All Stories, General Fiction

Hunger by Julie Howard

Her fingers dripped with sticky syrup. A warm breeze blew in from her kitchen windows and she closed her eyes for a moment. One perfect moment. Opening her eyes, she sucked one finger after another, savoring the tart sweetness, then dipped one finger in the pot for one more taste. The plum jam was perfect, as she knew it would be.

Chelsea filled jars for sealing, placing them one by one in boiling water, then headed back to the garden. Cucumbers, peppers, eggplant, beets – all called to her as she lovingly stroked the leaves, singing in a low voice to each plant. Sinatra for the zucchini, Elvis for habaneros, Shakira for tomatoes. It had taken awhile to find out what each plant best responded to and she’d laughed when the turnips grew plumpest to the Rolling Stones. Who knew that turnips could be so picky?

She plucked a bowlful of peaches, tutting over the brown spots. She thought about the pie she’d bake that evening, folding butter and flour together for a flaky crust, adding sugar and just a hint of nutmeg to the peaches. The warm aroma would drift out the windows and cause her neighbors to reminisce about their youth and endless summers.

Chelsea loved food. Growing it, baking and stewing, roasting and pickling – then nibbling and feasting on it all. Rolls swelled around her waist and a second chin was threatening to give birth to a third. She didn’t mind. She’d never felt better.

There was a time in her life when her ribs poked through her skin, hips jutting out in sharp ridges below. Jerry strummed the points of her backbone like guitar strings and grappled her flat bottom in delight.

“God, you’re beautiful,” he’d breathe in her ear, twisting her rail thin body this way and that.

Chelsea clung to him, seeking something insensible, some indefinable dark matter that she knew was out there but couldn’t explain. She sought it deep in his eyes, under the sheets, and in her monthly fasts. Pleasing her husband was her locus, her life.

For one long week she starved herself into a faint to squeeze into those size zero skinny jeans. At the end, the jeans fit, but something inside her broke. She’d peeled off the jeans, sat down with a pair of scissors and clipped them into one-inch squares. They were reassembled and sewn into a collage of words that still hung on the wall. Need. Rage. Hunger.

Chelsea ate herself into a size four by the end of the month, a size ten by the end of the year. Coming years had changed her further.

She devoured sushi and pickled octopus salad for lunch, seafood alfredo dripping with butter sauce for dinner, followed by a midnight snack of doughnuts dunked in caramel sauce. She swallowed lasagna at breakfast and beef stew mid-morning. A stop at the deli meant a pork sandwich dripping with barbecue sauce with a tiramisu dessert.

“You’ve really gone too far now,” Jerry said. “You need to get hold of yourself.”

In desperation, he booked a tour of Europe, hoping her bad habits would shake loose somewhere over the Atlantic. She booked a third airline seat, wore a seatbelt extender, and drawing stares, squeezed herself aboard.

In Scotland, as her husband, Jerry, sipped Scotch, she ate lamb stew with carrots and potatoes. England brought her a double helping of warm Shepherd’s pie and ale for Jerry; Barcelona treated her to paella while Jerry just drank and drank. She emptied half a pastry case in a tiny bakery in Naples before Jerry rose from bed.

“Stop,” he begged.

Chelsea returned from their month-long tour heavier than ever, with a rash of new recipes to try. Jerry returned with a headache, packed his closet and sought out a divorce attorney. She responded by feasting on a trio of thick pastrami sandwiches, one after another. Life went on like this for a while.

Six months after the divorce, she woke up and wasn’t hungry at all. Pounds evaporated and as they did, it seemed as though her essence became concentrated, boiled down into something pure and splendid. Chelsea planted a garden and noshed on vegetables instead of meatballs. Her body contracted some more.

She baked pies for the church, delivered lasagnas to the elderly and turned pescatarian. Her jams became her livelihood and they sold as quickly as she could make them. She started taking orders online and rented a commercial kitchen with a tiny storefront.

“How did you learn to cook like this?” a customer asked one day. “You’re amazing.”

Amazing. That uncharted word sat there for a moment. Chelsea was just a shade above pleasantly plump now, and she flushed at the praise. Her body had traveled an endurance course up and down the scale over the past decade. It had settled into a comfortable substance that felt honest.

“I woke up hungry one day.” She said it as though it was a joke, they both laughed and the customer bought a dozen jars of plum jam and two peach pies.

It was some time after that when Chelsea took down the word collage on her wall. She dismantled the tiny squares of denim, picking apart Need and Rage. She stared at Hunger for a long time. It had ruled her life – driving her along two distinctly different courses. She dismantled that word much more slowly, rolling each square between her fingers as it released from the canvas. As if telling their own story, the squares quickly went back onto the canvas to form a new word.

Later that day, she took a picture of the new collage and posted it to her website, launching the new name of her label. It touched a nerve and sales skyrocketed. Chelsea started a video blog, teaching a few techniques, and became a Web sensation. She hired an army of employees. They each wore aprons emblazoned with the label, the word that flowed through her mind each night as she went to bed:


Julie Howard

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9 thoughts on “Hunger by Julie Howard”

  1. I liked the intensity of the writing, I could feel the urgency of Chelsea for food. The need to gorge, as a rebellion against a controlling influence and unhappiness. The change was perfect, the restored confidence, her appreciation and love for food, happy and contented – comfortable.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Raises an interesting question. Do we eat to satisfy something that we are missing? When we find what we need is overeating unnecessary? Probably an oversimplification, but possible.


  3. Hi Julie,
    The reader was taken along on her journey.
    Your words flowed effortlessly and your imagery was quite delicious.

    A very skillful and well structured piece of work.


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