Jim’s day began and continued mostly as had those previous since he’d lost his job. It was early December. He’d been unemployed for two and a half months. He woke up, ate a simple breakfast, and looked for a job posting he thought might be compatible with his scant work experience and, his ace in the hole, his degree from Berkeley. It usually took about an hour to customize his resumé and bang out a cover letter. He wasn’t always able to accomplish this; probably about four out of every five days. There wasn’t much more he could do. At least he had savings. He got $350 a week in unemployment. Mostly he was breaking even. But this day was a little different, because the whole crew was coming over to his place again. It was something to look forward to anyway.
After he’d finished his job hunting routine he went into the living room and played Halo. He spent most the rest of the day doing this, then realized he didn’t know what he was going to make for dinner. He decided he would get a couple deep dish pizzas from Zachary’s, and a case of beer from Safeway. While he tried not to wish it, to call himself stir crazy would be an understatement. Still, he liked playing host. Zachary’s was much beloved Oakland institution. He was sure their pizzas would be well-received, but he would have to pick them up himself, as the restaurant didn’t deliver.
He made the call at 5:00 PM, then got in his car and drove to the Safeway in Emeryville. He braved the rush hour, which came with irritatingly lengthy lines, and decided on a case of Anchor Steam white ale. Cather said he would bring liquor, so this would be plenty. After he bought the beer he drove to Zachary’s, arriving at about 5:45, and picked up the pizzas with little inconvenience. He’d heard this advice from the adults: don’t be afraid to treat yourself. This evening’s dinner would probably qualify as that. He hoped his unhappiness wouldn’t show as much as it had the last time he’d seen Tyler, but there wasn’t much he could do about that.
No one else in the Fantastic Four knew, but this reunion had been Tyler’s idea. He’d texted Cather, who’d texted Laura, who’d texted Jim, who’d texted all three of them back to confirm his house as hosting place once again. Mostly Tyler had wanted to set up a day to see Laura, who he’d reached out to about ten days earlier, but hadn’t heard back from yet, except for, yesterday, a mysterious heart emoji text followed by the words “It will be good to see you.” If he played his cards right he might be able to set something in concrete with her. He believed Jim represented competition. There was no telling how things might play out.
Tyler was the first to arrive, at around 6:00. He knocked on the door, and Jim answered.
“What’s up, buddy?” Jim said, allowing him entrance.
“Hey Jim, how’s it going?”
“I’d complain, but who would listen?”
“You want a beer? I bought Anchor Steam. You sit on the couch and I’ll get you one.”
Tyler did as directed. The PBS Newshour was playing on the television. They were discussing the country’s worsening employment situation. No surprises there.
“I’ve even got beer cookies,” he heard Jim call from the kitchen.
“Yeah, one of those.”
Jim came into the living room.
“I don’t know how fucked up we’re all gonna get, but I’d advise you take it easy until we finish dinner.”
Jim handed Tyler the beer.
“What we eating?” Tyler asked.
“I picked up some pizzas from Zachary’s.”
“Oo, I love Zachary’s.”
“I don’t think there’s a solitary soul that doesn’t.”
Jim sat in the easy chair, nursing his own beer. On the TV they were even especially focused on California, which, if the news was to believed, was getting some of the worst out of the recession in the country.
“I wish they’d talk about Oakland,” Tyler said.
“I don’t know, it seems pretty rough out there. There’s this building on 14th Street that they haven’t finished yet. The builder went bankrupt or something. It’s half-finished, covered in bubble wrap. You have to drive in the middle of the street because of it.”
“You have a car now?”
“No, my brother’s. It’s just an example.”
“You’re probably right, but I bet there are plenty of places that wish someone would notice them.”
“You’re probably right too.”
A few minutes later there was another knock on the door. Jim went to receive it. It was Laura.
“Hey Jimbo,” she said with a smile. Jim was momentarily immobilized.
“Hey to you too,” he said and stood there.
“You gonna let me in?” she asked.
“Yeah, come on in. Tyler just got here.”
She came into his house. Tyler raised a hand in greeting.
“Hey Laura, nice to see you,” he said. “Jim’s got us Zachary’s.”
“You mean the pizza?” she asked.
“I do,” Jim said.
“That’s gonna hit the spot. I’d assumed you were cooking again.”
“The day got away from me. I’m going fucking stir crazy in this house. It was nice to pry my own ass off the couch for once.”
“You want me to reimburse you any?”
“Of course not, don’t worry about it. Just sit there and I’ll get you a beer if you want one.”
“I do. And I will sit there. If you didn’t want to stay at your house we could have had it elsewhere.”
“Yeah? Like your house?”
“No, mine’s not big enough. It was just a thought.”
“I don’t think anyone else’s place would’ve been enough room. You should see where Cather’s living. Ghetto as fuck.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right. If anything else we’ll help you pass the time, right?” Laura said.
“Yep, right as rain.” He took Laura’s arm and led her to the couch, where she allowed herself to be sat. He couldn’t help but look at Tyler while he did this: there was tension in his face, perhaps because Laura was sitting next to him. Too early to tell how things might turn out, was Jim’s confirmed impression. He went back into the kitchen and came back with Laura’s beer, then went back to his chair. The three watched the television the next little while in silence. After the segment on California’s unemployment crisis was done they proceeded to a bit by one of their science correspondents who’d recently lost his arm in an accident. The story concerned his own efforts to adjust to his injury. There was something genuinely tragic about it.
“Misery loves company, doesn’t it?” said Tyler, cryptically.
“I’d hate to be my own best story,” said Laura.
“At least we’re all still friends,” Jim agreed.
“Once Cather gets here,” said Laura.
“Of course. Once Cather gets here.”
It was only a few minutes later that there was another knock on Jim’s door. He stood up to go answer it.
“Please,” said Laura, standing up herself, “allow me.”
“By all means,” Jim proffered and sat down, waving her forward.
Laura crossed the living room and opened the door to find Cather standing there with his bike.
“Sorry I’m late. My chain broke a few blocks ago, I had to walk.”
“Oh, that’s why. I thought you didn’t like us.”
“You know you all have a special place in my heart.”
Laura stood back and Cather wheeled his bike into Jim’s house and left it in the entryway.
“I think I’ll need a ride tonight,” he said.
“We’ve been waiting for you,” said Jim.
“Yeah, I don’t know if you heard me but my chain broke. I’ll have to take it in tomorrow.”
“Come on, Tyler, let’s eat,” said Jim, heading towards the kitchen.
Tyler followed him, as did Laura and Cather. The places at the dining room table were set, and the two pizza boxes were in the center.
“You want a beer, right, Cather?” Jim called back.
“Anchor Steam,” Jim declared, coming back from the kitchen and handing Cather a bottle. “God do I want to let off some proverbial steam myself tonight. I’ve been bored out of my mind in this damn house.”
“I’ve been practicing all day. I bought an electric piano for my house,” Cather said.
“Is that better than a keyboard?” Jim asked.
“Yeah, it’s like a piano, weighted keys and all, with peddles. It sounds great, I’ve been saving up for one pretty much since I arrived.”
“You can actually save? Lucky you.”
“My rent’s cheap. I get a hundred bucks each night I play at the restaurant, so that’s four hundred a week. I’ve been staying after closing so I could practice. BART’s closed when I’m done, so I have to take the bus back home.”
“Sounds like a pain in the ass.”
“But no more. Onward and upward.”
“Have a seat you silly bastard.”
Cather smiled and did as he was bid.
“Eat as much as you can,” said Jim. “I’m pretty sure I’ve got plenty.”
The four of them tucked in. There was something of a frown on Tyler’s face, Laura noticed, and he was quiet. Certainly didn’t look as happy as he had when she’d known him in high school. She thought of his text messages. Now to see their emotional context she might have to conclude that their air of cheeriness was forced. She wasn’t sure how she felt about this. She’d somewhat looked forward to seeing him.
Briefly her mind turned to Alan. What would he think to see her here?
The conversation around the table mostly circled the biggest perils of the day, which all of them, except maybe Cather, were experiencing in some way or another. That is unemployment, Barack Obama’s victory and coming coronation, and the general feeling of malaise endemic to Oakland and the Bay Area at present. It was relief for each of them to be around friends. There did seem something in this group that demonstrated staying power.
Each had at least two slices of the deep dish pizzas, and several beers, and were thusly satisfied. Jim brought out a bottle of rum next and asked if they wanted any.
“I’m not sure,” said Laura. “That would sure do the trick, wouldn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Cather agreed. “Let’s think of something else.”
“Something not involving alcohol?”
“Didn’t you say how stir crazy you are? What about we see some music?”
“How do you see music?” Jim asked.
“We look on the computer and see if anyone good’s playing tonight. You know, live music? Like with a band?”
“Hm, that’s a great idea,” said Jim.
“Yeah. Bust out the laptop and let’s take a look.”
“Tyler, what do you think?” Laura asked.
“Sure, I guess so.”
“See?” said Jim. “A rousing endorsement.”
He went into his room and came back shortly.
“Is there a website or something?” he asked Cather, moving his plate and putting the laptop down in front of him.
“Yeah. Let me check. You never know, but there’s almost always somebody.”
“You know what to look for?”
“Yeah. And if there’s anyone I know all the better.”
“I guess you probably know a lot about the music scene,” said Laura.
“You guess right. It’s kind of my job after all. Gotta keep up on the competition.”
He opened Safari and began to peruse. Jim moved a chair closer to him and watched over his shoulder.
“Someone’s gonna have to drive,” Tyler said helpfully.
“I can do that,” said Laura. “I’ll drive everyone home afterwards.”
“Can I fit my bike in it?” asked Cather.
“If you take the wheel off.”
“Thanks, you’re a lifesaver.”
“East Bay Express,” said Jim. “Good idea.”
“It being Wednesday and all, who’s to say?” said Cather, but then, only a moment later: “Hey, I found something. Any of you ever heard of the Devil Makes Three?”
A collective shaking of heads.
“They’re kind of a folk group. They’re from Santa Cruz. They’re really good, they’ve got crazy chops.”
“Where are they playing?” asked Laura.
“The New Parrish, Uptown.”
“When do they go on?”
“Shit, half an hour. We’ve gotta leave right now.”
“Better put the rum away, huh?” said Jim.
“Yeah. You guys game?”
“Works for me,” said Laura.
“Yeah, me too,” said Tyler.
“Better call ahead and reserve our tickets,” said Cather.
“Say no more,” said Jim, who already had his phone out. He entered the number and put the phone to his ear while he took his laptop back to his room and got a hoodie, his wallet, and his keys.
“Get your shit together, Jim,” he heard Cather say. “Let’s head out.”
“I know. I’m calling them.”
The will call attendant answered the phone and Jim reserved four tickets. He came back into the rest of the house.
The other three were standing in the living room waiting for him. He couldn’t help but notice Tyler’s ghost-like countenance. He patted him on the shoulder as he went past. Now he could tell Tyler’s mood better: Finally, someone worse off than he himself.
Laura’s car, a beat up old BMW, was parked down the street. Cather rolled his bike with him, took off the wheel and, after Laura opened the trunk, stuck it in. Jim made a point of sitting in the passenger seat, while Cather and Tyler shared the back.
The drive downtown (Uptown was a neighborhood known for its art galleries and nightlife, just North of downtown), was routine and mostly bare of conversation. When they crossed Grand Avenue Tyler told Laura to start looking for parking. She found a spot some three blocks from the New Parrish. They arrived with some five minutes to spare, bought their tickets, and entered without incident.
The floor was crowded. While there were a few tables with chairs at the periphery, most of these were occupied.
Tyler decided to make for the bar. He planned on getting good and wasted tonight. He was disappointed in himself for his poor mood. It seemed no matter how hard he tried he couldn’t shake a general feeling of emotional weight. Once upon a time he’d had a good sense of humor. Maybe he should try to find a job (good luck with that), if only to lend his life some structure. Anyways, he’d felt completely inept at engaging Laura in conversation.
He bought a mixed drink then found a chair. It shared a table with two other chairs, both of which were occupied, one by a young black man, one by a young white girl. He raised his glass to them and tried to put on a smile. They acknowledged his greeting. A few minutes later, when the band took the stage, they stood up and left Tyler solitary, which was something of a relief. He tucked into his drink and watched. Since the floor was several feet removed from his table he had a clear line of sight at the musicians. When they began to play he was not disappointed. Of course Cather would have good taste. He’d always been gifted with such. Since it was mostly fast-paced nouveau blue grass it wasn’t much to dance to. Tyler didn’t think he was missing anything by sitting down.
The other three navigated through the crowd and got as close to the stage as they could while keeping each other in sight. At one point Laura noticed Cather looking around, and she realized along with him that Tyler wasn’t with them. She and Cather made eye contact, a mutual understanding between them, and Cather shrugged and smiled wryly before turning back to the band, which was beginning its first song. There was only so much they could do, Cather’s attitude seemed to communicate.
The music was good. Fast-paced, insightful lyrics, strong instrumentals. Jim was standing near to Laura. He seemed to gravitate towards her, and she didn’t exactly discourage him. She’d always thought he had a thing for her. It was one of the reasons their group had always been interesting. While she decided that she might as well have some fun, flirt a little, she also kept thinking about Tyler. She was afraid she might hurt him, though such a development might by unavoidable, particularly considering how little of himself he’d offered the rest of them this night.
The Devil Makes Three was on their third or fourth song when Jim leaned towards her and asked, into her ear, “Do you like it?”
She nodded. “I do,” she said loud enough for him to hear.
“I’m gonna get a CD and get it signed once this is over.”
“I’ll get you one too if you want.”
“Maybe I’ll get one myself.”
“A girl after my own heart.”
“You wonder how Cather heard of them.”
“I don’t know, he’s a musician.”
“I’ll get him a CD too.”
“Unless he has them already.”
“Don’t spoil the surprise.”
Laura laughed a little. “No, I won’t.”
Then Jim finally seemed to wonder what Laura and Cather already had: He looked around, over his shoulder and over Cather’s: “Where’s Tyler?” he said.
Laura shrugged, somewhat unhappily. Jim, too, looked like he now had something to think about. But fuck it, he couldn’t worry about Tyler. Jim had to have fun tonight, as it was the first time in quite a while that he’d had the opportunity for any. He wanted to let off some steam, and see where things went with Laura. So far, in both directions, the gods were smiling on him.
They all listened to the music and moved their bodies to it. After about forty-five minutes the first set concluded, and the band said they would be back momentarily. Jim chose this opportunity to make for the bar, though, unfortunately, so did the rest of the audience. He lost track of Laura and Cather completely, though he’d told Laura he was getting her a drink. She hadn’t exactly endorsed the idea, but he thought maybe he could force it on her if he didn’t leave her any other recourse. If not, then two drinks for him, or he’d let one off on Cather. Together with the beers earlier he was on a pretty decent bender, but not so much as to lose his self-control. He wanted to be on his game tonight, no matter how long it lasted.
Tyler was on his second drink and still had his table. He was surprised during the intermission, when Laura, sweating in a t-shirt, materialized at his side.
“There you are,” she said. “Enjoying it?”
“Yeah,” he replied.
“Can you hold my sweater?” she said, offering him a blue UC Berkeley hoodie.
“Sure. I’ll keep the table.”
“Do you like it?”
“Oh, I guess I asked you that already. You sure you don’t want to come into the crowd? It’s fun.”
Tyler shook his head slightly, though seemed perhaps confused at why he was. “I’ll guard your sweater,” he said.
“We’re all thinking about you, Tyler,” she said. “We want you to have fun.”
Tyler didn’t know how to answer. He definitely appreciated the sentiment, and felt a little pang in his heart, but the fact that it had to be explained to him… Nothing he wasn’t aware of already.
“I’m gonna go find Cather. We’ll see you once it’s over I guess,” said Laura.
“Thanks Laura. I’m having fun. Really.”
She winked at him, reached out and tousled his hair, touched the side of his face, and then went back into the crowd. Tyler found himself smiling. He continued to drink, and when the band came back on he watched with some satisfaction. It really was a pretty solid little group of friends, wasn’t it?
Laura made her way nearer to the stage than she had been earlier, though she was without either Jim or Cather. She kept trying to make eye contact with the band members, particularly the lead singer, but she didn’t have any luck. A few minutes into it she felt a tap on her shoulder. It was Jim.
“You want?” he asked, holding up a mixed drink. “I bought too many.”
She shook her head and looked back at the stage.
Jim looked around, but didn’t see Cather either. He realized he was standing at something of a crossroads: should he risk the fortunes of this friendship by pursuing Laura aggressively? It would be a gamble, and might ruin the environment for everyone else. But she wasn’t exactly turning him down, and he didn’t exactly know where else he might seek romance, his life being what it was. And he’d always found her pretty, and perhaps especially so tonight. Anyways, he admired her for keeping her inebriation under control, along with herself. Now he had a whole drink that he had no use for. Damn you, Cather, he thought.
He leaned toward her again.
“I’m gonna give this to Tyler,” he said. “You don’t mind, do you?”
She looked him in the eyes. “That’s a good idea.”
“I might try to find you after. Don’t move around too much.”
Laura nodded. Jim didn’t think he was fooling himself to believe there was something between them that was as yet unsaid. The night, he thought, was still young. For now it was probably best not to show his cards. He found Tyler sitting at the table he’d been at earlier. He looked sad, uninticing, but he understood wordlessly Jim’s offering of the drink. He accepted it and put it on the table next to his other one.
Looking at him for a moment, Jim decided the table was as good a place as any to pass the rest of the night. Give Laura her space, see what she does with it. Neither he nor Tyler sought to engage the other in conversation. About half an hour later the music was done. At least that’s what the band said, but, thanks to an uproarious send off from the audience, they came back for an encore. They played a song that Cather, elsewhere in the crowd, knew well: “St. James Infirmary.” It was a New Orleans song originally, about death and romance, and The Devil Makes Three did it justice. “Let her search the whole wide world over knowing she’ll never find a man as sweet as me,” the protagonist sings to his beloved as she lies dead on an operating table. “Thirteen men going down to that old graveyard, only twelve of them men coming back.” After this song was done the applause was even louder. Now it really was time to leave. As the crowd started to disperse Cather came across Laura, took her hand and led her to Jim and Tyler. She stood next to Jim. He looked up at her and saw she was looking at Tyler.
“Ready to go?” Jim asked.
“Let me finish this real quick,” said Tyler, who was holding a beer. He knocked it back handily. “God I’ve got a walk ahead of me,” he said.
“Come on, I’ll drive you,” said Laura. “Come on, let’s go.”
She motioned for the group to follow her and the four of them waded through the crowd towards the exit. It wasn’t until they were outside that Jim realized he hadn’t bought the CD he had planned on. Too late now. He kept looking at Laura, and caught her eye a few times. She seemed so in control of herself. Was it fair to say he’d started the process? He wasn’t sure. It was a pleasant evening, winter but with no need for more than a warm sweater. When they reached her car, it was Jim who took the passenger seat again.
“Where do you live?” she asked Tyler.
“6th Ave. and East 18th,” he answered.
“I live on Myrtle and 17th,” Cather said helpfully. “You should probably drop me off first.”
“Sounds good,” she said, and pulled out of her parking space.
She knew Oakland like the back of her hand, and didn’t need directions to Cather’s house. After he got out of the car he looked back in through the window and said: “This was really fun, guys. I’m glad we’re getting together. Let’s not make it for the last time.”
“Of course not,” said Jim, wondering how obvious his designs were. If she didn’t want to he wouldn’t make a fool of himself.
“Bye Cather,” said Laura.
Tyler reached across the car to the window and shook Cather’s hand. Cather smiled at him.
“See you later,” he said, then left and walked to his front door and went inside.
“6th Ave., you said?” said Laura.
“That’s right,” said Tyler.
“You see how kind she is?” said Jim. “Driving you all the way across the lake. What a friend, huh?”
“Yeah, she knows I appreciate it,” he said.
“I thought you’d been walking everywhere,” Laura joined in. “What’s the good of having a car if you don’t drive people around from time to time?”
She knew Jim was looking at her. It probably would have been faster to take him home first, and he probably knew that. Maybe Tyler did too. Oh well, let’s see what’ll happen, she thought. It wasn’t as if she were saving herself for anyone in particular. She hadn’t spoken to Alan in several days now. He probably would have been none too happy to see her driving her friends home in the middle of the night.
There wasn’t much conversation as Laura crossed Lake Merritt’s South bank and came to East Lake. She took a right on International Boulevard, then a left on East 18th.
“This is you?” she said, as Tyler still hadn’t indicated.
“Yeah, the house on the corner.”
She pulled to a stop and turned to face him in the back, moving her body toward Jim.
“Don’t be a stranger, okay?” she said. “Come into the restaurant. I’ll get you free coffee.”
“Okay,” Tyler said, and it was impossible for Laura not to notice that he was morose. He wasn’t blind, apparently, she thought to herself. Poor guy’s not adjusted to civilian life yet. That had to be it.
“Well, goodbye,” he said to them both, then got out of the car.
“Bye Tyler. Take care, okay?” said Jim, but he received no answer. Soon Tyler was inside his house, leaving Jim and Laura alone.
“You’re last, buddy,” she said. “All the way to North Oakland.”
“No one’s twisting your arm.”
“Hey, talk like that will have you walking.”
“I’m just kidding with you. You know you’re awesome.”
Laura laughed, a wonderful sound. There was a median in the corner of 6th Ave. so she had to take a right onto East 19th, then another right on East 18th. From there it was circumnavigating Lake Merritt to Telegraph Ave., then down Shattuck Ave.
Jim didn’t know what to say. He was pretty sure the stars were lining up in his favor, but Laura was silent. Oh how a little physical dalliance might do him well. And maybe her too. He came across something to ask:
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
It came out of the blue, with no rejoinder, and Laura found herself surprised.
“Who’s asking?” she answered.
They were on the corner of Shattuck and 51st Street, an intersection that led to a freeway, so had a long traffic light wait.
“I don’t know,” she said, honestly. “I’ve been seeing someone but we might be outgrowing each other.”
“I hate how that works.”
“It’s always different, with everyone, you know?”
“Depends on a lot of outside factors. I wish I had the money to hold down someone all for myself.”
“You had a good job for a while, didn’t you?”
“And, God willing, I might some day again. Not too much of a catch at the moment, but for those generous souls that want to treat me right I’d be sure to try to return the favor.”
“I fucking hate the restaurant I work at,” she said.
“I like that I can go see you there whenever I want.”
“Oh bully for you.”
“I’m just kidding. You know I’m kidding.”
“Yes, Jim. I know you’re kidding.”
The light changed and Laura’s car crossed 51st Street. Jim lived on 62nd Street. They reached his house a short while later.
She pulled to a stop in front, and Jim was gratified to see her turn towards him, interested, and available. He felt giddiness in his chest when he said: “Do you want to come in?”
She felt the giddiness too. Until this moment she hadn’t been sure how she would answer such a question should it come to her. Time for some quick thinking.
“I guess I do,” came out of her mouth.
Jim touched her shoulder.
“There’s a parking space right there,” he said, pointing, and sounding relieved.
“You’re more observant than I,” Laura said, and put her mind back to driving. It required a sophisticated parallel parking maneuver that took a little more effort than she would have liked. Then she looked at him again, and Jim could see this wasn’t an unhealthy night between them, though, of course, the fallout from such an episode, if that’s what it was, could never be predicted.
They got out of the car at just about the same time and Jim followed her up the walk to his front door, opened the door for her and followed her in.
“I’m gonna guess you don’t want any more beer, right?” he asked.
“Yes, I think the time for beer has passed.”
“Something more romantic? Yeah. How about a glass of wine? My roommate’s got a bottle in the kitchen, I’ll reimburse him.”
“Red wine sounds great.”
She sat on the couch and put her feet up on the coffee table. The rest of the house was dark and quiet. It was 11:30 PM.
Jim came back just a little while later with two glasses and a dark green wine bottle. He sat down on the couch next to her and poured. She took the glass he offered her, but before she could put it to her mouth Jim stopped her.
“To us. To the Fantastic Four,” he said, holding forth his glass.
“Ha, you call us that too, huh?”
“I think we all really need each other in these difficult times.”
“I think you’re onto something.”
They clinked glasses and drank.
“I hate to admit it,” Jim continued, “but I’m pretty famished for some basic human affection.”
Laura was still smiling. With her long blonde hair and big blue eyes she appeared to Jim positively angelic. Things were still going well. Before either of them could think otherwise they’d put down their glasses on the coffee table, moved towards each other, and embraced. Soon they were kissing. A little while later Jim took her into his room. It was the most fun either of them had had in quite some time.