by David Carrington
The Vagrant still felt an urge to eat, though his body rejected even the blandest food. Crackers, cornflakes—minute spoonfuls, chewed slowly—all of it churned inside a hollow abdomen, bubbling over until painful spasms cleared his colon in an explosion of undigested filth. At five-foot-ten, the Vagrant weighed just 113 pounds. Homeless, hungry, and terminally ill, he no longer occupied any permanent address, except a barren liminal zone between life and death, citizen and outcast, the sated and the starving.
Already faint, the Vagrant feared if he went another hour without a meal, he’d pass out—and pass away—there on the cracked sidewalk of Clinton Avenue, otherwise known as Route 14, a disused byway rendered obsolete by I-70. He leaned on a telephone pole to catch his breath. From under his boot came a sharp, wet crunch.
A crushed praying mantis. Insect guacamole stuck to the grooves of his sole. Arkansas folklore held that killing these bugs was inauspicious, a superstition the Vagrant recalled as he examined the twitchy, broken legs. Scraping the corpse against the curb, he snickered in a low, slow drawl, “Well, at least I outlived you.”
Streetlamps suddenly switched on in unison. Mellow amber light cast shadows over the storefronts, shut and deserted at nine p.m. on a late-winter Sunday. The Vagrant squinted bloodshot blue eyes against the glare while he took in the panorama of his birthplace—Kindheart Creek, an unincorporated hamlet in southeast Bogan County. Mathematically, the town didn’t add up to much: 328 permanent residents, plus 1,600 transient soldiers and 7,000 chemical warheads domiciled at the nearby army base, Central Homeland Forces (CHF).
“What a place to die,” the Vagrant said to himself. “Man, what a place to have to live.”
Tiny businesses flanked both sides of the street. Among the shops were two interchangeable bars, Deep Elem and Gypsy Rose, each selling Bud and Bud-Lite on tap, as well as dollar shots of Jack Daniels at happy hour—the shortest hour of the day. Between the boozers lay Razorback Hardware, parallel to the Piggly Wiggly and a Texaco. Grand Ozark Bank abutted Mayfield Accountants. Nearby, a three-story, antebellum brick, and stucco building hosted the post office. Other municipal agencies, even the police, were located at the county seat, more than twenty-minutes to the northeast. Not much trouble occurred in Kindheart Creek, but when it did, folks addressed it privately, without the intervention of cops and social workers—an admirable Southern trait.
Another regional distinction, hospitality, though present on a personal level, never quite took root as an industry here. A quarter-mile from town center was Kindheart Creek’s only lodgings, the Snug Bed Inn, or “Bed Bug Inn,” according to locals. The motel rented singles with thin pink blankets, mildewed wallpaper, and swamp-coolers, accommodations so dank and dingy that even the cockroaches checked out early. Nevertheless, its rates suited the Vagrant’s nonexistent budget; he had recently secured Room 101 by presenting the manager a down-payment of five dollars from his pitiful disability benefit, confident that he’d croak before the final bill came due. If nothing else, the Bed Bug was near J.A. Logan Medical Pavilion, so-named for a pioneer unknown outside Bogan County. Two years ago, the clinic detected anomalies in the Vagrant’s blood count.
“Abnormal,” the befuddled country physician fretted. “Boy, your whole damn immune system’s gone.”
Immediately after that diagnosis, or lack thereof, lymph glands in the Vagrant’s groin swelled to the size and consistency of marbles. White curds coated his tongue. Pneumonia followed. None of these maladies frightened him as much as the weight loss; the thirty-three-year-old trucker’s tough, toned body began to dissolve, and no amount of extra protein kept the pounds from evaporating.
The Vagrant then contracted toxoplasmosis, a parasite that devours brain tissue. This infection actually proved a stroke of luck, insofar as it manifested while he possessed enough income for treatment at University Hospital in Little Rock, where virologists and oncologists debated the syndrome’s origin but concurred on its prognosis: end-stage. Incurable.
After a month in intensive care, the Vagrant’s condition stabilized somewhat. Back in Kindheart Creek, Logan Medical dispensed toxic, ineffective, and exorbitantly priced drugs. Interferon, DDI, Pentamidine, Fluroplex, and CM6, an arcane pharmacopeia with many unwanted side-effects, including poverty. Thousands of dollars in copays, yet not a single remedy. In fact, the only prescriptions worth a shit, as far as the Vagrant could tell, were the gorgeous purple circlets of morphine sulfate, crumbly teal Dilaudid, and, for breakthrough pain, oblong yellow Percodan.
Too fatigued to drive a Peterbilt, he resigned as a long-haul trucker less than six months to the date after he checked out of the hospital. His physical affliction soon became a social disease. Disability amounted to a biweekly pittance, a fraction of the full payout due to the undefined nature of the Vagrant’s malady. Checks bounced. Helpful Hands dropped his insurance coverage. Grant Ozark Bank foreclosed on his dogtrot. Indigence resulted, and dining options became rather limited.
As his health and finances nosedived, the Vagrant became preoccupied with a double-conundrum: where to find adequate nutrition and how to pay for it? Although his waistline shrunk to a skeletal circumference, he still required calories. Comfort foods appealed to him, as well. Yet, what the Vagrant craved most was the stability associated with regular meals.
To eat—to be seen eating, by and with other people—meant that one was alive, another hungry member of a voracious society.
Kindheart Creek’s culinary scene was scarce, however. Few commercial eateries, and not a single soup-kitchen or Salvation Army. Fast food consisted of Delacroix Po’boys and Romeo’s Pizzeria, adjoining shops owned and managed by Paul Lafontaine, a former sheriff and current Grand Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan. Evidence of this affiliation—fiery cross and swastika tattoos—peeked out from under his shirtsleeves.
Approaching the twin takeaways, the Vagrant paused for a second by their doors, propped slightly ajar for ventilation. Lafontaine spotted him, and as usual, the stocky ex-cop grabbed a Ginsu knife and sharpener, honing the blade against the stone, back and forth in a grandiose pantomime of menace.
“No loitering!” Lafontaine shouted. “Diseased meth-head.”
“No problem,” the Vagrant replied. “Racist pig.”
Even this minor disturbance made his hands shake. Whereas he once considered himself capable of landing a decisive uppercut, these days, any adrenaline surge exacerbated his chronic hypoglycemia, resultant from malnutrition and malabsorption. Nervous and nauseated, the Vagrant stopped to catch his breath at the next intersection, Jefferson Davis Place, where the air had a distinct aroma—grilled beef and deep-fried onion, signature smells from The Family Table, Kindheart Creek’s only full-service restaurant, an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Beyond The Family Table, the town ended. Kindheart Creek dissipated into scattered farms, trailer parks, and miniature subdivisions on the edge of a mythic West. Since childhood, the Vagrant envisioned making a pilgrimage to the Pacific Ocean, then perhaps settling in Redondo Beach or wandering further afield to Sonora or Sinaloa. At this point, though, he’d accepted the fact that he’d never retire to a coastal paradise. Fantasies such as physical bodies wither when deprived of nutrients, including cash and credit. Without these essential elements, the frontier’s invitation to rugged individualists amounted to a marketing slogan—an empty promise, vapid as the message on The Family Table’s sign: All You Can Eat.
Neon bulbs sizzled... All You Can Eat... Electric blue letters mocking his hunger... Daring him to partake from the bottomless platter... All You Can Eat.
Haloed by azure light, the Vagrant’s emaciated image reflected off The Family Table’s windows, plastered with advertisements. Glossy printouts showed an ‘81 Dodge Ram for sale. Snapshots of a Cairn Terrier dangled from a flyer marked, “Lost Dog = Heartbroken Children.” Dominating the display was a bold-faced poster.
STATE FAIR – LABOR DAY WEEKEND 1982 – BE THERE
August seemed as far beyond the Vagrant’s life-expectancy as next century; by then, he’d be cremated or buried—ashes or fertilizer unmourned and unmissed by all but a statistically insignificant percentage of Kindheart Creek.
It was that realization that convinced him to do it.
Careful not to ring the bell on the doorjamb, the Vagrant slid sideways through the restaurant’s front entrance, with its Visa and Discover decals as well as an index card that admonished “Food Stamps Not Accepted.” According to the posted hours, he was late for dinner.
Twenty minutes left ‘till closing.
The Vagrant entered The Family Table’s lobby. He crept across the dichromatic subway tiles, past the unoccupied hostess stand, and around the plastic ferns. He peered over the plywood and latticed-glass partitions that divided the buffet from the dining area’s two sections.
Salad bar at the right. Soup to the left. At the center, enormous stainless-steel trays held the entrees—St. Louis ribs, honey-bourbon pulled pork, slow-cooked collard greens, purple hull peas, roasted sweetcorn, glazed apples, crispy fried chicken. Ceiling fans emitted a gentle buzz as they dispersed the restaurant’s various alimentary odors, not all of them pleasant. Country-kitsch décor hung on wood-paneled walls—antique license plates, Norman Rockwell prints, and Coca-Cola emblems.
To complete the wistful Middle-American ambiance, Old Glory occupied a place of honor by the buffet. The Stars and Stripes stretched between two poles, its dimensions bigger than a bedsheet. CHF, the nearby military base, donated the flag to The Family Table in appreciation of its many wholesome, home-cooked memories.
The Vagrant found the restaurant’s layout unaltered since his previous visits, during his previous life. The whole place was arranged for leisurely grazing, unlimited opportunities for Kindheart Creek natives to gorge until they grew bloated and drowsy, slumped in their chairs in blissful stupors. Just as the Vagrant reached the main dining area, he heard a familiar greeting—disgusted gasps combined with a tsk-tsk of contemptuous pity.
“Oh, my Gawd! Look ‘a that bum, so nasty!” Lil’ Olivia Lafontaine shrieked in delight as she shook a blonde teenage bob cut.
She cowered against her much older boyfriend, a singular specimen of chiseled masculinity, Clayton Beauregard III, six-foot-eight inches of pasty bulk. In a single chomp, Clayton bit off three-quarters of his “Superhero Hero,” an amalgamation of four cheeseburgers, coleslaw, pickles, peppers, bacon, lettuce, tomato, mozzarella sticks, and fried eggs stuffed between baguettes and slathered in condiments. Anyone who finished the special a-la-carte sandwich received a laminated certificate, along with a free antacid and coupons for a coronary bypass.
Cuisine preferences aside, Clayton’s manners were a testament to the fact that food loses its allure when you watch someone eat it. He chewed with his mouth wide open; flecks of chyme flew from his lips as he spoke in a sibilant monotone, “Right ugly specimen. Someone ought to put it out of its misery. Like Daddy done when our heifer, Gertrude, come down with the aftosa.”
Snuggling against his bicep, Olivia said, “Clayton, cutie. I don’t like that bum eyeing me so nasty like he’s fixin’ to pinch my titties. Ain’t right him sneakin’ in here to bother decent folks. I feel threatened by his presence.”
Clayton took Sweet-and-Low from a ceramic holder. Meticulous about dental hygiene, he used the pink paper to floss his bicuspids, then sucked the slime off the packet. When he finished, Clayton replaced the sugar in the dispenser as he consoled Lil’ Olivia, “Don’t worry, cupcake. Good people can’t abide injustice.”
A pair of army officers in Dress Blues overheard the couple: Lieutenant Dan Vleier and Colonel Andrew Penner. The former served as adjutant to the latter. Penner oversaw the CHF army base, and every Sunday, he ate at The Family Table, accompanied by his wife and son, as well as Lieutenant Vleier.
As he pointed to the Vagrant’s facial lesions, Vleier nudged Colonel Penner, saying, “Talk about your purple mountain’s majesty… looks like that hobo’s got grapes glued to his head.”