The Big Hunger

The Big Hunger

by John Fante


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Published here for the first time, this text presents a collection of recently-discovered stories by John Fante.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781574231205
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 05/31/2002
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.88(w) x 8.94(h) x 0.73(d)

About the Author

John Fante began writing in 1929 and published his first short story in 1932. His first novel, Wait Until Spring, Bandini, was published in 1938 and was the first of his Arturo Bandini series of novels, which also include The Road to Los Angeles and Ask the Dust. A prolific screenwriter, he was stricken with diabetes in 1955. Complications from the disease brought about his blindness in 1978 and, within two years, the amputation of both legs. He continued to write by dictation to his wife, Joyce, and published Dreams from Bunker Hill, the final installment of the Arturo Bandini series, in 1982. He died on May 8, 1983, at the age of seventy-four.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Horselaugh on Dibber Lannon

DIBBER LANNON HAS a big brother. His name is Pat Lannon. Dibber told me his brother Pat was going to be a pope some day. Well, Dibber sure got fooled. Dibber said Pat would be the greatest pope in the world, even greater than Pope Pius. Horselaugh on Dibber Lannon!

    This is why:

    Pat Lannon was an eighth grader when me and Dibber were third graders. I remember him. Some big brother! Fooey! He was a snitch-baby, that's what he was. He was the champ snitcher of this school, and he still holds the record. Dibber doesn't know this. How could he? He was Pat's little brother, and how could a little brother know his big brother was a snitch? Who will tell him about it? Nobody. Well, horselaugh on Dibber Lannon.

    I heard some of the old guys from this school talking about Pat Lannon. They knew plenty. They told about the time they went to Manual Training but didn't go to Manual Training, but played hooky instead. Everybody but Pat Lannon. He was too good to play hooky. What did he do? He got Mr. Simmons and brought him to the trestle bridge. The guys were under it smoking. Mr. Simmons flunked everybody but Pat Lannon. And that's the kind of brother Dibber Lannon's got. And he's the same brother Dibber said would be pope.

    When Pat Lannon went to our school I was only a third grader. He was an eighth grader. But I remember him. He was a very screwy guy. He looked nuts. He wore glasses. His eyes wiggled. He looked at something, and his eyes went all over. He wore sandals.Some big brother! The old guys said that when Pat was in the first grade he even wore bangs! And he was going to be pope! Ho ho.

    Every year our school gives a play. I remember when Pat Lannon was in the plays. The plays are never any good. I mean, they are very lousy. The sisters write them. They aren't even plays. They are pageants. They are very goofy things. They don't have any action, nobody gets killed, and nobody ever says anything funny. The girls are not allowed to act in them. The boys dress in robes made out of sheets. It is all very crazy. Everybody has a bum part. Like one guy will be Sin. The next guy will be Purity. The next will be Faith. The next will be Mercy. This goes on for a long time. The whole thing is done in holy-talk, like Jesus.

    Sin comes out. He says something in holy-talk. Then Faith comes out. He says, "Hail ye! For I am Faith! I cometh with a message!" Then out comes Hope. He tells the people who he is and what he does. And the next guy is Charity, or Humility, or something just as goofy. They all come out to the middle of the stage and wait. And for what? For Love! And who was Love? Pat Lannon! Every time! He came out and hollered, "Haft ye! For I am Love! I bringeth peace on earth, good will to men!" The people out front thought that was just too wonderful for words. They clapped and clapped. Some pope!

    Pat Lannon had a big suck with the sisters. He had a bicycle. He ran errands for them. He stayed until night, doing things. He cleaned erasers and washed blackboards. He even corrected papers. The old guys told him they would punch him in the nose if he flunked them. But he had to flunk a few to make it look right. And what did he do? He flunked the girls. And why? Because they were the only kids in this school he could lick! And Dibber said he was going to be pope! Horselaugh!

    Russell Meskimen was one of the old guys. He used to let the air out of Pat's tires. Once Russell had to stay after school for writing dirty words on the sidewalk. Sister Cletus was his teacher. She promised to let him go home if he would run an errand. Russell thought he was getting off easy, so he said sure. But there was a hitch to it.

    Sister Cletus said, "Go down to Gales' and buy twenty rolls of toilet paper, and have them charged to the Sisters of Charity.

    Oh oh. That was a tough one.

    But Russell couldn't say no. So he said yes. He didn't want to do it. Gales' is right in the middle of town. What would all those people think? One or two rolls didn't matter—but twenty! And for the sisters too! You know how people are. Gosh—they laugh right in your face for hardly anything. Russell went to get his bicycle.

    At the bike rack he saw Pat Lannon.

    "Hey Pat," Russell said. "How would you like me to promise not to let the air out of your tires anymore?"

    "That sure would be wonderful" Pat said.

    "If you'll go downtown for me, I'll promise," Russell said.

    So Pat Lannon went down to Gales'. He didn't think anything of it. He went right in and ordered twenty rolls. And he's the guy who Dibber said would be pope! What a pope! Twenty rolls, too! When he got back Russell took the rolls and brought them to Sister Cletus. On his way out, Russell saw Pat's bike in the rack. He started to figure. He figured, if a guy is as dumb as all that, he doesn't need air in his tires. So he let the air out anyhow. Which proves something.

    Bob Armstrong is another old guy. He and Pat were partners on the altar boys. They served Mass together. Bob used to steal wine. One day he stole too much, and Father Walker got wise. He asked Bob if he did it.

    Bob said, "No, Father. Honest."

    Then Father Walker asked Pat.

    Pat said, "Bob did it, Father. I saw him."

    Well, well. A snitch-baby too!

    After Mass, Bob laid for Pat. He jumped on him from behind the lilac bushes. What a fighter Pat Lannon turned out to be! A dirty fighter, because he kicked with his feet. And he even scratched! Bob got madder and madder. He knocked the hell out of him.

    I used to go over to the Lannons'. Me and Dibber fooled around, doing things. We built a tree house and dug a cave. After playing around, Dibber took me to his house for something to eat. The Lannons have a swell house, one of the best in town. No wonder—Mr. Lannon owns a furniture store. They have carpets everywhere, even in the basement. They have a hard green carpet in the kitchen, and green chairs, and a green stove, and even green handles on the pans. It's certainly a swell kitchen. It's a lot better than our front room, even.

    Pat Lannon had a den in the basement. I watched him play with his chemistry set. I stayed at the door. He didn't talk. He didn't like me to play with Dibber. He looked at me with his wiggly eyes. He scared me. After a while he pointed to a tube of green stuff.

    "See that?" he said.

    I said I did.

    Then he pointed to a tube of yellow stuff.

    "See that?"

    I said I did.

    He said, "Pour the green stuff into the yellow."

    I did.

    It went—zoo!

    It burned my hair and fingers. It hurt. He laughed until his glasses came off. Then I laughed too. But I was only pretending. It wasn't funny. It was sad. I was sore. My finger hurt. I was mad. I hated that goddamn fool. Jesus, I hated him. Some pope!

    Once I went with Dibber to the haunted house by the creek. We had slingshots to kill ghosts. We climbed all over, looking for them. There were cobwebs and bats, but no ghosts. We heard a noise upstairs and got our slingshots ready. It sounded like a ghost. But it wasn't. It was only Pat Lannon. He was fooling around. He took some chalk from his pocket and wrote on the floor:

    Caution! These boards are weak. Caution!

    "What does that mean?" Dibber asked.

    He wouldn't tell. He said it was a secret. But he gave me a nickel and Dibber a nickel. He told us to go to the Scoutmaster and tell him what he had written. He said he would get a medal for it. Dibber went. I didn't. I thought it was another joke like the stuff in the tubes. I fooled him. I got another nickel and went to the show.

    Pan Lannon had secret wires strung over his backyard. Everything you touched gave you a shock and knocked you down. He said it was to keep out chicken robbers. But I know what happened to the chickens. Pat killed them. He was mean to kittens too. He put wires around their legs and gave them shocks. He would chase a chicken and chase a chicken and chase a chicken until it fell down, all pooped out. Then he shocked it. He mixed stuff in his chemistry set and killed kittens. There was an ant-pile in his back yard. He tied a kitten to a post over the ants.

    After the sister school, Pat went to Prep. The Lannons had a Packard. Pat brought Prep school girls to Mass in it. They sat in the Lannon pew. They weren't Catholics. If you're a Catholic, you're not supposed to go with them. It's not a sin, but don't do it anyhow. They had swell legs though. Better than Catholic legs. They didn't hear Mass. They just sat. One was a redhead who chewed gum. I sat in the next pew the time she came. She kept asking, Why did he do that?—meaning the priest.

    Dibber said the reason Pat brought Protestant girls to Mass was to try to convert them. Applesauce! Pat Lannon didn't try to convert anybody. I guess I saw him one time. I know. He came back from communion one time, and he was smiling. He rubbed his belly and licked his lips. The redhead watched him. "Marvelous!" he said. "Marvelous!" It is a sacrilege to talk like that. Holy Communion isn't marvelous at all. You can't even taste it. Some pope! Horselaugh on Dibber!

    Pat Lannon's main girl was Dagmar Heine. He brought her to church too. I like Dagmar. She's keen. Swell legs. Before she grew up and went to high school she used to go sleigh-riding on our hill with her Flexible Flyer. She had the hill record every year. Also golden hair. She lived near us, right by the hill. Her mother was dead. Her old man worked for the railroad.

    A pope doesn't swear, but I heard Pat Lannon swear in front of Dagmar. It was on the Lannon tennis courts. Pat was playing Dagmar. She was beating him. She laughed at him. He fell into the net and she had to stop playing she laughed so much. Pat got mad and wouldn't play with her. He said he was tired. But I know why he quit. He felt cheap. He was in Senior Prep too. Some pope!

    I asked to borrow his tennis racket.

    He said, "Ask the bitch over there."

    "Why Pat!" Dagmar said.

    "Fuck you!" he said.

    Some pope!

    All summer he was with Dagmar. She came to his house. I saw them kissing and hugging. Pat took off his glasses to do it. There was a ditch across his face. Dagmar saw it, but she kept kissing. I couldn't see how she did it. I used to wish I was older so I could kiss her. But not after that guy.

    If me and Dibber were in our cave, Pat and Dagmar used our tree house. If we were in our tree house, they used our cave. We tried to kick them out. They wouldn't go. Dagmar offered us money if we would let them use it. They gave us a dollar. Me and Dibber went halvers on it. I knew what they were doing in that tree house. I hated it. It rustled like an earthquake. Some pope!

    Dibber always did tell me Pat was going to study to be a doctor. Once we asked Dagmar what she would do, and she said she would study to be a nurse for Pat's patients. Then all at once the whole town was talking about Pat Lannon going away to be a priest. I thought it was very strange. Father Walker didn't announce it the way he did when Rooney went. I didn't believe it. I asked my mother. She said she thought it was true. But I still didn't believe it. I asked Dibber. He said it was a fact. He said Pat was at a monastery in Kentucky.

    Then Dibber started to brag. He told me about the letters they got from Pat. Brag, brag, brag. Once Pat wrote that he was working in the grape fields in the monastery. Then he was studying Chinese. Then he was peeling potatoes. Then he was in retreat for six weeks, and no more letters while the retreat was going on. A retreat is where you do nothing but pray. You can't write letters. I was glad of that.

    Dagmar came to our house. She talked to my mother. She couldn't believe Pat had gone to be a priest. She told my mother she would never believe it. She cried and was very sad. Priests can't marry. That's why she was sad. She was stuck on the guy. Sometimes Dagmar brought my sister magazines. She would hang around and talk before going away. I asked her if she was still going to be a nurse. She said she didn't know.

    I heard my mother talking to her. It was all crazy, what my mother was saying. She told Dagmar she should be very proud now that Pat was going to be a priest. She said Pat would light up Dagmar's life with sanctifying grace. She said Dagmar was the luckiest person in the world to have the prayers of a priest. Fooey! It sounded nuts to me. A priest is a good thing—like Father Walker—he's a good fellow. But not Pat Lannon. I knew him. He didn't fool me. I knew that guy. How he killed the chickens and kittens. I knew. Maybe he was going to be a priest, but he couldn't be such a hot one. I saw that dead kitten. You can't do that and be holy. Not in a million years.

    Then it was wintertime again. The hill was covered with snow. Soon it was hard and bright and we cut down our sleds. After supper we were on the hill. Me and Dibber and my brother and all the guys. The tracks went past Dagmar's house. We saw her at the window. She watched us. We hollered for her to come out like she used to when she had the record with her Flexible Flyer, but she wouldn't come. The lights went out and the house was black. We pulled our sleds up the hill past her house and wondered what the heck.

    We coasted until late. One by one the guys all went home. Then Dibber went home, and there was only my brother and me on the hill. We decided to go down one more time. It was my brother's turn, so he pulled the sled. The lights in Dagmar's house were still out. When we got to the top of the hill the lights turned on again. Dagmar came out on the porch in a fur coat. Old Man Heine was with her. They walked down the steps and through the deepest snow to Reeves's Pasture. It was very screwy. There wasn't any path through the pasture. They waded in, bucking the deepest snow. After they reached the elm trees we couldn't see them anymore. I knew they didn't see us. That was why I didn't holler hello. I couldn't understand it. Me and my brother went to bed. I couldn't sleep thinking about Dagmar and her old man wading through the snow toward the elm trees.

    Next day I told Dibber Lannon.

    "That's funny" he said.

    "Sure is" I said.

    "Let's go see her," he said.

    We went that night before coasting. The Heine garage was open. We saw Dagmar's sled with rusty runners hanging from the rafters. It was a sad thing. What a sled it used to be! The fastest sled ever seen on this hill! And there it was, rusty and old-looking.

    Then Dibber whistled, and Dagmar came out on the front porch. She asked Dibber a lot of questions, mostly about Pat and what he wrote in his letters. Dibber started bragging right away. He said they were training Pat at the monastery to be the next pope, which was a lie because you don't go in training to become pope, they just elect you. Oh that Dibber! The horselaugh is sure on him. Dagmar stood there listening to him. She sure looked swell, with a fur coat pulled around her.

    Then Mr. Heine stuck his head out the door.

    "Dagmar!" he said. "Come in here!"

    We pulled our sleds up the hill and started coasting. We coasted until eleven. It was very cold. The guys began to go home. Me and Dibber waited on the hill. Nobody could see us from below. In a while Dagmar came out with her father. They started across the pasture, wading in the deepest snow. They didn't go anywhere—just a big circle around the elm trees and back to the house again. After that they did it every night. Me and Dibber were up on the hill watching them. We laid on our bellies and they couldn't see us. They didn't do anything but walk around. They never walked in a path. It was always through fresh snow up to their hips.

    Then Dagmar went away. It was before Christmas. I heard my mother talking. She was very sore. She kept calling Dagmar a murderess. After New Year a letter came to our house for my sister. It was from Dagmar. My mother tore it into little pieces.

    "That murderess!" my mother said. "That murderess!"

    "Who did Dagmar kill?" I said.

    "You mind your own business," she said.

    If Dagmar killed somebody he deserved it. It's all right with me. Besides, it's all right for Dagmar to kill somebody because she's a Protestant and Protestants don't have mortal sins in their church. Besides, I like Dagmar. Besides, Dagmar has swell legs. Besides, she wouldn't kill a kitten the way Pat Lannon did. I know that.

    That Pat Lannon! And Dibber bragged. Pat Lannon was a fake. I will tell you why he was a fake. After the snow, it came spring and baseball season. One night after practice me and Dibber were going home. Dibber was bragging. He had the guts to tell me Pat was going to become pope by summer. We crossed the street. A car went past us, lickety-cutting down the street. It was the Lannon Packard. Pat Lannon was in it. Dibber hollered. He didn't stop. He went right on down the street raising dust. Then Dibber said it couldn't be Pat. Because Pat was at the monastery studying to be a priest. But it was Pat all right.

    When we got to the drugstore on Pine, there he was, in the Packard. The redhead who chewed gum was with him. He didn't look like a priest to me. His collar wasn't upside-down, and he wasn't wearing a black suit. He looked the same as ever. Dibber ran up.

    He said, "Hey, do I have to call you Father now?"

    Pat laughed.

    "No," he said. "Call me Pat like always."

    "Are you a priest now?" Dibber said.

    The redhead laughed.

    "Cut it!" Pat said to her. "You bitch!"

    Dibber was sure surprised. It was the first priest he ever heard say that! Real priests are very respectful. They know plenty of dirty words, but they don't use them in plain talk.

    "I shall never be a priest," Pat said. "It seems I was mistaken in my vocation."

    Dibber was disgusted.

    "Aw hell sakes!" he said. "And here I been telling all the guys you'd be the next pope!"

    Pat laughed. He got out some money and handed it to Dibber. "Forget it," he said. "Take Arturo with you, and get yourselves a milkshake."

    We went up the street. Dibber was feeling pretty low. I didn't say anything for a long time. But when we got to the bank I had to say something.

    "Some pope!" I said. "Horselaugh on you, Dibber!"

    "Shut your damn face!" he said.

    But I didn't. All the way home I gave him the horselaugh. I kept calling him Pope. All over school now they call him that. They used to call him Dibber, but now all you have to do is say Pope, and Dibber looks up. He doesn't mind though. He thinks it's better than Dibber.

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