Post Road Magazine #30

Hunger

Debra Gwartney

When I was three years old, the man, the dark-haired man who lived with us, left most mornings before dawn. He jostled down our Moscow, Idaho, trailer park road in a truck with no door or seat on the driver's side. Instead he leaned against a tilted stool behind the steering wheel that let him easily jump out to make front-porch deliveries of milk and cream in thin glass jars.

After dark, from my bed at the end of our trailer, I sometimes heard him come in the front door. He spoke to my mother in a droning radio voice, returned from his night job of repairing engines. I saw him once at this work-the evening I stayed in the car with my infant sister while my mother ran in to hand the man his dinner in a pail, his white t-shirt a flashlight beam across the expanse of garage.

Most afternoons he went to the university for classes or to study, except for Saturday afternoons. On Saturday afternoons, he was home.

And yet one weekday afternoon he was there, sitting right there in the living room that became my parents' bedroom after dark, once my mother folded out the sofa and pulled pillows from the hall closet, fluffing them against her bent knees. On this bright Tuesday in the spring of my third year, the man she called my daddy sat on the still-folded-in sofa with my little sister on his lap.

I wanted him to leave. He was disrupting our day, its rhythm, its naptime, its lying-on-the-grass-and-staring-at-the-sky time while my mother hung out towels. He was a craggy abutment stretching the fabric of the couch and refusing to move. I didn't understand what he was doing there, what he wanted, but then I wasn't sure what a daddy had to do with me.

A month ago, my brother arrived at our mother's 75th birthday party with a DVD he'd made of a film recorded long ago at a barbecue. My grandparents' house in Salmon, Idaho. 1960. Both sets of our grandparents sprawled on lawn chairs, the men taking turns rising to tend the fire, flip the burgers, one woman or another hurrying inside for the potato salad out of the fridge, a serving spoon, juice in a plastic cup for the child who was me. The colors in this new version are brighter than any image I hold of my past. In it, my mother is still a teenager, a waif. She wears cropped pants and a cotton blouse, her hair cut like a boy's. She's helping with the cooking, so it's our father who's on the ground next to my sister's chair that bounces when Cindy pushes against the patio with her bare feet. He's smiling, this boy who's recently turned nineteen, while he makes the baby hop faster by tickling her toes.

There's no sound. No ticking of the eight-millimeter projector we used to watch family movies back when I was a kid. I take in the footage with my mother (thirty years divorced from our father) on one side of me, my brother on the other, my sister off to the side. The silence from the flapping mouths on the screen gives the thing a scrim of fakery, as if I'd met none of these people. The over-saturated oranges and blues of their clothes strike me as phony as the plastic bougainvillea on old ladies' porches. I want someone to turn it off.

What I can't manage is his tenderness toward my sister. And when the film skips ahead to my father on his back, laid out in the lawn with three-year-old me standing on his chest, I almost laugh. Who concocted this make-believe, this fabricated slice-of-life? He wraps his hands around my legs and lifts me into the air and suddenly I am remembering, though I don't want to, how he did this. It was my favorite trick. He'd lift me up and lower me until I squealed for help; he'd warn me to keep my legs straight, my back straight, don't bend over or you'll fall! Watching him lift me again, I swear I recall the red-checked dress my grandmother had put me in that day, the way it stunk of starch, the ribbon around my waist, the tight collar. Half a century past the barbecue, the grandparents all dead, the day returns to me and I'm a bird caught in the house, darting from one window to another, banging against glass, looking for escape. The young father on the screen lowers me out of the bright blue sky. He's strong and happy, surrounded by family, but if I let myself remember him this way, even for the length of this grainy film-as a strong and happy man-how can I continue to say he stole from me? That he was a stranger to me? That he had no idea of who I was then, or who I am now?

On that long ago Tuesday, when he shouldn't have been home from college but was, he held Cindy asleep in his arms. He told me to keep quiet because my mother was resting, too. She was napping on my bed, which heightened a concern already roiling in me: not only was my mother unavailable, so was my corner of the trailer. I hovered in front of him until he told me to go outside and wait for him to call.

I didn't want to go. The last time I was outside alone was after Cindy was hurt, a few weeks earlier. That Saturday she and I were heaving up the metal steps to the front door when she tripped and slammed into the threshold, tearing open her cheek. She cried out in pain and he stepped from the dark interior to scoop her up, blood smearing on this shirt as he hauled her to the sink. Get outside, he shouted at me as he stuck Cindy's head under the faucet. Outside, he yelled again and I went. I stopped on the landing to study the curled steel that had gouged her face, wondering how much of this was my fault, what I'd have to answer for when he and my mother questioned me. Did you push her? Did you trip her? I stayed until a neighbor woman arrived to take my hand. My mother had called, she told me. I was to go over to her house until my parents returned from the doctor's office.

On this Tuesday afternoon something is wrong inside our house again, and for a second time in the month of May, I head outside. I stand by the swingset. A wide open sky. What's wrong inside our house? I'm not supposed to ask and I'm not supposed to leave, and usually I do what I'm told-although that's not quite true. Mostly, I figure out how not to get caught. I'm good at it. I practice around a distracted mother and absent father and I'll hone this to a shine as I get older: do what I want and make sure they don't find out.

Like now. I leave the yard. I walk past trailer houses that shimmer like tinsel. At the fourth space from ours, a woman is watering her roses, a hose snaked around her ankles. She says hello and I stop. She tells me to come into the yard and cool off in the shade and I do though the day isn't hot. She mentions that she'd baked a chocolate cake. Do I want some? Yes, yes, I do. More than about any desire I can dredge up, I want the cake. I know the daddy would say no, but I want the cake. First, I decide, she must see that I deserve the cake. I have to convince her that I'm half-starved, that I'm hollow and starved. I make my eyes wide and moist and she steps closer. "Oh, sweetie," she says, and I'm satisfied that she believes only cake will soothe me.

The slice she cuts for me is wider than my head. She slides the plate in front of me. No sharing with a sister, no need to save what my mother has baked for the daddy who'll be home later. The fork tines are too sharp for my mouth, but I negotiate them around my teeth, shoveling in cake until my throat is as thick as a toad's. An ache that's been in my gut starts to burn once I'm full of confection. I'm almost relieved to feel it, the pain, this reminder of hell to pay when I get back home. I wash down the lump in my mouth with milk and, because nothing will release me faster, I start to cry and say I want to leave. The woman hurries me off, but it's as if she's kept my arms and legs in her kitchen because I'm bobbing to our trailer like a greasy bubble. I've been gone too long. There will be shouting and there will be punishment. If I am a bubble, I want to be popped so I'll sputter to the sidewalk and never reach our house.

But when the daddy man steps in front of me, he doesn't seem to care about where I've been or how long I've been gone. He's already handed my sister off to the neighbor woman who takes my hand, too. I catch a glimpse of my mother dipping into our station wagon. She doesn't wave goodbye as he drives her away to the hospital so she can deliver the son he's wanted all along.

Suddenly I'm at the neighbor's table, my sister next to me in a high chair. A gray heap of food on my plate: the woman calls it goulash. The smell of soupy meat and rice pools sour liquid in my mouth. Eat it, she says, but I am too full of cake. I pick up the fork but can't make myself stab at the food. What I want is for him to swing the car back around to our trailer park long enough to stick his head out the window and say he wished I hadn't left, that he missed me while I was gone inside the stranger's house. But he doesn't return; it's only the neighbor, the woman at the table, insisting again that I eat the meal she's put in front of me. Eat it or go hungry, she says. Eat it up. She says, Don't be an ungrateful child.

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