Within the span of a year, Charlie had taken custody of and held funerals for nearly a dozen anonymous souls.
Violet Hausman had been a war bride from Britain and the mother of three sons, all of whom had followed in their father's footsteps and enlisted in the military. Unlike him, all three had been killed in the line of duty: David in Vietnam, Paul in the Beirut barracks bombing, and George in the Persian Gulf War. Her husband had died of a heart attack in between Paul and George. Despite these losses, Violet persevered, earning a living as a seamstress and dressmaker, and was estimated to be nearly ninety when she finally died. She had been found in the back of a fabric store, clutching the bolt of red gingham she had been inspecting when the aneurysm struck.
John Czernesky gave the best years of his life and health to the second shift at the plant, where he helped build the thousands of circle saws and power drills that went out and built treehouses and fences and bookcases, only to see his job vanish and his skills rendered useless when the corporation packed up and moved to cheaper climes overseas. He soothed his despair with can after can of cheap beer and cigarettes, eventually drinking himself onto the street. His liver poisoned beyond repair, he died in his sleep under the bridge he used to drive across twice a day coming and going from the plant. He hadn't been much older than Charlie.
Summer Johnson had run away from home when the arguments with her abusive stepfather became too much to bear. Blessed with a magical singing voice, she dreamed of escaping to New York City and making a run at Broadway. She had been living with a friend, studying for her GED and working a mall job to save up the money for a head shot and bus fare. Unfortunately, she had begun stripping and turning the occasional trick as well, and one night, she ended up with a john who had a thing for snuff films.
Violet, Paul and Summer, and all the others, had ended up in Charlie's care, and he tried to plan respectful and appropriate funerals and burials, even putting in personal touches: a coffin blanket of pink daisies (her favorite) for Summer, having a soloist sing a haunting rendition of 'Jerusalem' for Violet, carving the emblem of the machinists' union on Paul's headstone. (He didn't dare carve the name; the names remained in his notes at home.) He spent thousands upon thousands of dollars on the services and burials, trying to treat every last anonymous body as if it was his family member.
He even created portraits of each person. He had tried his hand at drawing them, but the results were laughable. Then he began leafing through magazines at the supermarket checkout line to look for matches, but never could get anybody just right; the eyes of one person would be right, but the nose and the mouth and the hair would be all wrong. That was when he experimented with cutting the ads and pictures apart and building new faces out of the pieces. The new faces were disjointed, to be certain, but with practice and technique he was soon able to make some startingly precise pictures. He made one for every decedent, then began to make baby pictures and, for the older ones, pictures of their younger days. Violet even had a magnificent wedding portrait.
At first he kept the pictures in the person's folder, but soon purchased picture frames and displayed the pictures on his bookshelves and end tables. It was nice to return home from a long day and see Paul or Summer smiling at him.
Charlie's pictures and funerals remained his secret for a long time, until the day that Thomas St. Pierre came into his custody. Thomas hailed from New Orleans originally, coming here to teach music at one of the local colleges, and had meant to return to his beloved hometown, but an accidental fall by the river ended his life before he could go back South. Charlie decided to throw Thomas an old-fashioned Louisiana funeral, complete with parade, marching band, umbrella-waving dancers and steaming kettles of gumbo at the repast.
The spectacle-- the likes of which had never been seen in these Pennsylvania streets-- attracted a lot of attention.