by Morris Marshall
Dan first came into the King Street diner one Monday morning in July 2014, just after the Toronto Stock Exchange opened at nine-thirty. Dressed in a navy blue shirt and a white tie that matched his hair, he sat down in a corner booth and rested his briefcase and cane beside him.
The cane was made of dark hardwood and had been a surprise 25th anniversary gift from his wife. Wherever Dan went, people admired the intricate carvings of a bear and bull near the handle.
The smell of freshly brewed coffee and bacon wafted out from the diner’s kitchen. Two servers in blue uniforms took orders and returned with trays of drinks and food. A short, heavy-set woman with grey hair and a red face worked one side of the room while a taller, younger woman with long brown hair in a ponytail worked the other side.
While waiting to order, Dan removed a computer tablet from his briefcase and checked the Internet for the latest stock prices. He looked up just as the younger server approached him, smiling.
“Good morning, sir. I’m Charlotte. Is this your first visit?”
“It is,” Dan said. “I’m looking for a place where I can concentrate on my work.”
“The diner can get noisy.”
“I like noise. It reminds me of the floor of the Stock Exchange. My condo’s too quiet.”
“Are you a stockbroker?” Charlotte asked.
“I used to be, but I’m retired. It’s just a hobby now.”
Charlotte placed a menu on the table. “We have a great breakfast special. Can I get you a drink to start?”
“I’ll just have a large coffee,” Dan said. “Double milk, no sugar, please.”
He sipped his coffee and worked on his laptop until noon, when he ordered bacon and eggs. After lunch, he ordered another coffee and continued reading and checking stock prices until the markets closed at four.
After three consecutive Mondays, Charlotte stopped asking Dan for his order. When he arrived, always wearing the same navy blue shirt and white tie, she put his morning coffee on the table. She brought him his bacon and eggs at lunch. When Charlotte wasn’t busy, Dan would look up from his computer and they’d chat about the weather and the latest news.
Over the next several months, Dan taught Charlotte economic concepts, household budgeting and basic principles of investing. One Monday in April, he sat with her on her lunch break while he completed her income tax return and found her a small refund. She had mentioned that her daughter, Emma, would be starting kindergarten in September, and the money would help buy new clothes.
On July 8th, the first anniversary of his wife’s death from liver cancer, Dan had coffee with Charlotte. She listened quietly as he described how he’d met Marie.
A month later, Dan came into the diner one Monday morning and sat down in his regular booth. Charlotte poured his coffee and walked away without greeting him. She’d lost weight and dark bags had formed under her blue eyes.
The diner remained quiet all morning. At noon, the front door opened and a hot breeze blew in along with the “suits” from the Financial District. A cacophony of conversation, clicking plates and clinking cutlery drowned out the dull hum of the air conditioner.
“Miss...Hey, Miss,” a young man in a suit called out to Charlotte. “This is the wrong order. I ordered steak, not a hamburger.”
She approached his table. The front of her uniform had darkened with sweat. “I’m sorry, sir, I must have heard wrong. I’ll get you a new—”
“I don’t have time,” the man said without looking up from his smart phone. “I have to get back to the office.”
Dan shook his head. In his day, people talked face-to-face. Today’s young people had lost the art of conversation. They’d sit in the diner, texting each other instead of talking. While walking down the street, they’d stare at their smart phones, oblivious to the world around them.
A familiar face on the large-screen TV across the room caught Dan’s attention. CNN featured a biography on corporate swindler Bernie Madoff. Dan had met him years ago at a Christmas party in New York. Thankfully, he hadn’t invested any money with him.
When the show finished, Dan returned to his computer to check stock prices. He’d considered investing in Google stock at its Initial Public Offering in August 2004, and could have made a killing, but he’d promised his wife years before that he was through with stocks. Still...it couldn’t hurt to follow the market. The Dow Jones and Toronto Stock Exchange had recently reached record highs and some economists predicted a crash. During his career, Dan made money in any economic climate.
Without warning, the sound of breaking glass drowned out the lunchtime conversation, drawing stares.
Dan stood up and, leaving his cane in the booth, he rushed to Charlotte’s side and helped her clean up the glass and plates from the floor. She held the dustpan while he swept.
The kitchen door swung open and Eddie, a short bald man with a grease-stained white apron, appeared. “Charlotte! Can I talk to you for a minute?” He directed her into his office at the back of the diner.
Charlotte appeared twenty minutes later and sat down in a booth across the room from Dan. Tears flooded her eyes. She rested her elbows against the table and, rocking slowly back and forth, cradled her head in her hands. After several minutes, she picked up her purse and left the diner.
The nerve of that Eddie, Dan thought. He fired her for breaking dishes. I’d love to tell him off in front of everyone, but Charlotte shouldn’t be left alone right now. She mentioned a place nearby where she enjoyed quiet time on her lunch breaks. I have to go to her.
After paying his bill, Dan purchased an iced coffee. The heat struck him as he pushed open the diner door and stepped onto King Street. He loosened his tie and walked two blocks west to a small park with a slide, swings, and sandbox. Children chased each other while their parents lounged in the shade. Charlotte sat on a bench in the sun. She’d taken off her shoes and was rubbing her nyloned feet.
“Excuse me, ma’am. Could I interest you in buying some insurance?”
Charlotte looked up. Her mascara had smeared. “Oh... hi, Dan.”
He smiled and held out the iced coffee. “You’re always serving me. Now it’s my turn.”
Charlotte removed a Kleenex from her purse and dabbed her eyes. She forced a smile and accepted Dan’s offering.
He eased himself down next to her and rested his cane and briefcase against the bench. “After the way Eddie treated you, I’m never going back to the diner again. I’ll find a new hangout.”
“That was the third time this month that I broke dishes,” Charlotte said. “I’ve been stressed out.”
“Could we please talk about something else?”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry.”
Charlotte drank some iced coffee. “I’m a single mother and my daughter Emma’s a great kid. Her sixth birthday’s next Sunday. Money’s tight, but on special occasions, we still enjoy going out for ice cream. I guess we won’t be able to do that this year.”
“I read somewhere,” Dan said, “that your ice cream preference tells a lot about your personality. Psychologists call it ‘flavourology’. ‘Strawberries’ are warm and caring. ‘Vanillas’ are down to earth and hard-working.”
“What about ‘Rocky Roads’? Emma and I love that flavour.”
“You’re tough and resilient, able to withstand anything.”
“You’re making that up!” Charlotte said with a hint of a smile.
Dan stared off into the distance. “My wife, Marie, was a ‘Rocky Road.’ In later years, we’d go out for ice cream on hot days like this and walk for hours along the waterfront, holding hands. Sometimes we’d take the ferry over to Centre Island and rent bicycles. The only reason our marriage lasted was Marie’s patience with me.”
He reached into his pocket, removed his wallet and took out a photograph of a smiling young couple. The dark-haired man wore a black tuxedo, while the woman, brown eyed with short brown hair styled in a bob, wore a long white dress and veil.
“You and Marie look happy in that picture,” Charlotte said. “It’s been over a year since she died, hasn’t it?”
Dan nodded. “We would have been married fifty years this week. Everything in my condo reminds me of her. I still haven’t brought myself to throw out any of her possessions. But enough about me. I can’t believe that idiot Eddie fired you for breaking dishes.”
“That’s not why he fired me.”
“What do you mean?”
Charlotte sipped her ice coffee. “I’d do anything for Emma. I took her to the dentist months ago, and he said she needed braces to fix her teeth. I was desperate. I don’t have dental coverage, so I started charging customers extra tax and stealing from the till. One of the other employees told Eddie today at lunch, and I broke down and admitted it. I’ve always taught Emma that stealing is wrong. I’m so ashamed.”
“I wish you’d have come to me for help,” Dan said.
“I didn’t want you involved. Eddie knows I have a young daughter. He’s met her several times. He could have gone to the police, but he said he wouldn’t press charges as long as I paid him back. I just need time... and a new job.”
“How much do you owe him?”
“Five hundred dollars.”
Dan sighed. “Charlotte, we’ve all done things that we regret. Thirty years ago, I was a high-rolling stockbroker at a prestigious Wall Street firm.” He reached into his briefcase and produced a magazine entitled The American Investor. A photo of a tall, tanned man in a dark blue suit graced the front cover. He stood on the tarmac of an airport in front of a small jet. The caption read, “Dan Healy, American Stockbroker of the Year: 1985.”
Charlotte looked at the photo. “You must be very proud.”
“I was, at the time, but now I carry around this magazine to remind myself how stupid I was. I spent hardly any time with Marie. Making money was my life. A few months after I won that award, I began telling my clients that certain stocks would rise thirty percent over the next year when I knew they were an awful investment.
“Once investors started buying and the price rose high enough, I’d sell all my shares and make a profit. The price would fall and all the other investors would be left with worthless stock. Stockbrokers call it ‘Pump and Dump’.”
“You’re not that person anymore,” Charlotte insisted. “The guy in that photo wouldn’t have bought me iced coffee to cheer me up.”
Dan stared at the ground and fidgeted with his cane. “My clients lost thousands of dollars. The police arrested me in 1990. I spent four years in prison, but Marie waited for me. I promised her I’d never invest in the stock market again.”
“She must have really loved you,” Charlotte said. “I know it’s hard, but you need to move forward.”
“In the late ’90s, I broke my promise to Marie. I couldn’t resist making one last investment in tech stocks, so I gave a friend money to invest for me and cashed out before the market plunged in 2000. I’m old now and have no family living, but I know Marie would want me to do something good with that money. I’d like to help you and Emma.”
“That’s a nice gesture,” Charlotte said, “but I can’t take your money. This is my problem. It’s time I took responsibility for my actions. I’ll find work.”
“Since Marie died, I’ve seen three different psychiatrists for depression, each charging $100 an hour. None of them helped me as much as talking to you at the diner over the past year. You’re a good listener and friend.”
By now, the children and their parents had left the park. The sun had fallen in the sky, lengthening the shadows of the slide and swings against the sandbox and grass. A warm breeze rustled the leaves of a nearby oak tree and a hawk glided by overhead.
Dan closed his eyes and found himself back in the New York condo he’d rented with Marie just after they’d married in 1965. The Six o’clock Stock Market Report played on their black-and-white television. Still dressed in his shirt and tie, Dan leaned back in his brown leather chair after a long day at the office. His eyes became heavy and, as he drifted off, Marie’s voice jarred him awake. She stood above him, smiling.
“I forgive you for breaking your promise,” she said. “Now listen to Charlotte. It’s time to move forward.” She leaned over and kissed him on the forehead.
When Dan opened his eyes, he was back on the park bench.
“Charlotte,” he said, “I’m a chronic hoarder and I need someone to help me collect Marie’s things from my condo and take them to Goodwill. I could also use some help with redecorating and grocery shopping. It’s a long-term position, for as long as I live, anyway. I’ll pay you twice as much as you were earning at the diner.”
“When can I start?”
“Tomorrow morning. “
“We’re having a birthday party for Emma at my place next Sunday at four,” Charlotte said. “My mom and a few friends will be there. Can you come?”
“Let me check my schedule.” Dan removed his computer tablet from his briefcase. “Hmm... It seems I’m free.”
Charlotte smiled. “I thought you’d be.”
Dan entered her address into his computer and put it back in his briefcase along with his magazine. He reached for his cane.
“It’s hot out,” he said, standing up. “All this serious talk has made me hungry for ice cream. Why don’t you call your mom and ask her and Emma to meet us at the Perfect Scoop at Yonge and King Streets?”
“You never did tell me your favorite flavour,” Charlotte said.
“I’m a ‘Strawberry’.”
“I thought so.”
“Before we eat, let’s stop at the diner,” Dan said.
“Didn’t you say you were never going back there?”
Dan smiled. “I guess I lied.” He removed ten fifty dollar bills from his wallet. “Rule number one in financial planning: pay your debts first.”
“Consider it an advance on your salary.”
Charlotte removed her cell phone from her purse, called her mother and asked her to bring Emma to the ice cream store in thirty minutes for a birthday surprise. Then she slipped her shoes back on, rose from the bench and accompanied Dan back to the diner.
Copyright © 2015 by Morris Marshall