Every now and then, I return to an old short story of mine, “Gluttonous,” which I wrote over a decade ago in the first few years of our war with Iraq, instigated by George W. Bush. It was the war that toppled Saddam Hussein, the witnessing of which, in itself, was both momentous and grotesque.
The election of a pig as President of the United States has brought me again to this story for reasons that should become apparent if you go ahead and read all 3,700 words.
As with anything I write, when I began “Gluttonous,” I had no strong idea about where it was going. I was enamored with Kafka–in fact, I still am and always will be. So in style, there was that. But the concept of the story was unformed. It was just an idea that sprang into my mind and I had to do something with it. I’m not sure why I fictionalized the names of Iraq in the story, or Saddam Hussein or our president at the time, except that perhaps doing so unburdened my creativity with the horrors of actual reality.
Anyhow, this story was published in an online publication at the time, Morpo, in 2005, I believe. It seems so timely now, somehow, and I hope you’ll take the time to read it. It’s a story with flaws, but I remain proud of it all these years later.
I had just lost another job. This time it was at the SaveRight deli counter.
The meats that I sliced left me smelling of dead flesh at the end of the day. The aroma aroused me. So I had started to take logs of bologna and breasts of turkey from the storage freezer. I would bring them home with me and hold them in my arms while I slept. Let them thaw slowly against my breasts in the darkness of my small white room. I would drift in and out of sleep as they gradually lost their frigidity. It felt as though they were coming alive against my flesh, as though I were giving some strange type of birth.
I go through phases of gluttony. Of food mostly, but other things too. I once went through a four-month phase during which I smoked three packs of cigarettes a day. Another time I went through a target-shooting phase. On a whim, I bought a nine-millimeter that I couldn’t afford, and went to an indoor shooting range. I hid in a corner of the lounge, behind a large chair, and spent the whole of one night shooting targets by myself. I didn’t sleep until I got home the next day. Needless to say, I was fired from my job at the time. I had to sell the gun for much less than it was worth just to pay the electricity bill.
The phases I go through during which I eat as much as possible in the shortest period of time possible are the most common in my life. This type of phase is, by far, my favorite of all my gluttonous behaviors.
Most of my life, I’ve managed to average fifty pounds overweight. I’ve gone up and down in spurts (mostly due to gluttonous phases), but I always land back at roughly fifty pounds overweight. This time, I wanted to experiment with that. I wanted to get as fat as I could in the shortest period of time possible. It turned me on to imagine myself surrounded by a buffet of fatty food.
I have gone through my eating phase several times. Afterwards, when I’m finished gorging, I fast for as long as I can. The last time, when I was dizzy with starvation, I recalled a story I read in high school. “The Hunger Artist.” It made me smile.
This will be the last time I go through this phase. I believe this time will be the end of me.
On a Wednesday morning, about three weeks after I’d started working at SaveRight, I went to the deli counter and put on my apron as usual.
“May, we have to talk,” Linda, the store manager, said.
I shrugged my shoulders. I knew what this was about.
“Look,” she said, “we have to do this in the back.”
There was an elderly woman standing at the counter, waiting for service. She clicked her tongue as I followed Linda through the white double doors into the warehouse.
“Whatever stuff you took, you can’t put back because it’s perishable,” Linda said.
I blinked and nodded, trying to look ashamed, but thinking her pedanticism absurd under the circumstances.
“And I’m not gonna ask you to pay for it all. I just want you to leave.” She put her hands on her hips in the grooves where her black vinyl belt gripped her high waist.
“Okay,” I said and took my apron off.
SaveRight sent me my last paycheck ten days later. Four hundred twenty-six dollars for a two week period. It was the only money I had. And I felt a wave of gluttony creeping up on me.
I cashed the check and went straight to the SaveRight to spend it. I bought four hundred dollars worth of macaroni and cheese, potato chips and dip, ice cream, ground beef, frozen pizzas, cakey things, etc. I was in it for the long haul this time.
As I put my little packages of lovely food on the conveyer belt at the SaveRight, I realized that I had been smiling for quite some time. Katie, the girl at the register, was staring at me when I looked at her.
“Hey May,” she said in her squeaky voice.
“Hello,” I replied. I didn’t know if she’d heard that I’d been fired, and I really didn’t want to get into a thing.
She looked suspiciously at me, and then at the pile of food on the conveyer belt. “Day off?” she said.
I smiled. “Yep,” I said. I finished loading my stuff from the cart onto the conveyer belt.
I noticed she wasn’t scanning the items, and I looked at her.
“You got your employee discount card?” she said, her blond ponytail bobbing as she talked.
I hadn’t thought of that. What would she believe?
“Oh crap, no.” I fussed through my pockets. “I must’ve left it at home.”
“S’okay,” she said and ran hers under the laser scanner.
“Thanks,” I said.
I bagged the stuff as she ran it through. And when she finished, she told me the total came to four hundred twenty-five dollars and fifty-two cents. I smiled, satisfied with the accuracy of my own calculations, and put the crisp bills into her sweaty palm.
“See you tomorrow?” Katie said as she handed me the change and receipt. I dropped both into one of the bags.
“Yep, see you then,” I replied and lugged all of my bags through the automatic doors.
The apartment I’ve lived in for five years is old and gray. I have only a bed and a holey couch, which is filled with fleas from the previous owner’s cats. The carpet smells of urine, which is also from the previous owner’s cats. I have never been able to understand the process of evolution for an animal that is willing to piss where it lives.
The only windows in my apartment are in the bedroom. I live in the basement.
It was a Monday, the day I received my last paycheck, that I decided to lock myself in this small underground apartment of mine with four hundred dollars worth of food.
I was completely elated as I walked through my door with the grocery bags. I actually heard myself giggling.
I didn’t even put the groceries away before ripping open a bag of chips and opening a tin of dip. I sat myself down on the couch and watched the news while I started my feast. The burlap-like upholstery scratched my back through my shirt.
The dictator of Irya, a small oil bearing country east of Israel, was shown rallying his troops. An anchorwoman with stiff blond hair and a red blazer informed me, the viewer, that the dictator of Irya claimed to his people that the United States and its leaders intended to go to war regardless of any pursuits made to the contrary.
A drop of saliva fell on my shirt. I had been unaware of drooling.
I put the bag of potato chips down on top of a pile of overdue bills.
I unpacked the bags of groceries by spreading everything out on the counters, so I could see it all easily. Some things had to be refrigerated–the cheese, the ground beef, the butter, for example. But for the most part, I set it all out in my view. I had bought plastic plates along with plastic cups and utensils so I wouldn’t be bothered with dishes. I took the plates out and opened them.
As I was frying two beef burgers, my first meal, the phone rang.
I moved the patties around on the pan so they wouldn’t stick and I picked up the phone in the living room.
“Yes, May Crane please,” a young woman said blandly.
“Speaking.” I waited.
“My name is Donna, and I’m calling from North Bell regarding your account.”
I closed my eyes and inhaled the beef aroma. The thick smell of cow fat and blood aroused me. I swallowed a mouthful of saliva.
“Ma’am, your account’s overdue, and your phone will be turned off on the thirteenth if you don’t make a payment by then.”
“Okay,” I said, “thanks for the warning.” I hung up the phone and headed back to my burgers. They were overdone. I threw them away in frustration and quickly started two new patties.
In the first week of my experiment in gluttony, U.S. troops invaded Irya, my phone got disconnected, and I gained seven pounds. At the time, seven pounds felt like a lot, and I suppose it was, but it wasn’t really enough. Still I was gleeful and also disgusted with myself. It gave me a slightly erotic feeling–I was a martyr of my own whim. Something about it felt very powerful.
So I continued. And I never went out, not even to check my mail. I knew it would only be late notices from all the utilities. My bastard of a landlord leaves his tenants responsible for every utility including water. I supposed I should pay the bills, but it was the spring, and I knew I could do without heat.
In the second week, U.S. soldiers and Iryan civilians were dying from mustard gas, and I had gained, through an accelerated eating plan, twenty pounds in total. I was going to have to do something about that, I knew. It wasn’t coming on fast enough. I ate even more.
I sat on the floor in my living room and set up a circle of food around me. I ate while I watched coverage of the US-Irya war. I stuffed whatever I could fit in my hands into my mouth. It was hideous and wonderful.
I had whipped cream and butter and crumbs all around my mouth, dribbling down my chin. And in my frenzy, I became so focused that when the knocking came, it jolted me completely. I sucked air in and nearly choked on a cupcake.
I turned still. Completely still. I sat there, listening. Who could it be? I wondered. Who would come here and knock on my little apartment’s door?
I sat and waited.
The knocking returned, louder this time.
It was Scott, my bastard landlord.
I didn’t move. I felt a drip of greasy liquid forming at the bottom of my chin, and I became convinced that if it dropped to the floor, Scott would hear it, and have confirmation that I was here, hiding as he suspected.
He knocked again. “I’m sure you’re there.” He knocked even louder. “You better pay this month. Otherwise we’re talking eviction.”
Suddenly, the drop hanging from my chin dropped to the floor. I flinched. It sounded amplified, as though I were an insect caught in the rain.
“Okay,” Scott said. I heard his work boots clomping as he walked down the hall, up the stairs and outside.
I didn’t know if he’d heard the drop hit the floor. But he was gone.
I glanced at the TV–this I remember even more clearly than I remember anything else. There was a camera shot of a little boy standing in the streets of Targhid, the capitol of Irya, in front of a pile of rubble that slightly resembled a tenement building. His face was skeletal and in the opening of his brown shirt, his ribs were visible under his pale skin. He was smiling and holding an American flag, raising it in a sort of cheering motion as a parade of American tanks drove by him, scattering dust and sand everywhere. Then the cable signal abruptly broke and the TV was black and silent. The cable had been cut off for non-payment, I surmised. I leaned forward over my buffet and flicked off the TV. I sat in the silence for a moment and absorbed it. I noticed the humming of the refrigerator and found it to be quite comforting. Then I dug back into my feast.
Over the next six weeks, I gained a total of approximately one hundred pounds. I had sat on the couch, and sometimes the floor, for nearly two months, and had done nothing but eat. I never went out. And when I ate the last bite of burger or cupcakes, or whatever it was at the moment, I leaned back, satisfied with my ability to focus on one task, and hovered on the moment.
After gaining one hundred pounds, I had finally run out of food. I spent several hours, perhaps even a day, meditating on my ability to complete a task. I felt chuffed and had no need to move, not even for the bathroom.
When it became dark outside, the apartment fell dark with it. I realized that the electricity had been turned off. The refrigerator’s comforting hum was gone. But I could hear the crickets purring in rhythm outside. I focused on their buzzing. It went up and down in a pattern. Louder and quieter. But no, not quite. Not louder or quieter. It grew in intensity then fell. No, that wasn’t it either. I couldn’t figure their pattern out, and it was beginning to frustrate me. The sound grew more potent. Louder and more intense until it was shrill, deafening. I wanted to rip my hair out. And as I was about to do just that, the sound disappeared entirely. Dead silence.
I struggled to raise myself from the couch, and I found that a sort of atrophy had set into my legs. There was an excruciating pain in my calves and thighs. The muscles were unwilling to release. I tried to raise myself up, and let out a scream of dreadful pain as I fell onto my hands and knees on the floor. I stayed there for a moment and let the pain subside.
I had a growing urge to pee, but I hoped that since I had drunk nothing for at least twenty-four hours, the urge would subside if ignored.
I half-crawled and half-slid myself into the bedroom. I panted heavily, as my body was not yet adjusted to my new weight. I lay on the floor, grunting and suffering for so long. The urge to pee did not subside. It got stronger and stronger, but the pain I felt in my legs overrode my urge for the bathroom. So I just lay there, waiting for the pain to go. But it would not. And I was too unused to my new weight to lean up and massage the tense muscles. I needed very badly to pee. I could barely hold it in.
My urethra spasmed suddenly and I squinted my eyes, trying to hold the burst of liquid back. A small amount squeezed out, but I was able to hold the rest in. I could feel the hot acidic moisture in my underpants. It was strangely consoling.
Oh how I wanted to get into my little bed and sleep. Just to be in there and sleep. But I couldn’t. And soon, in the darkness of my bedroom, I conceded defeat and passed out where I lay on the floor.
My dream was oddly parallel to reality.
I was sitting in the middle of the desert. What desert I don’t know, but if I had to guess, I would guess the Iryan Desert. It was nighttime, and it was very cold. There was no wind. But there was the soft humming of crickets under everything. I could feel the ground vibrating with it.
I was in a state of furious ravaging hunger. Surrounding me was food that looked something like a yellow and brown mush. Just an enormous pile of it around me. In this state of intense hungry need, I literally pushed my head inside the pile and began eating. This went on for hours in the dream.
I felt the sun coming up, warming my back. At first, it felt very comforting and cozy after the coldness of the night. But soon it began to singe my skin. It did not deter me from my task however. I kept eating and eating until I found that the mush tasted slightly different, better. The texture had become more like raw flesh. And I felt myself getting smaller. (This is very hard to explain. I simply detected a shrinking in myself.) Upon investigating the perplexing shrinking sensation, I found that I had unknowingly been eating my own leg, which had been hidden underneath the pile of mush. I felt disgusted at first. In fact, I think my body that lay on the bedroom floor of my dark bedroom wretched in response. But in the dream, I took a moment to recover. I swirled the meat around in my mouth, and quickly discovered that the taste was rather pleasing. And so, to my surprise and repugnance, I bent down and continued to eat my own leg. I bolted awake in horror.
It was morning, and the bedroom was lit by sunlight. I tried to move my legs, and felt the muscles burn as they contracted again. I tried to hoist myself up to a sitting position, but it strained me too much. I couldn’t stand the pain. I actually wept from the physical agony of it. I wept for as long as I can remember ever having wept.
As I wept, I started to notice an itching between my legs. And I felt moist. I slid my hand over the floor towards my legs, and as I did, I dragged it through a puddle of liquid. When I touched my pants, I realized what it was. I had urinated. I didn’t need to smell my hand for confirmation, but I did nonetheless. The acid smell made me cough. And I started to weep even harder than before.
Finally, I became so exhausted that I could weep no more. I was weak. I felt as though lifting even a finger off of the floor would send me into certain death. And my thighs burned like fire from the urine burning them. I could not stand to endure it. I slept again.
Now I’ve awoken, and I don’t know how many days it’s been since that day I dreamt of the desert. I haven’t dreamt since then–I have slept like the dead. Thankfully, the urine that had saturated my pants is now finally dry. But my thighs still burn as though they were being scraped over and over with a thorny rose stem.
In this fatigued state, I can no longer even lift my head. I have not eaten or drunk anything for days, and oddly enough, I feel relieved. I feel in control again. I could choose to force myself to get up and drink from the faucet. Oh how I want to drink even from a muddy puddle. But I’m choosing to save myself the pain. And wait here.
I’m imagining myself naked, frolicking in and drinking from a fresh spring in the Berkshires, when I hear someone at the door. It could only be Scott. Scott. Who would’ve thought he would be the one to save me?
I open my mouth to call out for help. But nothing comes out. “HELP!” I scream in a whisper. Nothing comes out except an airy whisper.
Scott pounds on the door. “Ms. Crane. I suggest you answer this door or I’m coming back with a cop.” He pounds again.
“HELP!” I try to scream again. And again, nothing but a whisper comes out. I flail about and pound my fists on the floor in frustration and rage. “Help help help!” I scream in a whisper. The pain in my entire body is excruciating. I must stop this, or I will fall into sleep and not wake again.
He pounds on the door again. “Ms. Crane!” he screams. “Okay, that’s it. I’m coming back with a police officer.”
I hear his footsteps moving away from my door and I want to weep again, but there’s no liquid left in me. I know I’m close to the end. Thank god for Scott and his cop. How horribly ashamed he’ll feel to find me ruined on the floor, weeping like a child.
I just need to stay awake until they get here. I so badly need to sleep, to get rid of the aching pain in my legs and my entire body. But I keep myself awake. I make a choice to stay awake. I imagine Scott, in his stupid dirty jeans and polo shirt, standing over me, crying with sympathy at how ruined this woman is.
I’m half asleep, warming in the desert sun from the dream when I hear pounding on the door again. It’s Scott with his heroic cop.
And I’m dropping off. I hear the pounding as though it’s in the distance. As an echo only. And I know I’m dropping off into nothingness.
I suddenly have thoughts, coming like waves of honey, of all that eating. And of the dream. And of eating my own leg. The taste of the flesh, how my dream-self relished it. And I know that I’m falling away slowly, like the flesh of a rotting corpse.
I hear the doorknob being opened. Scott has a key. Then the chain. The cop must get his bolt cutter.
I find myself slowly fading into the memory of the desert, and of that prankster sun.
Just as I hear the click of the door chain being cut, I drop off completely into the dream. Into the desert, only it’s daytime, and there’s no food there for me. As I’m standing there on the hot sand, surrounded by nothingness, I hear footsteps across the living room floor of my apartment.
In the distance I can hear the sound of horror that emits from Scott’s mouth. A primitive yelp of disgust and remorse. “My god,” he half whispers.
“Ma’am, are you able to move?” the cop’s voice echoes. “Ma’am?”
“Jesus, she could’ve been here for days like this,” I hear Scott say, his voice fading. “It’s repulsive,” he says, and it sounds like he’s leaning over and whispering it loudly into my ear.
Then, standing there in the blackening desert, everything fades before my eyes. I hear nothing, see nothing, except that burning sun, which slowly dims–from white, yellow, orange, to blood red–until it is gone.