“My favorite?” asked Mel. “No, no, no. You don’t get to have favorites in our line of work, kid.” He sipped loudly at the last of his coffee then hung the empty cup off the edge of the table, wagging it until the waitress saw.
“Fine,” said Mandy, trying not to roll her eyes. “Then don’t call it your favorite, call it your ‘most memorable.’”
Mel gave his salt and pepper beard a few pensive scratches. “Not sure I can pick just one.”
“Pick three then,” Mandy offered, beginning to regret asking the question.
The old man’s brow furrowed while the waitress filled his cup with the muddy brown sludge that they passed off for coffee in the small, two-bit cafe he insisted on dragging her to every morning. When she was finished he thanked her and stirred in two and a half packets of Sweet n’ Low with ritualistic care. “I could do three,” he finally said, nodding as he raised the cup to his lips.
Mandy leaned in, her ears perked and eager. It wasn’t often she could get the old man to talk about what his work was like before she came along and it was always fascinating. It took him a few more scratches and sips of coffee before he finally began to speak. “Now I know it wasn’t the most important job I’ve ever done, but I don’t think there was ever a man as memorable as this fella I met out in Colorado. He called himself Duke,” said Mel. “And he wouldn’t let me call him anything else either. He insisted that we make a pit-stop in Vegas before moving along and he was so damn convincing that I took him up on it.”
“You did?” Mandy’s jaw was slack. Mel was always on her about being early for appointments, on the importance of responsibility in their line of work.
“I did,” he went on. “And that sonuvabitch showed me the wildest weekend I’ve ever known before I finally managed to send him off. I never used to believe all that garbage about certain stars burning brighter than others, but Duke managed to prove me wrong, showed me how much living a man can really do when he lives only in the present.”
Mandy opened her mouth to speak, but before she could Mel wagged a finger at her. “Got in a fat lot of trouble afterward, as I should have, I had over four dozen missed appointments when I got back. But if you want the truth, there’s few souls that have left as much of an impression on me as Duke did.”
“Hard to imagine you in Vegas,” said Mandy, smirking. “So what about your other two?”
Mel sipped at his coffee some more, his eyes clouding over as he thought. When he spoke again, it was just a hair above a whisper. “Next one’s not as happy, I’m afraid, but just as important. It was back during the Great War, I was assigned to the trenches during the Somme Offensive. There wasn’t a single person I guided out from the muddy hell-hole that wasn’t glad to come with me, but there was one kid that I’ve never been able to shake from my mind.” He paused to clear his throat, then continued, “He was an English boy, Londoner I think, one of those that snuck in early because he had enough fuzz on his face at fifteen to keep the recruiters from asking questions. It was the gas that got him, chlorine, and when I pulled him up from the dirt, he just fell into my arms and wept. Wept all the way ’till morning.” Mel coughed then, clearly trying to keep from weeping himself. “In all my years, I’m not certain I’ve ever seen a man so relieved to move on.”
A somber silence followed and sitting there, staring at the table, Mandy wondered if she would ever see such a thing during her time. She wondered if she’d ever be witness to such a bevy of souls cut down so prematurely, made to wither on the vine. The thought made her stomach turn and thankfully, Mel interrupted the rumination when he leaned his cup back over the edge of the table and gave it another shake.
“Be right there, hon,” the waitress shouted from the till up at the front.
Mel smiled at her and nodded, then turned back to Mandy. “But my most memorable?” he said, scratching at his beard again, this time in more of an imitation of the habit than the real thing. “I think it would have to be this girl I plucked from the river here in Portland about a year ago.”
Mandy rolled her eyes. “Be serious,” she said. “There’s no way I’m your most memorable harvest.”
Mel scowled. “You don’t think meeting your replacement for the first time is memorable?”
“Replacement? Mel, we’re partners.”
“Are we?” he asked in a way that she knew meant that he wasn’t really asking at all. “Sorry to break it to you, kid, but this game isn’t played with partners.”
Mandy didn’t say anything. She just stared at him, while their waitress stopped to refill his cup. It wasn’t until Mel was pulling on his long, dark trench-coat that she was able to muster up any sort of response. Even then, “You’re leaving?” was all she could make out.
“Even our position is but a temporary one,” he said, stuffing a few dollars beneath the corner of his breakfast plate. “Don’t worry, you’ll do just fine. You’re better than I was when I started,” Behind him, there was a clatter as their waitress’s coffee pot rattled against the floor. It took Mandy a few seconds to realize that she had fallen with it. But as the woman’s body lay lifeless on the ground, a fuzzier, more opaque version of her stood above herself, hand raised to her mouth.
“Didn’t hurt a bit, did it?” asked Mel, stepping up beside her.
“N-n-no,” said the waitress, having the usual difficulty forming words that those who’d recently lost the tangibility of a body did. “It didn’t.”
“Well you look like you’ve got plenty of questions, what say we get you some answers?” Mel offered her the crook of his arm and she took it with only a little hesitation. They made their way toward the front of the diner then, side-stepping the crowd that was collecting around the waitress’s former body. But before they reached the door Mel looked back at Mandy and smiled. “See you on the other side,” he called back to her. “It was a pleasure showing you the ropes.”
“It was a pleasure learning,” Mandy said quietly, watching as they stepped through the door and disappeared into a bloom of blinding light.
When they had gone Mandy pulled the cup of coffee toward her from across the table. She’d never tasted the stuff, even in life. She took a tentative sip, recoiling at the bitterness. She added one pack of Sweet n’ Low, then another, but found she wasn’t satisfied until she’d stirred about half of the third packet into the small cup of thick, brown water. “Not bad,” she said to herself as she sipped. “Not bad.”