It’s the exact same time, each day. So regular, it’s comforting.
I watch as he crosses the street, all bundled up against the cold. It’s miserable out there, gray and raw, a few snowflakes swirling in the air. He ducks under the barrier at the exit of the parking garage and cuts across mid-block, breaking into a jog as a yellow cab blasts its horn and grazes his hip. Steam rises from one of the manholes, and he crashes through it, like a linebacker emerging from the locker room. While I wait for Mrs. Esposito to slowly count out her quarters, I get the same familiar feeling I get every morning. Like some sort of teenage crush. Because Charlie is the highlight of my day.
Despite the cold, he stops in the doorway for a moment to fist pump Gabriel who is sitting on a square of carboard. Some places have a hostess or parking valet to greet their customers. Here at the Sunlight, we have a homeless man.
I see the flash of Gabriel’s gold tooth and, eventually, after they’ve talked a while, Charlie reaches into his pocket and pulls out a five-dollar bill which he presses into Gabriel’s palm. Then, he wrenches open the door with his big gloved hand and a huge blast of cold air rushes in from the street, like water from a fire hydrant. He steps inside, slapping his palms together as if he’s trying to wake the neighborhood, and even Mrs. Esposito looks pleased to see him.
“Morning Terri!” He smiles at me with a brightness the day doesn’t quite deserve and, in spite of myself, I smile back. ““Holy shit! It’s cold out there,” he says. “Hope the coffee’s fresh and your griddle’s good and hot……”
Even after all these years, it still surprises me, how I feel when I see him in this kind of setting. He stands in front of them, holding up a champagne glass, bubbles fizzing. His face is a little flushed, but he’s not drunk. It’s just the adrenalin. He still looks handsome, just like he did when we first met, while I was working on Clinton’s re-election campaign and he was trying to start his business. Long days and long nights. When we were much younger. Before family. Before we had any of this.
Middle age has treated him well. His hair is only just starting to gray slightly at the temples and his exercise habits have kept his belly tight, unlike most of the other men in the room. He has a way about him when it comes time to perform, captivating people, like a magician doing a card trick. When he speaks everyone listens, all feeling like he’s talking directly to them. Like they are the most important person in the room.
“I wanna thank you all for coming this evening and supporting this event”. He looks out across the tables, tuxedos and little black dresses everywhere. “As many of you know, Julia and I have a very personal connection with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. And that’s because ten years ago, we fought this battle and we won..……”
And Chad tells one of his stories. A story about Simon. Our son. A story from long ago, that I’d almost forgotten. But one that he remembers, as if it was yesterday. And the tuxedos and the dresses listen, in perfect silence, every eye on him as he speaks. I reach up and gently stroke his arm, feeling like he was telling his story just to me. Like we were curled up on the couch at home, watching the fire crackle in the grate. Chad has always had the ability to do this to me, even after being married for more than twenty years. To make me feel special. To make me feel like I’m the center of his world.
Every day, after he leaves, I watch the exit to the garage across the street, to see if I can catch one last glimpse of him framed in the window of his black Mercedes. Something to keep me going until I see him again. But not today. Instead, all I see are the blue and red flashing lights. The cops and the ambulance crew, followed an hour or so later by a black mortuary truck, sliding out quietly through the exit barrier, carrying its load off to a coroner’s slab someplace in the depths of the city.
When I’m done with my shift, I sling my apron over its hook, ready for tomorrow. On my way out, I pause and give Gabriel a half-assed high five, just as I do every day.
“You know what went down earlier?” I ask him. I have a feeling about this and not a good one.
“Willie says they found a guy in his car. OD’d with a needle in his arm.”
Willie Drake works the exit booth at the garage. He comes in most mornings to pick up coffee to go. He and Gabriel are buddies.
“He say who it was?” I ask.
Gabriel shakes his head, looks a little sad. “No. Just some guy I guess……”
Just some guy. His stares at me and we both try to read each other’s thoughts, unable to say them out loud, afraid in case it makes them real.
Over in the entrance to the garage, I see a man leaning into the booth, talking to Willie. A badge hangs off his belt loop and everything about him screams cop. I hesitate for moment, trying to decide whether to go over and see what I can find out. But instead, I turn away and head up the street towards the subway station, letting the sea of people sweep me down the steps, into the darkness and towards the noise of the tracks. Away from this thing I don’t want to face.
I look at Bill for help but all he does is take off his eye glasses and pinch at his nose. I notice his brow is slightly sweaty. Bill is an accountant to his bones. He mutters something underneath his breath that I do not catch.
Seth at least looks a little calmer, although not much. He mostly does estate planning. Trust finds, living wills and the like. Bill and Seth are both members at the country club and among our closest friends. They play golf every Sunday with Chad and my brother Jack and, afterwards, we all have a couple’s lunch in the Palmer Room overlooking the eighteenth.
“My client doesn’t have anything to say,” Seth announces, like he learned the line from a TV show, which he probably did.
“What do you mean?” I ask him. Suddenly I’m angry. “I don’t know the first thing about any of this,” I tell the detective with the crooked fringe and the cheap suit who had showed up at my door unannounced this morning, while Bill and Seth were helping me sort through the files in Chad’s office.
The detective looks straight back at me. “Even though you’re listed as co-director in all these companies, along with your husband?” He slides a piece of paper over the desk to me.
A vodka distillery near Buffalo, an import business headquartered in Miami, a recycling plant in Jersey. A container ship registered in Panama. It goes on. There is a long list.
“You don’t have anything to say, Julia.” Seth takes my hand in his, gently at first, but then he gives it a squeeze, to let me know his advice is professional.
I pull my hand away, stand up and go over to the window. Outside, there isn’t even the first hint of spring yet. Everything is dead.
“So, anyone ever come in here asking for him? He ever meet someone here? Do business? That kinda thing?” The detective leans forward, slurps down a sip of his coffee then drapes an arm back over the bench seat. He’s in no rush.
Marcello’s looks downbeat. Usually he’s a bundle of energy, the life force behind this place, like two generations of his family before him. But, not today. When you run a place in this part of town you can do without visits from the cops.
I shake my head. “Not that I ever saw,” I tell the detective. It’s the truth. I never saw Charlie meet anyone here. And, although it was obvious from the way he dressed and his fancy car that he didn’t live around here, I never told me why he chose this place for breakfast and I never asked. I suppose, in the end, it just didn’t matter to either of us.
The detective has a photograph turned towards me on the table. It’s of Charlie, when he was younger. Much younger. Plus, it’s not lost on me that it’s a mug shot. The lines on the wall tell me that he’s six feet tall exactly and he’s holding a small chalk board with a name and a number on it: Janusz Kowalski, RC-0687694-B
“So, what’d this guy do?” Marcello asks. He’s tired of the foreplay, wants to cut to the action.
The detective, turns the photograph back around, studies it, like he’s looking for missed clues.
“Well,” he says finally. “We got a surprise when we ran his prints after we found him OD’d in his car over there. Drugs. Aggravated assault. Pistol whipped a guy then shot out his knee caps. That was back in eighty nine. But he busted out of Five Points, just a year into his stretch.” He pauses again, takes another drink of coffee, searches our faces. “He just plain vanished into thin air,” he shrugs. “Until now”.
“’I’m ninety nine percent certain, but I need you to ID him,” the detective says. “Just to be sure.”
The images are grainy, the figures move jerkily across the screen, the angles all wrong. But it’s him alright. There’s no doubt about that. In the top right-hand corner of the screen is the date and time. The security camera footage was taken at the parking garage on the day he died.
“You don’t need to watch anymore?” the detective says, after I confirm it’s Chad. He hits pause and the image freezes. He tastes this poison every day. It’s nothing to him. But he knows what it’ll do to me.
He had called me back, late yesterday afternoon, after his visit to the house to question me about the string of companies that Chad had apparently set up. He’d said there was one other thing he needed to talk to me about. Said it was something he didn’t want to get into in front of Bill and Seth. Something he needed to show me, down at the precinct.
“I want to see the rest,” I tell him. “All of it.” My own voice is no longer part of me. It’s like I’m listening to a recording of myself. Like I’m not speaking at all.
“OK,” he says, and he hits the play button.
When the hooker is finished, she leaves Chad with his pants gaping, eyes closed, leaning back against the concrete wall. She disappears quickly, moving out of sight down the stairs, eager no doubt to find her next client. Time rolls on in the corner of the screen and, eventually, Chad seems to rouse himself. He straightens, re-buckles his belt and brushes himself off. Then, he pushes open a door and, before it swings shut, I see him walking away, into the gray morning light, back towards his car.
The detective kills the camera footage and hands me a piece of paper. “We found this in his wallet too,” he says, almost apologetically. “You might want to check it out”.
The booth where he usually sits is empty. Nobody else has filled it, as if somehow they know it’s not their place. On the wall are the same old pictures. One from the sixties in faded technicolor, showing hippies in the street outside, protesting Vietnam. Another is of Marcello’s grandfather, who opened this place, leaning on the shoulder of some baseball player in a Mets cap that I don’t recognize. But, despite what the detective told me about his past, what I really miss is Charlie’s bulky shape in the booth beneath the photographs, shoveling down breakfast in huge forkfuls, calling me over to pour him another coffee, making my life just a little brighter, every day.
We were never lovers. Sure, I flirted with him and he played along. But our friendship wasn’t that. There was something about Charlie that made things feel, I don’t know……. .Right. Happy. Whole. Shit, I’m not book-smart enough to find the right words. But something more than nothing. In this place, I see my fair share of people on their way down: out of money, out of luck, out of time. Lots of them, eating alone. Too beat up by what’s happened to them in the past to think about the future. But Charlie was different. Loaned me enough money to get an apartment. Even hired a truck and helped me move. Hauled what little shit I had down those narrow stairways in the tenement block I was in, past the burned-out candles, discarded aluminum foil and dirty syringes. Out into the sunlight and on towards something better.
Charlie saw the future. He lived there. He told me the past was nothing. But he was wrong. Because, now, he is the past.
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’s 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 don’t 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?” He seems unconcerned by his luck, just gives me another broad smile. His eyes hold mine for a moment, 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 not sure anymore what it is that I had.
I seat myself, finding a quiet spot, 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’s a Sunlight Diner check, from the morning Chad died. It lists what he ordered, how much he paid, and his change. But, also, handwritten at the bottom, are the words “ See you soon! Love Terri xx.”
The woman glances around, when she comes in, like she’s a little lost. Eventually, she finds her way to an empty booth, the one Charlie used to sit in, and I feel a sudden jolt of annoyance, as if she’s somehow trying to steal his place. There’s something about her that unsettles me, although I can’t figure out what exactly. So, I lean on the counter, chewing my gum, pretending to wait on an order from the kitchen, watching her from a distance as she takes in her surroundings. She’s late forties, maybe fifty, with dark hair pulled back from her face to show off high cheek bones. Her skin looks like it’s in good shape, for her age, as if she spends a bunch of time and money at the salon. She’s dressed stylish too, at least for a place like this. Her coat is expensive, I can tell that much, and she wears black leather boots with shiny buckles, that look like they don’t often see a subway platform or a city street in wintertime. While she waits, I notice how she stares down at a piece of paper in her hand, turning it slowly in a circle, over and over, a little hypnotized by it. Eventually Marcello looks up from the newspaper he’s reading and barks at me, although I know he’s only joking around, telling me he doesn’t pay for me to just God-damn stand around all day. I give him a wink and slyly show him the finger, all good natured enough. Then, feeling strangely nervous, I grab the coffee pot from where it’s simmering on the burner and make my way slowly between the tables, towards the lady sitting in Charlie’s booth.
“Want coffee?” Her voice is 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’s 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 Chad hated for breakfast. Too many carbs, too much grease. Still, his last supper. Of sorts.
There’s a flicker of recognition. “You knew Charlie?” she asks, simply. Her voice is flat, unemotional. She searches my face for clues, and I do the same. She’s younger than me, by a good ten years, maybe more. She’s not particularly pretty, although I know some guys would find her sexy, dressing in a way that shows off plenty of leg. But there’s also a tiredness about her that weighs heavy under her eyes. Chad was never Charlie. Charles sometimes. Sweetheart, even Baby when we were younger. But never Charlie.
I take my time answering, “Yes.” I nod. “You?”
She hesitates, deciding, I suppose, whether to tell the truth. “Came in here every morning. Sat right here. 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 Gabriel out there five bucks.” 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. “Found him in his car, engine running, syringe still jammed in his arm. A bad batch, cut with weed killer is what the detective said”. I tell her, even though I know it’s pointless, because her face tells me that she already knows.
The tears roll down her face. “I’ll fetch your hash browns,” she says and turns away.
I pay the cab driver and he’s gone quickly, in a fog of exhaust fumes. It’s been quite the journey to get out here, and I’m not done yet it seems. I pull my coat around me and begin my walk from the cemetery gates, along the unmarked blacktop roadway that curves away into the distance. My heels are too high to make fast progress and my dress is too short, the icy wind blowing down hard from the north chills me half to death. There’s a small lake, surrounded by weeping willows, it’s surface entirely frozen over, and all around huge gravestones in all shapes and sizes look down at me.
She’d called the diner on my day off. But something about her voice had persuaded Marcello to give her my cell number and when she’d dialled it, I hadn’t hung up on her.
I wish I’d known about her. About his life. Somehow finding out now feels like a betrayal of sorts, even though he didn’t owe me shit. In fact, I owed him. Still, it hurt in a way I didn’t expect. She’d let me know the time and the place. Nothing more. The call hadn’t lasted more than a minute and, at the end, she didn’t even say goodbye.
Behind me, I hear the low hum of a car engine, and I turn to see a hearse gaining on me in slow motion. I stand aside and, as it glides past, Inside, I see the pale face of a teenage girl, eyes hollowed out, framed in the window. Next to her in the back seat is Charlie’s wife. She looks at me, but her face doesn’t give anything away. In fact, I realize I don’t even know her name.
She’s standing separate from the crowd, watching us all huddled around his grave under the big green canopy that does little to protect us from the elements. We are large group, because Chad led a big life. Bigger, perhaps, than any of us realized. The eulogy was beautiful. Everyone told me as much as they filed past me on the steps on their way out of the church. I couldn’t bring myself to speak in public, so his brother gave it. They shared the same gift. The ability to speak to people. By the time he was done, they were all waving their handkerchiefs like they were surrendering. Not a dry eye in the house. Except mine.
As we wait for the pallbearers to unload his coffin from the hearse and lower it into the freshly dug earth, I’m no longer sure how I should feel. So, instead, I settle on feeling nothing much of anything, allowing grief to be an anesthetic.
Suddenly, a flock of starlings slashes across the cold, gray sky, like a brushstroke across canvas. It’s bleak up here in this part of the cemetery and I look across at the waitress from the diner, standing all alone. A frail figure on a windswept hillside.
She doesn’t fit in this world, with his family, the country club members, and the Sunday congregation from St Jude’s. But, on impulse, 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.
Sometimes, it’s in the darkest places that you see the most clearly. We are an unlikely pair, I know that, sitting up at the bar in Salem’s Lot in our funeral dresses. Salem’s is a favorite place of mine, where a band plays until two am every Wednesday and you can get a beer-shot combo for six bucks. She orders two more drinks and, when the barman brings them over, we down the tequila straight, giggling as the alcohol hits us like a right hook to the face.
For a moment Julia looks like she wants to say something, her eyes unexpectedly clear, despite the liquor. But, it passes, and I’m grateful for that. Because, if the sun disappeared from our lives when Charlie pushed that syringe into his arm, we both know that we mustn’t stay in his shadow too long. For if we both learned anything from him, despite all his flaws, it is that all that matters is what lies ahead. And that what’s behind you is gone.