Hunger

It’s a hungry restless feeling that don’t mean no one no good. . .
and it’s one too many mornings and a thousand miles behind.

—Bob Dylan

Is there anyone left to remember Don Bryant?

It comes to me to that I should tell his death. We know of the lives and death of so many great men, and at least of some of the great women. Who ever hears of the lives and deaths of ordinary people? The death might be tragic or it might be ordinary—but if the life was ordinary, the death goes all but untold, a one-inch blurb in the obituary, mostly unread, soon forgotten. This one haunts me. I was too young for the filters to be in place, too young to say “this one isn’t worth remembering.”

He must have had a mother who loved him, once. Two children so young when he died they couldn’t possibly remember, unless it was through stories they heard. But did anyone bother to tell stories about Don Bryant, once the news of his death grew stale? Stories ran wildfire through the surrounding towns that winter, and then faded away behind him when no scandal could be made of it. He had an 18-year-old wife, Ginny, that he’d married two years before. Maybe she’s still alive somewhere; maybe she still remembers his life. Maybe she married someone else and forgot him a year later.

1958. It was a cold, gray, comfortless day, the leaves gone, the yellow grass whispering. He was hunting in my father’s front meadow, the big 30 acre meadow that produced half our hay. He probably shouldn’t have been there. He’d shot at a deer, it had run, and he was running to the edge of the hill for a better view. Nobody knows if the deer died. Don slipped, or tripped, somehow; the gun, a .32 carbine, loaded, cocked, and ready to kill, slipped from his hand and landed butt-down on the hard ground, and fired up into him.

Dr. Howard lived in Orwell, 8 miles by rough dirt roads, a good bit further by the paved highway. Even today, at breakneck speed, you couldn’t cover those roads in much under 15 minutes. The roads were rougher then, and narrower. And 15 minutes would begin after he got the phone call, grabbed his bag, and got in the car. Don’s brother Sonny lived in the little broken house at the edge of the meadow. Our “tenement house,” people called it. Sonny lived there with his wife and three kids, without electricity, without plumbing. Which makes it sound like some kind of tenement, and makes my father sound like some kind of slum lord—but the truth is, I don’t think Sonny ever paid my father any rent, or had any to pay. I know my father didn’t have money or the ambition to fix the place up. He has just letting them have a roof over their heads

Sonny and his old man got Don up to that house, between them—or he ran there himself, depending on which story you heard. “Blood everywhere,” they said. They laid him on the kitchen table like Thanksgiving come early. Sonny had no phone, of course; I guess maybe no car that ran, either, or that would start when they needed it, because he ran the quarter-mile up to our house, arrived so empty of breath and full of horror he sounded like a madman. My parents called Dr. Howard once they got out of Sonny what had happened. Ten minutes had passed, at least, probably more, between the two gunshots we heard and the time that call went out.

My father drove Sonny back to the tenement house. I think it wasn’t till my father got there that anyone thought to cut the soaked shirt off Don—but when they did, it was too late. With all the blood, they’d thought surely he’d been hit in the chest. When they got the shirt off him it turned out it was his upper right arm, near the shoulder, the artery shattered.

People always liked to say afterward that if they’d got the shirt off right away and put a tourniquet on, they could have saved him. Who knows? We do know that by the time Dr. Howard got there, there wasn’t much left but flesh drained as gray as that November morning. “Exsanguination from severed brachial artery by bullet,” the death report said.

Exsanguination. The word suggests that he was feeling less than sanguine as he lay on that table watching the ceiling slowly spin until it darkened. Was it sanguinary instinct that drove him to run after that deer and to his death so heedlessly that day? Or was it hunger?

Of all the Bryants, I remember Cheryl best—she was maybe four years old then. She must have been peering around the corners or out from under something, watching her bloody uncle fade away. But I remember her most clearly from a few years later, living in another nearby house, with electricity and, presumably, running water. She would have been a pretty girl if it weren’t for that thin-lipped, pinched look. You know that look—as if, when the person was being formed, still soft clay, a drunken god had squeezed the face in the wrong places between forefinger and thumb. You can see it today on any street corner in any city where the homeless or almost-homeless folks hang out. You can see it along any back country road where people live in shacks and broken-down trailers. You know the look. Mostly, I try not to see it. It’s the look of poverty. The look of hunger.

Smug well-fed people like to call that pinched-in look “inbreeding,” and then snicker uncomfortably. Others, less smug perhaps, shake their heads sadly and call it “fetal alcohol syndrome.” There’s some truth in both labels, maybe, but more than anything, they’re there to obscure what we don’t like to talk about in this country: hunger. It’s a profound hunger, a hunger for food, but more than food, a hunger that goes beyond the stomach. That makes the face permanently collapse inward a little bit, as if something were missing. But it’s in the stomach too, real hunger, real malnutrition.

Was it that, in himself, or in the children, that bred lethal carelessness that day?

* * *

Years later, when my first child was born and I was already older than Don was when he’d died, I drilled a well and fixed that broken house up, and lived there with my own wife and child. There was a dark spirit that lived there, that rattled the boards of the back stairs sometimes in the dark. I know, you’ll say these things don’t exist, they’re hysterical imaginings. All I can say is this one frightened the dogs—big dogs who knew how to take care of themselves—as much as it did us.

I don’t mean Don’s ghost, I mean an old spirit, a mean spirit, from some other time, that did not like us living there. That spirit made me stumble too, more than a few times, both literally and figuratively. Once it tried to kill both me and my infant son, tripping us so we fell together through an open trap door into the basement, he falling under me, me twisting in midair to keep from falling on top of him. Was it that same spirit that lured Don to his death? Did that spirit feed off children’s hunger?

I thought once that I knew something about poverty. In those early years when Don died, there were times we couldn’t afford new shoes, lots of times when I overheard my parents talk about not being able to make the mortgage or the tax payments. The cat who was my best friend died because my parents couldn’t afford vet bills. My ears are permanently scarred by infections that were not attended to. There were times we had to carry water from the barn because we couldn’t afford to fix the well pump in the house.

In my naïveté, when I was 20 and thought I knew something, I imagined this was poverty. I was proud of it. I didn’t understand that my parents had parents of their own, who had plenty. Who would have helped out if my parents weren’t too proud to ask. Not so many years later, when I went to college for the first time, I boasted of my working class roots. It was half-true, at least—my mother came from working class folk, and my father aspired to the working class. He’d worked nights in a factory during the war, his contribution to the War Effort, because he couldn’t get into the army. And because he couldn’t keep up with the job and his studies too, and because his factory grime and working class aspirations offended the dean, he’d gotten kicked out of Yale. You see the disconnect. . . . Maybe it was tension between these two partial identities that kept me from fitting in anywhere, that made me drop out of college after one semester when my time came. A college where everyone claimed to admire the working class, from the safe distance of their own more pampered lives.

But: working class or no, what I understand now is that there are different kinds of working class, and mine was not the kind that was mired in generational poverty like an old tractor up to its axles in muck. There was always a good slate roof over my head when I grew up; if it leaked a little sometimes, we fixed it. There were cows in the barn and a half-acre of good growing vegetables; there was plenty of land to cut firewood from. I knew nothing of real poverty. I knew nothing at all of hunger. In those years, someone like Cheryl Bryant would not have even dreamed of going to college. The word itself came out of some foreign language. High school was a term known to her folks, but not used that much.

We went to a one-room school where everything happened in common space. There was no privacy, no separation, no isolation even if you wanted it. Everything was everyone’s business. I remember how Cheryl used to look at our lunchboxes. A look that blended predatory hunger with a distaste and mistrust for the strange things she saw there—sandwiches with homemade whole-wheat bread, fresh fruit or carrot sticks. Her lunch was a paper bag with two slices of Wonder Bread with who-knows-what between—marshmallow fluff?—and on a lucky day, a Twinkie for dessert, or one of those white coconut-covered things with something inside that bounced unnaturally.

I remember one winter morning, sunny but cold, when Cheryl got on the “school bus”—my father’s jeep wagon, with a wooden bench in the back to make an extra seat—and announced, “Daddy got a deer last night.” My father, who was a stickler for game laws, who’d reported more than one deer-jacker who’d then turned out to be a neighbor—my father just smiled a strange and sort of sickly smile that’s taken me half a century to interpret, and said nothing. It fell to us kids to let Cheryl know that maybe she shouldn’t talk about this out loud. She was just so proud of her daddy. And she wasn’t hungry that day, it seemed.

Why do I tell you all this? Does any of it have to do with Don Bryant’s death? Does Don Bryant have anything to do with today? Hunger. There’s hunger in all of this; hunger beneath it, hunger behind it. Hunger in Cheryl’s belly that food could not assuage. My own hunger is to relive it now, when I can almost understand it, to feel, to not need to deny any of it or hide from it. To be an actor in the play, even if I’m playing the bit part, and in the audience at the same time, hungering for each new unfolding of the plot line.

I never set foot in her house, nor she in ours. I was afraid—not of her, nor even of Sonny—but afraid of what I’d see. It wasn’t conscious fear, but it was very real. I didn’t understand the way they lived. More than that, I didn’t understand that whatever way they lived might not be a choice. So far as I understood it then, everyone was free to choose what they did and how they lived. At least everyone in this country—social studies classes hammered home, day in and day out, that this was the first and foremost way in which our country was superior to others; that here, anyone, no matter how poor, could become president (the highest imaginable achievement), if only they had sufficient vision and clarity of purpose. So all I knew about the Bryants was that something was off.

Even after they moved to their new house, they were still our closest neighbors, maybe a half-mile distant in the opposite direction from the first, and the only house you could see from our yard. Sometimes at night I’d stand near the road, hidden in the dark, on my way from the barn to the house, and look out across the meadow and a patch of low woods, at the lights of their house. On nights when the air was still and damp, you could hear sounds over that distance as if they were next door. I heard sounds I shouldn’t have. One night I heard a dog barking incessantly for hours, and then a screen door slam, a single gunshot, then silence. Then hysterical shouting and children crying. No more barking.

It was the following winter that their house burned down. “Mice chewing on matches,” people announced sagely the next day—though what there is about phosphorus and potassium chlorate that was supposed to be so attractive to a mouse is a mystery to me. But that was the popular explanation for any unexplained house-burning in those days. The second most popular explanation was “it was the wiring.” There might have been more truth in this one, even though the old knob-and-tube wiring used in houses of that vintage was actually safer than most wiring used today, safer both from mice and from electrical shorts.

The more likely reality is something like this: It was cold. Sonny, because of too much work or too much drink, or some combination of the two, did not have enough firewood in. So he got an old electric space heater from somewhere, out of a dump, or someone’s back room, and that little heater became their heat source. Probably damp clothes were hung on a clothes rack too close. Probably the heater malfunctioned, and blew a fuse. So Sonny put a penny in the fuse socket and screwed the dead fuse back in. After that, everything seemed fine, plenty of heat. Until sometime in the middle of the night, when everyone was asleep, the heater melted down, and everything around it went up in flames.

The wondrous thing was that everyone got out alive. They must have gone away to stay with relatives after that, and if they ever came back, I don’t remember. The house was never rebuilt.

* * *

We walked along a road in Cumberland and stooped, because
the sky hung down so low; and . . . the old hunger returned—
the terrible and obscure hunger that haunts and hurts . . .
and makes us exiles at home and strangers wherever we go.

—Utah Philips

There was another Cheryl, later, when I was 19, hitch-hiking around the country. She was about the same age as Cheryl Bryant, by which I mean to say, maybe 3 years younger than me. I met her in Newport, Oregon, which in those days was an unassuming and kind of down-at-the-heels fishing village. Mo’s restaurant, which I hear has since become something of a franchise, an Oregon-coast industry, was at the time a cozy hole-in-the-wall restaurant with lots of good food for cheap, a place where local fisherman and hippies alike went for warmth and cheer.

At the time, I was living with a bunch of young folks, most of them wilder than I was, in a house a couple of blocks from the beach, on High Street. I’d staked a claim on an upstairs walk-in closet big enough to lay out my sleeping bag and stack along the side a row of books I’d got from the Newport Library. This Cheryl had been picked up somewhere and brought home by one of the other guys in that house, with clearly one thing and one thing only on his mind. I didn’t have a lot of sense about a lot of things, then, but I had enough sense to see how mixed up she was. Somehow I insinuated myself between them, and got her out of the house and out walking and talking.

We walked for hours along the beach and little streets in the warmth of an October evening. We had clam chowder at Mo’s. She was a tattered and feral little woman-child, and I was an equally tattered man-boy. But: I was as old then as Don Bryant when he died, and she was as old as his wife had been when they were married. Cheryl had run away from home in Montana, a home with a non-stop series of abusive mother’s-boyfriends. It was sex with one of them that had sent her spinning out into the world and onto the road. But there was a whole generation of us on the road then, living off our wits and whatever generosity we found along the way (which was plentiful, far more than we appreciated). Every intersection of every major highway in the nation, and a lot of the not-so-major ones, had a longhaired freak waiting with thumb out for a ride. She blended right in. If anyone was looking for her, which they probably weren’t, she’d have been the needle in the proverbial haystack.

Her home was not the sort you’d want to send someone back to, or want to go back to yourself, and it’s no wonder she was confused about who and what she was and what she wanted. But she was homesick and missing her mom, that much came clear as we talked, and I made it my job to help her figure it out and find a way to get there. So as the evening went on we walked to the little house where she’d crashed, to get her stuff, and I walked straight into the biggest trouble I’d ever run into in my life.

The man of that house made Sonny Bryant look like a cultured gentleman. He was fresh out of prison (escaped, for all I know), a madman, basically. I don’t know who or what he thought I was, or why he found me so threatening, but the next thing I knew he had his knife out and was sharpening it theatrically in the kitchen table in front of me, ranting about how I wasn’t going to turn him in, and how I wasn’t going to take this girl away from him, yelling at me when I raised my hands in a defensive “whoa, whoa, wait a minute” gesture that if I didn’t put my hands down he was going to spill my guts then and there. Meanwhile, Cheryl was standing aside, dumbfounded; his wife was urging him on—“stick him now, stick him before he gets out of here and goes to the police”—and the biggest German Shepherd I’d ever seen was standing behind me, between me and the door, a soft rumbling coming out of his throat.

I’d never seen myself as a talker, but I found out that night that I could be if I needed to, because eventually I talked him down from whatever high he was on, and had him reassured that I was harmless, and had no bad intentions toward him, and wasn’t trying to horn in on his harem either, but was only trying to help this girl get home to her mama. And he was convinced by then that I was his best friend, and No, he didn’t mean any harm towards Cheryl, and Yes, maybe hopping a Greyhound back to Montana was the best thing for her, and his wife was serving us all Schlitz beers, and the dog was sitting with his head in my lap while I rubbed his ears. It wasn’t the first time I’d feared for my life, but I was probably closer to death that night than I even guessed.

Cheryl and I eventually made it peaceably back outside (without her things) and I got her to a payphone where she did make contact with her mom. Her mom would send her money for a bus ticket. I, who earlier that evening had been entertaining romantic notions of hitch-hiking to Montana with her, bowed out gracefully and relievedly. Cheryl thought it best if she went back and stayed with her hosts for the night. I kept my doubts to myself.

What should I have done in that situation, I wonder? Gone to the police, said “This girl is not safe there?” In those days, even less than now, restless and mobile young people were not accustomed to thinking of police as benign and helpful folk. Our considerable experience with police did not incline us in that direction, and the police’s experience with us did not help much. I remember one young couple who stayed a few days with us in that house on High Street. Their idea of a good time on a Saturday night was to go to a concert. Not for the music—they had no money for tickets—but to hide in the crowd and lob rocks at the cops. That was entertainment for them. Cheryl went back to the house with the dog, the wife, and the madman, assuring me she’d be fine and would see me the next day.

It was on Halloween night, only two or three nights after the knife-wielding incident, that I dropped acid for the first (and last) time. The whole house did it, a group celebration. I, unlike the rest, had a bad trip. A very bad trip. It’s almost impossible to convey what I felt and saw. Imagine Hieronymus Bosch’s visions of hell combined with Picasso’s “Guernica,” some Salvador Dali mixed in, and every nightmare that can be remembered, and then imagine living in that scene without escape for 8 hours. That’s the closest thing to a description I can offer. I could see inside of everyone around me, see every sinister or dark thought that might emanate from them, but I could see nothing of goodness or innocence in anyone. All that night the house flickered in dark flames.

The next morning, when I was sane enough to put actions together in coherent patterns, I packed up my kit and my sleeping bag and hit the road. I got a ride on a big log truck, and put 300 miles between myself and that town before nightfall. I don’t think I slept again until I hit Salt Lake City, where a Mormon family fed me and put me up for the night. And I never saw that Cheryl again. Burned clean out of my mind by the fire of that night’s visions, I think it was years before I even remembered her again.

Hunger. Hunger for love and safety put Cheryl on the road. Hunger for a mother’s love at the price of safety lured her back to Montana again—maybe. Or a hunger of another kind kept her in Oregon. It was hunger for the unnamed, the unseen, that drove me along those roads from Vermont to San Diego to Portland to Chicago to Toronto to Montreal. It was hunger that drove all of us, an empty burning ache, along all the roads of this nation, never stopping, never finding yet the thing that was sought.

This is an essay that has no end. I’ve been trying to understand as I wrote it where it was going, where it would end. It doesn’t wrap up neatly, I realize now. The hunger was never sated, just as the nation and the world are still full of folks with empty bellies. The Cheryls are still out there, still hungering. And the generation of the late ’60s and early ’70s that hit every road in this country—if we’re less hungry now than we were then, it’s because we’re full-bellied and complacent, not because we found what we were looking for.

Sooner or later, the house will be burning down around us once more. And a new generation will hit the road, looking for what we didn’t find.

One response to “Hunger

  1. Paul Felgenhauer

    Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
    are heading home again.
    Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
    the world offers itself to your imagination,
    calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
    over and over announcing your place
    in the family of things.
    by Mary Oliver
    Hi, Nick, I can’t be the first to like this, maybe the one who likes it as much as I do. Read it and then aloud to Paul, even better. It brought to mind the lines I also love, from “The Wild Geese.” Thanks for sharing.
    Marian, Chicago

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