Chapter 6: Spaghetti Dinner

When Tyler arrived at Jim’s house on 65th Street he waited a few moments before ringing the doorbell. He thought he could hear them on the other side. There was also music playing. For some reason he was nervous. He hadn’t looked forward to this engagement. There was much of his former life which he felt had escaped him and lay distant, beyond his reach, like an illusion in the desert. He had already decided that social occasions with the innocent civilian populace could be disastrous. It was why he carried the gun with him on his walks, to protect himself.

He took a few deep breaths, working himself up to it. He was late, as the walk from Mickey’s house had been a long one and he hadn’t calculated right.

The sun was setting. Soon the streetlights would come on. Tyler liked the darkness. He felt more comfortable with the concept of invisibility. He was sure he could hear them now. Whatever they were saying it sounded animated.

At long last he rang the doorbell, and the voices cut out briefly before resuming. A few moments later the door opened and Tyler was face to face with Jim Getner, the dinner’s host. He had a short beard and a head of combed hair. He didn’t look the same as how he’d looked in childhood, and there were dark circles under his eyes as if from lack of sleep.

“Tyler?” Jim asked.

“The very same.”

A smile appeared on Jim’s face, though only marginally brightening his expression.

“Well come on in, man. How the hell are you?”

Jim spread his arms in anticipation of a hug, and, after processing the request, Tyler crossed the threshold and obliged. It was a warm embrace.

“I’m okay,” Tyler said. “Glad to be here.”

“Well I’m glad to have you.”

They let each other go and Jim closed the door behind them.

It wasn’t an ambitious house. Beyond the small parlor was the living room, which had a couch and an easy chair facing a large television with a DVD player and XBox 360 attached. Cather was in the easy chair, and Laura was on the couch. The both of them looked at him as he came into the room.

“Well I’ll be,” Laura greeted him. “Tyler Burrell in the flesh.”

Cather smiled at him, a bit slyly.

“Dinner’s almost ready,” said Jim. “Just finishing the garlic bread.”

“What are we having?” asked Tyler.

“Spaghetti and meatballs and motherfucking garlic bread. You hungry?”

“I could eat a horse.”

“Well let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” said Laura.

Jim passed Tyler, walked through the living room into the adjoining dining room, where a large table was set for four. Beyond the dining room Tyler saw the kitchen. He could smell the garlic bread. He hadn’t been lying about his appetite, as he’d skipped lunch.

Laura patted the cushion of the sofa next to her. “Have a seat.”

Tyler crossed the living room and sat. It was good to get off his feet. He’d spent the whole day walking.

Laura watched him. The other two had told her Tyler was an Iraq veteran. She thought she could see the pain about him, and wondered if shellshock was a reality most soldiers suffered from. If anything he looked afraid. She liked what she saw. She’d always had a little crush on him.

She tried to make eye contact with him: “Cather was just telling me about his gig in the city. Did you know he was an accomplished musician?”

“Uh-huh,” Tyler nodded. “Come back home from New Orleans.”

“We covered this on the Greyhound,” explained Cather.

“But did you know he’s playing in the city? I want to go see you some day.”

“You’re echoing Jim’s sentiments,” Cather replied.

“But did Jim say he meant it? I fucking mean it. Give me the address and your days on call and I’ll make a point of it.”

“Deal,” said Cather. “I might even be able to get you an employee discount. It’s a real fancy restaurant.”

Tyler was uncomfortable with all this positivity, but he forced a grin to his face.

There were some banging sounds from the kitchen.

“Son of a bitch!” they heard.

“Are you looking for work?” Laura asked Tyler.

“Not really.”

“Well then you’re more fortunate than many.”

“I’m only paying a few hundred a month to my brother so I can stay on his couch. Good thing about the Marines is they pay you when you can’t spend it. I’ve got a lot saved up.”

“I’m waiting tables,” Laura went on. “Have been since I dropped out of high school.”

“I see.”

“It’s rough out there these days. Tips have gotten worse too.”

“I guess we’re all starving in our own way,” Cather joined in.

“It’s endemic,” Laura agreed.

The economy was on everyone’s mind since the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Tyler heard talk of it everywhere, and thought he might be one of the only people in California indifferent to it. He couldn’t imagine holding down a job, let alone the process of looking for one.

“Okay everyone, we’re about ready,” Jim called from the kitchen. “Have a seat at the table.”

The three others stood up and walked into the dining room. Cather sat across from Laura, and Tyler sat at the long end. Jim came in, bearing a large bowl of spaghetti in tomatoe sauce in one hand, and a platter of garlic bread in the other.

“This is gonna be delicious,” he proclaimed, setting down the food. “Pass it along, Cathy.”

Cather took the bowl of spaghetti and served himself, and then the bowl circled the table. To avoid being obvious about his hunger Tyler didn’t take too much. Neither did Laura, but that might have been just because she was a girl.

Without many more words the crew started eating. Jim hadn’t lied: he was a good cook. Tyler wolfed his portion down and wondered if anyone noticed.

“Do you have anything to drink?” he asked Jim quietly.

“I brought a case of Heineken,” said Cather. “I’ll get you one.”

“Me too please,” said Laura.

“Me three,” Jim rejoined.

Cather did as he was told. Tyler took a short sip then went back to the spaghetti.

“Silence during a meal is a sign of a healthy appetite,” Jim opined some minutes later.

“It’s good,” Cather confirmed.

Tyler noted Laura mopping the sauce with a piece of garlic bread. She ate slowly, with refinement. Watching her served to remind him how long he had gone without feminine attention.

“Is there dessert?” asked Cather.

Jim shook his head. “Can’t say I’m prepared for that.”

“If you’d told me I would have brought something,” said Cather.

“I guess the thought never crossed my mind.”

“Then I guess I’ll have another beer.”

“Slow down buddy,” interrupted Laura. “The night is young.”

“I ride a bike everywhere,” said Cather. “I don’t have to worry about inebriation. Besides, I spent four years in New Orleans. A few beers are the least of my problems.”

“Get another for me while you’re at it,” said Jim.

Cather got up, went into the kitchen, and returned with two more beers. Tyler only watched, feeling himself a spectator to the well-adjusted. He didn’t know what to say, and wondered if his brother was waiting for him. Tyler had noted an element of concern in Mickey the last time they’d spoken.

Tyler sipped his beer to wash down the spaghetti. He stole another look at Laura, and found she intrigued him more than she had in middle school. Her eyes flicked towards him: she’d caught him looking. He quickly averted his attention, but then he heard her ask, as if not to let him off so easily: “So Tyler, you were in Iraq?”

Tyler nodded, dreading now what was to come.

“I imagine it must have been awful,” she offered.

“It was.”

“Oh come on,” Jim exclaimed. “He doesn’t want to talk about that.”

“It’s okay,” Tyler lied.

“Is it hard to reintegrate?” Laura insisted.

“I’m doing fine.”

“Let’s talk about something more cheerful,” Jim went on. “You got any ideas?” he asked Cather.

“No one has anything to celebrate these days,” Laura said.

“That’s right, it’s rough universally,” Cather agreed.

“I’m working on my interview skills,” said Jim with a big dumb grin. “Now that I’m on the dole.”

“Your people skills?” Cather pursued. “It’s because of you we’re having this dinner.”

Tyler continued to fork food into his mouth. When he looked up he caught Laura’s eyes again. He coughed and she looked away.

Conversation, largely coming from Jim, sputtered on and off for the next few minutes while the four of them ate and drank. Before long they’d had their fill and a silence descended. Tyler felt like there was something heavy stuck in his throat, just like there was in his coat pocket. Why did he bring it with him everywhere? He feared his worst impulses even more since he had been. This dinner was no exception.

They’d eaten most of the spaghetti and all of the garlic bread. One of Jim’s roommates came home and waved to them all on the way to her room. It was about 8:00, so they didn’t yet have to worry about keeping anyone up. Nevertheless, Jim suggestd they take the party into the living room. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report would soon be on, Jim told them. Tyler didn’t say how much he hated those shows, so, when he was sitting on the couch next to Laura he was subjected to watching mute the unpatriotic little shits cavorting across the TV screen.

Cather, now on his third beer, was getting a little drunk. So was Jim. They laughed loudly at Jon Stewart’s jokes. Just like they’d been the comedian was talking about the economy, too big to fail, the haplessness of the Bush administration, the disaster unfolding around everyone, which they, the youth, knew as well as anyone else.

But wasn’t Laura sitting close to him? Perhaps closer than the laws of physics necessitated, Cather sitting on her other side. Tyler couldn’t be certain but he felt her following his pre-occupations, which had just now centered on she herself. What did this mean? Should he say something? The violence endemic in his personality precluded such an advance. He wasn’t sure he even liked it, this apparent care. It made him confused, and acted as a kind of pressure. Was it within him to respond, one way or another?

The Daily Show went to commercial and a shampoo commercial came on. Advertising, America’s heart and soul. There had been none of that in Iraq

Jim was saying something to Cather, then to Laura, then, to Tyler’s horror, the conversation came to him. He’d missed it entirely, and decided to pretend it was nothing.

“That’s funny,” he heard Laura say.

“You can’t do much worse than Bush,” said Jim. “Two unnecessary wars and a global depression.”

“You’re right, they’re both unnecessary,” went Cather. “Obama’s wrong about that.”

“About Afghanistan you mean?” pursued Jim.

“Uh-huh. He’s wrong to call it the good war.”

“There’s no such thing as a good war,” Tyler blurted out.

The entire room looked at him.

“Of course not,” said Cather.

“Not to belittle your experience,” Jim hedged.

“Of course not,” echoed Laura.

“My experience changed me,” said Tyler. “I still don’t know what I’ve become.”

Silence again with a thud. Jon Stewart returned from commercial, and Tyler wished he hadn’t said anything. The four continued to drink beer, but now were watching the television again. Soon Bill O’Reilly came on for the interview.

“He’s always talking to Bill O’Reilly,” said Jim.

“Yeah, cause he always beats the shit out of him,” Cather said and the two of them laughed.

“You’d think the man would know better than to show his face on Comedy Central,” Jim stated.

“He’ll just talk about how unfair he was treated on his own show tomorrow,” said Laura.

“It’s almost like he and Jon are friends,” Cather observed.

“What do you think, Tyler?” asked Jim, and there was something red in his eyes. “Do you think Jon Stewart’s apparent partnership wih him is disingenuous?”

“I don’t watch this show,” Tyler shot back.

“Really? So what do you watch?”

“Nothing. I don’t watch anything.”

“Oh. Fair enough. But are you lying? No one watches nothing.”

“I watch PBS when my brother turns it on. When I’m home.”

“PBS? That’s taking a side right there.”

“I hate the fucking sides,” Tyler spat. “Neither was enough to keep us at peace.”

“Yeah but one side sure tried a lot harder than the other.”

“I wish I’d never been to Iraq, if that’s what you’re getting at,” Tyler heard himself exclaim.

“Yeah I guess that is what I was getting at. Thanks for beating me to the punch.”

“That’s not very nice of you,” Laura said.

“I’m sorry,” Jim rejoined. “I didn’t mean it. Look, the show’s over. Now we get to watch Colbert Report.”

“He beats the shit out of O’Reilly too,” Cather said.

“Oh you saw it?” laughed Jim. “Where he left the for sale sticker on his book?”

“Yeah I saw it,” and the two of them chortled away.

Laura sighed. Tyler felt her do it. He didn’t know what to do with laughter, or with what he perceived as Jim’s persecuting him. Alpha male competition, but had Tyler really been a threat? Laura seemed to favor him, though she didn’t know that he was a killer. She would act differently if she knew more about him. Tyler found in his consciousness the urge to educate her, and then his insides rebelled against him. He had to get out of here. It was almost 10:00. He had been here long enough.

He got clumsily to his feet, and knocked over a half empty beer bottle in the process.

“Carefuly, buddy,” said Jim. “You might break something.”

“Oh shut your mouth,” cried Laura.

“Look, I’ve got to go,” Tyler said. “It was nice seeing you all.”

“Where you going?” asked Cather.

“Back to my brother’s house,” Tyle answered. “Sorry to crash the party.”

“No, I know, it’s getting late,” Jim falsely agreed, “though by your own admission you’ve got nowhere to be in the morning.”

“I know,” Tyler replied. “I’m sorry.”

“Sure you don’t want to finish your beer?” said Laura, quite sweely. It hurt him almost physically to hear her.

Cather stood up.

“Sorry to see you go, buddy,” he said. “Stay in touch.” He put his hand out for Tyler to shake, which he did, then quickly blundered his way out of the house into the cool dark outside. Perhaps the long walk would be good for him. He kept thinking about Laura as he traveled down Shattuck Avenue. How she’d looked at him, stayed near him. He had nothing in this world, or so he’d come to tell himself, but that might have actually been something worth living for. He should have stayed with her to exploit it, only he hadn’t felt himself capable of doing so, so psychically removed as he’d felt from the rest of them.

Shattuck eventually merged with Telegraph Ave., and, about fifteen blocks later, Tyler turned down 27th Street, which would take him to the Lake. He passed few people on the way, and by few cars in the street. The city was already asleep. Sadr City, Baghdad, at this time of day, was teeming with life.

He stuck his hand into his pocket to feel the cool, heavy metal.

He was a walking catastrophe, a terrible accident waiting to happen. If anyone tried to stop him he could only imagine what might happen.

Soon he was on the Eastern side of the Lake, then was heading down East 18th Street. This was a worse neighborhood than those he’d passed through. That meant it was both busier, and more full of minorities. At least Tyler was one of them. He felt marginally less out of place. The thought of what might happen should one of them try to rob him made him shudder. But why had he bought the gun in the first place? Maybe he wanted it to happen.

Still, upon arriving back at his brother’s house he had to admit it had been gratifying, if perilous, to see his old friends again. Hopefully it wouldn’t be the for the last time.

He sat on the couch a few minutes, handling the gun in his lap. Why had he bought such a thing? Did he harbor some desire to use it? Dreams of Baghdad or no, owning a fire arm shouldn’t feel like a necessity.

He packed the gun beneath a few layers of clothes in his luggage, then he went to sleep. This time, mercilessly, he did not remember his dreams.

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