She came into the kitchen through the batwing doors and stood before the line with her orders. She pinned the tickets and dropped two halves of an english muffin in the toaster. Jenny was standing beside her, doing the same.
“Your boyfriend’s back,” Jenny said.
“He’s not my boyfriend,” Laura shot back.
“Well maybe someone should tell him, cause he sure comes in a lot.”
They weren’t talking about Jim. Jim hadn’t been in Cara’s Café in over a month. Tyler, on the other hand, was here almost every day. Sometimes she served him, sometimes she did not. Indeed, it had begun to feel awkward, because when he was here he always seemed to be looking for her, at her, towards her, as if he expected something from her. Perhaps it was time to confront the situation head-on.
“I know,” Laura said to Jenny, who was smiling. “I think he’s harmless.”
“He tips good anyways.”
“That’s because he knows what’s good for him.”
Laura finished her business, then called out: “English muffin down,” and left the kitchen station to return to the floor.
It was a busy day, call it the Friday lunch rush. She had plenty to do.
Tyler was sitting at the counter, nursing a cup of coffee. Today he was in her section. He always sat at the counter.
She walked past him on the other side and picked up a coffee decanter in one hand and a pitcher of water in the other and began to patrol her customers. When she came to him he was, as always, staring at her.
“Need a warm up?” she asked, motioning with the coffee.
“Of course I do,” he answered.
He put his mug down and she poured into it. She’d noticed long ago that he took it black.
“I’m also ready to order,” he said.
“Don’t push your luck,” she answered, and saw him laugh. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
She continued on with her routine. His was the only order still waiting to be fulfilled. She didn’t mind the prospect of making him wait. Maybe he would leave her alone if she gave him bad service. She had this thought, then realized it unlikely. It was just like her to begin to play games even when it wasn’t necessary.
She finished with the coffee and water and brought them back to where they belonged. There was something like pins and needles in her chest as she came to approach Tyler. Cather had sent her and the rest of them a text message a couple days ago, seeing if they wanted to hang out. She hadn’t answered, and, because no further messages were forthcoming, was forced to assume no one else had either. Cather was out of the loop. He didn’t know what had transpired in his absence.
Today, there would be a decision, a confrontation. One way or another this was the last time Tyler would come to her restaurant as a transient, un-tethered thing.
She stopped in front of him and met his stare with her own.
“What can I get you?” she asked.
He seemed to notice the importance of this moment, as it took him a moment to reply:
“Corn beef and hash, with sourdough toast,” he said.
She scribbled it into her note pad, closed her order book with a flick of her wrist, but still stood there.
“Is there anything else?” she asked.
“From the menu? Nope,” Tyler answered.
“I guess I’m asking, why do you come in here all the time?”
Tyler nodded and dropped his eyes momentarily, as if summoning courage, which she appreciated.
“I like seeing you, that’s all,” he said at last.
“You have my phone number don’t you?”
“I’m afraid you won’t answer.”
The giddy sensation in her chest maintained.
“There are other ways you could go about this,” she said. “Just coming into the restaurant with all the rest of the regulars isn’t the best way to do it.”
“Then what is?”
Okay, she decided, this is enough.
“Look, I’d love to see you, okay?” she said.
“When are you free?”
“How did you get here?”
“I took the bus.”
“How about this: come back in two hours. I’ll drive you home, or maybe somewhere else, and we can hang out. Two hours. Is that okay with you?”
Tyler began to grin, a bit off-puttingly. “That sounds great to me.”
“What, you’ve got plenty of time?”
“All the time in the world.”
“Then that’s the plan. One way or another we’re going to resolve this situation.”
“I could ask for no more.”
Laura put her order book in her apron and still found herself standing there. She realized she liked looking at him. Her mind was fleeing elsewhere from her job, and there wasn’t anything she could do about it. There was more that needed to be said.
“I just want you to know,” she continued, “Jim and I aren’t seeing each other any more.”
His expression became serious.
“I didn’t know,” he said.
“How could you?”
She sighed. Why did I tell him that?
“Anyways, I’ll see you in a couple hours. Eat your food, drink your coffee, and come back when I’m off.”
“I’ll find a way to kill some time.”
“This is so clumsy,” she said. “I don’t like being put on the spot at my job.”
“I’m sorry. I guess it’s working out for me though, isn’t it?”
She curled a corner of her lips into something like a smile.
“You win no points for originality.”
Tyler nodded and dropped his gaze.
“Anyways, I’ll get your order ready,” she said. “Even with everything else it’s good to see you.”
“I didn’t know about you and Jim.”
“It doesn’t change anything. Look, I’ve got to go. I’m on break soon so I won’t be bringing you your food. Just be here later and we’ll hang out for a while.”
“I will. It sounds like fun.”
Laura nodded and finally left him. The giddiness was gone, replaced with something like satisfaction. She supposed she’d handled the situation diplomatically. How the rest of it would proceed she couldn’t yet fathom. There was, after all, only one way to find out. She wondered a little while at if she had ever hung out with just Tyler and Tyler alone, even back in middle school. She didn’t think she had. Had he always liked her? She’d been pretty sure about Jim. As for Tyler she didn’t think that, back then, the thought had ever occurred to her.
She went back into the kitchen and dropped his order, then she dropped her shift meal request. She ran a few more errands, went out onto the floor and took another order, dropped it in the kitchen, and then her shift meal arrived. She brought it into the little manager’s office to the side of the kitchen and took her thirty minutes. When she went back out into the rest of the restaurant Tyler wasn’t there. She supposed that seeing him was something to look forward to, even if she would be worn out and tired, and smelling of restaurant. It would be up to him how the rest of the day would proceed. Maybe he had a plan. God knows he seemed to have the time. He didn’t seem as tortured now than he had at the New Parrish. Maybe good things had started to happen to him. She hoped so. It would be depressing if he turned out to be a traumatized head case. But she also liked the idea of giving him what he needed to resurrect himself. Once upon a time he’d had a well-developed sense of humor. By the end of the day she would try to have an opinion of him. It was too bad about Jim, of course, but life moves one. She hoped he wouldn’t be too angry should he find out about it, but, then again, she might never see him again. The Fantastic Four, perhaps, was a thing of the past.
He had two hours to kill, and wasn’t sure what to do with them. He decided to walk up 40th Street to Piedmont Ave., a commercial district a few miles Southwest of the snobby, ultra-rich small town of the same name, which, at some point in its history, had separated itself from the city of Oakland that surrounded it, creating a proverbial donut hole. That way they could pay for their own fancy public high school and use their property taxes to their own advantage, separate and distinct from the poor and violent city that surrounded it, and actually needed it.
Tyler wasn’t used to white areas. While he’d begun to pass his time more usefully, he still took long walks, mostly around Lake Merritt. He’d begun thinking of his future, and had come to believe that he might still have one. Soon he would look for a place of his own, and find some way to pay his brother back for his patience and support. He would never forget what Mickey had done for him. In Tyler’s opinion he deserved a special place in heaven when he died. Would God care about such sentiments? In Tyler’s opinion he should.
Piedmont Ave was busy with both foot and automobile traffic. First he walked up to Pleasant Valley, crossed the street, and went back the other way. He had a to go cup of coffee that he’d taken from the restaurant, and sipped it as he went. He found a cigar shop on Glen Street for which he executed a detour, and spent a few minutes picking out four nice big cigars he thought he would take to the Lake some day. A little while later he came across a book store, which provided him with further distraction. He bought a Stephen King book, and, because he had no better ideas, staked out a bus stop bench where he would do some reading until the time came to return to Cara’s Café. He had about an hour. He would have to exercise some patience. He believed himself up to the task of dialoguing with Laura and impressing her, a state of mind he’d retained ever since his encounter with Jasmine at the Ruby Room. Optimism had been a foreign concept up until then. It was a welcome development.
He read about thirty pages, checked the time, and saw that he had fifteen minutes left. He rose up from the bench and returned to the restaurant. There was a white plasic bench outside for the customers to wait on. He sat down there. A few minutes later an employee came out and told him he needed the bench. Tyler stood up and the employee dragged the bench into the restaurant. So he stood on the sidewalk and waited. He aimed himself to look across the street, so Laura wouldn’t see him staring at her when she arrived. He finished the last of his coffee and tossed it into a garbage can. He took a few deep breaths, and prayed for help from on high. When he heard her voice, “Tyler, is that you?” he turned towards her and exercised that new optimism into his facial expression, so she wouldn’t be put off by what she found. Upon seeing her he was taken with how beautiful she was: how had he been so unaware of her in middle school? He would not ruin this opportunity. This was his shot at finally rejoining society. The war and his experiences there were from another lifetime altogether. They no longer held relevancy.
“Hey Laura,” he said. “You have a good day?”
“I’m tired, that’s all,” she said. “Nothing extraordinary.”
She was standing in the doorway, as if apprehensively. There was something like suspicion in her expression.
“So what do you want to do?” she asked, still immobile. “Have you got any ideas?”
“Maybe we can walk the Lake. I know it’s a long walk, but does the idea appeal to you?”
Laura nodded and started walking towards him, then down the sidewalk, compelling him to follow.
“That sounds good to me,” she said as he caught up to her. “I hope I’ll be good company.”
They were walking side by side.
“We could do it another time if you want,” Tyler offered.
“Come on,” she said as if she hadn’t heard. “My car’s across the street.”
They stopped at a crosswalk to wait for the light. Tyler realized he didn’t know what to say. He should probably try to avoid discussion of Jim. It wasn’t any of his business, after all, and based on how they’d left it the last time they’d seen each other he though such a subject might be anathema to appealing to Laura’s good nature. He hadn’t answered Cather’s text, after all. The two of them, Tyler and Jim, were no longer interested in seeing each other.
“What’s your ride?” Tyler asked.
“I’ve got a Toyota. Two-door. It gets the job done.”
“There’s a big parking lot near Fairyland, it costs two bucks, I’ll cover it.”
“Wow, high roller.”
“Come on, don’t be nasty.”
Laura laughed a little. “Sorry. I always have an attitude after work.”
“Understandable. I’ll buy you lunch or something if you want.”
“Let’s take it one step at a time. It’s a nice day for a walk. I hope I didn’t keep you waiting too long.”
“I went to Piedmont Ave and bought a book and some cigars.”
“An honorable way to procrasinate.”
“Well I had something to look forward to. That was all I needed.”
They were halfway down 41st Street when Laura pointed out her modest gray Toyota.
“That’s me,” she said.
Tyler went to the passenger door and waited for her to unlock, get in, and open the door for him. He got in, and she pulled out and took a right on Broadway. They were silent on the drive South to Lake Merritt. She knew which parking ticker he was talking about. They arrived there and Tyler pulled two dollars out of his wallet and reached across her to hand them to the attendant. They entered the parking lot and Laura found a place. They got out, Laura locked the door, and they looked at each other. The drive had been short, but mutually comfortable. Laura, for some reason, thought things were going well. Tyler wasn’t so sure, but he intended to test his mettle anyway.
“Let’s go this way,” he said, walking around her car and striking North. “It’s over three miles, I hope you’re up for it.”
“So do I, buddy. If I have to stop to rest my legs we might not have a way around it.”
“If it comes to that then I guess we’ll just enjoy the view.”
“Of the Lake?”
“Of course. What else?”
“I don’t know. I don’t want to give you any ideas is what I’m saying.”
“Honey, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Laura laughed a little again. Tyler was proving himself to be a fast walker. She actually wasn’t as tired as she’d been letting on. Some days she would itlehave been, but not today. In fact, the weather was perfect for the activity they were undertaking. And, she came to realize, so was her mood.