Hungry, Oakland

by David Simmons

I was eight years old when the city of Oakland ate my father, leaving me abandoned in the back seat of his vehicle on a lonely stretch of the Nelson Mandela Parkway. 

“Yeah,” I could hear him saying to someone in the living room of our derelict, one-bedroom apartment in San Pablo. “I’ll get it. No problem. It’s cool, it’s cool.” 

When Father paused momentarily, then spoke again, I figured him to be alone in the living room, speaking to someone on the phone.

“That’s what I’m saying, direct deposit usually clears at midnight or, like, five to ten minutes after.” I could hear the muffled thumping of Father’s boots hitting the floor as he paced around the living room. His movements were agitated and I knew that something was about to happen. 

At the time I remember feeling like this happening would be the defining moment in my life, that whatever happened next would be the catalyst for everything that ever happened to me afterwards. I stared at the orange glow of the digital alarm clock. It was three in the morning.

“Listen man, I see you, like, every other day. I don’t know why it ain’t come through yet, it always comes around midnight.” 

The sound of Father’s voice grew louder as he walked down the short hallway to the room that we shared, appearing in the doorway like an apparition. I sat up in bed studying his face; him looking at me, the flash of what I knew was a forced smile, the pain inside of him leaking out through his eyes.

“For real? You got me?” he said, giving me a thumbs up sign. I smiled back at him, watching as he listened to the voice on the other end of the line, nodding and pacing.

“That’s fuckin’ fantastic!” Father exclaimed, and then covered his mouth with his hand. He mouthed the word sorry, winking at me conspiratorially. “OK, yeah OK, I’m on my way, yeah.”

Father ended the call and put the phone in the back pocket of his cargo pants. I knew that we were going to have to leave the safety of the tiny apartment.

“Get dressed, kiddo,” Father said, rummaging through the closet, pulling down sweatpants and sweatshirts off of hangers. He tossed an armful of clothing onto my bed. “We gotta go. Now.”

I quickly got dressed as father paced around the bedroom. I noticed that he had started to sweat profusely, his nose running, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand. Shoes on and dressed, I followed father out of the apartment and got in the backseat of his car. He put the keys in the ignition and we pulled away from the curb.

“This is good kiddo, real good,” Father said as he sped down the freeway, weaving in and out of traffic. “This is exactly what we need.”

At the time I did not understand what he meant by this being exactly what we need. It seemed that we already had what we needed, for the most part. It was true, there were times when we did not have what we needed, sprinkled in between the times that we did. These were the times when father would pace around the house, diaphoretic as he wrung his hands. These were the times when father would sit in the corner of the living room, knees to his chest and arms hugging his body, checking his phone incessantly. 

During these times, things could go one or two ways: if Father’s phone rang he would jump to his feet and speak rapidly into it, packing me into the car and speeding off down the freeway towards the city of Oakland. He would pull off the exit to the Nelson Mandela Parkway, park the car against the curb, leave it running, then go into the house with bars on the windows while I waited in the car. When father came back to the car he would no longer be sweaty, no longer hunched over, hands relaxed and flat on his thighs. On the ride back, his expression, one of pure serenity, he would tell me all of the wonderful things that he had planned for us. At times he would fall asleep mid-sentence while driving, his eyelids drooping low as his chin touched his chest. During these moments I would reach over and poke Father in the ribs. After a few forceful pokes, he would wake up and complete his train of thought as if nothing had happened.  Eventually, we would make it back home and things would be good for a while. For a brief time lasting no longer than two or three days, we had what I believed to be, as Father had said, exactly what we need. Then, the cycle would repeat itself, beginning as always with me being awoken in the middle of the night to father’s anxious pacing.

There was, however, the other way that things could go. This too, would always start the same way as the first way that things could go, with me being awoken in the night to father’s pacing and desperate pleas. During these times, father would sit in the corner of the living room, knees curled to his chest, furiously typing in his phone. This would go on for hours until eventually father would curl up in fetal position, sweating and vomiting on the carpet. He would twist and turn, his body squirming as if it were covered with insects. Sometimes, I would ask him what was wrong, if I could help in any way, and he would tell me that he just needed to sleep it off.  

When the other way that things could go happened, I would have to fend for myself. If there was any edible food in the house, I would prepare it for myself, having learned how to make a poached egg in the microwave by watching videos on the internet. Sometimes there would be no food at all, or the food that was there had spoiled. During these times I knew not to disturb Father; that there was nothing he could do to help me when he was so incapacitated himself. When the hunger pains became unbearable I would tell my father that I was hungry and his solution was for me to go to sleep. He would tell me to sleep it off. For father, sleeping it off was the solution to any problem. Eventually, father’s phone would ring and he would jump to his feet, relief washing over him and the cycle of the way that things could go would begin again.

“Exactly what we need,” Father repeated. “Things are gonna be better now kiddo, just you wait.”

I turned around in my seat and watched the freeway disappear behind us. Within moments we had pulled up to the curb on the Nelson Mandela Parkway, the house with the bars on the windows materializing to the right of us. Oakland always looked so hungry to me.  Outside of my window, the landscape was grey and black. The city grew out of the broken sidewalk like the toothy grin of an old junkie. From every covered doorway came the esurient stares of men and women in their cardboard sleeping bags. The hookers stalked the streets, hungry in a different way, their bodies emaciated, their cheekbones acicular through pallid skin. Father unfastened his seat belt and opened the car door.

“This’ll be quick. In and out kiddo,” said Father like he always said to me before he went inside the house with the bars on the windows. “I’m gonna leave the car running. And what did I tell you?”

“No matter what, never unlock the doors for anybody. Even you,” I recited from memory.

“That’s right. Good,” said Father, then he planted a kiss on the top of my head and hobbled weakly up to the door of the house with the bars on the windows. I watched as the door opened and father went inside.

I never saw Father again. I remember sitting in the car, gradually becoming more concerned. Then, the house began to inflate and swell, the frame of the structure shifting. It looked as if it were breathing, pulsating to a peculiar rhythm. Then, the gas in the car ran out and the engine died. The house was still shifting, the brick of the building losing its sense of solidness. At first, I remember feeling confused by the incorporeal nature of the house then confusion transformed into awareness, with the protean structure holding up a mirror to my ignorance. It was like swimming in the ocean. As soon as you remember that there are miles of water beneath you, and millions of predators thriving in those waters, and that your legs and toes are naked, and that you can't see your toes; that's when swimming in the ocean stops being fun and starts being disconcerting. It wasn’t that the house with the bars on the windows had become unfamiliar. It was that everything else except the house had.

I continued to wait, panic rising from my stomach to my throat like bile. At some point, a woman arrived and knocked on the window of the car.  I lay down on the floor of the backseat, trying to make myself invisible, trying to ignore her but she was persistent. Shortly after that, a police officer arrived and used a long strip of metal to pop open the driver’s side window. Then I was being wrapped in blankets and shuttled from my father’s car to the policeman’s car. Later on, I was at the police station, sipping cocoa in a room with a man and a woman who did not seem to be police officers themselves.

“When was the last time you saw your Dad?” the woman asked me, taking notes on a yellow legal pad.

“My Dad?” I did not know how to answer the question. 

“Yes, your Dad,” and this time it was the man asking me. “When was the last time you were with him?”

I said nothing.

“We know that was your father’s car, we know you live with him,” the woman told me.  “We can’t help your father if you don’t help us.”

“My father?”

“Yes, your father,” and it was the man who was speaking to me now. “When was the last time you were with him?”

“We were in the car together.  He didn’t do anything wrong,” I explained. I knew that father hated the police, and I did not want to get him in trouble.

“And then what?”

“He went inside the house.”

“What house?”

“The house with the bars on the windows.” Their questions had begun to make my head hurt.  

“What house?” asked the woman as she jotted something down on the legal pad.

I became too tired to continue answering their questions. I pulled my arms and head into my sweatshirt like a turtle and closed my eyes. I remember believing that father would come back, that this was all a misunderstanding. Maybe Father was back. Maybe Father was at the curb in front of the house with the bars on the windows wondering where I was, why I had left him. Maybe he was in some place where the other way that things could go had happened, curled up in a ball, sweating and trembling.

Many years and many different foster homes passed by. I heard whispers that my father had abandoned me. Ill equipped to deal with the burden of raising a young boy on his own, he had left his only son in the backseat of his car and vanished. But I knew the truth. In the city, the hunger was ever-present; from dawn to dusk it gnawed. Feeding its constant obsession, the city couldn't look at a living thing and not wonder if it was edible. It didn’t care if the food was tasty or varied, just that it could stave off the pains a while. 

The city is always hungry and someday it will come for me too.

Until then I wait.

David Simmons is the last living descendant of the Cagots and has been forbidden from taking part in the Eucharist. He lives with his wife and children in his hometown of Washington, D.C where he is responsible for

creating the colloquialism "Whole Time." He hopes not to someday.