What Does it Mean to Be Hungry by Summer Hammond


            She is forty and has no right to apply to Columbia. 

            She doesn’t have the youth, the money, the looks, the prestige, the background, the career, the sidewalks, the parents, the network, the status, the sidewalks, the youth, the smarts, the money, the money, the money,

            Yet, there she is, on a Saturday afternoon, after a full week teaching ninth grade reading, typing away her weekends on a fruitless, hopeless, vain and stupid vision. 

            An application to Columbia School of Fine Arts. 

            Who does she think she is? 

            Does she really think she’s good? 

            No, she doesn’t. The truth is, she doesn’t. The truth is, in four years of teaching, she’s stuffed that dream away, that fucking painful writing dream.

            No—she hasn’t. 

            She still loves those books she wrote, the manuscripts that didn’t make it. Still loves those desk drawer novels. Can’t scoff at, dismiss, won’t laugh at, deride bad first attempts. 

            No! She still thinks they are beautiful, moving, worthy. No amount of rejection will turn her heart away from her work.  

            Her middle school classmates had slowly turned her against her own face so that one day she looked in the mirror, and their rejection had gone inward, become an arrow she stabbed her heart with, repeatedly, long after they were gone. 

            But then, wasn’t it mind blowing? At nineteen, her first boyfriend, from eastern Europe, war-torn Croatia, swooned over her nose, kissed it, called it (big, witchy, ski slope) cute

            And at twenty-one, she met him, her husband-to-be, in Psych 101, her first-ever college class, her first day, and he told her later how he loved her hair above all else because of the way the light in the lecture hall filtered through it, from the clerestory windows. He called her hair (frizzy, fuzzy, wrong) tangling his fingers in it, oh so gently, angel hair

            And she began to think—it was all a matter of perspective, wasn’t it? 

            All—all of it—everything you were, and did, and wrote: a Russell Conjugate. 

            To turn against what you like, what you love—a self-betrayal she will no longer indulge. 

            That strength. That internal revolution. Right alongside this— 

            She has no right applying to Columbia. 

            What the hell is she doing? 

She wants that rejection, she says. Wants to hang that Ivy League rejection on the wall! What she wants, deep in her core, is to try for something she’s not meant to try for in this life—

the rural Iowa girl growing up in a mobile home, next door neighbor to the cattle and hogs. 

            The girl whose IQ tests piqued alarm, who was forced into resource classes, for extra help, whose teachers routinely mocked or simply wrote her off. After all, who gets a D+ in art? 

            (and the + was charitable).  

            The girl who was raised Jehovah’s Witness, her sole purpose in life to knock on doors and warn others about the swift approach of Armageddon—get out of False Religion! Flee Babylon! Her cry on doorsteps from the time she was five, holding her Bible open, offering a Watchtower

            The girl who breathed in poison while she slept, while she read, while she played, a stealthy, silent malignancy, seeping out from the trailer walls and cabinets. 

            That same home likewise contaminated with unacknowledged, unaddressed trauma. 

  Toxic walls, religion, family. 

  Three dense fogs—layered thickly over the brain. 

  That girl—

trying for Columbia School of Fine Arts. 



            She traces this ambition, this Ivy League bug, to her sister’s diagnosis, at age 36, with breast cancer. 

            Rare—Inflammatory. And Bad—Stage 4. 

            After the fractured earth, the horror, when she could move her fingers again, she called the Acupuncturist in Boston. 

            The intuitive, the weirdo, the shaman—

           the one who’d helped her when doctors could not. When the doctors saw nothing on the full-body MRI’s, the liver and gallbladder scans, the endoscopies and colonoscopies and heart tests. 

            panic attacks, and pain, and weight loss—

             no doctor could diagnose, no medical test could see. 

            The Acupuncturist in Boston, her last hope, and the first one to ask about her heart. 

            The emotional, not the mechanical one. The one invisible to an EKG. 

            Now—her sister’s breast was fire engine red. It looked like rage. 

            They, the sisters, couldn’t talk about their mother. 

            They stumbled and crawled, singed and bloodied, out of that conversation, like out of a bad wreck, their hands wrapped around each other’s necks. 

            Their mother, what a knack she had! Pitting them against one another, even from far away.  

            So it was known, on the subway, the city bus, the taxi cabs, en route to Sloan Kettering for chemo and radiation, and in the rental car to Boston, en route to the Acupuncturist, the needles—it was known, not to speak—we do not speak about Trauma Mama

            AND ANYWAY. 

            After her sister’s first acupuncture appointment, they went to Cambridge, to Harvard, and she was stunned, she was in awe, she couldn’t help it—oh my God—she was. Turning in circles, looking up at the stately brick buildings, like cathedrals, her mouth falling open—oh my God—Emerald City, buying a Sarah Dessen YA novel from the Harvard Bookstore, standing in line with the Harvard students—oh my God—yellow brick road—pretending, imagining—she was one of them. 

Sometimes, her husband accuses her of being a snob. 

He tells her that she idolizes them too much, the Ivy Leaguers. 

The people with titles, credentials—status. 

She is offended and she delights. 

Just think. A snob. Her! 

            She remembers and can never forget (flashbacks won’t let her forget) her Iowa middle school. The brick one, like a bank, like the DMV, where trapped and horrified people scream, engulfed by cornfields like quicksand. 

            Cornfields, tennis courts, and— 

            the “Snob Squad,” adorned in their uniforms: United Colors of Benetton hoodies, Guess? jeans, Eastland loafers with coiled laces. 

            And she, in her black Bolero hat, black skorts, Beatle boots. 

            God, they said, rolling their eyes, who does she think she is? 

            Well, she could have said she was one of the Nerd Herd, to make categorization easier, but no. The Nerd Herd let her sit with them at lunch, but she didn’t belong. One of Jehovah’s Witnesses, she was not allowed to join band or engage in even the “smart” extracurriculars like debate or chess club. She made the Dishonor Roll, earning straight D’s in seventh grade. Like the Snob Squad, the Nerd Herd hated her fashion sense, her collection of vivid clothing culled from clearance sale racks, but for different reasons. Rhinestones? Leopard print? Who do you think you are? They said. Shush, quiet down. Do you want to get noticed, picked on, BULLIED? 

            And they were right. Of course they were. Experts on the subject matter. 

            Pleasant Valley. The School of the Corn’s actual, honest to God name. Pleasant Valley kids were white, blonde, of mostly German ancestry. Her ancestors on her mother’s side were also German but she—she looked different. Not like them, all round cheeked with milk maiden hair. Her cheekbones carved high, angular face, long nose, thick brows, wide eyes, wildly curly hair. Her family speculated on her looks. They joked that she’d been left on their doorstep. By the fairies. 

And at Pleasant Valley: 

You know you’re ugly, right? 

*puking sounds*

*barking sounds*

Dumb Bitch! Dumb Bitch! Dumb Bitch!

            They yank the windows of the bus down, lean out in their blue and white cheerleader uniforms, ribbons, flaxen curls bouncing, those cute, sweet girls. Those nice, well-bred Iowa boys in their football jerseys, hair so neat and slick, going places—all of them. 

And it’s true. Mean as they are—they won’t fail. 

Years later, she’ll look them up and find out. 

They are doctors, lawyers, CEOs—got into good schools

            and those future doctors, lawyers, and CEOs chant this at her so that her footfalls match the rhythm of their proclamation, accompanying her on the homeward march— 

left foot, Dumb—

right foot, Bitch— 

marching to their orders, to her own destruction. 

What a dark thrill of irony it is— 

when her husband says she’s a snob. 



Tap-tap-tap. That’s her, writing her personal statement.

To Columbia. 

Master of Fine Arts. 



Her fingers have no idea what they’re doing. They aren’t smart enough. 

Her husband comes in and she reads to him what she has. 

He says, “That’s bullshit.” 

Her mouth falls open. 

            He says, “Some people can bullshit, but not you. You can’t. You don’t know how. You suck at it.” 

            Her eyes well up. 

            He looks at her, fierce. “Stop trying to sound like them. Like who you think they are. Sound like you. Like who you really are.”

            He backs up, closes the door behind him. Click

            There’s a scene in Anne of Avonlea, the miniseries starring Megan Follows, the one she grew up on, the one she adores, where Gilbert Blythe scolds Anne, tells her she should write about real people and real places she cares about instead of all that high-falutin’ mumbo-jumbo. In return, Anne smacks him in the stomach with her flower basket and storms away. 

That was the correct response, she thinks— 

Scowling at the door, her husband’s swiftly retreating footsteps. 

And yet

Give her a minute. A breath. 

She deletes what she has. 

Starts over. 


            I am applying to the MFA Writing program at Columbia University because it terrifies me.  

            A few nights ago, I woke up in a cold sweat from a vibrant dream of a plane crash. The dream was so strange, and singular, I felt compelled to research an interpretation. What I found resonated, in spite of my attempts to brush it off as mysticism.  

            Plane rides symbolize lifetime goals and ambitions. When you dream of a plane crash, it can mean that your goals are too high,


                                                             and doomed to fail.  



the shoes

            She found them on a clearance rack, shopping with her mother and Grandma Millee. 

            She was not one to lose her heart to shoes but these—swoon—love at first sight. 

            She raced to her mother, holding them up. “These! I want these!” 

            She was twelve. Just that summer, she’d had her first period, which she thought she would celebrate, but as it turned out, rather than rejoice, she sat cross-legged in the grass, somber, weepy, a Victorian widow dressed in only black—in mourning for her freedom, her fun-loving self. 

            She was headed to a new school district in the fall—Pleasant Valley—and on a school shopping mission. 

Her mother’s face fell, eyeing the shoes. “Those, Summer?” 

What was the matter? The shoes were treasure, like striking it rich! 

They were snakeskin. They were silver

They shone. They glistened. They gleamed. 

Come on! 

Her mother’s eyebrows drew together. “Are you sure?” 

“Yes,” she said, standing on tiptoe. Not a speck of hesitation. 

She knew what she loved. And she did not argue with joy.  

Stiffly, with a sigh, her mother paid for the shoes. 

Her Grandma Millee, unboxing them in the car, lit up, went nuts over them.

“You and your grandma,” her mother muttered, rolling her eyes. 

And that was the highest honor.  


the shoes II

Her first week at Pleasant Valley— 

she is burned at the fucking cornfield stake. 

She sometimes wonders if her mother should have said no to the shoes. 

Explained to her the Law of Cruelty and Conformity.

            The price you paid—steep, steep, steep—for loving what you love and indulging that love.

            You can’t have these because you will be made to suffer torments without mercy, prying the silver snakeskin shoes from her daughter’s impassioned grip, setting them back firmly on the rack. 

And yet. 

Her mother was mean in a lot of ways (that’s hard to write). 

Neglectful (so hard). 

And yet. 

            Here she is, nearly thirty years later, tap-tap-tapping her letter to Columbia, and thanking her mother for not taking the shoes away, though they frightened her.   

Letting her daughter have what she loved. 

Freak shoes. Satan shoes! Hasn’t anyone ever told you you’re ugly? 

And suffer for it. 


the word

            The middle of seventh grade—she caved. 

            Threw away her beautiful, beloved silver snakeskin. 

            Saved up. Bought a pair of Eastland loafers. Asked a friend to help her coil the laces. 

            In the hallway, during a passing period, one of the Snob Squad said, loud enough to hear, “Well, look at that! She finally got a pair of normal shoes.” 

            Which goes to show—they are paying attention. None of that BS “don’t worry about them; they don’t even notice you.” 

Haha. No. They see. They take note. They lift their chins. 

They like to drink the blood of your defeat. 

Your De-silversnakeskinned-feet

And her joy, her spark—sucked dry. 

The price she paid for a little bit of peace—a Sahara soul.  

Those coiled laces, a noose. 

Nearly thirty years later, she writes to Columbia— 

her silver snakeskin truth. 

            Yes, she was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and yes, she believed in it! 

            knocking on doors by the age of five, her pink dress lifting, over her head, the first time a door was slammed in her face. But that didn’t stop her. 

            She wasn’t allowed, like the Brothers, to speak from the podium, and she hated that. Railed against it. 

            Her father told her she needed to learn submission, and she stalked after him, around the house, arguing. What did he mean—submission? Why, she was a better writer and speaker than any of those pimpled, stuttering Brothers in their rumpled, oversized suits, slaughtering the beauty of Psalms, Paul’s tough love letters to the Galatians, Jesus’ tenderness and tragedy! Those Brothers, what was better about them?Not intelligent, not powerful, not articulate enough to convey the poetry, the passion of scripture! 

Let her up there! 

Women, her dad counseled, firm and stoic, are not permitted to teach. 

Her mother. 

It’s taboo to have a mother that—

That what?

She is trying to write— 

the word  

that is a knife in her mother’s back. 

The word she thought meant black eyes and broken bones. 

            It took her this long to understand the invisible wounds that don’t get stitches, that heal up rough and jagged or not at all so that you go around smiling with a heart bruised and funky as a discarded pear and listen to people say, Oh, that smile, you are your name, you are Summer! You are light. And what Summer feels like, truly, inside, is a blinding blizzard of fear and grief.  

She tells people sometimes that she and her sister were raised by a toddler. 

The tantrummy one. 

The one that’s the playground bully

charging toward you, nostrils flared, hands balled into fists. 

Only the playground bully is forty-five and your mother. 

            So much to tell she has not told, that now, only now, she is starting to—just starting to tell. 

            And the shame that rises from the telling—like steam, like foul smelling geysers

            the truth told like hell unleashed. 




She writes, edits, rewrites, says: not ready

Will never be ready

Because she is not invited to places like Columbia. 

Listen, she gets it. She knows this. YOU ARE NOT INVITED!

The Not You handed to her at birth. 



            She was born in February, the middle of a snowstorm, and grew up in a yellow mobile home trailer in rural east Iowa. The mobile home was cheap. A starter home. The dream? A farmhouse with billowing lace curtains. The mobile home was cheap, her father, a carpet cleaner. He cleaned the carpets of run-down rentals. But he had big dreams. The mobile home was cheap, but it was just a start, a beginning, formaldehyde off-gassing—

            from the particle board walls and cupboards— 

            formaldehyde, poisoning the whole family. 

            Coughing, vomiting, migraines, nose bleeds. All of them. Her sister falling backward with seizures, the whites of her eyes. The whites of her father’s eyes, yellowed with jaundice. Her mother, broken out, a volcanic storm of blisters. And her, so sick, nine weeks absent from school— 

she missed the lesson on telling time and never could catch up. 

(don’t, do not look, into the future, where father and sister both fight cancer)

But the cornfields? 

The cornfields were a whole world

Golden. She was deceived, you see? She thought she lived in a castle!

Especially when the sun rose and set, painting those fields every shade of gem. 

Especially when she wandered those fields, book pressed to heart, hoping herself–

a barefoot princess with braids. 



December 14. 

11 p.m. 


She missed the lesson on telling time. But she knows this: 


            The same song her mother, her mother’s mother, all the mothers, listened to all through the years, this clock, the tick-tick, the song that catches—an eternal earworm. 

What does she do with it, this time-ticking-down song? 

She reads and rereads her application essay. 

Every thud of her heart. 

Every sweat bead. 

Who do you think you are? 

as she stands here, at the threshold. 

Not for you. Not meant for you.

Goin’ down, 

trailer trash, 

plane crash. 




her finger tarries, not hitting submit— 

great-grandmother Margaret arrives, drawing up a chair, close.  

            She doesn’t know how she knows it is her great-grandmother Margaret, since they never met and she’s never even seen a picture. She thinks this is because her great-grandmother’s story is sad, does not end well. 

Her great-grandmother Margaret arrives to say—

Look at your beautiful hands. You don’t know this, but you are so young. I was dead—

before I reached forty. 

            She looks at her great-grandmother Margaret, draws in a breath. There, at last. Cloud of curls, cheekbones and angles, strong and striking. There! Is her likeness. 

            She will discover (later) that great-grandmother Margaret Mahmens (née Knaack)— 

            is German Jew. 

            Anything can be found online. Family secrets. Even an old grave.  

            Great-grandmother Margaret’s fingers, bird bone fingers, find hers, entwine. 

            My life, whittled down to nothing, at Pine Knoll Tuberculosis Sanitorium.  

            Her gravestone says simply, Mother. The cornfields roll into the sky. 

            She left behind a little boy who adored her. Her death broke him. Her death— 

            always cited in the family story, as the origin of his alcoholism. 

            And then he arrives, as though beckoned. 

            Her grandfather, known with bite, with venom, as the Old Man. 

            There are different kinds of drunks, she heard while growing up, and he— 

             he was a mean one. 

            She braces herself. What will he do? When he sees his mother. 

            But of course, he’s drunk. 

            So drunk, he doesn’t see, can’t stay on his feet long enough, to recognize her, mama, the love of his life, sitting right there

            Instead, he trips, he falls, right there, right on the floor, and she remembers the time she and her sister found him, in downtown Princeton, fallen, chest deep in a mud puddle. Her sister, rushing into the post office, bells a wild jingle-jangle, to call 911. Three broken ribs, but at least he hadn’t drowned in the puddle. 

He died a few years later, drunk— 

frozen in a snow bank. 

Then, oh God—

her mother. 


            A living ghost. She hasn’t seen or spoken with her mother in over fifteen years—since the day she ran, fled—eloped—to Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

            Her mother storms in. Face-shaking-pissed. Eyes in slits. Teeth bared. Hands balled into fists. 

            She, stuck in her chair, shrinks, quakes like that child. 

            Dry drunk, her therapist said. 

            An alcoholic who is sober but still craves drink and exhibits the behaviors of an alcoholic, minus the drinking. 

            And also, her therapist pointed out, your mother, who doesn’t drink, yet exhibits and enacts all the same patterns of the alcoholic that raised her. 

Her mother is— 

a mean dry drunk. 

And yet (there is always the and yet…)

…she remembers how her mother read the stories she wrote… 

tenderly, with deep attention, in the kitchen, wiping tears away. You have a gift. 

She remembers, most vividly of all—

her mother, year after year, standing at the kitchen sink. 

Her mother, staring out the trailer window and every window thereafter— 

a desperate trance, washing dishes, scrubbing countless little circles.  

don’t end up like me, a song, a cry, a plea. 

Great-grandmother Margaret. The Old Man. Her mother.

They don’t look at one another. 

They look at her. 

One consumed. One intoxicated. One enraged.  

Her fingers on the keyboard, paralyzed.  



fortune tellers

            She has a photograph. It speaks.  

            Grandma Millee, a young mother, sitting outside on a stoop, one of her five kids playing nearby.  

            “Broken sidewalks,” her husband said, when she showed him the picture. 


            “You can see they’re poor in the cracks of the sidewalks.” 

            The sidewalks. The sidewalks. 

            She and her sister—first generation college grads. 

            She’d been beside herself, stand-on-tiptoe proud, to be hired as a high school reading teacher. A real career!  Something neither of her grandmothers had ever had, nor her mother.

            She was Different. Doing Better. 

            She’d gone out to check her sidewalks. 

            Broken. Cracked.  

            She wanted to fall to her knees, scream.  

The sidewalks. Fortune-tellers. They not only determine— 

they are your path. Can’t shake them. 

She has no right, see, applying to Columbia. 

A hand falls on her hair, sparkly rings, and— 

Grandma, she says, Grandma. 

Like one says please. 

Like one says help. 

            Grandma Millee, her mother’s mother. Kindred spirits, the two of them. They both claim silk and glitz for themselves— 

            the pizzazz that belongs to movie stars. 

            Born on a farm in Rice Lake, Wisconsin, Mildred Louise Schultze was forced to drop out of school after eighth grade due to the Great Depression. She went to work for a wealthy family, polishing their silver. She sent the money she earned back home, to the farm, to her folks. 

            She could never get the silver clean. 

            Not clean enough ever for the lady of the house.

            Polish and polish and polish that silver! 

            Fifteen years old, and she wanted to read books. She wanted to learn. Instead, she daydreamed, gazing out the window of that big house, polishing that silver day after day. 

            Until she was too sick. 

            Until the silver fork clattered to the floor. 

            Rheumatic fever, the doctor pronounced. She won’t make it. 

            Mildred Louise, locked in coma, heard and fought back— 

            just you wait, doc. I’ll show you! 

            When she emerged from unconsciousness, the next dire pronouncement: Fever enlarged your heart. You will never marry. Never have children. Never dance. 

Grandma Millee’s response— 

Married at nineteen. 

Had five kids. 

            At fifty, divorced the Old Man, went out dancing all night at the Coliseum Ballroom in Davenport, Iowa. 

Her closet— 

filled with shiny dresses, sequins, jewel toned. She shows off, all the time, her favorite belt—


with a snake head— 

green gem eyes. 

            Once, she says, my partner was twirling me so fast, my belt flew off and whipped past his left shoulder, right across the room. Looked like a real snake! 

            Grandma Millee. She simply will not have it. The World’s Pronouncements. 

            What she can and cannot do. 

            Well, she never got that dream diploma. 

             Never got the chance to graduate.

            On May 11, 1988, she writes: 

            Dear Granddaughter, thank you very much for the lovely poem, I enjoyed it so much and will always cherish it. I may try to get it published. Sometimes, it happens. You are very gifted and sure hope you make the most of it in your life and are very happy. 

            Granddaughter keeps the letter pinned to her bulletin board above her writing desk. 

            On May 11, 2002, Grandma Millee is buried in Clinton Lawn Cemetery, Clinton, Iowa. 

            Grandma Millee hated Clinton. 

            Grandma, Grandma. She hugs Grandma Millee’s hand, presses it to her cheek, that dry, warm, wrinkly, beloved blanket of skin. She covers that dear hand in kisses, in tears.

            Grandma Millee had a romance with airplanes.  

            Her proud stories, in her fifties, after her divorce, serving in the Civil Air Patrol. 

            How, Grandma? she’d asked. How’d you do it? Fly in a plane? 

            The two of them, lovers of glitter—and sufferers of panic attacks. 

            Grandma Millee had waved her hand. Just dumb, I guess. 

            How fierce Grandma Millee would get, pointing a finger in her face. You don’t have to take a backseat to nobody! 

            Grandma Millee must have known about Pleasant Valley. 

            Dumb Bitch. Ugly Trash. 

            Mom must’ve told her.

            She holds on, hard now, to her Grandma Millee’s hand, her kindred spirit, her soul mate, and her Grandma Millee says that, in spite of broken trees and broken sidewalks,

and all the brokenness, 

inside and out, 

she says—will never stop saying to her, 

no matter where she goes, or what she tries, 

or what she fails at, 

what she can’t do, 

what makes her weep and sob and rail and mourn, 

will never stop saying: 

You don’t have to take a backseat to nobody.


            what it means

            Thank you for your application submission to Columbia School of Fine Arts. 


            to be hungry

It is the middle of March. A quiet Sunday. 

Her pen, scritch-scratching, writing feedback on student work. 

Dig deeper here. Ask a bigger question. 

What are your real thoughts? 

So she misses the call. 

But—they’ve left a voicemail. 


It is a New York number. 


And her heart 

Her heart

Her heart!


turns to silver snakeskin.

Summer Hammond grew up in rural east Iowa one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Although she was accepted into Columbia University School of Fine Arts – she could not afford to go. The acceptance package did arrive, however, magically, in a shiny silver envelope. Summer keeps this envelope as a bittersweet token of what is possible, and the harsh realities of economic class and access. Summer’s work appears in Texas Review, Sonora Review, and StoryQuarterly. She was named a Finalist for the 2022 Missouri Review Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize.