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High Priest of California Excerpts and Reviews

Back to High Priest of California

Charles Willeford


I slipped a dollar under the wicket and a sullen-lipped cashier asked me for a penny.

“You’re making the change,” I told her. She gave me the ticket and four pennies and I bounded up the stairs. The man on the door tried to mark my wrist with a blue stamp, but I dodged it. It was one of those dance halls where men come to pick up something, and women come to be picked up. I was there because I was bored. I looked around.

There were twice as many women as men. Most of the women looked pretty bad, those that were sitting around waiting, but there were a few fairly nice ones on the floor. I edged through the crowd to the rope barrier and watched the dancers. The band (three saxes, a trumpet, piano and drums) was much too loud. The ceiling was low and there was a second listen to the music through reverberation. I looked for the bar and found it, but it only served beer. I ordered one at the bar, and then sat at a table facing the dance floor.

The place was noisy, hot, smelled of sweat, and the beer wasn’t cold. I was ready to leave. Then I saw the woman in the red tailored suit.

It wasn’t just a red suit, it was a created red suit. The woman lived up to it. She was a tall woman with shoulder-length brown hair, parted in the center. She looked as out-of-place in that smoky atmosphere as I would have looked in a Salinas lettuce-pickers camp. She had a casual air, but she was interested in what was going on. I got up from the table and tapped her on the shoulder.

“Dance?” I jerked my head toward the floor.

“Oh, yes!” she said, and nodded her head several times like she thought it was the best suggestion ever made.
I took her elbow and guided her through the crowd to the floor. We began to dance. She was a terrible dancer, and as stiff and difficult to shove around as a reluctant St. Bernard.

“Why don’t you relax?” I asked her.

“What?” She looked at me with big brown excited eyes, and there were bright red spots on her cheeks.


“I haven’t danced in a long time and I’m afraid of making a mistake.”

“Don’t be afraid. I made one.”

“I didn’t notice it.”
“That’s because you haven’t danced in a long time. Come on. Let’s get us a beer.”

All the tables were occupied in the bar section, but a couple of young punks were sitting at one with nothing in front of them. I gave them a hard look and they got up and left.

“Sit down, Miss–?”
“Alyce. Alyce Vitale.”

“Sit down, Alyce, and I’ll get us a couple of beers.”

I elbowed my way to the bar, caught the bartender’s eye, bought two bottles of beer, and picked up a paper cup for Alyce. Back at the table I poured the beer and sat down.

“A man tried to take your seat,” she said, “but I told him it was reserved.”

“Thanks.” I drank my beer and took a better look at Alyce. Her eyes were intelligent, but vague. In repose, her face had a wistful tragic look, but when she smiled it transformed her into a radiant beauty. She looked interesting. I flashed a smile back at her, my charming, disarming smile.



I’m proud to say I knew the man who wrote this book. Willeford writes with quiet authority, has the ability to make his situations, scenes, dialogue, sound absolutely real.”

–Elmore Leonard

The prose is clean and tough and flows easily.”

–The New York Times Book Review

A tempo so relentless, words practically fly off the pages.”

–The Village Voice

Willeford never puts a foot wrong, and this is truly an entertainment to relish.”

–The New Yorker

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