Hunger

by Lauren Groff

Imaginary Oklahoma is an ongoing project in which some of today’s most important and influential writers combine with artists to provide a fictional take on this place we call home. Through a wide variety of voices, styles and literary devices, these works prove that “Oklahoma” is much more than a place, it’s an idea.

The man stood at the crossroads. Cold sun cocked at noon, and he couldn’t tell in what direction the roads dwindled to sky. The >ields were corn but so drought- struck the plants were miniature. He didn’t know how he got there, where he was going.

Something about his wife, maybe. Lilian? he tried to call, but his throat was dry, and he could only rasp.

He took a foot from one slipper and looked at it. It was bloody, one toenail ripped off. He thought he had probably been walking a long time. It was pleasant to stand. The sunlight warmed his shoulders and the wind blowing through his clothes wasn’t so cold.

When he looked up again, the sun had just gone down. It was twilight now.

On one of the roads, a speck was growing. He saw >irst that it was red, then that it was a pickup. And now there was sound, a wash of engine and some kind of thumping music. The truck slowed and stopped.

There were two boys looking at him. Hair sun-blond, noses freckled. Waft of bourbon. On the seat between them sat a toy bat, rubber on the outside and an aluminum core.

Hey, old man, the driver said, and the other boy >licked off the music. What’re you doing all the way out here?

The old man cleared his throat and said, Wife.
She left you here? said the boy in the passenger seat.
Like an old dog, said the driver out of the corner of his mouth. Tired of his

stink. The boys laughed. And now the old man could smell himself, terrible, sweat and piss and his own loose bowels. He felt ashamed.

Lilian? he whispered.

Darkness fell on the road. The driver >licked on the lights and the old man blinked. He seemed even frailer, illuminated so.

The driver said, Let’s have some fun, and reached for the bat and the handle of his door.

But his friend had seen the tag on the man’s wrist and recognized it from visiting his own grandfather. He said, Nah. Not worth it. Let’s get waf>les.

The driver put the truck in gear and they moved off. The boy in the passenger seat turned on the music again and watched in the rearview as the old man became a blot on the darkness, then a distant moonlit point. Dementia, poor soul. At the Dairy Palace, he went to the bathroom and called his uncle the sheriff about the escapee, then, duty done, put him from his mind.

But something clung to him, an echo under his conscious thoughts. And, at the soggy end of winter, when his girlfriend broke up with him for a boy in Chicago she’d met online, the heartbreak whipped itself into a terrible energy. He packed his bags in the darkness and left a note for his mother. Kissed his sleeping brother. At dawn he took off, in no particular direction, toward something urgent, something unknown.

Lauren Groff is the author of The Monsters of Templeton, which was a New York Times and Booksense bestseller, shortlisted for the Orange Prize for New Writers, and translated into over a dozen languages. Her second book,Delicate Edible Birds, is a collection of stories, some of which have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, One Story, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, The Best New American Voices, and The Best American Short Stories 2007 and 2010. She has won a Pushcart Prize and a PEN/O.Henry Prize, has published fiction in the New Yorker, and was awarded the Axton Fellowship in Fiction. Her second novel, Arcadia, will be published this spring. Richard Russo said of the novel, “Arcadia is one of the most moving and satisfying novels I’ve read in a long time.” She lives in Gainesville, Florida, with her husband and two sons.