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"Hunger in the Blizzard" by Mark Tulin




Hunger doesn't always jive with common sense. I guess that's why I went out into a February blizzard to the grocery store when it would have served me better to stay home.

The A&P Supermarket was on Frankford Avenue, a gritty neighborhood in Northeast Philly. Snow fell a few inches an hour and no end in sight. At 7 p.m., there was already two feet of that white stuff atop a sheet of ice. Obviously, there were very few motorists on the road.

I didn’t listen to weather advisories to stay off home. I had my own laws, and one was, no matter what the weather conditions are—a tornado, an earthquake, or a monsoon—if my refrigerator was empty, I would go to the supermarket. Hunger spoke to me on a visceral level, calling me to satisfy my cravings no matter the circumstances. And so, I bundled up with two pairs of flannel-lined pants, insulated duck boots, and a parka from L.L. Bean that was capable of withstanding thirty-below.. I was prepared to take my white Rabbit diesel into the teeth of the blizzard.

Surprisingly, I made it to the supermarket. . I drove slowly and avoided streets that weren’t plowed. This isn’t so bad, I thought. The weatherman was full of shit.

When walking the supermarket's parking lot, I barely stood upright, falling once and sliding the rest of the way. Not surprisingly, the A & P was empty. At first, I wondered if the store was open. There were lights on, but no customers. Then I spotted a woman wearing a hairnet at the number three checkout lane and a chubby guy at the meat department who seemed to be rearranging the cold cuts in the display case. The store was packed with merchandise, so I had no trouble finding what I needed.

"You must be hungry?" said the guy whose name tag said ‘Tony’.

“Can you get me some lunchmeat?” I asked.

“Sure, you’ll have to get a number first,” he joked.

I smiled. “Half a pound of Swiss Lorraine, a small tub of potato salad, and a pound of smoked turkey breast.”

“No, problem.”

“The snowstorm is giving me the munchies," I said, as Tony passed me a sample slice of turkey.”

"I don't blame you," he said, scooping out some potato salad. "There's nothing to do in a snowstorm besides watching the weather on T.V. and feeding your belly."

"Yeah, I hear we’re getting another one at the end of the week,” I said.

“What do you expect? This is Philly.”

Tony passed me the wrapped turkey and the other items, then he went back to stacking the meat case.


***


Once the three shopping bags were loaded into my V.W. Rabbit, I closed the hatch and turned the key, hoping to get home before the icy rain comes and freezes up my windshield.

I turned the ignition, nothing. Tried again, and it didn’t start. The third time, it almost turned over, but I didn’t want to keep pumping the gas pedal, fearing I'd flood the car. I waited a few minutes, then made another attempt; this time, I smelled gasoline and knew I was stuck.

I had three bags of groceries, my engine wouldn't turn over, and I didn’t renew my AAA membership. I hurried back into the supermarket for help.

"Let me ask Tony in the deli,” said the manager with the hairnet. “He usually has junk like that in his truck."

Tony walked out of the backroom wearing a dirty apron and a smile on his face.

“You’re lucky. What kind of car do you have?"

"Rabbit Diesel," I said. "1982."

"Damn, you bought one of those? Don't you know the fuel line freezes in cold weather? You should have bought a regular gasoline engine."

"Yeah, I found out the hard way. Do you have any jumper cables?"

"Sure do. Got ‘em in my truck. Where's your car, and we’ll start it up?"

“It's that white one covered in snow in the middle of the empty parking lot."

"Oh, I thought it was a snowdrift. Get inside your car, and I'll hook these babies up to my battery. I want to get you back home before the Eagles play tomorrow.”


***


The engine started quickly, and I couldn’t turn up the heat and defrost soon enough. It was hard seeing out of the window with the amount of snow falling. With the street lights shining, everything appeared bright white from the snow, hurting my eyes.

I must be lucky today, I thought, driving in the blizzard and having the meat guy start my car. I expected to make it home in one piece. All I had to do was go slow and not jam the brakes.

But as I pulled out of the A & P, I looked both ways. I could only see about ten feet in front of me—it was a thick, snowy white fog. Just into the street, a speeding pickup came out of nowhere. It was a rumbling apparition in the form of a crazed driver, driving at deadly speeds on a snowy, icy road. A split second later, I felt a jarring crash that either signified death or a lifetime of paraplegia.

My head hit the steering wheel, and I blacked out for a moment. Then, as if I were in a slow-motion dream; the fear of being a victim of a deadly collision. I told myself it was over. I was dead, but I kept feeling my achy forehead, and the world seems become a fuzzy concussion like I was viewing static electricity. My windshield shattered, and the pickup truck was stuck to the front end of my car with my hood bent in several places.

I don’t remember how long I stayed inside the car, rubbing the growing welt on my forehead. A guy in a flannel shirt and a number 3 Dale Earnhardt hat asked if I was alright.

“I think so?” I said, still rubbing the knot on my forehead.

“You pulled out so fast; I didn’t see you.”

I knew he was lying, just covering himself. I could smell the booze and cigarettes on his breath. He didn’t seem at all upset about the accident, even smiling about it—how alcoholics look when they’ve had one too many.

“I need to call my insurance agent,” I said groggily.

“No, don’t do that,” he pleaded. “The damage doesn’t look that bad. By the way, my name is Johnny Donnish. Pleased to meet you."

If I called the insurance company or the cops, he’d be in hot water. He’d never pass a breathalyzer.

“Why don’t I drive you home,” he offered, acting faux friendly. “You can work this out with your insurance company in the morning.”

There were a lot of factors that went into my dumb decision to agree. It was freezing, I had a splitting headache, and couldn’t think or see straight. Instead of chancing he’d get angry, I deferred, thinking he would drive me back to my place and I’d handle the car issue tomorrow.

“Okay,” I said, “but I want to go straight home.”

“Sure,” he said, grinning like a Cheshire cat.

As soon as I got into his beer garden of a truck, my anxiety level hit the roof. There were at least a dozen empty beer cans in the car, a load of cigarette butts on the floor, a crowbar, and what looked like a hunting rifle in the back seat. As he started the car, I imagined him side-swiping a dozen vehicles on the way home.

“You mind if I stop at this club for a minute? It’s down the street. Have to clear something up with a buddy and we’ll be back on the road in no time.”

I didn’t trust this loser. Johnny Donnish would have me sitting in the truck for hours, freezing my ass off while he was downing one shot glass after another. There was probably an APB on him for a slew of other crimes, like running over a pedestrian. A whole SWAT team was after him. I’d likely be viewed as an accomplice if I was caught in his truck.

I reached for the door handle, and he grabbed my shoulder.

“And where are you going?”

“I changed my mind, Johnnie. My friend is going to pick me up instead. Go ahead to the club without me. Stay as long as you like.”

Johnny Donnish gave me a menacing stare.

“I thought I was taking you home. It’s not very friendly to agree to something and change your mind. I noticed Johnny's hand clenching and thought the man was about to strike me, steal my wallet, and dump my body in the Delaware.

Just then, there was a knock on the window. Tony, the deli guy, was wearing a beanie and gloves along with his A&P apron. He motioned me to roll down the window.

“Hey, I’m getting off from work soon. I’ll be glad to take you home.”

Johnny Donnish didn’t say anything. He watched as I quickly opened the door, reached into the backseat for my groceries, and left with Tony. Johnny Donnish didn’t say anything, sped off crazily in three feet of snow and ice, spinning and swerving into tires spinning.

“I wasn’t going to let you leave with that maniac, buddy. Look what he did to your car. If I had let you in that truck with him, I couldn’t live with myself.”

We both looked at my totaled car covered in snow, and walked back to the supermarket.

“I don’t know why I agreed to go, Tony. I wasn’t thinking straight.”

“Nothing makes sense when you’re stuck in a blizzard. All you want to do is get out of it.”

I waited for the police to arrive and told them the whole story, about how a man named Johnny Donnish who wore a number-3 Dale Earnhardt hat and was driving drunk down Frankford Avenue. I told the officer about the shotgun in the backseat, and he was heading to another bar.

I felt safe for the first time tonight in Tony’s all-wheel-drive Jeep, knowing that soon I’d be home, safe and warm.

“Next time, I’m going to eat what’s in the refrigerator,” I told Tony, who turned down my street.

Once I got inside my apartment, I made a turkey sandwich.




Mark Tulin is a recovering therapist who's been told that he writes like Edward Hopper used to paint.


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