about the author

Len Kuntz lives on a lake in rural Washington State with his wife, family, an eagle and several pesky beavers. More than one hundred of his stories appear in print and online, and also at lenkuntz.blogspot.com.

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The Wages of Hunger

Len Kuntz

Playing backgammon made me hungry, the little pucks resembling Spree candies, though not as colorful.

“You’re always starving,” my little brother said.

After fifteen games, he’d lost every one but I wouldn’t let him leave. The betting started then. He figured the odds had to be on his side, and honestly I did, too. Still I won his baseball card collection, his ten-speed, an autographed Joe Montana jersey and his allowance for the next several months. So we rolled and belt and ferried our pieces across the felt and I took the next ten games, which amounted to his allowance for one point five years.

That was then.

Tonight we’re having Thanksgiving at our place and we’re all soused. It’s not just the holiday, but we’re trying to get over Mom’s passing. When my wife says, “It was probably a relief,” the room goes silent, split down the middle, some thinking one thing, some another because while Mother’s illness was lengthy and savage, her husband was no picnic either.

When someone puts on a Nat King Cole song, my brother’s new girlfriend holds a cocktail glass above her head as if to make a toast but she burps instead and then the next moment she’s swaying in front of a fire blazing so orange and liquid it seems to shimmy up her thighs and devour her dress.

I watch her. I steal furtive glances. Sweat pearls trundle across my ribs as my stomach snarls.

In the study the tang of nutmeg and wood polish fills the air but escapes in a cool rush as my brother closes the door behind him. He tells me his troubles with a straight face. I know a man with those same expressions. Well, I don’t know him, but he’s familiar, that slick-haired foreigner on the soap opera Ellen watches, yeah, him, he’s my brother’s twin.

A slow tear stitches down my brother’s cheek. The track it leaves reminds me our tug-o-war games and then I recall the ditch where we tossed The Spadoni’s cocker spaniel when my brother accidentally ran over it a week upon getting his driver’s license.

Now it’s something different.

“I’m begging you,” he says.

If Dad were alive to see this, I think, but don’t say. Dad was a bull, a mountain, a panther that could shred you with either claws or pupils.

I open a drawer and take out a pen and we make arrangements.

“Sure,” my brother says. His lower lip quivers. He’s hedging, yet the case is closed and he’s seen the scoreboard on this one, so he adds, “It’s only fair” to make it definitive.

Two days later a nor’easter hits. People leave their cars where they will on the sides of the road rather than risk being stranded. Outside my hotel window the plows sound like airplanes that cannot achieve liftoff. I don’t expect her to show, but when knuckles rap on the door I’m up and off the mattress before I know it.

She looks small and scrawny through the peep hole, not really sexy at all. What was I thinking?

Still I open the door and let her come to me. My brother’s girlfriend is not nervous in the slightest. Famished, her arms are open and her mouth is, too. She knows a winner when she sees one.

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