Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Father Lucifer, End of Chapter 3

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."
"It wasn't."
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.
Another knock.
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.