Featured Prose | February 23, 2018
Susan Neville: “Hunger”
Susan Neville’s short story “Hunger,” about a woman struggling subconsciously with loss, appeared in TMR 40.4 (Winter 2017). In a recent interview with the Missouri Review, she talks about her experiences writing this piece, as well as her work in different genres and the current writing climate.
by Susan Neville
I’m driving down the street and I have an overwhelming urge to take a bite out of my steering wheel, so I do. The steering wheel is black plastic, more like a toy car’s steering wheel than the faux leather-covered wheels my parents had when I was growing up. I don’t know what’s come over me. It doesn’t taste particularly good, and it makes a loud crunching sound against my teeth. It’s like the crispy version of a plastic pen, a familiar though not entirely unpleasant taste. It’s hard to swallow, but I swallow it and take another bite.
I have to say that I like the sound it makes as I eat it. It fills my head with sound, like when you eat ice. I’m aware that my mouth is filled with shards of black plastic, but somehow it doesn’t seem to cause any harm to my gums or teeth or to my esophagus.
Of course now I’m worried about the steering because I eat and eat the wheel until I’ve gnawed it down to nothing, and at the end I’m attempting to drive the car by holding on to the post with both hands. It’s not an easy thing to steer the car this way. In fact, it’s impossible. Luckily, I’m in a small town on a Saturday night, and there’s no traffic and the auto parts store is open, blaring light.
It’s a dark night, no stars, and I drive right into the garage bay, which is connected to the storefront by a sliding glass door, which tonight is open, as there are no engines running in the bay. In the waiting room, red and yellow and fluorescent lighting and cash registers and stacks of luscious clipboards with pens hanging from the clips on strings.
Some faceless guy in a mechanic’s jumpsuit doesn’t seem to mind that I’ve driven straight through the garage and into the store. He finds a replacement wheel behind the counter. It’s like he expected me. I’m pleased to not feel embarrassed and to not have to explain that I ate the first wheel, though I’m sure he’s seen my kind before. In fact, I’d noticed a car in the garage that appeared to have big bites taken out of the chassis. As I looked closer, though, I saw it was just the ordinary hunger of oxidation, that lacy rust.
The mechanic pops open the hood on my car, and I ponder sucking the fluid from the battery, putting a straw in the lovely chartreuse of the antifreeze. Suicidal thoughts, those, so I consider instead stuffing my mouth with wires or snapping the axle and eating it like a sugar stick. Or the headlamps? The combination of the glass and metal and the filaments might do for a snack. But nothing, I realize, would give me the pure pleasure of the steering wheel. It’s not a generalized hunger for cars, I tell myself, and that comforts me. Somewhat. I haven’t gone completely mad. The plasticky crackle of the wheel is what I want.
But why? I’m in a waiting room, waiting, and I have time to think a bit. (Should you have engaged in thought before you ate the steering wheel? I can hear you asking. Of course, though my desire was so great that thought in all its thoughtiness would have been helpless against the desire.) But my hunger could have chosen something else. Medicine bottles or street lights. Tree branches or aluminum siding. I have never wanted to take a bite of the cup holder or a handful of change from between the seats or, for that matter, to devour the headrest. Why this particular desire?
For the moment when the steering wheel was inside of me, of course, I had no way of controlling the car. Is that what I wanted? To lose control? Did I want to drive headlong over an embankment or into a tree? If so, I would have been driving faster. I wouldn’t have been in a town or near an auto parts store where, so conveniently, a man handed me an even better wheelthan the one I’d just consumed, a wheel that already was making my mouth water. It was right there waiting, as soon as I drove into the warmth of the store.
Maybe it was the store I needed? When I was by myself in the car, I felt, I’ll admit, a bit lost. A bit at the mercy of my compulsions. The light and the companionship of the garage were welcome.
Or maybe it was choice itself I wanted to rid myself of. Left or right? This way or that? Day in and day out, year after year, I drive in my little rat’s maze. Grocery store. Drugstore. Work. Home. But in what order? And what if I wanted to break out of that maze, as I sometimes do. What was keeping me from driving north, crossing the border into Canada, heading through to Alaska and driving across the Bering Strait (on ice? A ferry?) into Siberia and on to St. Petersburg with its pink and lavender winter darkness. And down to Yalta, perhaps, then a trip to Italy and to the town in Greece with all the blue doors and then to Morocco, all salmon colored. Even as I imagine St. Petersburg and Yalta and Italy and Greece and the sunlit gardens of Morocco, I wonder why I was given these visions and neither the courage nor the money nor the strength to follow through on them.
Maybe my hunger is for color. I feel myself sinking into the beauty of the colored world, the northern lights, the phosphorescent foam of the Mediterranean, the beauty like a dreamscape beckoning and the dailiness of my gray life moving so quickly by me, and all the love and responsibilities of the life I’ve built. I am no nomad, no traveler. So maybe I ate the wretched steering wheel to get rid of the visions.
Would that it were that simple. As an explanation, it doesn’t suit entirely. It’s simply not sufficient. It doesn’t account for the pleasure of the dreams or of the dreams held in such perfect balance with the pleasure of my life as I’ve built it, the pleasure of the conflict, and most of all does not account for the pleasure of the devouring.
(Though when I caught sight of myself in the rearview mirror as I was driving and eating, I looked to myself for one second like those grotesque paintings of the devil with helpless humans dripping from his gargoyle mouth.)
Anyway, as I sat in the warmth of the waiting room waiting for my steering wheel to be replaced, already growing ravenous though a bit nauseated by the smell of tires, I thought about it nutritionally, scientifically. There could, I suppose, be a missing nutrient, one found in plastic. A pica. Throughout my life I’ve loved to pry the little black plug off the top of Bic pens. I prefer the plug to the caps, most of which I lose anyway. I’ve had some major ink spillage because of these tendencies.
Am I alone in this? You pry the plug out with your teeth and then, while you’re taking notes or whatever with the pen, your hand moving almost independently of your desires, you chew on the plug. The trick is to make it last and not to swallow it, so you soft-mouth it with your front teeth and move it to the molars only as you decide to stick your tongue in the pen’s tube and then roll the plug back into the pen, lightly chewing it back into shape to make it fit. And then after a while you suck it out again and put it back and so on until the point when it is so misshapen that you could not possibly reinsert it. Even then, you don’t swallow it. My technique is always to remove the plug delicately like you might remove a small bone or olive pit at a dinner party, with many glances to make sure no one is watching.
Why is the plug even there? I mean there in the pen. What function does it serve? Does the cylinder of ink need air in order to flow properly? One of the pleasures of life is that there is always so much to think about and attempt to understand. I don’t understand the uncurious, though often I envy them. You pick up a pen, you write a few lines, and you’re done. You get in the car and turn the wheel in the proper direction, and you don’t think about eating it. Right now the issue that is most pressing is whether or not I will be able to flow properly myself in the stream of traffic, how I will get anyplace at all if I keep eating steering wheels.
I will soon find out, as it appears the mechanic has replaced the wheel, and it appears that our relationship has run its course. I pay him for the wheel and for his service, and I pay him for a second wheel because, you know, because. He places it in the trunk of my car with the jack and the spare tire.
A little wave, and I’m off.
Perhaps it is time now for some confessions. First, I am for the most part happiest in my car. When I am told by my smart phone that I have reached my destination, I outsmart it by driving around the block or several blocks. I generally do not want to reach my destination.
Second, I must have complete quiet in the car. I do not listen to music. I listen to my thoughts.
Third, I am a far better driver without passengers.
Fourth, I like to drive myself, that is, to never be a passenger.
Fifth, I am of course (in case you’re wondering) very concerned about our use of fossil fuel, and I feel awful about using so much of it for such nonutilitarian reasons as driving aimlessly around. And still, I drive aimlessly around.
Sixth, I love the comfort of the shell of automobile around me. I feel like a turtle or a crustacean. It is an exoskeleton, the car. It is my house.
Seventh. Oh, there is no seventh.
I assume my hunger has something to do with fear. If I eat the car, I will not drive to Morocco and worry my family unduly. I can hear them now: Where will you stay? How will you live? Will you be raped or will you be sold as a sex slave or will you be beheaded? Or shot or speared as an infidel of some sort? These are the first things that go through my family’s mind when I talk of driving out of state, even if I remain in this country. There are, in fact, no other outcomes in their minds but these. And I can’t say I’m immune to their concerns.
So I leave the store with my new shiny wheel, my hands properly at 10 and 2 until I’m out of sight of the mechanic. Then I reach into my purse to find lip gloss, and accidentally my hand grazes my phone. In a second I hear my daughter’s voice from inside my purse yelling “Mom!” and, as she tells me later, she watches my hand as it fumbles for the lip gloss. Cherry flavored. Mom!
I pull her rectangular face out of my bag, and she looks relieved. I felt like I was being buried alive, she says and then asks, Where are you? I’m driving, I say, and there’s an uncanny valley sort of blip in her face as she continues doing whatever she was doing when I accidentally called her. She seems to be in the kitchen, boiling water. It’s not the daughter I remember. She’s not looking at me, but then it’s part of what you do when you talk to the rectangle of plastic that contains your loved one. You don’t look directly at the person. It can’t seem like a real conversation where you look someone in the eye, because you’re not looking at real eyes.
Happy birthday, by the way, she says to me.
I’d forgotten, I say. I truly had forgotten how old I had become. Really, I had. I’d gone the whole day without remembering, I say to her.
I’m sorry I forgot to call, she says.
I thought my phone was dead, I say.
I was so busy, she says, today.
I know, I say, your sisters too. Not that it matters. I would never even place a straw in your way as you go through your lives, I add. This is your time, I say.
I was thinking about Daddy today, she says.
I miss him too, I say. He has been dead six months now. I understand how painful it is for my children. What can I say to them?
Still, this morning and all day I was alone with the thoughts chattering, as they always do, inside my head. As though I am the center of the universe. I see. I do. I think. I’m tired. I hurt. At one time it was easy for me to believe I was the center, as is true, admit it, for all of us. I love. You love me. Then I grew. This house is our house and these are our children and in that house our thoughts merging with each other’s like globules of water meeting. Expanding. Then dividing. But I am smaller now than I was then, smaller than I have ever been.
Oh, dearest darling I say to the beloved child, oh, dearest girl, I say, you won’t believe what I just did.
But she has clicked off. On to her own life. I successfully resist the urge to devour the phone. I pull to the side of the road and pop the trunk. Inside the dark place, among the detritus, I see the wheel.
Susan Neville is the author of the story collections Invention of Flight, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award, and In the House of Blue Lights, winner of the Richard Sullivan Prize. Two of her stories have appeared in Pushcart Prize anthologies. Recent stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in the North American Review, the Southwest Review, and Image.
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