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Taking a long sip from his beer, Charlie sits down in his usual chair. For years, this had been known as his chair – even when his wife was here, even when his kids were running around. They’re all gone now, though there’s still evidence of their existence, proof that Charlie’s memories are just that: pictures taken long ago, mementos from a better time.
His beer is stale. Charlie doesn’t mind – he’s used to it. Used to the disappointment, the lowered expectations. Besides, he knows it’s his own fault – he never remembers to put the cans in the fridge after he buys them. Denise always took care of that.
Actually, Denise took care of most things. Laundry, cooking, cleaning…Unconsciously, Charlie’s eyes flick over to the stack of plates precariously piled next to three ashtrays and a pack of cigarettes on his coffee table. Charlie sits up to check the pack – empty. Of course.
With a grunt, he leans back in his chair and fumbles around for the remote. Eventually, he finds it on the tray next to the chair, next to the remnants of last night’s dinner.
He turns on the TV, glad to see it’s already on his desired channel. Of course it is – it’s the only channel he watches. Every night at six-thirty, he watches the news. The co-anchor, Kimber Williams, is the best part of his day. His days are routine. Rough. Watching a beautiful woman wish him a good night makes the edges a little smoother. Every day, he wakes up in his chair, his mind clouded from the previous night’s drunken stupor, immediately aching for a cigarette. Of course, he can never find one. In his search, he winds up drinking three or four cups of coffee and bites his nails, whittling them down until they’re bloody and throbbing. He doesn’t mind the pain, though – he’s used to it. He’s used to all of it.
Wait – he glances at his clock, the glass covered with so much grime that it’s almost impossible to read it. It’s a minute past, and for some reason, the news hasn’t started yet.
Charlie focuses on the TV, which, as he now sees, is only displaying the name of his cable provider. This happened once before, right after Susie was born. All of their money had gone to the hospital bills, and there had been nothing left over for the electric bill. Denise had borrowed the money from her father and paid it off the next day. This time, though, it wasn’t an option. Charlie’s own parents were dead, and he hadn’t spoken to Denise’s parents in fifteen – no, sixteen years, not since before Denise left.
God – he was losing track of time. But then again, who could blame him? When you were an empty shell of who you once were, you didn’t need to know how long you’d been that way. One week of lying in self-pity was the same as two weeks, the same as a month.
He knows what’s coming next, of course – the lights. Sure enough, not ten minutes later, his house plunges into total darkness.
Charlie sits there for God knows how long. He’s never been in this position – he hasn’t had a steady job in almost twenty years, but through working odd jobs around town, he’s always been able to somehow pay off his bills. But he’s getting old now, so work’s hard to fin – and the paychecks he does receive are usually spent in one trip to the liquor store.
Without preamble, Charlie bursts into tears, feeling, for the first time – well, anything. All he’s felt for the last sixteen years – no, longer, even – is emptiness. He hasn’t felt true joy since the night Denise agreed to marry him. Every good thing in his life has always been tainted with harsh doses of reality, or maybe just his own unrealistic expectations, because he’s just too damn stubborn to ever just enjoy something.
His legs seem to move on their own. He doesn’t need lights to guide him – he’s memorized this path. Up the stairs, second door on the right – the former bedroom of his girls.
They were four and eight when they left. Even before they left, they never knew their father – he was always too drunk, too stupid to realize what was slipping through his fingers.
The light pink paint on the walls is chipping – an unavoidable reminder of his loss. The memories, just like the paint, are beginning to fade away.
He lays down in Katie’s bed, and if he breathes deep enough, he can still smell her – strawberries and dirt, the odd balance achieved by a neat little girl who loved the outdoors.
Another twinge of pain hits him. Loved. What would Katie love now, at twenty-four? Would she be married, would she have kids? Would her husband love her like Charlie never could?
There’s no point, he knows, in making up hypothetical situations. Their lives were frozen at four, eight, and thirty-four – their ages when they piled into the car to go pick up Charlie from the police station. He had gotten another DUI, and if he hadn’t, his family’s station wagon wouldn’t have collided with some sports car that had run the red light. Maybe no one would have died that day. Maybe someone else’s family would have died. But whatever happened, it wouldn’t have been Charlie’s girls – and maybe, now, sixteen years later, he’d be whole.