A novel in progress by John Barnes. Roughly 2000 word chunks posted every Tuesday. Aggregated into chapters now and then for the convenience of people joining later. Since it's a blog, start reading with the oldest posts first.
Genre is hardboiled mystery,language and subject matter not kid-suitable.
I knew Breit hated to be awakened before nine, so I
phoned him at 8:30 from the lobby of the City‑County Building. The hawwnkks and brakkk‑k‑k‑s from his end could have been a walrus receiving
the Heimlich maneuver.
"Detectives in Denver are unlicensed," I
said. "Anyone can be one. Even an ex‑felon illiterate oaf like me. They
were going to start licensing them a couple years ago but the state board that
controls licensing said detectives were not important enough, at least not as
important as beauticians, so they didn't." It had taken me about fifteen
minutes to learn this as I wandered from office to office. "But if you're
going to take clients and accept checks, you have to register a trade name, and
now that I've been around here asking, the tax guys know you're out there. I
thought Nasty John's Detective Agency didn't have a real good salesy ring to
it, know what I'm saying?"
"Yeah." Hrawk‑bbb‑hrawk‑k‑k. "Yeah. All right, well, give us a name, list
yourself as fifty percent owner. Some name someone your age would like."
"Beer and Chicks Detective Agency."
"You know what I mean."
I did, so I called Leigh, since she's my consultant
on what's cool. It was also my chance to make sure she was on her way to
school, which she was.
"Something that comes off 'private eye',"
she said. "With like a real good positive word. Mad Sick Eye."
"Sounds like an ophthalmologist."
"Then you think of something, and I'll tell you why it's lame."
"Maybe Chillin' Eyes?" I ventured.
"Cause all God's chilluns gots eyes?"
I laughed. "Educate me."
"Chill is over. Chillin' is so over the preps and the Jesusoids use it. Chill
Eyes would be okay on your tax documents, as long as you don't say it out in
"Deal," I said. "Thanks. Consider
yourself patted on the head and told to stay in school because you're a good
"Momster already did that this morning. Now I
got to get back with my girls."
A voice in the background shrieked, "Tell him
he's cute," just before Leigh added, "So fuck off," and hung up.
I love my little sister.
Tax registration for Chill Eyes was a state thing
so I had to go a few blocks east to the office buildings by the Capitol to do
that, but it was really pretty simple. Just as I finished the phone rang, and
it was Breit. "Hey," he said, "I made some phone calls. You're
right, there's no detective licensing in Colorado."
"Wow, I sure lucked out making that one up, hunh?"
Hrawk‑ftooth. "The last time I talked to a detective I know here in Denver—he
has a big agency and a lot of good ex‑cop connections, and he and I go way
back—" There was about two minutes of Breit jabbering about the guy's
cousins and connections and friends before he said, "So I thought he'd
gotten licensing through but it turned out he didn't."
At thirty‑five an hour, he could read me the phone
book and I'd agree with him. When I was sure he was done, I told him we were
now Chill Eyes.
"Good. Now about the gun permit, I thought
since I screwed things up so badly with sending you after the detective permit
that doesn't exist, I'd straighten things out on the gun thing by making some
calls." A short burst of snotty noise segued into a gasp followed by Fuck! He'd awakened enough to blow his nose.
While he was talking and I was all unh‑hunh I'm
listening, I'd gotten into my old
p.o.s Cutlass, backed it out, and steered back into the Golden Triangle, that
impossible tangle of streets just across Colfax from the south end of downtown,
where the streets are all fucked up into short blocks among busy streets
meeting at weird angles.
As I drove around looking for an open meter, Breit
told me the names of like six people I should talk to, and everything he knew
about their cousins, and several important legal principles, and a couple
stories about the detective business, and for all I know, since I paid no
attention, probably his mommy's recipe for lemon meringue pie. I thanked him
and told him I'd sure try that, just about the time I finally parked way the
fuck down on Eleventh Avenue, near Speer.
It was five blocks back but not a bad walk today;
that warm-November weather was still hanging on, the bright sun gleaming on all
those government buildings and business towers. Lots of snow on the mountains
in the distance, but here among the red and gold trees, nobody was wearing a
coat, and even the middle‑aged office ladies were bravely making do with just
After I cleared the metal detector at the Sheriff's
office, I took a number, snagged a brochure from the rack, sat in a corner
close to the counter, read the brochure with a tenth of my brain and listened
hard with the rest. Very politely, the brochure said that "You have to
have all this crap in order and then we can just say no anyway just because we
feel like acting retarded."
I heard one Denver deputy turned down a vet just
back from someplace in the Middle East, on grounds that he'd only used a gun in
the army and hadn't ever had an NRA course.
Then a woman deputy told this tiny little woman,
whose husband had beat her with a bat, that it was "not in the public
interest" for her to get a permit, and kept trying to give her the number
for a shelter, and wouldn't listen at all when the woman tried to say, But
it's my house. I paid for it. He moved into it and now he's
hitting me, stealing from me, I'm afraid he's going to hurt my kids. It's my house, and when I tell him to leave, I want
to have a gun handy.
Little Miss Deputyette Fucktard just kept talking
about how the people at the shelter were wonderful and telling the tiny little
lady how much she cared, and trying to hug her and be all supportive. It was
like something my mother would do—useless, but she wanted credit for it.
Obviously Denver didn't want to give out any
If I gave a shit, I'd have to agree with Breit
about guns, and I'm careful never to agree with Breit, so I don't give a shit.
I just told the guard I needed to go home for more paperwork, handed him my
little number back, and got my quiet polite ass out of there.
I'd found a great big loophole in that brochure.
Momster owned a little piece of worthless property up in Larimer County, in a
bend of the Big Thomson River. She'd been in on a plan with five friends to
start a commune back around the time I was born, and originally they'd bought
About half the property was pretty much vertical,
cliffs and bluff faces and breaking‑away redrock, and the rest divided between
bare redrock and sandy bottomland that flooded in every rainstorm. That had
been why it was so cheap for Momster and her friends to buy it back then, and
it was also why, over the years since, it had been cheap for her to buy out her
friends' shares, sometimes for cash, sometimes for a dollar over the table and
a pile of weed under. Now she was sole owner of some rocks and sand and a few
pathetic aspens and cottonwoods, a patch of dirt that nobody could build on
But that land was there, in Larimer County, right
up near the Wyoming state line, at the corner of Way Out and Too Far you might
say, and she'd kept the taxes up, and the Colorado rules said I could get a
permit in any county where my immediate family owned property. I had a feeling
the sheriff'd be a little friendlier up there, even though Fort Collins, the
county seat, was a fairly liberal college town.
I also needed proof that I'd completed a firearms
course, so when I swung by the house for the tax record on Momster's Folly, I
picked up my certificates and merit badge sash from the Boy Scouts; I'd had the
merit badges for Rifle Shooting and Shotgun Shooting.
Then I caught Santa Fe north to 25, and 25 right up
to Fort Collins, maybe fifty miles in about forty minutes, a gorgeous drive on
a nice fall day, with the harvest all in, the mountains shining in the west,
and not a statey in sight.
At Larimer County Sheriff's Office, the property
tax receipt and my merit badge sheets were all it took to get a concealed carry
permit, at least when the clerk on duty was this thirty‑something bleached
blonde in a stretchy pink top who also told me where her six favorite bars were
in Fort Collins, and that Fort Collins might look kind of small‑town but it
partied real crazy, and about how she was just too alive to go out for coffee
and dinner with old men because she liked to dance and have a good time. I
smiled a lot, and it was a slow Wednesday, and my permit went right through. I
managed not to think thank god it's easy go get a gun up here, they've got a
serious cougar problem until I was
actually back in my Olds p.o.s.
I checked the clock; 11:42 a.m. Breit had said he
wanted a progress report by one. I called him and told him what I'd done. He
laughed, and though he didn't say "thanks" or "good job,"
which might have made his dick fall off, he did tell me to fill up my tank on
the 1919 account debit card.
I walked into Nasty John's half an hour early for
my shift. Breit and Megan were at the counter, talking to what seemed to be a
pretty girl, till she turned around and I saw it was my sister.
I'd come bounding through the door in a real good
mood, but when I saw that it was Leigh I slowed way down. Serious trouble at
But then Megan hit the big piece of paper between
them with the APPROVED stamp, and I saw it was a poster for Fall Dance Concert, Englewood High School.
"Impressive poster," I said.
"Definitely," Leigh said.
"Understandable by a primitive man such as yourself, and brilliantly
"Meaning you designed it?"
"I had to. Who else was going to do any kind
of job? I mean, it's fucking high school, the teacher wanted a picture of
dancing pirates, to show our old Pirate spirit, you know? So in a school full
of fucktards, who else was going to do it?"
"It's very cool and elegant and looks
professional as all shit," Megan said, "and don't let your brother
spoil that for you."
"Hey, I think it looks good too—"
"Not even when he says that."
"Really?" Leigh asked, ignoring me.
"You think it looks good?"
Megan nodded emphatically. "Really. Better
than half the things in my advertising class. Not to mention so well done even
Hal can see that it's well done."
"Hey," I said, feebly. They ignored that
Leigh was obviously excited that Megan had said she
liked it. "I scared them all, told them I was going to headline it NUBILE JAILBAIT IN LEOTARDS, DIRTY OLD MEN
WELCOME, so they were so relieved to see what I actually did do, they didn't fuck around with it
Breit laughed. "Hal, we need a full‑time evil
person on the staff, so let me know when Leigh's old enough to work full time.
Meanwhile I need you for about five minutes in the back room."
His back, visible around and through his hot pink
wifebeater (2XL, according to the tag that stuck out), looked like shag carpet
over lumpy linoleum, and his ass looked like two pigs fighting in a sack. He
closed the door and said, "What you did to get your carry permit was what
I mean about intelligently not following orders. You have $175 coming for the
morning's work, and I'll have more instructions for you soon. Something more
interesting I hope." He stuck out his hand, and, what the fuck, I shook
it. Didn't even wipe my own hand on my pants till he'd left the room.
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.
"I wouldn't touch him with a barge-pole
myself," said Mallow.
"There is a limit to human charity,"
said Lady Outram, trembling all over.
"There is," said Father Brown dryly;
"and that is the real difference between human charity and Christian
charity. You must forgive me if I was not altogether crushed by your contempt
for my uncharitableness to-day; or by the lectures you read me about pardon for
every sinner. For it seems to me that you only pardon the sins that you don't
really think sinful. You only forgive criminals when they commit what you don't
regard as crimes, but rather as conventions. So you tolerate a conventional
duel, just as you tolerate a conventional divorce. You forgive because there
isn't anything to be forgiven."
"But, hang it all," cried Mallow,
"you don't expect us to be able to pardon a vile thing like this?"
"No," said the priest; "but we have to be able to pardon it."
He stood up abruptly and looked round at them.
"We have to touch such men, not with a
bargepole, but with a benediction," he said. "We have to say the word
that will save them from hell. We alone are left to deliver them from despair
when your human charity deserts them. Go on your own primrose path pardoning
all your favourite vices and being generous to your fashionable crimes; and
leave us in the darkness, vampires of the night, to console those who really
need consolation; who do things really indefensible, things that neither the
world nor they themselves can defend; and none but a priest will pardon. Leave
us with the men who commit the mean and revolting and real crimes; mean as St.
Peter when the cock crew, and yet the dawn came."
-- G.K. Chesterton, “The Chief
Mourner of Marne”
was cutting across the DU campus, on time for work and trying to hurry enough
to make it early. It was well over seventy in the first week of November; Denver has lots of days out of season. Against the
dead-computer-blue sky, the sparse and clumpy leaves on the trees still flamed
orange and red. Dribbling traces of the Halloween snow held on in the concrete
drainage gutters and the shadows of the big practical education buildings.
The weather was nice but most of my attention was about twenty feet in front
of me. You know that state of mind a guy gets into when sex and love and all
that is the furthest thing from your mind? You haven’t had any in age, you
think you’re never going to want any ever again, but then you notice
someone’s hair is nice or she’s got a real pretty face or something?
you see some woman just going about her business but while she's doing it, she'sbeing so beautiful, or cool, you think, Wow. Not like you’re all interested and whatnot, necessarily, but you notice.
Thick copper-colored curly hair poured down her back, stopping just above a nice round butt in tight jeans. I was
overtaking her pretty fast, because I was
hurrying, and she had to walk slow because she was with a little boy, maybe five years old—I don’t know much about kids—just finishing off an ice
cream cone. She squatted down to wipe his mouthwith a
paper napkin, and I
glimpsed her face—wide mouth,
thick lips, heavy bushy eyebrows, what Mom calls "strong-featured."
her hair had slid off her back, I saw she was wearing one of those
t-shirts from some Jesus rally, white on blue with a cross, a place and
date, and I thought, What a waste!
just before she felt me looking at her and looked up with a great smile.
I grinned back and went around her and the kid, on my way with my day
by one good moment.
a rule or something, I don’t get to keep good moments.
smell a pussy!” The voice was harsh, loud, male, and young.
turned around. A pasty-white kid with dyed black hair zoomed by the young mother, then past me,
out of arm’s reach for me to kick his leg or tip his bike.
My breath seemed, all on its own, to form the words, “That’s
funny, I hear an asshole.”
spun the bike, jumped off, and took a step toward me. “What did you call me?”
walked toward him. “Corey,” I said, “what was that about?”
stood there looking all defiant and badass and shit, a cigarette dangling in
his left hand. I kept walking like I was
going to walk through him.
you think you can beat me up and get away with it just cause they fucking fixed
things for you — “
stepped into arm’s reach, which was unpleasant because I totally hate cigarette
smoke, but it made him take a step back so that his foot was almost on his
bike. My hands rose gently, not clenched in fists, not even reaching toward
him, just like floating, and the fingers flicked upward to lead his gaze over
his head as the back of his ankle settled against the bicycle. I made a slight pushing gesture with my open palms, focusing my ki through my
wrists, through the empty space between us, through his sternum, on to
infinity, and said, softly, “Boo.”
He tried to step back, but his back foot
was pinned, his front foot had nowhere to go except into the bicycle, and
because of where I had pulled his gaze, his center was way too high. His feet
couldn’t retreat, so his head went behind his ass, and took his center with it.
It was a messy fall and he didn’t take it well. “Fuck you.”
don’t think that’s nice language,” I said, “And just for the record, all I did
was stand here and say ‘Boo.’”
saw it,” the young mom with the copper-colored hair said, behind me.
you gonna tell on him, Mommy?” the little guy asked.
couldn’t help it, I laughed, and I could hear she was laughing too, and Corey,
who had a whole shitload of dignity to uphold as the editor of the Pitkin Post, got up, grabbed his bike, and rode away
pedaling like a nut. Must’ve been a hot news story someplace he had to cover, I
guess. He left his cigarette butt smoldering in the grass, so I stepped on it.
“He didn’t touch you or hurt you, did
he?” I asked. I saw she was younger than I’d thought, twenty-five at
shook her head. “Just startled me.”
tee shirt said,
2006 Praise at Pitkin.
God is Awesome!!!
not to re-read, considering
she’d already had her quota of sexual harassment for today.
little guy shouted, “You knocked him fuckin’ down, boom!”
squatted down to his eye level like I do teaching kid judo and kid karate. It gets their attention. I looked
him in the eye. “Hey.”
shy, he said, “Hi,” and looked away.
figured he’d been told about bad words a few times before. “Look, bud,” I said,
bringing his gaze back to me, “That’s not a word a little boy should be saying.
It’s not really a word anybody should say, even if people do say it a
made a face. “You said a bad word. You called him—”
know what I called him.” Shit, I thought,I hope I’m never a dad,
this shit ishard. “When people get very angry, sometimes they say bad
things, but that doesn’t make it right to say them.”
didn’t look very convinced, but his mother mouthed thank you at me. I stood up, we
smiled at each other, and
I thought of an exit line. I looked at my watch. “Oh, shih-uh, oot,
I’m about to be late for work. Gotta run.” And ran.
called, “thank you,” after me and I sort of half-waved back at her. De nada,
I thought. It’s always a pleasure to get to work off some rage on an
asshole, and having it be Corey Carone is even better. But if I stick around
you might figure out who I am.
is only maybe a mile and a half from the crappy little frame house in Englewood
where I grew up (and now live again), to the DU/Pitkin College/Iliff Seminary
neighborhood called Wash Park, but it might as well be another planet. Washington
Park itself has stone bridges and ponds and all that park-stuff, like a college town from an old movie. All these big stone and brick houses, real old like
eighty years and more, a lot of them what they call Denver Squares with big
porches and columns and high windows and whatnot, and big old trees in the
Of course from any roof in Wash Park you see it’s right in the middle of South Denver, with strip
malls, railroads, big blocky apartment buildings, steel warehouses, freeways,
and regular old tract houses, miles of ordinary city, just a few blocks in any
direction, but at street level, it's real nice.
that live there are the kind that we're all supposed to think are all hot shit:
the dads are professors or run the state government downtown, the moms are on
the kind of committees that get asked to say something on the news, and all the
kids play soccer and piano, go to high school leadership conferences and
colleges out of state, and turn into governors, scientists, and vice presidents
went a block out of my way, like always, to not go past the Shau house. I
didn’t even know if Chelsea’s parents still lived there, but they were real
good to me as long as I deserved it—longer, actually—and I didn’t want them to
see me now. If it wasn’t such a pain in the ass to move a car after you park in
that neighborhood, I’d never have gone anywhere near that house on foot.Walking that
extra block always made me feel like shit, but then maybe shit deserves to feel
after that happy thought, the out-of-season day, the movie-pretty
surroundings, and having put a good scare into Corey all put a glow on things. Besides,
I was running where I wanted to, and just because I wanted to. I’d spent
nineteen months only being allowed to run on someone else’s schedule, on a
track between concrete walls with razor wire on top of them. Anyplace without a
wall, where I can pick any direction I want without attracting interest from a
guy with a shotgun—by comparison, it’s all good. By the time I trotted onto
Nasty John’s street side patio, I was feeling pretty good again.
I said, there’s a rule: I don’t get to keep those moments. It was Gary. I try
not to snap at him.
said, “Uh, as long as you’re going inside—“
long as I’m going inside,” I said, “You can call me Hal.”
Harsh, yeah, but I get so tired of people calling me that. They do it
because Breit does it. I knew Gary meant no harm. He's just thoughtless and does
things he sees other people
do because he is trying to fit in and be cool, which is weird in a guy who must be forty.
his strap cap and stood up, looking sort of like Michael Moore's dumpy
brother. He spread his arms and for one nauseating moment I thought
he was going to hug me to his flaking leather jacket and grimy black tee
but instead he started belting out that “You Can Be My Bodyguard” song
mother likes, except singing “Call me Hal” instead of “Call Me Al.”
right,” I said, “Anything to stop you from singing. Every time you do the
Humane Society comes out to investigate. What did
pot of Thick and Sticky Baby,” he said. “Just whenever. I’m going to be out
here till dark. Hal.” He was making sure he set it in his memory.
prob, will do,” I said.
have no idea what, if anything, he does for a living. Maybe he’s a
trustifarian. Most of the time he sits in a corner—he wants his back to at
least one wall, preferably two—and watches people and draws them in a big black
notebook. He’s really good but he doesn’t want anyone to see him drawing.
and pounding down coffee and pastry, he also reads newspapers, sits on
his huge ass, and helps college students with their papers by spelling
defining things for them. I guess if he pays his bills he’s about the
harmless guy I know, and really one of my favorite customers. And I'd
just taught him to call me Hal. Today was being surprisingly good.
it was almost deserted—everyone wanted to be on the patio. I passed
Gary’s order on to Megan (probably my favorite coworker, she's pretty cool for
a nineteen year old who knows everything—you know how that is). She
got going on the pot of Thick and Sticky Baby—espresso, microwaved condensed
milk, and molasses, blenderized with steamed milk so you can drink it instead
of having to saw pieces off. It’s like caffeinated molten candy.
she was getting it, and I was stowing my pack and washing my hands in the back
room, she called out, “You have a job applicant coming in, should be here about
now. Note from Breit about it on the board.”
the bulletin board there was a folded paper with “Dim” scrawled on it. I read,
course I appreciated that he was the one who started people calling me that. But
hey, the “Yo” made his fat old ass seem like, so ... hip.
Applicant named Gayle Westron coming in for interview 1:30
was 1:35 now. Breit hated
lateness. I never gave a shit.
Sarah quit TT4G before I could fire her TT4G.
was his abbreviation for This Time For Good. Considering the way he and
Sarah screamed at each other, and that for the last two months he’d only put
her on shifts where I supervised, so he wouldn’t have to try to communicate
with her, this was not exactly a surprise.
So we need coverage NOW, so if Gayle
looks right to you, she’s hired.
Warn her about me if you hire her, so we don’t start off the way Sarah and I
didn’t need to worry about that; if anyone came within ten miles of working for
John Breit, I warned them, just like I told people
when there was a mess where they were about to sit.
applicant is here. Shall I heat up the branding irons for the ordeal?”
get the blood sample first,” I said. “Break out the leech.”
giggle from the counter seemed weirdly familiar. As I came back in, Megan said, “Hey, and she laughs at
our jokes. We have to hire her.”
was the copper-haired mother in the Christian tee shirt, still towing the kid,
which I was guessing was why she was late.
wow,” she said, “You’re the manager?”
what everyone says when they first meet Hal,” Megan said.
gave Megan my best Cut that out, young lady, look. “So you’re
Gayle Westron? I’m Hal Dimmesdale, and this is Megan Salazar.”
sorry I had to bring Elisha,” she said. “My sitter ducked out at the last
minute, and since it’s my mom, I can’t fire her. If I get the job I’ll try to
line up something more reliable.”
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
She winced and looked down. “Uh, no.
I um—the last job I had was in high school. I guess you’re going to wonder what
I was doing, you know, between?”
“This is the first interview I’ve
ever done. I probably wouldn’t have thought to ask.”
“I’ll try to be sneakier.” She took a
sip of the coffee we’d poured for her. “This is weird.”
“The coffee?” Every so often Nancy,
on the morning shift, forgets to rinse the cleaner out of one of the big urns
before refilling it.
“No, the coffee’s pretty good. I mean
after this afternoon. I mean—well, anyway, I kind of wanted to thank you, I
mean, it’s kind of nice to know that some guys will stand up to—you know. What
you called him.”
“I guess,” I said. “I just hate
people who do things just to ruin other people’s days.”
It got real quiet.
This was starting to resemble the world’s worst first date.
“Uh,” I said. More brilliant
repartee. “Um. Tell you what. I don’t know how to interview anybody. You don’t
know how to be interviewed. How about if I show you what goes into the job and
then if you say you want to do it for the money that Breit offered you, I’ll
say you’re hired and we’re both out of the awkwardness.”
“Sure. Gosh, I’m scared to death of
The “gosh” reminded me of her shirt,
and I said, “Okay, let me tell you what might be the hard thing first. Look at
the menu up there on the board and you will see what John Breit means when he
calls himself Nasty John, and remember he gave that name to himself.”
She looked up at the board, which
reached ten feet up to the tintype ceiling, starting from about waist height,
and ran maybe thirty feet across the back; Nasty John's serves more than a
hundred named coffee drinks, about twenty different pastries, and maybe thirty
kinds of other stuff like soup and sandwiches and so on. It takes a while to
read a representative sample. Gayle's jaw dropped; she covered her mouth with
her hand. “Oh my god.” A pause.
“I’m not worried about you offending me,” I pointed out. “Yeah, that’s really the menu and yeah, Breit insists
on us using those names. The most popular orders are the Hot Black Mama, the
Petite Sweet Blonde Whipped, and the Pussy Warmer. And you’ll have to take
orders for all those and say them back to people, especially when Breit is
watching you. Gary outside, the guy that draws? He gets so embarrassed that he can only order from a guy. If
he's desperate to order and he can't say it to you, ask him if he wants a Thick
and Sticky Baby—that's usually it. Anyway, you’ll have to say all those things all the time. And some guys do get cruel about it if
they can tell you’re embarrassed.”
“They like to trick you, make you to
say extra nasty stuff,” Megan put in. I looked up at her, grateful to have help
with this; I hadn’t realized she’d been standing over the table. “Long as you
don’t let it get to you, you’re okay. My first day here I took a tray out to a
table of guys on the patio and I said, ‘Which one of you is the Virgin Buster?’
and they all laughed, like I mean it was ridiculous, till Sarah—the girl who
just quit, that you’re going to replace—she said, ‘Megan, you forgot the comma
before Buster,’ and they all
laughed twice as hard but all the sudden I’m their favorite–huge tips from them, ever since.”
“Not everyone’s as tough or as fast
as Sarah,” I said. Gayle still
hadn’t moved. I asked, soft as I could, “Are you okay? Did we kill you?”
She shrugged and blinked the way
someone does when they’re afraid they’re going to cry. “I don’t know. I need a
job soon. Mr. Breit told me
about the pay and hours and it’s all perfect, he said mostly you’d be my boss—“
Maybe trying to lighten things up a
little, Megan said, “Well, everything has its drawbacks.”
Gayle looked a little annoyed at her.
“Poop,” she said. “I like—um—okay,
this is embarrassing.” She’d obviously forgotten my name. So much for my hopes
for some hot Jesus-Mommy action.
“Uh, Hal,” I said. “Hal Dimmesdale.
Some people around here sometimes call me ‘Dim,’ but I hate that.”
“He really really hates it,” Megan put in.
Then I saw it happen—Gayle recognized
my name. Corey Carone had put something about me in his newspaper, anything
from a full menace-to-the-public editorial to a cheap shot one-liner, every
week since school started. Everyone
knew who I was.
People say it all the time, but with
all my martial arts, I know: being kicked in the stomach was literally,
exactly, really, totally what it felt like.
It got real quiet.
Memories came at me like a flung
fistfull of filthy splinters of broken glass:
Headline in the Pitkin Post, front page:
Drug Dealer Jock Back on Campus
Paroled in Death of Girlfriend
Overheard at the Tree Trunk when I was in a booth eating
chili and studying; it caught my attention because I'd known that voice since we were little kids and he was my best bud: “So he was all hot shit in college judo and Pitkin
College has been a small-college judo power, like, forever, so they totally forgave him for
like, all this other shit. But I
went to high school with him, and I used to go to tae kwon do with him when I was
little, and by the time I was seven my mom told me I wasn’t allowed to play with him."
That was true, but Jimmy didn't mention all the years of sneaking around to see me again.
"Dim is basically just trailer trash,
his whole family’s like that."
Nobody ever called me Dim till Breit started it, long after Jimmy and me parted ways.
“So he got into drugs and was
dealing at clubs. And he had like this super-achiever Asian girlfriend, brainy
and gorgeous, so one night he was driving crazy impaired and she got killed. He walked away without a scratch. Now
they fixed it up so he can come back, fresh out of prison with a full-ride
scholarship. It just shows, like, they really will do anything for a jock.”
One time at dinner in Cañon City, a
big guy, one of the real bad ones, sitting right behind me and talking loud to make sure I heard him: “Yeah, he a
snitch, that’s why the guards watch him like they his en-tou-rage. Got him a scholarship to college and his own
sexy Chinese bitch, but he so fuckin’ dumb he goin’ the wrong way on a freeway
and one side the car hit a semi.
That China bitch, she just fold up in the metal, you know, in the metal, like you put a bug
in a Coke can and you step on it. And he a snitch.”
The Magical Kaleidoscope of How Hal
Sucks. Especially if you remember that what you do with a kaleidoscope is, you
hold a bunch of pieces of broken glass up to your eye to see a pattern.
I didn't know how long it had been
since it got so quiet, but long enough for Megan to have taken Elisha over to
another table, where he was drawing her a picture. I finally looked up.
Gayle said, “I really, totally, definitely … I need this job so bad. I can deal
with the language. Can you deal with me, you know, knowing about what
I did what Coach Park always said,
took a deep breath; thought my hands and feet warm as it was coming in; thought
the undersides of my arms and legs heavy; felt ki coming in through my feet and
flowing into hara and pushing my tired, dead, old ki out through my fingers,
toes, and head; took another breath now that my ki was pure, and let it out
into the truth, looking her right in the eye. “Everything you heard about me is
true,” I said. “I got so screwed up on vodka and X that I rammed an abandoned
car on the shoulder of the Park Avenue freeway entrance, spun out, got turned
around without even knowing it, and drove into an oncoming semi, and my
girlfriend Chelsea was killed instantly. I guess I think about that, like,
every three minutes or so. Because I can’t believe I was that guy that did that, but shit, I
was. I am.”
“And you loved her,” Gayle whispered.
That was so weird that I stopped trying to sound tough,
and blurted, “Yeah, I did.”
“Well.” She looked, saw Elisha
safely involved with drawing for Megan, and said, “well. Fuck. That must be totally fucking horrible.” She sort of smiled at my startled look. “Just
recently some guy told my little boy that when grownups are very upset, they
sometimes say things they shouldn’t. It seemed like the time.”
“Sorry I upset you.”
She nodded and ran her hand over her
face. “I’m just sorry you didn’t kill Corey. It must hurt so bad to be you. So can you deal with me
“Well, then, all right, if some guy
asks me for an Extra Slippery Pussy Warmer with a Popped Cherry, I’ll cope. I’d
like to have you for my boss.”
“Hey, when you stood up to that
creepy little guy, and then took off like a rocket right after you talked to
Elisha—I thought either I’d just found the world’s shyest knight in armor, or
possibly you had to go change into a costume, fly through the air, and fight
evil. So if we’re working in here and some guy pats my butt, will you say ‘Boo’
and make him fly backwards through the air?”
“If it means you’ll take the job,
sure. Glad to.”
“And is Mr. Breit as awful as Megan says
“Even worse,” Megan said, returning
Elisha to the table, holding the now-completed drawing of a blob-person with a
blob-sun, “but so monotonous you get used to it. Like after a while you get
used to him talking to your chest because he always does it, and he has about
the same fifty middle school jokes that he just goes through over and over. Please take the job, Gayle.”
“Okay,” she said. “Mr. Breit said my
first shift would be tomorrow evening?”
“That’s what Sarah’s old shift was,”
I said. “But I work a private party for that one, and I might not be
around as much as you'll need me on a first shift, so can you come in
sometime during the day tomorrow to
learn the ropes? That way you’ll get some extra hours and it sounds like
could use a fat first paycheck. Could you come at, like, two, tomorrow?
Just for a couple hours to learn the
“I’ll find a way.” Gayle stuck out her
hand and we shook. “Thanks, Hal. I’m going to make you so glad you hired me.”
She led Elisha away; he turned and waved to Megan at the door. “Cute,” I said.
“And her little boy is a sweetheart.”
I had meant Elisha, actually. One of
the few things I didn’t like about Megan was that she had appointed herself my
matchmaker in chief. I didn’t
think Gayle was even looking; a lot of single moms aren’t. And god knew I wasn't, anyway.
For the next couple hours, Nasty John's was dead
but not totally dead. That gave me too much time to think and not enough time
to study, so I mindlessly knocked off piddly manager shit, worked through a
calculus problem set, read half a chapter of logic without understanding it,
and listened to Megan about this new guy that was, like, definitely nice but so confusing and maybe just wanted some make-outage.
Late in the afternoon, big classes let out at DU
and Pitkin, and Iliff Seminary always had a few classes that de facto met at
Nasty John's. Today we were slammed. No Denverite ever voluntarily wastes any
of those late fall days with perfect blue sky, a hint of cool wind off the
mountains, warm enough to walk without a sweater and cool enough to run without
sweating; there aren't more than five or so in a November. People get out into
them as fast as they can, and any place with a patio crowds up.
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
"Yeah, that sucks. But at least you get to
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?
The jury found me guilty on all counts, forty
minutes flat, made it home in time to see themselves on the news over dinner.
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
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
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
"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
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,
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
I started on my accounting homework, something
about quarterly reports, but I was being distracted by my own accounting of the
quarter year. November 6 was was my three-month anniversary out of Cañon.
Counting Megan, Stacy, Dr. Lang, Gayle, and Elisha, I could now say I had exactly a handful of friends. All the girls were
beautiful, all the men were chill, and I didn't really know why any of them
liked me. Growth was slow this quarter, but it was growth. Maybe next quarter
wouldn't totally blow.