Harlan Ellison

Someone is Hungrier

GONE TO GROUND, RICKY DARWIN — the former Rachel Dowsznski of Appleton, Wisconsin — huddled in her Far North Chicago English basement and tried not to think about acid eating out her eyes.

She could almost feel the biting, fuming liquid. Grey and painful, as though a slim, sadistic man with long, carefully manicured fingernails were gouging the soft stuff out of the sockets: oysters wriggling in their shells.

She could almost feel it. Almost, but not quite. Not yet. They still hadn’t found the dingy English cellar where she cowered. But it was only a matter of searching and searching, and the strange magic of tipsters, and then one day —

One day they’d come. God made little green apples … and they’d come. Three men with bulky overcoats and narrow-brimmed hats and a small vial of acid, fuming. Courtesy of Marshall Ringler, who was a slim, sadistic man with long, carefully manicured fingernails. A man who hated her and hated her more than even the rackets from which he made his living.

She stared at the flickering grey square of the television in the corner and thought how wise she had been; how clever to have dragged the little 17” set with her when she had fled 20 East Delaware and being Marshall Ringler’s mistress. The phone call from Bernice, warning her that Marshall had found out she’d sold the carbons, telling her Marshall was enraged, had threatened to have her killed. And the flight.

Three pairs of hose and an extra pair of shoes in the black leather beach bag, a carton of cigarettes, some underwear … and the TV. She had run out of the glass and chrome building, taken a cab to the elevated, and then changed trains nine times in her flight north. It hadn’t been easy finding a place to live … she had only come away with the money in her purse; but the English basement was warm, and the TV kept her occupied — though one more afternoon of those insipid guessing games and she’d eat the volume control — so it wasn’t too bad.

Just till things quieted down for her, then she could leave town. Hollywood, perhaps, or New York.

The floorboards above her creaked as Mrs. Prokosh in the house upstairs went about her business. Mrs. Prokosh provided the meals by special request and special financial arrangement (on the understanding that Ricky was ducking her ex-husband).

Hollywood, or even New York. They were a long way from Appleton, Wisconsin. A lot longer than Chicago and an English basement. Why had she decided to double-cross Marshall? Had it been the money? She thought about it, and knew that had only been part of it. She had wanted free of him … and this seemed a foolproof way of doing it. If he wouldn’t let her go, then she would make him go from her

So she had agreed to sell the carbons of Marshall’s business ledger statements to that shady character known as The Accountant, who in turn would sell them to the police informant — or perhaps to the T-men, since it was a tax matter — and then it was all up for Marshall, and she could be free. But he had found out; it didn’t matter how; he had found out. So she had fled the expensive apartment in which Marshall had set her up, and she had gone to ground in a dingy, moist, netherworld basement, waiting. And she would stay this way for —

How long?

Till the money ran out?

Till they found her?

Till she turned white as a maggot in a garbage pail from being out of the light so long? It was a moot point, a senseless series of questions. Here she was, and here she would stay.

She settled back in the dirty, over-stuffed chair Mrs. Prokosh had loaned her from the basement’s pile of rubble. Sometime in the recent past the chair had been exposed to water dripping from pipes somewhere, and the arms still retained the mildewed stench of scummy moisture. The TV continued to burble and flicker pompously.

I wanted to hit it big, she thought, and there was pain in her chest at the memory of the loss of dreams. And this is real big . So big. A basement in nowheresville. Not even where I started was this bad. Not even Appleton, Wisconsin; chief claim to fame: Edna Ferber was born here. Some big. Some damned big.

You get hungry, she mused,too hungry . For life, for success, formaitre d’ s saying, “Right this way, Miss Darwin, we have your table reserved.” Hungry for the kind of looks men give you when you can afford the clothes and the jewels and the hairdo that make them look a hundred times. Hungry for big things, for the good things.

Thoughts swirled and she remembered the town with its trees and its small-faced people with their small thoughts behind the faces, and the wanting, the needing to be big. To be so hungry to make it you didn’t give a damn who you had to chew up to get there. All animals, all hungry, all chewing on each other’s personalities to get to the top.

So Chicago was closer to the top, and I was hungry, and it even seemed like making the big time when I got picked up by Marshall in the lounge.

She recalled the day. She had been working as a cocktail waitress in a men’s bar. A short tutu skirt, black mesh hose that showed off her long, golden legs, her hair whipped back in a French roll, all auburn and glinting, the bodice of the costume low enough so the cinch-bra pushed her figure up provocatively. And Marshall had seen her, had wanted her, had been hungry for her. Just as I was hungry for success.

That was when she had learned: no matter how hungry you are … someone else is always hungrier. There are bigger animals trying to chew their way to the top. But Marshall had taken possession of her, and she had become his chattel.

Make it to the top, she thought wryly. And all the little symbols of having made it; the obscure symbols. Like the most expensive nylons — by the dozen. Like signing a name to the check at The Blackhawk or The Pump Room. Like owning a Mexican hairless and walking him on a long golden leash, even though you despised the nipping, shrill insect-like creature. And most personal of all, the symbol that you had dreamed about when you were a hungry high school girl in Appleton, Wisconsin: never carry any change in your purse. Only bills. Change is for suckers, for small timers. When the cab fare is two dollars and fifteen cents, give the hackie three bucks and say, “Keep it, driver.” That was the big time; a roll of bills, and never never the poverty clink of coins in your purse.

That had been hunger, and that had been on top, and now, now … an English basement waiting for three men with acid.

“Would you like some navy bean soup?”

Ricky twitched horribly at the voice, and for a full minute she trembled with shock. Mrs. Prokosh stood in the door-empty doorway of the English basement, holding a blue Limoges soup dish with a spoon handle protruding. Ricky bit the back of her hand, still gasping in terror — remembered, and tried to speak. She was unable to form the words, and only the dimness of the basement kept Mrs. Prokosh from seeing how drained of life her face, her eyes, had become.

“I didn’t startle you, did I?” she asked innocently.

Ricky was finally able to speak, and still feeling the bit-of-death fluttering of fright in her stomach, she replied as kindly as possible, “No, I was just thinking, Mrs. Prokosh. Thank you for the soup.”

The young copper-haired girl with the smudges beneath her eyes and the muffin-shaped older woman in her shapeless perhaps-blue perhaps-grey dress stared at one another. There were thoughts of times past, of times to come, of the faces each wore through life. It was a long, silent conversation in a second’s time.

Mrs. Prokosh set the bowl of soup down on the straight-backed chair near the over-stuffed, and said, “Well, I better be getting back upstairs. Harry’s expecting his dinner on time.” She moved to the empty doorway. “Oh, by the way,” she stopped and turned with calculated hesitancy, “there was a couple of men here this afternoon asking if I had rooms for rent. They …”

What did they look like?” Ricky fairly screamed.

Her eyes were very large, surrounded by white. Her breathing was labored; someone had sunk fangs into her throat.

“Oh, they was tall, and they was very polite, y’know, and they just asked if I rented out rooms ’cause they heard I’d taken in a girl, and I told them no, I didn’t, and it was my basement I’d rented out.”

Ricky was trapped inside Ricky’s skull, screaming, beating at the walls of bone, howling at the stupidity of the old woman, who had damned her, doomed her.

“Why didn’t you tell me this sooner,why? ” Ricky pleaded with the old woman. Her face was ruined, desecrated by hobnailed boots of terror.

“Well, honey, I swear! I mean, neither of ’em looked anything like what you said your husband looked like; they was real nice gentlemen, and I answered ’em the way I would … what’re you doing?”

Ricky had risen hurriedly from the chair, was now throwing what few possessions were clean into the leather beach bag. It took no more than a minute.

“I’m leaving, Mrs. Prokosh. I’m getting out of here.” She started past the old woman. A meaty hand wrapped around her forearm.

“Now just a minute, Mrs. Darwin. You ate nine meals here this week that you ain’t paid for, and that’s fifty cents a meal, so that’s four-fifty.” She stuck out her free hand. ...

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