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Chapter 5

Titans Gather

The morning after the riots Gotham City awoke slowly, blearily, afraid, and repulsed, as if the whole town were experiencing a collective hangover. Few among them were totally blameless. So much violence, so much anger, so much death. While the sentiments that had inspired the unrest could be called nothing if not honest, the costs of their expression could be considered just as exacting.

There had not been one person as respected, as highly regarded as Thomas Wayne, nor as undeserving of his fate. He’d spent much of his life trying to be a help to those less fortunate. His wife too; she’d encouraged his efforts at creating literacy centers for at-risk youth, for subsidizing rents at his apartment complexes, for creating jobs and practically begging the city to tax him. There were many both literal and figurative tears shed upon learning of his murder. Some of the very people who’d seemed to be braying for blood just as quickly turned on themselves, as if an expression of their collective sub-conscious had been exorcised; it grew quickly and was found contagious, but, upon gaining hindsight, seemed so deplorable a sentiment for a city known not only for its difficulties, but also for its creativity, its dynamism, and its eccentric diversity. Maybe, just maybe, something good could end up coming out of this after all, but, at the same time, who could say when the next Joker might come along, the next donning of the masks of a murderous clown, which were suddenly seen scattered emptily about Gotham’s streets like used up Christmas trees.

Perhaps no one felt this imperative, this responsibility, as clearly as mayor Jose de Cristo, who clearly had not taken note of the people’s pain and urgency until it was too late. Unless he found a way to deal with the crime problem, the garbage strike, or the shredding of the social safety net, the next outburst might be even worse, even more difficult to heal from. But how could he do anything on his own? He would need the federal government’s help, that was sure, but would it not be advisable to first see what Gotham’s leaders could accomplish on their own? Maybe the titans should first convene and come up with some kind of outline, some kind of plan. It was worth a try, anyway.

Mayor de Cristo came across this idea the very day after the Waynes’ murders. He called a meeting to be held in city hall. Every alderman, city council member, and state senator; the police’s top brass, the CEO of every large corporation with a presence in Gotham, school board, the City College system, transit board, public utilities commissioners, labor union presidents, Mercy Hospital directors, and port officials would receive an invitation to speak. In the invitations he tried to communicate his sincerity and what he saw as the absolute imperative of the task before them: to come up with a plan to literally save Gotham from itself. He would not go down in history as the mayor who watched his city burn. Something had to be done. So too it would be open to the public, who could observe from the atrium but wouldn’t be given a chance to speak, as this would prove too unwieldy. The event would also, of course, be recorded.

Wayne Enterprises’ headquarters were located downtown on 14th St and Commerce Way. Thomas Wayne had been President and CEO. Bill Whittaker, Vice-President and Chairman of the Board, came to work the next day just like everyone else. He learned of Thomas’ death from the newspapers, just like everyone else. For the most part the company’s wheels would keep turning on their own. Bill willingly took up the immediate responsibilities that his boss would have handled himself, but it was obvious that there would be some instability until they decided on a new leader. He supposed that he himself would be the obvious choice. The thought wasn’t completely unappealing.

Mayor de Cristo’s invitation arrived by messenger near the end of the work day. Bill thought it sounded like a fantastic idea. He might have something to say himself concerning how best to move forward. One of the reasons he and Thomas had worked so well together was Thomas’ faith in his subordinate’s generosity and magnanimity. The concept of fairness had been an important one to the late Mr. Wayne. He knew he’d come from privilege, and that most people in the world couldn’t say the same. To keep that generosity of spirit alive struck Bill as important. God knows Bruce was too young to contribute. Bill had met him a few times and had been impressed. Almost as an afterthought he decided to call Wayne Manor and inform the head butler and the heir to the throne of the immediate developments: that Bill was perfectly happy to play acting CEO until they’d made a decision. He spoke to Alfred, and happened to mention the mayor’s upcoming meeting too. Alfred paused and spoke to someone away from the phone.

“Mr. Kingsley?” Bill asked.

“Just a moment, Bill, Bruce just walked into the room.”

Bill couldn’t make out the conversation held away from the receiver. Maybe twenty seconds later Alfred came back.

“Bruce has a request of you.”

“That is?”

“He’d like a recording of the meeting. He wants to know what happened in his absence.”

Bill was surprised.

“The mayor himself said he’s making sure there’ll be cameras running,” he said. “It will be on the news, and there will be recordings. But don’t you think Bruce is, well, too young for these kinds of concerns?”

“I’m only telling you what he asked me. In my opinion he’s wise beyond his years. At some point he might make use of it.”

“Okay, no problem. And please give him my sympathies. His parents were important to me too.”

“I will, Mr. Whittaker. I look forward to hearing from you. As you might imagine the running of the house as fallen to me. Since neither Thomas nor Karina had siblings or living parents I’m also going to made Bruce’s legal guardian. We agreed on it.”

“Wow, poor child. Please give him my best, Alfred. Take care.”

They hung up the phone. Bill left the offices into the groaning, recovering city, and was home within the hour.

Since seating arrangements at the event were first come first serve the line outside City Hall grew early in the day and would eventually wrap around a full block of 42nd Street. Those with invitations formed another, shorter line. At 6:00 pm the doors opened and the public began taking their seats. Mayor de Cristo watched from an office above the atrium. His hands were shaking. He would implore the public for patience and silence. It’s fair to say he was afraid, or at least nervous. He’d prepared a speech. He wondered if anything concrete might come of this. At least he was sure the sentiment would be interpreted as honorable.

He poured himself a shot of whiskey and took it, coughing slightly. He chased it with a sip of water, then took another shot. The world, no doubt, would be watching. Half an hour later he went downstairs, speech in hand, to do the best that he could given the circumstances.

The police admitted about two hundred and fifty public seats and then closed the doors. There were about as many invitation holders, who took their seats on the first floor. One of Mayor de Cristo’s assistants, one Martin Waverley, took the podium. He tapped it a few times and found that it was live.

“Hello everyone, thanks for coming. Please take your seats. If you could, please remain silent while the mayor is speaking. We know you all probably have something to say, but unless there’s order we just won’t be able to get anything done. They Mayor’s on the way. At a certain point we’re going to open the floor to the public, at least to those who made it in. It might be helpful to think of this as a networking opportunity. If you come up with a good idea, please share it. That’s why we made sure to invite people whose opinions could have a certain impact. I don’t think I need to remind you that the whole world is watching, so, please, let’s not make a fool of each other.”

There was a slight laugh from the audience, and then it fell mostly silent.

Mayor de Cristo came in from a side door.

“And now,” said Waverley, “Mayor de Cristo.”

There was applause. Waverley stepped away from the podium and Mayor de Cristo took it. He tapped the microphone too, almost as a nervous tic.

“Hello Gotham City,” he said. “I’m so glad you could make it.”

He took a deep breath and shuffled the pages he’d taken with him.

Around the city television volumes were turned up. Bruce, in one of Wayne Manor’s living rooms, turned up his, and the Joker, in prison, watched through a television fixed to the upper corner of a room full of fellow inmates. Both rooms were otherwise silent.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t think I need to tell you that what’s happened over the last few weeks has shook me to the core. Maybe I underestimated the pain out there, the need. They say that a riot represents the language of the unheard. Well, let me say that after last week you’ve gained perhaps more attention than you wished. If that’s what it takes to shock people like me into action, then apparently I hadn’t been doing my job right. You entrusted me to be your voice, and I failed. It’s clear to me now that something’s got to give, and if I can make that happen, then I will. You can be sure that I’ve petitioned the president himself for help, and he might, he’s still thinking about it, but first let’s see what we can accomplish ourselves, prove that we’re not unwilling actors. Who knows, a little creativity might go a long way.”

He paused and looked into the crowd. No outbursts yet. So far so good.

“But I’m not letting you off the hook either. Ten people died over the course of a single night. I say to those who perpetrated these acts, without a trace of condescension, that you should be ashamed of yourselves. But I guess we all should share some guilt for what happened. I just want to try to make sure that it never happens again. As Mayor, who knows, maybe this isn’t a lost cause. I want to promise you, furthermore, that I’m trying. I really am.”

“Guy’s good, isn’t he? Our tax dollars at work,” Arthur said to the guy he was sitting next to.

“Why they even doing this?” the man, a young black man, replied.

“Hey, it’s worth a try, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, you would know.”

Mayor de Cristo said: “First, let me tell you a little about myself, in case you didn’t already know. I’m a second generation Puerto-Rican. My mother brought me and my sisters up working at a dry cleaner. I got into city politics just out of college, and from there it’s been mostly a story of good luck, a bit of skill, and faith in my beliefs and abilities. I’m a Democrat, capital ‘D’, so I bleed blue. I believe that one of the reasons the riots were so bad is that, while too many were suffering, too many were also living lavishly, mostly unaware. There are a few things we could do just right out the door: raise the minimum wage, take a harder look at rent control, and try to clean up the streets. I know that’s a loaded term, ‘clean up the streets,’ and could mean a lot of different things. I say it almost literally, actually: there are too many homeless, the garbage strike has gotten out of hand, and our sidewalks are, especially downtown, downright filthy. I have on idea in particular that I’m looking forward to developing: that is job training centers that can specialize towards specific needs. I can tell you right now, with a capital ’T’: Taxes. I sure hope you agree. You probably wouldn’t have voted for me to begin with if you didn’t.”

Mayor de Cristo was gratified to hear a smattering of applause, mostly from the upper level. He’d written this speech straight from his heart. He hoped it was being received that way.

“But that’s only one thing we can do. I know it seems elitist of me to have an ‘invitation only’ section, but we have to be practical. There are a lot of great reasons to run a business in Gotham, and we’re gonna need cooperation on all levels to make it happen. I believe, if he were still alive today, Thomas Wayne would agree. Another unfathomable casualty of the riots. His son, Bruce, is watching from home now, along with many of you. Some day he’ll take the wheel at Wayne Enterprises, but today he’s just a boy, a boy without parents. Still, he made it clear to me that he wanted to watch this event. Bruce, I hope it’s okay that I called you out like that, but from what I can tell of you I’ve found myself impressed.”

“How did he know that?” Bruce asked Alfred, who shrugged.

“Must have heard it from Bill.”

They both kept watching.

Mayor de Cristo: “I believe I’ve made it clear that I’ve heard the message: we need to do something to help each other, and fast. If there are jobs that need filling, let’s make it clear to everyone watching where they can be found. Let’s talk to each other, come up with ideas. I’m not going to spend all night talking, in fact I think my speech is a short one. I’m taking a bit of a risk, but I want to encourage my invited guests not to be shy. Let’s try to hash something out. Let’s show them Gotham is better than what happened, that we can rise above it. We’ve got a lot going for us, after all. We’ve got one of the most advanced subways in the world. Commerce Way is a nexus for the global stock market. Our populace is diverse and cultured, and when times are hard we’ve proven in the past that, when we have to, we can roll up our sleeves and do the hard work that needs to be done. Let’s think of this as one of those times. This is everyone’s responsibility: we need to get something done, and we need to do it fast. Thank you so much for coming, or watching, or listening, or picking up a recording of this meeting to watch later. Let’s not let those ten lives be lost in vain, and let’s try to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Thank you.”

Mayor de Cristo took a seat next to the podium. He had a microphone of his own positioned there so he could moderate the rest of the event. Everyone seemed to sit with his speech for a moment, and then the applause came, quiet at first, but building, and de Cristo found himself feeling gratified, appreciated. What he’d said had come from the heart, but was clearly only the beginning of a conversation the rest of them agreed needed to happen.

When the applause died down no one had yet stood up to take the microphone. There were a few moments of something of an awkward pause.

Mayor de Cristo said: “Come on people, don’t be shy. I’m sure you’ve got a thing or two to say about what I’ve said.”

There was a light staccato of speech from the crowd, people speaking to their neighbors. A few more seconds passed and then a tall blond-haired white man seated with the invited audience stood up and approached the podium.

“Hello everyone, my name is Lawrence Spellman. I’m CEO of ACE, American Cinema Enterprises. You’ve probably visited one of my theater multi-plexes at one point or another. I just want to say that you made me a little nervous talking about raising taxes. It’s not that cut and dry, Mr. Cristo. You might scare some of us away if it gets too expensive to do business in Gotham.” He put the microphone back and went back to his seat.

To this statement there was no applause. Indeed there was an upwelling of boos from the upper level. Some of the invited seemed to laugh a little at this.

“No, that’s just the kind of discussion we need to be having,” de Cristo took the microphone to reply. “But it’s my belief that the strength of Gotham’s economy is inviting enough to take a bit more bureaucracy. Have you got any help wanted signs, Mr. Spellman?”

“Yes we do,” Spellman shouted back.

“Then please, by all means, tell us more about them. Every invited guest was given a sheet of paper when you came in. That’s our directory. Call one of those numbers tomorrow and give them the details, what jobs you have that need to be filled. But I’m serious about raising the minimum wage.”

A little while later a middle-aged black woman came up to the podium.

“I’m here on behalf of Gotham City College. We’ve got a need for admin and secretary workers. These are solid, full-time jobs, but it’s hard to find people qualified or trained for what we need.”

“Well I think those are just the kind of job trainings we can put together. When I get a detailed proposal together it’s one of the programs I’ll ask the feds to help us with.”

“I think that’s a good idea,” the woman replied. “We need janitorial staff too.”

The next person to approach the podium, another white man, said he represented Mercy Hospital, which had several campuses throughout the city:

“I think this needs to be said. The Joker was not an anomaly. He was in fact a perfect example of the pit falls we face cutting mental health services to those that need it. He’d been off his meds several weeks before the killings began. We can’t let that happen any more. His social worker was laid off. We need to get her back again, coordinating with us for whatever drugs she needs.”

There was more applause at this. Jose de Cristo nodded. As the night progressed and more feedback was proffered he seemed to become more and more pleased with himself. It was clear he wasn’t the only one to think long and hard about the challenges that lay before them.

At one point Bill Whittaker took the mic and said he and Wayne Enterprises looked forward to discussions of rent control and the employment opportunities at some of their hotels. He even listed a few phone numbers for job seekers. The next day they were not the only ones to receive a plethora of interested applicants.

The Joker, to hear his name mentioned, felt no more than a sudden burst of shame. But, he told himself, if that’s what it took to get them to pay attention, maybe it should have been done a long time ago. Yet he was ashamed to find that he believed this too.

And Bruce, sitting with Alfred, produced a notepad and wrote down the numbers Bill listed. Alfred saw him do this. He supposed it would be superfluous to remind the boy that he was still in school. He wondered again at the task before him: to raise a child who, by his very name, was born so close to the center of things, without any family save the butler, beset by looming responsibility come adulthood, and the monumental task of gaining maturity to live up to. Alfred only hoped he’d be able to do it. Bruce had never been hard to live with, but who’s to say what challenges the coming years might bring.

Several hours after Mayor de Cristo’s speech the event came to a close. Most everyone who witnessed it felt, thankfully, an overall impression of hope at what they’d heard. Maybe, just maybe, things might get better after all. Maybe a spirit of cooperation was left behind in the wake of the killings, the riots, and their terrible hangover. Maybe it would never happen again. But, at the same time, rose-colored glasses could sometimes color things unrealistically. Anyway, it was generally agreed that Mayor de Cristo had his heart in the right place in calling the meeting. And over the coming weeks, indeed, a lot of jobs were applied to and a lot of them were filled. Now it would come to he and his staff’s creativity in architecting the raise in minimum wage, and the coming appeals to the federal government. God knows, as did President Clinton, that Gotham could use the help.

Chapter 4

John Banneman

When he saw the next day’s newspaper in the machine on the sidewalk in front of his building John Banneman did something uncharacteristic: he bought one.

CHAOS ON THE STREET. 10 DEAD, INCLUDING BILLIONAIRE THOMAS WAYNE, HIS WIFE KARINA, AND TALK SHOW HOST MURRAY FRANKLIN.

Banneman was on his way to work at Empire Central Bank. He hadn’t heard from his boss or anyone else whether or not the unrest had reached his particular branch. From what he’d seen, where he’d been the night before, he couldn’t say. The theater on 54th and Jackson was on the wrong side of the city, and that’s where he’d been, and that’s why the newspaper had caught his attention.

“Jesus Christ,” John said. “That was me?”

He thought more. How well dressed the family had been. How much money they’d had on them, how nice their watches were.

“Jesus Christ,” he repeated. “That was me.”

He’d never killed anyone before.

He clamped a hand to his mouth and wiped his lips. He folded the paper and put it in his backpack as he walked down the stairs into the subway.

Wow. That really was me.

Maybe his mother hadn’t raised him right. He’d always been angry, always been prone to violence, but he never knew he would shake the world.

The faces around him… who else had done it, he wondered. Boy did most of them look crestfallen, disgusted even, at what had taken place, taken hold of them. Everyone liked the Waynes, too. That had been John. But everyone liked the Waynes. Would they be angry at him if they found out it was him? More than the others who had died? They hadn’t been angry at the Joker. And he’d killed another too, but talk show host Murray Franklin had always been a snide, side-talking little shit, totally unsympathetic to people like John Banneman, who had to work for a living.

The air was especially silent on the train. No one was talking to each other, or even looking at each other, and it was because of him. Him. John Banneman, who had gunned down one of Gotham’s most prominent couples. Maybe, he thought to himself, unable to suppress a grin, he was only just getting started.

He would read the paper during lunch break, to glean what he could from the story, whether they had any leads on who had done it or who hadn’t. Banneman’s friend Kris, his partner in crime… Banneman wondered how he was taking the news. Might be worth having a talk. John didn’t plan on being caught, after all.

John disembarked at 12th and Washington. His place of employment, Gotham Empire Bank, was two blocks away. The streets were still littered with refuse and there was graffiti everywhere, broken glass, broken cars, a kind of rancid smell that might have been what happened to tear gas after it soaked into the pavement.

He knew he shouldn’t be, but John was smiling. If it weren’t for that doe-eyed little kid, Bruce, he might not have even felt bad about it. No, in fact he felt accomplished, powerful. He’d never done anything to make the front page of The Globe with his regular life, after all. And oh how he’d come to hate the rich and comfortable. John had never been one to win popularity contests, and this development surely wouldn’t help his prospects of such. But still, he’d done something to make the world shudder. He would have to have a talk with Kris, just to make sure their secret was safe. Maybe he would even do it again. Maybe, just maybe, it was just the kind of thing he’d been born for, to strike fear into the hearts of the world’s rulers.

Except for that little boy. Except for the boy.

With this, Bruce woke up in bed covered in a cold sweat, eyes suddenly wide as plates and his heart beating triple time.

It hadn’t been a dream. He’d heard that man’s thoughts. Every one of them. The man who had killed his parents, and, it seems, might want to do it again.

He rolled onto his side to look at his alarm clock. It was 6:05 AM. School wasn’t in today.

He rolled back onto his back, but he couldn’t get John Banneman out of his head. Maybe he would pay him a visit. Gotham Empire Bank on 12th. Would Mr. Banneman recognize him? Anyways, it was something to think about.

Unfortunately he couldn’t get back to sleep, so he lay there, staring at the ceiling trying to make heads or tails out of what he’d just seemed to genuinely witness.

Chapter 3

The Orphan Wayne

During the chaos of that night one might have forgiven the police for missing the murdered Waynes, and their child crouched against the building near them, hugging his knees and shivering. But someone did eventually notice them: a patrolman named Joseph Gordon and his partner.

There was smoke in the air from an array of smoldering fires. Even now in the morning you could still sometimes hear shouts and slogans, breaking glass, screams. Never had Joe Gordon seen it this bad. He wasn’t much for political or philosophical thinking, but for people to get this violent and passionate… well, it must mean that something was wrong and needed righting. What, or how? These were questions for better men than him. Hopefully they were already trying to come up with answers.

Gordon’s partner, Luke Niedemyer, pulled their cruiser to a stop on  54th St and Jackson, a posh window-shopping neighborhood with a central square which had served as one flashpoint last night. There was graffiti and broken glass everywhere.

“Look,” Niedemyer said, pointing, “there’s a little boy over there.”

Gordon saw him.

“Yep,” he said. “Looks like a couple of bodies too.”

“They even killed people. The fucking animals.”

“Why do you think they were all wearing clown masks?”

They approached the child, who didn’t appear to note their approach. Gordon thought there was something familiar about him, and he cocked his head and trained his eyes on the face as he came nearer.

“Oh my God,” Gordon said. “It’s the Waynes.”

The officers stood over Bruce’s parents. He looked up at Gordon and Niedemyer and a fresh batch of tears started rolling down his cheeks.

Gordon spoke into his radio: “This is unit 12. I need an ambulance at 54th and Jackson. Looks like we’ve got some bodies.”

“10-4 Unit 12. Dispatch on the way.”

“What kind of town do we live in?” Niedemyer breathed.

“I guess we’re finding out.”

Gordon looked at the boy, who was staring at his parents. Though he was shedding tears his face was expressionless. Gordon would guess he was between 10 and 12. He was pale, and shivering. It was cold. It was still the early morning.

Gordon went back to his car and took something out of the trunk. He brought back a thick woolen blanket, which he draped over Bruce’s (it was Bruce, wasn’t it?) shoulders. The boy didn’t seem to notice.

“Bruce? It’s Bruce isn’t it?” Gordon asked, but received no response.

“When did this happen?”

Still nothing.

“Did you see the people that did this?”

Bruce finally looked at him. Gordon saw a piercing, confused flame in them.

“Well?” Gordon pressed. “Did you?”

Bruce nodded. “They were big. They were wearing masks.”

“I see.”

Niedemyer’s radio went off. He stepped away to take the call. Apparently there was a crowd only a few blocks away. They were looting a drugstore. He came back to his partner and what they’d found.

“Gordon. It’s not safe here. We have to get the boy to the station.”

“Okay. You hear him Bruce? We’re gonna take you out of here.”

“Did they know?” Bruce asked. “Did they?”

At first Gordon wasn’t sure he’d heard right.

“Did they know what, son?”

“Did they know who we were? I don’t know why they would do this to us.”

Gordon took a moment, then put a hand on Bruce’s shoulder.

“I’m very sorry for your loss.”

“The ambulance is almost here,” said Niedemyer. “God, what a clusterfuck.”

“Gotham really needs you, doesn’t it?” Bruce asked Gordon, looking at him with that inaccurate anger Gordon had already seen.

“Yes,” he said. “They do need us.”

“Maybe they need me too. I don’t think this should have happened to us.”

“I know your father was one of the better ones.”

“So was my mother. If they’d known maybe they wouldn’t have done it. Or maybe they were just jealous.”

“Everyone in Gotham is hurting in their own way. Especially after last night.”

Bruce seemed to think about this, but he gave no response. He pulled the blanket tighter around him. When the ambulance arrived he noticed and before letting them take his parents away he leaned forward and kissed his father on his forehead, then his mother on her cheek. Then, while the bodies were taken away, he broke down into a fit of deep, choking sobs. When they were gone he let Joe Gordon put him in the back of his cruiser and take him to the station. He kept the blanket. It was comfortable, even though it was police-issued. As he grew up he would take it out from time to time, just so he would always remember how he had come across it. He was nostalgic that way.

The police made over 3,000 arrests that night, stalking many a crowd down many a shattered street. They knew that the ACLU would be all over them the next day, but they had their orders, and there was real damage being done. Not by everyone, of course, but there had been deaths. It reminded some officers of the riots in L.A. earlier that year, the ones that had engulfed South-Central. But these were different. It wasn’t just police brutality, although it was that too. It wasn’t just black people, although it was that too. In fact it was a salt and pepper crowd. There were plenty of white people, Puerto-Ricans, Chinese. No, this seemed more focused, more organized, and just as angry. As if Gotham’s elite had suddenly found the curtain pulled back on a den of hate so tragically neglected that even they might think some concessions should be made, just in the interest of their own self-preservation. How it had started… with murder, with the Joker, who had famously had himself a night as well. And, of course, that was the point. Something needed to happen, and fast, so that another night like it would never happen again, and the city wouldn’t wake up the next day to learn that twelve people had died in the space of a few hours, including Mr. And Mrs. Wayne, a mostly well-liked and respected member of the gilded class. It’s safe to say a sense of surprise and self-disgust prevailed throughout the metropolis.

The jails filled rapidly, as did central booking, but since most of those arrested would be without charges it was mostly a kind of temporary anti-septic. The real criminals and the real crimes committed, and there had been plenty, not just marching in a protest where windows were broken, would be found much more difficult to pursue. It would be impossible to arrest their way out of the problem, but getting as many of the troublemakers off the street as they could would have to be a start.

Officer Gordon established the boy on a couch near the homicide division of Precinct 37, out of the way of the monstrously busy night. He called Wayne Manor and spoke to the head butler, one Alfred Kingsworthy. He told him what had happened and that he had Bruce, could Alfred please come get him? Absolutely, Alfred replied, I’ll be right there. Don’t take Ocean Avenue or Broadway, Gordon advised. No problem, said Alfred, and he hung up. He started working on the paperwork concerning the Waynes. Wow, what a somber day it would be for everyone when they learned what had happened. Bruce’s confusion had been well-founded: his parents were almost universally well-regarded. If there was anyone who seemed both capable of and willing to apply himself to fixing the city’s intractable wounds, it would have been Thomas Wayne. Hopefully everyone, even, and especially, the Joker, might find themselves deeply disgusted by the news.

Gordon hung up the phone and then got out of his chair and went to Bruce’s couch. It was warm in the station, but he was still wearing the blanket.

Gordon crouched down in front of him: “Your head butler is coming to pick you up, Bruce.”

The boy nodded almost imperceptibly.

“Do you want, uh, a bag of chips or something? A soda? A candy bar? We have a couple vending machines down the hall.”

Bruce shrugged. He seemed uninterested.

“Well, if you’re wondering how you could ever repay my vast kindness don’t worry, cops like me have a hefty retirement plan waiting for us at the end of the tunnel.”

There was no sign the joke had gotten through.

Gordon patted the boy’s shoulder again, then stood up and walked away. There was nothing more he could do for him. He seemed like a smart, observant kid. But what might be the lasting impact of such trauma? Gordon could only imagine.

Alfred Kingsworthy arrived about an hour later. Bruce had curled up on his side on the couch but he hadn’t slept. He’d felt the need to stop looking at the faces that paraded past him in the hallway, be they cops or their arrested quarry. Some of them had been clowns. These stood out especially to Bruce, perhaps because the people who had killed his parents had dressed the same way. Each time he saw one his heart hammered a little harder in his chest. He would probably have to make peace with what he saw, or at least learn how to look at it, because he doubted the spirit behind the Joker’s manifestations had been purged by a few broken windows, a few scared rich people, a few arrests.

Oh my God, he thought, I’m never going to see my parents again.

He couldn’t look. He couldn’t, just couldn’t.

Soon he felt another hand gently touch his back.

“Master Wayne?”

It was Alfred.

Bruce looked up at him, into his eyes, and broke into yet further tears as he hugged Alfred as roughly as he could. His chest heaved with sobs, far worse than what Gordon had seen earlier.

“He’s been here a couple hours,” Gordon said.

Alfred, a tall, white-haired Englishman who carried himself with a kind of straight-backed dignity that appealed to Gordon, let Bruce hug him. He too found himself close to tears. How very frightened the boy must be. And he didn’t have any other family. Alfred, an employee, was the closest thing to it.

He sat down on the couch and let Bruce cry into his chest.

“I’m so terribly sorry, Master Bruce,” Alfred said, and kept rubbing his back.

It took a while for his sobs to subside. He finally pulled away from Alfred and rubbed his eyes with his sleeves.

“I’m tired,” he said.

“I’m sure.”

“I don’t know what to do.”

“You don’t have to do anything.”

“But I do. I know I do. I know who pays the bills.”

Alfred smiled. He’d always thought the boy wise beyond his years.

“Are you ready to go?” he asked. Bruce nodded.

“Wait,” Officer Gordon said, taking something out of his pockets. They were business cards. He gave one to Bruce and one to Alfred.

“Please,” he said, “either of you call me if you need someone to talk to or have any questions about the investigations. Bruce, if you remember something, anything, please tell me, we might be able to make use of it.”

Bruce put the card in his pocket, and managed to look Gordon in his eyes and nod. ‘Message received,’ his expression said, though, obviously, he didn’t want to think of it.

“I think it’s time we left,” said Alfred. “Come on, Master Bruce.”

They got up from the couch and managed to leave Precinct 37. Alfred opened the car door for the boy, then got in on the driver’s side and pulled out into the empty street. Traffic, ubiquitous on a normal day, was far lighter than usual.

They arrived at Wayne Manor, which was located at Gotham’s southern outskirts, near the ocean, about two hours later. Alfred carried Bruce into the house, then up the main stairs to his room. He lay the boy in bed with a feeling like there was a new, heavy stone in his heart. How would Bruce handle this? What would happen to the house’s employees? What would happen to Wayne Enterprises? Who would pay the family’s taxes? So many questions with only a child to answer them.

Then, as he was leaving Bruce’s room he heard: “Alfred?”

“Yes, Master Bruce?”

“I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I want you to know that I want to keep you here for as long as you want to stay.”

Alfred smiled, relieved to find himself impressed. “Thank young master. I would love to stay. You know that.”

“I do now. Thank you.”

Alfred shut the door. It was as if Bruce had read his mind.

Bruce, for his part, rolled onto his side and pulled the police blanket up to his chin. Soon, since now he wasn’t crying, he had fallen asleep.

Chapter 2

The Joker Turns Himself In

Much like the guys on the subway, and his compatriots in his apartment, Arthur Fleck hadn’t known he was going to do it until the deed was done. He’d been off his meds for two weeks. The benefit they’d had for him had become painfully obvious: he was paranoid, angry, and felt himself less than a full person. He’d ended seven lives in a very short period of time. And some of them hadn’t had it coming.

By the bright lights of the stage, in front of a live audience as well as those watching from home, the Joker blew Murray Franklin’s brains out. A massive scream rose and there was a mad dash for the exit. Arthur stayed where he was, staring at his handiwork.

His arm dropped into his lap and he held the gun with both hands. He was sweating and panting. This had been his worst kill yet. Everyone in the world had finally seen who he was, what he was capable. He was not proud of himself. Far from it. He simply felt that he couldn’t help himself. Like something inside him had come to a head and there was nothing he could do but begin to lash out, to break things, to make his un-humanity felt. But, to judge by the clown masks showing up throughout Gotham, he wasn’t alone. Killer. Psychopath. Yes. Champion of the people? No. Rather a symptom of their decline. And who could blame them?

Out of the corner of his eye he saw the security guards massing at the edge of the stage, unwilling to be the first to risk a bullet.

Arthur grinned at them.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t even know I was going to do it.”

None of the guards had guns. The police would surely be here soon enough to close that discrepancy.

“Is this it?” he asked no one in particular. “Am I done forever?”

He turned the gun around and brought the muzzle up under his chin and thought about it. The easy way out. He’d never felt life especially worth living, though somehow, over the last few weeks, when it had gotten worse than it had ever been before, it hadn’t been without a certain kind of hope. Disturbing as it was, he’d become a symbol, had captured the starving public’s imagination. Should he end it now, before seeing how it might play out? Maybe not. But that didn’t mean he didn’t want to. People were dead because of him. People were fighting because of him. And if they hadn’t discontinued his meds perhaps none of it would have ever happened.

Still with the muzzle pressed under his chin Arthur looked at the guards and started to cry. The strength it took to hold the gun suddenly melted away and it fell out of his hands. He lay back on the couch and put his right hand over his eyes to block out the bright lights. The guard didn’t miss their chance: they rushed forward and pulled him off the couch and pinned him to the floor.

“You son of a bitch!” one of them barked. “What have you done?”

“I’m sorry,” Arthur replied. “I didn’t mean it.”

“Turn the fucking cameras off,” yelled another. “And the fucking lights while you’re at it. I don’t want to look at this filth.”

The guards held him down until the police arrived a few minutes later. They cuffed him and marched him out of the studio. What Arthur saw outside, what he had missed for the several hours he’d been on the set of The Murray Franklin Show, would stay with him forever.

Clown. Clowns everywhere. Chants. Crowds. Riots. Looting. Police officers, some in riot gear and some not, hopelessly outnumbered, afraid and lacking a clear course of action. Like it or not, the Joker had lit a fuse, and the city was burning. It must have been a long time coming, for the flames to reach so high.

The four police guards flanking him didn’t seem to know what to do. Some of the cruisers were on fire, and some had their windshields and windows busted out. Maybe on of these belonged to Arthur’s captors, so what could they do with him now?

And, further, the longer he stood there, the more Arthur came to believe that he was being noticed. No doubt the news of what he’d done to Murray Franklin had spread everywhere. Now they even knew his name.

“Arthur Fleck!” he heard someone yell, though he couldn’t pick them out of the mob. “This is our night, Arthur! Get him! Save him! He’s not going to jail! Hell no!”

And then, all at once, the crowd surged towards him and his arresting officers were instantly overwhelmed in the swell. They let go of him and were gone. Arthur, still weak, fell to his knees. He closed his eyes, bowed his head, and listened to the bedlam. He realized now if it hadn’t been he and the boys he’d killed on the subway it would have been something else. But still, should he not bear upon himself some responsibility? Did he want to? The public had come to calling him the Joker. Did that mean it was a joke? He with his depression and schizophrenia. He with his old, pathetic mother. Thomas Wayne, who’d wanted nothing to do with him.

He felt a warm hand on his back.

“Mr. Fleck?”

Someone was kneeling down next to him. Arthur looked at him. It was a young black man with an intent look in his eye.

“The very same,” Arthur sighed.

“Do you need help getting up? Sorry, I don’t think there’s anything I can do about your cuffs.”

Arthur tried to stand up. The young man wasn’t the only one near him paying interest. Indeed he was surrounded by a respectful semi-circle of onlookers who were not participating in the rest of the immediate happenings around them. But Arthur could still hear it, and could still taste the tear gas.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” he found himself saying.

The black guy didn’t answer at first, then: “Do you have somewhere you want to go?”

“I don’t.”

“If they find you they’ll take you in for sure.”

“Maybe that’s where I belong.”

“No one belongs there.”

“I killed my own mother,” Arthur answered sickly, “and the most wonderful talk show host this great city has ever produced.”

“If you insist, brother, if you insist. But this all here? This happening all around Gotham? You started it, and it’s far from finished.”

“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”

“I guess I don’t know. I guess it just is.”

“It is what it is.”

There were more sirens, flashing lights, sounds of breaking glass.

“My name is Duboce,” said the young man. “I’ll help you tonight if you want it.”

“Thanks Duboce, I’m Arthur. Honestly I think I just want to watch.”

Hands still uncomfortably bound behind his back, Arthur walked towards one of the totaled police cruisers. He climbed onto its roof and sat with his feet dangling where the windshield should have been. Duboce stood on the street next to him, and the celebration went on into the night.

Eventually the sun rose on the shattered storefronts and burned out cars. Arthur and Duboce had stayed up all night paying it attention.

Arthur hopped down from the roof of the cruiser.

“Come on,” he said to Duboce. “I know where I belong now.”

“You want me to walk with you?”

“It’s up to you. I’d like your contact info just in case, and if you come with me I can be sure that you’re on the list, so you can visit whenever you want.”

“Where do you want to go?”

“Arkham. I know how to get there too.”

“The insane asylum? Really?”

“I’m off my rocker without my meds, Duboce. That’s one reason I started killing people. It’s where I should be. I’m an unnecessary danger to myself and others.”

“You think you’re the only one?”

“Come on, come with me. You’ll be made locally famous.”

Arthur started walking down the middle of the street, as there was still no traffic to be seen. After a moment’s indecision Duboce opened up the green backpack he was wearing, scribbled something onto a piece of paper, then ran after Arthur.

“Here,” he said, stopping his quarry a moment and slipping the note into Arthur’s hip pocket. “So you don’t forget me.”

“As you were, soldier.”

The two left Clocktower Square due North on Ellison. It wasn’t much further until they reached Arkham.

Duboce, being near the Joker, wondered if it was wrong of him to help the deeply disturbed man. Horrible, bloody things had happened last night. What must it feel like to do something as awful as murder and be celebrated for it? Arkham probably was the right place for him. But, whether you like it or not, Arthur Fleck was now one of the most important people in Gotham. What might happen around him in the future was surely worth listening to.

They reached the front doors of the complex, where there were doctors and nurses in hospital scrubs and several parked ambulances.

Arthur closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

“This is it,” he said, “the last bit of free I might ever enjoy.”

“Well, if you want some company I can visit you every once in a while. Bring you outside food or something. That okay with you?”

“Sure thing. I guess I’m a celebrity now.”

The two entered the hospital, and a few minutes later one of them left. Duboce told himself to guard this memory jealously. Something important might one day happen to Arthur Fleck, and it wasn’t like he had many other irons in the fire either. 

He found a subway station and went and got on a train. Oddly enough, he didn’t see a single clown face on his way uptown. He didn’t know how to feel about this.

Chapter 1

The Shawshank Redemption — 1994

The movie started at 7:00. Driving into the city was a non-option. Taking the train to East Central was not. It was only a short walk from Wayne Manor to the closest station.

Alfred opened the gate for them and locked it behind them: Bruce, 11 years old, his father Thomas, 56, and Karina, 44, his mother.

“Be careful Master Wayne,” Alfred said. “There’s talk of some volatility.”

“Appreciate your concern, Alfred,” Thomas replied. “We’ll be fine.”

“I believe the same movie is playing locally. Are you sure I can’t convince you?”

“Again, don’t worry about it.”

It was late November, the Sunday following Thanksgiving, so it was already dark out.

Bruce looked over his shoulder at their head butler. Alfred raised a hand and smiled. Even at his unadvanced age Bruce knew that Alfred was a good man. He genuinely cared for his employers, and not just because they paid his salary. The Waynes were something of East Coast royalty. They were real estate moguls, and owned and maintained many a high rise and brownstone throughout Gotham and its surroundings. They were used to being recognized in public. Thomas did what he could to maintain his good name, but there was no denying the jealousy Bruce felt from some of his classmates at school. The recent years had not been ones of plenty for the larger society. The scourges of crime, poverty, and unemployment hammered at Gothamites of all walks of life, except, perhaps, those of families like the Waynes, all but assured as they were at the top of the food chain. And that some of the kids at school started coming in wearing clown make-up… it was disturbing. Bruce could feel the antipathy behind it. And the way they sometimes looked at him. He supposed there was a price to pay for his family’s relative comfort: that is, that they sometimes found themselves afraid. Bruce too was aware of the protests and what they signified. Life wasn’t easy for anyone these days. It was quite possible that something had to give, somewhere, and fundamentally. Alfred had once told him not to take it personally. Bruce believed this to be good advice.

The Waynes found an empty cabin on the train and took their seats. Karina smiled at her son, took his hand and put it in her lap. He could be forgiven for noticing an air of apprehension about her. Not so from his father: 6’5”, he knew how to defend himself, short of carrying a gun. Bruce knew he had a few of these too though. He wondered if the thought had crossed his mind to bring one. At the moment, looking out the window at the late twilight scenery, Thomas looked sure of himself, but this might have been a bit too obvious, as if he was proving to himself as well as anyone who might recognize him that he wasn’t afraid. Perhaps, Bruce thought, he should be. Still, the boy said nothing. Days, months, years later, however, he often wondered if he should have, if maybe he could have respected his and his mother’s fears, and could have thereby staved off that which he would come to feel as an inevitability, as if his parents’ murder was the climax to a narrative he hadn’t been aware was unfolding. But admitting his fear would have been admitting defeat. Surely Gotham wasn’t as bad as all that, no matter what some of the protesters’ signs said (“Eat the Rich!””We need help!””Fuck the police!”). You can’t allow the outside world to take itself away from you, now can you?

About half an hour later the train pulled into East Central Station, and the Waynes disembarked.

Bruce liked this building. It was ornate but not showy, and was always full of activity.

“Which way is the theater?” Karina asked.

“Down Broadway a block or two,” Thomas replied.

“I hope it’s not sold out.”

“We have plenty of time.

The herds of commuters flowed ably around them as the three left the station. Stepping onto the sidewalk Bruce could immediately tell this wasn’t a typical night for the city. There were ranks of policemen dressed in riot gear across the street. There were homeless people huddled in the spaces between the buildings, and there were clown masks. Lots of them. Schools of them. They were chanting and carrying the very signs Bruce had already seen over the last few weeks, ever since those stock market men had been murdered by the man in the clown mask, the mystery man the people had come to call the Joker. He found he didn’t want to be recognized. He felt he and his family could be their perfect scapegoats. “Eat the Rich!” “Take back the city!” “Fuck the Police!” Most of the signs looked homemade and primitive, and had obviously been made with care and passion. He was sure that, at school the next day, his teachers would take some time to appreciate these strange times they were living in. After all, it was inescapable.

They soon reached the theater. Karina and Bruce got in line while Thomas purchased their tickets. There were some clown masks there too, as if some weren’t part of the protests, but were making their feelings known anyways. As if murder could be condoned. It wasn’t right, was it? Things must be so hard out there. Bruce knew well enough to know that he couldn’t imagine. Maybe it had been a mistake to come into central Gotham tonight. Maybe they should have gone the opposite way, out into the suburbs. There probably weren’t as many clown masks out there, right? Bruce wanted to hide his and his parents’ faces. There was so much anger here. You could touch it with your hand. Perhaps it was reaching its zenith. Perhaps you could no longer ignore it. And, of course, that was probably the point.

“What do you think they want?” Bruce asked his mother.

“A better chance at living, just like anyone.”

“Do they know who we are?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think they hate us, Bruce. They’re just running out of options.”

Some other people in line looked uncomfortable too. Strange, for so many to take the side of a killer.

“My God,” he heard a woman near him. “They’re everywhere.”

Thomas found the two of them and gave them their tickets.

“You know I’ve heard this movie might be a little ‘adult’ for our son,” Karina said in an unavoidably tremulous voice.

“Gotta toughen em up early,” Thomas smiled at her. “Besides, I’ve got the feeling that a little bit of violence on the silver screen is the least of our worries tonight.”

A line of police moved out into the street and seemed to be attempting to re-direct traffic. Bruce could almost, but not quite, make out the words of a nearby protest; he was likewise unable to tell where the noise was coming from. They sounded impassioned, motivated. If this was the only way change could come about, Bruce only hoped that it would be worth it. And some of those clown masks in line seemed maybe to be looking at he and his family especially. Alfred had probably been right: they shouldn’t have come here. When the line started to move Bruce felt much relief. At least when there was a movie in front of him he’d have something else to think about.

The Waynes entered the theater and followed the rest of the crown to screen 6. They got good seats in the middle of the hall, not too close to the screen and not too far away. Karina produced the popcorn she’d made at home, and the soda cans. She was naturally thrifty. Unlike her son or her husband, she knew what it was like to live without. Old habits died hard that way.

The lights went down and the coming attractions started. Bruce tried to let himself be taken away by the distraction, but it was undeniable by the nervous, forced laughter of the audience, that everyone had more on their minds than the entertainment.

Soon enough The Shawshank Redemption began. Indeed, it was probably too old for him. But it fit with Thomas’ penchant for challenging his son. Some day, when he held the company’s reins, he would have to make quick, creative decisions, and know when to be hard and when to be forgiving. Within the next few years the true grooming for this position would begin. Bruce sometimes found himself looking forward to it.

As Tim Robbins developed as a prisoner, combatting a pack of bull queers and getting to know Morgan Freeman, the noises of the chaos outside grew more audible, impossible to ignore. At a certain point he thought he heard chanting. It must be close, maybe right outside. He looked at his mother, and she was looking at him too. She took his hand and squeezed it. Thomas, if anything, looked perturbed.

Then, while Tim Robbins was hijacking the warden’s office to play an operatic passage for the rest of the prison, the lights suddenly came on and the movie stopped. A portly bald man wearing a blue vest uniform came in front of the screen.

“I apologize, ladies and gentlemen, but we’re discontinuing operations for the night.”

There was a less than enthusiastic grown from the crowd.

“The Joker’s killed Murray Franklin on live television, and the mayor’s ordering a curfew. You’re all to proceed home as soon as you can. Bring your ticket stubs back here tomorrow for a full refund. The protests are getting out of hand.”

“Come on, get up,” said Thomas. “We have to go.”

They were up before the patrons sitting close to them, and the Waynes soon found the aisle and marched back the way they had come.

“The Joker?” Bruce asked.

“I guess now we know who he is,” Thomas said.

“A profoundly disturbed individual,” said Karina.

“Seems that he’s got plenty of company.”

Coming out into the lobby Bruce smelt something acrid in the air. They approached the glass door entrance, beyond which the night looked cloudy, which was the teargas, accounting for the smell. There were people everywhere, running, pushing. There were screams and there was a police officer on a megaphone telling the crowd to disperse. Bruce couldn’t tell if anyone was listening to him. There were answering chants from the crowd too.

They shouldn’t have come tonight. Thomas, his father, had made a mistake. How, oh how, would Bruce be able to look at his schoolmates the next day?

The Waynes went out into the midst of it all, and kept their heads down and their hands over their mouths as they struck South on Broadway. Bruce was looking down at the sidewalk, allowing himself to be guided by his mother, when something stopped them. Two pairs of dirty sneakers suddenly appeared a few feet in front o him, stopping his parents.

“Wayne? Thomas Wayne?” Bruce heard. “Give me your money.”

Bruce looked up and thought he recognized the clown-mask-wearers from observing the crowd earlier tonight. Apparently they’d noticed him too.

One of them, a large, well-disguised man, reached out and grabbed his mother’s wrist.

“Gimme!”

The big man was going for his mother’s watch.

“Okay okay okay!” his mother shouted and tried to free her watch, unclasping it. A moment later it was gone.

The night was pandemonium all around him as Bruce looked to his father and saw that one of the assailants had a gun. Then, almost too quickly for Bruce to believe it had happened, three gunshots were set loose, deafening and apocalyptic, and both of his parents fell to the ground.

“No! Oh my God!” Bruce yelled, and the clowns looked at him, and seemed to think together a moment before dropping the gun and fleeing into the night.

Bruce started to cry. His parents were all bloody on the sidewalk. Were they dead? They were convulsing. There was blood in their mouths and on their shirts.

He put his hands over his eyes and fell down on his knees. He stayed there, jostled from side to side by the people around him, unable to move. Some time passed before a pair of police officers came to help him.

“Are you alright, son? Are these your parents?”

“Oh my God,” said another one. “That’s Thomas Wayne. Of Wayne Enterprises.”

“Jesus,” said another. “What a night.”

Bruce heard them but couldn’t answer. Eventually an ambulance came too. Bruce was loaded into the back of a police car, unaware of anything except the chaos he’d witnessed, all at the hands of someone named the Joker, who was responsible for what had happened to his mother and father. He was an orphan. There was no way around it. He could only hope, and found himself praying that somehow, some day, some way he would be made whole again. It would become his most important fixation: his parents’ lives will not have been ended so cheaply without consequence. The identities of those who had done it would be welcome information indeed. And the Joker. Perhaps his misery, someday, would have to do.

Chapter 22: A Long Walk

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.

Chapter 21: Honesty vs. Reality

He hadn’t heard from her in two days when she finally texted him back:

“Do you want to come here or do you want me to come over?” she wrote.

“Whatever you feel, babe,” he replied.

There was a five minute pause, and then: “Okay, I’ll be over in two hours.”

Jim thought a moment before he sent another message. Maybe he was being too available. He couldn’t think if it was something he’d done or not. Maybe he wasn’t keeping her interest, but where had it come from before? He decided not to answer her message, to express his confusion, his disapproval.

He spent a few minutes cleaning his room, putting away his dirty clothes, and then, as if only remembering, washing his sheets and bedding, as he had enough time for that.

The last time he went to the grocery store he’d bought a big bottle of red wine, as he knew she liked that. As for dinner he would make meatloaf. In this period of unemployment he’d taken up cooking as a way to pass the time. There were worse ways to do so.

A little while later he found himself playing Halo in the living room with Keith. He was better at it than his roommate, as Keith still had a job and it wasn’t his video game. At 7:00 he heard a knock at his door and recognized it as hers.

He put the game on pause and went to go answer it. Upon seeing her he knew instantly that something was wrong.

“Hey,” he said simply, holding the door for her, and at a loss for words.

“Hey Jim,” she answered and came in with only briefly making eye contact.

He closed the door then turned towards her, and found her aimed towards him too. He hugged her and they kissed. It was impossible not to notice her air of remove, no smile on her face, and the kiss was short. When it was done she walked past him into the house proper.

“Hey Laura,” Keith said.

“Hey yourself.”

“We’re just playing video games,” Jim said, approaching again, “just to pass the time, you know. Feels like it’s been a little while.”

“Sorry, I’ve been busy recently.”

“The fact that you’re here now is what’s important,” Jim said, hoping that his over-abundance of manners proved his point.

She looked away from him and sat down on the couch, on the opposite end from Keith. She crossed her legs and crossed her arms across her chest. She put the hood of her hoodie up as if she were cold. Jim didn’t know what to do or say.

“Do you want something to eat?” he asked.

“I expect no less.”

“Do you? Are we being presumptuous?”

“If you’d come to my place we’d have our roles reversed.”

“Lucky you I made meatloaf. With barbecue sauce. And potatoes. I’ve become an amateur chef in my down time.”

“Sounds good to me.”

Jim scratched an itch on his nose then walked briskly through the dining room into the kitchen, where, indeed, the meatloaf was just about done.

He took the bottle of wine out of the cupboard and poured two glasses, believing that Laura’s expectation of that much went without saying.

It would be foolish to overthink the situation. It seemed that he might be losing her interest, an impression he’d felt the last time they’d seen each other too, though this time, so far, was worse; and the remove they’d been at between those encounters was not encouraging.

He wished he still had a job. At least then he would have an advantage.

He took the meatloaf out of the oven and took it into the dining room, then went back for silverware, napkins, and the wine.

“It’s ready, Laura,” he called out.

She got up from the couch and came into the dining room and sat at the place she usually sat at.

“Red wine. You want?” Jim asked, putting the glass down in front of her.

“I guess you’ve made my decision for me.”

“Yes, but was it the right one?”

“Of course it was. You know me too well.”

“Somehow I don’t think so,” he said with a note of tragedy in his voice.

Laura looked up at him and watched him cut the meatloaf and serve her then himself. The potatoes he left for her. After he sat down across from her she served them to herself.

“How was your day?” he asked.

“Uneventful.” She replied.

“That doesn’t sound very interesting.”

“I don’t lead a very interesting life.”

“Ah, the lot of the lonely waitress.”

She finished chewing before she answered: “What, you think I’m lonely?”

“You shouldn’t be, when you have this nice guy here making you dinner and pouring you wine. But then again I’ve never been very good at figuring out what makes women happy.”

“I could say the same thing about men.”

“Then you’re being retarded, because we’re much easier to figure out.”

“What, that all you need is a good roll in the hay?”

“Pretty much, but we want the other person to enjoy it too.”

“I don’t think you’re giving your side enough credit. Don’t you like being challenged?”

“Only if I win in the end.”

“Without the chance of loss there’d be no point in victory.”

Jim moved the food around his plate with his fork. He couldn’t bring himself to raise his head and look at her, because he expected her to be watching him. Nothing good lasts forever, he found his thoughts telling him.

“Do you like your meatloaf?” he asked a little while later.

Laura closed her eyes briefly. She saw his unhappiness and felt it too, but she didn’t know what else to say. The hollowness she’d felt recently now appeared to be contagious.

“Maybe you should try to get a job at Cara’s,” she said. “They’re looking for a line cook.”

“Do you mean that or are you just being patronizing?”

“You’re the one who’s always saying you need a job.”

“It’s not the worst idea in the world.”

“If you expect it to make you happy though, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed.”

“It’s a thought. I have savings. I’m getting unemployment. If things start getting desperate, who knows? But I have a degree, from Berkeley. It probably won’t come to that. At least I hope it won’t.”

Another silence came down, and they finished eating. Jim looked up at her only when he was sure she wasn’t looking at him. Indeed, his previous impressions were confirmed: she did not look interested.

“Is it too much to ask you to do the dishes?” Jim asked. Since he was still staring at her he saw her nod, non-commital, so very far away.

She got out of her chair and circled the table, picking up the plates and silverware.

“Looks like we even have leftovers,” Jim pressed on. “I’ll take care of that.”

He picked up the mealoaf dish and followed her into the kitchen. Since the house didn’t have a dishwasher it was all to be done manually. He cornered her against the sink while she got started, as if completely unaware of his existence. He reached over her and retrieved a spatula that was in the dishrack.

“Excuse me,” he said loudly, still receiving no acknowledgment.

She did her chore because she had to. He wondered why she had even come over to his house in the first place. What had he done wrong? Had he never had a shot to begin with? Did Tyler? He wished, so desperately, to be able to read her, but he supposed he’d never been able to do that.

He put the leftover meatloaf in a tupperware container and shoved it roughly into the fridge, then he strode quickly past her through the house back to the living room, where Keith was still hard at work at Halo. Jim picked up the other controller and sat stiffly awaiting his chance to join in. There was a terrible spinning sensation in his chest as the reality of the situation sunk in. He’d had the impression the last time she’d been over. Tonight it was impossible to misinterpret: This was the last time he would see her under the guise of romantic coupling. She was here only physically. As for her consciousness? He had no idea.

As for Laura, she was crossing a threshhold, aware of Jim’s anxiety, his discovering the truth of the situation. He didn’t know how much she actually perceived, even from the remove he thought her at, her eyes not meeting his, her body no longer open to him. She had no idea what it would take to make her happy, but it was clear that Jim wasn’t up to the task. Allen hadn’t been either, but at least Jim cared one way or the other. Unfortunately that wasn’t enough.

She finished the dishes and walked slowly towards the living room, picking up her half-ful wine glass on the way. She took a moment, standing there, to observe the situation. Neither Jim nor Keith reacted to her presence. There was a rictus of misery on Jim’s face. It hurt her to see it. She’d never thought of herself as a heartbreaker before, but that seemed to be what she had become.

She sighed audibly, then sat down next to him on the couch, on his right side.

He flinched away from her while he followed the action on the television ever more intensely. For a few seconds he had nothing to contribute, and then Keith’s Halo character died and Jim sprung into action starting the next game, but wordlessly, trying as hard as he could to ignore the young woman sitting next to him. And yet her presence was felt, as if in secret, consoling him, almost apologetically, in command of herself as she’d ever been, an aptitude he had never been able to strip from her, completely unaware whether or not she even wanted as much. For the sixty or seventy days they’d been together she’d always had the upper hand. Here, at the end, it was no different.

Suddenly he threw down the controller and got up and pushed past her.

“Hey, where you goin man?” Keith yelled out, unfortunately humorously.

“I’m done. I’m going to sleep.”

“It’s not even eight o’clock!” Keith replied, then made eye contact with Laura, even a little resentfully.

He shrugged his shoulders and made a face of solidarity with his wounded compatriot. Laura nodded at him and continued to sit still. She probably shouldn’t have bothered coming over tonight in the first place. Was it necessary to put the whole idea to rest formally? Once and for all? She did not relish the thought, but she probably owed him as much. He’d tried to be good to her. In some ways he had been. She was angry with herself. Never before had she realized herself to be so fickle.

She stood up and followed him into his room. She found him at his desk with his laptop open.

“What are you up to?” she asked.

“Nothing. More job searching,” he answered.

She sat at the foot of his bed and sighed again.

“What, you want to watch me?” he asked.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“What are you sorry about?”

Another few moments passed, and then she said “I think I’m going home.”

Jim cleared his throat and didn’t look at her, then: “I guess that’s your decision.”

Laura nodded.

“I don’t know why,” she said a little while later.

“That makes two of us,” Jim shot back.

She got up and walked towards him and put a hand on his shoulder, but he pushed it away and refused to look at her.

“Just leave,” he said. “If your mind’s made up there’s nothing I can do about it. I guess I was never your first choice to begin with. Even when we were little kids.”

“I guess you’re right.”

“God I fucking hate women sometimes.”

“I hope I didn’t ruin the concept for you.”

“I’ll be fine. Just get out of here, you’re only making things worse.”

He found an entry on Craigslist that looked promising. He clicked the link and began looking it over though, of course, as soon as he was no longer under surveillance he would feel free to indulge his anger and frustration without fear of judgment.

“Goodbye Jim,” Laura said plaintively.

“Don’t let the door hit you on the way out,” he replied.

A little whimper escaped her upper throat. She turned away and left. Keith didn’t say goodbye to her either as she left his house, in all likelihood never to return. How this denouement might affect the fortunres of the Fantastic Four was anybody’s guess. That little group might never meet again either. Both agreed, as the following minutes passed, that it probably could have been worse. At least they had been honest with each other.

Jim closed his laptop and went back into the living room, where he went back to playing Halo. Keith wordlessly offered his condolences, allowing his roommate the space he needed to be regretful, to wonder where he had gone wrong. Sometimes, he supposed, there really was no saying. Tomorrow, at least, was another day. Onward and upward. Some day he’d get a job and make money again. Maybe it was that simple. Could it be? No, he didn’t believe that. It had been something else, some idea that hadn’t been brought to fruition, some strength, some level of unpredictability he hadn’t been able to achieve. He wondered what Cather would think; was he even aware that a dalliance had developed between Jim and Laura. And what about Tyler? Uncertainty could be found everywhere you cared to find it.

An hour later Keith left Jim the living room. Jim turned off the TV and lay down on the couch, staring at the ceiling. Eventually he fell asleep that way. He did not remember his dreams.

Chapter 20: Cather Williams and the Silver-Tongued Gigalos

Cather was messing around on his piano when he heard his cell phone receive a text message. He reached for it and checked. It was from Dylan. It said this: “Want to hang out after work tonight?”

“I sure do!” Cather replied. “I suppose you’re on the floor?”

He wasn’t playing anything in particular, but was re-hashing some of the chord progressions he’d played in New Orleans. Another potential band mate was coming to his place in about an hour. So far he’d found a drummer he liked — who also had a house with a garage, a definite selling point — and had seen a couple bass players. The young man coming this afternoon was a guitarist who also sang. He said he had a few songs under his belt the he was willing to share. His influences were Nirvana, Coltrane, Trombone Shorty (a New Orleans native who had made good), and Pink Floyd, so it sounded like his musical tastes paralleled Cather’s pretty ably. Cather himself hadn’t written any songs with lyrics before, but thought a good nightclub opener was Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up,” and he planned on seeing how well the guitarist, whose name was Tom, would be able to ad lib it, as it wasn’t a particularly technically difficult song.

His phone pinged again:

“Yeah, I’m waiting tables tonight.”

Then, a few minutes later.

“Sorry I haven’t been in touch. Things are complicated, you know how it is. Anyways, see you in a few hours.”

“Okay, see you in a few. Hope you’re having a good day.”

He’d already decided on a name for the band, which the drummer also liked: “The Silver Tongued Giggalos.” Who could argue with a moniker so sexy?

It was kind of a terrifying thought, striking out from his cushy restaurant gig. He worked every Thursday through Sunday, the meatiest days for the concert-going public. He was paid $100 per night. He could imagine surviving on three nights a week that way, but any more would be a stretch, and might tempt the manager to look for someone more reliable. He supposed that he would see how things developed. He hoped Pyramid would be accommodating, allow him a night off a week, but, if the Giggalos turned out to be any good, he would certainly need more than that. Maybe he should also start looking into teaching. Wouldn’t pay as well, but would fit into a schedule easier. Suffice it to say he had a lot on his mind. Hearing from Dylan was a nice little bonus. Tomorrow he was scheduled to see a trumpet player. That might add a little something unique.

A little while later, right on time, he heard a knock at his front door. He got up and went to answer it. There was a medium-height white kid with brown hair waiting for him.

“Hi, Cather?” the boy asked.

“Yeah. You must be Tom.”

“Yes I must.”

Cather smiled. “Come on in. You brought your acoustic so I see.”

Tom raised up his guitar case and patted it.

“Don’t leave him without it.”

“Come on in. Sorry, my room’s kind of a mess.”

He led Tom through his ground floor apartment to his room and smoothed out the sheets on his bed so Tom could sit there.

“Don’t worry about playing too loud. This is the perfect time of day cause most of the rest of the house’s tenants aren’t here. We couldn’t get away with practicing here regular, but I’ve got a drummer I like in East Lake who has a garage. Do you have a car?”

“Yep.”

“He has a mini-van, so he can help me move my piano when the time comes. Yours isn’t a mini-van is it?”

“No, it’s a two-door.”

“Shame. Anyways, thanks for coming, I’m really excited about getting this project going. I like your influences. Have you ever performed before? I mean professionally?”

“I’m not sure what you mean by professionally but I’ve been playing in one way or another since the seventh grade. I’ve done a few gigs here and there, but I’ve never been part of a real band before.”

“Then you’ve come to the right place, I hope. I think. You can sit there on the bed.”

Tom sat down and opened his case and took out his acoustic. He started tuning it while Cather took out the sheet music to “Get Up, Stand Up.”

“You know this song?” Cather asked, handing it to him.

Tom looked at it: “Of course I recognize it, but I’ve never played it before.”

“It’s pretty easy. I thought it would be a good getting-to-know-you kind of exercise. I think it would be a good show opener too, if we want to get ahead of ourselves.”

“Okay, I see what you’re saying.”

Cather handed over a music stand for him to position the sheet music on. He watched Tom look over the material and strum the opening chords.

“Reggae rhythms are kind of difficult,” Tom said.

“You’re right, but we don’t have to go too fast. I hope I don’t sound arrogant or pretentious but I think I know what I’m looking for. I just want to see how you do.”

“I take it you know what you’re doing.”

“I’ve got a lot of performance work under my belt. I lived in New Orleans for a few years doing mostly jazz, but I grew up here in Oakland being taught classical. Now I think I like the idea of doing prog rock. The drummer that I’ve found agrees.”

“Prog rock. What, like Pink Floyd?”

“Yeah, King Crimson. Have you ever heard of Swans?”

“Nope.”

“Well, I recommend them. That’s the kind of stuff I like the most. Dark, edgy, with room to show off.”

“Okay, well, I hope I’m up to it.”

Tom strummed the opening chords a few times, tapping his foot. He leaned over his guitar and re-positioned it. Soon he was launching into the music itself. Cather joined in, and was pleased when Tom wasn’t thrown off. They kept rhythm together and before long, with few technical mishaps, had made it through all four pages of the song. At the end Tom threw in an extra few seconds of improvisation, but nothing too showy, that Cather appreciated.

“Hey, that wasn’t half bad,” he said.

“Thanks. It’s a good song. I’d never thought about playing it before.”

“You want to try something a little harder?”

“Sure.”

Cather went into his folder of sheet music and brought out another paper-clipped set of pages.

“The Killers, ‘Jenny Was a Friend of Mine,’” Cather said.

“Oh, I like The Killers.”

“Tell me when you’re ready. You set a pace you think you can maintain and I’ll join in.”

Tom took some time to read through the first few chords, then started playing at about the same tempo as the song was performed on its album. Cather joined in with the most relevant backing chords, but also played the vocal melody. It didn’t sound half-bad. When they were done Cather was all but certain he’d found a new band mate. He told Tom this directly:

“You know, I think you’ve really got something,” he said. “Strong musical sensibility, if you ask me.”

“Thanks. I like playing with you too. Thanks for not pushing me.”

“Well, unless you have something else to do some time next week I’d love to welcome you to the Silver-Tongued Gigalos.”

Tom laughed. “I love the name,” he said.

“You don’t by any chance have any songs you’ve written yourself, do you?”

“Nope, never done that before.”

“Well we’ll see what we want to try out. Maybe we’ll just do covers at first, or even just jam out for a few minutes at a time. I’m good at that.”

Cather went into the little desk next to his piano and took out one of his business cards.

“My cell and e-mail are on here. I’m seeing a trumpet player tomorrow and I might want to see another bassist, but next week maybe we can start practicing, maybe twice a week at first, convenience permitting.”

“Works for me, brother. It’s been great to meet you.”

“Likewise. I’ll need help moving the piano but I think Jason, that’s the drummer, can help with that. We’ll practice at his garage.”

“Awesome, man. It’ll be great to get out, won’t it?”

“Yes it will, as long as nobody fucks it up.”

“God permitting, nobody will.”

With that Cather showed Tom the door, then went back to his piano and played a few celebratory passages that came from his sub-conscious. There was something adventurous about this pursuit. So far it had gone as well as he might have hoped.

He went back to practicing, then ate a late lunch and got ready for work. He wondered how things would go with Dylan. There was a quality about him that Cather couldn’t quite reconcile, as if his diffidence was a protective mechanism, though Cather was pretty sure he’d never been overtly demanding or threatening. Maybe he would find out tonight. He found, since coming back to the Bay Area, that the ability to go with the flow was an important one to possess; not to demand too much or expect more than the minimum. That way you would never be disappointed. It wasn’t a terrible philosophy to live by, and so far it had served him well. Now, with this band, he hoped, he wished, that he might reach new heights of gratification. He thought he had a shot. He was good at his instrument. Everybody said so. Of course you don’t want to get ahead of yourself, but it was a good thing to be excited about the future. How many adults could truly say that they were? And he supposed, being 22, he was technically that. When he left for work it was with a slight smile on his face.

His showing that night was as solid as it had ever been. His repertoire, mostly repeated but sometimes expanded upon since his hiring here three months ago, consisted of a bevy of relatively un-dramatic classical pieces one might consider “easy listening.” He’d learned most of them in high school, but it was in New Orleans where he found his voice, where he learned to improvise, to be part of a group, both colluding and competing with the other musicians on-stage for the purpose of together making a good song that the audience would enjoy and remember.

His mind was back in NOLA most of the night, a place chock full of performers of many stripes, but which didn’t treat them any more gratefully than any city you might find yourself in. There was a saying that it was as good to be a rich man in New York as a pauper in New Orleans, and Cather appreciated this sentiment, though he could not personally attest to the former experience.

He wondered at his group’s name. He thought he was the most technically skilled musician in the young, 4-person collective, but vacillated on whether to call the group “The Silver-Tongued Gigalos” or “Cather Williams and the Silver-Tongued Gigalos.” He thought the second sounded more graceful, for no reason he could articulate, but was he truly willing to assign himself the role of leadership so ham-handedly? Maybe he would ask the rest of them the first time they all met, which looked to be some time next week. He had been the one to instigate the whole thing, after all.

While he was playing he noticed Dylan gravitate towards him a few times, and the two of them even made eye-contact once. Cather felt a confrontation brewing. He was curious as to what form it would take.

He typically played two ninety minute sets. Finished with his first he approached the bar. Along with his pay he was entitled to a shift meal, which he usually took in the form of a medium-rare bacon cheddar cheeseburger. He ordered it and looked out at the rest of the restaurant. It wasn’t a bad place to spend an evening, if you had enough of the necessary dough, that is.

His burger arrived and he started to eat. He was about halfway through when someone sat down next to him. It was Dylan.

“Hey Cather. Great playing tonight.”

“Thanks.”

While Cather was facing the bar Dylan had sat down backwards, and leaned back and put one elbow on the counter right next to Cather’s right arm.

“You want to hang out tonight?” Dylan asked.

Cather took a drink of water.

“What was that?” he asked.

“I’m asking if you’re busy tonight.”

“I guess not. Why?”

“You want me to spell it out for you?”

“Well I haven’t heard from you in almost a month, so I guess so.”

“I know. I’m sorry. I’m an asshole.”

“What do you normally do with yourself after work?”

“Normally I go home, which is in the Mission.”

“You want me to go home with you?”

“That’s the crux of the matter.”

Cather sniggered. “I pride myself on my directness.”

“Okay, just think about it. I’d like to get to know you better.”

“What brought this about?”

“Or why didn’t it happen sooner?”

“If you like.”

“I can answer all those questions on the way. In short I was seeing someone else the last time we hooked up, and I don’t think I still am. Or maybe I’ll like you more, I don’t know.”

“The ladies love musicians, don’t they?”

“I ain’t no lady.”

“I know. I’m sorry. It’s true though, isn’t it?”

“Yes, your playing impresses me.”

“We can talk about it on the way, but the last couple weeks I’ve been working on putting a band together.”

“Wow, that’s awesome.”

“Yeah, so my regular gig here might be in jeopardy. Eventually. I’d be a fool to let this one go too easily.”

“What are you called?” Dylan asked, pivoting on the stool so he was no longer aimed backwards.

Cather thought for a moment. What did his sub-conscious think? How should he answer?

“Cather Williams and the Silver-Tongued Gigalos,” he said.

“Ha, I like it. Your idea?”

“Of course. It’s something I’m looking forward to working on.”

“That’s great. I’ll let you eat. Just find me once we’re closing, okay?”

“Okay. I’m glad we’re getting another trial run in.”

“So am I. Take it easy Mr. Silver-Tongued Gigalo.”

Cather smiled and nodded. Dylan left. A few minutes later Cather finished his meal and returned to the piano. He started with a J.S. Bach Partita, then continued with a Chopin Nocturne, and a slow, lyrical Satie song called “Gymnopedie.” He chewed up the time and before he knew it the restaurant was closing.

He ordered a bottle of Anchor Steam at the bar and sat by the front door, waiting for Dylan, who was finishing his side work. He supposed he didn’t need to go home tonight. Dylan had hurt his feelings a bit with giving him the cold shoulder after their first encounter. Maybe this was the beginning of something, who knows? His so far useful philosophy applied here as well: go with the flow. An over-abundance of judgmentalism or pride wouldn’t do, unless you were content with what you already had, or were willing to be unhappy. As for fresh conquests, you couldn’t get anything unless you were willing to risk something. Maybe he would find his philosophy validated with Dylan, even if after a month’s delay. There was only one way to find out.

He watched Dylan walk towards him, removing his tie as he did it.

“Ready?” Dylan asked.

“Yup,” Cather replied.

Dylan cast a glance over his shoulder, as if to see if anyone was watching. No one was. They left the restaurant together and walked down Kearny Street.

“BART’s a little faster than the bus,” Dylan said.

“If you say so.”

They arrived at the Montgomery Street station and descended down to it on an escalator. They both had Clipper cards, so neither of them needed to buy a ticket. Neither tried to speak to the other while they passed through the fair gates and took another escalator down to the platform. The next train arrived a few minutes later and they took it to 16th Street, where Dylan tapped Cather’s knee and gestured for them to offboard, which they did.

It was a cool winter’s night. Both of them were wearing jackets. The Mission wasn’t the safest neighborhood in the city, but had been experiencing a high degree of gentrification for some time now. Dylan led them to a Victorian on 17th and Folsom, where the two of them climbed the stairs to the front door, which Dylan unlocked and led them in. He hung his coat up on a rack next to the front door, and Cather followed his example.

“Nice house,” Cather said, and meant it. It was well-lit, warm, and had high ceilings.

“I live in the attic,” Dylan said.

“Must get hot in the summer.”

“It does.”

“You want some wine or something? I think I’ve got a bottle in the kitchen.”

“Sure, that sounds nice.”

They went into the kitchen, which shared a floor with the living room, where there were two roommates watching television. They looked over their shoulders at the approaching duo.

“Hey Dylan,” one of them, a young Mexican kid, said.

“Hey Marco,” Dylan replied. “This is my friend Cather. We work together.”

“Nice to meet you,” said Marco, turning forward again.

“You can sit there at the table,” Dylan said, gesturing towards one that was positioned at a window at the rear of the house.

Cather did as directed and watched his co-worker ferret a bottle of Yellowtail cabernet out of a cupboard and locate a pair of wine glasses. He poured for both of them, then came to the table and sat down across from Cather, handing him a glass.

Cather decided to watch him, as he didn’t know what to say. In the back of his mind lay the possibility that he would leave at some point, before the BART station closed. He wasn’t sure, for some reason, that coming here had been a good idea.

Voice lowered, he leaned forward and asked: “Do they know? Your roommates?”

“Know what?”

“You know, that you’re…” he raised his hand and made the wishy-washy gesture that, for people like him, held universal meaning.

“Of course they do. I’ve lived here for three years.”

“Hm. I guess I haven’t known it long enough myself to make a point of it.”

“It’s something to think about. You never know how someone might take it.”

“If it bothers anyone they’re not worth the time of day.”

“Still, it could be, kind of, a surprise.”

Cather leaned back and continued to watch.

“Have you ever been with a woman?” Dylan asked.

“I haven’t.”

“You’re younger than me.”

“I’m twenty-two.”

“I’m twenty-five. With years come experience.”

“And wisdom.”

“Well, not in my case.”

Cather laughed and took a few seconds to finish his wine.

“More?” Dylan asked, raising the bottle.

“Sure, why not?”

Dylan poured. When he was done Cather drank some more.

More silence spread between them. Perhaps Dylan was aware that his odd behavior had put himself at a disadvantage. Their eyes met once and Dylan saw that there was humor in Cather’s, but also wariness. Cather saw in Dylan’s that he believed this sentiment understandable.

“You want to come upstairs? For some privacy?” Dylan asked.

Cather looked uncertain.

“Just like that?” he said, and scratched an itch on the side of his face.

“Take it or leave it. It’s just an idea.”

Cather found himself wondering what he had come here for in the first place. If he left he probably would never be alone with Dylan again. He wasn’t sure if he wanted this or not.

He finished his second glass of wine. Dylan was looking at the surface of the kitchen table as if there were something to read there.

“Do they know at work?” Cather asked.

“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”

“They saw us leave together.”

“That doesn’t mean anything.”

“No, I guess not. I wonder how my friends would react. Or my new bandmates.”

“The Silver-Tongued Gigalos.”

“No, Cather Williams and the Silver-Tongued Gigalos.”

“I don’t think you can be any kind of an artist if you don’t think you have the ego to believe that you’re something like that.”

“Would you know?”

“I took some drawing classes in college. So, no, I guess not.”

“You guess.”

“That’s right, I’m merely emulating impressions that I’ve overheard.”

“It’s true though. Even though I’ve got a job any pianist would kill for I’m thinking about tossing it in the trash just so I can be a starving artist on tour.”

“You want to be your own boss.”

“I want to be famous, ideally.”

“You think you’re good enough?”

“I think I’ve got a shot.”

Dylan leaned back and met Cather’s eyes again.

“Well then I guess you should take it.”

Cather smiled, and felt now less non-committal than he had a few minutes earlier.

The two of them maintained eye contact a few moments, then Dylan seemed to realize he was entering a staring contest and his gaze retreated to the safety of the distance on the table between his one hand stationed there and his glass of wine. He looked like he needed encouragement but didn’t know how to ask for it, or if he should. Over the course of the last several minutes it had become incontrovertible that Cather was the one that needed convincing, and, given how Dylan had hurt his feelings quite effectively since their last night-time encounter, Cather felt himself gratified that he was, in fact, gaining ground in a game that could last as long as he felt it should. Did he want to stay the night? The unspoken question.

He took another sip of wine, then leaned forward and, with a grin on his face, touched the one of Dylan’s hands that was resting on the table. In this way he made clear his decision. He was forgiving by nature, after all.

A little while later Dylan led him up the stairs to his attic room, which, even in the winter, was explosively hot. It became a night that the both of them would, for years hence, remember fondly.

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.

Chapter 18: An Occurence at the Ruby Room

Since all he had was spare time, Tyler had spent much of it acquainting himself with his new laptop. The other day Mickey had left him a note, which listed, simply the following websites: Facebook.com, Craigslist.org, indeed.com, and Monster.com. By this point Tyler had already learned a bit about surfing the internet and he checked these sites out. Of course he’d already heard of Facebook. The others, he learned, were places where you look for a job. Unfortunately he had nothing to put on his resumé, but he had also tried his hand at using Microsoft Word, an application he’d bought included with his laptop. It seemed a whole world of possibilities were at least theoretically open to him. Shortly after creating a Facebook account he received a friend invitation from Cather, which he was happy to accept. This site too seemed limitless in its potential for the enabling of procrastination. Anyway it would be a good way to get in touch and stay in touch with people from his past, and his present. He sent Cather a message as soon as he’d heard from him: “Hey Cather! I bought myself a laptop. Good to hear from you!” “See ya around, buddy,” Cather replied.

But there was another happenstance on this particular January 8th, 2009. It was Tyler’s birthday. He was twenty-two. He couldn’t think of a good way to celebrate it, however, so he was still on Mickey’s couch when the homeowner himself came back from work.

“What’s up, bro?” Mickey said, closing the door behind him.

“Hey Mickey.”

“Still getting shit done on the laptop I see.”

“I am. It’s addictive. Grabbing my future by the balls.”

“Well somebody’s got to.”

Mickey walked past him and Tyler heard him puttering around in the kitchen. Mickey usually had a snack right after getting off work. They’d been taking turns cooking for each other. Tonight it was Mickey’s responsibility.

A few minutes later he came back into the living room.

“Happy birthday, by the way,” he said.

Tyler smiled. “You remembered.”

“I sure did. I want to take you out in celebration. I was thinking we could get some Chinese food then have a drink. You want?”

“Yeah man, that sounds awesome.”

“Great. Put something nice on. We’ll paint the town red.”

Tyler closed his laptop and went into his luggage. He had a dress shirt and a pair of khakis, the only items he owned that might qualify as “nice.” He hadn’t been drinking today, something which had become a semi-regular occurrence. Truth be told he’d recently felt like he was getting somewhere in his slow acculturation to civilian life. It was gratifying also that Mickey had remembered his birthday. Mickey was a Virgo, a sign known for its attention to detail, something Tyler, as a Capricorn, appreciated.

About an hour later, around 7:30, they left Mickey’s house and got into his car, a blue 2002 Toyota Tercel, and headed for Chinatown. They hadn’t spoken much the last few days. Mickey started the conversation.

“It’s good to see you on your laptop, Ty,” he said. “Computer literacy really helps the job hunt these days.”

“Man, I don’t even know where to start. I don’t have any experience at all. I’m not even sure being a veteran is a good thing or not.”

“Yeah, I hear you. It’s something though.”

“You know what I’ve been thinking?”

“What?”

“I’m thinking about taking classes at Laney the next semester. I think that would be a good place to start.”

“Bro, that’s a great idea. When would that be?”

“Well, I missed registration for spring, but this summer I could make it a full-time thing. I’ll still be getting unemployment. It’s not like I don’t have the money.”

“As long as you still want to stay on my couch I guess. You still might want to try to find a job, just to give yourself some structure.”

“Yeah but where?”

“We do a lot of hiring at Wal-Mart you know.”

“That’s a thought. I don’t know. I might not be up to it yet. You have no idea how much I appreciate being able to stay with you.”

“Do your thing bro. But maybe pushing yourself some is just what you need.”

They crossed Lake Merritt’s South shore and took a left on Webster. They found a parking spot on 10th St., which was about as far North as Chinatown extended before it became Downtown.

They got out of Mickey’s car and went to the sidewalk.

“You know where you want to go?” Tyler asked.

“There’s a good spot on Ninth Street.”

“And I guess you’re picking up the tab, right? It being my birthday and all.”

“Goes without saying, my man.”

They found the restaurant Mickey had mentioned, and found it less than busy, it being a Wednesday, and not at peak hour.

One of the waiters directed them to a table by the window and gave them hot tea, water, and menus.

Tyler was in good spirits. It was probably the first time he’d felt that way since coming to Oakland, which means, considering his prior four years had been spent in Iraq, it might have been the first time he’d felt that way in years. It was a relief. It was progress.

A few minutes later the waiter came back and they ordered: Tyler’s sweet and sour chicken and Mickey’s beef and broccoli. The waiter left.

Mickey poured Tyler and himself some tea, as it had had time to steep. Tyler took a sip. They sat in silence a moment.

“Where you wanna go after this?” Tyler asked.

“I’ve got a bar I like going to. It’s on 14th Street. It’s called the Ruby Room.”

“It’s a white folks joint?”

“A bit of everyone. We won’t be out of place.”

“Do you have work tomorrow?”

“Yeah, but not until the afternoon.”

“I’ll get first round.”

“We’ll get to that when we get there, but I appreciate the sentiment.”

The food came some ten minutes later and they ate. Mickey talked some about his day, how hard it could be to keep the staff productive, and his own issues with patience. Tyler mostly listened. For some reason he kept getting the feeling that Mickey was hiding something, like he had a plan Tyler wasn’t hip to, but then again Mickey had never been the incredibly loquacious type. Tyler himself didn’t have much to talk about. He hadn’t seen any of his friends, that is, the Fantastic Four, for almost a month. Rather than initiate it this time he was willing to wait. After they finished their food and waited for the waiter to come back with Mickey’s debit card thoughts of Laura crossed Tyler’s mind, and he wondered what the status of things were between she and Jim. Maybe it was none of his business any more. Still, sometimes he thought about it.

About half an hour later they left the restaurant and walked back up Webster Street to Mickey’s car. It was only a short drive North to a parking space on 14th. They crossed the street to a nondescript doorway with an overhang that read simply “Ruby Room.”

The bar on the other side was dark and, indeed, lit with ruby-colored lights. It was about 9:00. There were a few patrons seated at the bar itself, and more at the tables in the back. There was also a security guard just on the other side of the front door, and he checked both Mickey’s and Tyler’s IDs before permitting them entry.

“Let’s sit at the bar,” Mickey said.

They did as Mickey bid. There was a pretty brunette white girl bartender at the section they sat down in.

“What’ll it be, gents?” she asked, wiping up some stray liquid in front of where they sat.

“Mickey?” Tyler asked.

“Scotch and soda,” Mickey said.

“Make that two,” Tyler said.

Tyler held out a twenty and the bartender took it, then made their drinks and came back with them and Tyler’s change. He left a dollar on the counter and started to drink. He thought it might be fun to make a night of it, whether Mickey wanted to or not. If Mickey left early Tyler had no problem walking home.

“You come here a lot?” Tyler asked.

“From time to time.”

“It’s dark. I like it. I hate those bars that are lit up like football stadiums. I don’t need people looking at me while I drink.”

“Beats drinking alone though.”

“Yeah. I’ve been doing that some. I think I’m snapping out of it.”

“It’s a good thing you have money.”

“Just about the only thing I’ve got going for me these days. I don’t know, getting a job… it sounds pretty daunting to me.”

“Going back to school’s a good idea. You have a high school degree, don’t you?”

“I do, for what it’s worth. Maybe I’ll get a car at some point. No rush in that arena either, but I still have a valid license. Mom taught me, up in Roseville.”

“You still in touch with the folks?”

“Sometimes. Every now and then. I think they’re just glad I made it home in one piece.”

“They aren’t the only ones.”

“Your concern is appreciated.”

The bar was slowly filling with more patrons, most of them young, most of them white. A Raiders game was playing on one of the television sets positioned above their heads. Conversation between Mickey and Tyler slowed down and then ceased altogether. Tyler decided to watch the football game. He hadn’t been following them since coming back home, though every now and then he’d caught a game in Mickey’s living room.

Soon the two of them ordered another round. Time started to get away from them. At one point Mickey checked his watch, and then turned toward Tyler with a grin on his face. He clapped a hand on his brother’s shoulder.

“It was a good idea for us to come out tonight,” Mickey said. “I’m going to check in the other room, I think I saw someone I know.”

“No problem.”

“Enjoy yourself. I’m right around the corner.”

Mickey took his drink and left. Tyler turned his attention back to the television. A few minutes later someone sat down next to him, a woman, who noisily produced her purse and ordered a glass of wine. When Tyler looked at her her face lit up and she grinned back at him. She wasn’t bad looking. Looked Chinese, maybe a few years older than Tyler.

“Hi,” she said.

“Hello yourself,” Tyler replied.

“Do you know who’s winning?”

“Sorry?”

“You’re watching football. Are we winning?”

“Who’s ‘we’?”

“The Raiders, of course, silly.”

Tyler laughed a little. “I don’t know, honestly I’m not paying attention.”

“You’re funny. Who looks at a television but doesn’t know what’s happening on it?”

“I guess I’ve got a lot on my mind.”

“Who doesn’t?”

The bartender came back with the Chinese woman’s order.

“Thanks girl,” the woman said, and paid and left a dollar on the counter.

“Here’s to clearing our minds, the only way we can,” the Chinese woman said. “You want to cheers me?”

It occurred to Tyler that this sort of interaction hadn’t happened with him since he’d been back in Oakland. It was actually kind of annoying, but the woman was pretty.

He took his glass and raised it towards her and their glasses clinked.

“Sorry, what’s your name?” he asked.

“Jasmine,” she answered.

“My name’s Tyler,” he said, even though she hadn’t asked. “I’m here with my brother.”

“Oh yeah? Mickey, right? I think I know him too.”

“How do you know my brother?”

“We can get to that now or we can save it for later.”

“Save it for what?”

Jasmine giggled and seemed to pout a little.

“I don’t know, I’m just being goofy,” she said. “Don’t take me too seriously.”

Tyler furrowed his brow and looked at the bartender, who was busy with another customer. He took another drink.

“Are you here with anyone?” he asked.

“Nope. Your brother told me you would be here.”

“Come on, how do you know Mickey?”

“Okay, I’ll tell you, but first answer this question.”

“Shoot.”

“Do you think I’m pretty?”

“Well, yeah, now that you mention it.”

“You like me?”

“Moving a little fast, but sure, yeah.”

“Sorry, I hope I’m not being annoying. Your brother told me you would be here. Do you get my drift?”

Tyler regarded her now with more interest. A few minutes later it hit him. What he’d perceived as Mickey’s withholding some secret plan now made more sense.

He couldn’t help it. He laughed. For some reason it was a relief.

Jasmine batted her eyelashes at him.

“Buy me a drink?” she asked.

“Sure, once you finish with that one.”

He watched her drink more of her wine.

“Just one more,” she said, “or I won’t want to drive.”

“Where would we drive to?”

“Mickey took care of that too. Maybe you want it to be a surprise?”

“Damn, my brother’s something else ain’t he?”

“I don’t know him very well, unfortunately.”

“Just my type, too,” Tyler said. It occurred to him that it might be exactly what he needed. He hadn’t had intimate female companionship since high school. Jasmine wasn’t bad looking either. You could do worse for a twenty-second birthday. “Thanks for showing interest. I wish my life were more interesting to talk about.”

“That’s okay. I can be a chatter bug. You look like the silent type.”

Tyler shook his head and had some more scotch and soda. He turned his barstool towards the mystery woman and touched her shoe with one of his. Like a cat, she accepted this overture with a slight movement towards him. She finished her wine and set the glass down. Tyler flagged down the bartender and asked for more of the same for the both of them.

“They won’t like me here if they know who I am,” Jasmine said. “Let’s not make it too obvious.”

“Sorry, don’t mean to be obvious.”

“It’s okay, I’m one to talk.”

Tyler kept regarding her as he drank. A fantastic means for clearing his head seemed shortly inevitable. He thought he would always appreciate his brother for this.

A little while later they both finished their drinks and left the Ruby Room. Jasmine’s car was parked down 14th Street. She drove them down Broadway to Jack London Square and parked on Embarcadero. As it turned out there was a hotel room waiting for them at the Jack London Waterfront Hotel. They passed the time ably and stayed all night. Upon waking in the morning, alone, Tyler found himself all but certain that he had, indeed, turned some kind of corner, as if re-entry into society had finally become a conceivable affair.

He bought himself breakfast in the hotel’s buffet, and returned to Mickey’s house. He watched TV, screwed around on his laptop, and tucked Jasmine’s business card into a secure place in his luggage where it wouldn’t be lost. What would happen to him next, that is, life, was anybody’s guess.

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