Before he reached his stunted adolescence, Rico’s mother decided she couldn’t take it anymore and put him in a group home. She came to visit once in a while, on the bus, but she often said she would come and didn’t. When she called, twenty minutes after the appointed time, to say she wasn’t going to make it, Rico usually tried to put someone in the hospital.

It could happen like that, or for no reason at all. People were screamed at (a shrill Bitch! was his calling card), people were slapped and clawed. Shannon came into the house through the garage and Rico tackled her leg and bit her, badly. Tamara got too close on a hot, dull day, and he left four bloody furrows on her neck.

His strength was startling. He was simultaneously petite and plump, and where his muscles should have been looked like jelly under stretch-marked skin, but it took four cops to pin him to the blacktop when he lost it in the school parking lot and tried to kill his teacher. I, for one, was impressed. He had come into the full flower of his legend. His name, already notorious in the agency, was from then on a kind of secret password in Portland’s juvenile social services. “Oh, you’ve got Rico?” someone at the other end of the line would say. “Let me see what I can do.” Schedules were jiggered. Exceptions were made.

At Toys R Us, he knocked a battalion of robots off the shelf, sat down in the aisle, and refused to move. When security guards showed up, we tried, very calmly, to tell them that they didn’t want to force the issue, that he was sorry, we were sorry, everyone was very sorry, but they needed to leave him to us or they could get hurt. You could see these middle-aged white guys thinking, This little shitball’s gonna hurt me? They looked at him again, huddled there in a turquoise ball on the floor, completely still yet somehow radiating craziness. You could see them thinking some more. They took a few steps back.

Among his many misfortunes was something called pica: “a tendency or craving to eat substances other than normal food (such as clay, plaster, or ashes), occurring during childhood or pregnancy, or as a symptom of disease.” I had forgotten all about that diagnosis until one of the staff was going through the heaps of trash and soiled linens in his room and found a big hole in his piss-proof mattress. He was picking apart and eating the plastic cover; he was eating the foam guts. Pica, Latin for “magpie,” is in turn from the Greek kissa, meaning both “magpie” and “false appetite.” Rico’s appetite was anything but false. He was hungry enough to eat the bed out from under him.

Recall, for a moment, the hungriest you have ever been, and how it felt to satisfy that hunger. It’s futile, in a way. Like lust, or happiness, or fear, hunger belongs to the present, and when it passes the memory is a faint echo of the feeling. You remember what you felt like, perhaps, not what you felt. But try.

Maybe when you were a child your mother drank the grocery money one month. To complain was to invite a whipping, so you shut up and learned to shoplift candy. One Sunday, you crept out and went to a friend’s house, where a roast was in the oven. You planned to discreetly put away three platefuls, but all you could manage were a few mushy carrots.

Maybe you got lost on the last day of a camping trip. Nothing left in your packs, you and your boyfriend joked about who would eat whom, until it wasn’t funny. Your stomach hurt. You looked for berries. You were scared. You put up the tent listlessly, thinking you would die out in that wilderness, and hardly slept. You passed another day of the same: wandering, empty, bleak. The next morning you found the path, got to the car, and stopped at the first place you found, a roadside diner full of loggers. At nine in the morning you ate a steak and threw up in the parking lot.

Maybe you acquired a bug while traveling in Southeast Asia and couldn’t keep anything down for a week. The day the sickness broke, you were filled with a hard, clear
appetite. You had tea and a small cup of rice. It was delicious.

Maybe you’re anorexic, and you watch, nauseated, as others stuff their piggy faces. You take a terrible pleasure in telling yourself No, and again No, and all day No No No No No. They force you to take some soup, a saltine, and it is sumptuous and hateful. You become daily more radiant with hunger.

Maybe, and likelier, you’ve never come close to real hunger. Maybe you skip a couple of meals now and again, or you fast for some personal cause. Maybe you watch your weight, eat paltry lunches with your dieting friends, and fantasize about a dish of vanilla ice cream with nuts and chocolate syrup.

Whatever your particular Greatest Hunger Ever, imagine coming to it as Rico did. Imagine this: You have come to the moment of satisfaction. You pause, trembling, before your rare steak, your saltine, your sundae. Nothing has ever looked so rich and fine. And then you realize: it doesn’t matter. You will eat it, and you will wipe your mouth and belch, hoping to relish the fleeting contentment of satiety, and you will feel exactly the same.

At least Tantalus never touched the figs and pears that dangled overhead. How much more excruciating, how much more insane-making, to get hold of the fruit, to gorge yourself on it, and find that your hunger is still there, that it had never gone away.

He was an avid sleeper. Neither nocturnal nor diurnal, he slept when he was sleepy, which was most of the time. That was partly attributable to the awesome quantities of psychotropic drugs he ingested twice a day. But also, his life was profoundly boring. People were terrified to take him to the park or the movies or even the gas station around the corner, so he sat at the home and did thousand-piece jigsaw puzzles, watched The Smurfs, and waited for the next meal. When all else failed, he sacked out, and stayed out, for twelve, fourteen hours at a go. His naps were five hours long.

It was one of the things that kept people from quitting: just when you thought you couldn’t take another day at the house, couldn’t take another episode, you’d show up at three in the afternoon and he’d be asleep. You’d leave at eleven that night and he’d still be asleep. You’d come back at three in the afternoon the next day and he’d have just woken up. Sometimes he’d be so groggy from these hibernations that he’d have to go back to bed for a snooze before he could make it to the couch.

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