It Was Late, the Diner Was Empty
July 22, 2012
I didn’t know him when I sat down, but by the time I got up I’m pretty sure I did.
I came in around midnight, I’d been driving all night with my boyfriend to get to Seattle in time for a convention we were working at. He was passed out in the passenger seat and I was starving, so when I saw the lit sign just off of the freeway, I pulled off to grab a burger.
At the bar, facing the cook and eating a single piece of pumpkin pie was a man. He was small, broad, and slumped over his plate. Dressed in a pair of slacks, running shoes, and a wool coat with long, knotted hair splayed down his back. I sat a few seats down from him and ordered by burger, than said hi.
He smiled, a weak and soft smile. A heavy smile. I asked him about why he was so sad.
“I’m not sad.” He said, slowly and carefully, as if each word were brand new and still had sharp edges on them. “I’m just tired. It’s been a long, hard road.”
We ate in silence for several minutes before I asked about the road. He sighed softly and looked down at his pie.
“I killed a man. In Anaheim, a long time ago.”
There was no part of him that spoke of someone that took another’s life. I’d been to Afghanistan, in one of the hardest details with day to day work. I was assigned to a laundry and supply unit that would drive to forward locations to drop off and clean clothes, food, water, and whatever else entrenched soldiers needed. I got to know the look of people who killed – those who enjoyed it, those that were guilty about it, those who couldn’t handle it. Even those that knew, without a doubt, that there was nothing else they could have done but still cry for the life they took.
The man in the diner, though, he didn’t look like he had killed anyone.
So I asked him about it, who he killed. We he had killed a man so long ago.
He set his fork down on his plate slowly and sighed. “A long time ago, down south in Anaheim, a man crossed me and ruined my life. He trapped me and took everything from me – my friends, my family, my job, my health, the love of my life. He robbed me of everything I had and I couldn’t get out. So I took his life and I ran.”
His voice was quiet and reserved, soft and husky. It was leather that had baked in the sun, crushed velvet that was comfortable but never fit just right. Behind it, though, was hard still. A spine of iron and will.
I returned to my meal and let him eat in silence. Once he paid, he sat there with a cup of coffee even while I kept eating. I couldn’t help but keep asking, finding out more about his story. So I worked my up courage again and asked what happened after he killed the man.
“Well, I ran. I’ve been running for a long, long time. You see, a long time ago I was just like everyone else. Had a job, a house. Family to take care of. Clubs and meetings to go to. Had a nice girlfriend and we were going to settle down. Then my world crumbled around my ears – started having seizures and I couldn’t keep my job anymore. Couldn’t keep working like I did, couldn’t keep taking care of the people who needed me.”
He slurped his coffee and was quiet for a while. I didn’t press him, I didn’t ask. He paused, for a long while, but it was just a pause.
“I spent two years angry with myself. Angry with the world. Angry that all of what I was told growing up, all of what I was told going through school, was a lie. It doesn’t matter how hard you work, it doesn’t matter how much you keep your head down or how nice you are or how good you are. It doesn’t matter what you love or what you need when luck comes and lays you low.”
He turned and he looked me dead in the eye. He had a scar, deep as pain and anguish, right across his forehead and through his left eye.
“If you see someone down and out, don’t you walk past them. When you look past your brothers and your sisters out there on the street, you condone our deaths. You whisper to us with each passing glance that you don’t want us, you don’t need us, and you want us to disappear. You burden those who love us and can’t help us by wishing we’d just go away.”
He turned away then and went back to his coffee.
I finished my food and paid, but I couldn’t just let this rest. I can’t be everyone’s keeper, I can’t be there to help everyone. I turned to him again and started to say something but he stopped me.
“Even a little bit of help is enough. But if you want to really absolve that guilt, instead of convincing yourself it isn’t your problem, convince everyone else it is. If you don’t, more people like me will pop up. And there’ll be a whole lot more dead.”
I narrowed my eyes and asked how being down, being broke, being on the outside makes someone a murderer.
He turned his head away from me and showed me the cave in the side of his head, the cavern of darkness and blood.
“I killed a man, and that man was me. I just walk this place, now, and tell others why the gun was mine, but the will was theirs. I was just giving my last gift to the people around me, giving them what they always wanted from me. Giving them what they kept asking me for.”
I started backing out the door slowly. He turned and looked me in the eye again, stopped me in my tracks.
“They wanted me dead, they didn’t care what happened to me, so I gave it to them. I killed a man. I killed myself. Now the weight of my murder’s felt by each community my memory touches. My curse carries to everyone who walked past me, everyone who ignored me, everyone who thought that their problems were just too big to stop for just a second and see what they could do.”
I never saw him again.