Linus stared at his army fatigues and shook his head in disappointment. He’d always hated You’re Not the Only Charlie, Charlie Brown.
“Now, for the last time, we’re Vietnam vets and the Man let us down. I saw kids getting sprayed in machine-gun fire. Kids, man. Kids.”
“What about me?” Linus said, his blanket dragging on the sidewalk, his stomach growling. It was the first time he’d left the Great Pumpkin and Boot Face alone. It felt weird.
“You breathed in enough Agent Orange to shrivel your voice box, and now you can’t say a peep about pumpkins,” Charlie said, ruffling up his hair. “But show some emotion.”
“How am I supposed to do that?”
“Just think about that one actor I like. He knows so much about these things.”
“I don’t know, Charlie Brown,” Linus said. “The veteran stuff always works better with the rest of the gang.”
Charlie froze. He turned around. He gripped Linus’s camouflage. “What did I say about mentioning them?”
“Gosh, Charlie Brown. Sorry. I think about them sometimes, I guess.”
“Well, don’t. They left me—us. They left us,” Charlie said, letting go of Linus. “We don’t need them. We’ll make it back to the top on our own.”
Linus sucked his thumb.
“How magical is the Great Pumpkin?” Linus would ask a few times every day. And though Charlie said nothing and moved not one muscle in response, Linus would point to Boot Face and say, “That’s how magical.”
Unlike the other raccoons, not to mention the deer, opossums, groundhogs, squirrels, rabbits, various lizards, buzzards, coyotes, armadillos, turtles, cats, dogs, and everything else they’d seen bloated and bleeding along the highway, this raccoon, this Boot Face, had lived.
“Why?” Linus asked, but gave no pause before continuing. “Because it tasted the Great Pumpkin.”
Proof, Linus was certain, that the sagging pumpkin was still potent with essence. Boot Face, once a raccoon, was now the first miracle performed by the Great Pumpkin. Gourd and coon, intertwined, their essences running through one another.
To think that Charlie had planted the pumpkin for such trivial purposes. How he had gotten so excited when the first little leaf budded above soil. How he had practiced his speech every night, sure to say how thankful he was for winning the state fair largest-gourd contest. How he planned on making a new TV special without Sally or Lucy or Franklin or Schroeder or anyone who had abandoned the troupe. How he’d say that pumpkin raising was his calling instead of, say, kicking a football. It all seemed so long ago. It had grown past their expectations and, in doing so, had absorbed so much essence.
It was a powerful gourd, and in Linus’s imagination it had grown to a mythical size. He knew that it was the Great Pumpkin that made him quiver at night and not his hunger. He knew that it altered the weather, that the earth’s very orbit was in question. Every day the news reported forest fires, earthquakes, the dead and suffering from great tidal tsunamis, and many other pumpkin-related issues.
And yet, when he told Charlie of the pumpkin’s power, Linus was saddened.
“You don’t say,” his friend would say, half asleep. “Is that right?”
He refused to buy it sunscreen, refused to protect it. And if Charlie can’t believe its essence now, Linus asked himself, would he ever believe it?
“This one is simple. It’s Terminal, Charlie Brown. You’ve got gut cancer so bad you can’t speak or swallow, and I’m the doctor who can heal you if we get a few bucks.”
Charlie was talking fast. They were going to be late. Linus said nothing, his hospital gown hanging from his shoulders, his thumb lodged in his mouth. He did his best to keep up.
“Look,” Charlie said, without turning around, “you wouldn’t be the sick patient if you didn’t look like a sick patient.”
They pushed through the downtown traffic, parting insurance agents and bankers, government lackeys and more bankers. When they finally made it to their planned spot, the corner was occupied. A filthy man strummed a guitar with two missing strings and nodded to passersby. He coughed spastically. A cloud of soot circulated around him. A cup of change sat on the sidewalk. It was empty.
“Pig-Pen,” Charlie said, clenching his fists. “That fucking amateur.”
It was their spot. Everyone knew that. Five days a week they set up shop on that corner for their performances. Only a complete idiot wouldn’t know that. Pig-Pen looked up, a smile spread across his ash-covered face, his eyes shining bright through the grime.
“Come on, let’s go,” Charlie said, turning to Linus. “I know another place.”
They walked past. Linus gave a little wave before they disappeared in the crowd. Charlie kept pushing forward. His mouth, like his mind, like his pace, was fast. He rattled off ideas, key words, emotional cues while Linus sucked his thumb.
“If you’re going to be a grumpy baby, then you can be a doctor, too, but I’ll be the main doctor who healed all the cancer of the gut in our patient, and you’re the doctor who is jealous of my success,” Charlie said. “But I swear if you mention sunscreen things are going to get messy.”
Boot Face gnawed its leg off during the night.
When Linus discovered it, crinkled in the corner like a stubbed cigar, he wrapped the crushed paw in perfume advertisements and set it beside the Great Pumpkin. The faint breeze brought fleeting scents of rot and French women. It was intoxicating, in its own way.
The final sacraments to the paw of Boot Face took most of the morning. It would have been faster, but Linus hadn’t eaten in days. Slipping in and out of consciousness, he prayed for the Great Pumpkin, for the mascot, for his empty stomach. He prayed to whoever might listen.
He dug his fingers into the dry soil beside the Great Pumpkin and buried the leg, hoping the severed essence would seep free for the pumpkin to reclaim. Ever since the weight of the stem had caved in the top of the pumpkin, Linus had been desperate. Then there was a moment of silence. Charlie practiced his Australian accent.
“Oy, mate.” “Ow, meet.” “Hoy, moite.”
“How did that one sound?” he said, nudging Linus.
“I didn’t hear.”
Linus’s head drooped toward the ground, his gaze unfocused on the soil. “Huh?”
“You got to eat something,” Charlie said, pulling a piece of bologna out of his pocket. “Munch on this, buddy.”