The sodden lump in the abandoned doorway stirred and mumbled in its sleep. "I am Charlie," it said. "I am human. Charlie is cold." It sucked at the empty wine bottle in its hand and tried to remember a time when it was warm.
[quoteright]June, 1948, eleven p.m. A midsummer night closed about the small house just off the littered, muddy street. Inside a husky thirteen year old boy crouched to peer beneath the ragged window shade. He saw automobile lights turn into the street and wander drunkenly toward him. He shrank back from the window as the car stopped in front of the house. A soldier in full garrison uniform got out of the car and stood swaying beside it. "Now lishen, Bedwell," the soldier said, "you go straight home. Do not pass go. Do not stop by Twojohns to celebrate hitting the jackpot on the quarter machine. If you do, I'll have all the work to do in the morning." The car lurched and sped away. "Up yours too!" the soldier shouted after it. Grinning, he entered the house.
Light streamed from the kitchen doorway dimly showing the ragged furniture in the parlor. The boy sat at the kitchen table with a bottle of Pepsi and a half-full glass in front of him. The soldier loomed in the kitchen doorway. "Goo' mornin' punk," he said. "Where's the ol' lady?" The boy glared sullenly. "Who wants to know?"
"By God, I do, and I don't want any smartmouth from you! I said, 'Where's your mother?'"
"At church! Where she always is! Dummy, you should know that, if you knew anything!"
"Yeah. If I'd'a known she spent all her time at church I'd'a married ol' fat Delores and wouldn'a got you as a by-blow. God forbid I need a smartass brat like you at my age. Well-l-l, hell, kid. Wot the hell, huh? Sa-a-ay, it's been a long time between drinks. Reach in behind that there breadbox and hand me that fifth of ol' Jack Daniels I brought home yestiddy evenin'."
"Get it yourself."
"Okay punk, if you dough wanna be friends .... Hey! What the hell's this? The bottle was plumb full this morning!" His hand shot out and grabbed the boy's glass. He tasted it. "So-o-o-o," he snarled, "that's why you're being so goddam smartass! Sitting here drinking my whisky!"
He snatched the heavy garrison belt from around his waist and doubled it and brought it down like a club across the boy's shoulders. The boy screamed and dropped to the floor. He tried to crawl under the table, hot the soldier dragged him out and again and again striped his body with the whistling leather. The derelict smiled and mumbled to himself. "If Mama hadn't come home just then I believe the sonofabitch would'a killed me!" he said admiringly. All his life that evening had remained in his memory as a warm spot. It was the only time his step-father had given him his undivided attention.
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