When he woke up the next morning Tyler found a text message waiting for him on his phone. It was from Jim.
“Hey buddy,” it read. “Do you want to get a drink tonight?”
If he were to answer honestly he would have said “No.” It was nothing against Jim himself (or maybe it was a little), but the way he’d come to feel recently was that he wasn’t up for innocent social interaction, that there was too much danger in it. He’d gotten himself home yesterday with much effort, and was glad he hadn’t seen Mickey. It was at the point where he believed he would begin to consciously avoid his brother, if only to avoid changing his opinions. What if he or Jim found out he’d bought a gun? Would he frighten his old friend, or would his old friend’s judgments frighten him? These kinds of questions were inevitable. Perhaps he shouldn’t be so much a coward.
He texted back: “Sure. Do you have a place in mind?”
A few minutes later came the response: “Do you know Merchant’s? How about 9:00?”
“Sounds good to me,” Tyler replied. Thusly it was settled. He actually had something to do later. There was actually a bit of comfort in the concept. Who knows? It might be fun? He’d buried the gun in his luggage. It would not make a reappearance any time soon. He thought of its presence with fear.
Tyler decided to walk to the Safeway on East 18th St. so he could get some groceries and make himself breakfast. Nothing special, he wasn’t much of a cook, but eggs, sausage, toast and coffee would do fine. Of course he didn’t want to duplicate with his brother so he checked the kitchen to see what they already had. As it turned out the refridgerator was nearly bare. There was milk, apple juice, assorted greens in the crisper. In the cupboards he found cereal, canned soup, canned chili. Mickey, it seemed, was an even less accomplished chef than Tyler, who had worked in the base’s cafeteria from time to time. Maybe he would make him dinner tonight. Maybe he should pick up some frozen chicken or something. That would be a good way to express his appreciation for the couch and everything else. Mickey’s generosity was familial, of course, but Tyler had seen this sentiment of solidarity expressed elsewhere too towards former members of the armed services. Even here in the Bay Area Tyler had yet to be called a “baby killer.” He’d partly expected some of that, after all it was partly how he felt about himself.
On the way to the grocery store he saw a few odd things: lines stretched down the sidewalk leading to such inauspicious places as a church and an elementary school. He hadn’t watched the news in a while, so he couldn’t explain it. At Safeway he saw a few little stickers on people’s sweaters and coats: “I Voted!”
Hm. Interesting. He’d never seen that before, especially in this type of neighborhood. Was it Obama? Was that really today? How could he have missed it?
When Mickey got home, at around 6:00, he found Tyler on the couch watching CNN. They were covering the election. Normally Tyler wasn’t here at this time of day, or, if he was, he was lying prone on the couch, turned away from him. Mickey had no idea how Tyler spent his days, but this was at least something like normal for once. It was encouraging. Mickey didn’t want to have to worry about him.
“What’s up, bro?” Tyler said.
“What’s up?” Mickey said.
“I had no idea this was election day.”
“Yeah? We’ve got a brother running this year.”
“You know what? I think he’s gonna win too.”
“No way in hell I want that Alaska bitch running things.”
“Did you vote?”
Mickey pointed to the sticker on his sweater.
“Oh, I see,” Tyler said, smiling, kind of shyly.
“I don’t even know if I’m registered.”
“Well, just one don’t count too much I guess.”
Mickey walked into the living room and looked at the TV. Wolf Blitzer was standing in front of what looked like a technologically sophisticated map. Indeed, the votes were starting to roll in. Polls had closed in a handful of Eastern states. So far Obama was in the lead.
“I’m making dinner,” Tyler said. “I bought a chicken that’s just done thawing. I see you don’t know how to take care of yourself either.”
“Man, the girl I’m seeing does all that for me.”
“What, at her place?”
“You don’t bring her around here?”
“Well… you know, only sometimes. I’m not sure I want to make you stressed out.”
Tyler didn’t know what to say. It had hardly even occurred to him yet to wonder if his brother was single. When he thought about it Mickey wasn’t here a lot of the time either. He knew why he was being handled with kid gloves. Mickey was a shift manager at the East Oakland Wal-Mart, making decent money. This was the first time he’d really engaged him for company. He’d been in Oakland for three weeks now.
Mickey went past him into his room to change out of his uniform.
Tyler turned the volume of the TV up so he could listen to it in the kitchen, where he went to work on the chicken, which he thought should be done thawing. He turned on the oven, then started boiling water to make rice in. He’d bought some produce too: broccoli, garlic, tomatoes, lettuce. It would be a full meal. When Mickey came into the kitchen he found a productive Tyler hard at work. He gave the scene a look-over, walked up to his brother and clapped him on the shoulder.
“Good to see you here, brother.”
“Just go watch the election. I’ve got things covered.”
Mickey clapped his shoulder again then walked past him into the living room. He sat on the couch and put his feet up on the coffee table. The couch smelled mildly of Tyler. He should tell him to use Ajax once a week. It was so hard not to walk on eggshells around him. Maybe this evening was a turning point. It had even crossed his mind a couple times that Tyler could be dangerous. He’d always been emotional, intensely so, and his time in Iraq might have weaponized this character trait. Must be quite a culture shock to say the least. The best thing would be to continue to see him even through this fear. If things got unbearable he would have to ask him to leave. Tyler seemed to have money, after all, but Mickey didn’t want it to come to that. He wanted to be there for him as much as he could without fucking up his own life. He only had so much space for drama. Tyler might not be aware, but Mickey was watching him closely.
He heard Tyler working in the kitchen.
“Ah shit,” he said. “We just won North Carolina.”
Tyler came into the doorway.
“Isn’t that in the South?”
“Wow, white folks voting for him too, huh?”
“Looks like it. Now that’s a nice thing, ain’t it?”
“Hm. Makes you think a little.”
Tyler went back to the kitchen. The rice was done. He brought the chicken out of the oven, basted it, then put it back in. It felt good to be busy, though, of course, the fear was always in the back of his mind. This, at least, he was doing right.
He thought a bit about Barack Obama. He’d never followed politics too closely, but the mere fact that a black man was favored to win was something to smile about. He’d been telling the truth when he’d told his brother that he didn’t know if he was registered. He supposed even the military he’d been a part of had no idea he was in Oakland. Too bad. It might’ve felt nice to pull the lever this time around. Maybe a new president would be able to do something about the economy, which, given enough time for Tyler to burn through his savings, might matter more to him too.
The chicken was almost done. He went to the fridge and got a bottle of Heineken (he’d bought a case of this at Safeway too). It took a bit of searching through the kitchen drawers to find a bottle opener. He employed it, tossed the cap, and took a long draught.
“You want a beer, Mickey?” he called out.
Tyler opened another and brought it into the living room, handed it to Mickey.
“You know,” Mickey was saying, “even a black president probably isn’t gonna be able to do much about the fix we’re in.”
“I was just thinking about that.”
“It would be hard to be worse than Bush though.”
Mickey found that he wanted to hold back a little. Did Tyler agree that they’d been in Iraq for absolutely no reason? Might be a sore subject.
Then, as if Tyler had read his mind: “I didn’t want us to be there either.”
Mickey looked up at him with an eyebrow raised.
“What?” Tyler said. “I know it was fucked.”
Mickey looked back at the TV, shaking his head.
“You think after 9/11 everyone didn’t want him to do something?”
“You mean start a war that had nothing to do with anything?”
Tyler scratched his temple.
“Honestly,” he said, “I tried not to think about it.”
“Man, I’m just glad you got out in one piece.”
“Sure was touch and go sometimes.”
“Was it?” Mickey asked, some care in his voice.
“Yes,” Tyler answered. “Sometimes.”
Mickey nodded. “Well, if you’d died there I never would’ve forgiven him.”
Tyler retreated back into the kitchen. He wasn’t sure how far he wanted to continue this conversation. But, all things considered, things between them probably could have seemed worse.
A short while later he took the chicken out of the oven.
“What do you want?” he called out. “Chicken? Thigh? Breast?”
“Give me a thigh,” Mickey answered.
“Rice and broccoli?”
“Yeah them too. Full court press, huh?”
“Full court press.”
Mickey came into the kitchen. Tyler finished his plate and handed it to his brother.
“And another beer while I’m at it,” Mickey said, opening the fridge and indulging.
“I’m meeting a friend later tonight,” Tyler said.
“I wish I’d been able to vote.”
“In California I don’t think it would matter that much anyway.”
“That’s probably true.
Tyler loaded his own plate, got his second beer, then followed Mickey back into the living room. Conversation between them died down as they sat down on the couch and watched the coverage. Of course it was too early to say, but things already looked optimistic.
The votes were being tallied across the country. At around 8:00 PM the major networks began to call it: Obama had won, a fresh face if nothing else, and a repudiation of the militaristic, religious conservatism of the Bush years. Oakland was in a celebratory mood. This cut across racial divides. For many it was the first time voting in their lives, and it felt good, like hope, which the Junior Illinois Senator had wished to cast himself as representing. He’d promised change. Would he deliver? For now that seemed almost beside the point. He was the change. The fact that so many whites had voted for him represented this. In these scary times at least one thing had gone right.
Jim had voted too, earlier in the day at an elementary school close to his house. It had gotten him up and about, no small feat these days. As time stretched on, along with the cover letters and adjusted resumés submitted, as the dollars in his bank account stagnated — he was mostly able to break even with his unemployment checks — along with his ambitions for his career, he found himself increasingly despondent and desperate for human contact, especially that of females, one of the unfortunate dichotomies of his decision, as he became less and less of a catch with each passing day. Laura in particular he couldn’t get out of his mind. He’d decided that the best way of getting to her, along with visiting her restaurant, was through the Fantastic Four. Maybe that’s why he’d reached out to Tyler, to keep all channels open. Tyler was a good looking guy, and his undeniable history of sacrifice painted him with something like a light of nobility. There was a danger about him too. Jim worried that Laura had recognized, and been intrigued by both these things. Maybe he represented some kind of challenge to both Jim and Laura. Jim, for one, wanted to prove he wasn’t afraid. So, when he arrived at Merchant’s just when Obama’s victory was being confirmed, it was perhaps with a less than companionable smile the he greeted Tyler after tapping him on the shoulder. Tyler, sitting at the bar, turned to face him.
“How’s it going?” asked Tyler.
“What’s up?” answered Jim. “What are you drinking? I’ll get next round. I guess there’s nowhere for me to sit, is there?”
“I guess not. I’m having Heineken.”
“Oh we can do better than that, can’t we? Come on buddy, it’s a celebration.”
“Well, I guess I’ll have what you’re having.”
“Two shots of whiskey it is.”
Jim wedged himself in between Tyler and his neighbor and produced a twenty. He held it out for the bartender. Tyler had had a smile on his face. For some reason, Jim decided he wanted to turn it into a frown. The two didn’t speak again until the whiskeys arrived.
“Well, here’s to Obama,” Jim said.
“Cheers to that.”
They nodded at each other and took the shots. Both coughed.
Jim heard laughter behind him and turned around. There were a couple young black men smiling. One of them looked at him, stepped forward and produced a hand. Jim found his mood briefly infectious, and clapped the man’s hand gladly.
“Some day, ain’t it?” the man said to Jim.
“Who would’ve thought voting could be so much fun?” Jim replied, making the man laugh some more before he turned back to his friend.
“Damn, who would’ve thought it?” Jim said to Tyler.
“I don’t know. I’ve never been greeted that way by a black man before.”
Tyler snorted a brief laugh and nodded. Even if Jim were a bit blunt about it, he had a point.
“I’ll get a Heineken too,” Jim said and took out some more money. “Let’s make this a night to remember.”
Tyler drank some more beer while his friend tried to get the bartender’s attention. So far, so good. He hadn’t freaked out in the closeness of the situation at all.
“So how you doing, man?” Jim asked. “What’s up with you?”
“I don’t know, I guess I’m okay.”
“Still adjusting to life state-side?”
“You could say that again.”
“Yeah, I can’t even imagine.”
Jim was bumped by someone behind him, but when he looked over his shoulder whoever it was had already moved on.
“Are you looking for work?” Jim asked.
“Not quite ready for that yet.”
“So you’re home but you’re not looking for work. What are you doing then?”
Tyler shrugged. “I spend a lot of time walking.”
“Oh, here and there. Oakland mostly I guess.”
“I can take care of myself.”
“A military man? I’m sure you can.”
Their eyes met briefly, and Tyler, of a sudden, for some reason sensed an ambush. Was there resentment in Jim’s eyes? He couldn’t imagine why.
“How bout you?” Tyler asked. “You okay?”
“Who? Me? Couldn’t be better.”
Jim let loose another smile.
“I mean, being unemployed sucks, but at least I’m not the only one.”
“Yeah. My life is boring too.”
“I’m gonna get a seven and seven. We should go play some pool.”
“Sounds good to me.”
Jim produced yet another bill and waited again. A few minutes later, both with drinks and Jim with several dollars of quarters, the two of them left the bar and made their way to the next room over, where the pool table was to be found. Merchant’s was a small dive of a place but was well-liked. It had been here ever since the Gold Rush. Jack London used to drink here. There was graffiti and miscellaneous wounds all over the walls. There was also a line at the pool table. The back room was almost as crowded as the bar had been. The mood of universal fraternity, black and white people happy to see each other, was a nice change of pace. Oakland could be such a menacing place when it wanted to be.
There was a line of quarters on the inside of the pool table’s curb. Jim put his quarters down. There were three games ahead of his and Tyler’s.
“Are you any good?” he asked Tyler.
“I’m not bad. They had a table at the base.”
“Cause we’re gonna have to win the table first if we want to play each other. Who do you think? You or me?”
“Can’t really say.”
“Well I’m not so bad myself. I guess it should be me.”
“Do what you feel.”
“I’ll put down another game for you. If I don’t win you’ll be next. If I win you’ll be next too. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”
Jim put down three more quarters.
“On the base. Does that mean Baghdad?”
“The Green Zone?”
“See? I know my business. I’ve been paying attention to it. Such a fucked up thing that happened.”
“I’m sure you don’t want to talk about it.”
“No more than I have to.”
“Well, no judgment here. I guess there’s worse things you could do with your life.”
Jim said this but didn’t strictly believe it. In fact he was hard pressed to think of such an example. He thought his tone of voice communicated as much. Tyler, for his part, thought his earlier suspicion of Jim’s unfriendliness was in fact bearing out. A silence came between them as they continued nursing their drinks. Both were beginning to feel the effects.
They watched the pool table. There were two hipster-looking white kids playing. Jim saw a good looking red head on the other side of the room. He wondered if this would be a good night for that kind of pursuit. He was afraid his unhappiness was too obvious. At least he had savings, but women, particularly young women, could be so cruel if they sensed weakness.
Jim realized a few moments later that he had been staring. The red head hadn’t noticed. Tyler was still quiet. Jim was afraid what might be said next. He should probably try to lighten the mood.
“It was fun having you all at my house the other week,” Jim said.
“It was. A blast from the past.”
“You want to do it again? At my place? I was thinking we could make a regular thing of it, whenever Cather’s not working.”
“Sure, I’m game.”
“I’m glad to get back in touch with everyone. I’ll make the phone calls tomorrow, just give me the go ahead. Cather works Thursdays through Sunday.”
“Have you ever heard him play?”
“I remember Laura said she was going to see him. He must be good.”
“It’s his passion. I remember that from when we were kids too.”
“Yeah. We weren’t very nice to him back then were we?”
Jim laughed. “No, I guess not. But look at us now, he’s the only one of us making money.”
“It was crazy running into him on the Greyhound.”
“One in a million.”
On the pool table one of the hipsters sunk the eight ball. There were now only two games ahead of them. The next contestant put his quarters into the table and racked the next game. The remaining hipster broke the rack and sunk a stripe ball. Jim watched as if hypnotized, and kept drinking. He wondered if the red head was going to play. She was with a couple of girl friends. Jim sighed at the thought of doing what he used to do at UC Berkeley, on Telegraph Avenue. A world away from where he was now.
“When my turn comes up we can play doubles,” Jim said.
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll wait my turn.”
“Patience. What a concept.”
Tyler looked at him, one eye-brow raised. There was a constant note of sardonicism in Jim’s voice, even when he paid compliments or seemed to attempt friendliness. Tyler supposed he wasn’t the only one going through difficult times.
“Did you have fun at my house?” Jim asked. It had just gotten loud in the back room. Jim was leaning in towards Tyler and talking into his ear.
“I did. I thought I said that already.”
“Cather stayed and played Halo with me and my roommates. Do you play video games?”
“Not at my brother’s house.”
“I guess it doesn’t compare to the real thing, does it?”
“Oh man, why do you have to talk about that?”
“Just making conversation.”
Jim sipped sulkily at his drink. Tyler found himself put on guard. He considered Jim again. If his brother could see the two of them socializing he probably would have been gratified, but he wouldn’t know what was going on in Tyler’s head. It seemed a fresh, relatable social challenge had emerged. Was he ready for it? The thought of the vision in the restaurant only a few days ago was still with him.
“Seriously, man,” Tyler went on. “I hate thinking about that shit.”
“Sorry brother. I didn’t mean anything by it. I’m just being a turd aren’t I?”
“You asking honestly?”
“No, I guess not, you don’t have to answer. It sucks being unemployed. And I thought I had the whole world at my feet.”
“Like you said, you’re not alone.”
“I guess not.”
Another silence came down as the pool table continued before them. The hipster was better than his challenger, a middle aged Mexican in a Raiders hoodie. Jim wondered if he would be able to take him. It had been many months since he’d played last. Maybe it would be a bad idea to provoke Tyler so obviously.
“I could’ve made that shot,” he said a few minutes later when the hipster missed sinking the eight ball.
He polished off the last of his drink.
“I’m going in for fourths,” he said to Tyler. “You want in?”
“I’m good, buddy.”
“Then I’ll see you in a moment. If it’s my turn tell them I’ll be back.”
“You’re not next.”
“Oh. Whatever. Watch my quarters I guess then.”
Jim pushed and shouldered his way through the crowd back to the bar. He was in a foul mood. He wished there was some way to get his aggression out. Some little kid to shove around or something. Doing that to Tyler probably wasn’t a good idea. He also didn’t want to ruin his prospects with the Fantastic Four. God, why did he always think of them like that? If he got too drunk tonight he would have to remind himself to sleep in his car rather than drive back home. When he came back to the pool table he found a stone-faced Tyler waiting for him.
The two stood near each other but didn’t exchange words. Jim was still drinking at a faster clip than Tyler, but both were becoming inebriated. Jim thought realistically at how Tyler was surely better at hand-to-hand combat than he was. There was, perhaps, some danger in this situation.
The players at the table kept on. The hipster was winning again. He lined up on the eight ball and sunk it handily. Jim came forward, having put his drink down on a table, clapping his hands.
“Great shot man, great shot. Now it’s my turn.”
“Those are your quarters?” asked the hipster diplomatically.
“Yup. My friend here’s up next. He was in the army. Be careful.” Tyler blinked but didn’t take the bait. Jim hadn’t turned towards him, as if hoping his little joke hadn’t registered.
The Mexican in the hoodie put down more quarters then retreated to the wall opposite Tyler. In the other room the general air of festivity was still apparent. They had a TV above the bar there and the talking heads were probably still analyzing the election results. Tyler wondered heatedly what he would remember about this night: the arrival of the first black president or the provocations Jim might send his way. He should try not to settle this matter with combat. Once upon a time they had actually been close friends. At the same time Jim, while racking the pool balls, was telling himself not to give Tyler any reason to strike him. A new game was developing between them. But to think of the way Jim had seen Laura looking at Tyler throughout their whole recent dinner.
The hipster broke the pool balls and sunk a solid. He was a pretty accomplished opponent, but Jim thought, hoped, that he could take him. Jim had played a lot while at UC Berkeley, often using the game as a way to focus on something besides his friends, the women around them, and the dynamics they put each other through. He really was something of a loner, always had been, and knew that his bad drunks could be sights to behold. He was reminding himself, as he proved victorious against the bearded hipster, that he didn’t want to embarrass himself in front of Tyler, that he wanted to see him again after this. He would have to turn himself around somehow, and resist his worst impulses.
The game didn’t last long. Jim won, and shook his opponent’s hand before going back to the table he and Tyler had staked out so he could take another drink.
Tyler walked past him, gathered his quarters, and racked the new set of balls. He had a stoney look on his face. Inside he was wondering how the night would turn out. He was on his fourth drink. Maybe he shouldn’t take another.
Jim set his hand on the table and angled the cue towards the one ball. He struck it and the game commenced. He didn’t sink any balls off the break. He stood back and watched Tyler circumnavigate the table. Tyler sank a stripe ball and then moved to the next. Jim drank some more. The two of them didn’t speak until the game was over. Jim won. When he did he came towards Tyler with a hand extended and what might have been an apologetic expression.
“Good game, man,” Jim said. “You want another? I’ve got more quarters, you’ll just have to wait.”
Tyler looked at his watch. It was 10:05.
“You really want to get fucked up tonight?” Tyler asked.
“I mean, I guess so. It’s not like I have anything to do tomorrow.”
“Me neither. How about I get the next round of drinks and you can put the quarters down. I’ll see how I feel, what, three games from now?”
“Three games from now? Yeah. Okay. I’ll do that. You just get the drinks. I want a seven and seven.”
Jim put on an unconvincing smile.
“I guess I’m not driving tonight,” he said.
“Me I’m always walking.”
Tyler turned away from him and navigated his way out of the back room. The bar was still packed. It took a while to get the drinks. After this one he would probably be pretty far gone. The thought was somewhat frightening. He didn’t know what to expect, either from himself or Jim. He wanted to have fun. Maybe if Laura were here things would be different. There were plenty of girls at the bar too, most of them white, but the concept of a romantic escapade seemed pretty unrealistic anyway. Just as usual since coming back to Oakland, he wasn’t in the right frame of mind.
He came back to the pool table and handed Jim his drink directly. Jim thanked him.
“Watch me take this guy,” Jim said, “he’s a push over.”
“I want another crack at it,” said Tyler.
“You a betting man?”
“If I can get through this guy and the next two. Wanna bet on it?”
“You gonna give me odds?”
“How about even? Five dollars? Make things interesting.”
Tyler regarded his opponent a moment, a bit sardonically, before extending his hand, which Jim shook dutifully.
“Watch this, man. I’m gonna run the table all night.”
“I’m probably gonna be a sorry sight in the morning.”
“That’s what mornings are for.”
Jim walked away.
That hadn’t been too painful, Tyler thought as he sat against the wall. Once upon a time they had been good friends. He decided he wished Cather were here. As true as it had been when they were younger, Jim always demanded attention.
The rest of the night became something of a blur. As it turned out Jim won the games he and Tyler had bet on and Tyler gave him five dollars. While they were playing their games Jim approached Tyler once, both of them now pretty far gone, and asked him if he thought Laura was pretty. Tyler said he did.
“Shit man, that makes two of us. We all have to get together again soon. Promise me you will. Promise me.”
“Yeah buddy, I promise.”
“We’re gonna work it out. You’ll see. We’ll all come to my house and have a good time. I’m serious.”
“I can tell you are.”
It was the last memory either of them had about election night at Merchant’s. Tyler walked home without losing his way, and Jim slept in his car. As expected, they both woke the next morning with significant hangovers. Now they both knew the other thought Laura was pretty. They should have known that was what had been screwing up their dynamic, that and their dissatisfaction with life in general. At least no blood had been drawn. Their adulthood friendship had endured, and, while neither could reasonably hope to predict what their next encounter might entail, it remained likely there would be one. Tomorrow was another day, after all.