If there had ever been a time when Ollie Keith hadn’t been hungry, it was so far in the past that he couldn’t remember it. He was hungry now as he walked through the alley, his eyes shifting lusterlessly from one heap of rubbish to the next. He was hungry through and through, all one hundred and forty pounds of him, the flesh distributed so gauntly over his tall frame that in spots it seemed about to wear through, as his clothes had. That it hadn’t done so in forty-two years sometimes struck Ollie as in the nature of a miracle.
He worked for a junk collector and he was unsuccessful in his present job, as he had been at everything else. Ollie had followed the first part of the rags-to-riches formula with classic exactness. He had been born to rags, and then, as if that hadn’t been enough, his parents had died, and he had been left an orphan. He should have gone to the big city, found a job in the rich merchant’s counting house, and saved the pretty daughter, acquiring her and her fortune in the process.
It hadn’t worked out that way. In the orphanage where he had spent so many unhappy years, both his food and his education had been skimped. He had later been hired out to a farmer, but he hadn’t been strong enough for farm labor, and he had been sent back.
His life since then had followed an unhappy pattern. Lacking strength and skill, he had been unable to find and hold a good job. Without a good job, he had been unable to pay for the food and medical care, and for the training he would have needed to acquire strength and skill. Once, in the search for food and training, he had offered himself to the Army, but the doctors who examined him had quickly turned thumbs down, and the Army had rejected him with contempt. They wanted better human material than that.
How he had managed to survive at all to the present was another miracle. By this time, of course, he knew, as the radio comic put it, that he wasn’t long for this world. And to make the passage to another world even easier, he had taken to drink. Rot gut stilled the pangs of hunger even more effectively than inadequate food did. And it gave him the first moments of happiness, spurious though they were, that he could remember.
Now, as he sought through the heaps of rubbish for usable rags or redeemable milk bottles, his eyes lighted on something unexpected. Right at the edge of the curb lay a small nut, species indeterminate. If he had his usual luck, it would turn out to be withered inside, but at least he could hope for the best.
He picked up the nut, banged it futilely against the ground, and then looked around for a rock with which to crack it. None was in sight. Rather fearfully, he put it in his mouth and tried to crack it between his teeth. His teeth were in as poor condition as the rest of him, and the chances were that they would crack before the nut did.
The nut slipped and Ollie gurgled, threw his hands into the air and almost choked. Then he got it out of his windpipe and, a second later, breathed easily. The nut was in his stomach, still uncracked. And Ollie, it seemed to him, was hungrier than ever.
The alley was a failure. His life had been a progression from rags to rags, and these last rags were inferior to the first. There were no milk bottles, there was no junk worth salvaging.
At the end of the alley was a barber shop, and here Ollie had a great and unexpected stroke of luck. He found a bottle. The bottle was no container for milk and it wasn’t empty. It was standing on a small table near an open window in the rear of the barber shop. Ollie found that he could get it by simply stretching out his long, gaunt arm for it, without climbing in through the window at all.
He took a long swig, and then another. The liquor tasted far better than anything he had ever bought.
When he returned the bottle to its place, it was empty.
Strangely enough, despite its excellent quality, or perhaps, he thought, because of it, the whiskey failed to have its usual effect on him. It left him completely sober and clear-eyed, but hungrier than ever.
In his desperation, Ollie did something that he seldom dared to do. He went into a restaurant, not too good a restaurant or he would never have been allowed to take a seat, and ordered a meal he couldn’t pay for.
He knew what would happen, of course, after he had eaten. He would put on an act about having lost his money, but that wouldn’t fool the manager for more than one second. If the man was feeling good and needed help, he’d let Ollie work the price out washing dishes. If he was a little grumpy and had all the dishwashers he needed, he’d have them boot the tar out of Ollie and then turn him over to the police.
The soup was thick and tasty, although tasty in a way that no gourmet would have appreciated. The mess was food, however, and Ollie gulped it down gratefully. But it did nothing to satisfy his hunger. Likewise, the stew had every possible leftover thrown into it, and none of it gave Ollie any feeling of satisfaction. Even the dessert and the muddy coffee left him as empty as before.
The waiter had been in the back room with the cook. Now Ollie saw him signal to the manager, and watched the manager hasten back. He closed his eyes. They were onto him; there was no doubt about it. For a moment he considered trying to get out of the front door before they closed in, but there was another waiter present, keeping an eye on the patrons, and he knew that he would never make it. He took a deep breath and waited for the roof to fall in on him.
He heard the manager’s foot-steps and opened his eyes. The manager said, “Uh--look, bud, about that meal you ate--”
“Not bad,” observed Ollie brightly.
“Glad you liked it.”
He noticed little beads of sweat on the manager’s forehead, and wondered what had put them there. He said, “Only trouble is, it ain’t fillin’. I’m just as hungry as I was before.”
“It didn’t fill you up, huh? That’s too bad. I’ll tell you what I’ll do. Rather than see you go away dissatisfied, I won’t charge you for the meal. Not a cent.”
Ollie blinked. This made no sense whatever. All the same, if not for the gnawing in his stomach, he would have picked himself up and run. As it was, he said, “Thanks. Guess in that case I’ll have another order of stew. Maybe this time it’ll stick to my ribs.”
“Not the stew,” replied the manager nervously. “You had the last that was left. Try the roast beef.”
“Hmm, that’s more than I was gonna spend.”
“No charge,” said the manager. “For you, no charge at all.”
“Then gimme a double order. I feel starved.”
The double order went down the hatch, yet Ollie felt just as empty as ever. But he was afraid to press his luck too far, and after he had downed one more dessert--also without charge--he reluctantly picked himself up and walked out. He was too hungry to spend any more time wondering why he had got a free meal.
In the back room of the restaurant, the manager sank weakly into a chair. “I was afraid he was going to insist on paying for it. Then we’d really have been on a spot.”
“Guess he was too glad to get it for free,” the cook said.
“Well, if anything happens to him now, it’ll happen away from here.”
“Suppose they take a look at what’s in his stomach.”
“He still won’t be able to sue us. What did you do with the rest of that stew?”
“It’s in the garbage.”
“Cover it up. We don’t want dead cats and dogs all over the place. And next time you reach for the salt, make sure there isn’t an insect powder label on it.”
“It was an accident; it could happen to anybody,” said the cook philosophically. “You know, maybe we shouldn’t have let that guy go away. Maybe we ought to have sent him to a doctor.”
“And pay his bills? Don’t be a sap. From now on, he’s on his own. Whatever happens to him, we don’t know anything about it. We never saw him before.”
The only thing that was happening to Ollie was that he was getting hungrier and hungrier. He had, in fact, never before been so ravenous. He felt as if he hadn’t eaten in years.
He had met with two strokes of luck--the accessible bottle and the incredibly generous manager. They had left him just as hungry and thirsty as before. Now he encountered a third gift of fortune. On the plate glass window of a restaurant was the flamboyant announcement: EATING CONTEST TONIGHT AT MONTE’S RESTAURANT! FOR THE CHAMPIONSHIP OF THE WORLD! ENTRIES BEING TAKEN NOW! NO CHARGE IF YOU EAT ENOUGH FOR AT LEAST THREE PEOPLE.
Ollie’s face brightened. The way he felt, he could have eaten enough for a hundred. The fact that the contestants, as he saw upon reading further, would be limited to hard-boiled eggs made no difference to him. For once he would have a chance to eat everything he could get down his yawning gullet.
That night it was clear that neither the judges nor the audience thought much of Ollie as an eater. Hungry he undoubtedly was, but it was obvious that his stomach had shrunk from years of disuse, and besides, he didn’t have the build of a born eater. He was long and skinny, whereas the other contestants seemed almost as broad and wide as they were tall. In gaining weight, as in so many other things, the motto seemed to be that those who already had would get more. Ollie had too little to start with.
In order to keep the contest from developing an anticlimax, they started with Ollie, believing that he would be lucky if he ate ten eggs.
Ollie was so ravenous that he found it difficult to control himself, and he made a bad impression by gulping the first egg as fast as he could. A real eater would have let the egg slide down rapidly yet gently, without making an obvious effort. This uncontrolled, amateur speed, thought the judges, could only lead to a stomachache.
Ollie devoured the second egg, the third, the fourth, and the rest of his allotted ten. At that point, one of the judges asked, “How do you feel?”
“Only from hunger. It feels like it got nothin’ in it. Somehow, them eggs don’t fill me up.”
Somebody in the audience laughed. The judges exchanged glances and ordered more eggs brought on. From the crowd of watchers, cries of encouragement came to Ollie. At this stage, there was still nobody who thought that he had a chance.
Ollie proceeded to go through twenty eggs, forty, sixty, a hundred. By that time, the judges and the crowd were in a state of unprecedented excitement.
Again a judge demanded, “How do you feel?”
“Still hungry. They don’t fill me up at all.”
“But those are large eggs. Do you know how much a hundred of them weigh? Over fifteen pounds!”
“I don’t care how much they weigh. I’m still hungry.”
“Do you mind if we weigh you?”
“So long as you don’t stop givin’ me eggs, okay.”
They brought out a scale and Ollie stepped on it. He weighed one hundred and thirty-nine pounds, on the nose.
Then he started eating eggs again. At the end of his second hundred, they weighed him once more. Ollie weighed one hundred thirty-eight and three-quarters.
The judges stared at each other and then at Ollie. For a moment the entire audience sat in awed silence, as if watching a miracle. Then the mood of awe passed.
One of the judges said wisely, “He palms them and slips them to a confederate.”
“Out here on the stage?” demanded another judge. “Where’s his confederate? Besides, you can see for yourself that he eats them. You can watch them going down his throat.”
“But that’s impossible. If they really went down his throat, he’d gain weight.”
“I don’t know how he does it,” admitted the other. “But he does.”
“The man is a freak. Let’s get some doctors over here.”
Ollie ate another hundred and forty-three eggs, and then had to stop because the restaurant ran out of them. The other contestants never even had a chance to get started.
When the doctor came and they told him the story, his first impulse seemed to be to grin. He knew a practical joke when he heard one. But they put Ollie on the scales--by this time he weighed only a hundred thirty-eight and a quarter pounds--and fed him a two pound loaf of bread. Then they weighed him again.
He was an even one hundred and thirty-eight.
“At this rate, he’ll starve to death,” said the doctor, who opened his little black bag and proceeded to give Ollie a thorough examination.
Ollie was very unhappy about it because it interfered with his eating, and he felt more hungry than ever. But they promised to feed him afterward and, more or less unwillingly, he submitted.
“Bad teeth, enlarged heart, lesion on each lung, flat feet, hernia, displaced vertebrae--you name it and he has it,” said the doctor. “Where the devil did he come from?”
Ollie was working on an order of roast beef and was too busy to reply.
Somebody said, “He’s a rag-picker. I’ve seen him around.”
“When did he start this eating spree?”
With stuffed mouth, Ollie mumbled, “Today.”
“Today, eh? What happened today that makes you able to eat so much?”
“I just feel hungry.”
“I can see that. Look, how about going over to the hospital so we can really examine you?”
“No, sir,” said Ollie. “You ain’t pokin’ no needles into me.”
“No needles,” agreed the doctor hastily. If there was no other way to get blood samples, they could always drug him with morphine and he’d never know what had happened. “We’ll just look at you. And we’ll feed you all you can eat.”
“All I can eat? It’s a deal!”
The humor was crude, but it put the point across--the photographer assigned to the contest had snapped a picture of Ollie in the middle of gulping two eggs. One was traveling down his gullet, causing a lump in his throat, and the other was being stuffed into his mouth at the same time. The caption writer had entitled the shot: THE MAN WHO BROKE THE ICEBOX AT MONTE’S, and the column alongside was headed, Eats Three Hundred and Forty-three Eggs. “I’m Hungry!” He Says.
Zolto put the paper down. “This is the one,” he said to his wife. “There can be no doubt that this person has found it.”
“I knew it was no longer in the alley,” said Pojim. Ordinarily a comely female, she was now deep in thought, and succeeded in looking beautiful and pensive at the same time. “How are we to get it back without exciting unwelcome attention?”
“Frankly,” said Zolto, “I don’t know. But we’d better think of a way. He must have mistaken it for a nut and swallowed it. Undoubtedly the hospital attendants will take X-rays of him and discover it.”
“They won’t know what it is.”
“They will operate to remove it, and then they will find out.”
Pojim nodded. “What I don’t understand,” she said, “is why it had this effect. When we lost it, it was locked.”
“He must have opened it by accident. Some of these creatures, I have noticed, have a habit of trying to crack nuts with their teeth. He must have bitten on the proper switch.”
“The one for inanimate matter? I think, Zolto, that you’re right. The stomach contents are collapsed and passed into our universe through the transfer. But the stomach itself, being part of a living creature, cannot pass through the same switch. And the poor creature continually loses weight because of metabolism. Especially, of course, when he eats.”
“Poor creature, you call him? You’re too soft-hearted, Pojim. What do you think we’ll be if we don’t get the transfer back?”
He hunched up his shoulders and laughed.
Pojim said, “Control yourself, Zolto. When you laugh, you don’t look human, and you certainly don’t sound it.”
“What difference does it make? We’re alone.”
“You can never tell when we’ll be overheard.”
“Don’t change the subject. What are we supposed to do about the transfer?”
“We’ll think of a way,” said Pojim, but he could see she was worried.
In the hospital, they had put Ollie into a bed. They had wanted a nurse to bathe him, but he had objected violently to this indignity, and finally they had sent in a male orderly to do the job. Now, bathed, shaven and wearing a silly little nightgown that made him ashamed to look at himself, he was lying in bed, slowly starving to death.
A dozen empty plates, the remains of assorted specialties of the hospital, filled with vitamins and other good things, lay around him. Everything had tasted fine while going down, but nothing seemed to have stuck to him.