THE SUGAR POT
By Krista Creel
Momma says I have to go to Mrs. Verna’s for sugar. She wants to make shortcakes for my brother and we’re out. Mrs. Verna lives two houses down on the left side of Monk House Road, but our houses are far apart. A division of two houses on our road is like a well you can’t see the bottom to. You can hear the water when you drop a rock into it, you know it’s there because it always has been, but you can’t see if for all the darkness.
Mrs. Lollie is one house down to the right on the other side of the road. You can see her house from our driveway, but Momma doesn’t let me go there anymore. The houses on that side aren’t spaced far apart. They’ve been there a long time. At least, they look like they’ve been.
Mrs. Verna is the only neighbor momma likes. Mrs. Glenda is snooty and Mrs. Georgia is a Baptist. The others she don’t count.
“Verna knows you’re coming,” Momma says and hands me the sugar pot. “She’ll give you two cups. Make sure it’s two. That will give me a little extra just in case.”
“Don’t dally. I’ve got to get these done by this afternoon.”
Momma can’t drive. She’s legally blind. She can see me and she can cook and she can see letters on papers with a magnifying glass, but she can’t drive. That’s why I’m going to get my hardship license. Daddy isn’t excited at all about me getting it, but someone has to be able to get around when he’s at work. Momma can’t get us anywhere.
She used to say God forbid if something happened to us out here because there’s only one ambulance in all of the county. She doesn’t say that anymore because it already happened and nothing will change. That’s the way it is because the commissioners want to keep the taxes low. They’re all farmers and own lots of land, Momma says. In fact, one of them died last winter waiting on the ambulance. That still didn’t make a difference. They just replaced him with another one like him.
Out here, people are solitary. Most don’t ask for much but to be left alone, but it’s the leaving alone that gets them sometimes.
Mrs. Verna’s old. She’s got three raised daughters all living in the city. Everyone around here is old. Not many young people move out this way. The schools are poor and the roads are rough and there’s not much socializing, at least not the kind they’re used to. They leave the city looking to start gardens and dig ponds and raise chickens. There’s been a pioneer revival of sorts, Momma says, but people who have lived here the longest don’t know what to make of it. City folk, whether they mean to or not, bring the city with them, in their materials and in their heads and in their cars and their expectations.
They bring McDonalds too. Momma says we’ve already got all the food stops we need—Sonic, Gurkins, Food Rite. Any more would just be clutter, but she bets her life they’ll bring a McDonalds. She likes the small town ways, the clock at the top of the courthouse that chimes every hour at exactly the right time, the old, empty general store. She likes the emptiness, I think, but only a certain kind of emptiness.
The blue butterflies are out, stopping on every dead thing in the road. Loads of them crushed under cars because they can’t seem to find their way to the ditches, although there are plenty of dead things in the ditches and beer cans and sugar water. I read once that our roads are butterfly roads too, that they’ll fly the easiest way home, not through the woods or over bushes, not if they can help it. So, they get in trouble with the cars. Either they can’t move fast enough or they’re distracted by bright flowers and awful smells and orange basketballs.
There’s a crack in the sugar pot the shape of a bobby pin like it’s holding the pot together. I imagine it opening up like a sinkhole and me falling in it and no one finding me because no one would think to look in the sugar pot until it’s empty and I’m dead.
I pass the white cross on the side of the road. People put out crosses where important events happen, important to them and hardly anyone else even though the world splits forever and time slows down. The white paint is peeling and the letters routed out aren’t as clear as they used to be. The zinnias are falling over behind it—pink, crook-necked flowers stretching up to the sun one last time before the fall turns them brown. More butterflies.
They say I saw it happen. But all I saw were tires and birds and a cat running under a porch. That’s all I saw. Sometimes the cat is orange, sometimes black; sometimes it’s no color at all, just bones and teeth.
I look at roads differently now. I see the way they bend and who drives down them. I count the cars and memorize their colors. I know who waves and who doesn’t. I know who throws their trash out the window and who puts their dogs in the front seat. I know how fast they drive and if they’re on the phone. I know when the Wilson Well trucks run and what they carry on their backs. I memorize license plates.
The lid on this sugar pot rattles every time I take a step. I don’t know why Momma didn’t send me with plastic. I think she wants people to know we still have nice things, but Mrs. Verna already knows what we have.
Mrs. Verna’s husband, Claude, always gives me junk he finds at garage sales and estate auctions—weird old things like Avon perfume in Irish Setter bottles and parts of bikes and wood shavers. He fills up his house with other people’s histories and I wonder if he’s ever seen the empty room in our house and I wonder what he’d make of it if he did. Would he want to hang all his bird pictures and boxed baseballs and mantels from old houses? He talks about the old days and how much better things were and why I should carry a gun. And I think the old days were yesterday but his are farther away when he was alive in some different, more imaginary way.
“I’m only twelve,” I reminded him last time I saw him. “I can’t carry a gun.”
“I don’t care if you’re six. Every girl, woman, and child should be packing something. The world is changed and it ain’t changing back. You can carry mace, I’m sure of that. Just ask your momma to get you some.”
I nodded. I couldn’t tell him that I’m not afraid of the world and I’m not afraid of dying. I’m afraid of other things, like tornados and I’m afraid of most dogs, but I’m not afraid of dying. Only people who are afraid carry their fears in their purses and pockets. Tomorrow is nothing yet.
Mrs. Verna has always reminded me of a catfish. Her lips are squished together and puckered as if they were caught in a meat press a long time ago. Her eyes are black and far apart and beady. Her hair is always pulled back tight in a bun, showing off her flat head. Her skin shines like she has some kind of oil on it that she puts on thick in the morning and by afternoon it’s melted off.
“How’s your momma?” she asks.
I wait for a water bug to slip out of her mouth.
“Fine,” I answer.
“She making shortcakes today?”
She swims from side to side in the kitchen like she’s never been in it, like she can’t find a single thing she’s looking for.
“Did you know someone finally bought the Carlisle house?” she asks, glaring into a cabinet.
I lie and say I don’t know, but I knew that the Carlisles had finally been run out of town. No one would have anything to do with them after their son was put away. Drinking and driving. They were bad from the very middle of them, like a rotten pit inside a peach making rings and rings of rot. I’m sure they never had any nice sugar pots. They probably kept their sugar in a paper sack in a shed.
“I hear the new owners are from the city,” she keeps on. “Educated. I don’t blame them for moving out here, if you ask me.”
Mrs. Verna finds the sugar and takes the pot and put two cups in it.
“Want some tape for that lid?” she asks, trying to get it back on solid.
“No, ma’m. It’s fine. I’ve got to get back.”
“Ok, I’ll see you next Saturday at the pancake breakfast at the firehouse, right? Your momma said y’all were coming.”
I shrug and walk out. I don’t want to see them again. For three years I’ve had to go to that breakfast. I don’t like anything about it. The sirens and the speeches and the hung looks and the sorries. It makes me angry, nothing more, just angry. Making a production about saving lives and risking lives over a plate of pancakes. Not everyone can be saved.
I don’t think there’s a single straight road in this whole town. I used to get sick in the backseat of the car on the way to school. Daddy would have to drive real slow or let me sit in the front seat and Mathew would roll his eyes like I was making it all up. These roads. You think you’re getting somewhere and then you hit another curve or dip or hill you can’t see over and you’re still nowhere at all.
I walk by a pasture with a smokestack and no house. It’s been burned down for as long as I can remember. I wonder where the people went. Did they die? Did they move? Did they go to pancake breakfasts? Did they have kids?
A horse chestnut tree grows from the concrete slab where the house once was. Its ugly, green fruit has dropped. Life continues in the strangest ways.
A squirrel darts across the road and Mrs. George’s rat terrier barks at me with all his body from his front porch. I think that one day that dog will burst inside itself.
I walk faster, the lid clanking, my hands sweating and before I even know it, I slip on some loose gravel and drop the sugar pot into the ditch. It breaks so easily, like an egg in the sink and my eyes quit working and my breath leaves me. I can’t see the pot or the sugar or the weeds or the trash in the ditches anymore.
I see the gulf. I see Mathew at the beach, his hair curly and brown catching the wind and spinning and whirling like colored oil in water. He smiles at me and holds up a shell, but I can’t see it in the shadow of his hand. I can never see it, but I can hear the gull wings on the wind and someone’s muffled radio and each bead of sugar spill out, like sand through a steel funnel, like the sand we played in and the shells that jangled in the waves. There were so many after the hurricane and the red tide that summer—conchs and tiger claws and scallops and the popping of air bubbles from thousands of tiny clams burying their bodies after each wave dragged them out of the water.
I sit in the ditch and cry so that no one hears me and so that everyone can, but I can’t let momma know. I won’t let her see me cry. She’ll see me be the one who comes home. I can’t go back to Mrs. Verna’s, though, I just can’t. So I scrape up the broken pieces, wipe my face with my shirt, and head for some place more familiar.
Mrs. Lollie’s house is beige, just beige with a thin, gray roof and pots with half-dead plants. She’s got a metal glider rocker in her yard, a card table set up for Sunday dominoes and a propane tank. Her driveway is close to the road and gravel and there are tokens of people in it—cigarette butts and beer tops and plastic bits. I knock on her screen door. It’s been scratched up by the cats. She always has a yard full of cats. The basketball goal has lost its net. Weeds are growing up around it. Momma never would get Mathew one.
I hear her coming before she gets to the door. She isn’t a small woman. She fills her whole house with her own body and on Sundays with all sorts of family.
“Well, Miss Sophie Rose, my Lord, come on in girl, come in,” she smiles.
Her smile never changes. It always surprises you with its size and its goodness and its ability to put a lightness in your heart that you sometimes forget exists because you’ve felt heavy for so long. There are some places that just feel like that, like home, no matter if good or bad things happen inside of them, like how the smell of cigarettes and beer remind me of my daddy. I know they’re not good. I know they’re vices, like Momma says, but they’re him and they’re home. With Mrs. Lollie, it’s her smile and her bigness and her always having food made and her apple cinnamon candles.
She looks down at the pieces of my sugar pot and I suddenly wish I had pockets.
“What you doing with that broken thing, child? You ok? You cut anywhere?”
Her eyes dart up at me. They are kind and brown and worried. She’s always ready to put a band-aid on something. She’s never gentle about it, but she goes about it as if her sole purpose in life had been leading up to that most important moment where she had no other mission but to dress your wounds.
“No, I’m fine. Do you have any sugar?”
She looks at the pot like I think she wants to look at me, with some sort of sorry. She is a tall woman with skin the color of soft, wrapped caramel. She wears a gold turban and red scarf and a shirt with sleeves that billow out like chefs’ hats.
“Of course I have sugar, child. You sit.”
She puts me at her table and sets a water to me. She moves through her cabinets with a slow purpose and draws out what she needs one by one. I look around her kitchen for anything new because that means time has passed, and I wish time was a lie, but the second hand that ticks like a freight truck on her wall clock puts me in my place.
“You’re growing up, Miss Sophie Rose, turning into a fine young woman. Would you’a guessed I’m 72?”
“No, ma’m, not at all,” I answer.
“How much sugar you need again?”
She pulls out a large aluminum container and puts three scoops into a plastic bag and hands it to me.
“A little extra for you,” she winks, and hands me another plastic bag. “Here put your broken pieces in this bag, unless you want that I help you fix that pot. It don’t look too broken.”
“That’s ok. Momma will know I broke it anyway, so it won’t make a difference.”
“Well, looks like it was a mighty nice pot, but I don’t think she’ll be too sore, considering.” She pauses and looks at me like a puzzle she has lost a piece to. “How is your Momma?”
“Ok, I guess.”
Then she looks at me like to ask me the same but knowing I’ll lie, so she doesn’t ask and I don’t say. She takes me to her and puts her arms around me and it feels like being wrapped up in blankets, just piled on and on so I don’t have to get out from under them again if I don’t want to.
“I still can’t believe it happened here,” she says.
And she smells like grass and grease and apple cinnamon and I want to stay there and kill the clock and eat the cake sitting in the corner of her counter. But I have to go.
I used to think that when Mathew died that his body was covered with all those blue butterflies on the side of the road, that they were there to carry him to heaven, that they must have a secret purpose like that. But those cars. They just keep coming and running them over. Over and over and over. And I wonder why they don’t learn, why they don’t get out of the way because the people in the cars don’t stop or look or turn around. I see the Carlisles in every one of them.
I step on a butterfly to see what will happen. Nothing does. Another one just comes and sits on top of it, like they do all dead things, for no other reason than to be a little higher up off the ground, I suppose.
Sometimes I feel like I’ve been born with an open wound. It scabs over and the butterflies land on them, but then people pick and pick at it and it bleeds. It seems like it will never seal back up. It just bleeds. And it’s somewhere real prominent, like on my face, so I can see it every time I look in the mirror and so can everyone else. They never see me.
Walking back down my driveway, I wonder what the time is. I only know it’s not past one o’clock yet. I know that from the route of the sun and the shadow of the tulip poplar and the path of the buzzards in the sky and Mrs. Lollie’s clock. Each second, for the rest of this day, will become a lifetime lived and died, over and over, and Momma and I will make shortcakes for Mathew because they were his favorite. We won’t eat them, but we still have time to make them, and the dough will rise in the oven like new breaths.
About the Author:
Krista Creel received her undergraduate degree in creative writing from the University of Memphis and her graduate degree in journalism. She has had short stories and poems published by the Universities of Pennsylvania, Chicago, Johnson & Wales, South Arkansas and Memphis, as well as other independent literary magazines. She lives in rural West Tennessee with her family.