In the Essence of the Gourd

Fiction by Ian Golding

Linus had relished the quiet times when Charlie left to scavenge for copper. Alone, he’d squat on his blue blanket beside the enormous pumpkin and whisper into the stem just how much he loved it. For hours he’d lean close, brushing his lips against the orange flesh, and discuss whatever came to mind—Giant Pumpkin growing season, Giant Pumpkin growing tips, Giant Pumpkin growing records.

And when Charlie returned late in the evening with his stained yellow shirt and an armful of junk to pawn, Linus would say, “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” and wipe each leaf free of dust and act like it was just a pumpkin and that he was not kissing it.

And that was the good period.

Now, there was no celebration, no hidden romance, and nobody was kissing nobody. Now, Linus sucked his thumb at the church outreach center. He sat in front of his bowl of cereal and watched as the untouched flakes sogged and sank beneath the milk. Now, there were pumpkin problems. Just that morning he had found another pockmark on the once-untarnished orange, the third this week.

But Charlie was too deep in fantasy to care. Spurted out between mouthfuls of cereal, he talked about making a TV special about the Giant Pumpkin, about making it back to the big screen as a star. “Peanuts is timeless,” he said, pulverized cornflakes speckling his teeth. “And Hollywood could really use some down-to-earth dudes like us.”

And as Charlie dreamed and other homeless men finished breakfast and funneled out into the heat of the day, Linus sat silent and sucked his thumb. With a sick pumpkin, what was the point? He refused to eat. He would go hungry. Starve. He would suffer until the Great Pumpkin was healthy. He wanted a sign, a miracle. He wanted to sit right there until his essence had rotted and spilled across the linoleum floor.

But it was not meant to be. Once everyone was gone, the pastor patted Linus’s shoulder and told him, in the same voice he used to spread the word of the Lord, that Retiree Bingo started at noon. It was time to go.

“The pumpkin needs sunscreen,” Linus said, letting go of his blanket to grab the wrist of the bewildered volunteer. “We need sunscreen.”

#

“Today, your name is Ketchup,” Charlie said as they neared the corner. “Not Linus. Ketchup.”

With such a late start, they had missed most of the commuters. Only the late-shift stragglers remained, and they were tough as railroad ties. It took something original, something spectacular, to get their spare change.

“You’re my older brother that Momma dropped, and now you’re slow in the head. It’s called

Life with Brain Damage, Charlie Brown.

Everyone pitied a charity case, really dug deep in their pockets, and today Charlie was pulling out all the stops. He combed his few thick strands of hair to the side and rubbed glitter on Linus’s cheek. He reached into his sack.

“This is yours,” he said, handing Linus a jar of ketchup. “When I get their attention, shake their hands, whatever, I’m telling them that’s all you’ll eat since the accident.”

Linus nodded and leaned over, trying to look in the sack. “Is there any sunscreen in there?”

“All you need to do is squeeze that stuff all over yourself. Put some emotion in it. Make them feel guilty.”

“But what about sunscreen? What about the Great Pumpkin?”

“It’s sad, I’ll say, and the person will say, yeah.”

#

“I’m going to call him Boot Face,” Linus said, patting the cage as they wandered through the grocery store.

The trapped raccoon tried biting his fingers through the grating. It clawed at the corners and gnawed at the metal wires. It stared out with its one good eye and hissed. Linus giggled. With Boot Face near, he felt a million times better. The Great Pumpkin’s roots had dried out overnight, but he was okay. The meat aisle smelled delicious, but Linus’s hunger did not ache. The store’s strict rule on pets didn’t faze him.

“Can’t we call him Snoopy?” Charlie said, tearing open a package of processed lunch meat. “Remember how much easier things were before we had to put him down?”

Linus nodded his round head, sucked his thumb. “Yeah, I remember. But he’s gone, Charlie Brown. Boot Face is our new mascot.”

They had discussed adding an animal to their act, a creature so adorable that any passerby would instinctively slow to run their fingers through its soft fur. Boot Face was not that animal. Its fur had been matted with blood when they found it. Its right eye was gouged out. It walked with a determined limp, glaring its teeth to anything nearby. Boot Face had been mean as could be when they found it, and nothing much had changed. It refused to sit, to roll over, to even wear the baby bonnet Charlie had struggled to force over its pointed face.

And yet there it was: Boot Face, their new mascot. Linus had spent his life waiting on the Great Pumpkin. He’d waited every year for it, hoping it’d grow in his honest patch, and now here beside their camp, he watched its slow decay in front of him. The leaves turned black; the vines shriveled. If they couldn’t get sunscreen, then they were desperate for a change, some fresh support, he explained.

“I mean, sure, Boot Face isn’t in perfect condition, what with the crushed paw and the tail thing,” Linus said. “But he sure is cute.”

Linus rattled the cage and brought the hissing mascot to his face.

Charlie was quiet, stuffing folds of bologna into his pocket as the two loitered near the cooler. “Just keep it away from me,” he said, peeling wet slices of the beige meat, his slimy fingers still bloodied from getting Boot Face dressed.

A woman farther down talked on her cellphone and stared at rows of skinless, boneless chicken breasts. She chatted on her cellphone while her son tugged on her cardigan. He watched the raccoon bash its pointed face against the metal cage. He jumped up and down in excitement, his little bowl cut bobbing right along with him.

“Kitty,” the boy squealed.

Charlie dropped the rest of the bologna into the cooler and turned his back. He tried to act casual as Linus walked up to the boy.

“He’s a raccoon,” Linus clarified. “His name is Boot Face.”

#

“Look, I don’t want to hear it. If you didn’t spend your whole morning with a raccoon and a pumpkin, then maybe you could think of an idea.”