The Hungry Man by Tim Waggoner

How much does it take to fill a man up?

A Thunderbird the color of dried blood roars down the highway, guzzling gas and belching exhaust, vanity plate proclaiming I WANT to the world.

The Hungry Man is coming to town.

* * *

Myra is nearly thirty and still works at Taco Bell, the one located just down the road from Oakview's only highway exit. As she hands grease-stained bags to customers through the drive-thru, she wonders just who these people are -- where they come from and where they're going. Wherever it is, it's got to be better than here.

The next car pulls up to the speaker and Myra cues her mike and says, for the hundreth time that day, "WelcometoTacoBellcanItakeyourorder?"

At first she doesn't really pay attention as she keys in the man's order, but then she realizes the list of food and drink is getting longer and longer.

She has a hell of a time repeating the order to the customer, and nearly bursts out giggling when she tells him his total: $49.98.

He says, "Thank you," his voice tinny and distorted through the speaker, and pulls around. Myra is really curious to see him. She's never had such a large drive-thru order before. But she has to help the others get the food ready to go, and she's stuffing bags full of lukewarm tortilla- and paper-wrapped gook.

She returns to the window and strains to see the man behind the wheel of the rusty T-bird, but her eyes can't seem to make out his face. The features are indistinct, blurry.

Maybe it's time she had her eyes checked. Probably been staring at damn computer screens too much.

She reads his total aloud once more.

"Forty-nine ninety-eight." She smiles. "You must have one hell of an appetite, mister."

"The biggest." She can hear the grin in his voice, but something about his tone tells her it's a nasty grin, the kind someone might make after telling a really dirty joke.

A pale hand bearing money emerges from the T-bird. The fingers are long and tapering, almost skeletal, and the nails have been chewed to the quick. Wrapped around the man's arm is the gray sleeve of what had once been a pretty fancy suit. But it's old now, the color faded, the fabric worn. Myra takes his money, two twenties and a ten. She finds the bills nearly as moist and greasy as the bottoms of the bags she's about to hand over to him.

She puts the money in the drawer quickly, glad to be rid of it, and gets his change, all of two cents. As she hands it through the window to him, their fingers briefly make contact. His skin is absolutely frigid. She yanks her hand back and shivers.

She passes bag after bag through the window to the man in the T-bird, careful not to touch him again. As he takes the last bag, he says, "You have yourself a nice little town here."

"We like it," she says, a touch defiantly.

"I do, too. As a matter of fact, I could just eat it up." He pulls away, his laughter the breaking of hollow bones.

* * *

The Hungry Man drives farther into Oakview, stopping at each fast food place along the way. The food from one restaurant is always gone before he gets to another. Even the bags. The Hungry Man doesn't believe in littering. Waste not want not is his motto.

Oakview is a relatively small town, but not so small that it doesn't have a mall, even if it isn't a very big one. But that's okay with the Hungry Man. He loves to shop.

He pulls into the mall lot.

* * *

Allan hates working at Record City. He doesn't even know why it's called Record City anymore, since all they now sell are tapes and CD's. He graduated from high school three years ago and has been taking classes at the community college off and on -- well, mostly off -- ever since. He only does it because his parents nag him to and they're paying for it, but he really doesn't give a damn about school. The highest grades he gets are C's and he doesn't get too many of those.

He hates wearing a tie, but the prick of a manager makes him. Allan thinks a music store should have a cool, relaxed atmosphere. More in tune with the people, you know? But his manager says Allan is full of shit. Now there's a man definitely not in tune with the people.

Allan stands behind the counter and watches girls walk by outside the store. He hopes to make eye contact with a real babe, or what passes for a real babe in Oakview, when a couple dozen CD's are deposited on the counter in front of him. Shit, and a blonde with big tits was passing by. Allan lets out a long-suffering sigh. Life is so unfair sometimes.

He looks up at the cadaverously thin man standing before him. Allan registers the ratty gray suit that hangs on the man like he was made of sticks and the washed-out maroon tie, but when he tries to look at the man's face, his gaze slides away before he can register the features. He tries once more and the same thing happens. Allan decides he's probably worked too long; he's been here nearly two hours.

"Find everything okay?" Allan asks with complete disinterest.

"So far I'm finding everything absolutely delicious."

What a freak, Allan thinks. Probably a fag. As he passes the CD's over the scanner one after the other, he notices that there doesn't seem to be any pattern to them. Hard rock, country, alternative, show tunes, new age, jazz, gospel . . . Some by famous names, most not. It's almost like the guy went through the store just picking out music at random.

As if reading Allan's thoughts, the man says, "I'm a firm believer in a well-rounded diet."

Whatever. Allan returns to contemplating the blonde with the big tits. She reminds him of Anita, the first girl he ever slept with. Her tits weren't as big, but man, could she screw! He remembers how they did it in the back seat of his old man's car, parked outside of town on . . . on . . . he can't quite recall what street it was, but damn if they didn't nearly bust the shocks on his dad's . . .

He frowns. His dad's what?

"Something wrong?" the man asks, sounding amused.

"It's nothing." Allan tells the guy his total and he forks over the cash. Allan's surprised he has that much paper money on him, but he figures what the hell, right? He gives the guy his change and he's on his way, leaving Allan with the strangest feeling that he had been thinking of something important a minute ago. If he could just remember what it was. . . .

* * *

The Hungry Man pops a Frank Black CD into his mouth before backing out of his parking space. His back seat is crammed full of boxes and bags from nearly every store in the mall, purchases for later snacking. As he chews, music swirls inside him and he finds it quite agreeable. But far more savory are the memories he's plucked from a dozen different people. And the memory he relishes most is of a girl named Anita whose tits weren't all that big, but man, could she screw.

* * *

Barb sits on the wooden bench smoking a Marlboro light and watching little Joey swing.

"Watch how high I can go, Mom!"

Dutifully, she does so as she smokes, thinking that at six, little Joey really isn't all that little anymore. Thinking that he looks too much like his father, thinking that she's glad the sonofabitch ran out on her before they got married and she cocked up her life completely. Being a single mother wasn't easy, but it beat living hell out of staying married to a cheating, boozing asshole.

"Watch me, Mom, watch me!"

"I'm watching, I'm watching!" Barb drops her cigarette to the grass and stamps it out before it's half finished and immediately lights another. Her sister told her once that the first step in quitting was to get rid of cigarettes before you smoked them all the way. It's supposed to help you smoke less, but as near as Barb can tell, she smokes just as much as she always did, but now she pays twice as much for the pleasure. She should know better than to listen to her sister. Stupid cow smokes two packs a day.

She and Joey are alone in the park. There's still a couple hours until school lets out, and then a couple more until Barb has to drop Joey off at her mom's and go bust her ass waiting tables for the chintzy tips left by the good people of Oakview.

"Watch this, Mom!"

Despite her earlier words, Barb isn't really paying attention to Joey and so doesn't see him rev up his momentum in preparation for a dazzling dismount. He lets go of the swing's chains at the apex of its arc and sails through the air laughing, landing on his heels and falling backward on his behind.

Barb screeches and jumps up from the bench.

"Did you see that, Mom?" he asks, his voice full of delight and pride in his aerobatic feat.

Barb answers her son by smacking him hard upside the head. "You dumbass! You scared me to death! What were you thinking? You could have been hurt, hurt bad!"

Joey doesn't say anything, but his eyes start to fill with tears.

"Your father is the stupidest creature God ever put on this earth, and I swear you take right after him sometimes. You be more careful, you hear me?"

"Uh-huh." Joey's voice quavers and a tear rolls down his cheek.

"All right, go on and play."

Barb watches him get up and walk sullenly over to the merry-go-round. She throws away her cigarette and lights up another. She hates having to correct Joey like that. Sometimes it's tough being a mother.

As she sits back down on the bench, she's suddenly aware of a man standing not too far away. An extremely thin man in a crappy gray suit that's too big for him.

"Trying to quit?" he says.

"Excuse me?" There's something weird about this guy. Her eyes don't seem to want to focus on his face. He nods to where her last cigarette lies smoldering in the grass. "You tossed it away half finished and lit another. Only very nervous people do that, or people who are trying to quit. Which are you?"

"The last kind." She looks over at Joey who is now sitting on the merry-go-round, feet hanging off the edge, pushing himself around slowly. She's heard of perverts who come to parks looking for kids. She thinks maybe she should take Joey and leave.

"We all have our vices," the man says. "With me, it's food."

Despite her misgivings, Barb laughs. "You gotta be kidding. You're one of the skinniest guys I've ever seen."

"That's because no matter how much I eat, I never get full."

Her eyes finally focus enough for her to make out the man's wide, wide grin, a grin that grows even larger as he comes toward her. And then his mouth opens and opens and opens and all Barb has time to do is wish she could tell Joey that she's sorry for hitting him.

* * *

Joey spins around slowly on the merry-go-round, choking back tears and wishing he was big enough to hit his mom back, just once.

He sees the man talking to his mother. There's something funny about him, but Joey's not sure what it is. He's tall and thin and his clothes look old and his face . . . His face is all blurry looking.

The strange man talks to his mother for a few moments, and when he's finished, he walks away, leaving behind a dead patch of grass where something and someone -- Joey can't quite remember what or who -- has just been. Joey watches the man depart, the grass dying beneath his worn shoes.

Alone now, Joey rides the merry-go-round for as long as he likes, and when he gets it going good and fast and jumps off into the grass, there's no one there to hit him and call him stupid. There's not even a memory of anyone who might do such things.

* * *

The Hungry Man drives away from the park, filled with Barb's luscious bitterness. But it's not enough.

He heads downtown.

* * *

The Hungry Man strolls down the sidewalk, just another pedestrian, head turning casually this way and that as he takes in what passes for a downtown in Oakview: a dozen or so small shops ranging from a six-buck-a-cut barber's to a frozen yogurt emporium whose treats taste like cold gloppy air. And there are a half dozen other shops, all empty and abandoned, just sitting and waiting for the others to join them in due time.

The Hungry man stops in front of a public mailbox and runs a long, spiderish hand on top of the blue and white metal. Then he steps back and his mouth stretches and distorts like he's something out of a cartoon and just like that, the mailbox is gone. Swallowed whole.

The Hungry man walks over to a parking meter and GULP! it's gone too, followed closely by a now illegally parked Ford pickup.

No one notices the trio of miracles which have occurred in their midst. They just keep on walking. No one notices unless the Hungry Man wants them to. Right now he doesn't want an audience. Right now, all he wants is to eat.

He devours a streetlight, just slurps it up like it was a piece of spaghetti.

Next, he approaches the yogurt place and swallows it, the store, the whole damn building. And when it's gone, there's not even a vacant lot left where it used to stand, just an empty void.

Up to now the Hungry Man has restrained himself in order to build his anticipation and make his ultimate satisfaction all the sweeter. But now the hunger gnawing at every fiber of his being -- which, in fact, is his being -- has become all-encompassing and the Hungry Man can no longer resist it. He flings his arms outward and calls the town to him. Its buildings, its inhabitants, the ground and grass, the animals and insects, the air that surrounds it, the light which illuminates it, the space and time which define it -- he commands that it all be his. And Oakview obeys, rushing inward, attempting to fill his vast emptiness.

* * *

The Hungry Man drives away, leaving behind nothing of the not particularly large town where people once lived and died. Not a mention on any map, not a scrap of memory in the head of anyone who might've had relatives or friends in Oakview or maybe just driven through once. Nothing.

The Hungry Man speeds down the highway, rust spots on his T-bird growing larger, the road aging and cracking beneath his rapidly wearing tires. He's got a lot of miles to cover, the whole world before he's done. And he must hurry, for the Great Old Ones who made him are most impatient. So impatient that They finally stopped waiting for their worshippers to open a door that would allow them to re-enter and reclaim this planet. Instead, They created their own gateway -- one that would bring the entire world to Them, a single bite at a time, if need be.

The Hungry Man thinks back on his repast and sighs contentedly. Not bad. Not bad at all. But Oakview was just an appetizer. Time for the next course.

He passes a road sign and his stomach rumbles.


Bon appetit.

Send your comments to Tim Waggoner


© 1998 Edward P. Berglund
"The Hungry Man": © 1998 Tim Waggoner. All rights reserved.
Graphics © 1998 Old Arkham Graphics Design. All rights reserved. Email to: Corey T. Whitworth.

Created: July 1, 1998; Updated: August 9, 2004