Literature : Word Choice

Word Choice features original works of fiction and poetry. Read "Underfed" by Susan Steinberg.


Jack Delano, Switch lights in Santa Fe R.R. yards, Los Angeles, Calif., March 1943. Photo courtesy of The Library of Congress.

; there was the time I stood outside; it had snowed the night before; a sound in the distance could have been voices; it could have been something else; it could have been machinery; it could have been just in my head; I wanted the sound to be something else: waves crashing to the sand, an ocean I was standing in, an ocean I was drowning in; I wanted to be sinking into sand; but I was standing in snow under a tree; I was standing in my underthings; there was something about just standing there like that; there was something about just standing still, the sky about to turn light; I was not in a state of dire need; but I’d been up late thinking of dire things; I’d been thinking, for instance, of the reasons girls love love; I’d been thinking, as well, of the reasons guys love war; I every day bought the paper from the box on the corner; I every day spread the paper across my bed; I was reading up on various wars; I followed wars in various places I didn’t know; I was becoming well informed on battle; I was becoming well-informed on invasion; because there was nothing going on where I was at all; there was nothing going on where I was but snow; everyone had gone away for the winter; everyone loved to leave for the winter; and yes, I was feeling abandoned; yes, I was feeling melodramatic; then this one friend called who hadn’t yet left; and of course he would leave for the winter too; he would leave, of course, like everyone else; but I wasn’t yet thinking of him leaving; and that night I was up to nothing; I was all the time up to my ears in nothing; and so he called and it wasn’t my fault he called; and so it was completely his fault; look: I want to make a public confession; I want an interrogation; I want a fitting punishment; and where was I on that winter night: I was with this guy in a bar; and who else was with us on that night: there was no one else but us; and did I know that night he had a girlfriend: yes, I knew he had a girlfriend, but I knew nothing specific about his girlfriend, she was just a cutout of a girlfriend, she was just a flattened thing; and how did I feel about this: I felt all right, I felt pretty good, I felt pretty great; so punish me however you see fit; but know I wasn’t all bad; in the bar that night I knew to get this body out the door; so I got this body up the street; I got this body up the stairs and laid it flat on the bed; I was home, safe; I was where I belonged; and I’m sorry my thoughts turned dire; I’m sorry I’d been reading up on wars; I’m sorry for the metaphor; but I confess I was thinking of battle; I confess I was thinking invasion; I knew too much about crossing lines; then I was rushing outside to think in the cold; I can’t explain; years before, things with me seemed all right; I was with this nice guy back then; all my friends liked this guy; he would pick me up in his car; he would take me on hikes; he owned things for going on hikes; I didn’t know the proper names of the things he owned; I still, years later, don’t know their proper names; they clamped to things and heated up and stuck through ice and stuck through mud; the guy and I would walk up hills; we would sleep on wet grass; we would stand there holding hands, staring at some or another sunset; and I would pretend to like the sunset; I would pretend to be a better person than I was; but I would stare at the sunset thinking things like: Tragic, like: Big fucking deal, like: This is not meant to be; it was not, me and him, meant to be; I said, This is not meant to be, on the ride home from our final hike; the radio was up too high; I said, Did you hear me; he pointed to an ear, said, I can’t hear you; then his hand was somewhere on me; I said, This is not meant to be; I said, I’m incapable of falling for you; I said, I’m incapable of falling in love; I’m a wreck, I said; I need another wreck, I said; It’s my father, I said, of course; It’s my mother, I said, of course; I turned down the radio; I said, Did you hear me; he kept on driving; I turned up the radio; I will wreck you, I said; I swear, I said; I was talking at the radio; I was talking at the heat vent; I was talking at my dirty knees; I’d hiked all day through mud; I was scraped all over, dirty all over; I wasn’t averse to dirt; I was averse to something else: like the pressure of having to pretend I cared about a bird, a stone, a star: like the pressure of having to be so fucking nice: like the pressure of having to be a certain type of guy when I was just a certain type of girl; I was just two tits a hole and a heartbeat; I’d heard that somewhere, my brother, my father; I’d heard this somewhere too: two tits a slit and a heartbeat; that was this body; and this body was standing in the snow; this body was up to its ears in nothing; this body was thinking of invasion; this body could be a wrecking ball; this body could swing right in and wreck your home; I confess: it could make itself do awful things; it had done plenty of awful plenty of times; just look at it up in that old tree as a kid; just look at it dangling upside down from the highest branch that could hold it; just look at it dangling by its legs; this was a family trip to the South; this was the trip I learned to climb a tree; and it was on this trip I learned to dive through waves; we stayed in a cottage by the beach; my brother threw bread to birds; my father sat on the sand; my mother slept in the cottage; there was always the sound of waves; I know it all sounds spectacular; and I assure you some moments were; but I assure you some moments were not; nights, I stayed in the tree well after my name had been called; I wasn’t hungry for dinner; I wasn’t ever hungry; I was underfed and happy being underfed; I dangled, nights, from the highest branch; I waited for my father to come back from the bar; I waited for my father to walk under the tree; from up in the tree I would see him stumble up the sidewalk, shirt untucked; I would see him drop his keys to the grass, hear him cuss, see him stoop to the grass; and on one night I would drop down from the tree; and on this night I would crush my father to dust; because I knew it was my job to crush him; because I was the only daughter of the man; because he was the man and I was the only daughter; but most nights my father walked up the sidewalk; he walked into the cottage; the screen door slammed; the cottage went dark; and eventually I would come down from the tree; I would lie on the grass; I would consider stars; I would consider my size; I would consider how the world began; it began, as you know, as a spark; and I began, as well, as a spark; and then everything grew; and a lot of things happened; and a lot more things happened; and the future was the present; and the present was a battle in my head; it was another line for me to cross; and no, I wasn’t terribly cold; and no, the sound wasn’t what I thought it was; it wasn’t what I wanted it to be; it wasn’t waves crashing onto a beach; and yes, I wanted something to come through the snow; yes, I wanted the savior to come through the snow; and yes, one day the savior would come through the snow; but no, it wasn’t on that day; on that day, I was still unsaved; on that day, I was waiting to be punished for my sins; so punish me however you see fit; I shouldn’t have gone with the guy to the bar; we were not supposed to be in the bar; he was supposed to be with his girlfriend; I was supposed to be a better person than I was; I was supposed to be just about as regular a girl as I could be; but just look at us drinking way too much; just look at him looking at me like that; just look at him forgetting his girlfriend; we probably fell in love right there; it was probably total love right then; I was probably totally capable now of falling in love; on our last hike, the guy and I watched a bird soaring over a field; it was a hawk I think, and I wish I’d cared about that bird; and I wish I’d cared about that guy; but I dropped his hand; I sat on a rock; I watched him watch the bird; I’m sure he wasn’t thinking the awful thoughts I was thinking; I’m sure he was only thinking of this bird moving through the space through which he was also moving; I’m sure he was feeling connected to it in a way I could not feel connected; but it was beautiful, I confess, the bird; it was spectacular, I confess; So am I awful, I asked the guy at the bar, and I can’t remember why I asked; I knew he didn’t think I was awful; because he was looking at me a certain way; because he was looking at me like he wanted to devour me; and I wanted, of course, to be devoured; and there was his hand; and there it was on me; and it felt, in that moment, like the world had ended; but the world hadn’t ended just because it felt like it had; and so I downed my drink; I looked away; and the door was still there; and the street was still there; and the world was there beyond that; and walking home, I was feeling okay; and I was feeling okay because I was drunk; and I was feeling okay because I knew how to get this drunk body home; and I was feeling okay until a guy pushed a cart into my legs and said, I’ll give you a thousand dollars to spend the night in your bed; he was filthy; his clothes were torn; his cart was filled with trash; I said, You don’t have a thousand dollars; I said, You don’t even have a dollar; I kicked his cart; and I didn’t mean to kick his cart so hard; then the snow began; and it would snow all night; look: it started out well enough, this spark; on our family trip to the South I met a girl; her name was two names pressed together, one a girl’s and one a guy’s; she was missing her front teeth; she said y’all; and she was the one who taught me how to climb a tree; she was the one who taught me how to dive through waves; climbing a tree was easy; I could climb a tree in seconds; I was scared, however, to dive through waves; there was something about the force; there was something about a force coming at me; there was something about the trust; but still I wanted to try; and so I stood one day in the ocean; and my brother was there, and the girl was there; and my father and her mother stood on the shore; my father and her mother were ankle-deep; I screamed to them, Watch me, but my father didn’t look up; my brother screamed to them, Watch this, but my father was fooling with her mother’s bathing-suit tie; her mother was kicking water at my father; my mother was back at the cottage pretending to sleep; my mother was back at the cottage staring at her hands; my mother was back at the cottage pulling hairs out from her head; I screamed to them, Watch me, as the biggest wave came rushing up, and the girl screamed, Go, y’all; and my brother and I both dove into the wave; and I could have drowned, you know; I would have drowned, you know; and did I want to drown; well, I didn’t, you know; I just dove, felt cold, felt the tug of the world, emerged; I saw my father and her mother in the waterblurred distance; I heard my brother choking beside me; and no, I wasn’t going ashore; I wasn’t tired; I wasn’t hungry; I wasn’t cold; I wanted to stay in the water forever; I wanted to travel farther and farther out; farther out in the water, I could hear only water; I couldn’t hear the girl’s mother laughing; I couldn’t hear my brother choking; I couldn’t see my father looming how he often loomed; farther out was a world I could be in forever; so no, I wasn’t going back; so I floated away, an abandoned boat; I floated, an abandoned shell; but then I felt my father’s arms around me; and then I was screaming, No, and, No; and the girl’s mother had no right laughing as my father dragged me from the water; and the girl had no right laughing; and my brother, my poor brother; and later that night my father went out; my mother slept in a chair; I climbed the tree outside the cottage; I dangled from the highest branch; and the sun went down; and the cottage went dead; and the blood rushed to my skull; and so what if I crushed him; I would put an end to something awful; I would be my brother’s savior; I would be my mother’s savior; and so I dangled from the branch; and the grass grew below my head; and day spread across the roots; and my father never walked up the sidewalk; and there’s nothing much more to say; I dropped to the ground; I brushed off my clothes; I walked into the cottage; and there was my mother; and there was my brother; and this part goes out to the girlfriend: I loved love as much as any girl; I loved war as much as any guy; and I confess I considered swinging this body in and wrecking your fucking home; I confess I knew exactly how to do it; and it would have been spectacular; and I want you now to punish me; because I was being a girl and nothing but; because I was the only daughter of the man; because I kicked that guy’s cart as hard as I could; and, fine, I meant to kick it that hard; and yes, there was trash all over the place; and yes, there was a sound like a sound you’ve never heard; and people were laughing; and the guy, the poor guy: you’ve never seen a sadder face; not even on my mother; not even on my brother; and it was going to snow; and then it was snowing; my God; I was totally wrecked; but yes, I had left him at the bar; yes, I got this body home; I knew how to do things so no one really got hurt; look, girlfriend; there were times things seemed all right; there were nights my father came home on time; and those nights, some, we ate at the table; and some of those nights, we stared at the same storm through the screen; and some of those nights when my mother was sleeping and my brother was sleeping, I stood with my father under the tree;

Susan Steinberg. “Underfed,” from Spectacle. Copyright © 2013 by Susan Steinberg. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota

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