“Thanks,” Linus said. He tore it into strips and slipped it through the cracks in the cage. Boot Face stopped licking the severed wound for a second to claw at the lunch meat with its good paw.
“He likes it,” Linus giggled.
Woodstock used to wake them up. It’d sit up on their shanty and sing as morning emerged above the overpass. But that was before the accident. Now they slept until Charlie had to piss.
It was a ritual now, a habit. He’d shake Linus awake on his way out, and their day began. But today the shanty was empty. Linus wasn’t asleep, hadn’t even thought about sleep. He’d been awake for hours, frantically smearing ranch dressing on the Great Pumpkin, racing against the ever-rising sun. Where he had gotten the dressing seemed of little importance as he stood on tippy toes, squeezing the family-sized jug over the top of the gourd, letting large ponds of buttermilk overflow and run down the side. There was something inspirational to Linus’s work.
Linus paused sporadically, just long enough to suck the ranch from his fingers, before squatting down to fill a crevasse of the pumpkin with a liberal amount of the white dressing. And when he finished coating one layer on the pumpkin, he began another, and when he emptied one jug of ranch, he opened another. He went around for an hour, two hours. Empty containers scattered around him; splashes of ranch and sweat covered his arms, absorbed into his denim, but he never stopped, never slowed.
Breakfast passed, and the morning commuter rush, too. Charlie waited in the heat and got their act prepared. He hoped that his friend would relax, that they would make it downtown before the lunch crowds—filled with grease and spare change—disappeared into their office buildings. But when it was clear that Linus would not, Charlie intervened.
First a poke, then a shove, and when that did not work, a slap against Linus’s unshaven face. And when that too failed, he swung harder, hitting cheek, ear, neck. Glitter twinkled in the air with every strike. But the harder he smacked, the harder Linus worked. Boot Face sat calmly in its cage, its essence soothed by the violence.
When they had been nomads, roving from one strip mall to another, theirs stomachs filled with potato chips and jerky, they had been hardened. But that was long ago. Back when Sally would still turn up every now and then, begging Charlie to come with her. Now they were alone. Now they were settlers, and the blows against Linus’s bruising body forced his breath against the damp pumpkin.
“Fine,” Linus said, spitting blood on the dirt. “What do you want?”
For the first time he turned away from the pumpkin and saw Charlie and his black face.
“It’s time for the role of your life,” Charlie said, panting, his yellowed teeth blinking in and out from behind his blackened lips as he shook the can of spray paint, the little metal ball rattling like a child’s toy.
And before Linus had managed to open his mouth to say that he cared more about the Great Pumpkin than money, than their stupid roles, than Charlie or himself, Charlie had already lifted the nozzle to his face.
“Close your eyes,” he said. “Trust me.”
“I’m a Nigerian prince,” Charlie said. “You’re my mute servant.”
Linus scratched his scalp. Dried flakes of ranch collected on his shirt. The Great Pumpkin had drained him of what little energy he had. He sat silent, every inch of his thumb between his black lips.
“We’re rich. Enough gold to sink a whorehouse. But our accounts are frozen now, so we’re down and out.”
They squatted beside a copy shop as Charlie tried to explain how banking worked for the wealthy. Linus shifted his blanket, exposing a streak of uncovered white on his neck.
“Let me get that,” Charlie said.
A jet of black aerosol splashed against Linus. It sprayed his face and dripped down his neck. He coughed.
“Stop being such a grumpy baby,” Charlie said, tossing the spray paint in his sack. “You’re acting like that one obnoxious girl who used to complain all the time.”
“Lucy?” Linus said. “She’s my sister.”
“Well, she was a bitch.”
Linus sucked his thumb, the alkaloid taste of paint filling his mouth.
“We’re Phishing, Charlie Brown only works if we look trustworthy,” said Charlie, grinning. “Because here’s the key: I’ll tell them that we’ll pay them back triple when our royal accounts thaw or whatever.”
“You’re an Australian raccoon that is famous for your playful tricks and friendly demeanor,” Charlie said, letting go of his cart. He shifted the marching-band helmet back on top of his head. “And your name is Snoopy.”
The cart overflowed with stuffed animals, some missing plastic eyes, others limbs, all stained and muddled together. Boot Face hissed on top. Charlie hated to improvise, but It’s the Outback, Charlie Brown wasn’t the worst thing he’d performed on the fly.
“Stop trying to bite everything,” Charlie said, nudging the cage. The helmet fell again, tightening the chain around his neck. He paused to fix it, the stiff polyester jacket and shoulder pads taut around his pudgy arms. Every buckle and clasp of his Australian raccoon-trainer outfit jingled and sparkled in the sun.
It’d been a long day. Linus wouldn’t get out from under his blanket, no matter how hard Charlie shoved him, no matter how much slime oozed from the pumpkin’s base. So it was just Charlie, his marching-band outfit, and the feral raccoon waiting outside a coffee shop. It was not how he had planned the day.
Linus did not say a word to Charlie before leaving. There was nothing to say. No words would bring Boot Face back to the Great Pumpkin. Their mascot, the very symbol of pumpkin essence, was lost somewhere out there.
With his blanket and bedroll and favorite socks strapped to his back, he pulled his thumb from his mouth and whispered something to the Great Pumpkin. Then he turned his back and stumbled off down the interstate. Carrying the weight of hunger, he disappeared into the darkness to find the raccoon before it fell into the hands of an enemy.
Charlie slept fine and woke up refreshed. Loss was something he had grown accustomed to as the Peanuts gang crumbled over the years. Back when his mother died, and he realized he’d never hear her trumpet call again, he had cried. But now he went through his usual morning chores with a smile on his face. He flipped through the comics section of an aged newspaper and traced his outline on the yellowed strip. He watched the clouds and whistled Christmas songs to himself in, what he decided, was perfect pitch. He imagined writing a movie trilogy aimed at teenagers that would reward him with money and, of course, teenagers.