Coin in My Mouth, Coins on My Eyes

As Charlie Wesson left the diner and made his way down Marianna Avenue, snow began to fall. It was the first snow of the season and still held an edge of magic yet to be worn down by freezes, car accidents, and blackouts. This snow quickly covered the weekend trash of the city with a light veil. It was Sunday night. No one except Charlie Wesson knew where Charlie Wesson was.

He’d been making his way across the country for weeks now, hitchhiking the entire way. Unlike a lot of the other hitchhikers he’d met, Charlie had money. When he grew tired of feeling like the dirt under a dog’s paw, he would splurge on a hotel room. He would stand in the shower until his legs gave way under him from exhaustion, then would fill the tub and soak until the water grew cold and as comfortable as an old jacket. From the moment he entered the room, he’d have the television on, strangers talking at him throughout the night, their voices slipping into and out of his dreams.

“Where are you, Charlie?” they said.

“We miss you, Charlie,” they said.

“You’re hardly Charlie,” they said.

But for now, Charlie was on Marianna Avenue in Marianna, Arkansas, leaving a trail of footprints behind him in the snow that was already accumulating in small drifts. There was no one else on the street, and the only sign of life were a few desultory cabs that paused briefly at his side, but sped on when he didn't show any interest in a ride.

Charlie carried a backpack that was as light as a bird on his shoulders. In it, he had a small aluminum pot, a gallon Ziploc bag filled with instant oatmeal, and a small flask filled with what was left of the best whiskey money can buy. All of his money and identification were in his pockets, just in case someone jacked his backpack while he was sleeping. Of course, he could just get straight up mugged, and then what would he have left?

Not much, it’s true. But what did he have right now? The same. And what, really, did he need? Ah, that was the question that sent Charlie out into the night all those weeks ago, leaving his apartment locked up behind him tight as a pharaoh’s tomb. He didn’t have the answer then, and he didn’t have the answer now, but he felt that he was getting close.

The snow grew thicker and the streetlamps painted the night with cones of UFO light that sucked the flakes back up into the air from where they’d almost fallen, sucked them back up to the hot bulb of the lamp where they hissed against the hot glass. Charlie’s hiking boots disappeared up to his ankles in the snow. When did it get so thick on the ground? All around him, the offices and apartments and corner stores began to dissolve under the snow’s attention, a flawed drawing slowly erased.

To his right a vast space opened up. He’d reached the end of town already! Time went by so strangely on the road. Some days, the light would last forever and he would feel like he was in Heaven, the joy of travel never-ending. And other days, the sun would just wink at the world.

There were humps in that plain field of white that struck Charlie, suddenly and without refute, as graves. They were large, the graves of giants, and lamps rose far above them to shine down upon their glory and their memory.

They were cars covered in snow.

The empty plain was a parking lot.

Through the snow he could barely make out the words Sav-a-Lot. A grocery store, just a grocery store. He thought of his backpack, riding so effortlessly on his back, and turned into the lot. He needed food, especially in this storm. Maybe pick up a few extra lighters and some cans of Sterno.

After a few dozen feet, he could see the light from the store itself, burning through plate glass with all the hominess of an oven. The clean smell of the snow mixed with something else, the aroma of baking bread. No, it was rotting meat.

Charlie hurried on through the whited-out lot, suddenly afraid that the store would be closed even though the lights were on. The roads were empty, and it was late, and the cars he passed could be abandoned just like forgotten graves in the back of an old country churchyard. Only a few minutes before, he’d been okay with walking on and on in the snow, perhaps picking up a ride, or if not eventually sheltering in a stand of trees and slowly stoking a fire to life. But now, tonight, he was desperate, if not for food and supplies, than simply for the warmth of human contact.

The sliding door opened and breathed perfectly-conditioned air upon his face. Inside, there were barely more people than there were outside. A single register was open, the young girl behind it engrossed in a magazine. There was no music, only the sound of the mammoth air-conditioning system working like a bellows and the thin, crack of each page of the magazine slapping from the right to the left.

Charlie slipped into the vacant aisles, a trail of watered-down footprints behind him. He felt guilty for the mess, the store as clean as a new fridge, and ashamed for the loud slippery clomp of his shoes. The checkout girl didn’t look up. Charlie felt like a ghost or a criminal.

His arms were full of goods and his spirits high when he met the ball-capped man. The light on this aisle—number 7, soups and instant foods and condiments—was inconsistent, a few bulbs out and a few more flickering. In fact, the only bulb that worked correctly was the one just over where the man was standing, slowly scanning the mustards. All Charlie wanted was some beef and vegetable stew. That was all he needed.

But the man in the ball cap, the only other customer in the store that Charlie had seen, looked up as Charlie paused as though the man were a spider whose web had just been stepped on. Charlie nodded, and walked forward, carefully averting his gaze from the man’s face. Strange, how he’d been so hungry for human contact, and now that it was here, just a few steps away, he only wanted isolation. He wanted to be in his bubble, untouchable.

The man nodded, and Charlie rushed by without response. To hell with the beef and vegetable stew. To hell with society. To hell with warmth and comfort and all the sacrifices people make every day in order to survive in what we call civilization but is really no better than an ant farm.

Charlie sped out of the aisle and into the line at the register where he was the only person waiting. The girl slipped the magazine from her face like a mask to reveal the stock-photo smile beneath. She couldn’t have been more than seventeen, but her teeth were already stained sickly yellow from too many cigarettes and too much coffee.

“This all?” she asked, staring into Charlie’s eyes as though he were a mirror. She took the things from his arms without asking and he didn’t protest. It was good, for a moment, to be completely in someone else’s hands. He was happy to be in Marianna. The girl wasn’t wearing a nametag, but he imagined her name was Marianna, too, and maybe she was the spirit of this city. Welcoming and gritty and accepting and stained and fake, but everything a person needs when they find themselves there, without reason or cause.

But it couldn’t last. It didn’t ever last.

Supplies in his backpack, Charlie walked to the exit. The sliding door opened for him with a flourish. He didn’t walk through, though, not at once. No, Charlie didn’t go back out into the snow. Instead, he watched the snow swoop past the door, bellied upwards and outwards by the heat leaking from the store. It was beautiful and it was terribly unproductive. What moved in a storm like this? Nothing that didn’t have to. People and animals and businesses huddled into themselves, nesting until the air cleared.

But not Charlie Wesson. Charlie Wesson was going to step out into that blaze of white and strike his way west again. Charlie Wesson was going to go it alone. He was going to find himself. Any minute now, Charlie Wesson would step out that door, would cloak himself in snow, would send his breath twirling up into the vast unconscious sky, would find out what, indeed, he was made of.

A tiny drift of snow collected just inside the doors.

The man in the ball cap stepped up beside Charlie.

“Where are you going?” he asked.

“Nowhere,” Charlie said.

The man nodded. “Let me take you there.”  

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