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Five Times Will Graham Went Hungry, and One Time He Didn't

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1.

Hot dogs on white bread were his least favorite dinner.

It made Billy angry that they didn't fit on the bread right. They weren't bologna, where he could put two circles on the bread just right so that they reached all the corners. Hot dogs were long and skinny and meant to be eaten with hot dog buns, but they never had any, just sliced white bread. His father insisted that you could wrap the bread around the hot dog like a bun, squirt ketchup and mustard on it, and it'd taste just the same. But it wasn't the same.

And it was cold. Bologna was all right cold, but hot dogs weren't; hot dogs should be microwaved until they exploded, dry and crisp at the ends where they'd split open. But this motel room didn't have a microwave, and so it was cold hot dogs on white bread, and Billy hated everything.

"What'samatter?" his father asked. He was halfway through his hot dog already, mustard in his mustache. "Why aren't you eating?"

"I'm not hungry," Billy muttered.

His father pointed one dirty index finger at Billy's plate. “Eat your food.”

"No."

The moment froze. His father's eyes grew wide; his face grew red; his mustache twitched. Billy felt his stomach knot and goosepimples rise up on his skin, but he stuck his jaw out.

“I didn’t hear that," his father said.

Billy didn't reply.

"Now eat your goddamn food." And, as if to set an example, he ate the rest of his hot dog in one bite and chewed loudly. It disgusted Billy to watch.

"No thanks." He pushed his plate away and got down from his chair. But the problem was that there was nowhere to go: this was a motel room, with a queen sized bed where Billy and his father would sleep together, and Billy wasn't about to hide in the bathroom. So he opened the front door and went outside.

"You come back here and eat your damn food!" his father shouted. When Billy did not look back, he yelled, "Then you can damn well starve, 'cause you ain't gettin' anything else!"

Billy left the door open behind him, and yellow light spilled down onto the concrete walkway. It was dark and humid, and Billy's shirt stuck to his back. Their motel room was on the second floor, and Billy sat down on the concrete stairs, leaning against the metal rail. His stomach hurt, but he ignored it.

 

2.

"Do you have your lunch money?" the lady asked. She was wearing a hairnet over her dyed red hair and too much makeup, but her eyes were kind.

"No," Billy said.

Instead of handing him one of the blue plastic trays, she reached behind the counter. "Peanut butter and jelly all right, honey?"

"Okay," Billy said. He felt the kids behind him in line staring.

She got a little carton of Vitamin D milk out of the refrigerator, put it in the sack, and handed it to him. Billy wadded the brown paper bag as small as he could get it and slunk past the register out into the lunch room. He picked one of the farthest away tables and sat at the very, very end, practically falling off the bench. The kids at the other end of the table looked at him, but nobody said anything, which suited him just fine. He'd already had his accent made fun of today.

Billy bit into his peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It was grape jelly. He supposed he liked grape jelly. But he wished it were pizza. At some schools, kids who forgot their lunch money could still get the same hot lunch as everyone else. The school would send a note home to their parents saying not to forget the money next time, and would Billy please bring twice the money the next day to pay for yesterday's meal. Forget your money enough times and the school would start sending notes hinting that you could get cheap lunch if you just filled out these forms. But by then Billy and his father would have moved on, and Billy was the new boy at school somewhere else.

The next day, Billy slipped out of the lunch line when the lunch monitor was looking the other way. If he was spotted, he'd just say he needed to go to the bathroom. But he wasn't spotted, and he stayed in the bathroom until he was sure they were done serving lunch and then went out to the playground. If anyone asked, he'd tell them he ate his lunch really fast. But nobody asked.

 

3.

She seemed healthy, if a little underweight. No collar, no tags. Will could tell she'd had puppies. He couldn't tell what breed she was, although probably she had a little bit of hound dog in her floppy ears and brindle coat. Most of the dogs around here had some hound in them.

"Hey girl," he said, holding his hand out. She backed away from him and disappeared into the ditch.

The next day, he saved the bologna sandwich that was supposed to be his lunch. She was still in the ditch, looking muddier and filthier than she had the day before. He tore off a big piece of sandwich and held it out. She took it from his hand and disappeared back into the ditch to eat it. He fed her the sandwich, piece by piece, and each time she nipped it from his hand and darted back into the ditch.

He went back, day after day, always with whatever sandwich or hot dog that had been meant for his lunch. Always she took it from his hand and disappeared into the ditch to bolt it down. A cardboard box appeared in the ditch; then a tarp; then a bowl of water. Will was glad. The dog didn't want to move. She was waiting for her owner to come back. When Will left her alone, she was always staring in the direction the car had gone.

It was autumn, and raining often. Soon it'd be snowing. Sometimes Will saved his dinner and went back out there at night, armed with a flashlight and an umbrella, to feed the dog again.

She lost weight. So did Will.

One day, Will came to the ditch with his sandwich in hand. No movement greeted him. Heart in his throat, he stepped down into the ditch, sneakers squishing in the mud. The dog was not in the box, or behind the box, or under the tarp. He walked up and down the length of the ditch and did not see her.

Someone might have caught her at last and taken her home. She might have been hit by a car. She might have given up and wandered away for parts unknown. Or her owner might have come back for her.

Will left the sandwich in the box anyway, in case she came back.

 

4.

The Café Jolie was fancy: French in the name, white cloths on the tables, and water goblets and cloth napkins. They had a menu in the window, and Will stood in front of it for a long time. Most of the entrees were a little under twenty dollars. Will figured maybe thirty dollars a person, if each person got a Coke.

Will mowed lawns, sold fishing lures, and recycled every glass bottle and aluminum can he found by the side of the road, his skin turning dark under the summer sun. After his father drank himself to sleep in the recliner, Will snuck crumpled one dollar bills out of the pocket of his pants into the envelope under his mattress.

Shortly after Thanksgiving, Will approached Susan Wallace outside the lunch room. Two of her friends were there.

"Hey, Susie," he said.

Susan smiled and tucked her hair behind her ear. She always looked like one of the girls on TV or in the magazine ads. "Hi, Will."

"I was just wondering," Will swallowed, "if you wanted to go out to dinner on Saturday."

Her friends tittered behind their hands. Susan ignored them. "Dinner where?"

"At the Café Jolie."

"Oh, I like that place," said Susan. "Sure."

He picked her up in his father's thirty-year-old pickup truck. Will wore khakis, his father's only nice shirt, and a thrift store tie. Susan wore a beautiful blue and silver dress and a little cardigan over it. Will got out of the truck and opened the passenger side door for her.

Susan smiled. "What a gentleman!" She stepped into the truck. Will closed the door behind her and ran around to the other side. The truck was loud and they couldn't really hear each other, so they didn't make conversation on the way to the restaurant.

Susan smiled again when Will held the door, and again when he pulled her chair out for her. Will smiled hopelessly back at her and felt his heart do a backflip. She unrolled her silverware and put the napkin on her lap, so Will did the same.

He told her to order anything she wanted. He didn't think that she'd want to order an appetizer: the crab cakes, which were the most expensive, at $12.95. They were delicious, crispy on the outside and melty-sweet on the inside, but Will only had sixty dollars in his wallet. Susan ordered their house-made ginger ale, which was $3.95 a glass, and then another when she finished it. Will asked for only water and scanned the menu for the cheapest entree.

In the end, he ordered a salad. Susan ordered the grilled salmon. She was kind enough to give Will a piece, when their food came. Will's salad had raw egg yolk and anchovies in it. He didn't mind the anchovies, but the texture of the raw egg coated his mouth and made him gag. Susan did most of the talking: complaints about the other cheerleaders; fretting about an upcoming trip her family was taking to the Grand Canyon; speculation about what was going to be on the World History final. Will pushed his salad around on his plate.

He was glad when the evening came to an end. He held the door for Susan again on their way out and helped her into the pickup truck. She didn't kiss him when he dropped her off, and he didn't want her to. He imagined he tasted like anchovy.

 

5.

"I'm sorry," the nurse said who'd come to inform him that maybe his surgery would commence in another half hour, an hour at the most. "You must be hungry."

Will grunted. His stomach ached, but he wasn't hungry, even though he hadn't had anything to eat since dinner the night before. You were supposed to fast for six hours leading up to the surgery. His surgery had been scheduled for shortly before noon, and now it was almost three.

His shoulder hurt. There would be physical therapy, after the surgery. Will was tired just thinking about it.

"Is there someone you'd like me to call?" the nurse asked.

The Captain had come to visit, once, after Will had woken up. He'd asked for Will's version of events. Will had still been under the influence of opiates, and he didn't imagine he'd been very coherent. But the Captain had accepted his statement, and he hadn't been back since.

Will shook his head. He looked away. The nurse left.

 

+1.

Will had just sat down in his chair when his stomach growled. Loudly. Hannibal raised his eyebrows. Will winced. "Ah, sorry, I didn't eat dinner before coming--"

Hannibal looked, if anything, incredulous. "Pardon?"

"I was running late, I didn't want to be late," Will mumbled.

Hannibal didn't say anything for a few moments. Will sank lower in his chair. His stomach growled again, and Hannibal seemed to come to a decision. He stood up and offered Will his hand. "Come."

Will stared at the outstretched hand, then up at Hannibal. "What?"

"We're going to get you dinner. Come."

Will let Hannibal pull him out of the chair. "I'm okay, really."

"We'll take my car," Hannibal said. "I'll bring you back after."

Hannibal was clearly not taking no for an answer. It wasn't until Will was already in Hannibal's car that he thought to ask, "Where are we going?"

"My home."

Christ, Will thought they were just going to go get some takeout or something. But then, he couldn't picture Hannibal at a drive-through, or a Denny's. "You really don't have to--"

"I'm aware of that. But I insist. Our conversation will not be productive if you are not well fed, and I enjoy feeding my friends."

Will had never been to Hannibal's home before, and it did not surprise him in the least that it was no less imposing than his office: circular driveway, enormous front door, the sort of architecture that could only be described with the word edifice. Hannibal whisked his coat away in the front hall, shed his own jacket, and guided Will to the kitchen. He showed Will a stool at the island where he could sit.

"In the interest of time, since you are already hungry, I'll serve you leftovers," Hannibal said, rolling up his sleeves. "I hope you don't mind." He tied an apron around his waist.

"No, not at all," Will said, wondering how he'd come to be in the position where he was the one reassuring his host.

"We'll begin with a little appetizer, while the food heats." Hannibal retrieved several packages from the refrigerator, along with a small jar, and, in a few minutes, presented Will with a small cutting board. "Olives, manchego, Spanish chorizo."

Hannibal left him to it and turned away to scrape something into a pot on the stove, and something else into another pan. Will stared down at his food. It looked enough to be a meal by itself. And how was he supposed to eat it? With his fingers? Hannibal hadn't given him a fork, and Hannibal wasn't the type to forget something like that. Will picked up an olive and bit into it. Tart. Vinegary. Intense. He ate it, spat out the pit, and tried the cheese next. Sweet. Nutty. The chorizo was surprisingly mild. Garlicky.

He looked up to find Hannibal leaning against the counter and watching him. He wasn't smiling, precisely, but the corners of his eyes were creased.

"You have the manner of one who is accustomed to being hungry," Hannibal observed.

Will gave an awkward half-shrug, one shoulder higher than the other. "We were poor. I was hungry a lot."

"We have something in common, then." Hannibal turned to check whatever it was on the stove. He gave the pan a toss and came back to lean against the counter across from Will.

Will took in the enormous kitchen; Hannibal's pristine, surely bespoke clothes; the art prints on the walls. Whatever was on the stove smelled amazing. "You? Really?"

"The proverbial orphan," Hannibal reminded him, giving whatever was in the pot a stir. "In the proverbial Soviet orphanage. Those were not good times." He got out plates and cutlery. Will was glad to see him fetch down two sets; he wasn't sure he could eat a meal in front of Hannibal when he had just been talking about his hungry childhood. He'd already eaten all the olives and cheese and chorizo without really paying attention. "When my aunt and uncle found me at last, I had forgotten what it was like to be fed, and it was difficult for me to believe that I could eat whenever I liked. I would hoard food in my pockets or in my room, and it gave the servants fits. At last my aunt resorted to letting me carry a biscuit around in my pocket, so that I could be reassured that I would not go hungry."

Hannibal came around the counter and set Will's plate down in front of him: a generous spoonful of some kind of meat stew in a bright red sauce, and beside it a pile of crispy golden cubes of potato, framed with a few green fronds of some kind of lettuce. Will felt his mouth water.

"Lagarto con tomate," Hannibal said. "It translates to 'lizard with tomato,' and has led many to believe that the Spanish eat lizards. Which indeed they may, as many cultures do, but in this case the lagarto refers to a part of the pig, between the loin and the ribcage."

Will picked up his fork. "It smells amazing. Thank you."

"Bon appétit," Hannibal said with a smile. He sat next to Will, their elbows nearly touching, and tucked into his own portion. Will liked this: sitting side by side with someone, sharing a meal, talking. He told Hannibal about the much-loathed hot dogs on white bread; the most recent case; one of his students, who was not doing well in his class. Hannibal listened, and offered advice and suggestions, and smiled, sometimes.

Afterward, as Hannibal brought Will his coat, Will said, "Thank you. So much. For this."

"My kitchen is always open to friends," Hannibal said. "Now, I'll drive you back to your car."

The dogs seemed very interested in Will's jacket when he got home that night. Will frowned and put his hand in the pocket. His fingers came away greasy. In his pocket, wrapped in a twist of wax paper, was four inches of Spanish chorizo.

---end---