Chapter 19: The Beginning of the End

It had been over a month since the four of them had gone to the New Parrish, and while none of the rest of them had interacted, Jim and Laura had seen a lot of each other. He went to her restaurant regularly. Once he’d seen Tyler there, but hadn’t approached him, had instead taken a table in another waitresses’ section. He saw Laura on his way out, and he knew that the expression on his face was one of diffidence. He’d called her that night though, and they’d seen each other the next day. Sometimes he came to her place, and sometimes she came to his. They got along well, but Jim couldn’t shake the feeling that he wasn’t receiving her in all her totality, that there was something she kept out. That was why it was this time his idea to have the Fantastic Four back at his house, to try to sniff out if his suspicion was correct. He’d texted Cather and Jim, and had been at Laura’s apartment the night before. He’d told her his idea while they were lying in bed with the lights out.

“Sounds fine to me,” she said.

“You don’t mind seeing all the brutish guys again?”

“Speak for yourself,” she teased.

“I’m wondering about Tyler. I hope he’s adjusted better since we’ve seen him last.”

“Only one way to find out.”

With this she rolled onto her side and terminated the conversation. Jim looked at her backside and wondered a moment at a petulant attempt to continue the conversation. But what would be the point? He wouldn’t learn anything that way. At least she seemed to enjoy his company. Maybe if he had a steady job things would be different, would furnish him with the upper hand, but there wasn’t much he could do about that, try as he did, every day.

He got out of bed and went into her living room and turned on the TV. He watched Cartoon Network. For some reason he didn’t feel like sleeping. In truth he was nervous about what would happen when they all came to his house the next day. He might discover facts that wouldn’t appeal to him. But you can’t gain anything without risking something, so he felt resolved in his plan. Maybe he would fall asleep on her couch just to prove a point. Nothing lasts forever, after all.

At around 11:30 he received a text from Cather:

“Sorry Jim, I can’t make it tomorrow. I’m trying to put a band together and I’m meeting with someone. Count me down for next time.”

“Too bad buddy. Good luck with your musical endeavors,” Jim replied, then he stood up and went back into Laura’s bedroom. He got into bed next to her. Sleep took its time to reach him. When it did he experienced dreams he didn’t remember in the morning, when Laura’s alarm clock woke him.

They had breakfast and coffee together, then left her building together.

“Bye sweetheart,” Laura said to him, giving him a hug and a kiss on the cheek. “See you in a few hours.”

“Cather’s not gonna make it. Apparently he’s trying to put a band together or something.”

“Just the three of us then. It’ll be fun. You’ve got a good house for meet and greets.”

“Make that money, honey,” Jim said, gave her a smile, and walked away. His car was parked down the block. He got in, pulled out onto Alice Street, took a right on 14th, and was soon back home. He wished somehow to dispel this lingering sense of hollowness. Searching Craigslist for his daily cover letter resume combo surely wouldn’t do it. Maybe seeing his love and Tyler that night would accomplish something. Truth is he was anxious about it, afraid that his worst fears would be realized.

He received a text from Tyler at around noon:

“Sure, sounds like fun. I’ll be there at around 7:00.”

“Works for me. See you in a few.”

He tossed his phone onto his bed, opened his laptop, and proceeded with his daily routine. He found an administrative assistant post on Indeed.com which he applied to, then closed his laptop and went into the living room and played Halo for a few hours. What else he would do between now and social time was anybody’s guess. It wasn’t until the afternoon that he realized he didn’t know what he was going to make for dinner.

Laura arrived at around 5:00, and found him still on the couch, a deep frown on his face.

“I don’t know what to make,” he told her by way of introduction.

“What do you mean?”

“For dinner. I’m all out of ideas.”

“Are you asking me for help?”

“I guess you could take it that way.”

She dropped her purse on the coffee table and went into the kitchen. Jim heard her open the fridge, then root around in the cupboards.

“Is this chili yours?” she asked, coming back into the room with a can of Hormel’s.

“Yes.”

“There’s two of them. You have rice?”

“I think so.”

“Then there’s your answer. I’ll do it, okay?”

“Okay. Tyler’s not gonna be here til 7:00.”

Laura regarded him a moment. After he answered her questions he looked back at the television. A My Chemical Romance music video was playing. He turned up the volume.

She went back into the kitchen and put the can of chili down on the counter and went back into the living room. She sat down at the opposite end of the couch. Neither of them spoke for a while.

“You want to ask me about my day?” Laura offered, breaking the silence.

“You want to tell me?”

“It was fine. It went quick. I served the mayor.”

“Ron Dellums himself? How did he tip.”

“About twelve percent. I think he liked me. He knows my name.”

“Sounds like somebody’s going places.”

“Sounds like somebody’s feeling snarky.”

Jim looked at her. “Sorry, I guess I wish I had something to talk about. If you want to hear about my day I just continued with the usual. But I have an interview coming up on Friday.”

“Oh yeah? Where at?”

“Pixar actually. Front desk attendant.”

“I thought your degree was in English.”

“It is. I might be over-qualified, but I bet it’d pay good. You’d think Berkeley grads would have an easier time of it, but so far it hasn’t been true for me.”

“I know I’m lucky to have my job. I try not to complain about it.”

“Complaining is only human. I think no matter where you are, what station, there’s always going to be something to complain about. I actually liked my copywriting job in Dublin, for the most part. These days I can just tell myself that at least I’ve got savings.”

“I’m sure it’ll happen for you one way or another eventually. Don’t get dispirited. That’s what I’m here for.”

She reached a hand towards him from her side of the couch. He saw, and reached his towards her too.

“And a good job you do of it,” he said, though there was something unconvincing in him.

She scooted down the couch and sat next to him. He put his arm around her shoulders and kissed her on the cheek. For a moment Laura wondered if an escapade might develop between them, as there was still plenty of time, but it was like he had something on his mind that he didn’t want to clue her in to, something distracting him. She imagined it must be difficult for a man not to be in a position of power. As far as that went, there was nothing she could do to help him.

“Maybe we’ll watch a movie tonight,” he said. “Keith has a Netflix account.”

“What does he have?”

Jim took his arm from around her and leaned forward and picked up a couple Netflix envelopes.

“Take a look,” he said, handing them to her.

She opened one of them: “Dark Knight. Hm, Batman. I haven’t seen it yet.”

“It’s good. Heath Ledger’s awesome as the Joker.”

“I’ve heard that.”

“It’s really dark. You kind of want to like it because Heath Ledger died playing the role, but it’s also good. I like Christopher Nolan, he’s the director.”

“Memento was him too, wasn’t it?”

“Yup. Probably a better movie, but if you haven’t seen Dark Knight yet that’s what I’d vote for.”

She opened the other envelope: “Paranormal Activity.”

“Hell no,” Jim said, making Laura laugh.

“Why not?”

“Because it’s not in fashion.”

“You’re funny.”

“I have my moments.”

“Tyler will have a vote too.”

“As will Keith or Molly should they decide to join us.”

“I think Dark Knight will be a safe bet.”

“You’re probably right. Only time will tell.”

She cuddled up to him again. He wasn’t totally hopeless, was he? She really wouldn’t have minded a trip to the bedroom, but it didn’t seem to occur to him. They watched MTV for another hour or so, then she removed herself and went into the kitchen to start making dinner. Jim put the Beatles “White Album” on in the living room’s audio system, picked up a Time magazine and put his feet up on the coffee table, but he didn’t pay much attention to the article he read. Tyler would be here soon. He should prepare himself for it.

The time passed with Laura in the kitchen and Jim on the couch. Tyler arrived at 7:00 on the dot. Jim heard his knock, got up, and answered it. He could tell there was something different about him from the first look he got.

“Hey Jimbo, I’m on time, aren’t I?” Tyler asked

“You are. Come on in. Dinner’s almost ready.”

Tyler came in and Jim closed the door behind him.

“Is Cather here?” Tyler asked.

“No he’s not coming. He has some kind of engagement. He said he’s trying to start a band.”

“Wow, that’s really cool. Have you ever heard him play?”

“Nope. Laura’s been to his restaurant though. It’s a high class joint. For those of us on fixed incomes it’s a stretch.”

“Yeah, I haven’t been over either. I hope to at some point.”

“When you do how about you get in touch with me? We’ll make a night of it.”

“Sure, there’s something to think about.”

Tyler and Jim were in the living room. Laura came in and approached Tyler with a smile on her face.

“Welcome mister mysterious.”

She gave him a hug while Jim stood by.

“We’re almost ready. Nothing special, just chili and rice.”

“Works for me.”

After hugging Tyler she came to stand next to Jim and ran her hands through his hair. Tyler watched. Something had occurred between the two of them after all.

Both she and Jim regarded Tyler a moment to see how this intelligence might sink in. It was hard to tell, but he looked, perhaps, a bit uncomfortable.

“You want a beer?” Jim asked, walking away from the two of them.

“Sure.”

“We haven’t started drinking yet. If you want we can watch a movie after dinner.”

“What movie?”

“The Dark Knight, we think. Have you seen it?”

“No I haven’t. Heard good things. Sounds like an idea.”

He followed Jim into the dining room and sat down at the table, which was set for three, with bowls, spoons and napkins. Laura passed him and went into the kitchen, followed by Jim, who came back with a bottle opener and two Heinekens. He employed the bottle opener on both then handed one to Tyler.

“Wanna chug?” he asked.

“Say what?”

“Sorry, I’m just kidding.”

Jim went to the opposite side of the table and sat down across from his old friend. Tyler thought he looked unhappy. Jim thought Tyler looked comfortable, a far cry from their night at the New Parrish.

“How’s tricks treating you?” Jim asked.

“Okay I guess. Slowly but surely.”

“Still climatizing to civilian life?”

“I guess so. I’m trying to shock myself into existence. I’ve got ideas but nothing tangible. I bought myself a laptop and I’ve been screwing around with it.”

“That’s a start.”

“As long as I’m getting unemployment, and with my savings from the service, there doesn’t seem to be any urgency.”

“Except you’re still living with your brother, right?”

“Yeah. He’s a good egg. He’s patient.”

“That’s all any of us can ask for, isn’t it? A little patience.”

“If you say so.”

Jim took a long draught from his Heineken. They could both hear sounds of dishes coming from the kitchen. Tyler noticed Jim wasn’t looking at him directly. He wondered if he knew the genesis of his apparent discretion. It couldn’t be. Could it?

A little while later Laura came in with a big bowl of chili and a big bowl of rice which she placed at the center of the table.

“Dig in fellas. Wait a second, I grated some cheddar cheese you can take it you want.”

She went back into the kitchen and came back with another, smaller bowl which she placed between the two others.

Tyler started dishing himself rice, then passed it to Laura, who had taken her seat at the head of the table. Then he dished himself some chili, then sprinkled on some cheddar. The other two followed his example. Soon they were all eating in silence. Laura could sense a tension between them. With slow sinking horror she began to realize that it might not make the rest of the night unacknowledged.

Before they were both done with their first bowls of chili Jim had already finished the beer he’d cracked open with Tyler. An idea dawned on him.

“Since we’re not going out either of you feel like drinking in?” he asked.

Laura and Tyler looked at each other, then back at Jim.

“Sure,” said Tyler. “I’m taking the bus home anyway.”

“Laura? You like the idea?”

“I guess so. If I don’t I could always watch you.”

“Don’t worry, we can wait until we start the movie. A nice dark comic book movie will hit the spot. That and a little Jack and Coke.”

“I spent a fortune at the club we went to last time,” said Tyler.

“We’re agreed then. Let me go get it.”

“I thought you said we’ll wait for the movie,” said Laura.

“Does it matter? It’ll help wash down this delicious chili.”

He got up and went into the kitchen. Tyler saw that Laura had her eyes down, aimed at her food not at him. He took another spoonful. For some reason he found himself at a loss for words.

“You want ice in your drink Tyler?” Jim shouted from the kitchen.

“Yeah,” Tyler replied shortly. He wasn’t halfway done with his beer yet when Jim came back in with both their drinks.

He placed Tyler’s glass in front of him, then clapped him on the shoulder.

“Drunk up my man. The night is young.”

“I’m not done with my beer yet.”

“A problem I’m sure you’ll remedy soon.”

Jim circumnavigated the table to his place, sat down and started eating.

“I don’t think I’ve ever gotten drunk with you before, I mean, except that time at Merchant’s,” said Tyler. “We were too young in the old days. I hope you won’t be belligerent.”

“It’s a risk, granted. If I start to embarrass myself hopefully someone will stop me.”

“I can take that responsibility,” said Laura.

“As any responsible female should.”

“I’ve been trying not to drink too much recently,” said Tyler.

“Consider this night a break from your routine then,” said Jim.

“You know, I think I will. Come what may, right?”

“Right. Right as rain.”

Jim took another long pull from his Heineken, and with that he finished it off. He was almost done with his chili too.

Before long they’d all finished eating. Both Jim and Tyler were working on their drinks. It had been a few minutes since either of them had attempted anything like conversation.

“Okay boys, take your dishes to the kitchen and I’ll clean them,” said Laura. “I’ll even do that for you, then we’ll start the movie.”

Neither responded verbally. Tyler picked up his glass and drank some more, then looked at her. She saw there something she hadn’t seen in him since they’d all been hanging out. Something like stability, and something like competitiveness.

She got up first and took her things into the kitchen.

Jim raised his eyes and locked them with Tyler’s. They both got up at the exact same time and almost collided going into the kitchen.

“A woman who cooks and cleans. I’ve hit the jack pot,” said Jim.

“Don’t press your luck,” she replied.

“Sounds like she means it,” Tyler commented.

“How would you know?” Jim shot back.

He shouldered past his friend and dropped his bowl and spoon noisily in the sink. He turned around and went past him into the living room, where he located The Dark Knight’s Netflix envelope and inserted the disc it into the DVD player.

He sat down on the left end of the couch and turned up the volume. His heart was beating fast. He wondered where the other two would sit, and how it would affect his enjoyment of the movie. Tyler was still in the kitchen with Laura. He couldn’t take his mind away from them.

Tyler asked Laura if she wanted any help with the dishes. He was somewhat near her. She shook her head by way of answer.

He put his dishes in the sink and was standing next to her. She moved away. He wondered if there really was something between them that he thought he’d perceived before. If there were, at the moment it wasn’t his place to tell one way or the other. He left the kitchen and came slowly into the living room. He was already approaching inebriation. Jim didn’t even look at him, though Tyler spent a few seconds standing there, looking at him.

There was an easy chair to the left of the couch, at the front of the house and next to a window. Tyler crossed the room and sat there, arms length from Jim. Again, neither of them spoke. A kind of agreement seemed to be developing between them: that they were at odds. How the rest of the night might pass, with its drink, and its female companionship, was anybody’s guess.

Jim had the remote. He skipped through the previews until he landed on the DVDs landing page. Laura still wasn’t here. He too was on his way towards losing his inhibitions. There was the potential for danger. Tyler, after all, knew how to fight. Jim did not.

“Turn up the volume,” Tyler said. Wordlessly, Jim followed his advice.

“Are your other roommates here?” Tyler asked.

“Apparently not. I don’t know where they are. I think they both have significant others.”

“Just like you, right? That’s what Laura is, isn’t she? Significant?”

“You could call her significant I guess. No, you wouldn’t be wrong.”

“What a nice way to think about someone.”

“How about you? Any prospects?”

“No. I don’t think I’m quite ready for that.”

“Don’t you worry, man. Some day I’ll help you get laid, you can count on that.”

“Don’t say it unless you mean it.”

“I know. Where the fuck is Cather, anyways?”

“Cather?”

“Never mind. I’m already getting gone. Finish your Heineken and your Jack and Coke and there’s another waiting for you.”

“You know you can act quite the character when you want.”

“Let’s hope I can keep up this level of charm until you leave.”

“No pressure, buddy.”

They both took more pulls on their alcohol, in unison this time. A little while later Laura emerged and came to the couch and sat down next to Jim. He put his arm around her with an apparent neediness she did not find attractive.

“Okay everybody, here comes a Batman movie.”

He started the movie then put the remote on the coffee table, and afterwards his feet. He kissed Laura on the side of her face. She snuggled in closer to him, and told herself to try not to encourage the general element of machismo that might develop. But, being a woman, such a sentiment was either outside of her control to self-effect, rendering it, as if, inadvertent, or the dynamic was beyond her purview to influence completely, and depended on how the males interacted with each other. And of course, she could also admit, holding that kind of power, with the ability to grace one or the other with the prize of her attention and approval, was not without its potential for amusement or gratification. But no, she would just be herself and try to enjoy the movie. That’s what she resolved, anyway. Realizing all this she doubted, at the least, that any of them would grow bored.

It was a good movie, dark and complex. As many critics had already alleged, its premier selling point was Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker, a role for which the actor had struggled mightily, and unhealthily, to embody, ultimately concluding with his death. With a knife in his hand he was genuinely terrifying. For any children that might want to watch a comic book movie with their parents, it might prove too difficult and frightening. As for the three youngsters in Jim Getner’s living room, it was just what the doctor ordered.

The Joker’s body count accumulated quickly and dramatically, while Batman, at first, focused on Gotham’s organized crime syndicates, even tracking down their treasurer in China, with which, the film reminded its audience, the U.S. had no extradition treaty. The boys cheered when Batman stormed the mobster’s Beijing highrise and lifted him off into an airplane that he repelled he and his charge onto. Soon, however, it became clear that the Joker was in fact the more serious threat, as his circle of associates widened, and his crimes — homicide, robbery, high-level assassinations — became impossible to ignore. As the film progressed, Jim and Tyler kept drinking. Before it was over Jim had made several trips to the kitchen for ice, but kept the bottles of Jack and Coke on the coffee table. Their voices kept getting louder. At one point Molly, one of his roommates, came home, and joined them for a little while. Because she wasn’t as pretty as Laura she did not command the same attention, but she had a glass of Jack and Coke too. Between Jim and Tyler a kind of shouting match ensued, cheering on both Batman and the Joker, the far more interesting character, but also jeering at Rachel, the Batman’s love interest from the previous movie too, who just wasn’t a very good actress, truth be told. When she died, at the hands of the Joker, it sent her boyfriend, Gotham’s D.A. Harvey Dent, right over the edge, so, with half his face severely burn-scarred, he became Two-Face, and went on a homicidal rampage himself. Pretty depressing stuff, really.

“That’s fucking stupid!” Jim yelled. “Why wouldn’t he just blow the Joker’s brains out when he had the chance?”

“He already said,” Tyler responded. “The Joker’s not the problem, it’s the society he’s living in.”

“That’s fucking stupid!”

“That’s the whole point. The Joker’s only wants to cause mayhem.”

“You’re saying you wouldn’t kill the guy who killed your girlfriend if you had the chance?”

“I don’t want to kill anyone. It’s a big deal, you never forget it. Two-Face became an evil-doer too. Killing the Joker wouldn’t have mattered.”

“Calm down you two!” Laura interjected. Indeed the two of them, had they been facing each other, might have looked like they would come to blows.

“Have something to drink, Laura,” Jim insisted.

“I’m not. Just shut up until the movie’s over.”

This had a palliative influence. There was genuine hostility between the two of them.

The movie ended on a depressing note, the Joker captured and Two-Face killed, though not before proving the Joker’s point, that anyone can be brought down to his level given the right amount of tragedy, that humans were inherently bad. Batman decided to absorb the role of murderer himself, if only to spare the citizens of Gotham the sight of what had become of their former D.A. Essentially a lie was perpetrated because the main characters concluded that the public couldn’t handle the truth. So, while the action scenes were exhilarating and the acting strong, even otherworldly on Heath Ledger’s part, it came off as something of a cynical let down.

Jim turned off the television, then staggered to his feet, leaving Laura on the couch with a pissed-off look on her face.

Tyler got up right after him.

“Jesus, what time is it?” he asked.

“It’s 11:00,” Jim replied. “You have somewhere to be?”

“Man, it’s gonna take me forever to get home.”

“You can stay here, can’t you?” asked Laura. “On the couch.”

“Goodnight everyone,” said Molly. “Thanks for the company.”

Tyler was regarding Jim balefully.

“What’s the word, Jimbo? Want to let me sleep here tonight?”

“No problem. You already want to crash?”

“I do,” said Laura. “I have to work in the morning.”

“That makes one of you,” said Jim.

“You have any other way to pass the time?” asked Tyler.

“You ever played Halo?”

“No I haven’t.”

“How about GTA? It kills the time I can tell you that.”

“Video games. Not a bad idea.”

“Say no more. Laura you should hang out with us though. You’re a good influence.”

“I’m done here,” she said, standing up herself, and causing both males to turn towards her. “I hope you don’t kill each other.”

“Yeah, that’s right, run away,” said Jim. “As soon as you leave we won’t have anything to talk about.”

“Girls don’t like video games,” said Tyler. “Even I know that.”

“Even you? Even you? What’s that supposed to mean.”

“Man, you’re crazy. It doesn’t mean anything.”

“I think it means you aren’t exactly the ladies man you think you are.”

“She’s your girl, buddy. Do what you feel.”

“Shut the fuck up! Both of you!” said Laura, though she couldn’t help but laugh. “Your roommates sure are good sports, aren’t they?”

“Sometimes I’m loud, sometimes they are. Keith has a girl in Berkeley, that’s probably where he is. Molly lives on the other side of the house. But yes, they are very accommodating.”

Tyler was pouring himself another drink, probably his last. Before long Laura disappeared. Jim followed her into his room and said goodnight. With his inebriation there was something dull in the center of his forehead, and he couldn’t tell whether he was in a positive mood or not. Laura was completely exasperated with him. At least she hadn’t set them against each other. As she’d suspected they might, they’d accomplished it completely on their own. “Just come to bed soon, okay?” Laura said. “I don’t want to worry about you.”

“Okay, I will. I’m not afraid of Tyler.”

“Apparently.”

“You know it’s all for your benefit don’t you?”

“I know, and I’m flattered. Just don’t do anything you might regret.”

“Words of wisdom. I’ll do my best. If we keep you up you can come back and yell at us some more.”

He kissed her on the mouth. The taste of Jack and Coke was off-putting. Then he was gone.

She sighed, undressed, and got into his bed. She wished, momentarily, that she hadn’t come tonight.

After Laura left the room there wasn’t much more between them that needed explication. They drank more and played Halo, though Jim had the definite advantage of practice. They hardly spoke, except in grunts and periodic gesticulations of wished-for victory. Eventually Tyler set his controller down and sprawled out on the couch. Jim kept going for maybe half an hour after that, then stumbled to his feet, turned the living room lights out, and lurched to his room and bed, where Laura was still lying awake. He didn’t disturb her, and was probably unaware that she was still conscious. She’d been staring at the ceiling, as if there were something there to think about. He stank of alcohol. She rolled onto her side and closed her eyes, and, now that there were no noises coming from the living room, sleep eventually took her. She left in the morning before either of them woke — when they’re up they’re gonna have hangovers, she thought — drove back home so she could change, then crossed town again to the restaurant. She made decent tips all day.

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