Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Father Lucifer, End of Chapter 2


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?