Hunger

oldwriterSummer, 1962, and it was hot enough to make you think the streets were melting. Mama was out of work, after having a job as a typist at nearby Doctor’s Hospital for nearly a year. She never told us what happened to the job. Now she was on something called welfare. It wasn’t much. Mama spent a lot of the money on rent and utilities, which didn’t leave a lot for things like food and clothes. Mama always had her cigarettes, though, and plenty of Pepsi in the refrigerator.

One particularly hot day Mama made me take Karen and Debbie to the beach, for no other reason than she wanted us out of her hair. I knew there was no use whining about it: all it would get me was something across my mouth to whine about. So we went. I put on my cut-off jeans and the girls put on their ratty-looking bathing suits. We rolled up our pathetic little towels and walked barefoot along the hot streets until we reached the sand, then we spread our towels out and sat.

Occasionally, Karen and Debbie went into the water and splashed around. But I had something else on my mind besides swimming. The wide stretch of sand where I sat was filling up with people. Hordes of them, driven there by the heat and the promise of sun and cooling waves. They flocked onto the sand lugging coolers and float toys and bottles of Sea and Ski and transistor radios, and settled themselves onto huge blankets, spaced inches from other neighboring blankets, to tan or read or play in the sand or just stare off into the blue ocean horizon.

Karen and Debbie went out and came back in from the surf for the seventh or eighth time, I’d lost count. Debbie buried Karen in the sand. Then Karen buried Debbie. She buried Debbie so deep, she was just a head. I looked at her, and laughed. Then someone ran by us, accidentally kicking sand in Debbie’s mouth and eyes, and she started crying. A few seconds later, she was screaming, panicked, Karen said later, because she couldn’t use her hands and the weight of the sand against her chest made it hard to breathe. Karen and I dug her out. Then we walked over to the fresh-water shower outside the bathrooms to wash the sand out of Debbie’s eyes. Debbie held onto to my arm, trembling, she was so scared. I shook her off angrily. I couldn’t explain to her, to anyone, how it felt to have someone holding onto me like that. It was as if I couldn’t breathe, something would begin tightening in my chest, working its way up my throat, cutting off my air. I shoved Debbie ahead of me until she was under the shower, and I turned the water on for her.

We got back to our towels and sat. At last, I saw a fat woman get up from her towel and plod through the hot sand toward the water, leaving behind her purse and her transistor radio, which was still playing. “C’mon,” I said. The girls followed me with questioning looks on their faces. We moved nearer to the woman’s towel. I told Karen to go up toward the surf, to nod if she saw the woman going in. She went; looked, and finally nodded. I got up and walked as calmly as I could over to the towel, acting as if I was supposed to be there, opened the woman’s purse, took out the fat wallet, and walked away. Karen ran up behind me, followed closely by Debbie. “You took that woman’s wallet!” Karen said loudly, and I turned and hissed at her to shut up, keep her voice down, I knew what I’d done. “What are you going to do with it?” she asked me, “Huh? What are you going to do with it?” I was regretting having Karen and Debbie with me, wishing there was some way to ditch them, but I knew if I did, Karen would run home and squeal on me, and then I’d have to tell her I was going to beat her up, and things would just get nastier from there.

We hit the sidewalk, on the way to the little market I knew was just around the corner ahead on Abbott Street. I took a brief detour into a walkway leading into a courtyard surrounded by a squat bunch of beach bungalows, and ducked down behind a low juniper bush just long enough to take out the money—there was easily seven or eight dollars there—and throw the wallet, still fat with cards and kids’ pictures and other crap, into a nearby trash can. Karen was watching. Now she knew what I was going to do with it. I came back out to the sidewalk, and she started whining that she wanted cereal, or pizza. I told her she couldn’t have cereal or pizza, she’d have to have one of the sandwiches from the deli case, or doughnuts, or chips, because that’s all they had. We got to the market and went inside. I knew exactly what I wanted: a dozen of those big Hostess coconut doughnuts and a quart of chocolate milk, which I located quickly and plopped on the front counter next to the cash register. Karen and Debbie had a harder time choosing what to have, and I finally had to yell at them they’d better find something now, or I’d leave them there in the store and they wouldn’t get anything. Debbie decided to get what I had, except hers were sugar doughnuts, and Karen went for a tuna sandwich and some potato chips and a root beer. Then she asked if she could have a candy bar, too, and I figured it was a good idea, so I grabbed a bunch of different ones from the wire rack. I stacked everything on the counter, and Karen and Debbie watched intently as I pulled the paper bills from my pocket and paid the older kid at the register. It wiped out nearly half the money, and once again I was regretting having these parasites with me. The kid put the stuff into paper bags and opened Karen’s bottle of root beer, and we grabbed them and ran out of the store and around the corner into the alley. We stood there alongside the building for the next several minutes, ripping apart the packages and opening cartons and stuffing ourselves, too busy to say anything. If someone had come around the corner, all they’d have heard were the sounds of smacking lips and grunting. For some reason I was reminded of some nature films I’d seen at school and on TV, of hyenas that had just chased down a fat wildebeest and were ripping and shredding and rummaging through the animal’s guts, glancing suspiciously at the distant camera, blood dripping from their smiling faces.

When we were done, we went back to the beach, satisfied, each of us carrying small bags of candy and junk to snack on later. We trudged right by the fat lady, who was lying on her blanket, tanning, with apparently no clue that her wallet was missing. We moved farther up north on the beach and swam, and when we got tired, we slept in the sand, happy for the time being.

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