My God! It’s really him! But…Jesus Christ! He looks like he’s going to die right here! He looks like he’s going to die any second now! What happened to him? What the fuck is he doing in this alley?
“My God! Charlie? What happened to you? You look like…Jesus Christ, Charlie! You look like you’re…”
“Dying? I’m afraid it’s more than just looking like it. Get over here and sit with me, girl. I’m glad you’re here. I’ve been thinking about you.”
Holy shit! Look at him! Even in this light, I can see he looks like total shit! Christ, he looks almost as bad as me! What happened to him? What the fuck is he doing out here, lying in the fucking alley? It’s freezing! And it’s starting to rain! In his condition? It’ll fucking kill him! Why is he out here? Why isn’t he inside? He fucking knows better!
“Jesus Christ, Charlie! You look like fucking warmed-over death! What the fuck are you doing out here in the alley?”
“You ain’t in no position to criticize, girl! What the fuck happened to you? You look like you got hit by a motherfucking truck! What the hell have you been into?”
“It’s been a pretty horrible night for me. Come on, I’ve got to get you inside. How do I open this door?”
“You don’t. It’s barred from the inside. I shimmed the lock, but it still won’t open. I guess they got tired of us breaking in. They must’ve put a bar across the door.”
“Damn it, Charlie! We need to get you inside! Why the fuck did you leave the hospital when you look like that? Did they kick you out?”
“No, I just up and left. I couldn’t take it in there. If I’m going to die, I’m going to die out here, where I belong.”
“What are you talking about? You’re not dying!”
“I’m afraid I am. At least, that’s what they told me at the hospital. Congestive heart failure. It’s pretty far along, or so they said. Even in there, I didn’t have but a day or two. My time’s up, girl. I’m all used up. This time, I’m not going to beat it.”
I don’t believe this! All this time, I’m scared to death of telling him that I’m going to kill myself, and now he tells me he’s dying? This isn’t happening! This can’t be happening! I don’t fucking believe it!
“Don’t talk like that! We just have to get you inside! Come on, we can get in through one of the windows. I’ll help you.”
“You can’t help me. No one can. I tried to get in through one of the windows, but I got this pain in my chest like you wouldn’t believe. Knocked me right on my big ass! That’s why I’m down here, getting wet.”
“We’ve got to get you somewhere out of the rain. Where can we go?”
“Honey, look at me. I’m done for. I can’t walk, and you sure as hell can’t carry me. It doesn’t matter, anyway. This is where I belong. This is where I want to end it. I’ve been out here most of my life. Skid row. Home for the homeless. This is where I lived, and this is where I’m going to die. I damn sure wasn’t going to die in a goddamned hospital. That’s for regular folks. Not for me. Not for us.”
Is he for real? Is he really dying? Jesus fucking Christ! How the fuck did I not know this? He didn’t get sick overnight! This had to have been happening for a while. And I didn’t even notice it! What the fuck is wrong with me?
“Charlie, we’ve got to get you back to the hospital. You need a doctor!”
“So do you. God damn, girl! Please tell me all that blood ain’t yours!”
That’s Charlie for you: even in a dark alley, he can see better than a fucking cat. That’s what living most of your life on the street does to you.
“It’s not mine. I mean, most of it isn’t. Charlie, I had to…there was this guy, and he…oh, God! Charlie, I need your help!”
“And I’ll give it to you. Sit down. Tell me what happened.”
“Charlie, I…I killed someone! Oh, God! I killed someone!”
“All right, just calm down. Are you sure you killed him? What did you do? Did you stick him?”
“About a hundred times.”
“Why’d you have to do that?”
“I was coming to find you, and I…I did something really stupid. I know you told me never to go in there, but I had to find you and I was running out of time, and so I…I know it was stupid, but…”
“You cut through Ambush Alley, didn’t you?”
“Yeah. And there was this guy. Cole. He’d been following me all night, it seems. He’s a fucking psycho! He cornered me in the alley, and he…I tried to fight back, but I…you see, Ricky beat the shit out of me and my ankle was already fucked up, and I…”
Fuck! I can’t even tell him what happened without babbling! What the fuck is wrong with me? This is Charlie! I can tell him anything!
“Charlie, he knocked me down and he got on top of me and I dropped my knife and I couldn’t find it, and then he started…”
“You don’t have to tell me any more. God, I’m so sorry I wasn’t there to help you. I should’ve been there for you. Did he rape you?”
“No, but he tried. He had my pants down and he put his fingers…”
“Don’t tell me any more! I don’t want that picture in my head! No, sir! Are you all right? I mean, as all right as you can be after something like that?”
“I don’t know. I can’t stop shaking. I can’t stop thinking about it. There was so much blood! I was so scared and I thought there was nothing I could do to stop him, but I found my knife on the ground and I stuck him. Charlie, I just kept sticking him! Over and over again! I couldn’t stop! I just…I hated him so much and I wanted to kill him and I just kept stabbing and stabbing and I couldn’t…”
“Don’t beat yourself up about it, girl. You did the right thing. You hear me? You did exactly the right thing! A man puts his hands on you like that; he ain’t got no right to live! None at all! His motherfucking life is over! Just like that! You didn’t kill that man. He did! You hear me? He killed himself. He just made you the weapon, that’s all. Don’t you go thinking otherwise. This is all on him! It’s not your fault! Say it!”
“It’s not my fault.”
“Say it again! Louder!”
“It’s not my fault!”
“You’re damned right it’s not! You did exactly what you had to! Nothing more! You’ve got nothing to be ashamed about! Nothing to feel sorry about!”
I wish I felt that way. I know I should, but…
“So you’re not mad at me?”
“For what? For sticking that motherfucker? Hell, no! I’d be mad at you if you hadn’t! If anything, I’m mad at myself for not being there to do it for you!”
“Yeah, well, you don’t look like you’re in any shape to stick anybody.”
“It doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have been there for you. I should’ve known about that motherfucker. I should’ve known he was fixing on you. I could’ve had him taken care of easy. Goddamned heart attack! I should’ve taken care of this shit for you!”
“Don’t say that. It wasn’t your fault, either. He wasn’t the first guy to try. I guess I should be lucky he didn’t finish the job.”
“At least he didn’t get you. Thank God for that. And thank God he’s dead like he should be. You did the world a favor.”
I know he’s right, but it doesn’t make me feel any better. God, I feel like shit for it! I don’t know why, but I do.
“I never killed anybody before. Seven years and I never killed anyone.”
“And I prayed every day that you’d never have to. I knew it was a miracle it never came to it before, but I prayed for it, anyway. I never wanted you to know what that feels like. No one should know what that feels like. Especially not you.”
I know. He’s told me that before. He always said that unless you’re a sick motherfucker, killing someone makes you feel like absolute shit, no matter how justified you were. I never gave it a lot of thought because I never thought I’d ever have to kill anyone. And the truth is, I didn’t have to kill Cole. I did it because I hated him so much and I was out of control. That’s murder; not self-defense. Welcome to the club, I guess.
“I wish I’d never gone in there. I know you told me to stay out of that alley, but I had to find you in a hurry and I was running out of time. And I got my ass kicked by Ricky again, so I was in too much pain to go the long way around.”
“Why’d Ricky beat you? What happened? You weren’t buying dope from him, were you?”
“Yeah, I was. But it wasn’t for me. It was for T.C.”
“You were buying dope for T.C.? From Ricky? Girl, don’t you know he gave up one of Ricky’s dealers? Ricky put the word out: he wants T.C. dead!”
“Now you tell me!”
“Yeah, I ain’t been around much, lately. I’ve been pretty messed up. It started a few days ago, with my heart. I knew something was wrong. Something big this time.”
“Charlie, what happened? How did you get sick?”
“Girl, I’ve been sick. I’m eighty-four years old. Almost eighty-five. I’ve lived a hard life. I didn’t think I’d make it this far. I knew it would all catch up with me someday. I started getting the pains about a week ago. Bad ones. Knocked me on my ass. I guess a part of me hoped they’d just pass, but I knew better.”
“How bad is it?”
“As bad as it gets. There’s nothing they can do. It’s too far along. They said they were amazed I was still alive when the wheeled me in. They wanted to keep there. What for? So I can die in a bed? I’ve been without a bed since before you were born. I ain’t about to sleep in one now just so I can die. If it’s my time, then I want to go out here. This is where I belong. This is where I should finish it.”
“You’re really dying?”
“We all got to go someday. I’ve had my run. It’s time. My time. It’s over. I accept it. There’s nothing else I can do.”
I don’t believe this! Here I was worried shitless that I was going to be leaving him alone out here, and now I find out he’s dying? I don’t believe it!
“Did they give you anything for it?”
“They gave me a few pills. Hah! Those motherfucking pills ain’t worth shit! That’s what happens when you’ve been a goddamned junkie for most of your life! The pills don’t do shit for you! But you know about that. All those pills they gave you for the depression and shit? They didn’t do you a damned bit of good, either.”
No argument there. God, couldn’t they have given him something stronger? I mean, if they think he’s dying, then why hold back? Give him the magnum-strength shit, for God’s sake!
“Charlie, you can’t…you can’t die! Not you!”
“Honey, how many times have I told you? Everyone dies. Especially out here. Out here, your life expectancy is measured with a stopwatch. Sooner or later, your time comes. I guess a heart attack’s a hell of a lot better than a knife in the gut. I’ve had the one, so now I’ll have the other.”
“Don’t talk like that! We need to get you inside!”
“It won’t help. The pains I’ve been getting? I’m amazed I’m not already dead. I thought I was going to cash in about twenty minutes ago. I had a pain like you wouldn’t believe.”
Good God! He could’ve died twenty minutes ago! I could’ve missed him! Twenty fucking minutes? I never would’ve forgiven myself! He’s not dying! God, please don’t let him die! Not Charlie! He doesn’t deserve this! Please, God! Not Charlie! Don’t let this happen! I don’t care what you do to me! Just don’t let him die! Please!
“Fuck that, Charlie! You’re not dying! You hear me? I don’t want to hear any more of that shit! You’re going to live! You’re going to live for fucking ever! You hear me?”
“Come on, now. I taught you better than that, didn’t I?”
Fuck! I hate it when he’s right and I want him to be wrong! It’s fucking crazy when you think about it: I had to lose everything and come to skid fucking row to meet the greatest man in the world. And he is. There’s no one greater or smarter than Charlie. I don’t give a flying fuck how many degrees you have; the most distinguished professor in the world couldn’t hold a fucking candle to Charlie!
“Yeah, you did. You taught me more than anyone ever did. I don’t think I ever told you how much I owe you for that.”
“You don’t owe me a damned thing, girl.”
“Bullshit! I owe you everything! You taught me things I never could’ve imagined. You taught me more than just how to survive out here. If I lived a thousand lifetimes, I couldn’t repay you. You saved me, Charlie. In more ways than I can count. Don’t you dare say you didn’t!”
“You were my best student. A lot of guys, I tried to teach, but they didn’t listen. They didn’t want to learn. But you did. You always did. You kept me going. You made it worthwhile. I never thanked you for that.”
“You don’t have to thank me for anything. I owe you everything. I never would’ve made it this far if it weren’t for you. You saved me, Charlie. You kept me alive. You kept me going. You taught me to understand. You taught me what’s real. What’s really worth it in the world. You made me who I am, after I ended up out here. There’s nothing I can ever do to repay that.”
“You already did. You don’t owe me a goddamned thing.”
There’s no way I could ever explain what bullshit that is. I owe him so much. So much, I couldn’t count it if I were the smartest woman in the world. He knows it, too. But he’ll never admit it. If you thought everyone out here was just looking to get over; looking to get something for themselves, then here’s all the fucking proof in the world that you couldn’t be more wrong. I don’t expect you to understand it, but I expect you to remember that I said it. Maybe someday, you’ll understand. But it doesn’t matter if you don’t. I do. I understand. And God understands. And Charlie understands. That’s all that matters.
“You taught me that the best debts are the ones you can’t ever repay. Remember?”
“Yeah. And why is that?”
“Because those are the ones that show you who really gives a shit about you.”
“And there you go.”
“I never understood why you gave a shit about me. I was beyond worthless.”
“Girl, I knew from the moment I saw you that you were worth more than all the gold in the world. You had a mind. You had a heart. You know how rare that is? Not just out here, but in the whole motherfucking world. You were worth it. You were worth it and then some.”
“Liar! I’m a worthless piece of shit, just like everyone else out here. Everyone but you, Charlie. You’re the one who’s worth more than all of the rest. More than the whole world.”
“You’re just saying that on account of I’m dying.”
“No, I’m saying it because it’s true. Everyone knows it. Even the crackheads.”
“Even the tinfoil hat crowd?”
God, he actually got me to laugh!
“OK, maybe not them. But they don’t know what the fuck planet they’re on. But anyone with a brain? They know it. And they all owe you a hell of a lot more than they could ever repay. And you know that, too.”
“And what did I teach you about that?”
“That those who know have a duty to teach those who don’t. I don’t think I’m anywhere near as good as you are, but I tried. I did it tonight. There was this girl…her name was Helen. God, was she ever lost! She didn’t know shit! I told her what to do. I told her to get the fuck out of here before this place gets its hooks into her. I don’t think she will, but I did my best.”
“So do for her what I did for you. You could do that.”
Oh, God! Here’s where I have to break it to him: I’m going to kill myself tonight!
“I’m afraid that’s not going to happen. It can’t. Charlie, I…I spent the last three days trying to figure out how to tell you this. And now that you’re here, I don’t…I can’t…I don’t have the words. I thought I did, but…”
“Just say what you need to say. Don’t worry about the words. Just say it.”
“All right. Charlie, I can’t…I can’t take it anymore. I lost my room. I got the notice. Tonight was my last night. I’m back on the street, and I just…I can’t face it. Not anymore. I can’t do this anymore. If I go back out, I’ll just…Charlie, I’m finished. It’s time. I’m going to the bridge. Tonight.”
Jesus, I thought he’d be shocked! I thought he’d be a little bit furious, at least! But he’s just looking at me like he understands perfectly. Like he understands better than I do. That’s because he does. He always does.
“Are you sure? Are you absolutely sure?”
“I’m sure. It’s over. I’m all used up. And after tonight…God, you wouldn’t believe the shit I’ve been through tonight! It’s all the proof I need. I can’t do it anymore. I can’t do fifty years out here. I can’t do fifty days. One more day and I’m afraid I’ll be lost forever. I have to do it tonight, before the sun comes up.”
“Have you got a plan?”
“Yeah. The roof of Miranda’s Place. The fall will kill me for sure. I figure about three seconds down and I won’t even feel it.”
“What about your folks? Did you leave them a note?”
“No. I couldn’t. I wouldn’t know what to say. What the hell could I say? I’ve got a note in my pocket with their names and address and phone number. The cops will let them know I’m gone. I figure it’ll be bad enough. They don’t need to know the gory details of the last seven years.”
“No, they don’t need to know that. No one ever should.”
“Not even us. But we do.”
“Yeah, we do. As if we don’t have enough crosses to bear. All right, you know I’m not going to try to talk you out of it. That’s not how it works out here. I always knew you couldn’t go the distance. To tell you the truth, I didn’t want you to. I prayed you’d get out somehow, but we both know that only happens in dreams.”
“And this ain’t no dream world.”
“Not by a long shot.”
That’s something Charlie told me a long time ago: dreams have no place in our nighttime world. He said maybe that’s why we stay awake all night long: because the night and sleep are for dreams, and they just don’t exist out here. There’s just no use for them.
“I was afraid I wouldn’t get to see you before I…you know. I heard you were in the hospital and I fucking lost it!”
“Yeah, I didn’t see that coming. I was over on 5th Street and it just hit me real bad, all of a sudden. That dude who runs the bodega saw me and called the ambulance. They took me to the hospital and gave me the oxygen. I couldn’t get out of bed for a whole day. God damn it! They had me shitting in a bedpan! Can you believe it? I couldn’t even get to the motherfucking shitter, and the damned thing was eight feet away!”
That’s what he’s worried about? He has a fucking heart attack and all he has to bitch about is the fucking bedpan? Yeah, that’s Charlie for you. He can handle the big things, but the little ones are what gets to him. I got more than a few laughs out of that over the years.
“It beats shitting in an alley, Charlie.”
“Since when do I shit in an alley? There’s plenty of bathrooms around here. I know. I’ve been using them for most of my life.”
“All right. As glad as I am that you’re here, I wish you’d stayed in the hospital.”
“That ain’t for me. I should’ve died a long time ago. God, it’s been a long time! Why am I still here? I should’ve bought it in ’Nam. I lost most of my friends over there. They died, and I kept living. They got shot and they died; I got shot and I lived. And then here? All these years? Decades! I know too many names. Guys who used to be here and didn’t make it. But I’m still here. It’s hard, girl. It’s damned hard!”
Wait! Something’s wrong! He can’t breathe!
“Charlie! Charlie! What’s wrong? What is it? Breathe! Breathe!”
He’s seizing up! Is he having another heart attack? What do I do? I don’t know what to do!
“Charlie! What do I do! Tell me what to do!”
“It’s all right. It’s all…It’s all right. It comes and goes. They warned me about it. They said it would be this way.”
“Did they give you anything? Anything to help?”
“Fucking jellybeans! I don’t suppose you’ve got any dope on you?”
“Sorry. I wish I did. It would help.”
“No, that ain’t how it works. I told you: you got to face death with a clear head. Face it with your eyes wide open. Don’t be afraid of it. If you don’t fear it, it can’t beat you. It’s just another part of life.”
“I remember. I’ve been trying to do that all night. I was doing pretty good at first, but as the night wore on…”
“I know. It’s different when you know it’s coming. It’s a countdown. The closer you get, the worse it gets. I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you, girl. It must’ve been hell.”
“You’re here now. That’s all that matters.”
“I wish I was in better shape for you. I can’t even stand up.”
“You don’t have to. I’ve got you. I’m not letting go of you. You just hang on. Can you do that for me?”
It wasn’t supposed to end like this. One of the things I was counting on was knowing that Charlie would be all right. Everything would go on like it had, but I wouldn’t be here anymore. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Of all the things that could’ve gone wrong tonight, this has to be the worst!
“You know, I tried to make some sense of it all. I walked the alleys. I went to the old places. I can’t believe how much I remembered. So much! So much has happened since I wound up out here. I can’t even wrap my head around it.”
“No one can, girl. This place is too much for anyone’s head. Sometimes I think that’s by design.”
“I’d like to find the asshole who designed this place and kick him right in his fucking nuts!”
“I told you before: ain’t no one person made this place. The world made it. The world needs it. They need it for people like us. Otherwise, they’d have to deal with us.”
And they don’t want to do that. I think that’s why we can only see the Emerald City when we look up. It’s the ultimate “keep out” sign. And it works. It hurts as much as it works. I don’t think I ever realized how much until tonight. God, it’s fucking evil!
“I’d still like to kick someone. Not that I could. I can barely stand on this ankle. And I think Cole broke one of my ribs. Or maybe Ricky did it. I’ve been beaten more in one night than in the last year combined.”
“And you didn’t die. You should’ve, but you didn’t.”
“I know. I think it’s proof that I have to do it myself. If I don’t, I’ll be here forever. I’ll be one of the tinfoil hat crowd. I can’t let that happen.”
“I know you can’t. And I couldn’t bear to see that happen. I always knew it would come to this. I’m not mad at you. My heart’s breaking, but I’m not mad. I don’t want you thinking I am.”
“I know. I knew you’d understand. I knew it would hurt you, but I knew you’d understand.”
“It doesn’t hurt any more than seeing you out here does. This never should’ve happened to you. I’ve known a lot of people out here, but you were the one who never should’ve ended up with us. There’s an evil streak in the world that let someone like you end up like this. I wish I could’ve done something about it.”
Is he fucking kidding me? He did everything for me! He did more than I could ever repay in a thousand lifetimes! He’s got to know that!
“You did, Charlie! You did! You saved my ass a million times over. You held me up when I couldn’t stand. You were the one decent thing in my life. You did that, Charlie! You made it almost bearable. And don’t give me that shit about how I don’t owe you anything. I owe you everything! Just like everyone else out here. And I want to thank you for it. I should’ve thanked you a million times over, but I didn’t. So I’m doing it now. Thank you, Charlie. For everything.”
Is that really enough? How could anything be enough? How could I ever find the words to properly thank him? Everything I say to him just sounds so…cheap. But I have to say something. It’s all I can do. That kind of sums up what life out here is like: no matter what it is, it’s never enough, but it’s all you can do.
Oh, shit! He’s seizing up again! God, do something! Please! I don’t know what to do!
“Charlie! Charlie! Just…just hang on! Breathe! Just breathe! Please!”
It’s getting worse! I think he’s dying! What do I do? What can I do?
“That was…that was a bad one! God damn! I’ve known a lot of motherfuckers who had heart attacks, and…they told me how bad it hurt. But damn! They were lowballing it!”
“We have to get you back to the hospital! You need a doctor!”
“To do what? Pull the motherfucking sheet over my face? There ain’t nothing they can do for me, girl. When your time’s up, your time’s up. That’s how it goes. We know that. We know it better than anyone, don’t we?”
“We sure do. We know things nobody else does. And nobody knows more of them than you do.”
“I did what I could to teach you. To pass it on. I knew you’d appreciate it. And I wanted you to survive. I wanted you to beat this place.”
“It wasn’t in the cards. It’s because of you that I made it this far. Don’t feel bad because you couldn’t take me all the way.”
“You know, my life was pretty empty before you came along, girl. You gave me a reason to live. Someone to teach. Someone who understood. I can’t thank you enough for that. You made a difference. What did I tell you about that?”
“You said if you can make a difference for somebody, then you just did the best thing anybody could do for anyone out here. Five minutes’ peace is the greatest gift you can give someone on the streets.”
“You gave me a lot more than five minutes, girl. I want you to know that. If it wasn’t for you, I probably would’ve gone to the bridge a long time ago. You gave me a reason to keep going.”
“Charlie, there wouldn’t be anything about this place worth shit without you. You’re the only reason I could stand it. You didn’t need me. I needed you.”
“And now it looks like we’re both finished.”
He’s right. I don’t know how much time he’s got, but it isn’t much. And if he’s not here, then I’m sure as hell not going to stick around for one goddamned second! No fucking way! I thought this place couldn’t get any worse, but without Charlie? That’s the hell of all hells. No way is it a coincidence. It’s got to be God’s doing. It’s the only explanation.
“I’m scared, Charlie. This night…it wasn’t supposed to go like this. And now I’ve killed a guy.”
“A motherfucker who had it coming! Don’t you forget that!”
“But when they find him…God, my mom and dad are going to find out! I killed someone! They’re going to…it’ll kill them! This shit is bad enough, but knowing I’m a murderer? It’ll kill them, Charlie! The last thing I ever did on the last fucking night of my life! I killed them! They’ll never get over it!”
“Then we’ve got to make sure they never hear about it.”
“How? It won’t matter that I’m dead. My hair’s back there. My blood. The cops will figure it out. And when they do, they’ll call the cops back home and they’ll tell my family what I did. I know how it works, Charlie. I’ve been out here for a long time. And with me dead, they’ll contact my family to wrap up their fucking case!”
He knows I’m right. He’s been out here forever. He’s dealt with the cops. They have to have everything wrapped up. No loose ends. I know how it’ll go down: “Hey, we got a call from the cops in some asshole place a million miles from here. Your daughter’s a fucking murderer. She was a junkie and a whore, too. She was turning a trick and I guess he wouldn’t pay, so she gutted him like a pig. That’s some slut you’ve got for a daughter. Oh, that’s right: you don’t have a daughter anymore. She pancaked herself rather than get caught and go to prison where she belongs. Sorry about that. No loss, though. She was a piece of shit. Have a nice day.” That’s exactly how it’ll go down. And it’ll kill them. It’ll just kill them!
“Charlie, I don’t know what to do!”
“I do. Have you still got your knife?”
“Yeah. God, it’s got blood all over it! His blood!”
“That’s what I’m counting on. Give it to me.”
“Why? What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to put it in my pocket. And when the cops find me, they’ll find the murder weapon on me. Everyone knows about you and me. They know what you mean to me. They’ll think the son of a bitch tried to rape you and I killed him. And if I’m still alive when they find me, that’s exactly what I’m going to tell them.”
He’s going to what? Is he out of his fucking mind? He’s crazy! He’s fucking crazy!
“Charlie, no! No fucking way!”
“Give me the knife.”
“You’re not doing this! No! No fucking way!”
“I’m doing it. And they’ll believe it. He wouldn’t be the first motherfucker I took out. The cops know that. They’ll believe it. It makes it nice and easy for them, just how they like it.”
“Charlie, they’ll lock you up! You’ll spend your last days in fucking jail!”
Is he really giving me this shit? He’s out of his fucking mind!
“So, you left a fucking hospital because you wanted to die out here! Now you want to die in fucking jail? No!”
“If I do this, they won’t bother taking it any further. Your folks are never going to know. They’ll get the call when they find your body, but that’s all. They don’t need to know about that motherfucker. And this way, they never will.”
I don’t believe him! He’s going to take a murder rap for me!
“Why? Charlie, why are you doing this?”
“Because that’s what fathers do for their daughters.”
He’s serious! God, please don’t let him do this! Not for me! It’s not fair! I can’t do this to him!
“Honey, I feel like I’ve got a motherfucking truck parked on my chest! I ain’t going to argue with you! Do what I tell you! Give me your knife!”
He’s right. I hate it, but he’s right. If they think he killed Cole, then it’ll stop right there. They might not even wonder why. They know Charlie. They know his reputation out here. They might think that if he killed a guy, then he definitely had it coming. End of story. Case closed. Nice and easy, just like he said. God, I hate it! I hate that he’s right!
“Here. I’ll put it in your pocket.”
“You’d better not be fucking with me, girl! You put it in there! No goddamned tricks!”
That’s Charlie for you: he can read me like a fucking book. I thought about putting a rock in his pocket instead. So much for that idea. You can’t cross Charlie and you sure as hell can’t trick him. He knows every trick in the book. Hand over the knife, Miranda. You’re not going to win this one.
“Charlie, you don’t have to…”
Oh, fuck! He’s seizing again! Oh, God! Stop this! Stop it! Fuck you! If you’re going to take him, just fucking take him quick! Hasn’t he suffered enough? Just make it fast! No pain! God damn you! He’s suffered enough!
“Charlie! Breathe! Breathe! I’ve got you! I’m right here! Just breathe!”
It’s not stopping! Fuck! It’s not stopping! I can’t stand this! Stop fucking torturing him! Enough! Just fucking take him! If you want to torture someone, torture me! Not Charlie! Leave him alone!
“Charlie! Look at me! Look at me!”
He’s still alive! I think it passed! He’s breathing again!
“Damn, girl! You’d think I’d just die already! I guess I’m not surprised. Hard life, hard death. None of us gets to go easy. They save that for the folks in the Emerald City.”
“They don’t fucking deserve it! None of them! Let them spend one fucking night out here! Then they’ll know what real pain is!”
“You wouldn’t wish that on them, would you?”
Like I said, he’s always right and he knows me backwards and forwards. No, I wouldn’t wish that on them. Or anyone else, for that matter. Even the devil doesn’t deserve this shit.
“No, I wouldn’t. I’m sorry, Charlie. I’m sorry you’re…”
“Don’t be. I wouldn’t want to stick around without you, anyway.”
“You might get there before I do.”
“Maybe. But if I don’t, you wait for me, you hear? I won’t be too long behind you.”
“I’ll save you a seat.”
“You do that for me.”
“I know it’s a horrible thing to say, but I’m glad you’ll be there with me.”
“So am I.”
“Do you think they’ll let us into heaven?”
“Of course! We did our time in hell. We earned it. You’re a good woman. The Lord knows it. He forgives. Whatever happened down here, he’ll forgive. That’s one of the things I always liked about him. Some of the other shit? Well, not so much.”
“Jesus, Charlie! You’re fucking crazy!”
“Look who’s talking!”
Yeah, I walked into that one, all right!
“What are we going to do when we get there?”
“First, we’re going to take it easy. We won’t have to worry about anything anymore. Then, I’m going to look up some old friends. Guys I ain’t seen in a long time. They’re up there waiting for me. It’ll be real good to see them again.”
“You’ll have to introduce me.”
“I’ll do that. They’re good guys. You’ll like them. After that, we’ll have to see what they want us to do. Whatever it is, we’ll do it together. Fair enough?”
“Fair enough. As long as we get to stay together.”
“That’s the plan. Don’t be scared. We’ll be leaving this shit behind us forever. We won’t ever have to be scared again. We won’t need the dope, either. It’s funny…I’ve been a junkie all my life, but I don’t think I’m going to miss it.”
“We won’t need it. Do you think they’ll let us forget? About this place, I mean. About all of it?”
“Oh, yeah. You know what they say: you can’t take it with you. I’m pretty sure that’s the bad shit along with the good. Yeah, we’ll forget. It’s like the book says: he’s going to wipe away every tear.”
“Between us? That’s a lot of tears. They’d fill the ocean.”
“You’re doing a pretty good job of that now, girl. You need to stop crying. Don’t you be crying over me. You know better.”
“I can’t help it. I’ve done more crying tonight than I have in…God, I don’t even know how long! It’s been a bad night. Worse than most.”
“I can tell. You look like shit!”
“Look who’s talking! At least I can sit up straight!”
“You got me there, girl. I don’t even think I can move my legs anymore. It’s getting hard to see, too. Things are getting all blurry. I hope to God I don’t go blind before I die. I don’t think I could handle that.”
“You won’t. Trust me, you won’t. I’m staying right here with you. God, I’m so sorry I fucked everything up.”
“What did you fuck up? You didn’t fuck anything up.”
Is he kidding? Christ! Where do I even start with that one? It would take me twenty years to list everything! And that’s just the shit I’ve fucked up since I got here!
“Come on, Charlie. We both know I fucked it all up. You didn’t want me shooting dope; I ran out and got hooked. You wanted me to make something of myself; I didn’t make shit. You busted your fucking ass trying to teach me, and look at me now. And you always thought I’d get out of here someday, didn’t you?”
“I hoped you would.”
“You should’ve known better.”
“I did know better. I hoped, but I knew better. That’s why I never leaned on you for it. I knew you were doing the best you could. Sometimes that just isn’t good enough. Sometimes you just don’t win, no matter how hard you try. There ain’t no shame in that. And no matter what you did, you never could shake that TRD. There’s just no beating something like that. Honey, the whole fucking deck was stacked against you from day one! I knew that. I know that’s how it goes sometimes, but I was sorry it had to be you.”
“You and me both. I’m sorry I let you down.”
“Oh, hell! You didn’t let me down! Girl, you did make something of yourself! You’re a special lady. I mean that. You’re way past all of them. Everyone I ever knew. Don’t you ever forget that! I couldn’t be more proud of you if you were my own. I never had a daughter, but I couldn’t ask for a better one than you.”
Is he fucking kidding me? I think this shit’s fried his brain! Would you listen to him? He’s fucking crazy!
“Charlie, look at me! Look at where we are! You’re dying in an alley, and I’m about to kill myself. I’m covered with some asshole’s blood! Half of me wants to grab the nearest dealer I can find and slam right now! If I’m your idea of the perfect daughter, then you’re crazier than I am! And that’s fucking saying something!”
See that look in his eyes? I know it. I know it all too well. It’s the look that says he knows a hell of a lot more than I do. And he does. He knows more that I’d know if I lived for a thousand years. It’s one of the things I love about him.
“Don’t go selling yourself short, girl. You do that a lot, you know. But you’ve got no reason to. I’m damned proud of you. I always have been. Anyone who knew you would be.”
“Most people who know me think I’m a freak. Or they just hate my guts. You’re the exception.”
“There you go again! You never could give yourself a break. I swear, in all my life, I never saw anyone beat up on herself the way you do! I used to wonder what on earth you ever could’ve done to make you hate yourself the way you do.”
“Haven’t you been listening all these years?”
“Yeah, I have. And whatever it is, I don’t see it. I don’t see a damned thing wrong with you. I don’t think it’s there. There’s nothing to hate in you. There never has been. But I could never make you see that.”
“I think this time, I know more than you. Believe me, there are plenty of reasons to hate myself.”
“Oh, I know you’ve got a bunch of them, but none of them are any good. I know. I’ve been listening to them for what? Seven years, now?”
“Just about, yeah.”
“You hate yourself because you’re not perfect. You hate yourself because you’re not invincible. There’s no sense in that shit. That’s just being human. You shouldn’t hate yourself for being human. That’s the only thing wrong with you. You’re human, just like the rest of us. I spent the last seven years trying to teach you that, but I never could. That was the one thing I never could teach you.”
“That’s OK. You taught me plenty of other things.”
Jesus! That’s the fucking understatement of the century!
“Yeah, I sure did. But I could never teach you how special you are. I could never teach you how good you are. You’re damned good, you know.”
“To you, maybe. To everyone else, I’m a fucking worthless psycho junkie.”
“Being a junkie doesn’t make you worthless. It makes you a junkie. Just because you’re a junkie doesn’t mean that’s all you are. Hell, I’m a junkie. I’ve been one since before you were born. Is that all I am?”
“Of course not!”
“You’re damned right! If that were the case, I wouldn’t have made it this far. I wouldn’t have worked my ass off trying to educate myself. I wouldn’t have even tried. I’d be just another stupid motherfucker with a needle in his arm, living on the streets like a goddamned rat.”
“Not you, Charlie. No way. Not ever.”
“You didn’t know me when I was your age. You wouldn’t have recognized me. I don’t think you would’ve liked me, either. To tell you the truth, I didn’t much like myself. And I had good reason for that. I told you, I did a lot of shit in my day. Terrible shit. Evil shit. I justified it all with a ton of bullshit and none of it was true. I wasn’t the same man I am now. Just like you’re not the same woman you were when I found you.”
“Thank God you found me, huh?”
“For both of us. Girl, you gave me a reason to live. You brought something good into my life. I can’t even remember when I had that before. A long time. I owe you for that.”
“Come on, Charlie! We can’t start lying to each other now! I’ve been nothing but trouble to you since the day you met me. We both know it.”
Believe me, I know exactly how much trouble I’ve caused him over the years. I know how much effort he put into me. And I know how many favors he had to call in just to bail me out of trouble over and over again. Just to keep me safe. And throughout it all, he never complained about my bullshit. God, I dumped so much bullshit on him! I had no right to do that, but I never ceased to do it! It’s a wonder he didn’t smack me in the mouth and tell me to get lost and never come back. But he didn’t. He never did. And he never would.
“Trouble? Girl, you were the best thing to happen to me in a long time! You respected me. You looked at me and you saw something worthwhile. I’m not sure anyone else ever did. Not in my whole life. And you listened to me. More than anyone. But you didn’t just listen. You learned. You knew what I was trying to teach you was worth something. Maybe it couldn’t save you, but it could make you better. It could make you stronger. And it did.”
“It sure did. All because of you.”
“No, because of you! Look at you! You’ve grown. You’re strong, girl! Damn strong! You’re stronger than you think. And you’re a lot smarter and wiser than you ever were. You understand things you never even thought about before you got here. You know more about life than most people ever will.”
“Yeah, and look what it got me.”
“I know it seems that way. But just because it couldn’t save you doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth it. Do you think it was worthless?”
“Hell, no! I loved it. I loved every minute of it.”
Jesus, he’s laughing! He’s actually laughing! In his condition? It could kill him! But now he’s got me laughing! Can you believe it? In the middle of all of this shit, we’re laughing! How is that even possible? Because Charlie makes it possible. He always did. He’s amazing!
“Oh, I don’t know about every minute of it, girl! Come on, now! Tell the truth!”
“I am! I loved every fucking minute of it! You were the best teacher I ever had. I could listen to you forever. I loved listening to you! I couldn’t wait for you to tell me something new. God, Charlie! I never met anyone like you. I didn’t think people like you really existed.”
“That’s because you never lived on skid row before. That’s where you find people like me.”
“Tell me about it! And you’re right: reading all of those books really opened things up for me. They helped me sort things out. They almost made me feel like I was worth something.”
“You are! I don’t want to hear you say any different. Not tonight. Our last night.”
Jesus, it’s all bringing back so many memories! Good ones! I can’t believe it! I remember all of it!
“God, I was so angry when the kicked us out of the library for good!”
“You and me both! That was just mean shit! Hell, that was downright sinful of them! It ain’t like the homeless have a lot of other choices!”
“And that’s exactly what you told them. I remember. That librarian? Christ, I thought that lady was going to have a stroke right there! She probably never had anyone talk to her like that in her life!”
“Yeah, she sure as hell didn’t expect to get the riot act from some down-and-out old black junkie!”
“I thought she was going to shit herself when she realized how you knew more about that place than she did. She couldn’t believe you actually read so many of those books.”
“That’s because she didn’t get it. People out here need that place. Where do they get off saying we can’t go in there? Keeping people away from the one thing that might actually make a difference in their lives! Remind me to speak to the Lord about that one!”
“I’ll put it on the list. Hey, do you remember that time in the library when we made a list of all of the things we were going to take up with God when we died?”
“I sure do! Damn, that was one long list!”
“Not long enough!”
“I think we could both add a few things since that afternoon. Especially after tonight. I figure you’ve got a few bones to pick with him.”
“You’re damned right! Well, as long as he lets us in the gate. Hey, Charlie? Do you still have it?”
“The list? No. I don’t know what happened to it. But I don’t need it. It’s all right up here in my head. Every word of it. Every second of that day. Every time we both cut up laughing and that librarian lady told us to keep it down. It’s all right up here, girl. All of it. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Neither would I. And he’s not kidding. Charlie’s got a mind like the proverbial steel trap. He can read something or hear something or see something for two seconds and he’ll remember it for the rest of his life. The dope and the street and the war and everything else may have worn his body to a frazzle, but his mind is fucking razor sharp. Thank God for that. I always used to worry his mind would go. You know, Alzheimer’s or something like that. Thank God we were both spared that.
“Well, I guess we’ll be taking it up with him pretty soon. I’ll let you do the talking, Charlie. You’re better at that than I am.”
“You do that. You ain’t got nothing to worry about, you hear? It’s all going to work out for us. Nothing else ever did, but this time, it will. You and me, together forever.”
Since he’s sounding so certain, I guess I should lay the big one on him. The one that’s been scaring me since I was a teenager. God, please let him say something that fixes it for me!
“I’m scared, Charlie. I grew up hearing suicide’s a sin. God doesn’t forgive you for it.”
“Now, what did I tell you about that? The Lord Jesus died for our sins: yours, mine, and everyone’s. No exceptions. The Lord knew what you were going to do before you even existed. He doesn’t make people to throw them away. Not even one of them. That’s not his style.”
“Isn’t that just what I’m doing?”
“Now, why do you want to go thinking like that? Who knows better about how hard it’s been for you than the Lord? He knows what you’ve been through. And he doesn’t just know it. No sir, he lived it! He was right there with you for every goddamned minute of it. He’s going to understand. The Lord’s a tough motherfucker, but he ain’t vindictive. He may chew your ass out a bit, but he’s going to cut you a break.”
“As long as he cuts us both a break. I don’t want to go anywhere you won’t be.”
“Oh, I don’t think there’s any chance of that happening. I told you: you’re stuck with me, girl. Here and in the next…oh! Damn!”
My God! He’s seizing up again! They’re getting worse! That one looked like it almost broke him in half! Fuck! How could they let him out of the hospital? They should’ve cracked him on the head with a goddamned lead pipe and tied him to the fucking bed! What the fuck was wrong with those fucking doctors? Fucking sons of bitches!
“Charlie! Charlie! It’s OK! Just breathe! Breathe easy! That’s it! Just breathe!”
Oh, my God! Look at his face! He’s dying! He’s fucking dying! He’s not going to last much longer! God, please take him! End this shit! It’s not fair! Don’t make him suffer like this! He’s suffered enough! Just fucking take him and be done with it! Please!
“Hey, girl…are you still there? I can’t…can’t see so good. Are you still with me?”
“I’m still here. God, Charlie! I can’t stand this! I can’t stand seeing you like this!”
“I don’t…I don’t think it’ll be much longer. I feel…I don’t know. I feel…strange. I ain’t never felt like this before. Not even…with the dope. I guess this is what it feels like…to die. I always wondered…”
“Yeah, it hurts. My chest…don’t you worry, girl. It’ll be different for you. Fast. You won’t feel a thing. Not a damned thing. It’ll be over…before you know it.”
“Cross my heart. What’s left of it, anyway.”
“Do you think my mom and dad will forgive me? For being here? What I’ve done?”
“Of course they will. Girl, you know better than anyone: unless you’ve been here…unless you’ve seen what we’ve seen, you can’t possibly understand it. Not in a million years. Your folks will figure that out. They’ll think about it, a day, maybe two. Then they’ll let it rest. They’ll remember the old Miranda because they never knew this one. They’re good people. They won’t…they won’t go looking for the bad. You’re their little girl, and that’s all that matters in the end.”
“You really think so?”
“Shit, girl! I know so! This is your second father talking to you!”
I think he’s right. I think they’ll just hang on to whatever old memories they have, and try to forget the rest. If they can. I couldn’t bring myself to tell them what happened to me while I was alive. I just couldn’t. But death is different. Even out here. I decided they have a right to know I’m not alive anymore. They have a right to know that they can finally turn that porch light off for good.
“I hope you’re right. At least they’ll know what happened in the end. I took care of it. Like you taught me. See? I wrote it all down. It’s got my name, their names and the address and a phone number.”
“You put…put the tape on it. Good girl.”
“Like you taught me. I figured it would keep the blood off. You know, just in case.”
“Lord, the things we think of, huh?”
“So I guess we’re going to open up a couple of spaces out here, tonight. Two new vacancies. I told you how I already met my replacement, but nobody could ever take your place, Charlie. You’re too…oh, God! Charlie!”
He’s seizing again! It’s bad! Worse than before! He’s not breathing! It’s not stopping! This one’s not stopping! What do I do? God, what do I do?
“Charlie! Charlie! Stay with me! Please! Breathe!”
He’s not breathing! He’s not moving! No! No! No! It wasn’t supposed to be like this! It wasn’t supposed to be like this! It was supposed to be me! Just me! Not Charlie! God, not Charlie!
“Charlie? Charlie? Please say something! Please! Say something!”
Oh, my God! Oh, my God! He’s gone! He’s gone! God, no! Please don’t do this!
“Please, God! Please don’t do this! I’m sorry! I sorry for everything! I swear! Please don’t do this! Please! God, Please! Don’t do this! Please don’t do this to me! Please! I’m sorry! Please don’t do this! Please bring him back! Please!”
He’s not…he’s…he’s gone! He’s really gone! Charlie’s gone! He’s dead!
“I’m sorry, Charlie! I’m so sorry! I should’ve been there! I should’ve been there! I should’ve been a better daughter! It wasn’t supposed to be you! It was supposed to be me! I’m sorry! I love you! I’m sorry I never said it before and now I’ll never get to say it again! I love you, Charlie! I’m so sorry! I should’ve been a better daughter! I’m sorry I wasn’t a better daughter! Don’t go, Charlie! Please don’t leave me! Don’t leave me! I need you! I don’t know what to do! I never know what to do without you! I need you! Please! I need you to tell me what to do! Please come back, Charlie! Please come back and tell me what to do! Please!”
Oh, God! He’s really gone! Charlie’s gone! He’s dead! Why? Why, God? Why him? Why Charlie? He didn’t do anything wrong! He doesn’t deserve this! I deserve it! Please, God! Not Charlie!
“No! No! Oh, God! No! Charlie, please! Please don’t leave me! Please! I need you! Please don’t die! Please! No!”
He’s gone! He’s really gone! Charlie’s dead! Jesus fucking Christ! This can’t be happening! Charlie can’t die! Not him! Not now! Not here! I can’t…I can’t watch him die! I can’t! But he’s gone! Right in my arms! Charlie died and I’m still here! This isn’t happening! This isn’t happening! Please, God! Tell me this isn’t happening!