The images are grainy, the figures move jerkily across the screen, the angles all wrong. But it’s him alright. There is no doubt about that.
“You sure, you wanna see this?” the detective asks me. He tastes this poison every day. It’s nothing to him. But he knows what it will do to me.
When the hooker is done, she leaves my husband with his pants gaping, eyes closed, leaning his head back against the concrete wall. Then, she is gone, business over, moving quickly out of sight down the stairs. Time rolls in the corner of the screen and, eventually, Charlie seems to rouse himself. He straightens, re-buckles his belt and brushes off his sports coat. Then, he pushes open a door and, before it swings shut, I see him walking away, into the misty morning, back towards his car.
The detective kills the video and hands me a piece of paper. “Found this in his wallet,” he says quietly. “You might wanna check this place out.”
The Sunlight Diner is exactly how I’d expected it to be: shabby but, somehow, also a little piece of wholesomeness on an otherwise hopeless street. On one side of the diner they sell payday loans and bail bonds. On the other, cheap liquor and cigarettes. In the doorway, there is a man, sitting on a piece of cardboard. His sneakers have no laces and he wears an oversized jacket, four or five sizes too big.
“You spare a dime, ma’am?” he says, and his politeness surprises me. He gives me the widest of grins, flashing a shiny gold tooth.
“I’m sorry,” I mutter, tapping at my purse, as if to demonstrate something I do not need to prove. “I’m out of…..” I don’t even bother to finish the sentence. We both know it’s a lie.
“Well, you have a blessed day, anyway. You hear me”. He seems unconcerned by his luck, just gives me another broad smile. But he is not quite done yet either. “I can tell you’re carrying round a whole heap of pain,” he says. “But it too shall pass. Just remember that.” His eyes hold mine for a moment. Just a tiny human connection, trying to reach me. Like my sister, and the pastor, and all those well-meaning friends. They are all sorry for my loss, even though I’m no longer sure anymore what it is that I had.
I seat myself, finding a quiet place to hide, way in back. I feel out of place here. A couple of booths away, there are men in work overalls, covered in grime. In another, a huge black man, three hundred pounds or more, sucks down soda, his gut hanging over the edge of the table. By the door, an old lady counts out quarters carefully into a saucer.
While I wait, I pull out the piece of paper the detective had given me. It is a Sunlight Diner check, from the morning Charlie died. It lists what he ordered, how much he paid, and his change. But, also, handwritten at the bottom, are the words “Have Another Wonderful Day! Ellie x0x.”
“Want coffee?” Her voice is soft, a little husky, like she might be a smoker. I look up and check her name tag. I nod and she fills my cup. The liquid is dark and swirling, smells of engine oil. “Know what you want?” She is not unfriendly, but not exactly hospitable either.
Unprepared, I glance down at the paper in my hand. “I’ll try the hash brown nest, eggs over easy, side of toast”. All the things I thought Charlie hated for breakfast. Too many carbs, too much grease. Still, his last supper. Of sorts.
There is a flicker of recognition. “You knew Chad?” she asks me, simply. Her voice is flat, unemotional. She searches my face for clues, and I do the same. She is about my age, not particularly pretty, or sexy and there is a tiredness about her that weighs heavy under her eyes. Charlie was never Chad. Charles sometimes. Sweetheart, even Baby when we were younger. But never Chad.
I take my time answering, “Yes.” I nod. “You?”
She hesitates, deciding, I suppose, whether to tell me the truth. “Came in here every morning for years. Ordered the exact same thing every time.” She glances out the window, hoping I don’t notice the moistness in her eyes. “We got to talking. He was a good man. Helped me get enough money together to escape the projects. Bailed out my boy when he got in trouble. Always gave Goldie out there five bucks. Every single day.” She nods towards the beggar in the doorway. “He was a good man,” she repeats. She is far away, remembering Chad.
I have a million questions, but they are frozen on my tongue. I cannot bring myself to ask them. “You know he’s dead?” I say instead. It is a pointless question. Her face tells me she knows everything.
“I saw the ambulance. And the police. Heard it was him from the guy who works the booth at the exit barrier.”
They had found Charlie slumped in his car in the parking garage, engine running, syringe still jammed in his arm. A bad batch, cut with weed killer is what the detective said.
The tears roll down her face. “I’ll fetch your hash browns,” she says, and turns away.
The final time I see her, she is standing separate from the crowd, watching us all huddled around his grave. A flock of starlings slashes across the cold, gray sky, like a sudden brushstroke. I break away for a moment, walk over and encourage her to join us. Because she too should have the chance to say goodbye. Like the rest of us, he was part of her life, just like she was a part of his. And, just like the rest of us, she never knew him. She never knew him at all.
Alan S. Falkingham currently lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, but originally hails from Leeds, England. To pay the rent, Alan writes emails all day long for a large global corporation but, for fun, he prefers to create short stories and poetry and has also recently completed a full-length mystery novel. When not writing, Alan spends his time constantly learning from his two young daughters, guzzling craft beers and following Leeds United’s latest mishaps.