Charlie and Gideon

“My mother had tons of ‘em,” Charlie shouted to Gideon as they walked along the shoulder of the highway. “Head after head after head, mounted up on that living room wall.  Even sometimes whole animals. We had heads of hawks, heads of ferrets, little possums, squirrels, moose heads, mackerels, sparrows, buntings, alligators, etcetera.”  To their left, was the wall to wall of speeding cars, to their right, the last purple sliver of sun just about to go down.

“Yeesh! Did she kill all of them?” Gideon yelled back, over the roar of traffic.

“No. She barely killed any of ‘em. And none on purpose. She just accumulated ‘em over the years. Some heads she’d find already mounted at some yard sale, some of them she inherited from her father; he had a wall of his own. He killed all his heads though. Sometimes the man she was with would stay at our house, be our sort of father figure for a bit, and he’d kill some stuff in the backyard ‘fore he left. Or sometimes she’d just find a lucky grab, a stray somethin’ underneath a porch, or roadside while she was on her way to and from dropping us off at school or goin’ by the Dollar Tree, or somethin’. And those sorts of lucky grabs, you have to be looking out for those. Most of them stray ones, ones you don’t kill yourself, are too damaged to mount. You have to find the right animal at the right time in the right condition. Anyway, she seemed to find plenty.

She worked with a real intensity on each one. And once she was done with one, it was on to the next. That was Ma, always had to have a project. Everyday when we came home we’d find her at that kitchen table, hard at work, mountin’ some fresh head or body, sawing bits, sowing bits, cleaning up blood. You could smell her work from the moment you walked up our street. We were that house on the block, you know. The stink would go away each evening once she started cooking dinner or cleaning up the house, but it’d come right back the next day when she started working hard at one of them heads again.

Most of the time when she was working she didn’t show no emotion- even though she loved the heads, loved them more than anything else in the world, but no emotion really. Like she was a carpenter working on a commissioned job, you know, like she was getting paid to do it by somebody else, and it had to be done. But it was all for her. She never sold ‘em. Shared ‘em. We couldn’t touch ‘em or work on ‘em with her. They were all for her.”

“Interesting,” Gideon shouted. “Hey, uh, do you happen to know-“

“I remember there was one time when she got real upset,”  Charlie continued, as if Gideon hadn’t said anything at all. “It was the one time I ever seen her cry. My brother and I walked in, Ma havin’ forgotten to pick us up from track practice as usual, and there she was at that kitchen table, just weeping over the biggest, strongest, bloodiest, dead coyote I’ve ever seen.

It was severed in more than a few places, probably from the ribbed front bumper of our SUV. Clearly too fucked up to mount. But you could tell it was a real beauty ‘fore the accident. Ma was surrounded by tons of blood and soap, brushes and saws, all of her tools laid out trynna save the thing. But even when she had taken out the innards, sowed, cut, cleaned every inch, done all she could, she couldn’t mount it.  She had known it from the moment she hit it too. It woulda been ‘the pride of the wall’, she kept blubbering into her hands. ‘The pride of the wall’. The most perfect coyote, too fucked up to mount. She had had it, and she had ruined it. And that just made her sadder than anything.

The next day she went back to work on a different head, a hog or something, but she wasn’t exactly the same after that. Didn’t have the same focus. She kept working at it though, building up that wall year after year as animals and men and children came and went, by and by.”

“Mhm,” replied Gideon.

Charlie didn’t say anything back.  So they just continued walking, silently now, with Charlie in front, Gideon behind, and the cars screaming by, so close they could touch them. 

The sun, which had beat down on them the whole time they had been on the highway, had gone down with the end of Charlie’s story. Gideon counted himself grateful for the dark and its respite as he wiped down his sweat soaked face on his sweat soaked shirt. He was totally worn out; the backpack he was carrying was so wet with perspiration it was chafing his shoulders raw, his skin stung all over from the sweat and freeway air, his mind was smoggy and tired, and his mouth was dry as all hell. But he knew he couldn’t do a thing about any of it, so he just tried to put it out of his mind.

Charlie wasn’t carrying anything with him, except a handkerchief and whatever was clanking around in that grey suitcoat of his. For the first time, Gideon noticed Charlie was also strangely dry, as if he hadn’t sweat a drop. He tried to put that out of his mind too. Gideon thought about his legs. They should have been dead tired by now, they had been walking for so long, but strangely, they were fine. He didn’t feel like stopping at all. Neither did Charlie, clearly. So as Charlie kept going, Gideon kept going too.

“What’d your Ma do?” called out Charlie suddenly.

“My mother is a lawyer,” shouted Gideon.

“Hm. To each their own,” Charlie muttered back.

“But she has some ticks though too. Like you know what’s weird about my mother? She loves tongue twisters. Usually she says them for practical purposes, preparing herself for presenting something in court, but sometimes I’ll catch her just whispering to herself, ‘Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers’, or ‘Toy boat. Toy boat. Toy boat’ or ‘The obsequious parrots preened the obstinance of prickly pears. The obsequious parrots preened the obstinance of prickly pears’. So… that’s pretty weird.”

“Huh. ‘An obstinance of prickly pears’,” said Charlie, as if chewing deeply on the idea. “The fuck does that mean?”

“I don’t really think its supposed to mean anything. Just some consonants to keep your mouth active is all.”

Charlie stopped for a moment and rolled his right knee around in its socket a few times. Then he stood up with an irritable jolt and they returned to walking again.

“You know sometimes Ma’s man, the sort of father figure, would threaten us; he’d say, ‘You better behave yourself or I’ll stick your head up on that damn wall. Right in between the mackerel and the tiger.’ But we knew better. Ma only put things she cared for up on that wall. Things she wanted to keep,” Charlie said, before spitting on the ground.

Gideon was about to try to find some response to this non-sequiter when a sputtering car flew by, almost hitting them, and shot a cloud of exhaust right in their faces. Gideon caught such a mouthful of it he had to stop and hack for a full minute. It was so bad he thought he might throw up. When he finally gathered himself he looked up to find Charlie totally unfazed, still looking out at the road ahead.

“Are you sure you know the way?”, Gideon said, hands grasping at his knees.

“Only a little. bit left. Trust me,” said Charlie.

“Mhm,” replied Gideon.

Charlie reached into his suitcoat and pulled out a silver flask. “Here,” he said, offering it to Gideon. Gideon looked at it for a moment. He was pretty sure he didn’t have a ounce of liquid left in his body, so he took the flask, opened it and had himself long sip.

Whatever was inside tasted absolutely awful, in a kind of indescribable sort of way. Like a mouldy coca-cola milkshake or some grape-oil  tea. Gideon swallowed the liquid as fast as he could, completely regretting having taken the sip in the first place, and then spat on the ground, trying to get the aftertaste out of his mouth. When he looked down he saw his spit was black and viscous.

Then he heard a sound like a bone cracking or a baseball bat making perfect contact with a high speed pitch, and looked up, alarmed, only to get blinded brieflyby the lights of the cars roaring by in the opposite lane.

After a moment he got his bearings, and looked up to find Charlie, face to face with him this time, smiling a big, strange, yellow grin and rubbing that same knee.  “Ready?” asked Charlie. Gideon looked back at him, mind utterly blank. Charlie took this as his cue and began walking again. Gideon lurched up and began to follow along, feeling very strange. He noticed the cars’ screaming had quieted now, or maybe just wasn’t reaching his ears like the way something sounds to you underwater. He couldn’t tell.

They walked for a couple minutes in silence again. Gideon took a few laps around his mind, and finding absolutely nothing then shouted out for no reason in particular, “Oh, also, my mother liked to knit!”

“A knitting lawyer!” Charlie cackled back, with a laugh that sounded like sputtering metal.

“Yes. And I was an only child.” Gideon said, mostly to himself. “I was always an only child.”

His eyes went to the dark off the highway. During the day he had been able to check their progress by seeing whether he recognized town names or landmarks or not, or at least track time by the angles of shadows on houses or passing cars. But now everything off the road was just a pitch black outline, and his only markers were the endless stream of car headlights and roaring engines, Charlie’s quick clacking footsteps, and that big yellow smile.

Gideon tried to think about something else to distract himself from this feeling that was coming over him, but he couldn’t actually imagine anything else. He couldn’t imagine the sound of a babbling river or the wind in the trees, he couldn’t picture the sight of daylight, or what the houses had looked like just hours ago, or his mother’s face or her knitting needles. He could come up with the idea of a concept of it, but no real images would come to his mind. He realized he couldn’t even remember where he had been an hour or day or month before, or where they were supposed to be going now. For all he knew they had been on this road forever, and they would just keep going.

But he couldn’t stop following Charlie, something was compelling him now. Maybe it was the flask liquid, maybe it had been compelling him this whole time. There was no fighting it. No, there was nothing to do but walk.  

©2023 Niall Cunningham