He’s thin now, down to seventeen pounds. In the prowess of his youth, he weighed almost twenty-four pounds, not big, but he was born small. He’s a decade old now and when he lopes through the backyards in suburban Boston, it looks to those who see him from their decks and cars like his legs dangle from his rising and falling torso, the pads of his feet landing with just enough coordination to propel him forward from garbage site to garbage site.  When he goes to ground in the nearby woods at sunrise, he sees the contours of his ribcage below his thinning pelt.

He no longer has the will or stamina to challenge a domestic dog for feeding rights in his territory. In his dotage, he has become elusive, traveling only at night, and finding less and less to eat as larger and younger coyotes move in and mark off new territories. The profusion of smaller scavengers in the suburbs now has also increased competition for food waste.  Skunks, possums, raccoons, feral cats and foxes now work the open garbage sites in broad daylight.  He retreats earlier and earlier now to his den on an empty stomach.

The best route left to him is on the outskirts of town, running along the cracked shoulder of a dying suburban strip with its few remaining fast food places, gas stations and truck stops. Occasionally at night, he finds the remnants of a tossed meal on the shoulder.  He is sustained now mostly by the few voles and field mice he’s lucky enough to find around his den but even they are becoming scarce.

He lopes slowly along the shoulder, not yet winded. But eventually he’ll have to relent and lie down before he covers the eleven-mile strip. He’s found nothing so far except the desiccated remains of a raccoon hit by a car and stripped by highway crows. He sniffs the flattened carrion and moves on.  His head bobs as he sniffs the air for the familiar smell of vegetable oil in which meat has been cooked. Every burger joint emits it, though he rarely finds anything to eat nearby. Dumpster lids, once left open by lazy kids, are now closed and secured. He once found a blue ten-gallon plastic gerry of used oil chewed open and flooding a parking lot. Like a watering hole, it had attracted a raft of small animals licking up their fill of the rancid oil.

The first pale light of dawn leaks into the eastern sky, but it is still dark and the driver of a passing car sees only his profile alongside the road and the yellowish green light of his rheumy eyes.  Further down the road on the way back to the woods, he finds the remains of a grinder tossed from a car window. The half-eaten sandwich is wrapped in a plastic bag. The driver, having eaten half, may have saved the rest to bring home, but then changed his mind and hurled it out the window. A yellow tie wrap secures the end of the bag. He nudges the bag off the shoulder and into the abandoned parking lot. Holding the bag with his paw, he tears at the plastic with his one remaining canine to free up the meat-filled bread inside. He is ravenous and his salivary glands flood his dry mouth as he tries with his tooth to rip open the plastic bag.

His hunger overcomes him and he bites into the bag, drawing it into his mouth. The flavor ignites his hunger and he tears at the bag. In his hunger and exhaustion he swallows the bag and its contents whole. The torn plastic, however, lodges on a lone rear tooth and the bag does not go down. He tries to cough it up but the weight of its contents in his esophagus has lodged the bag in place. He begins to choke violently, but he is not capable of filling his lungs with any wind to force out the bag. He struggles for air shaking his head from side to side as he does with a throat kill on a rabbit or house cat. He cannot dislodge the bag. He is tired and lies down in the drainage ditch between the shoulder and the parking lot.  He feels the pavement against his ribs. He cannot breathe, his head lolls now from side to side. He is exhausted. Only his eyes are moving now, still wary. His front paw twitches as if he is running from an enemy. His head is on the pavement now, the bag still caught on his tooth. His tongue lolls from his mouth and his eyes are open.

Peter wakes with a start in his cramped window seat. He looks out the window of the plane, feeling the gradual descent and noticing the attenuated sounds of the jet engine outside his window. The remnants of his dream startle him as he looks out and sees the red and yellow light of a sunset ahead. The sun has been setting now for several hours as the plane races west. But he is startled to both fall asleep and awake two hours later to the same sunset as if time has stopped.  As he looks into the west through the small porthole with its finely cracked plastic and moisture weep pinhole, his dream returns in force, a strange dream for a city dweller, but he has seen them along the highway and twice in their backyard outside of Boston. He had seen a show on WGBH about their increasing prevalence in cities.  Strange, he thinks, as the still images in the dream slowly return to him in black and white.

He switches on the TV screen embedded in the seat ahead of him and selects the “My Flight” channel. There he sees the yellow map of the United States on which their flight trajectory is rendered in real time. They’re over Nevada, fifty-seven minutes from San Francisco. A flight attendant in the aisle gets his attention offering him a snack, a large brownie with some mother’s name on it, wrapped in plastic. Still heady with determination, he nods a decline. His diet’s been going well for six days now. Each day of success makes it easier.

On deplaning, he enters the gate area carrying his small gym duffel. He knows this airport and turns left into the flow of arriving and departing passengers.  The comforting aroma of food wafts along the gate-studded C concourse enveloping him. He recognizes the cloyingly sweet smell of airport cinnamon buns and remembers buying four of them and eating them as he ran to catch a flight east in the fall. He would have enjoyed them more in the womb of his plane seat, but would have been embarrassed to eat them next to a stranger. The smell would also have permeated the cabin and drawn attention to him as he ate them. There was not time to find an empty gate and enjoy them without notice. He strides past the small niche in the concourse wall where they’re being sold by two very fat girls to a long line of customers. He continues down the concourse.

Next he smells pizza. The cheesy and yeasty aroma exuded by the open hearth oven in the concourse gradually eclipses the smell of cinnamon and surrounds him. Pizza is hard for him. He keeps up his pace, thinking of all the times he’s ordered a large, whole with the works, adding “for my family,” and, for verisimilitude asking, “That’ll feed five right?”

He glances at the glass case with its six 18-inch pizzas forested with various vegetable and meat toppings. Slices are missing from all but two and the sign offers a special “today only” of $1.99 a slice. The drama of countless topping selections, the savory anticipation of eating the contents of the warm box, its furtive enjoyment and then picking cheese off of grease-stained boxes plays out in his head along with the routine theater with the ordering clerk as to how many people he is buying for and whether he has bought enough to satiate everyone when there is only himself to feed.

He walks by the pizzas, consciously looking across the narrow concourse at the spa with its empty massage chair. The smell of pizza is in him though.

The concourse ends, he passes through the one way security exit and into a vast terminal area in which the aroma of eight different fast food places swirls together, but is dominated by the smell of deep fat frying French fries, sugary bread dough, onion rings, and oriental dumplings. The profuse odor of grilling meat infuses this smell and pervades the vast entry hall. He strides across the hall with its profusion of food aromas. He senses the increased salivary stimulus in his mouth and follows the “ground transportation” arrows to a familiar down escalator that will deposit him in a vast and largely empty theater of luggage carousels.

The smell of fast food floods him, but is soon eclipsed by the acrid smell of diesel exhaust from the row of idling busses lined up outside the automatic doors that open every time someone walks by, though not necessarily through them. Suddenly, he smells chocolate and yeast. A lone food vendor sells “fresh baked” chocolate cookies with “more chocolate than cookie dough” from a pushcart. They are the size of pancakes and cost $3.99 each.

He is pleased with his forbearance and walks out into the anorexia of diesel fumes, heading for the taxi line.

He’s riding along the coast highway towards San Francisco where he will be met by his new friend from school. He has already lost eighteen pounds for this promising relationship.

As the cab enters the outskirts of the city, the driver suddenly exits and drops down to a seedy two-lane strip. Most of the abandoned discount stores and gas stations are sheathed with warped plywood sheets bearing gang graffiti. A few fast food joints and truck stops are open to the sparse traffic that exits the freeway.

The scent of food is gone and he recognizes his hunger now. But the anticipation of a rendez-vous with his new girlfriend eclipses his hunger. The pangs have a sensual effect on him and he’s anxious about the sex they may have for the first time. He suddenly remembers the half-grinder he ate on the way to the airport in Boston, planning to keep the other half wrapped in its bag for the plane trip, but then threw out the window.

2 Responses to “Hunger”

Thanks Bill, Loved the short story AND your comments.
Barbara Porter
(childhood friend of Suzy Dean in Greenwich)

Great story!