Starving to Death

I am the battleground of a permanent war, and this phone is the missile rain.

The phone rang, resetting the last ring tone my husband ever picked. Then the text messages restarted. I shifted April from one hip to the other as I stirred a pot of boiling pasta in our tiny kitchen. I should silence it, I thought, but instead I decided to placate her by sending a message. I shouldn’t ignore her.

The phone replied with a Morse Code like succession, more like cussession, then rang again.

April’s blond pigtails wobbled back and forth as she squirmed from my grip.

I sighed, exasperated, as I put her down. “You’re worse than a cat!” April made for the cell phone, but I reached over her and placed the phone in my shirt pocket, where it continued to howl Ray’s ring tone.

“Is Gramma calling about Daddy?” April said in smaller, more tentative voice.

I paused, ladle hovering over the bubbling sauce. I had bread in the oven; it was starting to smell.

“No, I don’t think she is.”

The phone binged again and I picked it up. One through thirteen of text messages were rolling in from Her.

“What will happen to you? Are you still traveling around dancing? Have you got April? Do you know what has happened to me over the last four months? Why did you speak to Lola and Michelle and Tucker?”

This super attack was my own fault. When Ray died I hid it from her, living on my own for several weeks instead of confiding to my family that my husband was dead.

Why did I do this? It’s complicated, but it starts with the aforementioned “Lola, Michelle and Tucker.” They were a trio of aunts and a cousin I had not seen in nearly twenty years except at one wedding and one funeral. Mom was convinced they had ganged up on me and Ray, to hurt Mom, of course. It had nothing to do with us. I’d tried on several occasions to explain the impossibility of her accusations, but in three years had gained no logical ground.

“Your dad said hes getting a gun right now and going over there to blow some people away so you better commun now with me and pick up the phone. Pick it up. I can’t stop him. If you don’t call he’s shoot people. Do you want your dad in prison. We didn’t support you and take care of you and willing to do anything to be treated like this. When did it happen?”

Of course, Dad wasn’t going to shoot anyone. It was a threat as empty as the emotional well between us, used so often by now that it lost it’s punch. I pulled the bread from the oven and placed it on my dollar store baking rack. She’s spoiled dinner every night this week. I burned the hamburger, I singed the tacos, I managed to both sogify and toast the rice because I gave in and devoted my attention to her instead of doing what I needed to do for my own daughter.

It wasn’t the damage to dinner that made me angry, but rather the lack of results for my efforts, for every day, the attacks reset and continued, and she would call, demanding to have this conversation again. To force me to recount the details of my husband’s death again, so she could fit the pieces of my shattered heart into some bizarre intra-familial feud-delusion.

I chopped a green pepper as the phone continued. April pushed her toy trucks behind my feet. I heard the truck come to a stop and I looked down at my child. She was studying the contents of her dump truck. Wood blocks, also from the dollar store. All in all, not too bad for toys.

I wiped my hands on the dishtowel hanging on the stove. If we could make the rent, make just make enough to eat, stay clothed, we’d be all right.

All in all, not too bad for people.

“You know suicide don’t pay out life insurance and you can’t write off edu debt and you’ll have to pay his now hes dead. Do you think your cousin had anything to do with this? I think this will polish off your dad. He won’t believe or accept it that Ray killed himself and you don’t even have a job. This is awful I have to hear about it all over haven springs. Everybody knows about you.”

I could hear Ray’s voice. “It’s too much to cook and talk to her with your kiddo and idiot husband underfoot. You already spent an hour on the phone with her this morning.” Like he was standing right behind me. I turned, but it was only April and me.

“I guess you wanted to prove your hate for me. I’ve been good to you supported you everything I’m done with the dancers your dad says it is disgusting to him. He just wouldn’t say anything about you dancing.”

The last time she brought up the “dancing” I grabbed the phone and called her to tell her that zumba was a fitness class, NOT a dance, and I was a certified instructor at the YMCA, and that my work hours qualified me for public service loan forgiveness… but that would lead to the conversation beginning with “What is that?”

“April, honey, help me with the dinner table,” I pulled out the china Mom brought us when we moved into the apartment. It was suspiciously shy a tea mug and salad bowl, like maybe these were actually her old dishes and she wanted to get rid of them without surrendering them to the “welfare moms” at the Sal’s Army.

“I put up a lot with being ignored. I’m not that mountain trash you can pick up the ph. This direspect for me and your dad. Try to get a decent job. I don’t know the high school kids volunteer at the gym here to teach dirty dancing and hip hop.”

I heard a plate crash to the floor and break.

“April don’t move!” I grabbed the broom from its nook by the fridge.

“I’m sorry,” she said with big, saucer eyes. I picked her up and put her on the futon, examining her feet.

“That’s OK, sweetie,” I kissed her forehead. “I don’t care about the stupid dishes, OK? Look at me.” April’s eyes were starting to tear up, but I smiled at her and kissed her again.

I’ll never talk to her the way I get talked to.

In the kitchen the cell phone continued to ring.

Maybe it’ll vibrate itself into the pot.

“How is April? Is she OK? Does she know her daddy killed himself? Why did you tell me you didn’t think those sobs were involved. Were you talking to them. I think you have underestimated the hate and jealousy they have for me. Your and rays trouble started as soon as they figured out where you lived and he spoke to them. They must have given him drugs or something. You didn’t let the coroner autopsy him did you? They’ll find the drugs in his system, not that it really matters. Lola said I had bigger things to worry about talking about you. What did you say to her and Tucker i mean it was definite her and tucker and sara jane was in on it too. I heard them talk on the phone about how they were going to get you.”

The reported conversation changed with every retelling. The first time I was reported to be a “stripper whore,” then I was “dirty dancing” for Ray’s band, then he was pimping me out. He had been dead a week when she called to say Sara Jane knew he was unemployed.

If only my reality were so pliable as hers. I’d bring my husband back.

April sucked on her noodles and I gave her a napkin. I’d have to start enforcing rules with her, but after everything that had happened to us in the preceding three months, was it a crime for a child to be a child without constant threat of being chewed out for not chewing?

The phone flew into another series of beeps and I held my head.

I could change the number, but what would happen? Would the awful things she promised for my ignoring her finally come to pass? Would she get sick, would Dad kill a man? The possibility of the awful things she promised— had always promised since I was sitting in April Rose’s place in the chain of family— swept over me. Anchoring me to the bottom of a seemingly shallow sea. I could look up, I could see the sky, feel the power of the air, but I couldn’t get there.

“I tried to warn you he was heading to trouble and that you should try to get a job. He should have pawned the rest of that music junk. Why did you all just take off like that, anyhow? You didn’t see tucker or lola or sara jane there did you? They destroyed everything we worked for. They were always after us that tucker sneaky pervert you didn’t let april around him did you he perverted her for sure if you did. They just always wanted to make sure jon was ahead of you. Call me and tell me where you at or I’m turning these people in for killing Ray. I had to talk to lawyer today some woman from Cincinnati keeps calling who is she? Why do you hide this from me. Secrets is lies. We could handle it better from you than strangers. Did you tell lola ray killed himself.”

There was a series of muffled thumps in the living room, and I looked to see April lugging Ray’s violin case out of the closet.  I started to protest, but stopped.

April looked expectantly at me, Ray’s violin case tucked protectively next to her.

How could I tell her? I thought about the last months, the harassment, the constant nagging at Ray that he was hoarding expensive instruments he didn’t use. The silence. The constant parade of characters superimposed on our lives that may as well be fiction to Ray.

I put my arm around my daughter.

“I’m gonna teach to play Daddy’s violin. But first, I have to tell you a story.”

April tilted her head, then shrugged. “OK.”

We sat together on Ray’s Target futon that would soon convert to our bed. April was an expert listener. She didn’t get that from me.

The phone beeped.

OK, maybe she did.

“So this man was named Ray, like your Daddy. One day, Ray’s friend called to ask if he could come over for dinner.”

‘No, you can’t,’ Ray said. ‘There’s a horse in my kitchen, and it won’t leave.’

‘What does it look like?’ his friend asked.

‘Not good,’ Ray answered.

‘Do you need help getting rid of it?’

Ray decided not to ask for help. ‘No thanks, I’ll be OK.’

Now, there was a horse in Ray’s kitchen. Her ribs stuck out and her cheek bones jutted from her face. She’d be a great specimen to study horse anatomy because you could see all the little ligaments and tendons in her skinny old legs. Ray decided to name her the Very Hungry Nag.

Ray wondered why the Very Hungry Nag decided to live in his particular kitchen, but he didn’t ask.

The Very Hungry Nag grew until Ray couldn’t get to his stove anymore. He would just have to use the microwave, instead. Surely if he ignored her, she would go away on her own. But she didn’t, instead she took up more room! It didn’t matter how much Ray ignored her, she got bigger until he couldn’t get to his microwave, either. Ray had to squeeze past her just to use his toaster.

The Nag grew more until Ray couldn’t reach his toaster, so Ray ate the cold food in his refrigerator. Then one day, he couldn’t get to his refrigerator! So Ray ordered pizza.

Still the Nag grew, even though she refused any food Ray tried to feed her. She didn’t want carrots, celery or apples. Not squash or tomatoes. Not even pizza! The next day, Ray found Lucky the Husky whimpering at the kitchen door. Lucky couldn’t squeeze past the Very Hungry Nag to drink from his water bowl. Lucky had to drink out of the toilet. She took up the whole room!

So Ray ordered more pizza.

That evening, while Ray and Lucky the Husky were watching the Big Game, Ray felt like someone was looking right at him. He turned to find The Very Hungry Nag staring at him from the kitchen doorway. She wasn’t going to fit in there anymore.

Now, Ray was a hard working guy, and he didn’t appreciate this horse coming into his house and taking up all the space without contributing at all. She didn’t even have the good grace to fatten up so he could sell her! Ray didn’t appreciate that unproductive Nag one bit.

Finally, Ray tried to shove the horse out of the kitchen, but that wouldn’t work, it was already too late! The Very Hungry Nag was bigger than the doors. There was only one thing to do.

Ray decided to move.

He packed up all his things, deciding what to keep and what to take to the junk store.

It just so happens that Ray was passing the Very Hungry Nag with a box of sheet music when the horse reached down with her big blunt teeth and munched the music right up. And then the wildest thing happened!

The Nag got smaller.

Ray realized the more music he fed to the Very Hungry Nag, the smaller she got, so Ray went through all his music. All the liner notes to his record albums, the lyric sheets, even the music he’d written himself! He fed it all to the Very Hungry Nag and she got smaller until she was the size of a coffee mug. Ray picked the horse up and wondered where he could put her so she couldn’t bother him.

‘I’ve got it!’ he said to Lucky the Husky. ‘I’ll put her in my violin case!’

Ray was pretty proud of himself, but he didn’t want to keep the Nag in his house, so he took his violin to the pawn shop and sold it.”

April was asleep. That’s the thing about kids. They don’t need the story so much as the sound of an adult’s voice, assuring them someone is watching as they sleep.

I sighed, “So, that’s Ray. I think about him, when I’m feeling grim. . .”

I felt the cell phone vibrate in my pocket. The ID read MOM.

“And I picture a man being starved to death.”

<<<>>>

Featured Image courtesy of NYC public collections

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