Chapter 7: At the Races

Laura left Jim’s house not long after Tyler did. She had to get up for early work the next day. She’d had a pretty good time. She kept thinking of Tyler, with a relatively maternal urge to protect and coddle something that seemed under threat, though from what she wasn’t exactly sure. He’d struck her as helpless, and, maybe, dangerous. Perhaps he inspired her imagination. What had he been through? Over the years she’d come to find her boyfriend Alan trite and boring, and what with her dead-end and consistently unhappy job, she had little to live for. She worked, ate, fucked Alan, and saw her friends from time to time. Re-connecting with the Fantastic Four helped to underscore what a small town Oakland really was, and in this case that wasn’t a bad thing.

It was Thursday. Her shift passed unremarkably. She hated her job, the rudeness of the customers, the false smiles of her co-workers. She’d been there six years now, which was six years too long. She yearned to break free, but didn’t think she had anything to offer. The first step was getting her GED, but somehow making this commitment simply eluded her.

She’d had fun seeing Cather too, remembering his sweetness. They’d made plans to meet at the restaurant he played at in the city. They’d exchanged phone numbers, but she didn’t bother to call him, and would just go see him tonight. Maybe Cather would represent an opportunity to get closer to Tyler. Furthermore it would be fun to go to San Francisco with her friend Jess, though notably without Alan. And of course there was Jim. She’d always been afraid that he had a crush on her.

For his part Cather stayed at Jim’s a couple hours after the first two left, polishing off the case of beer and playing Halo with the host and, later, one of his roommates. It was fun. The contentiousness peceived in Tyler’s and Laura’s presence evaporated. Cather got on his bike to go home around midnight with six Heinekens under his belt. Despite his inebriation he made the ride without incident.

Home was a bedroom on the ground floor of a Victorian duplex on Myrtle Street in West Oakland. His flatmate was a young black man named Cy who was unemployed and spent much of his time watching TV in the living room. Cather couldn’t be certain, but something about his manner suggested that he might be gay. He spoke with a bit of a feminine list, for example. Cather only paid $400 a month for the privilege of living with him.

Morning duly arrived and Cather woke with a hangover. He made himself eggs, bacon, coffee and toast. His shift at Pyramid, his restaurant, started at 6:00. He had nothing much to do until that time came. He spent the day reading Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which was about a young person like himself navigating life in the Bay Area. It was a good book, but a forgettable day. At 4:00 he took a shower then put on his dress clothes. He rode his bike to the 19th Street BART station.

Rush hour was coming the other way, from rather than to San Francisco, so Cather found a seat on the train. He stared out the window the whole way, even through the dark transbay tube. As a rule he avoided making eye contact with his fellow commuters. It was, generally, what they expected of each other.

He arrived at Pyramid ten minutes early, so he stopped at the bar first for a shot of whiskey, which he got at employee discount, and which always helpted to warm his stomach and loosen his inhibitions. He played from his wide repertoire of easy listening classical pieces. One problem with his present situation was he didn’t have a piano of his own, so he couldn’t practice before he started playing. Thusly he’d become accustomed to staying late after the restaurant closed to get his practicing in then. He planned on doing the same today.

Laura and her friend stopped at a taco truck before going to Pyramid, as neither was willing to pay the outlandish prices no doubt asked there. They arrived at 8:00, and it wasn’t hard to find Cather at his battle station. Laura told Jess to wait at the bar for her. She approached Cather and, when he finished the piece he was on, came up behind him and put her hand on his shoulder. He turned around and, surprised, smiled at her. He stood up and the two hugged.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

“Come to see you, silly.”

“Wish I could entertain you, but I’ve gotta work.”

“I know, don’t worry. But do you want to come out dancing once you’re done?”

Cather thought a moment about practicing, but decided he would rather see Laura.

“Sure,” he said. “But it’s still a few hours away.”

“Well we can leave and come back. Or maybe we’ll stay and drink at the bar.”

“Let me know.”

“I will. It was good to see you and the old crew yesterday.”

“Yes it was. Sorry Laura but I gotta get back to work, boss can’t catch me slacking off.”

“Go ahead, don’t let me stop you. We’ll see you in a couple hours.”

Cather nodded, sat down and started playing again. Beethoven’s Pathetique sonata, second movement, a slow, well known piece he’d learned in high school. If only he could let loose and jam the way he had in New Orleans. Those days with Dr. Pickle already seemed a distant memory. Maybe that was something he could work on.

He watched Laura walk away and he felt glad to have seen her.

“He’s kinda cute,” Jess said when Laura joined her.

“That he is.”

“You two have a history?”

“God no. I’ve known him my whole life.”

“That’s no excuse.”

“I guess it never really occurred to me.”

“Well here, first drink’s on me,” Jess said, sliding her a gin and tonic. They clinked glasses and drank. The bar wasn’t too crowded, and there were no suspicious males eyeing them.

“Pretty good, ain’t he,” said Jess.

Laura sipped her drink. She didn’t have work the next day, so she could get as drunk as she wanted. It was something of a ritual for her, to find a place to lose herself. Her mom had gone so far once of accusing her of becoming a lush. But Laura had great self control. She never found herself in unwelcome situations.

The two of them stayed at Pyramid another hour. Before they left she went back to Cather and made him promise to call her when he was done, then the two of them headed towards a bar they knew on Powell Street.

Cather’s hands usually started to get tired around this time of night. He took a break and his shift meal: a burger and fries with an iced tea. He ate alone at the end of the bar.

Just when he was finishing up someone crashed into the bar stool next to him: it was one of the waiters, a man named Dylan who was about Cather’s age.

“Sorry Cathy, didn’t mean to disturb you.”

“It’s no problem”

“You play beautifully, by the way.”

“Thank you.”

They looked at each oyher. Dylan was of Irish descent, with red hair, blue eyes, and pale, freckled skin. He smiled.

“What are you gonna play next?” he asked.

“Bach I think.”

“I love Bach.”

“You know about Bach?”

“I minored in music history at school. So yes, I do.”

“I didn’t know that about you.”

“Well now you do.”

Dylan continued to smile. Cather gradually became uncomfortable.

“Excuse me,” he said, and removed himself, took his plate back to the kitchen, and returned to the piano. When he looked back at the bar he saw that Dylan was still staring at him. It was common knowledge, after all, that people liked to stare at musicians. He started to play, and particularly well, he thought. When his shift was done he called Laura. They met and enjoyed a few hours together. Cather was thinking about getting an electric piano he could play at home. He would have to check with Cy, but as long as he wore headphones he didn’t imagine it would be a problem. He had to admit, given the events of the world, things were going pretty well for him.

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