Charlie collapsed into the armchair next to his father.
‘Would ya?’ Charles Senior held out a glass, smoothed ice-cubes jangling within.
Charlie took the glass from his father’s hand, walked to the cabinet, filled it and handed it back before leaving Charles Senior alone in the lounge, less one bottle of whiskey.
Like his old man, Charlie’s days were spent in the shearing shed. His nights were spent drinking himself into a stupor, listening to the same old records, dreaming of being the guitarist, pianist, singer, anything.
He woke feeling groggy—nothing new.
Outside, the rolling hills seemed flatter, the plains seemed longer and the ranges seemed further away. The typical cloud cover promised nothing and delivered. By late afternoon Charlie was wandering through the green paddocks with another bottle of whiskey underarm. The sky darkened, the clouds parted. As always, the Southern Cross could be seen high overhead, but the surrounding stars were confused and disoriented.
An aimed kick to the ribs knocked Charlie into reality. An empty bottle rolled away. Charlie was told to ‘move out’ before receiving another boot. He struggled to his feet and moved out.
On the horizon Charlie could see dim outlines of mountains. Where the hell am I?
It was a rustic city, untouched for decades. Confused, he moved on.
‘You there. You’re going the wrong way, y’know? You gotta head home boy.’
‘Where am I?’
‘You’re going forward. You gotta go home’
‘Ok, so, the other way? Ah, thanks.’
The day did not warrant long wanderings. Charlie soon resigned himself to wherever he was and made for the liquor store. He walked out of there with two bottles of whiskey and didn’t look back.
The sun was high and scorching by the time Charlie came to. His skin was visibly darker – though not yet burned. His hair seemed coarser, too—likely from the dirt and dust blowing around.
Dirt and dust? Charlie panicked. The whiskey bottle sat next to him, three-quarters full. He sank a quarter of it and stopped panicking.
Sufficiently drunk, Charlie walked towards the lights of town.
Bacon. He was sprawled across a fine vintage couch in what looked to be a fine vintage lounge. Charlie heard the door swing open. A man and a hairpiece entered the room.
‘Sit up, sit up. Wow Charles that was some of the finest playing I’ve ever seen. And drinking.’ The tall man chuckled and passed a plate to Charlie, ‘hell, I’m half inclined to return with something that’s not swimming in whiskey.’
Charlie snatched the glass and drank heavily.
‘Ah. Well, so much for that,’ his host laughed, ‘you should watch yourself on that juice though, you’ve been in a right state. You were rambling on about all sorts.’
‘Uh, yeah. I’m from the country.’
‘We’re all from the country. Anyways, go and get yourself cleaned up. We’re due at the studio. I’ll be out front.’
Bewildered, Charlie stood up and placed his untouched meal on the coffee table. He made a few discoveries in the house – a liquor cabinet, a basin, a medicine cabinet – and wandered outside.
Hair-spray, perms, tight dresses and suave suits; if Charlie hadn’t been so doped up he’d have been very confused.
‘Shush Charlee, you’ll wake the baby.’
Charlie stared at the pregnant woman and her coffee-coloured breast as she lay next to him on the ruffled mattress. He slunk out of bed and picked up the nearest pair of pants. In the hall Charlie dressed in ragged work trousers. There was grease on his hands.
Despite the early hour, outside was sweltering. But it was better than what he left inside.
As he stumbled through town, a voice seemed to flash through the decades;
‘Charlie! Where you off to so early? Hell, if you really want you can start now. Might even let you finish early, heh. ‘Cept you’re going the wrong way, come on over.’
Charlie turned and saw a man waving him over the road. He looked up the street, then down, then back at the man. Charlie’s head was pounding. He walked out of town and along the dirt track.
‘Yeah, he’s breathing. What do you wanna do with him?’
‘Hell. What’s he doing over here? Seems to me we can do whatever we please, huh? Trespassing I’d call it.’
‘Shit boss, he’s waking up.’
‘Well put him back to sleep, dummy.’
Charlie opened his eyes long enough to see a starlit evening and strands of cotton floating through the air.
‘Get up Charlee. The boss gots a job for you! Go on, get up!’
Charlie was roughly shaken from his slumber. He was lying on the mattress of a crude wooden bunk. His head was pounding.
A fat man with a white pointed goatee was waiting for him outside, cane in hand.
‘So, I’ve been told you can play a bit of piano, hm Charles?’ He asked.
‘Uh, I think? I’ve been told as much’
‘Ha. He thinks? Y’all really are stupid. Well, let’s hope for your sake you can play as well as I’ve been told. I have guests arriving this evening and they must be entertained. We’ll get you dressed up real nice,’ he looked expectantly at Charlie before continuing, ‘I bet your sick of this place by now ain’t ya? Well, how would you like to get outta here? Of course you would, you ain’t that stupid. Now look, I’ll send for you later. And I’m sure I needn’t remind you what will happen if you play up.’ Without allowing time for a reply he turned on his heel and strode away.
‘Wow, Charlee! You could go anywhere!’ ‘Where will you go, huh?’ A score of men had been listening from the sleeping hall.
Charlie looked at his withered hands, ‘you know I am going back to Mississippi, to be where I was bred and born.’*
(*Credited to Otis Spann – Country Boy)