last few Gayle was bringing in from out front; I checked it all over and she'd done a good job closing down, and I told her she was working out great. "Even though I can't get rid of that one girl?" she asked, pointing at Stacy.
"I'll take care of that one personally. Clock out, take off, bravo on your first full day, and I'm so glad you're here."
"Strangely enough, so am I. G'night, Hal, and thanks."
Stacy had just gotten her regular shoes back on and her backpack loaded. She reached out and took my hand. I walked out of Nasty John's pretty much floating on air, carefully locking the door behind us.
Listening as Stacy tried to explain her honors thesis was sort of a challenge, because I for-def wanted her to understand I was interested in it, but I was mostly thinking about when to kiss her.
I was loving her soft voice, the intense concentration on that beautiful face, the play of shadows and light from the streetlamps and the shrouded, blurry moon, and I think even the slight scent of tired-out-girl that came off Stacy and mingled with the wet, cold wind off the mountains that promised an abrupt change in the weather by tomorrow's dawn.
She was trying to explain what marginal propensities had to do with swing voters when something hit the back of my head so hard that I was flung forward bodily onto the sidewalk.
Years of martial arts made me whip up my forearms, meaty side out, and turn my face, so I merely took a hard bump on my cheek, and my arms just stung. I gasped, "What?"
Stacy's scream brought me back into it. I made my numb arms shove at the ground, though I could barely feel the grit of the sidewalk on my bare palms, and dragged my feet in under me.
A man was trying to push Stacy into the open back door of a car, but she'd gotten a grip on the doorframe and the door and was kicking at him. I staggered forward, my breath rushing out in a cat scream, trying to get momentum and balance before taking the guy, and then I fell again as the guy behind me hit the back of my knees with his bat.
I skidded forward, shocking my arms some more, tearing through sleeves and into skin. I rolled and got my feet together, pointed up at the asshole with the bat.
It hadn't really registered on my brain that I was in a fight. I just needed him to cut this shit out so I could get to Stacy.
He tried to go around my legs to get at my head, and I twisted, lunged with my feet, and crab-scissored his trailing leg, the reverse way against the joint, where the low leg sweeps the ankle forward and the high one slams the knee back. That's a major foul in a tournament but I didn't see any ref.
He fell back and I heard the bat clatter on the sidewalk, but I had continued my crab-scissors into a hard roll away from him and now I was up on all fours, trying to get to Stacy.
Right where her hand gripped the door, that fucker she was fighting kicked hard with the heel of his boot. Her hand dropped from the doorframe and before she could get her arm up to cover, he'd reached behind her neck, yanked her head back by the hair, and twisted hard.
His other fist thudded into her floating ribs, sounding like a rabbit under a tire, and she folded around that with a harsh seal-bark.
He lifted her by the shirt to throw her in backwards. I was about halfway there and not going to be in time.
That's when Coach Park hit him from behind, throwing him away from the car, and Stacy started to sit up. For a second it looked like the good guys were winning, even if I felt like I was swimming toward Stacy through thick, dirty syrup.
There was a bright flash and bang and Park was rolling on the ground. The asshole with the bat rushed past me, half-skipping to favor his aching knee, grabbed Stacy by the throat, and shoved her backwards into the car, dove in after her, and slammed the door. The man who had just shot Coach Park jumped into the front seat on the passenger side, yelling "Move! Move! Move!"
The car peeled out. Park rolled to his feet and gave the rear fender a kick hard enough to leave a deep dent, all spite and no effect.
As the car zoomed through the stop sign, I could still see thrashing and struggling through the rear window.
They pulled a hard left and burned rubber for a whole block the wrong way on a one-way street. I couldn't see the car anymore but to judge by the dwindling roar of its engine they had headed south on University Boulevard.
I started to pitch forward but Breit's big arm caught me, and his other hand gripped mine and turned me to hold me upright, like we were doing a promenade step. "We've got to get you to the emergency room," he said. "You've probably got a concussion and god knows what else."
"Coach?" I asked.
Coach Park's shoulder went under my other arm, and now they were supporting me between them. "You know that turn and drop I always say is the last resort if someone tries to shoot you in the torso point-blank? The one I say will never work? It worked."
I was stretched out between them – they were both big men – but my feet were finding the ground, and I staggered along while we played silly games like how many fingers and what day of the week is it. I was having a hard time remembering what this was all about; I was so tired.
I asked, "Dr. Lang?"
Coach Park said, "The gentleman we don't mention is coaching him through calling the police and appearing to be a completely innocent witness. We were able to get the license plate number, and the gentleman we don't mention will also be making inquiries of his own. Now, how many fingers?"
"I have a car, how come Breit—"
"You're going to the hospital," Coach Park said.
"We need your head looked at," Breit added.
"Stacy?" She and I had been going to do something together, I remembered, and if I was going to the hospital I might not be able to keep our date.
"We're working on that." Breit's tone was so grim it scared me.
Tuesday, February 7, 2012
The Tree Trunk Grill was not some diner they fixed up to be all nostalgic and shit. It was your basic college dump, with a worn out counter, low enough to have regular chairs at it, and booths around the outside that were about half naugahyde and half duct tape.
"Tiny Tim" Brady, the old fat guy that ran it, was this big‑ass sports fan. Also a very enthusiastic one. But only for the sports and teams he approved of: football and basketball, DU Pioneers, CU, and the Denver pro teams. A minor‑sport tiny‑college player like me was normally invisible to him, except when he felt like being a jerk to an ex‑con, or trying to mack on a girl who was a third of his age and half his weight. Unfortunately he felt like doing both tonight.
He led off by saying Stacy could sit up front by him at the counter, and asking her to stay between me and the cash register.
Stacy's big toothy smile could have flash‑frozen helium. "Not tonight, Tiny, we'll need a booth for some intelligent conversation." He hated being called "Tiny," and would only put up with it from football players and pretty girls.
On our way back to a corner table, I recognized a beautiful old long red leather coat at the counter. "Hey, Sergeant Grouillon!"
Grouillon turned around, grinning, and said, "Hey." He was a very dark‑skinned black man, taller than me and in body‑builder shape, maybe fifty years old, but his face had so many wrinkles and folds it looked like he bought it used and it didn't quite fit. Like always, he was in a perfectly fitting masterpiece of a three‑piece suit, and could have shaved looking into his shoes – though I'd never seen him in need of a shave. "I'm off duty and I hope never to have to talk to you again when I'm on duty, Hal. You can call me Sid."
"Sid, then. Hey, this is Stacy Hilburn. Stacy, this is Detective Sergeant Sidney Grouillon. He's the guy who put me in prison and the guy who got me out."
"I just have trouble making up my mind," Grouillon said. "So, Hal, how's it going? Still doing that silly Japanese wrestling in pajamas?"
"Still am. First tournament's in a couple weeks. I can send you an email for some free tickets."
Grouillon beamed. "So, if I like boxing, am I gonna like this?"
"You might. Especially since it's all weight classes and half of us are girls. I still have your email, Ser‑uh, Sid. I'll zap you the thing for getting the free tickets."
I had just thought about asking him what brought him to this end of town when he gestured at his book. "I'm taking some courses at Iliff."
"Thinking of becoming a minister or something?"
"Not sure. It's just I'm hitting that age where a guy starts to think he might die someday, and going to a strip club after work with a bunch of other cops doesn't seem to address the old mortality thing the way it used to."
"You never did that."
"How would you know, Hal? You only ever saw me on duty."
"Where I heard about your wife Marilyn. Who would kill you."
"Well, yeah." He smiled at Stacy. "Hal and I both have a lot of trouble fooling each other. But he's a better guy than he looks like. Really."
She laughed and said that the only person in the world who didn't know that was me; he agreed with her, and we all shook hands like old friends. He went back to spooning up his big bowl of chili and hi‑liting his copy of A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Psalms.
Stacy and me sat down at a booth in the corner and ordered massive greaseburgers with plastic cheese and a lot of salady glop on top, a huge basket of fries to split, and a pot of coffee for the table. We shoved all that crap down like mad cannibals, got the coffee pot refilled, and settled back to talk while we got in enough caffeine to head off the food coma. "You're going to be up all night with as much coffee as you're putting down," Stacy observed. "How late is your late shift?"
"Hard to predict but late. It's a Risk Club night."
"One of Breit's things."
"All right, now who's Breit?"
"John Breit. Nasty John. The owner of Nasty John's, I mean. He is named John and he's definitely nasty. Wednesday nights, him and Coach Park and Dr. Lang – and some others you wouldn't know," I said, a little awkwardly because I was remembering I wasn't supposed to ever say anything about the existence of Backdoor Man, "they get together and play a big game of Risk in the back private party room, and they need a discreet waiter, I guess, so Dr. Lang can top up his coffee with Meyers dark rum, and Breit can say all kinds of politically incorrect stuff, and they can all be a special super secret club with NO GURLZ on the clubhouse door. "
"So you're their private waiter?"
"Yep, and I have to get there before Coach Park does, because he likes to start on time and I have to be all set up by the time he gets there. He lets me out of practice ten minutes earlier than usual, then I run over to Nasty John's and get things going. Anyway, I'll be up till midnight at best, maybe four at worst, and that's why I'm scarfing so much coffee. What's your excuse?"
"All‑nighter, or almost an all‑nighter. "
Just shitting her, I waggled a finger at her and said, "Dangers of procrastination, young lady."
She looked pissed. She pulled out one of those little calendar notebooks and held it out, flipping through pages. They were covered, in ball point and pencil and like a dozen colors of flairs, going way back into the summer. Either the girl was crazy busy or she was putting all her time into faking up her Day‑Timer.
"I'm an asshole," I said.
She shrugged. "It's okay. I just get tired of how people assume that if a student is on short time and sleep it's because they procrastinate."
"I'm sorry. Really."
She shrugged again, a little one‑shoulder motion with her mouth screwed up funny, and said, "Sorry, you just caught some built‑up anger. I get that shit from so many people, why I bother with hard crap since I'm rich."
"But you're not," I said.
"My mom and stepdad're rich and I grew up rich." She was looking at her coffee cup like it was a crystal ball. "So look, the thing I wanted to talk to you about, you're really the only person I know I can talk to about it, and – she turned and looked. "All right, your policeman friend is gone."
"You've got some serious shit to talk about?"
"Well, it wouldn't've been cool with him here." She seemed to think for a moment. "I'm gonna take the pot up and get us fresh coffee, and then I'll tell you all about it. Really. You stay here."
"I'm not going anywhere."
She went up to get the table pot refilled, and I thought about how the most awkward conversations in the world are sometimes the easiest, because there's nothing to say except the most obvious shit. It had been that way when I first met Grouillon.
Denver Jail is such a nasty armpit of a hole that later on when I went to real prison at Cañon City it was a relief. I was stuck in the jail because Momster sure didn't have money for bail, the cash from my desk drawer was still being held as evidence in case they decided to send me away for an extra twenty years, and even if I'd had money, I couldn't see paying a bondsman. So I just slept and read, with visits from Leigh whenever she could catch a bus from Englewood. She'd talk nonstop and I'd listen; you'd be amazed how interesting it can be, what goes on in seventh grade.
Then five days before sentencing, my public defender lawyer, who hadn't talked to me since the trial, had me brought to a conference room to tell me that I could talk to a cop about some kind of deal, and she'd vouch he'd keep his word if I kept mine. I said I'd talk to him, maybe just because I was bored.
So I met Detective Sergeant Sidney Grouillon. His eyes were big and soft‑looking but his upper lip had a scar I didn't want to ask about. For a cop his suit was about two grades too good, and his shoes were better. He had about the most perfect pencil mustache I've ever seen, even across that scar. The guy was seriously groomed.
He introduced himself, gave me a big paper cup of coffee from his own thermos – way too strong but fresh and hot, and looked straight at me. "You know a guy like me thinks a guy like you is a piece of shit. Question is, what kind of a piece of shit do you want to be, Hal? You know what I mean by that?"
"No, sir, I don't."
"Well, you don't have many options. You're stuck being a piece of shit for a while. But there's different kinds you can be. One kind you can be, you can be the wildass dumb kid that got some nice Asian people's precious baby daughter into drugs and then killed, and go away for a few years to Cañon City, and come back and try to be a bonafide thug, instead of a pretend one, till you go down for good.
"Another kind of piece of shit, more respectable, is when you get out you'll bag groceries and go to night school, find yourself a woman that'll take a loser for a husband.
"Or you can be the third kind."
I'd been in school all my life; I knew a cue line when I heard one. "What's the other kind?"
"You can be a piece of rat shit. Snitch on all the assholes you know anything about. Testify when I need you to."
"And then what happens?" I asked.
"Well, you will be all out of friends." He waited. When I didn't react, he added, "And you might have to be all out of Denver, depending on who you give me, how their friends feel about it, and like that. You know better than me. But you can be out of the pen a lot sooner, and you do have some people – I don't know why, and they are not people I like much, but they're not crooks as far as I know – people that want to give you a fresh start when you get out. So here's the deal I got for you: testify, go in, behave perfect, nineteen months to parole. And your mystery friends say there will be something or other waiting for you when you get out."
So I thought for about one nanosecond. Maybe less. I'd rather be a piece of shit with something than a piece of shit with nothing.
I told Grouillon everything I knew, came to eight trials to testify, heard about snitches get stitches all the time, but they didn't let other prisoners get near me unwatched, and I was big, young, and strong, so it was all talk. I did all the perfect‑prisoner stuff for nineteen months and now here I was.
Stacy came back with the fresh pot of coffee. "I was just going to ask you about Neil Restock. He's hanging around my roommate Tammy—trial boyfriend or a convenient hookup, I'm not sure which. There's something he can do for me, and I have to decide whether I want him to. What do you know about him?"
I just told the truth. "Neil's one of those burb‑wiggas who went through high school pretending to be gangsta, then hung around a half‑ass college, fucking chicks that were so dumb they not only wanted to date a gangsta, they fell for his act. Another dorm‑and‑club dealer like me. I only saw him a couple times in Cañon City. Is he still a fake gangsta or did he get Jesus?"
She giggled. "No Jesus. Neil is definitely not into Jesus. And there is something he can help me out with – "
"If you want to buy drugs I can find you a guy."
"That's the only thing I know that Neil can be any help with."
She reached out and took my hand. "You're mad because if someone is going to do something for me, you want it to be you, don't you?"
I don't know where I found the nerve to look right in her eyes. "Yes."
It was worth it; she got this great smile. "Well, stop fretting. This has to do with some contacts he has. I got involved in some real messed up shit myself, years ago, stuff I could have gone to jail for. It's not quite over but if I can pay the right person – through a cutout – then it could all be done with. And Neil knows the right person. Can he keep his mouth shut?"
"I would keep any secret I had to," I said, "and nothing you told me could make me stop being your friend. And I'm a meaner bastard than Neil, they wouldn't fuck with me like they might with him."
Stacy looked exasperated. Her hands squeezed mine hard. "Hal, this has nothing to do with friendship, or courage, or skills, because if it did I swear, I'd totally've come to you in the first place. I don't need to buy something. I need to buy someone, someone I don't know who it is, and Neil can put me in touch with the person I need to talk to. So I'm asking – can he keep his mouth shut?"
I looked up at the Tree Trunk's battered and stained acoustic tile ceiling and thought out loud. "When I knew Neil, we were both fucked up on something or other all the time. So you're getting my idea of the dude two years later through, like, a chemical cloud, , but, well—he didn't rat out anyone before. I did. With Neil, I'd be more worried that he might brag on things and blab your story to some little megan‑from‑the‑burbs when he's trying to get into her pants. What's he like around Tammy?"
"Always a story, but never a story he'd get busted on, or anyone else would, and he totally wants into her pants—straight guys always do."
"Then maybe you can trust him."
She was nodding with that beautiful serious look, and I thought, okay, if angels don't look like Stacy Hilburn, I am not going to heaven, not even with a signing bonus. "That's what I needed to know, Hal. Are you mad at me?"
"No. Walk with me, it's close to time for class."
"Oh, shit, it is for me too. Is your class in Chivington?"
We paid and left; Brady had a couple DU basketball players to fawn on so he was busy and just let me have a no‑hassle exit. Or maybe he was finally getting smart enough to be afraid of Stacy.
Wednesday, February 1, 2012
Gayle arrived looking terrified and excited, like anyone starting a job they have big hopes for and really need. I introduced her to Breit. He stared a hole in her shirt while he emphasized that everything on the menu was to be called only by the godawful obscene name he'd given it.
Gayle had warned us that she'd have to learn everything, and she did. Megan put her through Cash Register 101 ("when in doubt, yell for help, and don't hand people money without hitting some keys"). I walked her through how to make the most common coffee drinks, how the tables were numbered, and what abbreviations on order slips meant. By mid‑afternoon rush, though still slow and easily confused, she was more help than not, so I figured she'd hang in there.
At mid‑afternoon the usual swarm of middle‑aged people with horn‑rims and piles of books, seminary students from Iliff, piled up at the counter, just ahead of the Yakky Dumb Chicks, and the line went most of the way to the door.
As I was delivering a pot of Thick and Sticky Baby out to the patio, Stacy tagged my shoulder. "Hey, once the crowd clears out, come by and say hi, I'm doing a meeting thingie with Dr. Lang."
"Sure." I parked the pot between three chunky middle‑aged women, all in half glasses, jeans, and vests.
Processing the theological nerds took little time; most of them just ordered black coffee (which Breit called Cheap, Wet, and Dripping). That order, like pursuing a masters in theology, is a pretty good indicator of a recent Twelve-Step past.
Then we started dealing with the fussy "do it just right" orders of the Ohmygaw That Is So Awesome Tribe. Finally the last Pussy Warmer was topped with chocolate sprinkles, the last Hot Sweet Blonde was whipped, and the Yakky Dumb Chicks went outside to find a table by the railing where they could scream about how crazy they all were. Wiping down, picking up, and loading the dishwasher wasn't really enough work for three people, but it was Gayle's chance to find out where everything went.
I asked her, "Do you feel like you'll be okay at the counter on your own?. I'll be here if you really need help, but I'll be pretty busy waiting on the Risk Club."
"What's the Risk Club?"
"Breit and some of his buds get together on Wednesday nights to play Risk ‑‑ that conquer the world game you play on a big mis‑drawn map of the Earth?"
"Yeah, my husband and his friends used to play that sometimes."
"Well, these guys are all real good, and they play by Vietnam Rules." With those rules added, the strongest player on the board has to finish each turn in a pointless waste of armies trying to conquer a randomly-chosen far away territory.
Gayle obviously knew, because she asked, "So they play till dawn?"
"Naw, they're all ace players. They play till the first one is eliminated. Then everybody who wasn't eliminated gets one point, and the guy who eliminated the loser gets two. They've kept a running total of their points for at least ten years. I have to stay till they're done, somewhere between midnight and three, but you only have to stay till regular closing at one thirty. I'll walk you to your car when you leave – I always did that for Sarah."
She nodded. "And Breit pays a dollar an hour extra after dark."
"That's Breit. Jerky but sort of fair."
Gayle nodded. "Cool. Okay, I'll take off and be back at seven when my real shift starts. Thanks for breaking me in." She hung up her apron, carefully punched the clock, and waved on her way out.
"She's gonna be fine," I said.
"Yeah," Megan agreed. "I've got the counter, and I'm all caught up. It's your golden chance to go hit on Stacy."
I guess I'm just transparent, or something.
Stacy and Dr. Lang were bent over a big pile of papers and notes. "Hey," I said. "I didn't know you were working together on anything."
Dr. Lang shrugged, which looked like two curtain rods trying to escape through his sleeves. "Merely the most brilliant senior thesis I've ever seen. And I wouldn't say we're working together. Stacy is doing the work, and I'm validating it by hanging around and writing occasional notes about how brilliant she is."
Stacy made a harsh little "uff" sound. "If this is all so brilliant why does it look so inadequate to me?"
"Because it takes a brain as good as yours, or as well‑trained as mine, to see the holes."
"Whatever." But I could tell that made her happy. She turned the gray blue eyes on me. "So, Hal, are you working late tonight?"
"Nine‑thirty till closing or after," I said. "Private party might run late. But before that I have Formal and Informal Logic, and then judo practice, so when I get off here at four, I'm going to run over to the Tree Trunk and grab a burger."
"Well, I ought to study late," she said. "I'll hang out here till you're off shift, then let's go for a burger together, and then I've got politics with Dr. Lang while you're in logic, and then I'll come back here and study during your late shift. If that would be okay. There's some stuff I'd like to talk over with you."
"If you don't say yes, Hal, you're not nearly the bright fellow I take you for," Dr. Lang put in helpfully. He was already pretty whiff with vodka, which seemed extra‑nasty to me to dose your coffee with, but I guess it was his taste buds and liver.
As I punched the clock at four, Megan socked me on the shoulder. "First date, stud, remember to keep your hind legs off the table."
"First date?" I said. "We're just going for a burger."
"Guys are impossible. Get moving, buster, I've got it covered here."
I clocked out. Stacy and I woke up Dr. Lang, put another strong coffee into him, and got him pointed in the right direction. After we said bye to him and he crossed the street, Stacy walked so slow, looking down at the ground, that he actually started to get a little ahead of us. I couldn't think of anything to say, or maybe I was afraid that if I spoke it would break the spell and she would vanish. It was still gorgeous, warm with a clear blue sky, like winter would never come.
Dr. Lang, up ahead of us, wasn't exactly staggering but one leg was dragging a little and he kept correcting his direction a little harder than a sober man would.
"I wonder how that's going to end," Stacy said.
I shrugged. "It's not a mystery. He'll keep drinking and die, or he'll stop drinking and die of something else later."
"That's kind of cold. He's done a lot for you."
"Yeah," I admitted. "You're right. Righter than you know." Then before I really thought about whether I wanted to say it, I said, "Coming back to college was harder than going into prison. As soon as the guards saw that I was going to do my time straight and careful, they were on my side. The only prof so far that's on my side is Lang."
"Isn't that weird? When Chelsea was alive the profs pretty much fucking hated Chelsea," Stacy said.
"Chelsea always said that."
"She was right. I got some of the same shit. You walk in here nice looking, with this year's clothes, and good at your classes, and some of them hate you for that, you've already got what they busted their asses for for twenty years and probably still won't ever have. They got over it with me cause I sucked up pretty hard, but Chelse, no way. Not after she had that bad-girl spoiled-brat snotty thing going on."
I thought about that for a moment; if anyone besides Chelsea was responsible for the way she'd been, those last few months of her life, that would be me. I wondered if that was what Stacy meant. I decided to be a chickenshit and not ask. "When I came back from Cañon," I said, "Lang was the only guy that was decent to me. I wish he didn't have that problem. I don't know why I talked so harsh about it."
Most profs hate jocks for a lot of reasons. We get all the money, attention, and pussy at a college. Our coaches get paid like ten times what they do. We remind them of all the bullies from middle school. Most of all, profs hate that we're what college is fucking about – without sports, face it, college is just extra‑hard high school.
So when the athletic department and the administration wanted to let me back in, and there'd been this big ass uproar about it with a lot of profs saying that none of them would be my advisor, Lang had volunteered.
Now I watched Dr. Lang slouch along on the sidewalk across the street; he hunched forward like there was a high wind blowing, or like he thought there might be an open manhole in front of him, arms wrapped around himself to the elbows. Then a girl in a white sweater, low‑rise jeans, and thick clunky heels ran up to him, frantic with some question, and it was like he took a dignity pill that second. He stood straight and listened carefully and whatever the matter was, you could see her relax as she talked to him. "He is a good guy," I said, "and I am too harsh. I guess I'm kind of suspicious and cynical."
"Good," Stacy said.
"Suspicious and cynical is what I really need in a friend right now."
"I'm just glad to hear we're still friends."
"I can't really afford to lose any friends, any more than you can," she said. "I mean I have people to talk to and I can find a party but … well, things haven't gone very well, especially after some shit that happened while you were away. These last few months have been pretty lonely."
I didn't ask.
After another block, her hand slipped into the crook of my arm and it was like a chick flick montage moment, with the leaves all red and gold on the big old trees that arched the broad, busy street. The day was so beautiful that the college buildings on the far side really looked like they were all full of knowledge and tradition and shit, and the old‑style storefronts on our side looked welcoming like a small town in some movie. (Just before the thing from the lake starts eating virgins, or the escaped convict breaks into the pretty girl's house, I added mentally, keeping that suspicious cynical thing going.)
"Do you remember how much time we spent hanging out?" she said, her fingers just pressing the inside of my elbow. "You know, freshman year."
"Yeah." No, I haven't forgotten, I thought about hanging out with you, and our silly jokes, and having you for a friend, every single day while I was in Cañon. Most days there, I thought about every nice thing that had ever happened to me, and then ran through the whole list again, over and over. I was usually in re‑runs by ten a.m.
One thing about Stacy, when she looks serious, she stops being all cute and starts looking like one of those old Greek statues that don't smile or frown or have any facial expression at all, and then all of a sudden you see she's not cute, she's beautiful, I mean not Playboy‑beautiful the way some girls look in bars, when they look like angels are constantly invisibly airbrushing them, but beautiful like – well, beautiful.
"Well, shit, I missed you." She rubbed my arm and walked a little closer. "I liked that you cried at About a Boy when I talked you into going with me."
"I did not."
"You did too go to About a Boy with me."
"No, I mean I didn't cry – "
"Oh, right, I forgot, I really liked the way you tried to tell me that your eyes got all moist because your allergies were acting up. And I liked the geek‑boy that could name all the different Star Trek crews, and listened to me classify all my high school boyfriends till three‑thirty in the morning and then didn't try to trade that up for sex at the door. I missed the shit out of you, Hal. Truth, I knew you were working at Nasty John's, and when I asked Dr. Lang how you were doing, he pretty much hassled me into coming over and seeing you myself."
Sweet Jesus fuck. How many more favors could one old guy do me? "Okay," I said. "The next time I talk cold about the man, I want you to hit me on the head with something big and hard, 'kay?"
I suddenly couldn't think of anything stupid to say to ruin the moment, so I had to walk with her on that nice Indian‑summer afternoon with that movie‑set college campus, all red and gold, sharp like it was cut into the air with a knife. Fucking awesome or what?