What Can't Be Called Hunger
A Fresno October is an Anywhere-Else July, and so it always amazed me that the butter sculptures survived. They were kept at thirty-five degrees, much to the envy of that sunsick cross-section of humanity flattening palms and foreheads against the glass of the display. They had spent the day peeling thighs from roller coaster seats and conical paper wraps from soggying waffle cones. Androgynous, sticky children moped and cried and made a slalom of adult legs while their parents assured them that this exhibit was fun, dammit.
The first year that I remember going to the fair, the butter sculpture was a cow. Somebody behind me laughed at the subject matter and its medium. She called it “ironic.” I didn’t know what irony was at the time, but I assumed from the woman’s statement that it was something inherently bovine.
The sculpture was life-size and by all accounts impressive—its flank was textured like cowhide, and its eyes approximated life with an unsettling accuracy. Its udder defied gravity. I imagined melted butter dripping from the teats like water from stalactites.
The sculpture was housed in the fair’s vast and halfheartedly air-conditioned art exhibit. The art was the real reason we were there. My father’s sister had won first prize in her photography division for a picture she had taken of my sister and me a few months earlier. The picture was embarrassing. We were both naked, though you could only see our backs in the picture. Aunt Diane arranged us on a sheepskin rug draped over a piano bench—me on the left, Brooke on the right. She made her adjustments, lifting chins, tilting heads, rotating shoulders, all in microscopic increments.
The picture is probably good. If I hadn’t known it was me, and if I had encountered it for the first time as an adult, I might have called it cherubic or intimate or intrusive, but all in a very sterile, academic sense. At the time, my critique was, “You can see my buttcrack.” Which wasn’t, strictly speaking, true. It was just the idea that the buttcrack was there.
When I heard that she had won, I imagined the picture displayed in a sort of shrine, swarmed by news outlets and wannabes. There would be scouts with newsboy hats and cigarettes, I was sure, clamoring to recruit Diane to their D1 art schools. When I realized that the picture had only won first prize in one of dozens of categories, I was both relieved and offended. Our pale backs hung, comparatively modest and inert on that wall of winners, worthy only of a fairgoer’s fleeting glance on his slavish pilgrimage to the funnel cake stand.
The fair was a nauseating exercise in gastric excess. Hot dogs and fried pickle spears slid down indiscriminate gullets, popcorn packed cheeks, and melted ice cream cemented fingers together. Saccharine lemonade was chugged, corndogs deepthroated, turkey legs savaged and the bones abandoned on the asphalt. A grown man unfurled a cinnamon roll like he was prying apart the coils of a snake, then dangled it above his gaping mouth, snapping and angling for it like a baby bird.
My father becomes singularly focused on food at the fair, where the constraints of real life are inexplicably loosend. He’ll dab the mustard from his mouth, halfway through a salted soft pretzel, the twist still untouched, and ask, “What’s for dessert?” It’s a joke, and it isn’t. We roll our eyes and he laughs, then buys a bag of cotton candy.
My father is not a fat man. In real life, his diet is sparse, and his figure is trim. To my young and metabolically-privileged sensibilities, his usual diet seems like fasting. To my punishing social sensibilities, his excesses at the fair seem gluttonous. But that’s how he prefers it—planned, drastic oscillation. Flux.
While my father indulged in one fried delicacy or another, Brooke and I rode the roller coasters, though our options were severely limited by our pre-growth-spurt statures and the fair’s draconian height requirements. We were allowed onto one ride that almost killed us. It was called the Chicago Loop, and when my sister and I took our seats—me on the left, Brooke on the right—we pulled the lap bar down as far as it would go. There was at least a foot of space between the bar and our skinny hip bones.
The ride started before we could get anyone’s attention—it was a vertical loop that left riders suspended upsidedown for a few seconds at a time. When the rollercoaster reached its terrifying climax, our little bodies fell out of the seats entirely and onto the lap bar. I folded myself in half at the hips, like a garment hung over a clothesline. I pressed my thighs into my chest, shaking with the effort, and tried not to look at the sizzling fairgrounds a hundred feet below me. I couldn’t turn my head to look at Brooke.
Neither of us fell. When our parents asked how the ride was, Brooke and I explained what had happened. I was half-expecting a lawsuit. I realize now how much like the ordinary, irrational fears of childhood our story must have sounded to them. Our father smiled, patted our bellies, and said, “Should’ve had another pretzel.”
The inaugural Big Fresno Fair was held in 1910, spurred by the delightfully-named Clyde Eberhart, and with the understandable exception of 1930, the fair has been held every year since. In 1978, the fair saw its usual bustle—the pulled pigtails and dirty diapers and churro dust. It also saw my father, nine years old and freckled, trying desperately to distance himself from the Girl Scout troop into which he had been unofficially initiated.
It was the year after his parents’ divorce, and my father was miserable. Unable to find a babysitter, his mother DeeDee had dragged him along to Diane’s Girl Scout events all summer and fall. I imagine him as an absolute caricature of the 1970’s—a god-awful striped turtleneck, a John Lennon haircut, a pair of inch-thick glasses. I even picture him with a little mustache, although he was nine.
The flock of Girl Scouts with their feathered hair had disappeared along with their troop leader into one exhibit or another—the ag showroom with its mammoth pumpkins and butternut squashes the size of overfed toddlers, or the livestock exhibit, or the art. I don’t know if my aunt had gotten into photography yet. She was sixteen during the divorce. I can picture her, hands clasped behind her back in the art exhibit, her face a few inches from a winning photograph: Couple in Moonlight or Honeymoon or Desire. She would stand there, frowning, trying to parse her attraction to the subject matter and the medium.
Meanwhile, my father sat on a curb and kicked the proverbial pebble. A nearby vendor, bored with lack of business, saw the boy and called him over. He worked at a cinnamon roll stand and asked my father if he would like to learn how to make them. My father nodded quickly before the man could retract his offer. His John Lennon hair bobbed.
My father watched, enthralled, as the man poured Bisquick into a mixing bowl, straight out of the box, and splashed in some milk, irreverent of the recipe. It was madness—under DeeDee’s careful supervision, my father had spent the last year of his life in a very measuring-cup-dependent environment. He would spend the next decade being shuttled between DeeDee’s house, where he was smothered, and his father’s house, where a series of tyrannical stepmothers harangued him. In flux. Stasis in either home would have killed him.
The cinnamon roll man, who I imagine to be of massive girth and ossified arteries, mixed the ingredients together into a thick dough. He rolled it out into a stubborn, imperfect rectangle on the cutting board and told my father to beat the dough. “To get the air bubbles out,” he explained.
My father tentatively pushed his fingers into the dough, food safety laws be damned. The man shook his head and corrected, “Like this,” slamming his splayed, tensed fingers into the dough. Eager not to lose his chance, my father tried again. This time, he struck the dough harder and then harder still, surprised to see the little divots left behind, nesting in the craters left by the master.
The dough was rolled out again, then painted with softened butter. “Not melted,” my dad has since admonished us. “Softened. You want to microwave it just long enough so that the very inside melts, but the rest doesn’t.”
Butter melts from the inside out, which is very unusual. If you put an ice cube in the sun, it sweats off its outer layers first. If a popsicle falls on an August sidewalk, it casts off what is farthest from it, least essential, until all that is left is a frozen core, clinging to the stick for dear life. But when you put a stick of butter in the microwave, its insides go slick before its outsides do. You might cut into it unawares and startle when the knife gives, when the block begins to bleed. I know the cow sculpture was refrigerated, but isn’t it something to think about—a thin, hard layer of butter on the outside, and the cow so pregnant with itself that if you were to puncture its udder, it would issue all of its lifeblood and collapse?
Now deeply invested in the project, my father mimicked the way the man filled his hand with sugar and let it fall through the curve of his pinky onto the buttered canvas, constricting and loosening his fist to adjust the flow. My sister, on one of the first occasions that we were allowed to help my father, dropped a fistful of sugar on the dough all at once. It was, admittedly, a small fistful, and amounted to little more than an anthill. My father, godlike, razed the little mountain and spread it as best he could without touching the butter.
The man rolled the dough up into a tight scroll and sliced it into sections. He transferred them onto a greased-up cookie sheet and slid the sheet into the oven. My father watched, transfixed, as they puckered, grew, and browned. The cinnamon sugar frothed, lavalike, from the whorls of dough. When the tray was withdrawn from the oven, and the rolls were moved to a cooling rack, the melted butter and sugar left a network of confectionary scabs on the tray.
That was always my favorite part. While the rolls cooled on the rack and my father rinsed the flour from the rolling pin and my mother stepped, yawning, into the Saturday morning sunlight; while my sister pet the dog on the carpet and my father kissed my mother’s lips; while the blessed years of my childhood slipped imperceptibly by, I worked my fingernails under the hardened sugar residues and placed them flat on my tongue, delighting in the dissolution.
Diane divorced her husband, Doug, less than a year after her picture won the fair’s photography contest. When I heard the news, I wrote a song to try to change their minds. My mother intercepted the song before I could present it to my aunt and uncle, and she explained that it would be inappropriate to meddle in their divorce. That was a lucky thing in more ways than one, not least of which was that the song was an unfortunate reworking of Hillary Duff’s hit single, “Why Not?”
I never knew exactly why Diane and Doug divorced. They were childless, and I suspect that had something to do with it. Or maybe they divorced because Diane anticipated greater fulfillment in the series of nameless, generic men that followed Doug—the graphic designer, the sports marketer, the audio tech, all with identical male-pattern baldness. Maybe they divorced because of the vague sense, not that they had broken their promises to each other, but that marriage itself had broken its promise to them.
In any case, the marriage dissolved. Doug, who had been well-liked by everyone, became a dirty word, and one of my two uncles disappeared entirely from my life. Honest to God, his last name was Constant.
The livestock exhibit was close to the fair’s exit, so it was our last stop of the day. I had outgrown my perch on my mother’s hip and my father’s shoulders, so I was forced to stand on my own two feet. They ached from a day of walking and from tennis shoes that I was just on the cusp of outgrowing. A mauve line of bruises blossomed where I had fallen against the roller coaster’s lap bar, and my stomach hurt from too many sweets. I was well past tantrum age, though I might have been tempted to it that day.
It was still warm in the evening, and the heat made the livestock smell almost unbearable. The exhibit was loud, too, with the bleating of sheep, the snorting of horses, the chatter of their spectators. By chance, we ended up with a perfect view of a sheep giving birth. Something turned violently in my stomach at the first gruesome expulsion of fluid from the sheep’s body. I took a step back on the trampled straw, but the crowd, angling for a view, surged forward and pinned me to the fence.
I watched for what must have been an hour as the animal labored. I remember the fear in its eyes, the heaving of its chest, and I pitied it for the publicity of the birth, even as I participated in it. The sheep had twins, and one of them did not survive. I was dumbfounded by the death—the wild wastefulness of the mother’s effort and pain, which she could not have begrudged the lamb if she tried.
My parents ushered us along. We looked at the cows instead. “Ironic,” I commented.
My father held tight to my mother’s hand as we walked out to the car. The ground was paved with garbage—cast-off kettle corn sleeves and hot dog boats, rolled up papers that had served as cotton candy spines. The whisper of it all was waste. Here was the ghost of a collective compulsion to consume, consume, consume—to ram the new, the rare, the forbidden down protesting esophagi, to gag the thing within us that shouts its perpetual dissatisfaction, to satiate what can’t be called hunger. Here was the testimony of a fervor to discard the old, the empty, the symbols of our shameful indulgence—to rid ourselves of whatever tired, useless thing occupied a hand that could be better employed rummaging through a barrel of saltwater taffy. The letting-go requires so little—the tilt of a wrist, the slackening of a finger. It is no small thing to hold on.
Katlyn Tjerrild lives in Waco, Texas, where she is pursuing a Master's degree in English. So far, her work has been published in Baylor University's undergraduate publication, The Phoenix. In addition to creative nonfiction, she enjoys writing fiction and poetry that explores themes of spirituality and embodiment.