This is another story I wrote for WNYC’s historical fiction challenge (and really, my least historically accurate one. I know I got some stuff wrong… hopefully you’ll forgive me for the sake of entertainment value). Please see the previous post for a longer explanation. The historical challenge itself is located here:
Here’s the story:
The cold March wind smelled like fish. Actually, the summer wind smelled like fish, too. So did the fall wind and the winter wind. It was what you got when you lived by the docks. Everything always smelled like fish. Usually tasted like it, too.
He sat at the kitchen table, kicking against the wood bars of the chair with legs that were still too short to properly reach the floor. His Mama buzzed around the kitchen like normal and the radio droned in the background, rambling something about fruits and vegetables. He daren’t change the station. Mama maybe flitting around the kitchen, but she was catching ever word, and he’d sooner wait for her program to be over than risk a smack.
The lady on the radio was blathering something… saying something about what fruits and vegetables were available and not rationed. He didn’t catch all of it.
Anise, artichokes, onions, spinach, celery knobs, oranges, grapefruit and apples.
Apples. Gosh. He was so sick of apples he could just spew. But he knew there would be more apples on the table later. There were always apples.
He wrinkled his nose at his Mama’s back, as she was now rinsing something in the sink. He didn’t want any of it. Onions and spinach. Blech. He didn’t dare ask what they’d have for supper. Some sort of stew, no doubt. No matter what she bought, Mama always turned it into some kind of stew.
He didn’t want to think about it too hard.
Luckily, he wouldn’t have to witness the culinary tragedy about to occur. No sooner had she switched off the radio than Mama was shunting him out the door, practically sticking his feet into his boots for him, shoving his arms into the sleeves of his jacket and telling him to go play. He would not, he knew, be welcome at home any time before supper.
He clattered down the many, many stairs to the bottom, like a marble, all noise and color, ricocheting down.
Sitting on the concrete stoop, face resting on his hand, which in turn, rested on his knee, his thoughts drifted to food again, as just about any boy’s thoughts will do, given enough time.
Onions and spinach and oranges.
He let out a sigh. It was the kind of heavy sigh only produced by unfulfilled desire. Only this time, the desire was well nigh impossible and therefore, all the more tempting.
What he really wanted – what he really, really, really wanted – was …. chocolate.
Fat chance of that happening. His mama would no sooner bring home a piece of chocolate than she would come home wearing her shoes on her head.
He giggled at the idea of mama wearing shoes on her head. At least that would be funny, even if he couldn’t have chocolate.
There are some desires, dear reader, that are produced by acute familiarity. They are the result of knowledge – of having had a thing, and no longer having access said thing. You miss them in the way that you miss strawberries in winter. The way you miss the ocean when you’re stuck in Omaha in December. The way you miss someone you love when they’ve gone very, very far away.
He did not miss chocolate in this way.
No – the saliva currently filling his mouth was not brought on by acute, fond remembrance. His knowledge of chocolate was hazy – a small taste of it, once or twice, when he was very, very small. Not, mind you, that he was so very much bigger now. But time stretches in odd ways when you haven’t spent very much of it on this earth. And to him, that one taste of chocolate when he was small felt so very, very long ago. It was before they’d come to America. Long before they’d made the trip across the ocean that filled his days with the smell of salt and fish.
He remembered a sweetness, he thought, and something melting on his tongue, although he couldn’t quite put it into words, if you’d asked him.
A bar of chocolate. A whole bar… all to himself, that was the dream. He conjured the image in his mind. He stood up, stuck his hands into his pockets and started walking. What else is there to do when there’s no one around to play with?
He knew it wasn’t possible. Nobody had chocolate. Or at least, nobody he knew. Not with the government’s sugar rations. Mama had explained it. The government was taking away some of the sugar, so that nobody had more than anybody else, and so that there was enough for the soldiers. Nobody had more than anybody else, he knew, but that was mostly because nobody had any.
He bet the soldiers had chocolate. He made a face.
Mama would tell him that they deserved it, because they were fighting to protect the country. He guessed they did deserve it.
But did they have to hog all of it? Why couldn’t he have just a little piece? The soldiers could have the rest.
He walked and walked, dreaming of chocolate and letting his short legs take him wherever they wanted to go.
It wasn’t long until the salt wind slapped him in the face, turning his cheeks a ruddy pink in short order. He was where he inevitably always ended up – at the docks. He watched as the men hauled one big wooden crate after another onto the big ship.
There were all kinds of ships carrying all kinds of things at the docks, but he knew this one was special. He’d seen those kinds of crates before. And he knew where they were going.
Those crates on those ships were going all the way across the ocean. They were the rations for the soldiers fighting in the war. And he’d bet that some of them had chocolate in them.
He licked his lips. If only he could get his hands on just one bar…. Surely, the soldiers wouldn’t miss one bar, would they?
He watched, hypnotized, as they loaded crate after crate, the same men lifting, grabbing, hauling, in the same familiar rhythm they always fell into.
He didn’t know how long he’d been watching when one of them called out that it was break time, but he watched as they put down the crates and sauntered off, to eat whatever food they’d brought and smoke a few cigarettes, probably, if they had any. Tobacco, he knew, was rationed too.
But they left the crates. Left them just lying there on the docks.
Nobody would steal anything, would they? Those things were so heavy nobody could lift them, even if they wanted to. And who would steal from the brave American soldiers, anyhow?
Did he dare look closer? Did he dare see what was in those crates?
I think you know the answer, reader. I wouldn’t be telling this story if he didn’t.
He crept slowly up to the crates that were just sitting there, tip-toeing, even though no one was watching. No one called out for him to stop or shouted at him.
He walked up and lay his hand on one of the crates, the wood rough against his fingertips. He squinted at the contents of the crate and his heart started to pound faster…. “U.S. ARMY FIELD RATION D” the little white packs read. It looked… a little bit… Well, it looked like bars of chocolate. He licked his lips and looked closer at the white packs, staring at the ingredients list.
Chocolate, Sugar, Skim Milk Powder, Cocoa Fat, Oat Flour, Artificial Flavoring
He found it!! He found the chocolate!!
He licked his lips again.
But how was he supposed to get to it?
The chocolate was in the crate and he was very much outside of the crate.
Could he lift the lid?
He gave it a little push, testing it. The thing was nailed shut. But…. he wriggled his fingers in under the rough, wooden lid, no doubt giving himself a hand full of splinters. But he persisted, slipping small fingers into crevice between the nailed-on lid and the crate – and it budged.
The nail wasn’t pounded in as tightly as it ought to have been and the cover gave – just a little. But just a little was just enough for a small hand to reach in and pull out just one ration of chocolate.
He didn’t know how long it had been since the men had left – it felt like an hour. It was probably only a few minutes, but he couldn’t risk being caught with his treasure. He ran for all he was worth, through the alleys and around corners, until he was in yet another dark, slimey alleyway….
Pressing his back to the wall, he craned his head forward, curling his body around his treasure as if to protect it. Eager, be-splintered fingers tore through the packaging to reveal something, solid, smooth and dark brown.
Chocolate. This was definitely chocolate.
Almost drooling with anticipation, he took a bite…. Or at least, he tried to. The brown brick was so hard that his teeth wouldn’t penetrate. He darn near chipped a tooth on the thing. More gingerly, he tried again. Ouch. No luck.
With a deep breath, he decided to try a more patient approach – he would not be denied his treasure. He brought it up to his mouth and began delicately scraping away at it with his two front teeth. Finally, some success.
He savored the first tiny curls on his tongue. Then a few more. Then a few more.
Now he could really taste it.
He smiled – and darn near spit it out.
This stuff was disgusting. Chalky and gritty and bitter. Blech.
He smacked his lips, wishing he had something to wash the bitter taste out of his mouth with.
He threw the bar away, chucking it as far into the alley as he could. He wanted as far away from that gosh darn awful thing as possible.
If that was chocolate, he thought, the soldiers could keep it.
This story was written based on the first writing prompt.