Chapter 14: Odd Man Out

He would have had to be blind not to notice what was happening between Laura and Jim. She didn’t need to drive him home first. There might have been genuine chemistry in the way they looked at each other. At the same time she’d seemed to make a point of touching Tyler’s face affectionately, as if aware how far away from everyone he really was, her included, making him a lost cause. Maybe he should try to get a job, like Mickey had suggested, except who would hire him? Veterans were not known for their professional aptitudes, and might even be at a disadvantage, except as charity cases. Maybe Mickey could help him get a job at Wal-Mart. You couldn’t do much worse.

He stayed up another hour after Laura dropped him off, watching late night television: an hour with Jay Leno and then re-runs of M*A*S*H. After he clicked the television off he lay out on the couch and stared at the ceiling until sleep overtook him. Mickey woke him by accident in the morning. He got up and went into the kitchen where his brother was making coffee. He sat at the table.

“Can you make enough for me?” he asked.

“Sure thing brother.”

Tyler had a headache, and a bit of a hangover.

“Man, I think I got fucked up last night,” he said.

“You think?”

“I think. Judging by how I feel this morning.”

“What did you do?”

“Went out with some old friends. Saw some live music.”

“Sounds like fun.”

“It was, except I think I struck out.”

“There’s those two words again.”

Tyler laughed. “Man, I just wish I knew what I was doing with myself.”

Mickey’s toast popped up, and he spread some butter on them. With half an orange and the coffee Mickey had a complete breakfast. He poured a glass for Tyler, who took it gladly.

“You know you can stay here as long as you like, right?”

“I know. It’s just… everything’s so different now, here in Oakland. I don’t know what part I’m supposed to play.”

“For now you’re the recovering veteran who served his country. Can’t imagine the culture shock is easy.”

“It’s been three months.”

“Even so. This is what family’s for, and I can use the money you give me from the couch.”

“Maybe if I didn’t have so much saved up I’d be moving faster.”

“No one ever complains about having too much money.”

“I guess I just did.”

Mickey sighed and sat down at the table with his food. He started to eat and read the latest copy of Time, as he had a subscription.

Tyler sipped his coffee. He didn’t know what else to talk about. For some reason he thought briefly of the gun he’d bought. Why had he done that? And why was he thinking about it now?

He got up and went to the cupboard and poured himself some cereal.He felt sluggish. What would he do with himself all day?

“Maybe you should get a laptop so you can look for work,” Mickey said without provocation.

Tyler hung his head. Mickey said his patience was limitless, but a statement like that only demanded to be proven wrong.

He got the milk out of the fridge and finished preparing his cereal, took it back to the table and started to eat. It wasn’t a terrible idea.

“You have internet here?” he asked.

“Of course I do. It’s the twenty-first century buddy.”

“Not in Iraq it wasn’t,” he pointed out.

“Really? They don’t have calendars in the Middle East?”

“I wouldn’t know, I just killed them, I didn’t talk to them.”

“Oh boy. I’m almost done here.”

Mickey turned the pages of the magazine, wondering if he was going too far in making light of Tyler’s sorry present state. Of course he had no idea what his brother had been through, but he wouldn’t be a friend to him by coddling him. At least that’s what he sometimes told himself.

A few minutes later he’d finished his breakfast and he took his dishes to the sink and washed them. He walked past poorly brooding Tyler, said goodbye, and made for the front door.

A laptop really was a good idea, Tyler thought. How to even go about finding a store that sells them? There was a used computer store on Grand Ave., Tyler has seen it on one of his perambulations. There were worse ways he could spend his day. He had about $28,000 left in his bank account, spending so far about $1,500 a month. When he left the house he took his backpack with him. Perhaps it was finally time to try to re-engage the world of the living. Sometimes he still saw things that he didn’t believe were real. When had been the last time? It took him a moment to recall: a woman on Broadway in a Taliban burkha, but he supposed there must be some of those in the Bay Area too, after all it was a very diverse place. The figure had been boarding a bus. She must have known she stood out. At least he hadn’t had a panic attack in a while, and only saw the faces of those he’d murdered in his nightmares. It’s safe to say he was afraid of that which he was capable, maybe even a tendency towards violence to relieve petty every-day frustrations. Maybe that’s why he’d let Jim take Laura without putting up a fight. Maybe he shouldn’t give up so easily, but what would the alternative look like? Anyway, the day was young. Picking up a laptop was a perfectly serviceable idea.

After he left the house, on his walk, he imagined taking Laura to a hotel, how she might smile at him, might encourage him, might give him her body. It had been a long time since he’d seen one of those, a female’s. Yet he found he wasn’t angry at Jim, it was just that Tyler didn’t trust his own post-war social abilities well enough to win the girl away without betraying his inadequacies. Considering it, as he walked, it became something like a new challenge, but, certainly, not without its dangers. When you think about it, though, isn’t that what everyone thinks about romantic dalliances? What they may or may not reveal about their participants? Still, he believed it safe to say that in his situation the stakes were higher. After all he was a killer. He was afraid to be himself, to lose self control. He would always be apart from those who hadn’t been to Iraq, and maybe even from many of those who had. And why had he bought that gun? As if to tempt fate to put his fears to the test: what, if the worst disappointments of life came to be true, was he really capable of?

It was a chilly, gloomy day. Pedestrian and auto traffic were relatively thick. Lake Merritt, termed Oakland’s “Crown Jewel,” was as scenic as ever. It was always nice to look across it while traversing its concrete shore. The city seemed to be constantly at work beautifying it, adding foliage, new paving, new benches. It was also called, by some, the “lake of a thousand smells.” This appellation too was warranted, located as it was in the center of a busy city, and fed by several unhealthy waterways.

Before long Tyler had reached Grand Avenue, and only a block later he came to the used computer store. He spent a while browsing its shelves of parts and accessories. Eventually he decided to speak with a sales associate about purchasing the right kind of laptop for his purposes. Music? Gaming? Portability? Programing? What was Tyler’s poison? He decided that the ability to play video games wouldn’t be unwelcome, as would be portability, so nothing too bulky. He ended up spending a shade over $1200, which included a mouse and a couple primitive speakers. He put his new purchases in his backpack and left. He’d heard before of the benefits of retail therapy. It felt like he’d just made an important decision, taken another step in the direction of the living. Next stop was a determined effort towards securing employment, recession be damned.

He found an internet café on Lakeshore Avenue, bought a cup of coffee, and staked out a table by the windows. He had never owned a computer before. It’s safe to say he was perplexed. The laptop asked if he was the sole owner, and if he wanted to create a profile with a password that only he would know. He thought this was unnecessary and potentially hazardous, as he could be quite forgetful, so he delayed taking that step. When he got to the landing page — what the salesman had called “the desktop” — he saw an icon in the top left corner that said “hard drive,” and a string of shapes at the bottom of the screen that got bigger when he passed the mouse cursor over them and shrank back to normal size afterwards. He remembered the salesman had called these “applications.” Beyond that he was completely clueless. Maybe he should take a class or something. He hadn’t realized until then how much he didn’t know. He’d been overseas a long time, after all.

He closed the laptop and left the café, telling himself this was but the first step in a long journey. He would ask Mickey to help him when he got home from work, at least in getting on the internet and searching for a class he could take. There was no rush. A few months from now he’d be submitting resumés and playing video games with the best of them. Except he didn’t exactly have any work experience. Well, one difficulty at a time.

Instead of returning straight home he went to the Safeway on East 18th. His foggy mood had only briefly lifted, and he had no way to pass the time. He bought a bottle of Jack Daniels. He didn’t know when Mickey would be home, and he didn’t want his brother to find him drunk on the couch, so he took the bottle, and a can of Coke, to the Lake. He found an empty bench so he could look out over the water, and he started to get drunk. He took the laptop out of his backpack and went over the applications while he did this. Something called “Safari.” He remembered that the salesman had singled this shape out in particular. That was how you got on the internet. But, of course, he was no longer in the internet café, so it was useless to him.

One step at a time, he kept telling himself.

He sat on the bench another couple hours. It was comfortable and the view was nice. The bottle of Jack Daniels was safely concealed in a paper bag.

Eventually he decided to go home. He wasn’t as drunk as he could be. Once he learned to use the laptop he would be unstoppable. He kept telling himself this too.

When he got back to Mickey’s house he sat on the couch and turned on the TV. He hid the bottle of Jack in his luggage, then he went to the bathroom and brushed his teeth to conceal the smell. Then he went back to the couch and watched CNN. Before long he’d drifted off into a mid-day drunk nap. Tomorrow, he promised himself, would be another day.

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