I Can Hardly Spell My Name
Chapter 1: September After High School Graduationwritten by Shrink - illustrated by Broflove and Zteif
Kyle frowned at his computer screen and consulted the book again. It wasn't that online classes were particularly challenging, but there was something he missed about the academic setting: cramped knees, the quiet authority of the teacher, a frantic search for a pen at the bottom of a bag, the rattling of the air conditioning vent. He should be there, he thought, spinning irritably on the stool. Not still sitting in South Park, with the same job he'd had during his last year of high school, only expanded to fill all of the empty hours he'd gotten after graduation.
"You're out of 2%," a customer said, sitting the container on the counter next to him.
"One sec." he jumped down from the stool to retrieve the back-up creamer from the mini-fridge under the bar.
Working slow weekday afternoons were a previously unknown blessing. He was used to being slammed on nights and weekends. But the closest it got to that at Tweak Bros Coffee on weekdays were the Wednesday book club meetings, which consisted of middle-aged woman carrying copies of The Help under their arms as they asked him the difference between a latte and cappuccino.
He unloaded the morning pastry plates from the dishwasher and stacked them on the shelf. Another hour and he'd bring out the black bean chili for lunch. Tweek should be in any minute help with the lunch "rush," which would be good, because he could have his break and work uninterrupted on his essay on symbolism in The Yellow Wallpaper for his American Literature Gen Ed.
His cell phone vibrated in his pocket and he disappeared into the kitchen to take the call he'd ignored the first few times it had come while he was steaming milk.
"Finally!" The exasperated voice said. Kyle liked to think he was past the days he would feel a little leap at someone having wanted to hear from him, but he supposed it was still rare enough that he couldn't take it for granted.
"I'm at work." He twirled the drawstring of his hoodie around his finger. Cartman was out of his last class of the day, World History I. Kyle had been staring at the crumpled schedule he'd printed out from Cartman's school account yesterday when he hadn't been answering his phone after his Psych class. His passwords were still always Cheeseyp00fs.
"Christ, it's not like a real job, Kyle," Cartman said. "You can always get another job." Kyle wasn't sure why, exactly, but Cartman had never been completely okay with him working at Tweak Bros. He said it was because so much caffeine wasn't good for him, but even after cutting back to regular mochas only twice a day he still didn't approve.
"It pays money like a real job." By now the back and forth over work was practically scripted.
"Which is why you can afford to pay for my movie ticket next time."
Kyle didn't respond right away. It bothered him that unlike before Cartman had left, he couldn't be sure when next time was.
"We shouldn't be paying money to blow each other in the dark," Kyle said, though it was only a half-hearted attempt to rile Cartman into committing to visit this weekend.
Cartman lowered his voice, "Oh? My cock isn't worth your money Kahl? I bet you want it right now."
Kyle blushed and looked around the empty stockroom. "Can we not talk about it? I'm at work."
"We can not talk at all. I have practice." The disconnecting chirp followed.
Kyle pulled his phone away from his face and pocketed it. He focused on the stainless steel appliances and packaging boxes he was standing among.
"There you are." Tweek was standing in the doorway, tearing at some dead skin on his thumb with his teeth. He ran a hand through his blonde hair, making it stick up erratically like it had when they were kids. "Dad's bringing in new photographs to hang on the walls," Tweek said. Mr. Tweak hadn't actually worked a shift at the café since Kyle and Tweek had graduated and both begun working full time, which was good because he seemed to be the only thing that riled Tweek's anxiety. Kyle followed him to the front, grabbing a few frames from under Mr. Tweak's arms.
"Thanks Kyle," he said, as the two carried the framed photographs to the back counter. He set them down, pausing to stare at the various photos arranged in blue plastic frames. Mostly the photos were extreme close-ups of beaten up railroads with the saturation altered. Kyle tried to catch Tweek's eye, but he was laying the photos in a line. The photos weren't exactly better than the close ups of sunflowers that were currently hanging up and knew he shouldn't be judgmental. After all, they were going to be displayed in a café in South Park, Colorado. It wasn't like he was the curate of some trendy museum.
"I think you boys know the photographer, one of you friends from school—Henrietta Biggle," Mr. Tweak said. "She shipped these back from Portland. She's a graphic design student now, Tweek."
"Oh Jesus! That's good for Henrietta. She's ugh, talented, she should go to school," Tweek said, flicking a strand of hair from his eyes.
"Do you want me to hang them?" Kyle asked, looking for an excuse to get away from any conversation about college. He heard it enough from his own parents. The only reason he was taking the online classes at all was to calm his mom down after she'd found out he'd never sent in his college applications.
"No, I'll have Tweek do that when it dies down." Mr. Tweak was looking pointedly at his son. Kyle looked around the café but only found an elderly couple conversing over a crossword puzzle by the window. "Anyway, I need you behind the register. You're training our new employee today."
Kyle raised a weary eyebrow. He remembered training Dougie last year. The younger teen had watched Kyle skeptically from over his black-rimmed glasses like every explanation was a new condescension.
"It's another one of your friends, I think," Mr. Tweak said. Kyle sighed, if Mr. Tweak could characterize Henrietta Biggle as his friend, he may as well have hired any Park County teenager with a sneer, or any teenager at all. Mr. Tweak went back to his car parked in the front to grab the rest of the artwork. Tweek leaned against the counter, letting out a breath while he didn't share the same air as his father.
"It's Stan," he said quietly.
"What?" Kyle jerked his head up.
"My dad hired him last week. I meant to tell you, but I kept putting it off. I forgot that he started today." Tweek sounded close to apologetic, like he might know something about his non-relationship to Stan. He didn't know anything.
Kyle hadn't talked to Stan since that night in his room. He'd watched as Stan grew thinner and paler, exchanging his varsity jacket for a black peacoat. But he was sure that Stan had never noticed anything about him.
He wanted to think he was strong now in a way that he hadn't been then. That he was older and more mature and that made him see how little Stan had meant to him in the first place. But when Stan walked in the front door with Mr. Tweak, and a frame slipped from Kyle's grip and slammed hard against the stainless steel counter he knew he was the same person who had been crying in Stan's room, wondering how he could have been so stupid.
"Careful there!" Mr. Tweak said, and Kyle kept his face down as he went through the motions of making sure the picture was okay. He could barely believe he'd let something so clichÃ© and dramatic happen but glad to have an excuse to look anywhere that wasn't at Stan.
"Hey Stan." Tweek did a half wave.
"You boys all know each other, right?" Mr. Tweak asked. Stan stood next to him, looking considerably better than he had when Kyle had last seen him at graduation.
"Yeah, we all went to school together." Stan was tugging at his sleeve. It wasn't a shirt that Kyle recognized.
"Alright Stan, Kyle will show you the ropes." Mr. Tweak clasped Kyle's shoulder as he passed. Kyle looked helplessly at his boss, his mind swelling with excuses, but none of them holding any water.
He turned back and looked at Stan accusingly. He didn't want Stan being forced to be around him. He had been quaking in his converse when Stan had walked in, but now he was just so helplessly angry at how much power Stan still held over him. How Stan wasn't even looking at him. Not even now. He was staring at the messenger bag on his hip and playing with one of the straps.
"I didn't know you worked here," Stan said quickly, looking up to watch Mr. Tweak walk into the back.
"Well, I do." Kyle had to bite his tongue to stop from detailing how long; reminding himself that it wasn't actually impressive. That Stan wasn't someone he could impress.
"I just normally go to the diner for coffee," Stan said. Stan probably frequented the diner with his pseudo-intellectual goth friends.
"Maybe you should have gotten a job there then."
"They weren't, um, hiring." Stan glanced uncertainly at Tweek. But the blonde just grabbed a few frames and carried them to where his dad was standing. Kyle also looked over at Mr. Tweak who smiled and gave him a thumbs up.
"Okay so I have to train you. So watch what I do and learn it." He sipped the mocha he'd made for himself earlier. There weren't a lot of situations in life that couldn't be made less painful by acting unfazed. This was just another one of them.
"Don't you guys wear uniforms?" Stan looked back and forth between Kyle and Tweek. He was wearing his typical outfit; skinny jeans, black converse high tops, a Joy Division t-shirt topped by a black blazer he no doubt got second hand. The only thing worse than the pretentiousness in that were the two pins attached to the collar of the blazer of album covers that Kyle couldn't place. Stan had always been taller than Kyle, but standing next to him now, he could tell he'd had grown another inch.
Kyle rolled his eyes. "This isn't Harbucks. We just need something to cover our hair."
Stan looked over at Tweek who had a folded bandana wrapped over his hair, flattening it over his ears. Kyle had always wished he could have worn a bandana, but it just made his hair puff out around his face, so he stuck to the beanie.
Stan tugged a skullcap from his pocket and pulled it over his head.
"Do you have any barista experience?" Kyle asked, directing Stan over to the espresso machine, feeling like the question was somehow absurd. Every question that wasn't "why" seemed misplaced. And having to explain the difference between cappuccinos and lattes to Stan felt a bit like cosmic punishment for all the times he'd so bitchily explained it to customers. He pointed to different shelves where everything was kept, and gave Stan a run-down on how often the coffee should be switched out. Stan nodded, following behind Kyle as if this was something they did everyday together.
"And I just pour the milk over the espresso?" Stan asked, holding the milk pitcher over the cup.
"No, watch my hands again." Kyle snatched the milk pitcher from Stan. If he had ever gotten better at confrontations, he would tell Stan to leave. Or at least tell him that he didn't want him there. But he couldn't say it. All he had was his passive aggressive attempts to make working with him miserable. He wanted Stan to feel at least a tenth as uncomfortable as he did.
"I don't know dude, that just looks like pouring," Stan said, smiling, unfazed. Kyle wanted to slam the pitcher on the bar and stomp off out of the building. He wanted to shake Stan until his teeth rattled. He wanted to laugh at how forced and surreal this whole situation was. He wanted to crawl out of his own skin.
"I don't know how else to explain it to you. You either get it or you don't."
Stan looked down at the milk, the small bubbles disintegrating just below the rim of the cup. Kyle felt hot under his beanie, and stared at the back of Tweek's neck as he stood on a ladder, lifting Henrietta's photos onto the nails on the wall. His dad stood below him shouting that it wasn't straight, making Tweek shake and tilt the picture too far in the other direction.
"Sorry that I suck." Stan took a sip of the melting green tea smoothie he'd made a half hour ago.
Kyle frowned. "If you want to drink that, you have to go in the back."
"There's no one here." Stan cocked his head to the side, as if he was noticing the atmosphere of the café for the first time. "What are we listening to?"
Kyle paused a minute to listen to the song playing over the speakers. That had been one of his favorite things about working here at first, being able to choose the music. He liked to think that it gave him the power to inflict his moods on the customers.
"The Smiths," Kyle said, throwing out the cups they'd used. He wished that Stan didn't look so surprised, and wanted to point out that just because someone listened to indie music didn't mean they had to dress like a prick hipster. He also wished Stan didn't look so goddamn good as a prick hipster.
"Yeah, I know that, what song?"
"I Don't Owe You Anything."
Stan looked at him meaningfully for a moment before recognizing that as the title. "Right." He grabbed a towel and helped Kyle clean up their mess. "Thanks for training me, I'll just pick this stuff up as I go along." The dismissal was clear. Kyle never wanted to be dismissed by Stan again.
"Mr. Tweak has new people ring customers out at the register for their first week. Hopefully you picked up on how to count before now." It wasn't even a good insult. But Kyle knew he couldn't make Stan think any less of him, so he would say whatever mean thing he could think of to get Stan to just leave.
Stan blinked and laughed awkwardly. "Right, yeah."
"My shift is over," Kyle said, grabbing his coat and messenger bag from the back. "Tweek, you can watch Stan?"
Tweek climbed down from the ladder and motioned for Stan to join him at the register. "Do you want to wait on this customer? You don't have to."Kyle heard Tweek mumbling, as he passed by someone coming in the front door.
Kyle shoved his hands in his coat pockets and kicked a penny across the cement in front of him. He'd forgotten to make his usual mocha before he left, and now he'd have to rely on the Folgers at home to power him through his American Literature essay. The cool air felt good on his cheeks though and he thought about doubling around the block before going in his house but decided against it.
"Hey," Ike said, not looking up from the TV. Kyle sighed and sat down next to him. His brother's Calculus textbook was open in his lap, a piece of notebook paper sat promisingly on top of the pages.
"Where's Mom?" Kyle asked, inwardly let down that the one day that he needed his mom asking after him, she was nowhere to be found.
"A meeting, or at the store, or something," Ike mumbled. "Why, what's wrong?
"What do you mean?"
"You usually go right to your room," Ike said. He had his hoodie pulled up over his messy black hair. Kyle didn't think Ike had been home enough to make any sweeping statements about what he usually did or did not do. Wasn't Ike supposed to be the moody teenager going to his room and not the other way around?
"I'm fine." He stood back up and went to the kitchen as if moving somehow proved it.
He filled the coffee pot with water, and waited as coffee began to drip. "So, guess who is working at Tweek Bros. now," Kyle said after a few minutes had passed.
"What?" Ike called, muting the TV.
"I said that Stan Marsh is working at Tweek Bros. now. I had to train him today."
"Stan's a cool guy," Ike said. "Remember when you guys used to hang out all the time?"
"Yeah." Kyle poured the coffee into his favorite mug. He didn't know if he had more concrete memories than those of being with Stan. "Do your homework," he mumbled as he retreated into his room. He heard the TV un-mute as he set his coffee down.
While he waited for his laptop to load, he texted Cartman: "got off work." He stared down at his phone for a response that didn't come. Cartman would want to know about Stan and the sooner Kyle told him, the easier Cartman would take the news.
He never thought that all those Friday nights making out under the bleachers would amount to this; leaning over his cellphone in the dimming light of his room. He thought of the conversations he and Cartman would have been having this time last year on the floor of his bedroom. Conversations where Cartman had explained the reasons why it was better for Kyle to stay in South Park instead of going away to college. It was just so much easier to do what Cartman thought was best. He was usually right. Kyle checked his phone again for a text that hadn't come.
He wandered back downstairs, but Ike was gone now. The TV was off and he considered turning it back on while he made toast. After Stan had stopped talking to him, everything in Kyle's life seemed to be doing a bad impersonation of itself. Mostly him though, he considered, licking some peanut butter off a butter knife, letting the ridges slice against his tongue.