Steve Carr, who lives in Richmond, Va., began his writing career as a military journalist and has had over 160 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals and anthologies. Sand, a collection of his short stories, was published recently by Clarendon House Books. His plays have been produced in several states in the U.S. He was a 2017 Pushcart Prize nominee.
A Girl Named Sugar
By Steve Carr
That’s Sugar. She’s nineteen. She found the bright pink waitress uniform she’s wearing hanging on a rack at the thrift store. It’s too small which is why it snugs her frame so tightly and why it’s unbuttoned down to between her ample breasts. The dark blue stain beneath her left breast that resembles the shape of Alaska is ink from a pen that exploded in the breast pocket while worn by the previous owner. The sales clerk at the shop gave Sugar a hefty discount because of the stain, saving Sugar a few dollars that she used to buy a joint from Eddie, the cook in this diner. The white apron with the two pockets she wears was made by her grandmother. The tag above her other breast has her name on it, but everyone knows her anyway.
Watch as Sugar balances a tray loaded with plates of food, beverages and utensils on one hand while navigating her way around the tables crowded with the mill workers, almost all men, on their lunch break. Sugar tries to ignore the pats on her rear as she squeezes between jutting elbows and outstretched boots. When she reaches the table to deliver the food, she smiles politely, and even laughs a little when a few of the men at the table try to flirt with her.
“You’re sweeter than Sugar.”
“I have a sweet tooth, Sugar.”
“How ’bout a little sugar, Sugar?”
After she has given the men their food she tucks the tray under one arm and goes to a table where five men have just sat down. See how in the cacophonous din of voices, plates being scraped by forks and knives, and pots and pans being dropped in the kitchen, Sugar takes a pencil from behind her ear and a pad from an apron pocket and leans over just a little to hear the men give their orders. The men at the table speak softly on purpose, hoping she’ll bend far enough to give a better view of her cleavage. Sugar knows why they do it but doesn’t say anything; it gets her better tips.
The man nearest to her closes his eyes and inhales the scent of rose perfume that Sugar has dabbed on her wrists, neck, and behind her ears. The perfume came in a large cobalt blue bottle with a crystal stopper and was given to her by Johnny Albright before he tried to rape her later that night. After she’s taken the orders, look at the way Sugar stands up straight and slides the pencil back behind her ear, almost in a provocative manner, shifting her hips and tilting her head back, her lips slightly parted.
Watch as Sugar looks none of the men in the eyes who stare at her on her way back to the pick-up window behind the busy counter. She passes by Dory, the other waitress, without saying anything. Dory is much older. The thick layer of makeup on her face doesn’t conceal the burgeoning wrinkles. As Sugar rips the order from her pad and clips it onto the wheel and spins it around so that Eddie can see it, observe the way she turns and nonchalantly scans the diner. Pete DeCosta hasn’t come in.
See Sugar in the pink silk robe standing on the porch, leaning against the broken railing. In her hand she has the joint she bought from Eddie. Notice how she takes a drag on it, her lips pursed in the shape of a kiss as she inhales the smoke that she holds in for just a moment, and then exhales it through her nostrils. The smoke is like rolling fog that blurs her delicate facial features. After each drag she looks up at the bands of purple, red and gold that are fanned out across the twilight sky. The dusk light has cast hazy pastel colors on the red brick houses that line the street. Look at Sugar as she flicks the ashes from the end of the joint, squeezes the end together with her thumb and index finger, and then puts the roach in a plastic sandwich bag and closes the seal.
When Sugar’s grandmother opens the screen door and steps out onto the porch, note that Sugar doesn’t turn around, but looks up and down the street.
Her grandmother speaks. “You should have clothes on.”
“Your dead mother’s robe isn’t the type of clothes I was talking about.”
Sugar’s grandmother sits on the porch swing. The rusty chain that attaches the chair to the porch ceiling squeaks under the added weight. With her hand she brushes a strand of gray hair back from her forehead. She has a paper fan with a picture of Jesus on it that she got at the Trinity Baptist Church last Sunday. She tries to cool her face by rapidly flicking the fan.
She’s talking out loud, not to Sugar, when she says, “Imagine how hot it must be inside the mill.”
See how Sugar stands up straight and expectantly looks up the street when a dark blue pickup truck turns onto it and heads her direction. Watch as she wipes away the beads of perspiration on her cheeks with the back of her hand. Her flawless skin glows. Her grandmother told her that’s what happens when a woman is pregnant. As the pickup nears she unconsciously puts her hand on her stomach even though she’s not showing yet. Look at the way she runs her tongue very slowly over her bright red lipsticked lips as if she has just tasted something delicious. The pickup passes by, its male driver staring at Sugar. She turns, slumps back against the railing and crosses her arms. See the way her face appears, as if it’s covered with a shadow.
“That looked like Pete’s truck.” Her grandmother has her head turned, still watching the truck as it continues down the street. “He hasn’t been around for a while. He’s such a nice young man. Did you two have a fight?”
“That wasn’t Pete’s truck.”
There’s Sugar. See her in the middle of the night walking up the steep street where Pete lives. The air is still, hot and fetid. There is no moon and the stars are blotted out by the light of the city. The streetlamps swarming with moths and other insects cast her elongated shadow on the cracked sidewalk. The windows in every red brick house are dark; just as on her street, they all look the same. An inordinate number of pickup trucks are parked along the curb, most with gun racks in the back window. Going into the mountains on weekends to hunt is something a lot of the mill workers like to do. Most of the men in the neighborhood work at the mill. The soles of Sugar’s scuffed pink and white sneakers make sucking sounds with every step. Her hair is pulled back to a pony tail and held together by a bright yellow scrunchie. Wary of rats, watch as she cautiously passes the overflowing garbage cans.
When she reaches the house where Pete lives with his parents and two younger sisters, Sugar leans against back against his pickup truck. It too has a gun rack in the window. See how she pulls at the white t-shirt she’s wearing, trying to unglue it from her skin, stuck there by sweat. Pete’s bedroom is on the second floor, at the front of the house. His darkened window faces the street. Sugar hopes that if she concentrates hard enough she can telepathically will Pete to get out bed, come to his window and look out and see her.
Johnny Albright’s green pickup truck comes up the street and stops alongside Pete’s truck. Sugar turns her head and watches Pete’s sister, Angela, get out the truck. Angela has just turned eighteen. Sugar can’t see Johnny in the darkness of his truck, and hasn’t seen him for nine months, but she heard from Eddie that one of the scratches she left on Johnny’s face is a permanent hairline scar. She met Pete soon after the incident with Johnny. Other than Eddie, no one knows what Johnny tried to do. She’s wearing some of the rose perfume he gave her, but most of the scent has been sweated off. When Johnny’s truck speeds away, its rear tires screeching on the pavement, watch as Sugar steps away from Pete’s truck and in front of the unsuspecting Angela.
Startled, Angela jumps back. “You scared the hell out of me. I thought you were a rapist or something.” She has her hand over her heart as if to calm her wildly beating heart.
Her hair is mussed. There is a large blue and purple hickey on her neck.
See how Sugar is unable to look Angela in the face and keeps her eyes averted. “Sorry.”
“What are you doing out here?”
Now, Sugar looks into Angela’s eyes. “Hoping to see Pete.”
“He said you two were taking a break.”
Watch as Sugar’s face reddens in anger. “I love your brother but he took a break as soon as he found out I’m pregnant with his kid.” See her slam Pete’s truck with her hand. “I can’t have this baby on my own.”
In the alley behind the diner, Eddie passes a lit joint to Sugar. Look at how delicately she holds it between her fingers as she takes a long drag from it. The smoke curls out of her nose and swirls around her head. She lets out a short cough.
Eddie takes the joint from her hand. “Is it safe to smoke this stuff when you’re pregnant?”
See Sugar look at the joint as if seeing it for the first time.
The sounds of police and fire sirens reverberates from the street and through the alleyway.
Watch as Sugar leans back against the brick wall of the diner and brushes ashes from her uniform. Her apron is stained with molasses syrup that spilled on it while serving pancakes to several men during the breakfast rush. She tried to not react to their comments.
“Sugar and syrup, worth getting a toothache for.”
“Want me to lick that off you, Sugar?”
“I wanted Sugar instead of syrup on my pancakes anyway.”
Eddie is standing next to the kitchen screen door. He peers in, checking to see if Dory has put a ticket on the wheel. The aroma of bacon and fried eggs wafts out into the alleyway and hangs in the air, mixed with the odors of rotting food in the dumpster. He takes the joint from Sugar’s hand, takes a drag from it, holds in the smoke for a few moments, and then expels it in the shape of a small cloud. He gazes at Sugar, sympathetically.
“I’ve gone hunting with Pete. He’s a good guy. He’ll come around. Just give him time to get used to the idea of being a father.” He puts out the joint and then puts the roach in his shirt pocket.
Sugar opens the screen door. “It didn’t take him any time to get used to the idea of making it.”
Watch as Sugar goes into the kitchen, followed by Eddie. She walks through the swinging door into the dinning area and nearly collides with Dory who has several bottles of ketchup in her arms.
Dory scowls. “Watch it.”
Notice how Sugar bites her lower lip before saying, “Why do you hate me?”
“Charlie only hired you because he worked with your dad at the mill when they were both young.” She brushes past Sugar and says over her shoulder. “The way you flirt with the men who come in here is disgraceful.”
Before Sugar can respond a group of men from the mill enter the diner. They’re unusually quiet, their expressions tense and dour. They break into small groups and sit at separate tables and take the red menus clipped to the side of the napkin holders.
See Sugar take the pad from her apron and go to a table where three men are seated. She takes the pencil from her ear.
“What’ll you have?” she says suggestively because the men always seem to like that.
They stare at their menus. The man Sugar knows as Al closes his menu. His hands tremble. Then his shoulders slump and begin to shake. He abruptly breaks into uncontrollable sobbing. The other men hang their heads.
Watch as Sugar puts her hand on Al’s shoulder. “What’s wrong?”
Another man at the table, Ken, looks up at Sugar. Tears are flowing down his cheeks. “There was an accident at the mill that we all saw. Three men were burned alive.”
“Carlos, Will and Pete.”
Hear Sugar scream as she drops the pad and pencil.
Watch her hug her stomach as she collapses to her knees.