And the Joker Got Away
By Robert Repino
This was not the life Richard expected when he first became Batman. Instead of saving Gotham City, he was sitting inside on a sunny day, wearing the same scrub shirt and mesh shorts he had worn the day before, squinting through the dusty sunlight at the porn websites on his computer screen. Barely Legal Teens-Wet and Ready, the little windows said in gaudy pink letters. Cum Play with Us! It was like every other Saturday afternoon until Vera, his roommate, knocked on his door and told him that her long-distance boyfriend was making a surprise visit. He was a guy named Ted who didn’t know-or perhaps refused to believe-that she had been cheating on him for months.
“He’s flying in this afternoon, Batman,” she said through the door. “What am I gonna do with this guy?”
Vera had addressed Richard as such ever since he had placed an ad on Craigslist for a roommate six months earlier: “Batcave needs a Robin-$495/month, heat included.” When she responded and visited the apartment, he couldn’t resist telling her about the contest he had entered back in 1989, which promised the shiny black Batmobile from the movie, along with a million dollars. He won it when he was only seventeen and living with his brother, Nick, who had virtually raised him since their mother had taken ill. The car became a fixture in front of their Upper Darby rowhome. People in the neighborhood asked him if there was going to be a Bat-Signal every night. Vera laughed when Richard told her this, just as he had expected her to.
What he didn’t tell Vera, even though it was painfully obvious, was that he blew all the money in just a few years like the biblical Prodigal Son. And that was why, well into his early thirties, he worked at the local copy center and lived in a shoebox apartment in South Philadelphia.
Vera, on the other hand, had moved to the city from Boston to pursue a master’s degree in public health. During the day, she worked on a bus that went around the poor neighborhoods and did free HIV screenings and pregnancy tests. “I show twelve-year old boys how to put rubbers on cucumbers,” she told Richard. He tried not to think about the fact that, when she was finished with school, she would be moving on to a more complete life, while he would still be in the same apartment, dropping the Batman routine on people while hoping to move up to assistant manager.
One day, shortly after she had moved in, Richard was on the toilet, and turned on the water to cover up the sound of what he was doing. “Don’t waste water on my account,” Vera yelled through the door. “I know that even superheroes have to shit.” So Richard knew that she would be an interesting roommate, with her weird hours and juvenile sense of humor. He considered her a friend, although he knew their friendship was largely based on the fact that they simply didn’t get on each other’s nerves too much, and because, after they had slept together one night in a drunken blur, he had refrained from pursuing anything further with her. It had happened after a party thrown by the Drexel students who lived next door. With the two of them stinking of Southern Comfort, Richard didn’t have to try very hard. As soon as he reached for the spaghetti strap of Vera’s tank top, she was already flipping it over her shoulder for him. She smiled, but her eyes were dull, the eyelids low and careless. Even though they passed out lying next to each other, they didn’t sleep in the same bed that night, and never mentioned it to each other again.
Despite all of this, or perhaps because of it, Richard briefly entertained the thought that, somehow, he and Vera could become a real couple, two people who took care of each other, something like that. Even though she was almost ten years younger, he wanted to believe that she knew the same disappointments in love that he did, and that she would someday understand this similarity. But he had to put these fantasies aside now that Vera was sleeping with Jack the Bartender, a guy who worked at a pub where she and her colleagues from the bus went for happy hour. Several nights a week, Vera’s high heels would clack on the hardwood floors as she scurried around the apartment getting ready. She always seemed to look the same, with her tight jeans and black cleavage shirt, her highlighted hair dangling over her unnaturally tan face and fake green contact lenses, her choker drawing attention to her slim neck. Richard would wait for her to at least make a crass joke about that drunken night together, but she never did. Instead, she would remind Richard to tell Ted that she was at the library if he called. Richard never argued, and reminded himself that dating a roommate was a bad idea anyway, especially someone as free-spirited as Vera. With Jack the Bartender, she had found a worthier man with whom to cheat on Ted.
So Ted’s arrival was going to complicate things even further, and Vera’s agitated voice coming from the other side of his bedroom door convinced Richard that this was going to be a long weekend.
“You gotta cover for me, Bats,” she said. “He’s on his way, and I have to meet Jack.”
Richard had shelved his regret over the way things had transpired with Vera, and now it came tumbling out, overwhelming him. He was angry that she would ask him to lie for her, but he knew that refusing now would only make him look like an idiot.
“Show him the car or something,” she said.
“Vera, this is your problem,” he replied.
“Come on, man, just do me this one favor.”
This one favor, he thought, biting his lip. Just as he was about to tell her yet again that she should just dump Ted, his cell phone rang, vibrating in his pocket against his thigh. He pulled it out and saw that the caller ID said that it was Nick. Richard rubbed his eyes in frustration because his brother had been on his ass for months to buy the Batmobile. He said he was going to use it in some tacky commercial for his information technology business, the same place that Richard took his computer when it contracted too many porn-related viruses, just so Nick could condescendingly tell him, “Just be careful with it next time.”
As if he were about to receive bad news, Richard turned away from Vera, flipped open the phone, and held it to his ear. Instead of saying hello, he merely waited for his brother to speak.
“What’s up, Richard?” Nick asked.
As Nick asked if now was a good time to talk about the car, Richard turned to see that Vera was already gone.
* * *
The bat symbol invaded Richard’s neighborhood that spring of 1989. A rounded black shape with curved wings over top of a golden oval, it appeared on posters, movie marquees, and notebook doodlings. Nick, who was twenty-one at the time and attending a local technical school, bought the logo t-shirt, and called Richard a loser when he got the same one a few days later.
The ubiquitous symbols made Richard happy. There had been a time, before his mom got cancer all over her guts, that he and Nick played Batman and Robin in their neighborhood, stuffing paper towels down the backs of their shirts and swinging from ropes they tied to trees. Nick had always insisted on being Batman, but Richard cried so much about it that Nick eventually agreed to flip a coin every time they played. Tails meant that Richard would be the Caped Crusader for the day, and he would lead the fight against the forces of evil with their slingshots and homemade Batarangs. Flipping tails was the greatest thing in the world.
But things changed by the time high school rolled around. Not only had they outgrown such games, but Nick was virtually running the house while his mother was in and out of the hospital and their father had long since left them without a phone call or a letter. He was in jail or dead for all they knew. Only Nick could even remember him, but he never shared his memories with Richard. Don’t worry about him, Nick would say whenever asked. The two brothers didn’t hang out together anymore, and began to talk openly about what life would be like when their mom died. It was shocking at first, but it eventually became routine.
One day, Richard’s guidance counselor gave the seniors a “life skills” test with circles that had to be filled in with a number two pencil. The exam showed that Richard would be perfect in some kind of trade involving his hands. “Garbage man,” the jock next to him said as he peeked at Richard’s paper. When Richard got home, he turned on MTV and saw the commercial that had been airing for over a month now: This summer, the deep voice said while the wheels of a large car rolled by. This was followed by a shot of some guy standing in front of his garage and putting on a pair of shades. You can win…the Batmobile! As the garage door in the commercial opened, the sleek black car purred at the camera. It was impossibly long. The body, covered in shiny metal, curved up from the front bumper to the driver’s seat, down slightly, and then up again, finishing in a pair of giant batwings. The rear engine spouted fire as the guy in shades hit the gas pedal. Hundred-dollar bills spewed from the cockpit. While the terms and conditions scrolled at the bottom of the screen, frizzy-haired girls stood on manicured lawns and screamed at the driver as if he were a rock star.
Richard entered the contest that same day. He didn’t tell Nick. The secret was like a little treasure to him, and even if it never became real, it was something he could cherish while Nick barked at him about dirty dishes, and his mom faded away, and his school told him he would grow up to be a garbage man.
When he got the letter informing him that he had in fact won the car, along with a million dollars, he sat in his room and stared at it for a while. Everything from now on, he realized, would be dated from this moment. Before the contest, after the contest. This was something that would make people understand that he was more than just the sick woman’s kid, or the do-nothing brother of the guy who busted his ass keeping the house together. Things had come full-circle for the kid who always wanted to be Batman, and he started to believe that this was how life really worked.
There was only one problem. The terms and conditions, placed so stealthily in the commercial, said that he had to be eighteen to enter-he was still only seventeen. So, for the first time since Nick had locked him out of the house during a thunderstorm, Richard had to ask his brother for a favor. Without any hesitation or even a hint of guilt, Nick agreed to help by accepting the award. “But I keep half the money,” Nick said. Richard was going to share a huge portion of it anyway, so he didn’t argue. Luckily, Nick’s middle name was Richard, and he simply informed MTV that he had applied to the contest, and often went by that name. The contest officials bought it because the address was the same, and Nick’s signature was a perfect match to the one on the entry form.
The car finally arrived that fall, without the pile of cash that the commercial suggested, or even one of those giant checks that lottery winners receive. Instead, there was a regular check made out to Nicholas Richard. It took a few agonizing days for Nick to actually deposit the money, during which time Richard imagined his brother running off with it. Finally, Nick handed him a check for a little over $275,000. “Taxes,” he explained. Richard thought that Nick had cheated him somehow, and was almost disappointed when he did a little research and figured out that, in fact, Nick had not. It didn’t matter-Richard had done his part for his family and was set for a long time. He paid for a full-time nurse for his mother and split the rest of the mortgage for her rowhome with Nick. But, even better, he could cruise around the block in his gaudy new car, going slow on purpose and waving to all of the people who, until now, had only spoke of his broken family in whispers. He was somebody important now. Girls wouldn’t come up to him just to ask him about his brother anymore. He was free to live a life of his choosing. Within a month, he moved into his own apartment in the ritzy Main Line. The routine he had grown so accustomed to had finally, mercifully, changed.
* * *
Ted arrived about an hour after Richard told Nick yet again that he still needed time to think about selling the car. Ted matched the voice Richard had spoken with on the phone, wearing a frat boy outfit of a blue golf shirt with the collar popped up, faded jeans, and flip-flops on his long feet. His curly, dirty-blond hair poked out from underneath a faded Red Sox cap. Cradled in his arm was a potted sunflower, a gift for Vera, something that Richard couldn’t imagine she would be happy to receive.
“So you’re Batman?” Ted asked. “That is so cool.”
Richard said yes, it was cool, and guided him to the living room, where Ted placed the flower beside the greasy window. As instructed, he told Ted that Vera was at the library. Ted said that he had been trying to get hold of her for two hours now, ever since his plane had touched down.
Even though Richard wanted to go back to his room, he figured that it would be less creepy if he actually tried to make some small talk with Ted. Besides, it was an excuse to pop open a beer. So they sat with Yeunglings perched on their stomachs while Ted droned on about the trip, and how he met Vera on a semester abroad in Italy, while they were studying biology at Boston University. He would be graduating soon, and planned to join Vera in Philadelphia when he was done. His story was full of silly generalizations about Italians, and every anecdote ended with the reminder, “It was so funny.” Then Ted moved on to his lacrosse scholarship, and how he had recently played through a game with a twisted ankle that had swollen to twice its normal size. Richard felt that he understood how Vera viewed Ted: as a cheerful, uncomplicated boy, whose usefulness had run out now that she was off on her own. Vera was hoping that Ted would eventually get the hint and stop trying to be so possessive from a distance. Then things would gradually wind down, and there would be no hard feelings, no bad guys.
Richard couldn’t help but compare their lives. It was the same thing he did every day with the teenagers at work, all of them finishing up their classes and worrying about grades and parties. What do you know, Richard kept thinking while Ted spoke. What do you fucking know? He thought that Ted-being so naïve, so pretty and young-somehow deserved whatever misery awaited him when his little surprise visit was over. Richard, after all, had accepted that there was no chance of anything beyond a drunken tryst with Vera, a conclusion he had reached with a lot of women in his life. Ted, on the other hand, had several years’ worth of experience with her, yet still began sentences with phrases like, “When Vera and I move in together.” He was one of those guys who had done everything right, and who therefore expected to be rewarded with happiness for his hard work. That mindset had once made sense to Richard, but growing up meant abandoning such beliefs and accepting the world for what it was. Today, it was Ted’s turn.
They were running out of things to discuss. Richard told a few funny stories about Vera’s sex van, and Ted laughed out loud as if Richard were describing something Ted had done himself. “Vera’s quite a character,” Ted said. And then there was silence, during which Richard looked down the neck of his bottle to the few gulps of beer at the bottom.
“So, can I see the car, Batman?” Ted asked. He seemed convinced that they were now buddies. Richard considered saying no-he hadn’t shown it to anyone in a long time. But perhaps Ted needed a smaller disappointment in preparation for what Vera had in store for him. Besides, Richard had already eaten, showered, and masturbated, so his Saturday was pretty much over anyway.
* * *
It was damp and gray outside, a typical early spring day in Pennsylvania when it could rain or snow at any second. With Ted trailing behind, saying he needed a cheesesteak now that he was in Philly, Richard led him around the red brick wall of the apartment to the garage in the back. The tilted “S” logo for the Broad Street subway line loomed behind it. If only he could just hop on the train and get the hell out of there, maybe spend the whole day traveling underground like some homeless person until the cops threw him off. That would be the life. No copy centers. No broken-down printers. No roommates and their drama interrupting his day of rest.
Through the dust-caked windows of the garage, Richard could see the cockpit of the Batmobile. He grabbed the rusty handle of the door and lifted it for the first time since autumn. And there it was; only it wasn’t like in the commercial. Instead of hundred dollar bills, old leaves from the fall flew out in the breeze. The sides of the car bubbled with coppery rust as the chassis flaked away like some kind of metallic leprosy. The window was cracked. The right batwing was broken off-Richard couldn’t remember how. And there was never any fireball that shot from the tailpipe when he hit the gas. That was just a gag for the movie. Richard was sure that Nick wanted to buy this piece of crap not for a commercial, but simply because he could.
Ted’s jaw dropped at the pathetic sight of it. “It’s, uh-wow,” he said. While he ran a finger along the batwing, Richard yet again went into the story of how he won it, the whole time thinking, just shut the door. No point in looking at this thing. It brought up either bad memories, or good memories that were better off forgotten.
But the idea of taking the subway to nowhere had already drifted out of his mind. He kept staring, remembering the way that first girl smelled when he had sex with her in the driver’s seat (he needed the car to lose his virginity). Her name was Karen, and she wore bleached hair in a big puff above her forehead. Richard, having only kissed a girl at a freshman mixer years earlier, thought he was in love. She told him she didn’t like how cramped it was, how the gearshift had gotten in the way. But she had gone along with it.
For a while, they all had, falling for his silly routine of saying, “Hello, good citizen, my name is Batman.” In the days after the contest, Richard had money and an apartment to himself, while the most his peers could hope for at that age was a crowded dorm or their parents’ basements. There were articles in the paper, and classmates who never knew that Richard could even speak saw him smoothly handling interviews with the local network affiliates. The car became an oddity at the community college parking lot that fall of ‘89, an instant conversation piece for him to use among the overwhelmingly female population. He bought a new wardrobe for the first time in his life and purchased the best fake ID money could buy.
So when Karen moved on to someone else, Richard put aside his puppy love and tried to think about all the other women who would be happy to be his girlfriend. There was the girl whose name he couldn’t remember, whom he took to Las Vegas on a whim. Later that year, Richard triumphantly returned to his high school to attend the senior prom with a girl from his neighborhood. Other than the rock thrown at the windshield while he was inside dancing, Richard was sure that people were happy to see him again.
Things were going so well that he barely noticed, let alone cared, that he had flunked out of college.
Nick, meanwhile, invested his half of the money in his computer business, and never failed to remind Richard about it. Within a few years, Nick became one of the first people in town to turn a profit with something called a website. Nick always asked Richard to get onboard and help him out with the business, but Richard refused every time. Nick asked him if it was because he was too hard on him when they were younger, but Richard told him no. It may have been because Richard had always wanted to be out on his own, without his brother watching and judging anymore, but he had already stopped thinking about it anyway.
At the same time, he gathered around him a few other deadbeats from his high school, including the lead singer of a now-defunct garage band and his stoner groupies. Soon, all the people who didn’t go to college formed their own fraternity of sorts at his apartment. He felt so stupid to think of it now but, back then, Richard actually believed that he had somehow frozen time, that he had circumvented all of the things that turn young people into old people, and that life would be this carefree indefinitely. There were constant parties and countless blurry mornings in which his floor was covered in silver beer cans. Richard felt that he was such a celebrity that he even had the balls to stuff a fifty-dollar bill into a cop’s pocket after a neighbor had called the police because of the noise. The cop laughed, pushed the money further into his pocket, and said, “Just keep it down.”
When their mom finally died, Nick called Richard to see if he could contribute anything to the funeral. At the time, Richard was just beginning to realize that his part-time job at the copy center would have to become a full-time one if he wanted to keep his apartment. So he told Nick that he had nothing to give, and Nick hung up on him.
At the funeral, Richard didn’t even approach Nick, and meekly stood in the back wearing a wrinkled suit. He hated his brother almost as much as he hated himself that day, and imagined that Nick somehow arranged it so that their mom would finally go when he wasn’t around. “Everything you’ve done with your life is a joke,” Nick had said as Richard left the house carrying out a tray of hors d’oeuvres to stock his empty refrigerator.
They didn’t speak until a few years later, when Nick’s fiancée, Barb, forced him to invite Richard to their wedding. Richard gave the newlyweds a punch bowl, and Nick said thanks and asked how he was doing. Even though Nick began inviting Richard over every once in a while for barbecues and holidays, and even though he told Richard that a job was available at the company if he wanted it, Richard began interpreting everything his brother did as some kind of slap against him. Like when Nick talked about being on the Board of Commerce. Or when he named his second son Richard, as if to show everyone that Richard would never have such an opportunity himself.
By the time that crappy George Clooney Batman movie came out, Richard’s “friends” stopped showing up at his place. One night, he found himself at a bar with some former high school classmates-or maybe it was a party, he couldn’t quite remember now. They all greeted him as many people had lately, by sarcastically saying, oh, look it’s Batman. Richard noticed a blonde woman there, and it wasn’t until after she caught him staring that he realized that it was Karen, the girl with whom he had lost his virginity. He said hello, and she turned to the women around her and whispered something, and they all laughed. He pretended not to notice. The conversation left him behind as the group talked about marriage and grad school and new houses in cul-de-sacs. Meanwhile, he had just set up batman89 as his username on a porn website, and the only attention from women that he could hope for anymore were the occasional drunken fucks, much like the one with Vera. He had made it this far in life without being in a real relationship or preparing for the future, and it was starting to look as if it were too late to do either.
Soon, he would become a fixture at the copy center, and he would fill his brain with the useless knowledge of paper sizes and the best kind of pumice soap to clean the powdered ink out of your fingernails. The rich kids from high school, whom he had written off as irrelevant back when he thought he thought he was somebody important, came in and made copies of their resumes and thesis papers, some asking if he still had “that car.” Life became what he always knew it would. The contest, he now understood, had merely delayed the inevitable.
* * *
“Richard?” Ted said.
“I said, ‘have you ever taken Vera out in this thing?’”
Richard stopped feeling sorry for himself and started feeling guilty again about Vera. He had taken her out in the Batmobile for a night on the town on their first weekend together. She opened the canopy and stuck her head out and sang the theme to the old TV show: “Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na Batman!” When they were pulled over, Vera sweet-talked the cop into giving them a warning, asking, “Don’t you know never to interfere with two superheroes?” She mentioned Ted that night with only a dismissive wave of her hand. And now here was Ted right in front of him, someone who was probably trying to become a better man, a man who could take care of someone other than just himself. Richard knew he was a distant third behind Jack the Bartender and Ted, and that was where he belonged.
“No,” Richard lied. “I haven’t driven it in a while.”
“You should before you sell it,” Ted said. “She’d love that. Did she ever tell you that she used to dress up as Superman when she was younger?”
Richard didn’t like the fact that Ted knew about Nick wanting to buy the car, but there was nothing he could do about it now. “No, she didn’t,” he said.
“She bought a boy’s costume and pulled her hair back,” Ted said. “Don’t ever sell that thing. Fix it up or something.”
Even though Richard appreciated Ted’s suggestion that he stand up to Nick, maybe the time had finally come to get rid of the car, and everything that came with it. Merely nodding at Ted’s input, Richard forced the garage door shut and headed back to the apartment. Ted said that when Vera got back, they should drive downtown that night-wouldn’t that be awesome? Yeah, maybe, Richard said.
Once inside, Ted plopped down on the couch and began channel surfing while Richard retreated to his room, saying that he was working on his resume. Instead, he listened to the radio and checked his e-mail-there were only a few advertisements for live webcam sites. Through the wall, he heard Ted talking on the phone, though his voice was reduced to a muffled rumbling. He must have finally gotten hold of Vera, Richard thought. Gradually, Ted’s voice rose, and there were occasional high-pitched moments that followed long silences. Richard’s stomach tightened as he imagined Vera telling Ted where she was, and then spilling everything, perhaps out of frustration with the mess she had created. Random phrases seeped through the wall: Why didn’t you tell me? Why did you wait until I came down here? After all we’ve been through. I can’t believe you. So that’s it, then? I can’t fucking believe you. Richard stared at the door as the yelling increased in the other room. Ted could burst in at any moment, dropping the cell phone and throttling Richard while Vera kept speaking on the other end. Disgusted with Vera, and mad at himself for getting entangled with her despite all of his supposed “life experience,” Richard turned up the music to drown out the argument. But Ted’s voice matched the noise.
There was one last shout from Ted, then nothing. Richard turned the stereo down and listened. Suddenly, jolting him out of his seat, a loud crash shook the hardwood floor. Richard got up and opened the door. In the hallway, his feet crunched on granules of dirt, which led to a larger pile of potted soil at Ted’s feet. The sunflower, Ted’s gift to Vera, lay crumpled like a corpse beside him, and pieces of the clay pot had skittered in every direction. Ted was sweating and breathing hard.
“Who’s Jack?” he asked, catching his breath.
For a moment, Richard was relieved that Vera hadn’t told him everything-after all, Ted was considerably larger than he was. But, just as quickly, anger swelled in his gut and reached upward, constricting his throat. Vera thought Richard wasn’t even worth discussing when she finally admitted her infidelity to Ted. It was the same story all over again for him: weasel his way in with someone, trick himself into thinking that things might be different this time, then get forgotten, and then try to forget, but fail.
“He’s some bartender she met,” Richard said. “I’m sorry, man. I didn’t know what to tell you.”
Ted covered his eyes and turned away. “She’s with him right now,” he said, his voice shaking a bit. He walked away from Richard and stared out the window for a long time. Richard ran his fingers through his hair, angry that he couldn’t come up with anything that would make things better, or at least make him feel less guilty. On the floor, a fat black ant crawled out from the soil, oblivious to the awful silence in the room.
“I don’t believe this,” Ted said to the window. “I need to go see her, but…”
Richard thought that maybe there was something he could do for Ted, perhaps something he could do for himself as well. Vera didn’t deserve Ted’s loyalty, he concluded. Richard had landed into this situation by following the same idiotic pattern from high school, by being afraid, by doing nothing. Things would be different today.
“I know where she is,” he said.
Ted turned around and eyed Richard. “How do we get there?”
“I have a car.”
* * *
In the old Adam West Batman show, the Dynamic Duo emerged from the Batcave and sped over a traffic sign that descended to the ground. Richard and Ted’s exit was not as graceful. Richard had to stop the car and then struggle to close the rusty garage door before giving up and kicking it in frustration. Then the car died as he pulled onto the street. Smoke belched from the tailpipe that was supposed to shoot fire. Richard told Ted to get out and push.
“Dude, what the hell?” Ted said.
“Just push the Batmobile, all right?”
Half a block later, the engine sputtered to life again. A homeless man, wearing a ratty Eagles cap and a brown trench coat, stared at Ted as he sweated and grunted.
“That is the saddest fuckin’ thing I ever seen!” the man said.
After jumping into the cockpit while the car was still moving, Ted fiddled with the fake switches and ran his hands up the cracked artificial leather of the seat.
“This thing’s a piece of shit,” he said.
“What were you expecting,” Richard said. “The Batmobile?”
“How could they give this away as a prize? Look at this,” Ted said, pointing to the dashboard. “This ‘machine gun’ control is just a sticker!”
Richard reached over and peeled off the sticker. It fluttered out the window.
“Here, check this out,” Richard said, his hand hovering over a button with a panel above it that read Passenger Ejector Seat. Ted’s eyes widened. Richard pressed the button. Nothing happened. “That doesn’t work, either,” he grumbled.
There was silence, which was good because the one thing they couldn’t talk about was the only thing they had in common-Vera. The guilt returned almost as soon as Richard pressed the button, because playing this joke on Ted had reminded him that every moment with him was a lie. Richard wasn’t Ted’s buddy. He was the lowlife who scored with his girlfriend, the pervert who briefly thought that sex would lead to something different, only to cast that idea away and return to his fantasy world of childish superheroes and cheap porn.
Before things could get awkward again, the Batmobile came to a stop at the front of Jack the Bartender’s pub, an Irish-themed place with maroon curtains that had probably been red at one time. They sat quietly. Richard considered telling Ted to just leave it alone, that there was nothing to be gained by this. But the feeling that this was all somehow inevitable overwhelmed him. Despite the strangeness of this Saturday, it felt as if things couldn’t have turned out any other way.
Richard said that Vera and Jack the Bartender were either in the pub or in the apartment above. If the latter were the case, they would be coming down to the bar eventually. Vera had gone into excruciating detail about the whole routine, joking about how, even though they were just fuck buddies, she was trying to get Jack the Bartender to do something more romantic than just taking her up to his grimy apartment for a quickie. Ted told him that he didn’t need to hear about it, so Richard shut up.
After more silence, Ted said, “Thanks, Richard. I know you were in a tough spot back there. I appreciate you taking me down here.”
Richard didn’t know what to say. He couldn’t believe that someone like Ted, who should have looked down on him, was actually grateful for his presence in the world. Richard thought about telling him everything, admitting that part of the reason why he was taking Ted was to get back at Vera, and acknowledging that he really was going to just sell the car and ask his brother for a job. There was nothing inspirational or generous about him. Maybe someday, but not now.
As he was about to say words that he hadn’t yet formed in his head, Richard noticed that Ted was staring at something over his shoulder. He turned to see Vera and Jack the Bartender walking out of the pub. Jack was in a wife-beater, and wore his greasy hair in a ponytail. Vera had often made fun of his appearance to Richard, right before admitting that she kind of liked it. They walked over to Vera’s gold Toyota and chatted while she fished in her purse for her keys. Richard turned back to Ted and saw his hand reaching for the door.
“That’s the guy?” Ted said. “Jesus.”
Ted didn’t wait for any of Richard’s suggestions. He stepped out of the car and slammed the door shut, sealing off the noise of the street. Richard watched through the window as Ted jogged over to Vera and Jack and got their attention. Within seconds, Ted and Jack were pointing fingers at each other, with Vera trying to move Ted away by putting her hands on his chest. But the yelling continued until Ted brushed past Vera and went after Jack the Bartender with a roundhouse punch that missed badly. Jack kicked Ted in the chest with his boot and then grabbed him by the neck as Ted fell backward. The punches came from Jack’s free hand too fast for Richard to count. Ted crumpled to his knees. Richard heard Vera’s piercing scream through the glass.
It was so fast, Richard thought, before realizing that that was what every moron said in a moment like this. This was his life: thinking he was doing something when he was merely sitting and watching the effects of his own incompetence. He would always have a front row seat. But it had to stop, at least for today. He had to do something.
Opening the door, Richard stepped out and drifted over to the fight when he knew that a better man would probably be running. He wanted to turn around and go back to the car, maybe take it for one last cruise around the neighborhood, just like in the old days. As he began to slow down, Jack’s eyes caught him. The bartender, his sinewy arm cocked for another strike, glared at him, almost daring Richard to attack.
Before he knew what he was doing, Richard ran at full speed, reached his arms out, and shoved Jack the Bartender backward. He was moving so fast that he nearly tripped over Ted, who lay on his back, his scuffed hands still hovering over his bloody face and dazed eyes. Jack lost his footing for a moment, then stood straight up again.
“Batman?” Vera screamed. “What are you doing here?”
Richard couldn’t answer because, within seconds, Jack was on him, throttling him by the collar of his scrub shirt. The only thing Richard could see was the gristle surrounding Jack’s huge teeth.
“You’re the Batman?” Jack asked.
Richard shook his head. Jack’s forearm-tattooed with a woman riding a green dragon-swung up and cracked him right in the cheekbone, sending a shiver of pain all the way down to the small of his back. Richard landed hard on his butt, right next to Ted.
“You fucking pervert,” Jack said.
“This was none of your business, Bats,” Vera said. “Why did you come here?”
There were a million things to say, a whole lifetime of failures to describe, but Richard wouldn’t have been able to put them into words even if he hadn’t been hit in the face. All he could say was, “I had to.”
“He was only trying to help,” Ted said as he sat up. “After you just dropped me.”
“He only wanted to help because he fucked me once!” Vera said.
Richard winced, still holding his swollen face. Ted and Jack looked each other, then at Richard. The only one Richard could still look in the eyes was Vera, who seemed to finally realize how awful this whole scene was.
“I’m sorry, Ted,” she said, choking up but fighting it. “I’m sorry.”
She walked into the bar. After a few seconds, Jack followed her. Ted sat silently while Richard stared at the ground. Eventually, he got up and limped to the car.
“Need a ride?” Richard said over his shoulder, grimacing at the pain this simple movement caused in his neck.
Ted was despondent, but didn’t seem surprised at what Vera had just revealed. “A ride where?” he asked, sitting up and massaging his temples. He sniffled, and the blood in his nostrils made a gurgling sound.
“Just a ride,” Richard said. “Like I used to do back in the day. Then we’ll swing by my brother’s place and hand it over.” And then he would ask Nick if he needed help with the business, he thought. And then ask Vera to move out. Maybe take some classes at community college again. And then someday, hopefully soon, he would be able to say to people, like a normal person, “Hello, my name is Richard.”
Ted turned away. Richard thought about apologizing, but figured that Ted had already heard “I’m sorry” enough times today.
“You can drive,” Richard said. Ted finally looked back at him and nodded, a gesture that, Richard chose to believe, suggested forgiveness. “You flipped tails.”